The forgotten art of political communication

“Julia Gillard is not getting her message out”. “She is not cutting through”. “People have stopped listening”. “Her message is being drowned out by noise”. How many times have we heard that? But how many have pointed out that it is the media that creates most of the distracting noise? How many times have we seen any thoughtful analysis in the media of why this is so? Pitifully few. This piece attempts to fill that yawning gap.

There have been many studies of communication. I won’t attempt to make this a learned treatise but rather will draw on my experience over the years and my more recent observations of politics.

A simple model of communication includes the transmitter, the message, the medium and the receiver, which I shall dissect. It’s much more complicated than that, but let’s start with the basic structure, and apply it to PM Gillard and her Government and Tony Abbott and his Opposition.

The transmitter
The personality and style of the messenger is crucial to getting the message across. We all know how dull and boring speakers put off their audiences. The media accuse Julia Gillard of having a drawl, an ocker accent, and slow speech. Add to that what they often spotlight: inappropriate dress, big earlobes, unusual earrings, red hair, a pointy nose and an ample backside, and any hope that the message she is hoping to transmit might get a guernsey is remote. Distracted by the inconsequential and governed by the media’s modus operandi, the media fails to hear what she is saying, often deliberately, and thereby fails to transmit it.

She certainly does not have the oratory of a Bill Clinton or a Tony Blair, the dulcet tones of Malcolm Turnbull, the lofty words of Gough Whitlam, the acerbic language of Paul Keating, or the scalawag charm of Bob Hawke. She is a Welsh immigrant brought up in South Australia, educated at Unley High School and the University of Melbourne, no doubt attaining her accent and speech from those environments. She seems to be sincere and genuine, although her adversaries would dispute that. So we, and the media, all have a choice: focus on her speaking attributes which we may or may not like, or listen to her message. So far the media has too often chosen the former. The latter might be more edifying for us all.

It certainly helps if the orator has a pleasant mode of delivery, or at least one that does not detract from the message. So if we don’t like PM Gillard’s delivery, we can ignore it and listen for the message, or ignore her, which is what much of the media and possibly the public are doing.

Although it seems to attract little attention from the media, Tony Abbott’s mode of delivery is no paragon. His raspy voice is unattractive, his forced laugh at times bordering on maniacal, his hesitancy off-putting, his but, but, but irritating, his deviousness and slyness unnerving, and his occasional muteness astonishing. But never mind, that’s just Tony!

The receiver
The receiver needs to be considered alongside the transmitter as the latter needs to be geared to the former. There are three common modes of language that people prefer for receiving information: visual, auditory and kinesthetic (or feeling). Those with a preference for visual language respond well to: ‘I see what you mean’; those who prefer auditory to: “I hear what you are saying; and those who like kinesthetic language to: ‘I know how you feel’. People accept messages more readily via their preferred mode, so the transmitter will achieve better results using that mode. It is easy to determine the preferred mode in one-to-one conversations and use it, as those familiar with neurolinguistic programming know, but that is not possible in large audiences.

A public speaker encounters all three preferences, but as visual is preferred by more than the others, that ought to be the mode generally used by the transmitter. However, there are occasions where the other modes are more appropriate; for example in the face of a natural disaster, or a tragedy, kinesthetic language: ‘I feel for you in your tragic situation’, is more suitable.

A good public speaker will mix these modes and use phrases like: “We can see what needs to be done and will find our way through the problem’ and ‘We are listening to what you are telling us, and will respond to your message’, and “We feel your pain, we grasp what is needed, and will carry it through’. Reflect on Julia Gillard’s language. How often have you heard her using kinesthetic (feeling) words: ‘I feel/understand your pain’; ‘I know you are doing it tough’?

Tony Abbott uses a lot of kinesthetic language, as so often his objective is to have his audience feel the pain of rising costs, of ‘toxic’ taxes, of job losses, of businesses closing, of ‘ghost towns’. Sometimes he uses the auditory, usually urging the PM to ‘listen’ to the people. Since he is not heavily into a vision for our nation, visual language does not feature much in his utterances, except of course when he uses the spacer word ‘look’ over and again in tight interviews.

A good speaker will also personalize messages by the use of words such as ‘you’ and ‘yours’, reaching out to the individual elector.

The medium
No discussion of the medium should fail to mention the author of the aphorism: “The medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan. According to Wikipedia: “Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar – a professor of English literature, a literary critic, a rhetorician, and a communication theorist. McLuhan's work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries.” His 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was seminal and echoes still in the corridors of media studies.

“McLuhan understood "medium" in a broad sense. He identified the light bulb as a clear demonstration of the concept of “the medium is the message”. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that: "a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence. Likewise, the message of a newscast about a heinous crime may be less about the individual news story itself – the content – and more about the change in public attitude towards crime that the newscast engenders by the fact that such crimes are in effect being brought into the home to watch over dinner… As society's values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium.”

McLuhan somewhat humorously rephrased his famous aphorism as: “The medium is the massage” in recognition of the fact that each medium produces a different "massage" or "effect" on us. Read more about McLuhan in Wikipedia here and here

We know that what McLuhan postulated is true today, intensified by the expansion of older technologies, TV and the Internet, and the advent of newer ones such as Facebook and Twitter. The latter has added a powerful new dimension to political reporting because of its instantaneousness.

In his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, (Scribe Publications, 2011) Lindsay Tanner asserts that the way the media now operates conditions the way politicians prepare for media interactions. A medium that is more interested in trivialities, conflict, gotchas, setting traps and creating discord, pushes politicians to behave defensively lest any slip up land them into political trouble or bring them into disrepute.

To elaborate on his assertion, he talks about TV, possibly now the major conduit for information to the public, and quotes media researcher John McManus’ four basic rules of TV news: “prefer images above ideas, employ emotion above analysis, exaggerate, and avoid extensive news gathering”. That does not leave much scope for intelligent statements about policy.

Tanner goes onto quote Robert MacNeil, former executive editor and co-anchor of a major US TV news show, who explains: “The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement… (assuming) that bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism.” Where is the room for content in that formula?

With the medium dominating the scene and focussing attention on anything and everything but significant content, how can a politician hope to transmit anything at all complex, as indeed some policies of necessity must be? Tony Abbott has grasped this reality with his three word slogans. In his perpetual negative mode, he has the luxury of being able to reduce his negativity to short but memorable sound bites. He exploits too the media’s preoccupation with images by pretending to sell bananas, by cutting up meat or by kissing fish. It’s all too easy for the No, No, No, man and his GBNT.

Referring to the cult of the personality, Tanner quotes American commentator Michael Hirschorn: “Mere logic is powerless against a brilliant projection of personality”. Tanner goes on to say: “Reporting of major events, such as federal budgets, is invariably reduced to a series of stories about aggrieved individuals. Because news executives regard politics as boring, stories are rendered through individual life-experiences in order to make them more interesting. Journalist Dan Gardner suggests that ‘the power of personal stories explains the standard format of most feature reports in newspapers and television’ which in turn explains ‘the freak show that has taken over much of the media’. The ultimate logic of this is that politicians become known for their personal characteristics and behaviour, not their policies.”

So there it is – the real content, the real decisions of politicians on important aspects of policy that affects real people, are overwhelmed by the medium and its need or desire to meet other criteria for appealing to or entertaining its audience, such as human interest, sensation, travail, personalities, scandal, and trivialities that titillate. Tony Abbott exploits this every day through his escapades at shopping centres, factories and mines, or driving heavy machinery. The consistent theme is: be scared, be fearful, the Labor dragon is about to slay you and change forever your way of life. In contrast, the media, in pursuing its own agenda of infotainment, drowns out Julia Gillard’s good news messages with noise.

What do other commentators think about what Tanner asserts?

Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, interviewed by Tony Jones on Lateline last week, began by saying that ‘political coverage is broken’ and supported that assertion with: “I think we've reached the point where politics as entertainment, the 24-hour news cycle, the fascination with media manipulation and spin doctors, the cult of the insider in political coverage - have gone on for so long they've all come together to the point where I think they're not only distorting politics, but they're actually beginning to substitute for it.”

Rosen went on to say: “I think there was a time when the political system decided what policy was, what their stance was going to be, and then of course consulted their advisers about how to present it. Today, as I think Lindsay Tanner suggested in his book Sideshow, which I have read, it's almost the reverse of that. It is, what's going to work in the media is presented first and then figuring out policies that you can announce that correspond to that comes after.

“It is that sense that this crazy mix of politics and news and manipulation and media and journalism has overtaken the political system that I think we need to register and start dealing with.”

Later Rosen said: “… political actors respond to the intensive systems that are before them. I think what we have now is a situation where journalism isn't just representing what political actors do; it is actually changing what they do. And there isn't really an exit from that system no matter what channel you're watching or what news source you're consulting.” Jones wanted to argue that this was a US phenomenon, but Rosen threw the question back at him: “…tell me, Tony, do you not see any of these things happening in the Australian political system?” Tony was having none of that, and went on to say: “It is not coverage that's broken, rather it is the politicians themselves that are broken and what's broken in them is their ever-increasing use and reliance on spin.” So Tony was sheeting the blame wholly to the politicians; the media was blameless.

But undeterred, Rosen came back: “Well, that's true, they are doing that, and it is not just spin, it's focus groups, it's consultants, the notion of the permanent campaign, as I said before - but I think we're mature enough to recognise that political actors and the producers of news are interdependent at this point.

“Ask yourself this: who would be the most likely actor in that system to be able to change? Who has the most freedom of movement, the most freedom to manoeuvre? I would say it is the people in the news media. They could change their game tomorrow if they wanted to, and I think we're at the point where they ought to start thinking about doing that.”

Tony was still unconvinced: “Change their game in what way? It would be hard to imagine us changing our own game here on this program dramatically. We do long interviews; we do probing interviews with politicians. Hopefully we see through the spin. So what is it that you're suggesting should change?”

Rosen explained patiently: “What I mean by changing the game is first of all abandoning the fascination with "inside baseball" as we call it in the United States, or the media manipulators, and begin to return to journalism as a reality check. A much heavier emphasis on fact-checking - calling out lies and distortions - would be a good start - but I think too much of the political press has begun to look at the public and electorate through the same eyes that professional operatives use when thinking of their next campaign.

“I think this kind of fascination with the mechanics of political presentation, staging, media narratives, appearing before the cameras and the arts of imagery - those kinds of things have become the mutual fascinations of the political class and the journalistic class. Maybe you avoid a lot of that on your program, but I think within the press culture as a whole in the United States and, according to Lindsay Tanner, in Australia, these values have begun to overtake the depiction of the real.”

I’ve quoted at length what Jay Rosen had to say, as it was so germane. But there was more. You may wish to read the whole transcript or view this fascinating and informative interview. Click here.  

You also may wish to read his keynote address Why Political Coverage is Broken to New News 2011, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, co-sponsored by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne on August 26.  

Is it just slavish adherence of the media to a style of presentation that disadvantages those with a serious message, and assists those with a simple if disingenuous message? In my opinion, there is more to it than that. On any reasonable assessment of News Limited media it seems clear that there is a darker reason for PM Gillard and her ministers ‘not cutting through’. It is the deliberate distortion of the facts through omission, cherry picking and dishonesty that lie at the heart of the problem the Government has. A media organization bent on ‘regime change’, which many believe is the case, can powerfully influence public opinion in whatever way it pleases, and News Limited does this overtly and covertly. In my view it is not just the contemporary behaviour of the media that lies behind the Government’s problem; it is malevolence that descends from a proprietorial and editorial level. To assess the validity of that view, you may be interested to listen to Paul Barry talking today on ABC 24 about Crikey’s ‘megaphone index’. 

The medium needs to be considered on a micro level too. At an intimate interpersonal level in informal situations, such as we see in schools and supermarkets, Julia Gillard seems to be personable, likeable, good humoured and well regarded. She has an infectious laugh and an engaging way of interacting with individuals. She has no problems there. Tony Abbott similarly does well in these environments.

At a more formal level in Press Club events or speeches or in press conferences, the PM comes across as more formal, more deliberate in what she says, and in how she answers questions. She know that reporters are waiting to pounce on any perceived slip up or change of language as they did recently over the projected budget surplus in 2012/13. She has learned that loose talk, or even an off-the-cuff remark, could be used by hostile journalists to beat her around the head. Although she controls questions firmly but politely, she has been branded by some as schoolmarmish. On the other hand, journalists have learned that she will not take nonsense from them and will call them out. Tony Abbott does not do nearly as well in press conferences. He dislikes any challenge to his views, and when the questioning gets too tough or persistent for him, he winds up and walks out.

Both are workmanlike in delivering set speeches, but hardly Churchillian.

In parliament Julia Gillard can be persuasive, but also cutting in rebutting Coalition taunts, accusations and tricky questions. She is Abbott’s superior in repartee, but both exhibit well-honed debating skills.

On occasions when dignity is needed she excels, as we have seen in her motions of condolence and in her responses to disasters, as does Tony Abbott.

Altogether I would give her high marks for communication, but most journalists would scoff at that assessment. I would give lesser marks to Abbott, but acknowledge the success he has had with short memorable slogans.

Another component of the medium is the printed word. This is still used, but to what effect? The booklet recently distributed to all householders: Working together for a clean energy future, was an example of how not to inform the public. Accustomed though I am to reading complex scientific documents, I found this one so confusing in its format, so boring to read, so dull in its layout, that I gave up a short way through. It looked as if it had been produced by an earnest but unimaginative public servant, determined to include all the facts, and answer all the questions, if only readers looked long and patiently enough through its lacklustre pages. It was wholly uninspiring.

I can’t claim to know the answer to producing documents that would appeal to the average voter, but what I understand about such attempts at ‘advertising’, is that ads are more likely to be read and understood if fashioned for consumption by children approaching teenage. Perhaps a comic style format might attract readers. It would be an interesting sociological study to research how many read the document, how much of it, how much they understood, and how much it affected their beliefs. I predict the results would be very disappointing.

The online version was well set out and informative, but devoid of illustrations and graphics, which could have done so much to bring it alive.

The message
It may seem odd that ‘the message’ comes so late in this piece, but the reality is that the message, the content of what politicians say, unless it can be reduced to slogan-like phrases, or bite-sized bits, or snappy TV clips, is of little interest to the media in its contemporary mood. It is only through Government sponsored ‘advertising’ or information pieces that the Government can fashion its message. Unfortunately when it has done so, it has done it poorly.

