Why do journalists have so much difficulty being objective?

Let’s acknowledge that ‘being objective’ is a challenge not just for journalists. All of us have the same struggle. All of us bring to what we say and write our own beliefs, ideology, biases, prejudices, preferences, hopes and desires – our own personal agenda. This piece uses examples of writings about the same subject in one edition of the one paper to draw attention to how a story can vary depending on the optics of the storyteller.

Lest we start with different ideas of what ‘objective’ means in this context, let’s at least accept some common dictionary definitions: ‘impartial’, ‘free of bias’, ‘based on facts’, ‘observable’ – all reasonable synonyms.

Arguably the most important reform announced this year by the Gillard Government was the suite of aged care reforms detailed last week. Let’s use them as a template for assessing objectivity among those who reported it.

Starting with the front page headline in the Weekend Edition of The Australian Financial Review: Means test slugs wealthy, with the byline: Gillard’s aged-care shake up, we are invited to get the drift of Bina Brown’s article, or at least what initial impression the sub-editor is fostering. The word ‘slugs’, which my dictionary tells me means to ‘strike with a hard blow’, suggests that under this scheme the wealthy will be beset with an unreasonable imposition. Yet the article begins: “Aged people with high incomes and more valuable assets will have to pay more for their care in nursing homes under the biggest aged-care reform in 15 years.” That is a balanced factual statement. So why the provocative headline? I image you know – simply to attract attention. Accuracy is irrelevant. Later we read: “The plan is designed to ensure anybody needing care who can afford to pay, will pay.” No mention there of the wealthy being ‘slugged’. It ends: “In a positive for the thousands of elderly Australians that would prefer to remain in the family home, the plan includes almost 40,000 extra home care packages.” Again, a balanced, objective statement of fact.

I could find nothing negative in Bina Brown’s piece, yet the headline is pejorative and misleading. I wonder how she feels about the message of her piece being perverted by the headline. I can hear some of you saying: “Don’t subeditors always pull this stunt? Answer: not always, but often. But is that objective journalism? No, it’s misleading journalism, and it’s just not good enough. We do not deserve to be assailed by this editorial trickery by those running their own agenda.

On the next page we read the assessment of the highly-respected Laura Tingle, titled: Broad Support for the reform under a generic heading Retirement overhaul, which begins: “A major overhaul of aged care that invests new resources to allow more people to be cared for in their own homes and addresses a crisis in the aged care workforce has won plaudits from providers, consumers and industry groups.” Pretty positive stuff! The piece is accompanied by a table that lists the pluses and minuses of the ‘Stay at home’ and the ‘Enter a nursing home’ options. The list is objective, the pluses greater than the minuses, with the latter ending: ‘Tougher means test for fees’ and ‘Some people pay more, some less’, respectively. The article ended on a positive note: “The Council on the Ageing, aged care providers and union representing workers in the aged care sector presented a united front on Friday to endorse the package.” I could not find one negative word or pejorative comment in her article. It was an objective, factual account of what was proposed. If Laura can do it…!

Then there was the Industry view by Jason Murphy: Risk tactics spoil results. You might reasonably ask: ’What does that mean’. I don’t know and the short piece doesn’t clarify, but from the first paragraph, I doubt if the headline was meant to be complimentary. The piece begins: “The Government has dumped key Productivity Commission recommendations on aged care to dodge political repercussions and fiscal risk, industry insiders say.” Note ‘dumped’, where ‘not accepted’ would have done; note ‘dodge’, where ‘avoid’ would have sufficed. Words are important – they convey not only meaning but also the attitude of the user. Murphy reports that a Jim Toohey, a participant in the PC’s funding workshop, had said that: “…the package was positive overall but the government had been ‘cognisant of some of the politically damaging political fallout’. Who would have thought it? Murphy’s piece ended: “Canberra’s response to the report notes that full implementation of the [PC’s] recommendations would have involved significant cost.” Maybe that was why they ‘dumped’ some of them! Why the AFR included this nondescript piece is a mystery, but it appears its intention was to be somewhat negative. What personal agenda was the writer running?

Next there was journalist Brian Toohey’s piece: Time for balance in who pays how much for what. A regular rider of the ‘cut middle class welfare’ hobbyhorse, it was no surprise to read his opening paragraph: “It makes sense for a government trying to eliminate a $40 billion budget deficit to seek a bigger contribution from well-off retirees who are the biggest recipients of upper- and middle-class welfare in Australia. They receive heavily subsidized nursing home accommodation, bigger government rebates for private health insurance than low-income workers, much cheaper prescription drugs and an $800 cash grant to help with utilities bills they can afford to pay themselves.” Note that he makes his assertion and backs it with reasons. Later he says: “The government rejected a Productivity Commission recommendation that the new means test include the value of the family home. Perhaps the government did not go further because it anticipated the opposition’s unprincipled reaction. Having often called for smaller government and greater individual responsibility, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott attacked Labor for applying means tests and user pays charges to nursing home care.” Note again that Toohey backs his facts with his reasons. In the second half of his piece, he goes onto another of his hobby-horses, superannuation. Nowhere is he negative about the package.

Finally, let’s turn to the back to the paper for its editorial, which because it is found under ‘Opinion’, leaves the writer more leeway to stray from fact to express his or her own views. The author is not stated (it never is), but the Editor-in-Chief of the paper is Michael Stutchbury, previously from the Murdoch flagship The Australian. After the mostly positive articles earlier in its pages, garnished with facts and reasoned argument, the AFR editorial announces: Aged-care reforms miss the mark. We sense we are in for some negativity, and we are not disappointed. The first paragraph reads: With the number of Australians in aged care expected to increase fourfold to 1.8 million by 2050, the Gillard Government reforms will not solve the problem of too few aged care places nor attack the burgeoning costs to the budget of funding aged care.” That suggests the reform package is pretty useless – it ‘will not solve…’ the problem of too few places; and doesn’t ‘attack the burgeoning costs’. We read on looking for the reasons for these confident assertions.

The next paragraph reads: “In adopting some of the recommendations in the Productivity Commission report ‘Caring for older Australians’ released in June of last year, the government changes are a start in ending the worst of the problems that have beset aged care since the early Howard government dropped a plan to introduce accommodation bonds for aged-care places, in place of generous income and asset tests.” So it’s a start – that’s a relief. “However, the messy politics and high cost of aged-care reforms have convinced the government to propose milder restructuring than is needed. Despite the reform package announced on Friday, aged care will remain a huge expenditure item and the reforms will make a small dent in the future costs to government of funding aged care.” A dose of negativity to douse any enthusiasm, sans reasoning!

The editorial continues with facts about the reform, mixed with opinion. The writer questions whether the Government has gone far enough in ensuring that the middle class pay enough, and complains about ‘limits to choice and competition because the accommodation supplement is paid directly to the provider’ whereas it should have been paid to the individual as a voucher. Later, reverse-mortgages are canvassed as a useful reform. No rationale is offered for these opinions.

Later the writer says: “So while the government’s announcement was cautiously welcomed by major associations of aged-care providers, there is no guarantee that it will lead to an expansion in nursing care places.” A qualified endorsement of the reform (unlike Laura’s mention of plaudits), but no explanation of why it’s worth bothering with it at all if no new nursing places will likely eventuate.

