No Tony, it’s the Abbott brand that’s toxic

toxic adj: 1. containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation
2. extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.

Tony Abbott, the second definition fits you to a tee.

You are fond of describing things as ‘toxic’: the ‘toxic’ carbon tax; the Labor brand is ‘toxic’. You repeat these slogans over and again so that they become a mantra, one that you hope will embed itself in the minds of the people, one you hope they will repeat mindlessly as if it was celestial wisdom handed down from on high.

It’s a curious phenomenon that individuals see in others an attribute that characterizes their own behaviour, yet remain oblivious to it. That is you. You insist that others are toxic, but you remain unaware that you are toxic; the Abbott brand is toxic.

While you make little attempt to explain why you insist that the Labor brand is toxic, presumably assuming that merely articulating your assertion often enough will make it true, I will not leave you wondering why your brand, the Abbott brand, is toxic.

Climate change toxicity
Perhaps the most dangerously toxic aspect of the Abbott brand is your attitude to climate change. Here you are, day after day, insisting that the carbon tax is toxic, yet never mentioning that it is designed to diminish the toxic effect of greenhouse gases that threaten the world’s climate, irreversibly if we do nothing to reduce carbon emissions.

The future of the planet and its habitability for future generations – your grandchildren and mine – seems to be of no concern to you. Which leads to the conclusion that those words you uttered in the Victorian country town of Beaufort reflected your true belief: that ‘climate change is crap’. Of course you have gone to great lengths since then to insist that this is not your true belief, that carbon dioxide levels are increasing and that human activity is contributing to that, but you have never come out and said unequivocally that global warming is a serious threat to which we must react vigorously. Why? Because you don’t believe it is.

To perpetrate your denialist view is toxic, toxic to our environment, toxic to our future. It allays the concerns that we all ought to have about global warming, and engenders a ‘she’ll be right mate’ approach, which we Aussies are ever ready to embrace, an approach that will leave us, and especially future generations, exposed to the devastating effects of global warming. Of course if you really think this is all crap, I suppose your actions could be justified, but if that is so, why not come out and say so in unequivocal terms? No, you want to hide behind the cloak of feigning belief in global warming while opposing every effort the Government is making to reverse it. That is toxic – it is malicious and harmful.

And to think that had Malcolm Turnbull won the party ballot in 2009, this country would already have an ETS, supported by all parties. There would be no talk of a ‘toxic tax’, and everyone – commerce, industry, unions and the people – would have accepted an ETS as necessary, and would be already adapting to the changes needed. Your influence has been harmful, dangerously toxic.

Of course you have an unashamed climate denialist colleague in Barnaby Joyce, in parliament and on any TV outlet that will have him, rabbitting on about the toxic carbon tax, asking how much it will reduce atmospheric temperature, how much of the Barrier Reef it will save, how many floods or droughts it will prevent – all stupid questions, stupid because Australia’s carbon tax is just one of many, one of a total designed to have a global effect. It never seems to occur to him that since global warming is a global phenomenon, a global approach is required and since Australia is part of the globe it has an obligation as a world citizen to contribute to the global effort. Like you, he seems to have no notion of global responsibility; he seems to think that others can do the heavy lifting and that Australia, with the highest per capita pollution in the world, can shirk its obligation. That attitude is toxic to our planet.

The toxicity has spread. No sooner had Campbell Newman taken office in Queensland than he directed Greg Withers, Director of the Office of Climate Change, to dismantle all of the eight carbon reduction schemes that he set up, including the $430 million Queensland Climate Change Fund, the $50 million Renewable Energy Fund, the $50 million Smart Energy Savings Program and the Future Growth Fund that spent $405 million last year on clean-coal technology, climate change programs, and transport and water infrastructure, and the 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target, thereby saving the Government an estimated $270 million.

Ted Baillieu in Victoria has abandoned Victoria’s target of 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, established by John Brumby because Victoria is a heavily polluting state, so as to save the $2 billion needed to purchase international offsets. The State Labor Opposition's climate spokeswoman Lisa Neville asks: “Are they at all committed to addressing the concerns of climate change? Are they at all committed to ensuring that Victoria, which is a large emitter in the country, is well placed to try and tackle that into the future?” The answer seems to be NO.

Do Coalition governments believe in global warming and the urgent need to reduce emissions? Or have they adopted your toxic attitude to this deadly environmental problem, one that requires no effective action on their part? Christine Milne believes they are ‘acting out their climate change denialism’.

I know you will respond by quoting the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, but you never point out that this will result in a $1300 impost on each family per year, and that it will be much more costly than the Government’s carbon tax. And you never explain how it will actually work. You talk blithely about storing carbon in soil, planting trees and using smart technology. You deride the carbon tax as the ‘dumb’ way, while you extol your plan as the ‘smart’ way. This is disingenuously toxic. You perpetrate this nonsense because you know most of the people will accept it unthinkingly, and that most of the MSM will not challenge it. Fortunately some do. One is Ben Rose, an environmental scientist.

Writing in Climate Spectator, in an article Greg Hunt’s carbon illusion, he says: “Like Labor, the Coalition has committed to reduce carbon emissions 5 per cent by 2020. But the Libs’ ‘Direct Action’ plan has been dubbed ‘soil magic’ because over 60 per cent of reductions – 85 million tonnes of CO2 per year – are to be taken up by soil. A scant page in their 30-page policy tells us this will be achieved for the amazingly low price of $10/tonne but offers no more detail…There is a simple reason why the Libs won’t tell us more. The cheap soil carbon ‘offsets’ they plan to create will not be measured and neither will they be permanent. In short, the Direct Action plan is constructed on the premise of bogus soil carbon offsets…The Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ is a ‘do nothing’ carbon policy.”

Rose estimates “Up to 22 million tonnes of Kyoto compliant soil carbon offsets at prices of $25 - $200 per tonne may be generated from cleared agricultural land”, and goes on to quote the 2010 estimate of McKenzie et al that “for carbon trading to be economically attractive for Australian dairy farmers, the carbon price would have to be at least $200 per tonne of CO2”, much higher than the Government’s initial price of $23 per tonne.

In other words Tony Abbott, your DAP is a sham, and an expensive one at that, more expensive than the Government’s internationally lauded carbon tax. Your DAP would provide no compensation to households for increases in electricity and other costs, yet you have the temerity to call the Government’s carbon tax ‘toxic’. It is your scheme that is toxic. You are perpetrating a massive fraud on the Australian public. That is toxic. The Abbott brand is toxic – malicious and harmful.

That’s not all on the ‘toxic tax’ front. You willingly participated in a ‘stop the carbon tax’ protest in Canberra organized by shock jock Alan Jones and alongside Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella you knowingly stood in front of offensive ‘Ditch the Witch’, ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ and ‘Ju-liar’ posters. That was toxic. It reinforced how toxic the Abbott brand is.

Parliamentary toxicity
You have reduced parliament to the status of a boxing circus with your aggressive questions and your fifty motions ‘to suspend standing and sessional orders’, motions that you use to heap scorn and abuse on our PM in a most shameful and undignified manner, you the man who says he will be ‘the next elected PM’ of Australia, a prospect that horrifies. Your negative, obstructionist, combative behaviour there is toxic, your influence is toxic, and your example induces others to be similarly toxic. Just look at the behaviour of Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop to see what I mean. The Abbott brand is toxic – harsh, malicious and harmful.

There is no need for more details here; they are displayed in gruesome detail in the last piece: Abbott’s atrophy. And if we needed any more evidence of your propensity to shoot from the lips with offensive remarks, it is your recent endorsement of Germaine Greer’s tasteless comments about Julia Gillard’s dress and shape. In typical style you now admit you should not have said what you did; no doubt you will seek forgiveness, as usual.

Asylum seeker toxicity
Look at this introduction to a segment on the ABC’s PM on 27 March titled: UNHCR scathing of asylum seeker debate: “‘Negative’, ‘hostile’ and ‘toxic’. That's how the United Nations High Commission for Refugees sees the asylum seeker debate in Australia. 

And the UNHCR's regional representative says it's part of the reason for a drop in claims. 

A United Nations report into asylum seeker trends across the world shows a 20 per cent upward spike in applications to industrialised countries last year. Australia's spike was downward. 
There was a 9 per cent drop in claims here, the first fall in six years...and that's mainly due to fewer boat arrivals.”

The regional representative, Rochard Towle, used the word ‘toxic’ advisedly. You have contributed to this toxicity by refusing to accept any other than your own solution to boat arrivals: Nauru for processing, TPVs, and your infamous ‘turn back the boats’ policy.

Although the Government compromised by agreeing to reopen Nauru if you supported the Malaysia arrangement, and prepared legislation that would allow any government to arrange its preferred offshore processing, you said NO, as usual. So we have an impasse. You insisted on your solution to the exclusion of any other, insisted it would work as it had in the past despite receiving advice from Immigration Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe and Australia's Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues James Larsen that reviving the Pacific Solution alone was not a viable option, and in the face of advice from the Navy that turning boats around was dangerous and impractical. You persisted with this policy although the Indonesians objected that you would be simply pushing the problem back to them. Relationships with our nearest neighbour were less important to you than getting your own way. It was left to Julie Bishop to smooth ruffled Indonesian feathers.

Again, the Abbott brand was toxic.

Confronted with the UNHCR-established fact that arrivals by boat had diminished, Scott Morrison, infected too with Abbott brand toxicity, simply denied the fact; instead quoting increased arrivals during this summer. Facts mean nothing to either of you if they do not suit your argument. What hope is there of a rational discussion when facts are airily dismissed. You both exhibit breathtaking duplicity, Abbott brand toxicity.

Toxic economics
We all know of your disinterest in economics, and with Peter Costello affirming your ineptitude, it is not surprising you say very little on the subject, and that what you do say doesn’t have a ring of authenticity. You have your few slogans: ‘stop the waste’, ‘reduce the debt’, ‘stop the toxic carbon tax’, but you leave most statements on economics to Joe Hockey, your shadow treasurer.

Despite a degree in economics, Joe seems to be able to make incomprehensible statements that defy the principles of the discipline – disparagingly labelled ‘Hockeynomics’ by economists – mixing them as he does with his battery of catchphrases: the Labor Government is ‘addicted to spending’, it ‘cannot manage money’, Australia has a ‘massive debt’, is paying ‘a million dollars a day in interest’ and this borrowing is ‘putting upward pressure on interest rates’, ‘interest rates will always be lower under a Coalition Government’, and ‘Labor will never bring in a surplus budget’. It does not seem to bother him that Australia has the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the developed world, that interest rates are going down, and are now well below what they were under the Howard Government. Facts are irrelevant if they get in the way of his assertions.

How would you describe these statements? They are disingenuous. I call them toxic because they distort the facts, they misinform, they give the impression of a fiscally incompetent Government, which of course they are intended to do. Here we have your characteristic Abbott brand toxicity – harsh, malicious and harmful.

It is when it comes to budgetary costings though that all the defectiveness of Hockeynomics are exposed. Who will forget the lamentable performance of the Coalition’s economics team at the time of the 2011 Budget? You, Tony Abbott, handballed the details to Joe, who in turn passed them onto Andrew Robb, who came up with a page of ‘savings’ that revealed an $11 billion dollar hole that the team was unprepared to explain, in fact even denied it existed, relying instead on its validation by an ‘audit’ by HK Howarth, a Perth-based accounting firm that accepted the Coalition’s assumptions behind the costings and certified only that the sums added up. Subsequently, two of its staff was fined for improper conduct in carrying out this work, which was never a proper audit.

‘Incompetence’ would be the best word to describe the Coalition team’s budgeting efforts, but when all three insisted that despite the accountants responsible being found guilty of improper conduct they still ‘stood by’ the costings – try ‘deceitful’. To this day they quote these savings as part of the estimated $70 billion of savings needed to meet their budgetary commitments for the 2012 Budget, which they refuse to submit to the Parliamentary Budgetary Office for scrutiny.

