The Canberra Press Gallery will decide who governs this country...

And the manner by which they come to power.

Initially, this blog was going to be a bit of a rant about the Australian Federal Press Gallery, and press galleries in general, hot on the heels of the scathing article in the May 15 edition of The Weekend Australian, Canberra gallery turns on an ADHD prime minister who has lost his way by Christine Wallace, attacking the Prime Minister for his personal style, especially as it relates to his personality and his interpersonal relationships with members of the Canberra Press Gallery, and the Adam Walters' Channel 7 exposé of the private life of David Campbell, the former NSW Transport Minister. How these people have the temerity to arrogate unto themselves the power to decide what the political narrative will be for the country, and who should be leading us, is a situation which regularly leaves me dumbstruck. However, when I started doing a bit of research into the theory which would underpin this piece, I came to the conclusion that, whilst I would encourage you all to contribute your thoughts about how our Press Gallery members themselves show the adverse signs of any one of a number of  human frailties which manifests in their work, just like any other group of Alphas, just like any Prime Minister, really; I thought no, instead of that I would like to lead an initial, rational discussion about what drives political journalists to behave the way they do and write the things they do for our consumption.

So I propose to outline the techniques that they use such that we may become better informed consumers of their contributions to the political debate in this country, especially in the run-up to the federal election. Forewarned is forearmed, in my book.

Also, as Mr Denmore over at Larvatus Prodeo has this week done a sterling job of deconstructing our political journalists' motivations and 'shifts in the media and journo-sphere', I thus searched for a different perspective. So, I have chosen to present a hopefully balanced and informative look at the broad nature of political journalism, as I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities in the near future as the temperature rises, in the Press Gallery, in the electorate, and in the blogosphere, to have a more emotively-based dig at the self-important 'oracles' that sit in Australia's Federal Press Gallery, thinking they know what is best for all of us to believe about the Australian political scene and our politicians. Their argument, of course, for this 'right' would revolve around their proximity to the 'action', and their deep engagement in the scene over many long years in Canberra, or wherever. However, I would put it to you that maybe that's the problem. Which goes to the title of this piece. Nevertheless, I will be explanatory first, and establish the framework by which we might be able to go forward and judge them objectively and effectively into the future.

So here goes...

Media Political Bias
There is no such thing as an objective point of view.

No matter how much we may try to ignore it, human communication always takes place in a context, through a medium, and among individuals and groups who are situated historically, politically, economically, and socially adjacent to each other. This state of affairs is neither bad nor good. It simply is. Bias is a small word that identifies the collective influences of the entire context of a message.

Politicians are certainly biased and overtly so. They belong to parties and espouse policies and ideologies. And while they may think their individual ideologies are simply common sense, they understand that they speak from political positions.

Journalists, too, speak from political positions but usually not overtly so. The journalistic ethics of objectivity and fairness are strong influences on the profession. But journalistic objectivity is not the pristine objectivity of philosophy. Instead, a journalist attempts to be objective by two methods: 1) fairness to those concerned with the news and 2) a professional process of information gathering that seeks fairness, completeness and accuracy. As we all know, the ethical heights journalists set for themselves are not always reached. Especially these days when, as others such as Mr Denmore have observed, the modern political journalist is virtually shackled to their desk as they struggle to meet their deadlines, and need to factor in input from new media such as Twitter and TV and parliamentary proceedings. Is it any wonder, they say, that wearing out shoe leather in the hard slog of investigative journalism falls by the wayside, and Press Releases prepared by ever-ready media advisers from one party or another, come to be relied upon as grist for their daily mill? But, all in all, like politics, it is an honourable profession, practised, for the most part, by people trying to do the right thing.

In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice.

I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

For citizens and information consumers (which are one and the same today), it is important to develop the skill of detecting bias. Remember: Bias does not suggest that a message is false or unfair.

Critical questions for detecting bias
1. What is the author's socio-political position? With what social, political, or professional groups is the speaker identified?

2. Does the speaker have anything to gain personally from delivering the message?

3. Who is paying for the message? Where does the message appear? What is the bias of the medium? Who stands to gain?

4. What sources does the speaker use, and how credible are they? Does the speaker cite statistics? If so, how were the data gathered, who gathered the data, and are the data being presented fully?

5. How does the speaker present arguments? Is the message one-sided, or does it include alternative points of view? Does the speaker fairly present alternative arguments? Does the speaker ignore obviously conflicting arguments?

6. If the message includes alternative points of view, how are those views characterised? Does the speaker use positive words and images to describe his/her point of view and negative words and images to describe other points of view? Does the speaker ascribe positive motivations to his/her point of view and negative motivations to alternative points of view?

Bias in the news media
Is the news media biased toward progressives? Yes. Is the news media biased toward conservatives? Yes. These questions and answers are uninteresting because it is possible to find evidence – anecdotal and otherwise – to ‘prove’ media bias of one stripe or another. Far more interesting and instructive is studying the inherent, or structural biases of journalism as a professional practice.  A more accepted, and perhaps more accurate term, instead of 'bias', would be ‘frame’. These are some of the professional frames that structure what journalists can see and how they can present what they see.

Commercial bias: The news media are money-making businesses. As such, they must deliver a good product to their customers to make a profit. The customers of the news media are advertisers. The most important product the news media delivers to its customers is readers or viewers. Good is defined in numbers and quality of readers or viewers. The news media are biased toward conflict (cf. bad news and narrative biases below) because conflict draws readers and viewers. Harmony is boring.

Temporal bias: The news media are biased toward the immediate. News is what's new and fresh. To be immediate and fresh, the news must be ever-changing even when there is little news to cover.

Visual bias: Television (and, increasingly, newspapers) are biased toward visual depictions of news. Television is nothing without pictures. Legitimate news that has no visual angle is likely to get little attention. Much of what is important in politics – policy – cannot be photographed.

Bad news bias: Good news is boring (and probably does not photograph well, either). This bias makes the world look like a more dangerous place than it really is. Plus, this bias makes politicians look far more negative than they really are.

Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of ‘stories’ that must have a beginning, middle, and end – in other words, a plot with antagonists and protagonists. Much of what happens in our world, however, is ambiguous. The news media apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events suggesting that these events are easily understood and have clear cause-and-effect relationships. Good storytelling requires drama, and so this bias often leads journalists to add, or seek out, drama for the sake of drama. Controversy creates drama. Journalists often seek out the opinions of competing experts or officials in order to present conflict between two sides of an issue (sometimes referred to as the authority-disorder bias). Lastly, narrative bias leads many journalists to create, and then hang on to, master narratives – set story lines with set characters who act in set ways. Once a master narrative has been set, it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.

Status quo bias: The news media believe ‘the system works’.  This bias ensures that alternate points of view about how government might run and what government might do are effectively ignored. They go with the flow and analyse that.

Fairness bias: No, this is not an oxymoron. Ethical journalistic practice demands that reporters and editors be fair. In the news product this bias manifests as a contention between/among political actors (cf. narrative bias above). Whenever one faction or politician does something or says something newsworthy, the press is compelled by this bias to get a reaction from an opposing camp. This creates the illusion that the game of politics is always contentious and never cooperative. This bias can also create situations in which one faction appears to be attacked by the press. For example, politician A announces some positive accomplishment followed by the press seeking a negative comment from politician B. The point is not to disparage politician A, but to be fair to politician B. When politician A is a conservative, this practice by the press thus appears to be liberal bias, that is, the press manifesting their liberal tendencies by seeking out comment from politician B that disparages politician A's conservative achievement; and vice versa, of course. I would add though that the motivation for doing this in some instances is questionable when you read how it has then been used by the journalist.

Expediency bias: Journalism is a competitive, deadline-driven profession. Reporters compete among themselves for prime space or air time. News organisations compete for market share and reader/viewer attention. And the 24-hour news cycle – driven by the immediacy of television and the internet – creates a situation in which the job of competing never comes to a rest. Add financial pressures to this mix – the general desire of media groups for profit margins that exceed what's ‘normal’ in many other industries – and you create a bias toward information that can be obtained quickly, easily and inexpensively. Need an expert/official quote (status quo bias) to balance (fairness bias) a story (narrative bias)? Who can you get on the phone fast? Who is always ready with a quote and always willing to speak (i.e. say what you need them to say to balance the story)? Who sent a press release recently? Much of deadline decision making comes down to gathering information that is readily available from sources that are well known.

Glory bias: Journalists, especially television reporters, often insert themselves into the stories they cover. This happens most often in terms of proximity, i.e. to the locus of unfolding events or within the orbit of powerful political and civic actors. This bias helps journalists establish and maintain a cultural identity as knowledgeable insiders (although many journalists reject the notion that follows from this – that they are players in the game and not merely observers).  News promos with stirring music and heroic pictures of individual reporters create the aura of omnipresence and omnipotence.

Blatant political bias: This is the most contentious framework 'bias' of all. It is one that I wrestled with defining specifically because I could not decide, as I have never spoken to any of the protagonists about it, how fully invested politically are some journalists in defining the stories they write based upon their own political prejudices? It is probably fair to say that some are guilty of this bias. Yet others may only be playing to the audience that the proprietor instructs them to write for.

Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message. Rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin once said that language is "never innocent." By this he meant that language cannot be neutral; it reflects and structures our ideologies and world views. To speak at all is to speak politically.

False assumptions by journalists, rather than overt politicking, help create the political bias news consumers often detect in news reporting. A conservative will quite naturally assert a conservative world view by using concepts in ways comfortable to conservatives. The same goes for progressive journalists communicating with their 'consumers'.

So, whilst it might seem like I have morphed into an apologist for some of the most egregious violators of the public's trust that exist in Australian political journalism, I would rather see what I have put before you today as my considered analysis of the possible motivations behind why they do what they do, good and bad. We all know who 'they' are, and, I guess, they all have mortgages and school fees to pay, like you and me. Thus, while I may not agree with what they say, I will defend to the death their right to say it. And, it doesn't make what they sometimes do correct, but I can now understand better why they might do it.

So is the Canberra Press Gallery really attempting to determine who will govern this country and the manner by which they come to power?

What do you think?

 

Getting some balance into the RSPT debate

There has been much heat emanating from the RSPT debate, but little light to illuminate the details in a way that enables neutral people to be informed in a balanced way.

