The media still has questions to answer

“Self congratulatory lemmings” was the phrase used by Jon Faine on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne this week to describe the media, and in particular the Canberra Press Gallery. The context was the so-called ‘AWU slush fund scandal’. He was referring to the incessant, yet fruitless assault on the Prime Minister over her time as a lawyer at Slater & Gordon twenty years ago.

Faine repeated what he has been saying for ages: that despite this matter having been trawled over time and again over several years, despite two hour-long press conferences where the Press Gallery was invited to ask any and every question about this matter, despite repeated questioning all this week by Julie Bishop in the House, nothing, repeat nothing, has ever been unearthed to implicate Julia Gillard in any wrong-doing.  Even a fifteen minute opportunity yesterday in the House for Tony Abbott to put his case of criminal behaviour by the PM yielded nothing, nothing at all. Yet the cry: ‘She still has questions to answer’ has echoed around the Gallery and appeared in print and on air, and it still does. No matter how many answers she gives to no matter how many questions, there are always more. No allegations have ever been made, but there are still ‘questions to answer’. 

In my view it is the mainstream media and especially the Canberra Press Gallery that has questions to answer, not Julia Gillard.

As Faine used the word ‘groupthink’ to describe journalists’ behaviour, I was reminded of the first blog piece I wrote four years ago, in June 2008, on Possum Comitatus’ Possum Box: Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink?

In that piece, having defined groupthink, and having given a number of examples, I concluded: ”The result is media of indifferent quality, which generally follows the leader in promulgating facts that are often inaccurate or distorted, embraces fashionable concepts and buzz words, and indulges in ‘copy-cat’ commentary that does little to inform or enlighten. Perhaps the only reassuring aspect of this lamentable state of affairs is that so many of the voting public let most media offerings pass harmlessly over their heads.

“Many in the media abuse the power inherent in the journalistic pen. Where has objective, informed, balanced reporting and commenting gone? Often the two are confused as journalists seek to promulgate their views rather than the facts. It’s a pity that the small coterie of good quality journalists is diluted by such a motley collection of writers of indifferent, and in many instances, low standard. Groupthink seems to be the genesis of much of the pathology they exhibit.”

Has anything changed over these last four years? In my view the answer is ‘Yes’. The mainstream media has deteriorated, and continues to decline. Faine says the MSM has reached its lowest point.

What is the evidence for this assertion? Think back. Can you recall a time when the media has made such a meal out of any story, as it has of the S&G ‘scandal’? Can you remember any catchphrase being repeated so often by so many on such a plethora of platforms: newsprint, radio, TV, blogs? ‘PM Gillard still has questions to answer’ has been everywhere.

So here’s the first question the media has to answer:

What is the genesis of this obsessive pursuit of a matter twenty years old, which has been mulled over hundreds of times, over many years, without uncovering a ‘smoking gun’ to condemn Julia Gillard?

Let me hazard an opinion.

We all know that the business model of many of the traditional outlets is now obsolete. The rivers of gold from advertising have slowed to a trickle, and circulation revenue is down. Digital media are replacing print, but making it profitable has been difficult. Media houses have sacked journalists, others have left, and those remaining feel apprehensive, insecure, and overworked as they now have to prepare material for several platforms, and in less time.

As the thrust of journalism has progressively morphed from reporting into entertainment and titillation, as the attention span of consumers has shrunk to tiny sound bites or strident headlines, the quality of their work has deteriorated, has become more reliant on press releases, has become degraded into ‘he said, she said’ accounts of events, and more and more susceptible to groupthink as journalists talk with colleagues in the next office, chatter to each other and their ‘sources’ in the corridors of power and at their favourite watering holes. This week on the Jon Faine radio show, News Limited CEO Kim Williams denied that there was any groupthink in his organization!

I am not alone in my views. Mike Seccombe, in a comprehensive appraisal of the media in The Global Mail: Truth Tally – What’s Wrong With Australian Political Debate quotes Malcolm Turnbull. ”He [Turnbull] made particular reference to the media, saying that as news organizations came under greater cost pressures, good reporting which held governments and oppositions to account "was diminishing".
 "Instead, he said, newspapers and other media were resorting more to commentary and opinion and more to analysis of the effectiveness of political spin than to analysis of the substantive issues.”

We ought not be surprised then that the same boring, unoriginal phrases creep into their writings, the same people are interviewed by journalists and the same ‘insiders’ talk to each other on radio and TV shows. Boot leather remains pristine as investigative journalism morphs into superficial, insubstantial accounts of events, light on facts but heavy on opinion. Following Rupert Murdoch’s dictum that ‘opinion is news’, journalists now believe they can avoid the arduous task of fact gathering and fact checking, and substitute for them their own opinion. But on what is their opinion based?

We have seen the result of this approach. The Canberra Press Gallery has expressed its learned opinion only to be found to be wrong again and again.

We have had countless predictions of the fall of Julia Gillard as leader, if not by Easter, by mid-year, by year-end, and although we are in her third year, she is still leader and going from strength to strength. They have told us this ‘hung’ minority parliament cannot possibly work, that it is unmanageable; indeed it is ‘toxic’. Yet 449 pieces of legislation have already been passed in this term, some of them historic reforms such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, plans for more major reforms are in train this very week such as the NDIS and the Gonski education reform, and the economy is in great shape. How often can journalists be wrong before the electorate ignores them?

They were left standing mouths open wide when Kevin Rudd was replaced, and caught again when PM Gillard appeared with Bob Carr as Foreign Minister. And they got it completely wrong when they dismissed the PM’s ‘misogyny’ speech as inconsequential.

Indeed, I believe it is this stark exposure of their incompetence that has alienated many of them. They have resented looking stupid, they have been angered by PM Gillard’s unwillingness to kowtow to them and her readiness to pull them into line. ‘Don’t write crap’ upset them. Still seething, they are rude in press conferences, as was Sid Maher this week. Pulled into line, his antagonism will rise. The ‘experts’, the ‘insiders’, the ‘pontiffs’ have been exposed as pseudo emperors with no clothes. And they are angry, and express that anger in their vitriolic columns.

Add institutional antagonism to this personal resentment, and you have a formula for vituperative writing that seeks to demean the PM no matter what she does, that seeks to diminish whatever the Government achieves. We all know, and hear it from honest journalists, that News Limited has the institutional objective of bringing the Labor Government down, destroying the Greens at the ballot box, and installing an Abbott Government. Little attempt is made to disguise this. We know that Rupert Murdoch has this intent, as do the editors of his tabloids and broadsheets.

Recently, Fairfax has joined in the ‘let’s get Gillard’ campaign, and with some gusto by Peter Hartcher and Michelle Grattan, whose dislike of PM Gillard is palpable. Even the previously balanced AFR, now with ex-News Limited man Michael Stutchbury as its editor, has swung anti-Government, and some of its more balanced authors with it.

Returning to Seccombe’s article, he further quotes Turnbull: “…there is more media "narrowcasting" – strident partisanship aimed at like-minded consumers.
 "Fox News in the United States is an example of how commercially successful that strategy can be as are some of the shock jocks in Australia," he said. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent's policy does not respect 'Struggle Street'; it treats its residents with contempt. It is the opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal," said Turnbull.
 "This was extraordinary stuff, coming from a Liberal MP. He [Turnbull] was bagging the Murdoch media model – only Fox by name, but its Australian operation by implication – when he talked about that the "hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan" coverage of climate change. The News Ltd papers, and particularly The Australian, have led the climate-change deniers.”

There can be no doubt News Limited is partisan; it misrepresents facts that do not fit its case, lies when it suits it, and acts as a collaborative mouthpiece for the Coalition. Whilst it can do as it pleases, what it does do does not make a quality bipartisan balanced news outlet.

We know too that online media, the Internet, the Fifth Estate, and social media have made Old Media less relevant. News is available online before it can reach the newsstands. No longer is the Fourth Estate a repository of facts, figures, reasoned analysis and balanced opinion, as it once was. Opinion is available from a host of well-informed and articulate commentators in the Fifth Estate, who have access to as much information as journalists do, and who analyse it in a better-balanced way than most Fourth Estate journalists. We read their opinions every day, while eschewing the Fourth Estate, much of it locked behind pay walls, and not worth paying for.

Because Old Media cannot compete with the immediacy of online news, it seems to have taken on another role – advocacy. Look for example at The Australian. The front pages are now full of the S&G matter, every day, still. The paper is advocating the pursuit of our PM. There was nothing on its front page about the recent alarming reports on global warming which threatens our planet, just hundreds of column inches on S&G. Indeed the only major paper that reported on its front page the alarming global warming story out of the Doha talks was The Age. What has become of a media that gives precedence to a long-running non-story that it deems a ‘scandal’, but scarcely bothers to highlight a story about dangerous threats to our planet and everything on it?

So here is the next question the media has to answer.

What is the purpose of bringing down our PM and our elected Government?

Here again I offer an opinion. For News Limited there seems to be a commercial reason. We know Murdoch prefers conservative governments, as he believes they provide a more congenial environment for his empire and its expansion. That has come out starkly in the Leveson Inquiry. Ideologically too, Murdoch prefers conservative governments. He was a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, and although he supported Tony Blair, we now know that came at a price to Blair and his Labor Government. Here, Tony Abbott is his man. ‘I hope he liked me’ said Abbott after his only meeting with Murdoch.

There is another reason Murdoch wants Labor gone – the threat of a body being established to regulate the media, a move vehemently opposed by Murdoch’s man here, Kim Williams.

Ben Eltham has views on the media’s role in the S&G saga. He wrote a comprehensive piece this week on the facts of the matter: The AWU Scandal Unpacked. If you wish to read a summary, you won’t find one better than his.

But this piece is not about this matter; instead it is used as background to illustrate the current state of the media and the questions it still has to answer.

Eltham wrote another piece on the same day: Gillard Puts The Press To Shame. After giving a thorough analysis that will repay your attention, he concludes: “Throughout the coverage of this affair, the onus of proof has consistently been placed on the Prime Minister by the media. The common line has been that she has "questions to answer". That argument is dead in the water, given that the Prime Minister has twice answered all the questions the media has put, at considerable length.

“In fact, the onus of proof in investigative reporting should run the other way. The role of journalists is not simply to ask questions. It is to uncover evidence and to substantiate and corroborate serious allegations. The argument that the Prime Minister owes the public an explanation of her actions 17 years ago is valid. But she has provided an explanation, many times.

“Perhaps its time we asked some questions of journalists like Hedley Thomas and Mark Baker.”

“Some questions that come to my mind are:

When does an investigation become a giant fishing expedition?

What responsibilities do journalists have to back up their claims? 

And if you have evidence to support your leading questions, why won’t you release it?

Most importantly, in a week in which legislation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme was introduced to Parliament, we need to ask:

Why is this even news?

While these questions arise out of the S&G matter, they are generic. They could, and should be asked of journalists no matter what they are reporting.

Yes, journalists are the ones who have questions to answer. I have suggested some specific ones about the S&G matter, and some generic ones arising out of it.

Writing in The Conservation in AWU ‘scandal’ says more about the media’s ethics than the PM’s, Janine Little says: ”Mainstream campaign journalism being what it is, competing for its shrinking share of a public attention span focused largely on social media, journalists haven’t let a lack of evidence stop their pursuit of the prime minister. If mainstream media organizations are attempting to compete with the reach and timbre of social media at the expense of a sustained respect for evidence and fact-based reporting, then it’s journalists who practice such things who stand to lose most.

“Journalism based on solid research and verified source material has uncovered serious wrongdoing not so long ago in Australia’s past, and for the benefit of a public’s right to know what matters. When there’s hardly anyone willing to question why an array of facts pointing away from the prime minister somehow keeps media organisations hot on her trail, it becomes solely a question of ethics answerable by journalists rather than Julia Gillard.”

For the reasons suggested in this piece, the standard of journalism in the Fourth Estate has deteriorated since I first wrote about it over four years ago, and it continues to slide. The perversion of journalism brought about by the pursuit of partisan ideological objectives, aggravated by commercial and professional stresses within the Fourth Estate, accentuated by the loss of its status, prestige, and previously unchallenged authority, continues relentlessly.

It is depressing to see what was once a lofty and respected professional contribution to our society now so degenerate, ineffectual and disrespected.

This piece asserts that it is journalists and indeed the entire Fourth Estate that has questions to answer, questions about its intent, its behaviour, its ethics, its performance, and the quality of its offerings. Unless the Fourth Estate has the courage to answer these questions, unless it is willing to address its problems, it will sink into obscurity, replaced by a plethora of other providers of news, analysis and opinion, many in the Fifth Estate.

After seeing the media reaction to how Julia Gillard’s outmanoeuvered and humiliated Tony Abbott in the last QT for the year, I have little hope the Fourth Estate has learned anything at all. The commentators continue to insist that ‘She still has questions to answer’.

They remain self congratulatory lemmings.

What do you think?

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So the globe is warming after all

Climate skeptics and deniers should read no further. The factual information below will cause them to have acute cognitive dissonance as the facts and figures clash with their entrenched beliefs and fantasies.

I suppose it is coincidental, but recently there has been a spate of reports on the state of the globe, and all point in the one direction, the globe is warming, and the only plausible explanation is the man-made accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Let’s look first at the recent World Bank-commissioned report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided (pdf) (eBook version), carried out by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, on behalf of the Bank.

I will quote extensively from an article published on November 18 this year by the Bank: Climate Change Report Warns of Dramatically Warmer World This Century, which begins with these highlights:

“The New World Bank-commissioned report warns the world is on track to a ‘4°C world’ marked by extreme heat waves and life-threatening sea level rise.

“Adverse effects of global warming are “tilted against many of the world's poorest regions” and likely to undermine development efforts and goals.

“In response, the Bank is contemplating increased support for adaptation, mitigation, inclusive green growth, and climate-smart development.”