Andrew Robb is more economically competent and because this is so, makes statements that call into question Hockey’s assertions. Inconsistency has been the hallmark of the utterances of the economics team, to the despair of economists who struggle to understand them. Mathias Cormann is a shadowy figure; indeed he is shadow assistant treasurer, who emerges periodically to make statements that are sometimes at odds with what other members of the team are saying; again inconsistency prevails.

Although Barnaby Joyce was understandably removed from anything to do with finance long ago he still makes forays into economics and talks his usual dangerous gobbledygook, which is not just wrong, it is irresponsible. His latest blooper was his suggestion that Government cheques might bounce!

For this team to make disparaging remarks about the Government economics team, one that shielded this nation from the worse effects of the GFC, that has had wide international recognition, one that boasts Euromoney’s ‘Finance Minister of the Year’, is a measure of the audacity and pretentiousness of the Coalition and you, its leader.

This piece is already long enough. It is sufficient to expose the toxicity the Coalition exhibits under your leadership.

It argues that it is not the Labor brand or the carbon tax that is toxic, but instead the Abbott brand.

Tony Abbott, why do you call Labor toxic? Is it because the people are now voting in Coalition governments in place of Labor governments at a State level, most spectacularly in Queensland, so that only two Labor states remain? If that is your reason, were governments ‘toxic’ when the electorate voted in wall-to-wall Labor, or when they voted in a predominance of Coalition governments? Is not the cyclical nature of politics a more likely explanation of these variations than ‘toxicity’? Otherwise you would have to argue that when the people voted out a Labor government is was because the Labor brand was toxic, but when it voted out a Coalition government it was not because the Coalition brand was toxic. You simply choose, for political purposes, to portray Labor as universally toxic, and therefore to be voted into oblivion.

Why is the carbon tax ‘toxic’? Only because you say it is so. Why is your DAP, which is more costly and less plausible, not ‘toxic’. Only because you say it is not.

Having asked these questions of you, I ought to explain why this piece maintains it is the Abbott brand that is toxic. Here is why:

Because you and your spokespeople have made a mockery of climate change and the need for urgent and effective action, because you have opposed every Government effort to combat climate change, and because have proposed a phony plan that is costly, impractical, and futile.

Because you have reduced parliamentary behaviour to a contemptible level, to a level of nastiness, obstruction and negativity that plumbs new depths.

Because you have diminished debate on asylum seekers to a level described by the UNHCR commissioner as ‘negative, hostile and toxic’.

Because you have prostituted economics to the level of make-believe, where figures can be whatever you want them to be, and words can mean whatever you want them to mean.

It is the Abbott brand that richly deserves the ‘toxic’ tag. Wear it. You‘ve earned it, not just once, but again and again.

Abbott’s atrophy

Supporters of Tony Abbott will not enjoy this piece. They will likely read only part of it, and rejecting its proposition, will go elsewhere where writers say nice thinks about the man who wants to be the next leader of this nation, the man who insists he will be the ‘next elected Prime Minister’, the man who may succeed at the next election unless the electorate wakes up to his shallowness and the darkness of his nature.

This piece proposes that Tony Abbott is on the decline, and that this will accelerate.

Those who support him will point to his success in restoring the electoral fortunes of the Coalition to a position where it could easily win the next election if this position continued. This seems the basis for the continuing support he enjoys from his colleagues, support that might be found wanting if they judged him on anything other than the polls. Even there though, they are aware that despite the strong TPP position, Abbott is unpopular with the voters and unable to gain a sustainable lead over Julia Gillard in the PPM stakes. Take away the strong lead of the Coalition in the TPP stakes, and ask where would Abbott be.

Why use the term ‘atrophy’ to describe Abbott’s status? Its biological meaning is ‘a wasting away of the body or of an organ or part’. A generic meaning of the term is ‘degeneration, decline, or decrease, as from disuse’. It’s the latter meaning that applies here.

I am not referring to his thinning hair or his advancing gauntness, or his increasingly swaggering gait and raucous laugh. It is his degenerating behaviour, his decline in political stature that is the focus here. Of course, his ardent supporters will deny this is so, and take the view that those who see this are simply biased and deluded.

At the press conference after his surprise election to Coalition leader by one vote over Malcolm Turnbull, he said that if he succeeded in restoring the Coalition to power he would be considered a ‘genius’, but if he failed he would be seen as ‘road-kill’. Even then he realized what a challenge had been placed before him, and equally that he might not succeed.

What motivates this man to do what he does?

Writing in Crikey about Abbott’s remarks on the death of Margaret Whitlam in Abbott’s humour less than killer, but does he lack compassion?, David Ritter, academic, commentator and campaigner, says: “It is deeply disappointing…that opposition leader Tony Abbott saw fit to mark [Margaret] Whitlam’s death with a cheap shot on her husband’s political legacy. Tastelessly, he said: “There was a lot wrong with the Whitlam government but nevertheless, it was a very significant episode in our history and Margaret Whitlam was a very significant element in the political success of Gough Whitlam.”

Writing a pen picture in The Monthly, playwright Louis Nowra referred to Abbott’s time as a boxer during his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford: “Whenever Abbott entered the ring he was, as he once said, ‘terrified’. ‘It’s one of those things you make yourself do’. In his first bout – against Cambridge in March 1982 – he knocked out his opponent within the opening minute, and his three other fights were equally successful. He had little technique but a brutal sense of attack, which he called ‘the whirling dervisher’.” Is fear the motivating influence in Abbott’s political life? Another anecdote from his boxing days is that he relished flattening his opponent to the canvass. Nothing seems to have changed. His brutal sense of attack remains. But is fear his bête noire, his Achilles heel?

Ten days after his election as Opposition Leader, writing on The Political Sword in The pugilistic politician I drew attention to this characteristic and predicted an ‘unremittingly ugly period’ ahead. That prediction was accurate.

To those who support Tony Abbott and his quest for Prime Ministership, I ask some pertinent questions.

Do you want a Prime Minister who seems incapable of showing sensitivity at times of death and bereavement, one who uses such occasions to make political points, no matter how inappropriately? He has form in this regard. Not long ago he refused parliamentary pairs to Simon Crean and Malcolm Turnbull that prevented them from attending the funeral of their friend, painter Margaret Olley. Remember his comments to asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton just prior to his death, his disparaging remarks about Kevin Rudd’s account of his father’s death, and his ‘shit happens’ remark in Afghanistan after the death of a soldier there? Any one remark in isolation might reasonably be overlooked as an unfortunate slip of the tongue, but his repeated insensitivities point to a flawed character, one that seems resistant to correction.

It was instructional to hear the comments on Q&A last week about this latest error of judgment. While there was universal condemnation of his remarks about the death of Mrs Whitlam, the judgement of one panel member was: ‘Tony can’t seem to help himself’, almost as if that excused him. A recurrent theme is: ‘That’s just Tony!’, or “We all know Tony!’, the Jesuit trained Tony who seems to rely on confession of sins, forgiveness and absolution to wipe his slate clean of misdemeanors. Louis Nowra concludes his cataloguing of Abbott’s insensitivities surrounding death: “As one observes Abbott’s various distasteful remarks about death, one can only wonder whether the Opposition Leader is again terrified, driven by some visceral internal fear. If so, he deserves compassion.” Nowra seems to let Abbott off the hook – after all it’s just the way Tony is – driven by ‘visceral fear’.

Referring to Abbott’s obligation to comment on Margaret Whitlam’s death, Andrew Elder said on Politically Homeless: “It's clear he doesn't want to do it but he can't get over himself enough to throw himself into the task. He manifestly doesn't care that people are mourning her loss, and cares even less about her patronage of the arts…Taking a swipe at Gough Whitlam and his government on the way through may have been minor, but it reveals a character fundamentally too weak to become Prime Minister.”

Is this the PM you Abbott supporters want? Driven by fear into insensitive outbursts, and when the occasion beckons, paroxysms of personal invective? Would this PM make you proud? Would he be different when he had the keys to The Lodge? Or would this entrenched behaviour continue? To borrow from Abbott’s own phraseology, he seems to be ‘an insensitive, nasty leader, getting worse’. Has Abbott’s decline become irreversible? Has his atrophy reached the point of no return?

That Abbott’s aggressive behaviour is a product of his ‘visceral fear’ is a plausible hypothesis. We know that, like most politicians, he desperately wants to win, and even more so hates to lose, especially to the woman who is now the PM, a position he believes she occupies illegitimately. He has never overcome the anger and frustration he felt when Julia Gillard won the negotiating battle with the Independents to form minority government, and since that day in September 2011 has used every device at his disposal to bring down her Government. His anger at losing an election is not new; it goes back to his student days at university when he kicked in a door after a narrow loss.

Every day in parliament anger seemingly propels him to the belligerence we see from him in Question Time, which he interrupts time and again with ‘motions to suspend standing and sessional orders’ in order to berate the PM and her Government in most vitriolic terms. On the last day of sitting last week, he moved his fiftieth of such motions, no doubt determined to reach his half-century, and perhaps ‘a ton’ before the next election. In this one, again about the carbon tax, he accused the PM of having a new form of clinical disorder – truth deficit disorder – and ended his tirade with yet another insensitive remark, this time about Julia Gillard and Anthony Albanese having targets on their foreheads, a remark that even he acknowledged was tactless, one he needed to withdraw.

According to Government calculations, by virtue of his motions to suspend standing orders, the House of Representatives has foregone twenty-seven hours of Question Time and the opportunity to ask well over two hundred questions, questions he and his Opposition could have asked about significant policy issues. Instead, Abbott has chosen to waste the time of the House with motions to suspend standing orders, none of which have ever succeeded, simply to castigate the PM and the Government, and of course to provide a grab for the evening TV news – his daily picfac. The carbon tax and the minerals tax have featured strongly as subjects, but recently he attacked our PM about what he described as ‘a reign of terror on the streets of Sydney’, a reference to the discovery by the AFP and local police of a cache of handguns that were being smuggled into the country. ‘You can’t stop the boats and you can’t stop the guns’ was his fevered catch-cry. He attacks anything, but it is the style of his attack that alarms.

Take a look at him when he launches his tirade. Look at his eyes, at his body language. Half close your eyes and you may see the pugilist exercising his boxing gloves, clad in red budgie-smugglers, eyes narrowed with fear, jumping out from the blue corner with arms flailing, rushing his opponent, only to find she has neatly stepped out of the ring, leaving him shouting ‘coward’! Note how venomously he uses his favourite words of derision: ‘This Prime Minister’. Note how he berates her, accuses her of being a liar, an incompetent, heading a directionless government, incapable of governing – leading ‘a bad government getting worse’. No matter what the subject, he goes through the same routine, mounts the same derogatory assault. Note how his attacks are steadily becoming more ferocious. Does his ranting remind you of an infamous figure from the thirties? Is it fear that motivates these persistent attacks? Fear that unless he continues his attacks, he will be seen as losing his mojo? Yet when you look at him as he addresses almost empty Government benches, glance over his shoulder at his front bench and his back-benchers. You will not see smiles of delight or smirks of satisfaction. All you will see is bland indifference, resignation to the requirement that they sit through Abbott’s rant until its inevitable conclusion, defeat at a division.

Do those of you who support the Coalition want this man as your PM? Would you be able to point to him with pride? Is he capable of elevating his behaviour, or are we stuck with his steadily degenerating conduct, his progressive atrophy?

