Polls perpetually poison politics

Imagine that last Thursday an alien arrived from Mars. He picked up the papers and read that the leader of this nation is under threat of losing her position. He wondered why. He is surprised that she is female.

He speaks to a normal-looking local. For the sake of this piece, let’s imagine the alien from Mars is male [bold type] and the normal looking local is female [italics].

What has she done? Has she made a heinous error? Did she say something unbecoming for a national leader? Did she make a blasphemous or libelous accusation against a religion or an opponent or a citizen? Was she absent without leave? Was she neglecting her duties? Had she committed treason? Did she insult so many in her party that they viciously turned against her? She must have done something awful, something so serious that it warranted grave questioning of her capacity to lead.

No, none of the above. She hasn’t sinned in any of these ways.

Why then the frenzied talk about her leadership?

The answer astonishes the Martian.

She is deemed to be in deep trouble because of opinion polls.

Opinion polls?

You don’t know opinion polls? Really, let me explain. We have organizations, usually owned by newspapers that make a business of asking people how they would vote.

How do they do that?

Well, most of them use telephones to call up people. They call people with landlines because it’s too difficult and too expensive calling mobile phones; we have both you know.

I understand, we have mobiles too; every youngster has one. But doesn’t that mean that those with mobiles miss out – doesn’t that leave out a lot of younger people?

Yes, I know it distorts the sample, because young people vote differently from the old, but that’s the best pollsters can do.

How do they pick those they phone?

They take random picks from the telephone book but they try to select what they call a representative sample from all over the country and all age groups.

How many?

It varies from as few as 400, to as many as a thousand or two. The more the better, you know.

That doesn’t seem to be a lot.

No, but it’s too costly to call up a bigger number.

How do you know the number they choose is enough to be accurate?

They have ways of calculating that, but with the usual numbers phoned, there is the possibility of error. For around a thousand phoned, the error can be around 3% too high or 3% too low.

That doesn’t seem too precise.

Well no, but it’s the best they can do without going broke. What’s more, it only the statistically minded that worry about error – they call it the ‘margin of error’ – most don’t know or care about that; they take the figures as gospel.

But I still don’t understand why these pollsters are asking people how they would vote – are you having an election?

No, not for six months.

Then what’s the point? Wouldn’t it better to wait until they actually vote in six months, then everyone would know exactly how people voted?

Well, you’re right, but there’s a lot of money to be made out of asking beforehand.

How’s that?

I know it sounds crazy, but there are a lot of people who think they can predict the election outcome from these polls, and there’s a lot of money to be made out of prediction – it sells lots of newspapers, fills countless TV and radio bulletins, and gives lots of journalists a job writing endlessly about the polls. It’s about the easiest job in journalism, but I suppose it keeps them in work.

Well, CAN they predict the outcome of elections?

No they can’t.

Then why on earth, if a Martian is allowed to use that phrase, do they do it?

Good question. The answer is that there are lots of people, in fact the majority of people, who, because they know nothing about polls or statistics, believe that polls do accurately predict events that are months away, even years away.

It seems then that they are being conned.

Yes they are, but those doing the conning, the media proprietors, are making a packet out of this. No con artist is going to give up his act unless he’s hauled before the courts, and that’s not going to happen – the media moguls are too powerful.

So do you mean to tell me that although polls are unable to predict the future, the pollsters still do them and the media still publishes the results, and write about what they mean?

Afraid so. I don’t blame the pollsters – they all agree that they are not predictive, but the media makes so much money conning the public they are predictive, that they go on, week after week, month after month, year after year. They sell papers, make great headlines, excite political journalists, and help to keep the print media moguls afloat at a time they are steadily sinking, because people are switching to online media.

In fact, only the other day, Peter Lewis, who runs a weekly poll, Essential Report, said on TV: “A poll can never predict the future”, and “Anyone who says they know what the future holds is deluded.” All pollsters, and all who study polls, say virtually the same. In fact, a couple of days ago one of the few journalists to write rationally about polls, John Watson, managed to get a column in one of our major newspapers titled: ‘Penchant for picking a winner is poll waffle’ that concluded: “One might hope commentators learn from past predictive follies and leave fortune telling to the charlatans and crackpots.” Unfortunately, no one will take any notice of him or what the pollsters say, because it doesn’t suit their case.


That sounds to be a monumental con job. I’ve never heard of anything like that!

Actually, it’s even worse than it sounds. Politicians themselves have fallen for the con. They are so convinced that the current polls are accurately predicting a devastating defeat for the party in power at present that even members of that party believe they need to change the leader to improve the polls. And practically every poll, and every commentary, reinforces this view. Which brings us back to where we started!

Our female leader is condemned because a series of opinion polls of voting intention of the national electorate have shown that her party is not doing well and she is not popular. So some of her own party have turned against her and have been agitating for her replacement by a previous leader. It’s been going on a long while, and came to a head over a year ago when the previous leader and his supporters mounted a challenge, but he lost, getting only a third of the votes of the party. Everyone thought that would be the end of it, even the pretender, but he, and his supporters, were so convinced of his messianic attributes, so convinced that elevating him to the throne would improve the party’s polling, that they continued to sabotage the leader, month after month, leaking damaging tidbits to political journalists, who were hungry to devour every morsel of it because they, and their editors and proprietors, wanted to get rid of her party and her with it. They published column after column predicting her political demise, thereby adding fuel to the fire, a self-perpetuating cycle of doom and gloom they hoped would be a self-fulfilling prophesy.


The Martian scratches his head.

You know that polls of voting intention six months before an election are worthless, indeed worse than that, they are seriously misleading. You know that they can’t predict who will win. You say that pollsters know that, but media outlets find the polling game so lucrative that they continue the charade, and even the politicians, whom might be expected to know they were being conned, go along with the charade, and worse than that, use polls in an attempt to get rid of the leader by saying she can’t lead them to victory at the election because the polls say so, and therefore the old leader needs to be brought back. Bizarre!

Well, he was popular once, but that popularity slipped and the opinion polls went down, so his colleagues lost faith in him and threw him out for the current female leader.