Drawing attention to this summer’s satellite image of the melting Greenland ice sheet, the report suggests that “…time may be running out to temper the rising risks of climate change”, and the Bank “…warns we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”

The Bank adds that because the effects of a warming climate are “…tilted against many of the world's poorest regions”, they are “…likely to undermine development efforts and global development goals”. The report urges "…further mitigation action as the best insurance against an uncertain future."

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group insists: "A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2°C. Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest."

The World Bank article continues: “The report, reviewed by some of the world’s top scientists, is being released ahead of the next comprehensive studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013/14, and follows the Bank’s own Strategic Framework for Development and Climate Change in 2008 and the World Development Report on climate change in 2010. ‘Turn Down the Heat’ combines a synthesis of recent scientific literature with new analysis of likely impacts and risks, focusing on developing countries. It chronicles already observed climate change and impacts, such as heat waves and other extreme events, and offers projections for the 21st century for droughts, heat waves, sea level rise, food, water, ecosystems and human health.

“The report says today’s climate could warm from the current global mean temperature of 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels, to as high as 4°C by 2100, even if countries fulfill current emissions-reduction pledges.

"This report reinforces the reality that today’s climate volatility affects everything we do," said Rachel Kyte, the Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development. "We will redouble our efforts to build adaptive capacity and resilience, as well as find solutions to the climate challenge."

“The World Bank doubled lending for climate change adaptation last year and plans to step up efforts to support countries’ initiatives to mitigate carbon emissions and promote inclusive green growth and climate-smart development. Among other measures, the Bank administers the $7.2 billion Climate Investment Funds now operating in 48 countries and leveraging an additional $43 billion in clean investment and climate resilience.”

Let’s look at some details:

Rising Sea Levels
“The report says sea levels have been rising faster in the last two decades than previously, and this rise is being seen in many tropical regions of the world. This phenomenon is partly due to melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; the rapid growth in melt area observed since the 1970s in Greenland’s ice sheet is a clear illustration of its increasing vulnerability. Arctic sea ice also reached a record minimum in September 2012. There are indications that the greatest melt extent in the past 225 years has occurred in the last decade. It’s early yet but clearly some of the small island states and coastal communities are beginning to take a hard look at their options. The need to adapt to climate change will increase as global population reaches 9 billion in 2050.”

Ocean Acidification
“Coral reefs are acutely sensitive to changes in water temperature and acidity levels. The report warns that by the time the warming levels reach 1.4° C in 2030s, coral reefs may stop growing. This would be a result of oceans becoming more acidic as a result of higher CO2 concentrations. And with 2.4° C, coral reefs in several areas may actually start to dissolve. This is likely to have profound consequences for people who depend on them for food, income, tourism and shoreline protection.”

Heat Extremes
“A 4°C warmer world would also suffer more extreme heat waves, and these events will not be evenly distributed across the world, according to the report.

“Sub-tropical Mediterranean, northern Africa, the Middle East, and the contiguous United States are likely to see monthly summer temperatures rise by more than 6°C. Temperatures of the warmest July between 2080-2100 in the Mediterranean are expected to approach 35°C – about 9°C warmer than the warmest July estimated for the present day. The warmest July month in the Sahara and the Middle East will see temperatures as high as 45°C, or 6-7°C above the warmest July simulated for the present day.”

Lower agricultural yields
”Hotter weather could in turn lower crop yields in a 4°C world, raising concerns about future food security. Field experiments have shown that crops are highly sensitive to temperatures above certain thresholds. One study cited in the report found that each “growing degree day” spent at a temperature of 30 degrees decreases yields by 1% under drought-free rain-fed conditions.

“The report also says drought-affected areas would increase from 15.4% of global cropland today, to around 44% by 2100. The most severely affected regions in the next 30 to 90 years will likely be in southern Africa, the United States, southern Europe and Southeast Asia, says the report. In Africa, the report predicts 35% of cropland will become unsuitable for cultivation in a 5°C world.”

Risks to Human Support Systems
”The report identifies severe risks related to adverse impacts on water availability, particularly in northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. River basins like the Ganges and the Nile are particularly vulnerable. In Amazonia, forest fires could as much double by 2050. The world could lose several habitats and species with a 4°C warming.”

Non-linear impacts
”As global warming approaches and exceeds 2°C, there is a risk of triggering nonlinear tipping elements. Examples include the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large-scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods. This would further add to 21st-century global warming and impact entire continents.

“The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen".

And while the globe is burning, some politicians fiddle, filled with doubt as they are by the skeptics and deniers. It is criminal negligence on a monumental scale.

In case anyone thinks that sitting here down under we might be spared these terrifying consequences of global warming, let’s turn to the evidence, that is verifiable facts and figures presented on the 15 November edition of the ABC’s Catalyst, where Dr Jonica Newby interviewed several climate scientists. If you missed this informative program, you may wish to view it here.

Dr Kenneth Green says: ”In 60 years, we've lost a third of our total snow cover. But there is some rough comfort for my skiing aspirations. And that is that the beginning of the season hasn't really changed.

”So, basically, since 1954, snow depth in July is much the same. When you reach September, it starts to drop off. So that by October it's noticeably less. Essentially, spring is coming earlier.

“It's even clearer when you look at the records for the thaw, now two weeks earlier than in the '60s. And the snowline appears to have lately moved up from 1,500m to 1,600m.

“So we're looking at minimum temperatures. And, Karl, basically, this is how cold it gets at night.”

Dr Karl Braganza:
”That's correct, Jonica. If we start at the Snowy here, we've warmed by about 1.1 degrees since a century ago. And that's similar to Perth, Sydney. If we're looking over here at Cairns, it's almost 2 degrees since 1910.

”So that's night-time minimums, but I bet what most of you are more interested in is what's happened to daytime maximums. And, for that... I'm heading here.”

”You can see here - Sydney through to Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart, they've warmed up by about 0.7 of a degree. And in some capitals a lot less. Adelaide - 0.3. But if you go over to the west - Perth - and into the centre - Alice Springs - you've got 1.1 to almost 2 degrees of warming.
 Overall, averaging maximums and minimums, our nation's core temperature has gone up 0.9 of a degree.”

”Alright, so this next diagnostic is... a measure of extremes.”

”It is. And what we've seen is more and more stations are breaking extreme heat in the last 100 years, and less are breaking extreme cold.
 In fact, in the last ten years, the number of stations breaking extreme heat records has doubled those breaking extreme cold. So, frosty nights are becoming less common, but extreme heat days are becoming more common.”

Katherine Brown (of Brown Brothers vineyards):
”Talking to our scientists, winemakers and viticulturists, they really pretty much turned to the board and said, 'We have to find this cooler-climate property because within decades we could see a 2-degrees temperature rise in our current vineyards in Victoria.' So, they pretty much told us that if we continued to want to do what we do best, make quality wine, we had to come south.”

”So the chance of one month being above-average temperature, is one in two. The chance of the next month also being above-average temperature, is one in four. The chance of the next month also being above-average temperature, is one in eight.”

So what do you think are the chances of having 330 months in a row of above-average temperatures? Because, since February 1985, we have had... 330 months in a row of above-average (global) temperatures.”

Dr Mark Howden:
 ”It's really extraordinary. If it was just by random chance alone, then there's only a 1 in 100,000 chance that that would have happened in the absence of human influence.”

”It's exciting times for Tasmanian fishermen. With so many new fish arriving, they've teamed up with scientists to plot them. They've seen leather jacks, green turtles, dusky morwong...”

Mark Nikolai: 
”It's actually really good news for Tasmanian fishermen, because all the New South Wales fish are moving south into our waters.
 “All in all, scientists have confirmed 45 new species have, like Brown Brothers, shipped on down to Tassie.”

 ”Well, obviously, if fish from the big island are moving down, the water here must have got warmer.”

“Alright, Dr Karl. National round-up time again. 100-year health check. Circulation.”

 ”What we're going to look at now, Jonica, is the sea-surface temperatures around Australia. And what we've seen is about a degree of warming over the last century. But you can see over the East Coast we have more warming than we do over the West Coast. There's some hot spots as well. And that's off the coast of Victoria and Tasmania. Sea temperatures here off Tasmania have risen an astounding 2.28 degrees. That's about four times the global ocean average.”

”When the original records were rediscovered just a decade ago, Dr John Hunter was able to work out what's happened.”

Dr John Hunter:
 ”OK, the total sea-level rise since 1841 is about 17 centimetres. So, if you raise sea level by just 10 centimetres...
you find you get a tripling of the number of flooding events. 
And if you raise it by another 10 centimetres, it goes up by another factor of three, so that's a total of nine.”

”So... so we've got nine times, effectively, the number of flooding events for structures at sea level than we did 100 years ago?”

 ”So what we're looking at here is basically from the satellite record from 1993. And we can see sea levels have risen everywhere.”

Newby: ”So, now, the last two years' rainfall have been quite extraordinary, haven't they?”

Braganza: ”They have. They've been record-breaking. So, over the last 24-month period, the two years, we've seen more rainfall in Australia for a 24-month period than we've ever seen in the historical record.”

 ”And tell me - does this have something to do with the fact that the ocean and the air temperatures are higher?”

 ”Normally, when you get a La Nina event you'll get almost record rainfall in Australia. This time, what we saw was record sea-surface temperatures around Australia. And so we've got basically a perfect storm. We've got a La Nina event. We've got global warming going on in the oceans around Australia. And then we've got this record rainfall as well.”

”Essentially, what the records show is that global warming isn't something that's coming - it's here in our backyards already. It's pointless now to ask, 'Is this climate change or natural variability?' What we see is one acting on top of the other.”

Braganza: ”So, every parcel of air, every ocean current, every weather system is now about a degree warmer. And when you go through and do the physics, that's actually a hell of a lot of energy added to the climate system in general.”

”You know, of all the things I learned on this investigation, it was that comment from Karl that really struck me. It was like, 'Aha! I finally get it.' There's one degree of extra heat across the whole planet. That's just a lot of new energy in our weather system. What happens when you add another degree? And another?”

Exactly, what happens? It gets worse and worse, until we get to the tipping point, where no matter what we do, the destructive process continues beyond the control of human beings.

Older people, those who make decisions about what to do about climate change, even if they acknowledge the disaster that looms, see it as far away and slow moving, something they can be relaxed about, something they can take action about when the time comes. What the World Bank Report tells us is that the time to act is NOW. If we don’t, our children and theirs will suffer the terrible consequences.

If you need any more convincing, read what Graham Readfearn had to say in Independent Australia in a piece titled: The Australian skews climate science… again that starts with how once more The Australian has misrepresented climate change science. The YouTube video that accompanies the piece will repay your attention. Make sure too that you scroll to the end where you will see a very revealing dynamic graph that shows how skeptics segment time periods in an attempt to show that the globe is not warming, in fact might be sometimes cooling, whereas if you look at the whole 40-year period the graph shows – 1970-2012, and insert a trend line (in red) the warming trend stands out starkly.

Writing in New Matilda in Our Role In The Climate Deadlock, Ben Eltham writes: ”The problem posed by climate change is difficult to overstate. It is global. It is endemic. It is devilishly difficult to address. But address it we must, or our children and grandchildren will inhabit a planet almost unimaginably different from our own: a world of dangerously destabilised climates, devastating natural disasters, flooded cities and dead coral reefs. A world most likely riven by conflict and war. A world in which the global economy struggles against the huge cost of dealing with a preventable global disaster that our generation did little to prevent.”

The ramifications of climate change go way beyond variations in climate. In an article by Tristan Edis in Climate Spectator, John Hewson: Climate change the next sub-prime meltdown he writes of his interview with Hewson, who has now taken up the Chair of the Asset Owners Disclosure Project, an initiative aimed at getting retirement and superannuation funds to pay more heed to the risks of climate change and the need to invest more money in companies that reduce carbon emissions. Hewson ”equates climate change as equivalent in its likely impacts on financial markets to that of the sub-prime loan crisis that led to the GFC. He also points out that governments across the globe are subsidizing carbon intensive industries, and board members can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the risks associated with investing in these industries.”

Again in Climate Spectator Julian Poulter writes in The climate for super fear: ”The largest pool of money in the world is held by the big pension and superannuation funds – called the ‘Asset Owners’. They have a fiduciary duty to us to invest wisely and the unique risk-return challenge of climate change and other ESG issues (Environment, Social, Governance) have prompted us in recent times to question whether they are carrying out their duties.

“The problem arises because we know that the Asset Owners give our money to fund managers who in turn invest in companies. And sages that we are, we have a sneaky suspicion that some of the investments aren’t sustainable and that in the context of climate change, we might wake up one day with the mixed news that the low carbon economy is fully underway but our retirement savings portfolios that are currently stuffed with high carbon assets are worth dramatically less than they were yesterday. And when this sudden low carbon tipping point occurs, causing inevitable portfolio destruction, it won’t be like the sub-prime crisis where the highly technical complexity of the issue engaged us all for months allowing everyone to avoid true scrutiny. No, this is climate change – it’s simple and we’ve been talking about it for years and trustees cannot now escape.”

In the face of all this evidence, in the face of all these warnings, how can anyone take a cavalier attitude to climate change, how can anyone ignore the reality of global warming so recklessly? The only explanation is that these people are the climate equivalent of the Obama ‘birthers’ and the Creationists who believe the planet is only 6000 years old, who cast aside evidence, ignore verifiable facts, so that their beliefs, their ‘faith’ can hold sway.

These people can never be convinced. But there must be some rational people out there who if they knew the facts would be so scared out of their wits for the welfare of their grandchildren that they would act, and would support any government that was acting decisively to mitigate the effects of climate change, even if the cost was high. The cost of not acting is much, much higher.

We must counter the deniers and skeptics. The survival of the human race, and indeed all living things, depends on it.

What do you think?

UPDATE 29 November 2012

Since writing this piece, two further reports on global warming have emerged that will repay your attention.

The first was: UN Report: Melting Permafrost Seen as New Peril in Global Warming that alerts us to the extreme danger of the release of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, from melting permafrost in the Arctic.