Where does that leave us?
It is a sad reality that the imperatives of the commercial media to compete and turn a profit and the seeming desire of the public broadcaster to follow the pattern they set, leave us with a media that is not conducive to the promulgation of vitally important messages about policy, plans, budgets or decisions, unless they can be placed in fancy dress that appeals to a largely disinterested and inattentive electorate. Politicians go through contortions to dress up their messages, which is relatively easy if they are negative and derogatory, but almost impossible if they are at all complex and will occupy much more than ten seconds of the audience’s attention. The media, particularly the electronic media, has conditioned its users to short grabs, rapidly changing imagery, startling video, outrageous or scandalous utterances, and of course human interest stories, some heart warming, some grotesque. There is simply no room for serious political content.

The transmission might be improved and the message enhanced, but the real problem seems to be with the medium.

The lost art of political communication seems fated to remain lost until and unless radical changes to media style are forthcoming, at least in the arena of political reportage. As Jay Rosen said: “Who would be the most likely actor in that system to be able to change? Who has the most freedom of movement, the most freedom to manoeuvre? I would say it is the people in the news media. They could change their game tomorrow if they wanted to, and I think we're at the point where they ought to start thinking about doing that.” And so say all of us.

But with media hell bent in pursuing its commercial and political agendas, and with an entrenched ‘We’re alright Jack’ attitude such as exhibited by Tony Jones last week where he laid full responsibility for the current ‘broken’ situation at the feet of spin-obsessed politicians, what hope have we got for change for the better? Buckley’s, unless the Fifth Estate keeps hammering away at the Fourth Estate to change its ways and give us all a fair go in trying to grasp and understand what the Government is trying to do for this nation and its citizens. How else can we thoughtfully cast a vote at the next election?

Unlike Tony Jones, this piece is not attempting to apportion blame, but to assign responsibility for the media mess we are in, and express the fervent hope that there is some way out of the abyss in which find ourselves trapped.

What do you think?

Spongebob Shenanigans

Dennis “Mr Krabs” Shanahan got his fingers burnt badly a while ago when he temporarily moved out of his journalistic comfort-zone and lost all his savings on the disastrous Krusty Pool project. As an experienced operator, Mr Krabs should have known better, but his cub reporter, Spongebob, can be excused as he was still a bit wet behind the ears.

So, after this disheartening experience of the real world, Mr Krabs realises he should stick to what he is good at and has returned to the fourth estate fold.

And, Mr Krabs has got the perfect story for Spongebob to get his teeth into. You see, Mr Krabs has milked and promoted the “Coalition: good/ALP: bad” grand narrative paradigm for all it’s worth, and sees an ideal opportunity for gilding the Coalition lily yet one more time.

So, as Spongebob is so inexperienced in political matters, Mr Krabs shows him a picture of Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, and other characters, and orders him to go off and prepare some background for a feature article he is writing for the next edition of The Weekend Australian. Now, our favourite spongy scribbler is heading off to file some background on “that colourful fish”, as Mr Krabs calls him, armed also with a modicum of context about some conflict or other between miners and fish-farmers at the “Budgie Smugglers’ Bottom” atoll. As Spongbob still hasn’t got a licence, he brings along his best friend, Patrick the Starfish, as his driver.

Patrick: Well, we are at Budgie Smugglers’ Bottom...I wonder how Tones is going to reconcile the two opposing factions around here, the miners and the fish-farmers...They’re like chalk and cheese, so he better look out or he could end up being the meat in the sandwich...

Spongebob: Yeah...and eating one of his famous shit sandwiches as well...bahahahahaha...

[Just then, at the southern corner of Budgie Smugglers’ bottom, Spongebob and Patrick come across a meeting that seems to be being chaired by that bright-red-coloured fish, Tony Abbott, who is wearing a hard-hat. He is meeting with a group of sea-creatures whom Spongebob recognises from the photographs Mr Krabs gave him earlier. He points out Clive “Sea Slug” Palmer, Twiggy “Anemone” Forrest, and Gina “Conger Eel” Reinhart. And, swimming-cum-loitering nearby, is a school of assorted hangers-on and plaicemen, including Chris “Snapper” Pyne, Gai “Sea Horse” Waterhouse, Joe “Pufferfish” Hockey, Greg “Shrimp” Hunt, Barnaby “Clownfish” Joyce, Julie “Staregeon” Bishop, Declan “Rock Lobster” Stephenson and a whole host of Young Liberal “Sea Urchins”.]

Clive: Right, gotta grow a pair on this one and get Tony Windsor and the other Indos, and your new chums the Greens, to give us unfettered access to everything that’s under Budgie Smugglers’ Bottom...

Gina: the time we’re finished with the joint, it’ll make Bikini Atoll, after the Yanks ended their nuclear tests there, look like Shangri-effin’-la...heh...heh...

[Spongebob coughs, to announce his presence.]

Tones: And who the f*** might you be? Wait, don’t tell me – you’re one of those dole-bludging lefties who’s gonna “sponge” off the hard-earned money that Gillard’s MRRT will pinch off my mining friends here...

Twiggy: And who’s your fat mate...he’s so porky, he makes Clive and Gina here look as thin as me...heh...heh...

Patrick (angrily): I...I...I’m Patrick Starfish, I’ll have you know...and there’s no need to be so rude...

Gina (threateningly): Mmmmm...I just love starfish...So, buddy, if you’re still hanging round here after our meeting, I’m going to have you for a snack...heh...heh...

Twiggy: Huh...for your sake, Gina, I hope he isn’t a Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, cos if his diadem sticks in your gullet, you could well be at sovereign risk...hee...hee...

[So, it’s obvious Tones and the three nasty miners are having a great laugh at Spongebob’s and Patrick’s expense. Eventually, they calm down and Spongebob gets a chance to tell them why he’s here.]

Tones:, Mr Krabs sent you...that’s fine, cos Krabby Shanners is one of our best spruikers...Make sure you tell him how keen I am to help my mining mates here out with their projects...

[Spongebob writes everything down, just in time to see Tony the red-coloured fish swim off with his entourage in the direction of the northern corner of Budgie Smugglers’ Bottom. The two friends jump in Patrick’s car and head off after them. Eventually, they reach their destination.]

Spongebob: Yeah, Patrick, this is the place – there’s Joe “Pufferfish” Hockey over there, ordering a few buckets of KFC...

[Spongebob looks around for Tones the reddish-coloured fish, but can only see a blue-coloured one talking to a group of fish-farmers that he again recognises from the photographs Mr Krabs showed him earlier. They include, Alan “Parrotfish” Jones, “Clammy” Campbell Newman, and Bob “Barracuda” Brown. He turns quizzically to Patrick.]

Spongebob: Hmmmm...this is strange, Patrick...there’s no sign of that reddish-coloured fish...I can only see that blue one over there who, strangely, looks almost identical to the red one...

[Spongebob and Patrick drive over and, to their utter amazement, as they eavesdrop on the conversation, discover that Tony the reddish-coloured fish from the southern corner of Budgie Smugglers’ Bottom is now Tony the blue-coloured fish here in the northern corner! He has ditched his hard-hat and is now kissing every creature in sight, just as he did at the fishmongers a few week’s ago. Alan “Parrotfish” Jones scornfully turns on Patrick.]

Alan: Hey, mate – either you’re grossly overweight or you’ve been inhaling too much of that coal-seam gas that’s found around here...But, if you two are 2GB listeners, you can have my autograph...If not, just bugger off – we’re talking to Tones here about his plans to get parliamentary support for banning those pesky miners from fracking our farmland...

[Again, but to the fish-farmers this time, Patrick has to explain why they are here. But, at the same time, he berates Alan for being so personally insulting and for using such bad language as ‘fracking’. “Barracuda” Bob comes to Spongebob’s rescue, however, by commenting favourably on the colour of his trademark shorts.]

Bob: Oh, the little sponge can’t be that bad, Alan – at least he’s wearing the right colour of shorts...heh...heh...

[Then, as the discussion unfolds between Tony the now-blue-coloured fish and the three fish-farmers, Spongebob, incredulously, scribbles down everything that Tones is saying to them.]

Tones: And...we’ll send all those greedy miners off to Nauru Atoll, where they can mine all the guano they want – if there’s any left by this stage...heh...heh...

[The fish-farmers are so enraptured with Tony the blue-coloured fish’s decision to support them against the evil miners, they allow him to give them more kisses than Osama Bin Laden got from his seventy-two virgins when he arrived at the Pearly Gates.

Then, suddenly, the lagoon-love-in is dramatically interrupted by the appearance, on the coral atoll, of two giant gum-boots. Spongebob reads out loud what it says, in indelible ink on the side of the brightly-coloured soles – “Tony Windsor”.

Immediately, an empty jam-jar appears and Tony the blue-coloured fish is captured. The jam-jar is pulled out of the water, much to the distress of the fish-farmers, who presume their champion has gone forever, to presumably be the prime exhibit in the fish-tank in Windsor’s electorate office.

However, within a few seconds, Tony the blue-coloured fish is plopped back into the water and meteorically disappears out to sea in a self-created brown haze.]

Patrick: Huh...shit happens...heh...heh...

Booming voice from above: Jeeze...don’t you just hate those crappy chameleon fish – they don’t know whether they’re Arthur or Martha...bloody weathervanes...

Spongebob: Erm...Patrick...I don’t think Mr Krabs is going to believe a word of this story...and even if he did, I don’t think he’ll print it any other ideas?

Patrick: Urrr...Yes, Spongebob, in fact I have...Remember that monastery we passed on the way in – I reckon Craig “Trappist Monkfish” Thomson is incarcerated in there after Julia “Red Empress” Gillard finished giving him the third degree...Let’s head over there and see if he’ll spill the beans...

Spongebob: Yeah...great idea, Patrick...And by the way, has anyone ever told you you’re a star...bahahahahaha...

The worst Opposition Leader in Australian political history

It really would be a one horse race if such a trophy were to be awarded. Tony Abbott would be so far in front it would be declared ‘no contest’. What is it that earns him such a dishonorable label? This piece puts together the pieces of this grotesque jigsaw, so grotesque that the prospect of Abbott becoming PM is abhorrent not just to Labor supporters, but to a significant proportion of Coalition supporters as evidenced by his relatively poor rating as preferred PM compared with the strong support for the Coalition in the same poll. Among those polled who want the Coalition, most prefer to not have its leader.

This piece sets out to support the contention that Tony Abbott is the worst Opposition Leader in Australian political history with evidence derived from his eighteen months in the job, and then compares his record with Opposition Leaders from past eras.

As predicted way back when he was elected to Leader of the Coalition in The pugilistic politician, he has been relentlessly pugilistic in his approach since unexpectedly being elevated to Leader. He has aggressively attacked Julia Gillard and her Government over and again, calling her election to prime ministership illegitimate and her Government illegitimate too. He has labeled her Government the worst in Australian political history. This piece returns that ‘compliment’!

We know that politics is a rough and tumble pursuit, and at times brutal. We know that oppositions are entitled to hold governments to account, but does that entitle them to behave like bare knuckle street brawlers, ready to viciously wield offensive weapons if fists won’t do? Is there no room for a modicum of decency, decorum and respect? Judging from Abbott’s behaviour such conduct is strictly restricted to motions of condolence. Even when addressing the same forum as the PM, no matter if this is a social event, Abbott cannot resist the sly, and sometimes not so sly dig, evoking the lame and totally insincere excuse: ‘the devil made me do it’, as he did when he recently took a poke at Kevin Rudd at such a social occasion. He’s very much a believer in the Catholic tradition of confessing ones sins and asking for forgiveness, a poor substitute for behaving properly in the first place.

My condemnation of Abbott comes in several categories:

He exhibits disproportionate aggression towards PM Gillard, and her senior ministers, and engenders the same in others. The inevitable consequence is vitriolic hatred.

One has only to watch Abbott’s face in QT and when he is in full flight with neck veins protruding and rage contorting his face to realize the anger and aggression in the man as he maliciously addresses questions to the PM. Her calmness in response angers him all the more. His pugilism is unbecoming in any potential leader.

If you need any reminding of Abbott’s parliamentary behaviour, take a look at this, yet another quasi censure motion.

How could the electorate choose the floridly aggressive Abbott over the calm Gillard?

This anger has been picked up and amplified by shock jocks like Alan Jones and those who appeared at the carbon tax rallies with their offensive placards that Abbott had as a background as he addressed the throng of angry people full of hate for Julia Gillard.

Cautioned against a repeat performance at the second rally, this is how Abbott urged the participants to ‘keep it civil’!

He couldn’t resist saying that he agreed with a lot of the placards but smilingly added: “some signs I don’t necessarily agree with”. ‘Don’t necessarily’ indeed!

Abbott’s aggression is not recent. In a 2004 article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Kerry-Anne Walsh and Candace Sutton about Abbott’s university days they wrote: "He was a very offensive, a particularly obnoxious sort of guy," said Barbie Schaffer, a Sydney teacher who was at Sydney University with Mr Abbott. He was very aggressive, particularly towards women and homosexuals".

Nothing has changed.

He is nasty. Reflect on the images of him addressing malicious questions in QT, his face contorted with anger, and at times rage when PM Gillard turns her back on his spitefulness. Is that gross degree of malevolence necessary in our political scene?

He is a nasty thug, just as he was in his university days.

Negativity and destructiveness
He is unremittingly negative about almost everything the Government proposes, and fights virtually every attempt of the Government to govern the country. He attempts to obstruct government at every turn. He is destructive. Paul Keating summed him up well: “Give me what I want or I’ll wreck the place”.

Abbott is a target for cartoonists with his No, No, No, to everything. He is determined to get what he wants no matter how much wreckage he leaves in his wake. He has no concern for the welfare of the country or how much destruction he spreads, or how much uncertainty and apprehension and fear he generates, so long as he gets his prize. He wants just one thing, prime ministership and will ruthlessly pursue that no matter what the cost to the nation. That is wholly reprehensible for someone who purports to be acting in the best interests of the nation.

Again, from the SMH article: “Published university reports show that after a narrow defeat in the university senate elections in 1976 - Mr Abbott's first year of an economics-law degree - he kicked in a glass panel door. In the ensuing two years, he was repeatedly accused in the university paper of being a right-wing thug and bully who used sexist and racist tactics to intimidate his opponents.” Has anything changed since then? Same man, same tactics!

Habitual lying
He lies. Every day he is out there distorting the known facts, omitting facts, cherry picking the facts that suit his case, and misrepresenting them. He is a bald-faced liar, yet has the temerity to build his case for another election solely on his assertion that Julia Gillard ‘lied’ to the public about the carbon tax. He lies daily, but insists PM Gillard and her Government ought to be thrown out on the basis of her one ‘lie’.

