Tony Abbott – the man who walks away

Tony Abbott is playing us all for suckers. He believes, and the contemporary polls of voting intention support his belief, that come 2013 he will waltz into The Lodge with no more than we see from him day after day. He believes that he will do that by opposing everything the Gillard Government is trying to achieve, by promising to repeal the carbon and minerals taxes and demolish the NBN, by mindlessly mouthing mantras over and again – about the ‘toxic’ carbon tax and the tax that is ‘killing the goose that is laying the golden eggs’, about how he will ‘turn back the boats’, and about the Gillard Government, ‘a bad government getting worse’.

And he believes he can do this by walking away without ever answering the hard questions.

Analyze carefully what this man says, and there’s not much more to it than that. No policy, no thoughtful statements about the economy, nothing of substance about the environment. Just vacuous utterances day after day after day, even in Question Time where it might reasonably be expected that policy issues might emerge, but no, it’s virtually all about the toxic carbon tax that will propel a wrecking ball throughout the entire economy, wiping out industries and towns and countless jobs and forcing the price of electricity, and everything else that you can think of, up and up and up to ‘unimaginable’ levels. Note the threefold emphasis.

He is not just playing the public for suckers; he’s playing the media for even bigger suckers. Journalists are the only ones who have intimate contact with Abbott, the only ones who can ask him penetrating questions, insist on answers, probe his responses, and be firm that he gives cogent answers. But this lily-livered bunch rarely does. And when an occasional journalist summons sufficient courage to be confronting, we see the typical bumbling Abbott, stumbling over accusations by Kerry O’Brien that he is careless with the truth, and mute when confronted by Mark Riley with the ‘shit-happens’ remark in Afghanistan.

It was therefore reassuring to read that at least one journalist is up to Abbott and prepared to call him for his evasive behaviour. Dennis Atkins, writing in the Courier Mail of 23 June in an article: Abbott steers away from the media, says: “In Canberra there's nothing more frustrating for press gallery journalists than trying to pin down Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, even though he makes himself available almost every parliamentary sitting day.

“Abbott very rarely fronts a full news conference in Canberra, preferring to do "doorstops" at staged events outside Parliament House. These are at a place where the Opposition Leader can run a line on the carbon tax and then take a few questions.

“There are not many - he will cut the session short by just walking away if questioning turns to things he doesn't want to talk about. Also, because these events are outside Parliament House, only a small number of journalists attend, as most have time and filing pressures and can't afford the hour necessary to get to and from what is primarily a picture opportunity.”

Note Atkins’ words: “…he will cut the session short by just walking away if questioning turns to things he doesn't want to talk about.” Exactly.

Atkins concludes: “Prime Minister Julia Gillard does at least give news conferences in Canberra when she takes questions until the reporters run dry, and she will appear on shows such as Lateline, Four Corners (to her regret) and the hour-long Q&A.

“Usually you learn something about Gillard when she subjects herself to this form of questioning - for better or for worse, as far as she's concerned.

“It should be a serious concern that the man who wants to be prime minister and, the polls say, is short odds to achieve that goal, doesn't give longer, searching interviews.

“The fact Abbott and his advisers have a deliberate policy to avoid scrutiny should be a major concern for all who take an interest in our national public life.”

We know what Atkins is talking about. We have seen Abbott in doorstops scores of times, doorstops he calls to make his statement of the day, or comment on something the Government has done or proposes. His spiel is well rehearsed (and is often repeated by others in his party), laden with his short snappy slogans, and is inevitably derogatory. He fields a few questions with glib answers, then walks away if the questions become awkward, leaving the journalists floundering with little for their efforts. They never get an in-depth story, never get to probe, never satisfy their journalistic desire for a solid, well-documented piece. Many don’t bother any more, but that doesn’t trouble Abbott so long as he gets his clip for the evening TV and radio news.

Not only does Abbott walk away when the questions get too hot for him, he avoids walking up at all to formal occasions where pointed questions might be asked.

How often does he front up to the National Press Club where journalists from many media outlets can ask questions? The last day in January of this year was the last occasion. His speech is on the Liberal Party website, but none of the questions or his answers. His previous NPC addresses were in August 2010, July 2009, and August 2006.

How often does he front on 7.30? Seldom, and then his interview is on specific matters, avoiding general questions, and is recorded and edited. And with limp interviewers like Chris Uhlmann, and the Dorothy Dixers he throws at Abbott, it’s not much of a challenge.

What about Q&A? The last time he fronted was almost two years ago, in August 2010, in the context of the election campaign. While Julia Gillard is prepared for an hour’s grilling, Abbott is not prepared to walk up for scrutiny. He has condemned everything PM Gillard and her Government has done, and has threatened to repeal much of it, yet has not been prepared, despite repeated invitations, to come on Q&A to explain his policies, his objections to the Government’s policies, how he would repeal its legislation, why he would run a better Government, and answer any awkward questions that the audience might ask.

When has he featured in a Four Corners expose? In March 2010, there was an edition on him. You can see it here; I can’t find any other recent appearance.

What about Lateline? Writing on Crikey, Jeremy Sear, in a 13 June article with a long title: #asktony – in which Mr Abbott tries to make up for avoiding Lateline or Q&A by pretending to be available to answer questions on Twitter for twenty minutes, and it backfires, had this to say: “Yesterday afternoon Tony Abbott tried a bit of a stunt where he pretended to be available to answer meaningful questions if people sent them to him on Twitter with the #asktony hashtag.

“You can see why the concept appealed to Abbott – it would make him look like he was open to being challenged on his pronouncements, whilst letting him ignore questions he didn’t want to answer and in a forum where nobody could expect more than 140 characters anyway.

“Which is good, because Tony’s preferred response to any question is the asinine (and false) “axing the carbon tax will fix it!” And the twitter “interview” lets him just keep repeating it (regardless of the question) whilst ignoring follow-ups…”

Sear gives some examples; here is one:
“Mark J. Cohen – What will be the macroeconomic effects on Australia if the Eurozone fails to stabilise its banks? #asktony

Tony Abbott – Serious. That’s why it’s important not to make extra burdens for ourselves such as the carbon tax and no ABCC. #asktony.

Can you believe it? Yes, you can!

Here’s another:
”Tim Ferguson – When you gut the carbon tax, do our other taxes stay the same? #asktony

Tony Abbott – I want to get taxes down generally. There’ll be no tax increases to pay for the carbon tax abolition.

Cate – Then how will you pay for it? And how will you fund the NDIS?

Cate – Lower taxes = razor gangs. What gets cut? Pensions? Who suffers most? The poor. Taxes = services. End of story.”

Abbott didn’t reply to Cate’s questions.

Sear goes onto say: ”Actually, many had tried to ask serious questions, but Tony didn’t respond.”

Then there was this tweet: “Emma Alberici – @TonyAbbottMHR #asktony When will you accept our invitation to do an interview on #lateline?”

Sear comments: “Like the other genuine questions, Tony didn’t dignify THAT one with a response.”

Sear concludes: “Naturally, other journalists were outraged. Tony Abbott, a man who expects to be Prime Minister after the next election, thinks he can avoid genuine scrutiny with faux interviews on Twitter? He thinks pretending to engage with the electorate for twenty minutes online whilst ignoring anything he doesn’t want to deal with is the equivalent of a Lateline interview or being grilled by a Q&A audience? He thinks ignoring the difficult questions he was asked won’t be noticed?”

“Tony Abbott is lucky that Herald Sun readers will be left with the impression that he bravely “reached out” and the Internet was too stupid and nasty to engage seriously, rather than the more accurate account that he declined to answer difficult questions and when people realised it was a shameless stunt then they started mocking him.

“Kudos to Jessica and her paper for not being annoyed by a politician’s attempt to sideline them and avoid genuine media scrutiny by spending twenty minutes ignoring difficult questions on Twitter in place of actually being grilled by a real journalist.