If we look away for a moment from his personal behavior, and examine his performance on the policy front, the picture is no brighter. What are his policies? We know of one, his Rolls Royce PPL, which he is determined to push through despite resistance from some of his Coalition colleagues; presumably it is meant to burnish the dull, and at times misogynist image he portrays. We know of his expensive and likely ineffective Direct Action Plan to combat carbon pollution. But that is the end of the policy road. We know though what he opposes, with his now familiar no, no, no, no, and no. He opposes the ‘toxic’ carbon tax and the minerals tax that will ‘kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs’, taxes he has given a ‘blood oath’ to repeal. But how come he opposes a reduction in company tax, this the leader of a party that boasts that taxes will always be lower under a Coalition government? How come he opposes recently introduced policy designed to improve trucking safety, and thereby the safety of other road users?

His propensity to oppose seems to have reached malignant proportions, metastasizing to almost every policy. From his book Battlelines we learn that he follows Randolph Churchill’s dictum for oppositions: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out”. His colleagues endorse the notion of opposition, but perhaps not to the extent he does, and at times despair at his opposition even to measures that embrace traditional Liberal principles.

Coalition politicians and many commentators subscribe to Randolph Churchill’s dictum, but is it right? Do oppositions have no responsibility for the governance? They are elected by the people and paid for by the taxpayer. Of course, they are entitled to oppose policy they believe is bad, and suggest amendments to what they see as faulty legislation, but have they no obligation to contribute to policy that is in the national interest? From Abbott’s actions, day after day, it seems he has no intention of contributing to the government of this nation until he gets into The Lodge. Until then, he is determined to oppose everything and make it as difficult as possible for the elected government to actually govern, something it has done in spite of him with remarkable success - over 300 pieces of legislation passed so far - to his enduring vexation and anger.

His opposition is getting worse. His behavior is deteriorating. His inadequacies are exposed. His anger is escalating. His fear is rising. The atrophy advances.

This piece proposes that Tony Abbott, the would-be next PM of this nation, is in a state of decline. He looks and sounds more desperate by the day. Fearing that his attacks are not blunting Julia Gillard’s governance, not diminishing her efficacy, not stopping her in her tracks, not preventing the passage of piece after piece of legislation, he sees no option other than to intensify his attacks. As he does, not only does his record of success decline even further, his behaviour deteriorates also, to the lamentable level he now displays. Every time his venom is displayed, he is diminished in the eyes of much of the public; every time he fails, the despair of his colleagues increases.

He lives on a knife-edge of popularity with Coalition members and supporters, who would cut him loose should the polls turn towards Labor. He must live in fear of this, as he has almost nothing to offer in policy innovation or excitement, nothing that would appeal to the electorate as an attractive alternative, no rational economic policy, no budget costings that add up. He has nothing to offer but unremitting negativity and the promise of wrecking virtually every policy advance the Gillard Government has made.

To boot, Abbott has an incompetent and dilatory frontbench that he is fearful of reshuffling lest he evoke an angry backlash. As Andrew Elder says in his discussion of Alistair Drysdale’s acerbic comments last week on a possible Coalition reshuffle: ”Had the media treated Abbott in the same way that they treat the Prime Minister, he would have been peppered at every one of his picfacs over the past week about these [Drysdale] comments, with commentary about how weak Abbott is within his party's organization…”

Only a largely sycophantic media that refuse to really challenge him and call him out enable Abbott to keep afloat, his head just above the water.

We are seeing the atrophy of Tony Abbott before our very eyes. Worse is still to come.

What do you think?

More falsehoods of the $8bn BER ‘waste’ claims

The first part of this post concluded by indicating the follow-up would reveal more of the fables around the Federal Opposition claim of $8 billion ‘waste’ in the Building the Education Revolution (BER) program.

The definition I am using for ‘fable’ is numbered 8 in the 1993 edition of The Shorter Oxford Dictionary at page 910, namely: “Something falsely claimed to exist, or having no existence outside popular legend”.

There could not be a better description of the Opposition’s $8 billion ‘waste’ claim on ‘school halls’.

But first, here’s something I found while doing research for this post.

BER waste tops $1.5 billion

The third and final report into the BER, conducted by former investment banker Brad Orgill… buildings of poor quality. Mr Orgill heavily criticised the Victorian governments handing of the scheme… 
8 Jul 2011 The Australian.

BER waste blows out to $1.1bn

The report, headed by former investment banker Brad Orgill, called for a Productivity Commission review… under the scheme. Mr Orgill found some governments had lost the expertise to properly manage building… 
9 Jul 2011 The Australian.

Wow, look at the dates and you’ll see The Australian saving $400 million in a single day!

False attribution:
The Australian has published many false claims about the BER. For example, the article with the headline ‘BER waste blows out to $1.1bn’ was based on the following false attribution in the second paragraph: “The third and final report into the BER, handed down yesterday found that $1.1 billion was wasted in delivering public school buildings to NSW and Victoria, when compared with their Catholic counterparts.”

The final BER Taskforce report contains no such finding. A computer search for the word “waste” in the 259-page BER Implementation Taskforce final report found one example – on page 250 in Appendix 14: Environmentally sustainable design case studies. The reference related to the fact that 80 per cent of construction waste during the work at Gold Creek Primary (ACT Government) was recycled and that topsoil removed during the construction phase was replaced prior to the completion of works.

The Australian goes on to repeat the $1.1 billion claim five paragraphs later when it says: “When comparing public school buildings delivered to NSW and Victorian schools with Catholic counterparts, $1.1bn was wasted in those states under the program. When comparing the cost of public school buildings in those states with independent schools, that figure blows out to $1.9bn. However, it is fairest to compare Catholic schools with public schools as both have centralised control structures.” An irony in this false reporting by The Australian is that applying its headline $1.1 billion claim to the whole P21 program exposes the Federal Opposition claims of $8 billion “waste” as “something falsely claimed to exist, or having no existence outside popular legend”.

The NSW and Victorian governments were responsible for 37 per cent of the expenditure of the entire P21 program. If their total ‘waste’ had blown out to $1.1 billion that would make the Australia-wide ‘waste’ $2.973 billion. The other 63 per cent of the P21 program would account for $1.87 billion of this.

So, on the basis of the report in The Australian, the “waste” is more than $5 billion below what the Federal Opposition claims. Even that estimation of the ‘waste’ is a gross exaggeration.

Double standard:
However, there is another interesting issue that arises from the approach by The Australian in calculating ‘waste’ that smacks of a double standard.

There is no doubt that the Taskforce figures show the regionally adjusted total project costs for halls/libraries/classroom per square metre/gross floor area (GFA) are higher for Government primary schools in NSW (the report claims 27 per cent) and Victoria (the report claims 28 per cent) than they are for Catholic primary schools in these two states.

From this, The Australian draws a conclusion that there is $1.1 billion ‘waste’ for NSW and Victorian Government primary schools when compared with Catholic primary schools in these two States.

There is also no doubt that these same Taskforce figures are higher for Catholic primary schools than Independent primary schools. In NSW (on the same basis The Australian uses to calculate percentages this equals 26 per cent) and in Victoria (22 per cent) than they are for Independent primary schools in these two States.

If The Australian uses these figures to claim ‘waste’ by Government schools against Catholic school costs, why does it ignore the apparent ‘waste’ by Catholic schools when measured against Independent schools?

Average size a factor:
The Australian also ignores a major factor affecting the cost of NSW Government primary schools.

The Taskforce report shows that the average square metre/GFA for halls + libraries + classrooms for NSW Government primary schools at 393 is 321 lower than NSW Catholic primary schools and 515 lower than NSW Independent primary schools. It is also only 68.5 per cent of the average project size for all schools involved in P21 projects of 574 sq metres.

On page 48 of its final report, the BER says: “A further variable driving building costs is average size of buildings. Given the smaller size of NSW Government buildings, the building cost per square metre in isolation, is notable relative to other authorities.”

The report goes on to note that projects with small floor areas may attract a higher cost per square metre than larger projects. It notes that the average project sizes vary from the NSW low of 393 sq. metres to the WA Independent average of 1599 sq metres.

Shooting from the lips:
Federal Opposition education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, showed his penchant for shooting from the lips with his comments immediately after the BER Implementation Taskforce was announced early in 2010.

The Brisbane Times of April 14, 2010 reported Pyne as saying the taskforce was a '’political fix'’ designed to neutralise negative publicity before the election. He said a judicial inquiry was needed, with powers to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to appear.

The Taskforce’s interim report, delivered on August 6, 2010 (15 days before the August 21, 2010 election), gave the lie to these comments.

In its executive summary of this report the Taskforce said: “In response to the issues identified in NSW, the Taskforce recommended to the Australian Government in June that $75 million of funding be withheld from the NSW Government. The Taskforce has been working actively and collaboratively with the NSW Department of Education and Training in respect of the value for money issues identified and in exploring solutions to complaints and we are encouraged by the early progress on a number of issues.”

By the time it had finished its work, the Taskforce had conducted 137 case studies of value for money (VFM) at schools by using quantity surveyors to provide separate costings (130 of these case studies were for Government schools). It also made more than 460 visits to schools to inspect and report on work and to interview principals and staff.

That seems far more practical than just sitting in a courtroom and hearing witnesses.

Deliberate deceit or ignorance:
The Federal Opposition’s most misleading approach of all is using the BER’s total budget of $16.17 billion to arrive at the $8 billion ‘waste’ claim.

As shown in the previous article, Pyne arrived at the $8 billion figure by managing to calculate that $8 billion is 50 per cent of the $16 billion total BER budget.

I do not know if it is deliberate deceit or ignorance (or perhaps both) that the Opposition did not take into account that the $16.17 billion BER program has the following three components:

- The $14.060 billion P21 project, of which $13.852 billion was funding for projects and $207.787 million allocated to 22 education authorities for administration. These 22 education authorities comprise the 8 State or Territory education departments, 6 Catholic and 6 Independent Block Grant Authorities (BGAs) and 2 combined Catholic/Independent BGAs. This program funded around 10,500 projects for some 7900 primary schools.

- The $1.288 billion National Schools Pride (NSP) project to fund minor capital and maintenance projects for around 10,000 primary and secondary schools in Australia, with amounts per school varying between $50,000 to $200,000 (depending on size) per school. The actual project funding was $1.269 billion with administration funding $19.049 million.

- The $821.8 million Science and Language Centres for 21st Century Schools (SLC) to fund 500 science laboratories or language learning centres across Australia. About $809 million was available for project funds and some $12 million for administration funding.

Why NSP and SLC should be excluded:
The combined $2.11 billion cost of the NSP and SLC programs should be eliminated from the $16.17 billion used in the 50 per cent claim for the following reasons:

- The Federal Opposition did not consider them significant enough to include when it sponsored a referral of the P21 element of the BER program to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee for inquiry and report.

- The July 2011 final report of the BER Taskforce shows that of the total 332 complaints received 7 (2.1 per cent) related to the NSP and 13 (3.9 per cent) were about the SLC. However, only 4 (1.2 per cent) were designated as value for money (VFM) complaints – 2 each in the NSP and SLC.

- The 7 NSP complaints represent 0.07 per cent of the 10,000 primary and secondary schools involved in this project. The two VFM complaints represent 0.02 per cent. This does not indicate any outcry about “waste” of funds in this component of the BER.

- The 13 SLC complaints represent about 2.6 per cent of the 500 projects involved. Most of them involved eligibility to participate and ranking issues.

- The October 2009 Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) submission to the Senate P21 inquiry notes on page 8 that the SLC budget was decreased in August 2009 to $821.8 million (that’s a cut of $178.2 million) “due to target of 500 science and language centres being exceeded at lower than forecast cost.” (emphasis added).

Like must be compared to like:
If the Opposition is claiming 50 per cent ‘waste’ on the spending on Government primary schools, it is illogical to add the total spending on Catholic and Independent schools or the spending on the NSP and SLC to calculate that 50 per cent ‘waste’ by Government schools equals $8 billion.