By his own admission we should not believe him unless what he says is written down, scripted. He has demonstrated the truth of that over and again. Although he shares bipartisan support with Labor for a 5% carbon mitigation target by 2020, he recently described that target as ‘crazy’ to an audience of pensioners. Since that is inconsistent with his own party’s policy, it is a lie, but few pull him up.

Recently on Alan Jones’ program he was drawn by Jones to taking the side of farmers against coal seam gas exploration by stating: "If you don't want something to happen on your land, you ought to have a right to say no" to it being accessed for gas exploration. But by the next day Abbott was telling miners in the West that he supports their rights for exploration. A Coalition spokesman came to his rescue claiming he was only ever talking about farmers' rights on 'prime agricultural land'. Even The Weekend Australian had a headline “Abbott wedged over mines”; wedged by his own lies.

He is opportunistic in the extreme. He doesn’t care what he says, and readily ‘clarifies’ any contradiction the next day as if nothing unusual had happened. If PM Gillard were to go through such contortions she would be condemned by all and sundry.

In response to Nick Minchin urging him to support good policy, in fact policy proposed by John Howard, Abbott stated that in a contest between policy and pragmatism, pragmatism would always win the day. In other words, principle always bows to pragmatism, to opportunism.

He changes position not occasionally, but often, sometimes on the one day, and sees no inconsistency in this. He will say to anyone or any group what he thinks will earn him support, and the opposite to others with the same intent – garnering votes, and often on the same day, richly earning him the ‘weathervane’ tag. And he does this shamelessly, almost thumbing his nose, with a smug smile on his face, at anyone who pulls him up. He is the epitome of hypocrisy.

If you need any reminding of his hypocrisy and weathervane attributes, look at this:

Time wasting
He wastes the time of the parliament with repeated censure motions, stupid questions and points of order in QT. He seems to care nothing about the cost to the nation of having 150 members of the House distracted from governing by his infantile shenanigans. The YouTube clip above of the Abbott motion to suspend standing orders shows this starkly in living colour.

He wastes the time of the media pack every day with his mindless stunts for the evening news: snuggling up to men in hard hats, driving trucks or front end loaders, riding horses, selling bananas, cutting meat or kissing fish. Everything he does subserves just one purpose – getting the keys to The Lodge.

Talks down the economy
He talks the economy down constantly. Consumer and business confidence is down for a number of reasons, many overseas, but some of it can be attributed directly to Abbott’s continual denigration of the economy, his talk of ever increasing prices, household costs and the costs of living, his prediction of massive job losses, whole industries going under and ghost towns, all resulting from a tax on carbon pollution by the big polluters.

Economically illiterate
He is illiterate at economics and bored with it. Worse still, he doesn’t give a damn about this grotesque deficiency in a would-be PM as shown most starkly in his budget reply speech and subsequent press conferences where he handballed the figures to Joe Hockey who in turn passed them onto the hapless Andrew Robb. He is only too willing to hand over financial responsibility to Joe Hockey who has shown by his recent utterances on the subject that he too is either illiterate, or worst still, deceitful in his presentation of financial information, or both. Paul Keating called Abbott an 'intellectual nobody'.

He is incompetent. Have you ever encountered an Opposition Leader so ill equipped for prime ministership? He has almost no policies, what he has exposed have been poorly articulated, inept and subject to change without notice, and he fobs off questions about his policies, plans and budgets with an airy wave of his hand and an assurance that we will be told well before the next election, despite the fact that he insists there must be one right away. He thumbs his nose at those who question him about this, and in turn he thumbs his nose at the electorate. We see his incompetence daily as he avoids the tough interviewers, sidles up to sycophantic shock jocks like Alan Jones, answers questions in press conferences and interviews superficially and often not at all using obfuscatory language, and walks away or becomes mute as soon as the going gets tough.

This attribute was most starkly exhibited in Abbott’s head-nodding encounter with Mark Riley over the ‘shit happens’ remark in Afghanistan.

A most telling indicator of his incompetence was his inability to negotiate an arrangement with the Independents to take over government, where he exposed to them his naked ambition to become PM at any cost – he would do anything they wanted to capture that prize. They saw through him, and contrasted his self-seeking approach with the sincere line of negotiation used by Julia Gillard. He lost.

Before anyone jumps on here and say I’ve said all this before, yes I have. I’ve written: What have we done to deserve an Opposition Leader like Tony Abbott? and If Tony Abbott were PM. Since Abbott repeats his condemnation of PM Gillard and her Government every day, often several times a day, so will I.

Is there any Opposition Leader who was worse? In my opinion, No! Let’s look at a few, beginning with the most recent.

Although many who comment here have little time for Malcolm Turnbull, especially after the disgraceful Grech affair, few would prefer Abbott. Only his party preferred Abbott, by one vote! And that was because of Turnbull’s advocacy for an ETS, which evoked bitter opposition from the climate skeptics that abound in the party room, along with some overt deniers. In my opinion, Turnbull was, and still is far the better man. Whatever downside he has, it could not match Abbott’s.

Brendan Nelson was not a success as Opposition Leader, harassed as he was from day one by Turnbull, who believed that he ought to have had the position. He was kind hearted enough, had difficulty simulating outrage, which comes so naturally to Abbott, and never succeeded in establishing himself before being struck down by Turnbull and an eager media bored by Nelson’s ordinariness. But he was not a nasty or aggressive man; he was simply naïve and ineffectual.

Kevin Rudd was a popular Opposition Leader. He was full of ideas for reform, fresh-faced, energetic, full of enthusiasm and articulate. The contrast with the aging incumbent was stark and politically potent. No matter what people now think about Rudd and his performance as PM, there would be few who could mount a convincing case that he was a worse Opposition Leader than Abbott, no matter how prejudiced.

Kim Beasley was a benign Opposition Leader in both his terms, universally liked as a decent man. Many would criticize him for not being aggressive enough in countering John Howard. He went along with Howard’s ‘Tampa’ escapade, declining to be ‘a carping opposition’. Had he become PM he would have been a decent one, but perhaps his lack of ‘mongrel’ would have been a drawback. Would anyone other than a blind Abbott sycophant believe he was worse than Abbott?

Mark Latham was a mixture. He started well and soon had John Howard on the back foot over parliamentary members’ superannuation. He had many good ideas that he wrote about in his first book, and kept up the pressure on Howard. But he turned out to be a loose cannon, shooting from the hip, notably with his off-the-cuff on air announcement in June 2004 that he would bring back the troops from Iraq by Christmas, a remark that earned him rebukes from US Defence, our own, and many commentators, particularly Paul Kelly who saw this as the beginning of the decline of his leadership. He was abrasive, sometimes pugilistic, often used bad language, and had a fractious relationship with his party members, labelled them in his Latham Diaries as dysfunctional and disloyal, and his campaign staff as non-communicative. He turned out to be an unpleasant man whose judgement was suspect, and in the end after failing to publically express sympathy at the Indonesian tsunami, and several bouts of pancreatitis, he had a giant dummy-spit, resigned and took himself out of the political scene. Despite his many defects, he comes nowhere near Abbott in disingenuousness, aggression, opportunism and plain nastiness. In fact most of his nastiness has emerged in recent times when he took an anti-Gillard, anti-Labor stance in reporting for Channel Nine during the 2010 election.

In my view Simon Crean was a good Opposition Leader, but was hounded from office by poor polling and an antagonistic media which heightened the growing discontent with him within the Labor Party until he was ‘tapped on the shoulder’ and resigned, becoming the first Labor leader not to take his party to an election. While in office he opposed Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War, but was unable to mount serious opposition to it against John Howard, determined as he was to go to war alongside George W Bush. Crean continues to fill a portfolio in the Gillard Government with distinction as Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government. He is always articulate and convincing. He seems to be well liked, and accepted by the regional communities. He certainly has none of the nastiness and naked aggression that Abbott exhibits every day.

To assess other Leaders of the Opposition we need to go back a long while to the days in opposition of John Howard (twice), Alexander Downer, John Hewson, Andrew Peacock (twice), Bill Hayden, Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.  

Any objective appraisal, no matter by whom, could scarcely paint a picture of these men more damning than the portrait Tony Abbott paints of himself every day for all to see – aggressive, nasty, unremittingly negative, destructive, habitually lying, opportunistic, time wasting, talking down the economy, economically illiterate and incompetent. There could scarcely be a more damning catalogue of unpleasant attributes than that.

Of course his supporters regard him as a great leader who has elevated the Coalition close to Government – anything else is purely incidental. Winning is all that counts – no matter how.

The worst Opposition Leader in Australian political history – and the winner, by a country mile, is: TONY ABBOTT.

Is this the man Australian needs or wants as its PM?

What do you think?


Two video clips were offered by contributors to this piece as evidence of Tony Abbott’s propensity for lying. Because of their potency, I add them here as a postscript.

The first is a YouTube clip titled Phoney Tony caught out that captures his infamous interview with Kerry O’Brien in May 2010 where he conceded that he does not always tell the truth, and that his word should be taken only if his message is written down – ‘scripted’. In the last few days though he has gone back on even his written word over ‘pairing’ arrangements in the House of Representatives. Nothing seems to be sacred to him; no lie is too gross for him.

To show that nothing in this man’s lying behaviour has changed since then, take a look at Lyndal Curtis’ interview of him on 25 August this year. Click on the link below:

Lyndal Curtis interview of Tony Abbott 25 August 2011 ABC News 24

Observe his demeanour and language. In a past era, his bearing would have been described as sly and slimy. I can’t think of more suitable words now. Can you?

Monster Mayhem

At one time, the plutocrat, Victor R Murdochstein, was very proud of the Monster he had created. Undoubtedly, It had served him well by opposing everything that would threaten his interests and moneymaking schemes.

But Victor has had an epiphany, or, the more cynical would say, realises his Monster has outlived Its usefulness and is now more a liability than an asset.

So, due to collusion between the Monster and many of Victor’s underlings he has decided to personally hunt down his malevolent Creation and eradicate It before Its nefarious practices pull down the very edifice of his long-established enterprise.

But, the Monster is not going to give in easily. It has a mind of Its own and is firmly galvanised in Its determination to carry on with Its wrecking career, in spite of Its disillusioned creator’s attempts to track It down and dismember It once and for all.

So, Victor’s odyssey to track down the Monster has now extended to the now-watery reaches of the Arctic Ocean, to the north of Canada and Alaska.

In that region, moreover, Captain Robert Walton has been plying his trade now for many years. He used to operate cargo ships on the Eastern Seaboard routes of North America until the radical changes in climate caused the ice to the north of the continent to melt. Today, even in wintertime, the now sub-tropical waters of the North-West Passage would make a tourist think they were dabbling their pinkies at the Copacabana.

So, Capt Walton now operates in the very lucrative NW Passage trade between St John’s, Newfoundland and Anchorage, Alaska. However, things have not been going so well up there lately. A spate of shipwrecking has been reported, which, due to climate change, cannot be explained by them hitting icebergs. Rumours abound about a marauding creature terrorising the region, some even saying it’s their aqueous equivalent of Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman.

This particular evening, Capt Walton is on the bridge of his cargo ship, just as the Sun is setting. Further out on the horizon, however, he notices a jet ski moving away at great speed. “Hmmm...funny that”, he mutters to his First Mate, “Sailor” Seamus. “That person on the jet ski seems very fact, he is the most horrible-looking individual I have ever clapped eyes on”.

Anyway, Capt Walton retires below deck for some chow, but, he has no sooner tied his linen napkin around his neck, ready to tuck into a nice big T-bone steak, when he gets a message from Seamus that some of the crew have just found the wreckage of what looks like a luxury yacht and fished a near-dead survivor out of the water. The message also informs him that the survivor is a well-known celebrity, so he better come quick.

Walton rushes upstairs and views the unfortunate wretch lying on his front with a crew member trying to push the sea-water out of his congested lungs. After a few moments, the man stirs somewhat, so he is turned over and given mouth-to-mouth. Walton can now see his face, and immediately recognises him as Victor R Murdochstein, the famous plutocrat.

The Captain orders some of the crew to carry the near-to-death Victor to his cabin, where at least he will be more comfortable. They do so, and retire, leaving Walton and Seamus alone with the virtually lifeless Victor. After a short while in the relative comfort of the Captain’s quarters, Victor begins to stir and show some signs of life. However, he still looks more dead than alive.

Walton: Easy, there, Mr Murdochstein...just rest yourself and tell us what happened when you get a bit of your strength back...

Victor (coughing): But...but...but...I don’t think I’ve got long to go...I can see a light and it’s calling me towards it...

Walton: There, there, old chap...just take it easy...Maybe you could summon up enough strength to tell us something of your story...

[Victor then begins a strange confession that is so blood curdling, it would make the Ba Ba Blacksheep nursery rhyme sound like the director’s cut of Joe Hockey’s first budget as Treasurer.]

Victor (weakly): was a long time ago...but I can remember the events of It’s creation like it was just yesterday...Before I created It, however, I had traversed the country-side searching for all the diabolical spare parts which I would require in It’s manufacture...First, I searched for a heart – I was looking for the blackest, most despicable cardiac organ I could find – to pump its evil blood around its disgusting mal-formed body...

[Whilst listening to the near-dead plutocrat’s recount of these strange events, Walton and Seamus have contrasting reactions to the old man’s fevered descriptions of the Monster’s genesis. For his part, Walton assumes that Murdochstein is delirious, having exhausted himself trying to stay afloat in the water.

Seamus, on the other hand, thinks there might be something to it all. After all, before running off to sea as a lad, he had been reared in a rural Irish setting, where tales of leprechauns and banshees were readily believed by the inhabitants of such a traditional society. And, to complement Seamus’ natural openness to things supernatural, he also has a typically disarming Irish sense of humour.]

Seamus: Well, speaking of disgusting hearts, Mr Murdochstein, our ship’s chef serves them up to us on a regular basis...He says they are fillet steaks, but we know he pilfers them from the offal cart at the Anchorage abattoir...heh...heh...

[Victor ignores Seamus’ flippancy and continues with his outrageous tale.]

Victor: So...I finally found the blackest heart imaginable, discarded in a wheelie-bin at the back of the tally-room in Bennelong in 2007...

Seamus: Yeah, now that you mention it, I remember the guy who owned that heart – the Beast of Bennelong they called him – I hope you got his eyebrows too – now they were scary!

[The dying plutocrat confirms that, indeed, he did acquire the eyebrows, and continues on with the mind-boggling story of the Daemon’s creation.]