“We’ll find out how Tony Abbott is going to magically cut taxes without raising others or slashing public services whilst still maintaining the ALP’s surplus after he becomes PM. It’s just rude to ask him before the election. Twitter might not realise that yet – but the journalists Tony is willing to speak with do.”

So Abbott uses Twitter to walk away from giving thoughtful answers to genuine questions, seriously asked. It’s not surprising his glib non-answers soon attracted sarcastic, and at times silly questions. They could see he was just pretending to be interested in addressing the public’s questions; it was all another charade, yet another Abbott stunt.

Harking back to Lateline, Abbott’s last substantial appearance seems to have been in November last year when it ran for 21 minutes. An appearance in January lasted around three minutes, as did appearances in 2010. He simply does not favour this program with his presence. He deliberately avoids it.

In recent days, you will have seen Abbott, as he walked down a corridor, being asked about his response to the suggestion of some of his party and the Independents that he ought to re-enter into negotiations with PM Gillard about asylum policy. Several journalists asked him questions; there was no response. None at all. He simply refused the answer their questions in any way.

Yesterday we saw him walking away from genuine compromise, something yet another boat tragedy demanded of all parliamentarians. His so-called compromises were nothing more than a strategy to avoid making compromises that could really address the asylum seeker issue. Once more, he played his cynical game of avoidance by walking away from bona fide compromise.

But there are some interviews from which he does not walk away. Where? On 2GB where Alan Jones or Ray Hadley ask him soft questions and Dorothy Dixers, where he is never challenged with anything awkward, where every derogatory remark he makes about Julia Gillard and her Government is not just echoed, but amplified. He will go on Channel Seven’s Sunrise or Sky News where he knows he has supplicant interviewers, only too ready to promulgate his poisonous messages, and never assaulting him with questions that challenge or confront.

So here we have the man who would be Prime Minister of this country, this nation’s leader, who is unprepared to subject himself to any sort of scarifying scrutiny of the media, to answer penetrating questions about his statements and assertions, to respond to the probing questions of journalists who want to uncover his vision and his plans for the nation, his policies, their cost, his strategies for undoing what the Government has worked so hard to achieve.

All we get is glib answers, endless slogans, mindless mantras, incessant negativity, and unremittingly obstructive behavior, most recently about negotiating a compromise on asylum policy. We not only get nothing positive, we get nothing that lifts the spirits, that gives the hope and encouragement one ought to be able to expect from the man who wants to lead us. We get just negative nothingness.

If this man has anything to offer at all, we want to hear it. We suspect though that he really has nothing. Sycophantic journalists tell us that this is a clever strategy, a smart way of keeping under wraps the fifty policies that are said to be lying in wait, ready to be launched on an adoring public that will erupt with ecstatic enthusiasm once revealed.

To the discerning observer though this ‘clever’ strategy seems to be nothing other than one to avoid answering anything that might place him in a poor light, anything that might expose his hollowness, anything that might show up his shallowness, anything that might further highlight his nastiness, his malevolence, his destructiveness.

This man who would be leader of this nation is a fraud, a con man and a coward, one who walks away, with never a backward look at his questioners, and his public.

Tony Abbott is the man who walks away – shamelessly. He is playing us all for suckers. Who will have the guts to pull him up?

What do you think?

As the Fourth Estate falters, how should the Fifth Estate respond?

In the same way that climate scientists have been warning us of the changes we can expect from global warming, media climate analysts have been warning us of the changes we can expect from the digitalization of the media. But no one predicted the precipitous changes we have seen this week. Nobody predicted that Fairfax would reduce its staff by 1900, close down its two major printing plants, and go to a tabloid format. Nobody predicted that News Limited would consolidate its operational centres from nineteen to five and would release an unknown number of its staff, estimated to be around a thousand. This is a revolution akin to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around 1440.

The printing press allowed, for the first time, the distribution of written material to a mass audience. Until the advent of the Internet it remained the almost exclusive conduit for the mass distribution of written information. The Internet emerged in the late 1980s, by the mid 1990s it had become commercialized, and since then has expanded vastly into what we enjoy today, with still more to come, some of it as yet unknown. While it still allows mass communication through online news, magazines and books, much of it has become individualized, with messages being directed to a single individual through email, to groups through Twitter and Facebook, and to larger audiences via blogs. The communication mechanism has changed in just a few years from distribution of the same message via mass print media to anyone who chose to receive it, to individualized messaging.

In between the printing press and the Internet, we have seen the advent of radio and television that have served as mass distributors of information and entertainment in auditory and visual form, and with subtexts and scrolling marquees in printed form. Many people rely on these media for much of what they need to know. Newer television sets are now equipped with Internet capability.

The end of newspapers
Newspaper proprietors predict that newspapers will soon phase out; The Guardian estimates three years, and Rupert Murdoch says five years will do it, even although this week News Limited CEO Kim Williams re-committed to newspapers – he didn’t say for how long.

The growth of online news outlets has been spectacular. Fairfax says its online audience has grown by 30 per cent from 5.5 million to 7.2 million since 2007. Such growth will accelerate. By mid-decade what proportion of our information needs will be provided by the Internet? You guess. This week advertising guru Harold Mitchell told Jon Faine on ABC 774 Melbourne radio that he reckons that by the end of the decade 80 percent of the world’s media will be digital. Nothing can stop it.

So how does that affect those of us who own and use blog sites to transmit information? How will these radical changes to the Fourth Estate impact upon the Fifth Estate?

In my opinion, these changes offer those of us in the Fifth Estate untold opportunities to extend our influence, to compete on a more level playing field with the giants of the press.

Where do blog sites fit in?
Let’s look first at the purpose of blogs, such as The Political Sword. To me they provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to express views and opinions about whatever subject they choose, in our case mainly Federal politics. In this field, are our opinions less worthy than those of the media insiders? What insights do they have that we do not?

While it might be expected that journalists who walk the corridors of parliament, who rub shoulders with politicians, who are on the ‘drip feed’, who are able to swap stories with their colleagues down the corridor or at their favourite watering hole, would be better informed and better able to predict, that has not been the case. Remember how the Canberra Press Gallery was caught flat-footed at the time Kevin Rudd was removed by his party, and again when PM Gillard presented Bob Carr as the new Foreign Minister. Reflect on how many times it has predicted a leadership coup by this date, or that date or another date, only to be wrong every time. And still to this day journalists are talking about leadership. Even the last leadership contest, when the PM soundly defeated Kevin Rudd, was not predicted by the mainstream media, so much as it simply followed the event as it unfolded with the Gillard forces well in control. Were their predictions of the final numbers accurate? No.

Do they have information we cannot elicit or access? We know that we are not equipped to be investigative journalists, although some, like Peter Wicks, manage to get hold of information that even the MSM journalists cannot. Apart from investigative endeavours that require ‘wearing-out boot leather’, or ‘working the phones’, we get the same information as journalists do nowadays. We have access to online news outlets that are not pay-walled such as ABC News, ABC News Radio, SBS World News, Bigpond News, all the ABC programs such as AM, The World Today, PM, Lateline and The Business which follows, as well as Insiders, Inside Business and Q&A, in addition to all the online news services here and overseas, some of which are pay-walled. Then we have Lyn’s Twitterverse and Twitterati that are often linked to news items. And on top of that, we have brilliant search engines such as Google, and Wikipedia, which are so comprehensive that almost any piece of information one wants is there for the taking. Sometimes even the pay-walled items can be circumvented by using Google, for example those in The Australian.

What about the items to which we can’t get access without paying? Well, anyone who really needs them will pay. For example, many of us subscribe to Crikey where much useful information and opinion is available. But if we don’t wish to pay, what are we missing? Take a look. Much of it is ‘he says, she says’ journalism, derived from readily available information that you and I can access and about which we could have written. Much of it is simply opinion, which is often unbalanced, biased or flagrantly partisan. Of course Rupert Murdoch regards ‘opinion’ as ‘news’. Why are our opinions not as valid as those of journalists? Moreover, much of their ‘opinion’ is the product of groupthink among journalists who work together, drink together, watch or read each other’s offerings, and so often rely on the same sources, some of them unreliable.

