Who will Newspoll kill off next?

During this week past we saw Newspoll: The Killing Machine in lethal action. Ironically, it was her own party members who took the ammunition from Newspoll, aimed it at Julia Gillard’s heart, and killed her politically. Although polls are no more than a snapshot of public opinion, they have again become the determiner of the fate of a political leader. They are killing machines.

Politicians are obsessed with polls, place blind faith in their capacity to predict election results although they have no predictive value three months from an election, and have once more used them to make decisions about who is best equipped to lead them to victory. Writing in The Hoopla, Gabrielle Chan says: “It was the polls that fed the Rudd monster – the same polls that slew the beast in the beginning.

How have we got to where we are? As this is a multilayered issue, let’s peel back the layers and take a look at what’s underneath.

For a long while now, Newspoll, and indeed most of the other polls of voting preference and personal approval, have carried importance they do not deserve. Pollster Peter Lewis of Essential Vision tells us: "A poll never predicts the future. Anyone who says they know what the future holds is deluded". Aggregated polls that show trends are more useful though.

The polls have been adverse for Labor and Julia Gillard for a long while; they did not arrive out of a clear blue sky. They began falling when the Rudd saboteurs, bridling at the memory of Rudd’s abrupt and savage removal because of falling polls three years ago, began undermining the newly appointed leader, Julia Gillard. They derailed her 2010 election campaign at its very outset when they leaked damning information to Laurie Oakes who confronted her with it at the end of a National Press Club speech. The polls that began promisingly for her and Labor immediately after she became PM fell, and continued to fall. This result was a hung parliament and a minority government.

Because through most of the life of the Gillard Government the polls have been persistently unfavourable for her and Labor, their importance has been unreasonably amplified. Despite the doubts professional pollsters have expressed about the validity and reliability of opinion polls, media commentators have used them over and again to predict electoral disaster for Labor – a ‘wipeout’ that would reduce Labor to a ‘rump’. Politicians believed them. Labor has been dismayed and depressed for many months. Convinced that the commentators were right, Labor parliamentarians have agonized for a long while about what to do. The Rudd saboteurs became more and more determined to strike when the time was right to reinstate their man, whom they believed would give Labor a better chance.

As more and more Labor politicians became convinced that they must act to counter this existential threat, they reached a conclusion that the action needed was a change of leader, because no matter what else they had tried, the polls remained poor. Their apprehension got the better of them last Wednesday. Precipitated by a mysterious petition circulating among members, they used poor polling to insist on a Caucus meeting and thereby to remove their leader, Julia Gillard, believing the alternative, Kevin Rudd, would lift their rating.

The validity of that decision seemed to be borne out almost immediately by a Morgan Poll taken the evening of the change of leader. Gary Morgan documents it thus: Big swing to the ALP after Rudd returned as leader tonight. ALP 49.5% (up 5%) cf. L-NP 50.5% (down 5%) – but will it be enough? This special snap poll on Federal voting intention was conducted on the evening of June 26, 2013 via SMS interviewing after the result of the ALP leadership ballot was announced at 8 pm, among an Australia-wide cross-section of 2,530 Australian electors aged 18+, where of all electors surveyed a low 0.5% did not name a party. A national ReachTEL poll last Thursday, and a subsequent poll of selected seats in Sydney and Melbourne, and this morning’s Galaxy Poll showed a similar boost to the Labor vote.

Commenting on ABC 24 about the Morgan Poll, John Stirton, Research Director of Nielsen Polls, when asked whether polls were dictating who should be leader of our nation, answered that regrettably that seemed to be the case. They did so three years ago in the case of Kevin Rudd, and last week it was Julia Gillard. Stirton expressed the hope that this will not be the case in future. Even pollsters admit that this is a misuse of polls. He estimated that Labor could improve by up to ten points in primary votes with the change to Kevin Rudd, but questioned how long this would last. He felt that it might taper off near the election date, no matter when this was.