In case any reader might go away with some positive feelings after reading it, this somewhat disjointed editorial ends: “Overall, the changes foreshadowed by the government will require extra federal funding [so it doesn’t come free], will create more bureaucracy and complex government regulation, [who would have thought that an extended scheme would increase bureaucracy and regulation], and will make only an incremental impact on both the shortage of places and the cost to the budget of the ageing population.” By ‘incremental’ the writer wishes to convey a small increase, and since this is the prediction, the conclusion might be to ask if it’s worthwhile after all. Ending on a negative is essential in case some reader got the feeling this might be a good package.

Now we all know that this is an opinion piece, but how come opinions are expressed without supporting evidence; how come most of the opinions are negative in the sense that the writer believes the government should have done something different? How come the opinion concludes that the whole package won’t achieve much, but no reasons are offered in explanation? How come this editorial, this opinion piece, is so divorced from the other pieces in the self-same paper? Could it be that the editorial writer has contaminated the piece with his or her inbuilt beliefs, ideology, biases, prejudices, preferences, hopes and desires, so that objectivity flew out of the window?

What a pity we can’t have more pieces with Laura Tingle style objectivity, a joy to read, and less of the hotchpotch we saw in the editorial that was so short on objectivity.

Why do journalists have so much difficulty being objective?

This analysis of several pieces from the same paper on the same subject on the same day suggests it is because some allow their subjective feelings, their inbuilt beliefs, ideology, biases, prejudices, preferences, hopes and desires, their own personal agenda, to overtake their objectivity?

In his post on 22 April Sex Text Pest Bests Rest Test on The Failed Estate, against the background of the Slipper affair, Mr Denmore concludes his piece on the state of journalism in this country with: ”You see, what matters for our partisan press is not how many people a story affects (as in aged care, the NBN, health reform or improving disclosure around financial advice - all good reforms under this government), it is how a story can be spun to suit their chosen narrative and ideological imperative - in this case confecting a climate of permanent outrage to force regime change. If it involves someone taking their pants off, that's a bonus.” That just about says it all.

Should we not expect better, even demand better, from extensively read national and state publications that inform the voting public about what their governments are doing, so that they can cast their vote intelligently?

What do you think?

Dumb and dumber: never get between a cliché and the lazy Australian media

VexNews writes today of something that has occurred to more than one person: the Slipper ‘scandal’ looks like a stitch-up. The Murdoch press and the Liberal Party have form.

The VexNews article distilled the suspicions of a lot here, and I'm sure a lot out in the community. Even a nominally right-wing web site can see what might be happening here.

A conservative blogger elsewhere wrote that anyone who dares to contemplate that this scandal has the smell of rotting fish about it is "blasting off the reservation".

This mocking condemnation would have a little more weight if Utegate hadn't happened.

Utegate was a rolled-gold, 100%, stitch-up.

Utegate proved that conspiracies do happen. It is chapter and verse on how to run a phoney scam.

Let's look at the connections:

1. Same journalist.
2. Same newspapers (Murdoch).
3. Same response from the Opposition.

Where is James Ashby, the plaintiff in this mess? No one, but no one has printed anything from him on the allegations. He's gone to ground, it seems, hiding behind the media's reluctance to be seen as "blaming the victim". He doesn't want to comment, his lawyers tell us. He must be a sensitive soul. So hurt, so traumatized: a 33 year old gay man shocked by someone he alleges sent him a text message with "xxx" at the end of it.

This is not me "blaming the victim". This is asking whether the allegations are true or not, which no one in the media has yet done. They prefer to pontificate in their op eds and to interview each other over how "dire" this is for the government.

They confidently predict that this story will dominate the news for the foreseeable future. One by one they promise their readers that it will destroy even the Budget, the announcement of the nation's balance sheet, in tight economic times.

They don't seem to care that they have publicly, even proudly assured us they will abandon their real responsibilities to achieve coverage of what amounts to unproven, untested, bedroom titillation, with a gay twist.

Yet Ashby was prepared to give his court documents to the cockroach, Steve Lewis, or to advise him of their existence, for publication nation-wide before he went into hiding. 

A few Cabcharge dockets are involved. VexNews tells us that the way these dockets were used is standard practice among MPs, not gaming the system, but trying to make it work better for them and the taxpayer dollar.

The speed with which the Opposition has called for resignations and new elections (how long until someone says Slipper should be shot at dawn?) smacks of an attempt to get a bandwagon rolling before too much more extra information that might prove embarrassing to them comes out.

Unfortunately for them we don't sack senior, constitutional officers of the parliament and terminate governments based on what Steve Lewis writes in the Murdoch papers on a lazy Saturday.

Unfortunately for them the same organization, the same personnel as perpetrated Utegate are involved. The organization they work for is under heavy investigation for running scams just like this in the UK, involving corruption of police, intimidation, bribery, perversion of the course of justice, destruction of evidence, illegal access to documents and private telephony, and disgracefully manufacturing evidence and stories based on those lies.

Many of these same techniques are on record as being used by the local offshoot of News: forged emails and their purveying by the same journalist, Steve Lewis, who became a player in Utegate, not just its reporter; premature calls for resignations of all and sundry, parliamentary scandals, fake photographs of political figures, and so on... all of which came to nothing within days, to the shame of those promoting the scam.

The Murdoch press has made no secret, in fact has boasted about their intention to get the goods on Slipper. They have bragged they would bring him down. And now the first "evidence" has come out: a few hundred dollars worth of Cabcharge dockets, and some ambiguous text messages, cobbled together in "court documents" that have been "obtained" by Lewis under suspicious circumstances, resulting in frantic calls for the fall of governments, laid on thicker than Golden Syrup straight after.

Sound familiar?

In any other world except MurdochWorld, right-wing hacks and trolls might have a case to mock conspiracy theorists in this matter as desperate, or "off the reservation".

But in this case it should really be the ones promoting the charges, the ones trying to get the scam off the ground, who should be trying to re-establish their bona fides after their disgraceful, shameful conduct in the past on similar phoneyed-up "scandals".

It's all too quick, too pat. What we are seeing unfolding before our eyes appears to be, judged on precedent, a mass media groupthink exercise in bamboozlement, trying to obtain a quick result before the allegations are tested and the principals ferreted out and interrogated.

Many journalists and editorial writers are telling their readers and viewers that the truth no longer matters. They are telling them that the stories and op eds they are writing themselves are the only "truths" that need to be considered before judgement is passed and execution carried out.

The conservatives themselves, supposed guardians and preservers of our institutions, are urging the abandonment of the rule of law and the principles of justice. They are saying, loud and proud, that even if Slipper isn't guilty of anything, he should still resign. That's what they said about Rudd and Swan too over Utegate. Yet they remained silent about their own Senator Fisher, to name one, when she was up before the Courts and was actually convicted.

They, the self-professed bastions of the establishment, are seriously (and I'm sure they would claim, "responsibly") proposing that the nation's government should be strangled at Budget time. The nation itself - pride of the IMF and the G20, just about the best-performing sophisticated economy in the world - should be put into economic chaos with no Budget and no governance.

For what?

A few hundred dollars worth of taxi vouchers, and an un-investigated, untested, unchallenged set of allegations made by a man who has disappeared from sight, publicised by the same organization that has wrecked governance in the UK, and which nearly wrecked it here with Utegate.

