Abbott and the Goebbels Factor

As an example of emotion overwhelming reason, there is no more compelling one in Federal politics than the indifferent standing our PM enjoys in the eyes of the electorate, judged by the one metric that is regularly thrust in our faces as a legitimate measure – opinion polls. Leaving aside their validity and reliability, both of which are questionable, let’s look at other measures of her popularity and the respect in which she is held, together with her actual performance, and see how these tally with her poll ratings.

‘Softer’ measures include the reaction of individuals, groups of people, and those attending community events. From all accounts, PM Gillard is well received when she meets person to person with people whether in small numbers or in larger gatherings. She is personable, charming, and easy going. Even her detractors concede that. So the dislike of Julia Gillard that is evidenced in some sectors of the community seems not to be related to an abrasive manner, or social ineptitude, or snobbishness, or rudeness. She comes across as a pleasant person to meet, and with whom to converse. Think about the many TV clips we have seen of her with schoolchildren, parents, teachers and school administrators. Has anyone witnessed unbecoming behaviour? It seems that we have to give her a tick for interpersonal relationships at this level.

Reflect on her performance in larger forums such as community meetings. In all that I have witnessed she comes across as attentive to questions, respectful of questioners, intelligent, articulate, honest and non-evasive in her answers, and almost always convincing. While there has been the occasional heckler who has harangued her, for the most part audiences have been respectful and attentive, and the feedback largely positive. While some might give her the thumbs down, most do not. Another tick.

Think about her many appearances at workplaces, replete with hard-hat and fluoro vest, and reflect on how she has handled them. While the accoutrements irritate some, they seem to be required dress. Here again, she answers questions directly and clearly, and makes her points pithily, complying as all pollies need to do with the demand of TV viewers and radio audiences for brevity. Some may contest her statements or debate her reasoning, but few would assert that she fails to make her position clear.

Recall her more formal addresses to conferences, business gatherings, the National Press Club, and to political or social institutes. To me, she has presented herself well and stated her case soundly. Her speeches read well. Of course some disagree with her ideology, her policies, her plans, but that is the norm in political life for any politician. Some political commentators have lamented what they describe as her lack of a narrative, but rarely give a clue about how that narrative might read. Likewise, they bemoan a paucity of vision, but again never spell out what vision they expect. They long too for ‘leadership’, search for it, but never seem to see it, let alone tell us what they seek. In my opinion, the calls for a narrative, for a vision, for leadership, are no more than easy catchphrases that journalists use, knowing that their readers will be impressed with their erudition but will almost never probe them about what form a narrative, a vision and inspired leadership might take. Without this explanation, these words are just a journalistic cop-out; empty, albeit plausible, words.

I first wrote about this in September 2008 in In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative. Having spelt out the elements of a narrative, I detailed the Rudd ‘narrative’ that I had heard over and again, ending with: “So there it is. Although the words scarcely lend themselves to soaring oratory, they do have the potential to catch attention and engender assent. There’s nothing there that we haven’t heard before. It’s just an aggregation of announcements that have been made by the Rudd Government since its election. Is this the narrative columnists are so eagerly seeking, or something like it? Maybe we’ve all heard the narrative over and again without realizing it.”

Then in October 2010 I wrote, The enigma of the ‘overarching’ narrative a term used by Paul Keating in his book After Words. Again, somewhat exasperated, I concluded: “The Gillard Government does have a clearly articulated ‘overarching and compelling story’. Many of us can see its narrative, but according to Keating many can’t, and of course many won’t because they don’t want to.”

I wrote about vision in Julia Gillard’s Vision for the Asian Century in November 2011.

‘Leadership’ too has been the subject of several pieces. In August 2010 there was The enigma of leadership; in February 2011 Leadership - what do the people want; and in August 2011 What is political leadership – Do you know?

Before anyone comes here condemning Julia Gillard for a lack of a narrative, or vision, or leadership, please read these pieces first.

She has twice appeared solo on Q&A for hour-long questioning, sometimes from hostile questioners, and has done well. The amount of positive feedback that resulted suggested that there was approval by many.

She has often appeared on 7.30, and although sometimes subject to hostile questioning, has answered firmly, maintained her equanimity, and has got her message across. Last night’s appearance was superb.

Recently she entered the social media environment with an hour-long session on Google+ Hangout. I watched it all and found her performance polite and respectful and her responses plausible and in line with her stated positions. Some will disagree with some of these positions, but when two thirds gave her a ‘dislike’ rating, were they expressing dislike of her policies and positions, or their dislike of her personally?

So far I’m scratching to find anything of moment to hang around our PM’s neck. She seems to perform well in these community environments, yet the opinion polls, for what they are worth, tell us that for a long while now she has had a higher disapproval rating than approval. What is the basis for that disapproval?

