Can our ABC resuscitate our political media?

Opinion within the Fifth Estate about the state of the political media in the Fourth Estate is virtually unanimous. There is an almost undivided view that in this country, and in many others, much of the print media is incompetent and malevolent in the way it reports political events, that in places it is corrupt, and in the case of the Murdoch media, subjugated to the will of the proprietor. The previous piece: The MSM is dangerously shortchanging us argued this case; the responses highlighted not just agreement, but also the deep dismay that those who commented felt at this state of affairs.

Perhaps even more dismay was expressed about the way in which the ABC had often followed the commercial media line, even at times echoing its headlines and stories, virtually word for word, and too often devoid of any serious analysis of the newsworthiness of the stories, their veracity and their meaning. Some who commented felt affronted by the apparent acquiescence of the ABC to the commercial line, when it is supposed to be an independent public broadcaster, funded from the public purse. There was consternation that it resembled a Murdoch clone, that it had lost its identity, and with it much of its independence.

Only the sightless could believe that the commercial media, and in particular the News Limited media, would be likely to change their tune and adopt a more balanced approached to politics. Only the sightless would be unable to see that News Limited media are running an explicit political agenda, one that is unlikely to change unless something radical occurs.

News Limited is intent on the removal of the Gillard Government and the replacing of it with a Coalition one, and to ‘the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box’. No objective analysis of News Limited’s behaviour could lead to any other conclusion. And it’s no recent thing. Right back to some of the radical measures Labor took to counter the ill effects of the GFC: the HIP and the BER, News Limited, and particularly its flagship The Australian, has run a virulent and disingenuous campaign of denigration against these measures. It has ridiculed almost everything Labor has enacted; has labelled it incompetent and fiscally reckless; has rebuked, mocked and vilified its leaders, particularly its first female leader; and has misrepresented Labor’s intentions and actions with strident and at times vicious headlines, uncomplimentary photographs and disgusting cartoons. We know the Murdoch agenda, we know compliance with that agenda is required of Murdoch’s men, and we see the result day after day in the writings of Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Dennis Shanahan, Peter van Onselen, Chris Kenny, even Paul Kelly, and many others.

We have looked to Fairfax to counterbalance News Limited, but with the likes of Michelle Grattan, Peter Hartcher, and at times the more moderate Phillip Coorey replicating News Limited’s line, we have largely lost confidence there too. Fortunately, Fairfax still has Peter Martin, Ross Gittins, Brian Toohey and of course Laura Tingle, but with Michael Stutchbury, ex The Australian now at the helm of The Australian Financial Review, it must be hard for writers there to buck his anti-Gillard, anti-Labor orientation.

While we in the Fifth Estate ought never to give up, even on an outfit as recalcitrant as News Limited, with the limited resources we have we need to direct our energies in more promising directions, and the most promising of those seems to be our ABC. It may be the counter to the tsunami of commentary adverse to the Government that comes from the commercial media day after day.

It is worth pausing to ask what it is that we ought to expect from the political media. In my view, political reporters and commentators, and particularly the Canberra Press Gallery that is so close to the action, has a particular responsibility, an onerous one, to inform the electorate about what is happening politically, what the issues are, and what they mean for us. They ought to be comparing and contrasting opposing policies and costings. Their offerings should be fact-based, well argued, balanced, and free of bias, and if an opinion is offered, it ought to be similarly based. But what do we get?

We get political ‘news’ dressed up in sensational clothes; we get scoops and exclusives, ’gotchas’, ‘rule in rule out’ games, he/she was ‘forced to defend’ rhetoric, and of course a plethora of ‘scandals’, so long as they are on the Labor side. Whatever else it is, this ‘news’ must be controversial, conflict-driven, lurid, entertaining, and of course short and to the point, even if inaccurate, so as not to overrun the perceived short attention span of the consumers. The default position is triviality; thoughtful analysis is relegated to less popular time slots, or less read newspaper sections.

The purpose of this piece is to suggest that we direct our attention to our ABC, with the intent of stiffening its spine, rebalancing its coverage, and re-focussing its vision. My question is: Can the ABC resuscitate our moribund and feckless media? Can it bring about changes in its commercial competitors by the sheer force of its professionalism and the strength of its determination to promulgate to the electorate accurate facts and figures, well reasoned analysis, sound guidance and helpful insights?

If the ABC were to assume a dominant, rather than a submissive role hanging onto the coattails of the commercial side, if it were to exhibit outstanding professionalism, if it were to set the standard for political reporting we deserve, if it were to divorce itself from the Canberra Press Gallery echo chamber where groupthink reigns supreme, might it not put pressure on its commercial rivals? Might that not shame them into performing better? Maybe not, but it’s worth a try.

But the ABC is certainly not without fault, and it is not yet homogenous. Some sectors perform well, others poorly; some are balanced, some imperceptibly so. There is hope though that if all its sections could perform well, if balance could be restored, it might be the agent to give mouth to mouth to a moribund commercial political media. It is not an exaggeration to view the commercial media as moribund, but still susceptible to well placed resuscitation.

Balance is a particular concern of ABC users. Writing on Independent Australia, David Horton pens a must-read: Open letter to ABC managing director Mark Scott. It begins:

”Dear Mark Scott,

“About this “balance” thing…

“I thought the ABC was about presenting good and accurate information. Your view seems to be that if you have someone telling the truth, it must be balanced by a lie; a fact balanced by an opinion; history balanced by rewritten history; science balanced by ignorance or religion; objective data balanced by vested interest; conservative opinion balanced by neoconservative opinion.

“The IPA is infesting every ABC outlet with its Libertarian Free Market ideology in the service of secret Business business. What are they providing “balance” for? Have there been Marxist economists daily on the ABC I have somehow missed? Even Keynesian economists? Er…no. Professor Sloan is on every week instead. Who is she “balancing”?

“What about the appearance of Peter Reith every week? A full essay on The Drum plus other live appearances. Who is he balancing? Gerard Henderson, Piers Akerman, Nikki Sava? Has there been a rash of appearances by Trotskyists, Socialist Alliance, Left Wing unionists who have escaped my notice?

“Do you really not see that the occasional appearance of, say, a Green MP, or someone from The Australia Institute, doesn’t actually match in weight the regular appearance of those mentioned above, so regular they might as well be on staff, and certainly gain the apparent credibility of being so.

There is more here that you would enjoy reading.

Remember, it was Mark Scott who took notice of Greg Jericho, when he wrote a piece on Grog’s Gamut complaining about the poor quality of reporting of the 2010 election campaign. Scott discussed Greg’s concern with his executives and brought it to a conference for discussion. As we don’t have inside access to the ABC, we can’t know what changes Greg’s piece brought about, but Scott certainly did notice it.

Why do I see the ABC as a potential remedy to the widespread problem of incompetent political commentary by a moribund media?

Mark Scott’s seeming willingness to listen and learn encourages optimism, and we all know that the ABC can and does produce informative and incisive political programs.

Let’s recall some exemplary events in the ABC’s political life. Shall we ever forget that classic interview in May 2010 by Kerry O’Brien of Tony Abbott about Abbott’s approach to the truth? Refresh your memory by revisiting this YouTube clip. Remember Leigh Sales’ interview with Abbott on 22 August of this year over BHP Billiton’s announcement about its postponement of its Olympic Dam project. These were two occasions when the Opposition Leader was pinned down over statements that were shown to be disingenuous and deceitful. Abbott looked embarrassed, harassed and angry, and showed how pitifully inadequate he was as Leader of the Opposition.

We have to go back only to yesterday’s Insiders to see how Barrie Cassidy handled Joe Hockey and his extravagant utterances about the devastating effects of the mining tax on the miners; his criticism of monthly payments of company tax; his likening of the reduction of the baby bonus to $3000 for the second and subsequent children to the Chinese birth control system, calling the bonus ‘a penalty’; and his use of the term ‘flat-lining’ to describe Australia’s 3% per annum growth rate. Hockey blustered and bumbled his way through the interview, appeared outmaneuvered, was at times rambling, and looked foolish throughout. Hockey would be wise to watch his words more carefully, in lieu of shooting off his mouth.

In case you are thinking that I’m focussing only on interviews with Opposition members, let’s not forget the many times PM Gillard, Treasurer Swan, and many other Government ministers have been put under the hammer by Tony Jones, Emma Alberici, Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann on ABC TV, and Jon Faine, Rafael Epstein, Sabra Lane, Samantha Hawley and Alexandra Kirk on radio. There have been so many that we can’t keep count.

What I’m saying is that ABC interviewers can be incisive and insistent; they can dig out the truth and expose disingenuousness. But this is not consistently the case.

As an example of inconsistency, let’s look at interviews by Chris Uhlmann. Recall his impertinent interview of PM Gillard on 9 May that was caustically critiqued by Paul Keating in The Drum Opinion, which because it was published without vetting, evoked an angry rebuttal by Bruce Belsham, Head of ABC Current Affairs, who felt the need to come out in robust defence of “one of this country's best political journalists and interviewers”. Read it here.

Contrast that tough interview with his soft interview of Tony Abbott about the NT intervention where all the questions were easy and facilitatory. Now look at how Uhlmann treated Bob Brown, or should I say assailed him? Uhlmann needs to reflect on his evenhandedness in interviews and not let what appear to be partisan biases influence them.

Balance in the ABC is essential. After all the sprays that Julia Gillard has been given by the likes of Piers Akerman, Michael Stutchbury and Nikki Sava on Insiders, it was a salutary example of balance yesterday to hear Mike Seccombe giving Tony Abbott the biggest spray I have ever heard on that program. Listen to it here.

Another example of balanced discourse is the fora that are conducted regularly on The World Today. Just last Friday, Ashley Hall moderated a discussion between three experts on natural disaster management titled: Debate asks whether Australia can manage natural disasters better. You can read the transcript and listen to it here. Such debates are informative, balanced and absorbing.

This is what we want in our political debates – reliable and verifiable evidence, honestly and completely presented, reasoned argument, logical conclusions, sound advice and comparison of the policy options being offered. Instead, what we usually get is biased rhetoric, flawed and incomplete information, loud argument, talking over each other, and inconclusive outcomes. The regular Lateline Friday ‘debates’ between opposing politicians are a gross example of this. They are intellectually valueless; all they provide is coarse ‘entertainment’ for those with the stomach. They ought to be scrapped and proper debate between experts substituted.

So my proposition is that as the ABC is capable of conducting demanding and balanced interviews of politicians across the political spectrum, although it does not universally do so, and as it is able to provide valid and reliable information and balanced commentary when it chooses, the idea that the ABC might assume a more dominant role becomes compelling as the rest of the media deteriorates.

This idea was captured in The ABC Plays Monopoly by Bernard Lagan on October 24 in The Global Mail the link to which was provided by regular blogger 2353.

It begins: “Australian news consumers are confronting new paywalls all over the place – but it’s all free at the ABC, where the national broadcaster is quietly combining the full force of its television, radio and digital news teams for one hugely ambitious online market grab.

“With Australia’s high-brow newspaper publisher, Fairfax Media, heading for its knees, commercial broadcaster Network Ten about to shed one third of its journalists and the Nine Network now in the hands of unforgiving US hedge funds, who is going to emerge as the titan of influence and reach in the Australian media?

“The likely answer is your ABC.”

Lagan continues: “There is a news revolution going on within Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster, likely to reveal itself early next year when the ABC re-launches its unloved digital news arm, seeking the online audience share ABC bosses believe it should command. The organisation has rich resources; some 1,000 people work directly for the ABC’s television, radio and online news – about 20 per cent of the corporation’s employees. And many more will soon be contributing to the ABC’s online news sites, under the corporation’s plan to follow the BBC, CNN and to some extent America’s public radio network NPR, and have its journalists working across multiple platforms.

“Not only do the changes herald renewed efforts by the ABC to garner mass audiences for its online news sites – they come at the worst possible time for Fairfax Media, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age broadsheet newspapers. Now the online news competition for Fairfax – and for News Ltd’s The Australian, which moved to a pay-for-access system in October 2011 – will be increasingly from the ABC, as it puts more resources into online news and produces a re-designed more user-friendly website. Unhappily for Fairfax and News Ltd, all of the ABC’s expanded content will continue to be free.”

