Grasping at prime ministership the Abbott way

Let’s be clear from the outset. The lead up to the September 14 election will not be a respectful contest of ideas, a civil battle of policies and plans. It will be a bare-knuckle street fight between personalities, with no holds barred. The Abbott way countenances no other approach.

To seize the top job, the Abbott way is to have many lines of attack. A keen observer of the Abbott way is the source of the principles and strategies detailed below. Some may appear counterintuitive, but they work:

Feelings are more important in winning elections than rational thinking.
Capturing hearts trumps changing minds.
Emotionally laden words beat fact-based logic.

Here is the Abbott way of applying them:

Facts and logic point to the virility and robustness of Australia’s economy. So many of its parameters are laudable: low unemployment, low inflation and falling interest rates, low debt to GDP ratio, growth near trend, even rising business and consumer confidence and increasing retail sales in recent months.

Although we hear of job losses as industries affected by the persistently high Australian dollar shed workers, all except 5.6% of the workforce have jobs, historically low by any standard.

Mortgagees enjoy the lowest interest rates since the lows of the GFC, avoiding thousands of dollars a year in interest payments. Self-funded retirees who depend heavily on interest bearing investments for income complain a little, but there are not many of them; most have investments and property.

But ask the people how they are doing, and they say they are doing it tough.

Yet they live in a vibrant economy, where CPI data tell us that while petrol and power prices are up, food and supermarket prices are falling. Even where some costs have risen because of putting a price on carbon, households have been more than compensated. But ask the people about prices and they vow they are getting higher and higher, despite evidence to the contrary. It is embedded in their psyche that ‘they are doing it tough’.

Facts and reasoning, even commonsense, are replaced by the feeling that things are crook.

With such an economy, the Gillard Government ought to be miles ahead in the polls and be rated as good economic managers, but not only is the Coalition well ahead, polls show that it is consistently rated as the better manager of the economy. It defies logic.

But it does demonstrate the principle that how people feel is more important than what they think. Facts are irrelevant if there is an entrenched feeling to the contrary.

How has the Abbott way achieved this outcome?

It’s been easy. No matter how laudably the Government has been managing the economy, no matter how well Treasurer Swan is regarded in international circles, the tactic has been simply to tell everyone that the economy is tanking, that Labor never could manage money, that it is addicted to spending and debt, that it will never bring in a surplus budget, that it is creating sovereign risk, that its recent superannuation changes were 'shades of Cyprus', and that now even its coveted triple A ratings are under threat, then add that the Coalition knows how to run an economy, has done it before during the golden Howard years, and can do it again. Never mind that the economic circumstances of the Howard era and the current Labor era are radically different. People won’t even think about that if it’s not mentioned.

Which brings us to the second set of Abbott principles:

Truth is irrelevant in politics, but plausibility is not.
No matter how far from the truth, if a statement is convincing, and especially if it matches preconceived prejudices, it will be believed.
Remember Goebbels’ dictums: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” and “The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.”

The Coalition has applied these principles to its great advantage. It has created an atmosphere of distrust, even despair about the economy among consumers and businesses, and they have swallowed the gloom holus bolus. When the gloom has been challenged with the facts of a buoyant economy, it has been easy to contradict it by endlessly repeating that people are doing it tough, and exemplifying this with news stories about disgruntled families struggling to pay their mortgages and their household bills, especially power bills. It doesn’t matter if some of these families are earning $150,000 plus. With kids at private schools, a second car in the garage, and a large mortgage to pay off their McMansion; they really feel life is tough. These stories are intended to anger those who see themselves in a similar position, and to muster sympathy from those who aspire to such a position. The next step is to convince them and everyone else that it’s the Government’s fault and that they would be better off with competent managers in power – the Coalition of course.

The Coalition has been tactically clever in promoting this ‘ain’t it awful’ mindset, because it has made it difficult for the Government to counter by telling people that they are doing just fine. So Labor too has joined the ‘doing it tough’ chorus. In fact, only a few weeks back Joel Fitzgibbon said the people working the mines in his electorate on $140,000 a year were doing it tough, and a constituent on $250,000 was ‘struggling’. No amount of reminding these people about how good the economic figures are makes any difference – they remain convinced they are struggling and resent anyone telling them otherwise. So all the Coalition has to do is to repeat the ‘doing it tough’ message over and again.

Which takes us to a third set of Abbott principles:

Repetition is essential.
Never let up on sending your message, no matter how bored some may become. It might look like brainwashing, but it works.
Keep the message simple.
Ensure the message is memorable.

The Coalition has specialized in short sharp messages – opponents call them slogans. It doesn't care, so long as they stick. The message does not have to be true, or even logical, so long as it is believable and catchy.

Take the 2010 election catchphrases: ‘End the waste’, ‘Pay back the debt’, ‘Stop the big new taxes’, ‘Stop the boats’ and ‘Help struggling families’. Remember how easy it was to have the public embrace them. Who wouldn’t want an end to waste? There was no need to advance evidence of waste as already this had been done with the adverse publicity over the HIP and the BER. Who would object to paying back the debt? There was no need to show how the Coalition would do that, or even whether it might be a prudent thing to do at that time. Who would disagree with stopping big new taxes? Explaining what that meant was unnecessary as the carbon tax, vivid in everyone’s mind, was painted as ‘a great big new tax on everything’. All except a handful wanted the boats stopped to avert the risk of drowning. There was no need to say how the Coalition would do this, and at what cost. And the motherhood statement ‘Help struggling families’ was a no brainer. What fool would contradict that? How the Coalition would do this did not need to be spelt out; implicitly the catchphrase assumed it could and would.

Despite the brevity and lack of detail in these slogans, they worked a treat, because they were catchy, easily recalled and plausible, albeit superficially.

More recently, in the pursuit of a more positive image, the Coalition has used another catchphrase in its booklet: Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians to portray its ‘plan for the future’. Note how clever this is. ‘Real’ appeals, as does ‘solutions’! People want solutions and if they are ‘real’ what more could they ask? The fact that these words are meaningless without substance matters little. Solutions for what? How do solutions become ‘real?’ Can solutions be ‘unreal’? The meaning of the catchphrase is irrelevant so long as it sounds attractive and plausible. Substance is unnecessary. How many will read the booklet? The title is left to create the desired positive image, and it probably will.

Which segues into the fourth set of Abbott principles:

Use the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ approach – words can mean whatever you want them to mean.
If anyone challenges what meaning has been given to a word, simply say that that is not its meaning.
If anyone confronts you with a damaging statement a Coalition member or staffer has made, first deny it. If the chatter persists, insist that what was said was misinterpreted. If it continues, brush it away as ‘past history’, insist that action has been taken, and that ‘the matter is now at an end’.

For example, when the Coalition's Paid Parental Leave scheme was announced, the words ‘fair dinkum’ were used to describe it. Aussies like things to be ‘fair dinkum’; it’s a bit like ‘real solutions’. The words also had the effect of diminishing the value of Labor’s scheme; by definition it could not be as ‘fair dinkum’. To pay for it, a 1.5% ‘levy’ would be imposed on around three thousand companies with the largest profit. Everyone knew that would be portrayed as a ‘tax’, but it was easy to insist that it was a ‘levy’ and a ‘modest levy’ at that, and it would be offset by a similar reduction in company tax. The Coalition insists it is still a levy, and definitely not a tax. See how easy it is to make words mean whatever you want them to mean.