So here’s the rub: no matter how many warnings professional pollsters have given about the danger of using polls for decision making because of their lack of predictive power, media commentators have ignored the warnings and have used them to make predictions day after day, month after month. Politicians have lapped up what they have said and have used their predictions to make some of the most drastic decisions imaginable, such as changing leaders. It amazes me that seasoned politicians have allowed themselves to be captured so profoundly by the polls and their media spruikers. Then again, they may have been aware that they have been swept along by all the hype that polls spawn, but were fearful that as bad polls create more bad polls and generate a bandwagon effect, a self-perpetuating prophesy, voters might have become convinced that Labor had no hope and that they ought to back what the polls are indicating is the hot favourite, the Coalition.

But there’s more to this multilayered issue. Why have the polls, which have precipitated this crisis, been so consistently poor for Labor and Julia Gillard? The answer hides beneath another layer. Let’s peel it back.

As soon as Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, a concerted campaign began to demonize her. Built on what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott labeled a ‘lie’, and a ‘broken promise’ when she introduced a price on carbon despite her ‘no carbon tax’ pledge, shock jock Alan Jones coined ‘Ju-liar’, said she should be put in a hessian bag and dumped at sea, and arranged ‘carbon tax rallies’ that featured ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ banners in front of which Tony Abbott stood with two female colleagues. This was just the start of the demonization. The Fourth Estate took up the theme and inflamed it day after day, month after month, year after year. The Murdoch media was particularly venomous, intent on using the demonization of the PM to derail her Government and the Labor Party. I will not tire you with more details; you know them well. This was the genesis of PM Gillard’s unpopularity and the poor showing of Labor in the polls. If the media continually berates a leader, criticizes virtually everything she does, paints over and again a picture of her as an incompetent liar, in classic Goebbels fashion the people eventually believe it. When that picture is reinforced by Tony Abbott at every Question Time, at every parliamentary doorstop, at every visit to a factory or a shopping mall, when he repeatedly damages her credibility by insisting her Government is illegitimate, it become the given truth for most of the populace.

Given that after years of demonizing our first female PM, who has been categorized as a lying, incompetent witch, one warranting hate and loathing, it ought not be surprising that her standing in the community is poor, that her disapproval is so much higher than her approval ratings. A Salem witch trial of Julia Gillard has been going on for ages in the minds of many voters, and they have judged her guilty. Listen to the vox pops! Tony Abbott and his Fourth Estate sycophants have been spectacularly successful in prosecuting the trial of this ‘Canberra witch’.

There is another media issue, the old chestnut of Julia Gillard being unable ‘cut through’, to get her message across, to let people know what she ‘stands for’. Pundits ask why she is not ‘resonating with the community’. It is incredible to me that over and again media personalities repeat these accusations when it is the media itself that is largely responsible for this state of affairs. If there are parallel events, one about a major reform the Government has legislated, and the other about a trivial issue, it is the trivial that wins out every time. The media castigates her for being a poor communicator, of failing to tell the people the good things her Government is doing, and then steadfastly refuses to give these things any prominence. It is her glasses, or her hair, or her jackets, or her tripping over, or her photo in Women’s Weekly that gets on the front page, while details of vital reforms, or the great economic state of our nation, are relegated to page seven. Yet the media has the temerity to criticize her inability to ‘cut through’. What hypocrisy! Or perhaps it is simply blindness to its own role. Maybe though it is deliberate media disingenuousness.

I can hear some of you saying: here he is blaming the media again. You are right. I am blaming the media because they are manifestly blameworthy. Only someone blind to what is going on could conclude otherwise. But this is not to say that PM Gillard and her Government are blameless. Moves have been made that have not turned out well; judgments have not been universally correct; ideas have not always been brilliant. That ought not surprise us given the complexity of governing in a minority parliament. Yet it is one in which around six hundred pieces of legislation have been passed with 87% bipartisan support, leaving just 13% in dispute; where major reforms have been enacted in education, health and disability, communications, infrastructure, water, defence, industrial relations and paid maternity leave, and important advances have been made in international relations, all with the oversight of PM Gillard. Yet she is portrayed as an incompetent Canberra witch.

