In support of Julia Gillard’s Citizens' Assembly on Climate

I suppose we should not be surprised that most journalists have sneeringly dismissed the proposal by Julia Gillard to convene a ‘Citizen’s Assembly on Climate’ as just another ‘talkfest’ or more derisively a ‘gobfest’, or just a cynical ‘stunt’ to make us believe she is doing something about climate change, or to enable her to coast to the election without a proper policy. Some journalists have called it a ‘massive failure of leadership’, and ‘an excuse for inaction’. Miranda Devine’s PM’s so sure Bob’s your uncle wrote one of the more acerbic pieces about it.  As one would expect, Lenore Taylor wrote a more balanced piece: Gillard seeks citizens' group on ETS policy.  

Of course Coalition members have joined in the chorus, but so have several niche columnists and bloggers, some of whom I respect as writers. Mungo MacCallum says: “Gillard’s idea of a people’s assembly to achieve consensus under the guidance of a commission of experts is the silliest and most pusillanimous proposal to date…”. Grog of Grog’s Gamut talks about “…her mind numbingly stupid climate change policy, I think this is proof that whoever advised her to adopt the citizen’s panel should be taken out back and shot…” – pretty strong sentiments that reflect annoyance and disbelief.

Even nine out of ten in an online poll, for what it’s worth, thinks the idea is ‘a lot of hot air’, having selected the option that canvassed that answer.

But is this onslaught of negativity based on knowledge of such forums, or experience in educational settings, or an understanding of how public opinion is formed and can be influenced? Or does the idea just seem daft and therefore something to be flicked away like an annoying cattle fly?

Writing in the National Times, Carolyn Hendricks, political scientist at the Crawford school of economics and government at the Australian National University, is not so negative, although you might not think so from the title of her piece: Citizens' assembly on climate may turn the heat on Gillard.  In The Australian Mike Steketee writes positively in Academic sees merit in citizens' assemblies.  

Education the answer

Those of you that have a background in education will be less skeptical than most in the media, most of whom are trained as journalists not as educators or in public relations. You will remember the work of Kurt Lewin who pioneered social psychology, group dynamics and action research. You may recall the way he used groups to persuade housewives to use offal in place of better animal protein during wartime shortages. He tried traditional ‘instruction’ with almost no resultant change in their behaviour; it was only when he involved the women in group discussions about how THEY might use offal, and how THEY ACTUALLY HAD used it, that a substantial change towards the use of offal in their kitchens resulted. It was the discussion that did the trick – the women reached conclusions themselves; it was that which changed their behaviour. Since then group process has been used extensively in education, health care, science, the arts, business and commerce to effect behaviour change. It works.

If this group process is what Julia has in mind, it stands a good chance of meeting her aim – to facilitate a new and deep consensus in the community about the need for action about climate change, the options for action, and the consequences of those actions.

So let’s not join the knockers without giving it a go, condemning it out of hand just because it doesn’t ring a positive bell. It’s the knockers who need to ask themselves: ’Why am I knocking this idea?’ and ‘What is the evidence I have to support a negative attitude to it?’ If they come up short, they might care to read on.

Unlike journalists who fume about the idea but offer no reason why ‘it won’t work’, my support for the idea will be accompanied by an account about how it might produce the results Julia seeks.

What is needed?

First let’s be clear about the skeleton of what’s proposed. The Citizens' Assembly is to be informed by an independent commission of experts whose task is to explain the science behind climate change and report on international action. This body will include climate scientists and credible, with the emphasis on ‘credible’, skeptics. There would be little point in including rabid deniers who cannot support their stance with scientifically verifiable facts and figures, and who have no intention of being persuaded from their viewpoint.

So the first point to make is that the Citizens' Assembly will not be required to collect its own scientific information; instead it will be presented with this by the independent commission and asked to appraise it in the context of what the nation ought to do.

So if one had the responsibility for fashioning such a Citizens' Assembly, what approach might work?

First, the aim of the exercise

It seems that the ultimate aim is to restore the resolve of the Australian electorate to pursue climate change actions that have the possibility of slowing, halting, and perhaps even reversing the adverse effects of climate change and global warming, and mitigating its immediate cause, carbon pollution.The more immediate aim seems to be to use the citizens’ group to create a narrative about the need for climate change action that is plausible, understandable and appealing, even although it might include elements that are discomforting, such as increased costs of energy and products and services that depend heavily on energy. The narrative would then be used to influence thinking in the community towards rational and timely action on climate change.

Some argue that the public already supports action on climate change and that the Government, having been given a mandate to act at the last election, should ‘show leadership’ and ‘just get on with it’. But since then, with the Coalition’s negative ‘Great Big New Tax on Everything’ mantra perpetrated with vigour by Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce, support has fallen. Look at the graph on Pollytics: Lowy Poll – climate change and public hypocrisy which shows a fall from 68% in 2006 to 46% in 2010 among those who want immediate action, and the rise in those who want something done, but at low cost and with little urgency from 24% to 40%, while the real deniers have moved from 7% to 13%. Moreover in 2010, 33% are not prepared to pay anything extra for electricity, whereas in 2008 it was 21%. Only one in five are prepared to pay $21 a week or more extra for electricity to tackle climate change.

