Are political labels useless?

Learned dissertations on politics use classical terminology to identify particular political positions. Terms like ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’, small ‘l’ liberal, ‘economic liberalism’, ‘economic conservatism’, ‘political liberalism’, ‘social liberalism’, ‘social conservatism’, ‘socialism’, social democracy’, ‘liberal democracy’, or more colloquially, ‘wets’ and ‘dries’ are but some of the terms that are used to describe people’s positions and attitudes, and to point to their preferred policies.

There has been talk since the 2010 election about the orientation of the main political parties. Labor, long seen as centre-left, is now seen by the Coalition as lurching violently to the left after its post-election ‘alliance’ with the Greens, who are portrayed as extreme left. But on refugee policy it is seen as moving to the right. There is also talk in Coalition circles about whether it has lurched too far to the conservative right. Will Hodgman, Liberal leader in Tasmania certainly thinks so, as does Malcolm Fraser.

But how much do these labels help us in understanding what individual politicians think and feel, what parties believe, what they ‘stand for’? In my view not much, serving as they do to confuse more often than clarify.

It was as I read Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines that the confusion such labels evoke became starkly apparent. In an attempt to describe what the Liberal Party was and stood for, he went back to R G Menzies’ 1985 assertion: “What the Liberal Party needed to do...was to rededicate itself to ‘patriotism...the family...the small unit in agriculture, industry and commerce...political obligation...intellectual rigour’.” After the party’s loss to Gough Whitlam, Menzies lamented that "the party of everything" had become "the party of nothing". This lament highlights the dilemma defeated parties face, and points to the need for introspection, refining of principles, review of policies and redefining the party’s very essence. Values and direction have to be rediscovered and renewed.

Clearly Abbott was soul searching when he wrote his book. He cautions that “Romanticizing the achievements of the previous government [the Howard Government] and demanding that the electorate repent of its mistake is a recipe for a very long stint in opposition.” Ironically, that stands in stark contrast to Abbott’s actual behaviour since the 2007 election when he has repeatedly lamented the rejection of ‘such a good government’ by a ‘sleep-walking electorate’. He goes on to quote George Brandis as saying the party had ‘moved too far to the right’, and ‘should return to the small ‘l’ liberal tradition’ of Robert Menzies or Alfred Deakin. I wonder what Abbott thinks after the recent election?

Highlighting the difficulty in articulating the principles and the philosophies that party members have in common, Abbott bemoans the fact that such an exercise often evokes a row and a flurry of motherhood statements. He concedes political liberalism cannot be reduced to a simple prescription and that John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of liberalism, had different political positions at different times.

Menzies created the term ‘Liberal’ to mean a ‘progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise’. He stressed the ‘creative genius of the individual’ but that the individual needed to be ‘assisted and sometimes controlled by the government in the general social interest’. He believed in and encouraged ‘free private enterprise’ but not ‘irresponsible enterprise’. He spoke of the ‘real freedoms to worship, to think, to speak, to choose, to be ambitious, to acquire skill, to seek reward...for these are of the essence, of the nature of man’.

After thirty pages in which Abbott valiantly attempts to explain conservative values, he goes onto list descriptive terms additional to those mentioned at the beginning of this piece: ‘left wing’, ‘right wing’, ‘interventionist’, ‘deregulatory’, ‘capitalist’, ‘socialist’, ‘centralist’ and ‘federalist’, but emphasises that these terms “...don’t matter much compared with whether they might plausibly solve a problem in ways that would be in the national interest”, and that “the ‘ideological’ tag...rarely strikes a chord with voters”. I agree with Abbott.

Abbott rebuts Robert Manne’s contention that the Coalition’s policies were the conscious application of neo-liberal or neo-conservative ideology to economic and national-security problems. Abbott insists that: “not a single Howard cabinet member ever had any ‘neo-ism’ in mind when actually making a decision”.

For his part, Kevin Rudd did not seek to follow the ideological path, but rather took the pragmatic approach to issues, much as has the Liberal Party as described by Abbott. Julia Gillard is believed by many to be more ideologically driven, but has yet to reveal how she formulates her approach to political matters. The Australian Greens is said to be the most ideologically driven party.

This piece argues that the traditional ideological terms so often used are of little help to voters trying to understand the orientation and political positions of the politicians that they are required to select for office. Different people often attach very different meanings to the same term. The 2010 election illustrated how poorly the electorate grasped the essential differences in ideology, policy and approach of the major parties. Many insisted that the campaign was ‘policy-free’.

This piece contends that voters, expecting to know what candidates stand for, deserve to have better ways of assessing them than simply the name of their party or the superficial ideological tags so often attached to that party. Now is the time to reflect on how we can do it better when next we go to the polls.

Why not describe political orientations and positions with brief descriptors, as did Menzies – a ‘What I believe in’ manifesto?

Here’s a first attempt to create such a conceptual checklist. It is of necessity incomplete, as a complete list would be as encyclopedic as the issues facing political parties. You are invited to add items that you would like to see on a checklist that you would wish candidates in your electorate to answer before you cast your vote. I will add them in seriatim.

The first set is somewhat ‘motherhood’ in nature, such that one would expect most politicians to answer in the affirmative. The second list is more testing, requiring as it does the candidate to select from countervailing alternatives. Imagine a check box associated with each choice. If you find the lists tedious, just skim them to get the idea presented here.

I believe in:

Values and beliefs

Freedom for all to worship, to think, to express views

Freedom of choice of religion, work, political affiliation and associates

Freedom from oppression

Equity, equality of opportunity and fairness for all

Love of country and patriotism

Respect for the original inhabitants of this country

Respect for our ancestors and the origins of our nation

Recognition of, and respect for the sovereign and her representatives

Respect for Australian military traditions and feats in times of conflict

Preservation of traditional Australian values: mate-ship, a fair go, mutual respect 

Respect for the rule of law, the nation’s legal system and justice for all

Respect for the nation’s political system, the democratic process and the rights and responsibilities of elected governments 

Opportunities for all to engage freely in political discourse

Preparedness to innovate and experiment in public policy

Care for the natural environment

Family values

The family as the basic unit of society

An emphasis on family values and family well-being

Acceptance of the several variants of ‘family’: traditional two parent, single parent, gay and lesbian relationships
Fostering family saving, self-sufficiency, self reliance and prudence in the use of resources

Freedoms and opportunities

Freedom to acquire knowledge, skills, a satisfying occupation and appropriate rewards, and to be ambitious

Educational opportunities for all to the extent of their capacity

Freedom to be enterprising and innovative in business

Creating opportunities for advancement

Small business as a crucial element of commercial and industrial endeavour

Small agricultural endeavour

A fair and equitable industrial relations system
Health and social support

Equitable, accessible, affordable, comprehensive and dignified health care from birth through old age at a cost the individual and society can afford

Accessible and affordable facilities for the prevention of illness and management of physical, mental and social illness

Support for the disabled and their carers appropriate to their needs 

Respect for life and how it ends

Social support for those unable sufficiently to support themselves

Support for those unable to find work

Support for the homeless, and public housing for them
Proper living and employment conditions for indigenous people
Health care for indigenous people that closes the health gap
Training programmes for those seeking employment

Occupational health and safety arrangements that protects all workers

Economy, trade, markets, regulation and resources

An open economy that engages in global markets and free trade
Freedom for individuals and businesses to engage in free enterprise
Tax systems that encourage commercial activity, but reap fair returns from productive industries
A sound, well-regulated and capitalized commercial banking system that supports commerce and industry
A central Reserve Bank that keeps inflation under control with interest rate adjustments
A system of support for industries that become threatened, especially the farm sector during times of drought, flood and tempest
Encouragement for manufacturing within the bounds of economic commonsense
Government support for all forms of productive economic activity
Improving productivity, sustainable growth and participation in the workforce
Fast broadband that enables the most efficient conduct of commerce, education, health and communications
Population growth that is consistent with sustainability and economic growth
Prudent use of resources consistent with environmental sustainability
Action on climate change that curtails its adverse effects

National security

Protection of the territorial integrity of Australia

A strong defence capability

Willingness to provide for regional security

Willingness to contribute to global security



The above are mostly motherhood statements to which I expect most politicians would answer positively.

A more revealing test would be a set of largely mutually exclusive alternative propositions from which politicians could select. Again, imagine a check box with each item.