This piece brings together a number of articles and opinions that paint a somewhat different picture from that portrayed by the mining companies, the Abbott Party, and the media where the commentary has be largely antipathetic.  The articles are generally in chronological order with the most recent at the top.

In the interests of balance, the link to the Henry Tax Review: Australia’s future tax system released on 2 May is here.  The most recent Treasurer’s Economic Note of 24 May, which addresses ‘RSPT myths’ is here,  and the Minerals Council’s 25 May document: The truth about the super tax – the myths and the facts is here

The following is a collection articles relevant to the RSPT.  Most are accompanied by a short excerpt that summarizes the main points.  To read the full article, click the title.

The contribution of Peter Martin’s blog–site is acknowledged.  Because he has taken a special interest in the RSPT, there are more articles and links there than on any other site.

UPDATE 28 May from Peter Martin’s blog-site: Henry: Frankly there is more than enough investment in train in the mining sector...  There you will also find the link to the complete transcript of yesterday’s Senate Estimates hearings where Ken Henry was interviewed. 

Martin’s piece begins “The mining industry did not save Australia from recession as is widely believed, according to the head of the Treasury. And any investor who thinks the proposed new tax is causing stock market jitters deserves to do their dough.

“In two hours of calm, defiant and at times barbed evidence to a Senate committee just ahead of leaving on an overseas holiday Treasury boss Ken Henry rubbished claims the mining industry was Australia's Saviour, poured scorn on suggestions that it was highly taxed and inferred that what its executives say in private they don't repeat in public.  Asked whether the government was planning to water down the proposed new tax in response to industry concerns he said he was aware of no such proposal.  Asked whether he still expected mining investment to boom as forecast in the budget he said he had seen nothing to make him change his mind.”

To read his full piece, and use the link to the transcript, click here.  

Written as long ago as 28 April by Peter Martin, We'll still be mining begins: “Don't believe everything you read in the paper. Particularly not headlines like this in Monday's Australian: ‘Mining tax will kill industry’. It is not only wrong, it's also incredibly familiar.”  and ends “Minerals are about the most bolted down thing we have. Companies that want to extract our resources have no choice but to pay our taxes, even if they delay doing so until other mines become expensive. They are even digging up our gold, two decades after an impost that was going to stifle mining growth, destroy jobs and slash export earnings.”  

Martin’s 19 May piece Henry to miners - no compromise on where the tax kicks in begins “Treasury boss Ken Henry has flatly rejected talk of a compromise over the mining super profit tax saying to give in on the threshold would overcompensate miners to the point where they might not actually mine.”  Later: “When told mining companies didn't see things that way Dr Henry said he did "not want to debate the relative merits of intuition over analysis," adding "obviously I have a marked sympathy with the later."  I don't know how many times in 25 years I've been told... well that's all very well in theory but it's not actually how the real world works, only to observe years down the track that the people we call call financial engineers who can translate theory into practice at the speed of light have moved so quickly and done so much that governments have had to respond and at last recognise the power of the theory over perceptions of what the real world is like."

On 24 May Treasury released its paper Disparities in average rates of company tax across industries that can be accessed in Martin’s Treasury strikes back – Disparities in Average Tax Rates.  Martin’s quotes one paragraph: "With the exception of the finance & insurance industry, all industries pay a less than proportionate amount of tax, relative to their contributions towards gross operating surplus. The standout industries are mining and electricity, gas and water - the latter is of particular note with a contribution of less than 1 per cent to corporate tax collections for the 2004-05 financial year, but 7 per cent of corporate gross operating surplus." 

If you want to know what Rio Tinto had to say, read Martin’s 24 May: Believable statement? Rio says Australia number one sovereign risk worldwide  Rio’s Tom Albanese concluded: "If the tax had been in place 10 years ago, we would not have made the investment ... in the Pilbara..."

Those interested in the tenor of Fortescue’s letter to shareholders published on 25 May can read it in full.  Martin’s concluding comment is “Fortunately one of the questions in the letter can be cleared up straight away:  To make the point, imagine for a moment that your home loan was based on you failing to make your mortgage repayments and the house being sold in a mortgagee-in-possession auction. Do you think your banker would be happy that someone would make good 40 per cent of the loss as a reason to lend you the money - in return for taking 40 per cent of your income? The same income they were relying on to allow you to repay the loan? Clearly the banker would have stopped you buying the house because they rely on believable repayment schedules, not bankruptcy events.

“The answer is 'yes'.”

On 22 May Martin begins his piece: It's not a tax, it applies to more than super profits, so how did so many people get it so wrong? “Books will be written. By the way, the government will win this one.

“Someone somewhere in the Treasurer's office must be deeply regretting ever calling it a Super Profits Tax. For one thing it applies to profits that are pretty ordinary. For another, it's not a tax...” and concludes: “A previous Labor government lost office in 1975 when it tried to borrow $4 billion to buy back mines from mining companies. This government is planning to use legislative muscle to buy in. Neither has proved popular.” 

On 24 May, Ross Gittins, writing in his typically acerbic way in Gittins today - How Rudd got into the mess concludes: “And the precedent of weakness he set with all his cave-ins to miners and other rent-seekers over the emissions trading scheme means giving the miners something this time would be more likely to further incite their greed than calm them.  Rudd is a weak man fallen among thieves. He may be from Queensland, but his moral compass now comes courtesy of Sussex Street. I'm sure he remains convinced of his own uprightness, but clinging to office comes first.  Actually, for a bunch that puts political expediency above all, Rudd's cynical advisers have made a succession of bad calls...”

To highlight how deceptive the mining industry has been with at least some of its representations, read Martin’s 25 May piece: Mistrust anyone who produces a graph like this.  The miners have used the oldest dirty trick in the book in representing statistics by truncating the bars in a bar graph.  Take a look at the first graph that gives the impression that the miners paid around three times as much tax as other industries, but note that the scale on the vertical axis starts at 22% and goes to 29%.  Then look at the second graph and note how the bars look when the vertical axis starts at zero.  To use such a trick shows the level of deceit to which the miners have stooped.  Note that what is being featured here is the deceptive way the data is being presented, not the actual figures, which themselves are debatable. 

Martin’s piece of 22 May: Resources tax: Australia may be the first, we won't be the last begins: “The Paris-based Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development has swung its weight behind Australia's proposed resource tax saying it represents a ‘sharing of the bonanza’ and will not frighten away foreign investors.  The extraordinary intervention in support of the tax, in an ABC radio interview to be broadcast tomorrow suggests the so-called "rich nations club" regards the 40 per cent tax as a model to be followed by other members trying to regain control of their budgets.  Angel Gurría the Mexican-born OECD Secretary-General told the Sunday Profile program the tax was one of ‘a number of preferred ways in which we like to see tax structutres work’.”

To see the Henry Review paper that details the effective tax rates different industries pay in different countries read Martin’s 23 May piece: So what effective tax rates do mining companies actually pay?  You will see this is where the 17% figure for mining has been derived.

Martin’s 24 May piece: Okay so no-one likes to part with profit, but the mining fight is becoming a spectator sport concludes with: “Economist Ross Garnaut appealed for peace labeling the industry campaign "dangerous from a number of points of view". Simply to roll the Treasury on an issue that's been subject of very careful analysis without a lot of very careful analysis being the basis of variation of policy, I think would be very dangerous," he told the ABC.

"We need a strong Australian policy making process, we need a strong independent centre of Australian policy making, that's what gave us 20 years of reform and what is the main reason why we're in better shape than most of the world right now.  To simply have pressure from industry roll this, rather than have a good discussion in the public interest leading to legislation would, I think, be dangerous."

You will enjoy reading Martin’s 25 May piece Five easy pieces - the Mining Super Profits Tax.  All are succinct.

For a wry smile read Peter Martin's piece of yesterday What the experts think about the outlook for BHP and Rio? which points to what the market thinks of BHP and Rio’s prospects for investors.

If you want to read something positive about the RSPT, read Martin’s Three of the best things written about the Resource Super Profits Tax of yesterday where he gives the opinions of “Ben Smith, consultant to the 1986 Gutman inquiry into the taxation of gold mining that recommended the exemption be removed, subsequently making Australia making billions, John Freebairn of the economics faculty at Melbourne University who has the most lateral tax mind in the business as well as the most human understanding, and Alan Mitchell, economics editor of the Australian Financial Review who sees clearly where others see fog.”

Martin insists: “These pieces shows each at the top of their game.

In his 26 May piece How much tax? Martin publishes an critical article “Ian McIlwraith has dug where the Treasury appears not to: If the Treasury analysis of corporate tax, released by Treasurer Wayne Swan and recommended by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is an example of the quality of that department's work generally - we're in deep trouble. After a heated 48-hour exchange of statistical fire, in which two US academics became collateral damage because their research was used as a weapon it was never designed to be, Rudd and Swan's army retreated to what it thought was higher ground, firing off a soon-to-be-published piece of Treasury research.” that concludes: “That says that the current tax regime is very inefficient in converting company income into tax receipts - something Henry's review was supposed to fix, and it is difficult to see why dropping the corporate tax rate to 28 per cent will fix it.”

Then yesterday we had Martin’s Resource Tax: 22 leading economists speak out that begins: "Although it is appropriate to debate modifications to the design of the proposed Resource Super Profits Tax, the current public criticism of the proposed tax has been dominated by misinformation."  The statement is reproduced.

John Quiqqin was one of the authors.  On his website there was Resource rent tax statement with links to the statement and press release. 

Crikey has good some articles: Yesterday Don’t look at what the miners say, look at what they do by Glen Dyer and Bernard Keane, concludes: “The ‘debate’ over the RSPT is increasingly boiling down to a simple contest between the Government and a number of huge, mainly foreign companies that are systematically lying about the impact of the tax — as demonstrated by their own actions — and who have in effect hired the Opposition in order to run a political campaign of obstruction.  These are very large, very wealthy companies used to getting their way with most of the governments they deal with. In an hitherto unseen demonstration of backbone, the Rudd Government has dared to take them on. And as Ross Gittins has pointed out, they’re deeply concerned that other governments will follow our lead. This is not just about the extra tax the biggest miners will be paying here, but about the extra tax they’ll find themselves paying overseas as well.  But as always, don’t look at what they say, look at what they do. And they’re spending up big here.”