Rupert Murdoch has often expressed his anger at what he terms ‘the aggregators’, such as Google, whom he accuses of ‘stealing’ information that has painstakingly been gathered at great expense to him by his well-paid journalists. This is why he decided to pay-wall his online outlets.

Why look beyond the pay-walls?
While we are on the subject of pay-walls, ask yourself why you would expend your money accessing articles, for example, written by Dennis Shanahan. Almost everything he writes is unbalanced, partisan, and too often downright incorrect. Just this week he wrote a story about PM Gillard being ‘slapped down’ at the G20 summit by the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. That was wrong. Barroso’s comment had been in response to a question from a Canadian reporter and directed towards Canada’s PM Stephen Harper. Despite knowing he had it wrong, he wrote in another piece, "Europe won't be 'lectured' by Julia Gillard, EC chief Jose Manuel Barroso has said", and he persisted with questions at Julia Gillard’s press conference in Los Cabos along the same lines, trying to justify his initial assertion, and was twice put in his place by her answers. He could have written a story that was complimentary of Australia’s outstanding economic situation, a story that made us proud, but such a story might have reflected favourably on the Gillard Government, and that would never do, would it? The man is incorrigible; almost every thing he writes is anti-Gillard, anti-Government; he is part of the push by The Australian to dislodge her and her Government. So why would anyone pay a cent for his warped writings?

And it’s not just Shanahan. Why would anyone pay for reading Peter van Onselen, Matthew Franklin, or for that matter Paul Kelly, who seem to have morphed into supplicant mouthpieces for Rupert Murdoch? Kelly’s piece on the Fairfax ‘upheaval’ makes some interesting points, as do most of his pieces, but being heavily laced as they are with his anti-Gillard, anti-Government sentiments, leaves the balanced reader annoyed at his persistent antagonism. In this piece he echoes Murdoch’s oft-repeated tirade against public broadcasters, the BBC and the ABC, that being funded from the public purse, they constitute unfair competition to commercial media outfits. Kelly writes: “Given the market vacuum opening, Australia can no longer afford a heavily taxpayer-funded ABC locked into a fashionable "writers festival" political culture that caters to a dedicated "true believer" minority.” Murdoch couldn’t have said it better. So why would anyone seeking balanced journalism pay for such writing as this?

I would pay for an article by George Megalogenis, but for few others that write for The Australian or any News Limited outlet. But to access them, News Limited requires a subscription, a big price to pay for access to just the few writers worth reading. Fairfax has a better proposal, a quota of ‘free’ articles, say twenty per month, after which payment is required, presumably for the desired articles/writers. That seems a fairer system – pay only for what you want, rather than paying for access to the lot, dross and all.

By not having access to pay-walled News Limited material we are not missing out on much of political importance, and a bonus is that our equanimity is maintained. Most News Limited media is directed to those who already believe what their journalists do – it reinforces their entrenched views – or to those who still have an open mind and whose opinions News Limited wishes to shape to its own.

Murdoch domination
Another reason to avoid crossing the News Limited pay-wall is that it is Murdoch controlled and reflects his will and intentions, which as we know include regime change in Federal politics. Having read much of David McKnight’s book Rupert Murdoch – An Investigation of Political Power (Allen & Unwin, 2012), it is crystal clear that Murdoch controls his empire, sometimes subtly, but if needs be, with an iron fist. There is a myth around, perpetrated by his senior staff, that he never instructs them. Technically that may be so, because he lets it be known in subtle ways what he wants, what Robert Jay QC described at the Levinson Inquiry as a ‘pirouette’. Even with this subtlety, he gets what he wants. But don’t believe for a moment that Murdoch is always subtle. Page after page of McKnight’s book describes how ruthless Murdoch is, with examples of how he has replaced editors whose approach has not coincided with his own views – so much for editorial freedom! There is no doubt that Murdoch has habitually used his media outlets to pursue not just his commercial interests, but also his ideological position. The extent to which he has interfered in high level politics is mind-boggling. The Levinson Inquiry is uncovering some of this, but you would need to read McKnight’s book to marvel at the way he repeatedly exercises his power and influence at both a national and an international level. So why would we voluntarily pay for the emissions of his media empire, except to wonder at his audacity.

In a word, because of its already poor standard of journalism, we bloggers could ignore all News Limited publications and lose almost nothing.

Rinehart, a mini-Murdoch
As if it isn’t bad enough having a 70 per cent Murdoch dominated metropolitan press in this country, we now face the prospect of another 20 percent, that dominated by Fairfax, coming under the control of its 19 percent owner Gina Rinehart, who is now insisting on three seats on the Fairfax Board, including deputy chair, and is refusing to be subject to the charter of editorial freedom to which the Board currently subscribes. Commentators assert that she wishes to use Fairfax media not only to promote her mining interests, but also to push her stridently conservative ideological position. This would be consistent with what she did when she acquired a large shareholding in Channel Ten, whereupon she gained a seat on the Board and promptly installed Andrew Bolt and his extremely right wing Bolt Report. There seems little doubt that she wants to be a mini-Murdoch, using Fairfax to promote her extreme political views. We would then have 90 percent of the metropolitan press and a very large chunk of the regional press, estimated as over 80 per cent, controlled by two autocrats prepared to shamelessly use their media power in their own commercial and political interests. What value would that be in the pursuit of truth, balance and fairness?

And if Murdoch gets his way with his attempts to neuter the ABC, which would likely occur if Tony Abbott were elected, the mainstream media would deteriorate even further.

Where to now in the Fifth Estate?
So how does that place those of us who operate in the Fifth Estate? In my view, as the powerful retreat from the mass circulation print media to the online media, we are strengthened. We could never compete in the print media, but we can in the online media, which is the only milieu we know. We are at home there. We have access to almost as much information as they. We can go online to seek it via a variety of news sources that are not behind a pay-wall, to a plethora of websites to many of which Lyn links us daily, to many official sources, such as, for example, Hansard, and to accessories such as Google and Wikipedia to research our offerings. We lack almost nothing to research and document our contributions.

Where the mass online media still outstrips anything the Fifth Estate can offer is the extent of distribution. While, for example, online news from Fairfax media boasts over seven million subscribers, almost a third of Australia’s population, the Fifth Estate can access but a tiny fraction of that. Where we make up for the low penetration of individual blog sites is through our collective, where we have a wide audience for our offerings. Remembering that we run specialized websites, the potential audience is considerably smaller than the whole population. So while we cannot access the large audience of the online news outlets, we are able to influence thinking in our chosen field among those who have similar interests. In other words, our influence on the wider population is exerted through the much smaller select audience who come day by day to read what we have to say, something we could never have achieved in the pre-Internet days when print was king. This influence is now substantially extended via Facebook and Twitter, where all those who share our interest in politics talk incessantly with each other. Even those who do not have a Twitter account where messages from those followed can be read hour by hour, we have our own Lyn aggregating and posting interesting tweets for us twice a day. The Twitter information flow from politicians, journalists and interested observers is extraordinary – sometimes it is mind stretching to take it all in.

Writing in The Conversation , one of the quality alternatives to the mainstream media, Malcolm Fraser says: “How much can new media, social media, the Internet, Facebook or Twitter, The Conversation or advanced schools of journalism make up for these deficiencies? Certainly the Internet makes it possible for people to read half a dozen papers each morning, or more, including journals that maintain high standards, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Financial Times or those with another language, French or German papers. Here we can find diversity. It is more and more readily available, it will certainly mitigate the coming lack of competition that will be evident in the Australian print media.”

Seize the day!
So let us seize with both hands the opportunity that now presents as the penetration of mass print media, where we have almost no place, decreases, and online media penetration, where we are comfortably at home, increases. They are moving onto our turf, turf with which we have been familiar for years.