No due process, just perpetual chaos is what they seem to want. Their scoreboard is "The Polls" - meaningless numbers this far out from an election. Their cheer squad is "The Shock Jocks", rabid demagogues who rake dirt and slime for a living, yet retreat to the Coward's Castle of being "mere entertainers" when caught out, as they are so often.

The dumber than dumb, to the point of being brain-dead media are herded like sheep. Dennis Atkins yesterday on Insiders let the cat out of the bag:

”What happens is that most media outlets will start reassessing the strategy for covering the Budget. Do we send our senior political journalists into the Budget lockup, or do we keep them out to watch a potential political and Constitutional crisis on the floor of the parliament? It's going to be a juggling act in terms of how we cover those two competing stories, and I think the public should be in no doubt that these are two stories of equal gravity.

"This is a huge political story that could have enormous political ramifications for the government whose future depends on which way it goes and how it plays out. So it's going to completely overshadow Wayne Swan's Budget.

"The government this week was sort-of putting together all the blocks for its Budget selling, and the message it wanted with the Budget. Speeches and interviews carefully placed here and there. Key lines and themes were going really well. The government was singing from one song-sheet. And I think they all got up Friday morning and thought: 'This is all going well. We know where we're headed and we seem to be putting one foot in front of the other', which for this government is quite a feat.

"Then suddenly, Saturday morning: WHACKO! The whole thing is blown asunder.

This is Atkins telling us how the scam works. He is an employee of one of the tabloids in question, its senior political commentator, and it's inconceivable that he didn't know about this Lewis story in advance.

Atkins was indiscreet on Insiders. He was telling the audience that the Murdoch press is so confident of its cards in this game that it can still win the pot, even if those cards are laid down face up on the table for all other players to see.

He told us what to expect: the Budget will be ignored because of a convenient sex scandal, sprinkled with confetti made from a couple of hundred bucks worth of Cabcharge dockets. This is now parrotted by Fairfax and the ABC, as night follows day.

The Murdoch-Coalition strategy was there for all to see, laid out by one of its chief perpetrators: "Government has good week. Release next scandal."

Atkins doesn't countenance the possibility that both the Speaker's woes AND the Budget could be covered simultaneously. He knows what has been decided.

He knows the game plan: it is all the Government's fault for its own Budget being ignored.

Atkins has seen it all before... and so have we.

Why do so many fall for this classic Murdoch smear? Why have so many forgotten the very poor form of the story's author, Steve Lewis, and the shameful record of his employer in matters of this type? Why do so many continue to forgive the Murdoch media for continual, egregious, multiple transgressions against laws, standards of decency, conventions and even their own code of basic journalistic ethics?

They have been shown to be habitual liars and manufacturers of stories, yet they are still believed automatically. Journalists, all now parroting talk of resignation and the fall of governments, follow them like sheep to a slaughterhouse killing room.

Not one has bothered to try to interview Ashby, the originator of the allegations. Not one has questioned the timing, or the legal issues involved. They are too busy "reacting", interviewing each other, war-gaming strategies, juggling poll numbers, passing judgement and tut-tutting about the peccadilloes of others to think clearly about just which cesspit this story came from, what's in it for whom and why it's been put out now.

The greater, more urgent scandal is how the media in this pathetically small village called "Australia" is suckered time and time again by the likes of Murdoch and his corrupt organization into abandoning their ethics and their curiosity for the cheapest of scams, promoted for the basest of reasons, spread by the lowest of the low among them.

These caricatures of ethical journalism are lazy, cliché-ridden, group-thinking, single-minded nihilists, without an ounce of creativity, imagination or even professional curiosity, peddling dodgy gay sex "scandals" and taxi rorts as more important than the welfare of the nation and its governance in testing times.

The media in Australia are an absolute disgrace.

Questions need to be asked:

1. Who is paying Ashby's legal bills? Actions in the Federal Court do not come cheap.

2. Who paid for the "independent forensic Information
Technology assessment and report" on the text messages?

3. Is Ashby solvent in the case of failure of his application? Will he be able to pay costs if his case fails? Has he received guarantees of financial support? If so, by whom?

4. Where is the evidence Ashby took genuine steps to have the matter mediated before he went to the Federal Court? Indeed, we are told of a "Genuine Steps" statement. Where is it? Slipper says he is "surprised" by the action. How could Slipper be "surprised" if the applicant took "Genuine Steps" to resolve the matter?

5. Worth repeating: who is paying for this very expensive legal action in one of the highest courts of the land?

Looking at the court documents Ashby has submitted, it's plain, from Ashby's own admission, that Slipper formed the opinion that Ashby's loyalty to him was suspect.

By February 26, Slipper was worried that Ashby was having clandestine dealings with the LNP (from which Ashby is said to have resigned) behind his back, or certainly without advising him. Slipper allegedly challenged Ashby on this matter via text messages. Ashby does not say why this conversation occurred, or what were the circumstances behind it, or what was his reply (see 18. below).

It should be noted that none of this "loyalty" aspect has been discussed in the media with any degree of significance.

A bit less than a month later, on March 20, 2012, Ashby claims to have decided Slipper's aim in hiring him was, at least in part, to begin a sexual relationship with him. It appears that Slipper had his own suspicions about Ashby, not of a sexual nature, but regarding Ashby's loyalty to him.

A month after that Ashby filed his complaint with the Federal Court.

Most of the serious charges are evidenced, not by text messages, but by Ashby's personal recollections (no witnesses are mentioned except on one occasion, and then only after the event). Slipper would certainly argue that if, as alleged, he had made advances to Ashby, that he had withdrawn them immediately saying "no hard feelings". Other instances of an allegedly sexual nature were dismissed by Ashby himself with words such as "All good", and the admission that he was not too upset about "the massage". The complaint evidence Ashby's feelings about events.

There is no mention of any formal counseling of Slipper, consultations with the federal government's HR people, attempts at mediation, or ultimatums to Slipper by Ashby (perhaps in the form of a letter of demand), except a reference to a "Genuine Steps statement" that Ashby says has also been lodged with the Court. Instead we have, at face value, a reference to the Federal Court as a first option.

The charges of "breach of contract" involving Ashby's claim he was "forced" to watch allegedly irregular dealings with CabCharge dockets and was traumatized by this seem very weak.

We do not know who is funding Ashby's application to the Federal Court, if anyone, or who funded the "forensic" examination of his mobile phone in order to validate text messages. Neither of these two processes would be cheap. While it is not required of Ashby to reveal these sources at this stage, it would certainly help clear up pubic interest in the matter.

It would also help if Ashby's ENITRE text message records were released, not just the excerpts that support his allegations. We might find out who else he had been talking to, and maybe whether Slipper's suspicions of disloyalty had any substance.

Once again the lack of curiosity from the media stands out like a sore thumb. They seem to be more interested in "the politics" and interviewing each other about this, and to be more preoccupied by the fascinating possibilities of the Budget, indeed the Budget session itself, being blown apart, leaving Australia without a means of paying both its routine and policy-related expenses, and presumably with a Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who has no policies or costings prepared and out for commentary, yet claims to be ready for an election "in 33 days" if necessary.

Despite my comments above, below is what I believe to be a fair summary of the evidence contained in the "sexual harassment" section of Ashby's court documents.

1. (Time unknown, informer not named) Ashby is informed by an ex-staffer of Slipper's of an alleged apparently consensual relationship between Slipper and a junior staffer in 2003.