Another example is the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan to combat climate change. Note ‘action’ is a key word, one voters like, and this time it is ‘direct’, which of course makes it ‘real’. It has been easy to conceal from most voters the fact that the DAP will impose a burden of $1,300 on every household and cost taxpayers many billions every year, will require many new regulations and hundreds of new bureaucrats to enforce them, will rely on the creation of a 15,000 strong Green Army to plant 20 million trees on what semi-arable land can be procured, and on burying tonnes of biochar in farmland. By using the term ‘Direct Action Plan’ – three stylish and comfortable words – the Coalition has been able to deflect attention from details that some voters might find discomforting, and from all the negative appraisals of the Plan by economists and environmentalists, leaving them with just those reassuring words that have given the Plan a comfortable aura, words that would have made even Humpty Dumpty proud.

On the principle of brushing off damaging statements, the Coalition has managed to do that remarkably effectively over ‘Ashbygate’, and the Mark Roberts ‘slit your throat’ outburst.

This leads to the next set of Abbott principles:

To achieve any of the above, a compliant media is required.
The mainstream media in this country is the conduit for convincing the people of the veracity of what the Coalition says.
The value of having media proprietors onside is inestimable.
Be prepared to do whatever it takes to get them onside.
Foster support from the wealthy and powerful as they have influence over the media.

This has been a Coalition success story. The Murdoch media has shown its willingness to not just support the Coalition, but oppose the Government. The Coalition could not have asked for an easier ride from the MSM. The Australian and the Murdoch tabloids have been strongly supportive and ready to put the Government down at every opportunity. News Limited’s Newspoll has been used not just as a measure of support for the parties, but the results have been written up in a way that no matter what the figures show, Labor has been shown up at a disadvantage. Rupert Murdoch gave an early indication that he wanted the Gillard Government gone, and he has been true to his word. Let’s face it, the Coalition could not have been in the favourable position it is in without the help of the Murdoch media, and now with its good friend Gina Rinehart a big shareholder at Fairfax, another large media outlet is onside.

The ABC was hard on Abbott in the Leigh Sales interview about the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam deferral, but her latest interview was a soft one, no doubt the result of lots of angry protests filed by Coalition supporters against the earlier one. It was easy to avoid her questions and control the interview. The ABC too looks like coming on board.

This leads to the fifth set of Abbott principles:

It is not enough to counter your opponent’s policies; you have to counter your opponent.
Demonization of opponents, particularly leaders, is essential. It is a form of ‘shooting the messenger’.
Demonization can be achieved by accusing an opponent of some misdemeanour, over and again, no matter how remote in time.
The misdemeanour need not be of any consequence, as the object is simply to raise doubts in voters’ minds about the integrity of your opponent.
Labelling an opponent pejoratively is a sure fire method, as no matter how improbable the accusation, some of it will stick.
If a theme of malfeasance or incompetence can be established, so much the better, as each instance reinforces the others.
Even if a Coalition member is guilty of the same misdemeanour, laying it on an opponent is the best counter. For example, if you tell lies yourself, accuse your opponent of lying.
Even if journalists contradict your assertions, even if they question their validity, always insist that you are correct. Never retreat. Repeat them again and again as if you haven’t heard the contradiction.
Making the electorate angry with your opponent is essential; it is vital to build up resentment and an aura of blame, so that no matter what good things your opponent does, they will be negated by the antagonism, anger and hatred that you have generated against your opponent.
It is essential to have allies in the media before engaging these strategies.

The Coalition has been successful in employing these principles.

Julia Gillard has been demonised as a liar, and labelled untrustworthy. The Coalition was gifted with her statement about not introducing a carbon tax. We know that only half of what she actually said has been circulated, but that matters nothing. The Coalition has many video clips of her saying these words that it will use over and again in election advertising, painting her as an untrustworthy liar. No amount of logic or reasoning will erase that. It is a sure winner. And hasn’t the rehashing of the Slater and Gordon matter been effective in casting doubts on her integrity!

She and her Government have been labelled as incompetent on the grounds that she has changed her position on some issues, and has not been able to bring off some of her changes. Moreover, her Government has been repeatedly labelled as dysfunctional, disunited, illegitimate, ‘a rabble’, the worst government in the nation’s history, worse that Whitlam’s, and ‘a bad government getting worse’. This has steadily eroded confidence in the Government and Julia Gillard. It has been one of the Coalition’s most effective strategies.

Journalists do sometimes challenge the use of words, for example, the use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe asylum seekers. Although strictly speaking that is correct, it strengthens the antipathy to boat people if the word is used. Those who are antagonistic to them don’t care that it is legal to seek asylum. What they want is reinforcement of their existing prejudices.

This brings us to a sixth set of Abbott principles, which are about policies and the media:

Policy statements are unimportant almost until election-day, as an excuse for not making them can always be found, and the Government blamed for their absence.
The longer policy announcements and costings can be delayed the better. Keep the electorate guessing. Be a ‘small target’.
It is much more important to have a strong media unit than a policy unit.
A media unit sets up the leader and shadow ministers with the message for the day.
Simple messages, consistently delivered, are essential.
It doesn’t matter if the message is simplistic or at times incorrect or even inane, so long as it is delivered accurately, consistently and repeatedly.
Remember, most of the electorate is not analytical.
Messages must be plausible and memorable even if they don’t make a lot of sense.
Soft media interviews with complaint journalists are to be preferred.
‘Doorstops’ are easier to handle and wind up.
If a question is asked that is at all threatening, answer instead a preferred question, or address a more convenient subject, one endowed with more political capital.
If questions become tough or insistent, a tried and tested routine is simply to walk away.
It is better to walk away than to go on the record with an embarrassing or inappropriate answer that can be replayed endlessly.
Lengthy, hard studio interviews with probing persistent journalists are to be avoided.
Whatever you do, avoid saying anything that might ‘frighten the horses’. That can wait until after the election.
Use 'Tea Party' style public events with lots of placards and women as a background as that appeals to the people. Try to look like a nice guy, and behave kindly to women. Try to erase past images of nastiness. Insist you can change and grow into the job.

These principles have been used for over two years now, and the Coalition has got away with them.

The repeated slogans have been a winner. Voters don’t think too deeply about them, but they do repeat them on cue, like Pavlov’s dogs. If challenged, some may reflect on their veracity, but who bothers to put them right. Very few! People prefer their prejudices to a reasoned debate. Neither do voters think too deeply about new ideas, like Abbott's ‘development of the North’ and 'more dams' thought bubbles, and as they attract little scrutiny from the media, no detail is necessary so long as the ideas sound good.

The Coalition has been successful at avoiding difficult encounters with the media, and when the going has gotten tough, walking away has been a good solution. They get criticism from a few journalists for doing this, but most go along with the strategy. What can they do anyway?

The situations Abbott avoids are Q&A, 7.30, Lateline and radio interviews with astute people such as Jon Faine. Interviews with the likes of Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt, David Spears, Paul Kelly, and Peter van Onselen give the best result. They feed Dorothy Dixers, don’t come with the tough questions, and even when they try, as did van Onselen last week over the Mark Roberts ‘slit your throat’ episode, it was left to the end and meekly retreated from in the face of a firm rebuttal.

And the 'Tea Party' events have attracted a lot of publicity.

So there it is – how to grasp prime ministership the Abbott way, how to seize it from Julia Gillard, and simply slide into The Lodge, or Kirribilli! If it seems deeply cynical, that is because it is. This is the bare-knuckle approach of the man who wants to be this nation's leader, in all its gory detail.

The Coalition is well aware of hubris and says it is not taking anything for granted, but with the polls the way they are, it looks to Abbott as if he is a shoo-in for prime ministership, so long as no one puts their foot in it in the next five months and blows his flimsy cover.

This then is the ugly Abbott way, exposed for all to see; clever and successful in parts, but ugly nonetheless.