Lagan continues: ”While the ABC is coy about its ambitions on the ratings tables, its newly appointed head of news content, Gaven Morris, the creator of the ABC’s highly successful around-the-clock TV news channel ABC News 24, wants a visit to ABC online to become a daily habit for news followers. “There is a real opportunity for us [online ABC news] to be much more of a habit for people than we have been,” says Morris in an interview with The Global Mail.”

“Says Kate Torney, the ABC’s director of news: “The ABC has always evolved to meet audience needs, whether it be through the introduction of television or more recently with online. I see enormous opportunities to improve the ABC’s digital news service and to make sure audiences can access their news on devices of their choice.”

“Head of ABC News 24 and News Online Gaven Morris says that aside from the redesign of the ABC’s online news sites, they will also provide more content, and it will be more varied and more rapidly produced…the ABC plans to increase the number of reporters working on stories of national impact, that can be run in all states on radio, television and especially online.

“The ABC will establish…a central production desk, staffed around the clock. It will package national and international stories from both the ABC’s staff and external news agencies for television and radio, and produce text-based stories for the ABC’s online news sites, as well as for social-media sites.”

The article continues: "So has the ABC calculated that early next year – when users can expect the arrival of the Fairfax paywalls – offers the best moment for the public broadcaster to capture the online audience and lure it away from Fairfax online? While Fairfax, thus far, has been relatively subdued in its response to the ABC’s expansion into further online territory, News Ltd’s Australian CEO Kim Williams – once an ABC executive himself – has not held back." He expressed the same aggressive antagonism to the ABC as did Rupert and James Murdoch towards the BBC!

Citing the changed habits of Australians whereby 23 per cent of Australians now name online as their main source of news, and 88 per cent of all Australian Internet users access news online, and more than half of Australian smart phone users regularly use their phone to stay informed of news updates, the ABC believes it is merely following its audience online and maintains that ‘its overriding obligation is to provide news, information and entertainment to all Australians’.

This absorbing article concludes: "ABC executives say the broadcaster’s experience with the two-year-old rolling news channel ABC24 has exposed to it a much pacier news culture – ideal for online. The digital television channel changed the ABC's slow-moving schedule with an energy they now aim to translate to online…" We wish them every success.

So there it is. As the commercial media wilt, as they carry out their role as political commentators less and less professionally, it seems an ideal time for our ABC to set a new standard for political reporting, to show how it should be done, to do it in a balanced way, to take the initiative.

This would elevate political commentary to its proper level, would furnish the electorate with a reliable source of information and guidance, and at the same time might resuscitate the seemingly moribund commercial media, might energize it to begin reporting politics as it always should have done.

What to you think?

The MSM is dangerously shortchanging us

In just twelve months time, voters will be asked to choose between a Gillard Labor Government and an Abbott-led Coalition Government. How will they choose? How will they know how to choose? What information, what analysis will they have to make their choice? How will they obtain it? Who will provide it? The answers are unknown. Yet they ought to be. The nation’s mainstream media ought to be at least one of the conduits, but it is not. And it shows no signs of becoming so. Folks, this is serious – this is tragic.

It would not be so tragic if the two main parties were much the same, but we know they are not. The differences are profound, radical and nation-breaking.

Why is it that we lack what we need to make an informed and rational decision about who should govern our nation for the following three years? The answer is obvious – we are afflicted with a largely incompetent and often malevolent mainstream media. It’s a sad and perilous state of affairs.

In case you think this is just the opinion of a blogger in the Fifth Estate disillusioned with the MSM, read what Mark Textor, pollster and past Liberal Party campaign adviser says in an article in the AFR Commentariat leaves voters short on facts. He begins: ”… these days we do not just live in a world dominated by perceptions, but of perceptions of perceptions. An entire class exists to tell us what voters and consumers are thinking. Or at least what they think voters are thinking. Worse, they add a level of political and consumer analysis to predict how decision makers will then react to imagined changes in that thinking and in turn how voters may react. Confused? Imagine being an ordinary voter.”

Later Textor says: ”Voters want the real experts talking to them. They don’t want yet more opinions of opinions. The traditional media’s downward spiral of playing their online opponents’ game of quick and dirty reporting has undervalued investment in investigation of issue content, such as tasking a staff reporter to a story about hospital health, seeking a diverse range of health experts with insights and potential solutions for voters to weigh up. These would be useful signposts to understanding in the slow lane. But the absence of this truly expert analysis means voters lack basic information they need to form considered opinions”, and later still he says: ”Voters do expect the media to tell them if they are being misled. They are now in desperate need of compelling primary information to show what the truth is.” Indeed!

Mr Denmore was on the same theme in his piece Contesting the News where he says: ”The 'institutionalised' press - as traditionally defined - is finding itself less at the middle of things and more at the margin. New social media allows people to tailor and define news according to their own cultural norms, not those of an exclusive cadre.” His piece is a good read.

Let’s analyse then what we’ve got and propose what we deserve.

The Fourth Estate is not homogeneous. Like in most institutions, occupants are distributed along a spectrum, the ubiquitous bell-shaped curve. The curve of which I speak might be termed ‘the balance curve’, where at the extreme left of the curve are the most unbalanced comments, whereas at the extreme right are the most balanced.

But this curve in not the normal distribution curve, with equal portions each side on the middle. It is a skewed curve, with much of the Fourth Estate clustered at the extremely unbalanced end, and relatively few at the other extremity, the well-balanced end. Let me elaborate.

On Friday last, Australia was voted a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council by a substantial majority. It was a major victory for our nation, and for those who had canvassed for it for many years. It opened opportunities for Australia to take its place as a middle-order nation within a group that deals with the world’s most difficult, dangerous and intractable problems. It gave Australia a chance to exercise its influence and enhance its geopolitical status and its economic situation. It showed in what high regard Australia is held by the 140 nations that voted for it. All in all it was a colourful feather in Australia’s hat, and those who brought it about. Consumers of our mainstream media might have expected it to give extensive coverage to such a momentous event, the gaining of a UN seat after 26 years, but no, it received scant attention.

Admittedly the announcement came too late for the print media on Friday, but the next day, the beginning of a weekend, would have been an ideal time to give readers an account of how it all came about and its implications for our country. So how did the MSM handle this important event?

A look at the Front Pages with which Lyn supplies us, reveals precious little on Saturday or Sunday that I could see.

What about that iconic opinion-leader The Australian – Heart of the Nation? On the front page of The Weekend Australian there was a 200 word piece that echoed Bob Carr’s words about Syria: Wasting no time, Carr raises Syria with UN that was elaborated on page 6. There, Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan began his erudite opinion with: “There is one overwhelming benefit to having won a temporary seat on the UN Security Council: we won’t have to go through this tawdry, ridiculous business again for at least another 10 or 15 years”. Great endorsement! Later he says: ”If Labor stays in office, it will probably feel the need to honour all the pledges it made to win this tawdry bauble”. He then critiques PM Gillard’s travel in Southeast Asia as ‘very weak’, queries the cost of the seat, and at the end finally hands out a sliver of credit: ”Nonetheless, Carr deserves congratulations for the professionalism and effectiveness of his lobbying in recent months”. But choking on this concession, he ends with sarcasm: “We now take our place among global giants: Luxemberg and Rwanda”. So this is The Australian newspaper’s prime acknowledgement from its expert in foreign affairs – nasty and pathetic.

One can sense Dennis Shanahan almost gagging as he writes: ”After a hectic series of trips overseas and basking in the glow of victory for gaining a seat on the UN Security Council, Julia Gillard has moved to repair some self-inflicted damage to her image as an international diplomat”. To what could he be referring? To her ‘fall’ in India? No, he was harking back to her statement when she became PM two years ago that ‘foreign policy was not one of her passions’. He could have commented how well she had done in the face of that initial concession, but Dennis could never bring himself to do that, could he?

There were also a couple of short pieces in The Weekend Australian about the cost of the seat and the expectations that would be placed on Gary Quinlan, our UN Ambassador.

The editorial was more generous, calling Abbott ‘churlish’ for quibbling about the cost, but still managing to draw Rwanda’s election into the commentary ‘to put our win in perspective’. Unadulterated commendation was too much for our editor. He made up for any praise with two further editorials, one criticizing Labor for berating Tony Abbott for not raising his ‘tow back the boats’ policy with the Indonesian President, and another on The perils of stiletto politics, another tilt at that ever-so-misused word: ‘misogyny’.

What about The Australian’s Inquirer where learned opinion is offered by ‘gurus’? First, there was nothing at all from guru-in-chief Paul Kelly. In fact there was nothing else on the subject.

Peter van Onselen had a nasty article Rudd was the victim of an unimpressive triumvirate – Julia Gillard’s biggest supporters are also Labor’s worst performers, referring to Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy and Nicola Roxon, who also cops plenty of stick from Dennis Shanahan in Roxon crosses the line – The Attorney General is under fire for her handling of the Ashby-Slipper case, where he really lets fly after his concession in his other piece that Julia Gillard had had a success. Ross Fitzgerald predictably writes a critical article about the Government, Christian Kerr rehashes the misogyny debate in his usual ugly style, and Chris (not Mark) Kenny turns his nasty pen against John McTernan, Julia Gillard’s new Scottish media adviser, who is also featured in the lead piece by Tom Dusevic.

I include this tedious detail to demonstrate what we are getting from one of Australia’s most influential broadsheets. All in all it’s a lamentable attempt at coverage of Australia’s laudable success at the UN. Negative articles, caustic comment, and nasty rhetoric heavily counterbalance what few complimentary words are offered for this success.

Perhaps this News Limited response is more understandable when one reads Rupert Murdoch’s tweet: ”Big deal! Australia gets temporary non-veto seat on Security Council. Cost big fortune in foreign aid all over the place. No Aussies care”. Uncle Rupert hath spoken – all journalists fall into line. Not just pathetic – dangerous.

The contrast with Fairfax print media is stark. The Age/SMH had a short piece on the front page, a supportive editorial, a long and generally supportive piece by Paul McGeogh and Daniel Flitton in the Insight section, and a positive article by Phil Coorey in the SMH, who took a crack at Abbott’s churlishness. There was a positive opinion piece by Jeni Whalan in The Canberra Times, and Tony Walker wrote a balanced piece in the Australian Financial Review.

There was another contrast, and it was in The Australian. There, George Megalogenis had two articles, one where he lauded Julia Gillard’s ‘sexism and misogyny’ address in parliament, and another titled: Let the debate on our nation’s future begin, a fine exposition, where he mentioned an initiative by The Australian: its regular economic and social outlook conference with the Melbourne Institute that will be held on November 1 and 2 with the theme: Securing the Future: How Australia Can Thrive in a Volatile World. He referred to an accompanying article by John Mullen, chief executive of Asciano and a director of Telstra, titled: Embrace change or we risk being left behind, that addressed the need to accept the reality of social media in the workplace, which is the opening article for this initiative. Both articles were great reading – informative and well written – just what we need to understand some of the complexities of contemporary commerce and industry, as well as the associated economics and politics.

If The Australian can provide quality like this, why do they dish up the nasty, adversarial and malevolent material we read day after day? Ask Rupert Murdoch.

Let’s for a moment look at the purveyors of this malignant rhetoric. Again, they are distributed on a bell-shaped curve.

At one end there is a large group of journalists that are unashamed Coalition sycophants. There is no intent among any of them to present the facts in a balanced way. Their intent is to present facts, and the opinions based on them, in a selective way, incomplete, distorted, and sometimes downright dishonestly. Disingenuousness is their stock in trade. They know it and they don’t care. The journalists who live in this extreme space are not worth reading at all, except of course if your biases and prejudices coincide with theirs, and you want them reinforced or confirmed. Writers like Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Christopher Pearson, Chris Kenny, Michael Stutchbury, Christian Kerr, Peter van Onselen, and shock jocks like Alan Jones and Ray Hadley attract those who already share their views. For anyone wanting balanced, fact driven, logically argued analyses, reading what they write or listening to what they say, is not just worthless, it is dangerously misleading. It is no different from that dispensed by authoritarian regimes that exercise thought-control, George Orwell style. What’s more they will never change.

It is fruitless debating whether they really believe what they write or say, or whether they are consciously manipulating public opinion for ideological or commercial purposes. It makes no difference – they are perverting the truth, the very truth that voters need to rationally select the next government. They are set on this path and will not deviate. Nothing anyone can say or do will change them. They want PM Gillard and her Government gone, and instead, an Abbott Government. They must be ignored. There is no other way.