It began: ”Permafrost lands across Siberia and Alaska that contain vast stores of carbon are beginning to thaw, bringing with it the threat of a big increase in global warming by 2100, a U.N. report said on Tuesday.

“A thaw of the vast areas of permanently frozen ground in Russia, Canada, China and the United States also threatens local homes, roads, railways and oil pipelines, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) said in the report which was released at the U.N. climate talks being held this week and next in Qatar.

“Permafrost has begun to thaw,” Kevin Schaefer, lead author at the University of Colorado told a news conference in Doha.

“An accelerating melt would free vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which has been trapped in organic matter in the subsoil, often for thousands of years, the report said.

“Warming permafrost could release the equivalent of between 43 and 135 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, by 2100. That would be up to 39 percent of annual emissions from human sources.

“Permafrost now contains 1,700 billion tons of carbon, or twice the amount now in the atmosphere, it said.

The second came out today from the Doha talks. It is reported in The New York Times in an article Global Warming & Climate Change (Doha Talks, 2012.UN Report: Melting Permafrost Seen as New Peril in Global Warming that begins:

”Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. Warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases — produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests.

“Global emissions of carbon dioxide jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery. The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.”

There is another version published in Salon: Area of Arctic sea ice larger than US melted this year U.N. weather agency released worrying report at Doha talks. It begins: ”An area of Arctic sea ice bigger than the United States melted this year, according the U.N. weather agency, which said the dramatic decline illustrates that climate change is happening “before our eyes.”

“In a report released at U.N. climate talks in the Qatari capital of Doha, the World Meteorological Organization said the Arctic ice melt was one of a myriad of extreme and record-breaking weather events to hit the planet in 2012. Droughts devastated nearly two-thirds of the United States as well western Russia and southern Europe. Floods swamped west Africa and heat waves left much of the Northern Hemisphere sweltering.

“But it was the ice melt that seemed to dominate the annual climate report, with the U.N. concluding ice cover had reached “a new record low” in the area around the North Pole and that the loss from March to September was a staggering 11.83 million square kilometers (4.57 million square miles) – an area bigger than the United States.

“The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said. “Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records.”

“The dire climate news – following on the heels of a report Tuesday that found melting permafrost could significantly amplify global warming – comes as delegates from nearly 200 countries struggled for a third day to lay the groundwork for a deal that would cut emissions in an attempt to ensure that temperatures don’t rise more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) over what they were in preindustrial times. Temperatures have already risen about 0.8 degrees C (1.4 degrees F), according to the latest report by the IPCC.”

These reports are scary.

Is there life after neoliberalism?

Yes there can be, says Hugh Stretton in his unfairly neglected book, Australia Fair (UNSW Press, 2005). I recently wrote about the general argument of this book in Australia Fair by Hugh Stretton. Here, I’m going to look at the specifics. But just to recap, Stretton argues that the neoliberal economic reforms of the past thirty years - floating the dollar, reducing tariffs, privatisation of public assets, lower taxation and spending cuts - have not brought the economic gains claimed for them. And he says they make for greater inequality. There have been a few improvements since he wrote in 2005, but not many. Mostly, things have got worse. He argues that a rich country like Australia should be able to assure a comfortable living for all citizens, and outlines a program involving both the public and the private sector to achieve this. Interested?

It’s not possible in a short review to do justice to all that Stretton is suggesting, or to include all the for and against arguments, reservations and complexities he mentions. For this, you must read the book. Furthermore, the policies that make up his program are inter-related, though I am mostly discussing them separately. His writes in a somewhat idiosyncratic style, and though he tries to keep his economic discussion simple, he loses me sometimes. Please forgive my oversimplification.

Stretton begins with ‘work’, because in his argument, full or fairly shared employment should be the main purpose of economic policy. He says that ‘every consideration of economy and humanity should drive us to see that there is paid work for everyone who wants it.’ But having given up most of their power to control the economy in favour of free market prescriptions, the only way governments can control inflation is by sustaining a significant level of unemployment. This is not only disastrous for those experiencing it; it results in less production, less demand and less investment. It also means a higher welfare bill – and/or the demonization of the unemployed, even though there are no jobs for them. Furthermore it often results in an increase in working hours for the employed, not always paid, which in turn affects their quality of life. Achieving full employment depends on other parts of his program, so what he is advocating is quite complicated. It seems to be a combination of stimulating demand, including increasing some benefits, increasing some public employment and stimulating some private employment, particularly in the housing industry.

Stretton has had a long involvement with housing policy. He considers housing a right in a rich society like Australia, alongside the right to education and health provision. (This is the sort of ‘stuff’ Mitt Romney and Bill O’Reilly think Americans who voted for Obama are so remiss as to expect.) Here Stretton addresses the situation where as part of the neoliberal agenda, the Commonwealth has cut funding to the States for new housing investment, and States have sold off most of their existing stock of public housing. This has been replaced by a first home buyer grant and rent allowances to poor tenants who have to compete in the private rental market. The result of simultaneously cutting the supply and subsidising the demand was to raise prices, as first home buyers bid against each other for a limited stock of moderately priced housing. Waiting lists for public housing are years long, and homelessness continues to grow. His solution, which rather elegantly pays for itself over time, is to give Commonwealth money to the States who contract private builders to build good quality but relatively modest housing, half of which is for sale or rent to working families who pay full cost or rent, and half as welfare housing. If full employment reduces the numbers on welfare and increases the number able to pay market rent, then this proportion can change. An increase in public housing acts as a dampener on the private market, and everyone gains except those who are hoping for a large capital gain when they sell mum and dad’s house at an inflated price.

The next issue is what Stretton calls ‘children’, but is actually parenting. He asks how we can best bring up children and respect parents’ right to choose either paid employment or staying home to care for their young children. As things stand, women usually end up doing the unpaid housework in addition to paid work, and children end up in less than satisfactory child care. He agrees that family friendly work places may help, but argues that in addition, there should be a parenting wage equivalent to the basic wage available on a means tested basis to one parent so they can stay at home if they wish. He knows the arguments about rorting the system, but considers that the social good of the proposal outweighs the possible abuses.

In both health and education, Stretton argues that the Howard government favoured private over public provision, and allowed the latter to decline. The Rudd/Gillard government has made a start on these issues. There are some moves to fix the buck-passing between Federal and State governments, and the private health insurance rebate has been cut for some rich families. Stretton would have abolished it altogether, and spent the money on the public health system. He would also likely approve the Gonksi proposals to fund the public education system properly.

More surprising to me, he is also highly critical of current superannuation provision; he quotes another historian’s conclusion that ‘the privatisers of superannuation have presided over the creation of a league of parasites on a scale not seen since the close of the eighteenth century.’ Transparency, which is the best we are offered in relation to fees and charges, is not enough; he argues there should be a public superannuation scheme alongside the private ones to add some genuine competition. I find this chapter technical and difficult, but his general drift is clear.

On the environment, he says: ‘The neoliberal change of direction to greater business freedom, less public production, less government and steeper inequality could have been designed specifically to disable our environmental management.’ He outlines a ‘green program’ which is perhaps now somewhat out-dated, but more important is his warning of the further damage to equality that climate change and greedy consumption of resources could bring.

I also find Stretton’s chapter on managing money difficult, and guess that he might well revise the details post the Global Financial Crisis – which can only have confirmed his general critique; ‘the real fruit,’ he says, ‘of 25 years of well-intended blundering should be to discredit the economic theories on which the mistaken expectations were based.’

He has had a stab at costing his program, and suggests ways of finding the money. And here, you have to decide on whether he is unreasonably optimistic, or whether, as he argues, Australians really might support a program that offered better services and a more equal society, even if it meant higher taxes and forgoing some luxury consumption. It would take ‘guts and ingenuity’ to try, and of course leadership – which has so far been leading us pretty much in the wrong direction.

I do not know of any other book that not only offers a reasoned critique of the impact of neoliberal economic policies in Australia in the last thirty years, but also offers an alternative set that could just work. If only there was someone who would try them.

Do Australian businessmen really believe Tony Abbott?

The attributes needed to run a successful business include intelligence, relevant knowledge, perspicacity, foresight, an eye for opportunity, willingness to take a calculated risk, skill in innovation, perseverance, and guts. Australian businessmen have these in spades. In simple terms, they are smart. Yet from what we as outsiders can see, they seem to be willing to accept the damaging rhetoric about our economy that Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and the Coalition front bench serve up day after day, with scarcely a murmur of concern, with almost no query about its validity, with no protest about its applicability, with no reservations about its effect on our economy and on the businesses they run.

As detailed in Abbott and Hockey are endangering Australian business, Abbott seems to be able to talk down the economy with impunity, thereby imperiling Australian businesses, without one word of condemnation from businessmen, without even a whisper of caution from them. Why is this so?

It is hard to believe that their silence is because they believe the rhetoric and accept the validity of the claims, as clearly many of them are preposterous and demonstrably untrue, the dire effects of the carbon tax being an obvious example. There must be other reasons.

It should not be surprising to anyone that businessmen who support entrepreneurship, free markets, competition, light regulation, minimal red and green tape, ‘flexible’ industrial policy, small government, and low taxes, find themselves attracted to Liberal policies that espouse these elements, although not necessarily following them in government. But that does not explain why they allow Abbott, Hockey, Robb and Cormann, the Coalition’s finance spokesmen, to continually talk down the economy, depress consumer confidence, imperil their businesses in the process, and put a brake on their own confidence, which is now lower, much lower than that of the consumers.

I shall attempt to tease out some explanations that I believe may be operating.

Many businessmen are Coalition supporters
One explanation is that some businessmen are such rusted on Coalition supporters, such entrenched Labor antagonists, that their support for the Coalition is unconditional. An example that springs to mind is Marcus Padley of the Marcus Today Newsletter, whose gloomy reports and prognostications about the stock market on ABC Radio every weekday are liberally sprinkled with overt anti-Government sentiment.

Unconditional support is the only explanation I can muster to explain how they can endorse the bumbling, foot-in-mouth, disingenuous Leader of the Coalition, with his overt ignorance of economics, his policy deficits, his shonky costings, and his policy ineptitude in the few areas he has already defined, his Direct Action Plan for climate change being a classic instance.

Some of course may not be unconditionally supportive, but because they accept the predictions of commentators on polls of voting intention that the Coalition is a shoo-in at the 2013 election, believe it is prudent for them to say nothing that would get them offside with what they expect to be the next government, from which they would be seeking favours, policies congenial to their business, and a leg-up when in strife. Perhaps they should pay more attention to polling trends that show a steady narrowing of the gap between the Coalition and Labor. Perhaps they should seriously contemplate the possibility of the Government being returned. If and when they do, they may be more inclined to call out Abbott and Co. when they make outrageous statements.

Some businessmen are rent-seekers
Another explanation of the reluctance of some businessmen to criticize the Coalition is that they are rent-seekers who want the Government to ease their burden as we saw when the carbon tax and the MMRT were introduced. Wanting the taxes removed or reduced, advocates were out in numbers with advertisements on TV and in the papers condemning these initiatives. Mitch Hooke of the Minerals Council led the charge, soon joined by Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest and Clive Palmer, the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia and other employer organizations, all predicting economic disaster for businesses in the wake of the taxes. The carbon tax was about to disrupt, dislocate, and destroy businesses across the nation. As Tony Abbott opportunistically jumped in with a vow made in his own blood that these taxes would be repealed should they elect the Coalition to office, the rent-seekers rallied to his support.

No businessman wants to pay more tax, although some willingly do so for the common good. But there was little concern shown by the rent-seekers for the common good. They simply wanted the taxes removed, and spent millions in advertising to this end, and to hell with the rationale behind the taxes: to reduce pollution and spread the benefits of the mining boom. The spectre of the slaughter of the many geese that were laying the golden eggs was raised before the eyes of the electorate. Apprehension was engendered and scare campaigns mounted of massive job losses, exploding unemployment, and whole industries and towns wiped out.

The rent-seekers were smart. They knew full well that their campaign was disingenuous, but self-interest trumped the common good. Their colleagues in other areas of industry and commerce also knew that their campaign was self-serving, but did they raise a murmur? No. As Ross Gittins put it in his article: What business needs to learn about politics “…big business won't get far until it abandons its code of honour among thieves. That is, when one industry goes into battle with the government to resist a new impost or get itself a special concession, all the other industries keep mum, even though they know the first industry is merely on the make.” That’s exactly what they did – kept mum. Referring to the MMRT, Gittins continues: “Big business looked the other way as the three big miners connived with the opposition to destroy the Rudd government. Its reward was to have its precious cut in company tax snatched away.”

The colleagues of the rent-seekers could have voiced their concern about one section of the economy seeking benefits at the expense of other sections and the common good. But they chose silence, and thereby gave tacit support to their colleagues and to the party that was promising repeal, the Coalition.

So here is another explanation of why businessmen seem to swallow the ‘talking down the economy’ rhetoric of Abbott/Hockey/Robb/Cormann without a protest, without a murmur, without so much as asking them to tone down the talk that is damaging their businesses day after day, week after week. They are part of the industrial/commercial club that sticks together, that exhibits the age-old ‘honour among thieves’. Unfortunately, it is the public’s rights and benefits that are being thieved.

Indifferent relationships exist between business and government
Writing in The Australian, John Durie attributes the adverse attitude of some businessmen to PM Gillard and her Government as due to the business community coming to grips with a flat economy that is a tough grind. He noted that some businesspeople are still smarting from policy changes and feel they have borne the brunt of tax changes, including the latest plans to bring forward payments.

He went on to say: “Big business isn't perfect and government bitterness is understandable after watching the big miners in open revolt over the tax changes. The public attacks on the government have died down as the better operators understand no one likes being slagged in public, so if they want to deal with the government it is better to be more cordial. They just wish Gillard would respond on the same terms.”