You could almost believe it had come right out of the horse’s mouth.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Jenny Macklin, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

David Marr joins ‘the most successful Opposition leader’ chorus

The first words in the online description of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott read: “Tony Abbott is the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years, but he has never been popular. Now Australians want to know: what kind of man is he, and how would he perform as prime minister?” On last week’s Q&A Marr repeated, with his characteristic certitude, that Tony Abbott “is the most successful Opposition leader…”

Marr is an outstanding essayist and political commentator. His views cannot be carelessly dismissed. So we need to ask how he can make such an assertion. Of course, he is not the only one to do so. Many News Limited journalists have said the same thing in one way or another, from the pontifical Paul Kelly, down to the lesser lights in the Murdoch media and in the Fairfax media too.

What then constitutes success? Let’s leave politics for a moment.

For anything or anybody to be classed as a success, four elements come into play. First, the criteria for success need to be defined; second, a measurement scale needs to be constructed; third, a standard for ‘success’ on that scale needs to be established; and finally, the position occupied by the thing or the person on that scale needs to be measured and judged as having met, or not met, that standard of ‘success’. In educational endeavours, these steps are commonplace.

Let’s take a mundane example. What is a successful cricketer? The criteria of success might be the number of runs scored or wickets captured or catches taken or runs saved in bowling or fielding. For a captain, criteria might include the wisdom of decisions about batting and fielding, team structure, on-field strategy, team culture, and so on. As there is a multitude of measurement scales and expert opinion that capture the extent to which these criteria are being met, it is easy to ascertain how successful individuals are by setting their performance against these measures and the standards that cricket aficionados set.

Returning to politics, what are the criteria of success, and for the purposes of this piece, what are the criteria for success as an Opposition Leader?

It is at this basic level that disagreement begins. For people like David Marr and Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan and Michelle Grattan and Peter Hartcher, and even lesser lights such as Graham Richardson and Graeme Morris, it seems that an essential criterion is the ability to oppose. It seems that under the Westminster system, those in opposition feel obliged to oppose. Says Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution: “It is said that England invented the phrase, 'Her Majesty's Opposition'; that it was the first government which made a criticism of administration as much a part of the polity as administration itself.”

Randolph Churchill, whom Tony Abbott quotes in his book Battlelines, said: “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose”, and “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out.” This seems to me to be a fundamental flaw in the Westminster system. In an interview of Margaret Thatcher by schoolchildren after her retirement, she recalled that a down side of politics for her was that no matter what she tried to do there was always opposition.

As argued in an earlier piece, Is the job of the Opposition to oppose? NO., it is NOT the job of Opposition to just oppose, but to engage in the process of governance so that the public can benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of all parliamentarians. That piece argued: "They are all paid from the public purse. Why should all of them not contribute and be accountable?"

If simple opposition is a criterion of success for an Opposition Leader, Abbott’s incessant opposition to virtually everything the Government says or does or proposes makes him ipso facto a success, because he measures high on any scale of opposition and reaches the ‘standard’ of ultra-high level opposition. However, as his trenchant opposition has not prevented the Gillard Government from passing over 480 pieces of legislation, his success in thwarting legislation is virtually zero.

But is unremitting opposition what oppositions ought to be about? Of course, where the political ideology of the opposition conflicts with that of the government of the day on a particular issue, opposition is appropriate on that issue.

But there are many instances where ideological positions do not call for opposition. There are instances of collaboration, even close cooperation. Kim Beasley supported John Howard’s initiatives over the ‘Tampa affair’, and Howard supported several Hawke-Keating reforms. In these instances, both sides joined hands in the governance of the nation. That is what I believe should happen more often. Parliamentarians insist it often does, but all we electors see is opposition, obstruction and conflict. Not all of this is ideological. Much of Abbott’s opposition is purely and simply resistance to the Government itself, a Government whose legitimacy Abbott has never accepted. He is hell bent on discrediting and eventually destroying the Gillard Government.

So my question to Marr, and to all who laud Abbott for his success as Opposition Leader, is this: “Is opposition for reasons other than the ideological legitimate, acceptable, even praiseworthy? Is the destruction of an elected government, albeit a minority one, an acceptable function of this Opposition Leader, indeed any opposition leader?” Some commentators think so. They laud Abbott for having dispatched one Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and having eroded the status of his successor, Julia Gillard. They congratulate him on how difficult he has made governance for PM Gillard and her Government. Destruction of prime ministers and governments seems to be a criterion that commentators use to judge Abbott, and they rate him a ‘success’ on that criterion. What a wooly view they have of what constitutes legitimate opposition.

Is the repeated use of Question Time to berate the PM, her ministers and the Government a criterion of a good opposition? Is the asking of a tiny array of questions over and again (on carbon tax, minerals tax, budget surplus, asylum seekers) a criterion of a good opposition? Is it good opposition to scarcely ever ask a question about whole areas of government, Trade and Health being two examples? Is it good opposition on over sixty occasions to move the suspension of standing orders to castigate the Government, always unsuccessfully, thereby wasting hundreds of hours of parliamentary time and foregoing countless questions that could have been used to ‘hold the Government to account’, a rightful function for an opposition. Should opposition leaders be judged on the extent to which they use parliamentary time well or poorly? Does Marr consider Abbott should be measured and judged for such behaviour? If so, how does he rate him? Does Marr regard that behaviour as contributing to what he describes as Abbott’s ‘success’?

Does Marr consider contribution to the effective governance of the nation from opposition a rightful function? If so, how does he rate Abbott on that criterion? Does Abbott reach a standard that could be classed as ‘successful’? I doubt it. Marr’s criteria for success seem largely restricted to opposition and destructiveness.

What about parliamentary language and behaviour? Should opposition leaders be judged on how they conduct themselves in this the highest political forum in the nation? Should they be judged on their aggressiveness, the vituperativeness of their language? Did Marr rate Abbott’s ‘died of shame’ reference; did he rate his abusive demeanour and his offensive language directed to our PM? If he did, why does he still rate Abbott as “the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years?

What about the criteria of honesty and integrity? Are these applicable to opposition leaders, to this Opposition Leader? If they are, how would Marr rate Abbott? Would he rate him as ‘successful’ on those counts?

How would Marr rate Abbott’s performance in interacting with the media? How would he judge Abbott’s avoidance of hard interviews, his predilection for ‘soft’ interviews by his favourite shock jocks, his poor performance when nailed down by insistent interviewers, the lies he has told on many occasions, and his obfuscation and deviousness in answering pointed questions? Is this part of Abbott’s ‘success’?

How do Abbott’s gimmicks rate: fish kissing, butchering, banana stacking, supermarket trawling, truck driving, ‘fire fighting’, bicycle pedaling, surfing, appearing with wife and daughters? Does Marr rate these as a factor in his success?

What about the criteria of messaging and consistency of message? On those, Abbott would score well. He and his staff have manufactured a set of catchy and memorable slogans that he repeats endlessly. We know them all by heart. The fact that they are crass, comprising as they do distortions of the truth or simplistic statements of aspiration without substance is of no concern to Abbott or the Coalition, so long as they stick in people’s minds, so long as they effectively discredit the Government, and advantage the Coalition.

Does Marr, and those who vest Abbott with ‘the most successful Opposition leader’ garland, do so because of these slogans, slogans that have been so mindlessly embraced by the unthinking that they have become part of the political lexicon? If so, is that something we ought to expect of a successful opposition leader? Is skill at conjuring and confidence trickery a laudable attribute for opposition leaders? Perhaps Marr gives Abbott credit for the discipline he has shown in staying on message.

How would Marr judge Abbott’s performance at rallies berating the carbon tax and the minerals tax, appearing in front of banners worded: ‘Juliar’, ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’? More Abbott success?