2. (June-August 2011) He meets Slipper. Slipper allegedly asks Ashby his opinion of the sexuality of a third person (present in Slipper's home). Ashby at this time admits to Slipper that he is "openly gay".

3. (October 15, 2011) Slipper's first alleged formal job offer to Ashby. Declined by Ashby.

4. (October 27, 2011) Slipper's second alleged job offer to Ashby. Declined by Ashby.

5. (December 5, 2011) Another alleged job offer from Slipper. Accepted by Ashby on December 22. (Ashby later claims that, in November, Slipper had also interviewed another gay man for the job)

--------- ASHBY EMPLOYED --------

6. (January 2, 2012) Ashby travels to Canberra to commence work. In that week he claims to have stayed at Slipper's flat in Hughes. Alleges Slipper made the "Tim {Tim Knapp, a Slipper advisor} says you're my fuck buddy." comment. Ashby says this was an example of "poor humour, but admits he "brushed it off" at the time".

7. (January 4, 2012) Slipper allegedly asks Ashby to massage his neck. Ashby does so but stop when Slipper "moans" in alleged "intense sexual pleasure". Ashby immediately stops, saying "You're done".

8. (January 5, 2012) Alleged conversation as to why Ashby keeps shower and toilet door closed.

9. (January 6, 2012) Slipper allegedly showers with door open.

10. (Around January 9, 2012 "end of that week") Slipper allegedly tells Ashby that he "looks fat" in a new polo shirt. Ashby claims Slipper knew he had had a "weight problem" and claims this was "vindictive and deliberately spiteful".

11. (January 14, 2012) Slipper allegedly asks Ashby if he has "ever come in a guy's arse before?". Ashby claim to have been shocked at the inappropriateness of this question coming from an employer. Says that he was forced to remain with Slipper on that day for work purposes.

12. ("Some weeks later") Slipper allegedly asks Ashby whether he is into "twinks or bears". Ashby claims to have been "uncomfortable" saying "They are not questions you ask."

13. (February 1, 2012) Ashby claims to have advised Slipper not to do an interview with a local newspaper, the Sunshine Coast Daily. Sends Slipper a text to that effect, in strong terms. Slipper does interview. Ashby texts him saying he'll have to clean up the mess (from the interview) as a result. Signs text off with "F---k f--k f--k". Slipper allegedly replies not to worry. Signs text off with "x". A later alleged text allegedly consists of just "Xxx", in reponse to more berating by Ashby for doing the interview.

14. (Later the same day) Slipper later (9.38pm) allegedly texts Ashby "Would be good if you here but perhaps we are not close enough?" Ashby does not reply. Slipper allegedly re-sends the same text at 10.00pm. Ashby jokes ("Ha, ha") about someone called "Tim", asking where he is "tonight". Some banter allegedly follows about who is closer to Slipper: "Tim" or Ashby. Slipper allegedly text Ashby "If you interested we could be closer". Ashby claims to be "comfortable" with "Tim" being "closest", saying he doesn't like "stepping on toes". Slipper allegedly replies that it is "Your call and no hard feelings" if Ashby only wants "businesslike contact". Ashby allegedly asks for clarification as to what Slipper wants the relationship to be. Slipper allegedly replies asking Ashby if he "want{s} something more", adding Ashby is "brilliant at massages". Ashby replies that he is happy the way things are, "the massage is as far as it goes". Slipper then allegedly replies "Oh", then Ashby replies "All good", to which Slipper replies "Sorry things not working out but appreciate your frankness" suggesting that Ashby arranges all further communications "through Tim" as Slipper "cannot guarantee availability", adding that he was sorry Ashby could not make make it to a Sydney Harbour cruise at an unspecified future time.

15. Ashby claims he was dropped from the cruise plan allegedly "because he had rejected the sexual invitations put by" Slipper.

16. (February 2, 2012) The next morning Slipper allegedly text Ashby saying he was "only joking last night", claiming he was feeling "depressed and as tho the weight of the world is on my shoulders." Ashby replies that "we all carry that same level of commitment and stress for various reasons." Slipper allegedly replies "Ok :)".

17 (February 26, 2012) Slipper allegedly texts Ashby saying a third person, "Tim" (note: not Tim Knapp), thought Ashby was "a nice twink!" Allegedly repeats the same message a few minutes later when no response. Ashby claims to have been "concerned" he was being discussed "in sexual terms". More texts follow in which Slipper allegedly reveals a conversation with "Tim" about whether Ashby was loyal to "the thugs in the LNP or to {Slipper}." Slipper was allegedly "hopeful your loyalty was to me {Slipper}". It seems at this time Slipper was concerned about just where Ashby's loyalties lay.

18 (February 26, 2012) Same day, according to the court documents, there allegedly "followed a lengthy exchange of text messages in which {Slipper} appeared to be questioning the loyalty of {Ashby} and attempting to control his actions." Slipper allegedly texted Ashby: ";;)ok I do like you but must understand I get upset when you play with my enemies and keep me in the dark. It is not what I expect of someone I considered I am close to. If you find this intolerable please discuss". The reason for and background of this text exchange is not given.

19. (On or about March 9th, not in court documents) The "Mobile Phone Incident": Mobile phone allegedly snatched from Sunshine Coast Daily reporter's hands and thrown away by Ashby. Ashby later tweets: "Interesting day. Since working in the media, it's deteriorated to a point where I'm embarrassed to {have} ever been apart of it."


20. (March 20, 2012) Slipper allegedly, while praising Ashby for work done on a You Tube video, asks Ashby "Can I kiss you both". Ashby claims no other person was present in the room, but Slipper's media advisor, Karen Doane, was in the next office. When Ashby replied "No" (deliberately loudly) to Slipper's alleged request, Doane's attention was attracted (as was Ashby's intention)

21. Ashby claims to have formed a view by this time - March 20, 2012 - that the purpose of his recruitment by Slipper was to "pursue a sexual relationship with" Ashby. He claims another gay man had also been interviewed for his job in November 2011.

Why does Julia Gillard have so much trouble getting her message across?

How many times have you heard this question asked, or its more pointed version: ‘Julia Gillard just can’t seem to get her message across’? Or as Barrie Cassidy said recently: ‘Even when she has a good message to get out, she can’t seem do so’. What a mystery it is that even the good stories don’t get out. How can that be?

These questions touch on complex issues. With all such issues, the answers too are complex. So let’s not race down the simplistic track and attempt a single explanation, and suggest a single magic bullet that will fix the problem. In medicine there is an ever-present urge to look for just one reason for a patient’s condition. Known as ‘Ockam’s razor’ it argues that when diagnosing an injury, illness or disease a doctor should strive to look for the fewest possible causes that will account for all the symptoms. Experience in the generalist discipline of family medicine though cautions against such an approach. There, complexity is so often the rule that seeking a magic bullet cure for a single entity is imprudent, and anyway, probability theory tells us that statistically it’s more likely that a patient has several common diseases, rather than a single rarer disease that explains his or her myriad symptoms. Wikipedia has more details. Politics is similar.

This piece therefore attempts to tease out the many factors, but in the end identifies one that in my opinion is the major one, one that is obvious enough if anyone looks with unbiased eyes, but not one that is easily remedied.

Any analysis of messaging would dissect the subject into the message, the messenger, the audience, and the medium by which it is transmitted.