This is why Julia is seeking ‘a deep community consensus on climate change’. There is NOT a strong enough consensus now, yet such a strong and deep consensus IS needed to support the radical changes to the economy and the lifestyle and budget of ordinary citizens that action on climate change entails.

Parliament not the answer

Some, including Abbott himself, says that the nation already has a 150-member forum to reach consensus on what to do about climate change, - it’s called parliament. That he could have the effrontery to say this is breathtaking. It was in parliament that he led the push to destroy consensus after the Coalition under Malcolm Turnbull had reached agreement with the Government to pass the ETS. It was HE who ensured that parliament could not be the forum where consensus was reached, a consensus that would have brought the country along in its train. No, destruction of consensus was Abbott’s intent, and he succeeded.

So how could this Citizens' Assembly work?

Choosing the citizens

First, the 150 citizens need to be chosen. To represent the Australian community they need to reflect the demography of the country, the age and gender mix, the geographic distribution and the mix of occupations. The Bureau of Statistics would be capable of randomly selecting a group that reflected these parameters from its census data. No, it would not stick a pin into a telephone book as Greg Hunt suggested. It would need to select many more than the 150 required as many would not be able or willing to participate; perhaps a thousand would be needed initially.

The next step would be to whittle this larger group to the 150 required. This could be done by communicating with them asking if they are interested and willing to be involved. If they were, they would then be asked to answer questions about their country of origin, ethnicity, educational achievement, past and present occupation, their status in the community, their beliefs about Australian society and their aspirations for it, and their beliefs about climate change and what ought to be done. Attention to these details would allow a spread of people to be selected that represented the wide variety of opinion that exists in our community.

Once the 150 had been identified an educational process would be needed to ensure that all had a similar understanding of the scientific evidence for global warming, the consequences of doing nothing about it, the action that could be taken to mitigate it, the costs and implications of taking suitable action, and the likely sources and nature of opposition to action. This educational process could begin with written material prepared by experienced educators that explained all this in a simple, understandable and convincing narrative, attractively laid out with check lists, diagrams, illustrations, graphs and photos, complete with references, particularly those available online, for those who wish to delve more. The information upon which this would be based would be derived from the independent commission of experts on climate change mentioned above, which would provide the facts, figures and pros and cons of the climate change debate.

The first meeting of the citizens

The next step would be a preliminary meeting of the 150 to ensure that the written material had been understood and assimilated, and that the task for the group is explained and agree with the participants.

The task would be to digest the material, clarify with the independent commission of experts anything that is not clear or is incomplete, and discuss the veracity of the arguments for and against global warming and taking action to mitigate it.

Then the group would tackle the question: “How can we convince the Australian community about climate change, what we need to do about it, the cost and expected outcomes, and the cost and consequences of doing nothing, or doing less than is required?” and “How can we achieve consensus in the community?”

Small groups of around ten to twelve would discuss all this in the security of a small forum with group facilitators to assist, and experts available on request to answer questions. Different groups might be assigned different aspects of the matter to discuss. Plenary sessions, where the small groups gathered together, would share the output from these groups. An iterative process would be followed until some concrete proposals for informing, educating and convincing the wider community emerged. These would be consolidated into statements that might be useful in community settings. This process would be commenced at the meeting and got into usable form by the facilitators.

Initially, a two day meeting, where most participants could fly in on day one and home on day two, would be the most economical.

Community consultations

The next step would be asking the participants, armed with the output of the first meeting, to discuss the material at a local level among friends, workmates, community groups and any other interested forum to gauge reaction, seek feedback, solicit changes that might improve the impact of the material, and elicit support. The outcome of these ‘community consultations’ would be fed back to the facilitators of the 150-strong Assembly for consolidation.

Meeting two – message consolidation

Then it would be time for a second meeting – a message consolidation exercise. At this face-to-face meeting, participants would share their experiences at a community level. Messages that resonated positively would be confirmed as useful, while those that didn’t would be discarded or modified. Responses from the community would be shared, analysed and examined to determine how best to respond to them. Some would be negative and need counterbalancing messages. Geographical and demographic variations in community opinion about climate change might emerge which would need to be accommodated. Some would signal areas not to be traversed. By the end of this two-day meeting the aim would be to have consolidated messages that worked, and to have modified those that needed further field trial. 

Second community consultation

After the second meeting the next task would be to field-test any new or modified messages. This time the testing would be more extensive, with community meetings being organized by the local Labor member and in Coalition-held electorates by a Labor official. The messages would be subject to scrutiny by as wide a variety of citizens as possible where feedback would be welcomed and advice solicited about how to improve them. Several local meetings might be held; the more the better will be the outcome. Group process would be used in these larger forums.