Moving a little closer to the middle of the curve is a more sinister group, sinister because they emit a superficial plausibility, plausibility not matched by their actual performance. I’m referring to the so-called gurus, such as Paul Kelly and Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, journalists who have an established reputation upon which they rely to have their writings read.

Kelly in particular has a highbrow turn of phrase that impresses. He is fond of making predictions, writes with pseudo-wisdom, and coins his own peculiar phrases. Readers could be excused for taking his bait hook, line and sinker. It is only when one asks what he means by his favourite clichés: ‘narrative’, ‘vision’, what someone ‘stands for’, and ‘lack of judgement’, that the superficiality of his writing becomes apparent. I have never read his definition of these words, or seen his examples of them. They are just high sounding Kelly phrases that impress, but fail to inform. Moreover, Kelly is clearly an advocate for the Coalition and its current leader. Read any recent piece and argue that it is balanced, factually accurate and well reasoned. You can’t.

Grattan is the doyen of Fairfax, yet her recent ramblings leave readers mystified about her meaning. She seems to have resorted to cub reporter style ‘he says, she says’ reporting. Once capable of balance, her palpable dislike of Julia Gillard now pushes her into opposition to the PM, and, albeit sometimes reluctantly, into support of the alternative. She can be ever so acerbic towards the PM, but ever so mild when writing about Tony Abbott, so understanding of his foibles, so accommodating of his mistakes, his gaffes and his errors of judgement. She would fume at the suggestion that she was an Abbott acolyte, but if she writes like an acolyte, talks like an acolyte…

Hartcher is an enigma. He writes well. I was impressed by the quality of his information-packed book: The Sweet Spot, a veritable goldmine of useful facts and figures and well-reasoned argument. But it is his visceral dislike of Julia Gillard and his contemporary preference for Kevin Rudd, which distorts his columns. This was apparent in his book. Any opportunity that presents to him to take a dig at the PM is never rejected. Like Paul Kelly, he has an authoritative air about him; he clearly seeks guru status, and like Kelly seems to believe this is obtainable by pontification.

Another group, such as Greg Sheridan, Tom Dusevic, Ross Fitzgerald are perhaps marginally less acerbic, but adversarial nevertheless.

Still closer to the middle of the curve are journalists such as Phil Coorey and Laurie Oakes, but both are unpredictable, seemingly more interested in stirring the pot than transmitting useful information and offering analysis. Coorey seems to have a ‘Ruddstoration’ obsession, and Oakes a penchant for ‘leaks’ that have earned him infamy among some, and admiration among his colleagues. Lenore Taylor, of recent 'context' fame, and 'sketch' writer Annabel Crabb, belong within this cluster.

Over the other side of the curve we have a small cluster of the more balanced writers. George Megalogenis immediately comes to mind, and further still into the balanced end we have Laura Tingle, Tim Dunlop, Peter Martin and the fearless Ross Gittins.

But we soon run out of these admirable people – the MSM is dominated by those who are tarred with the Murdoch brush: to replace the Gillard Government by an Abbott government, and to ‘destroy the Greens at the ballot box’. No matter what their views are personally, they consistently come up with articles adverse to PM Gillard and her Government and supportive of, or defensive of, or at least not too critical of the Opposition Leader, no matter how gross his behaviour, no matter how inane or dishonest his utterances, no matter how badly he stumbles.

As I was finishing this piece, NormanK drew my attention to what must be one of the most appalling pieces of journalism I have ever read. Titled: Labor shuffling numbers for political survival and written my an anonymous ‘Staff Writer’ for the Sunday Herald Sun, it alludes to only one piece of factual information – that the Government was to present its Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which is sarcastically described as a "mini-horror mini-budget". The rest is simply opinion; nasty, vitriolic, adverse opinion of a biased writer who clearly loathes the Labor Government. If you have the stomach, read it to see how grotesquely incompetent and malevolent journalism has become.

This state of affairs in our mainstream media is dangerous. We are being seriously shortchanged at a time when we need all the help we can get to select our next government.

We need factual information about Government and Coalition and Greens’ policies and their costings. We need a thorough and unbiased analysis of all of them. We need comparisons to be made between them, carefully analysed and summarized so that we can comprehend their intent, the pros and the cons, the cost benefits, and the likelihood of their succeeding. We cannot take for granted what our politicians feed us, redolent as it so often is with exaggeration, distortion of the truth, hidden implications, and dishonest projections. We need an honest, competent, unbiased, balanced mainstream media to assist us. But we don’t have it. Most of it is the antithesis of these desirable attributes.

It’s not right. It’s dangerously wrong. Is there any hope that our mainstream media will ever meet the needs of intelligent voters seeking to cast an informed vote in selecting who will govern us for the next term?

Thomas Sowell, an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, columnist and author expresses his doubts: “If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference, and choose their news sources accordingly.”

We find ourselves having to rely more and more on the Fifth Estate and social media for what we need, for the balance we crave.

Is balance an unreachable dream? Is it a fantasy like fairies at the end of the garden? Can the Murdoch domination of media thought be overcome?

Does our salvation reside in mustering our own resources in the Fifth Estate? We have access to a plethora of factual news outlets, all over the world, and we are as capable of analyzing the facts, and expressing an opinion about them, as mainstream journalists.

In fact as Mr Denmore says: ”…'the news' isn't what it was. It isn't owned by anyone. It is increasingly contested. And as bloggers scale up and embrace some of the craft qualities of journalism, the mainstream media increasingly ‘moulds’ news to satisfy the world views of its target markets…In fact, as blogs more and more resemble professionally written traditional media, the old media looks more and more like blogs.”

So it’s over to us!

What do you think?

The Punishment That Fits No Crime

Things are looking up for the government. The first study on the effect of carbon pricing indicates a related fall in carbon emissions, without the stupendous price hikes predicted by the Opposition. Australia comfortably won the vote to gain a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite Opposition pessimism, doubt, and what looked suspiciously like sour grapes. Prime Minister Gillard’s numbers are up, and the government has even started to fight back in two-party preferred polls.

Yes, things are pretty rosy – and you know what happens next, don’t you?

The Opposition shift the ground. There’s always another issue on which they can fall back. This time, it’s asylum seekers – again. Specifically, the Coalition decided to take aim at the government’s part-adoption of the Pacific Solution, detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

The Greens don’t want anyone on Nauru (or in mandatory detention at all, for that matter) – but are low on specifics as to how to implement their preferred ‘regional approach’. The government won’t tell us exactly how their ‘no advantage’ system is supposed to work – that is, how long asylum seekers on average would have to wait to be processed and granted refugee status. We’ve got some vague statements about making sure that those who come on boats don’t manage to get ahead of people ‘in the queue’ in refugee camps – never mind that the ‘queue’ simply doesn’t exist – but no numbers whatsoever.

Surprisingly, the one party who are giving us details is the Coalition. And those numbers are, frankly, horrifying.

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison announced that, under a Coalition government, asylum seekers should expect to be detained on Nauru for a minimum of five years. In what looked remarkably like a game of ‘Dare-You-Double-Dare-You’, he suggested the government adopt the same position, while Immigration Minister Chris Bowen countered by urging the Coalition to get on board the Malaysia solution. As usual, neither side wants to give an inch.

But let’s look at the Coalition’s proposal a bit more closely. Five years minimum mandatory detention. By anyone’s standards, that’s a long time to be stuck on an island with no idea whether you will eventually receive some certainty for your future. Add to that the fact that these are effectively stateless people, confined to sub-standard camps with poor facilities in a landscape devastated by phosphate mining, and sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius with very high humidity. Then take into account the fact that they can’t leave. They can’t decide to go for a walk, see a movie, have a picnic, or go shopping for a treat.

Looks a lot like a prison, doesn’t it? Of course, prisoners have an allowance, which they are allowed to spend. Asylum seekers simply cannot receive any form of financial assistance until they are out of detention – when they can apply for help from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. Generally, too, it’s a fairly straightforward process to visit a prisoner – one doesn’t need to find money for an international flight and visa, have a current passport, and jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to gain permission to enter the detention centre.

While we’re on the subject of comparing prisons and asylum seeker detention centres, let’s look at that number again – at least five years. How does that stack up to sentences given to convicted prisoners?

According to a 2011 report prepared by the Sentencing Council of Victoria, of 228 people who received a custodial sentence for the crime of rape, over 80% were sentenced to less than six years. Half of those were eligible for parole in under four years.

Less than four years. Those who commit rape, a crime which our society regards as one of the worst outrages that can be inflicted on a human being, are imprisoned for roughly the same time it takes to complete a university degree – or hold two Federal elections. Under the Coalition’s plan, asylum seekers would be detained for at least a year longer.

Why such a long detention period? What have asylum seekers done, to warrant such strict conditions?

The short answer is: NOTHING.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. Despite the oft-repeated assertions of Morrison and his Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, people are absolutely entitled to seek asylum in Australia – and we have an obligation to process them, if not re-settle them in our country. We are, after all, signatories to Refugee Conventions. By referring to them as illegal, however, the Coalition plants the idea that something shifty is going on here.

It goes further. The Coalition suggests such people may not be ‘real’ refugees. Often they arrive without identification – what have they got to hide? They pay huge amounts (around US$4000) to people smugglers – why are they trying to get ahead of all those (real) refugees waiting patiently in camps around the world? If they’ve got money, why don’t they just leave normally? Any attempt to bring even a little factual evidence – or even logic – into the discussion is met with blustering rhetoric and accusations of being ‘soft on border protection’.

And make no mistake – Abbott knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that the official term used for boat-borne asylum seekers is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’. He knows they’re not doing anything wrong by trying to get here. He knows that detaining people for long periods on remote islands, preferably ones that are not even part of Australia, tends to fade from the headlines if there are no faces to go with the protestations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If he plays the waiting game long enough, there will only be a few voices speaking up against a xenophobic attitude that he has done nothing to counter, and everything to encourage.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the Coalition should be now insisting on what can only be called an entirely punitive sentence for people who have committed no crime, circumvented no process, and are simply trying to save themselves and their families. It’s business as usual – demonise the victims, while claiming to ‘protect’ them from evil people smugglers and risky boat voyages.

Oh, and that five years? Is the low end of what the Coalition thinks is appropriate for mandatory detention. Morrison gave no figures for the maximum time an asylum seeker could be detained. Given that even twelve months’ detention on Nauru under the Pacific Solution resulted in adverse mental health outcomes that afflict refugees to this day, the prospect of five, six, or even more years smacks of outright, deliberate cruelty.

Lest we let the government off scot-free, however, it’s worth repeating: the Coalition have given us a minimum number. The government have given us nothing. We have no idea how long the government would be happy to keep someone in detention, other than some vague mutterings about being equivalent to the ‘average’ time taken to process someone in a camp in our region. As the UNHCR pointed out, though, it’s impossible to even establish an average time. It’s a meaningless concept – and since there is evidence of people in camps waiting for ten years or more, that ‘no advantage’ test starts to take on truly horrifying possibilities. The government seems to think that if one person suffers terrible hardship and interminable delays in having their refugee claim processed, then it’s acceptable for others to undergo the same ordeal. So sorry, but you understand how it is – we have to be fair, after all.

It’s not ‘fair’. It’s coldly, calculatedly inhumane. Whether it’s the government’s ‘we’re-not-telling’ or Morrison’s ‘five-years-and-counting’ solution, the treatment of asylum seekers has gone way past a race to the bottom. The major parties know that this issue can be manipulated in an election campaign, and are only too eager to play to the xenophobic strain that seems to run right through Australian society (with the help of certain areas of the media) if it will gain them votes.

Now, maybe I’m doing Prime Minister Gillard and Abbott a disservice. Maybe they do care about the welfare of asylum seekers, and the way they deal with them is sacrificing personal feelings for the long-term gain of the ‘top job’.