Today in Crikey Adam Schwab’s: How the RSPT may end up costing taxpayers begins: “The biggest problem with the resources super tax is not, as the big miners had earlier tried to argue that it involves too much tax being paid - rather, that the so-called tax may end up being a cost to Australians. That is because under the proposal, the “government will effectively make a contribution of 40% to the costs of the project outlaid by the entity. [With those entities] able to access the contribution by deducting the costs outlaid on a project from: the project’s RSPT income; from income of another project owned by the entity or owned by another entity of the same wholly owned company group”.

If you’re not yet satiated there is more:

Resource debate needs less heat more light and Garnaut’s got the goods on mining taxes, both by Tim Colebatch, on his blogsite, Double bind of the minerals bonanza and Mining the figures uncovers deception by George Megalogenis on his Meganomics blogsite, Canberra doesn't mind if a few miners get shafted by Michael Stutchbury in The Australian, Our oldest enemy by Nicholas Gruen on Club Troppo, Risk and RSPT  and Attacking messengers by Joshua Gans on Core Economics, and Big update: Unravelling the RSPT and The RSPT as we know it will be dead before long by Christopher Joye on his blogsite.

Of course there are many other articles in the MSM on the RSPT, many written by non-economists, some by political commentators who focus more on the politics than the economics.  The above articles focus mainly on the economics and the factual aspects of this complicated debate.  I trust they will shine some light onto the facts that have been so overshadowed by the furious hyperbole emanating from both contestants in this emotive debate, and perpetrated by the media, much of which chooses to represent the RSPT negatively, often in doom and gloom terms.  I trust this collection of articles will provide better balance to this debate, so convoluted as it has been by misinformation and too often, outright lies.

Tell us what you think.

 

Why is a good Government down in the polls?

This is the first of a series that will examine what the Rudd Government has done during its two and a half years in office.  It will be argued that it has been a good government that has achieved much more that might be expected in a first term and has a host of ongoing initiatives in train or planned for a second term.  It will counter the erroneous impression, perpetuated by the Opposition and much of the MSM, that it has been a ‘do-nothing’ government that has made a mess of everything it has touched.  The facts simply do not match the anti-government rhetoric.

 

The series begins though by asking why a good government is now so down in the polls after a record-breaking run for the first two years.  Many pundits are writing about what has happened to Kevin Rudd and his Government these past months during which the polls have descended from stratospheric heights of popularity to ordinary levels and below.  Before a remedy for the Government’s electoral condition can be formulated, an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis is necessary. 

 

Bernard Keane has written a thoughtful piece Crikey Essay: Why is Rudd failing that suggests a diagnosis.  Like most diagnoses it is not simple.  There are several elements.

 

Taking his ideas as a guide, here is my diagnostic formulation:

 

Media malevolence

The Political Sword has repeatedly asserted that there has been and still is a concerted media onslaught on Rudd and his Government by many in the media, especially News Limited.  There have been countless pieces on this blog site going back many months but News Limited’s undeclared war on the Rudd Government in March summarized the situation as we saw it.

 

This month Wake in fright and Their ABC amplified this view.  In a piece on Crikey: How Rudd blew it: finding ways to upset everyone at the same time, Keane agrees: “There’s no doubt the tone of media coverage of the government has changed dramatically, and not in its favour, since the start of the year, with a determined air of get-square for the high-handedness with which Rudd’s office treated and manipulated the media for two years.

 

“There are also the permanent anti-Labor elements of the media. News Limited, primarily via The Australian, has been conducting a war on the government. Considerable resources have been deployed by that newspaper in an entirely confected campaign against the BER stimulus component, even after an ANAO report discredited the entire effort. News also employs several commentators whose entire job is to smear and attack Labor, unrestrained by any adherence to facts or reason, so that even when Labor adopts pro-business policies it is criticised. The Coalition faces no such permanent media opposition.

 

“While declining newspaper readerships and the dominance of free-to-air news bulletins mean News’ attacks are not directly harmful, they influence other media coverage. In particular, the ABC now frequently marches in lockstep, repeating its polling spin verbatim, deploying resources to follow up attacks and giving a regular platform to anti-Labor commentators.”

 

Media manipulation

The pace and style of media reporting has changed dramatically, not suddenly, but it is very different from what it was in the earlier Howard years.  It was John Howard who accelerated the process of using talkback radio and frequent TV appearances to promulgate his messages.  He became expert at this and used favourites such as Alan Jones to reach a demographic that Howard identified as his ‘battlers’.  That use, or manipulation, of the media has reached new heights since Kevin Rudd became PM.  Just about every journalist has commented, usually adversely, on Rudd’s ‘obsession with the 24 hour media cycle’.  While this may be so, the media itself has created a set of expectations of politicians that politicians seem to feel obliged to follow, at times slavishly.   

 

While there are some occasions where in-depth exposition of policies and positions is possible such as on the 7.30 Report, Lateline and the Sunday morning TV political programmes, which inform a unique demographic of politically-oriented thinkers, they reach but a tiny fraction of the electorate.  The busy homemaker, the tired-at-the-end-of-the day tradesman, a demographic with which all politicians need to connect, have neither the time or the inclination to sit through a long and complicated dissertation on political issues. Today’s commercial media demands short ‘bites’ of just a few seconds to convey politicians’ messages.  This requires sophisticated communication techniques, which in my view the Government media advisors have not yet mastered. 

 

In the same way as we all know that ‘No’ is easier to say louder than ‘Yes’, it is much easier to convey a negative message in a seven second sound-bite than a positive one. Tony Abbott’s favourite - ‘Great Big New Tax’ – which he applied to the ETS and now to the RSPT, is a classic example.  As Bushfire Bill has pointed out, the years of hard work and planning that went into the creation of Rudd’s ETS were destroyed with four words ‘Great Big New Tax’.  How can you counter that scare-laden negative with a similarly succinct positive – you can’t, not easily anyway.

 

So Kevin Rudd and his Government are hoisted, willingly or otherwise, by the media’s own petard of seven-second visuals and sound bites.  Sadly for the Government, ministers do not universally cope well with this.  Julia Gillard is the best.  Lindsay Tanner, and more recently Wayne Swan have become adept at longer expositions, but Julia is well ahead on what the media like to label ‘cut through’.  Tony Abbott does well in this regard, but has a head start because his messages are largely negative.

 

There are other demographics to which Rudd tries to connect – the Rove Live and Good News Week and Twitter and Facebook audiences.  And of course that attracts criticism from some in the media which is miffed about being bypassed.  Rudd has done this well, not that the media cares to acknowledge that.

 

The other assertion that journalists make is that Kevin Rudd has made enemies in the media by his refusal to kow-tow, by what seems to the media to be manipulation of it for his own purposes, and of course by advertising less than Howard.  Used to calling the shots and making governments and institutions jump, the media is now in pay-back mode, and it is going at it hard.

 

In summary, the ever-demanding need to comply with the media cycle, or media manipulation as we have called it here, exercises a profound influence on Government and, depending on how it manages it, its electoral fortunes.  The Government needs to remedy its shortcomings in this regard.

 

Promises

Much is made of ‘broken promises’ and some less-than-clear-thinking journalists link this to lying.  So let’s first clear the air by defining these terms.  A ‘promise’ is ‘an assurance given that one will do or not do something or will give or procure something’, or ‘a ground of expectation of future achievements or good results’.  Notice the verb ‘will’.  No ifs or buts, just ‘will’.  To lie is ‘to speak falsely’, ‘to be deceptive’.  The purpose of a lie is to deceive from the outset.  ‘Promises’ are different from ‘intentions’, which are aims.  When a politician expresses an intention to do or achieve something, it is just that, not a promise that come hell or high water, it will be done.  Here is where politicians get into hot water.  By giving the impression that they will or will not do something, an intention is interpreted as a promise, and if it is not achieved it becomes a broken promise.  The intent to ‘stop the blame game’ in the health system has morphed into a ‘promise’, and if not achieved to the media’s or the Opposition’s satisfaction will become a ‘broken promise’.  It is much more damaging to level accusations of broken promises at politicians than to simply say that they have not realized their intention of doing something.  Accusations of ‘broken promises’ are potent weapons of attack.

 

So where does the blame lie?  First, politicians have themselves to blame for creating the impression that certain things will be done, which stick in the public and the media’s mind as ‘promises’.  If they were to qualify their intentions with caveats, such as ‘We will try to do this or that but realize there will be obstacles, people who will oppose, or adverse circumstances that will frustrate or perhaps defeat our efforts, but it is our intention to try our hardest’, they would be seen as vacillating, uncertain, and backing the horse both ways.  The media would simply not let them get way with such a statement.  So the politicians come out with what seem like promises and suffer the ‘broken promise’ barb if they don’t succeed.

 

Kevin Rudd has been perceived by the media and many in the electorate as ‘promising’ to do something about global warming and despite all he has done, by deferring further action until the Kyoto agreement expires at the end of 2012, is seen as breaking a solemn promise.  Likewise, he gave the impression his Government would take a more humane approach to asylum seekers, which it has, but his deferral of processing of Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum applications has evoked another ‘broken promise’ accusation.  Because the particular groups concerned with these two issues are passionate about them, the effect on polling has been profound.  The Government has not managed the change of direction on these matters well.  Its promotion of the policy adjustments have not been well articulated, and the voice of the media and opponents of these changes have been so dominant they have drowned out the voice of the Government. 

 

In summary, media message management has been found wanting by allowing intentions to be morphed into promises, and changes of direction into broken promises.

 

Managing expectations

As expressed in another piece on The Political Sword, The folly of putting a politician on a pedestal we, the ordinary people, have our own expectations of politicians: “A natural human trait is to seek to elevate some of our number to positions of authority and trust.  We seek leaders who will guide us to the promised-land.  So we place them on a pedestal and hope they will fulfil our dreams and their promise of vision, leadership, courage and strength.  But unless they are mythical god-like creatures from a parallel universe, they can never live up to our dreams and their promises – life is too complicated, variables so numerous, fate so unpredictable, circumstances so changeable.” 