We in the Fifth Estate can virtually match the Fourth Estate in accessing information, and our opinions are as valid as theirs because we put as much effort, perhaps more, into formulating our opinions, and we can express them at least as lucidly and convincingly, often more so, than they do. Much of what is offered by the Fifth Estate is superior in quality to that in the Fourth Estate, and that will increasingly be so as the latter sheds journalists in the hundreds, leaving those who remain to do what many more once did. Standards will drop even further. Competition from the mainstream media will diminish.

Moreover, through our links service so diligently overseen by Lyn, we have become a distribution hub for the Fifth Estate, knowing as we do that many visit here not just to read the pieces and the thoughtful comments that our visitors leave, but also to link widely into the web of information that we know as the World Wide Web. This is a service the mainstream media in the Fourth Estate does not offer.

We in the Fifth Estate are looking at a stunningly exciting future – let’s join hands as the accelerating media revolution we saw this week gains momentum, and make the most of it.

What do you think?

Australia is 'The Sweet Spot’ to be

In recent days we have luxuriated in great economic news: strong growth, low inflation, falling interest rates, low unemployment, good jobs data, renewed triple A rating by Moody’s, low net national debt, massive investment in the pipeline, and an upbeat RBA and Federal Government. Each piece of good news has added to a sense of euphoria about our situation and our prospects. We live in a great nation.

In the light of this great news, it seems a good time to review a book that transmits this very message, and asserts that our favourable position has not happened by some accident of good fortune, some stroke of good luck. In his 2011 book: The Sweet Spot – How Australia made its own luck - and could now throw it all away (Black Inc), Peter Hartcher shows how it has all come about.

It is a very readable book, filled with facts and figures and sound reasoning. For me it became a page-turner, something one would not expect when reading a book on economics and Australian history. For anyone interested in how we got to where we are, and where we might go from here, it is a great read, and eminently plausible. Of necessity, this piece can only pick the eyes out of his comprehensive account. Read the whole book to derive the insights it offers so lucidly. Much of what appears below is drawn from the book, including several direct quotes. I acknowledge their source gratefully.

Hartcher gets onto his theme early. On page two he says: “Australia today is closer than it has ever been to fulfilling the promise as a golden land, even the most golden of all lands. It is the only developed nation on earth that has not suffered a recession in the last two decades.” He goes onto record how we sailed through the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98, flourished through the US stock-market bust and recession of 2003 and grew through the global financial crisis. He talks of our low unemployment rate and our high per capita income, now well ahead of the UK and the US. Yet he ponders why we seem so unexcited about our golden land: “If this achievement had been a sporting triumph, [such as beating the US in the gold medal tally at the Beijing Olympics] Australians would have erupted in a frenzy of celebration….Yet surpassing the country [the US] regarded as the benchmark of prosperity in the key measure of income was not even noted in the mainstream media. Winning sporting gold is a national triumph. Winning real gold, the gold of high incomes and high living standards is, apparently, trivial.”

He continues: “Perhaps it’s too new, or too incredible, for Australians to absorb, but the country has now become so successful as a prosperous modern power that it can afford to take a little credit for winning the real prizes of international life, rather than just the consolation ones.”

Hartcher then details our other accomplishments: Being first in the UN’s Human Development Index that measures how well ‘people can develop their potential, and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests’, ahead of Norway. “Australians in short, enjoy the benefits of living in the world’s superpower of living standards.” The OECD’s Better Life Index, which also includes health, education, income, personal security, working hours and community connections, found: “…that Australia’s overall living conditions were the best.” Again he scratches his head: “One of the perversities of Australia’s ascendancy as a superpower of living conditions is that its people have shown a striking insouciance about it. At two consecutive national elections – in 2007 and again in 2010 – the voters refused to re-elect the governments that presided over these conditions.”

He notes that Paul Krugman described Australia as “the miracle economy of the world financial crisis” and the OECD reported that: “in the last decade of the 20th Century Australia became a model for other OECD countries”. While many would attribute Australia’s success to the mining boom, Hartcher points out that “only one dollar in twelve generated in the Australian economy came from the combined industries of oil, gas, coal, iron ore, gold and other minerals.”

Hartcher then goes to another of his themes – the fairness and tolerance of our society: “Australia’s accomplishment is far greater than generating wealth and services for an elite…The wider picture is that Australia is one of the world’s fairest countries, one of the most tolerant, and one of the safest.” He concludes his first chapter: “So Australia has managed to become one of the richest countries in its financial wealth, perhaps the richest of all in its living conditions, and also rich in its spirit of fairness and cohesion.” and ”This book points out what the serious observers in the rest of the world have noticed but that most Australians have not: Australia has become one of the most successful countries on earth.”

Hartcher then expands: ”…entrenched egalitarianism is one of two defining themes that run through Australian attitudes.” He talks about ‘The Tall Poppy Syndrome’ and then says: ”Talk of egalitarianism in Australia is sometimes reduced to a discussion of the concept of ‘mateship’.” Later he says: ”But beneath the manners and mannerisms, egalitarianism has a deeper and harder identity. It’s called fairness. This has several manifestations. One is fairness of outcomes. Another is fairness of opportunity. A third is fairness between one generation and another.” He elaborates on the dire social and cultural effects of inequality.

Hartcher then describes the other defining strand, other than egalitarianism, running through Australian attitudes, namely freedom, which he defines as ”…the right to make your own choices in life. Freedom…includes political and legal rights” and ”…freedom to choose a course of study or a field of work or start a business.” After describing several examples of extraordinary Australians: Twiggy Forrest, Professor Ian Frazer, the inventors of the bionic ear and sleep apnoea treatment, he says: ”If you want growth and prosperity you need economic freedom.” and ”…fairness and freedom are the essential themes in Australia’s history…All countries make their way by navigating these twin currents. In making practical choices of policy the two are usually opposed: it’s an established tenet of economic policy that equity and efficiency are to be traded off against each other…Perfect equity in incomes policy… would…fail to reward initiative and effort. The economy would wither. Perfect efficiency…would create a society of huge inequality. With no social safety net to catch the most vulnerable, exploitation and suffering would go unchecked. The key to crafting a country lies in setting the balance.”

Hartcher gives a whole chapter to a detailed discussion of the claims by some that Australia is becoming less fair, more polarized and that inequality is growing, concluding that of the first type, fairness of outcomes: ”The incomes and wealth of the low-, middle- and upper-income groups have all risen in the last decade or so in Australia. And by international standards, Australian economic equality is in the middle. Of the second type, the fairness of opportunity, Australians have ample opportunity to move out of poverty, to transcend their parents’ income category, to build the lives they choose for themselves…On the third type, the fairness of how one generation treats another, Australia’s performance is exemplary, almost uniquely so. Australia’s fast-rising prosperity has been enjoyed unequally, but fairly…perfect economic equality is impossible…trying to get there would allow no room for the other essential quality in the creation of a successful modern society, freedom.”

His next chapter discusses economic freedom. Perhaps the most telling paragraph reads: ”In an overview of Australia, the Index of Economic Freedom says: “Australia’s modern and competitive economy performs well on many of the 10 economic freedoms. The country has a strong tradition of openness to global trade and investment, and transparent and efficient regulations are applied evenly in most cases. An independent judiciary protects property rights, and the level of corruption is quite low. Of the ten categories, Australia’s strongest scores were for financial freedom, labour freedom, property rights and business freedom. Its weakest scores were for trade freedom, investment freedom, government spending and fiscal freedom. Its scores on monetary freedom and freedom from corruption were middling.”

He concludes: Even as it delivers a relatively high degree of fairness to society, it has also improved the level of freedom of its economy. It is a happy equilibrium of this balance that is the source of Australia’s modern emergence as a model, a success in its own right and an example to others.” He asks “How did this happen?

Hartcher then gives an absorbing account of Australia’s colonial history in a chapter Destined to Fail, and concludes: ”Criminal, brutal, militaristic, starving and racist. This wouldn’t seem the most likely starting point for a country that emerges a little more than two centuries later as one of the world’s outstandingly law-abiding, free, peaceful, fair, prosperous, tolerant societies. Yet this is exactly what happened.”

