The pathology of leadership speculation

I use the word ‘pathology’ advisedly, meaning as it does ‘the study and diagnosis of disease’. For a ‘disease’ it is, a disease that afflicts politicians and commentators alike. While curiosity about leadership is understandable and ‘normal’, the contemporaneous obsessive preoccupation with leadership is pathological. In the same way as fear of spiders might be natural, morbid fear of them that governs and controls behaviour abnormally, is pathological.

Some will argue that leadership speculation is natural, that we saw it in the Hawke/Keating contest, and in the Howard/Costello one too, and that today’s speculation is no different. But can any reader document a more intense and persistent period of speculation than we have seen since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister? Some will argue that there are good reasons for that, a subject we shall explore.

Let’s leave aside past speculation, which led to the confrontation between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd in February that resulted in a 71/31 vote in her favour, and focus on the pathology of the speculation that has arisen in the last few weeks.

As with all natural phenomena, the factors that contribute to an outcome are complex. Simplistic explanations are almost always incomplete, and have unsatisfactory elucidatory value. So let’s try to tease out when and why this most recent outbreak of speculation occurred.

But let’s first acknowledge that it did not arise de novo. There has been a chronic history of speculation, speculation that was often just under the surface, but which erupted from time to time. Like a chronic abscess, it has festered, showing at times small amounts of ‘discharge’, and then settled, only to later erupt and discharge copious amounts of political pus. As every doctor knows, a deep seated abscess that has not been satisfactorily drained will continue accumulating purulent material, at times showing no external discharge, but from time to time erupting onto the surface as pressure builds to bursting point. This will go on indefinitely until the infected tissue and the infecting organisms are completely removed, sometimes surgically.

The leadership dissent pathogen has been present in the Labor body at least since dissatisfaction with Kevin Rudd began and markedly so from when he was removed and replaced by Julia Gillard. The extent of the pathology became starkly manifest at the time of the February confrontation, when many exasperated ministers made statements about Kevin Rudd for the first time, statements that underscored the extent of their dissatisfaction with his past and present performance, and the degree of the pathology that existed. The outcome was the lancing and evacuation of the abscess and the reaffirmation of Julia Gillard as the leader, the Prime Minister. That ought to have been the end of the matter. The abscess, having been drained, ought to have subsided and healed. But it didn’t. Some determined that they would continue to contaminate the Labor body, to keep infection dormant, but ready to flare up again.

These malcontents, intentionally or inadvertently, fed the rumour mill, into which the Canberra Press Gallery taps for its tidbits: the whispers, the scuttlebutt, the gossip. And always eager to seize upon any morsel that might make a story, they hover around the corridors ever hopeful of a scoop. They could of course ignore these tidbits, but the temptation is too great. They tick all the boxes: entertaining, sensational, loaded with conflict, involving people in high places, capable of inflicting damage, and for some columnists, if the damage is to Labor and the PM, so much the better.

When leadership speculation is categorized as ‘a media beat-up’, the faces of some journalists become suffused with anger and denial, insisting as they always do that their stories are based on actual happenings. How authentic these are is questionable; one gets the impression of a willingness by some journalists to make a highly speculative mountain out of a very tentative molehill.

Still there are some shadowy Labor figures that lurk in the corridors dropping hints and innuendo that journalists seize upon, and enlarge into ‘a federal case’. Who are they?

We don’t know because their identity is protected by their contacts. But on Q&A last week we saw one: Joel Fitzgibbon. This round of speculation seemed to flare up then. The chronic abscess began to discharge again.

We were astonished to see Joel so comprehensively ambushed by Tony Jones. Joel, you must have known that as Government minister and Whip, you were bound to be confronted by a question about leadership, and a Tony Jones attempt at a gotcha. He has an obsession with these and with ‘will you confirm’ or ‘will you deny’, and ‘will you guarantee’ questions. A brief work shopping of possible questions and your answers would soon have equipped you to give a non-controversial answer. Instead you were caught flat-footed and answered in a way that fed the media for the next week. Asked if you could guarantee that Julia Gillard would be in place at the next election, all you had to say was ‘Yes’ – no ifs or buts or qualifications or caveats. But as soon as you added those caveats, Jones jumped, and so did all the anti-Gillard columnists listening in. Michelle Grattan must have leapt for joy. Your equivocation, and your unnecessary reference to the Newcastle Knights, was manner from heaven for the anti-Gillard group. What we don’t know is whether your performance on Q&A, replete with your enigmatic smile, was intended to damage your leader, or was just an exhibition of your ineptitude. Nor do we know whether your appearance the next day on several TV and radio programs was an inept attempt to repair the damage, or to accentuate it. We do wish you would declare your hand, and if you are working behind the scenes to erode our PM’s stature, that you would come out and say so. We can’t work out where you do stand. And if you are against your leader, why do you continue as her numbers man. How do you think being anti-Gillard will advance Labor’s cause?

Let’s leave conjecture about Fitzgibbon aside and acknowledge that from the moment he uttered his words on Q&A the floodgates opened. The 11 pm news carried the item and it was a feature of the news for the next day, and beyond. It fuelled countless stories about Julia Gillard’s leadership, on radio, TV and in the press. Michelle Grattan was ecstatic; it gave her many column inches for several days. The whole leadership issue was tediously dissected and analysed. Every morsel of ‘confirmatory’ evidence of a threat to her leadership was blown up to spectacular proportions. New deadlines were set for her to reach a performance target.