Victor: And then I had to search for a brain for my Fiend...but, to be truthful, it wouldn’t have to be very big as It would never need to be very intelligent...So, I went along as an observer to the Nomination Contest for the Republican Party’s candidates for the next Presidential election and, whilst listening to a “speech” by a candidate from Wasilla, Alaska, and munching on a free packet of peanuts, I put one in my pocket, realising my search for a suitable brain was over.

To view the following YouTube clip, click the link below:

Seamus: I hope you got the glasses as well...hee...hee...

Victor: The next part of my Wretch’s anatomy I searched for was its backside...

Seamus: Ewww...that must have been a bit of a bummer...heh...heh...

Victor: Yes, I ended up having to travel to the morgue at Taronga Zoo for that one...The last remaining Black Bear in the whole world had been kept there for years and had finally passed away from old age...So I got the morgue people to chop up its carcass and give me the backside...

Seamus: So that’s how your Monster got its great big black hole, then! Wow!

Victor: I then started my search for legs for my Daemon...But, in the end, I had to be satisfied with only being able to find one...

Seamus: Oh, why was that?

Victor: Well, I paid an after-hours visit to the charnel-house at the Canberra WorkChoices Workhouse and came across the one-legged corpse of a Public Service inmate whose working conditions had been so bastardised, she died of malnutrition...

Seamus: Yuk! And what happened to her other leg?

Victor: Oh, she lost that to the Joe Hockey Public Service cuts, so my Monster has a prosthetic instead...

[Just then, due to his weakened state from being so long in the water, and from the exertions from telling his story, Victor coughs up more brine. But, in spite of looking like he is finally close to death’s door, he proceeds to unburden his conscience over his role in creating the Monster. He carries on with his outlandish tale.]

Victor: Next, I sought after a hard hind, so that my Creature would be able to withstand any attempts by rivals to stab him in the back...So, after a leadership spill, I rummaged through the bins at the rear of the Federal Liberal Party Headquarters and found the discarded carapace of a giant cockroach...

Seamus: Jeeze! If you got its eyes as well, your Monster sounds like its stark-staring mad...heh...heh...

[And on and on Victor went with his account of the creation of his Fiend. He related how the raked through the bins at the back of a barber’s shop and provided It with hair that was a combination of Donald Trump’s comb-over and Bronny’s bee-hive. And It was provided with the cancer-ridden lungs of the deceased Chairman of the SCAM (“Smoking Cures All Maladies”) Tobacco Co, who had, during the tenure of his office, contributed vast sums of money to the coffers of the Liberal Party.

Walton, however, is still sceptical and believes that Murdochstein, whilst close to death, is delirious and has imagined all this monster-creating claptrap.

Then, suddenly, Victor’s breathing starts to resemble a death rattle. Very quickly, his life expires and Walton pulls the sheet up over his face. He orders Seamus to go up to the communications room and inform the authorities of what has transpired. Meanwhile, Walton says a quiet prayer for the repose of the soul of the now-deceased plutocrat.

But, he is no sooner finished his spiritual supplication when the door to his cabin is thrust aggressively open. Walton, thinking it is Seamus returning, turns around to listen to his report. However, instead of seeing Seamus standing in the doorway, Walton witnesses an apparition of the most horrible, quasi-human form that could ever be imaged. He realises now that the Monster is real and has come here to kill the master that turned his back on It.]

Walton (stammering with fear):’re too late...there’s nothing more you can do to him...he’s already dead!

“It”: Yeah...shit happens...

[With this, the Monster turns on Its one heel and leaves. A few seconds later, looking out of one of his cabin’s portholes, Walton sees the Fiend jumping back on its ramshackle jet ski, which had been leaking fuel into the surrounding water. Then, with a tremendous burst of flame, the leaking fuel has somehow been set alight, engulfing the Monster and Its jet-ski in a conflagration which now resemble a funeral pyre.

Walton rushes up on deck but can do nothing for the Monster as the twisted frame of the jet ski and the charred corpse of the Creature are all that remain. Meanwhile, Seamus is nonchalantly leaning over the guardrail with what seems to be a smirk on his face.]

Seamus: Y’know something, my old mammy ironically used to say, “you live by the fags, you die by the fags”...These cigarettes, therefore, are a killer...I’ll have to give them up one day...heh...heh...

What is political leadership? Do you know?

Leadership is a recurring theme in political debate. It refuses to go away. It is a dependable subject for journalists wondering what to write about next and adds spice to any subject. Leadership means different things to different people, certainly to different journalists. Indeed, Alice in Wonderland-style the word ‘leadership’ means whatever they want it to mean: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean − neither more nor less." So is it with journalists.

D Mick Weir and I had a conversation about leadership on my last piece. He concluded; “I can't explain leadership to you but rest assured you will know it when you see it”, which reminded me of Robert Pirsig’s telling line in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "Quality is hard to define but you recognize it when you see it." Then in an opinion piece by Shaun Carney in the National Times of 13 August: Australia's best-kept secret: we're not doing too badly he began: “The curious thing about leadership is that it's hard to define but you know it when you see it.”

So here we go again about leadership. And it seems as mystifying a concept as ever. There have been several pieces about leadership on The Political Sword. I enjoyed reading them again before writing this piece. Instead of rehashing them, I will make passing reference only.

In February of this year, I wrote Leadership – what do the people want?  In it I referred to several pieces on the same subject.

One, a year ago, on 15 August, there was: The enigma of leadership, and on 21 November: What does Julia Gillard stand for, and a couple of weeks later for good measure: What does Tony Abbott stand for?  

There was another piece, back in June of last year that expressed my exasperation at the media’s seemingly insatiable but poorly argued demands for a set of attributes it expected in our nation’s political leaders. It was titled: The media’s specifications for an Australian PM.  

Time and again, the question of what constituted leadership and an admirable leader has been addressed. Reading over these pieces, we seem no closer now to consensus on what leadership is, than we did then. It seems that like ‘quality’, leadership is hard to define, but we feel we can recognize it when we see it. Can we? On the sporting field we can identify quality and leadership without being able to easily articulate our reasons. Does the same apply on the political field of play?

So instead of going over old ground, this piece will examine recent leaders in an attempt to tease out what constituted leadership in them, and the opposite.

His followers would rate John Howard as a great leader. His political longevity is partial testimony to this. Even his detractors would credit him with great persistence, determination and grit - some might label it stubbornness, in the face of adversity and defeat. 'Lazarus with a triple bypass' is how he described himself.

He could also be credited with being a reformer In that he brought in the GST, which history shows has been a very substantial reform.

He was a good communicator on talkback radio, which he made his special forum. This way he connected with the ‘vast majority of the electorate’ as he termed it; the ‘Howard battlers’ as the media labeled them. On TV he was sure of himself even if his detractors disagreed with him. It was only near the end that his confidence left him to reveal a tentative man beneath.

His determination was evident in the lead up to the Iraq war. Even the casual observer could see he was intent on taking Australia to war, although he insisted in public he was still considering his options. It was then that admiration of his determination turned to dismay at his lack of transparency.

Another aspect of his term was his willingness to go back on his promises, leading to his infamous quote about ‘core and non-core promises’, which led to the slow erosion of confidence in his word.

Another negative for him was his disingenuousness, which was manifest starkly in the ‘kids overboard’ incident, the truth of which he kept hidden from the public until after the 2001 election. ‘Honest John’ became a phrase of derision.

The final nail in his coffin seemed to be the length of his prime ministership. Even people previously enamoured of him stopped listening and believing.

So the positive attributes of determination, persistence, reformer, communicator and ‘battler’s friend’ were eroded by his discard of ‘non-core’ promises, his deceptiveness, his political longevity, and at the end loss of confidence and a listening electorate and public support.

Kevin Rudd began with strong electoral support. Almost as soon as he became Opposition Leader, his ratings began to rise and reached almost stratospheric levels at the height of his prime ministership. He seemed almost unassailable as the nation’s leader. Why? In the public’s eye he took on the aura of the fresh, energetic, enthusiastic young leader with new ideas and vision that contrasted sharply with the diminishing image of the older man. He was articulate, even if somewhat verbose and bureaucratic in his language. He was confident and assured.

Notwithstanding his status with the public, News Limited began a slow process of hacking away at him, at eroding confidence in him, and when he took ‘decisive action’ that kept Australia out of recession, it took to highlighting the negatives in the hurriedly rolled-out program of stimulus, so that few now give him and his core group credit for placing this nation in the best position of any of the developed nations. Instead the mantra of ‘waste and mismanagement’ comes to the public’s mind. This continual attack eroded confidence in the once-confident Rudd, something that eventually showed on TV and talkback as aggressive interviewers hammered him. The more eminent journalists insistently asked about Rudd’s narrative. Paul Kelly led the media pack with his usual gravitas; lesser journalists soon echoed his words. This assault fostered an impression of a directionless leader, never a good look.

An initial positive was his concern about climate change and his determination to do something about ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’. This inspired those worried about global warming, a substantial majority at the time. This was leadership directed towards a looming problem. And because it was such a positive for Rudd initially, it became the most serious negative when he postponed pursuit of his CPRS, an event that led the people to believe that he had abandoned a principle that he had previously elevated to lofty prominence. In the view of most commentators this was the beginning of the end for Rudd, even although we know now several other factors operated to bring about his spectacular downfall.

Kevin Rudd could be described as a ‘middle distance’ leader. At the height of his prowess he had the Australian people in the palm of his hand, and while that was so, discontent closer to home was obscured. Rudd had never been a factional man, and indeed flouted factional imperatives when he determined to appoint his own ministry contrary to the tradition of the Labor caucus doing so. He earned no friends then. As time went by stories emerged about his non-consultative and arrogant approach, his apparent disdain for ministers’ portfolio responsibilities, his belief that he had all the answers and was the smartest person in the room, which in an intellectual sense he probably was. This eroded support for him within his own party, but with public opinion of Rudd and his Government so high, they were content to go along for the ride, unappealing though it was for many of his ministers. But when that waned and the polls and focus groups began to give Rudd the thumbs down, they abandoned him with a ruthlessness rarely seen, even in the brutal game of politics. His ‘short distance’ leadership failed.

Although his international credentials were highly regarded initially his ‘long distance’ leadership turned out to be not as effective as predicted. The most spectacular international ‘failure’ for Rudd, his supporters and the nation turned out to be Copenhagen. So much hung on agreement there, that when this failed to live up to expectations, not only was Rudd crestfallen, so were his ministers, and the public was disappointed and disillusioned. Support for an emissions trading scheme began to erode and reached levels below a majority, and with it support for Rudd. Although Rudd can hardly be blamed for Copenhagen where he worked tirelessly for a good outcome, it has been viewed by most commentators and many of the public, as ‘his failure’.

So Rudd initially exhibited leadership qualities of youthful energy and enthusiasm, a well-articulated vision about how to address important problems like global warming, the promise of reforms to health, education, the tax and transfer system, IR, communications and infrastructure, and generated excitement and confidence in his ability and plans. For some, this get-up-and-go morphed into frenetic activity with too much unfinished business.

He exhibited strong and courageous leadership during the GFC, and showed great promise in tackling climate change with the Garnaut reviews, green and white papers, and a design for a CPRS, which he negotiated with Malcolm Turnbull, but which fell over when Tony Abbott toppled Turnbull. He made progress with health reform, but the initial mining tax failed because of inadequate consultation with the stakeholders who flexed their considerable muscles to defer it.

The negatives included not bringing his team behind him, not being able to deliver on his most important assurances, and most of all, in the face of poor opinion polls and focus group outcomes, abandoning his pledge to effectively tackle global warming.

Brendan Nelson was a Leader of the Opposition but briefly. He said: “Leadership is everything, whether of a political party, company or school. Vision, inspiration, character, judgment, temperament, humility, intellect and courage are just some of the qualities that will define our party's success.”

How well did he rate?

He was not high on vision or inspiration, but was very sincere and concerned about the welfare of the people, ex family doctor as he was. Some of his more dramatic performances in the house with cans of baked beans and lurid descriptions of a Tarago loaded with kids at the petrol pump, were over the top.

He was always vulnerable to the marauding Malcolm Turnbull who from the day Nelson was elected set about taking his job. Nelson lacked the political skills and party support to counter the erosion of Turnbull and soon succumbed. He was a good guy but naïve politically and no match for Turnbull.

Malcolm Turnbull looked like a leader from the outset – tall, good looking, urbane, successful and well heeled. When he spoke he sounded impressive, plausible and usually convincing. He seemed destined for prime ministership, and was soon rewarded by John Howard with a ministry.

Then it became clear that he was at his best only when advocating a cause in which he had his heart; when that was not so, he was less convincing, less believable. This has been a consistent feature. Remember how well he spoke about global warming and the need for action. Remember how his conviction caused him to cross the floor on emissions training. Reflect on how he now speaks on this subject although Coalition policy is opposed to an ETS. Contrast that with his relatively ineffective talk about the NBN, which Tony Abbott commissioned him to ‘demolish’. It seems obvious he has not got his heart in the demolition, is already saying nothing will be ‘dug up’ if the Coalition assumes government, and he is now talking about the high cost of reversing the NBN. Extrapolating from these observations, it seems that Turnbull’s capacity to lead rely on his being in control and able to call the shots. He excels at advocating his own ideas, but falls down when asked to advocate the ideas of others when he does not believe in them.

Anabell Crabb’s Quarterly Essay on Malcolm Turnbull aptly titled: Stop at Nothing, highlights a strength and a weakness of Turnbull. He takes risks and backs his judgement. He did this when he took on Kerry Packer, and the British Government in the Spycatcher case. But sooner or later this risky strategy was bound to fail as it did in the Godwin Grech episode. So sure was he that he had Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan on toast over the OzCar affair that he neglected to carry out due diligence, chanced his arm, laid down his cards with a flourish and found himself trumped by a fake email sent by a disturbed Coalition Treasury mole. His humiliation was complete and his reputation damaged. Had he succeeded in rolling Rudd and Swan with him, his own demise as Opposition Leader would likely have been avoided.

So we see in Turnbull a man with many leadership attributes. Presence, style, charisma, high intelligence, plausibility when arguing positions he owns and a principled approach to those positions, and a crash through or crash approach. His risk taking, his impetuosity and his ‘stop at nothing’ approach was his undoing, along with his adherence to a position on climate change different from that of the hard core conservatives among whom were many climate skeptics. He still looms in the background irritating the conservatives in the party, threatening to come back into leadership contentions. But because he has not developed a base of support in the party, somewhat like Rudd, he is unlikely to become leader again.