I believe in the selected option:

The Australian way of life

The existing way of life should be maintained as it has served us well

We should attempt to continually improve our way of life

A traditional family of a married man and wife with children is the preferred mode of family life

Other family arrangements (childless couples, single parents, surrogate parents, homosexual couples) should be encouraged

Same sex marriage should be permitted

Choice of contraception is a right for all sexually active people

Women have the right to decide on the continuance of a pregnancy

Abortion should be outlawed

Late term abortion should be outlawed
Euthanasia should be available with suitable safeguards

Education

Education is the lifeblood of the nation

All who are capable are entitled to as much education as would benefit them

Education should be reserved for those capable of benefiting from it

Education should be free throughout

Education should be free through secondary education but tertiary education should be paid for by the consumer

Scholarships should be readily available to talented people

The HECS scheme is sound and should be retained

The HECS scheme is punitive and should be abolished

Private schools should not receive government subsidies

Private schools are entitled to subsidies as parents who pay taxes are entitled to some benefit

Health and welfare

Governments have an obligation to prove excellence in health care at minimal cost

Consumers of health care should pay an equitable amount for care

Individuals are obliged to take care of their health and avoid overburdening the health care system

Governments have the right to penalize those who disregard their health

Higher excise should be levied on tobacco, alcohol and junk food

More emphasis should be given to community care to take the pressure off hospitals

More emphasis should be given to aged and palliative care facilities
More emphasis should be given to mental health care, especially for the young

Hospital beds should be reduced and more community and aged beds built

More hospital beds are needed to relieve emergency department congestion

Markets, regulation and international trade

Unfettered free markets with minimal government regulation or control are preferred

Free markets but with firm government regulation are desirable

Free markets strongly controlled by government regulation are essential

Globalization, global markets and free trade are now the norm

A neo-liberal approach to markets is best

A Hayekian approach to markets is best

A Keynesian approach to markets is best

Tariff protection is needed to protect local industry

Government support is essential for local manufacturing
Companies mining our irreplaceable minerals should pay a fairer share of their profits in tax
Mining companies are already paying enough tax
Higher taxes on mining would cripple the industry and send it offshore
Fast broadband is essential for business, education and health care
The broadband we have is satisfactory and does not need vastly higher speeds

GFC, stimulus, debt and deficit, interest rates

The Government should not have instituted a stimulus programme during the GFC

The incurring of the debt resulting from the stimulus programme is fully justified

It is more important to avoid debt than it is to avoid recession and unemployment

Once the recession was receding all stimulus should have been stopped

The stimulus should be continued until obligations have been met 

The stimulus should be continued until the threat of recession is over

Interest rate rises are a direct result of the Government stimulus

Interest rate rises are a result of improvement in the economy



National security, border control, asylum seekers

Australia should be prepared to contribute defence personnel to war zones where Australia’s national interest is threatened

Australia must maintain its territorial integrity again all comers

It is more important to prevent unauthorized arrivals than to accept genuine asylum seekers arriving in small boats

Small boat arrivals should be turned away

Asylum seekers arriving by small boats should be accepted willingly as our humanitarian responsibility

Asylum seekers should be processed offshore

Asylum seekers should be allowed onto Australian soil for processing

Temporary protection visas should be reintroduced

The Pacific Solution should be reinstated


Climate change

Global warming is a myth

Global warming is a reality and a threat to the planet and humankind

Global warming is the greatest moral and economic threat of our time

If global warming is occurring, urgent steps should be taken to counter it

An emissions trading scheme that puts a price on carbon would be the most effective ameliorating mechanism

A carbon tax would be the most effective ameliorating mechanism

A ‘direct action plan’ that involved no tax would be the best approach

The environment

Care for the environment is more important than economic considerations

It is more important to retain jobs and support business than to attend to environmental concerns

Polluting industries should be phased out rapidly

Renewable energy generation must soon replace coal generation

Australia should generate all of its energy requirements from renewable sources

There are as many jobs in ‘renewables’ industries as would be lost in discontinued polluting industries 

Nuclear-powered generation should be introduced here as soon as feasible

Use of motor transport and the building of freeways should be scaled down
Fast rail is to be preferred over roads

Mills such as the proposed Gunn’s Mill in Tasmania should not be built.

Population issues

Australia should allow population to grow at the previous rate without restriction

A desirable population for Australia by 5050 would be the projected 36 million

Australia should restrict its population through birth control

Australia should restrict its population through restricted immigration

Immigration should be limited to those who are needed to cover skills shortages

Immigration has been the lifeblood of Australia’s prosperity and should be continued at the same rate

A study should be made of this country’s carrying capacity now and until century end so that population growth and distribution can be regulated to match needs and capacity

The list could go on and on, and is already somewhat unwieldy. It is offered here simply as an example of the many issues that politicians must manage, and as a way we might approach assessing the relative worth of the attitudes and policy positions of our political parties and local candidates, in a way not possible simply through their party names or the place they are said to occupy on the conceptual political spectrum we talk about so much, but may understand in very different ways.

If you feel an important area has been omitted, please describe it and the options that accompany it, and I will add it to the list.

Finally let’s have your views about the relative merits of the established terminology we have used since time immemorial and the approach suggested above for selecting parties and politicians.

In my view political labels are not just useless; they are confusing and misleading.

What do you think?

The Coalition bouncing like a dead cat

It's not something that anyone with a beating heart and a love of politics in the 21st century does voluntarily, but when it is forced upon you, boy is it instructive.

What am I talking about?

Being abruptly disconnected from the Internet, and being flung back into the 'old paradigm' of the 20th century, when all you had was the TV, newspapers and the radio. No Internet means that you are unable to exchange views with others, you are unable to read other blogs, unable to read Twitter, etc. So, basically you are left to form your day-to-day opinions in 'splendid isolation'. Which has led me to make some pertinent conclusions.

Firstly, having my landline die, and not being able to get a technician out for almost a week to fix the problem, is the surest way to motivate you to do the most boring household chores.

Secondly, instead of your senses working overtime filtering the barrage of information that comes through the 'net’, you find, or at least I have found, that the doors of perception have been flung wide open. I now perceive things that I believe I would normally miss in my efforts to keep up with the madding crowd on the Internet. I have had time to reflect.

So, let me give you the benefit of my downtime observations.

As we start to settle into the early days of the Gillard government, I have detected an air of legitimacy descending over Ms Gillard. She is being transformed from contender to title-holder. She is beginning to assume the mantle of Prime Minister.

In fact, and I don't know if this is a result of the journos heeding Annabel Crabb's words to make the 'new paradigm' manifest, but the Press Conferences since the government became settled have become more thoughtful, considered and respectful affairs, in the main. In deference to her position, when journalists ask questions now, they are prefacing them with,'Prime Minister'...

That ‘pack of hyenas’ mentality, that was so pervasive during the election campaign, is abating. Or is it because the prime instigator of the journalistic insouciance, Latika Bourke, has been on holidays? Only time will tell there, upon her return.

Also, it seems to me that since The Australian has openly declared war on the government's legitimacy, and their Alliance with 'The Greens', their over-the-top hysteria has quickly caused embarrassment on their behalf amongst the rest of the Press Gallery. So instead of maintaining solidarity with their brethren from News Ltd by closing ranks around The Oz journos and editors and thus helping to reinforce The Oz's blatant barracking for anything the Coalition does and says, the rest of the Press Gallery have, for the most part, refused to join in the attack. Their questions to the PM have been focused on policy. Though, when they are not, they are getting short shrift from Julia Gillard.

On the other hand, as appears to be fast becoming par for the course, the ABC is still trying to find cause to sneer at the Gillard government, as if relentless negativity equates with in-depth analysis in some spurious way. Also they repeat the Opposition's Talking Points verbatim as news, often beginning news bulletins with, “The Opposition said today...”, thus allowing the Abbott Opposition free rein to say whatever is their latest daily confection, built from half-truths, speculation and supposition, as 'gospel'. Such that you'd never think, going by Chris Uhlmann's constant search for the denigrating angle, that his wife had just been elected to parliament for the ALP. I am guessing that it is an ingrained habit of his to do this that he is finding hard to break. Nevertheless, I do detect a glacial rate of change in attitude and perspective, mainly from the political commentators who do the regular ABC News.

Mix it all together, however, and, even considering the fact that they are aided and abetted by News Ltd Media, I can't help but feel that the Coalition are a dead cat bouncing at the moment.

Tony Abbott has his well-formulated daily diatribe, which he can usually be found delivering via a sympathetic media outlet like 2GB or MTR. However, somehow I am getting the impression that instead of the metaphorical prize fighter landing knockout blows on the government, he is seeming instead to be like a punch-drunk sailor, all incoherent, rheumy abuse-induced by brain damage, as a result of one too many blows to his head.