There is another aspect – the gender issue. I do not intend to labour this here. It is well documented in the writings of Anne Summers, author of The Misogyny Factor, and writers on The Hoopla such as Gabrielle Chan. There is no doubt that being a female has made political life much harder for Julia Gillard. It seems that many men in this country cannot abide a female PM; they are unable to adjust to a female being in charge, when it has always been a male. It’s a man’s world after all!

So it is in the deepest recesses of this multi-layered issue that the core cause of the poor polling lives and festers – a virulent and persistent media onslaught against our first female PM the like of which we have not seen before, which has led to a level of demonization and deprecation once reserved for the Salem witches.

To recap, beginning from the core of the issue, the layers are: denigration and demonization of PM Gillard, leading to the creation of a damaging image of her in the minds of the electorate, leading to poor polling, leading to a media prediction that electoral disaster lies ahead with Julia Gillard as PM, leading to this prediction being embraced by Labor parliamentarians, leading to the radical action of removing Australia’s first female PM and replacing her with what the polls say is an electorally popular male.

This is the rationale behind the move to replace her, but the modus operandi of the Rudd saboteurs has been both destructive and despicable. For Labor members to deliberately and surreptitiously undermine a Labor Government and its leader over a three year period, and to sometimes publically ridicule her, is unforgivable disloyalty. I’m thinking of the smirking Joel Fitzgibbon, and the blustering Kim Carr and Doug Cameron. And then to follow this with attempt after attempt to dislodge PM Gillard, at first abortive, and finally successful, is contemptible. It is distressing that this level of treachery has been rewarded. I deplore these actions and hope I will never see such subversion, disloyalty and destructiveness again.

Those of us who have supported Julia Gillard so fervently are appalled at the way she has been treated, and lament her fate. We have lost an outstanding politician, and a strong and steadfast female warrior. We commiserate her untimely exit from public life and hope she will reappear in another influential role that will engage her outstanding talent and her strength of character. We shall miss her bubbling personality, her strength, her courage, her resoluteness, her devotion, her graciousness, her capacity to get things done against the odds and bring about much needed traditional Labor reforms, and her determination to stand up for women’s rights.


Let’s return now to the subject of this piece: Who will Newspoll kill off next? If polls have destroyed two Federal leaderships in the last three years, is that where the destruction will stop? Who else might Newspoll kill?

This piece postulates that other Federal leaders are vulnerable. What if the polls reverse after Rudd’s installation, and Labor stocks rise or even surpass that of the Coalition? With time running down to the election, how will Coalition members feel about their leader, Tony Abbott? Will they continue to believe that he can deliver them victory? What happens as his popularity slips and falls below that of Rudd as preferred prime minister? He has been unpopular with the voters for three years now with his unpopularity exceeding his popularity, although lately his popularity had picked up a little. But what if that now worsens? There are other leaders in the wings, most notably Malcolm Turnbull, who consistently has been more popular than Abbott, and recently preferred by twice as many voters as Abbott. When would Coalition members, like their Labor counterparts, feel they ought to ditch Abbott for Turnbull? It would be a big reversal of their loyalty to Abbott, but if such reversal can occur in Labor circles, why not in the Coalition?

The recent poll results will already be creating uncertainty and doubt in Coalition minds. Minders will be reviewing Abbott’s messages, perhaps asking whether the three word slogans will do during the election campaign. Abbott will be re-groomed, given some new words he can repeat from memory, words that are memorable, although meaningless because of their lack of specificity. Minders will fret about how Abbott will manage in a vigorous debate with Rudd on serious policy issues, a debate Rudd has already invited on economic issues. Rudd has panache that Abbott lacks, as well as policy smarts, which Abbott doesn’t enjoy. Because Abbott has avoided solid policy work, preferring mantras that he repeats like a Buddhist monk, policy debates promise to be a big problem for him and the Coalition. Close observers have recognized for ages his policy paucity as a major vulnerability; now it threatens to be exposed for all to see, for voters to see his vacuity. How long would it take for the electorate to have their eyes opened, and their approval of him plummet?