Is Tony Abbott a leader? In the sense that he has improved the position of the Coalition in the polls to the point where it almost took government on 2010, he is an accomplished leader of his party. The extent to which he leads the members of his parliamentary party is unclear. There are murmurings of lack of consultation, going off half cocked on policy issues and changing his position without notice, but as was the case with Rudd, support for him is poll generated – when they’re on a winner they will stick with him.

His many changes of position and his naked opportunism have earned him the weathervane tag. Events that have occurred after his recent return from overseas have underscored his ‘say anything to anybody and say the reverse the next day’ approach. A media that has afforded him much liberty is now noticing his inconsistency, his evasive approach to awkward questions and the paucity of his policies. This is not sound leadership. Nor is going around the country talking the economy down over the carbon tax, with threats of escalating living costs and fabricated images of massive loss of jobs, business failures and ghost towns, thereby contributing to the decline in business and consumer confidence and falling retail sales. Leadership is talking the economy up and giving people confidence.

Overwhelmingly, in place of vision and an inspirational narrative, we have seen a succession of short negative slogans, which on the face of it have been successful in elevating the Coalition in the polls. His ‘leadership’ has been characterized by unremitting pugilism, negativity, destructiveness and nastiness, all aided and abetted by a compliant media, a prominent part of which seems intent on ‘regime change’.

His leadership attributes seem sharply limited to his capacity to improve substantially the position of the Coalition, such that it would sweep to power were an election to be held now. But should that happen, Abbott’s capacity to lead this nation would be sorely tested, and his leadership attributes found seriously wanting.

Which brings us to Julia Gillard. What leadership attributes does she possess?

To believe the rhetoric that emanates daily from the Opposition and much of the MSM is to accept that Julia Gillard is an incompetent liar, a hopeless communicator and a poor dresser to boot, entirely undeserving of prime ministership, and therefore illegitimately occupying that post and The Lodge. She has no vision, no policies, no plans, and is entirely directionless. She ought to be forced from office by a fresh election before she ruins the country. One shock jock would have her ‘cast into the sea in a hessian bag’, with Bob Brown; others suggest assassination.

Where does the truth lie?

What is her vision for this nation? She has told us often enough. I’m tired of repeating it, so if you’re still uncertain, read What does Julia Gillard stand for? written last November, and in exasperation in June this year another piece: What Julia Gillard DOES stand for.  

She has repeatedly outlined her vision for employment, IR, education, the economy, review of the tax and transfer system, climate change, health, mental health, aged and disability care, asylum seeker policy, indigenous policy, and she has articulated a myriad of other visions, some announced in the winter break. It seems almost every few days some other initiative is announced, the practical manifestation of political vision. Compare that with the vision of Tony Abbott – a chalk and cheese contrast.

Some hark back to Chifley’s 1949 ‘Light on the Hill’ address, somehow longing for that heady rhetoric. But look at it again in What does Julia Gillard stand for, and you will see that she is reiterating that same message time and again. How often does she have to talk about the dignity and security of work and value of opportunity?

So let’s stop looking for her vision with blinkers on – she has vision enough for us all.

What about determination and the capacity to battle on in the face of adversity, an essential attribute for those in high political office. Is it not obvious every day that she has buckets of it? With Tony Abbott and his team firing at her every day, shock jocks abusing her, the media criticizing her relentlessly, often disingenuously, with heavy hitters in commerce and industry throwing tough rhetoric and millions of dollars in adverse advertising at her, what does she do? Shrink into a hole in the ground? No, she is out there day after day repeating her message, sticking to her guns, determined to bring in the reforms she has planned, and when these are frustrated, such as by the High Court over the Malaysian arrangement, she patiently waits for resolution. And when she runs into an immovable brick wall, such as she did over her ETS plans, she adapts, even retreats from a position that is no longer tenable, and does it another way. As she points out, the alternative was to just give up and do nothing. I expect some of you will want to remind us all that ‘she broke a promise’, that she is a liar, and that she therefore cannot be trusted on anything. Go ahead, but ask yourself what you do when you meet an immovable object in life. Do you keep smashing yourself into it or find a way around it. Only a fool would choose the former.

How well does PM Gillard communicate?

She has many critics. Some dislike her drawl, her ocker accent, her repetition of some phrases; indeed it amuses producers of the Riley Report and Insiders to play clips of the same phrase repeated in the many forums and interviews she does each day. What do they expect – a different phrase on every occasion? Yet if she were clever enough to do that they would be onto her for inconsistency or ‘mixed messages’. If only these producers, or better still their proprietors would grow up, and set aside their obsession with ‘infotainment’. Faint hope.

When she is matter-of-fact on serious occasions, she is ‘wooden’, and of course inappropriately dressed; when she is trying to connect with the people via TV, the adjective is ‘condescending’. She never seems to be able to satisfy her critics no matter how hard she tries.

Yet when she is engaged at close quarters she comes across as warm, humorous, with an infectious laugh, easy to talk to, and above all, genuine. She is a good ‘close up’ communicator; it is her ‘middle distance’ communications that cops so much criticism. If only she had Malcolm Turnbull’s dulcet tones. She can be grateful she is not afflicted with Tony Abbott’s raucous yet awkward laugh, and his nodding silence, which incidentally seem to attract little media attention.

Her long distance communication has turned out to be better than expected. She seems to have got on well with international dignitaries, despite her initial reticence.

Not getting her message across has been a constant criticism. There seems to be a deficiency in her media unit, which seems incapable of scripting clear messages that people can understand, but there is a caveat that applies here. It is difficult to transmit complexities simply, as any teacher knows. It is so much easier to convey simple, if disingenuous slogans, as Abbott does so effortlessly. To test my assertion, try creating a handful of easy-to-understand slogans that capture the complexity of an emissions trading scheme and all that flows from it. If you succeed, please post them in comments.

We have covered vision and what she stands for, determination and communication. Let’s quickly check Brendan Nelson’s other attributes for leaders: inspiration, character, judgment, temperament, humility, intellect and courage.

Is she able to inspire? If Chifley could inspire with his ‘Light on the Hill' address, why does not PM Gillard with her near identical words?

What of her character and temperament? Her character seems strong and her temperament possessed of equanimity. She certainly exhibits humility despite a formidable intellect that allows her to be across all aspects of her brief, and who could doubt her courage.

That is enough about Julia Gillard.

I need no more convincing about her suitability to be PM of this country, about her leadership attributes, and about her capacity to be a strong and successful leader of the nation.  I believe she is doing a great job; not perfect, but laudable.

Her detractors will scoff. They will scoff at me too for holding such a view. Let them.

Finally, I want to leave you with some insights that came from NormanK in the form of a comment on the last piece: The Convoluted Convey at 4.14 pm on 13 August. There is not room for all of what he said, so I hope he will post his comment of yesterday, or a version of it, on this piece.

He began with a comment about the first sentence of Shaun Carney's article in the National Times which read: "The curious thing about leadership is that it's hard to define but you know it when you see it." NormanK wrote:


"Two things. You know it when you see it when the leader is doing something of which you approve. If they embark on an endeavour, no matter how well thought-out and elucidated, with which you strongly disagree, how can you possibly attribute it to good leadership? Good leadership, as defined by each of our minds, means doing those things of which we approve even in the face of staunch opposition from naysayers who are not in our camp. Carping on about a lack of leadership says more about what the speaker wishes were happening than it does about the leaders themselves.

"Yes, there are examples of poor leadership. Gillard gave us a few during the latter half of 2010 but the Press Gallery seems unwilling to accept that perhaps this minority government, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, no longer fits the template the pundits constructed for them last year.

“The other important aspect of evaluating good or strong leadership is that it is done in hindsight."

NormanK goes on to elaborate with some telling examples. Do reflect upon his insights. Has he put his finger on the core reason why there are so many conflicting views on leadership, and in particular Julia Gillard’s leadership? Is it simply that she is not doing what her critics believe she ought to be?

So where do you stand on political leadership?  

What is political leadership in your book?

The Convoluted Convoy

It was believed by many that the reign of the evil witch-queen, Gillard, would be short-lived.

Hopes in this regard, however, were roundly dashed when the bitch escaped from the chaff bag and swam ashore.

Now, understandably, the peasants are revolting and demanding a new election or at least the reversal of the plan to introduce the dreaded big new gigantic CARBON TAX! BOO! HISS!

And so, the revolting people are making their voices heard by getting together a mighty Convoy that will descend upon Canberra from all parts of the realm. It is THE CONVOY OF NO CONFIDENCE! YEAH!

But, keen to strengthen their forces by seeking allies overseas, the revolting people have asked Cardinal Pell to put out some feelers in his networks. So, to help his friend Tony Abbott, the Cardinal, at a meeting of bishops in Rome, mentions the Convoy idea to that celebrated Irish Episcopal figure, Bishop Brennan. Yes, that Bishop Brennan. The one unfortunate enough to have the parish of Craggy Island in his diocese, with its misfit clerical cast of Frs Ted, Dougal and Jack, plus their loopy housekeeper, Mrs Doyle.

Fans of the quirky comedy will remember that Ted made a big mistake when he agreed to take up the dare of his great rival, Fr Dick Byrne, parish priest of the adjacent “Rugged Island”, to kick Bishop Brennan up the arse. Ever since then, Ted has schemed to get his own back on Dick, but to no avail. For Bishop Brennan, however, the ignominy of getting his arse kicked by a nincompoop such as Fr Ted was the last straw in what he regarded as a campaign of insubordination against his Episcopal authority. The bishop is now determined to get a bit of peace and quiet for a while. He readily volunteers to Cardinal Pell the shonky services of the three wacko Craggy Island priests, emphasising that they are Ireland’s version of the Tea Party and will even bring their own milk-float to join the Convey. Once George hears mention of Tea Party, he’s sold, and agrees immediately to the three wild colonial boys, and even wilder girl, to be transported forthwith.

Click the link to see the YouTube clip of Father Ted – Dougal becomes a milkman

Oh, and by the way readers, the local council on Craggy Island had recently brought in a carbon tax, which bankrupted the whole island’s economy, including the dairy where the late Pat Mustard worked. However, this didn’t worry Fr Jack, as he now had an excuse for pouring Guinness on his cornflakes. So, in a fire-sale, Ted bought a float that Pat himself used to drive, and this is the one they are bringing to Australia with them.

In due course, the Irish Tea Party boards the plane in Dublin, having supervised the loading of the milk-float into the hold of the aircraft. They are no sooner on board, however, when Fr Jack gets up to his usual antics and shouts, “GIRLS!” and “ARSE!”, every time he sees a hostess. And his additional constant refrain of “DRINK!” has them walked off their feet between the galley and his seat in cattle class. Initially he is a bit of a novelty but this soon wears off. By the time the plane is crossing the English Channel, the staff are hiding in the galley, wary of countenancing any further meetings with the inebriated cleric.

And, by the time the plane is nearing Sydney and flying very low, the cabin staff is at their wits end. A deputation has gone to the captain and he orders Jack to be clapped in irons. Then, back in the galley they discuss who will be allocated the death-defying task of getting close enough to Jack to get the hand-cuffs on him. Fortunately for Jack, however, Mrs Doyle had gone up to the galley again to get some more tea to serve to the passengers. She listens outside and sneaks back to warn Jack of his impending arrest.

Jack, however, has had experience of escaping from planes before. He moves to the back and finds two parachutes, one of which he puts on himself and the other on the newly-filled drinks trolley. He opens the emergency door, pushes out the trolley and leaps after it. Not long afterwards, Fr Jack’s description is being circulated across all police stations in the greater Sydney area. He is a wanted man.

Eventually, having disembarked into the chilly Australian winter air, Frs Ted and Dougal and Mrs Doyle set off at four miles per hour in their milk-float to join the Convoy, which is being led by Tony Abbott, somewhere to the south-west of Sydney. In regards to Fr Jack’s fate, however, Ted is rather philosophical. Dougal, in contrast, fears the worst.

Dougal: Ted! Do you think Fr Jack is in heaven, workin’ as a taster in the big brewery they have up there...or is he in hell, gettin’ bossed around by a load of nuns night and day?

Ted: Oh, I don’t think he’s in either of those two places, Dougal...In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see his jolly face coming towards us as we drive along these picturesque Australian streets...

[Then, a few moments later, and speaking of the devil, they hear plaintive cries coming from the leafy branches of a tree close-by. They look up, and there is Fr Jack, still in his parachute harness, swinging, déjà-vu-style, from one of the higher branches, trying futilely to get his grasping hands on the drinks trolley. They cut him down, give him a bottle of whiskey and hide him under the milk-float’s tarp, in case the cops see him.

A few kilometres down the road, parked in an off-road lay-by, the Irish Tea Party finally clamp their eyes on the Revolting People’s Convoy. And what a motley crew they appear to be. As mentioned, their leader has, in typical convoy-speak, dubbed himself, “Rubber Duck” Tony. His mode of transport is a steam locomotive. “Have you ever seen a wind-powered train?” he rhetorically asks his co-revolters. He plans to stoke his engine with copious amounts of coal, just to prove his point.

Following Tones, and again adopting one of those strange convoy “handles” (nicknames) is Barnaby “Creek in the Neck” Joyce, who is driving a brand-new four-wheel-drive, supplied courtesy of the very taxes he purports to hate.

Then comes Joe “Pig-out” Hockey in his pie-van, followed by Lord “Monkey Nuts” Monckton who, in keeping with his aristocratic pedigree, is driving the Australian State Coach.

And just ahead of the Irish Tea Party comes some other international guests – two Mormons on their push-bikes, who want to “bring Jesus back into Canberra!” They are busily swigging from their bottle of Everlasting Life Elixir, which serves the dual purpose of keeping their teeth perennially white and sparkling and ensuring their hair maintains its crew-cut style, which means they never have to visit the barbers.

And last, bringing up the rear, or “raking the leaves” in truckie-talk, is the Irish Tea Party in their milk-float.

So, everyone is champing at the bit to get the Convoy started and push on with the campaign to liberate Canberra from the evil lefties. However, a serious snag occurs which puts the leader, Rubber Ducky Tony out of the running. It seems that he had boasted to the local coal-merchant, a bit of a shyster as it turns out, that carbon is invisible. Realising then that there is indeed one born every minute, the coal merchant proceeded to sell to Rubber Ducky, 50 empty bags of coal. So, his steam engine is going nowhere.