Which is not to say that Tony Abbott is suffering from some sort of functional deficit, far from it; I mean I imagine that he is the one who comes up with most of his lines each day. Also, they are not without their impact. No, rather than that, it is just seeming as though they are having the impact of a dead cat bouncing. Almost a case of: “Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?” As it is starting to seem as though Tony Abbott, and the Coalition that mirrors him, only know one path to power - deconstruct and denigrate. Whatever the government does is bad because... And nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than in Tony Abbott's response to Marius Kloppers offering the Carbon peace pipe to Julia Gillard. He just seemed functionally unable to alter his oft-stated position in order to take account of the 'new paradigm' that had just manifest itself there, instead launching his now familiar attack on the prospect of a Carbon Tax, whilst ignoring the fact that the majority, and even Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest, are saying that now is the time to price Carbon. Tony Abbott is also not explaining that there will be compensation for the electorate, all in order to prosecute his spurious argument about the impact of such a tax on the community. That word, 'compensation' has not passed his lips once.

However, what I did notice was that this time Tony Abbott's scare tactics bounced like the proverbial dead cat, whereas before the election the issue bounced in his favour like a cat on a hot tin roof. Could it be that we are starting to see from the electorate and the media a less frenetic and more sober assessment of the issues?

In fact, another instance of Tony Abbott's previous deft political touch escaping him occurred with his refusal to let any Coalition MP onto the parliamentary Climate Change Consultative Committee, unless that person could be a Climate Change Sceptic. Not only has he not been able to make that decision bounce his way, it has gone down like a kite with no wind beneath its wings, nose-diving straight into the ground. His actions, to objective observers, are being seen as petulant and overly-focused on political gamesmanship at the expense of the 'kinder, gentler polity' that he himself was touting only a couple of weeks ago.

Also the rest of the Shadow Ministry has not been faring much better. Greg Hunt was sounding frankly delusional on radio the other day when he stated, “That only the Coalition has a Direct Action Plan for Climate Change that will start on July 1, 2011.” Now, either the Coalition heroically believes that they will not be in Opposition for very long and in government very, very soon such that they will be able to get their 'Direct Action' legislation passed by the hung parliament and enacted in time for it to come into effect by that date. Or Greg Hunt has lost touch with reality. Or he is deliberately misrepresenting reality to create what he sees as a brick in the wall that the Opposition is building in order to give the electorate the impression of a government-in-exile. Which is mischievous to say the least.

Also, could it be that there are some amongst the number of the Coalition who are just mouthing the talking points given to them by an 'unhinged' leadership, that needs must compel them to say in order to keep their position on the Shadow Front Bench of an Abbott Opposition? An Opposition leadership unfamiliar with the concept of a post-election climb down, instead attempting to forge ahead with their new election campaign, which obviously has been identified by them as their new modus operandi. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it has become Tony Abbott's modus vivendi; it appears he knows no other way to practise the art of politics but living and breathing competition.

However, the 'new paradigm' of 21st century politics, as being exhibited by many countries' 'blended' governments, where consensus and co-operation across the gamut of political interests, represented by a disparate collection of parties, is how electorates are telling their representatives that they want things to be now, is something that appears to have escaped the comprehension abilities of the Abbott-led Opposition. To my mind they are stuck in the 20th century of John Howard-era politics, where domination of the political discourse was the de facto position to adopt and impose on the political conversation. The Coalition are mouthing the words of the new political paradigm every day, so it's not as if they don't realise that how the political game is played has changed, it's just that their actions betray a predilection to go back to the successful, in their eyes, ways of Howard.

Take, for example, Tony Abbott's proclamation today that the Coalition is, “the party of new ideas” (we'll let go the fact that a Coalition is not 'a' party). More like the 'party' of No Idea.

In this way what we have seen put on the table is a commitment to bring legislation to the House, via a Private Members Bill, which will repeal the Queensland 'Wild Rivers' legislation. Superficially it is to facilitate the ability of the land to be handed back to its Indigenous owners.

Tony Abbott wants to take back the land from the people of Queensland generally, via their government, who wish to preserve the natural environment in Far North Queensland in perpetuity. Instead, Abbott is using the cover of the darkness of the claimant's skin as a blind to hide his real intentions behind. Which is that, in a very 20th century fashion, he sees the environment purely as an exploitable commodity, and the handmaiden of the economy. Also, what is never mentioned, in his championing of the cause of Indigenous Leader, Noel Pearson, is that Abbott is playing the 'new paradigm' splits in the Indigenous Australian community of the 21st century between Progressives and Conservatives, such as Pearson, off against one another. In a completely disingenuous act of seeming concern for the 'rights' of Indigenous Australians, Tony Abbott is instead continuing to advance his old-style, anti-environment thinking into the parliament.

So we see the Opposition, in a very 'old political paradigm' fashion getting out the wrecking ball as they scratch around in search of a new killer wedge and attack by which they hope to bring the new Green-Independent-Labor Coalition government down as soon as possible, and in order to have themselves installed as the 'natural party of government'. Which idea, thankfully, as with so many others of theirs at the moment, appears to have all the momentum of a dead cat bouncing around.

Instead of this, if the Coalition were smart, it would admit to itself that the political caravan has moved on, and there are now more votes to be harvested in forging a new Conservatism, as opposed to seeking to resurrect the now thoroughly discredited neo-conservatism.

As has been suggested elsewhere, would it not be better for the Coalition to become part of the solution, instead of the problem?

Which, of course, leads us to the problem of the Coalition's response to the NBN.

Any sober judge of the competing alternatives to provide Broadband into almost all homes in the country would say that the fibre plan is the thinking person's alternative. As Tony Windsor said, “You do it once, you do it right, you do it fibre.” It's almost future-proof, and follows my grandfather's dictum that, “The cheapest things always cost the most to buy.” Thus, even if the upfront investment may seem a bit rich, in the end it will pay for itself many times over by not only contributing to the Budget bottom line due to increased productivity flow-on benefits, but also by adding to the 'Triple Bottom Line' of the new economic paradigm, by increasing the quality of life of Rural and Regional Australians in so many ways. Not only that, but I have just recently heard about new technology which will enable you to use wireless technology to draw on your home's broadband quota in a portable fashion when you are outside the house, thus negating one of the Coalition's main arguments against fibre, that is that it is fixed and stationary, whereas their policy allows for maximum portability, using a hodgepodge of different modalities to bring the broadband signal to the electorate - a policy that has been demonstrated time and again to be hostage to some pretty serious limitations. I don't envy the task that Malcolm Turnbull has been given to try to sell the Coalition's dog of a Broadband policy. It's no wonder that he is concentrating on the business principles of the NBN, because the technological case for fibre, as opposed to Wireless+Satellite+Copper wires, is a no-brainer to the well informed. I can pretty confidently predict that Malcolm Turnbull can also hear the dead cat bouncing, but is choosing to ignore it.

Someone who blissfully chooses to ignore the dead cat bouncing around the room, fitfully, as it gets kicked by one Coalition MP or another, is Julie Bishop. I can't wait to see her up against the formidable opponent she now has in Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, and the mercurial Dr Craig Emerson in Trade. To say that they will enjoy leaving her feeling like a bedraggled old moggie is not putting too fine a point on it.

In fact, the only ray of light for the Coalition at the moment appears to be coming from the 'loathsome' Scott Morrison (copyright, Bernard Keane of Crikey), who appears to have a mole in Immigration willing to keep feeding him documents to aid and abet his government destabilisation program around the Asylum Seeker issue. Pity the new political paradigm appears to have caught up with him too, as Julia Gillard placed one of the Labor government's best performers, Chris Bowen, up against him to do battle; who, going by the comments today by Sabra Lane of the ABC's Canberra Press Gallery, is winning by acting as a ‘refreshingly honest and direct’ breath of fresh political air.

Now, I may be wrong in my summation, and, with the resumption of parliamentary hostilities on the floor of the House next week, we may just go back to an adversarial battle between the two major parties. However, there's something in the air that tells me a different story.

So, basically, what I think is that the electorate has undergone a sea change with this last election, from the 'old paradigm' of Howardian self-interested politics of 'What's in it for me?', to the 'new paradigm' of 'let's get together and sort out our society's problems constructively'.

And that if the Opposition does not wake up and smell the Fair Trade Coffee, they are in danger of slipping into political irrelevancy. Especially after the new Senate takes its place next year.

Well, at least that's the impression that I got when I stepped outside the virtual political beltway for a week.

What do you think?

An open letter to the Leader of the Opposition

Mr Abbott, we expect that you have mixed feelings about the outcome of the election. To get as close as you did to winning is cause for elation and congratulation, emotions echoed in the media, where many considered you unelectable six months ago. Yet the countervailing emotion must be intense frustration at getting so close then losing in the post-election period. You are credited with winning the campaign, but losing the post-election negotiations.