Meeting three – message finalization

The third meeting of the Citizens' Assembly would examine the outcome of this second community consultation and the same iterative process would occur with the aim of fashioning a set of convincing messages that could be used in a community-wide information programme.

At this meeting graphic designers would create and present near-final mock-ups of promotional material: fact sheets, graphic representations of the facts, pros and cons of action and non-action, an argument for action, the expected outcome of action and the time frame, and the cost of action in dollars, living expenses, changes to industry and commerce and to our way of life. Formats would include letters, pamphlets, posters, newspaper and online articles, videos and TV pieces, audio clips for radio, and the usual T-shirts and other attention-grabbing devices.

This stage might require further time for completion of the material by educationalists and designers. When ready, the material would be sent to the Citizens Assembly members for final comment and approval. Another meeting might be needed if further work was needed.

When all is ready, a large-scale promotional campaign would be needed to saturate the media.

After this, polling companies would need to be commissioned to determine if public opinion had moved. The polling would need to be extensive so that the margin of error in the results was low. Only then would it be apparent if a strong consensus had been accomplished.

One more thing

Let’s be clear about one more thing. The Citizens' Assembly is NOT to determine Government policy, despite the insistence of some that Julia had abdicated decision making about climate to the citizenry. She has no intention of doing so and has said so clearly. But some journalists just don’t listen, or want to hear anything other than their own preconceived notion of what they want to hear. The aim of the Assembly is to assist in the development of understandable and memorable information about climate change and what needs to be done, such that would bring about a solid consensus in the community.

So there is an outline of how a Citizens’ Assembly might be fashioned and how it might work. Skeptics might dismiss it as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘unworkable’ or just plain ‘’stupid’. So be it.

Could it work?

Of course it could. Will it work? If given a fair chance and community approval, it probably will. But if the adverse forces that have been pitted against timely and effective action on climate change have their way it may not. If the likes of Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce and Nick Minchin are let loose, they may have the same destructive effect as they have had on climate change debate to date. We should never dismiss or minimize the destruction that skeptics and obstructionists can wreak.

So all you skeptics and knockers out there, comment here and tell us what you think. But please don’t insult our intelligence by knocking it without cogent reasons for doing so. Any idiot can do that. Tell us why it won’t or may not work, and if you have any inclination to have it work, tell us how to do it better.

Please tell us what you think.

Destructive politics - Abbott style

Long past memories do fade, but can anyone remember a period in federal politics when there was more destructive behaviour from an opposition than we are suffering today? Last week Tony Abbott averred that his Opposition was the most effective in Australian political history. He said that was so because he had stopped the Great Big New Tax of the ETS/CPRS, had forced Julia Gillard to change her asylum seeker policy, had forced a change to the mining tax – another GBNT, and had played a part in getting rid of a Prime Minister – all destructive actions.

It seems to me that everything the Government says and does is countered by a destructive comment. This not only damages the Government, which is its intent, it also damages our democracy and the governance of our nation. Its only purpose is to destroy the Government and seize power.

Even before Julia Gillard had announced her climate change policy Greg Hunt was out on the ABC’s AM on 23 July with: ”Julia Gillard has failed her own test of action. Instead she has produced a 2020 summit meets the Copenhagen conference.” – a slick piece of meaningless but destructive sloganeering. He went on: “All that Julia Gillard has done is provide an excuse not to take any action before the 2013 election. She has talked the talk but she has not walked the walk. This is classic Labor chaos. She believes nothing. They have achieved nothing. They are about to do nothing. But they are talking as if Kevin Rudd were in office and all of a sudden a summit becomes an excuse not to take action.”

Negative, destructive, dismissive, schoolmasterly, arrogant – Coalition style, Abbott style, Hunt style. Hunt finds this sort of talk easy – he’s always instructing the Government what to do – because he knows best.

Talking with Eleanor Hall on The World Today on 23 July about Labor’s climate change plan, Abbott said: “Look I think it's a camouflage for Julia Gillard's plan to bring in a carbon tax. I think that she wants a price on carbon; Bob Brown wants a carbon tax. Thanks to the secret preference deal with the Greens there will be a Green balance of power in the Senate. So we will get a carbon tax if this government is re-elected.”

He’s onto the Great Big New Tax theme again, a theme that played such a large part in destroying the ETS that the Government, Malcolm Turnbull and Ian MacFarlane had negotiated, and would have passed had Abbott not destroyed it.

Negative, destructive, dismissive of community opinion, and once more on the GBNT scare bandwagon.

Later that day Tony Abbott had this to say in Western Australia in I will be next PM: Abbott: “I can sense there will be a change of government come August 21” and "Yes, I think that there will be a change of government and yes, I think that I will be the next prime minister of Australia" Hubris – he fancies his destructive actions will be rewarded by victory.

