Still more on: How has it come to this?

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Monday, 30 August 2010 07:30 by Ad astra
There are many factors that have interacted with each other to produce the result we now see. The first two pieces on this subject examined the Rudd factor, the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor and the Bligh factor. This final piece looks at some other factors that seem to be important in explaining the hung parliament we now have.

The NSW factor

The parlous state of the NSW State Government has had a significant influence on the election outcome. Of all the state Labor governments, NSW is held to be the one most ‘on the nose’. This probably started at the time Bob Carr resigned and has steadily worsened under Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and even the personally popular Kristina Keneally. Chronic maladministration and corruption has marred successive governments and by now defeat next March is taken for granted with Labor’s primary vote in the doldrums. In fact the NSW Labor Government would have been replaced long ago if there had been an anyway decent Opposition. It has certainly done great damage to the Labor brand in NSW and this was widely predicted to cause a major loss of seats in that state. It was feared the 25% swing against Labor in the Penrith state by-election would flow over into the federal poll, which indeed it did in seats in Western Sydney, but that did not pertain universally in NSW. As George Megalogenis put it: in “…the dead state of NSW, …neither side claimed a decisive vote.” This suggests that although the damage to the Labor brand in NSW was palpable in some areas, it was not universal. In Eden-Monaro, usually considered a bell-weather seat, Labor increased its vote, as it did in the very marginal seat of Robertson.

It is reasonable to conclude that, against expectations, Labor did not suffer as serious a loss as anticipated, although clearly the NSW factor was operating.

The Sussex Street factor

Related to the NSW factor is the Sussex Street factor. Sussex Street is the headquarters of the Labor party where the powerbrokers and party apparatchiks do their subterranean work. Long considered to be the controlling influence over Labor internal politics it has harboured the likes of national secretary Karl Bitar and his predecessor Mark Abib, now a Senator, two men said to be ‘joined at the hip’. These men apparently have a profound influence on personnel selection for federal and state parliaments. Mark Abib was kingmaker for Kevin Rudd’s ascent to power, only to engineer his descent. It seems that the same people must take some responsibility for the condition of the NSW State Government, now rendered unelectable in 2011.

Sussex Street can be held responsible for masterminding not only most of the decisions made about Kevin Rudd’s removal and replacement, but also the timing of the consequent election, and the management of the campaign. Others involved were Bill Shorten, David Feeney and unionists Bill Ludwig and Paul Howes. The term ‘faceless men’ that the Opposition so enjoys using to foster a sinister tone reminiscent of the ’36 faceless men’ mantra of a bygone era, is applied not only to the Sussex Street apparatchiks but to others whose faces we know well.

Along with Labor’s public affairs firm, Hawker Britten, they also seem to provide intelligence for the party through polling and focus groups, and to exercise some control over tactics, especially during election campaigns, including what spokespersons have to say. So they have to take some responsibility for how the Labor campaign unfolded. We would like to know who coined the ‘moving forward’ slogan, presumably fashioned to contrast with the Coalition ‘moving backward’, but overdone. We would like to know who dreamed up the sayings: ‘the Government has lost its way’ and needs to change course and ‘get back on track’, that portrayed the Government as wandering lost in the wilderness, not a great image for a party seeking re-election. Why not say ‘the Government will be adjusting its policies to better meet community expectations’? Or ‘Government policies will be re-tuned (or reviewed or reset or re-aligned) to achieve even better outcomes’? There are plenty of words that indicate a change for the better that do not have a depreciatory ring. What evidence did these PR geniuses use to fashion the campaign messages – focus groups, polling data? If so, they need to review their methods.

Whatever the outcome of the current impasse, Labor supporters will look for a much better performance from those responsible for election campaign messages and management. They need to be replaced or to seriously lift their game. Incompetence in this arena is lethal. Maxine McKew and Anna Bligh certainly think so.

Moreover, Labor supporters will look for greater transparency from its party officials, many of whom seem to operate clandestinely behind closed doors manipulating people, policies and plans without apparent accountability. Let’s see who they are, what they believe, and how they operate. They need to understand that they are accountable to the party and all who support it, not to some inner clique who regard themselves as the kingmakers and masterminds.

The Abbott factor

When Tony Abbott won the Coalition leadership, many, including conservative journalists, declared him unelectable. Not surprisingly, after his poor performance in the 2007 election campaign, his extreme views on such matters as industrial relations and climate change, his radical conservatism as expressed in his book Battlelines, his longing for a return to the Howard era, and his pugilistic, aggressive and combative approach to politics. Add to that his inconsistency, his proneness to thought bubbles and errors of judgement for which he regularly seeks forgiveness, and his willingness to opportunistically change his views, and you have someone who does look unelectable. His admirers say Tony is authentic and that you know where he stands. The problem is that he stands in so many places, and changes his stance so often, that it is hard to pin down where he does stand.