As last week came to an end, while Kevin Rudd was in full flight at a media conference on Friday, answering dozens of questions from a rowdy bunch of journalists, Coalition minders were scrambling to prepare a response to the emergence of another Rudd Prime Ministership. Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop and Warren Truss were sent out to recite disparaging statements about Rudd, all intended for the airwaves. They sounded pathetic. How much impact such negative stuff will have, especially when Rudd is now enjoying positive acceptance from much of the electorate, is debatable.

I can see a wave of panic spreading across the Coalition camp as they realize that they are now in for a close contest at the election and a challenging combatant to cope with beforehand. I can see Tony Abbott and his minders wondering how to deal with a resurgent Kevin Rudd, how to counter his newly-won popularity, how to respond to his exuberant rhetoric, and with a deep feeling of apprehension, how to match him in a policy debate.

I can imagine the sinking feeling that will oppress their souls as they look at each new poll, and most of all, the giant killer Newspoll, to see how they are faring.

I can see the Honourable Leader of her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Anthony John Abbott, with his hands eagerly outstretched to grasp the coveted keys to The Lodge, fearfully wondering if he will see his long-held dream evaporate, wondering if HE will be the one that Newspoll will kill off next.


What do you think?

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, Doug Cameron, Kim Carr, Bob Carr, Simon Crean, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Julia Gillard, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Robert McClelland, Christine Milne, Robert Oakeshott, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Newspoll: The Killing Machine

In the following thirty-six hours the next Newspoll will be published. If it is as poor a result for Labor as was last week's Nielsen Poll, the leadership frenzy will reach an even more feverish pitch. Frantic media packs will jostle to assail every politician entering and leaving parliament, thrusting microphones into their faces, and insisting they declare their allegiance to Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd, or at least take a punt on whether a leadership challenge is on, and who is likely to win. The words uttered by the key players will be analyzed endlessly for nuance. Every news bulletin on radio or TV will be embellished with phrases such as 'another bad poll for Labor has renewed/fuelled/rekindled/heightened leadership speculation', with clips of comments from Labor politicians at doorstops, clips of Tony Abbott, with nodding supporters in the background, sagely reminding us how dysfunctional, divided and chaotic the Gillard Government is, and Christopher Pyne emitting his usual venom outside Parliament. It is as predictable as the sun rising in the East.

The press will have a field day. Dennis Shanahan will be emboldened to predict an even greater electoral disaster for Labor, Paul Kelly will be more pontifical than usual in telling us why, and other News Limited journalists will report the findings gleefully, and in every sordid detail. The predictive value of the poll will be assumed, as it has been for two years now, and to give the result some statistical authenticity, the result will be stated to be 'outside the margin of error'.

Should the result be much the same as the last Newspoll, the media response will be less strident. What Labor could expect would be one of Shanahan's favourite phrases: 'flat-lining', or words to the effect that Labor 'has failed to get a bounce out of Gonski', or any other piece of legislation the pundits believe ought to have given it one.

But if the result were to be better for Labor than Nielsen or the last Newspoll, it would need to be vastly better to attract any acknowledgement of an improvement. And to counter any better result, we will be reminded that the Coalition 'still has an election-winning lead', or that ‘it would still win in a landslide', or that 'Labor would still lose (insert number) of seats at an election, should it be held today'.

So whatever happens this coming week with Newspoll, the result will be painted as bad for Labor, and should it be much, much better by any chance, it will be categorized as a 'rouge poll'.

Nothing I have asserted so far will come as a surprise to any reader. I write these words simply to underscore the extraordinary influence polls of voting intention and personal approval have on our political dialogue through all forms of the Fourth Estate. They actually create the dialogue.

This coming week, Newspoll will be used as a killing machine, as it has been for many years.