Does Abbott earn Marr’s mantle because of the depth of his vision for the nation, the richness and variety of his policy offerings, the cohesion and persuasiveness of his policies, the accuracy of his policy costings, and the verve and consistency with which he pursues them? Hardly. Even when Abbott does come out with a policy, it looks paltry – his NBN-lite and his Direct Action Plan to combat global warming are examples. Marr is not without insight. Perhaps he regards Abbott’s ability to keep his policies and costings largely under wraps as a measure of success.

In extolling Abbott success, Marr asserts that he is “turning a rabble into a government in four years.” If holding his party together and having it adhere to the party line are suitable criteria, Abbott has done well. There have been outbreaks of dissonance by Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb, Mathias Cormann, Barnaby Joyce, Sophie Mirabella and Cory Bernardi, and most recently intemperate language by staffer Mark Roberts, but by and large Abbott has kept his troops under control. If this is a criterion of success for an opposition leader, let’s give him a modest tick for that.

What about poll ratings? Since commentators and politicians alike dwell on poll results and give credence to them, Abbott could be judged a ‘success’ if elevating the Coalition in the polls is a criterion, although he has been less successful in elevating his own level of popularity. How much weight has Marr given to polling? A lot, it would seem.

Let’s add up the sums. Using the criteria outlined above, how many successes has Abbott had, successes that would warrant ‘the most successful opposition leader’ mantle, and how many failures?

Opposition to virtually everything the Government has done: A SUCCESS for some; a FAIL for many.

Contribution to effective governance: A FAIL by any account.

Damage to the Government and its leaders: A big SUCCESS for those who want to bring the Government down; a heavy FAIL for those who deplore such intent.

Prudent use of parliamentary time and resources: A FAIL by all accounts.

Parliamentary language and behaviour: A FAIL for all except his rusted on supporters.

Honesty and integrity: The evidence points to a big FAIL.

Interacting with the media: His minders would probably classify him as a SUCCESS; many observers would give him a FAIL.

Messaging and consistency of messages: His messages (crass and deceptive though his slogans might be) have met with SUCCESS, and his consistency has been a SUCCESS.

Use of gimmicks, publicity stunts and rally appearances: A SUCCESS for inventiveness, a FAIL for boorishness, tackiness and tastelessness.

Depth of vision, sound policies and costings: A very big FAIL by any assessment.

Keeping his party together and on message: A qualified SUCCESS.

Improving the Coalition’s position in the opinion polls: A big SUCCESS.

So there is my assessment of Abbott’s successes and failures. Of course such evaluation depends on the criteria selected, where Abbott is measured to be on the scale, and whether he has reached the set ‘standard’. Some judgements are subjective; others objective to some degree.

David Marr’s overall assessment of Tony Abbott, the pretender to prime ministership, is one of success. This piece explores what criteria he might have been using, challenges his attribution of ‘success’ to some criteria that I consider dubious or untenable, and ends with a challenge to him: “Detail your criteria to us, tell us how you measured Abbott against them, and then explain how your assessment of him against those criteria warrants the garland ‘the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years’.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Cory Bernardi, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Michaelia Cash, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mathias Cormann, Peter Dutton, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christopher Pyne, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Smith, Stephen Smith, Warren Truss, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong, and Nick Xenophon.

Policy making through the rear-view mirror

“We drive into the future using only our rear-view mirror” was one of the many notable aphorisms of Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher, futurist, and communications theorist of the sixties.

If ever there was an image that captures Tony Abbott’s approach to public policy, this is it: driving into the future using only the rear-view mirror.

In full, McLuhan’s maxim reads: “The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” His argument was that our futures are always experienced and frequently determined by a past that few of us fully acknowledge or understand.

On a contemporary note, take Tony Abbott’s approach to broadband, the lifeblood of more and more involved in commerce and industry, in education, health, agriculture, tourism, and in the tech-intensive and service industries. His initial approach was typical of his pugilistic nature. “Demolish the NBN” was his instruction to Malcolm Turnbull. It was a Labor initiative and therefore must be destroyed. Moreover, he knew that if the NBN were stillborn, Rupert Murdoch would be pleased, as that would eliminate a competitor to his TV empire.

Abbott failed. As Turnbull sipped from this poisoned chalice, all the more bitter because it demanded he act contrary to his tech-savvy nature, he realized that demolition was going to be difficult, and in the end impossible, and unwise, as the Government’s NBN unfolded. Whether it was Turnbull’s awareness of the logistic and legal difficulties, or whether he became aware of the growing public support for the NBN, or whether his love of communications technology overcame him, he decided he must dissuade Abbott from his pursuit of demolition. That move carried the political risk of Abbott being seen as doing a ‘backflip’, having repeatedly condemned the Government’s NBN as an obscenely expensive white elephant that the nation could not afford. Of course, Abbott doesn’t do backflips; he changes his mind – ask the media.

Last week we witnessed an unanticipated spectacle – Abbott and Turnbull launching an NBN, the Coalition’s NBN, but an NBN nonetheless. Set against a high-tech background, courtesy of the new Fox Sports Sydney headquarters complete with a hologram image of a footballer, Turnbull and Abbott, looking like snake oil salesmen, with Abbott looking out of his depth at that, launched a cheap, low-tech alternative – dubbed ‘NBN-lite’.

Because it has been done to death elsewhere, even in the mainstream media, it is not my purpose here to compare this and the Government’s NBN, except to underscore the patently obvious fact that NBN-lite is not just inferior, but portrays Abbott’s proclivity to plan for the future by looking in his rear-view mirror, to march backwards into the future.

There was a delectable take on the launch in Brisbane Times Free floppies a policy flop by John Birmingham that makes my point: “The Opposition Leader promised this week that every Australian household would receive a free floppy disk drive and monochrome monitor under an Abbott-led government. Launching the Coalition’s long awaited response to the government’s National Broadband Network program, Mr Abbott denied that providing a floppy drive and monitor without the computing box to plug them into would leave Australian households with a second best solution… If people want more they can easily spend a few thousand dollars to upgrade to a very fast 386 or even 486 computing box.”

That is closer to the truth than its satirical tone suggests. From the outset Abbott claimed that Australia’s existing broadband was fine for him to send emails and for his daughters to download movies. His implicit question was “What more do you need? He was looking in the rear-view mirror to gaze into the future. Commenting on the NBN, even journalists who might usually support Abbott’s position have characterized him as lacking vision. That is not correct. Abbott has vision all right: backward vision.

His broadband vision is restricted to email and movies. He says he ‘needs it for his work’, but has he thought about the almost unbelievable potential of super fast broadband? Has he contemplated the possibility that in the years ahead applications will emerge that have not even been thought about yet? Does he remember that when he was a boy the first mobile phone was invented – the size of a brick and weighing a kilogram – and that since then we have seen the emergence of the extraordinary technology we now have? Has he forgotten that the World Wide Web began only a little over 20 years ago? Has he even thought about the next twenty years and the demands that burgeoning applications will place on the WWW? It seems not. Does he really think the Internet will be the same twenty years from now? Whatever he thinks, he tells us that his NBN-lite is ‘good enough’ for us: "I am confident that it gives Australians what they need." Regrettably, we will never know what he thinks about the future while he looks nostalgically into his rear-view mirror and sees only the past.

Looking backwards is Abbott man’s greatest drawback as a politician and leader.

It’s not just about broadband that Abbott looks back, not forward. How many times have you heard him lament that the halcyon days of John Howard are behind us. How he would love to return to that golden era where mining revenue flowed in a torrent into Howard’s coffers, enabling Howard and Peter Costello to hand out middle class welfare and give tax breaks, especially to those on the highest salaries and superannuation, and still bring in their hallowed surplus budgets. There was no global financial crisis, no recession; there was no dire threat to our economy as they prepared their budgets, no impediment to them handing out electoral bribes come election time. Abbott yearns for those days, and berates Labor because they have not done what Howard did.