The message
A clear statement of the issue, well articulated into an understandable message, is the starting point of good communication. If a message can be stated simply in terms the audience can readily understand, so much the better. This is not easy though when transmitting messages about complex issues, such as, for example, climate change and how to counter it. The Government has struggled to convince the electorate of the danger of global warming to our planet and future generations that will result from increasing carbon emissions. It has been much easier to create a negative message. Tony Abbott’s words: ‘climate change is crap’, although later disowned by him, turned out to be a simple but devastatingly powerful message that reinforced the views of the denialists/skeptics, and cast doubt into the minds of the not-totally-convinced believers.

The Government’s remedy, an Emissions Trading Scheme preceded by a fixed price on carbon, proved to be much harder to transmit to a generally uninformed and largely disinterested audience. It is complex both in its conception and the way it works. How much simpler was it for Abbott to create the negative message – ‘a toxic tax on everything’, ‘a tax that will drive up and up and up the price of everything’. His messages resonated with the public, frightened by the prospect of paying more and more for no immediate or tangible benefit. Abbott didn’t have to project the minds of the voters to the future, for most of them an improbably distant view of danger and possible disaster. He had time on his side, so his message could be simple – the carbon tax is toxic to households and businesses and he will get rid of it.

So the Government needed supremely sophisticated wordsmiths to craft clear messages in bite-sized bits that were suitable for contemporary media, with its emphasis on brevity and entertainment. Messaging needs to take account of the medium through which messages are transmitted. TV allows but a very short time for transmission; radio is more generous except when shock jocks set out to stir and startle; tabloids condense their messages into short strident front page headlines and the broadsheets often follow suit, even if there is more detailed material inside. It is only the more serious periodicals that regularly give considered analysis and fact-based opinion, and of course, the Fifth Estate. Yet the bulk of voters use the former media; a tiny minority read the latter.

On this blogsite we have criticized the Government’s media unit for not crafting more lucid and understandable messages about Government policies and plans, and the reasons behind them. We recognize that this is difficult because the matters are complex, and the messages likewise. But it ought to be possible to do better.

Note that the nature of contemporary media with its obsession with entertainment, its emphasis on short sharp messages, its unwillingness in most instances to deal exhaustively with complex issues in the way the ABC and SBS do regularly for their limited audiences, governs the way in which the message is crafted, and forces authors into a style of writing that is inimical to complex issues. We are stuck with our media, so the Government needs to work out how to use it effectively.

Already we see the emergence of a common denominator in the problem of getting messages across – the media.

The messenger
The Government messenger that cops the most flak by far is Julia Gillard. Wayne Swan did initially, but the media have eased off him, and now that Kevin Rudd is in the background he seems also to be off limits for strident criticism. But with our PM as the target there is plenty of scope for the media to criticize, demean and mock.

How many journalists have commented on her slow ocker way of speaking? Some have suggested that she get lessons in public speaking, even in elocution. While there is good advice that communication experts might give her about the words to use and how to deliver them, I doubt if they would advise her to change her voice. What would the media say? I already hear it saying, with lashings of mockery: ‘Is this the real Julia, or a new Julia?’ Can you imagine the ridicule? Those who dislike her voice, her way of speaking, will go on condemning her for it. In my opinion, nothing she could do to appease them would make the slightest difference. I don’t find it any more unusual than Bob Hawke’s drawl, or John Howard's way of speaking that imitators found such good fun. It’s irrelevant to those listening for the message, rather than finding fault.

Other criticisms include accusations of being ‘wooden’ or ‘condescending’. You will remember the ‘wooden’ appellation that originated with her appearances during the Queensland floods. That tag gathered momentum and was soon on many journalistic lips. It’s now in the archives waiting for resurrection when needed. ‘Condescending’ is a label often applied. This is a matter of perception. I have never found her so, but clearly others do. And when they do the media is all over it, transmitting the message: ‘this PM is condescending’. Is it any wonder those susceptible to such a suggestion quickly embrace the notion that this woman speaks down to us, and as we know, nobody likes that. ‘Schoolmarmish’ is another way of saying much the same thing. The media has the option of promoting such terms, or not doing so. It chooses generally to do so. Is that simply to entertain and titillate its audience, or is it a deliberate ploy to demean and more sinisterly, imprint an adverse image of our PM on its audience to advance a political purpose: the deposing of her and her Government? Some will regard the latter proposition as evidence of paranoia, but as a wise old physician once said to me: ‘If it’s true, it’s not paranoia’.

And if a sinister attribute can be applied to the PM, this has even more power than remarks about her physical appearance. To call someone a liar is a potent weapon to demean, to diminish, to blacken a reputation. Tony Abbott, his Opposition team, and his media acolytes have been spectacularly successful in promulgating the liar tag. How many times have you heard, or seen on TV, ‘there will be no carbon tax under a Government I lead’. It is repeated endlessly, and the Ju-liar image reinforced over and again. Is it surprising then that when an indoctrinated electorate is asked to assess Julia Gillard’s trustworthiness, as was the case in this week’s Newspoll, they mark her down? When commentators then say that she doesn’t seem to be able to shake off the liar image, the reason ought to be obvious – they keep telling their audience that she is a liar, day after day, week after week. Older readers will remember how the label ‘communist’ was used to brand ‘left-leaning’ people in a way that they could never escape, even though they were not communists. Labels can be dangerously infectious; often time, a very long time is necessary for them to be erased, and then only after the rhetoric has long ceased.

Once more, note what a powerful influence the media has in the promulgation of pejorative labels – they can do so with vicious persistence, or they can desist. They chose the former for those out of favour, but prefer the latter for their favourites. Tony Abbott has admitted to lying when speaking off the cuff, and often does so, but how often does our media pull him up? Seldom – he is in favour.

With the way the media demean her, is it surprising that Julia Gillard has difficulty getting her message across?

The audience
Politicians have many audiences, but the only one that really counts for them is the electorate. It matters little to them what school children or kids in hospital think; it is only those with a vote who count. The voting public is reached through a variety of means. There are public meetings, ‘community cabinets’ and personal representations with constituents, all of which may provide congenial settings to get across messages, even complex ones. But the media at large is far and away the most common vehicle for transmission to the wide audience of the voting public. If a good message cannot be transmitted via the standard media, it will count for little. Mail-outs, posters, advertisements, and handouts at voting booths have little potency. Politicians need to use the mainstream media to get their messages out.

But that’s not all there is to it. It is the media, not just here, but everywhere, that has created the expectations of their audiences. Based on the belief that what sells papers and programs is mainly their entertainment value, the media has fashioned its offerings to meet that criterion. Knowing that short tidbits make for easy transmission, the electronic media has concentrated on short, snappy presentations of entertaining information, bite-sized bits that are easily assimilated. The net result is that their audiences have been conditioned to such offerings, offerings that require short periods of attention. The outcome is an audience with an ever-diminishing attention span that will not, indeed cannot give more than a moment’s time to the subject. That is fine for Tony Abbott’s three word slogans, but entirely unsuitable for addressing complex issues such as global warming and what to do about it. Of course there are those who take political issues seriously enough to read widely, who attend to thoughtful articles in the serious Fourth Estate, and in the Fifth Estate. Sadly we are in a minority; politicians seeking election must appeal to and be heard by all the voters, and that requires them to make the most of the media that we have.