The next chapter takes up the theme of rights in Australia and how they evolved in what began as a penal colony and concludes ”In defiance of its colonial origins, Australia was born a proudly democratic nation and a pioneer in the rights and freedoms of the people. And its burgeoning industries gave it the highest average incomes in the world.”

His next chapter describes a period when protectionism reigned. ”Australia remained addicted to its sheltered existence. The shop remained closed. Protectionism, and its supporting superstructure of controls on finance, controls on international capital flows and controls on labour, was comfortable but ruinous…Equity had crowded out efficiency.”

In the following chapters, Hartcher describes the way in which Hawke and Keating set about reducing protection: ”When Hawke and Keating took power in 1983, the average level of effective protection for the manufacturing industry was 25 per cent. By the end of Labor’s thirteen years it was down to less than 10…even when Labor left office after thirteen years the job was not yet finished.”

He then describes the changes that took place during the Howard/Costello era. ”In the twelve years before Hawke and Keating took power and the reform era began, Australia had suffered four recessions. When Howard left office, Australia had enjoyed sixteen years of continuous economic growth, on the way to at least twenty years of unbroken expansion.” He concludes: ”In the reform phase of 1983 to 2007, under Labor and Liberal governments, Australia realized it was on its own in the world. It started to make its own way. Australia had no idea how severely it was about to be tested.”

The next chapter describes how the Rudd Government tackled the global financial crisis, guided by Ken Henry’s advice: “If you really want to make a difference, go early, go hard, go households.” It is a chapter that deserves close attention for its historic value. Hartcher mentions the components of the Government response: the bank guarantee and the phased stimulus package, and acknowledged that: ”…Australia successfully flicked the switches at the right time. The switches worked because they were attached to powerful engines.” He goes on to say: ”While Australia enjoyed prosperity in the midst of international hardship, its government signally failed to win credit for its accomplishment…Two things happened. Rudd’s opponents cleverly turned a tale of extraordinary economic success into a political narrative of incompetence.” We all remember the ‘pink batts’ and ‘school halls’ campaign of the Opposition, strongly aided and abetted by The Australian.

The GFC chapter aptly titled I expect you to die concluded: ”The economy survived the most savage global economic crisis since the Great Depression…Australia’s economic success was the envy of the world, yet it seemed to hold its achievement in little regard.”

The next chapter focused on IR and Howard’s WorkChoices, the ‘structural deficit’ consequent upon the stimulus, and on productivity, about which Hartcher says: “Another vital measure of efficiency is national productivity. Contrary to popular impression, productivity is not a way of measuring how hard a country works. It’s the key way of measuring how smart a country works, in getting maximum benefit from the same amounts of human labour and invested capital…Australia performed poorly for a long time on this key measure, with a long run average of 1.2 per cent annual improvement. This almost doubled during the 1990s, thanks to the economic reforms of the 1980s and ’90s. Then it slumped again in the last decade. For the last five years it’s been below zero”. By 2007, the pendulum that swings between efficiency (productivity/competitiveness) and equity, had begun to swing towards greater equity, but that meant less efficiency.

The next two chapters address different models of society and gives examples of countries that use them. Space does not permit a discussion of them here.

Which brings us to one of Hartcher’s key chapters: How to blow it. He quotes David Alexander, former press secretary to Peter Costello: ”The most interesting aspect of the success of the Australian model is that a country can achieve a significant degree of egalitarianism without sacrificing economic freedom”, what Alexander calls the ‘platypus model’. Hartcher asserts that ”…one of the secrets of Australia’s balance is that leaders have not been slaves to ideology. Labor and Liberal prime ministers have employed policy tools borrowed from the ideological toolkit of the other side.” He quotes Hawke and Keating’s introduction of policies that were disruptive to workers, and Howard’s support for their deregulation and protectionist reforms.

He then puts his finger on what he believes is a core contemporary problem: ”It was Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard whose combined efforts brought the era of responsible policy-based leadership and ambitious reforms to a shuddering halt…their separate political calculations brought them together as the political father and mother of Australia’s new populism, an ugly, squalling brat that soon drove the nation to distraction…The advent of Tony Abbott as opposition leader brought an abrupt end to the Liberal Party’s mindset of rationality and responsibility.”. Pointing to the fact that Howard was prepared to forgo easy political advantage by supporting the government in the national interest, as was Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, he noted that Abbott’s angry opposition broke with the Liberals’ style of responsible leadership. Hartcher says: ”Abbott’s easy change of mind in pursuit of power, his exuberant embrace of populism, mark him as an opportunist”, but he goes on to say: ”But while the opposition leader is a key influence, he cannot single-handedly change the national political and policy agenda.” Hartcher continues: ”Gillard led Labor into a wholesale retreat into populism. She identified three priorities she wanted to address, political problems for the government she wanted to fix. Each represented a retreat from policy ambition.” They were of course the ETS, asylum seekers, and the mining tax.

Hartcher is strong in his condemnation of what he sees as lack of leadership. ”Both prime minister and opposition leader had demonstrated that they were prepared to change their beliefs on major policy areas if it would help them to procure power. With leaders exposed as opportunists, political debate quickly ended up in sterile exchanges…”

Returning to the theme of his book, Hartcher writes: ”Australians created the sweet spot for themselves. The country needs to know that circa 2010-11, it offers the best living conditions available on the planet. Not because it started out that way, and not because of the mining boom, but through building, through reforms and through intelligent public-spirited leadership. And, yes, through a little luck. But as Donald Horne warned, relying on luck is an invitation to complacency. And complacency is a dreadful problem solver.” He concludes: ”If Australia is to have a golden future. It will not be gilded with the sort of gold that is discovered by digging deeper holes in the ground. The necessary gold is not to be found in the country’s pits but in its wits.”

In his final chapters Hartcher talks of other models, but there is not space to discuss them here.

The purpose of this piece is two fold: The first is to introduce you to Peter Hartcher’s splendid book, with as much drawn from it as space will allow, to inform you of his approach with the hope that you might seek to read the book from cover to cover. There is so much more in it than I can leave here. The second is to engender discussion of the issues he raises.

Australia is indeed 'The Sweet Spot’ to be. If you did not already know that, Hartcher’s book will persuade you to that view. But even without that, the economic data of the last week or two should suggest even to the skeptics that we are doing very well as a nation. While some do not feel they are doing so well, the majority ought to – there is no better place on earth to live. Why then is it that there is so much pessimism, so little confidence, so much gloom around?

As with all complex situations, the likely reasons are many: the financial turmoil and political uncertainty in Europe, the sluggish US economy, stock market volatility that imperils the pension of many, and the political turbulence in our own country, are all engendering uncertainty and apprehension among the people. But in my opinion there is another reason, one that the mainstream media seem to overlook, or gloss over, or prefer to ignore. I’m referring to the incessant negativity of the Leader of the Opposition, the approach he has taken from day one.

He has never stopped deriding the Government, never ceased from demeaning PM Gillard, never supported anything the Government has tried to do, never stopped talking down the economy and the way the Government is managing it despite all the glowing economic news of late, never prepared to acknowledge in the smallest degree the Government’s success in economic management and during the GFC, hell bent on destroying the carbon tax and the mining tax, labeling them as ‘toxic’ harbingers of an Armageddon, intent on ’demolishing’ the NBN ‘white elephant’, and repealing many other pieces of reforming legislation. Can anyone advance a convincing case that this man has not had a profound influence on the thinking of the voters and the psyche of the nation?

Here we are in ‘The Sweet Spot’ so convincingly argued by Hartcher, yet there is gloom and despondency, much of which I believe is locally created. We seem to have talked ourselves into a state of reactive depression, and one of our ‘therapists', our LOTO, keeps reminding us how depressing our situation is and how miserable and hopeless we ought to feel. We need a change of therapist.

What a pity it would be in inept politicians threw it all away.

What do you think?