Durie conceded that the Asian Century white paper was welcomed as it offered a potential bridge between the two sides after a rocky relationship, but at the Business Council's annual dinner last week, he asserts that: “Gillard missed a chance to engage with a broad cross-section of business, welfare groups and community leaders.” He reported that: “Businesspeople say that in individual meetings Gillard is completely different, engaged and interested, but before big business audiences she speaks right over the top of them, apparently to a different audience…Just as she did last year, she used the occasion to lecture the audience rather than engage a genuinely open audience.”

Whether or not Durie is correct in laying the blame for this dissonance at the PM’s feet, it does seem that some businesspeople do. This is yet another explanation for the willingness of some to hold their tongue when Abbott and Co. are on their negative rampages, talking down the economy at the expense of business. Their antagonism to PM Gillard at the one time encourages them to be critical of her and her Government, while inhibiting them from being critical of the Coalition.

So there it is. Although it is very doubtful that businessmen really believe the rationale of Tony Abbott and his finance colleagues when they talk down the economy, they exhibit a regrettable reticence to pounce on them. Yet when that happens, people defer discretionary spending on their homes and cars, cut back on luxury items, use their clothes a little longer, shop online, eat out less often, take their own lunch to work, defer that holiday, pay off the credit card, reduce the mortgage, and save for the rainy day. And as they do, business suffers. Retail sales decline, restaurants languish, coffee/sandwich shops have fewer takers and some close, travel agents lose business, airlines have fewer flights. All of this distresses businesspeople, erodes profits, reduces dividends, diminishes stock prices, forces closures and bankrupts some, and results in personal dismay and depression. Yet, the business community stays mute.

A reasonable reaction would be to shout from the rooftops:

“Shut your mouths Abbott, Hockey, Robb, Cormann, your scaremongering is frightening people; your doom and gloom is driving customers away, it’s killing our business, sending us broke, and driving shareholders to desperation as their pensions erode and their dreams of comfortable retirement evaporate”.

But they say nothing. Why oh why?

Several explanations for this extraordinary behaviour are offered:

Many businessmen are Coalition supporters and won’t criticize their own. Others, believing that the Coalition will form the next government, out of self-interest refrain from disapproving their behaviour.

Some businessmen are rent-seekers and because they need the Coalition’s support, will not criticize. Honour among thieves inhibits other businessmen from entering the debate.

Indifferent relationships between business and the current government restrain some businessmen from criticizing the alternative government.

You may have other explanations for this astonishing unwillingness of businesspeople to insist that Abbott and Co. stop talking down our economy, the envy of the developed world, and stop wreaking havoc with their businesses.

What do you think?

Abbott and Hockey are endangering Australian business

Writing on Poll Bludger, Bushfire Bill has made the telling point that every time someone talks down our economy, another small business, and larger ones too, are placed in jeopardy. And who is it that most often talks our economy down? You know. Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. And when they need a little help, Andrew Robb and Mathias Cormann are always at the ready.

Yet we know that when they come out and disparage the economy, it is entirely a political strategy. Not for a moment do they believe that the economy is performing as poorly as they portray. When they go overseas they talk it up; they claim ‘bragging rights’ for Australia. Yet here they talk it down.

First, let’s get an idea of how consumers and businessmen view the economy, then look at the extent of the ‘talking down the economy’ problem, and finally we’ll take a look as BB’s novel counter move.

Business and consumer confidence are a reflection of how the state of the economy is viewed by those who manufacture or sell goods on the one hand and those that buy them on the other. There are several measures used in Australia. Although Greg Jericho shows in his comprehensive article in May about consumer confidence in The Drum that its correlation with other measures of economic activity is imprecise, he does agree that “consumer confidence is worth measuring, if only because it does give us insight into how consumers feel, and how the economy is being reported, and how well the Government is selling its view of the economy."

Roy Morgan runs a weekly consumer confidence rating. This is the last report – 3-4 November. It shows the rating “has risen strongly to 115.4 (up 2.7pts) driven by increasing confidence about the next 12 months with 41% (up 3%) of Australians expecting their family to be ‘better off financially’ this time next year and 29% (up 2%) expecting ‘good times’ for the Australian economy over the next 12 months.”

Another is the Westpac Melbourne Institute Index of Consumer Sentiment, which is an average of five component indexes which reflect consumers' evaluations of their household financial situation over the past year and the coming year, anticipated economic conditions over the coming year and the next five years, and buying conditions for major household items. Compiled from a survey of 1,200 Australians, index scores below 100 indicate that pessimists outweigh optimists. Historically, from 1974 until 2012, Australia Consumer Confidence averaged 101.85 reaching an all time high of 127.67 in January of 2005 and a record low of 64.61 in November of 1990. This week it is at a 19-month high, the best since April 2011, at 104.

For business confidence there is the Australia Business Confidence measure. The National Australia Bank's monthly survey of business confidence measures current performance of the non-farm business sector and is based on a survey of around 350 small to large sized companies. Historically, from 1997 until 2012, Australia Business Confidence averaged 6.13 reaching an all time high of 21.10 in May of 2002 and a record low of -31.60 in January of 2009. A survey taken in mid October shows it was -1 in September, down from 0 in August. A look at the graph shows it has hovered three to four points above or below zero for about a year. This week a survey by the Australian Institute of Company Directors shows that confidence among the 500 company directors surveyed is at its lowest level in two years, which the spokesman attributes to the slowing local and global economies, low consumer confidence, a high Australian dollar, regulation, and low productivity.

It is against this background of measures that we need to ask what is affecting the attitudes of consumers and businessmen. As with all measures of economic activity, the factors are complex, multiple, and interacting, but some stand out as likely to be highly relevant.

The situation in Europe appears to weigh heavily on both consumers and business. The gloom that we hear almost every day about Greece, and if it’s not Greece, it’s Spain or even Italy, is depressing. People are worried about a Greek default and a possible domino effect across Europe and the globe. The US economy is also a worry and all the talk of the US economy going over a ‘fiscal cliff’ has frightened people. It is noteworthy that since President Obama’s re-election just a few days ago, concern about the fiscal cliff at first diminished, but has escalated again after recent tough talk from both the Republicans and the President.

Another factor that must still occupy people’s minds is the GFC. Many were over-committed when it hit – maxed out on their credit card and struggling with mortgage repayments on their McMansions, homes they really could not afford. The GFC brought them up with a jolt, scared them about their spending, and pushed them towards austerity and saving instead of spending. This persists, although it may now be easing. We saw this when the first cash payments were made in response to the GFC, where much of the payments was banked. This was an appropriate response as many were living beyond their means, putting purchases on the never-never, and headed for financial distress. Consumers felt less confident, they spent more prudently, and business suffered as consumers bought less. Having created a ‘buy now, pay years later’ mentality among his Harvey Norman customers for years, Gerry Harvey screamed blue murder because his customers were no longer buying as before.

No doubt there are other local as well as global factors that influence people’s attitudes and confidence, and that of businessmen, but it is hard to discount the negative talk of the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Treasurer, as well as the Shadow Finance Minister, Andrew Robb, and the Assistant Opposition Treasury Spokesman, Mathias Cormann, as a contributory factor to the less than healthy confidence ratings of consumers and businessmen.

We don’t have to go back far to see examples of the Opposition talking down the economy, despite it being the most robust in the developed world and the envy of G20 finance ministers. Only last month in Tony Abbott Talking Down the Economy is Living up to His Name, Says Wayne Swan, Erik Pineda reported that Tony Abbott had supported the observation by David Murray, once head of the Commonwealth Bank and Australia’s Future Fund, that he was worried by Australia's low productivity and too high foreign debt, which…were clear recipes that brought down the economies of many in Europe, specifically that of Greece. Abbott added: "The lesson of Europe is that countries can go very quickly from a strong position to a parlous position if things aren't well managed… Australia could easily go down the drain, in the same way key economies in Europe did.”

Imagine the effect of such an alarming comment on people already worried about the situation in Europe.

Wayne Swan retorted that Abbott had “sunk to new depths of negativity and economic recklessness in talking our economy down," and that for him “to compare the local setting to that of Europe was both out of context and irresponsible”, as indeed it was. Julia Gillard said it was absurd "to compare our circumstances to Greece", and that it was "grossly irresponsible and wrong". She added: "…markets listen to what political leaders say, this can have repercussions in the real world that matter for the Australian economy."

In an October 3 piece in The Australian: Abbott talking down economy on mining boom, says Gillard, Lanai Vasek reports that Tony Abbott said: “a sooner-than-expected end to the mining boom was the result of Labor's poor economic policy and that all booms had to finish but that Labor had stifled the current resources boom with its Minerals Resource Rent Tax.”

Julia Gillard responded: "That is clearly a nonsense remark and it is wrong and inappropriate for anybody to be talking the Australian economy down. We've got a resources boom where we are yet to see the investment peak and the production peak.”

Reflect on the effect of that Abbott remark on confidence.

Joe Hockey talks down the economy so often it would take several pieces to document them all. He has consistently berated the Government’s economic policies, and echoing Tony Abbott, has labelled the Gillard Government as the worst government in Australian political history, unable to manage money, addicted to spending, debt and deficit, and one that will never bring down a surplus budget. No matter how good the economic news, he will talk it down and turn it into a negative.

Last month, David Bradbury, Assistant Treasurer had this to say:

“Shadow Treasurer and good news hater Joe Hockey was belting out tunes from his favourite broken record again today with his relentless talking down of Australia's economy.

“The hard facts that Mr Hockey wants to deny are:

“Yesterday's IMF's October 2012 World Economic Outlook showed Australia is now the world's 12th largest economy and has leapfrogged three places ahead under the Labor Government, after slipping back three places under the previous government.

“The Australian economy has been growing for 21 consecutive years, not shrinking as Tony Abbott has said.

“Tax to GDP is lower under this Labor Government than it was when the Liberal Government left office.

“Interest rates are lower than at any time under the former Liberal Government.

“Unemployment remains low at just over 5 per cent and at a time when the world has shed millions of jobs, Australia has created around 800,000 jobs.

“The day after the IMF upgraded the ranking of the Australian economy, Mr Hockey insisted on peddling his doom and gloom in a disgraceful effort to undermine confidence and make life harder for Australian families and businesses…Mr Hockey just wants to distract attention from his $70 billion budget crater and his secret plans to slash tens of thousands of jobs and cut frontline services. Mr Hockey should stop talking the economy down and come clean with how he is going to fund his gaping budget hole.”

When Wayne Swan was named Treasurer of the Year by Euromoney magazine, Hockey talked Swan's accolade down as reported in Swan soars before hit with the hockey stick. In doing so, Hockey managed to insult the economies of several developing countries, whose chief finance ministers have previously received the Euromoney award. Said Hockey: ''Over the last few years we've had two Slovakian ministers, a Serbian, a Nigerian, a Bulgarian . . . 2001 a Pakistani finance minister, that's quite an extraordinary one, that one…That's not any basis upon which I can give my endorsement to the Treasurer.”

Hockey has not a trace of charity; knocking is his only device.

This talking down of the economy is not new. Earlier this year in Julia Gillard slams Andrew Robb over talking down economy Ben Packham wrote: “Julia Gillard has accused opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb of "deeply irresponsible conduct" after he declared Australia's economy was at risk of a European-style meltdown.”

“Mr Robb told The Australian the nation's debt growth had been outstripped only by global financial crisis casualties Iceland and Ireland, leaving the nation vulnerable to a fall in the nation's terms of trade.

“The Prime Minister said in reality, Australia had received a triple-A rating from all three ratings agencies, a feat not achieved before including under the former Howard government.

“She said Mr Robb's comments were themselves a risk to the Australian economy: "We are at a time in the world economy where there is volatility out of the eurozone." That means that markets are skittish. That means it's an incredibly dangerous time for people to be spruiking nonsense about the Australian economy. And that's what Mr Robb has been doing - talking our economy down."

When Robb does appear, we know that dismal, cheerless economic gloom will be all he is able to offer.

Mathias Cormann is always ready to join the fray. In the Senate he asked: “Will the government now concede that its carbon tax, its mining tax, its massive increases in red and green tape, increased union militancy on its watch and all of its other anti-mining policies and anti-mining rhetoric have hurt Australia's economic fortunes?” to which Senator Chris Evans responded: “Relentlessly talking down the economy in this country by the Liberal and National parties is absolutely bad for confidence, bad for jobs. What we know is that there is record investment, a record pipeline of coming investment, and the mining industry remains strong.”

Cormann went even further in The Australian last month in Labor's rush to pull veil over budget black hole a conjuring trick, asserting:

“Labor knows that's a serious problem for its fiscal credibility. It knows that the delivery of yet another deficit, the fifth Swan deficit in a row, will be seen by most for what it is - the conclusive proof (if that were required) that Labor cannot manage money.”

If carping was a criterion of success in the Opposition finance team, Cormann would be a star.

Talking down the economy has been a consistent Coalition theme for the last two years. It would take many pages to document all the instances. It never seems to occur to the Coalition finance team that all its negative talk is damaging to our economy. Of course, if they actually do know that, it makes their destructive actions all the more reprehensible. They are mimicking the strategy of the US Tea Party that was prepared to bring down the US economy in order to make President Obama look incompetent, and have him replaced by their man, Mitt Romney. They failed.

Why do businessmen not tell Abbott and Co. to shut their damaging mouths? Can’t they see they are wrecking their businesses? While consumer confidence is on the up, the businessmen are still miserable, their confidence dropping. Do they believe the doom and gloom perpetrated by the Coalition so-called finance team? Looks like it!

Now for Bushfire Bill’s novel answer to the Coalition’s destructivity, one he offered on Poll Bludger on October 24. In response to another blogger’s comment that read: “The Liberal Party could do itself and Australia a major, cleansing, favour: sack Mr Abbott, Ms Credlin and Mr Loughnane. This trio has spent the best part of four years wrecking the joint”, BB had this to say:

“The line I’ve used with my colleagues in the high-discretionary-spending area of high-end Home Entertainment has been simple:

“Every time Abbott or Hockey trash the economy, you lose another sale.”

“It works a treat.