That only makes it worse. Whichever way the next election goes, asylum seekers lose. They will be packed off, out of sight, to Nauru (or Manus Island, or Malaysia), and treated like prisoners of war who have no idea who is winning, or if it will ever end. Sadly, this is the best outcome – because even if the boats don’t stop coming, and the current strategy proves to be an utter failure, neither party is likely to retreat from a hard-line stance. They’d lose far too much face, and give their opposition a great deal of ammunition. The alternative is to become even more punitive, more harsh – and given the appalling state of affairs that exists now, that possibility is terrible. Human lives would become less than pawns.

And we would all be culpable.

The Political Sword welcomes a new author, Marian Dalton, who is, in no particular order, an editor, blogger, reader, writer, poet, mother, graduate student and sometime academic. She currently works as a freelance editor, citizen journalist and media advisor. Clients have included national political parties, lobby groups and community associations. Her blog, The Conscience Vote, provides accessible analysis of Australian political and social issues and aims to engage all people in public debate.

Out of bounds on the full

Victoria, like many other independent bloggers, wrote last week about the failure of the mainstream media to understand the significance of Julia Gillard’s speech denouncing the sexism she has been subject to. As Victoria pointed out, for much of the media, it is apparently ‘just politics’. Gillard’s attack on Tony Abbott was followed up by the very same journalists with reports about sexist remarks directed at Abbott’s female chief of staff. Tit for tat. See? Both sides are as bad as each other.

This is part of the ‘politics is a dirty game’ convention. Working within this convention – as the mainstream media do – day-to-day politics is a game in which both sides seek advantage. Both sides play hard, both sides are dirty; therefore they are no different. It’s like reporting sport. One side kicks a goal, someone fumbles a pass, the ball is out on the full, and the scoreboard shows the result, courtesy of the fortnightly polls. It’s just a question of who is better at the game. Look at the scoreboard mate.

It’s easy for reporters and commentators to write as if the daily battle of tactics means that the two sides are just the same, and as bad as each other. Of course some journalists (guess which ones) don’t think the parties equally bad; they cheerfully reflect the anti-Labor bias of their employers. But others present themselves as ‘independent’: think Sales, Uhlmann, Hartcher, Crabb, Taylor, Grattan, Cassidy or Oakes. They claim that their ‘equally bad’ treatment shows ‘balance’, or evenhandedness. They routinely argue that after all, the opposition will do anything to get rid of the government now or at the next election, and the government will do anything to stay in power now or at the next election, and this constitutes the (equally bad) politics they report on.

Of course there’s a place for day-to-day political reporting. It’s not just that it’s the Canberra Press Gallery’s bread and butter. It’s not just that politics tragics couldn’t live without it. What happens on a short-term basis affects the morale and effectiveness of both sides and the view the electorate takes of the parties. And the particular circumstances of this parliament render day to day reporting compelling for anyone interested in politics. The hung parliament itself makes this reporting important, as theoretically the government could fall at any time. Tony Abbott’s single minded strategy of trying to force an election by making the parliament unworkable also captures day to day attention. The more or less precarious hold the leader of each party has on their position as leader also feeds the daily round.

However the mainstream media don’t do a very good job of this day-to-day reporting. This is partly because some journalists just report what politicians say, very often word for word – ‘the Leader of the Opposition said…’ Some reporters find it easier to write stories based on press handouts from politicians than to do any actual research themselves. (It’s also editors who want a particular spin, but that’s another matter.)

Yet even when they report accurately on the success or failure of the day to day tactics, they rarely question the political strategies that underlie them. Abbott’s strategy of making parliament a shouting match feeds cynicism in the electorate about politicians and politics. We’ll all pay for that in due course. But do any of the mainstream media call him on it? Does anyone even give a nod to the realities of minority government? The tit for tat reporting of the debate over Slipper’s disgusting text messages was allowed entirely to overshadow the issue of whether the Speaker was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and, indeed, the issue of the separation of powers. We laughed when Bjelke-Petersen didn’t know what that meant, but apparently journalists don’t know either, or don’t think it’s important enough to comment on. And then of course there’s the whole issue of the undeniable use of sexism, personal denigration and outright lies by the opposition leader. Which side is doing the damage to the national interest here? You wouldn’t know from reading the mainstream media.

But presenting politics as a rather sleazy sport creates an even more serious problem. Concentrating on the day to day tactics means that substance, or lack of it, goes unreported. Politics is more than just tactics, or even strategy. It is about how power and influence should be apportioned, and how wealth distributed in a society. The whole issue of the long-term outcomes of policy decisions is all but ignored by our mainstream media. There’s a theory about how he thinks the world should work behind Tony Abbott’s attack on the carbon tax. Which mainstream journalists explore it? They just report his hyperbole. And what about the constant talking-down of the economy by the Opposition? What sort of economy do they want? Who would benefit? And turning the boats around? What view of Australian society does that represent? We don’t know much about the Opposition’s plans for Australia should they win office. But even what we have been told goes unquestioned. Who is analysing the winners and losers from the direct action carbon reduction plan, and asking Greg Hunt about it? Who is looking at how paying the salaries of women on maternity leave is going to work out for poor women and asking Abbott about it? Journalists say that their job is to report impartially, not to comment in a partisan way – that is up to columnists. But surely this doesn’t mean taking whatever is said at face value? Is anyone interested in fact checking? Even if politics as a world view is too hard for them, couldn’t they manage a reality check on the bits of substance we have been given?

It’s interesting to speculate how the mainstream media would treat an Abbott government. Media outlets that already cheer-lead for him would continue to do so, which hardly comes as a surprise. And the self-appointed ‘independent’ journalist? My guess is that it would be business as usual. It’s just a game, after all.

We are being served up rubbish. Whatever you think of any of the parties seeking power in Australia, no one’s interest (except possibly lazy journalists’) is served by promoting the assumption that they are all the same. We need to know the differences in how they understand power and influence and the distribution of wealth, as revealed in what their members say and do. Certainly there are policy similarities, and these deserve discussion too. The argument that the major parties are as bad as each other, and by implication without any substance, is at best blind, and at worst self-serving. Far from making journalists neutral umpires, the ‘they are just the same and as bad as each other’ convention distorts reality, and turns the media into players. And guess which side that helps?

After I’d written this post, I saw Kevin Rudd on Lateline saying much the same thing, though his emphasis was on the politicians who treat politics as a game, rather than the media who report politics as a game. (He did take a swipe at the media as well for over-emphasising personal differences.) I also saw The Hamster Wheel’s ‘obituary’ of Rudd, which suggested that all of his actions are self-serving. Well perhaps that’s partly true, but in this case Rudd is right. Political debate should, as he says, be policy based, and we should be asking if political power is being used to benefit the few or the many. And did Tony Abbott really say, as Rudd alleges, he loves the smell of blood on the canvas?

If so, I rest my case.

Dr Kay Rollison, the author of this piece, has a PhD in History and has always been interested in politics – historically, in the present, and of course our future political battles.

Why is the mainstream media angry?

I can hear you asking: ‘Why do you say they are angry?’ Read what they write. Listen to what they say. Judge for yourself. To me, the majority of journalists seem angry about the recent turn of events. Not all, but the majority. Let me elaborate.

On top of her record of passing well over four hundred pieces of legislation since elected, much of it impressively reforming, while presiding over the most vibrant economy in the developed world, and as she performs well on the international stage, PM Gillard’s approval is rising although still low, Tony Abbott’s approval languishes well below, Julia Gillard is comfortably ahead in the PPM stakes, and the polling trend shows a narrowing of the gap between the major parties, although the Coalition is still well ahead.

Political journalists, most of who have been confidently predicting a Coalition landslide and a Labor wipeout in 2013, know from experience that when an election is called the polls will narrow from the current average of 56/44 towards parity. I sense that they see that the tide is slowly turning against the Coalition, and the prospect receding of it winning easily, or even at all, in 2013.

For most of the columnists at News Limited, for Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, to name just two Fairfax journalists, for Tony Jones at the ABC and maybe also for Chris Uhlmann, Leigh Sales, Emma Alberici, and Sabra Lane, the prospect of the Coalition losing again appears to be worrisome, anxiety provoking, even anger generating.

Journalists are fond of talking about ‘context’, often insinuating that as insiders they understand this, while those of us outside their circle do not. They parade what they regard as their profound understanding of the ‘context’ of Canberra. Lenore Taylor did in PM's speech did stir hearts, but remember the context. She and her colleagues argued that we on the outside got it all wrong when we applauded Julia Gillard’s magnificent demolition of Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny in her speech last week, and that instead Gillard was the loser on the grounds that she was ‘over the top’ and would thereby lose support, and further that she was being hypocritical by speaking to support the Speaker, himself accused of sexism. Some objected even on the grounds that the word ‘misogyny’ was a misnomer.

Most of them completely missed, or avoided, the crucial point that PM Gillard was defending the entitlement of the Speaker to be afforded due process, to be given the right of reply, to have his extant court case settled before his parliamentary colleagues judged him. They missed that she was defending the processes of the parliament, and its dignity and that of the second most senior office in the House. She was opposing the trashing of proper parliamentary procedure that a ‘Motion to Suspend Standing Orders’, without notice, would bring about. She was NOT supporting Peter Slipper and his unseemly remarks, and she said so emphatically.

But most of the tone-deaf Press Gallery didn’t hear that, most didn’t see what she was doing. Most saw her move as simply another political move. Which demonstrates starkly how their insider status has distorted their hearing and their vision, how seriously it has perverted their understanding of the ‘context’ of Canberra, one that is a product of their own imaginings. Like in the remote Asian mountain village where most of the inhabitants are blind, and therefore being without vision is the norm, blindness and deafness seems to afflict most of our Press Gallery, an affliction of which they, like the remote villagers, seem quite unaware. Moreover, they seem blissfully unaware of the views of the man in the street, and in this case particularly, the woman in the street. Perhaps they are so close to their own context that they cannot see what we do, albeit from the ‘outside’.

This was plainly exhibited on The Wrap last Friday morning on Jon Faine’s ABC 774 Melbourne radio. Regulars, the IPA’s John Roskom, who represents the extreme right, and Sally Warhaft of the Wheeler Centre, who is supposed to give left wing balance, both condemned Julia Gillard’s speech, and continued to do so in the face of over eight out of ten text messages, and a similar proportion of talkback callers, passionately supporting our PM. Roskam simply labelled these people as ‘lefties’ and therefore to be discounted; Warhaft, while somewhat set back on her heels, continued to insist she was right in condemning our PM. I have listened to The Wrap for years but have never heard such condemnation of the panellists by talkback callers, the majority of whom were women. Yet the panellists persisted with their view, unmoved by the strong expression of public opinion, a reflection of the attitude of much of the Canberra Press Gallery.

What on earth has happened to our journalistic elite? Are they on the same planet as we? Denise Allen addresses the same issue in her piece MSM Versus The Fifth Estate on her website Denise Allen Australian Politics. Do read it.

Just a few have called the situation in a balanced way, notably Tim Dunlop, in his article on The Drum Unleashed: The gatekeepers of news have lost their keys that begins: “The past few weeks have made clear that the people are no longer passive observers in the news process. If journalists want to stay relevant, they'd better work with their audience.” Do read it.

The unawareness of most of the Press Gallery was starkly demonstrated in countless opinion pieces. Look at Peter Hartcher’s article: We expected more of Gillard for one of the grossest examples, beginning as it does with: ”If Gillard will not defend respect for women, what will she defend? Just another politician indeed”, and at Michelle Grattan’s: Misogyny war has no winner that begins: ”The PM may have made a hero of herself to some feminists but she did the wrong thing in trying to protect the sexist Peter Slipper.” They seem blind to the matter of high parliamentary principle that PM Gillard was strenuously defending. This is dangerous.

They seem not only disappointed and judgmental, but angry too. Why are they so?

If you want to see anger, take a look at Tony Jones on last Thursday’s Lateline, who ostensibly sought to interview Wayne Swan about the latest job figures before he left for the IMF/World Bank meeting in Tokyo, but who spent the first twelve minutes of the twenty minute interview taking about everything else in an aggressive, adversarial, and at times angry way – the Slipper affair in all its detail, and the bad joke at the CFMEU function – before getting round to jobs. He behaved like ‘counsel for the prosecution’. As he did on the previous night, he homed in on the word ‘misogynist’, asserting that ”it is the worst thing you could say about a man” (about six minutes in), insisting that it meant ‘a hatred of women’. This is where his anger bubbled up noticeably. Clearly, he felt this label for Abbott was unfair, basing his view on the older formal definition of the word: ‘the hatred or dislike of women or girls’, rather than the looser way it is now commonly used, as described in Wikipedia, which says: ”According to feminist theory, misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including sexual discrimination, denigration of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women”. Surely Jones must be aware of this looser definition, but he chose to labour the formal definition to demean its use by Julia Gillard and her ministers. Why are he and the many others who quibble about the use of the word ‘misogyny’, so angry with Tony Abbott getting a dose of his own disrespectful medicine? Why are they so angry about the contempt Abbott hands out every day being returned?