Put simply, if 50 per cent ‘waste’ is claimed on Government school spending, the ‘waste’ in dollar terms can be related only to the total spending on Government schools.

The total funding allocated to Government primary schools under P21 was $9.508 billion. If 50 per cent of this was “wasted”, then the ‘waste’ in dollar terms is $4.754 billion.

So, on Pyne’s figure of $8 billion ‘waste’, there needs to be another $3.246 billion of ”waste” found in the P21 program.

The only other expenditure items in the P21 are the $4.344 billion on Catholic and Independent primary schools.

The $3.246 billion shortfall represents 74.7per cent of that total.

That’s where Pyne’s claim leads – to the utterly ridiculous notion that nearly three-quarters of spending on Catholic and Independent primary schools was ‘wasted’ while at the same time using the efficiency of these two systems as a way of slamming Government school ‘waste’.

What is equally obvious is that Pyne’s deliberate distortions and falsehoods and Abbott’s enthusiastic adoption of them was assisted greatly by the unprincipled campaign against the BER by The Australian. Instead of examining the claims of Pyne and Abbott objectively and putting them into context, The Australian enthusiastically promoted all unfavourable comments.

The Australian, shock jocks, and most of the other media did not bother to examine the lack of credentials of self-servers such as Craig Mayne. He was regularly described as a whistleblower and expert on building. Yet as early as May 19, 2010, Mayne’s evidence to a Senate inquiry revealed that he was not a civil engineer, and had not worked in the construction industry for nearly 25 years. Try finding any reports about this in any of the mainstream media, let alone corrections of Mayne's wrongly stated qualifications.

It is obvious that The Australian in particular, and much of the other media, were not going to let facts get in the way of their dishonest and false reporting.

Nonsense of $8bn BER ‘waste’ claims exposed

Claims by Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne of $8 billion “waste” in the Building the Education Revolution (BER) program are nonsense. Independent cost estimates by quantity surveyors of 130 Government schools throughout Australia expose this lie.

The Building the Education Revolution Implementation Taskforce, formed to assess value for money (VFM) in individual BER projects, received 332 complaints, equating to 3.5 per cent of all schools involved in the program. The Taskforce conducted more than 460 school visits to both complainant and randomly selected non-complainant schools, and collected standardised cost data for more than 3700 of the primary schools for the Primary Schools for the 21st Century (P21) projects from all 22 education authorities, which allowed it to undertake a variety of comparative assessments and data analysis. What follows about the cost estimates for 130 Government primary schools is extracted from that report.

In presenting the Taskforce’s final report to the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Christopher Evans in July 2011, Taskforce chair Brad Orgill said: “Given the context in which the BER program was delivered, it is a testament to those involved that the Taskforce has still only received 332 complaints, over three per cent of BER schools across the nation and at an overall premium on pre-BER business as usual costs of five to six per cent.

“Over 9,000 of the 10,500 projects have been completed since the P21 program was conceived in February 2009. This is a significant achievement. It is clear that the program did in fact deliver substantial stimulus.”

The Taskforce noted in its final report that it had detailed VFM assessments for 137 schools, of which 130 were Government, 5 Catholic and 2 Independent. While there were some randomly selected non-complainant schools, it stressed that the overwhelming majority were selected as a result of complaints and subsequent visits to these schools. I excluded the 7 non-government schools from my analysis because they were too small a sample.

The following table for the 130 Government primary schools comes from information contained in the detailed VFM case studies in the second section of the December 2010 BER Implementation Taskforce (BERIT) report (pages 115-170) and from Appendix 8 (pages 154-233) of the BERIT final report of July 2011. The reports can be accessed at the BERIT website.

In the table, ‘Cost of projects’ refers to the total Education Authority costs for a particular State or Territory for the number of schools listed. ‘Above assessment’ is the net amount for a State or Territory by which all the surveyed schools exceed the cost estimates of the quantity surveyors. ‘Net figure’ is mentioned because with some schools the assessments of the quantity surveyors were more than the education authority costs.
Area Schools Cost of projects Above assessment  % variation
NSW 77 $99,230,405 $15,543,802 15.7
Vic 29 $64,801,594 $3,468,279 5.4
Qld 14 $21,428,603 $645,719 3
WA 5 $7,745,505 $192,028 2.5
SA 2 $2,531,532 -$345,765 – 13. 7
Tas 1 $269,584 -$40,051 – 14.9
ACT 1 $2,397,368 $225,769 9.4
NT 1 $1,784,840 $194,571 10.9
Totals 130 $200,189,431 $19,884,332*  9.9
*This total is a net figure in that it allows for the two States where the assessments are under the costs.

The BER Taskforce engaged independent quantity surveyors who were not informed of the costs for each school they reported on. These surveyors reached their conclusions from the measures of the drawings and specifications on the same basis as if they were advising a client on a project budget.

The State and Territory breakdown of the 95 complaints that applied to the 130 schools studied in the detailed VFM case studies is: NSW 77 (67 complaints, or 87.0 per cent of the 77 schools studied), Victoria 29 (17, or 58.6 per cent), Queensland 14 (8, or 57.1 per cent), Western Australia 5 (2, or 40 per cent), South Australia 3 (1, or 33.3 per cent) and Tasmania ACT and Northern Territory 1 each (with none involving a complaint).

Thus, of the 130 primary schools in the inquiry’s VFM case studies, 95 (73.1 per cent) were the subject of complaints. There were 5675 Government primary schools involved in P21. Of the 332 complaints received by the inquiry, 292 involved Government primary schools – a complaint rate of 5.1 per cent for Government schools. (Note: The Taskforce’s 3.5 percentage mentioned earlier for the total of 332 complaints relates to both primary and secondary schools as all were involved in the National Schools Pride (NSP) component of the overall BER program).

The net $19,884,332 by which the estimated costs of projects at 130 Government primary schools exceeds the estimates by quantity surveyors works out at an average of $152,956 for each school. (That average is probably high because of factors mentioned in the previous paragraph).

However, even using this average and projecting it to the 5675 Government primary schools involved throughout Australia in the P21 program gives a total of $868,025, 300, considerably short of a billion, let alone billions.

Pyne uses his own maths:
The only apparent basis I can find for the $8 billion ‘waste’ claim is the following statement by Pyne when moving for a Commission of Inquiry into the BER in the House of Representatives on October 18 2010 (page 389 of House of Representatives Hansard for that day). He said:
“The opposition have been supported in raising these issues by notable media identities and outlets such as Ray Hadley, The Australian, the Today show on Channel 9 as well as others. In spite of all this, the previous Minister for Education, now the Prime Minister, described those complaints as nitpicking about a $16 billion program - in spite of the fact that we have uncovered billions of dollars of waste and mismanagement. Outlets and organisations such as the New South Wales Teachers Federation, not usually aligned or associated with the coalition, have said that there is as much as 30 to 50 per cent waste in this program, leading people to assume that there is as much as $6 billion to $8 billion of wasted taxpayers’ money.”

Pyne apparently uses different mathematics to the rest of the world in managing to get 30 per cent of $16 billion to equal $6 billion.

However, Abbott never bothered attempting any explanation for the $8 billion ‘waste’ claim – he simply asserted it. An example is when he moved a motion on 18 November 2010 (3020 of House of Representatives Hansard on that day) to suspend standing and sessional orders in the House of Representatives.

“Another policy that was also too important to be delayed was the school halls program. We all know what happened there: $16 billion was spent on $8 billion worth of value, if we are lucky. ... Let me make this prediction to the House: the National Broadband Network will turn out to be the school halls program on steroids. The school hall program wasted $8 billion.”

Dubious sources cited:
But back to Pyne. His claim that “we (I presume he means the Opposition) have uncovered billions of dollars of waste and mismanagement” is in conflict with the quantity surveyor findings.

The media groups and identities he cites are not noted for their objectivity as was shown by their use of highly unreliable sources for exaggerated claims about the BER. More of that later.

The only named outlet or organisation that Pyne cites is the NSW Teachers Federation which on April 23 2010 made a submission to the inquiry into the Primary Schools for the 21st Century (P21) by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee. This can be accessed at the Federation website.

In its submission, the NSW Teachers Federation lists 27 case studies from individual (but not named) schools to say in its conclusion:
“We have estimated from the many examples provided that there will be less than $10 billion in actual value from the $16 billion allocated under BER.”

That estimate relies on 27 case studies of unidentified NSW Government primary schools, or 1.5 per cent of the 1784 NSW Government primary schools, being appropriate for the entire nation.

Another problem with this estimate is that the Teachers Federation is actually referring to the P21 program (that’s the subject of the Senate inquiry). The $14.06 billion P21 program involves $13.852 billion funding for actual school projects and $207.787 million allocated to the 22 education authorities (8 State or Territory education departments, 6 Catholic and 6 Independent Block Grant Authorities (BGAs) and two combined Catholic/Independent BGAs). So, what the Teachers Federation is really estimating is ‘less than $10 billion in actual value’ from the $13.852 billion allocated to schools under P21.

The NSW Teachers Federation covers teachers at NSW Government schools. It has no direct links to teachers at 6178 (77.6 per cent) of the 7962 primary schools involved in P21 projects throughout Australia (DEEWR figures). These 6178 represent other State and Territory primary schools and all Catholic and Independent primary schools.

Why bother with evidence?
In his October 18, 2010 speech in the House of Representatives calling for a Commission of Inquiry into the BER, Pyne let the cat out of the bag about how the Opposition was not waiting for any evidence before asserting waste and mismanagement in the BER.

Here is what Pyne said: “Unfortunately the waste continues unabated, in spite of the fact that since April 2009 the opposition have raised in this House and in the media example after example of waste and mismanagement.” It really is hard to see how there could have been much “waste and mismanagement” by April 2009, seeing as April 10, 2009 was the closing date for 20 per cent of eligible schools to submit lists to the Commonwealth for approval. Another 40 per cent was required by May 15 and the final 20 per cent by July 10.

Pyne wrote to the Auditor-General on June 12, 2009 requesting scrutiny of whether the delivery of the program represented appropriate use of taxpayers’ money. In fact, Pyne’s letter was sent about five weeks after the first round of P21 projects were due to start in May-June 2009.

On June 25 2009 – about seven weeks after the first of Round 1 of P21 projects were due to start – the Senate resolved to request the Auditor-General to undertake an urgent investigation of ‘waste and mismanagement of the BER program’.

Both of these moves came nearly two months before the first BER project was completed at Yandina State School in Queensland’s Maroochy Shire in late August 2009.

Much ado about nothing:
As promised, back to the unreliable claims from ‘sources’. On April 7, 2010, The Australian reported under the heading ‘Building rort claims face audit’, that State Education Minister Geoff Wilson and Education Queensland director-general Julie Grantham met Greg Applin, a civil engineer ‘who is alleging overpricing for an $850,000 library to be built at Hendra State School, where his wife recently quit as Parents' and Citizens Association president’.

The newspaper report continued: “Mr Applin produced a ‘budget cost plan summary’ from construction manager Abigroup, showing the 224sq m library would cost exactly the $850,000 of taxpayer funds allocated by the federal government.

“The actual building costs – including site works, landscaping and $130,000 for ‘site services’ such as electricity and water connections – total $628,284.

“But ‘other design and construction’ costs add up to $128,528 -- including a 6 per cent construction management fee of $51,000, another $63,149 for ‘professional design’ and $4922 for site surveying.

“A further $27,353 has been quoted for furniture and fittings, $4505 for a ‘principal's representative’, and $2805 for an ‘audit quantity surveyor”.

“An 8 per cent project contingency allowance, totalling $57,524, brings the cost to $850,000.