“I then follow up with:

“If buyers have no confidence, then they won’t go out and make purchases. First cab off the rank will be your $xx,000 widget [insert name of expensive Home Entertainment toy here.]

“It really does get them thinking.

“My killer concluding line is:

“It’s not a game anymore. It’s not FUN anymore. It’s real. The Coalition is talking down YOUR business for no reason. They didn’t get their early election. All they have is a lead in the polls – and that’s fading away.”

“Is the damage they’ve done – and are still doing – to your business worth it?”

“It’s amazing how resonant these few simple lines can be. Even the drongo who wanted Gillard to fall over on gravel and break her face listened, eventually.”

Later BB advises: “The government should start this ball rolling, across all fronts. Put misogyny to one side. It’s important, but not as important as convicting the Coalition of directly affecting confidence and thus the economy.

“The aim of the campaign would be to have the punters so exasperated with the doom-and-gloom talk from the Coalition that they yell at their TV sets, “Just SHUT-UP Abbott!”

“In answer to the objection that “the government would say that”, you just reply:

"That's the government's JOB. Confidence is a real input to the economy. The government has a DUTY to talk confidence up, especially when it's warranted. Without confidence no one gets out of bed in the morning. And anyway, it's the best economy in the world. We SHOULD be bragging about it."

“Hammer it home. Make it stick.

“My own industry is easy, because it’s so sensitive to dorks like Can-Do Campbell saying things like “Queensland is the new Greece.” Other industries are harder nuts to crack, but do-able.

“The good thing about a confidence and anti-trash-talk campaign is that it’s not only clever, but has the virtue of being the correct, responsible and truthful thing to do.”

That is very sound advice. It’s time the Government mounted a spirited proactive campaign of ‘knocking the knockers’, not just reacting to their destructive negativity that puts down OUR economy, the one upon which we all rely.

What do you think?

Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss

Is there a national election that attracts more global attention than the four-yearly US Presidential election? Is there an overseas election that has more significance for Australians? Despite confident predictions by the right wing punditry that Romney would win, it was Obama who won, and he did so handsomely. All their lofty predictions came to naught; all they ended with was resentful recrimination.

Is this a foretaste of the 2013 election here? Will the conservative punditry here be shown to be as wide of the mark as their American counterparts? The parallels between the Democrats and the ALP, and between the Republicans and the Coalition here, are striking. This piece attempts to tease them out and draw some inferences for the 2013 election.

Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss

The fiscal cliff
Why is there this extraordinary worldwide interest in the US election? Right now, the US economy must rate as the prime reason. We know that it faces a ‘fiscal cliff’, well described in the SMH by Max Mason in What is the fiscal cliff?. Mason explains that the term depicts ”…a raft of tax increases and spending cuts that will automatically come into effect at the beginning of 2013 if the Democrats and Republicans cannot negotiate a new set of budgetary and economic policies to reduce the spiralling budget deficit of $US1.1 trillion.”

The tax cuts for the wealthy introduced by George Bush have been legislated to stop at the end of 2102, which means that taxes would then rise sharply, particularly for the rich. This, coupled with equally drastic cuts to defence and domestic spending, would almost halve the budget deficit to $US641 billion in the 2013 fiscal year. But an undesired consequence of this radical move would be recession and rising unemployment, with, however, a return to growth after 2013.

On the other hand, if George Bush’s tax breaks were to continue and spending was to remain unchanged, it is estimated that the deficit would blow out to an massive $US8.8 trillion by 2022. Servicing such a debt would be a huge challenge, carrying with it the risk of default on loans – a fall over the ‘fiscal cliff’ – that would have worldwide repercussions.

Yet the Republicans want the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy to continue, and are against cuts to defence spending. As post-election control of Congress is still in the hands of the Republicans, a bill to that effect could still be passed. But President Obama has vowed to veto any attempt to bypass ‘the cliff’ that does not include expiration of tax cuts for the wealthy. As a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate is needed to override a Presidential veto, this is unlikely to occur.

A compromise somewhere in between these extreme positions is possible but not promising, despite the renewal of Obama’s mandate. The contemporary signals coming from House Speaker John Boehner are mixed. Although he is pledging to work with the President, he is still saying that he ‘doesn’t want any tax hikes’.

Because the Republicans have been playing a game of brinkmanship on this matter, local and overseas stock markets have been left in a state of jittery uncertainty, all the more so since the election.

I go into this detail because the danger of the US falling over the fiscal cliff is high, and should that happen, the economy of the entire globe will be seriously affected. Wayne Swan was vocal about this at the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in Mexico.

This situation in the US points to the similarity between the attitude of the US Republican Party and that of the Coalition in Australia. Ostensibly on ideological grounds, they both trenchantly oppose, even if that seriously threatens to damage the nation’s economy. The intent of the Republicans is to make it impracticable for the President and his Democrats to govern, even to the extent of pushing the US over the fiscal cliff.

Brinkmanship has been played ruthlessly; the bitter mood of the Republicans after their defeat in the presidential race will likely accelerate movement down this dangerous path. But the mood of the American people is such that it will likely no longer tolerate such obstructive behaviour from its politicians, such a recipe for gridlock, especially so soon after Obama’s mandate has been so convincingly renewed.

Similarly, the Coalition here does what it can to prevent the Government from governing, albeit mostly unsuccessfully, and threatens to undo much of the legislation already passed should it assume office.

The extreme position of the Republicans is a reflection of the influence of the Tea Party, which has dragged the Party to the hard right. We can expect similar Republican/Tea Party tactics from the Coalition here. Tony Abbott’s previous parliamentary secretary Cory Bernardi, recently demoted because of his linking of bestiality to same-sex marriage, has spent time with the US Tea Party and has imported their obstructive methods into Australian politics.

Election dynamics and the punditry
There are a number of aspects of the US campaign that are noteworthy. The conservative media completely misjudged the campaign and the outcome. An article in Newser titled Conservative media blew it begins: If you relied on conservative media for your election news, Obama’s win likely came as quite a surprise. But, while right-wing pundits had long been predicting a Romney victory, the mainstream media knew all along that the president had a much better shot, writes Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic. Voters who got all their information from conservative media were vastly "misinformed," and they should be very angry at just how remarkably said media failed them, he writes. By rejecting rigorous, credible experts like Nate Silver in favor of ‘ideological hacks’, conservative pundits "were operating at a self-imposed information disadvantage."

“But that's no surprise—they've been doing it for years. Conservative media outlets wasted time on ridiculous stories, candidates, and conspiracy theories (birtherism, Herman Cain…) while pundits refused to criticize their own side, resulting in a ‘conservative echo chamber’ that…made a lot of cynical people a lot of money, while keeping voters in the dark. "On the biggest political story of the year, the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media," writes Friedersdorf. "It ought to be an eye-opening moment."

This is what Friedersdorf said in the Atlantic: ”Barack Obama just trounced a Republican opponent for the second time. But unlike four years ago, when most conservatives saw it coming, Tuesday's result was, for them, an unpleasant surprise. So many on the right had predicted a Mitt Romney victory, or even a blowout -- Dick Morris, George Will, and Michael Barone all predicted the GOP would break 300 electoral votes. Joe Scarborough scoffed at the notion that the election was anything other than a toss-up. Peggy Noonan insisted that those predicting an Obama victory were ignoring the world around them. Even Karl Rove, supposed political genius, missed the bulls-eye. These voices drove the coverage on Fox News, talk radio, the Drudge Report, and conservative blogs.”

Reflect on how similar the conservative media is here. The pundits at News Limited and many at Fairfax too have been calling the next election for the Coalition based on polls of voting intention for two years now, and still are, one year out from the next election, notwithstanding the lack of predictive power of these polls. In the US most pundits said the Presidential election was ‘too close to call’ or ‘on a knife’s edge’. This was faithfully echoed in our own MSM. These predictions were all based on polls of the overall popular vote although everyone knew that the election of the President is based not on the popular vote, but on electoral college votes derived from voting in the fifty states, which although close, always favoured Obama, especially in the key battleground states, which carried large parcels of electoral college votes. This is just how it turned out.

In A victory for data over punditry in The Drum the ABC’s Jonathan Green writes ”The 2012 US election will be remembered as the day the bluff and bluster of the mainstream press came undone by the quiet science of polling. Yesterday's big winner? The elegant simplicity of a mathematical certainty; of reason. Its losers? The pompous self-serving chumps of the punditocracy, for one. And also, more significantly, a mainstream media that wants politics to be a slowly revealing secret ... something only it can truly see.” Green could have been writing about our MSM.

Later he says: ”This Obama victory tells us much about the way we consume our politics today. It tells us that pundits are quite often loud, confident and wrong. It tells us that political polling is now a thing of great and elegant sophistication. And polling has now been made all the more authoritatively representative of reality by the sort of meta-polling done by the likes of Nate Silver, by the application of algorithms and cold reason to massed and detailed samplings of the electorate.” Green then quotes Greg Sheridan writing in The Australian: “One of the most depressing elements of this final election result is the absolute supremacy of the polls. I last wrote about the election on Saturday, when the polls were too close to call. But in the few days since then the polls moved more or less decisively towards Obama. And the polls were right., and concludes: ”We'll leave Greg there in his lonely struggle with mathematics. The truth is that the polls were always close, but also callable. Because people did call it, and they got it right. Nate Silver's predictions, based on poll after poll after poll, picked every state in the union. Did we just watch the election that finally consigned the lofty 'we know best' horse race of mainstream political journalism to the knackery? Let's see.”

Yes, let’s see. I doubt if this will change our pundits’ behaviour one jot, so large are their egos, so arrogant their predictions, so geared to wishful thinking, and so deafened by groupthink in their noisy echo chambers. If you don’t believe me, re-read what Turncoat Richo said last September.

Writing in similar vein inThe Drum in The dying art of punditry in Australia, Barrie Cassidy concludes:

”In Australia too the art of punditry is dead, or close to it.

“At a recent summit in Canberra, one of the more self-effacing members of the Press Gallery was asked to make a few predictions. "The way we are travelling," he said, "you would be better off following a bunch of blindfolded monkeys throwing darts."

“The record of punditry through this year speaks for itself.

“The minority government will collapse, and there will be an early election.

“Kevin Rudd will reclaim the leadership, if not this month, then next month, or the month after that...

“If he doesn't then Julia Gillard and the Government faces annihilation whenever the election is held.

“Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is as safe as houses.

“And 'that' speech on sexism was a shocker, guaranteed to backfire.

“It's not
[just] a Canberra Press Gallery thing. Most of those predictions have been embraced at one point or another by regular columnists right around the country.

“It seems that as every opinion poll comes along, political judgments are made and then somehow snap frozen. There is no acceptance that the polls, and the politics, are subject to significant change.

“Silver, the latest geek to make a name for himself in New York, would never make the call until the last minute. Only when the election is nigh would he crunch all the numbers.

“Consumers of all this punditry have been badly let down this year, no doubt about it. But they shouldn't get too upset.

“As we have seen yet again, the pundits, no matter how big their reputations, have practically no influence on election results.”

Remember that. One of the top pundits has said so, one that has pundits talking to pundits every week on his show Insiders.

Greg Jericho wrote his usual erudite assessment in 2012 US Election: Obama and maths win. Do read it and enjoy the splendid graphics. Scroll to the end to read the tweets of some who could not accept the results, even as they were confirmed. Note that it was the aggregated polls, the meta-analyses that correctly predicted the outcome. Note too that he quotes Possum’s Pollytrend: ”Yes a poll can be “wrong” but when you start collating lots of them, for them to be wrong you need to start assuming a lot of things that don’t gel with reality. It’s why in Australia you don’t need to worry about individual poll movement – but instead be smart and look at Possum’s Pollytrend.”

From now on, let’s ignore the pundits – they get it wrong so consistently that it is clear they are running an agenda of wishful thinking that reflects their own, or their editor’s, or their proprietor’s desires, rather than offering critical, honest and informed analysis.

And let’s ignore individual polls and take note of the trends.

Obama’s win and Republican Romney’s loss, and how they were predicted, give us heart in our Aussie context.

Climate change
This did not feature much in the campaign, but as Tristan Edis says in Climate Spectator in Obama's victory a win for reason and moderation ”Climate change was not completely forgotten by Obama even if he gave it a low profile in the campaign. In his victory speech he made a brief reference to the issue stating, “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened up by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

“He also made remarks around freeing the country from dependence on foreign oil, which plays to his administration’s dramatic increase in motor vehicle fuel economy standards.”

Later Edis says: ”While it will be tough for Obama to enact substantially strengthened policies to reduce emissions, his victory will mean the Republican House is at least contained from unwinding the progress he has already achieved…Also the US EPA has been quietly enacting new standards governing power plant emissions that will help put the nail in the coffin of many a coal plant, although cheap shale gas has done more of the heavy lifting in this area. Wind power had also become a major player in new electricity supply, supported by a tax credit which Romney said he would seek to abolish.”

Obama’s convincing victory will embolden him to further his efforts to reduce emissions and embrace emissions trading schemes that are already in place in several states. This will diminish the potency of the Coalition’s disingenuous statement that Australia is virtually going it alone with its carbon pricing and ETS, and weaken Tony Abbott’s vow to dismantle it.

The curse of conservatives supporters
Perhaps one of the most profound lessons from the US elections is the disconnect between the Republicans and the surging numbers and growing influence of Hispanics, Afro-Americans, Women (many of them Young Single Women), the Young, the Singles, Gays and Lesbians, and Asians, groups largely met with indifference by conservatives, who more and more are symbolized as Angry Grey-Haired Middle Aged Christian White Males with a sense of entitlement to power and a yearning for the Good Old Days. Piers Akerman is archetypical of these conservatives, as we saw this morning on Insiders. Reflect on those gathered to celebrate a Romney victory; how many outside this narrow group did you see? How many Afro-Americans; how many Hispanics; how many Asians? Very, very few!