Reflect on Joe Hockey’s approach. Asked by Lyndal Curtis last Wednesday on AM about the Coalition’s Budget ‘savings’ Hockey said: “Well you will see that during the course of the campaign, but what I can tell you absolutely is that at the end of the election it will be perfectly clear to the Australian people that under the Coalition we will spend less than Labor, we will tax less than Labor, we will pay off their debt again and we will go down the path of easing part of the pressure. You can't ease all the pressure but easing part of the pressure on those family budgets and taking upward pressure off interest rates.”

And later: “Well the bottom line here is controlling inflation and at the moment the government has its foot on the accelerator. It is borrowing $100 million a day, every day, just to fund its expenditure today and then it's got the debt on top of that. So this government by, with its reckless spending is putting upward pressure on inflation and so the Reserve Bank is trying to put its foot on the brake. It's trying to slow things. It's increasing interest rates and the electorate is hit both ways. We've got higher electricity prices, higher water prices, higher public transport prices, higher house prices and Labor's spending more and more money with its foot on the accelerator. The Reserve Bank is slamming its foot on the brake with higher interest rates and if it doesn't happen this month it will happen in the next few months unless we get inflation under control.”

A destructive rant not based on verifiable fact. Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens said last week that Australia does not have a serious debt, but that is discarded by Hockey with the wave of his hand. According to Hockey the Government is wrong, on everything - incompetent, hopeless.

Hockey goes on to say: “We are the only party that has a climate change policy. Labor has just done a deal with the Greens, Labor has no climate change policy, but I bet you, I bet you that deal, which we'll never hear about until after the election is about introducing higher electricity prices, which is what the Greens want. Higher electricity prices and making life even less affordable for everyday households.”

Can you believe that he really thinks the Greens, or any party for that matter, wants higher electricity prices with the object of making living LESS affordable? Yet another destructive rant.

Later he says: "Tony Abbott is I think the best person to lead the country. You know he is a conviction politician, he believes in things. When he talks, he talks in real terms. At the moment we have someone who is not disclosing what she really believes in, I don't know what Julia Gillard believes in Lyndal. I really don't. I ask myself every day - what does Julia Gillard end up sleepless at night about? What really burns in her heart for our country? I don't know what it is and Julia Gillard...

Even allowing for Joe being slow on the uptake, how can he say such destructive things, how can he be so keen to assassinate her character, how can he be so negative when every day Julia is telling the people what she believes in. Some may not like it or agree with her, but we can all hear what she’s saying. Joe is deliberately seeking to destroy Julia Gillard in the eyes of the Australian people.

On PM on 20 July Hockey said: “This Labor Government never has delivered a surplus. In fact the last time Labor delivered a surplus was 1989 - 1989 when the Bangles led the charts."

Many times he has repeated that Labor has never delivered a surplus since 1989 and this Government will never deliver a surplus. On the 7.30 Report Hockey said: “Julia Gillard will never deliver a surplus. I said before that Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan would never deliver a surplus. I was right and here we go again. They'll never deliver it, Kerry.” He asserts he will deliver one: “Well, you know, we were running surpluses. We were running surpluses, the country was in good shape, we had four per cent unemployment. That's all gone. Surpluses are gone. We now have $90 billion of net debt, we're facing $40 billion of deficit this year, we're borrowing $100 million a day under Labor. Everyone has to pick up the pieces and ultimately it's the taxpayers and we've got to do the hard yards on that.”

Again destructive politics, and disingenuous to boot – Labor will NEVER deliver a surplus, WE WILL.

Defending Abbott’s ‘WorkChoices is dead buried and cremated’ mantra, Hockey tell O’Brien: “We're saying the Australian people want stability and certainty in industrial relations. They've had changes for the last three years - sorry, longer than the last three years - for the last seven years. There have been three major changes to industrial relations. We now accept the Australian people want certainty and stability out of Canberra. They've been on a wild ride. They've been on a ride with a new prime minister only a few weeks old, they've had pink batt programs that are reversed, school hall programs that have been a mess, they've got a boat policy that is in flummox. Give us back a proper government.”

Again, even while defending his own leader’s position, he destructively damns Gillard and the entire Government programme for the last two and a half years. Nothing it has done is of any value.

On The World Today Hockey said “The fact is the Labor Party is not committed to surpluses. It never will deliver a surplus. You can never repay the debt if you never have a surplus and for so long as the Commonwealth Government, as the 800 pound gorilla in the marketplace, is borrowing at least $100 million everyday in competition with the private sector, it's going to be harder for small business to borrow money. It's going to be more expensive for small business to borrow money.”

Here he is again destructively condemning the Government as ‘not committed to surpluses’, of being the 800 pound gorilla borrowing and thereby pushing up interest rates, although the effect of government borrowing has been shown repeatedly by economists to contribute just a tiny fraction of one percent to interest rates. More lying and deception.