No doubt you are angry that two of the conservative-leaning Country Independents decided to support Labor instead of the Coalition. Among the several reasons for this was the NBN, which you vowed to scrap, and you have since assigned Malcolm Turnbull the task of ‘demolishing’ it. The Independents saw this as essential for regional development. You did not, instead coming up with a cheaper, slower and less technologically advanced plan that experts consider inferior and far less capable of meeting the nation’s present and future needs. So one cause of your not gaining power was your intransigence about the NBN, insisting it was a ‘white elephant’ and a gross waste of public funds. Another reason seemed to be your attitude to climate change and your resistance to a tax on carbon. Your attitude to both these issues was born of an obsessive desire to ‘pay back debt’ ‘and ‘end the waste’, two of your most potent slogans. In pursuing these aims you overlooked what was best for the nation in telecommunications and combating global warming.

You wanted the electorate to believe that under the Coalition debt, deficits and interest rates always would be lower, the cost of living more reasonable, that waste and mismanagement would evaporate and we would all be better off than under an incompetent Labor administration that could never manage money or implement any program without it becoming a disaster. These were the raison d'être for your fixation on austerity in budgeting, and no doubt the reason you attempted to make your budget look better than it really was by using specious assumptions. You were caught out with a black hole variously estimated to be from $4 billion to over $10 billion. The way you tried to avoid scrutiny by claiming there had been a ‘criminal leak’ from Treasury, now proved by the AFP to be not so, made the electorate and the Independents suspect you had something to hide, which turned out to be the case as revealed by Treasury once it finally got its hands on your figures. The media should have exposed the deceit but chose to downplay the black hole; indeed Michael Stutchbury categorized it as just a few ruts in the road. It would have been described as a massive chasm of earthquake proportions that would swallow the party completely if Labor had such a hole.

Although you know perfectly well that the only criterion of legitimacy of a government is the capacity to command a majority of seats in the House, which Labor clearly could after the Independents supported it, you still insisted it was illegitimate, and that since the Coalition had a better TTP it should be governing. As the AEC has now given its final TPP: 50.12% to Labor and 49.88% to the Coalition, Labor being over thirty thousand votes ahead, that argument is defunct. Even your claim of a higher primary vote is questionable as the Election Analyser in The Australian shows that with 93% of the votes counted Labor scored 37.99%, Liberal 30.46%, Greens 11.76%, LNP Queensland 9.12%, Other 4.42%, Nationals 3.73% and Independents 2.52%, with the rest bring up the rear.  Only by combining the conservative vote could you claim a higher primary vote. As you insist Labor and the Greens are ‘in coalition’ their votes combined would give a primary vote well ahead of the Coalition. So even that spurious criterion doesn’t work for you.

So we hope you will now drop the ‘illegitimacy’ charge and accept that Labor is in power, and desist from attempts to dislodge it in favour of the Coalition, which you continue to hint you will do given any chance. The people have decided, close though it was, that Labor is the government. Accept it, even if it does stick in your craw, just as did your loss in 2007.

You have signaled your intention to ‘ferociously’ hold the Government to account; you use words like ‘demolish’ when instructing Malcolm Turnbull about the NBN; and your attitude since the election was decided remains as it was before, to attack relentlessly, to destroy Government policies, to disrupt, and do as your mentor Randolph Churchill advised: ‘oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out’. We would prefer you reflect on the fact that you have 74 members if you count Tony Crook, almost half the House, all elected by the people of Australia to serve their country. How can they do that if all you do is oppose everything and set out to destroy the Government’s legislation and indeed the Government itself? You talked of a ‘kinder and gentler ‘ polity and parliament, but everything you have done since uttering those words have suggested the opposite – that you will make it a harsher place with more aggression and belligerence. Attack seems all you understand, and since you probably feel it has got you to where you are, you likely see value in continuing it, notwithstanding the fact that it let you down in the post-election negotiations. Many feel affronted that so many elected Coalition members, all paid from the public purse, under your direction will engage in destructive behaviour attempting to tear down the Government and its legislative program, rather than contributing positively and helpfully to the good governance of the nation. What a waste! A kinder and gentler approach would win you and your members so much more kudos and admiration.

Frankly we are sick and tired of aggression and destructive behaviour and want to see some collaboration from you for the good of the nation.

You have got to where you are by a series of derogatory slogans repeated endlessly and echoed faithfully by a largely complaint and supportive media, particularly News Limited and The Australian, that seems intent on promoting your cause, highlighting the problems in Government programs, never willing to concede the positive, the successful aspects. It reminds us of what happened under Josef Goebbels in Nazi Germany where he worked on the premise that if you tell a lie often enough eventually the people will believe it. You have told lies about Labor for years. How often have we heard: ‘waste and mismanagement’, ‘Labor cannot mange money’, ‘Labor is addicted to spending’, ‘Labor will always run the country into debt that the Coalition will have to pay off’, ‘Labor will never have a surplus budget’, ‘Labor will never stop the boats’, ‘Labor will never build a regional processing centre’, and so on it boringly goes. Whether you actually believe these slogans to be true or whether you use them because they work, we shall never know. And work they do: even Labor supporters when asked about the BER reflexly utter your slogans: ‘waste’, ‘rorts, ‘mismanagement’, ‘debt’, with no mention of the BER’s splendid addition to school infrastructure and the jobs it created. You have been brilliantly successful, with the aid of the media, in brainwashing a large part of the population.

Another highly successful slogan had been ‘A Great Big New Tax’, which you applied to emissions trading schemes, the most recent of which had the Coalition’s support until your party assassinated its leader Malcolm Turnbull, who negotiated the scheme with Labor. Of course you insist that because you are in Opposition, his assassination was not comparable with Labor’s assassination of Kevin Rudd. I wonder does Malcolm share that view?

You applied the GBNT mantra although you knew it was the polluters that would pay for polluting, and that any resultant increase in cost to consumers would be heavily compensated for by Government subsidies. You ran the line that every time the fridge was opened or the ironing was done the consumer would pay. Barnaby Joyce made an art form of that recital, adding his own idiosyncratic humor for good measure. You must have known that you were distorting the truth, the reality of the scheme, but what did that matter to you, so long as it worked? And it did. You managed to kill much of the public support for climate change action. Nice work!

GNBT worked so well that you applied it to the minerals tax schemes. You insisted that the miners paying their fair share of tax for mining our minerals would result in massive job losses, ruin the industry, kill the goose that was laying multiple golden eggs, and thereby deprive this nation of what you described as ‘the very industry that saved us from the GFC’, notwithstanding the fact that during the GFC the miners sacked a higher proportion of their workforce than did other industries and businesses. You scared workers in the mining industries witless with threats of unemployment on a grand scale, so much so that electors in the mining states, particularly in Queensland, turned savagely against the Government and brought it to close to defeat. Again your slogans worked; whether they represented the reality that would flow from a minerals tax was of no concern to you.

Your capacity for misrepresentation seems to have no bounds. We expect more grotesque slogans to fall from your mouth in the days ahead. But we are so weary of them.

You have chosen to keep many of your shadow ministries in their same positions. Have you no one better than Joe Hockey to be Shadow Treasurer? ‘Hockeynomics’ has entered our lexicon courtesy of Peter Martin to describe Joe’s bizarre thinking about economics, perhaps most flagrantly illustrated by his repeated attempts to convince us that the Government’s borrowings to service debt were pushing up interest rates. A Treasury paper: Reconsidering the link between fiscal policy and interest rates in Australia featured in Peter Martin’s One in the eye for Hockeynomics refutes Joe’s contention with: “Australian general government net debt has no impact on the short run real interest margin, and has only a small effect in the long run.” But that did not stop Joe mouthing his mantra again and again, and of course you did nothing to control him. Why would you?

You chose also to leave Andrew Robb as Shadow Finance, the man who tried so lamentably to defend the indefensible black hole in the Coalition costings, and justify the Coalition’s reluctance to expose its costings to Treasury scrutiny with the ‘criminal leak’ accusation, now disproven. His incapacity for explaining economic data, particularly if it’s shonky, was shown up time and again as he muddled and stumbled his way through it, using language and reasoning that would confuse even an expert. Have you no one better? Is this the team, Hockey and Robb, which you would inflict on this nation if you were in power? We know you are disinterested and economically illiterate, so I suppose it would be over to them as it was after your budget reply speech and throughout the election campaign. Heaven help us.