In my view it is because Jones and others who regularly demean PM Gillard and her Government and look to its replacement by an Abbott led Coalition Government, are becoming increasingly apprehensive about the recent turn of events, beginning with the Alan Jones saga and continuing with PM Gillard’s fine address, which has gone viral around the world, and around this nation too, with now almost 1.9 million YouTube views.

They are concerned too that the alternative PM continues on his aggressive, destructive and demeaning way despite the warning signs that this is not going down well with the voters, that he is making too many mistakes, showing too many lapses of judgement, adhering too closely to his old and now defunct mantras, and consistently declining to address policy and costing issues at his abbreviated and mostly soft interviews with the media. He is looking less and less like prime ministerial material, yet there is no plausible replacement. His supporters, who abound in the mainstream media, are becoming anxious, hoping for a lift in his performance, wishing for a more positive approach, yearning for a rise in his popularity and a widening of the TPP gap, but repeatedly disappointed. Anxiety and disappointment is steadily morphing into irritation, resentment and bubbling anger, which erupts in articles and interviews.

If you didn’t see it, do take a look at the segment on last Sunday’s Insiders: Gillard's misogyny speech taken in context. There you will see Lenore Taylor retreating somewhat from her strident SMH comment on ‘context’, and responding more reasonably to the strong expression of public opinion. You will see Andrew Probyn making his usual sensible comments. You will also see the annoyance and simmering anger of long time Abbott supporter Michael Stutchbury, who defiantly argues that PM Gillard’s speech will harm her among her traditional supporters – the ‘blue collar base’, the ‘union warlords’ and the ‘new professional class’, which he calls ‘the progressives’, labels he repeats several times. He disregards the public response as he defends Abbott, dismissively referring to “…the odd comments of Abbott here and there over time…”, adding, as if in explanation, ”he’s a traditional Catholic…”, whatever that means! The 'odd comments’ indeed! He twists and turns, irritated that the other panellists, and Barrie Cassidy too, disagree with him. He seems to have substituted wishful thinking for logical reasoning. He is infuriated and frustrated, and it shows. Eventually, perhaps to placate the exasperated Stutchbury, the panel ‘agrees’ that Julia Gillard’s address won’t change votes. We will see about that.

Of course, Stutchbury is singing from the same song sheet as others in the Coalition Cheer squad. It is uncanny. It is as if they have all attended the same briefing. In a copy of The Weekend Australian we picked up at a relative’s home, I noticed in Inquirer three articles from the Coalition choir. Paul Kelly wrote: Misogyny will backfire: The PM has wasted her passion on an unworthy cause; Dennis Shanahan’s piece was titled: Grubby attempts to smear Abbott as a hater will leave Labor base unimpressed; and Tom Dusevic had the lead piece: Players in Risky Game: Politicians who are obsessed with point scoring ignore voters at their peril.

Like Stutchbury, all insisted that PM Gillard would be the loser; like Stutchbury, all airbrushed away the persistent vile bullying sexist behaviour and remarks that Abbott has been directing at PM Gillard day after day for years, behaviour which precipitated Julia Gillard’s passionate response. The only concession was that he might have a ‘women problem’; his contemptible behaviour towards the nation’s first female PM was virtually ignored. If you can get behind the paywall, and have the fortitude to read their pieces, you will see the extraordinary uniformity of their offerings, all choristers singing the same hymn, no doubt hoping their words will persuade readers to their view. Wishful thinking has replaced facts and reason.

Take a look too at Paul Sheehan’s defence of Abbott in the SMH: Comments directed at Tony Abbott, where he collects comments in a manner we might expect from kids in the schoolyard seeking to return insults. He would have had to be very annoyed to go to such trouble.

Is their annoyance, apprehension and anger a product of their own political values and orientation? Maybe, but surely not for all of them! Is it the result of groupthink, which we know afflicts so many, making them unprepared to express opinions outside of the mainstream? Is it living in the Canberra ‘echo-chamber’, a term they like to use to describe the Fifth Estate, where the opinions of those in the next office, in the Press Gallery, at their drinking holes, in the parliamentary corridors, are the ones they embrace, rather than those of the electorate? Are they too influenced by opinion polls and focus groups, which are feeding them unreliable information and making unreliable predictions? Are they afraid to deviate from the position they have held for so long that the Coalition is a shoo-in at the next election?

Are they apprehensive that the goodwill that they have built up with Tony Abbott and Coalition members that would ensure they are on their drip feed should the Coalition win government, might be for naught? Are they concerned about writing anything that might evoke the disapproval of Rupert Murdoch? Journalists who work for him would not dare to do so, and those who don’t, might need a job with him. Job insecurity is rife and must influence the behaviour of journalists. If you think this is fantasy, read what Dick Smith says in the SMH: “One ABC journalist said to me: ''Dick, I couldn't mention that your magazine was rejected by the Murdoch press because one day I might have to apply for a job with them.''

How each of these factors operate we cannot know, and I guess journalists would dismiss them as irrelevant. I suppose they will never reveal to us how they feel and think. That would be below them.

The thrust of this piece is that there is mounting anger among mainstream media journalists as the fortunes of the Gillard Government and the stature of PM Gillard improve, and as the performance and stature of the Leader of the Opposition decline, and that this anger is increasingly manifest in their writings and interviews, where they hit out at PM Gillard and her Government, and defend Tony Abbott and his Coalition even more vigorously. The reasons for this are postulated above.

But whatever the reason, I predict we will see more and more anger while the situation improves for the Government and declines for the Coalition. How long journalists will take to adjust to the new reality that a Coalition victory is no longer assured, will be up to them. I suspect it will take quite a while.

What do you think?

Which politician is telling the truth?

Mainstream journalists’ reporting of politics is broken. In a week in which our first female PM spoke out passionately and convincingly against sexism and misogyny, mainstream political commentators have been lining up to ‘contextualise’ the speech – to lessen its importance by explaining it away as part of a narrow political strategy. Their slavish devotion to balance requires them to argue that both sides are as bad as each other. There is a major problem with this strategy however: the truth is very likely to be buried. There are many instances where their attempts to explain away the importance of an event destroy the factual reportage of the story and the resulting analysis.

A good example of this is the coverage of Tony Abbott’s drawn-out campaign to demolish the carbon tax. Throughout this campaign, the mainstream media gave Abbott license to bullshit. They also gave him license to align himself with a group of Australians who hate the Prime Minister, after being whipped into a frenzy by Abbott’s bullshit and Alan Jones’s hysteria. When Abbott stood more than once under the ‘Ditch the Witch’ placards, he crossed from campaigning politician to redneck nut-job Tea-Party-like hero. Did the mainstream media report this significant event? Did any journalist manage to understand its significance? At the continuous door-stop press conferences, where Abbott tried to scare Australians into voting for him by promising that the sky was going to fall, that ‘Whyalla would be wiped off the map’, did any journalist call him out for his blatant fear mongering or his ‘looseness’ with the facts? Did any journalist grill Abbott about his alternative climate change policy? Not that I noticed. Instead, journalists were keen to paint Abbott as a ‘successful’ opposition leader. If success in opposition is earned by negativity, lies and building an atmosphere of nastiness and disrespect, then yes, Abbott is a successful opposition leader. In my view, a successful opposition leader, should, by definition, critique and oppose, and offer credible alternative policies. On these counts, Abbott gets a zero score. Not that you will see any Australian mainstream journalist pointing this out.

So back to this they’re just as bad as each other problem. I’ve already written this week about a few notable myopic accounts of the Prime Minister’s speech, which completely misrepresented the community’s elation at a very important moment in feminist history. There have been more contributions since which have been equally disappointing. Lenore Taylor in the SMH headlined her article on this topic: PM’s speech did stir hearts but remember the context. Taylor claims in her article that:

“If you forgot the context, didn't over-scrutinise the substance and just saw a powerful woman calling out sexism and saying she had had enough, it was arresting.”

And then, a big BUT:

“…the context that the speech was part of a deliberate, tested strategy of capitalising on the Coalition's relative unpopularity with women due to Tony Abbott's political aggression by conflating it with the unsupportable allegation that he actually hates females.”

This ‘context’ that Taylor offers us is the typical misrepresentation of context through the prism of so called ‘balanced’ reporting. Taylor is basically suggesting that Gillard’s speech was part of a strategy that enabled her to support ‘her’ Speaker and to remind voters that Tony Abbott is disliked by some females, and to continue the campaign of the ‘hand bag hit squad’ to influence voters to believe that Tony Abbott is a misogynist, all part of a larger political strategy to stay ahead in the polls and win the next election. Abbott’s support of Alan Jones, in the likes of Taylor’s mind, is also just a political strategy to align himself with Jones’s listeners. David Marr’s portrayal of Abbott’s bullying and intimidatory behavior at university was also written off by journalists as a political strategy to undermine his support with women, even though Marr is a journalist, not a politician. He was reporting facts, and other journalists turned it into spin. Labor’s decision to highlight Abbott’s terrible behavior towards women in parliament and beyond, is, you see, all part of a ‘political strategy’ and nothing else. (Never mind how narrow a conception of politics this implies.)

Let’s step out of theses journalists’ ‘context’ for a moment, and instead, look at the context as an ordinary person on the street. And lets throw some facts in as well. Imagine that the female Labor MPs have been reporting on Abbott’s sexist behavior towards them because they are genuinely outraged by it. I am not naïve enough to believe that every word that comes out of a politician’s mouth is not political in some way, but I am also not as cynical as the mainstream media who obviously believe that everything that comes out of a politician’s mouth is political and ‘invented’ for political purposes. The inference in most of the coverage of Gillard’s speech has been this:

Labor is trying to paint Abbott as a misogynist to win votes, but Abbott is not a misogynist. Gillard’s speech was about defending Slipper, not making a stand against misogyny. Nothing happens in politics that isn’t invented for political purposes.

This is absolute crap. Journalists are forgetting that politicians are people too. Sometimes, as on this occasion, when they are upset by something, they explain why they are upset. Abbott’s terrible behavior towards female parliamentarians has been ignored by the mainstream media. And when Labor MPs speak out about it, it is reported as ‘just another political tactic’, rather than fact. Because they’re all just as bad as each other. Gillard’s speech was NOT about Peter Slipper. Gillard has had enough of Abbott’s behavior and her speech contained plenty of evidence that we, as a community, should be outraged by. None of this evidence has been ‘cooked up’ for political purposes. This is the major point that journalists seem to have forgotten. They also have forgotten their own inability to analyse the behavior Gillard, and many Australian women, are so offended by.

So here’s my question for mainstream journalists: what if they’re not as bad as each other? What if Abbott really is the problem? What if Gillard’s speech was just as important to our society as Keating’s Redfern speech and Rudd’s Sorry speech, and you all stood by and missed it? How can we ever respect you again (if we did in the first place?).

Back in April, I came across a very interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post by Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Their essay was based on their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism

The article is titled ‘Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem’ and explains:

“In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”

You can read the article to see the authors’ explanation of what these problems are, which are all related the Republican Party’s dramatic swing to the right. At the end of the article, the authors have this advice for American journalists:

“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”

Are we likely to see any Australian journalist making such a stand any time in the near future? This is highly unlikely, but I can always live in hope.

Mortgaged to the Hilt

2GB’s headquarters at Macquarie Square is engulfed, currently, in a fog of despondency.

Business used to be booming, with all the expensive metal advertising billboards that surrounded the square resplendent with copious amounts of posters spruiking the wares of various businesses that were only too happy to jack up their prices and hand over the proceeds to 2GB’s shareholders.

Yes, they were the good old days, when Macquarie Square was known as the OK Corral – where any leftie who was stupid enough to venture thereabouts, ended up with an arse-full of buckshot. Now, however, it’s known as the Not-So-OK Corral, and the now-resident leftie goons, aka the Handbag Hit Squad, rule the roost.