The audience is not like an attentive class of students keen to learn, the media has seen to that. It is not surprising then that having accustomed their audiences to expect, indeed insist on simple, short, snappy interesting messages that can be assimilated quickly like a soft smoothie that can be gulped down, their audiences reject a sophisticated meal of many elements blended skillfully to give an appreciation of complexity, but which takes time and attention to ingest and digest in all its complexity.

With audiences like that, habituated by the media, is it surprising that Julia Gillard has difficulty getting her messages across, many of which are complex?

The medium
Of all the factors that influence the extent to which political messages get across, there is none as powerful as the medium, indeed the many media. And now I’m not referring to its capacity to do the things detailed above, but to its deliberate political agenda. Although Coalition supporters would argue that there is no bias in the media in its favour, there is so much evidence to the contrary that it is undeniable. The Murdoch Empire and News Limited have been targeted as biased, and many pieces have been written about this. Robert Manne’s article in The Monthly: Bad News: Robert Manne on Murdoch’s Australian spelt out in detail the anti-Government agenda of News Limited and its flagship The Australian. Of course there have been the Manne detractors, but their rebuttals ring hollow. And the Fairfax Media are not without fault.

When contemplating this piece, I thought I would have to research instances of malicious media influence, but I didn’t have to wait long – along came The Sunday Age this week that blasted from its headlines an anti-Gillard message: that she had ‘snubbed’ the Olympics by deciding not to attend the London Olympics and also the fund raising dinner for Olympic athletes that is usually attended by the PM. It was only when one read down the page that it was revealed that only one Australian PM had attended an overseas Olympics since Malcolm Fraser, namely Kevin Rudd, and that PM Gillard was not attending the Olympic fundraiser because the date clashed with that of a G20 meeting that she was attending, one every reasonable Australian would agree held precedence. Coates failed to ascertain when our PM would be attending the G20, failed to realize that it clashed with his event, and failed to arrange another date when she could attend. Even he would not be so egotistical to suggest that our PM ditch attendance at the G20 meeting in favour of his fundraiser. It was his error. John Coates is entitled to express his opinion, even to have a giant dummy spit at our PM not being at events that are important in his life, but is The Sunday Age entitled to scream Coates’ disapproval from its headlines, to engage in a vicious beat-up for which there was no justification, as the article itself shows? No. Any paper with any self-respect would not do what The Sunday Age did. One can only conclude that its intent was deliberately to embarrass our PM and to demean her in the eyes of its audience. Those who read only the headlines would draw an adverse conclusion about PM Gillard; only those who read on would see that it was a beat-up. Fortunately, Barrie Cassidy saw the beat up before his 9 a.m. Insiders where all the panellists called it for what it was. It died rapidly, not subsequently featuring on ABC bulletins, but the damage had already been done.

This behaviour exemplifies the malicious way the media too often obstructs PM Gillard from getting her message out. By demeaning her in this despicable way, any message she wants to transmit, not just about the reasons she was not attending Olympics events, is smothered by the bad feelings that the paper has generated about her. Who listens to anyone that one despises, no matter how compelling the message?

Readers would be able to quote instance after instance of newspapers and electronic news outlets deliberately distorting information, misrepresenting the facts, cherry-picking those that suit their purpose, at times blatantly lying. And often this is for overt political purposes. The Australian seeks the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box and has explicitly advocated this in its pages. Only this week on ABC 774 Melbourne radio, Alan Howe, executive editor and columnist at Murdoch’s Herald Sun, described Bob Brown as “barking mad” after reading Brown’s recent Third Green Oration in Hobart, and went on to demean the Greens. News Limited makes no secret of the fact it is running an anti-Green campaign. How can such an organization provide its consumers with balanced, unbiased, fact-based reporting on political issues when it overtly runs its negative agenda against the Greens? That it is entitled to do so is not disputed, what is disputed is that it can purport to accurately inform the public about political matters so that voters can cast their vote intelligently.

It’s not just News Limited that has become an overt political player. Many, but not all Fairfax journalists have also taken up the anti-Gillard, anti-Labor cudgels. This week veteran journalist Michelle Grattan continued her anti-Gillard campaign in an extraordinary article on the Afghanistan announcement: Gillard on back foot on timing. While the vast majority of commentators gave the PM a tick for her announcement, even Tony Abbott, Grattan saw her announcement quite differently, of course through her own anti-Gillard optics, and ended her piece with: “The Afghanistan announcement was a case study in this government's communications problems. It needed to marshal its experts to get across to the media exactly what it was doing and when, and how that flowed from what has gone before.” So while most others saw this as good messaging by the PM, Grattan did not, and I suspect never will.

With News Limited and Fairfax both running a plethora of anti-Labor stories, many of which do not stand up to scrutiny for truthfulness and balance, how can Julia Gillard get her messages across?

In contrast, how often does the MSM take Tony Abbott to task, even when he lies? He and Joe Hockey have been peddling the line that Government borrowing, you remember ‘a $100 million a day’, is pushing up interest rates, but as Greg Jericho shows in his piece on The Drum: Government debt and interest rates have no connection, the Abbott/Hockey line is a blatant lie. His piece concludes: “To say blithely that Government debt is causing upward pressure on interest rates is just the type of thing you say if you know you can do it and not be held to account. And given Tony Abbott on Monday said it six times in the one doorstop, I'm guessing he doesn't feel under too much pressure to justify his line from those asking the questions.” Exactly, no journalist had the intelligence or the desire to challenge the lie.

Of all the factors that govern political communication, and we have examined four of them, in my view it is the media that has the most profound influence by a country mile. It influences the way in which the message needs to be presented to be heard or read; it influences the way the messenger is regarded; it influences the expectations and the reaction of the audience, which it has conditioned to a style of reporting that is inimical to the understanding of complex issues, and on top of that much of the media is running an overt, and sometimes covert political agenda as a player in the political field of play. It has its fingers in every pie.

It is because its influence is seen to be so pernicious, so all pervasive, so anti-democratic, that writers in the Fifth Estate are so articulate in condemnation. Mr Denmore, a past journalist, has given us a fine series of acerbic pieces that point to the deficiencies and malevolence of much of the Fourth Estate. He begins his latest piece: Nowhere man with “One of the cherished myths of mainstream media critics of the internet is that it is almost wholly populated by paranoiacs, single-issue fanatics, stalkers, train-spotters and sundry geeks occupying the far reaches of the autistic spectrum. Thank God, they say, for the reasoned professionals in the nation's newsrooms.” This reflects the reaction of much of the MSM to criticism of their performance, to questioning of their motives, to exposing their agenda. We saw this when Dennis Shanahan was challenged in the dying days of the Howard Government about his warped interpretation of Newspoll results. He responded angrily, as did his editor, casting aspersions on bloggers as useless, ignorant, ne’er-do-wells whose opinions are worthless, even dangerous. As Mr Denmore points out, it is a shame that George Megalogenis, one whose writings on economics are highly regarded, has felt it necessary to write about some who responded on his blog: "The problem isn’t us, or our loyal audiences, but the know-it-all." As Mr Denmore says: “Indeed, his blog entry reads as a rather desperate rearguard attempt to blame the disintegration of the mainstream media business model on a few ‘cyber bullies’, as he calls them - crazed keyboard warriors of the extremes whose cap-locked SHOUTING is drowning out attempts by legitimate journalists to tap dance for a loving and largely passive readership. Has there ever been a better example of an otherwise astute mainstream journalist completely missing the point about what interactive media means?” George must have had a bad day at the blog with ranting bloggers. We know the feeling.