We see you have retained Julie Bishop as Foreign Affairs spokesperson despite her ineptitude in that post. Remember her imprudent premature utterances about Stern Hu, and her flaunting of the convention of not talking about AFP matters when she went on national TV over the Israeli passports affair? Yet she stays in one of the most senior positions in the Opposition. What a prospect should you ever form government.

No doubt you consider your appointment of Malcolm Turnbull as Shadow for Communications and Broadband a stroke of brilliance. Have you checked if he has his heart in demolishing the NBN? We suspect he has not, and if that is so, he will make a very poor fist of it. Perhaps you have set him up for failure, for obvious reasons. At least the man has talent, which is more than one can say for much of your frontbench.

We can see why you have retained Christopher Pyne in his positions, especially Manager of Opposition Business, where his irritating persistence, snapping at the heels of the Government, raising interminable spurious points of order, and generally disrupting parliamentary business suits your purpose well. It seems that disruption is to be the order of the day, and we imagine that repeated points of order and dissent from the Speakers’ rulings will become the norm.

You can see that we are disturbed not just by your modus operandi, but distressed that you seem intent on disruption, demolition, destruction, demeaning and damaging the Government at every opportunity, and determined to replace it with a Coalition Government – the party that really understands money and management and economics and governance, the party that can end the waste, pay back debt, stop new taxes and stop the boats, clearly the natural party to rule.

You are now regarded by your party room as a great leader who has rescued the Coalition from potentially long years in opposition and brought it close to government. Your aggressive, combative approach is seen as a major reason for this. Your inclination to continue in this vein will be strong and from all accounts this is the track on which you seem to have chosen to travel. Whether you have the insight to recognize that this approach is no longer appropriate, especially now that many see a ‘new paradigm’ of government emerging, or whether you have the capacity for any other approach even if you did, only time will tell. There are many, perhaps within your party, who would have doubts on both counts.

Andrew Elder summed up the situation well on Politically Homeless in a piece: Timid and inept opposition when he concluded: “Abbott has slipped back into attack-dog mode at the very time when people are starting to appreciate broader and more subtle ways of working in politics. He will probably succeed in fooling the similarly calibrated journosphere that he's a real threat, but he still hasn't addressed his economic and communications policy deficiencies, nor has he given serious thought to his party's future…. Timid and inept: Tony Abbott confirms his credentials for Opposition. The question is open on whether the Liberals want to stay there, and if not how committed they really are to Abbott as leader. “

That just about says it all.

What do you think?

An open letter to the Prime Minister

On behalf of most who comment on this blog site, congratulations Ms Gillard on the re-election of the Labor Government and of yourself as Prime Minister. Those who have supported Labor through its first term and who have admired the good work it has done, are relieved that it has another term to complete its current program and implement new policy initiatives.

We have heard the claims of illegitimacy coming from the Opposition and partisan journalists, but, like you, we know there is just one parameter that gives any government legitimacy, and that is the number of votes it can command in the House. Although the Opposition likes to quote the primary vote and the two party preferred when it’s ahead (which at present is one day in three), using those parameters as justification is just games playing.

Those who doubt that the Government will last long and make predictions about why it will fail or how it will fall, simply do not know what they are talking about. There is no recent federal precedent, and where there are state precedents they have worked well. Predictions of doom are simply wishful thinking by many, or just the usual media sensationalizing. We know you will ignore such ill-informed comment.

We know you will not be daunted by the hyperbole that our media enjoy so much, such extravagant language as ‘elected by the skin of her teeth’, ‘saved by the independents’, ‘Gillard at mercy of four unpredictable men’, ‘a fragile government at massive cost’, ‘sublime chaos’, and ‘after wooing the Indies, Gillard must now woo us’. The media thrive on conflict, think too often only in terms of winners and losers, and most journalists have not even started to get their minds around the new paradigm. Annabelle Crabb made a start in The Drum in Never mind the conflict, let’s report the parliament.  Political journalists ought to read and digest her advice, but probably won’t because they are captured by the 24 hour news cycle and the demands of their editors and proprietors.

We applaud your decision to not be governed by the media cycle in future. We were gratified by the comment you made late in your interview with Barrie Cassidy on Insiders last Sunday: “Well I think there's an obligation on news organisations in the modern age to act ethically and responsibly and report the facts.”  We support your willingness to confront journalists when they ask questions in a rude or antagonistic way, when they focus on trivialities, and when they ask leading questions fishing for the answer they want. We hope you will castigate them when they attempt ‘gotchas’ or ask ‘rule in, rule out’ questions. We are pleased that you refuse to be intimidated by the likes of Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones, who tore into Kevin Rudd so cruelly. Frankly, we are sick and tired of rude, aggressive, antagonistic, trivializing journalists; politics is too important for this unseemly behaviour.

It is especially commendable that you have been re-elected despite an antagonistic media and a hostile national newspaper, The Australian, with its well-disciplined coterie of attack dogs intent on emphasizing the negatives and omitting the positives, no matter what the subject. Sadly our ABC has taken to following the News Limited tabloids in all their negativity, about which Mr Denmore has commented so pointedly in a piece in his new blog The Failed Estate: The Opposition Says… 

We hope that you will devise a media strategy that will neutralize the pernicious influence that the MSM exerts on political life in this country. The media will kick and scream; indeed it has started already, but the more it screams the more you can be sure the strategy is on target.

One problem Labor has had in its first term has been communicating its achievements, explaining its plans and achieving the endorsement of the public. This was particularly the case with the ETS. We know that the Abbott-led negativity about the reality of climate change and his Great Big New Tax mantra were very hard to counter, and that when it comes to taking the hard decisions, because most prefer the easy option of doing nothing, the public is willing to be convinced that action is unnecessary anyway. As interest in taking action about global warming waned, as willingness to pay for that action in other than a token way diminished, and as the Copenhagen conference faltered, Labor was persuaded to postpone the ETS. That turned out to be a move which angered many electors, turned them towards the Greens, and reduced Labor’s electoral impact. We do not know who was responsible for this decision but it has been hinted that it was the Sussex Street group that included Karl Bitar and Mark Abib.

We understand too that this group has a major influence on party tactics, campaign strategy and internal king-making and dethroning. Although erroneously labelled ‘faceless men’, they are not all that visible to Labor supporters, working as they seem to do in a subterranean way to influence Labor’s face to the public. We are weary of their influence and trust you will take steps to make Labor internal workings more transparent to ordinary citizens. If these same people are responsible for the campaign tactics and strategy, they need replacement, as perhaps does Hawker Britten. If a longstanding Labor pollster such as Rod Cameron says in his Lateline interview on 8 September Labor campaign panned by pioneering pollster that this was Labor’s worst campaign ever, something radical needs to be done right away, as campaigning for the next election starts now. In retrospect it is unthinkable that a Government that has achieved so much so quickly and saved the nation from recession, business failure and crippling unemployment has had to scramble so desperately for re-election. It should have been a cakewalk. If those responsible for building on that could not do so, they lack the competence in public relations that is needed for electoral success.

We were taken by your approach to your new ministry which makes a lot of sense. Of course, some academics are apprehensive about the absence of the words ‘education’ and ‘research’ in the ministry titles as if that means those areas will be neglected, and some medical people concerned with indigenous health are querying what the changed titles mean for them. Grog’s piece in Grog’s Gamut The Cabinet PIcks and Pans is a sound appraisal of the changes and an insider’s perspective on how they may affect the public service.  The images of those appointed are nicely illustrated in The Notion Factory in The Labor Lineup

As expected, the Coalition has pushed the ‘plotter’s rewarded’ line, faithfully echoed by a compliant media. An unbiased appraisal shows that far from that, the appointments have been made on merit and past performance. We feel sure that the memory of a near-death experience will galvanize all appointees to apply themselves assiduously to their responsibilities. Of course this morning on ABC radio Greg Hunt was still banging on about Peter Garrett being ‘promoted’ for his ‘incompetence’ in the Home Insulation Program – Hunt just can’t let that go. He’s still harping on the number of warnings Garrett was give, the fires and the deaths, the Coalition’s intent to push legislation to inspect every home insulated, and the need for a Royal Commission. Yet in the next breath he’s saying the Coalition will be ‘constructive’! Pigs might fly.

We hope that when the Coalition line up is announced that the Government will apply the blowtorch to it and expose its deficiencies which are inevitable since it has such indifferent talent. The finance shadows have performed badly, foreign affairs has been poorly served by Julie Bishop, and Peter Dutton was out of his depth in health. How the Coalition will attempt to manage these deficiencies will be fascinating to contemplate.