I don’t understand. If they lost faith in him, why would they want him back?

Because of the polls. They say he is now more popular with the people than the female leader, and the polls also say he would be more likely to win the election.

But you said the polls are not predictive of what will happen at an election. So why would you rely on them, indeed use them to change leaders? Seems to me you are backing an outcome, but you have no idea of the odds? You have no idea at all that changing leaders will make things better or worse, and if you did, by how much. Yet, you tell me that intelligent people want to do that. How come they think in this wacky way?

You might well ask. But don’t expect me to give a sensible answer! It defies reason and logic. Frankly, I think emotion has got the better of their brains. They are so upset at what the polls commentators are telling them: that the party is doomed and that they will lose their seats in parliament; they are so scared, that they are acting on emotional autopilot. They are so convinced there is train wreck ahead (the commentators remind them of that every day), that they are frantically pulling levers, trying to put on the brakes, mindlessly shouting orders, and covertly working on plots to oust the leader, the female leader. They are in a state of panic. Anything might happen.

I see you are open-mouthed, but this is for real. In one of our papers, The Global Mail, Chris Wallace wrote an article called ‘ALP Noir: Serial Leader Slaughter’ that began: “Opinion-poll-fuelled bloodlust is the common factor. Opinion polls don’t kill politicians, politicians kill politicians, right? Just like guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Well, I don’t buy that line from the National Rifle Association in the US, and I don’t buy it in relation to opinion polls in Australia, in relation to the serial political slaughter that’s gone on here in recent years, either.” Later she says: “Our polity has become absurdly sensitized to opinion polls, aided and abetted by bored journalists for whom only regicide and elections amuse the jaded palate.”


’Regicide’ is a pretty strong word. That’s not how we Martians imagined Earthlings would behave.

Sorry to disillusion you, but that’s the reality! They are talking of urgent action, even perhaps today, to kill off the female leader. Politically of course – we are not complete savages!

I guess I’d better stick around. This could be interesting.

FOUR DAYS LATER.

What happened?

You won’t believe this, but the saboteurs in the ranks that have been undermining the leader reckoned they had enough of their mates on side to topple her, so one of them took it on himself to demand that the leader declare vacant her position, and that of her deputy, and have a secret ballot, but he didn’t bother to tell the pretender to the leadership. Then the female leader caught them all short by announcing: “OK, let’s have the ballot this afternoon”, in just over two hours!

Now this is bizarre! The guy who wanted to be leader again seemed to be caught off guard. He quickly got his troops to count the numbers, but despite their best efforts, they came up short of a majority. Now he was scared witless of getting knocked off again, so he said he wouldn’t stand. He wanted an absolute assurance that he would win this time, and when he knew he couldn’t, he chickened out.

So they all went into the meeting, the leader and deputy leader’s positions were declared vacant, nominations were called, but the only nominations were the ones already in those positions! So there was no ballot, and both the leader and her deputy were appointed again, unopposed. It was all over in a few minutes.


I’m gob-smacked. What an weird way of doing business!

You’re not wrong. But there’s more. The guys who were trying to topple her were soon spitting chips. As it turned out, they got only six more votes than last time, nowhere near what they needed, although they kept telling everyone that it was ‘very close’.

Naturally they felt embarrassed, annoyed, let down by the pretender, and with much egg on their face – not actual egg of course, that’s just one of our odd sayings for making a very big mistake.

They were so mad, so humiliated, that they came out, one after the other, and resigned – that’s the British way of doing it when you’ve stuffed up – very honourable!

So the female leader found others to replace them. There’s a feeling around that she’ll be better off without the saboteurs and able to get on with her job without having to look over her shoulder the whole time. Anyway, time will tell how it all works out.


So you’re telling me that all this extraordinary behavior, all those astonishing moves, all the plotting, all the sabotage, and the meeting that did nothing and changed nothing, came about because of opinion polls. Yet these polls don’t predict the future, don’t tell anyone who is going to win the election in six months. I can’t get my mind around that.

That’s right. And this charade has been played not just by the politicians, but aided and abetted, day after day, by the media, its journalists jostling with each other for the juiciest story, the exclusive, the scoop, the brilliant prediction of the time and place of the leader’s political demise. And they were all wrong. And are they furious! They regard themselves as the pundits, the insiders, but once more they have been caught short, and played for suckers. We are waiting to see upon whom they will vent their spleen.

Well, as I believe you say here on Earth, ‘you could knock me down with a feather’.

Seems to me that polls poison politics, and everyone caught up in their tentacles. Why on earth do you have them, literally?


I told you – they are money spinners for the owners, easy copy for languid journalists, great entertainment for poll watchers and sharp tools for subversive politicians. They are pointless, but there’s no way we will ever get rid of them.

Here on Earth it is true to say: “Polls perpetually poison politics”. Twelve months ago Ad Astra wrote ‘How opinion polls poison politics’. Sadly, since then polls have poisoned politics even more profoundly.


OK, but I still don’t understand; there must be something wrong wih my Martian brain.

No, it’s not your brain, it’s ours!


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How to vote: first examine your values

How do voters decide on where to cast their vote? For some it is automatic, even unthinking. They have voted this way before, maybe always. They are the rusted-on voters.

For many though, it's a question of “What’s in it for me?” “What will I gain if I vote this way and what will I lose?” The party matters less than the gains that each pledges, and the losses each threatens.

There is another group. Its members weighs up the pros and cons of each party’s platform and selects the ones that align best with their individual values, beliefs and ideology. These are the thoughtful; they probably comprise many of the so-called ‘undecideds’, who in a recent Essential poll sat at 16%, with another 31% saying: ‘I am leaning in one direction, but it could change.’ In other words, 47% could still vote either way on September 14. These are the ones who decide who wins – the swinging voters. How do they decide?

If one can judge from comments in the Fifth Estate, many of this group has well-established views about society in a democracy and how it ought to operate. They have their policy preferences and their biases. They have attitudes towards the leaders, and know what they like and dislike about them.