Andrew Robb had this to say to Lyndal Curtis on The World Today on 20 July on the Coalition’s ‘savings’ in answer to a query about $400 million of savings claimed by the Coalition by not paying for infrastructure: “Well it's still something the Government has committed to so it is a directly a saving. But look the trouble with this government is that we as a government they're living beyond their means, they're making Australia live beyond its means. We haven't got the money. We've got to get our economy back into the sort of resilience that the Rudd and Gillard inherited three years ago.” Lyndal then asked: “Just a quick question of accounting. If you are not going to raise the money from the mining tax, can you really count the $400 million you're not going to spend from money you're not going to raise as a saving?" 
His response was: “Absolutely because if the Government is still committed to that $400 million, which will just mean they will borrow that money as they have done with most of their spending, it's borrowed money. A hundred million dollars a day they are borrowing to pay for their reckless programs - that's for the next two years. So that means that will be an extra four days of borrowing by this government to pay for that $400 million infrastructure fund.”

And so on goes the Coalition rant – destructive, disingenuous, intended to obfuscate and deceive.

On Thursday’s AM on 22 July, talking to Lyndal Curtis about the costings for the Coalition’s education initiatives and Labor’s challenge to them that showed a large black hole, the cost being double that stated, Christopher Pyne said: “This is a party with absolutely no credibility when it comes to figures, in the last election they claimed that to have computers in schools, that would cost a billion dollars, it turned out it would cost $2.2 billion. So this is the standard Hawker Britton mantra for the Labor party, as soon as the Coalition releases a policy, Hawker Britton says to Labor, go out and say the figures are wrong."

In other words, Pyne decided he wouldn’t address the question and explain how the costings were derived, just destructively condemn the Government’s financial management, and hope the question will go away. But it didn’t. Lyndal suggested the Coalition submit the costings to Treasury, to which Pyne replied: “Well look Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb are the spokespeople for finance and treasury, we'll go through exactly the normal procedures that every opposition and government goes through during election campaigns.”

In other words, don’t press me for justification; just let me rave on for a while about how incompetent financially the other side is. Destructive politics.

It still goes on. Today on Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes interview with Joe Hockey, Hockey said “We don’t know what beats in the heart of Julia Gillard. Nor do the Australian people... Interrupted by Oakes with “But people say that about both leaders.” Hockey replied: “Well, no, no, no. But I say to you Laurie - everything Julia Gillard has touched in a policy sense has been a disaster. From Medicare gold, to computers in schools, to the school halls program, to the asylum seeker policy, to the mining fix, to the new 20-20 summit for climate change because she doesn’t want to be honest with the Australian people. Julia Gillard doesn’t stand for anything and is not being fair dinkum with the Australian people.”

So there you have it. More destructive politics, more character assassination, more negativity, more ‘nothing the Government has done is any good at all’.

Does the Opposition think the electorate is stupid and dumb, Does it think that its incessant negativity, its carping criticism of EVERYTHING the Government has done, its insistence that it has done NO good, that it will NEVER deliver a surplus, that it can’t get ANYTHING right at all, will impress. Does it believe that its destructive behavior over the ETS, the mining tax, asylum seekers and population and the BER will impress swinging voters to rush from what the Coalition insists is a wholly incompetent Government with hopeless leaders, with no policies or plans, with absolutely no achievements in Government, into the arms of the Coalition begging to be rescued from the disaster this Government has brought about?

Worse than that, does the Coalition and its mouthpieces, Abbott, Hockey, Robb, Pyne and Hunt, as well as Joyce, Bishop and Morrison, believe that the destructive behavior of the Coalition is contributing positively to good governance in this country? How could they believe that by obstructing important Government legislation over and again, by destroying some completely, is good for the nation? How can they believe that continually distracting the Government from its work with spurious claims, outrageously deceptive statements, and downright lies is good for the people? When will they ever realize that we want our elected representatives from all sides of politics to contribute to good governance, not destroy it?

This is adversarial destructive politics gone mad and we’re sick of it.

What do you think?

Who do you prefer - Laurie Oakes or Hugh Riminton?

I was astonished when I viewed a video titled Oakes hasn't lost his touch, with the byline: Laurie Oakes remains on top of his game after he dropped a bomb on PM Julia Gillard. It was a discussion between by Geoff Elliott, Media Editor and Caroline Overington, 'Media Diary' for The Australian.

Do play it through its full six and a half minutes - to do so click here.

Overington begins by describing the Oakes question to Julia Gillard at her National Press Club appearance last week as a 'bomb' and “a classical example of how journalism should work”. She goes on to describe how journalists should approach their 'target' with a question the target is not expecting and to which they won't have prepared an answer, and 'drop' it into a telecast arena so there is no way the question can be dodged. After replaying the actual question and Gillard's response, Overington goes onto advocate the use of this 'classic example' in the training of journalists. She asserts that the Oakes 'bomb' shows how on top of his game he is.

Although it may horrify you as you view this short video, it will repay your time, as it will give profound insight into how at least one journalist from The Australian believes journalism should work, how the game should be played.