And what was the target? That she pass this piece of legislation or that? That she reach an acceptable position on the asylum seeker issue; that she successfully rebut the spurious Abbott anti-carbon tax scaremongering; that she demonstrate the strength of the economy; that she protect jobs in manufacturing; that she perform well on the international stage? No, no, no, no, no, no – it was none of these ‘inconsequential’ tasks. What she was to be judged on was whether she could raise Labor’s primary vote to a specified level by a specified date!!! But the specifications varied! Can you believe it? Her detractors insisted that she raise the primary vote, not at the next election, or even in a by-election, but in the opinion polls!!! Opinion polls that this far from the next scheduled election have no predictive value. Can you believe it? Unfortunately we must.

Politicians and columnists have become pathologically obsessed with opinion polls of voting intention and focus groups. This is another pathogen that infects the chronic leadership speculation abscess.

And they are no ordinary politicians and columnists. Steve Bracks has joined the throng navel-gazing at the polls. So has the usually balanced Mike Carlton. Even the highly respected Laura Tingle seems inclined this way. All their dire prognostications are built on unreliable and non-predictive opinion polls of voting intention. How could they allow themselves to be so conned by the pollsters, who incidentally give much less credence to their polls than do the owners of the polls who use them as fodder for countless columns and predictive pieces. Imagine how much harder journalists would have to work without opinion polls. Leadership speculation would be muted without the data polls provide, and prediction of electoral outcomes would be sterile. Polls and focus groups are the lifeblood of political commentary. While it is understandable that this is so for political journalists, why is it so for the politicians themselves? How have they fallen for this grotesque confidence trick?

We can be thankful that we have Ross Gittins and Peter Martin still prepared to state things the way they are, untainted by poll gazing. We are grateful that sensible commentators like Andrew Catsaras remind us about the reality of polls and focus groups. In a piece in The Drum Opinion Take me to your follower: into the leadership void on 19 July, he says: “A major contributor to this problem [of leadership] is the gradual adoption of techniques by the profession of politics that were developed for the profession of marketing.

“Most responsible is the distorted application of two traditional marketing techniques: market research and public relations.

“From market research, politics has adopted one form of qualitative research, the much-vaunted focus group; from quantitative research, it has adopted opinion polls; while from public relations, it has adopted the most cynical component, spin.

“The political world has become addicted to these techniques without appearing to fully understand their uses, thereby contributing to this leadership demise.”

Later he says: “A poll-driven politician is hostage to public opinion, but unlike the marketer who becomes successful by following a market, a poll-driven politician lurches from fad to fad, crisis to crisis, media topic to media topic, talkback radio whim to talkback radio whim, without any clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve.”

And commentators do the same.

His article is worth a read from beginning to end.

Let’s recapitulate. We have both politicians and commentators building much of their edifice about politics and leadership on a pack of cards called opinion polls and focus groups, cards that could come tumbling down in the face of real data – actual election results.

And it’s even more sinister than that. Because of the publicity each opinion poll receives on radio, TV and in the press, each feeds into and contaminates the next. As we have at least one highly publicized poll every week, the cross contamination is gross. Can you imagine what might be the outcome if we suspended polls for six months to give respondents enough time to forget the last ones? Maybe the results would look quite different to what they do now. But we know that will never happen – the polls are too lucrative to the poll owners, too ready a source of column inches for journalists, and with them being poor for Labor at present, too good a resource for media owners, especially News Limited, to damage PM Gillard and her Government.

Returning to the chronic abscess analogy, journalists know that if they poke around a bit they can always get the leadership speculation abscess to discharge a bit more purulent material. Older folk will remember how long one could squeeze a bit more pus from a boil. This is what they do, especially when there is a slow news week, as there has been recently during the long Winter break and with Tony Abbott overseas. Leadership speculation can always help a news-starved journalist to meet a deadline. I have no doubt that even without the malcontents dropping cues for the journos to pick up, they can always extract a quote or two that enables them to fill a column. The process becomes self-perpetuating, chronic and, like most abscesses, toxic to the Labor organism. Yet, despite the cues they gather, journalists flounder trying to interpret leadership rumblings, as we saw this morning on the ABC’s Insiders, where desultory and inconclusive conversation filled much of the program. If you think I’m exaggerating, listen to the waffle we heard from our ‘insiders’ in this segment from Insiders.

Apart from these obvious reasons for poking the leadership abscess, in my view some journalists do so for other reasons. Some are working to a subtle editorial imperative to ‘get Julia Gillard and bring down her Government’, and can’t afford to miss an opportunity to do that. Patriciawa postulates there is also a fear factor, fear about losing their job in this uncertain media climate unless they toe the editorial line, fear that they will miss another leadership coup, as they did when Rudd was deposed, and fear that like the Carr appointment, they will miss something else of moment. After all, they are supposed to be the all-knowing insiders.

Leadership speculation is pathological. The journalist ‘doctors’ haven’t got a clue about the nature and extent of the pathology, or what can be done about it. All they know is how to exploit it to the advantage of their outlets, and for most, that is all they want.

It’s time we ignored all the talk we hear from the media about leadership, uninformed and puerile as it too often is. It is a waste of consumers’ time and energy.

For my part, I wish the chronic abscess of leadership speculation could be properly drained, dead tissue excised, contaminating organisms eliminated, and the cavity allowed to repair from the bottom, by second intention, as medical parlance would have it. Healing will almost always follow.

What do you think?