So we see a new era for Labor and our nation under your leadership. Your strength, your consultative style, your capacity for fruitful negotiation, your ability to lead strongly, and your determination to take no more babble from the Coalition and no more rubbish from the media, augers well for the time ahead.

We wish you every success. There are many, many supporters in the electorate who are right behind you.

How has it come to this – a Gillard Government?

Finally we have a minority government led by Julia Gillard. The tortured process came to an end when two of the three Country Independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, backed her government, and Bob Katter backed the Coalition. How has it come to this? This is the last analysis in this series that has already evoked three pieces. There will be many analyses in the MSM, but we in the Fifth Estate have our views too. As in all complex adaptive systems, there is a multiplicity of factors. Some, the most important as we see them, are mentioned here.

The reform factor

From the outset the three Independents insisted that a hung parliament was a not-to-be-missed opportunity to reform procedures in the federal parliament, particularly in the House of Representatives. The reforms they sought were to Question Time, private members’ bills, no-confidence motions, access to ministers and information and better parliamentary committees, to budgetary processes via a parliamentary budget committee, particularly at election time, a leaders’ debates commission, a review of the rules governing political funding and advertising, and an independent speaker, reforms designed to correct what were seen as abuses of the parliamentary system. Rob Oakeshott led this move.

They were also insistent that instead of falling back on old alliances and political leanings, they should examine in detail all the information that would enable them to make a carefully considered decision on which party was best placed to provide stable, competent, outcomes-focused government in the national interest. This is why it took them over two weeks to reach their decision. There were many aspects to consider, the most important of which were plans for the next term and the costings for those plans.

We should be eternally grateful to these men for their diligence and persistence, and their refusal to be hurried or bullied into making their decision.

The competence factor

Because the Country Independents sought to support a government that was likely to be stable and go its full term, and since stability is a function of competence, they looked at aspects of competence in the two major parties.

The Rudd/Gillard Government has been labeled incompetent by the Coalition for many months and all through the campaign. This is not the place to debate all over again this Government’s competence. While the Coalition screams ‘incompetent’, many would see it as having been very competent in many of the matters it has handled, particularly the GFC. Many too would give it a tick for the BER, the computers-in-schools program, the national curriculum and the MySchool website; the health initiatives and reforms; its IR reforms and its NBN. Some would point out the problems in those programs and not acknowledge the successes. But it seems that the Independents saw the Rudd/Gillard Government as generally competent but by no means perfect.

Of all the factors, doubts about the competence of the Coalition must have weighed heavily on the Independents as they compared the two parties. Analysis of the Coalition’s offerings would have revealed that the Coalition had fewer plans, less forward-looking ideas, fewer initiatives. Its campaign was largely negative, berating the Government at every turn – ‘the worst government in Australian political history’. So in seeking evidence for stability in a possible Abbott Government the Independents would have looked at what the Coalition was planning and how it would affect the nation. Its plan to scrap the NBN and substitute a much less expensive but much less powerful alternative must have alarmed the Independents whose advocacy for rural constituents has been up-front from the outset. The NBN promised so much for health, education, business and agriculture in rural areas that its threatened trashing must have been regarded with annoyance. The Coalition’s approach to global warming too must have been seen as an ineffective way of making a real difference to rising temperatures.

The costings factor

But the costings problems the Coalition had must have given the Independents the gravest concern about its competence. If a party cannot put together an accurate set of costings for its plans, it cannot be regarded as fiscally competent. In an attempt to upstage Labor, the Coalition bent credulity to laughable levels in preparing its assumptions, which is where the gross errors arose – amounting to something between a $10.6 billion and a $6 billion ‘black hole’, to use the media’s favourite phrase. That was simply incompetent. The Coalition should have known that to compare the budgets of the two parties the Treasury was obliged to use the same assumptions, and that any attempt it made to soup-up the parameters to make its budget look better, that is better than Labor’s, would be uncovered to its discredit. It’s use of the ‘criminal leak’ excuse for not submitting its costings to Treasury was always spurious, but it hoped to get away with it, as indeed it largely did through the election campaign, but was caught when the Independents demanded to see the costings. Tony Abbott’s initial refusal and subsequent back down made him and the Coalition look bad, and put the Independents offside.

And the Coalition’s claim that its work ‘had been carefully modeled’ by the well regarded NATSEM was refuted by NATSEM director Alan Duncan who said: “We never spoke to the Coalition; we did work for the Parliamentary Library that the Coalition may have asked for, but we had no relationship with the Coalition itself." Read more in Peter Martin’s piece: Carefully modelled by NATSEM?  

But instead of conceding that the costings were based on wrong assumptions, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb continued to ‘stand by’ their costings, insisting they were right. They looked ridiculous. The always - moderate Laura Tingle said in her 3 September article in the Australian Financial Review that: “There are two possible explanations for how an opposition presenting itself as an alternative government could end up with an $11 billion hole in the cost of its election commitments. One is that they are liars, the other is that they are clunkheads. Actually there is a third explanation: they are liars and clunkheads. But whatever the combination, they are not fit to govern.” In other words they are incompetent, at least in this crucial area of administration – fiscal management.

Tingle goes on to say: “Treasury and the Department of Finance, when finally given the chance to scrutinize the Coalition’s policies, have not just found huge discrepancies in the costings of individual policies, but what can only be described as a systematic exercise in creative accounting. The picture emerges from the econocrats’ report that the opposition very purposely created a dodgy set of numbers which were never expected to withstand any scrutiny and would require the intervention of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission if it was a company. The opposition simply hoped it could bluff its way into office by refusing to allow the figures to be scrutinized before polling day. But what is more extraordinary is that now, having been caught out, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb are continuing to try to bluff their way through, suggesting that there is nothing more than a gentlemanly difference of opinion between them and the bureaucracy. The brazenness of the three men only becomes really clear when they claimed the bureaucrats’ document actually proves the budget would be $7 billion better off under the Coalition. There is no other term for any of this except ‘complete bullshit’, to use one of Abbott’s favourite terms.” She concludes: “This exercise has given us an insight into how happily the Coalition would ignore the advice of Treasury and Finance to produce a rubbery budget which would inevitably blow out further down the track, meaning a whole new round of spending cuts or broken promises. If you had to choose who to believe between bureaucrats having to deliver bad news to people who might be their bosses in a week’s time and politicians desperate to cover up their stuff-ups, it should be an easy choice. After all, Abbott called a $10.6 billion blowout yesterday ‘an arcane argument about costings’ which didn’t really go to economic credibility.”

The sight of Abbott insisting he was right, backed by a blustering Hockey loudly mouthing protestations about the attacks on the costings, and the melancholic Robb tying himself up in knots trying the explain the intricacies of the budget in ways that even the most economically literate could scarcely follow, was pitiable.

The Abbott factor

Tony Abbott has not done well in the post-election period. He saw himself and the Coalition as having got so close to an unexpected victory yet without a majority, that he became visibly frustrated, especially when the Country Independents insisted on seeing his costings and the Treasury’s view of them. He knew all along they were a con and that the Coalition’s deception would be exposed. His initial resistance to revealing the costings that began in the election period was swept away in a day or two because he could see he was looking more and more shifty to the Independents and to the public generally. When they turned out to be as dodgy as everyone suspected, he looked even worse, and worse again as he tried vainly to defend the indefensible.

He made another serious error of judgement when he offered Andrew Wilkie $1 billion for a new Hobart Hospital, even although Wilkie had previously emphasized that he wanted to support an ‘ethical’ government. Wilkie’s explanation was that he was dissatisfied with the offer because Abbott gave no indication of where he was intending to conjure up a billion dollars, and what orderly process he was going to follow in funding this venture, in contrast to Labor’s balanced process of allocation. He saw Abbott’s offer as flagrant and irresponsible pork barreling, which it was. Abbott has form in this regard – recall the Mersey Hospital episode. Asked why Abbott didn’t explain to Wilkie where the money was coming from, Joe Hockey lamely explained ‘He didn’t ask!’ Now Joe seems to think the Coalition was set up by Wilkie, a charge Wilkie quietly denies. You may care to read Peter Martin’s piece: Wilkie has said his offer wasn't a trap, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a test.  

After the Green member Adam Brandt and independent Andrew Wilkie joined Labor, and Abbott could see minority government slipping away from him, he resorted to the line: ‘…it is inconceivable that the three Country Independents would abandon their roots and support the most left leaning government in Australia’s history’, a line faithfully repeated by Robb, Hockey and every Coalition spokesman that could get within reach of a microphone. He then stoked up a fear campaign on a Greens-initiated same-sex marriage bill, an even higher minerals tax, a carbon tax and a softer policy on boat people arrivals. He painted the spectre of a ‘coalition’ between Labor and the Greens, which it never was, and Bob Brown becoming virtually Deputy PM, as if all that horror would scare off the Independents in a panic. He insisted this would be bad for regional and rural Australia, and that the Coalition would be much better for those in the bush, notwithstanding the fact that they had done little for rural people in 11 years in government. Ask the Independents! As a last ditch attempt to convince, persuade, cajole them into supporting the Coalition, he wrote them an ‘open letter’ in the Sunday press at a time when one suspects they were no longer susceptible to such approaches.