Complexity – the Great Australian Aversion

Close your eyes and reflect for a moment on news items you have seen or heard on commercial TV or radio in recent times. What characterizes them? They are almost invariably short, sensational, overly dramatized, sometimes squalid, and often portray conflict between people or groups or races. In recent years we have been fed a diet of this material so regularly that for many it has become the norm. Like those who have become accustomed to eating fast food, without it they feel deprived.

Any attempt to represent the difficult and complex issues we face as a nation in a more considered way is too often thwarted by the desire of the majority of consumers for short, simple, uncomplicated bite-sized and easily assimilable messages that require little thought, little reflection, little discomfort. There is widespread agreement that this phenomenon has lessened the attention span of consumers to the extent that asked to concentrate on anything for longer than a few seconds, or at most a couple of minutes, results in wandering attention, loss of concentration and interruption by minor distractions.

The net result is an electorate where many are not attuned to complex issues, and are not just disinterested, but hostile at having to consider them. They want issues to be simple, or at least simplified, and the solutions straightforward and uncomplicated.

The complexity of climate change
To illustrate these points, let’s look at one of the most complex issues of our time – climate change and global warming. For many, the science is too complicated, too beset with caveats, and so subject to contrary views that most people decline to think about it at all. They are not prepared to read, view or listen to even a well-prepared discourse that uses relevant facts and figures, and draws reasoned conclusions. It is all too hard. Denialist statements give them the easy way out.

There are exceptions of course, and some of the media, notably the ABC and SBS, do make an attempt to address complex issues in their special programs such as Four Corners and Insight, and in their documentaries, so that the few who are interested can enjoy and benefit from them. Sadly they constitute but a tiny fraction of the population.

To convince a skeptical electorate that a serious threat to our planet and its inhabitants and ecology exists, one that responsible decision-makers must take action to combat, is a monumental task. The task itself is hard enough, but with climate deniers or skeptics deliberately disseminating misinformation, doubt and fear, it becomes almost impossible. And since there is a widely-held view that the consequences of global warming are a long way off, the motivation for change is minimal. If a lethal tsunami were visible on the horizon, action would be immediate. The global warming ‘tsunami’ is not yet clearly visible.

Contrast the task of the Government with the actions of the Coalition.

The Government has to convince the electorate that global warming is occurring and that it is a dangerous threat to our way of life and to future generations, that preventive and remedial measures are available, and that action must be taken, and taken now before it is too late.

It must convince the electorate that an Emissions Trading Scheme preceded by a price on carbon is an effective and necessary action, and that as the highest polluting nation per capita in the world we are morally obliged as good global citizens to take action now. It must convince the electorate that the price per tonne is appropriate. It must convince it that this action, along with other measures to move our economy to a low carbon one that can take advantage of the burgeoning renewable industries, is essential for the survival and prosperity of our economy.

And this task has to be undertaken in the face of self-serving opposition from those whose vested interests are threatened, and from the skeptics, together with a concerted campaign of misinformation, deception, and simplistic solutions from Tony Abbott and the Coalition.

Those simplistic solutions are to ‘stop the toxic carbon tax’, that will drive the cost of everything up, and up, and up, and destroy whole industries and towns and countless jobs, and instead adopt the ‘simple’ Coalition approach, its Direct Action Plan, proposed ever so quietly in the background as an alternative. It is simple for Abbott to visit countless commercial outlets and get on TV with a short message that ruin will attend these businesses when the carbon tax is introduced. It is easy to say that Australia will disadvantage itself economically by being ahead of the rest of the world when its scheme begins on July 1, which is untrue as scores of countries, US states and Canadian provinces already have a trading scheme, and that it will have the highest price per tonne of carbon in the world, when this too is untrue.

Which is easier? The Government’s task or the Coalition’s?

Even if the Government had a top class media unit staffed by educators who were capable of crafting understandable messages about global warming and an ETS to combat it, the messages would be bound to be more complex, more comprehensive, more detailed than the simple, albeit disingenuous contrary messages of the Coalition. Being negative, disseminating deceptive messages, is simple and easy. And this is largely because the electorate has an aversion to complexity, an aversion to teasing out the facts, an aversion to reasoning to a logical conclusion.

This is deadly serious. How can any government introduce complex measures to deal with the complex problems facing our nation when the electorate by and large are averse to, and refuse to think about complex matters, preferring instead simple solutions to problems no matter how complex?

Complexity in economics
Let’s move to economics. In recent memory there has been nothing as complex as the global financial crisis, its precedents and the fallout, which continues to this day.

There is a splendid account about how the GFC came about at the denis bider website titled: The subprime mortgage collapse for dummies, which is well worth a read.

Apart from describing how subprime mortgages came into being and how they fell apart, it also describes collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which were at the very heart of the ultimate collapse. The whole sorry tangle was so complex that very, very few understood what they were getting themselves into – their aversion to complexity meant they were not prepared, or perhaps not equipped to even try to understand them. They preferred to take the simplistic approach that this seemed a good way to make money, and they avoided thinking about the risks. That was too complex, too difficult. Even those not intimately involved declined to address the complexity of the collapse, leaving them confused about how it all happened and apprehensive about it happening again. Unwillingness to address complexity has left them uncertain and fearful of the future.

This is another example of how aversion to complexity led to a financial disaster for many, a global disaster for much of the world, and continuing trepidation.

Complexity in Europe
Look at the contemporary financial situation, notably in Europe. Nobody seems to know what ought to be done. Some put forward their opinions and theories, but because they often conflict, no one is certain. Add to that the political dimension, and the self-interest of nations caught up in the crisis, and even the best economic solution might be rejected. Here again an aversion to complexity has led to simplistic solutions from economists, platitudinous suggestions from politicians, and political unwillingness to act decisively.

What makes the ‘Eurocrisis’ so complex? Try multiple nations all with separate and fiercely independent governments, all trying to do the best for themselves, with the common good of the Eurozone a secondary consideration. Consider that almost all are tied to the Euro. Reflect on the differences in culture from the hard working Germans to the laidback Greeks who regard as their right early retirement at 55, with civil servants on a pension that equates to 80% of the final salary, and who have a cadre of wealthy people who have made tax avoidance an art form, thereby pushing the Greek economy towards bankruptcy. Think about the variety of attitudes that exist towards the proposed austerity measures, with the Germans and others insisting they must be attempted, while in France and Greece there are political parties that reject austerity as part of their party platform. Take into account multiple national banks with varying liquidity, debts and ratings, some needing a bailout, or as some like to label it, ‘a line of credit’. Remember that there is a European Central Bank as well as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, all interacting in a complex way. Think about the bond markets in those countries, which are used to raise funds to manage debt, and which need to offer higher and higher interest rates as the risk to lenders rises, with around 7% seen as the tipping point towards inability to repay. Reflect on the effects: economic, financial and psychological, that the economies of these nations and the whole Eurozone have on markets worldwide and in our own country. Then you will have some idea of the complexity of the Eurozone crisis. Is it beyond human understanding? Are there any who are capable of tackling it and advancing plausible solutions?

It is because so few are capable of, or willing to tackle this complexity that the crisis drags on month after month.

The lesser players who invest in stock markets, who themselves do not understand this complexity, have to rely on hunch, bits of information and what others are doing to manage their investments, and of course the age-old motivators, fear and greed. They choose the easy to understand bits rather than attempting a more comprehensive analysis.

In a telling article in the Sydney Morning Herald today titled: Economists fail the reality test – again, having set out how they once again got it so wrong about the health of Australia’s economy, Ross Gittins concludes: “The unvarnished truth - which none of us can admit, even to ourselves - is we think we know what's happening in the economy, but we don't. We're too fallible, and it's too big and complicated.” Exactly, it’s too complex, and even economists have an aversion to complexity.

The complexity of entitlements
Finally, let’s look at the complexity surrounding what are believed to be our ‘entitlements’, about which the much-admired political editor of the Australian Financial Review, Laura Tingle has written in her recent Quarterly Essay: Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation.