Now, it’s over to Barnaby “Creek in the Neck” to step up to the plate and take over the leadership of the Convoy. However, in a misguided attempt to milk even further his celebrity status after writing off his taxpayer-provided four-wheel-drive earlier in the year in a swollen Queensland creek, Barnaby pulls another one of his stunts by rocking up wearing scuba gear. Unfortunately for him, it was a double stunt, as Creek in the Neck, in an attempt to prove that CO2 is harmless, had his tank filled with the stuff and had been busily sucking on it for the benefit of any media types who were around. By this stage, he is completely gaga and totally incapable of even leading a thirsty horse to drink at a swollen creek, never mind commanding the CONVOY OF NO CONFIDENCE. So, ominously, the Convoy hasn’t moved an inch, and its two leading lights have both succumbed to hubris.

However, never one to miss an opportunity to big-note himself, Joe “Pig-out” Hockey takes control and his pie-van starts to lead the others out onto the highway. Moreover, to help with communication between the members of the Convoy, they have all been issued with a CB radio.]

Pig-out: Okay, good buddies...let’s drop the hammer down...and don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for Gillard’s bears who are goin’ to be on the lookout for us...And if I spot any haemorrhoids with a polaroid up ahead, I’ll slow down so we don’t get a great big new speeding ticket from those rotten Carbon Cops...And don’t bumper sticker each other, good buddies, or we’ll have a fender y’all Julie?

[Incidentally readers, in Australian truckie-speak, they say, “do you Julie”, instead of, “do you copy?”

Fr Dougal, meanwhile, who is the Irish Tea Party’s designated milk-float driver, is going along at the break-neck speed of four miles an hour. However, after listening to Pig-out’s truckie vernacular on the CB radio, he is totally perplexed.]

Dougal: Ted! What’s he sayin’? I think he’s mad!

Ted: I agree,’d think we were in a foreign country, so you would...

[However, having to listen to Pig-out’s gibberish on the CB radio is the least of the worries being experienced by the Irish Tea Party. Mrs Doyle is weeping and wailing because the milk-float reminds her of her sadly-departed ex-lover, the randy milkman of Craggy Island, Pat Mustard. And Fr Jack has already drunk his bottle of whiskey and is vociferously shouting “Arse” and “Feck” at every passer-by. Also, Pig-out, in the faster vehicle, has stormed ahead and has left everyone else behind.

Eventually, however, the remaining participants in the Convoy – the milk-float, the Mormon cyclists, Monkey Nut’s State Coach and an assortment of other Revolting People in their camper-vans – notice that Pig-out has pulled into a lay-by up ahead. They follow in behind him, alight, and walk over to the van to put their orders in for morning tea. However, much to their collective dismay, Pig-out has scoffed all the pies, leaving none for anyone else. He is happily snoring away in the driver’s seat of the van. Mrs Doyle takes advantage of a captive audience to pour out cups of tea for everyone.]

Dougal: Ted! Did you see that, Ted? Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, isn’t it Ted?

Ted: It is, to be sure, Dougal...And I hear this fellow has got a reputation for coming up with great big black holes...After this carry-on, he’s surely got a great big black soul as well...heh...heh...Anyway, folks, we better get a move on and try to reach Canberra before the bottle-shops close, or Fr Jack will have a fit...

[So, the much depleted CONVOY OF NO CONFIDENCE rolls on and Monkey Nuts leads the way in the Australian State Coach. However, they have no sooner gone a few hundred metres up the road, when Smokeys’ sirens are heard and the Carbon Cops, in their new-fangled police-cars with the windmills on the roof, pull up in front of Monkey Nuts, forcing him to stop. Further back, Ted, who has just stuffed Fr Jack back under the tarp, to hide him from the Carbon Cops, can just about hear what’s being said. It is something about Monkey Nuts being under arrest for impersonating a Member of Parliament and stealing the family vehicle of some bloke called Billy Windsor and his sheila Kate Middleton.

As the Convoy has stopped, and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast, Ted takes advantage of all the inaction. Due to the copious cups of tea he has drunk, courtesy of Mrs Doyle, he needs to answer a call of nature, so heads off to find a tree to hide behind. This is Fr Jack’s big chance. He springs out from under the tarp, jumps out of the milk-float tray and bolts off down the road, in search of some more alcoholic sustenance.

Coincidentally, the two Mormons had also taken advantage of the break in proceedings and had cycled off to try and proselytise the inhabitants of a nearby mansion. However, they weren’t having much luck, as the occupant wouldn’t open the door and kept hollering out to them, “Go away! We have some already!” The silly buggers didn’t realise they were knocking on the door of Donny Osmond’s Australian holiday home!

Then, suddenly, as the two Mormons are trying to replenish their liquid intake from their hip-flasks of Everlasting Life Elixir, which will automatically maintain their clean-cut Mormon image, along comes Fr Jack, who assumes they have whiskey, or some other interesting, equally alcoholic, liquor therein.]

Fr Jack: Drink! Drink!

[The Mormons can’t believe this horrible apparition that has incarnated itself before them is human. Especially as the first assault on their senses is the smell. You see, Fr Jack hasn’t changed his clothes since he “graduated” from the seminary sixty years beforehand. One of the Mormons reaches into his pack-pack, fishes out a spare white shirt and black strides and chucks them at Jack.]

Mormon 1 (holding his nose): Hell, man, you don’t half stink...Here...change your clothes every once in a while, will ya...

[Jack grabs the proffered items of said clothing and, as it’s winter and he’s feeling a bit chilly, puts them on over his dishevelled and stained clerical garb.]

Jack: Drink! Drink!

Mormon 2: Oh, just go away, old man...the owners will never open the door and listen to our sermon with you hanging around...

[By this stage, Jack’s patience, of which he didn’t have much of in the first place, has run out. He grabs Mormon 2 in a squirrel grip.]

Fr Jack: Drink! Drink!

[Mormon 2 is too busy gasping for air to have enough wits about him to hand over the hip-flask of Everlasting Life Elixir. Jack assumes this lack of a positive response is, in truckie-talk, a definite “negatory”. He gives the squirrel grip a 45-degree twist with pike. This has the desired effect and Mormon 2, purple-faced, hands over the hip-flask. Mormon 1, fearing the same treatment, readily hands his over as well, and quickly helps the now-procreationally-challenged Mormon 2 onto his bike. They both cycle away as fast as their bicycle-clips can carry them. With a grin of satisfaction, Fr Jack thirstily proceeds to throw the contents of each hip-flask down his eager throat.

Meanwhile, Ted has come back from his call of nature and notices that Jack has escaped. He berates Dougal and would have done the same to Mrs Doyle, only she was, again, busily serving cups of tea to the Convoy of Revolting People.

Then, up ahead, he notices Monkey Nuts, in handcuffs, being thrown, unceremoniously, into the back of a solar-powered paddy-wagon.]

Chief Carbon Cop: Right you lot...move along...nothing to see here...go on home...your wives have got your supper ready...your Ovaltine’s getting cold...way past your nigh-nigh-time...

[All the Revolting People take the hint and, one by one, drive off in their camper-vans, back to their farms or senior citizens’ walled villages. The Chief Carbon Cop choofs Ted along also.]

Ted: be sure, to be sure, Officer...We’ll just gather up the cups and saucers first, give them a quick wash and we’ll be off too...

Chief Carbon Cop: Yes, make sure you do, padre...When we drive past again in a while, we don’t want to see any of you old fools hanging around here any longer...

[The Carbon Cops get into their environmentally-kosher vehicles and speed off, leaving Ted, Dougal and Mrs Doyle standing there forlornly, wondering if they’ll meet up again, on this visit to Australia, with any of their Revolting People friends. Then, Dougal breaks the silence.]

Dougal: Ted! That man called me old! I think he’s mad!

Mrs Doyle: Oh, don’t you worry your heads about that...Cup of tea, Fathers?

Ted: Yeah...might as well, Mrs Doyle...It’ll help us concentrate, as we think about how we can turn this holiday around, considering all our new “friends” have gone home and didn’t even give us their addresses so we could drop in and visit them...I’m not very impressed with their hospitality, I’ll have you know...

[Suddenly, walking down the road toward them, they spot another one of those white-teethed, crew-cut Mormons approaching.]

Ted (whispering): Pssttt...listen...if he tries to convert us, just ignore him...tell him we’ve got one already...

Mormon: Drink! Drink! Feck! Arse! Girls!

Dougal: Yippee! It’s Fr Jack! He’s back...

[In his usual vocal style of grunts coupled with a few illustrative hand gestures, and to the great amusement of the rest of the Irish Tea Party, Fr Jack relates how he “convinced” the Mormons to hand over their hip-flasks.]

Ted: Yes, very good, Fr Jack...Now, this gives me an idea...I think we’re just about to spend the next leg of our holiday where the real Tea Party hangs out...And Fr Jack will be able to open a few more doors for us over there... And then it’s back to Craggy Island where I know what sort of dare I’ll be putting up to Fr Dick Byrne...If Bishop Brennan transported us for a few weeks to New South Wales for kicking him up the arse, for what I’m going to dare Dick to do, he’ll get a sentence for the term of his natural life...hee...hee...But, for now... Salt Lake City, here we come...yee...ha...


Does the media reflect public opinion, or create it?

The media is fond of insisting that its reporting reflects public opinion, what the people think and what they want. It rejects the notion that it creates public opinion, but might reluctantly concede it influences it. That it attempts to do so is undeniable. Its opinion pieces and commentary clearly express views that it hopes readers will back, and at election time it often endorses one side.

The thrust of this piece is that the media, particularly some sections of it, does set out to create public opinion, certainly to profoundly influence it, rather than simply reflect it as any proficient media outlet ought to do. Some do this in pursuit of a commercial agenda – to sell newspapers and attract viewers and listeners – but others have another deliberate agenda: to have their audiences embrace the same beliefs, attitudes and preferences that they have adopted. This might be relatively harmless in some spheres, but in political arenas it is tantamount to manipulation and indoctrination. We have seen, and are even more alarmingly seeing this in the political media in Australia where the agenda and intent of some outlets, notably the Murdoch stable and its flagship The Australian, is now overt and the subject of much concerned comment in both the Fourth and the Fifth Estates.

The ‘reflect versus create opinion’ debate has been going on for eons. I can recall that in the days of the rabid scandal sheets – the Melbourne tabloid The Truth was an example – those who asked why the paper offered such salacious material were told that this was what its readers wanted. Which of course was true; people bought the rag and kept it going for years. But the question that was never addressed by the paper was “How did the readers come to seek and enjoy the scandals and flesh the paper thrived upon?”

There is little doubt that many folk enjoy reading about scandals, especially among the wealthy, the powerful and the celebrities. It seems almost an innate desire in many people. But can it be argued that that desire demands feeding via the media? If the media decided to omit such material, would it go out of business? The survival for countless years of broadsheets such as The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, none of which rely on salacious material, suggests that it is not essential for survival. Yet we have Murdoch tabloids here that while not flagrantly using grossly scandalous material such as has the News of the World, they do use a sensationalist approach to attract readers, which at the very same time must influence public thinking and attitudes.

A talkback caller to ABC 774 Melbourne radio, who said he had worked for the media for many years, insisted that the media was not in the game of transmitting information but ‘emotion’, as emotion is what sells newspapers. He went on to say that if newspapers transmitted information instead of emotion the papers would remain on the newsstand.

We all know emotion can influence public opinion more than can facts, which is why media outlets dress up their stories with it – scandal, outrage and protest, while relegating the facts to the background.

Since Christine Nixon’s newly-released book Fair Cop is currently in the news, let’s look at Claire Harvey’s leading paragraphs in a piece in The Daily Telegraph back in April 2010 titled: Christine Nixon: what the backlash is really all about, which was about Nixon absenting herself from her office for 75 minutes to take a meal at a local pub with friends during the height of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, something she now freely admits was an error:

“Shoving a piece of cake into her mouth. Talking about food. Walking uncomfortably along a corridor, looking big and ungainly.

“These are all the images that have been presented of Christine Nixon this week, on television and in newspapers. Some of the images are months, or years, old.

“They are being republished because Nixon, the NSW copper who became Victorian Police Commissioner, has admitted that on the night of Black Saturday, the devastating 2009 Victorian bushfires that killed 173 people, she spent an hour at a pub, dining with friends.

“But there's another reason for the use of these old images, and it is the subtle theme beneath career-long coverage of Nixon, who is now chair of the Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority.

“Christine Nixon is overweight. She is curvy, Rubenesque, substantial, big-boned. She is fat.”

“In the eyes of the Australian commentariat, that is her defining quality. No matter what Nixon achieves in her life, she will never transcend her own shape. Her weight will always be remarked upon. She will always be the fat sheila - just like every other fat sheila in public life.”

Even just a few days ago Herald Sun headlines included:
Christine Nixon failed us all
Nixon still on the hunt for excuses
Christine Nixon’s claims under fire

Clearly, the emotion and outrage of these papers and their journalists are dominant. The facts are simply a vehicle for expressing outrage, and it is the outrage that influences public opinion. A headline that simply said: ‘Nixon works 20 hours straight during fires’ and as a byline: ‘Took a 75 minute evening meal break at a local restaurant’, would be accurate, but light on emotion. I can see readers smiling at the improbability of ever seeing such a headline.

So here are two Murdoch tabloids creating public opinion, or at the very least strongly reinforcing the view that Nixon should have not left her post. These papers would argue that people were upset at her actions, and that they were merely reflecting that, but who believes that the flagrant use of pejorative language and unflattering images did not inflame readers’ emotions? A more balanced and unemotional write-up could have defused public anger, but instead the papers chose to do the opposite – to kindle it and create even more anger.

The media does create public opinion, no matter how loudly it protests to the contrary.

Lindsay Tanner, in his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, starts chapter four, whimsically titled “Shattered Media Slammed in Scandal” (by the way written well before the recent News International phone hacking scandal) with these words: “The distortion of reality in the media’s coverage of politics involves much more than misuse of content. Language and visual images are routinely manipulated to add excitement to stories. In the process, the content is further distorted, often to such a degree that the original material can barely be recognized. The tone and language of Australia’s media coverage of politics is invariably characterized by hyperbole.”

He quotes British journalist Peter Riddell: “The coverage of most papers lacks depth and context, as well as being squeezed in size. Personality differences are exaggerated, every dispute becomes a split, every small shift in position becomes a humiliating climb-down…There is little consistency in follow-up…”

Later on Tanner says: “Standard nouns used by political journalists include ‘fiasco’, ‘turmoil’, ‘scandal’, ‘crisis’, ‘chaos’, ‘outcry’, ‘row’, ‘disarray’, ‘backflip’, and ‘backdown’. Common adjectives include ’shattering’, ‘seething’ and ‘humiliating’. Verbs used regularly include ‘bickering’, ‘squabbling’, ‘lashing out’, and ‘slammed’. In the great majority of cases, the use of these rather extreme terms is not justified by the substance that lies beneath them – they create an extremely distorted image of the content being reported. In fact, I believe that the routine misuse of language in the media is one of the main reasons that the practice of politics has fallen into disrepute.”