 

It is so easy and so ego-building for a politician to raise expectations beyond what is reasonable, to encourage the electorate to believe that they are able to do more than they really can.  Kevin Rudd and his Government have been accused of that by the media and there is some truth to it.  They have not managed expectations as well as they might have.

 

Another way in which the Government managed expectations pre-election was in portraying Rudd as not a risk to sound economic management for which the Howard Government earned a reputation.  Rudd was seen as ‘Howard-lite’.  With his memorable phrase ‘this reckless spending must stop’ (now turned on Rudd by Abbott), Rudd gave the impression of one that would be careful with taxpayers’ money.  That expectation stood Rudd in good stead, but when the GFC tsunami appeared on the horizon, although spending to keep the nation out of recession became necessary and in the event highly successful, the image of a fiscally cautious Government was assaulted by the Opposition who saw mileage in the ‘debt and deficit’ mantra.  Again, the management of the impression that Government ministers were careful fiscal managers despite the actions they took to counter the GFC, has not been as well done as it might have been.

 

Pre-politics background

Kevin Rudd came to leadership without factional baggage.  His bureaucratic background endowed him with a process-oriented approach to political issues rather than an ideological one born of factional allegiances.  This is why we have seen the careful, cautious, enquiry-driven approach to policy formation, which inevitably takes time, and with it the ‘hitting the ground reviewing’ and ‘do nothing’ barbs.  While the impatient might applaud ‘back-of-the-envelope’ planning such as we saw with Howard’s water plan, would not most prefer a thorough get-it-right-first-time approach?   Rudd fostered an image of himself as a careful reformer, and the public has been ready to project that image upon him.

 

Bernard Keane has another interpretation of Rudd’s pre-election image building, namely that “... Rudd captured a national mood for change. In this interpretation, Rudd was anything but Howard-lite — he was more a pre-Obama change agent who answered a growing mood for a swing back to the Left amongst Australians, particularly young people. That Rudd was a personally conservative, centrist technocrat with no real labour movement roots was carefully glossed over.”

 

That interpretation rings true.  Keane puts it this way: “Essentially, conservative voters wanted Rudd to be similar to his predecessor but without the manifest problems that Howard accumulated – his age, most particularly, and his cynicism, manifested both in his increasingly transparent attempts to buy elections, and his casuistry.  More progressive voters wanted Rudd to substantially abandon key elements of the Howard approach on climate change, indigenous affairs and asylum seekers.”  Because the expectation that many people projected on Rudd was that he was a change-agent, when the changes Rudd was able to accomplish fell short in their eyes, they were disappointed and even disillusioned.  Keane also feels that Rudd has not yet crafted “...his own political persona, offering his own story to Australians rather than relying on them to see what they wanted to.” 

 

Managing those expectations, aligning them with the stark reality of politics, and creating a compelling Rudd-image, a Rudd persona, have not been done well enough.

 

Communication

A failing that many in the media have levelled at Rudd particularly, is in communicating ideas, policies and actions to the public.  It is a demanding task to condense into a few short meaningful sentences the complexities of such policy issues as the ETS, the RSPT, the Henry Tax Review, or for that matter the Health Reforms.  The task is made so much harder by a media that insists on short grabs that fit into the perceived short attention span of its audiences.  Solving this problem is at the same time essential but difficult.

 

Rudd seems to have been persuaded by his advisers that he must repeat phrases such as ‘working families’, ‘in the national interest’ and ‘decisive action’ endlessly, and to be sure that is not inappropriate advice in as far as some of those targeted with these phrases will not hear them unless repeated often.  But the rest yearn for a lucid explanation of policies and plans that describe the Government’s intentions and the logical reasons behind them.

 

This is a good Government that has made great progress in its first term and has much in the pipeline for its second term, but it has not communicated its successes as well as it could have.  It must do this, by any means, even if substantial money needs to be spent hitting the papers and airwaves with a barrage of positive messages.

 

In my opinion the Government needs a specialist media unit staffed with experienced communicators to craft messages for the public on its successes, its policies and its plans that will strike a respondent chord among those who really want to know what is going on and why.  The messages then need to be rehearsed by the PM and relevant ministers to the point of being word perfect and promulgated by every available means  - print, online, radio, TV, and social networks.  The message must be consistent, but variation in its presentation would be necessary to avoid mindless repetition and boredom.

 

In summary, inadequate communication is a fault that is impeding the Government’s ability to ‘cut through’ with its essential messages.

 

Standing firm on sacred principles

Kevin Rudd is perceived by some, and much of the media, as unwilling to stand by his sacred principles.  Of course they have created an impression of what is sacred as much as has Rudd, and they don’t always correspond.  One thing the public dislike is not standing by one’s principles.  Moreover, whether one is standing by principles is a value judgement made by the public, aided and abetted by the media, and may be incorrect.   

For example, Rudd seems to me to be as committed as he ever was to the need for an ETS, but frustrated by an obstructive opposition and an uncooperative international community, and unconvinced that a DD will resolve the impasse, has deferred action rather than die in a ditch pushing an agenda that has no hope of success.  Yet the media, particularly Paul Kelly who long ago declared that the ETS would define Rudd’s prime ministership, condemned him in strident terms.

 

Nonetheless it is essential that Rudd carefully define the matters of high principle on which he will not be moved, and stick to his guns.  The RSPT is a contemporary issue many hope Rudd will stand by ‘in the national interest’ so we can all share equitably in the sale of our resources rather than being bullied by the big miners, urged on by an opportunistic Opposition.

 

In summary, we yearn for sacred principles to be protected and fought for tooth and nail by our leaders.  And if circumstance make that impossible we need to know why this is so in clear, unambiguous terms.

 

The comprehensive diagnosis

The Rudd Government is currently confronted by a complex set of problems:
Media malevolence

Media manipulation
'Promises’, sometimes construed as being broken

Management of expectations

Communication of policies, plans, actions and achievements

Defining the principles on which it will stand firm.

 

These problems are postulated to collectively be the cause of the Government’s and Kevin Rudd’s polling slump. Individuals will give more emphasis to some than others, but all are significant.

 

They are all reversible.  The Rudd Government is a good Government that deserves a second term.  Apart from shielding the nation from the ravages of the GFC that have afflicted other nations, it is a reforming Government that is carefully planning to make good the deficiencies it inherited – an unfair IR system, a run-down education system, skill shortages, infrastructure bottlenecks and an ailing health care system. 

 

This is just one person’s opinion.

 

What do you think?

Politics is officially bunk

 

 

I regard myself as a pretty hard nut to crack but I have to admit it... today I'm gobsmacked.

Gobsmacked... that yesterday The Australian could introduce an article by Mirko Bagaric - the man who wrote the book on torture - in defence of the ethics of Tony Abbott's lying (they're only white lies, natch), leaving it to Tony's conscience as to whether a lie is in a good cause. I guess we, the Voters, are just supposed to accept Tony's (and The Australian's) decision on the matter.

Gobsmacked... that Joe Hockey had the temerity to front the Press Club... with no policies, no costings and no idea except to demolish anything and everything Labor has set up in the past couple of years.

Gobsmacked... that the Right thought they could get away with these pathetic excuses for participation in the National Discourse.

This is one of those occasions where I don't know how to begin to criticise the last day's worth of politics. It's not that there's nothing to criticise. It's just... where do I start?

The lies, the convolutions, the deliberate idiocies that Joe Hockey told Kerry O'Brien last night on the 7.30 Report were so monumentally galling as to be beyond rational criticism (given restricted bandwidth... which is another Coalition policy, of course... no NBN).

I can only assume that Joe has been told, 'It'll be fixed up in the morning, mate. Don't worry. Get a good night's sleep Joe.'

That he and Robb can claim that retaining 30% company tax is a saving when the very tax they are claiming to axe - Labor's reduced rate of 28% - is based on a law - the Resource Super Profits Tax - they have sworn not to enact is bad enough, but then to say that if Labor is re-elected they'll block it somehow is too much... what I mean is that if Labor is re-elected, and reduces company tax to 28%. how can getting rid of it be a Coalition government savings measure... because the Coalition won't be in government... See? I'm trying to be rational. It's a character fault I have. You can't be rational with monstrous stupidity such as this. So I won't go on trying. Red Kerry himself gave up after six minutes trying to make sense of it. Greg Jennet this morning on ABC radio told listeners, "It's a bit complicated... but please bear with me...". So perhaps I'm in good company.

Either Joe has been advised the media 'fix' is in, or he's even more stupid than even I dared to believe (and his regard for the Voter is even more cynical than I thought possible). Is politics really bunk? Do they actually expect us to believe this claptrap that passes for sober political policy-making?

Yesterday - all of it - was a monument to absolute political and social buffoonery. What can the Coalition expect us to cope with, now that we've seen the absolute worst they can dish up as rational decision making? For once (many may give thanks) I'm stumped for words.

So it seems was Dennis Shanahan, who, in place of his usual hyperbolic paean of praise for anything the Coalition does, says or implies, managed to stump up with just 333 half-hearted words on yesterday's Press Club fiasco (can I use that word... or is it reserved only for Insulation and the BER?). Michelle Grattan only managed 191 words, although six of them were "Policy vacuum a recipe for political disaster".

According to Dennis, Joe Hockey only "left the impression he didn't turn up at the National Press Club with a detailed list of budget cuts and costings for his budget-in-reply speech yesterday." He had it in his hand, didn't he? One single A4 page wasn't it? He waved it around a bit, right? What more did the hostile media crowd in attendance want? Answers to questions? The cheek! 

The silence this morning in the newspapers and on the airwaves is deafening. It's as if the media have collectively sucked in their breath in shock, and no-one wants to be the first to ask 'What the hell happened?'  Things are so quiet, even the birds have stopped singing in the trees outside my office window. So why do I still hear those tom-toms beating in my brain? Oooooh... my head hurts.

Does yours?

 

Their ABC

Or, the Coalition and Murdoch Conspiracy to Co-opt the ABC for their own ends.