But as of now he has almost made it to prime ministership, and will complete the journey if the Country Independents give him the nod. How is this so?

Although I rate the Abbott factor below the ones mentioned previously, it has had a significant influence. Given his proneness to ‘foot in mouth’ disease, his minders have disciplined him strictly less he implode, as well he might have if left to his own devices. He has devised or was given a short set of memorable, short and snappy slogans which he has faithfully uttered at every opportunity. We know them by heart: ‘stop the waste’, ‘repay the debt’, ‘stop new taxes’ and ‘stop the boats’. What could be simpler, and they tick many of the boxes that are concerning people. ‘Help families’ was added later. The Coalition clearly outperformed Labor with its slogans. Of course it’s much easier to create negative slogans than positive, but why couldn’t Labor have created a similar set? What about: ‘a strong economy’, ‘protection from recession’, ‘friendly family support’, ‘excellent education’, ‘better school amenities’, ‘improved health care’, ‘fairer workplaces’, ‘strong support for small business, ‘faster broadband’, ‘equitable taxes’, ‘a better deal for the bush’, ‘a more prosperous country’, ‘a fair and just society’. It might have been more hard pressed to address climate change and the boat people issue, but it could have been bold and tried: ‘tackling global warming’ and ‘stopping people smugglers’. Ask a random audience what Labor’s key messages were, and see how many have the vaguest idea.

Another aspect of the Abbott factor was that he stayed on message and was allowed to do so by a compliant media that failed to pursue him vigorously enough. How many questioned him about how he was going to stop the waste? How long did we have to wait to know how he was going to repay the debt? All we got was a dubious set of ‘savings’ that only a few economics columnists exposed for what it was, and we still don’t know how reliable the figures are. We know how he will avoid new taxes – he’ll not tax the polluters or the miners. But how will he stop the boats? The best the media could do was to invent the BoatPhone as a light-hearted diversion from the serious and potentially hazardous business of turning the boats around. So if you run slick and superficially plausible slogans and you are seldom challenged by the media, it is easy to sustain a consistent message. Abbott and the Coalition did this, Labor did not. I have argued for months that Labor needed a more proficient public relations outfit informed by educators who knew what they were about. This campaign starkly underscores that need.

Tony Abbott avoided putting his foot in it throughout the campaign, something for which he was applauded. Isn’t it amusing that if one is accident-prone, kudos accumulates as accidents are avoided! Points are gained by not stuffing up, rather than by positive contributions. That has been the Abbott story, and it has gained him a lot with his supporters and a compliant media, which have given him a big tick. Who has ever asked whether his avoidance of mistakes for five weeks equips him sufficiently for three years of prime ministership?

Whether or not he becomes PM, we can expect unremitting aggression and combativeness from him. It has served him well so far, so why would he change? The kinder parliament that he talks about is fiction. He will continue to follow Randolph Churchill’s dictum for opposition leaders: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out’.

The Coalition factor

This parallels the Abbott factor. Have you noticed how most Coalition ministers were quarantined? The only ones who appeared regularly were Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb, both concerned with the Coalition’s financial plans that Abbott chose to ignore or avoid, and of course Robb was the campaign spokesman. This technique seems to be in favour as campaigns become more and more presidential. Of course Hockey and Robb made a pretty poor fist of explaining the finances, but Abbott would have been worse.

A key strategy of the Coalition was the use of the fear factor, fear of an ‘invasion’ of boat people, fear of overcrowding in city areas and over population with Muslims, all great for dog-whistling, and fear of Great Big New Taxes. Fear was exploited ruthlessly and it did have an effect in the Western suburbs of Sydney and in the mining states. The tactic was to strike fear in the people’s hearts, then promise to protect them. Fear of the boat people is a classic example.

The other tactic was to paint everything the Government did as bad or useless, its efforts as ineffectual or wasteful, its spending as profligate and ill-directed, and the result, out-of-control debt and deficit. The Government was labelled by each Coalition commentator as 'the worst, the most incompetent government in Australian political history’. As Goebbels said, no matter how implausible, if you tell a lie often enough, the people will believe it.

Although the Coalition factor did have an influence, in my view it was less so than the Abbott factor.