As Edis observes: ”Perhaps of most importance though is that this election victory should help prompt a serious rethink amongst the wise heads of the Republican Party about the direction of their party. If they are to regain the presidency they must expand their appeal beyond the states in the religious and highly socially conservative south and mid-west. Their conventions and election party were dominated by grey-haired white people. These people have a high propensity to get out and vote, but they aren’t a recipe for long-term vitality in an increasingly multi-racial society. In addition Obama has done a remarkable job of getting the young, the black and the Latino’s into the voting booth.

“Broadening the Republican’s appeal will be impossible without steering the party away from ideological, anti-science, often racist, extremists from the Tea Party. You won’t win over the progressive states by embracing people who think women can control whether or not they end up pregnant from rape. Nor by taking the government to the very verge of defaulting on their loans based on a fanciful idea that the government could cut expenditure by 40% overnight. Nor will you do this by dismissing the research and advice of highly qualified scientists because it conflicts with a literal interpretation of the bible, and a belief that God controls nature.”

Does all that remind you of the situation here? Sure, we don’t have Hispanics and Africans in the numbers they have there, but half our population is Women; there are many, many Gays and Lesbians, many Young People, and increasing numbers from Asia. We are not solely comprised of audiences who listen adoringly to Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. And we do have our quota of cranks who discard the notion of global warming, many of whom belong to the extreme religious right, who seek to influence conservative policy, and plenty of rednecks who scarify Muslims and sundry other immigrants, and push us toward intolerance. Malcolm Turnbull sees the danger. In Turnbull uses US poll to warn against giving in to political fringes in the SMH, Phillip Coorey quotes Turnbull: ”…the Republican failure at this week's US election was a lesson to all political parties against pandering towards extremist views…The lessons...for everybody is that if you run off to the extremes in politics, which is what the Republicans did, some of their candidates were saying some really bizarre things, which resulted in them losing.”

To succeed in this country, political parties need to appeal to the wide spectrum of races, religions, beliefs, gender, age groups, and social groupings that grace our society. Parties that alienate groups, or ignore them, do so at their peril. Conservatives here run the risk of doing what their counterparts did in the US, ignoring large groups of would-be supporters, in a manner similar to the way Alan Jones and Ray Hadley do by pandering to a limited group of narrow-minded sexist bigots to the exclusion of broadminded, free-thinking people.

This piece draws parallels between the Republicans in the US and Coalition supporters here.

Both play obstructionist, destructive, divisive politics. Both seek to make governance as difficult as they can. Both talk down the economy for political gain. Both threaten to wreck the place to gain power, and seek to shout themselves into office. Both threaten to repeal legislation passed by the other. ‘Obama-care’ there, and the ‘carbon tax’ here, are examples.

Both have their political pundits in the mainstream media who use polls inappropriately to predict political outcomes. Both have pundits who get it wrong again and again. Both have pundits who allow their wishful thinking or that of their editors or proprietors or sponsors to override the factual evidence.

Both appeal to a limited group of voters to the exclusion of others. Both foster media outlets that promote bigotry, and political, sexist and secular bias.

Both embrace climate change skeptics, creationists and in some instances racists.

Both are fixated in the past and yearn for days of yore, the good old days when they were young, when they were firmly in control, and in our case, when the British Empire and Europe reigned supreme.

Both favour free markets, big business, small government and light regulation. Both are neo-conservatives.

What then are the lessons for us from the recent US election?

Remember that Republicans and Coalition members are very similar in ideology, philosophy and their operational strategies and tactics. The Coalition will use Tea Party methods against the Government.

Beware of the political punditry. Ignore their predictions. Ignore their analysis of individual polls, and take note only of trends. Ignore any opinion they offer that is not based on verifiable facts and well-reasoned logic. Too many are incompetent or malevolent or both. They get it wrong too often. Too many are not running an honest agenda. They are too often running someone else’s agenda.

Be aware of the danger of ignoring increasingly influential and vocal groups. Be sensitive to the needs of women, the young, homosexual groups, the disadvantaged and disabled, the indigenous, the new arrivals, and the diverse ethnic groups that now make up our nation. Political parties ignore them at their peril.

Get behind the Government and its positive reformist legislative agenda, one of the most forward-looking in decades. Get behind the Prime Minister, one of the strongest and most resolute we have ever seen.

Review the election strategy of President Obama and the Democrats, and adapt to our situation what has proved to be successful.

Check every utterance of the Opposition for factual accuracy and logic, insist on policy clarity and accurate costings, insist on answers to reasonable questions, and reject obfuscation and dishonesty. Reject negativity whenever it appears.

The Fourth Estate has let us all down by not doing its job. The Fifth Estate must even more rigorously hold it to account, and expose deceit, incompetence and malevolence whenever it raises its ugly head.

Take heart from Obama’s win and Romney’s loss. Something similar is on track to happen here. Even Michelle Grattan sees the striking parallels. Although much of our conservative commentariat is wont to dismiss these parallels, they are there to see for all who have un-blinkered vision.

2013 holds high promise for Labor and our PM.

What do you think?

Australia Fair by Hugh Stretton

This book came out in 2005, and as far as I can remember, attracted remarkably little interest. Hugh Stretton is one of Australia’s foremost thinkers, and he has an international reputation for his work in the area of values in the social sciences. Though he started off teaching history – at Oxford, then Adelaide University – he finished up as a researcher in economics. This book is a work of political economy; it looks at how we got into the political and economic trouble we are in, and what we might do to fix it. Stretton argues ‘that we should be doing whatever it takes in our changing historical conditions, by old means and new, to keep Australia fair’. And this was before the GFC. How could such a relevant and important book be overlooked now?

In this post, I’m going to look at what Stretton says about how we got where we are, and in a later post I’ll outline what he thinks we could do about it.

It’s actually quite easy to see why the book was largely ignored. It takes a lonely stand against the economic orthodoxy accepted at the time by the Labor Party, the LNP and most economic commentators. It sees the changes to the operation of the economy, started by the Hawke-Keating government and pursued further by the Howard government, not as great and necessary reforms that have benefited all of us, but as an abdication of the power to control the economy for the general good. Stretton wrote too early. It’s only since the GFC dented confidence in the free market’s ability to deliver a fair society that such arguments are again being entertained. Well, he certainly makes a good one and it’s time to look at it again.

Paul Keating, Stretton says, brought about a U-turn in Labor economic policy. Instead of using the state to pursue full employment and balanced development, Keating gave up the power to do this. As well as removing most tariff protection, he ‘reduced the regulation of business, privatised some public services and slimmed others to cut their costs, maintained some unemployment to restrain inflation, shifted taxation downward from the highest incomes, and thus increased some inequalities.’ Stretton says that Keating knew that this would hurt some citizens, and accepted that there would have to be a safety net that provided good health care, welfare and education to those left behind. He argues Keating’s motivation was good, that he believed such changes would result in optimum foreign investment, employment, growth, and low inflation. The wealth thus produced could be used to compensate the losers.

I well remember how inexorable this program seemed at the time, particularly as most commentators endorsed it. Labor values seemed to be disappearing, but what was the alternative? Once the process had begun, LNP governments, state and federal, would only take it further, and so it proved. In the face of frustration and impotence on the economic front, Labor activism shifted to the identity issues of gender, race and sexuality – important in themselves, but cutting across the economic divide of the haves and have nots. Other activists turned to the battle over conservation of heritage and biodiversity, and joined the Greens. And some of us withdrew from politics altogether. A pox on both your houses.

Stretton agrees that for some of the time – when for example the business cycle is in an up-swing, or there are (or were) short term profits from asset sales (or there is a mining boom) – some of these good things have happened. But he argues that the downside has been greater than any benefits. Our current arrangement, he says, ‘trusts production to private enterprise and market forces with minimum public aid or regulation. Government’s role is to rescue the resultant losers and correct the misdistribution of income by tax and welfare means. In practice that has become so expensive for an under-employed and ageing population that we don’t do it very well.’ He deals with specific downsides in the chapters about what might still be done to correct the situation in areas such as employment, housing, health and education, income and natural resources. But as a quick summary, the downsides include unemployment, rising numbers on welfare, a smaller tax base to pay for welfare, unaffordable housing, less effective public services (cut to trim costs), more user pays, unproductive investment aimed at speculative returns, some spectacular corporate failures and more inequality. And his point is that much of this comes down to an economic policy chosen by a Labor government which gives undue freedom to the market.

Stretton is far too subtle a thinker simply to be making a case for ‘government intervention’ versus ‘the free market’. He argues that government always has a role in even the most free of markets; it is a question of the public-private mix – with the addition of the contribution of the not-for-profit sector and households. After all, as he points out, ‘It takes work by more than one of them, and often enough by all four, to get your dinner on the table, your car on the road or your children educated.’ Furthermore, unlike with market solutions, there is no ‘one size fits all’; it is a question of working with an eclectic mix of old and new, theory and practice, and experience and imagination. For the detail, see my next post.

Quite apart from the overall sweep of Stretton’s argument – and I have in no way done it justice here – there are two insights that in the light of current circumstances, struck me forcibly. One concerns pokies. As a result of spending cuts in pursuit of smaller government, revenue grants to states have been cut, leaving them less and less able to afford to provide the services for which they are responsible. ‘Desperate needs breed sickening remedies,’ writes Stretton. Most of the States have acted to expand gambling and their revenue from it … unlike the capital proceeds of privatisation, the gambling revenue is reliably, seductively sustainable.’ So the current plague of gambling addiction is an unintended consequence of economic rationalism.

The second insight is that where both sides of politics agree on the fundamental primacy of the market, politics easily degenerates into arguments about management – think BER and pink batts – and the trustworthiness of leaders – think JuLiar and sexism. These may be important, but they shouldn’t be all there is. What Stretton had before him at the time of writing was Mark Latham’s apparent acceptance that ‘the voters who matter are self-interested battlers, contemptuous of idlers living on welfare, and easily frightened by talk of higher taxes or interest rates or inflation.’ I would argue that Labor is now making some effort to initiate a debate about the role of the state, with the carbon tax, the mining tax (however watered down) and a modest assault on middle class welfare. But I’m not sure what direction these baby steps are going in – certainly Hugh Stretton would not be satisfied.

For all there is so much good stuff in it, I can’t say this is an easy book. You’ll see in my next post that his proposed solutions, though sometimes simple, aren’t easy either. But it’s a book that deserves much wider reading and discussion. Perhaps someone should send it to the Prime Minister for Christmas.

Kay Rollison also blogs at What Book to Read – reviewing everything from crime to literary fiction.

The Abbott ‘family’ rush to prop up its errant child prodigy

It began right after Tony Abbott was unexpectedly elevated to the lofty position of Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. There was only one vote in it, but there he was, where he had long fantasized he might be, in line to be the nation’s next Prime Minister. His hurriedly called press conference was a mix of surprise and high expectations, albeit tempered a little by the reality of being pitted against a once very popular PM in Kevin Rudd. Just one sentence was memorable: “If I win the next election I will be considered a genius; if not, I will be road kill.” How prescient. Yet that sentence gave hope to a languishing Coalition torn by the trauma of ejecting one leader, then selecting one that was not planned to be the leader at all. It was supposed to be Joe Hockey, but having messed up his campaign with equivocation about his support for an ETS, he was surprisingly eliminated at the first ballot, leaving just Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott to slug it out.

The prospect of a genius wresting power from the Labor usurpers was appealing. After all, John Howard’s Coalition should never have lost to upstart Rudd and his Labor Party. The Coalition, as the natural party of government, one that had been so for over eleven long years, should have continued. Having been robbed of victory, and the Prime Minister having lost his seat to a journalist, redress was needed, and as soon as possible.

The earnest Brendan Nelson never had a hope against the determined and resourceful Malcolm Turnbull, who quickly edged him out. But despite showing high promise, Turnbull’s reputation was badly dented by the Grech affair, and even more dangerously so within his own party by his support for a modified Rudd ETS. The hard right conservatives and climate skeptics/deniers, led by Nick Minchin, cooked up a plot to replace Turnbull with Hockey, but when that backfired there was the astonished Tony Abbott facing the media.

At that time, Abbott scarcely had a family at all, that is a political family. Having messed up badly during the 2007 election, he had few followers. But what his party knew, and many in the Fifth Estate could see, was that this man was a pugilist from his university days and that this was an attribute he would bring to leadership, having already had plenty of practice as John Howard’s attack dog. It was not long before we saw his pugilism in savage action.

Always a prizefighter, he settled on a strategy based on short unforgettable slogans, jabbing endlessly at Labor’s soft spots. The carbon tax, boat arrivals, and debt and deficit were all simple targets, with easy to remember, easy to create three word slogans that could be repeated ad nauseam no matter what the occasion.

The public, disengaged at that time from serious political discourse, readily cottoned onto these slogans and were soon repeating them over a beer or a latte, or at the water cooler. It was an easy strategy, and as polls steadily moved in favour of the Coalition, was seen by journalists as a ‘clever’ and successful one. Soon the notion of ‘Abbott as genius’ captured the imagination of the Canberra Press Gallery, always excited by the prospect of a fight, especially where the underdog showed a good prospect of winning. Traditionally inclined towards the conservative side of politics, and becoming disenchanted with PM Rudd and his Government, many in the MSM joined the ‘Abbott family’, and verbalized their support through their columns. ‘Genius’ Abbott, now showing ‘child prodigy’ attributes, could do no wrong. He, and his strategy, was soon categorized as ‘brilliant’, and he was already being dubbed ‘the most successful Leader of the Opposition in Australian political history’.

Then came the abrupt removal of Kevin Rudd, and his replacement with Julia Gillard. This traumatic event, and Laurie Oakes’ revelation in the 2010 election campaign of the behind the scenes plotting that seemed to some to implicate Julia Gillard, turned the public away from Labor. As the polls moved more and more to the Coalition until the two parties were level, the Abbott genius was amplified, and soon pollsters were predicting a ‘hung parliament’, which turned out to be the case.