I was incredulous and horrified that any journalist in this country could believe that deliberately ambushing a recently-appointed Prime Minister at a National Press Club appearance with a question not related to the prime purpose of the event - to unfold to the Australian people the vision and plans she had for the nation - was 'classic' journalism, to be copied by novitiates. As we saw, it detracted substantially from subsequent coverage of Gillard's actual address, sucking up a lot of the media exposure, thereby depriving the electorate hearing much of what Gillard proposed for the next term of Government. Calculatingly, Oakes did us great disservice by distracting us from what the media itself is screaming for from Gillard - substantial statements of policy. Why fume about lack of policy and then, when it's being delivered, in Oakes' own words, 'put a spanner in the works' and wreck the process?

Does it have to be like this? Do we the viewers have to put up with journalists like Laurie Oakes, Kerry O'Brien and Tony Jones savaging politicians from all sides of politics with aggressive, rude questions, impertinently put by people whose only claim to fame is the powerful position the media affords them? They ask questions as if they already know the answers, as if they already know what ought to have been done or said, as if their subjects are schoolchildren who have messed up, lied or have shown themselves to be incompetent or ignorant, who have not done their homework and who are unable to do what is expected of them. Tony Jones' interview of Julia Gillard about the East Timor regional asylum-seeker processing concept was disgraceful. If you want to confirm that, read the transcript here.

After some very schoolmasterly questions, Jones said, “I just can't understand why you didn't pick up the phone and speak to Xanana Gusmao, who after all is the prime minister of the government of East Timor who would be responsible, his government at least, for approving this, not the president.” Note this is not a question - it is a statement of Jones' opinion, which incidentally showed his ignorance. Gillard replied: “Well, Tony, you seem to have taken some umbrage at this….”. Exactly - the schoolmaster had taken umbrage at this schoolgirl's actions. Now what right has Jones to take umbrage? Who is he to not just question his subject, but gratuitously to tell her what she should have done?

No, it doesn't have to be like this. There are journalists, just a few, out there who conduct themselves with propriety, who are able to ask searching questions without rudeness, with respect and consideration for the interviewee's position. One who springs to mind is Channel Ten's Hugh Riminton, who, after an illustrious overseas career, is now a political journalist. His CV includes: “Riminton has won Australia's top journalism awards, the Walkley and the Logie, as well as prestigious honours from New York's Columbia University and the Asian TV Awards. In all, he has been honoured for international reportage from Iraq, Sri Lanka, PNG, French Polynesia, Fiji, Kosovo and Sudan. He holds a Masters degree from Macquarie University.”

He sometimes substitutes for Paul Bonjiorno (who is himself a sound and courteous journalist) as host of Channel Ten's Meet the Press. In case you've not witnessed Riminton's approach, you can hear his conduct of Meet the Press on 18 July when he interviewed Nicola Roxon and Galaxy's David Briggs. To hear as much as you wish of Riminton's interview, click here.  You will have to endure the ad and watch the preliminaries of Meet the Press.

You can also see the transcript by clicking here and then clicking: 18 JULY 2010 - NICOLA ROXON AND DAVID BRIGGS, which you can download and open.

Let's take a couple of Riminton's questions to Nicola Roxon: “Now,can you tell us, in very simple, clear ways, how is my health, how is the health of all Australians, going to be better under Labor than it would be under the other lot?”, and later: “Okay, well, you've set out to get national health and hospital reform and, of course, WA is not part of that at the moment. Will you be able to, by election day, say that WA has moved back in with the rest of Australia?”, and further on: “Okay, now you are Minister not only of Health but also of Ageing. Of course, we know that health gets ever more expensive, and as we age, it gets ever more expensive.The Prime Minister has made it plain that we are moving forward, as she says, not to a big population but a sustainable population, but as the Minister of Health and Ageing, isn't it your job to make the case to the people that if we are going to pay for our health costs as we get older, we're going to need more children, more migrants, essentially a bigger population, to broaden the tax base?” These are all well phrased but penetrating questions, questions that require a thoughtful answer, yet courteously put with respect and consideration, without the use of abrasive words.

You may have seen him recently sensitively interviewing Blanche d'Alpuget and Bob Hawke after the telemovie Hawke. Although some of the questions were 'hard' ones, Riminton's approach was always courteous and polite, and the entire interview congenial.

Belligerence is not necessary. Rudeness should be a no, no. Discourteousness should be taboo, after all these are our elected representatives. Journalists should remember that in the 'trustworthy profession' stakes they are 35th on a list of 40 professions, just a couple of notches above politicians with real estate agents and sex workers in between. Is it any wonder that politicians rate only above car salesmen and telemarketers, treated the way they are by the media and in copycat fashion reviled by the public. Whilst acknowledging that politicians certainly contribute to their lowly position on the 'trustworthy totem pole', I believe that the media contribute profoundly to that state of affairs. Imagine how the public's opinion of its elected representatives might improve if journalists showed them respect and courtesy and approached them with intelligent but evenhanded questions. We might be surprised and delighted with their response, and the quality of political discourse might rise from the slough of despond in which it is mired most of the time.