I expect a similar reaction from any journalist who has persevered this far.

To so many of us in the Fifth Estate the unavoidable conclusion is that the mainstream media has a major, and too often a malicious influence on how Government messages are transmitted to the electorate. It’s tentacles reach into every aspect of communication as its distorts the message, demeans the messenger and poisons the audience to her or him, conditions the audience in a way that makes the transmission of complex messages to it almost impossible, and most malevolently by being a partisan player on the political field. Unfortunately there seems to be no magic bullet to remedy this deplorable state of affairs.

In the face of all this is it any surprise Julia Gillard just can’t seem to get her message across?

What do you think?

The three stooges play budget games

Scene: A villa on the Gold Coast.

Mathias Cormann: This is nice Joe, how did you find this place – on the beach, rolling surf, blue skies, leggy blondes on the sand…

Joe Hockey: Thank Tony. He’s a good mate of Clive Palmer – it’s his pad. He thought we needed some peace and quiet to work out how to find $70 billion in savings to pay for all the stuff Tony’s promised.

Andrew Robb: It’s better than the inside view in our Canberra offices and a lot warmer. But we might have to pull the blinds – it’s pretty distracting out there.

Mathias: Where’s Tony?

Joe: Tony’s not that interested in money matters – he finds economics boring, and frankly I’d prefer to keep my hand on the till – you know Tony! He wants us to get the ball rolling and he’ll come later to look over what we’ve come up with.

Andrew: So how much savings does he expect from us? It seems to get bigger all the time; he keeps coming up with his expensive ideas.

Joe: Let’s start with $70 billion – that’s big enough.

Mathias: But that figure was before he came up with his nanny scheme!

Joe: I know, I know, but that was just an idea he floated to appeal to the female of the species. You know, he has hasn’t got much of an image with them and he thought a nanny scheme might get him a few brownie points. All he’s said is that he’ll ask the Productivity Commission to look at it. He knows he can easily knock it on the head if he gets into government if the PC reckons it would be too expensive. He says his idea is all gain but no pain. It’s the female vote he’s after; don’t you worry about how to pay for it. That’ll be on the never-never!

Andrew: So we don’t have to work out how to pay for it. Good.

Joe: So let’s start.

Andrew: Before we do, let’s all agree on what we have to pay for and what money’s coming in.

Joe: Well for starters, if Tony’s determined to knock over the carbon tax, there’ll be no carbon tax revenue, or at least none once Tony kills the scheme. Swan will have it on his bottom line though from July 1. We can hardly include it in ours as Tony’s going to kill it.

Mathias: I know we’re looking ahead a bit, but how would he kill it? When he gets into power, he might get a repeal motion through the House, but the Greens in the Senate say there’s no way they will vote it down. So he may be stuck with it. If that’s the case, will he use the revenue from the tax to fund his promises?

Joe: I don’t know. To do so would look a bit hypocritical wouldn’t it? You’d have to ask him, but I guess if it’s money in the bank, he’d use it – he can’t give it back. I suppose he’s thought about that!

Andrew: What if he can’t kill the tax – the Greens will still have a majority won’t they?

Joe: Well he’ll threaten them with a double dissolution that would wipe them out – they’ll come to heel don’t you worry.

Mathias: Don’t be too sure! I’m in the Senate and I can tell you the Greens are pretty stubborn – I reckon calling their bluff won’t work, and what if the people don’t like having to go to another election so soon and end up voting against us? Pretty risky stuff I reckon.

Joe: Well, Tony’s crazy brave as you know. He could do anything.

Andrew: So do we or don’t we count carbon tax as revenue in our costings for the 2012/13 budget, and do we or don’t we use it each year after that until Tony kills it, that is if he can?

Joe: I hadn’t thought of that. Sounds messy, but better not to count it, otherwise the media that aren’t in our pocket would be all over it. Let’s get on with finding these savings.

Mathias: What about the minerals tax? Doesn’t the same problem arise? How can we count minerals tax revenue in our budget calculations when Tony’s promised to repeal the tax? Swan would tear us limb from limb if we counted taxes that we’ve vowed to knock off, and so would the economics writers. Imagine what Gittins would say.

Joe: OK, lets work out how we can pay for all our promises without any money coming from the carbon tax or the minerals tax.

Mathias: Jees that’s going to be hard! Can we jot down the things Tony says he going to knock off and what he reckons he’ll still keep after he kills the two taxes.

Andrew: Well he’s said he’ll keep the super increases – he reckons knocking that would land him in big trouble with workers. But it’s a bit vague what will happen to the reduction in company tax; Tony’s got his own ideas about giving them a tax break.

Mathias: What about the pension increases, upping the tax-free threshold, family compensation and other benefits? Tony says they will have to go because if there’s no carbon tax, there’s no need for compensation. So do we leave those payments out of our alternative budget?

Andrew: That all very fine for Tony to say, but try taking money off pensioners that they’re already getting – all hell would break loose.

Joe: I guess we’d just have to wear it – after all it would be our first term and the old folk would have forgotten that come the next election. I just hope Tony has got his lines worked out before the proverbial hits the fan when he abolishes their pension increases.

Andrew: OK. Let’s accept then that while Swan will count the tax revenues as income, we can’t in our shadow budget. Let’s get on with savings – we’ve got to find around $70 billion.

Joe: But let’s tot up Tony’s promises first. His PPL is pretty pricey; some reckon it will cost over $3 billion a year, but he wants it funded by a 1.5% increase in company tax on the nation's big firms, although we still have to find a top up of $100 million from the budget. So let’s put that in and hope that the company tax hike won’t cause us too much grief. And don’t forget he said he’d reduce personal taxes and pay for this by reducing debt and save $6 billion a year now going on interest payments. Or so he says. I wish he were here to spell all this out.

Andrew: What about his Direct Action Plan? That will cost a packet. Labor keeps saying it will cost each family $1300 a year and Tony doesn’t deny that. How will we get them to wear that? And where do we get the money for his 15,000 Green Army people that he reckons will cost $50,000 per person per year? That’s $750 million a year we have to find. And what about the millions of trees he’s going to plant, and the land to plant them? What will that cost? How much will the soil carbon plan cost? Has anyone costed the DAP fully? How much do we have to find?

Joe: As far as I can make out the Green Army will start at $100 million in 1012/13 and edge up to $250 million the next year as the Army grows, and so on. I don’t know if anyone has costed the trees and the land; I don’t know if there’s enough land for the millions of trees he has in mind, and by the way they won’t absorb much carbon before they’re 5 years in the ground anyway. Tony Windsor reckons there’s not enough arable land to plant the millions of trees, but our Tony says he’ll use semi-arable land. Anyway let’s not worry about the details; let’s just find the savings.

Andrew: Remember that Tony said he’d retain the super increases, and he’d give companies a modest company tax break – does anyone know how much is modest? How much will that cost?

Mathias: We’re spending a lot of time on the extra costs; let’s get on with the savings.

Andrew: But surely we need to know how much Tony has committed us to before finding the savings to fund it.