So, in response to this changing of the guard, the advertisers have shot the crow instead and the billboards lay empty. In fact, the very expensive metal advertising hoardings around Macquarie Square have had to be taken down and sold as scrap, to pay for a few outstanding bills. They have been replaced with cheap balsawood panels, but still, they lay bereft of any income-generating ads. The square, really, has gone to the dogs, with tumbleweed blowing everywhere and property prices in the neighbourhood plummeting.

And this is of special interest to Tony Abbott. As everyone knows, Margie, the girls and he live just around the corner from Macquarie Square and their house is now worth only a fraction of what they paid for it when they took out that great big fat mortgage. Tones had hoped to have been installed in The Lodge by now, with his accompanying fat pay rise. So he is now reduced to cooking food in his kitchen and selling it from the rickety table he has placed on the weed-infested pavement outside his front door.

So, on this particular day, whilst Tones is slaving away in the kitchen, he hears the barking orders of Margie bellowing out from the lounge-room where she is watching, with the daughters, the footy on the telly.

Margie: Tony!!! I hope you’re working hard out there in the kitchen!!! There’ll be no re-runs of Downton Abbey for you if you don’t prepare all that food for us to sell!!! And you’ve got a long way to go, y’know, in making a success of that scam you’re trying to pull of pretending you’ve got a feminine side...If you’ve made any headway at all, it’s all down to me, y’know...all those TV and magazine interviews I’ve done, trying to save your sorry ass on Newspoll...

[Tones, dressed in his pink frilly apron and matching budgie smugglers, has had enough of these disrespectful taunts at his masculinity. He so wants to blurt out, “if you don’t shut your fat mouth, woman, I’ll whack you a few times around the chops with this wooden spoon I’m holding...grrrrrr...” Instead, realising he needs Margie’s ongoing cooperation in his cunning plan to manufacture a caring feminine side, he replies meekly through gritted teeth.]

Tones (sarcastically): Yes, dear...I can assure you I’m working extremely hard, fact, I haven’t worked so hard since that last door-stop interview I gave, when I only gave the reporter the chance to say, “Erm...Mr Abbott...” and I walked off to meet my pedicure appointment...heh...heh...

Margie: Well, if you don’t lift your game in there, mate, I’ll be cutting off more than your toenails...

[Tones has had enough of this girly cooking lark and decides the time is ripe for ending the Handbag Hit Squad’s hegemony in Macquarie Square once and for all. But, he knows this won’t be easy. The Handbag Hit Squad, comprising of Penny Wong, Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek and led by that bloody witch Gillard, have already put paid to his first line of defence, Julie Bishop, Kelly O’Dwyer, Michelle Grattan and that bird Sophie Mirabella. With handbags at two paces, Julie and the other loyal girls didn’t stand a chance.

So, Tones is on to Plan B, and what a plan it is, even if he says so himself. Tones is going to bring in the heavy-hitters, those members of the Coalition who are strong of stature and carrying, literally, a lot of weight in the organisation. “Huh...just watch Gillard and her Handbag Hit Squad get the better of these way Jose”, Tones confidently says to himself.

However, there is one serious flaw in his latest plan: all the big hitters are blokes, and Tones doesn’t want it to backfire on him when the cyber-bullying lefties in the anti-social media say that all he is good for is organising his over-weight male goon squad to bash up a group of girls. All Margie’s good work in trying to manufacture a feminine image for him would have been to no avail. But, first, Tones has to get Margie’s permission to leave the kitchen.]

Tones: Erm...Margie, darling...I need to go down to the convenience store to get a packet of Johnnies...won’t be long...

Margie: Huh...I don’t think you’re going to need any for a while, mate...I’m going to have to do a lot more interviews on your behalf...and you know how they always give me headaches...

[Tones has to reassure Margie that what she means by a packet of Johnnies, is not what he had in mind. He explains to her that he needs some more desiccated coconut to sprinkle on the cakes he is making.

So, Tones gets his leave-pass and, stuffing four of his hardest rock-cakes in his chaff handbag, sets off for Macquarie Square. Once there, he gets on the mobile to the four heavy-hitters, reminding them not to forget to bring along their chaff handbags (Tonebags) containing the women’s clothing he had procured for them earlier.

Soon, four taxis, the suspensions of which seem to be struggling somewhat, stop at the square. They are so low to the ground, Tones reckons each contains a herd of hippos being transported to the local zoo. Immediately, Joe Hockey, Alan Jones, Ron Boswell and Scott Buchholz are disgorged. However, the health and safety of the taxis’ suspensions are still at risk.]

Tones: About time too!!! And what gives with the overloaded taxis – surely you’ve only got your Tonebag inside with your women’s clothing – they couldn’t weigh that much!!

[It takes all their strength for the four heavyweights to lift their chaff handbags out of the taxis. In disgust, Tones turns on Joe Hockey.]

Tones: How many times have I told you not to carry your budget black holes around in your Tonebag!! No wonder it’s so heavy – it’s sucking in all the matter from miles around, ffs!! Sheesh...just get your high heels, fish nets and push-up bra out, go behind the hoarding and get changed...

[Tones then turns on the hapless Alan Jones.]

Tones: And as for’s all your fault we lost the advertising on the hoardings...So, why’s your Tonebag so heavy then?

[Tones doesn’t even wait for an answer, and immediately opens up Alan’s chaff handbag and spots, as well as his batch of women’s clothing, a whole array of car parts! There are hub-caps, ashtrays, a jack, window wipers and god-knows what else!]

Tones: WTF’s all this? No wonder your friggin’ Tonebag weighs a bloody ton!!

Alan (indignantly): didn’t expect me to give my Merc back without a fight, did you? Next week, in place of all the ads that have been pulled from my show, I’m going to be auctioning all these – I reckon I’ll be on a right little earner...heh...heh...

[Tones, in disgust, orders Alan behind the blank hoarding to get changed. Ron Boswell and Scott Buchholz also make their excuses for having extraordinarily heavy Tonebags. Ron’s, for example, is chockers with wheat! He says he is siphoning it off, causing the supply to fall, thereby raising the price, when he will then release it onto the market, making an absolute killing! Tones, being bored by economics, hasn’t got a clue what Ron is on about, so turns to Scott, who maintains his chaff handbag is so heavy because he has imprisoned Campbell Newman inside. Instead of the bollocking the other three get, Scott gets a gold star from Tones.

Shortly afterwards, all of Tones’ heavy hitters are kitted out in their women’s gear, making a group of Poor Clare nuns look like four Kings Cross hookers. However, before Tones can order them to empty their chaff handbags of the burdensome contents within, and arm their Tonebags instead with a workmanlike rock cake, Joe can’t help aiming a few well-directed jibes at Alan.]

Joe: Hey, Alan...why can’t you learn to keep your big mouth shut at those flaky Young Liberal shindigs – if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be in this mess...

Alan (pompously): Don’t pay any attention to these leftie accusations, my boy...they are purely canards...

Joe: Huh...talking of canards, Alan, I hear you next car is going to be a Rolls Canardly...

Alan (excitedly): Wow, Joe...that’s news to me! Is a Rolls Canardly their latest up-market model for celebrities like moi?

Joe: I don’t know about that, Alan...but I hear it’s been designed for you in particular – it rolls down one hill and can hardly get up the next...bwahahahaha...

[The others wet themselves laughing at Alan’s expense.]

Alan (highly indignant): Huh,’s a good job you haven’t got a mirror handy to see yourself...with those man-boobs and that push-up bra, you’re doing a good impersonation of Silicon Valley...heh...heh...

[Suddenly, from around one of the corners of Macquarie Square, appears the Handbag Hit Squad, wielding their fearsome handbags (except for Julia, who has forgotten hers again!)

Tones’ gang realises they are outflanked and despairingly try to lift their overladen chaff handbags to swing at Gillard’s mob, but to no avail. The Handbag Hit Squad is on top of them, making Tones wish their chaff handbags were full of weightless carbon dioxide instead.]

Julia: Well, well, well, girls...look who it is – the Tonebag Tit Squad...heh...heh...Let’s wreck the joint!!

[Before Nicola, Penny and Tanya have time to raise a handbag in mortal combat, Joe and the others take to their heels, leaving Tones on his own, angrily facing up to a handbag-less Julia who is standing in front of the balsawood advertising hoarding.

Tones swings a punch, which misses Julia, but makes a hole in the hoarding. He swings his other fist, which again doesn’t hit his intended target. Before Tones can extricate his fists, Nicola Roxon, most appropriately as Attorney-General, nips under the hoarding and clamps Tones in handcuffs. Tones is going nowhere.

Hours later, and night has well and truly fallen. Tones’ plaintive cries of, “’m going to miss Downton Abbey on the telly...” go unheard and unanswered in the Abbott household where Margie and the daughters are busily trying to complete the cake-making task that Tones has ungraciously failed to complete.]

Daughter 1 (anguished): Dearest looks like daddykins will never make it into The Lodge...We’re doomed to having to make and sell lamingtons to pay the mortgage for the rest of our

Margie: I hate to tell you this, dearie, but it’s even worse than that...

Daughter 2 (equally anguished): Oh, how could it be so, Mamma?

Margie: Have you ever tried to get people to buy lamingtons that don’t have any desiccated coconut on them?

The attack dog that licked its owner’s hand

Desperate situations demand desperate actions. The feedback from private Liberal Party polls and from focus groups must have been grim for Tony Abbott. They must have shown that his rating with women was lamentable. Otherwise, why would his minders and his family embark on such a brazen ‘Tony is nice guy’ campaign on TV and in the Murdoch tabloids? Presumably, saturation coverage was deemed necessary to pull him back from the abyss on which he must be teetering. It is rumoured that Newspoll exposed such bad news for Abbott and the Coalition that, although overdue, it has been postponed.

Desperation could be the only explanation for such an obvious crusade, one that all but Abbott’s sycophants would see through in an instant as a series of puff pieces on TV and in the press. Those responsible either gave no thought to how bizarre this series of stunts would look to the ordinary voter, how unconvincing they would be, or the situation was so bad and deteriorating that such a ridiculous strategy was considered worth a shot on the questionable grounds that even if it failed, it couldn’t make the situation worse for Abbott man.

Of course, it started a couple of weeks ago when Tony’s misogynist behaviour dating back to university days was exposed for all to see in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, where he recalled the Barbara Ramjan story.

Soon after, we had the Punch and Judy show, where Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop came out at doorstops echoing identical lines, fed to them by their minders. NormanK listed these amusingly:

J. Bishop: The Tony I know …..

C. Pyne: The Tony I know …..
J. Bishop: … helped a blind man …..
C. Pyne: … helped a blind man …..
J. Bishop: … worked on a burn-off with …..
C. Pyne: … worked on a burn-off with …..
J. Bishop: That's the Tony I know. 

C. Pyne: That's the Tony I know.

Andrew Bolt joined the chorus but added that Tony also helps Aboriginals, validated by a nice photo of Abbott sitting with them.

Storm clouds were obviously gathering. Here are some edited quotes from the Fourth and Fifth Estates, supplied by Lyn and others, that show how serious the storm threat is:

Michelle Grattan, longtime Abbott acolyte, worried about the trend, offered some gratuitous advice: “Why doesn't he go out, just once in a while, without a staffer, perhaps taking his wife Margie – whom the public would really like, if they saw more of her – and look natural and normal? This is not the time to appear with her in some confected interview that the minders negotiate with terms and conditions. Just to do a bit of ''stuff'' together, despite her dislike of the public forum. Possibly – no guarantees – it would help with the ‘woman problem’.”

We shall probably never know who initiated the recent media onslaught – minders, media advisers, or simply Margie Abbott herself, fed up with having her ‘nice Tony’ demonized. It’s OK for her Tony to demonize our PM every day with his ‘liar’ and ‘untrustworthy’ mantras, but not OK for her man to cop it sweet in return. No doubt, there will be learned analyses by the few journalists who have the courage to dissect the matter at all.