His performance post-election has been poor. His aggressiveness, his blatant attempts to persuade, his threats, his appeal to old loyalties now long extinct, and his overt pork-barreling has shown us all his modus operandi, and left many wondering how such a person would govern this nation, manage the economy and cope with international affairs where diplomacy is so important. He came up seriously short, and the Country Independents saw it.

The Gillard factor

Although some assert that Tony Abbott won the election campaign, these same people concede that Julia Gillard won the post-election period. She has been conciliatory throughout without being obsequious, willing to collaborate with the Greens and the four independents, and the first to agree to Rob Oakeshott’s plan for reforming parliamentary procedures. She has been measured, not strident, not threatening, but prepared to highlight Tony Abbott’s fiscal irresponsibility.

Her Labor colleagues have followed along her well-modulated line, not bullying, not shrilly insisting that the Country Independents support Labor, but giving them plenty of space to consider their position.

She has forged an alliance with the Greens that many Labor supporters would have preferred to have occurred pre-election, she has agreed to more frequent and more thorough discussion with the Greens, the independents, and the backbenchers.

She showed herself to be trustworthy; Tony Abbott did not.

The Australian newspaper factor

News Limited media and specifically The Australian has been attacking Labor and promoting the Coalition relentlessly for years, particularly this year and during the campaign. It is still at it. After the election it ran a Newspoll in the electorates of the Country Independents that showed the majority of those polled wanted their elected member to support the Coalition. Had that poll asked the additional question: “Would you trust your elected member to make the right decision on who to support?", the outcome might have been different, as is evidenced by the extensive interviewing of mayors in these electorates by the ABC’s PM which showed that the independents were indeed trusted by their constituency – that is why they were elected.

More recently Newspoll conducted a poll from August 27 to 29 among 1134 voters across Australia. Asked: “…which of the following parties would you most prefer the independents and minor parties to help form a government?” 47% said Labor, 39% the Coalition, and 14% were uncommitted. The curious thing about this poll was that it was not published until six days after the poll concluded. Was this because the result did not match what The Australian had hoped-for? If so, why was it published at all? Was that because not publishing a poll would damage the reputation of what The Australian regards as the nation’s premier poll?

At the weekend, The Daily Telegraph published Tony Abbott’s desperate open letter that has been well critiqued by Grog at Grog’s Gamut: Election 2010: Extra Time (or, Who is he talking to? Who is listening?).  

Whatever may be argued to the contrary, it is hard to escape the conclusion that News Limited media and especially The Australian have been a major factor in the election outcome and its sequelae, and a pernicious one at that.

The incumbency factor

This must have been an important factor. After all, the Gillard Government is still in power, in caretaker mode, and has a comprehensive program to complete or undertake, fully and legitimately costed, which will bring the budget back to surplus in just three years. Why change to the Coalition that has fewer plans, and what it has include destructive ones such as scrapping the NBN and replacing it with an inferior scheme that will leave us in the backwaters, and knocking back the mining tax?

It would have been a big ask of the Independents to vote out a functioning Labor government for a Coalition one with such a paper-thin front bench, ageing remnants of the Howard Government, and so many ill-developed and backward looking plans.

The Nationals factor

Tony Abbott has appealed to the Independents to come back to their roots, with the Nationals. The fact that they are independent indicates that they have chose to abandon their roots for serious reasons of disagreement. The animosity that persists surfaced on election night with testy exchanges between some of the Independents and Nationals members, and the Nationals have been virtually excluded from negotiations with the Independents. The Nationals factor seemed to be a negative rather than a positive for the Coalition.

The Greens factor

The fact that there is now a Green in the House and that they will have the balance of power in the Senate next July, has weighed on the Independents. They acknowledge it as a fact of life to be factored into their deliberations. Exactly how it has influenced them remains unknown.

The Independents factor

This factor is one that history may underestimate. The extraordinary diligence and decency with which the Country Independents, Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Rob Oakeshott have set about their task, their thoroughness, their insistence on gathering and analyzing the vast amount of information they considered they needed, their unwillingness to be intimidated or hurried, has filled many observers with profound admiration.

They could have chosen to take a more casual attitude towards selection based on old allegiances and on a superficial assessment of the facts. It is greatly to their credit they took the long road, the steep climb to the high road of better parliamentary procedure and a stable government that would serve its full term.

Their assiduousness in examining all the facts thoroughly has been an important reason that they have been able to reach a majority decision to put their trust in a Gillard Labor Government for the next term.  We salute them.

Of course there are many other factors in this complex situation, some of which others may consider more telling than those mentioned here. No doubt we will see them in the many MSM commentaries that will follow.

But what do you think?

The post mortem we have to have

Whilst it has been reported that the ALP has had the metaphorical Duct Tape placed over its mouth when it comes to comment and analysis of the election campaign and the fallout from it that may lead to a Minority ALP Government this term or maybe even a One-Term Labor Government, no such strictures apply to those of us in the Fifth Estate, who may also be members of the ALP. Such as moi!

Thus I intend to get the forensic ball rolling because the last thing I want to see is the fallout and ramifications from approximately the last eight months of the Rudd/Gillard government being smoothed over by those people in the party who want to just sweep it all under the carpet and get back to business as usual ASAP, which basically involves them advancing their political 'career'.

So let me just start this analysis with an anecdote. And before I go any further let me just say that what follows is an ethnographic depiction, not a racially based slur.

Recently I had cause to journey to my local mega mall in order to purchase a couple of new mobile phones. I duly checked out the wares of every appropriate outlet in the place. Some were paeans to corporate swagger, with lots of chrome and glass and expensive staff uniforms. Others were of the 'cheap and cheerful' variety, with more plastic about the place than chrome, and polyester polo shirts for the staff. In each of these places you could easily figure out where they were coming from and what they were about, and set up your BS filter accordingly. It was all out there for the world to see and comprehend.

And then there was one other store. Where one end of the mobile phone store spectrum had expensive down lighting, and the other, cheap fluoros, this one had dark mood lighting. Where one end of the spectrum had on message 'consultants' selling plans and the other had diffident young people behind a desk casting desultory glances in your general direction, this other one had what looked like a nightclub entrepreneur behind a tiny desk in his mobile phone grotto blasting out chillax music from his giant Mac Air. Talk about feeling like a 'Stranger in a Strange Land', I felt like I should have dressed up for the occasion of going in there! But go in there I did because I was determined to do the full 'compare and contrast' before I bought my phones.

Well, before I knew it, Mr. Smooth from behind the counter had me signing up for a Mobile plan, when all I originally intended was to purchase a cheap Pre-Paid! Just as well I didn't have a Driver’s License or any other Photo ID (I don't drive, yet, and hate having my photo taken), or else I may have been experiencing ‘buyers remorse’ today. However what I did take away from there was the undeniable fact that I was sweet-talked into a move I shouldn't have been making by one of the best salesmen I have ever come across, and that's coming from someone who has been told that they could sell ice to Eskimos!

What has this got to do with the federal ALP, the election campaign and the machinations within the ALP over the last little while I hear you asking? Well, Mr. Smooth the Super Salesman was Middle Eastern. As are Karl Bitar, Mark Arbib and Sam Dastyari, who is the new NSW ALP State Secretary. Now I don't want anyone for even a nanosecond to think that I am trying to cast racial aspersions towards these men; as I said previously. I'm not. As they say in the classics, some of my best friends are Australians of Middle Eastern origin, and my son's best friend is one of them. They are kind, warm, generous and funny people who would give you the shirt off their back. However, they are also amongst the best salesmen I have ever come across in my life. It is that almost smoke-like way that they can get past your best defences that continues to amaze me, but which I believe has not served the ALP's interests well in the court of current Australian opinion. Too subtle, as it appears the electorate prefers to be hit over the head with slogans, if the latest election campaign is anything to go by.

It's true that they are shrewd operators, the best of them, and they can move very quickly on their feet when they need to as capable strategic thinkers. But always with one eye on their own best interests!