 

This blog is a Call to Arms. It is time for all Australians of good conscience to act before it's too late. Like a wraith, Mr Murdoch moves stealthily but deliberately. His work is always in the background, but he is a piece of work to be sure. Thus it is for this reason that I believe it is about time to shine a bit of sunlight onto Mr Murdoch's machinations in Australia, in particular as it relates to our ABC, a national treasure, as the BBC is in England, but one which is under siege from the forces of Global Media Inc., otherwise known as News Corp. I'm not imagining it. The game plan was laid out for all to see in a speech given last year by James Murdoch in London.  As the Murdochs think globally and act locally, there can be no doubt that the sentiments of James Murdoch are being echoed here, and our ABC has been laid siege to, as torridly as the Beeb now will be, seeing as how Mr Murdoch achieved his aim of getting David Cameron into 10 Downing Street, with the implicit promise that the BBC will be 'corporatized', we can only imagine what would happen to our ABC under an Abbott Coalition government.

 

So let's look at the evidence before us here in Australia:

 

Mark Scott: ABC Managing Director and former Liberal staffer.

 

Janet Albrechtsen: recently departed ABC Board member and wife of Malcolm Turnbull's best friend, John O'Sullivan, the chairman of his fundraising arm, The Wentworth Forum.

 

Keith Windschuttle: ABC Board member, current Editor of Right Wing polemical, Quadrant, Right Wing zealot and former Marxist (aren't they all these days?)

 

Maurice Newman: Chairman of the ABC Board, climate change skeptic and former head of the ASX (a bluest of blue-blood position for a member of the economic elite to hold), and great mate of, guess who - John Winston Howard, who it appears is no longer licking his wounds in Wollstonecraft but actively participating again in 'strategizing' for the removal of the Rudd government with his conservative confreres up and down the country.

 

So, does something smell fishy to you too? Well it should.

 

And those suspicions were confirmed when I read this little gem in the 'Tips and Rumours' section of Crikey recently: "Rebellion at ABC News? A staff rebellion is happening at ABC News about the way the ABC editorial agenda is being hijacked by News Ltd. A couple of people have threatened to go public..." 

 

Bingo! I thought so!

 

So, might I just say, to the putative ABC whistleblowers, this might be your last best chance to do something about it. So how about you let us know about it in more detail!  Come out of the shadows. Your 8c/day paying demographic desires it!

 

We, the people need the transparency that a full and frank disclosure of such matters would demonstrate. How can it be fair on the Rudd government for people in what is supposed to be OUR ABC to stay silent about this editorial coup by the forces of darkness? Why should we, in Australia, allow a megalomaniacal geriatric American media mogul, head of a corporate conglomerate that spans the globe, to insidiously dictate how we think and who our next government should be, by dominating all our sources of information? Especially that one which we have come to rely on as our trusted source of impartial and reasonable commentary, the Public Broadcaster.

 

I wouldn't be surprised, actually, if, at that infamous breakfast that Tony Abbott had with Rupert Murdoch at the beginning of the year, soon after he became Opposition Leader, you know the one, where Abbott, the Murdoch supplicant, said, “Oh, I just hope he liked me”, that at that meeting a similar undertaking was not made, to sell off the ABC in a forthcoming Abbott government, in exactly the same way that Murdoch is said to have reached agreement with the dough-faced David Cameron to sell-off the BBC, in exchange for his media empire's support in the run-up to the recent UK Election.

 

If Murdoch also achieves that aim in Australia, then it's 'All Over, Red Rover' for our National Broadcaster. After 'Corporatisation', or whatever bland, Orwellian managerialese they will use to style the media coup, even though we may still be presented with the same 'Talking Heads' that we are comfortably familiar with now, as the tip from within the walls of the ABC shows, we will know that they will have been nobbled by News Ltd., having infected the soul of the organization with a cancer which will be nigh on impossible to excise.

 

You just have to look at how the malevolent Andrew Bolt (who will hereafter be known as MAB, appropriately, I think), inserted himself onto last Sunday’s Insiders panel in place of the far more honest and reasonable Michael Stutchbury.  Barrie Cassidy should have just refused to do the show with Andrew Bolt, and demanded that Michael Stutchbury be reinstated to the couch. An act that would illustrate, once and for all, that the cultural cringe that appears to be automatically assumed by former ALP staffers when they go to work at the ABC, is no longer going to be manifest in their behaviour.  Now is the time, and now is the season, to come out and be proud of your Social Democrat heritage and links to the political party that embodies it, and be no longer willing to kowtow to the Bully Boys from Murdoch World Domination Enterprises. C'mon, Barrie, you know you want to.

 

So, what I would like to start now is the ball rolling; to start a Watchdog group on The Political Sword, to provide all and every scrap of evidence of ABC pro-Murdoch behaviour and echoing, or unfair anti-Rudd government bias.

 

Come one, come all, from inside the ABC (if must be, anonymously), and come out into the light. Bring us all the evidence you have of ongoing editorial bias and past misdemeanors. Let's show all Australians, and the world, that we're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore!

 

After that, when we have the evidence in black and white, before our eyes, we might take it even further. I know I'd be willing to take whatever steps I could to get the information before the public and out into the spaces beyond the Fifth Estate, in order to snatch back OUR ABC, before it's too late and the 'Vampire Squid' of global media has sucked the lifeblood out of the real 'Right To Know' agenda.

 

What do you think?

 

Do you want to be a force for good, or do you want to let Murdoch steamroll over the top of the ABC and turn it into Fox News?

But, but, but...

The opinion polls and betting markets indicate that the probability of Tony Abbott becoming PM and the Abbott Party taking power at the next election is increasing.  To date a lot of attention has been focussed by the media and the Abbott Party on Kevin Rudd and his performance, and he’s been marked down.  Now that Abbott believes he is a serious contender, it’s time the media, indeed all voters, focused on him and what an Abbott Government might look like.

 

It’s a curious thing that the media has placed Abbott under so little scrutiny to date.  Maybe they saw him as such an outside chance that they instead focussed on hacking away at Rudd to knock the Teflon coating off his stratospheric approval.  The media hate a tall poppy, especially one who defied their incessant predictions over several years of the end of his honeymoon, who seemed immune to their barbs, who refused to conduct himself as they expected a PM to behave.  Add to that his disdain for much of the media, his unwillingness to ‘buddy-up’ to journalists, his refusal to pour money into media coffers via Government advertising, as did John Howard, and the personal vendetta The Australian has been running for a couple of years now, and you have an explanation of why the media attacks have continued so viciously for so long.  They rejoiced in his falling popularity and Labor’s decline in the polls, which they believe they have largely brought about.  

 

During the GFC the media could find little to criticize.  Although some journalists were critical of the stimulus right from the beginning and although a few still are, most acknowledge now that it saved the nation from recession, high unemployment and a flood of business failures, leaving Australia in a position the envy of other countries, most of which still flounder.  That this result might be banked and credited to the Government at the next election was a faint hope.  People quickly forget and are susceptible to media and Abbott Party propaganda that the threat to our economy was not as bad as made out, that the Government panicked, overspent and racked up debt.  That argument is easy to sustain as the people never ever did get to feel the effects of a full-blown recession.  Something prevented impresses less than something cured, as all doctors know. 

 

Of course once some of the unintended and adverse effects of the stimulus became manifest, such as the insulation misadventure and the problems with the BER, both the direct result of rorting by disreputable firms, the Government was exposed to criticism.  The media, especially News LImited, went feral and day after day ran stories of deaths, fires, fraud and rorts that took much of the shine off what were successful programs despite all the bad press they received. 

 

Then Rudd backtracked on some initiatives that seemed doomed to failure - the ETS and the insulation programme, and aborted some of the planned pre-school centre building.  This gave his adversaries an opening to attack, and they did with great ferocity. 

 

We saw the ‘pecked chook syndrome’ begin and steadily accelerate.  For those who have never kept chooks, this is where one fowl gets out of favour with the rest, who then attack it, pecking its neck until feathers are lost and bleeding occurs.  Once blood appears the frenzy increases and the attacks accelerate until the fowl has to be removed or otherwise it is killed.  The intent was figuratively to kill Rudd as a leader and as a politician.  The campaign might succeed and Labour might go down with him.

 

So it behoves the assassins to contemplate what they will get if that happens - an Abbott Government and Abbott as PM.

 

After Abbott’s speech in reply to the Budget, it looks as if he and his party and Rudd and the Government will be like ships passing in the night.  Wayne Swan detailed a sound Budget carefully worked out in consultation with the Treasury, properly costed and predicting an earlier-than-expected return to surplus.  In contrast, Abbott abandoned any pretense of attention to fiscal preparedness, and instead decided to fight the election on the issue of the Resources Super Profit Tax.  So his address canvassed just a few largely uncosted savings and focussed for two-thirds of his time on attacking the Government and its RSPT.  There was no plan, not counter budget, only a hospital pass to Joe Hockey who Abbott said would detail the savings next Wednesday.  So the two leaders and their parties are on vastly different paths  - one professionally competent, the other populist.  It’s as if they are fighting each other in separate boxing rings.

 

So what do we make of Abbott as a potential PM?  Does he know anything about economics, about running a trillion dollar economy?  Does he think that  presenting a properly costed alternative budget is needed to seize the reins of Government?  He says over and again we’ll all be told in the fullness of time and meantime I suppose he expects us to take him on trust.  Yet even the day after his budget address he was prepared to concede only $4 billion of savings over the forward estimates while Andrew Robb was touting $15 billion.  Where did that figure come from?  Why the difference?  Abbott does not seem to have what it takes on the economic front, nor seem to care that he doesn’t. He’s a bare-knuckle pugilist who knows only how to fight; reasoning and logic are replaced by ridicule, aggression, and wild punches.  This is our next PM if the current polling trend continues. 

 

His speech gave the strong impression that he would return to the Howard era, which administration he has always maintained was a ‘good Government’ that should never have been removed by a ‘sleep-walking electorate’.  WorkChoices by another name will feature.  Whether appropriate or not, Rudd was portrayed as ‘Howard Lite’; be assured Abbott is ‘Howard Heavy Duty’ - he is much more extreme, more conservative, more determined to return to traditional hard-line conservative values than John Howard ever was.  Be warned.

 

Another Abbottesque feature - his propensity to say whatever he thinks at the time - his ubiquitous thought bubbles - and when his thoughts are found to be erroneous or unacceptable, he laughs raucously, says he should have chosen his words better, and seeks forgiveness.  And the media largely lets him get away with these about-turns.  Why does he do this?  A plausible hypothesis is that this is learned behavior from his religious upbringing where sins and misdemeanors can be confessed, and forgiveness and absolution expected.  But how can he expect to operate in this way while governing the nation?