Abbott looks in his rear-view mirror, sees the Howard years, sees the ideal fiscal circumstances he enjoyed, ignores all that has occurred globally since 2007 as if it had never happened, castigates the Government for taking the actions it did to protect the economy and employment during the GFC, and pretends that had the Coalition been in power everything would have been better, with surplus budgets as usual. Abbott’s capacity to fix his gaze on the rear-view mirror and look back at the road long past travelled, his faculty to ignore the road ahead, is pathological.

And it goes on. Looking back a usual, Abbott fondly remembers the days of high demand and sky-high prices for coal and iron ore and the revenue that resulted. He still refuses to see how the scene has changed, refuses to acknowledge that as a result Government revenue has fallen by $160 billion, and that the anticipated surplus is no longer possible. His rear mirror view shows him that nothing has changed, demand and prices are as they were, and not delivering a surplus is just ‘another broken promise’.

Of all the rear mirror views Abbott relishes, one of the most cherished is the spectre of how WorkChoices brought the workforce into line, and dampened union power. He also catches sight of how damaging that restrictive and unfair policy proved to be for the Howard Government and reflects on how it was a major factor in its defeat in 2007. He is petrified at giving any hint of its return, declaring it ‘dead, buried and cremated’. But his longing continues for the ‘flexibility’ business demands. Abbott’s IR spokesman, Eric Abetz, is using language that hints strongly at Abbott’s intention. He keeps looking back, pining for those ‘good old days’. But with an election pending, looking forward to reintroducing IR changes is too fraught.

How many times have you heard him insist that returning to Howard’s magic three-legged formula for stopping the boats: offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, temporary protection visas, and turning the boats around ‘when safe to do so’, would work again just as it did then? By looking in his rear-view mirror, he is able to ignore all the changes around the world in the refugee situation, ignore all the push factors that now operate, and lay blame for the influx of arrivals on pull factors, to Labor’s leniency, to their abandonment of TPVs that the evidence showed were not just ineffective but harmful, and to their refusal to turn boats around, a maritime manoeuvre that is hazardous to service personnel as well as the boat people, one that is considered disaster-prone by senior Naval personnel, and was actually seldom done in the Howard era. Looking into his rear-view mirror Abbott sees the Howard program as ‘the answer’, the only answer: “we did it before and we will do it again”. He yearns for a return to those ‘days of yore’ when the refugee population in detention was tiny.

Take global warming. Despite his affirmation that he believes it really is occurring and that human activity is partly responsible, with his negative behaviour towards measures to reduce pollution by putting a price on carbon, it is not unreasonable to suspect that he still believes that ‘climate change is crap’, that it was ‘hotter in Jesus’ time’, and that therefore radical action is unnecessary. He still believes that planting 20 million trees and paying polluters to stop polluting will do. Again he’s looking into his rear-view mirror at climate in the long past, at the time when Dorothea Mackellar wrote of ‘droughts and flooding rains’, ignoring the constellation of severe adverse weather events that have occurred recently around the world, events that climate scientists attribute to global warming. He is able to ignore the almost universal consensus of thousands of climate scientists that global warming is real, is upon us already, will steadily escalate, and will bring with it untold catastrophes.

Looking in his rear-view mirror, he sees a world that existed before emissions trading schemes began. He still believes, indeed insists that Australia is running ahead of the world, that the trading schemes and pollution abatement programs that abound all around the world, and are proliferating every month, scarcely exist. He can’t see the evidence that is before his eyes, so fixed is he on the past. He repeats his mantra that the rest of the world is lagging behind us in emissions trading, when clearly it is not. His rear-view mirror looks back a long way.

The same mirror reflects back to him the traditional values he embraces so lovingly. During his address at the IPA’s 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner last week, Abbott said this: “Alas, there is a new version of the great Australian silence – this time about the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation are unimaginable.” Nobody would deny Abbott his beliefs and his values, ones refreshed by looking in his rear-view mirror, but those who are inclined to vote for him should ponder to what extent he will allow those entrenched values and beliefs to intrude on his policy making, to influence him as he fashions policies that ought to benefit all Australians. To what extent is he prepared to look forward, to see changing community attitudes to, for example, abortion, same sex marriage, and euthanasia? To what extent is he prepared to change his long-established viewpoint?

But his value system extends well beyond these emotion-laden issues. Looking back longingly to the Howard era he cherishes Howard’s values: support for private schools to the detriment of public schools that Howard neglected; support for private hospitals and private health insurance even if that disadvantages public hospitals; endorsement of the user pays principle, even if that leaves some behind; support for the privatization of public assets; sustenance of the powerful and the wealthy (Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart spring to mind), even if that means that trickle down economics continues to fail and the gap between the rich and the poor widens.

Indeed, voters need not only to know Abbott’s contemporary attitude to these issues, but to what extent he embraces the Institute of Public Affairs’ list of 75 radical policy changes it is recommending to him and the Coalition? Take a big breath, and read them here. This is what Abbott said about them during his IPA address: “So, ladies and gentlemen, that is a big “yes” to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me…! Read YaThink’s response to that.

Abbott is a traditionalist, a monarchist, a Catholic imbued with Jesuit beliefs, and ultra-conservative that hankers for long gone days, days that he gazes at through his rear-view mirror. Even his recently expressed ideas for development of the North, which some rank as ‘visionary’, are a reprise of ideas from the last century, ideas advanced by Ion Idriess seventy years ago.

Look at the people behind Abbott, and you look at relics from the past. Yet he vows to install this team unchanged should he win power. He looks in his rear-view mirror and sees his future ministers.

Abbott longs for the past; he is fearful of any future that threatens his conventional, conformist view of the world. He eschews looking forward; the past is too comfortable and reassuring to abandon.

Yet, this man wants to be the leader of this nation in this unprecedented time of change as it faces the Asian Century, as it faces unparalleled challenges both in its own economic base, and in the global economy. The turmoil ahead demands that our nation’s leader look forward at the evolving landscape and steer our country along a course of prosperity, in harmony with our neighbours and our trading partners, in tune with the evolving geopolitical situation we hear about every day of our lives, and able to align our country with the powers that can give us support and protection and enhance our own defences – a leader who is willing and able to fruitfully adapt to the dynamically evolving world around us.

Tony Abbott, a man whose eyes are fixed on his rear-view mirror, who seems unable see the road ahead, is not that leader.

What do you think?

Should you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Adam Bandt, Julie Bishop, Tony Burke, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, Warren Entsch, Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Smith, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Windsor and Penny Wong.

Abbott and the Murdoch, Rinehart, Pell connection

Voters need seriously to contemplate what it would be like to have an Abbott Government. They need to dig deeper than the slick slogans, the oft repeated mantras, the weasel words, the deviousness, and the blatant lies that escape Abbott’s lips day after day. They need to ask what makes this man tick? More importantly, voters need to ask who influences Abbott, and how those influences shape the attitudes, the ideology, the behaviour, and the actions of this potential Prime Minister of our nation.

For immediate answers, voters need not look much beyond a momentous event last week – a Gala Dinner to mark the 70th Anniversary of the foundation of the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a right wing organization that grew up in 1943 after the collapse of the conservative United Australia Party. How much will those attending the Dinner shape and mould the nation’s alternative leader? To what extent will Abbott be clay in the hands of the many potters who attended?

The IPA describes itself as “an independent, non-profit public policy think tank, dedicated to preserving and strengthening the foundations of economic and political freedom". It claims that it “has been at the forefront of the political and policy debate, defining the contemporary political landscape.” To get a feel for its political orientation, read its 75 radical ideas, and note those already adopted by the would-be PM, Tony Abbott. In his address at the Gala Dinner, Abbott heaped praise on the organization: ”The IPA, I want to say, has been freedom’s discerning friend.” He lauded its director, John Roskam, previously a Liberal staffer who once ran for Liberal pre-selection.