I quote these parts of Tanner’s book to reinforce the thrust of this piece: that the media does profoundly influence public opinion; indeed it creates it.

In the August issue of The Monthly, an article by Sally Neighbour titled: The United States of Chris Mitchell - The Power of Rupert Murdoch and The Australian’s Editor-In-Chief says this, inter alia: “The biggest story in politics at the moment is the relationship between News Limited and the government,” a veteran Canberra-watcher says. According to a News Limited insider, “Mitchell has inculcated a view [at the newspaper] that they are there not only to critique and oversee the government, [but also that] it is their role to dictate policy shifts, that they are the true Opposition.”

Can this be interpreted as anything other than unashamed political manipulation by the media?

Later in Neighbour’s piece: “Chris Mitchell once told a colleague, “You have to understand – this is a dictatorship and I am the dictator.”

And later still: “It is Chris’s newspaper,” agrees editor Clive Mathieson, who took the role in April when Paul Whittaker moved to the Daily Telegraph. “Chris quite clearly sets the direction of the paper. There’s very little ambiguity in what he expects. A suggestion from Chris is not really a suggestion, a suggestion from Chris is really an instruction.”

“The view that it’s “Chris’s paper” is echoed by John Hartigan, chief executive of News Limited. “With good editors, the newspaper is almost a mirror on their own personality. It reflects their own values. You can form a very strong picture of them simply by reading the newspaper.” Talk to Mitchell’s colleagues and it’s clear he inspires an intense tribal loyalty among many of them.”

“It’s a remarkable newsroom to work in under him because there’s so much energy about it,” says [Deputy Editor Michelle] Gunn. “It’s having stories that the nation talks about – that’s how you measure your success, the number of stories you break and the influence those stories have. And that’s the mark of his success. It’s intoxicating.”

“His critics enjoy saying the Australian is like a cult and Mitchell surrounds himself with yes-men. It’s truer to say he surrounds himself with talented, dedicated journalists who either share or are willing to reflect his vision for the paper and work their guts out for it, while the others leave, are ignored, frozen out or languish on the back pages.

“If he likes you there’s no nicer place to be than at the Australian,” says one. “If he doesn’t like you it can be a very lonely place.”

So here we have one man, a newspaper editor, unelected, wielding enormous power, influencing and indeed creating public opinion that aligns with his own through his editorial pages and his columnists who slavishly offer him ‘tribal loyalty’. How can this be so? Ask Rupert Murdoch.

We have seen this power in action from the moment Mitchell decided to harass the Government. His paper relentlessly attacked the HIP, highlighting its administrative deficiencies and of course the ceiling fires and deaths, but never mentioning the value to householders and the environment of insulating a million ceilings; he set up a special section in The Australian to publicize complaints about the BER, yet even when there was a positive ANAO Report and three Orgill Reports showed over 97% satisfaction, all his paper focused on was the 2.7% that had a complaint and the instances of ‘waste and mismanagement’. That was ‘the story’, not the employment of thousands of builders kept out of unemployment, the small businesses that avoided closure, and the thousands of school buildings that now grace our schools. Mitchell’s approach was unremittingly negative throughout. He has now turned his sights on the NBN, the carbon tax and the MRRT. Is it any wonder he and his paper are accused of promoting ‘regime change’, something he and John Hartigan implausibly deny? In fact Hartigan asserts that the reason for the assault by News Limited on the Government is that “it is unpopular and down in the polls”, a state of affairs his papers have been prominent in creating.

Here’s another slant from Tanner’s book where he quotes media researcher John McManus who “…cites four basic rules of television news: prefer images, employ emotion above analysis, exaggerate, and avoid extensive news gathering.” Can you believe that TV news and current affairs outlets ‘avoid extensive news gathering’? If we are not already aware of this, we had better get used to this grotesque notion.

Does any of this take you back to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four?

Later Tanner quotes Robert MacNeil, a former executive editor and anchor man of a major US TV news show: “The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement … (assuming) that bite sized is best, complexity is to be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal presentation is an anachronism.”

Julia Gillard has been repeatedly criticized for not getting her message across, for not ‘cutting through’, yet what she is needing to transmit is the essence of complex matters – reforms such as a price on carbon, the MRRT, the NBN, health reform and so on, issues that cannot readily be reduced to images and a few snappy phrases, while Tony Abbott can spread his negative messages with just a few words and phrases – “No, No, No, toxic tax, ghost towns, industries wiped out, unemployment and ruin, all because of an incompetent wasteful government”. What hope does she have of informing the electorate about her intentions when the media is geared to do just the opposite – not inform, avoid complexity, foster antagonism and anger, and promote conflict by quoting Abbott’s slogans over and again in a winners/losers contest that becomes the real story in the media?

Later in this chapter Tanner reports: “…a study of thousands of individual items in the British and American media that revealed that the overwhelming bulk of the portrayal of anonymous public opinion in the media is in fact a reflection of journalists’ opinions. Phrases like ‘some people say’ are usually code for the individual journalist’s friends or peer group. Typically, such groups are not representative of society at large.”

Tanner goes on to talk about content distortion being critically influenced by story selection, and that a common and important source of distortion is omission, which is much harder to detect than other forms of distortion. We see this over and again. He quotes Laura Tingle as saying that “...writing a news story doesn’t mean just listing a number of facts, but making judgements about the context in which readers should consider these facts”. Again, how often are we given the context of a story?

Instead we are presented with the words journalists prefer to transmit their own and their peer group’s views, using a minimum of facts, little complexity, virtually no context and little reasoning, but lots of ‘he says, she says’, images, conflict and intrigue, all designed to create and manipulate our views so that they align with their own.

I could go on quoting supporting comments from Tanner’s perspicacious book, but instead will conclude by reference to the way opinion polls and focus group polling is used to create rather than reflect public opinion. Of course pollsters would protest to the contrary, insisting that they reflect public opinion accurately, within the limits of polling. For good pollsters that might be so, but the less careful ones can create opinion via their methodology, for example by asking for opinions on issues before voting intentions. By asking first: ‘Are you in favour of the proposed carbon tax’, subsequent questions are contaminated.

But even good pollsters seem reluctant to concede that one poll feeds into the next, especially now that there are polls of one sort or another almost every day, and much shrill publicity afforded to the major ones via every media outlet. People who do not spend their days analyzing and reflecting on political matters, like many who visit here do, are bound to be influenced by what they hear and see in the media about the latest poll results. On the days of major polls there is media saturation of the results from late the night before through the entire day until late. Along with the voting intentions are the ratings of the leaders and who is preferred as PM, even throwing in some names other than the leaders. Convince me that this does not influence how people will direct their opinions next time a pollster calls. And since landlines are the preferred technology, to what extent does that bias the result against the opinion of mobile-only users?

In my view, frequent polls bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the polls are loudly screaming one way, surely that must induce a similar response in subsequent polls. In other words one poll creates or predicts the result of the next. It follows that polling trends are like a large ship – the momentum takes a long while to reverse. Yet each poll is reported as if it carries a unique message – a further dip spells more pain for the victim, a small rise a glimmer of hope. Yet although statisticians warn about ‘margins of error’ that result from sample size, and the danger of reading too much into any one poll, and particularly small changes, the media sensationalizes every change, particularly if they reflect badly on the side that the media does not favour.

Polls create as well as reflect public opinion, as do the results of focus groups. Have you noticed how headlines in the Murdoch media adverse to the Government often precede the Tuesday Newspoll? Then The Australian uses the results to justify its persistent denigration of the Gillard Government on the grounds that the polls show that it is down and deeply unpopular. Talk about a circular argument!

This piece could be twice as long as there is abundant evidence and a plethora of studies, quotes and opinions that the media always has, but more than ever does create public opinion, rather than simply reflecting it. The more it creates opinion, the more individual journalists, editors and media proprietors call the tune, the further civilized societies slide towards rule by the powerful media barons, the more we are manipulated in Orwellian fashion towards conformity with the views, desires and malicious intent of the media dictators. This is serious.

We in the Fifth Estate have but a small voice, but if enough of us cry out often enough, persistently enough and fervently enough, we will be heard. It is not too late to reverse the pernicious influence of a malevolent media. Our survival as a democracy depends on persuading the media to return to its rightful role – informing the public with all the verifiable facts and well-reasoned conclusions and opinions based on them, rather than the pursuit of a pre-determined and too often individualistic agenda that seeks domination.

Does the media create opinion? Should it? What do you think?

Ol’ King Coal isn’t a merry ol’ soul

The Coalition corner-shop hasn’t been travelling too well over the last number of years.

In fact, it has been on a downhill slide since Grandpa Johnnie got evicted and the lease was briefly taken over by Cousin Brendan.

Brendan’s proprietorship, however, didn’t last that long before his adolescent cousin, “Granville” Turnbull, took over, only for him in turn to be ousted by his Uncle Tony “Arkwright” Abbott. Arkwright, however, wants to keep WorkChoices alive and well, so he keeps Granville on as a very badly-paid and over-worked errand-boy.

So, to stay in business, the Coalition corner-shop has to stay “Open All Hours”.

Also, the rivalry between “Arkwright” Abbott’s corner-shop and the one managed by Julia “Grocer” Gillard, is as fierce as ever. Both, however, in their attempts at market penetration, have adopted different strategies.

For her part, Julia and her staff have invested in acquiring lots of inexpensive, environmentally-friendly stock, supplemented with making available to customers plenty of pre-loved, recycled items, many of which are sold below cost. Furthermore, to cover the losses incurred on these goods, Julia has imposed a surcharge on other items, that is those which are produced from materials that are not as conducive to the health of the environment.

Arkwright’s shop, however, is a different kettle if fish. In fact, his stock is mainly comprised of coal. As well as being a great believer in the stuff, he got a load off the back of a lorry and is keen to make some money on it, to help pay off his enormous mortgage.

So, the number of customers making their way to Arkwright’s door has dwindled to a rusted-on trickle. To drum up support, however, Arkwright has held a few press conferences but even they were a bit of a fizzer, as the journalists walked out, due to their impatience with him taking too long to get his answers out.

Then, one day in particular, Arkwright and Granville are trying to kill time in the shop. The brief highlight of Arkwright’s day is soon to be quickly over, however, as he ogles Bronny “Nurse Gladys Emmanuel” Bishop getting into her little car. Meanwhile, Granville is trying to negotiate around the many bags of coal cluttering up the floor he is trying to sweep.

Granville: Jeeze, Uncle...what’s the story with all these bags of coal? Bloody Newcastle, like Whyalla, must be a ghost-town at the rate you’re taking it off them...

Arkwright: Wuh-well, Greh-Granville...its my c-civic duty to promote the cuh-cause of cuh-coal...If Gih-Gillard gih-gets her wuh-way, we’ll all be sha-shafted like t-that bruh-brush you hah-have in your huh-hands...

[Suddenly, the door opens and a customer enters the shop. Granville and Arkwright are so shocked to hear the bell ring, they stand there transfixed. The customer is none other than Lord Monckton, who is coughing and spluttering with the dreaded lurgy. However, just as Arkwright is beginning to bow and scrape to his high n’ mightiness, in such an obsequious fashion that would make Basil Fawlty’s fawning look like Ned Kelly delivering his Jerilderie Address, Lord Monckton holds court.]

Monkey: I say there, old there anyone home or are you two blighters going to stand there all day with your mouths open like two damn stunned mullets...And, by the way, there’s a dreadful smell in here...

Granville: Oh, and talking of stunned mullets, that’s just the smell of the rotten fish we can’t sell...Ever since Uncle Arkwright got the local rag to take a picture of him kissing them, nobody wants to buy them...hee...hee...

Arkwright: Oh, very droh-droll, Grah-Granville...Buh-but he who lah-laughs last lah-laughs best, cos I’ve suh-sold them to Duh-David Buh-Bushby for his t-t-tea and he’s cuh-coming in later to cuh-collect them...heh...heh...

Monkey: Well, be that as it may, my man, I’m suffering from a dreadful cold, so do you have any lemsips?

[Arkwright, having just failed miserably at getting Granville to go out to the back yard and plant his broom so that it will capture some carbon coal-dust, direct-action-style, reaches round to grab a packet of the aforesaid medication off the shelf. However, the bolshie Granville pipes up.]

Granville: Hey, wait a minute...I thought you had it on your CV that you had discovered the cure for the common cold! So why are you in here buying lemsips?

Monkey: Oh, that’s the common cold I discovered the cure for, my boy...aristocrats like moi suffer from a far better breed of germ...

[Granville and Arkwright look at each other, mutually wondering which planet this one comes from. However, never one to miss a sale, Arkwright tells Lord Monckton the packet of lemsips will cost him five quid.]

Monkey: Oh, and I think I’ll have a bag of coal as well, old boy...we have to fight the good fight against those Greenie renewables-mongers, now don’t we...heh...heh...

[So, Lord Monckton places a five-pound note on the counter, puts the lemsips in his pocket, grabs a bag of coal, and turns to exit the shop. Arkwright, for his part, is totally exasperated.]

Arkwright: Buh-buh-but...wha-what ah-ah-about peh-peh-paying for the cuh-cuh-coal as well...

[Unfortunately for Arkwright, however, and due to his stammer, Lord Monckton hasn’t time to listen any further and leaves the shop, with the unpaid-for bag of coal under his arm. Meanwhile, Granville is cracking up at his uncle’s predicament.

Then, almost immediately, the door opens again and in walks Declan Stephenson, who looks like he means business. Decko strides angrily up to Arkwright, who is still standing, open-mouthed, behind the counter.]

Decko: Right, you...I’m in a hurry here...I’ve got a bit stalking and intimidating to I want three trays of your stalest rock-cakes...

Granville: Erm...what exactly do you want so many stale rock-cakes for, Decko?

Decko: Why, I want to stone that witch,’s about time she got her comeuppance...

Granville (patronisingly): Erm...Decko...we learned in History the other day that witches were actually burned, not stoned...

[At such a slight on his intellectual capacities, Decko grabs Granville by the front of his pullover, bringing his petrified face right up to his own.]

Decko (very menacingly): Look, sunny Jim...why don’t you just go back to your homework and, by the way, just skip the science part – it’s all a load of bollocks anyway...haw...haw...