 

Yesterday, there he was on Neil MItchell’s 3AW Melbourne talkback, asked whether he was ‘rolled’ by his shadow cabinet over his thought bubble about paying stay-at-home Mums $10,000, said he didn't think it was a ‘fair construction’ to say he was ‘rolled’. When asked to put a fair construction on the discussion, he replied by saying: “I'm just not going to do that."  And then: “Well, Neil, I've done the best I can. And I'm sorry if I'm a disappointment but I've done the best I can.”  A frustrated Mitchell fired back by telling Abbott not to “play that trick”.  Abbott laughed loudly and delivered a damning self-assessment.  “Yeah, I'm sorry mate. I'm being a wimp - OK?”  Read all about it in The Australian of 14 May: I'm a wimp, Tony Abbott declares on Neil Mitchell radio show.

 

There we have it again - make a mess of things and then say ‘I’m sorry’ and hope for forgiveness.  Yet Abbott wants to be our nation’s PM!

 

Listen to his interview with Mitchell and ask yourself do you want this man governing our country.  

 

So for those out there who want to kill Rudd politically and his party with him, before you do, just contemplate the alternative - Tony Abbott, a bored-stiff economic ignoramus, a man who knows only fighting as a political modus operandi, who seeks only to criticize, demean, destroy.  He acknowledges he is a follower of the Randolph Churchill dictum - “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing and kick the government out”.  

 

With only a paper-thin front bench to support him, we can expect no well-reasoned arguments, no well thought through and costed plans, no vision for this nation’s future, only a return to the most extreme elements of the Howard era, a nihilistic approach to pressing problems such as global warming, and of course unremitting aggression, hostility and ridicule.  Is this the man what we want for our PM?

 

Every time you hear Abbott but,but, butting, a sure sign he is struggling to answer a question or address an issue, something he often does, ask yourself is this man Prime Ministerial material.  The answer seems obvious.  Yet that may be what he becomes!  

 

Do you want to wake in fright the day after the election?

Wake in fright

 

Peter Hartcher, in a column titled How a toxic elixir destroyed the prism of trust, has starkly set out a potential disaster scenario for Labor in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald:

 Australians will never see Rudd in the same light again. Every policy will now be seen as just another piece of clever politics. What's the point of Kevin Rudd? Australians don't know any more.

A shock jock I heard on radio the other day told his listeners that a caller, a critic of the government, must be correct in his rant against Rudd... because Rudd is always wrong. Whoever disagrees with Rudd is therefore right, the logic went. The subject was the Tobacco Tax. The critical caller, stricken with lung cancer, had rung to complain that Rudd had deprived him of his final six months' of smoking enjoyment. The shock jock could not but agree and sympathise.

The aim of the last few weeks in Australian political reportage has been to slander Rudd's character so that the centrepiece of the election year, the Budget, will be destroyed before its ink is dry on the paper. 

Critics of the government won't have to set out why the Budget is flawed. They will just assert that Rudd is unhinged, desperate, panic-stricken, unable to deliver programs, and useless at seeing things through. With the Budget in tatters there will be no upswing from the current disturbing poll figures, and Tony Abbott will be elected Prime Minister. Or so the theory goes...

In the details, the theory states that it is possible to elect the Coalition with no policies (except 'Real Action', whatever that means) and little talent left after its post-2007 blood-letting and systematic desertions, if only the incumbent Rudd is so damaged that the voters turn away from him without considering his policies. As to Rudd's record, it is to be turned into a series of nightmares, travesties, all of which (we have been told) have been failures, rorts, inept, disasters and fiascos.... whether this is true or not. Any official report made on any Rudd policy is to be trawled for the one snippet of criticism it contains and then that supposed flaw is to be exploited to the hilt.

The media organizations, especially those based at News Ltd., have given up imitating fairness and balanced comment. Their front pages and TV headlines are now all bad for Rudd, viciously so, all the time. Nothing escapes their attention. By being so disrespectful, they are giving permission to their readers to blame Rudd for everything and anything. If a reader's business goes bad, or even experiences a slowdown, it is Rudd's fault for not rescuing it. If they have trouble finding childcare for their kids, blame Kevin07. If their superannuation takes a dive for a week or so, ditto. But it takes two to tango. The media can set up the miserable scenario, but the public needs to be receptive to the idea. This is where Rudd made his first mistake. He believed the voters would remain constant.

Australians, by nature, are a scared, cowed lot. We literally hang off the end of the human archipelago. Surrounded by ocean and, after that, brown and yellow people, we see ourselves as vulnerable to attack and invasion. We are in constant stress from the fear that anytime soon the fragile thread by which we hang onto the world will snap. We are a cork on the water, in almost a real and certainly a metaphorical sense. If we are not swamped by the hordes to our north - potentially millions of them, according to Tony Abbott - our economy will be clobbered by a fat finger in New York, pressing zero one too many times on an anonymous keyboard.

To compensate for our parlous perch in the world we've developed a protective cockiness altogether inappropriate to our situation. We constantly boast of Australia being 'The Lucky Country', 'God's little acre' and so on. We travel the world, punching above our weight in sports, business, war and the arts, yet we still call Australia 'home', because it is so fabulous. We would rather believe that we avoided recession during the GFC because we are better than other countries, whose economies have been devastated and remain so. It is easier to put our faith in a manifest destiny to be spared as a nation than to accept that our government acted swiftly, courageously and controversially to stop the economic rot using stimulus measures during 2008-2009. But the Stimulus did no good, it is said. Many now believe there was no recession to avoid, or that if there was, Rudd and his government over-reacted, in order to make themselves look like heroes.

We are constantly informed that we owe our economic success to mining. So, when a tax is proposed that will properly compensate us for the excess profits forthcoming from the mining boom, we panic and turn against the government. We must not upset those who can ruin us by threatening to go elsewhere to dig their holes. When such threats are made we don't feel a proper, righteous outrage at their arrogance. In our insecurity we beg for forgiveness instead, in effect allowing ourselves to be held hostage, bluffed by a bunch of billionaires, all of them Liberal Party donors and patrons, thinking only of themselves and their political mates.

The absurdity of this scenario is seen when we consider that the mining boom is set to last for thirty years, as if that was a long time. No-one asks, "What will we do then, when our landscape is littered with craters and the miners have moved on? Why shouldn't we make hay while the sun shines, like so many other resource rich countries, and tax the miners more appropriately?" The answer lies in our insecurity, always there, waiting for the opportunity to bloom again.

Rudd's mistake has been to trust the voters to see the issues as clearly as he sees them; to see that we cannot rely on digging up dirt forever; to see that we are a part of the world, subject to its vicissitudes; to realize that we must never let our cockiness override reality, thinking we are somehow immune from danger. Our country has a 'Small Dog Syndrome': ready to pick a fight with a Rottweiler, but even more ready to turn tail and run when the bigger dog bites. Our country runs scared. It is axiomatic that it will respond to a scare campaign.

Some may think this is blaming the nation for Rudd's mistakes. Not so. The whole thesis of this piece is that Rudd made a monumental mistake: he thought the public, having once made up its mind, would never change. He thought he could do whatever he wanted to and they would forgive him. He trusted a constancy, which was never there. He left the moral ground to his enemies, hoping that we would be rational in assessing their claims. But we are an irrational lot. Given the chance to be scared we let ourselves in for the terror every time. Our naive trust in miners as our saviours, for example, leads us to offer obsequiousness to them whenever they demand it. Mining is a very small employer, but the rewards are huge. As for the rest of us, we can sit back for thirty years and sell each other real estate and insurance policies. Let the miners be the productive ones, and don't ever upset them, because then we might have to do some work. This brings me to the second aspect of the Australian people: they are lazy.

By any measure Australia is a banana republic. Our chief sources of wealth have always been what we could pick up off the ground or otherwise scavenge for easily and flog off to international buyers. As bananas grow on trees, so are gold nuggets found in streams, wools on the sheep's back, and so does iron ore get dug up by the mega-bucketload. Somebody else will always add value to our ores and our nuggets, while we sit on our bums and congratulate ourselves for being wonderful. The slightest threat to this cosy existence engenders panic.

Combine national laziness, cockiness and paranoia with a well-placed scare campaign, a vicious media controlled from New York, a cynical Opposition, a complacent Prime Minister and you have an almost sure winner. What Rudd can do about it, I don't know. He may cobble something together to get him over the election line. I certainly hope so. But the disease will still be there. The Budget is stillborn (the media will see to that). The miners will continue their posturing. Most alarmingly, the people will remain scared, as they have always been, since right back before Federation. They will continue to believe that — as the media tells them — unless a solution is instant it is no solution. But most of all they will not want to challenge their cosy view of Australia as something special, apart from the rest of the world, blessed by God, with them being lucky to be on the inside looking out, if only in fear. Rudd's challenge is to convince the public we can control our own destiny and that only then we need not, every morning, wake in fright.

What do you think?

 


The folly of putting a politician on a pedestal

From stratospheric, even unrealistic heights, Kevin Rudd’s popularity has rather suddenly become much less, according to opinion polls.  Why is this so?  There is any number of journalists who are willing, even eager to offer their opinions, attributing it to this or that – the conventional wisdom, which may be yet another manifestation of groupthink, identifies the deferment of the ETS as the most significant reason.  The temptation is to look for a simplistic direct cause-effect relationship, but life is never, never so simple.

This piece suggests that the problem boils down to the pedestal.  A natural human trait is to seek to elevate some of our number to positions of authority and trust.  We seek leaders who will guide us to the promised-land.  So we place them on a pedestal and hope they will fulfil our dreams and their promise of vision, leadership, courage and strength.  But unless they are mythical god-like creatures from a parallel universe, they can never live up to our dreams and their promises – life is too complicated, variables so numerous, fate so unpredictable, circumstances so changeable.  So why do we put some, but certainly not all politicians on a pedestal?  We know that we are likely to be disappointed, yet we do it over and again.