This piece attempts to tease out what it is that separates the major parties ideologically, how this is reflected in policy, and how this influences voting behaviour.

The Liberals, the Nationals, the Greens and Labor all have party platforms available on the Internet that depict their values, ideologies, policies and plans. They make informative reading. You can look at them here:
Liberal Party: (24 pages).
National Party of Australia: (57 pages).
The Greens: (43 policies).
Labor Party: (268 pages).

There has been a tendency for the uninformed to mouth what I believe to be an inanity: ‘They are all the same anyway’, implying ‘What does it matter for whom we vote’, followed by the unrealistic proposition: ‘If the party we vote for is no good, we can throw it out!’ This is not only ridiculous; it is a cop-out, a lame excuse for not thinking, for not looking for the things that separate the parties. There are plenty, yet a glance through the party platforms shows striking similarities. They all embrace laudable objectives that on superficial inspection seem quite similar, which may explain why some believe the parties really are ‘all the same’.

And of course there are also similarities among politicians: the ruthlessness, the ambition, the primeval urge to claw to the top, the factionalism, the disingenuousness, the spin and the use of the glib slogan, as well as common decency and a desire to make this country a better place. But there are deep and enduring differences in philosophy, ideology, attitudes and values that starkly separate politicians and parties.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to examine the party platforms by using a rather crude process to identify their major attributes – searching for key words and phrases in their platforms.

My first observation is that all party platforms and policies enshrine commendable objectives such as a robust economy and strong employment. All support good education and health care systems. They all insist that they want a fair society, opportunities for all, and support for the disadvantaged and the disabled. It is only when these policies are applied that the stark differences become apparent, and they are stark.

Let’s look at some areas to tease out these differences, beginning with the economy.

The economy
It is this aspect of governance that show up the differences most noticeably. Bill Clinton is often quoted as saying: “It’s the economy, stupid”, and it is. But I suspect he was referring to the need for a strong and growing economy. All parties in this country would agree with him, but the angle I wish to emphasize here is not that objective, but how different parties believe it can and should be achieved.

The Liberals place great value on ‘the right to be independent, to own property and to achieve’ and the ‘creation of wealth and competitive enterprise’. The Nationals do too, but seem to give the economy less emphasis.

The Greens believe that ’a prosperous and sustainable economy relies upon a healthy natural environment’ and that ’the pursuit of continuous material-based economic growth is incompatible with the planet’s finite resources.’

The Labor Party emphasizes the need for a strong and growing economy with employment opportunities for all who can work.

Note the subtle differences. The Coalition values enterprise, competition and independence with less emphasis on employment; labour is seen as a vehicle that enables enterprises to prosper. The Greens’ support of the economy is subject to its compatibility with a healthy environment. Labor sees the economy as providing jobs and prosperity for all.

These differences create the tension that exists, and has existed for centuries, between enterprise and labour. This is described in a piece on Turn Left 2013, that was written by Flora Tristan way back in 1843. Titled Workers’ Union, it describes the awful struggle that women had in that era achieving decent working conditions. Then, there was grotesque exploitation of labour by management – low wages, poor working conditions, child labour, and no benefits. Of course working conditions are much, much better now, but the tension continues.

Business and industry insists there must be more ‘flexibility’ in working conditions, which is code for workers working when management wants them to, poorer working conditions and entitlements, and lower wages and benefits. The struggle goes on to this day. For example, those in tourism and the catering industry are insisting they cannot turn a decent profit if they have to pay penalty rates at weekends, which they insist are just working days that should attract ordinary wages.

Unions battle for better working conditions, sometimes overegging their claims; management tries to whittle them back to improve competitiveness and profit. It is where political parties position themselves on the ‘management – labour’ spectrum that exposes their values and attitudes.

You will all recall how the public reacted to the punitive aspects of John Howard’s WorkChoices, legislated when he controlled both houses. He acknowledges he went too far, as do many of his ministers, so much so that Tony Abbott is scared witless about changing industrial relations in a way that suggests a return to WorkChoices, which long ago he declared was dead and buried, and for good measure, cremated as well. Very dead! It was electoral poison then and was a major factor in the Coalition’s 2007 electoral loss, and it is still poison. It is a metaphor for the political danger of taking extreme positions. Similarly, unions who adopt extreme positions in the other direction, also take dangerous political risks.

So here is the battlefield. Business and industry takes entrepreneurial risks, invest money and resources, and seek a healthy return and consistent profits. Enterprise generally seeks to engage its workforce for the least outlay. Those representing the workforce seek to ensure good wages and conditions, and security for workers.

If you imagine the tension has dissipated, think about the contemporary ‘457 visa’ row. Unions, workers, and the Government insist that some employers are abusing the system with overseas workers being brought in when local labour is available, leading to Australians missing out on jobs, and a lowering of wages in the affected sectors. Instances have been quoted, sufficient for Government to legislate a tightening up of the 457 visa system. The Coalition reacted by denying the problem, linking it to ‘the Government’s failed border protection policy’.

This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of the 457 system, but simply to highlight the reaction to the plan to revise it. Business groups screamed blue murder, insisting the scheme was vital in some sectors (no one is denying that) and that abuses were minimal. It seemed reluctant to accept that there ought to be more emphasis on training locals in preference to importing foreigners. It labelled the Government’s moves as xenophobic, Pauline Hanson style. Returning from overseas, Peter Anderson, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, although conceding that there had been problems with 457 visas, nevertheless lambasted the Government’s moves on the basis of a headline in Singapore’s The Straits Times, insisting that the crackdown on the 457 visa scheme was getting bad publicity in Asia, and expressing the fear that it might damage Australia's reputation and create a backlash against Australian workers and companies in Australia.

This is yet another example of the tension between those in business and industry and their workforce.