Then came the agonizing seventeen days of negotiation with the Independents and Greens, in the end clearly won by Julia Gillard, and lost by Tony Abbott whom we now know would have done anything, anything at all to get the prize. The Independents judged him to be less suitable than Julia Gillard to be the PM. He lost, and as Anthony Albanese has often said, subjected us to ‘the longest dummy-spit in Australian political history’. He was a sore loser during university days, and still was.

Because PM Gillard was landed with a minority Government, Abbott saw her as vulnerable and illegitimate, and set about to destroy her and her Government just like he had done with his opponents in the boxing ring at Oxford. He threw everything at her, believing he would soon knock her and her Government to the canvas, bloodied and beaten, and that a new bout would be ordered which he would win in the first round. He sharpened his slogans. It was now a ‘toxic tax’ that would create economic havoc and devastate whole industries and towns; it became ‘a tax built on a lie’, and some of his distant political family organized carbon tax rallies that sported ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ placards in front of which Abbott and his shadow ministers stood.

As his flurry of wild punches hit the mark, Julia Gillard’s ratings plummeted, and Labor’s stocks steadily fell as the Coalition’s rose. Soon the Coalition was so far ahead in the polls that the Canberra Press Gallery was confidently predicting a landslide to the Coalition at the next election, the reduction of Labor to ‘a rump’, and a decade for it to recover. The Abbott family grew as more and more journalists joined the congratulatory throng. Abbott truly was a genius, more successful than any previous Opposition Leader. It was just a matter of time before he knocked PM Gillard out and forced another bout, which he would win without working up a sweat. The Press Gallery was enthusiastic.

Although Abbott had laughed when she said: “bring it on”, PM Gillard would “not lie down and die”. No matter what Abbott and the MSM threw at her, she kept coming back, feinting, throwing more and more effective punches, and accumulating points with each piece of reforming legislation passed.

Although he may have had his moments of doubt, his ever-supportive extended ‘family’ treated him as the child prodigy they felt sure he was. His brilliance was never doubted. They tolerated, even applauded his belligerence; after all, opposing was the job of an opposition! They ignored, even excused, his lack of policy and costings. They good-humouredly accepted his appearances at sundry businesses with fluoro vest and hard hat, and had no complaint about his predilection for soft interviews, his poor performance in probing ones, and his penchant for walking away when questioning at doorstops got tough. All the defects so obvious to others were overlooked or discounted by the growing political Abbott family. Tony could do no wrong.

They wrote PM Gillard off and reveled in the thought of a massive Abbott victory. They used the polls of voting intention to support their predictions, always believing an election was imminent. But PM Gillard refused to drop. She was at times bloodied, but her seconds got her up as each new round began. One year went by, then another. Journalist after journalist wrote about the ‘inevitable’ Rudd challenge, citing date after date by which it was likely to happen, but when it was finally arranged, PM Gillard was the clear victor, and although Rudd’s supporters still make intermittent subterranean noises, nothing seems likely to now bring about any change.

The Abbott man began to tire, and the Abbott machine began to run down. Throwing the same old punches, punches that missed their mark or made no lasting impact, Abbott and his family became disheartened. They had placed so much store in their prodigy, but now he was flagging before their very eyes, and before the eyes of the electorate too. His popularity slid in poll after poll, but the Coalition vote held up well, reassuring the family that although Tony was tiring, the Coalition would win easily ‘if an election was held today’. But of course it wasn’t being held today or tomorrow, and now not until next year.

Then the boy genius began to make mistakes. When his past caught up with him via David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, he mucked up his response to Marr’s revelations. His behaviour towards women became a talking point. Alan Jones joined the fray telling a Young Liberals’ audience that Julia Gillard’s father had died of shame because of his daughter’s lies. Revulsion at this outrage was widespread, but Abbott was slow to respond, slow to condemn, and to add insult to injury, he repeated the ‘died of shame’ phrase in parliament, leading to the most excoriating dressing down of an Opposition Leader by a Prime Minister ever witnessed in the House, made all the worse by the sexist overtones that showed Abbott up in such a poor light. Labor women, and women all over the country applauded, gratified that at last someone in authority had stood up for them against the sexist discrimination they had all endured. The speech went viral around the world. The child prodigy looked mean and nasty, and all the worse for him, diminished in the eyes of the electorate, women and men alike.

Family members rallied behind their boy, quibbling about the use, or as they saw it, the misuse of the word ‘misogyny’. Half brother Greg Sheridan wrote an indignant article; this was not the Tony he knew, and he had known him from university days. Margie Abbott went public about her Tony. We were told he was not a misogynist; he loved his wife and daughters. As if we ever doubted that! Abbott’s political sisters, Julie and Sophie, and his political brother Christopher, came out singing in unison that the Tony they knew was a nice man, not sexist, and certainly not a misogynist.

Brothers in the MSM wrote articles in defence. With Tony so assured of an easy victory, no matter when the next election was held, surely he couldn’t be so easily sidetracked by his past. His gauche reaction to Marr’s revelations and his handling of Jones’ ‘died of shame’ remark made matters worse. His ‘family’ began to see certainty eroding, and when Newspoll twice had the parties level pegging, mild panic began. Surely the child prodigy couldn’t mess up now.

Cousin Peter van O began to doubt, and said as much in an article: Is this the turning point. He asked: ”Has the Gillard Labor government turned the corner?” Having conceded that it could be as long as 12 months before the next federal election is called, he opined that: “Abbott must find a way to arrest the decline in his party's primary vote, which may require pivoting from his deliberately negative style of campaigning” and then expressed the unthinkable thought that, like his previous boss John Hewson who lost an ‘unloseable election’, Abbott might do likewise.

Even grandmother Michelle began to have doubts about her favourite grandson. In Headaches for Abbott as tactics falter, she ruminated about the polls, dissension in Coalition ranks, flawed tactics and not enough strategy, but not wanting to upset dear Tony too much she gave him a gentle reassuring pat: ”Abbott doesn't need to push the panic button, but unless the final polls for the year bring some good news for him, there will be pressure for serious stocktaking over Christmas.”

By the weekend though, she felt she might have gone too far, so penned a ‘can-you-believe-she-actually-wrote-this’ puff piece: Tony, lighten up for the battle ahead:

“Dear Tony,
Suddenly you have become THE talking point among the chattering commentators. We're all running round quizzing nervous Liberals about what's going wrong and what you must do about it. So, a few thoughts.

“If we mark your performance as Opposition Leader, you get distinctions for the early grades. You helped bring down Kevin Rudd, put big holes in Julia Gillard. But, unfortunately for you, Tony, you're enrolled in a continuous assessment course. There's a big exam at the end, but if you start to bomb out in the monthly assignments, there could be unpleasant surprises later.”
If Tony hadn’t already realized that this was not a short-run course, there is little hope for him. But grandmothers do sometimes state the bleeding obvious!

She wasn’t finished: ”So, you need to get those grades up, Tony - by which we mean your performance and your personal ratings. Look in the mirror - now. Why do 58 per cent disapprove of how you are doing your job?”

Like all adoring grannies, she swallowed whole her boy’s lofty, but platitudinous rhetoric during a recent economics address: ”On Friday you said you had outlined ‘plans for a stronger economy, stronger communities, a cleaner environment, stronger borders and modern infrastructure''', but, taking her courage in both hands, warned: ”Unfortunately you don't look like a guy with a plan, let alone a dream; your image is of a bloke with a pickaxe.”

Not done, Granny Michelle gives some good health advice: ”Tired mind, tired body. Cut back on the exercise a tad. Say no to some of those fund-raisers. It's been a long march and the heavy ground lies ahead”, finishing with: ”And a small postscript. Could you smooth, albeit only a tiny bit, what Barnaby calls that ''square-gaited'' walk that makes you look slightly menacing? A step too far?”

If you think I’m making this up, do read the whole article here. Is this satire? Is she having us on? I suspect this really is granny advice. Oh dear!

Even Aunty Samantha has a go in the Herald Sun in her piece: Time Tony Abbott had a good lie down. It begins: Tony Abbott celebrates his 55th birthday today. The Lodge for his 56th is probably top of the Liberal leader's wish list. But to get there, some of his mates reckon the best present for him would be to crawl back under the covers and go back to sleep. Poor Tony’s tired after a year of wildly swinging punches that mostly now miss their mark.

Malcolm Farr writes an incomprehensible piece linked somehow to the Spring Racing Carnival: On the track Tony Abbott’s odds shorten. Searching for meaning, I came across this: “Tony Abbott is no John Howard. Voters are not yet sure what he stands for, and he doesn’t have much time left to tell them. This doesn’t mean an Abbott-led Coalition would not win the next election. There could be issues and incidents over the coming12 months which wreck his bid for national leadership, but at the moment they are not obvious.

“The notion that the ALP is hauling back its primary vote to the point of making the next election a close contest is fanciful. Forget Newspoll’s 50/50 two-party preferred split.”

Coming from wise old Uncle Malcolm, I guess that will reassure poor Tony. He was supposed to be rejuvenated by a day at the races, but dwarfed as he was by his daughters in their mega stiletto heels, he did look so tiny. Never mind Tony, Uncle Malcolm is backing you still.

Writing in Business Spectator last week in Abbott’s now in real fiscal trouble, Rob Burgess asserted threateningly: “Comments from the Business Council and Australian Industry Group, published yesterday, look like a major headache for Tony Abbott.”, but in the same paper yesterday, Alister Drysdale, former senior adviser to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett writes in: Abbott's changing the sermon: ”A new Tony Abbott is emerging as the Gillard government regains electorate approval. Direct attacks are losing their impact and if the Coalition is to defeat Labor then considered policy debate must be its new weapon.”

Drysdale goes on: “There are tentative signs that Abbott is subtly changing. The smear aimed at Gillard over her long gone days at Slater and Gordon is now coming from the flaying female deputy, not from him. He’s less agitated and aggressive and involved in Question Time fracas – a small but notable change in political management. He’s attempting to come to grips with quiet speeches on issues of productivity and economic management.” Uncle Alister is relieved.

Later he writes: ”In the months to come, Gillard could still be easily tripped. The ALP could keep yabbering on about themselves…the forecast Budget surplus could melt away – a political disaster". But he offers Tony a word of caution: ”Then too, the polls could keep tightening and buoy the government’s political mission. They could even act as a catalyst for boldness in public policy.” Should the latter come about though, his advice for nephew Tony is simple – be bold!

This extraordinary bout of revisionism has been confined to the Fourth Estate where most of the Abbott ‘family’ dwells; the Fifth Estate remains resolutely of the view that the Leader of the Opposition is disintegrating inexorably.

Uncle Andrew tweeted yesterday morning that things were not as bad for Abbott as they might seem, but so far we have not heard from Uncle Dennis and Uncle Paul. No doubt they will become a second phalanx of reassurance for nephew Tony that all is not lost as he approaches the end-of-year recess. He needs a break, he needs to give his tired brain a rest along with his aching arms, he needs to get his mojo back, and if he does this, their child prodigy must surely win the prize he so richly deserves, one so cruelly denied him in 2010, one they all covet – Prime Ministership and all the clout and influence that goes with it, so important for any close knit, power-hungry 'family'.

Their child prodigy, now exposed as errant, needs all the propping up he can get, and his extended 'family' is already giving it to him in spades.

What do you think?

The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition

Just look at him in QT and during his pressers. Does he look like a happy and confident man? Is there a spring in his step? Why is his brow so often furrowed? Why does he so seldom smile? Does he look like the next PM in waiting?

Recall the cockiness he exhibited as he swaggered around factories, drove large trucks, operated machinery, stacked bananas at supermarkets, and kissed fish at fishmongers. Reflect on the hubris he showed as the polls rose spectacularly for the Coalition; remember the sly smile that lit up his craggy face after every poll. All gone now!

Something must be wrong. What is it? Is it his demeanour, his attitude, his behaviour, the way he looks, or even the way he walks? Or is it his policy positions on a number of issues? Perhaps it is all of the above.

On policy matters, he persists with his cobra-strike or python-squeeze or octopus-entangled carbon tax scaremongering although the predicted doom refuses to eventuate. At first persuaded that the sky might well fall in, then skeptical as it stayed in place, then jaded with the whole matter, and finally unconvinced in the face of contradictory data that put the lie to the scare campaign, the electorate has moved onto other matters. Because of this, and because his colleagues are uneasy about what now looks like a spectacular fizzer, the Opposition Leader has eased up on this a little. He now asks few questions himself in QT, his front bench is busy running a ‘disappearing surplus’ campaign, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition is promoting a vicious resurrection of the tired old Slater & Gordon matter that has been settled years ago and again recently at PM Gillard’s mammoth press conference. Even the ‘turn back the boats’ mantra is losing its punch. There is nothing else. The grab bag of mantras is empty. And the bag of costed policies is bare. All there is left is a vacuum.

Until recently, it was only writers in the Fifth Estate that were pointing out that the vacuousness of the Leader of the Opposition, his nasty and at times vicious personality, the sexism he repeatedly exhibits, particularly directed towards our first female Prime Minister, and his spiteful behavior in the House and at sundry rallies and press conferences, made him wholly unsuitable to be leader of this nation.

Meanwhile the Fourth Estate continued with the charade that he was a shoo-in as the next PM, and that the real issue was by what vast number of seats he would win and how decimated Labor would be. All the leadership focus in the MSM was on the Gillard/Rudd ‘contest’; there was never a suggestion that the position of Leader of the Opposition was in jeopardy. How quickly things have changed.

On Insiders, a program where scarcely a word has ever been uttered that questioned the security of the position of the Opposition Leader, last Sunday one of the panelists, Mike Seccombe, acerbically summed up his feelings about the Opposition Leader. After an introduction by Barrie Cassidy who referred to the weight Dunaden will carry in the Melbourne Cup, Seccombe said:

”Tony Abbott is a weight for the Liberal Party – he is a handicap for the Party. I think he is being exposed as a man with severe character defects. Frankly, he has been exposed as a man with lack of judgement – the Alan Joneses and Cory Bernardis and people like that.