Before we do, let’s look at what another respected source said this week about our state of mind. Glenn Stevens, RBA Governor, in his address to the American Chamber of Commerce (SA) on 8 June, after describing Australia’s buoyant economy and last week’s ‘beautiful set of numbers’, said: “Yet the nature of public discussion is unrelentingly gloomy, and this has intensified over the past six months. Even before the recent turn of events in Europe and their effects on global markets, we were grimly determined to see our glass as half empty. Numerous foreign visitors to the Reserve Bank have remarked on the surprising extent of this pessimism. Each time I travel abroad I am struck by the difference between the perceptions held by foreigners about Australia and what I read in the newspapers at home.”

After providing a glowing economic analysis, complete with facts, figures and mature reasoning, his concluding words were: “For Australians, the glass is well and truly half full.” His erudite speech, The Glass Half Full, is well worth a read.

He doesn’t mention specifically, nor do other commentators, that a significant amount of the pessimism that exists today is due to the unremitting negativity of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, who talk down the economy day after day, but I suspect he has them in mind as he talks about 'the glass half empty’.

Laura Tingle begins by giving an explanation of the origins of the electorate’s anger by referring to our colonial history. From the arrival of the First Fleet, citizens felt the colony’s administration had control over its destiny. Paul Kelly amplified this in what he described in his book, The End of Certainty, as the ‘Australian Settlement’, an agreement made at the time of federation. According to him, this ‘settled’ political construct guided Australian political ethos for the next 80 years. It was based on five action pillars: White Australia, Industry Protection, Wage Arbitration, State Paternalism, and an Imperial Benevolence supporting nation building in this distant outpost of the British Empire. Because the government controlled these ‘action pillars’, it could be relied upon to look after its people in a predictable way.

Then came the reforms of the Hawke/Keating era when deregulation saw the floating of the dollar, interest rates set by an independent Reserve Bank, reduced industry protection, and the Prices and Income Accord that led to enterprise bargaining, all removing government control over these levers of economic activity. These radical reforms were accomplished with collaboration of the unions and other players, but were also aided via a bipartisan approach from the Howard Opposition, which was then devoid of aggressive tactics of opposition.

Tingle points out that when our long history of a paternalistic relationship with government was unwound during the Hawke and Keating period, “…an argument was put to us that in the national interest we had to wind back what we expected from government. For example, we couldn't expect that government would fund us through retirement. We would have to make our own way in retirement and fund it through superannuation.” During the era that followed, Howard set out to make people ‘relaxed and comfortable’ after the intense Hawke/Keating period of change, and gifted with a huge increase of revenue at the time, he increased payments to individuals and families in a series of handouts and benefits, so many, that by the time he left office over forty percent of the budget was being spent on social security and welfare. He had engendered a sense of entitlement in the electorate.

So we had a combination of governments having less control over the levers of the economy that left the electorate feeling that the government was less powerful than before, less able to control economic events, yet giving handouts that instead of evoking gratitude, created a sense of entitlement, a sense that this is what governments ought to do. As Tingle said: “[Howard] created this whole new edifice of government support and assistance, an expectation from people that they deserved to get something from government, not because they needed it but because they deserved to get it. That has created a really big rod for the backs of everybody who follows because it is very hard to unwind that sense of entitlement just based on the idea that government is there to give you something, not because you really need it.”

She explains: “It is wrong to see the anger of the last few years as a ‘one-off,’ which might go away at the next election. The things we are angry about betray the changes that have been taking place over recent decades. Politicians no longer control interest rates, the exchange rate, or wages, prices or industries that were once protected or even owned by government. Voters are confused about what politicians can do for them in such a world.” She adds that making promises that governments cannot keep exacerbates this confusion.

More detailed discussion of the Tingle essay is for another time. My purpose in including it here is simply to add to the catalogue of complex matters that beset us in the global economy in which we now live. My proposition is that it is the complexity of the series of events I’ve described – lesser control by governments and an established sense of entitlement – that has combined to produce anger and pessimism and disillusionment in the electorate, to an extent that almost defies comprehension by the voters. It is all too complex, and with the aversion we have to complexity it is too hard to think about, and therefore too hard to understand. The task for the Government is to explain this complexity in simple terms, to explain to the electorate that no matter who is in government, control over the economy and people’s lives is less than it has ever been, that the age of entitlement is behind us, and that the economic forces that propel governments cannot return us to the halcyon days for which so many seem to yearn. If that could be explained in understandable language, the anger might dissipate.

Aversion to complexity
To return to the theme of this piece, it is argued that because we live in an increasingly complex world, to understand what is happening, what might transpire, and what it is possible to do about it, we need to come to grips with complexity. There is no other way. Our aversion to complexity is leaving us in no-man’s land.

What we need from governments, economists and commentators is a way of addressing and understanding complexity, so that even if we cannot comprehend all the intricate details we can at least understand that there are reasons why things are the way they are. If we can comprehend even a glimpse of a plausible representation of the present, and a reasonable way ahead, we can all be collaborators in an even brighter, and more coherent future for us all.

What do you think?

Has Tony Abbott got a Plan B?

Plan A has been around since Tony Abbott became Leader of the Opposition – to seize government by any means. Trying to seize government in itself is unsurprising. Trying to achieve that by any means brings into play what Abbott’s ‘means’ comprise. I have said from the beginning of his leadership, starting with The pugilistic politician, written ten days after his ascension and referred to ad nauseam, Abbott’s means are the same as they have always been – smash your opponents quickly, beat them into submission, flatten them to the canvas in the first round, as he often did when he earned his two Blues in boxing at Oxford when on his Rhodes Scholarship.

Cartoon by David Pope, editorial cartoonist for the Canberra Times. © Education Services Australia Limited and the National Museum of Australia 2009.

Abbott describes one of the bouts: “The Blues boxing match was locked 4-4 with the heavyweight to decide it. The Oxford Town Hall was absolutely packed to the rafters with very excited people who, I'm afraid, had been in many cases drinking rather heavily for quite some time. So I got into the ring, determined to hit my opponent harder and more often than he could possibly hit me. I went out like a whirling dervish, kept hitting him again and again and again with just a left, right, succession. And then I got him this magnificent left upper cut and he seemed to go up in the air, across the ring and almost through the ropes. As I said, I could hardly believe it then and I can still hardly believe it. But it certainly made for a spectacular end to the Blue's boxing match that year.”

That reflects Abbott’s Plan A.

From the outset, Abbott has gone out, arms thrashing, with five objectives:
- Get a jump on your opponent.
- Go in full bore, like a ‘whirling dervish’.
- Hit your opponent hard, harder and more often than your opponent can hit you.
- Flatten your opponent quickly.
- Destroy your opponent beyond recovery.

If any of you, particularly Coalition supporters, believe this description of the Abbott strategy is fanciful, just look at the facts.

From day one Abbott has been on the attack against the Government and its leader, first Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard. He attempted time and again to get the jump on them. He failed.

His strategy has been to use any tactic, no matter how disingenuous, no matter how deceptive, no matter how dishonest, to achieve his aims. He has been a ‘whirling dervish’, arms wildly flailing, hoping to land a lethal blow.

He has hit hard with every opportunity: at mines, factories, fish markets, shopping centres, rubbish dumps, clubs and community meetings, and in the parliament. His messages are consistent: the carbon tax is toxic and will force the price of everything up, and up and up, and will kill off whole industries; now it’s a ‘python’ that will steadily squeeze us to death rather than kill us with a quick and deadly ‘cobra strike’. He insists that the minerals tax will kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs and that the NBN is a massive white elephant. He is adamant that the Government can’t manage money, is addicted to spending and debt, is borrowing $100 million a day, which is putting upwards pressure on interest rates, and that it will never bring in a surplus budget. He scoffs that it cannot stop the boats, but opposes the actions the Government proposes. He declares that Julia Gillard is a liar and cannot be trusted; he continues to poison voters’ minds against her. And so on it goes – you have heard it all so many times. To injure the Government, his scaremongering continues unabated; he talks down the economy and spreads fear, uncertainty and doubt wherever he goes, without concern for the damage to business and consumer confidence he is inflicting.