There are those who take the extreme view that enterprise ought to be given the breaks because entrepreneurs are the ‘wealth creators’ who provide jobs for the workers. They take this view on the basis that the wealth they create trickles down to those at the bottom of the pile. That this is often little more than crumbs falling from the rich man’s table is illustrated in a graph from John Quiggin’s book Zombie Economics - How dead ideas still walk among us. In a paragraph headed Death – the rich get richer and the poor go nowhere, Quiggin uses a telling graph of household income in the US over a 36 year period, from 1967 to 2003. Do take a look. It shows that while those in the top 5% increased their income by over 60% in that period, those in the bottom 10% did not increase it at all, and even those on the 50th percentile, the half way mark, increased by less than 10%. It was only those on the 80th percentile or above that showed a substantial increase. The top half boomed; the bottom half stagnated. Not much trickle down there.

The theory of ‘trickle-down economics’ has been thoroughly debunked, yet it is still the base on which the Republicans in the US and their extreme partners, The Tea Party, build their case for not increasing taxes on the rich or taking away their tax breaks, preferring expenditure cuts that would adversely affect the poor and the disadvantaged. This was at the root of the dispute termed ‘the fiscal cliff’, which continues to this day. The conservative parties here, and the Coalition governments around this country, embrace the same doctrine and the ideology on which it is based. It might not be as extreme here, but it is nonetheless a driving force behind Coalition economic policy. Listen to Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Barnaby Joyce and Cory Bernardi and your will hear the same dogma. Don’t bother listening to what Tony Abbott says; he says what ever suits his audience of the moment.

Yet another example of the tension between business and its workforce is the push by governments to achieve a budget surplus. All parties seek this outcome, but conservative parties believe budgeting for a surplus is an imperative even if the social consequences are dire. Labor pushed for a surplus for the current financial year in the belief that it was prudent economic policy to return to surplus after a period of stimulus. And it was. As it turned out, falling revenue meant that to achieve a surplus severe expenditure cuts would be needed that would slow the economy and increase unemployment. The Government chose to abandon its quest for a budget surplus and instead to support economic growth and growth in jobs, knowing it would be ridiculed by the Coalition for not achieving its aim, and breaking yet another ‘promise’.

On the other hand, Coalition governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, which continue to pursue budget surpluses, have demonstrated whom it is that suffers – those in education, health, other services, and of course the public service. Savage cuts in these areas in Queensland reduced Campbell Newman’s net popularity from +23 to -13, a 46% drop in six months. In Victoria, Ted Bailleau, who resisted wage increases to nurses, paramedics and teachers, and who savagely cut TAFE funding, found he had lost the confidence of his party room and resigned. His successor, Denis Napthine seems to understand that he has to be less fanatical in achieving a surplus.

Conservative governments also eschew debt, insisting that governments must live within their means, notwithstanding the fact that almost one in two Australian households have a home mortgage that takes many, many years to pay off, and three out of four have credit card debt. It’s apparently OK for households to go into debt when circumstances demand, but not governments. You will recall the resistance of the Coalition to the second and larger tranche of Government’s stimulus package during the GFC. Presumably the Coalition would have preferred to keep the debt down rather than keeping people in work and safeguarding small and large business. Labor preferred the opposite, and in doing so protected our economy from recession, steering it to be the best in the world today, with the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the developed world.

Although we have touched almost exclusively on the economy, these examples vividly illustrate the stark difference between progressive (Labor) parties and conservative (Coalition) parties.

Because this piece is already long enough, comparison of the parties and the contrasts they throw up in other areas of governance needs to be left for another time.

This piece asserts that indeed ‘it is the economy, stupid’. It most influences voter thinking, but in a subtle way.

Although Australia has the most prosperous and vibrant economy in the developed world with parameters that finance ministers the world over envy, this will not be sufficient for many voters. They have come to expect such economic strength, and give the Government little credit for having brought it about. Therefore the driving force behind thoughtful voters’ decisions at election time is likely to be the extent to which each party matches the values they hold dear.

The two major parties exhibit almost diametrically opposed values. Progressive parties value jobs and economic growth more than running budget surpluses and retiring debt. Conservative parties detest debt and insist on running surpluses to pay it off, more than they value full employment and economic growth. The behaviour of contemporary Federal and State governments provides the supporting evidence this assertion requires.

Progressive parties place great store in social justice. By their actions, conservative parties appear to place more emphasis on commercial success. Labor values fairness and opportunity for all, seeks to achieve an equitable balance between incomes and wealth across the population, and supports the disadvantaged. In contrast, the Coalition decries what it describes as ‘a sense of entitlement’ that it says afflicts much of the electorate, ironically having created much of it in the first place. It takes a neo-liberal free market approach. It prefers to support the entrepreneurs, the wealth creators: business and industry, and casts as villains those who support working conditions: Labor, and of course the unions, whose officials it describes as thugs. The contrast between the parties is striking.

This comparison, this contrast, ought to influence thinking voters, who ought to vote according to their values. I wonder if they will, come September 14?


What do you think?

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Cool courage trumps cringing cowardice

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again.


For many of the opinionistas, PM Gillard is Humpty Dumpty. They insist that she has had a great fall, indeed one fall after another, and no amount of effort by the king’s men can ever put her together again, no amount of effort can give her an election winning edge. This is certainly the view of the vitriolic Niki Savva and her ilk; the News Limited coterie: Paul Kelly, Dennis Shanahan, David Spears – you know them all; the Fairfax opinionistas: Peter Hartcher, and the ‘new’ Michelle Grattan, now at The Conversation, but writing exactly the same anti-Gillard spiel as before, now under a cloak of academic respectability; turncoat and Eddie Obeid friend Graham Richardson, valued by the anti-Gillard camp because of his prior Labor connections; and a vast array of Coalition has-beens: Peter Reith, Michael Kroger and Graeme Morris are just a few of these particularly venomous critics that pop up over and again. If I may borrow a Coalition phrase, ‘these people’ are the ones who paint our PM as Humpty Dumpty, who can never be put together again.

Distressing as that is to Labor supporters, it comes as no surprise because Labor people know that for at least two years News Limited has been hell-bent on destroying PM Gillard and her Government, and now it seems Fairfax has joined it.