“And his foot-in-mouth episodes that keep on rolling on and on and on – either showing him to be extremely mean-spirited and bullying on the one hand if he meant it as Mark Riley said, or if he didn’t mean it, he’s a dope who can’t open his mouth without accidentally getting into trouble.”

“So I think Tony Abbott is on the slide; at the moment I don’t see that it’s going to stop – it just goes from bad to worse day by day.”

We had never heard such a condemnation before on that program.

Seccombe, a Fourth Estate journalist, left no doubt about his feelings when he wrote an article in The Global Mail later in the week. Titled The Pack Circles, he begins:

”Tony Abbott is looking a bit beaten down these days. He has been for a little while actually.

“People who watch these things closely – and that means almost everyone in this merciless place – are noticing and reacting.

“In the press gallery, that means lots of speculation over coffee, if not yet so much in print and on air, about who might replace him. Give it a couple more of those dreadful poll results showing souring public perceptions of the opposition leader, and he’ll be in their sights, just as Julia Gillard was a few months back.

“On Abbott’s own side of politics, it means the backbench becoming increasingly unruly in Question Time…On the opposition front bench, it means other senior people are lifting their aggression levels…

“It is the opposition leader’s own behaviour, though, that is the real sign that things have changed. It used to be that he would open the bowling and carry much of the attack in Question Time each day. Not now. This week, Abbott has let the burden of attack be carried by others…Hockey and Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Scott Morrison and the odd backbencher.”

Seccombe then described how Greg Combet had mocked the Leader of the Opposition about all the dire predictions he had made about the carbon tax that had not come about.

He concluded: Combet ”finished his answer with a suggestion that it was about time the opposition got a new leader. He suggested either Hockey or Turnbull and, just for laughs included a possible ‘roughie’, the colourless Kevin Andrews. “Get someone who can tell the truth,” he snarled.”

“Well, there was hubbub. The government benches roared with amusement. The opposition benches roared with outrage.

“But Tony Abbott? He made no interjection. He made no eye contact. He stared fixedly at some papers in his lap.”

Has there been such a disparaging piece in the Fourth Estate? Yet, there has been more.

Last weekend, in News Limited’s The Weekend Australian no less a Coalition sycophant than Peter van Onselen gave the Opposition Leader a significant spray in Is this the turning point. He begins:

”Has the Gillard Labor government turned the corner? The evidence is mounting that Julia Gillard's political fortunes are improving. Whether these improvements morph into political salvation will take time to assess. There could be as long as 12 months to go before the next federal election is called, and the campaign itself can change the political climate significantly if the contest is close enough going in.”

Later he says: ”History therefore dictates that Abbott must find a way to arrest the decline in his party's primary vote, which may require pivoting from his deliberately negative style of campaigning.”

He concludes: ”In 1993 Abbott was press secretary to John Hewson, who lost what came to be dubbed as an unloseable election. If Abbott doesn't win next year's election he, too, will go down in history as having lost such a contest.”

We are yet to see similar warnings from Dennis Shanahan, Paul Kelly, Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt!

But Michelle Grattan is beginning to have doubts. In Headaches for Abbott as tactics falter, she talks about polls, dissension in the ranks, too many tactics, some flawed, and not enough strategy, and ends with characteristic Grattan reassurance: ”Abbott doesn't need to push the panic button, but unless the final polls for the year bring some good news for him, there will be pressure for serious stocktaking over Christmas.”

There is still more from the Fourth Estate. It was in The Courier-Mail that Steven Scott wrote Something in the way he moves - Tony Abbott's swagger is turning off voters

”It's the swagger. That's the reason most frequently given by people in focus groups about why they do not like Tony Abbott.

“To single out the Opposition Leader's rolling gait for criticism may seem superficial or even unfair, but it's what this symbolises for many swinging voters that has Coalition strategists worried.

“To those uncommitted voters whose views are gold to political parties, the cringe factor that comes when they think about Abbott's confident strut is followed swiftly with a series of negative impressions - arrogant, cocky, angry.

“In what is now a clear trend, Labor's support is slowly improving and the Coalition's is falling. Satisfaction ratings for Abbott are on a continual slide.

"Tony has got a perception problem everywhere," one senior Coalition figure says of the impressions voters have of the Opposition Leader. "It's the way he walks sometimes ... the swagger."

“The Opposition is still on track to win the next election, but this is no longer looking as easy a task as it did only months ago. Many in the Coalition camp are starting to fret and a lot of their concern is directed at the man who helped get them into a winning position in the first place - Abbott.

“There is no suggestion that Abbott will face a leadership challenge. Even some of his toughest critics within the party concede leadership talk would cruel the Coalition's chances at the next election.

“But if Abbott's polling does not improve, this position could change.”

It already is. But Scott could not bring himself to write off the Opposition Leader, leaving himself a fall back position: “The Opposition is still on track to win the next election…” and “There is no suggestion that Abbott will face a leadership challenge.” I’m sure that as the momentum against the Opposition Leader builds, we will see more of this ‘backing the horse both ways’.

In a report in ABC News on the debate on the wheat deregulation bill, the previous Speaker, Peter Slipper was quoted. Although few might give much credence to his views, here is what the report said:

”Former parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper has lashed out at Coalition MPs, accusing them of abandoning their free market principles by opposing Labor's wheat deregulation bill.

“Mr Slipper, now an independent MP, voted with the Government, which won the vote 70-67.

“He says deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop and other Opposition MPs are hypocrites because they favour wheat deregulation but are voting the other way to avoid a fight with the Nationals. I suspect many of them will vote with a heavy heart with the Opposition, because there are many people on this side of the house who support the Government's intentions," he said.

"This is all about preserving the flawed and fatal and terminal leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, the Member for Warringah."

"I suppose you have to admire the Deputy Leader of the Opposition because she's supporting her leader - after all, she's supported how many leaders? How many leaders has she been deputy to?

"I find it abhorrent that the deputy Leader of the Opposition is prepared to say it's important to defeat the Government's legislation, but not on any manner of principle."

I’m sure Slipper felt much better after that spray.

On a more serious note, the business community is expressing concern at Coalition policies. Writing in Business Spectator Rob Burgess begins his article Abbott’s now in real fiscal trouble with:

“Comments from the Business Council and Australian Industry Group, published yesterday, look like a major headache for Tony Abbott.”

Burgess goes on to say that both groups, neither of which is a fan of big government, are expressing concern about Labor’s severe spending cuts to achieve a budget surplus. Likewise, they are concerned at the even more extreme cuts proposed by the Coalition.

He continues: ”The BCA and AiG comments put a tiny bit of pressure on the government, and a massive amount of pressure on the coalition, which plans to do away with the carbon tax, mining tax (not that it appears to be worth a cent), maintain lower-income tax cuts and increases in the family tax benefit and pension (which the carbon tax pays for), and instead balance the budget through more extreme expenditure slashing.”

Burgess concludes: ”In short, team-Abbott is going to have to do some rapid rethinking of its plans before an election is called…there is time for the coalition to work out how to massage the revenue side of the federal budget to bring it into balance. Simply slashing public spending no longer looks like an option.”

So it’s not just the Opposition Leader’s behavior that irks, it’s his policies too.

Turning now to the Fifth Estate, writing in a piece: Sweetest of them all: how Julia Gillard won the 2013 election in The Conversation, William Bowe of Poll Bludger fame, says this:

“From the time the carbon tax policy was unveiled in February 2011 until its implementation on July 1, the unchallenged consensus of the Canberra press gallery was that a Tony Abbott prime ministership was simply a matter of time…

“Not for the first time though, the self-confidence of political commentators, together with the utility of mid-term polling as a pointer to outcomes at long range, has been shown to have been greatly exaggerated.”

He went on to describe what seats Labor needed to win in 2103, and how seriously possible that was.

In Abbott’s Doubly Whammy in Archies Archive, the author outlines a series of issues where there is dissension in Liberal ranks over policy issues, one serious one being the wheat deregulation matter mentioned above, where Julie Bishop unsuccessfully assumed the role of enforcer to keep the Liberal Party members together to shore up the Leader’s position.

He concludes: ”Reality is finally seeping into the Federal Liberal Party and it is difficult to see Tony Abbott surviving the swirling storm of dissent which is forming within the Liberal Vacuum Flask.”

In an article Can ‘Dr. No’ become ‘Mr. Yes’? in Open Fire, the author begins:

”As the Australian public continue to tire of ‘Dr. No’ and his parties Pythonesque contradiction of the ALP government, the challenge, with less than twelve months until the election, is can Abbott move from ‘Dr. No,’ telling us daily what he is against – carbon tax, gay people, asylum seekers, carbon tax, any taxes, carbon tax and then the carbon tax, to become ‘Mr. Yes’ and reveal what he and the Liberals stand for?”

Later he says: ”The contemporary image of Tony Abbott, with the ALP applying the brushstrokes, is of a sexist, immoral, bully boy. An image Abbott has done much to assist with over the years. Most recently by using the toxic ‘dying of shame’ phrase while in parliament, only days after…Alan Jones muttered it in yet another display of his inhumanity. For that gaffe there was no escape for Abbott, he was either a cunning, sly asshole looking to hurt Julia Gillard personally or such a buffoon as to not consider the implications of using such a phrase. Whatever the case, he made his bed, or probably his wife did, and he must now lay in it.”

In Here Come The Polls! on New Matilda Ben Eltham says:

“…the party enjoying the big lead gets a boost in positive coverage. Little scrutiny is applied to their various statements. The election result can seem almost pre-ordained.

“This is the position Labor has found itself in for most of 2011 and 2012, as poll after poll showed a government on the ropes. It was particularly marked around coverage of the carbon tax, which the opinion poll data showed was very unpopular. In contrast, Tony Abbott and the Opposition got a fairly easy ride, and plenty of coverage every time they decided to attack the government on carbon.

“But in recent weeks, a ray of light has glinted. A number of recent polls have shown Labor closing the gap. The most recent Newspoll actually had Labor at parity. The latest Nielsen has Labor on 48-52. Any way you look at it, Labor is suddenly competitive again.”

Later Eltham says: Attention now turns to the Liberal Party, with press gallery leader Phil Coorey reporting today that "several Liberal MPs" had told him that "Labor’s recovery was now clearly a trend and Mr Abbott needed to broaden his approach beyond attacking the carbon tax."

A post in Aussiepollies discusses recent poll results and concludes:

“The polls are undoubtedly getting closer, but how close and how real the narrowing of margins is remains unclear. It is still on the naughty side to be talking of leadership change in the Opposition despite results being less assured. What is almost without doubt is the need for a shift in the focus of Coalition strategy.”

Writing in The Opinion Bruce Haigh begins his piece Abbott on the edge:

”David Marr put the cat amongst the pigeons with his Quarterly Essay on Tony Abbott.

“Abbott would have us believe that he has changed since his days at university, when by Marr’s account he was an insufferable bully and misogynist, a word much used in relation to Abbott, particularly these days. In my experience people change little in essence from the time at their alma mater to middle age, particularly politicians. They might develop a façade of gravitas, but even that has escaped Abbott. Beazley, Dawkins and McMullan changed little over the years from when I knew them at the University of Western Australia to the end of their political careers, except perhaps Beazley who honed the depth and breadth of his bombast.

“Chances are that Abbott has also changed very little. Anger is a by-product of his ruthless, ‘whatever it takes’, ambition. Wed this to his conservative Christian beliefs and he becomes a crusader, using religion as a shield from criticism and to mask his real persona, or so he thinks. He is not trusted and he is not liked, particularly by women, but also by a lot of men who distrust his superficiality.”

Let’s finish with a little delectable humour from Mike Seccombe writing in The Global Mail in an article: Bringing the house down. Having prefaced his story with reference to the great rhetorical turns of Paul Keating, he recounted Greg Combet’s ripostes this week in QT:

On Wednesday Combet riffed on the carbon tax price effect on staples like milk and cereal. On Thursday he chose as his subject the effect of the tax on Australia’s spring racing carnival.

“Having noted that Abbott had predicted the carbon tax was a threat to “the whole Australian way of life”, Combet hastened to assure racing fans that there was no cause for alarm.

“Treasury modelling showed the carbon price impact on sport and recreation will be only 0.3 per cent, or around 20 cents a week,” he said.

“Fashion at Flemington [the style slice of Melbourne’s track], it’s going to be okay because last week’s CPI [consumer price index, the measure of inflation] showed women’s clothing… the prices actually fell by 0.2 per cent in the September quarter.”

“What people who cared about racing needed to understand, he continued, was that Abbott’s scare campaign on the tax was ‘the biggest shakedown’ since the Fine Cotton affair in 1984.

“And the ring in that day was called Bold Personality… and that’s all we’ve had.”

“It was time for the ‘Liberal Party stewards’ to intervene and consider a substitution, he suggested, and offered a form guide of alternative Liberal leaders.

“One time leader of the Opposition, Goldman Sachs man and renowned barrister Malcolm Turnbull? A classy thoroughbred if ever there’s been one. He was badly checked by the Member for Warringah [Abbott, who deposed him] in the 2009 race.”

“Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey – who was absent, having just been chucked out for interjecting? He’s hungry for a win but he’s demonstrated yet again today that he’s not up to Group One racing level.”

“What about deputy leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop? Three times runner up. Surely a chance at last.”

“And Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison had promise but for the fact that he was spooked by foreign horses.

“It was a good riff. Not quite Keating perhaps, but it had the same effect: even the Opposition benches laughed, Malcolm Turnbull appearing particularly amused.

“Not as amused as Julia Gillard, though. One gets the feeling she is looking forward to further mirth at the expense of the Carbon Tax scare campaign.”

Photo courtesy of Mike Bowers and The Global Mail

When a man becomes an object of ridicule, the end must be nigh!

Need I say any more? The inexorable disintegration of the Leader of the Opposition continues apace. It shows. More and more are noticing.

The Leader of the Opposition, Anthony John “Tony” Abbott.
Photo courtesy of Mike Bowers and The Global Mail

What do you think?