The IPA was influential in the formation of the Liberal Party. There is no doubt about its ultra conservative orientation, and its support of the Liberal Party.

It says it is ”funded by individual memberships and subscriptions, as well as philanthropic and corporate donors.” We know Rupert Murdoch is a large donor, as was his father, but outsiders can only guess whom the others are. We are told that ‘big business’, and perhaps ‘big tobacco’ is among them, but the list is kept under wraps.

The list of invitees to the IPA Gala Dinner is not public, but we do know that the guest of honour and keynote speaker was Rupert Murdoch, that Gina Rinehart was a distinguished guest and speaker, and that Andrew Bolt was Master of Ceremonies. Apart from Tony Abbott, other Liberal luminaries were there: Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, and Shadow Attorney General George Brandis. None of these names are surprising. What I expect though came as a surprise to many outside the IPA was the presence of the most senior Catholic in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney. What does his presence mean?

This piece suggests that among the many influential people present, none will exert more influence on the man who wants to be our Prime Minister than Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart and George Pell; no others, not even party members, have shaped, and will shape Abbott’s clay more decisively than these master potters.

Let’s deal first with supremo Rupert Murdoch. Is there anyone with eyes to see and a brain to reason that would deny that Murdoch is intent on removing the Gillard Labor Government and replacing it at the September election with a Coalition Government led by Tony Abbott? All his utterances, all the inflammatory words his tabloids use, make this abundantly clear. It is really not worth spending more words ‘proving’ this assertion; just glance at his rabid, malevolent News Limited tabloid headlines, day after day, and at the subtler broadsheet articles that Murdoch uses to influence the business community.

Where does Abbott stand? Of course he is rapt with Murdoch’s objective. Why would he not be? When he first met Murdoch over lunch in New York shortly after he became Opposition Leader, Abbott said: “I hope he liked me”. Whatever else his critics say about him, Abbott cannot be accused of being stupid. He knows on what side his bread is buttered. Around the time of that meeting, Abbott instructed Malcolm Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’. Was that a coincidence, or was it carrying out Murdoch’s instructions? The threat to Murdoch’s empire that the NBN constitutes is acknowledged. What will happen to Foxtel when real-time viewing of movies and other TV content online via the NBN is a reality? One thing Murdoch does very well is to protect his interests. What Abbott does very well is to obey his master’s instructions.

With Murdoch supporting Abbott and the Coalition’s push for power, Abbott will obsequiously go along with him. Why would he knock back all the muscular support Murdoch can provide?

Murdoch is the master potter; Abbott is eager clay in his hands.

Abbott’s obsequiousness screams out in the words he uttered in his IPA address last week: ”John Howard has said that Rupert Murdoch has been by far Australia’s most influential international businessman; but I would like to go a little further. Along with Sir John Monash, the Commander of the First AIF which saved Paris and helped to win the First World War, and Lord Florey a one-time provost of my old Oxford College, the co-inventor of penicillin that literally saved millions of lives, Rupert Murdoch is probably the Australian who has most shaped the world through the 45 million newspapers that News Corp sells each week and the one billion subscribers to News-linked programming.” Abbott went on to say of Murdoch: ”For our guest of honour, as for anyone deeply steeped in reporting, experience trumps theory and facts trump speculation. His publications have borne his ideals but never his fingerprints. They’ve been skeptical, stoical, curious, adventurous, opinionated yet broad minded. He’s influenced them, but he’s never dictated to them…”, which shows just how far Abbott will stray from the truth to stroke his master. Those who have written books about Murdoch’s commercial life testify that his editors know exactly what their master wants, and to keep their jobs, give him just that.

Who can dispute Murdoch’s influence?

What about Gina Rinehart?

She too knows how important the media is in politics, how one’s objectives can be better achieved using the power of the media. She has large shareholdings in Channel Ten where she is on its Board, and was instrumental in the creation of the ultra right wing Bolt Report. She also has shareholdings in Fairfax, where she seeks to increase her influence via Board membership, something she has not yet accomplished because of her insistence that she be able to exercise oversight of editorial orientation.

But apart from any media influence on Abbott, she clearly influences him on mining issues and minerals policy. She joined with Twiggy Forrest in public protests against the minerals tax, and in support of Abbott’s promise to abolish it. He embraces her anti-minerals tax efforts. He would give her whatever she wanted for her political support. He fawns over her when they meet. Look at the visuals here.

Their ideas about the development of an economic zone in the North match. Did Abbott embrace Rinehart’s ideas, which would be to her enormous commercial advantage, or was that just a happy coincidence?

Some of Abbott’s shadow ministers are already in her debt – in 2011 Rinehart flew Julie Bishop and Barnaby Joyce in her private jet to an extravagant three-day wedding of a prominent Indian industrialist in Hyderabad. Martin Ferguson was also invited, but declined, indicating that his attendance would have been inappropriate. But the Coalition shadow ministers obviously thought it was appropriate for them and the Liberal Party.

Does anyone doubt the profound influence Rinehart has on Abbott? He is malleable clay in her hands.

So we have master potter Murdoch moulding Abbott ideologically, philosophically, economically and commercially, and Rinehart moulding him in crucial areas of the economy, mining and development of the North.

What about Cardinal George Pell?

To me, his influence is the most alarming. No one would criticize Pell for receiving an invitation, but why would this most senior Catholic clergyman be willing to associate himself publically with an ultra conservative think tank that works hand in glove with the Liberal Party. Pell is entitled to his own political preferences, but what is he saying to his ‘flock’ when he fronts at this IPA event? Is this his way of saying to his people that Tony Abbott, the Coalition, and its conservative IPA-oriented ideology, is now ‘right’ for this nation?

I am reminded of my early days when Daniel Mannix was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, a position he held for 46 years. He exercised enormous influence politically. His sway over his flock was profound; there was many a story of how he used his clerical authority to persuade his parishioners towards his political viewpoint. In those days, his stature was a powerful inducement for his supporters to follow his lead; they had little else to guide them.

Whether Pell could exert such power over his flock today is debatable, especially with the aura of priest pedophilia and abuse that permeates the Catholic Church, a scandal that is driving Catholics away from it in droves.

Mannix's best-known protégé in his later years was B A Santamaria, a Catholic most admired by Tony Abbott, a man whose writings Abbott acknowledges still influence him profoundly.

Abbott concedes that George Pell is one of his most prominent mentors, although on one infamous occasion on the ABC’s Lateline, in the lead up to the 2004 election, Abbott lied to Tony Jones about a meeting he had had with Pell, and was subsequently caught out. Why was he so keen to deny the meeting? Perhaps to neutralize any charge that Pell was influencing him?

Abbott still consults regularly with Pell, whom he considers to be ”one of the greatest churchmen Australia has seen.” Abbott is a good Catholic boy. He attended primary school at St Aloysius' College at Milson's Point before completing his secondary school education at St Ignatius' College, Riverview in Sydney. Both are Jesuit schools. He takes his religion seriously but claims that he is able to keep politics and religion separate, something many in the health field would question. Read though the words he spoke at the Gala Dinner: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the foundation of our justice. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is the foundation of our mercy. Faith has weakened but not, I’m pleased to say, this high mindedness which faith helped to spawn and which the IPA now helps to protect and to promote.” As readers reflect on the behaviour Abbott exhibits day after day, some will smile at his ‘Do unto others’ proclamation, but that’s another matter.