Tony Wright gave it a satirical shot in The Brisbane Times. Before you read what he wrote though, take a look at the video at the top of his article where Lisa Wilkinson conducts a soft interview with Margie and Tony. Observe the supercilious smile on his face as Margie insistently extols his virtues. Does he remind you of a Pit Bull sitting gently by its mistress with that enigmatic look on its face that belies the anger and aggression beneath, waiting to explode in an instant into a violent attack on a stranger? To me it was sickening in its hypocrisy.

Wright begins: “Good lord! Where does this leave Malcolm Turnbull? Will he be required to reveal he spends his evenings tenderly tending to the homeless among the Paddington lanes of his eastern suburbs Sydney electorate? And when are we going to hear from Tim Mathieson about Julia's prowess at baking and decorating cupcakes, and how they occasionally weep together at an old episode of Lassie? The revelation by Tony Abbott's inner circle of women that his personal inner goddess is alive and well tosses up dreadful challenges for the Australian political class.

“It would...if it were a story. You'd hardly think it was transfixing news that his wife and daughters loved him. If they'd formed a chorus line to declare that he was a rotter and a cad who secretly pulled the wings off butterflies; now that would be a story.

“Still, the immense amount of newsprint devoted by News Ltd to the story of kind, gentle and loving Abbott, who sent a beautiful bunch of flowers to his wife for their last anniversary even though she'd said she didn't want anything!, exerted a sort of ghastly allurement.

“How could you avert your eyes from the revelation that when Abbott's wife Margie wants to watch the footie on the tellie, Tony protests (sensitively, you'd imagine) that he'd rather watch the costume drama soapie Downton Abbey? Surely this could be the source of a fairly serious marital dispute, but apparently not…Margie had to reach back a fair way for the bit about Tony choking up at a movie. The said film, The Year My Voice Broke, was made 25 years ago…”

Another Fairfax columnist, Lenore Taylor, also has a go in Hold on to your bonnets for the new Downton Abbott.

“It was a blitzkrieg of love, an admiration avalanche. Margie Abbott, flanked by Tony, sitting close on the couch on the Today show, pictured walking the cute dog and lazing on the grass, alongside lengthy testimonials in the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun. Her message: that her husband has loving relationships with a whole bunch of strong and capable women.

“We have no reason to disbelieve her. Margie and Tony have been married for 24 years and they have three daughters who seem to have become the kind of happy, well-adjusted adults all parents hope they can nurture…

“But Abbott's ''women problem'' was never really about whether he had good relationships with the strong women in his own life. In fact, it wasn't really about whether or not he liked and respected women in general. His real ''women problem'' is that some women voters don't seem to like him…Labor has, without doubt, tried to exacerbate this problem by suggesting to women that he doesn't like them either…

“Combined with the kerfuffle over whether Abbott, as a university student, did or did not punch the wall beside the face of a political rival, there was a real fear within the Coalition that the Labor attack was working.

“The blitzkrieg of love is in fact another very determined, calculated, carefully timed, (just before the next polling cycle) political counter-attack. It is a classic strategy of defence by proxy - grasping at the accusation that Abbott is a misogynist and using it to try to deal with the broader problem that his personal popularity, particularly with female voters, is almost certainly eroded by his very real political aggression. Yes, there have been many acid-tongued politicians over the years, including Labor leaders like Paul Keating and Mark Latham. But this Coalition leader does use political language more aggressive and hyperbolic than Australian voters are used to.

''The voters of Queensland, they won't miss … this Prime Minister and this Leader of the House have got targets on their foreheads,'' he said in the March.

The ''no carbon tax'' pre-election pledge, he repeatedly says, is a "promise that will haunt this government and this Prime Minister to her political grave''.

And on some occasions it is language that wouldn't be used against a man, like last year when he said that ''if the Prime Minister wants to make a - politically speaking - honest woman of herself, she needs to seek a mandate for herself and she should do that at the next election''

…suddenly, Labor was using his aggression against him just as the Coalition leader was trying to turn it down a notch.

And hence we discover, yet again, ''The Real Tony'', who is a ''softie'', who makes his daughters cubby houses and who disagrees with his wife about television viewing because she wants to watch the footy and he insists on Downton Abbey, ''a great program about things that are best in our nature''…

Hmmm, maybe it is possible to take this spin thing too far.

Another Fairfax journalist, Phil Coorey, joined the fray:

“Margie Abbott has launched an extraordinary rebuttal of claims that her husband, Tony Abbott, has a problem with women after a concerted government attack portraying the Opposition Leader as a misogynist began to hurt the Coalition in the polls.

“In an unprecedented intervention by a political spouse, the normally private Mrs Abbott used a newspaper interview, breakfast television and radio interviews, and a speech in western Sydney yesterday in which she said the experience of having three daughters had made Mr Abbott a feminist. (A video of the speech is at the beginning of the article.)

''I'm not a politician and I'm not political - but just don't ever try to tell me that my husband of 24 years and the father of three daughters is on some anti-women crusade. It's simply not true,'' Mrs Abbott told the lunch, which was also attended by Mr Abbott's mother, sisters and one of his daughters.

''You get this - Tony Abbott is surrounded by strong women, in fact not only strong but capable women.''…

“Published and internal polling shows Mr Abbott less popular with female voters. In part, this was helped by recent allegations he physically intimidated a rival female politician at university 35 years ago.

“Then, in the wake of Alan Jones's offensive comments about Julia Gillard's late father, Labor again sought to implicate Mr Abbott by blaming him for creating the culture of personal denigration that encouraged the likes of Jones.

“In her speech, Mrs Abbott indirectly drew a stark contrast with the Prime Minister, who has never married or had children, saying the Abbotts were an ordinary family that had lived an ordinary life…

“The government declined to engage Mrs Abbott but urged voters not to be fooled. ''No amount of fuzzy photo-opportunities can airbrush away Mr Abbott's record of aggressive negativity or the huge risk he poses to the economy,'' the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said.”

Laurie Oakes, the only News Limited journalist to do so, also had a go at critically analyzing the Margie Abbott push in The Punch:

“Tony Abbott’s wife, …in reply to what she called “personal and groundless attacks”- was blunt. “I won’t stand by and let others claim the man I love and the father my children adore has an agenda against women,” Margie Abbott said. The couple’s three daughters and various other female members of the extended family were also involved in bolstering Abbott’s defences.

“The first conclusion to be drawn from all this is that Abbott’s so-called “women problem” is real. It would not provoke such a response unless it was showing up as a serious issue in Liberal Party polling.

“One reason Abbott needs help from his wife and family here is that, at times, he does little to help himself. His initial failure to roundly condemn Sydney shock jock Alan Jones for foul, disgusting and unbelievably nasty comments about Julia Gillard’s dead father was a case in point…

“A second conclusion from the intervention of the Abbott women is that Liberal strategists are concerned about more than the opposition leader’s alleged misogyny. 
Women started to turn against Mark Latham before blokes did because of his aggressive manner. Paul Keating, too, suffered dismal ratings among female voters because of his bare-knuckle style. Abbott’s aggression, his unrelenting attack dog image, is a turn-off for women, and it alienates many male voters as well.

“So the Margie message is not only that “Tony gets women” and operates happily surrounded by strong females. It is also that he is not really the rough, tough, abusive and negative person that people see in parliament and on television. He is, in fact, “a soft touch”, has “a gentle manner”, prefers watching Downton Abbey to the footy, gets teary in sad movies, and is “the most optimistic person you could meet”.

“The Liberal leader has been building his politically pugilistic persona since well before he entered parliament 18 years ago. It is hard to see that such an entrenched image can be altered quickly – but Margie Abbott is obviously going to give it a red hot go…

“The third conclusion from Margie Abbott’s sudden front-line political role is that this must be starting to bite.”

The Fifth Estate is even more condemnatory.

Greg Jericho agrees that the polling must have been poor for Tony Abbott, and graphs the trends to support that contention. He concludes:

“Clearly, Abbott has been rattled by Julia Gillard’s numbers going up (and as Possum pointing up, increasing the ALP’s 2PP with it). The bad news for Tony Abbott is that Possum also notes that the standing of the Opposition Leader has absolutely nothing to do with the party’s 2 party preferred polling number. That means to keep the 2PP numbers high, the Liberal Party has to keep focus on Julia Gillard, which essentially means Tony Abbott attacking her, which obviously the Liberals have found doesn’t go down well in the electorate, and leads to Abbott looking like a bully.

“Which brings us back to where Mr Abbott finds himself today.

“The other aspect is this “Women don’t like Tony” narrative is old hat. Why on earth he feels the need to go big on it now is beyond me. Gillard’s numbers have improved a bit, and Abbott’s have gone down a bit. But is this really panic stations?...

“But instead of treating women as intelligent beings and developing more policies over the next 12 months that will actually affect them, he wants women to know he really is a nice guy.

“Geez, he must think women are stupid.”

NormanK drew our attention to Andrew Elder’s assessment in The Situation with Women.

“The Liberals clearly recognise that women are reluctant to vote for an Abbott government, and that having Margie Abbott talk about her husband in glowing terms might help turn that around.

“It is a standard tactic in American politics to have a candidate bring out their spouse as a way of generating positive impressions without the hard work of policy development and persuasion. Even the most appalling candidate can appeal to voters with a spouse or a family member who can tell endearing, humanising anecdotes about them.

“Margie Abbott should be believed when she says that it was her idea to go on television to support her husband and deny that he has a problem with strong, capable women. It would be a misunderstanding to refer to her as someone who is "wheeled out" to spruik in the way one might refer to a backbencher, or to Chris Pyne, when they are required to prop up their increasingly inadequate leader.

“The fact that Tony Abbott married a woman of substance requires not only a more nuanced understanding of her, but him too. Even people who loathe Tony Abbott should have more sympathy for his wife than they demonstrate when she makes a public stand in his favour.

At the same time, she has chosen to play the sort of blatantly partisan role that attracts negative attention from commentators, amateur and professional. ...If any criticism is due to her media appearances it is due to those who think they are clever in crafting media events of this type: to what extent will that appearance lift Tony Abbott's poll ratings? The judgment of and about those people, and not Mrs Abbott, lives or dies on those questions…

“So what if Tony Abbott's sisters, wife and daughters are all strong and capable and love him dearly?... The voters of Australia are not being invited to join his family. The political premise behind Margie Abbott's remarks is absurd.

“She should not have gone on television with Abbott next to her. It wasn't quite like a hostage haltingly reading out a badly-written statement with a Kalashnikov-wielding, balaclava-clad thug standing over - but she should have been free to tell the sort of anecdote that made him look like a bit of a doofus. Even better, she should have given an example of where she and/or the other women in his life have actually changed his seemingly inflexible mind. That might have made a difference.

“He should also have recognised publicly that Barbara Ramjan, Cheryl Kernot and every other woman who has gotten in his way over the years are no less deserving of basic respect than the women closest to him.

“That Tony Abbott's wife thinks he's nice is neither here nor there. An interview like this might have made a difference in early 2010, but it's too late. Again, the target here is Abbott's strategists, not his wife.

“The question that should have been asked of her was: can you understand why some women don't like Tony? A good answer would have reinforced her as a basically sensible person whose opinions should be listened to, and given both of them the credibility that her husband clearly lacks…

“The fight has gone out of Abbott.”

Nasking drew our attention to a pungent piece by Denise Allen on her ‘dennieallen’ website: Margie Abbott’s dummy spit.

It begins: “So Mrs Abbott – “Margie” – you seem to be a tad upset at the so-called “personal” attacks on your husband?

“Well boo bloody boo hoo. Bring out the teeny weeny violins.

“For the past two years, Labor and swinging voters (and no doubt many soft “L” Liberals) both women and men, have had to put up with the relentless, nasty, vicious and very ugly attacks on our Prime Minister that your husband has ignited and angrily fanned because of his petulant, spoilt brat, right to rule dummy spit he has raged ferociously with since 2010 because the Independents didn’t give him the nod to be PM.

“Ever since your husband failed to convince the Independents he would be a man of his word, a decent Prime Minister and that he would be prepared to do everything they wanted (except of course ‘selling his arse”), he has set about wrecking the place, with his constant negativity, talking down the economy, his “No” “No” “No” to every forward thinking policy Labor has implemented – and have been passed regardless of your husbands tantrums.