What is most distressing to Labor supporters though is that some Labor politicians have joined in the anti-Gillard chorus. I don’t mean Graham Richardson – he long ago sold his soul to Rupert Murdoch. I do mean, for example, Alannah MacTiernan, an accomplished past Labor politician who is now the well-regarded Mayor of the City of Vincent in WA. Known for her strong views, she opined after the WA election that Labor could not win federally with Julia Gillard as PM, and urged her to step down. She stopped short of suggesting who might take her place. Current NT Labor MLA, Kon Vatskalis, soon joined her.

Others in Labor ranks have hinted similarly, and many opinionistas have strongly asserted the same. Most avoid suggesting who should replace her and how this should come about. Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, and even Simon Crean (the Napthine option) have been named. I do wonder what MacTiernan thought she might accomplish with her suggestion. She has certainly accomplished plenty of press coverage, all the more so I suppose because she is Labor, and many Labor politicians have been confronted by journalists with her statement and asked to respond. She had caused much discomfort in Labor circles, made all the more so because her advice lacks a credible mechanism for bringing about the PM’s resignation and installing a replacement. In a word, her unnecessary intervention is having a negative effect on her own party, and increasing the likelihood of a defeat in September. She, and other Labor figures that utter such unhelpful comments, are a menace even more threatening than the usual media suspects.

Let’s for a moment look at the alternatives to Julia Gillard who has shown herself to be across all portfolios, who has managed a minority government better than anyone thought possible, has a vast legislative agenda and has already had over 460 pieces of legislation passed against trenchant, and at times vitriolic opposition. Is anyone suggesting that Bill Shorten, who has done well in his portfolio, especially in addressing disability, is capable of addressing the full gamut of portfolios if he were to become PM? Who of you believe that Greg Combet, who has performed excellently in his climate change portfolio, could do as well across all areas of government? Do any of you really believe that Simon Crean, who was so cruelly ejected from leadership years ago, would risk his hand again?

If it’s not those men who might replace the PM, who is it? It would not be Wayne Swan who has been tarred with the same brush as the PM. And the possibility, let alone the appropriateness of a return to Kevin Rudd, seems to have been all but discarded by Rudd himself and rejected by a plethora of his caucus colleagues who don’t want him, a failed PM, back in that position under any circumstances. There are of course still pro-Rudd agitators in caucus who believe his return would enhance Labor’s electoral fortunes, and perhaps save their own seats, but that belief is based on opinion polls. How any rational politician could base his or her beliefs and take radical actions on such unreliable and evanescent data is beyond my comprehension. In my opinion, the disruption and chaos that a forced return to Rudd would occasion would quickly negate any imagined electoral advantage. In my view, the only way Rudd’s electoral appeal might be usefully harnessed would be for him to agree to unreservedly back PM Gillard publically, get out on the hustings where he is popular, and strongly advocate a return of the Gillard Government to counter the danger posed to this nation by an Abbott government. A reward that would give him the status he craves might be an inducement, as Mark Latham has suggested.

Because nothing is impossible in political circles, we have to work on probabilities. Get real Folks; how high would you realistically rate the possibility of a Gillard resignation in favour of any of the above-named? And more importantly, how high would you rate the probability that any change would result in a better outcome on September 14? Would you put any of your own money on either of those? What odds do you think you would get? Come on.

Yet the more Labor folk waver, the more they behave as if they need to ‘save the furniture’, the more they propel Labor towards the very outcome they fear.

Cringing cowardice will get Labor nowhere, except drive it backwards. What is needed by all who support Labor is what Julia Gillard exhibits every day of her political life: COOL COURAGE.

She puts to abject shame the doubting Thomases, the Rudd agitators, the marginal seat worry-warts, the timid Labor supporters who talk to their mates, hear adverse comments about our PM, give them predictive credence, and wring their hands in anguish. ALL Labor supporters need guts, stamina and resolve. Where it is lacking, recrimination and self-defeat looms.


The latest round of doubt and uncertainty has arisen from the WA State election, won convincingly by the Liberals and Nationals. Variously described by the commentariat as ‘dire’, a ‘landslide’, a ‘rout’, a ‘crushing defeat’, it has been attributed to ‘Federal Labor being on the nose’, ‘toxic’ even ‘lethal’ according to Peter van Onselen. Leigh Sales sees Labor’s electoral woes as a precursor to a ‘wipeout’ in September. Such extravagant words seem to be all that is necessary to ‘spark a new round of leadership speculation’, especially among the opinionistas. The facts are less important to them, but let’s look at those facts objectively.

Labor was defeated convincingly by Colin Barnett and his team, but why? Barnett himself said that the election was fought mainly on State issues. He credited good governance as the major factor. He made little of the suggestion that the result was an anti-Gillard protest; he even said it might have been a mistake to not have her involved in the campaign. He was not about to assign the major factor in his substantial success to any factor other than his government’s work. Do we believe what the winner has said, or the interpretation put upon the result by the antipathetic commentariat?

There has been much made of the swings to the Liberals and Nationals. In some electorates it was very large and Labor’s loss commensurate. But the State swings show a different picture. The State wide swing to the Liberals was 8.8%, and to the Nationals 1.1%, a total of 9.9%. Now one might reasonably expect that Labor would have borne the brunt of that swing, but that was not so. The swing against Labor was 2.3%, its primary vote falling from 35.9% at the last WA election to 33.6% this time (at the last count), a loss in percentage terms of 6.4% of its total primary vote since the last election that you will remember was close, delivering a ‘hung parliament’. Is that really a ‘rout’? Julie Bishop’s talk of a “12% swing, which would have been 15% had Julia Gillard taken part in the election campaign”, was just hogwash, as is so much of what she utters. It was the Greens who suffered much more, losing about a third of their primary vote: 11.9% to 8.0% (-3.9%), and the conservative Independents still more: 9.0% to 5.3% (-3.7). That is where the LNP garnered most of its swing.

Stephen’s Smith’s concession that Federal Labor had been ‘a drag on State Labor’ was broadcast endlessly, and had an element of truth to it, but if one can take Colin Barnett’s and Labor leader Mark McGowan’s assessment as valid, the ‘drag’ was small. They ought to be in a well-informed position. But to the commentariat the ‘drag’ was massive and predictive of electoral annihilation for Labor in September.