It seems as if faith is important to Abbott. That is understandable and acceptable, but it does highlight the potential for Abbott being influenced politically by his religious mentors. That is worrisome. What is Pell’s agenda? To what extent is Pell a devotee of the IPA and its extreme conservative agenda? We know he shares the IPA’s skepticism about global warming. Will Pell exert his influence on contemporary politics, not directly over his flock as did Archbishop Mannix, but via his pupil Tony Abbott, a Jesuit boy, a past seminarian who once studied for the priesthood, but now in the supremely powerful position of aspirant for the highest political office in town – Prime Minister of Australia? We shall probably never know, but we are entitled to be suspicious and deeply apprehensive about this prospect.

This piece suggests that three of the most influential people in Abbott’s political life are media mogul Rupert Murdoch, mining mogul Gina Rinehart, and Catholic Cardinal George Pell, all of whom coalesced at the 70th Anniversary Gala Dinner of the ultra conservative Institute of Public Affairs, which openly boasts about its political influence, which in truth is its raison d'être. This is not an inexplicable coincidence.

In the run down to September 14, we can expect these three to redouble their efforts. Murdoch and Rinehart will exercise their influence overtly. These master potters will fashion the soft malleable Abbott clay shamelessly to suit their own ends, commercial and ideological.

We can anticipate too that Cardinal Pell will continue to exercise his influence, yet subtly and covertly. This master potter will mould Abbott with as much authority as the others, perhaps even more profoundly. Yet we, the voting public, will likely never be the wiser. Therein lies our predicament.

What do you think?

If you intend to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Greg Combet, Mathias Cormann, Craig Emerson, Martin Ferguson, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Bill Shorten, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong, and Nick Xenophon.

What was Leigh Sales’ intent with PM Gillard?

As Leigh Sales interviewed Prime Minister Julia Gillard on 7.30 last week, was she hoping it might remind viewers of her interview of Tony Abbott six months earlier, one that attracted widespread applause for its probing, her persistence, and her command of the interview? Looking back, she may be disappointed that this time she came off second best, that she showed her hand so early in the interview, and that she exposed so openly her disdain for our nation's leader.

Her opening gambit, before her subject had had a chance to avoid a question or to obfuscate, gave her game away: ”After recent events, aren't Australians well within their rights to conclude that the Gillard Government is a dysfunctional mess that deserves to be consigned to opposition as soon as possible?” Note her words: ”dysfunctional mess” and ”consigned to opposition as soon as possible”. Judgemental? Of course. Pejorative? Yes. A good way to start? No.

Her opening remark begs the question: “What was Sales’ intent for this interview with the nation’s leader?” To embarrass? To belittle? To intimidate? To set up the interview to give Sales the upper hand? To serve as an introduction to the issue of ‘trust’ that she intended to pursue later? Only Sales would know if any of these applied.

The interview has been forensically analysed by journalism expert Peter Clarke in Anatomy of Sales -v- Gillard interview in Australians for Honest Politics. His analysis is from the point of view of an expert in media interviews, especially with politicians. It is worth a read if for no other reason than it gives an academic journalist’s perspective. This piece does not attempt to replicate or compete with that analysis; instead it attempts to analyse the interview through the eyes of an ordinary citizen, one who viewed it as it occurred.

My first reaction was emotional. Why was this senior journalist assailing our PM from the beginning? I wondered why was she so rude, so disrespectful of the most senior politician in the country. My annoyance increased as the interview progressed in the same vein. So infuriated was I that at the end I sent an email to Mark Scott, MD of the ABC, protesting at Sales’ impertinence, poor manners and disrespect.

On reflection, I asked myself what Sales’ intent really was, and came up with the following possibilities.

I imagine that primarily she wanted this interview to be lauded as was her interview of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on 7.30 on 22 August, for which she won a Walkley Award. The citation said that she “pressed him on his attack on the Government over the mining tax and carbon tax. The fiery exchanges saw Mr Abbott eventually admit he had not read a statement from miner BHP which was central to the attack.”

For her to have the same intent for the Gillard interview as she did for the Abbott one is understandable, even laudable.

But what other intent did Sales have?

Did she set out deliberately to demean and insult the PM, to show her, and her high office, disrespect?

If that were so, is that an acceptable intent for a senior journalist? And even if it were acceptable, ought it to have been so overt, so up front? If it was not Sales’ intent, she certainly messed up badly from the outset.

One would hope that, like any competent TV journalist interviewing a politician, she would have intended to elicit relevant information: facts and figures, explanations, reasons, opinions, plans and policies, information that would enlighten the viewer, information that would assist the viewer to make an assessment that would be useful come election day.

Let’s see what she did achieve in this regard by analyzing her questions and the responses they evoked.

PM Julia Gillard responded to Sales brusque opening question by agreeing that she too was ‘appalled’ by the week, but argued that in the end people would judge the Government on what it had achieved, on its plans. She then listed its achievements.

Sales brushed that aside, and elaborated on what emerged as her central agenda: ”But you say that people should look to your plans for the future. Why should we trust Labor's plans for the future when you've had so many problems and so much dysfunction in your past?” Building on the notion of ‘dysfunction’, Sales now makes overt the issue of ‘trust’, a dependable theme for any political journalist.

This time it is the PM that brushes aside Sales’ direct question of trust. She answers obliquely by reiterating the considerable achievements of her Government, implying that the people can trust a Government that gets so much done. Critics would label PM Gillard’s response as obfuscation, or at least avoidance of the question.

Sales was having nothing of her answer. Labelling the Government’s achievements somewhat pejoratively as ‘a laundry list’, she cheekily assails the PM with: ”let me give you one back”. Sales then reads her own list, the theme this time being a list of ‘broken promises’, and ‘mistakes’, leading to ”how do you expect the public to have any faith in what you're planning to do going forwards?” Here we see more on the ‘trust’ theme – but now it’s nuanced to ‘broken promises’ and ‘faith’. She was not going to let go of that. Viewers could be excused if they saw this as echoing the Coalition’s ‘who do you trust’ theme, used first during the 2004 election campaign by John Howard, now repeated by Tony Abbott.

The PM offered to go through Sales’ long list of ‘misdemeanors’, but Sales was not interested: ”But Prime Minister, you're not addressing my central problem there, which was that there was a broken promise ...”, and when the PM said she disagreed with her list, Sales interrupted with ”No, no, there was a broken promise there and there is a long list of initiatives that the Government has introduced that have been failures or have not come to fruition. The most recent of course last week, the media reforms. Let me put it to you ...” And when the PM addressed Sales’ list, ending with the live cattle export issue, she interrupted again with: ”It was very messy in the way that it was done though.” Sales was determined to hammer the PM relentlessly with her ‘long list’ of ‘broken promises’, ‘failures’, ‘messiness’. She was not going to let the PM escape, just as she had not allowed Abbott to escape. That was her intent – no escape!

She is now almost half way through her twelve-minute interview, and has not asked one question that might elicit useful information about policies and plans. All the questions had centered on trust, faith, broken promises, mistakes, misdemeanors, and messiness. If that was her intent, she was certainly on song.

There was no way the PM was going to respond to the accusation of messiness, so she pressed on: ”Now, on the rest of the list, you can keep going through it, but when we've worked through some very difficult things like carbon pricing, our eyes have always been on what is best for the nation, what's in the national interest, what's in the interest of a strong, prosperous, fair, smart future and I am very happy to be judged on that.”

Not to be deterred from her claim of messiness in governance, Sales cited the concerns of Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean about the process of government, and in particular the media law reform last week, quoting them as saying that ”it was mishandled and that it was a debacle.”, adding: ”Doesn't that go to the very heart of the way you run government when senior ministers in your own team have stepped down and made that criticism?”