“Based on the 224sq m floor plan provided with the quote, the completed price is $3794 per sq m – 50 per cent more than the cost of building and fitting out a high-quality home.”

(I note that submissions to the Coalition-dominated Senate inquiry closed more than two weeks after the April 7, 2010 report in The Australian. It is interesting that when submissions closed there was none from any Queensland school and none from any Queensland P & C. Mr Applin apparently did not feel strongly enough to pursue the matter there).

Now for the facts:
The Taskforce VFM case study for Hendra State School on page 212 of its final report tells a different story.

The library, which is shown to have been completed on 22 February 2011, was rated Value for Money. The case study shows the Education Authority gave the floor area as 287 sq m while the quantity surveyor estimated it at 238 sq m.

The Education Authority building cost was $639,539, or $157,792 less than the surveyor’s estimate of $797,332. The education authority gave external works costs at $210,461,or $127,054 more than the quantity surveyor’s estimate of $83,407. The overall result was that the quantity surveyor calculated the total project cost at $880,739, or $30,739 more than the education authority.

One of the most unreliable sources used extensively by News Ltd publications, Ray Hadley, and the ABC, was Craig Mayne, who was routinely described as a ‘whistleblower’ and a ‘civil engineer’. Mayne also wrongly claimed experience as a project manager in the construction industry. I wrote a piece about this in July 2010, which can be accessed at Google by typing: Analyzing Craig Mayne’s full claims.

Mayne’s credentials to be called an expert analyst are shaky and his experience in the construction industry is minimal – in fact when appearing at the Primary Schools for the 21st Century (P21) inquiry by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee on May 19, 2010 he was finally forced to admit he had not been employed in that industry in any capacity since before 1986. He also admitted he was not a civil engineer, although he had left uncorrected repeated media mentions attributing this qualification to him.

His submission to the Primary Schools for the 21st Century (P21) inquiry contains errors such as claiming Education Queensland would manage almost $5 billion worth of Federal funds (it was actually about $2.24 billion for all three components of the BER); taking out of context a quote from Queensland’s Department of Public Works; falsely claiming that more than $1.7 billion in work had been allocated in Queensland to builders without tender; and justifying an analysis of projected costs of $200,000 against projected costs of $850,000 library at Hendra State school by saying he contacted a Queensland home builder to find out how much it would cost for a building of the same size.

Yes, that is the same Hendra State School examined by the Orgill inquiry’s VFM case study quoted above. The school was also visited three times by the inquiry – in June 2010, in November 2010 and in June 2011.

Yet Mayne was praised by Anne Connolly, of the ABC News Online Investigative Unit, in an article ‘BER issues slip under the media radar’ on 31 May 2010. She wrote: “It’s worth pointing out that much of the financial analysis comparing standards with public school costs has been done by a dogged former P&C president and civil engineer from Queensland, Craig Mayne, who gathered publicly available data and pieced the puzzle together and all for The Australian’s benefit.”

Connolly, a former Walkley Award winner, wrote this article 12 days after Mayne’s appearance at the Senate inquiry where not only was the civil engineer claim shown to be false, but that under questioning Mayne admitted he had not been employed in the construction industry for just on 25 years.

In this article Connolly was very much “Anne of Queensland fables”.

In the second article of this series, I will discuss more of the fables that follow as a result of these claims of $8 billion BER ‘waste’.

Swan’s song stings the affluent and powerful

Isn’t it a pity that no sooner had Wayne Swan introduced a debate on the growing disparity between the affluent and the rest of the community, it degenerated into mindless slogan-slinging. ‘Class warfare’, ‘the politics of envy’ were the predictable responses from those defending those specifically targeted: Gina Reinhart, Clive Palmer and Twiggy Forrest. Despite being well able to defend themselves and able to deploy their vast resources to voice their opinions, Tony Abbott was quick off the mark, followed by the bellicose Joe Hockey, with these hackneyed slogans, slogans they trot out every time they perceive an attack on the upper echelons of society. We saw them during the debate on means testing the private health insurance rebate, and more recently after the Gonski report that queried the extent of Government support given to wealthy private schools. It’s not the slogans that are so offensive; rather it is that they serve as a paltry substitute for informed debate, one we as a society need to have.

Before we get into this important subject, let’s look at what Wayne Swan actually wrote in his March 1 Monthly Essay: The 0.01 Per Cent: The Rising Influence of Vested Interests in Australia. Read it in its entirety here.

Swan begins: “A decade ago, as I waited for my order outside a Maroochydore fish and chip shop, a tall, barefoot young man strolled past wearing a T-shirt that read: ‘Greed is good. Trample the weak. Hurdle the dead.’ Those brutal lines seemed to encapsulate what was then a growing sense of unease in Australia. The world of my Queensland childhood, governed by its implicit assumptions of equality and mutual care, was being driven from sight by a combination of ruthless individualism and unquestioning materialism. Looking out for number one was not only tolerated but encouraged by a government whose agenda, particularly in industrial relations, seemed very far from the social contract, based on a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work with a decent social safety net for the vulnerable, that had served our nation so well for so long.

That is what is troubling Swan. Should we be troubled too?

Later on, referring to “…a global conversation raging about the rich, the poor, the gap between them, and the role of vested interests in the significant widening of that gap in advanced economies over the last three decades, Swan says: “This is a debate Australia too must be part of. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a nation that’s more equal than most – a place where, if you work hard, you can create a better life for yourself and your family. Our egalitarian spirit is the product of our history and our national character, as well as the institutions and safeguards built up over more than a century. This spirit informed our stimulus response to the global financial crisis, and meant we avoided the kinds of immense social dislocation that occurred elsewhere in the developed world.

“But Australia’s fair go is today under threat from a new source.

“To be blunt, the rising power of vested interests is undermining our equality and threatening our democracy. We see this most obviously in the ferocious and highly misleading campaigns waged in recent years against resource taxation reforms and the pricing of carbon pollution. The infamous billionaires’ protest against the mining tax would have been laughed out of town in the Australia I grew up in, and yet it received a wide and favourable reception two years ago. A handful of vested interests that have pocketed a disproportionate share of the nation’s economic success now feel they have a right to shape Australia’s future to satisfy their own self-interest.

“So I write this essay to make a simple point: if we don’t grow together economically, our community will grow apart.

“Of course, rewards should be proportionate to effort, recognising the hard work and entrepreneurship that create wealth and employment. We should not seek pure equality, but we do need to combat the types of disparities in opportunity that damage our society. That’s why providing more people with a good education and a decent job with fair rights and conditions should be an economic as well as a moral goal.

Referring to the many who journeyed to Australia to escape grinding poverty and inequality arising from the industrial revolution, he says: “Here they saw a chance to create a more equal society in which some of the wealth actually made it to the bottom. And they did it by vesting the role of ameliorating poverty not in an aristocracy but in a democratic state. This is the best way to understand the greatest Australian achievements of the last two centuries: a living wage, a welfare system, public health care, mass home ownership, and accessible technical and higher education.

That’s what Swan’s essay is about Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Gina Reinhart, Clive Palmer and Twiggy Forrest.

Yet without reading his essay, without hearing his National Press Club address, how many would know? All we hear is childish slogans and the ravings of shock jocks; we see full-page ads from Twiggy, and largely uninformed comment from journalists whose writings are light on information but redolent with rhetoric. We are being seriously shortchanged, as we so often are.

Swan quotes President Obama who described ‘rising income inequality as the defining issue of our time’. Swan reminds us that tackling rising inequality has been one of the defining issues of his political life, captured in his 2005 book Postcode. He points out that between 1979 and 2007 in the US, the top 1% saw their after-tax incomes rise 275%, while the middle two thirds saw their after-tax incomes increase by less than 40%, and that a recent Pew Research Center survey found that friction between rich and poor in the US is now a greater source of social tension than the issues of race and immigration. The trenchant opposition in Congress to legislation designed to tax the rich at a higher rate, and to health bills that provide health cover to the poor, has intensified this. Republican candidates have pledged to repeal the Dodd–Frank Act that imposed better regulation on the financial sector after the 2008 Wall Street collapse. In US politics, the rich are the beneficiaries; the poor can take pot luck. Do we want that here?

In the US, the middle class, the conduit for aspirational citizens to move through from poverty to affluence, is shrinking, as is economic mobility. The same applies in the UK. Yet in the East the middle class is growing as the poor elevate themselves to a better place.

With the hollowing out of the middle classes in much of the West, Swan fears that in Australia we are headed in the same direction, with the rich not just becoming even more affluent, but also exercising increasingly strident influence on public policy, as we saw the miners that Swan targets do at rallies protesting about the mining tax, taking out whole page advertisements in the press in opposition, and spending large sums on lobbyists.

John Maynard Keynes said that legitimacy of capitalism rests on the existence of an implicit social contract between the rich and the rest. Swan is concerned that the very rich miners are breaking this social contract.

President Obama makes a similar point when he says that well-funded lobby groups give ‘an outsized voice to the few’ by ‘selling out our democracy to the highest bidder’.

Swan points out that the vested interests that he is targeting misrepresent their self-interest as the national interest.

Let’s look more deeply at what Swan’s detractors accuse him of.

First, some, like Gerry Harvey, make the point that even billionaires are entitled to their opinion and the right to express it. Gerry, we all accept that. It’s how they do so which alarms, by using their excessive market power born of great wealth. It is the way they exert disproportionate influence, well above what ordinary folk can do, that is concerning Swan, and acting in their own interests in so doing.

Next, Joe Hockey, in his usual superficial way, says Swan wants ‘to kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs’. No Joe, he does not want to kill it, he just wants a fairer share of its eggs for the rest of us.

More thoughtful contributors to the debate argue that this nation is built on the courage and determination of entrepreneurs who take risks in order to make a profit. Of course, and they are vital to our nation. Swan does not dispute this. Economists point to the fact that our miners employ many people, as indeed they do. Miners employ 200,000, about 2% of Australia’s workers. We all know that. We also know that during the GFC the miners shed jobs faster than most sectors, far from saving us from recession.

Politicians and some economists insist that big business, such as mining, must be encouraged by tax breaks and incentives such as start up subsidies, and certainly should not be taxed higher, because they employ these workers, they create the wealth, and that wealth ‘trickles down’ to those at the lower levels of society. Indeed ‘trickle down economics’ is their principle raison d’être for supporting big business in debates about income equality. If it were not for these entrepreneurs nothing would trickle down to the masses, they say. So these pillars of free enterprise, these captains of industry, need support, encouragement, and above all they don’t need to be taxed more.

In his book Zombie Economics – How dead ideas still walk among us, Queensland University’s John Quiggin debunks many of the contemporary theories, zombie theories as he calls them, that economists still embrace, among them ‘trickle down economics’.

Despite eminent economists such as John Maynard Keynes, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill supporting income redistribution through progressive taxation, there has been no shortage of economists who argue conversely – that we should let the rich get richer, and wait for the benefits to trickle down to the poor. These economists still exist and are still arguing that today. We hear them doing so in the context of the debate that Swan initiated. Another slogan, which is more seductive than ‘trickle down economics’, is ‘all boats rise with the tide’, implying they all rise by the same amount. It sounds eminently plausible doesn’t it, even although it is demonstrably false?

In a paragraph headed Death – the rich get richer and the poor go nowhere, Quiggin uses a telling graph of household income in the US from 1965 to 2005 which shows that while those in the top 5% increased their income by over 60%, those in the bottom 10% did not increase it at all, and even those on the 50th percentile, the half way mark, increased by less than 10%. It was only those on the 80th percentile or above that showed a substantial increase. The top half boomed; the bottom half stagnated. Not much trickle down there.