“You, like us, must have seen him proudly stand in front of the ugliest, most brutal placards ever displayed about any Prime Minister. As a fellow woman surely you must have been disgusted. Then again, Browyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella weren’t so maybe it’s a Liberal thing that you weren’t either? Anyway, I digress. Regardless, did we hear you publicly decry his stance in support of those placards? No, “Margie”, we didn’t. If you privately berated him – we’d like to know – as until such times as you tell us whether you did or not – we can only assume the obvious – that you must have wholeheartedly agreed with and supported his actions just as Bishop and Mirabella did…

“Your husband, along with his bunch of feral shadow ministers and many on his backbench, have turned the political discourse in this country into the obnoxious, wretched, ugliness it is today. Are you proud of him? I’m sure you are. You must be, because you have now come out and said what a wonderful, loving, decent man he is! To say that – you must agree with everything he says and does! Otherwise you would have the courage to say there are some things you don’t agree with him on.

“But no. You just heap praise on him as if he can do no wrong.

“Quite frankly it disgusts me.

“So get over yourself Margie Abbott… Your husband is one of the most vicious Opposition leaders in this countries history, and as he would say “Its just politics!”

“It’s about time the decent women and men of this nation fought back against your husbands’ ugly persona.”

Take that!

I could fill several pieces with similar quotes, but these will suffice. There are several conclusions:

- Tony Abbott’s ratings in polls and focus groups must be poor, and the Coalition’s ratings sinking with him.

- Margie Abbott’s intervention is a sign of desperation, no matter who initiated it.

- The concerted campaign by News Limited through its tabloids, and the TV puff pieces designed to reinforce the Margie push, points to a fearsome turn in the polls from the dead-certainty of an Abbott government after the next election to one of considerable doubt.

- The extended Margie campaign seems unlikely to impress swinging voters, and may induce those who have left Labor in the polls to return. It may turn out to be a significant negative.

The attack dog has lived within Tony Abbott for many years. The fact that this Pit Bull has licked the hand of its owner: his wife, his family, his minders, his colleagues, does not make him a Shih tzu. He is still a Pit Bull.

Away from his owners, he strains at the leash – barking, snapping, and snarling, ready to tear his opponent to pieces. Just watch him in Question Time and moving Motions to Suspend Standing Orders. Just watch him in doorstops where he bares his teeth and salivates at every chance to demean our PM or her ministers, snapping: ‘liar’, or ‘untrustworthy’, or ‘bad government getting worse’, or ‘No, No, No’, or referring to our female leader as ‘she’ or ‘her’ or ‘this Prime Minister’.

That he licks his owner's hands, like all Pit Bulls, is unsurprising; that he savages those he does not like is what has brought him to the perilous situation he now faces.

It seems likely that no matter what he now does, nothing will halt his decline.

What do you think?

Ban Live Export! Is it the right thing to do?

Last week, one of our daughters sent the following email to her local MP:

“Last Tuesday I took my 2 year old son to the Royal Melbourne Show. I thought it would be a fun day out and we especially wanted to visit all the animals. We spent considerable time admiring the sheep and the cattle. I showed my son how to gently pat the sheep and explained how the mother was protecting her babies. I stopped short at emphasizing that he shouldn't stab, club or bury the gentle animals alive. My 2 year old knows better than that, he is thoughtful and shows empathy even at his young age.

“So when I heard that 10,000 sheep have been so cruelly disposed of, and 21,000 more are penned in, unable to move or lie down whilst waiting for conscious slaughter, our contrasting encounter at The Show was not lost on me. I am used to feeling enraged and distressed by animal cruelty, but why are we proudly displaying our farm animals in all their freshly washed glory, and at this same time sending their equally worthy cousins on a fateful journey?

“Do we need to sit our Prime Minister down, the Principal of our country, with senior staff member Senator Joe Ludwig, for a pre-school lesson in how to treat animals? Maybe we could arrange an excursion to Edendale farm and they could gently pat the animals and tap into their inner 2 year old.

“On the same day at The Show, my son and I admired all the lovely cattle and watched a calf suckle from its mother. How long can I protect my son from the knowledge that these lovely worthy creatures are packed off on a nightmare ship with the barest conditions?

“That lactating mothers are left dehydrated and dying? That calves die a slow painful death?

Is it not a contradiction to expect our children to demonstrate care and respect for animals whilst the Government casts them aside? Maybe the Government could send us parents an education booklet, like the ones about saying no to drugs, so I know exactly how to explain this to my son.

“This is how the booklet should read:

“Fact: The Government is responsible for the tragedies unfolding due to live export. They are the Parent. Humane treatment off our shores can never be guaranteed.

“Fact: The Meat and Livestock Industry cannot be trusted. They had known about the cattle abuse in Indonesia over 12 long years ago.

“Fact: Australia is a wealthy nation. We can redirect money from improving abattoirs in Indonesia to reopening languished local ones.

“If you ban live export, you might lose some customers, you might upset some farmers. Oh dear, you might even lose some votes - but it's the right thing to do. Our friendly sheep rearing neighbour New Zealand can surely give us some tips on how to export meat in pieces rather than whole. Think of the carbon miles you'll save Julia!

“The arguments for live export don't stack up; it is unethical and unnecessary. Labor, we used to be friends but one of us has changed. I implore you to go back and find your inner 2 year old. It's the right thing to do.

“Reference: Animals Australia “

Very strong feelings are generated among much of the community when animal cruelty is exposed. Whether it was a farmer or an animal owner who let his livestock starve or become diseased or debilitated, or whether it was the gross cruelty that we saw last year when Four Corners exposed the grotesque slaughter of cattle in Indonesian abattoirs, the people became enraged. Politicians all over Australia were inundated at that time with hostile emails insisting that action be taken to stop the cruelty immediately. Politicians commented that they had never before encountered such an avalanche, much greater than evoked by acts of cruelty to human beings in theatres of war or civil strife. So massive were the protests that the Government was compelled to act quickly, and chose to immediately ban the export of live animals to Indonesia until better conditions for animal slaughter were in place. Animals Australia was particularly active and vocal.

The ban lasted a month, much to the chagrin of some Coalition members and cattlemen, who thought it was an overreaction. ''The Indonesians won't like it,'' said Bruce Warren, who operates a state-of-the-art feedlot and abattoir in Java. ”If the trade stops, it will be hard to start again … The Indonesian government is already talking about this in terms of an opportunity for self-sufficiency.''

Once the Government was satisfied that conditions in Indonesia had improved to the extent that slaughter could be humane, although ‘stunning’ was still not mandatory but ‘encouraged’, the ban was lifted and trade resumed. The outrage subsided among the people, but some cattlemen and Coalition members still felt the ban was too hasty, quite unnecessary, and certainly had cost them a lot of money and probably loss of future trade with Indonesia. Though in a small online poll of just over 2,000, seven out of ten respondents thought it was not right for Australia to resume live exports to Indonesia.

The most recent episode of animal cruelty involved a shipment of 21,000 sheep to Bahrain last month. Rejected by that country because the sheep were said to be diseased with ‘scabby mouth’, they were sent to Pakistan, where there were suggestions that the sheep may also have anthrax. The outcome was that some of the sheep were clubbed to death, stabbed and even buried alive. The rest remain in a feedlot crammed together so tightly that they cannot lie down or gain easy access to food and water. There is still doubt about whether or not they are diseased. More outrage was evoked among the people, and protest rallies against live exports have been organized for the weekend.

Live cattle export is deemed necessary because in Islamic countries a particular mode of slaughter is required, one that these countries prefer to carry out themselves.

The basic Islamic guidelines are as follows:

“The sacrifice should be performed during the daytime, not at night. The knife to be used to cut the animal's throat should be very sharp, so much so that the least amount of force or pressure is needed to slice the animal's jugular vein, so it feels the least amount of pain when its skin is thus cut. The knife should not be shown to the animal, but the latter should be fed well and laid down facing the direction of the "Qiblah" (Muslim direction of prayer - the Ka'ba) in Makkah. The person who will perform the sacrifice should be well-versed in their job, and should not hurt the animal by clumsily jabbing away at the latter's throat with a blunt knife, causing pain and fear. The one performing the sacrifice should be swift and deft. He should say "Bismillah Allahu Akbar" before slicing the animal's throat. The owner of the animal should recite an invocation before the sacrifice.”

To meet these requirements, Australia has a long history of live exports, which is a very profitable enterprise. There have been examples of animal cruelty going back to before the Howard years. Some awful instances at that time occurred during transportation rather than in the recipient country. In her submission to the Independent Review of Australia’s Live Export Trade, animals activist Kathryn Woolfe wrote: “During the last three decades of Live Exports, one hundred and fifty million sheep and cattle have been tortured, and brutalized, before suffering agonizing deaths. Most of these animals were conscious when their throats were cut.”

As with all policy matters complexity confounds thinking. At one end of the spectrum of opinion sit the RSCPA, Animals Australia, the Greens, animal welfare groups, several Labor parliamentarians, Independents Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon and countless citizens who want an immediate and permanent ban on live exports. At the other end are cattlemen, Meat and Livestock Australia, The Cattle Council of Australia, the NT Cattlemen’s Association, and the National and Victorian Farmers Federation, who value the trade and view with apprehension a ban on live exports, which would seriously imperil their trade and destroy its profitability.

It should be emphasized that cattle producers and exporters are adamant that they do not condone animal cruelty and insist their trade must be humane. They claim they are very fond of the animals they breed. Some people though feel that despite their affirmations against cruelty, they cannot be trusted to put animal welfare ahead of profit. Islamic culture also deplores and opposes any form of animal cruelty, including during the slaughter process. So how is it that with both producers and overseas recipients of livestock opposed to cruelty, it still occurs?

In any endeavour, there are always the good guys and the rogues. Clearly, despite the best intentions of the producers and exporters, sometimes things go wrong. Animals are sometimes subjected to appalling conditions during transport. Cramped conditions, excessive heat or cold, inadequate access to food and water have characterized many live export journeys. How does this occur? The authorities that oversee live exports know that some operators are slack, careless and uncaring about animal welfare; their only concern is getting their cargo loaded, out of port, and to its destination with minimal casualties. The authorities know that strict regulations are needed, and that they have to be enforced rigidly. They know that despite their best efforts shonky operators will try to get round the regulations, and will do so unless they are policed strictly. Thus, from time to time, we have appalling episodes of obscene animal cruelty that evoke intense anger and outrage among those who loathe animal cruelty.

So is a total ban on live exports the right thing to do? Like in all political issues complexity abounds.

To simply ban live exports precipitously would ruin some farmers, businesses and industries, and result in the loss of many jobs and all that entails. Live trade would be lost overnight, and alternatives would take substantial time to establish. Would it be fair to those who have built up such businesses to be suddenly put out of business and perhaps rendered bankrupt? Most reasonable people would say that would not be fair.

On the other hand would it be reasonable to allow the trade to be continued without tightening of the regulations governing it and strengthening the monitoring of live exports? Many would approve continuance of the trade if they could be certain that animal cruelty could be totally prevented.

Others believe that because there will always be shonky operators, animal cruelty would still be bound to occur despite the strongest regulations and the most intense oversight. They would see a total and permanent ban as the only solution.

So where does the answer lie?

To accommodate competing claims, would it be reasonable to commence a planned phasing out of the live export trade over a period that enabled those who rely on it to adjust. Since New Zealand banned live exports in 2003, it would be possible to do it here, and according to NZ PM John Key, harmonization of live exports between our two countries would be of mutual benefit and reduce frustration occasioned by the two countries having different policies. How long the phasing out would need to be would need to be agreed by consensus – a year, two, perhaps longer? In place of live exports, animals destined for the Middle East would need to be slaughtered in Australia according to the customs required by the recipients, as in New Zealand. This would boost jobs and profit in the meat-processing sector, while reducing them in the live trade transport industry. Compensation and adjustment might be required. But it is possible.

Is it possible that the antagonists to, and the protagonists for the live export trade might negotiate a new arrangement that would satisfy those seeking a ban while securing the future of those engaged in the livestock industry?

Of course it is possible, but how probable would it be when vested interests fight to maintain the status quo even in the face of strong adverse public opinion, and political pressure to ban live exports?

It seems likely that only strong Government intervention could achieve that outcome. Federal legislation to this effect would likely pass even if the Coalition opposed, as the Greens and at least two independents would vote for it.

Would the Labor Government have the desire, the determination and the courage to carry this through? Many would hope so.

What do you think?