Just about every poll that asks people to rate groups of citizens on a scale of respectability lists politicians near the bottom, down there with journalists and car salesmen.  So why put any politician on a pedestal; why not stay in touch with reality and accept that doing so will lead to disappointment?  Because it seems to be an inner human yearning to elevate just a few above the masses, to admire them and follow their lead.  So we go on doing so with a tiny handful of politicians despite our poor opinion of them as a group.

This piece maintains that many in the electorate, not just Labor-leaning folk, placed Kevin Rudd on a pedestal and many are now disappointed that he has not lived up to all of their expectations of him.  Who is to blame – we do like blaming don’t we?

Many would say Kevin Rudd himself is to blame.  The Abbott Party and many in the MSM insist he set expectations that were too high – he would do something about petrol and grocery prices, he would ‘fix’ the hospital system to ‘stop the blame game’ and most of all would take ‘decisive action’ about global warming, ‘the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our time’.  Thus the slogan ‘Rudd has over-promised and under-delivered’.  So why did he do what he did, especially pre-election, but also since then?

Politicians are salesmen – they need to sell their credentials, their vision, their ambition for the nation to a sceptical electorate that already has its political leaders, already has a party in power.  Those seeking power have to convince the voters they can do better than the incumbents.  So we shouldn’t be surprised when they make promises without qualification.  How would the public react to: “I will fix the hospital system and stop the blame game, but that will require fighting vested interests and negotiating with the states, and that might be messy and even inconclusive – there may have to be compromises; I may not get all I want.”?  Honest you say, but how many voters would buy such a qualified promise?  Not many swinging voters I suggest.  So politicians are almost forced to make unqualified claims about what they can and will do.  Just take a look at the Abbott Party’s first election ad. 

It’s no good blaming politicians and crying for this elusive thing called ‘honesty’ in political campaigning when the political system under which we work makes this virtually impossible.  There is no virtue in now crying about Rudd, or for that matter any other politician, overpromising – that is the nature of politics and campaigning – just watch for a barrage over the next few months.  It is just too cute for journalists to simulate anger and disappointment about Rudd’s overpromising, just as they did about Howard’s, and every leader before him.  All political leaders overpromise and under-deliver.  We live in a political system of our own creation – we had better get used to it or take some drastic action as a community to change it so that we swap our current batch of politicians for ‘honest’, straight-shooting, say-it-the-way-it-is pollies that we can love and admire, always knowing that what they promise is what they will deliver, 100% guaranteed.  We might as well summon up the fairies at the end of the garden.

So we the citizens have to accept some of the responsibility for promises not fulfilled, because many placed Kevin Rudd on a pedestal, albeit with encouragement from him, and now are somewhat disappointed. Not about all the promises made, as many have been kept, but about some of them that certain people, especially Labour-leaning folk, have held sacred, notably those related to global warming.

Recall the clamour for a Rudd ‘narrative’, both before the election, and more stridently after.  So intense was the insistence of journalists that Rudd must have a narrative, something they asserted he lacked, that I wrote a piece back in September 2008, In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative.  As that piece asserted, Rudd had already obliged with a narrative that included promises about a variety of matters that he addressed in his campaigning and after election.  The journalists, from Paul Kelly downwards, took ages to recognize that narrative for what it was.  They no longer call for a narrative from Rudd; instead they castigate him for not keeping the promises encapsulated in his slow-to-be-recognized narrative.  Ironically, as the 2010 budget approaches, one the Government chooses to describe as ‘no frills’, even ‘boring’, journalists chide it for taking that low-key, low-promise approach.

As Howard tired and ran short of new ideas, as his Government became languid, the people yearned for an exciting fresh new leader to inspire them.  Kevin Rudd obliged, met the people’s expectations for a new vision, a new start, and new set of aspirations, new promises.  Maybe he should have been more circumspect, but would we have elected a hesitant, cautious leader unwilling to commit to change, to fixing problems that affected the lives of the people, one whose rhetoric was qualified by the difficulties inherent in keeping promises?  You know the answer.

Another thing – the cult of personality.  In his article The politics of delusion in The Drum, Josh Fear, writing about the UK election, says:  “Absurdly, one journalist asked 'Is Nick Clegg Britain's Barack Obama?'. This reflected the common view that it was not the issues that are important in this election, but the individuals involved and the incentives they act upon.  But the very fact that an Obama reference was raised is testament to the longing that many people have for a more inspirational form of politics, in which it is possible to be swept away by force of argument and personality, rather than persuaded by economic self-interest or (more commonly) fear of the other options on offer.”

We need to ask ourselves whether the cult of personality is operating here.  In my opinion it did when so many put Rudd on a pedestal.  We put him there as an appealing authentic personality, but of course many now deride his personality.

So to all who bemoan broken promises, especially fervent Labor supporters, I would say - take some responsibility yourself for placing Kevin Rudd on such a high pedestal, for embracing expectations unrealistic for any politician working in our adversarial system of politics that so constrains good governance.  Like parents disappointed that our kids that we put on a pedestal as uncommonly brilliant turned out not to be so, we need to ‘get real’.

And as Grog points out in his fine piece last week on Grogs’ Gamut: Memo to Kev – what’s the story Kev and the Government should be proud of their achievements and shout them from the rooftops.  Those who share Grog’s view that this Government had accomplished a lot should do the same.  Take Kev off the pedestal where he never should have been placed, accept that despite his foibles which journos like to accentuate, he is a genuine and very smart guy who is busting a gut to improve this nation for you and me, and has made commendable progress in the short time he has had in Government.

Join the counterinsurgency that the Fifth Estate is mounting against the spiteful guerrilla war the Fourth Estate is waging against Rudd and his Government, the effects of which are now being reflected in the polls.

Will you?

Tony Abbott is really ‘P’ing me off

Tony Abbott loves using buzzwords, as do most effective conservative communicators these days. These people are the inheritors of the Newt Gingrich conservative political legacy, which I have referred to before.

Not only have they taken their communication cues from the infamous Mr Gingrich's list, they also appear to be taking advice from the American conservative linguist, Dr Frank Luntz. It's really starting to ‘p’ me off. Why does it ‘p’ me off? Because I know that the words that they use when framing their arguments around the issues, in this particular instance population, immigration and refugee policy, whilst being essentially meaningless with reference to objective reality and the evidence which contradicts their assertions, are however very potent and effective in shifting people's perceptions, and in framing the debates and conversations they have with the electorate. Which really upsets me.

It's not a talent that the ALP has mastered yet. They try. However, to my eyes and ears their attempts are pretty ham-fisted and lame. Fair dinkum, if I hear, ‘Working families’, one more time, even I, a rusted-on Labor supporter, will look around for the nearest wall to bang my head against.

Nevertheless, it is Tony Abbott's use of various 'P' words that is really 'p'ing me off at the moment.  Archangel Abbott is encouraging the electorate to believe their worst fears. He intimates that their worst nightmares may come true, unless they harden their hearts, and vote for him.

That really 'p's me off, because I know that we are so much better than that. But the Archangel refuses to encourage our better angels, instead fanning the flames of the following:

Parochialism: narrowness of view; provincialism

Provincialism: ignorance and narrowness of interests

Prejudice: 1. a biased opinion, based on insufficient knowledge
2. hostility, for example, towards a particular racial or religious group

Prejudiced: to make someone feel prejudice; to bias against; to harm or endanger

Populism: political activity or notions that are thought to reflect the opinions and interests of ordinary people

Propaganda: the organised circulation by a political group, etc. of doctrine, information, misinformation, rumour or opinion, intended to influence public feeling

Nativism: the policy of favouring the natives of a country over immigrants

Xenophobia: intense fear or dislike of foreigners or strangers

Bigot: someone who is persistently prejudiced, especially about religion or politics, and who refuses to tolerate the opinions of others; from the 16th century French for 'a superstitious hypocrite'.

Considering all of the above, I have been looking on recently with alarm at the increasingly shrill attacks on immigrants and refugees, sometimes under the guise of commentary on population policy, by conservative politicians, such as our own Mr Abbott, and the echo chamber in the media world-wide, so as to stir up nativist sentiment for their own electoral benefit.

In Britain especially after 'Bigotgate', where the Labour PM Gordon Brown was caught in secret but with mike still on, calling a middle-aged white woman's fears of Eastern European EU migrants, 'bigoted'; and where the Conservative Party are relishing exploiting such fears in the UK Election campaign, we are able to see a microcosm of a more widespread xenophobia becoming apparent, and a nativist propaganda campaign being run in order to benefit the Conservative Party and likewise, other conservative political parties around the world. 

So what we need to do is get down to basic taws about all of it.

We all know that we can't just open the floodgates and let everyone into a First World country who wants to come to it from a Second or Third World State.  We need an orderly immigration system as a tempering tool to manage population, social cohesion, infrastructure provision, employment opportunities and environmental sustainability.  However, on the one hand we hear conservatives in our own country, like Tony Abbott, making the point in the media about infrastructure when they are talking about limits to population and about maintaining population at 'sustainable' levels; on the other hand, we don't hear about and thus shouldn't lose sight of the fact that that's not all there is to this concern about immigration and population.

For when you look around the world at this point in our history, about 50 years after WW2, there has been a groundswell of opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal, especially from neo-conservative politicians, and new movements that have recently sprung up, like 'The Tea Party' in America. Why, when all of our countries have flourished as a result of immigration? Why have these uniformly WASPy politicians sought to demonise this particular group of people? Well you might ask.

From Tony Abbott's anti-boat people tirades and suggestions of muscular and armed responses to the boats, to David Cameron's suggestion that he will 'do something' about the 'flood' of Eastern European EU migrants to Britain, to the Republican State of Arizona's recent enactment of a law to require suspected illegal immigrants to produce identity papers when stopped by police; are they not all of a piece which we should find a troubling portent of things maybe to come, should this attitude get a toehold in the national psyches of these country's populaces? 

So, before it gets that toehold, I'd just like to make clear what I think it all points towards - other than appealing to the unjustified fears of Middle Class voters in Marginal Seats that is.

“We will decide who comes to this country, and the manner in which they come.”  Or, in other words Howard (and Abbott, who mimics him), will forcefully and determinedly decide the composition of the country.  Ditto in a Conservative UK and the Republican States of the US it seems. So, as far as they're concerned, we should no longer be subject to a natural ebb and flow towards an increasingly colourful society which accommodates acceptance of all equally.