The media factor

As there have been many articles written in the blogosphere and by some in the MSM about the extraordinary influence the media has had on this election, I need not elaborate in detail here. There is no doubt at all that News Limited media has been running an anti-Government, anti-Rudd and pro-Coalition line for at least two years. Think back to the early attempts to discredit Kevin Rudd: the Scores incident, the Burke affair, the RAAF hostess episode and the hairdryer beat-up, all of which surprisingly increased his popularity. So the media turned its attention to attacking Government policy: Fuel Watch and Grocery Watch, the stimulus package, the Home Insulation Program, the computer in schools program, the BER schools building program, even the national curriculum and the MySchool website. These were all worthy initiatives, Fuel Watch was stillborn, killed in the Senate; Grocery Watch did not receive the support it needed to work; the stimpak worked brilliantly, and all the others succeeded, some better than others. But it was not the successes that the media highlighted, it was the problems, and there were some.

Take the BER, how much did we hear about the benefit of the program to children, teachers, parents and the community? Precious little! But we heard plenty about the overruns, the rorts, the slower-than-planned rollout, and the dissatisfaction expressed by some principals and parents. The Australian even ran a regular ‘Schools Watch’ section where every problem, small and large, was highlighted. Yet when the ANAO and Orgill reports found that the program had performed well, with only 2.7% dissatisfaction reported in the latter, it was the 2.7% that captured virtually all the media’s attention, leaving unchallenged the ‘waste and mismanagement’ mantra that the Coalition had been reciting for over a year. The media’s role was reprehensible in the extreme as it deprived the reading public of a balanced picture of this massive program, leaving only the negatives hanging out to dry in full public view.

Even this past week, the News Limited media is openly urging the selection of the Coalition to form government and is using polls in the electorates of the Country independents to put pressure on them.

What’s behind this? We all know Rupert Murdoch’s preference for conservative governments and his desire for control of the media to that end, but there may be other reasons. For example is the NBN seen as a treat to the print empire? Is the advertising revenue from government likely to be more under a Coalition Government? Who know what the motives are, but the end result is clear – News Limited wants a Coalition Government.

Let’s look briefly at the leaks.

All journalists love a scoop. So I suppose when someone leaks something significant to them, the urge to publish it is irresistible, and anyway they may take the line that if they do not publish the leak, the leaker will pass it to someone else. Do they ever decide not to publish a leak, in the public interest? Is there a code of ethics that keeps some matters under wraps? If so, what matters?

Anyway, the leaks that were publicized were damaging to Labor. Laurie Oakes made a rare appearance at the NPC to throw his bombshell at Julia Gillard about the supposed deal that she had made with Kevin Rudd to give him another chance to restore his position as leader. He knew that would be damaging to her, and that she would be hard pressed to rebut the charges because of confidentiality imperatives. And it was very damaging. It astonishes me that an experienced journalist, who is not known for his antagonism to Labor, would deliberately act in a way that would damage Gillard and her campaign so profoundly. Seemingly the scoop is more important than the damage inflicted.

Then there were the leaks about Gillard’s attitude in Cabinet toward a PPL and a pension rise, leaving her having to defend her position while sticking to the protocol of Cabinet confidentially. So the electorate was left suspecting that she opposed these measures.

These leaks were damaging and robbed the second and third weeks of the campaign of space to promote Labor policies, as the media obsessively focussed on the leaks. Without them, the outcome might have been more favourable to Labor.

The final leak was about the Coalition’s faulty costings on an item it had submitted. It embarrassed it, but gave Tony Abbott an excuse, ‘a criminal leak’, for not submitting any more Coalition costings to Treasury. No one knows where the leak arose; the Coalition asked the AFP to investigate. As WHK Horwath, an auditing firm, had been engaged two months beforehand to check the costings, one suspects the Coalition’s use of the leak to suspend submissions to Treasury was just too opportune. That leak was damaging to Labor too because it left the Coalition costings free from proper scrutiny.

The leaks were an embarrassment and did damage the campaign. How much, is conjecture.

As in any complex system, there is a multiplicity of factors that operate, and moreover they interact with each other in a way that multiplies the complexity. Any attempt to isolate one factor as the only, or even the most significant, is always going to be suspect, yet that is what some journalists do, I suppose to sound shrewd and in possession of the wisdom of Solomon. This trilogy has not attempted this, but instead had proposed as significant the Rudd factor, the Gillard factor, the Queensland factor, the Bligh factor, the NSW factor, the Sussex Street factor, the Abbott factor, the Coalition factor and the media factor. There are more, but not the space to explore them. But even among the factors described, there is intense interaction, the complexity of which we can hardly imagine.

I trust this analysis has provided food for thought, but sadly no insight into what the future holds for Labor, the Coalition and for the electorate. For this we must await the decision of the Country Independents.

What do you think?