Of course these are US figures and Swan acknowledges that the disparity demonstrated there is not as pronounced here. But it is precisely these figures that alarm him. He fears that we are on a similar course to inequality here, propelled by the aggressive advocacy against public policy, such as the mining and carbon taxes, waged by the very wealthy who can afford to use their financial power to buy influence in newspapers, radio stations and through lobbyists, and subvert public policy designed to share prosperity more equitably among all our citizens. In my view he is right. Those who bother to use factual evidence to refute his contentions might find themselves in great difficulty proving their point. Which I suppose is why they resort to mouthing slogans or clinging to outmoded and debunked economic theories, such as ‘trickle down’.

In case readers think that all Swan is about is making the poor wealthier, this is what he says: “It’s not just about putting dollars in people’s pockets, but about building a better society; a society that creates wealth and spreads opportunity, a society that lifts up the worst-off and gives everyone a decent shot at a decent life.”

This is what it’s about, and Swan sees this better, more equitable society being threatened by the activities of a very wealthy few who use their wealth and power to unfairly buy influence in order to thwart good public policy in the national interest designed to ‘lift up the worst-off and give everyone a decent shot at a decent life’.

It is a disgrace that the debate about this critically important issue has been debased by slogans, superficial arguments, and debunked economic theories, and is so bereft of thoughtful, well-argued dialogue based on facts and figures. Find if you can one decent article or editorial that argues a cogent case.

What hope is there for an equitable society when the antagonists to Swan’s contentions are incapable or unwilling to mount a convincing case, and our media sit back with almost nothing to contribute but ‘he said, she said’, and trite mantras that miserably fail to address the simple point that Swan’s essay makes: “… if we don’t grow together economically, our community will grow apart.”

What do you think?

Pollies, the press pack, and poison politics

How many of you have been dismayed at the increasingly unhealthy relationship that has developed between some politicians and some journalists that has led to leaks, false reports, internal party tension, party upheaval, and a level of disruption that can only be harmful to any political party, and, in turn the nation?

Before we begin gnashing our teeth, we ought to remember that politicians have had relationships with reporters for eons. Some are fruitful; some are subversive. Everyone is aware of the overt relationships. Reporters bail up politicians at so-called doorstops trying to extract a quotable quote. They are present at press conferences initiated by politicians. They are an eager audience at such events as National Press Club addresses, and at formal addresses to the party faithful, to institutions, to business, industry and community groups, and on those ad hoc occasions that call for a political statement and a response. They are rightly there to report what is being said and how questions are being answered. That is the reporter’s job. How well they are doing their job is another matter, one that has been the subject of intense and heated debate in recent times.

This piece is not about this legitimate media activity, overt as it is; it is about the covert relationships that have been in stark evidence in recent weeks.

Again we need to concede that these covert relationships between politicians and reporters are nothing new – they have probably gone on ever since politics became an entity. Lately though, they seem to have had a very damaging effect on political parties and on government.

The unholy alliance of leaking pollies and the press pack has given us poison politics.

Why does this subversive phenomenon exist?

It seems to be in the nature of politicians to seek power, some more than others. They enter politics, often with the altruistic aim of making a difference, but soon find that to do so requires the exercise of power. So they seek power to achieve their aim. Not every politician has the same aims; often those in the same party have different aims. So the struggle for power is not confined to a struggle between parties, but is manifest within parties. In Labor, those in the left factions have different views on some issues from those in the right factions. In the Coalition, the ‘liberals’ have different views from the ‘conservatives’ on some issues, and the Nationals different views again. Because ideas and actions arising from them are often strongly contested within parties, a fight for supremacy is inevitable. In the Labor party we see some who support selling uranium to India, while some vigorously oppose it; some support gay marriage, while others are trenchantly against it.

This struggle for supremacy is healthy while it is overt, but lately we have seen it become covert, and unhealthy. The struggle of one idea over another sometimes morphs into a struggle between people for supremacy, presumably in the belief that being in power enables the ideas espoused to be implemented. Sometimes this becomes as basic as who is to lead and control the party. We saw this played out when Nick Minchin initiated a push against Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull because of his support for an ETS. It resulted in his being replaced, by one vote, by Tony Abbott. An ideological and policy battle was waged and Abbott won. And of course we saw the battle for leadership of the parliamentary Labor party in full public glare last week.

Before probing deeper, let’s acknowledge that there have been mutually beneficial relationships between politicians and journalists for ages, even when they have been covert. Politicians have fed journalists with information they want promulgated, and in turn journalists have used that association to extract inside information from politicians. Being on the so-called ‘drip feed’ is a privilege for favoured journalists, who in turn aid the politician in achieving his or her aims. It is not always a fair exchange and journalists have been known to double cross their sources, a recipe for the drying up of the information flow. But the prospect of getting a scoop, an ‘exclusive’, a jump on other journalists, is always tempting in the competitive game of journalism.

In Labor we have seen something more deep-seated and sinister though than this mutually beneficial exchange. Ever since Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd it seems that Rudd has been working out how to regain the leadership, with the help of his supporters. Some who supported him at the recent ballot did so because they felt the 2010 coup was fundamentally the wrong way of going about managing a leader who was becoming increasingly difficult and dysfunctional. Anthony Albanese was one. Other supporters though, for whatever reasons, wanted him returned and were prepared to go to any ends to achieve this. Some believed he was the only leader that could lead Labor to victory at the next election. Sabotage was the weapon of some of them. It seems evident now that white-anting the PM was a conscious strategy. The white-anting was not confined though to party circles, the saboteurs went outside the party; they went to the media. And they found plenty in the media who were prepared to collude with them, opposed as they also were to PM Gillard and her Government, which their news outlets were actively undermining. It was grist to their mill.

So there were damaging leaks, the first of which was the leak to Laurie Oakes that derailed the 2010 election campaign. Julia Gillard has never fully recovered from that piece of sabotage. Now we know that there had been a series of leaks about policy, plans and people that have interrupted the PM’s attempts to initiate reforms, and just as importantly inform the public about them. Some journalists were complicit in spreading inside information, rumours, and malevolent talk about the PM and her ministers. Even although the veracity of the stories might have been questionable, that was not sufficient to dissuade them from circulating them.

It is not hard to imagine how those who support Labor felt about the subversive behaviour of some Labor parliamentarians and the apparatchiks that backed them. Talkback callers gave us a glimpse of the anger they felt at these saboteurs who were endangering the party to which they belonged. Some felt the term ‘treason’ was applicable. Whatever role journalists played in this sorry saga, we cannot escape the sad fact that it was people within the core of the party that fed them. Condemnation by their peers and supporters is their punishment.

But this behaviour does raise the question of the ethics of the journalistic profession, and of those who knowingly colluded with the saboteurs.

Journalists insist that they cannot and will not reveal the identity of their sources, and there is tacit acceptance of this position by much of the community. But does that privilege entitle them to receive and promulgate through their outlets scuttlebutt, rumour, unverified assertions, and at times outright lies? Sound and ethical journalism demands revelation of the facts, all of them, unembellished by the personal views of the journalist or his editor or proprietor, and a well-reasoned analysis of them. An opinion may be added, but it should clearly be just that – an opinion, separate from the facts, and it should be reasoned from the facts.

But what did we get during the protracted period of leaks? Unsubstantiated assertions, comments that eroded the leader's authority, those that contradicted Government intentions, those that cast doubt on the direction the Government was taking, and those that questioned PM Gillard’s integrity and whether she could win the next election. The journalists concerned knew full well what they were becoming entangled in – a concerted attempt to bring down a sitting PM, by a displaced one.

Did they question the veracity of the scuttlebutt and rumour? Did they do any checking of the ‘facts’ that were passed onto them? Did they query what the perpetrators were trying to do – unseat the nation’s PM? Did they question the ethics of the perpetrators in embarking on this reprehensible action? Did they in fact do any due diligence about the stories they were circulating? The answers seem to be no, no, no, no and no. They simply grabbed what they saw as an array of stories of intrigue and disloyalty – all great yarns – and published them, over and again. And they did it without qualms because in many instances the purpose of the sabotage was consistent with their outlets’ own agenda – the removal of PM Gillard, and of course the Labor Government. It matched their mantra about Julia Gillard being a back-stabber and untrustworthy, reinforced their ‘Ju-liar’ slogan, and coincided with their oft-promoted view that she is incompetent, unloved by the electorate, error-prone, lacking judgement, and incapable of winning the next election. It was a convenient merging of agendas, the politicians’ wish to replace PM Gillard with previous PM Rudd, and the journalists’ agenda of upending our PM.

This behaviour wasn’t some strange aberration. Just a few days later journalists were at it again over the ‘Carr affair’, peddling scuttlebutt, rumour, conjecture, speculation and false predictions, coupled with inaccurate, and in some instances wholly incorrect reporting, ending with the media embarrassment we saw at the PM’s announcement of Carr’s appointment, one that that left the press pack gobsmacked.

Just in case readers think this piece is only about the role of the media in Labor ructions, let me remind you that leaks to the media afflict the Coalition as well. Last week it was leaked to the media from someone who attended its caucus meeting that Tony Abbott had been challenged by Russell Broadbent about the funding for Abbott’s expensive PPL which he felt might be better applied to a disability scheme, to which Abbott was lukewarm. Broadbent is a highly principled person, who has taken a contrary stand from his party on other issues. He is not one who would leak to the media. Someone else must have done this to create mischief in Coalition ranks, and someone in the media was prepared to collaborate in this malfeasance. I question the ethics of this collusion between leakers and recipients, designed as it is to gain a personal advantage, or to disadvantage others.

In the Report of the Independent Media Inquiry released last week, the chair, Ray Finkelstein QC, said:
There is common ground among all those who think seriously about the role of the news media and about journalistic ethics that:
- a free press plays an essential role in a democratic society, and no regulation should endanger that role
- a free press has a responsibility to be fair and accurate in its reporting of the news
- a free press is a powerful institution which can, and does, affect the political process, sometimes in quite dramatic ways
- a free press can cause harm – sometimes unwarranted – to individuals and organisations
- a free press should be publicly accountable for its performance
- codes of ethics regarding accuracy, fairness, impartiality, integrity and independence should guide journalists and news organisations.

The bolding is mine.

How can anyone disagree with …a free press is a powerful institution which can, and does, affect the political process, sometimes in quite dramatic ways, and a free press can cause harm – sometimes unwarranted – to individuals and organisations? Or with a free press has a responsibility to be fair and accurate in its reporting of the news and a free press should be publicly accountable for its performance.

That is what this piece is about – specifically, the irresponsible way in which the media and individual journalists actively colluded with the Labor saboteurs seemingly without consideration of the ethics of what they were doing, let alone the accuracy of what they were being fed, to bring down the nation’s PM. They hid behind the oft-quoted mantra that they must protect the identity of their sources, hid their collusion with the subversive behaviour of the conspirators and their malevolent agenda. Is that consistent with ‘a code of ethics regarding accuracy, fairness, impartiality, integrity and independence’ that the Media Inquiry advocates so insistently? You know the answer.

More generally this piece is about the propriety and ethics of leaking to the media by politicians, political parties, government bodies, inquiries, and indeed any source of inside information with the purpose of gaining an unfair advantage or deliberately disadvantaging others, and the ethics of journalists and the media in receiving these leaks and making hay out of them. You might think that is a naïve view of how the political world ought to behave, but to me it seems that the use of malicious leaks by the leakers, and the publicizing of them by a complicit media, is wrong. Over and again, we have seen what awful and quite unfair damage this behaviour has done to individuals and groups.