The effect on Federal Labor seats in WA is uncertain. Anthony Green has said that the three Federal Labor seats would likely be held, even in Perth, Stephen’s Smith’s seat, about which doubt has been expressed. Green said that based on ”state figures it [Perth] would be held by Labor…The state figures within Perth are Liberal 44.7%, Labor 42.2%, Green 10.1%, Christian Democrat 2.6%, Family First 0.3%, Socialist 0.2%.”

The most disappointing aspect of these last few days though has been the reaction of members of the Labor caucus, some of whom seem to suffer from chronic depressive illness with an overlay of obsessive behaviour, and others whose melancholy is given expression through agitation for a change to Kevin Rudd, white-anting of the PM, and the back-grounding of ever-eager journalists ready to make a meal of any tidbit that comes their way. These are Labor’s, and Julia Gillard’s, most dangerous enemies.

In my view, their reaction, and that of journalists hungry for sensational headlines, has been way over the top. What did they expect out of the WA election? They must have known that a well regarded first term government in a State that is prospering was not going to be kicked out. They must have expected loss of seats. How many would they have accepted as reasonable? It looks as if around nine seats will be lost. Would one or two, or perhaps three or four have been OK? What did they expect? What would have silenced the malcontents? Do we know? Do they know? Would any loss at all be enough to set the hares running?

Then came today’s Newspoll. Long before it appeared, the commentariat was out there pumping it up as being decisive in determining Julia Gillard’s future. They were salivating at the prospect of delivering a double whammy – the WA result followed within forty-eight hours with another disastrous poll, with Labor’s primary vote sinking even lower and PM Gillard’s popularity falling, as well as her PPM rating. They hoped that this would stir the Rudd agitators to action and whip up even more intense leadership speculation. They were hoping for more self-flagellation from the caucus malcontents, and were ready with tongues hanging out for another round of predicting Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministerial demise. Would she even see out the next fortnight of parliamentary sittings?

No rational person would have expected a vast change in a poll of voting intention from the last Newspoll or the earlier Nielsen poll, especially after all the mud the media has hurled at PM Gillard since then. Yet the commentariat was out there whipping up the ‘Gillard is doomed if the polls don’t improve’ scenario, in anticipation of just that result. The piranhas, thirsty for blood, for tearing every skerrick of flesh from the PM, circled in anticipation of a kill.

But surprisingly the Newspoll came in at a TPP of 52/48 for the Coalition, somewhat of an improvement from the 55/45 figures last time. And Julia Gillard has jumped above Tony Abbott in the PPM stakes: 42/38. Of course there was a morsel for the opinionistas to play with – the statistic that with Kevin Rudd as leader Labor’s primary vote would jump to an improbable 47% and the TPP to 56/44 in favour of Labor. It will be fascinating to see how they play with those statistics, but anyone who believes those figures would be even remotely approached at an election is delusional and ought to be on medication. Yet that is what the commentariat would have us believe, and what the Rudd agitators dream about.

To return to the theme of this piece, what ALL Labor politicians need, particularly the caucus malcontents, what ALL Labor supporters need, is COOL COURAGE in place of the cringing cowardice too many exhibit. They need to emulate our gutsy PM. They need to ignore the ups and downs of meaningless opinion polls, even when they move in Labor’s favour, and get behind her, get behind Labor, strain every fibre of their being to ensure that Tony Abbott never becomes PM of this country.

To return to our Humpty Dumpty Nursery Rhyme, to my mind the most plausible explanation of its origin is the story of the siege of Colchester.

As the story goes, according to Jennifer Wright, writing on Yahoo voices: ”during the English civil war, which took place from 1642 to 1649, there was a battle referred to as the Siege of Colchester, which was a walled city guarded heavily by the Royalists. Parliamentarians were the enemy and known as Roundheads because of their close cropped hair cuts. Inside the city walls stood a castle and a few churches. One church in particular, St. Mary's, stood right beside the wall.

“Humpty Dumpty was believed to be a large cannon that was placed on the wall next to the church…

“Story has it that the walls of the fortified city were shot at for 11 weeks before finally falling. The wall beneath Humpty Dumpty was destroyed and the cannon fell to the ground. Therefore "All the king's horses and all the king's men" tried to put Humpty back together again by attempting to place the cannon onto another part of the wall. Unfortunately Humpty Dumpty was too heavy and could not be replaced. This siege ended with Colchester being taken by the Parliamentarians.”


Here, it is the Coalition parliamentarians, reinforced by a compliant media, that has been shooting incessantly at the Labor fortifications and the Labor leader. They repeatedly proclaimed that the Labor cannon, which had been vigorously returning fire, was falling down, or about to have a great fall. The fall of the leader, who was firing the cannon to great effect, was predicted time and again, but she wouldn’t fall, or as the chief Roundhead said: "She won’t lie down and die."

Meanwhile many, but not all of the king’s men were supporting her and her cannon. Some were timid, afraid of defeat. They detracted from her cannon firing; they touted for another king. They are still to realize that instead of distracting, if all the king’s men secured Humpty Dumpty on the embattlements, the king could fire cannon balls uninterruptedly at the enemy, and win the war.

But that requires discarding their cringing cowardice, and in its place exhibiting cool courage, just like their king. The king’s men owe it to her and her many admiring supporters. Are they up to it?

What do you think?

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The curse of the opinionistas

Reflect on how often you have heard a Fourth Estate political commentator argue: “Because of this set of facts, I am of the opinion that so and so is true”? Seldom. How often have you heard one of them say: “My opinion is based on the following propositions…”? Practically never. How often have you heard or read: “If you put together these facts, it is logical to conclude that…and here is why”? Never.

So what do they say? “He/she showed poor judgement” (no supporting evidence advanced). “That was an appalling mistake” (no facts or reasons for that view provided). “That will play out badly with the electorate” (why this is predicted is not stated). We see this time and again.