It's not actually populism, as my definition suggests - reflecting the opinions and interests of ordinary people as in a popular sentiment of the people. It is something else. Because populism was, historically still is, about making government a force for economic justice to the end that oppression, injustice and poverty shall be attended to, and making government less a tool of the elites.  No, instead, what it is is prejudice, provincialism and parochialism.

How I'm seeing it manifest in the media and from conservative politicians, in order to weave their attitudes into our minds, is that it starts with generalising unwanted characteristics across an entire demographic (Muslims, Boat People, Hispanics or Eastern Europeans, for example).  Then a solution to this 'problem' is advocated by asserting a superior force, via the Armed Forces or the Police over this population.  These people are repeatedly demonised and stripped of their rights and dignity that you yourself enjoy,  not because it is right and the correct thing to do to them, but because the conservative media and their politician confreres have convinced the populace that this course of action will solve the 'problem' somehow.

However, when you strip a man or a woman of their basic human rights, you strip them of their dignity in the eyes of the community and even in their own eyes eventually.  He or she who is degraded is then perceived to be of less worth than other individuals in the community.

These are the seeds of resentment, hostility, and in extreme cases, conflict.

Such 'solutions' solve nothing, even if they ARE superficially appealing and resonate with us at a visceral level.

All I can hope for is that our Western democracies will not again heed the siren call of those who want to demonise these migrating populations of refugees and immigrants, because these people won't be going away anytime soon.  So we should just grow up and get on with embracing them and exploiting them as a positive resource.

We can be bigger than xenophobia.  We can be one big, happy Australia.  The world likewise.

Without letting ourselves become doormats, of course, as that way lies eventual subjugation to the immigrant communities, who can also be aggressively nativistic.  This is also not desirable.

So what do you think? 

Do you think that we will ever be able to take Nativism, Parochialism, Provincialism, Populism, Prejudice, Propaganda, and Bigotry out of our debate about what to do with immigration and population policy?

I'll leave the last few words to W. B. Yeats, and his poem The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Do economics commentators live in fantasy land?

The Henry Review is out and the economics commentators, along with journalists, some of whom have not shown much aptitude for economics, are out there going hell for leather giving us their learned opinions.  How much credence do we give them, even when they seem to be singing in harmony?

This piece was inspired by Grog’s pieces on Grog’s Gamut on Sunday evening: Oh Henry! The Tax Review that's a bit chewy and The Henry Review and Liberal Party Logic in which he summarized the comments that had been made at that time.  Both are good reads.

But let’s first set the background.  These are the same economists and columnists that ‘guided’ us, the great unwashed, through the GFC from its earliest convulsions.  These are the same economists who, for reasons best known to themselves, always predict the next movement in interest rates, only to get it wrong half the time and sometimes not get it right at all.  Tossing a coin would be just as predictive.  These are the same economists who contradicted each other about the usefulness of the economic stimulus measures the Government instituted in response to the GFC, opinions ranging from ‘a profligate waste of money’ to a minority asserting it was ‘a necessary response to a looming economic disaster’.  While most have come round to acknowledging that the stimulus did its intended job, some still argue the toss and want to attribute Australia’s avoidance of recession to other factors.  Even those who have accepted the value of the stimulus have trained their guns on the unintended effects of stimulus in the insulation and BER programs as a way of saying, sotto voce – well, we might have been wrong about the value of stimulus but look at the awful problems stimulus programmes have created. 

Last September, exasperated with their outpourings I penned What value are economists to our society?, and as far back as February 2009 I wrote The problem with economists.  Both are as true today as they were then.

To use a favourite Tony Abbott phrase: ‘how can we trust’ these same economists and columnists to give us valid and reliable opinions on the Government’s response to the Henry Tax Review?  My answer is ‘we can’t’, but that won’t stop them pontificating, despite the deficiencies they are exposed to have had over the last two years, despite their political leanings, despite their lamentable ignorance of the process of governing and the political process which affects everything governments do, despite the fact that they can say what they like and not be held to account, as are politicians.  They seem shameless about their past errors, and only too ready to dish up another dose of ill-informed opinion about this and every new economic issue that arises.  Voltaire put his finger on it when he said: “Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes”.

Let’s add another dimension to the background.  The nation is still emerging from the GFC downturn.  Unemployment is still too high, small business is still recovering, and in some industries still struggling, but the mining boom continues to accelerate and is predicted by Treasury to continue for three decades.  Although the debt resulting from the stimulus that shielded us from recession will be much lower than the $315 billion Labor Debt Bomb touted on the back of a truck by Malcolm Turnbull, it is nonetheless substantial and has to be repaid.  The Government has committed itself to restraining growth in its expenditure as a proportion of GDP to 2% when growth returns to trend as it will soon do, a very stringent constraint that influences every decision it makes, tax or otherwise.

There is another meme running – that Kevin Rudd is a ‘coward’, ‘gutless’, ‘lacking the courage of his convictions’.  This has arisen out of his deferment of the ETS until the end of 1012, and exacerbated by the cancellation of the insulation programme and the pre-school centres building programme, announcements that critics say Rudd should have made himself.  The Coalition is running very hard on this ‘coward’ story as it’s just about all it’s got, so ‘demolish the man Rudd and his Government tumbles with him’.  Possum puts paid to the ETS ‘coward’ story in his piece in Pollytics on Crikey: I’ll see you a coward and raise you an idiot, although Peter Bowe asks on Mumble: Is Kevin Rudd a coward?  You bet he is says Brent.  Read them both and make up your own mind.

Given the background described above and the running meme, as one would expect, Dennis Shanahan was out early on video from the lock-up setting a theme that has been taken up by others, that Kevin Rudd had taken a cautious, limited, election-oriented approached, and to make his point, he waved the thick Henry Report and the thin Government response in each hand to emphasize how limited Rudd and Wayne Swan’s response was.  Tom Dusevic gave a much more balanced account, as did Paul Kelly who called it a cautious election year tax package with two long term structural reforms.  Jennifer Hewett emphasized the long period of implementation gave time for adjustment, but predicted great angst from the miners.

In Grog’s account on Grog’s Gamut in Oh Henry! The Tax Review that's a bit chewy you can read the early reactions.  I won’t repeat them here, except that David Koch, Sunrise Breakfast host, says “How wimpy was that.”  Grog wisely advised him not to give up his day job, and on that page there is a video of the typically flamboyant Terry McCrann who described it extravagantly as ‘a total damp squib’, warned about ‘killing the goose’ that’s laying golden eggs, and ended by saying – ‘tax reform it ain’t’.  That McCrann is often wrong does not deter him from pontificating on anything economic, and giving the impression that only an idiot could disagree with him.

Breakfast Politics gives you a spread of the comment this morning.  You can see from the headings how the journalists regard the Government actions.  Michelle Grattan took a balanced view: “The government has made a pragmatic pitch to attract voters, bolster revenue and modestly burnish its economic reform credentials in its targeted response to the massively ambitious Henry tax review.”  Associated with Grattan’s article is a video of an interview of Ross Gittins by Tim LesterGittins’ view is that ‘it’s not a very brave Government’, and shows ‘very little courage’. I could go on with many more examples, but there is a consistent theme – Rudd and his Government are not courageous – terms range from ‘cowardly’ to ‘cautious yet pragmatic’.  This is the line the anti-Rudd camp has taken up strongly, and even the more neutral ones like Gittins believe Rudd and Swan could, should have done more.

So let’s ask ourselves as ordinary citizens, not burdened by pseudo-knowledge of economics as so many commentators are, mindful of the fact that an election is just months away, and accepting that to do anything at all a political party must be in power, how would we have acted if in the Government’s shoes?

Would we do what so many of our expert commentators hint, go much further, immediately tackle the contentious reforms suggested in Henry, reforms that will disadvantage large sectors of the community?  Why not implement the lot?  After all the Government commissioned the review and is now implementing only part of it. What wimps!  Alan Kohler, who has a calculator, told us that meant the Government has picked up only 1.75 of Henry’s 138 recommendations, or a bit over 1 per cent.  That’s his smart-aleck way of saying the Government has wimped out, as if all recommendations are of equal importance and that you can simply divide the total recommendations by the number adopted to gauge the operational uptake.  He should know better than to pull this trick – he’s supposed to be a serious commentator on economics.

What would these commentators do if their opinions about what to do, if their decisions on tax reform would determine whether or not they kept their job?  How ready would they be to wear flak from large chunks of the population if they endorsed the tricky, the controversial and the dangerous?  How brave, how courageous, would they be?  How willing would they be to introduce all or nearly all the recommendations right away?  You know as well as I do they would be as cautious as Rudd, Swan and the Government is, and would introduce changes at a time and at a pace that the people affected most could easily assimilate.  They would not risk their jobs, their very survival by being ‘brave’ in the way they insist Rudd and Swan should be.  It’s so easy for them to talk the talk, but ask them to walk the walk and see how many are still around. 

The Government should be commended for initiating the widely-applauded Henry Review.  It now has a comprehensive set of recommendations, of which the Government considers some are doable now, together with a blueprint for reforms in the years ahead.  Some it considers as not doable anytime.  That should not surprise anyone who looks carefully at them.  It has decided to introduce change gradually, giving plenty of time for adjustment, and to phase other changes in when conditions, including budget circumstances, allow.  That seems to me to eminently sensible and politically rational.

This piece contends that economics commentators and columnists live in a sheltered world where they can opine as the wish about what the Government should do without consequence, without jeopardizing their job and their economic survival.  In fact all they jeopardize is their reputation, but that seems of little concern to them as no matter how often they are wrong they bat on as if they have said and done nothing amiss.

They seem to live in a fantasy land where their musings have no consequences, where they have to make no decisions, where they do not have to live with the upshot of any opinion they offer, where any advice they give has no repercussions for them personally.  So they can just blast away at any target that takes their fancy or the fancy of their groupthink-afflicted colleagues.  It’s great sport, and without risk, yet so destructive to rational public discourse about matters of great importance to this nation.

You may conclude that I’m shooting the messengers; let’s put it this way – take what these messengers say with the large grain of salt their past performance warrants.

What do you think?