Let’s not have in response to this piece a clamour for ‘freedom of the press’ or ‘freedom of speech’, or ‘journalists must protect their sources’. We all agree with those principles. What this piece is about specifically is the subterranean collusion of some journalists in a subversive attack on our PM and our Government, seemingly without concern about the ethics of collaborating in this way, unworried about the veracity of what they were being fed, and unconcerned about the consequences of being party to a plot to bring down a sitting PM. Their hunger for a dazzling story, and in some instances their desire to see the saboteurs succeed, overrode their ethics, overwhelmed everything they learned about quality journalism. They got down in the gutter with their ‘sources’, and seemingly revelled in it.

More generally, it is about the wider problem of malicious leaking, and the media’s ready connivance with that malfeasance.

The unholy alliance of leaking pollies and the press pack has given us poison politics.

What do you think?

The Canberra Press Gallery stumbles – yet again

After filling so many column inches with stories about PM Gillard’s multiple ‘stumbles’, how embarrassing must it be for so many of the press pack to have themselves made such a monumental stumble this week. Still smarting from having stumbled almost two years ago, being caught flat footed when PM Rudd was replaced by PM Gillard, they found themselves caught yet again on Friday when Julia Gillard arrived at her press conference to announce her reshuffle with Bob Carr in tow. The collective sucking in of breath in astonishment could be heard down the corridors; and minutes later in the breathless and incredulous way they posed their questions.

Journalists hate being wrong, being wrong-footed. Political journalists regard themselves as the insiders, privy to the labyrinthine goings-on in the corridors of power. They yearn for the scoop, one that places them a cut above their colleagues. Being out of the loop is anathema to them. They foster contacts, their ‘sources’, from whom they suck whispers, or speculation, or information, which sometimes turns out to be misinformation, accidently purveyed or deliberately so by Machiavellian operators. Although at times it must be hard for them to know what to believe, that does not seem to inhibit most of them from rushing into print with their ‘exclusives’, so long as it makes for a good story, and trumps their fellow journalists in the process.

In the aftermath of one of the most tumultuous weeks ever in Federal politics, it is informative, and amusing, to read what they have to say this weekend as they scrape the egg from their faces after a week in which they made a host of confident assertions, dire predictions, and outrageous speculation, along with biting condemnation of the process and the players, particularly the ‘mistake-prone’ PM, ‘who never seems able to get anything right’, and who is unable to capitalize on any small bit of good luck that comes her way.

From the outset though, let us acknowledge that we shall never know the full story of all that transpired this past week. There were so many players in and out of parliament, so much back room discussion, so many ‘deals’, so many old scores to settle, so many egos needing to be fed, so many whispers and leaks to so many journalists, that it is impossible, and fruitless to boot, to attempt an unraveling. All we have is the statements we have heard on the record from the PM, her ministers and key players, and the stories we have had from the journalists from what they have discerned and what they have been told. No doubt they will seek to stick to their stories, and where they are manifestly wrong, to attribute their inaccuracy to others, who presumably have mislead them. Don’t expect a mea culpa though – that is a bridge too far.

In assessing the response of the press pack, let’s see if they can be categorized. To me they seem to fall roughly into three groups: the Julia Gillard is doomed group that believes no matter what the PM does, she is already beaten; the bob each way group that, determined not to be wrong, believe she won’t recover, but that miracles still happen and she might, and the there is plenty of time to prove herself group. We shall see where our erstwhile journalists fall.

Let’s start with what Brendan Nicholson had to say in The Weekend Australian in Surprise for all as Carr makes a smooth entrance because he seems to sum up the astonishment of the press gallery: ”Journalists waiting for the reshuffle media conference in parliament's Blue Room expected Julia Gillard to arrive at the head of the usual line of elated, relieved, and disappointed ministers. But, after a frenzy of camera flashes in the corridor outside, in walked the Prime Minister with the craggy-faced Bob Carr. After days of claims and denials, surprise was complete.” Indeed!

The lead story in The Weekend Australian, a more or less ‘factual account’ of the Carr appointment, came from Sid Maher in A Bob each way then Julia Gillard gets her man. It begins: “Julia Gillard has gambled her leadership on the appointment of former NSW premier Bob Carr as foreign minister, staring down the ambitions of Defence Minister Stephen Smith. After fending off stories about aborted efforts to draft Mr Carr to the foreign minister's job for much of the week, Ms Gillard yesterday entered a news conference with the former NSW premier by her side, revealing she had offered him the job again on Thursday morning.

"I have put together the strongest possible team to do what the nation needs, to make us the nation we want to be in the future - a stronger and fairer country," Ms Gillard said.

The announcement defied expectations that the foreign affairs post would go to Mr Smith, who remains in Defence, and resistance in cabinet to the appointment of an outsider to a plum ministerial post.

And the Prime Minister has moved to assert her authority, dumping key Kevin Rudd supporter Robert McClelland to the backbench after telling him his advocacy for the former prime minister's leadership challenge had gone too far.”
That’s where the facts cease in The Australian and the learned opinion begins. More of that later.

Next let’s switch to the Herald Sun to see what the doyen, Laurie Oakes had too say. He opened his Julia Gillard finds a spine, turns defeat into a breathtaking win with ”That’s one for the books. Julia Gillard unbotches something. Turns failure into success instead of the other way around. Bob Carr's appearance at her side as the new Foreign Affairs Minister - after the apparent collapse of the deal earlier in the week - was a breathtaking political development.

For days the PM had been lambasted in Parliament and the media for weakness because she had allegedly allowed a few senior ministers - particularly Defence Minister Stephen Smith - to veto the recruitment of Carr. But suddenly on Thursday she discovered a spine - and a bit of political nous - and decided to revive Plan A despite the opposition from her colleagues. It was a show of strength. And not before time. If Gillard is to capitalise on her resounding defeat of Kevin Rudd in last Monday's leadership ballot, she has to show both courage and flair.”

Later he says:”The ridicule the Coalition hurled at her in Parliament, devastatingly effective at the time, carries no weight now. She is in charge. And Carr's sparkling performance at their joint news conference yesterday left little doubt that he will be an asset.”

He concludes: ”His [Carr’s] return to politics will help Gillard. And, by showing the toughness and determination to ignore those opposing his appointment, Gillard has helped herself.”

So the old man of political journalism has enough ‘humility’ to grudgingly give her a tick. I think he’s a bob each way man.

The other doyen, Paul Kelly, begins his: Julia Gillard's great escape with: ”In a surprise – almost comic – moment, Julia Gillard has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, securing Bob Carr as foreign minister after her leadership victory over Kevin Rudd.

It has been a week of high farce in Labor politics. Carr's appearance yesterday by the Prime Minister's side, three days after this exact event was abandoned, was the final stage in a farce redeemed only because of its satisfactory ending.

Kelly was not going to let go of the ‘farce’ meme; he even described the press conference as straight from Monty Python. To abandon that would have been too much – but at least he acknowledged she had a win in the end. If you can get behind the paywall, you will read an account of what Kelly believed happened, constructed to align with the story The Australian ran earlier in the week about the approach to Carr, one described by Julia Gillard as ‘completely untrue’, an assertion he mocks. Yet embedded in the middle of his account is this: “Carr said on Wednesday that Gillard “had definitely not made an offer about the foreign ministry, nor had anyone on her behalf.” No doubt, that was technically correct. The truth, however, is that Gillard wanted Carr.” I suppose that convoluted statement is intended to convince the reader that no matter what denials PM Gillard or Bob Carr made, they were only technically correct, certainly not correct by the stratospheric standards for correctness that characterizes effusions in The Australian.

He concluded: “Gillard must revitalize and change this Labor government in terms of image and content. Carr helps in this project. This is the reason her failure to realize her plan to make him foreign minister would have been such an embarrassment. This is the week Gillard got out of jail twice.”

We will never know how correct his version of events really is. Does he have impeccable ‘sources’? Does he have information denied to others? How much of his account is supposition, how much conjecture, and how much verifiable? But we can be sure his story will not change; there will be no mea culpa, even if warranted.

I cast him as a bob each way journalist. Age brings with it a sense of history and commonsense.

The editorial in The Australian: False political narratives pervade our democracy begins: “An extraordinarily complicated political week ended well for Julia Gillard with the appointment of former NSW premier Bob Carr to the Foreign Affairs portfolio, strengthening her ministerial team.

"But the Prime Minister is unlikely to get all the praise she deserves because of the failure to tell the real story of this appointment, and of much of the media to report it for her. The tortured process of Mr Carr's elevation reveals what is wrong with this government and the reporting of it. Today in Inquirer we analyse the false narratives that define this government, driven by spin and a press pack unable to see beyond it."

So a small bouquet is soon clobbered with a sizable brickbat about this awful Gillard Government and its ‘false narrative’. The writer takes a surprising tilt at the press pack, blind to the real story, the real insight, that only The Heart of the Nation has and enjoys. Arrogance writ large!

In the Letters section of The Australian, the first under the heading: Gillard's flip-flop on Bob Carr merely reinforces doubts wasn’t so generous:

 ”I am sure that Labor spin doctors will be out in force in the next few days declaring the Prime Minister to be a political genius in securing the services of Bob Carr. But I suggest that this action by the PM merely reinforces voters' perception of her, that she lacks integrity and habitually bends the truth.

“It is also time for the Canberra press gallery to stand up to her treatment of them at press conferences. For heavens sake, could one journalist just ask her a tough question on impulse and not be intimidated by that karate chop she uses all the time? The country deserves better."

Another tilt at the press gallery, shamefully intimidated by the PM’s karate chop! Poor dears.

The other two letters outside the paywall were in similar vein.

Promise you won’t gasp at what Dennis Shanahan wrote in: Masterstroke or muddle: leader assertive at last:

 ”Julia Gillard arrived at the right decision to appoint Bob Carr as foreign minister after going about it the wrong way for the wrong reasons. How it will all turn out is still unclear but the Prime Minister has undoubtedly regained lost ground and authority in the past 48 hours.”

He gives her a qualified tick. Referring to Carr’s appointment, he concludes: “But how this plays out will determine her fate and not some inexorable slouching towards another challenge. After fumbling from weakness, Gillard’s taken the chance on offer to reassert herself…” From this piece he looked to me like a bob each way man. But don’t be fooled.

In another piece: The myths of Labor's grand public deception Shanahan continues his vitriolic campaign against the Gillard Government. It begins: ”During most of the years of the Howard government, the Labor opposition ran a self-delusional narrative that John Howard was hated, hateful, unpopular, a liar, unelectable and against immigration and workers. It was a false narrative at odds with his electoral success but encouraged by an anti-Howard commentariat.

“The Labor Government is now in danger of doing what it did in opposition by believing a false narrative built on its own spin about policies, politics and personnel. Although problems have been obvious from the beginning, critics have been undermined and isolated, gross mistakes passed over and excused, policy and implementation failures blamed on others, and myths created to cover fundamental flaws as part of a great public deception.

“Worst of all, many members of the Rudd Gillard governments can’t see through their own deception or are so complicit in the errors they can’t afford to acknowledge the truth and deal with it rationally. These are deep seated problems that cannot be swept aside by the simple political circuit breaker of appointing Bob Carr as foreign minister”

So there are Shanahan’s real feelings. There he’s a PM Gillard is doomed man.

I’m incredulous that even one as biased as Shanahan could write such a tirade in the face of 269 bills already passed at last count, and a progressive reform agenda that pales into insignificance anything John Howard did in his latter terms. Where has Dennis been? It’s as if he exists in a dream world of his own, perhaps shared by some others at The Australian where reality is what they purport it to be, not what is happing in the real world of Federal politics. If anyone is delusional, could it be Dennis?

We ought not to let News Limited hog all the space. In the Sydney Morning Herald Michelle Grattan, who has been no supporter of the PM, wrote a mildly conciliatory piece PM's trump card defies critics as Carr revs up that began: “Julia Gillard has pulled out a sensational reshuffle trump card, recruiting former New South Wales premier Bob Carr to add lustre to her government as Australia's new foreign minister.” The rest is just ‘she said, he said’.