Joe: Well let’s look at the savings and add in other costs as we come to them. This is not easy guys – we don’t know exactly how much savings we have to find, but at least let’s take a jab at it.

Mathias: Tony says that one of his big savings will be made by cutting public servants by 12,000, but we don’t know if he’ll do this by natural attrition or slash and burn. He’s vowed to abolish the Department of Climate Change completely and he intends to target the Health Department, the Education Department and the Defence Materiel Organisation.

Andrew: How will he administer his DAP and his Green Army without a climate change department. Who will recruit these Army people, and place and pay them? How will he house them – housing is pretty short and expensive. Should we allow for dongas like they use on mining sites? I reckon he’ll need quite a lot of public servants to run this. So he might not save much upending the climate change mob.

Joe: Well I suppose we’ll have to cut health and education staff pretty savagely. He’s got this nice line that none of the Canberra bureaucracy teach kids or attend the sick, so why do we need so many? The voters swallow that hook, line and sinker, but really we do need some administrative types – but how many, and how can we cut them without messing too much with education and health delivery?

Andrew: I don’t know how many we can cut without leaving a mess, so I suggest we just pick a figure that will give us a good chunk of savings, and let the departments sort it out. Don’t forget, this is just a shadow budget, so we can cut as hard as we like without the consequences hitting us, can’t we?

Joe: That’s true – the consequences are on the never-never; we can always pull back once we’re in power, and no one will even remember how savage the cuts were.

Mathias: What about the NBN – we can save a packet there.

Andrew: Yes we can if we use a bit of sleight of hand. The problem is that the total cost of the NBN isn’t even on Swan’s bottom line – it’s an investment that he claims will yield around 7% some time in the future, God know when. But as we’ve trumpeted the huge cost of the project, we might be able to slip it in as a saving, or at least a saving on interest on money borrowed, and the punters will swallow it unless someone like Gittins blows the whistle.

Joe: OK, how much do we put in as NBN savings? We’ve not got too much on the slate yet, so let’s be generous!

Mathias: How much does Tony reckon he can save by ditching it?

Joe: He has no idea. He doesn’t even know if he can ditch it. If it’s about a third rolled out, and contracts galore have been signed, and Telstra’s threatening that it will insist on compensation if the transition from copper to fibre is halted and their payments with it, how can he jam on the brakes, and if he did, how much would he save? What’s more, there are a lot of farmers and business people, and teachers and doctors who are clamoring for fast broadband, who are going to be hopping mad if they miss out and have to wear our el cheapo version. The regions that miss out and are stuck with slow Internet will be ropeable. Frankly, I think the NBN will be pretty hard to torpedo and we won’t get any bouquets if he tries. The punters are not interested in us saving money if they get stuffed around in the process. Anyway that’s Tony’s problem – all we have to do is find some NBN savings – let’s make a stab at it.

Mathias: What other savings have we got – can we use some we came up with last year?

Joe: Of course we can. We got done over a bit, and when those HK Howarth accountants that did the job for us got pulled up and fined, it took Tony and I some fast talking to fend off the press. ‘We stand by our costings’ was about all we could say, but I think we got away with it. Most of the journos didn’t hammer us too hard – it’s easier when they are onside.

Mathias: Can I bring up another curly one – Nauru. Tony says he’s going to open it up again. Do we have to allow for that in our budget or can we shelve that until Tony’s at the wheel? Swan reckons reopening Nauru would cost over $300 million rebuilding for 750 detainees, and $1.6 billion operating costs over four years, but Tony’s quote from the catering firm he enlisted was much less. How do we deal with that?

Joe: I suggest we forget Nauru – it’s complicating things for us now, and we can work out how to fund it when Tony gets in.

Andrew: Guys, were not making much headway here. We’d better get this right or Tony will be livid. Let’s go through last year’s savings and see what we can salvage.

The trio work through the reams of paper that cover the coffee table and spill onto the floor, and after several hours of poring over estimates they decide enough is enough and retire for a long restaurant dinner, with good wine to ease the pain of finding $70 billion of savings.

Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, they are surprised to find Tony Abbott at the door.

Tony: How’s it going fellas – are we there yet?

Joe: Well not quite Tony, this is tough going. $70 billion is a helluva lot of money. And what’s more we’re stuck with a lot of queries about what you’re going to do.

Andrew: We’ve put in $100 million a year for your PPL after the big companies have coughed up the tax, sorry levy, you’re laying on them. Is that enough?

Tony: I wouldn’t know – I’m not an accountant. If it sounds reasonable to you, that’ll do. Let’s not make it any higher though – it’s my signature policy so it’s going to happen, but I don’t want it to cost an arm and a leg.

Mathias: We wondered about how much we should allow for Nauru. Are your costings kosher? Maybe you don’t want to include Nauru on the expenditure side until you get your hands on the wheel, or should I say joy stick, as you’ll be flying high.

Andrew: Very funny Mathias. Let’s be serious here.

Tony: I reckon we can defer Nauru for a bit; if we dragooned the Government to refurbish it, that would let us off the hook.

Mathias: But wouldn’t you have to agree to the Malaysia agreement before they did that.

Tony: Don’t you worry about that! I have ideas about that, but only after we’ve milked the asylum seeker saga for as much as we can.

Mathias: What about the NBN Tony. How much do you reckon we can put in for savings?

Tony: Look, I’m not an economist, otherwise I’d have been here sweating it out with you. So don’t ask me. If I had a stab, I would do what we did last year and hope we could get away with it again.

Mathias: Sorry Tony to bring up all these problems, but what happens if you can’t quickly kill the carbon tax or the minerals tax, what if the pension increases and other goodies are so much a part of people’s income that taking them away would be political suicide?

Tony: Don’t you worry about that! The name of the game is to Softly, Softly Catchee Monkey, or if I can put it another way - don’t frighten the horses before the elections with too many policies or nasties. Be vague, get elected and then we can do what we like. We can always blame Labor for leaving the budget in an awful state – that always works, for a year or so anyway. The punters will have to wear whatever we do, and by the time we get to the next election, they will have forgotten any pain we laid on them, and we then soften them up with some nice juicy John Howard handouts, and they’ll eat out of our hands, just like they did with Johnny. One step at a time!

And as for our budget, it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even plausible; so long as we can talk our way through any bumps in it, we’ll be OK. We can rely on Murdoch’s mob not to be too tough on us; we certainly won’t see nasty headlines in the tabloids. And if we get a few nasty reviews in the broadsheets, who reads them anyway – only the latte-sipping, sandal-wearing lefty intellectuals!

Joe: Well, I wonder how worthwhile it is sweating over our shadow budget all this time, if it doesn’t matter how legitimate it is. We might as well have stayed home, or just relaxed and enjoyed the scene outside, which I must say is pretty attractive. Finding savings is such a messy business, too many twists and turns for me!

Tony: Joe, you should know by now that it’s not what you come up with that’s important, it’s that you look as if you’re taking the budget seriously. I’ll make sure your meeting here and all your sweat gets lots of good press. Leave the outcome to me; Peta and I have great ideas on how to sell our budget, warts and all. We’ve got a tame firm of accountants to give it a tick, and we’ve even got a couple of tame journos ready to give it a leg up. So don’t you worry about that!

Joe, Andrew, Mathias in chorus: If you say so Tony!

Joe: So long as you don’t leave me holding the baby like you did last year, Tony.

Andrew: Me too, Joe!