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...