Shaun Carney in A tough road ahead for Gillard as the dust settles begins: ”The high praise for the Prime Minister as some sort of political genius, the declarations of certainty that she would lead Labor to a magnificent victory next year were fine in the context of last week but will come across as deluded, given the government's weak public support. The iron rule for all politicians is don't believe your own publicity.” Much of his account too is also ‘she said, he said’.

Phil Coorey writes a similar piece, but at least his headline is positive How the PM engineered an impressive turnaround

As you read them, you will see that bootstrapping is alive and well, as Bushfire Bill keeps reminding us.

Michelle, Shaun and Phillip may be edging towards the bob each way group, but don’t bank on it.

Michael Gordon, in the Sydney Morning Herald, in The Carr coup was more charitable in his conclusion: ”Gillard still faces a very tough road if Labor is to be competitive next year, but she showed this week that she might just have what it takes.” He looks like a member of there is plenty of time to prove herself group.

I could make this piece twice as long by giving an account of the hundreds of inches of column space devoted to this week in Federal politics, but this will have to do.

What is obvious is that while a few are prepared to give grudging acknowledgement of PM Gillard’s achievements this week, even her strength and resolve and by implication her triumph over those who so many insist control her like a puppet on a string, a balanced assessment of the commentary leads inexorably to the conclusion that some of the media, particularly News Limited and its flagship The Australian are prepared to give her no leeway. They want her gone, and in the light of this week’s success will redouble their efforts to put her down, stung as the are by being outflanked, outwitted and outmaneuvered by this awful, deluded, narrative-destitute PM who does nothing but make one stumble after another.

The fact that once again the Canberra Press Gallery has had another major stumble enrages them to the point of apoplexy. Hell has no fury like a journalist scorned.

What do you think?

We are being conned by the polls – the Tarot Cards of politics

Imagine this – a world without opinion polls. Then ask yourself whether in such a world the leadership contest played out this week would have occurred at all. Consider on what it was based – a decline in the polls for the Government, in Julia Gillard’s popularity, and in her popularity compared with that of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. Over and again we were told how important the polls are in the fate of PM Gillard and her Government. If they slip any further, she approaches political death, or is irretrievably doomed; if they recover, resurrection might be possible, although in the view of many, that is out of the question.

In our culture numbers carry great weight. Descriptors such as ‘declining’ or ‘improving’, or the more dramatic terms journalists prefer to use, have nowhere near the potency of numbers, not just because they are imprecise, but because we assign so much more power to numbers. They are subject to calculation and comparison in a way words are not. More of this later.

I can hear you saying: ‘But there was more to the Gillard – Rudd contest than just polls numbers’, and of course you are right. From all the accounts we have now had the chance to read, there had been white-anting of Julia Gillard and the Government by Kevin Rudd for over a year, but this was not unambiguously reported in the media until the crisis was upon us. What was reported in the polls, week after week, month after month, was the Government’s score in the TPP stakes, PM Gillard’s standing in the popularity stakes, and most significantly her standing compared with Rudd in the ‘preferred Labor leader’ stakes and with Abbott in the ‘preferred PM stakes’, and to make sure we got the real message, her standing in the ‘who is most likely to lead Labor to victory’ stakes.

It was the numbers with which we were assailed, and every deviation from previous numbers was tediously analysed, and learned interpretation of the deviation offered. It was almost totally a numbers game, a poll numbers game.

In New Matilda on 27 February Ben Eltham, commenting on the outcome of the leadership ballot in a piece: Gillard won, Labor lost, had this to say: ”…in modern politics, winning elections is no longer enough. Staying ahead in the polls appears to be just as important. It’s a fortnightly test of political legitimacy that creates constant pressure on under-performing leaders and parties. Few leaders can survive a sustained run of bad polling without at least some rumblings within their own party. If Labor was leading the Coalition in primary vote polling, Julia Gillard’s position would never have been in doubt. For Gillard, it’s hard to see this as much of a victory. She has certainly proved the support of her colleagues. But while her polling figures remain dire, her position will always be in doubt.” and later ”…it seems almost impossible to imagine that Labor’s poll figures could recover to an election-winning position.” For Eltham, polling numbers seem to be crucial. He is not alone. For Dennis Shanahan, who regards himself as the supremo in poll interpretation, numbers are everything. Even small deviations, within the usually accepted margin of error of three percent, are given prominence, especially when they signal a decline in the PM Gillard’s or the Government’s position. While not psephologists, the likes of Michelle Grattan, Peter Hartcher, Matthew Franklin, even Andrew Bolt will try their hand at poll interpretation, and use the numbers to make their points. It’s always the numbers.

Obsession with the numbers would be reasonable if they were reliable and if they actually meant something. It is tacitly assumed by the public, and unfortunately by many of the poll ‘experts’, that they carry important meaning, significant pointers. Before accepting this with such touching faith, we need to ask how valid and reliable are they.

Last month I wrote about polls in How opinion polls poison politics The part of that piece relevant to this one reads: “Without going into tedious detail, polls are only as reliable as the quality of the sampling and the size of the sample…Getting a sample that is truly representative of the opinions of the entire Australian electorate is the greatest challenge to pollsters.

A sample size of around 1,000 carries a margin of error of around 3%; with smaller samples (some may sample as few as 600), the margin of error rises. To reduce the margin to 1%, around 10,000 would need to be sampled, but this is too expensive for the pollsters. While pollsters acknowledge these sampling drawbacks, usually in fine print, they usually do not feature prominently in any commentary, so that readers tend to regard the figures as ‘gospel’ and attribute more significance to them than the figures warrant. Even minor deviations, within the margin of error, are given credence.

The thrust of this piece is that the recent leadership battle was predicated on the polls more than any other factor, and that the reliability of some aspects of these polls was of such questionable validity and reliability that to use them to precipitate such a major upheaval was wrong.

What the interpreters of polls seldom tell us is that polls are not predictive, but the other day on ABC TV, Peter Lewis from Essential Poll said just that, followed quickly by a quip ‘that he would probably be thrown out of the pollsters league for saying that’. Yet every pollster and psephologist knows that to be so. But of course polling organizations don’t want this inconvenient truth exposed as their business and the revenue it generates depends of the results of their polling being accepted as valid, reliable, and able to predict. I have been asking how eighteen months out from the next scheduled election contemporary polls could possibly predict what will happen then. We hear the ridiculous statement, mainly on news bulletins, ‘if an election was held today, the Government would be ‘annihilated’, ‘reduced to a rump’, ‘be out of power for a decade’, or ‘lose X number of seats’; take your pick. They say that, despite the fact that an election is not being held today, and probably not for eighteen months, and knowing full well that all polls narrow before an election and that in recent times most election results have been close, with the vote often within the 51/49 percent range. In other words, polling organizations, and all who feed off them, are conning us deliberately. Why is this so?

It’s because polling organizations are lucrative, self-perpetuating businesses that have found they can rely on the public giving them credence, and because their owners, often media outlets, depend on them for easy, cheap copy that can be sensationalized into catchy headlines and startling stories. Imagine how bereft Dennis Shanahan would be without polls. What would he write about? Polls are mentioned in almost everything he pens.

So let’s not imagine that we will ever be told the truth about polls; they are too lucrative and too central to political reporting to admit that they are in reality not much better than Tarot Cards, used from the late 18th century until the present time by mystics and occultists in efforts at divination.

Who then are we to believe? I submit that we can believe only the best of our analysts, the brilliant statistician Possum Comitatus, and Andrew Catsaras, who will now have a regular slot on the ABC’s Insiders. They focus on trends, not individual polls. Possum’s Pollytrend is statistically sound and Andrew’s analysis will also give us trends, using a different statistical method.

Let’s accept then that polls on voting intentions are not predictive, but what about popularity polls? The psephologist Mumble has written an interesting article Rudd’s first demise in The Australian which is well worth reading. Amongst many other interesting observations, he says: ”I’m not a great believer in ‘satisfaction ratings are more important than voting intentions’ stories, but they do tell us something”, and referring to Rudd’s removal in 2010, “As I’ve said before, the idea of chopping down a PM because he has dipped behind in the polls doesn’t pass the laugh test. By that criterion Howard would have been gone after 18 months and Bob Hawke after three years.

Vex News didn’t think much of the polls either: ”Rudd wasn’t removed because of bad polls or mining taxes or flip-flops on carbon. We now know – in unvarnished truth – because of the carefully-considered yet brutal truth-telling of Rudd’s most senior colleagues – why he was removed.” Yet it was the numbers in the polls that were quoted over and again, and exactly the same was done as journalists and sundry ‘experts’ insisted that Julia Gillard must have ‘a spill’ to ‘clear the air’ that they insisted was continually overshadowed by the low clouds of unpopularity in the polls manifest by an adverse approval/disapproval ratio, ‘poor TPP polls’ and ‘Rudd is favoured (usually by twice as many) as favour Gillard to lead the party’. All these numerical measures were considered incontrovertible evidence, not to be denied.

When asked for approval/disapproval, how many based their opinion on previous polls, thereby succumbing to the bandwagon effect? How many have been influenced by the incessant disingenuous bagging of the PM by Tony Abbott and much of the media? When asked about preferred Labor leader, how many based their opinion on the Kevin Rudd they believed they knew, the Rudd they saw in public places in his ‘hail fellow well met’ mode, rather than the Rudd they saw exposed this week? How valid are the propositions that pollsters put to their subjects? How reliable are the responses? How predictive are their responses? Would even the most committed pollster assign the predictive potency to their polls that commentators do? Surely not! Yet the poll numbers were used as a powerful lever by politicians and journalists to insist that a leadership ballot must be held, eventually of course precipitated by Kevin Rudd’s resignation. It is not just the pollsters and the journalists that respond to the leverage of the polls, it is the politicians too. Although I suspect many of them are as skeptical about their value as I am, they have been bludgeoned by the pollsters and the press into taking notice of them. Despite their virtual uselessness in painting an accurate picture and their acknowledged incapacity to make reliable predictions, the pollsters have conned the politicians and most of the public into believing these Tarot Cards must be obeyed.

Our own Jason queried the validity of the polls when Rudd seemed to be saying: "…the polls say I'm popular so you must have me back.” Jason added “If Rudd was to be reinstated because he's popular in the polls, would he then be bound to legislate whatever else was popular because of those same polls? 

I may very well be wrong…but to be ‘governed’ by ‘polls’ is a slippery slope to get on I think.”

In response, Lyn collected a number of quotes about polls made in the Fifth Estate. Margaret Simons said: ”Is public opinion (i.e. polls) the same as public wisdom? 
Those watching the gaping hole that has opened up between the political class and the public over who should be prime minister might wonder whether there a difference between public opinion, as measured by the giant strainer of opinion polls, and public wisdom.” Jeremy Sear said: ”The polls are a poor approximation for ‘the public’. One poll counts and it's in 2013.

Others said: “"…the measure of a government is not by opinion polls or daily headlines" and ”Polls don't predict anything - they just tell us what happened recently …” And the much respected George Megalogenis has often commented on the slavish attention afforded opinion polls by the political community in this country. In Poll-driven parties put the individual first at electors' expense in The Australian on February 25 he began: The nuttiness in the Australian political system did not begin with Kevin Rudd's sacking in 2010. The main parties have been yielding to personality-based politics since at least 2003.” Later he refers to “…the hijack of public debate by opinion polling.” Read the rest of his article to see what he thinks about personality and opinion polls.

It seems many are now seriously questioning the validity of the very polls that are assigned so much potency, so much importance, so much predictive power, so much influence on crucial political events. It’s time we in the Fifth Estate called them for what they are - a confidence trick, a political Tarot Card.

How long should they be allowed to con an unsuspecting public?

What do you think?