I for one do not want Laurie Oakes 'classic' journalism - I find it repugnant. Give me Hugh Riminton any day.

What do you want?

So many questions, so few answers

Does anyone else get frustrated when they hear and see the members of the Federal Labor government being given the Third Degree by the media over the tiniest tidbit of unsourced gossip or misstep, and with respect to their policies, yet the Opposition are only given the once-over-lightly?

I know I do.

I am also heartily sick of their glib dismissal of valid questions, on the odd occasion that they are asked them by journalists, with the pat line,“We are merely an Opposition, and as such we cannot be expected to make (difficult) decisions about our policies, and inform the electorate with answers, until after we get back into power.” Or some such similar codswallop.

Where's the journalist who has the gumption to make the perfectly valid point back to the Opposition mouthpiece, whoever they may be, that, no, you are the alternate government going into an election campaign and the electorate has the right to know the detail of your proposals so that they can judge both teams competing for their vote on a level playing field?

If you, like I am, are sick to death of the ABC, News Ltd., and to a lesser degree, Fairfax, being used as Coalition Talking points platforms, then I suppose it will again be the job of the citizen journalists of the Fifth Estate to ask those tough questions.

I know that we will never be able to ask the Coalition MPs to their faces the questions that need more than those glib Talking Points mouthed back to us as answers, but maybe, just maybe, there's a journalist out there reading this who will take our concerns and questions on board and put them to the Coalition.

Thus, in the interests of truly 'Fair and Balanced' inquiry I have begun to wade through the mire of the Liberal Party website and their statements to the press, and composed some questions, based on their stated words which have been written down there, so we have to believe them, which are begging for answers.

This is by no means an exhaustive examination of the composed output of the Libs, so I'm sure I'll find fertile ground for further questioning in the future as we make our way through the election campaign.

OK, let's start with Coalition 'Economic Principles' and Industrial Relations policy, shall we?

The Coalition say they are for 'Building Sustainable Prosperity' and that, 'Individuals, rather than governments, are usually best placed to make decisions that maximise community well-being.'

What I would like to ask is, how will an Abbott government be able to rein in the well-documented exploitative practices of 'individuals' in the form of employers, who made decisions which demonstrably minimised 'community well-being', as a result of WorkChoices, which Tony Abbott has pledged to bring back in a modified form? He may say that he will not bring back WorkChoices and that the community has no appetite for further workplace change, but doesn't that contradict other statements which he has made this year wherein he stated he did want to make changes to the new Unfair Dismissal provisions of the 'FairWork Act', and to abolish Weekend Penalty Rates? See here for a reminder:

I would especially like to highlight this quote from Julie Bishop: "Signalling the Coalition's intent, deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop yesterday attacked the government's overhaul of workplace awards and said the return of 'inflexible working conditions' such as weekend penalty rates was costing employers and workers."

I would thus like to encourage an enterprising journalist to ask Ms Bishop, or Mr Abbott, to come up with definitive evidence to explain that assertion. I mean, whenever I have been into my local pharmacy of a weekend recently, post the introduction of the 'Fair Work' legislation, they have seemed to be doing pretty well, have sufficient staff to meet everyone's needs, a goodly number of customers, and the pharmacist has seemed happy enough. I also have not seen any pharmacies, or any other small businesses, having to close down of a weekend as a result of the new workplace laws or having to pay weekend Penalty Rates. Sure, that is not to say that some small businesses have not had to close their doors. However, I would make a guess that that would more likely have been due to the credit squeeze the banks imposed during the worst of the GFC.

Now, could someone ask a Coalition spokesperson whether, as Joe Hockey said on Lateline this week, whether the Coalition will tamper with the Workplace Laws, or not? Will they leave Penalty Rates alone, as Hockey suggested, or will they seek to abolish them, as their Leader and Deputy Leader suggested in their February, 2010 statements?

Could an enterprising and conscientious journalist ask Ms Bishop to detail with hard facts where jobs have been lost in the Aged Care sector, in the Retail sector, in Pharmacies, or in Agriculture, as a result of the Labor government's new 'inflexible working conditions'? I thought we had 5.1% unemployment and a looming skills and worker shortage again? Which tends to suggest otherwise, Ms Bishop, don't you think? Please explain, Coalition.

Also, as stated in Tony Abbott's February speech to a Business luncheon, does he still subscribe to the statement he made back then, that the Coalition “had a mandate to take the Unfair Dismissal monkey off the back of Small Business, and we will once more seek that mandate”?

Also, whether, he continues to believe that, “We had a mandate to introduce Statutory Non-Union Contracts and we will seek to renew that mandate”?

Does this also mean, as that statement seems to suggest, that he is specifically anti-Union? If not, why make a virtue of the fact that Statutory Contracts should be 'non-union'?