His intent is to flatten Julia Gillard, to quickly drive her from power, and to use every device to do so. He has overseen the moving of almost sixty motions to suspend standing orders in the House so he can censure, demean, diminish the PM and her Government. He metaphorically swings his arms viciously and at times hatefully to throw her off balance, to put her to the canvas. So far he has failed.

He is on a mission to destroy our PM, her Government and all it is trying to do. When he defeated Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership, he ‘rewarded’ him with the position of Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband and instructed him “to demolish the National Broadband Network”. ‘Demolish’ was the word Abbott actually used, and he meant it. He wanted the NBN destroyed beyond repair. He has promised to leave a long trail of destruction in his wake if he is elected: repeal of the carbon tax and of course any Emissions Trading Scheme that would follow, repeal of the minerals tax, repeal of the benefits to families, workers and businesses that flow from these, repeal of the private health insurance rebate, and halting the NBN. All of them are destructive – there’s nothing constructive there at all. So far he has failed.

So Tony Abbott’s pugilism, born of his belligerent, aggressive nature, and his success as a ‘whirling dervish’ boxer, is an appropriate metaphor for his nature, style, and political behaviour. And ‘dervish’ aligns well with his “Mad Monk’ tag, except that ‘dervish’ usually refers to a Muslim monk!

No doubt Coalition supporters would approve of Abbott’s pugilism, as would some journalists, on the grounds that this is what opposition leaders do, in fact ought to do. The sheer brutality of Abbott’s approach seems not to disturb them, indeed many even applaud it and laud him as one of the most effective opposition leaders this nation has had. It seems that their prime criterion for effectiveness is success in the opinion polls, particularly a strong TPP position for the Opposition. What other criteria have they entertained? Surely not success in blocking legislation, surely not in winning motions to suspend standing orders, surely not rattling Julia Gillard, surely not dismissals from her ministry or the back bench for misdemeanors, surely not getting rid of Craig Thomson, surely not winning over the Independents, surely not precipitating a premature election, surely not rising high in the popularity stakes; in all of these he has been an abject failure. So it’s polls of voting intention that once more get top billing as a measure of success. Yet we all know that as a predictor of voting intention in 2013, contemporary polls are not just useless, but dangerously misleading. That does not deter commentators from using these unreliable data, because it’s all they’ve got to build their stories. We are being conned, but how many realize it?

Returning to Abbott’s Plan A, how far has he got? The first rounds are already over and the more tiring ones are ahead.

So far he has scarcely laid a glove on Julia Gillard, and has hardly got a jump on her. Some would dispute that by pointing out that he has got the ‘liar’ label to stick, the ‘broken promise’ accusation to bite, the ‘untrustworthy’ tag to hang around her neck, and that she is very unpopular in the polls. But could he have done that without the complicity of the media and particularly the rabble-rousing shock jocks who support him, without a media unprepared to challenge his multiple lies, scared to ask the hard questions, too timid to insist that he answer questions instead of walking away, too gutless to insist on properly costed policies from him. With an obsequious media, he has been able to get away with murder, and he refuses to engage regularly with the more confronting media such as the ABC's Q&A and 7.30. So let’s acknowledge that he has achieved some success in typecasting Julia Gillard, but only with the aid of a complicit media, and by avoiding confrontation.

He has certainly gone full bore like a whirling dervish, but what has he achieved? How many times has he ‘hit’ Julia Gillard, and how hard? Has he hit her harder than she has hit back? Watch Question Time for the answer. Check who is ahead on points.

Has he ‘flattened’ her, put her on the canvas? When? Where? How?

More importantly, what has he destroyed? Not much.

He probably feels he has destroyed her Malaysian arrangements for asylum seekers, and at least he has thwarted them, as he has perversely thwarted his own plan for offshore processing. No one can move towards that because of his intransigence. It looks like a Pyrrhic victory. He knows that unless he can command both houses of parliament, his Nauru option too is doomed.

What about his program of post-election destruction? Should he win the 2013 election, would he really be able to repeal the carbon tax? Many have written about the enormous difficulties he faces in getting such a repeal through the Senate, and the complexities, hazards and uncertainty of a double dissolution to overcome an intransigent Senate. Yet he boasted again just this week that the first thing he would do on assuming government would be to repeal the tax. He talks about this blithely, almost flippantly, and no doubt many voters will believe his hairy-chested rhetoric. But the devil will be in the doing. More failure awaits him.

How will he repeal the mining tax? That presents similar difficulties. How will he repeal the benefits these taxes are bringing to pensioners, families, workers, taxpayers, low-income earners and small businesses? How will he counter the backlash that will inevitably come from those who see benefits already in their hands taken away? Has he a contingency plan for this eventuality?

How will he dismantle the NBN? It will be so far advanced and so many contracts already made that the legalities will be overwhelming. And what about the backlash from those who see their opportunities for super fast broadband jeopardized because they are still waiting for the NBN to arrive in their locality? What about the howls of protest from businessmen, farmers, educators and doctors when they see the dazzling technology that would transform their lives denied them? Has Abbott thought this through? Has he an emergency plan for dealing with their anger and frustration?

There’s another problem for Abbott. Even if he could repeal the carbon and mining taxes, how would he make up for the billions of dollars of lost revenue? How will he keep his promise to bring in successive surplus budgets in his first term when he has foregone so much revenue and made so many expensive promises: his PPL, his company tax reductions, his personal tax deductions? It will take more than the shonky accounting we have seen from the Coalition to date. What is so cynical about Abbott’s approach is that he knows full well that he would not be able to make budgetary ends meet without drastic and painful cuts to services, the impact of which would be apparent only if he were elected to power, when the voters who had been conned by his promises into voting for him discovered to their horror that they had been sold a pup.

Abbott does not care at all about these possibilities; seizing power is all he is about. No doubt he reasons he will con his way out of the difficulties he will inevitably face, with more lies and deception, throwing the blame on ‘an incompetent Labor Government that left Federal finances in an awful state, much worse than they revealed before the election’, a Government that has left their ill-conceived plans for hiking taxes so tied up with red tape and contracts that he is unable to undo them. He will not develop contingency plans in advance to deal with these matters; he would simply blame Labor and Treasury and the public service and anyone else he can think of for the mess in which he landed himself, a mess he might have avoided had he thought through his proposed actions and his off-the-top-of-the-head promises, and developed contingency plans to manage them.

Does Tony Abbott actually have a Plan B? If his Plan A fails, his pugilistic whirling dervish plan, as it seems likely to do in a spectacular way, there seems to be nothing else.

To make matters worse, apart from having no obvious contingency plans, he seems to have no affirmative plans either. He has no well-developed and properly costed policies that might appeal to the electorate and provide a plausible alternative to Government policies. He keeps telling us, for more than a year now, that policies are being developed, but they are being so kept under wraps that nobody has had a chance to see them, raising doubts as to whether they really exist.

Were we to be so unfortunate to have him elected as PM, the people of Australia would descend into the slough of despond at his lack of planning, and be pulled down with him into the ditch of destructiveness he has dug, a trench from which he seems to have no Plan B to escape, from which recovery would be slow and painful. Do we want this?

Should the people of Australia have to live with Abbott’s negativity and obstruction, his incompetence, his lack of planning and his obsessive desire to get hold of the keys to The Lodge, no matter how he does it, no matter how many he hurts on the way, no matter how much destruction and mayhem he leaves in his wake, no matter what terrible damage he does to the economy, to the people, to the psyche of the electorate, to the fabric of our society?

This would-be Prime Minister acknowledged only last week that“Gillard will not lie down and die…” The pugilistic politician realizes that in PM Gillard he has met his match. The people should ask what he intends to do next, should demand he reveal his Plan B, if he has one at all.

What do you think?