How does she perform on the international stage? Despite her initial uncertainty about how she would handle relations with other heads of state, she has done well, is respected by them and gets along well with the greatest of them all, President Obama being a case in point. Although some criticized her initial apprehension, few have said anything derogatory since.

What about her parliamentary performance? Most commentators would give her credit for her ability in Question Time to answer questions, no matter how nasty or curly, often without notes, and when she uses them, she seems to have anticipated the question and has facts and figures at her fingertips. She has had the better of her questioners, much to the chagrin of the Leader of the Opposition and the Manager of Opposition business. Despite them heaping venomous abuse on her day after day, she has maintained her equanimity and countered them with verve. Even her opponents would give her a tick for her parliamentary style.

In parliamentary committees, and in COAG, an example of which we saw yesterday, she maintains control, will not tolerate intimidation, and does not buckle under duress. The Independents testify to her friendliness, her skill in negotiation, and her willingness to find solutions and sometimes accept compromises to ‘get things done’, to use her phrase.

Whenever she speaks, no matter on what subject, she seems to be across her brief thoroughly, a formidable task for any national leader in today’s complex world.

I’m still wondering why she is so unpopular with much of the electorate.

What about her appearance? It seems that she has been subject of much unwarranted criticism. But about what? Her jackets, her jewellery or lack of it, her earlobes and earrings, her pointy nose, and of course ‘her big backside’? Hardly objects worthy of censure! Then there is her voice, her ocker accent, her drawl. Again, is this aspect of our PM more off-putting than Bob Hawke’s gravelly diction, John Howard’s voice, both the butt of comic mimicking, or the whining voice of Billy McMahon? Is it because she is a woman that she cops so much?

Is her marital status a reason for voters’ disapproval, or her childlessness, or her atheism? Or her opposition to same-sex marriage? For some it may be, but any or all of them are hardly a substantial reason for the level of disapproval we see.

Let’s then look at her policies. There is no doubt that some have generated deep antagonism among some voters. The ‘carbon tax’, the minerals tax, and her asylum seeker strategy are policies that have all evoked virulent criticism from many. No doubt that explains some of her unpopularity. All politicians suffer unpopularity among those of a different ideological view, but while such differences evoke disagreement, even antagonism, it is unusual for them to evoke the strong feelings about PM Gillard that many voters have, in some instances amounting to profound dislike, even vitriolic hatred.

Some dislike her, not just because of her policies, but also because of what they deem to be her incompetence. How many times have you heard her described as hopeless, inept, without a clue, error prone, never able to get anything right, indecisive, a poor decision maker, a back-flipper, in fact the worst PM this country has ever had, leading ‘a bad government, getting worse’, one that is bungling and ‘chaotic’? But this assessment does not tally with her actual performance.

She has led a reforming Government, has successfully tackled some of the thorniest issues of our time – climate change, tax reform, education, health and disability reforms, social welfare and parental leave reforms, and a variety of critically vital infrastructure projects, the NBN being the largest. Even forming a minority Government required consummate negotiating skills, ones superior to those of the Opposition Leader, and keeping it going has required both skill and perseverance. The result is over 330 pieces of legislation passed already; the only ones pending are those for which Coalition or Greens’ support is needed but wanting.

An objective and fair appraisal of performance would have to rate PM Gillard’s and her Government’s efforts to date as first class, even if not agreeing with the substance of some of the legislation passed. She has got things done. Many, many things! And in the process, only two ministers, Joel Fitzgibbon and Kevin Rudd have been removed from their portfolios. The Gillard Government has been an efficient and active one, already having passed three times as much legislation as the Howard Government did in its first term. So she and her Government should get a big tick for achievement.

On top of that, all the parameters of Australia’s economy are excellent. The economy is booming, the best by far in the developed world. The Rudd and the Gillard governments have managed it brilliantly.

There must be much more to explain why this personable, intelligent, well-informed, hardworking, efficient and accomplished PM is so unpopular.

Let’s get down to what I believe is the nub of Julia Gillard’s unpopularity problem – the image that has been indelibly stamped on her persona by Tony Abbott, Coalition members, shock jocks and the media. She has been portrayed as a back-stabber, disloyal, treacherous, untrustworthy, deceitful, and, most of all, a liar.

First, the way in which she came to power has rebounded on her head almost from the day she replaced Kevin Rudd, certainly from when, during the election campaign, Laurie Oakes asked his question about that fateful night. Although right up until the last moment she stated repeatedly and genuinely that she did not want prime ministership and agreed to allow her name to go forward only under pressure from the powerbrokers, she has been tagged ever since as a backstabber, especially by Queenslanders, many of whom still hold Kevin Rudd in high regard, and feel he was poorly treated. She has unfairly copped most of the ignominy of that event, while the perpetrators have slinked away.