Tony Abbott also stated that, “Labor had interim transitional employment agreements”, and “We will make them less interim. ”What exactly does he mean by that statement? Does it mean that he would like to abolish them on coming to government? Sure sounds that way to me.

Also, “Labor has individual flexibility agreements. We will make them more flexible because we understand that you can't run a successful business without being able to deploy your workforce to their best advantage and to your best advantage”. Somehow I think the bit about 'to their best advantage' was put in there as camouflage for his real intent, to craft laws that will work to the employers' best advantage.

He then goes on to say, “We want to make it possible for businesses to be more profitable and for workers to earn more. That's what we had under the Howard government. That's what we need to have again.”

Now, those statements suggest a number of questions to me.

Firstly, could Tony Abbott suggest how the ALP's flexible workplace arrangements do not now deploy employees to their employer's best advantage, beyond going into the realms of worker exploitation?

Also, how increasing the 'flexibility' of employee work arrangements does not equate to the Howard government, under WorkChoices, allowing for employers to order their employees to work whenever the employer wanted them to? And being forced to come into work at short notice, under threat of being sacked if they didn't, taking absolutely no account of the employees home situation with respect to their families?

Is that not the extreme sort of 'flexibility' that Tony Abbott's words conjure up in your mind?

It sure does in mine.

I'd like someone to ask him if that will be the case if Eric Abetz, member of the H.R. Nicholls Society of extreme I.R. advocates, becomes Industrial Relations Minister in an Abbott government.

Enough of the tightly controlled message being the only thing that gets out each day from the Coalition during the election campaign. We need real answers to real questions!

Finally, could some enterprising journalist, during the election campaign, challenge Tony Abbott, when he comes out with the statement again, which he no doubt will, that workers earnt more under the Howard government as a result of the changes brought about by WorkChoices? As far as I can remember it, that 'fact' was as a result of the figures being inflated by the salaries of upper and middle managers on Individual Contracts, who benefited the most from WorkChoices, and not the wages of employees on the bottom rungs of the employment ladder who were forced into Individual Statutory Contracts.

I will be endeavouring to scour the Liberal Party's written words (because they are the ones we are told to believe) to formulate more questions which they should be asked in the days and weeks ahead during the election campaign. Hopefully, as I said, there will be some journos out there still with a conscience and not an agenda, who will take those questions on board and try to ask Tony Abbott for some straight answers to them, and not be fobbed off when he gives non-answers.

I would appreciate it if we could all be on the lookout now for the statements, made by members of the Coalition, which suggest pertinent questions and thus demand straight answers. Maybe we could compile them into a file which could be sent out to all the journalists on the campaign trail, so that they may in turn ask those questions of the Coalition on our behalf.

Especially so considering the fact that Tony Abbott has today said that he not only wishes to bury WorkChoices but to cremate it. Which is all well and good as a soundbite intended to disarm the electorate from Day 1 of the campaign. However, it is my hope that the journalists with Tony Abbott scrutinise closely what he has written down as commitments with regard to this contentious policy area. An article from The Courier Mail today outlines the bare bones of his Industrial Relations pledges.

However, the last couple of sentences give me pause for thought: "Mr Abbott will pledge that if the Coalition wins the election it will not seek to change Labor's new Fair Work Act for at least three years." He will say he wants to make individual agreements more flexible and reduce small business burdens, but "do so within Labor's existing legislation".

What that says to me is that he is engaging in an electoral fix to get the issue off the agenda by saying that he won't touch the Fair Work legislation in the first term of an Abbott government. No doubt he would spend the entire first term of his government massaging the electorate and softening them up for the changes that he has promised to bring in in his second term. Therefore an eneterprising journalist on the campaign trail should pointedly ask him what exactly are the changes that he intends to bring into the workplace in his second term? And, if he fobs off the questioner with a glib line about just let him get a first term before he discusses a second, then I would not let him get away with that. The electorate needs to know now!

Also, what exactly does he mean when he says he wants to make 'individual agreements more flexible'? Does that mean he wants to abolish Enterprise Bargaining in favour of Individual Agreements for all employees? Does it also mean, as I noted above, that he wants to bring back the employers' ability to demand an employee work at the employer's whim, with no say in the matter of when they are rostered on to work, and no allowance made for family duties and Work/Life balance?

Lastly, what does he mean when he says he wants to 'reduce small business burdens...within Labor's existing legislation'? Does this mean that he will be wanting to severely modify Labor's Unfair Dismissal provisions within the Fair Work legislation? Well, isn't that just returning to WorkChoices principles under the cloak of the Fair Work legislation?

We need answers to these questions, and we need our best and brightest journalists to ask these questions of Mr Abbott now, and not just let him skate on by with his glib daily soundbites that say everything and nothing as he is never pinned down for long enough to get a straight response and a truthful, explicit answer from him.

What do you think? Will you join us here at The Political Sword and work with us to provide the scrutiny of the campaigns of both parties, which the Press Gallery appears to have not the time or the inclination to apply to the welter of material that will be released over the life of the election campaign?