This piece asserts that it is the substitution of unsupported opinion, often arising from a partisan mindset, in place of evidence and reasoning, that is the genesis of most of the media ‘bias’, about which there is so much contemporary angst.

Let’s examine a recent case in point. Here is what Niki Savva said in her discussion with Sky News Political Editor David Speers on 25 February in an Agenda session: Are we too focused on polls? Referring to leadership speculation, Savva insisted that PM Gillard: ”brings it on herself” because: ”she performs badly, not just once, but repeatedly.” And: ”She has shown continuously that she has bad judgement…it’s a case of her own missteps. She calls the election for September 14 and then within a matter of days…she announces the departure of two senior cabinet ministers…”

Read that again, or better still, play the YouTube video of the Agenda discussion.

Reflect on her words, and if you watch the video, take a look at Savva’s body language.

What are the relevant facts? There are two: PM Gillard announced a September 14 election and two days later announced the resignation of Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon. Indisputable facts. The rest of what Savva says is simply opinion – her opinion. She offers no reasoning. She simply states, with her usual self-confidence, that: ”she [Gillard] performs badly, not just once but repeatedly”, and that she has “bad judgement” and “missteps”. In the next breath she says: “She [Gillard] calls the election for September 14 and then within a matter of days…she announces the departure of two senior cabinet ministers…”, as if that is sufficient reason for her to condemn the PM vigorously. Savva is of the opinion that announcing the election and then the resignations is ‘bad judgement’, a ‘misstep’. Who says so, apart from Savva? No doubt other anti-Gillard journalists, such as Judith Sloan, who agreed recently on The Drum.

But not one journalist that I have heard or read has argued why these actions constituted ‘bad judgement’ or a ‘misstep’. On what basis were they so? What precedents suggest this is so? We are supposed to accept this journalistic ‘wisdom’ as if it were gospel, without the need for facts, evidence, argument, or reasoning to support it. This is what we the public are confronted with day after day – opinion masquerading as informed reasoning, well thought through conclusions, fact based logic. It is a monumental con. It’s time we cried out in protest.

But remember that Niki Savva and her ilk are intelligent. They are certainly not stupid. So, if she eschews the verifiable facts that you and I can access, or interprets them in her own idiosyncratic way, what generates her behaviour? It can’t be nothing at all. It must be another set of facts.

In my opinion, judging from her behavior time and again on Insiders and other TV programs, what seems to motivate her, what appears to condition her behavior, is a desire to see PM Gillard gone and Tony Abbott installed in her place. Her oral language portrays a loathing of Julia Gillard, as does her body language. That ‘fact’ seems to me to be what energizes her. What generates her behavior appears to me to arise from her values and attitudes towards PM Gillard and Labor, her apparent disdain. What do you think?

The question for us then is how congruent are her values and attitudes with ours, and therefore how acceptable are her opinions to us.

Savva’s attitudes and values were exposed as she argued with Kerry-Anne Walsh, the other panelist on David Spears’ Agenda. Presumably Walsh was included because she had a strong opinion about the way the media uses opinion polls to create news stories and influence the politics. If this was so, Spears got his money’s worth of conflict and argument. Walsh suggested that the purpose of polling was to generate stories, particularly surrounding the Labor leadership, for the benefit of those who own the polling organizations. She went on to accuse the media of using polls to deliberately manipulate the politics. As soon as she did, she was set upon by an indignant Savva and a self-righteous Spears, both of whom denied Walsh’s accusations vigorously. They protested that the media was only following ‘the story’, one that had its origins in the anonymous leaks, corridor whispers, and back-grounding from Labor politicians. They didn’t make this up, insisted Savva and Spears; they were obliged to follow ‘the story’.

When you view the discussion, see if you can discern Savva’s attitude to Julia Gillard. It looked to me that she was very hostile, critical, and even emotional as she expressed her contempt for our PM. Savva’s values seem not to coincide at all with those of the PM. Savva’s opinions are going to be antagonistic to the PM, no matter what the issue. What then are her opinions worth in the context of a balanced discussion? There is no chance of her making a genuine concession, no chance of her giving the PM credit for anything at all. She acts like a court prosecutor, always seeking to bring out the worst and conceal everything other than that.

Savva is but one of many whose opinions are noticeably warped by their attitudes, values and political allegiances. Peter Reith, a frequent panelist on The Drum, Q&A and other TV programs, is another. Have you ever heard him say anything complimentary about our PM or anything Labor has done or proposes to do? He is unremittingly and sarcastically critical, negative and disparaging. Yet, like Savva, he is included, supposedly to provide balance. What are he and Savva supposed to be balancing? How many avid left-leaning, Government-supporting, Gillard-admiring panelists are there that need the counterbalance of a Savva or a Reith? I can’t think of any. Can you? Even Kerry-Anne Walsh, who argued so strongly with Savva and Spears on Agenda, was not mounting a strident pro-Gillard agenda; she was simply criticizing the media for its preoccupation with polls, leadership and for manipulating the politics. The only supportive comment Walsh made was that she felt that our PM had been unfairly dealt with by the media, not a highly disputable assertion. And on other programs, Walsh has certainly not come across as a Gillard fancier.

Apart from Savva and Reith, there seems to be a plethora of anti-Gillard, anti-Labor opinionistas that can be drawn upon. Among the many are the odious Piers Akerman, rabidly anti-Gillard Andrew Bolt, turncoat Graham Richardson, the oleaginous Graeme Morris, smarmy Gerard Henderson, the egotistical Joe Hildebrand, past-Liberal politician Ross Cameron, Liberal advocate Judith Sloan, the hard right John Roskam, smart Aleck Tim Wilson, the too-clever-by-half Tom Switzer (the IPA has an abundant supply of panelists that the ABC seems compelled to engage). News Limited has an almost inexhaustible stock of anti-Labor journalists that can serve on panels to inject their learned, but invariably biased opinions: the pontifical Paul Kelly, the let’s-get-rid-of-Gillard Dennis Shanahan, fence-sitter Peter van Onselen, the consistently antagonistic Irme Salusinszky and Henry Ergas. There are many others.

Shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley are extreme anti-Gillard opinionistas. How many moderate ones are there? Jon Faine on ABC 774 Radio is one. I know of no left-leaning shock jocks. Do you?

As one would expect, panelists drawn from political parties are extreme in their views. George Brandis, Eric Abetz, Barnaby Joyce, Christopher Pyne, Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella are consistently acerbic and unremittingly negative to Labor, more than matching Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. This is no surprise, but that doesn’t stop journalists from engaging them on panels and at doorstops to ‘give balance to their programs’. They provide the conflict and entertainment the media craves.

Are there any journalists out there that can and do give a balanced opinion, an opinion that is ready to give credit to, as well as criticize any of the parties? Some of those, who in my opinion fit that specification, are Mike Seccombe, Dennis Atkins, Laura Tingle, David Marr, Ross Gittins, Peter Martin, George Megalogenis, Andrew Probyn; and Steve Cannane, Tim Palmer and Julia Baird of The Drum. None give the impression of being ‘lefties’.

What this piece is arguing is that the electorate is bombarded day after day with opinion from the opinionistas that derives far less from facts and reasoning than from the political orientation, the political preferences, and the attitudes and values of the opinionistas. In other words, it is what political outcome they desire that determines their utterances and writings, not the hard, cold facts, not a logically reasoned conclusion derived from them. In short, their opinions are worthless. All they portray is what they want, what they desperately wish and hope for. Not what logically follows from verifiable facts. We are being sold a pup, by con merchants, deliberately and shamelessly. And we’re fed up with being treated like idiots.

‘Media bias’ has attracted a lot of attention recently in the Fifth Estate. Arguments have arisen about whether it is real or imagined. Ben Eltham wrote about it recently in New Matilda: The Truth About Media Bias . Studies have attempted to define bias and document it. Some find that partisan bias is minimal or non-existent; others suggest bias one way or the other. This piece takes a different tack. It argues that the opinion of opinionistas is worthless, in fact dangerous, when their opinion is not based on facts and logical reasoning, instead being predominately a product of their political orientation, attitudes and values, the more so when their political orientation is strongly partisan. Commenting on the Eltham article, Ross C said pointedly: ”We all should remember that a journalist’s role is to dispassionately document what happens, not cause stuff to happen. Overstepping that mark consistently can destroy credibility, and the transition from journalist to commentator is hard to reverse.” Indeed!

That there are many partisan opinionistas seems undeniable; we see, hear, and read them every day. What might be debatable is the relative proportion of right-leaning and left leaning opinionistas, and how heavily they lean when they do. My impression is that there are many more right-leaning, and that they lean strongly that way. What do you think?

The question that begs an answer, at least for me, is why the right-leaning seem to predominate on current affairs programs on radio and TV and in print. Why are their opinions, which to me are worthless because they lack underpinning evidence and reasoning, solicited so frequently?

A cogent reason would be that some news outlets are actively seeking to bring down the Gillard Government and replace it with an Abbott one. News Limited is one; it looks as if Fairfax has joined them. In ‘breaking news’ in a postscript to an article: Among The True Believers on The Pub Bushfire Bill recounted a discussion he had had with journalists at the recent Community Cabinet meeting: "Tony Abbott has lunch at News Ltd HQ every week." Incredulous, I asked the person to repeat it. "Every week, in private, to discuss the latest ‘Get Gillard’ strategies." BB went on to comment: ”No wonder there’s such a seamless segue between what News writes and what Abbott parrots. He’s dealing with the enemy. They’re writing the script for him.” If this is so, is it any wonder that so many pro-Coalition opinionistas are on the air and in print, hour after hour, day after day, week after week offering their partisan opinions sans evidence, sans logic? It is part of a combined Coalition/News Limited strategy to bring Labor down. As BB reminds us: When they really ARE out to get you, it’s NOT paranoia.

Even leaving aside the conspiracy to which BB alludes, its suits media outlets to use these opinionistas because they generate indignation, now media stock in trade, as NormanK pointed out in a comment on the last piece: ”A few years ago I wrote a fairly lengthy comment here about Mr Abbott's campaign to convince the populace that they had a 'right to be angry'. Angry about a flood levy, angry about a supposed broken promise, angry at renegade independent members who went against the prevailing mood of their electorates, angry about just about everything that stopped their lives from reaching the nirvana that they so obviously deserve. A different theme has emerged in the way in which the popular media approaches just about every story that it covers. Perhaps the tactic has existed for many years but I'm only noticing it now. The new emotion for the decade is 'indignation'. It started manifesting itself in my consciousness when the 'sporting scandal' broke. Remember that 'darkest day' in Australian sport?” NormanK concluded: ”Next time you have the misfortune to be consuming the tabloid media (I include 7.30 & Lateline in this category) ask yourself whether or not indignation is not the primary emotion that the slant of the story is attempting to engender.”

He is right. Opinionistas generate indignation. Indignation about the ‘cost of living’, electricity prices, the cost of housing. It must be someone’s fault. Opinionistas invite people to be indignant about PM Gillard, her ‘poor judgements’, her ‘missteps’, her ‘broken promises’, the carbon tax, the minerals tax, many of her policies (asylum policy, gay marriage), her manner of speech (condescending, schoolmarmish), her demeanour, her appearance, her marital status, her willingness to take the fight up to a male opponent, her audacity negotiating and managing a minority government, ‘against the wishes of the electorate’; the list of ‘indignation triggers’ goes on and on.

In my view, opinionistas are a curse on our political system. Predominantly, they offer opinions based on partisan positions rather than on facts and well-reasoned arguments. Moreover, their opinions deliberately evoke indignation, which incites anger among the electorate and opposition to those in power. This fits nicely into the anti-Government, anti-Gillard narrative that most of the Fourth Estate promotes day after day.

In my view, the whole tenor of political debate is warped, is cursed by opinionistas. What a difference it would make if those who proffer an opinion did so using verifiable evidence and logical reasoning, and steered clear of partisan bias?

‘Pie in the sky’, I hear you murmuring!

What do you think?

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