The PM responded by acknowledging the centrality of cabinet debate and went on to explain the protracted processes that preceded the presentation of the media bills.

But Sales, like other commentators, had already decided that the process was appalling, so pressed on with: ”How is it good government that your minister, presumably with your approval, produced legislation with a minimal consultation of cabinet and the caucus and then demanded it be passed in just a week's time without amendments and without negotiation?”?

As the PM reiterated the prior inquiries (Convergence and Finkelstein reviews), Sales interrupted with: ”… I'm just asking why you put legislation up with one week's notice and said, "No negotiation, no amendments".” Sales sounded like a schoolmistress reprimanding a wayward schoolgirl.

Julia Gillard patiently went through the reviews again, but again Sales, somewhat defensively, interposed with: ”Well the content of the reports of the reviews weren't unknown, but the content of the legislation was unknown until Stephen Conroy produced it.”

The PM again pointed out that the changes had been publicized in the newspapers, and after more interruptions, Sales retorted: ”If we judge the process on the end result, you put up six pieces of legislation and only two of them got through, so therefore on any assessment you'd have to agree that it was a mishandled and a botched process.”

She was not going to let go of her portraiture of the Gillard Government as one characterized by mistakes, misdemeanors, mishandling, and messiness.

The PM pointed out that in a minority government everything had to be negotiated and that she ”wasn't prepared to cross-trade and do any deal to get these bills through”, but Sales came back, rather sarcastically, with: ”So you were quite happy with how that process was handled last week from woe to go, the media reforms?”

Once again, PM Gillard began to explain the process, but perhaps sensing the pointlessness of this in the face of a obstinate interviewer ended with: "…our focus has to be relentless on what it is we need to do to strengthen our nation for the future and what we need to do to support families today.”

Three quarters of the interview, nine minutes, had already elapsed, without one question that probed policy issues. All had focussed on trust, and what Sales saw as mistakes, misdemeanors, messiness and botched process. Now it was time to assail the PM with leadership issues: ”You said today that last week's events make it clear now that you have the confidence of your colleagues. Isn't the reality though that many of your colleagues are in despair about your leadership and about the ALP's prospects in the election, but that they just don't see a viable alternative?” Sales’ provocation continued.

Julia Gillard, whose patience must now have been wearing thin, replied briefly that her leadership had been tested once again and that she had the ‘emphatic’ endorsement of the party. She concluded: ”Leigh, it's over. I don't think that any of this is worth speaking about anymore.” But Sales was not finished, adding condescendingly: ”But you can understand, can't you, how Australians would be looking at your side of politics and feeling very nervous about taking a gamble on you again given that a number of senior members of your own cabinet have stepped down in recent days, criticized the process by which you govern and basically indicated they don't have any confidence or faith in your leadership?”

Once more, our PM, with patience that most of us would have difficulty mustering, repeated that the events of last week were indeed appalling and self-indulgent, but finished with: ”What is then appropriate for me as Prime Minister is to renew the team with quality and talent and that's what I've done today.”

But her mea culpa was not enough for Sales who impudently came back with another ‘but’: ”But Prime Minister, I don't think that Australians can quite so neatly as you have done draw a line under everything they've seen for the past few years and then just ignore it and do what you want them to do which is to concentrate on what you're promising going forwards.” Sales obviously believes she has her finger on the pulse of the nation.

The ever patient Gillard concluded this wearisome interview with a confident assertion that she and Labor were in the best position to lead our nation ” through in what can be a very rough and tumble world.”

Twelve minutes had elapsed, the interview was over, but not one question had addressed policy details, or plans, or prospects for our nation in the Asian Century under Labor, and under the alternative, the very matters about which voters need to be informed. Every question was directed to issues of trust, to Sales’ recital of the broken promises, the mistakes, the misdemeanors, the messiness, the mishandlings, the botched processes, which by implication brought into question Labor’s and the PM’s competence to govern. And at the end came the ubiquitous leadership issue; no journalist worth his or her salt would miss that.

Will this interview win Sales another Walkley Award? Perhaps a Wonkley!

It is easy to be critical, so let’s examine how Sales might have approached the interview. Here are some possible questions, ones that would address the matters that Sales had on her agenda, as well as policy matters:

Prime Minister, it has been a tumultuous week for you and Labor. How do you plan to overcome the damage that you yourself acknowledge has been done to the Labor brand?

You have said that the leadership issue is now ‘done and dusted’, and you have emerged as the leader, seemingly now beyond challenge. How will you approach the task of healing the wounds that have been inflicted by this latest leadership challenge, particularly among those who supported Kevin Rudd, many of whom have resigned?

Are you confident that there will be no more leadership challenges and no more sabotage by Rudd supporters?

There have been criticisms from both within your party and from without about how some legislation has been presented; I’m referring specifically to the recent media law reforms. Would you care to comment about this, and whether the four bills that were not presented will be presented when parliament next meets.

Do you think these bills might have passed if more time had been available for their consideration?

John Howard made a feature of ‘trust’ in his 2004 campaign, and Mr Abbott has often labelled you as ‘untrustworthy’. How do you plan to engender a sense of trust among voters?

The opinion polls suggest that voters have doubts about Labor’s capacity to manage the nation’s affairs into the next term, and concerns about your leadership. How do you propose to address these doubts and concerns?

You have several important pieces of legislation in progress but not yet complete; I’m referring specifically to the NDIS and the Gonski reforms to school education. Many have queried how these desirable reforms can be funded now and in the future. While I’m not asking you to reveal budget discussions, can you give us some insight into how you are approaching the funding issue?

Much has been made of the harm that the carbon tax is doing to the economy. What evidence is there about its impact to date?

Has it made any difference to Australia’s carbon emissions?

You have been accused of promising that there would be no carbon tax under a government you lead, and the Opposition has continually assailed you with this. How will you counter that accusation of lying?

You have spoken of the Asian Century. Could you elaborate for me how Australia might take advantage of it?

Explain to me and to our viewers how Labor’s policies would be more beneficial to this country than the Coalition’s.

One could go on and on in this vein.

No doubt, those who enjoy seeing our PM hammered mercilessly applauded Leigh Sales' interview, and would categorize the above questions as insufficiently probing, far too soft, or even as Dorothy Dixers. But they would at least stand a chance of eliciting answers that would inform voters about the PM’s intentions, her trustworthiness, her capacity to lead, Labor’s plans for the time ahead, and how it compared with the alternative. Their intent would be to uncover informative facts, opinions, policies and plans.

In contrast, the intent of Leigh Sales’ interview seemed to be to demean, to belittle, to show disrespect for our PM, and by implication the office of PM. It focussed on a collection of what Sales considered were Labor’s and the PM’s failings, misdemeanors, and botched processes. She seemed intent on hammering issues of trust and leadership, implying that trust was irrecoverable and leadership still in doubt. If these indeed were her intentions, and also to expose her own feelings about, and attitudes towards the PM and the party she leads, she succeeded brilliantly.

Viewers were left no wiser though about Labor’s policies or plans for the next six months and the next term. If it was Sales intent to inform them, she failed miserably, but that seems to have not been on her agenda. Only she would know; we can judge only on what we saw.

Words are but one aspect of communication. View the video and observe her tone of voice and her body language yourself.

Despite her overt hostility, Sales lost control of the interview as Julia Gillard calmly and patiently answered each thrust she made. In contrast to her Abbott interview, this time she came out the loser, in more ways than one.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the prospect that Sales’ attitude may reflect an emerging culture at the ABC among some journalists there – one antagonistic to the PM and Labor, a culture that gives ‘permission’ to lesser journalists to follow Sales’ lead. The crucial question is whether ABC Managing Director Mark Scott permits such a culture. Viewers will be watching carefully in future with this question in mind.

What do you think?

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