And this is where the problems have started for the ALP. It has been captured by not so much 'The Hollowmen', but by the sylph-like 'Smoke and Mirrors Men’, and it feels like the party's soul has disappeared into the maze-like labyrinth that exemplifies the way they operate the party. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the Liberal Party has its own Byzantine modus operandi of an equally clandestine nature, in fact I know it to be true as we keep hearing about the Opus Dei-backed Religious Right faction which is presently battling the less arcane forces of the Liberal Religious Right led by Alex Hawke; not to mention the increasingly small rump of small 'l' Liberal moderates, who, interestingly, I have heard are defecting to the Labor Party!

No, what distresses me, and what I think is also upsetting the electorate about the party, is that those people who are determining the direction of the ALP at this point in time, make them feel uncomfortable as they give them the feeling, as I felt in the Mobile Phone shop, that they are being sold a pup. Which is not necessarily true, it's just a feeling you get, and impressions are so important in politics. So while these men may well have the ALP's best interests at heart, and be Labor men to their bootstraps, one gets the impression that they may not have the electorate's interests front and centre in their calculations over and above how their political 'career' is progressing as a result of an ALP success which they have crafted. This is analogous to the feeling I got that, while the smooth-talking salesman in the Mobile Phone grotto was keen to sell me a phone that he knew I would like, his main motivation was increasing his profit to the extent that he could continue to expand his Mobile Phone Store empire.

Which is the first bit of advice I'd like to offer the Labor Party so that they might 'Move Forward with Confidence Into the Future'.

That is, as the Australian electorate, especially in the exurban marginal seats which are crucial to any victory, is still predominantly made up of straight-talking types who like to call a spade a bloody shovel, it might be time to pivot away from the 'Mr. Smooth' types who are determining the direction that the party is taking at the moment, and who seem to think that a Masters in Political Science is the only way to victory. Thus they need to be replaced by people with the ability to craft a plain-speaking message that exemplifies ALP values succinctly to the electorate, in the same way that the Coalition's messages in the recent election campaign left no one in doubt about where they were coming from, or where they wanted to go to. Finding someone with the ability to cut through like Paul Keating used to would be nice.

As far as the election campaigns that these men have run go, being those in NSW over the last decade and the last two federal polls, it seems to me that whilst they have been successful in getting the ALP into government (well almost, as far as the second federal poll goes), the victories have been hollow and have instigated the slow-motion train wreck that we see before us today in NSW, and which, as the Coalition delights in saying, may finally fatally infect the federal ALP with 'the NSW disease'.

Therefore the ALP needs to look around for new people to run it administratively and to be in charge of the election campaigns. Might I suggest an Ocker? Definitely not a Bob Carr-like urban sophisticate but an intelligent, articulate, earthy individual in the mould of our most successful ALP Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. It worked a treat for Tony Abbott – Rhodes Scholar, Boxing Blue, Lifesaver, Rural Fire fighter and M.A.M.I.L.(Middle Aged Man In Lycra); just as it did for Bob Hawke. It speaks to the Little and Large nature of our national psyche and how we like to project ourselves to the world. That is, for our leaders to be just like us, but just those few rungs above the average Aussie Battler.

The Smoke and Mirror Men can never understand that, nor exemplify it well, not until the collective nature of the country becomes truly cosmopolitan, and even then I think people will still be yearning for Chesty Bond and looking to hark back to our old 'Wild Colonial Boy' roots (or should that be 'The Loaded Dog' if we are to talk about Mr. Abbott?).

Which leads me to my next suggestion.

Ditch the Inner City Trendy Advertising Agency. They just don't seem to get what appeals to the majority of exurban and swinging voters. Piss-taking appeals to them, knocking the stuffing out of the opposing party and taking the wind out of their sails appeals to them, plus a few easily understood slogans. It worked for Tony Abbott and the Coalition and it would've worked for the ALP too if they had have tried it.

I can come up with half a dozen putative ads that would have been just as good as the 'Lemon' ads and the 'Train Wreck' ads of the Coalition, but it seems as though the 'Mr. Smooth’s' wanted to go with the Inner City sophisticates' 'Kinder, Gentler', more subtle campaign, which went in one ear and out the other of most people and had no discernible effect. Or with anti-Abbott ads that told us all the things everyone already knew about the man, without adding any new discernments that could have sharpened the 'Known known’s' about him or the Coalition. The only ads which were cut-through enough were the 'Razor through the Programs' ad, which wasn't shown nearly enough, and the 'Get Up' ads, which weren't even ALP ads, which is probably why they were so good.

No, what the ALP needs for the next campaign is to employ Todd Sampson or Russell Howcroft from Gruen Transfer fame, or an Ad Agency with smarts like theirs, or John Singleton who the ALP used to use but who now seems to exclusively work for the Coalition, and let them develop the most crass, cheesy ads possible, because anything else just seems to disappear like smoke into the ether.

The ALP also needs to massively improve its candidate selection.

As you know, I have just finished working on a campaign for the ALP in Robertson, which was one of the most successful in the last election for the party. Also, strangely, it was in a seat in which we were expected to do badly and to be one of the first dominoes to fall over for the Coalition, and if it had have gone to plan Tony Abbott would now have that one extra seat which probably would have seen him packing his bags for Kirribilli House (because we all know he wouldn't really consider living in the Lodge and would most likely use the Howard excuse of still having a daughter at school in Sydney to justify his presence there).

So, how did we do it against the odds?

Because our candidate was superior. Also because she was a good-looking Aussie 'shiela' and an exact ALP reflection of Tony Abbott himself. That is, highly intelligent, telegenic, physically active with her family in the community, and with an equally telegenic family (don't scoff, in this age of the uber visualisation of society it makes a quantifiable difference, just look at the trend with respect to high profile Liberal candidates in marginal seats). Now, I might also add here that the ALP chose to put up Australia's first Muslim candidate, and he too fits the above criteria, so I'm saying that a candidate's religion should not be relevant. So a truly 'authentic' and honest bedrock upon which the community could place their hopes and aspirations and in whom they could place their trust was chosen for Robertson. Also she had no previous connection to the Union movement, but she openly supported the right of the Union movement to exist in our society. Plus we had a well-organised campaign that tapped successfully into a number of important local concerns (and, no, not just CCTV cameras). In other words the electorate picked up our authenticity on their radar.

We also shut out the 'Smoke and Mirror Men' from Sussex Street, just as we had done in the lead-up to the pre-selection campaign, when we fought for the right to select our own locally-based candidate and not have one thrust upon us from Sussex Street, like Belinda Neal was.

So, let me just summarise what I think the ALP needs to do to extract itself from the electoral quicksand in which it seems to have become stuck:

1. Replace the current slippery Head Office administrators on a career path trajectory with people who are savvy enough to make a reality an ALP which is more 'True Blue' in its electoral appeal, able to lead and not be led by Focus Groups, and no longer prone to anodyne messaging, such as the sort which those in charge recently have come to prefer. And which proved so disastrous to the early part of the ALP campaign. We are a straight-talking nation and we need in our leaders people who can look us in the eye and tell us the truth, and not be controlled by the 'Mr. Smooth Salesman' set. Our BS detectors are the best in the world.

2. Find a new Ad Agency, which does not exist solely in the Inner City of one of the South Eastern States and task them to come up with populist, punchy and clear and concise messages and ads.

3. Make candidate selection a function of each electorate's Rank and File choice of a person whom they believe best reflects their local community, and who is not obviously on a career path with the party, or sourced directly from the Union movement, as a first resort. In other words, real people who have real jobs in the local community. To sew it all up they would hopefully be attractive - a sad but true reflection of society in the 21st century.

Finally, I'd just like to add a suggestion which goes to the subject of election campaigning in general, non party specific, which I came across in Crikey the other day, and which I thought was so good I have reproduced it for you here, as everything should be on the table after this momentous election which we have just been through and as the time seems ripe for big changes to the way we do elections in general:

“Roger Davenport writes: Re. Yesterday's Editorial. Both the major parties are actively seeking the support of the three country independents. The three have presented a list of issues to both party leaders including items for parliamentary reform. I would like to see them add one more issue to their list, and so avoid the farce of this past election.

“Policies were being released after the electoral commission had started sending out postal votes and accepting pre poll votes. The practice of the incumbent government choosing the timing of the election needs to stop. We need fixed term electoral cycles, preferably for four years.

“Fully costed manifestos outlining all core promises by the major parties and all independent candidates to be released six weeks before the election date, any announcements after this date would not be binding and should be subject to a conscience vote during the term of The Parliament.

“Were this reform adopted, it would allow the electorate time to review the policies and make an informed vote. Currently people participating in early voting are unaware of what the participants are standing for.”


What do you think?  Please feel free to put your own suggestions into the mix.