Tony Abbott and his Coalition colleagues have ensured that this event has been imprinted on her as a cattleman brands his beasts. In the eyes of those who despise her, she might as well have it seared into her forehead for all to see. Every time they look at her, no matter what she is doing or saying, they see this branding, and like any branding, it will never disappear. The true story behind her coming to prime ministership is irrelevant to them; all that they see is the metaphorical brand in the centre of her forehead. Sadly, no matter how many good things she does, some will never credit her, will never forgive her for her ‘back-stabbing’ of Kevin Rudd. Who are these people? I suspect that most are Coalition supporters, but some will be disenchanted Labor supporters, whom Labor needs to enfold again.

But the most damaging tag that has been indelibly applied to her is the ‘liar’ label. This has arisen from her change of tack over an emissions trading scheme, something she committed herself to during the 2010 election, but it turned out to be an undertaking she was unable to deliver once she was confronted with a hung parliament that required negotiation to bring about a workable minority government. She had to compromise to achieve government. She had to put aside her: ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’, something she really meant when she said it. What she wanted was an emissions trading scheme from the outset, without a preliminary price on carbon. She could not achieve that, so she had the option of having nothing or having a compromise solution. She chose the latter and has been demonized for that decision ever since. Only the occasional journalist paints the true sequence of events, the true picture.

It is a LIE to say that she has broken a solemn promise; it is FALSE to call her a liar because she compromised with the Greens and the Independents to achieve a workable outcome rather than none at all. Yet that is what Tony Abbott, his Coalition members and his sycophants in the media, Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Co. have done with ferocity seldom seen even in the rough and tumble of Federal politics. They have called her ‘Ju-liar’, and have associated themselves with placards bearing ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’. Jones has said that she and Bob Brown and sundry others should be put in a hessian bag, taken out to sea and left to swim back, something he has repeated many times. Graeme Morris has said she ‘should be kicked to death’. Their venom is incredible.

Abbott, Jones and Hadley have repeatedly demonized our PM, treated her with disdain and have done this publically. They have repeated ‘Ju-liar’ endlessly. Is it any surprise that the polls, the one measure of popularity that journalists use, remain persistently poor for Julia Gillard and her Government? And every time the polls are in the field, particularly Newspoll, News Limited ensures that its pages are filled with stories condemnatory of her and her Government, thereby ensuring the continuation of poor polling for Labor and her personally. Each poll influences those that follow; each bout of relentless negativity feeds into the next, in a vicious spiral that defies recovery.

This is where the Goebbels Factor comes into play. As Hitler’s Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany, Goebbels built his strategy on this dictum: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” He went onto say: “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State (my bolding).”

Abbott, Jones, Hadley and their followers have used this strategy consistently and tellingly since the 2010 election, when Abbott believed he was robbed of his rightful place as Prime Minister of this nation.

Another of Goebbels’ dictums was: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over”. Again, Abbott has used that Goebbels strategy to great effect.

Another Goebbels aphorism: “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play”, illustrates exactly how Abbott has managed his anti-Gillard propaganda; the press, particularly News Limited, has been deeply complicit.

In summary, this piece argues that by any reasonably objective measure, Julia Gillard has been an outstanding, if not perfect Prime Minister. She and her Government have introduced a series of profound reforms designed to set this nation up for a low carbon economy and the Asian Century, and has achieved great success against the odds, in the face of the most venomous opposition and obstruction. The economy is prospering.

Our PM is a personable, devoted and intelligent leader, determined to bring Australia into the era ahead, well equipped to take advantage of what the new age offers. Yet she stands condemned by so many voters, persuaded by the Abbott/Jones/Hadley propaganda that she is an evil, back stabbing liar that must be thrown from office as soon as possible.

It is ironic that it is Canberra’s most habitual liar, Tony Abbott, who leads the ‘Ju-liar’ charge.

So far the Goebbels Factor is working for Abbott and his sycophants. Most of the media is doing everything it can to perpetuate the Goebbels strategy, with just a few Fairfax and independent journalists and the Fifth Estate fighting a rearguard against this formidable foe.

For some, even some in Labor circles, the struggle against these forces seems too hard. They look for an opportunity to throw in the towel, to let the polls, and the media that use them against Julia Gillard and her Government, have their way.

Such surrender is cowardly. What is Labor if its supporters surrender to the malevolent forces that seek to destroy it using Abbott’s evil Goebbels Factor? Julia Gillard remains defiant, refusing to submit to death by opinion poll, refusing to let Abbott’s Goebbels Factor triumph, refusing ‘to lie down and die’. Her supporters need to get resolutely behind her.

What do you think?