[By this stage, Arkwright, at the prospect of selling his three-week-old trays of rock-cakes, and encouraged by Decko’s affirmation of the worthlessness of scientific endeavours, perks up and informs Decko that he can have the cakes for five quid.]

Decko: Righto...and I’ll have a packet of TAMs as well, Arkwright...

[Arkwright reaches round and grabs a packet of Tim Tams off the shelf and places them on the counter, stammering that it will be ten quid in total.]

Decko (peeved): No, not Tim Tams, you idiot! I asked for a packet of TAMs!

[Arkwright hasn’t got a clue what Decko is on about, and merely stares back blankly, nodding his head like he does when Mark Riley comes in to buy some chook manure. Eventually, Granville breaks the ice.]

Granville (sheepishly): Erm...Uncle...I think Decko wants a packet of macadamias...Y’see, ever since you went for a mid-winter dip in Port Phillip Bay, I’ve been telling the customers that they’re called TAMs – Tiny Arkwright Macadamias...hee..hee...

[Granville and Decko have a great laugh at Arkwright’s expense, but the latter takes it all in his stride, as he is only too glad to make another couple of sales. However, he gets his own back on Decko by charging him five quid for the mangy packet of nuts. Decko places ten quid, five for the nuts and five for the rock cakes, on the counter. But, just like before with Lord Monckton, Decko grabs a bag of coal as well, and exits the shop.]

Arkwright: Buh-buh-but...wha-what ah-ah-about peh-peh-paying for the cuh-cuh-coal as well...

[Granville is wetting himself at Arkwright’s discomfiture. Then, the door opens and in walks Alan Jones.]

Jonesie: Right, Arkwright...those chaff bags you sold me yesterday are too small – have you got any bigger ones?

Granville: Erm...what did you want the chaff bags for anyway, Jonesie?

Jonesie: Why, to put Gillard in, of course...But, the ones Arkwright here sold me are, as I said, too small...I know her honk’s big, but these teensie-weensie ones wouldn’t even start to suffice as a nose-bag for her...heh...heh...

[Arkwright, with his broad background in People Skills, sees immediately an opportunity to use some psychology on Jonesie, and make a sale.]

Arkwright: Wuh-wuh-why, J-Jonesie...wuh-wuh-why don’t you juh-juh-just puh-puh-purchase a b-b-bag of cuh-cuh-coal? Yu-yu-you can do suh-suh-something about gluh-global cooling, and, at the seh-same time, ple-ple-plonk Gih-Gih-Gillard in the eh-eh-empty che-che-chaff bag when you’re duh-duh-done!

[Jonesie looks at Arkwright, then at the bags of coal and, immediately, stuffs one under each arm and walks out, just like the others, without paying.]

Arkwright: Buh-buh-but...wha-what a-a-about peh-peh-paying for the cuh-cuh-coal...

[Anyway, all day this goes on. Each rusted-on customer who walks in, leaves with a bag or two of coal. And no-body attempts to pass on any of the folding stuff to Arkwright in recompense. He is totally distraught and facing the prospect of not being able to meet the next payment on his onerous mortgage. For his part, Granville is sick to the back teeth of Arkwright’s endless whinging. So, he steps outside for some respite. However, whilst outside on the pavement, sucking in the smog caused by the plethora of coal-fires burning in the grates of the terraced houses in the surrounding mean streets, he spots one of his Uncle’s denialist propaganda posters blu-tacked to the shop window.]

Poster: “Kill Gillard’s Tax! Burn lots of coal! After all, carbon is weightless! Come inside and buy some for ten quid a kilo!

[Granville can hardly believe his eyes. How could his Uncle have been so stupid? He rushes inside, eager to poke fun at Arkwright’s own-goal.]

Granville: Heh...heh...I see now why the punters grabbed the bags of coal without paying! You told them carbon was weightless, and, by their reckoning, something that is weightless – and at ten quid a kilo – should cost them zilch...Nice one, Uncle...ho...ho...

Arkwright (resignedly): Yeh-yeh-yes...Gre-Gre-Granville...I guess this sh-sh-shows I’m not really cu-cu-cut out for this sh-sh-shop-keeping lark...This cuh-chu-coal beh-beh-business has been a peh-peh-package of eh-eh-economic peh-peh-pain for no en-en-environmental geh-geh-gain, I’m af-af-afraid...

Granville: Yeah, Uncle...I think it’s about time you retired and handed the business back to me...

Arkwright: Nuh-nuh-not so fast, yuh-yuh-young fella...If I re-re-retire, I’ll be huh-huh-handing it over to Nuh-Nuh-Nurse Gladys Eh-Eh-Emmanuel...

Granville (to himself): Crap! Well, I suppose it could be least she’ll get rid of all this bloody coal...but, on the down side, I know what she’ll bath me in every Saturday night...sheesh...

The media – the biter bit

This old-fashioned idiom, one my parents used, seems apt to describe the contemporary spirited rail against the MSM. For what seems like an eternity the media has been biting, biting all sorts of people from the highest in the land, our PM, to the lowliest, all in the pursuit of a good story that would sell its print or electronic offerings, attract its advertisers or perhaps subserve a more sinister purpose.

From the outset, this blogsite has tackled media distortion, whether it be in the form of outright lies, omission of some of the facts, use of irrelevant information, substitution of opinion for facts and reason, pursuing a hidden agenda, or overly exhibiting imbalance and bias. There seemed to be no journalistic device that the media has not and will not use to achieve its ends. And now it is at it again in the wake of the News of The World revelations.

From the moment Lindsay Tanner released his book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, most of the media has been on the defensive against Tanner’s claim that the media is significantly to blame for the deplorable state of political reporting in this country. Journalists cried: ‘He’s shooting the messenger’. Peter van Onselen was off the mark early, not only claiming this was so, but arguing that Tanner had written the wrong book – that he should have written one exposing the inner machinations of the Labor Party that ended with the replacement of Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard. I’m sure many journalists would have savoured that, but sorry Peter, Lindsay decided to write about something else. That PvO felt he could castigate Tanner for this ‘misdemeanour’ illustrates the level of arrogance that pervades the Canberra Press gallery. Some fellow journalists took a similar line, but almost all took umbrage at Tanner’s assertion that they were contributing to the dumbing down of democracy. How dare he! After all they are the ones that ‘hold governments to account’, and thereby render a laudable service to the public. They turned on him, and politicians generally, insisting it was they who were at fault, at fault because of their own failings and because of their evasive and defensive behaviour towards the media and their never ending spin.

The biter did not relish being bit.

An article by political editor Laura Tingle in The Australian Financial Review: Shot down in sideshow alley on 26 July begins: “

The media reacted badly when Lindsay Tanner blamed them for dumbing down political debate. But Laura Tingle thinks he might have a point.” Tingle goes onto say, inter alia; “

Tanner documents, from a politician’s perspective, what it is like to deal with the modern media. He argues that the media itself has a lot to answer for in its complaints about the shallowness of what politicians are prepared to say these days.


Plenty has been written about political spin, but not so much about the media end of the transaction. Tanner documents not just his experiences of this, but international trends in the way the media works.

“The reaction to Tanner’s book from the Australian media – and particularly the Canberra gallery – has been strikingly defensive and sour. Tanner has been accused of all sorts of crimes, including that he is shifting the blame for politicians not having much to say on to the media. That he is shooting the messenger. And that he shouldn’t be complaining because he always got a good run.

“I don’t think Tanner is particularly guilty of any of these crimes (even if many of us seriously doubt whether a lot of politicians have anything significant to say). 

If anything, the reaction to his book has been much more a case of shooting the messenger by the media, in a rather spectacular example of thin skin and glass jaw. It does not reflect well on journalists that they seem unable to consider that such a critique of the way they operate might have a point.”

Later, talking of “…the sort of complex issues that the political process is set up to solve” Tingle says: “Yet so often these days, we don’t cover them, because there aren’t pictures, because we think they are too complicated for our consumers, or because they don’t fit with the simple narrative of Julia versus Tony. 

This is why Sideshow is an important contribution to the political debate.”

How many other journalists have made this balanced appraisal of Sideshow?

Generally, whether in print or on political TV programs such as Insiders, defensiveness and indignation about Tanner’s book has been the order of the day for political journalists, the very ones who accuse politicians of having a ‘glass jaw’ should they react to media criticism. It seems as if there are enough glass jaws around for political journalists too. On an episode of Insiders last year, I can vividly remember Fran Kelly, in archetypically matriarchal tones, insisting that politicians ought to ‘sit there and take their medicine’, just like we took our nauseating dose of caster oil on Saturday nights. But of course they bitterly resent having to take their own medicine, no matter how therapeutic it might be for them.

The biter resents being bit.

More recently we saw more of this phenomenon. The News of the World phone hacking scandal and the complicity of press, police and politicians in this matter and its cover up, has led to understandable rage among the British public and among those who see the Murdoch empire as corrupt and corrupting in other countries, notably the US and here. And when Julia Gillard said that people here would have some ‘hard questions’ to ask of News Limited, CEO John Hartigan was soon expressing outrage, insisting that she detail the ‘hard questions’. Of course he had already asked himself some hard questions about whether inappropriate payments were happening here, although he said he was certain that hadn’t happened, and had set in train an audit of all payments by News Limited to third parties for stories. But of course it’s OK for him to ask the hard questions, certainly not the PM.

Bob Brown had even harder questions to ask about media ownership and its concentration whereby seventy percent of all print media was in Murdoch hands in this country. Brown also raised issues of ethics and privacy. News Limited is hardly blameless in this regard – one only has to remember the fake nude photos of Pauline Hanson splashed across the front page of The Sunday Telegraph in March 2009 leading to a sort of apology by editor Neil Breen “…that there was ‘no doubt’ the newspaper moved too quickly on the story”. While the media never forgets the misdemeanors of those it opposes or despises, it is quick to forget its own, and dislikes being reminded of them.

The biter dislikes being bit.

It was bit again when News Limited was accused by Stephen Conroy and other Government ministers of conspiring to bring about regime change. This brought forth denials accompanied by outrage that anyone could suggest such a thing. The fact that politician after Labor politician, and politician after Greens politician believes this to be so, as do many other political commentators who are not aligned to News Limited, is peremptorily dismissed by News Limited executives and journalists as conspiracy theory or paranoia. So much so that Dennis Shanahan was taken to write a piece in The Weekend Australian of July 23-24 with the rather quaint title: Truth the casualty in media wars – The Gillard government conspiracy theories are without foundation. A journalist from that paragon of truthful reporting, The Australian, sounding off about ‘truth’, is a laughable sight.

Dennis takes a whole page to elaborate on his theme, denying any sniff of a ‘Carmel conspiracy’ arising from a meeting of Murdoch executives at his property in California earlier this year at which it has been suggested that ‘regime change’ was discussed. And of course John Hartigan rejects the notion outright; he told The Weekend Australian: "To try to suggest there is a conspiracy is just ridiculous." What else would he be expected to say?

Shanahan and his editor Chris Mitchell insist that Rupert Murdoch does not give directives to his editors, so the idea of a conspiracy directed to regime change in Australia must be fantasy. John Hartigan flatly rejected the idea of a directive on 7.30 last week: “Like most whispering campaigns it has no element of truth”. That there was no directive might be true, but does Murdoch have to issue a directive to get his own way? All editors know what Uncle Rupert thinks and what he wants, just as kids know what their parents think and want. Otherwise how do you explain that of his 160 + newspapers, only one editorialized against the Iraq war?

You may care to read Shanahan’s rather paltry attempt to dismiss the conspiracy theory, the anti-Gillard Government bias, and any contagion of News Limited here from overseas events. He goes on to makes the case that The Australian is not the only one targeting the Gillard Government, and in the printed story selected front pages from The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald are displayed side by side under the heading Who’s running a campaign for regime change? to demonstrate that the SMH had more strident anti-Government headlines and stories than The Australian, an attempt to use the pathetic ‘they were worse than us’ defence. Of course the pages were selected just to make that point.

More recently another prominent figure, former Police Commissioner in Victoria, Christine Nixon, has taken a swipe at News Limited, stating in her book that it waged a vendetta against her from early in her appointment right through the 2009 Royal Commission into the 2008 Victorian bushfires. As she pulls no punches, she expected that when she bit the media the bullyboys would be out in force to bite back, and she has not been let down. Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel was soon on the airwaves insisting: “…that by trying to blame the media, Nixon is trying to evade personal responsibility.” Police Association CEO Greg Davies was not far behind expressing his malice towards her with almost identical words. Already talkback callers to the Nixon debate on 774 ABC Melbourne radio are out criticizing Julia Gillard for being prepared to launch Nixon’s book this coming Wednesday. We can expect News Limited to make hay out of that.

In a story in The Australian on 29 July: Copping it sweet not Nixon's style, associate editor Cameron Stewart says: “In an interview with The Age this week, Nixon expanded her attack on News Limited newspapers, claiming they had been instrumental in bringing down her successor Simon Overland, who resigned in June after only two years in the job. It is a curious claim given that in her book Nixon links Overland's downfall to the election of the Baillieu government. In the book she says Overland was on a "slippery slope" after Ted Baillieu's victory because he was seen to be connected to the previous Brumby government. This week, Nixon claimed News turned against Overland after he criticised The Australian in August 2009 for publishing details of a Melbourne terrorism raid on the morning of the raid, despite the newspaper having received approval to publish the story from the Australian Federal Police.

“The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell says: "Christine Nixon misses the point about The Australian and commissioner Overland.”

You may remember that episode where The Australian spilled the beans on the raid in its early edition before the raid was actually carried out, and Simon Overland’s angry rebuke to the editor of The Australian. Overland bit, so Mitchell and News Limited bit back.

Bob Brown’s and Christine Milne’s call for an inquiry into media ownership, ethics and privacy, and Julia Gillard’s willingness to consider it, has brought forth protests, anger and rejection of the need for it. We can expect savage resistance against any attempt to look at these issues, let alone regulate the media as a result. The media believes it must have free rein to bite whomever it pleases, but reacts angrily when those bitten bite back. It is just like the bullying we saw in the schoolyard. But some of us discovered that standing up to bullies resulted in them going to water. We wait to see who will win this do or die battle.

Time and again when anyone of significance has had the courage to bite the MSM, especially News Limited – Tanner, Gillard, Conroy, Brown, Milne, Nixon, the media has savagely bitten back.

So who has the glass jaw, who has the thin skin, who refuses to take his medicine, who screams blue murder when someone bites back? It is the News Limited media who set a shameful example of the biter bitterly resenting being bitten back. Sadly, there is no sign of this changing.

What to you think?