Of course it was used as a killing machine in the dying days of the Howard Government, although not as powerfully as it is now. And let's acknowledge that it is not the only one. The Nielsen poll too has potency as a killing machine, as we saw last week. It precipitated a furious frenzy in the Canberra Press Gallery that went on for several days, until it became apparent that no leadership challenge was in the offing, whereupon the frenzy abated for a while. Of course there are regular Galaxy polls that seem to emerge at weekends that give good copy to political journalists for the Sunday papers, and now automated ReachTEL polls are gaining prominence and are given publicity in News Limited media. Those aiming at the heart of Labor use them all as killing machines.

But there are other polls, some longstanding. Morgan Polls have been around since 1941. Morgan conducts both face-to-face and telephone polls. The last one did not replicate the results of the Nielsen poll. Under a heading: Female support rises strongly for the Government after Howard Sattler interview with Prime Minister, Morgan wrote: “Today’s Morgan Poll shows the ALP closing the gap on the L-NP with the L-NP (53.5%, down 2.5% in a week) cf. ALP (46.5%, up 2.5%) after Perth radio host Howard Sattler interviewed Prime Minister Julia Gillard last Thursday and questioned the Prime Minister about her partner’s sexuality. Sattler was subsequently sacked on Friday afternoon by Fairfax Radio and the Morgan Poll which was interviewed after this point shows a clear swing back to the Government. A Fairfax-Nielsen poll released overnight showed the L-NP (57%) cf. ALP (43%) on a two-party preferred basis. However, it is important to note the Fairfax-Nielsen poll was conducted between Thursday and Saturday last week (June 13-15, 2013) which means many of the Fairfax-Nielsen interviews were conducted before the full impact of the Howard Sattler interview and subsequent sacking was known."

Did any of you see the Morgan Poll reported in the Fourth Estate? The only place I saw it was in the Fifth Estate, in Independent Australia. Isn't that strange? No it isn't. Fairfax would not want to diminish the potency of its own killing machine by giving credence to a poll that was at variance with its own, especially the last poll that placed Labor in such a poor light. In fact isn't it strange that we almost never see Morgan Polls given any airing in the Fourth Estate.

And there is the weekly Essential Poll that uses a methodology different from other polls, and aggregates two weeks' polling into each week's result. On June 17 it showed the same result as the previous week: 54/46 TPP, with no dip that could be attributed to the previous week's events. Of course next week it might. But where in the Fourth Estate do you see Essential Polls reported? Both Morgan and Essential seem to be personae non gratae within the Fourth Estate. The only time Essential Media Communications gets exposure is when its Director, Peter Lewis, appears on the ABC’s The Drum.

Polls, Newspoll particularly, and to some extent Nielsen Polls and Galaxy Polls, are used as killing machines by those who use them to attack political parties. This is not to imply that the polls are wrong, or unprofessionally conducted, much less rigged. But there seems little doubt that in the hands of journalists they can be, and are used as killing machines aimed at the party on the decline and ipso facto as boosters to the party on the rise. Polls supply the heavy ammunition; journalists fire it at their target. For the contemporary Fourth Estate, this suits their purpose because the polls match the stories they want to write.

What this piece argues is that commercial polls of voting intention dictate the political dialogue by allowing proprietors, editors and journalists to interpret them as they wish, and thereby create the stories they want to disseminate.

But let me address an issue that infuriates journalists. When anyone suggests they are 'making up stories', or that their stories are just ‘a media beat up', they become highly indignant, insist that their stories have real sources, that the information upon which they base their stories is real, neither imagined nor made up, and that they are simply reporting to the public the information they have sourced, which they insist is their sacred duty, as 'the public has the right to know'. So let's be clear, journalists are fed tidbits, journalists do fossick out bits and pieces of information, and journalists do have their 'sources'. That is not in dispute. What is debatable is the quality of the information they solicit or are offered, that is, its validity and its reliability. Sometimes it is of high quality, and enables them to write important articles. There are many examples we can all recall. It is when the information is of doubtful quality or simply wrong that articles derived from it are suspect or disingenuous.

But even when the information is valid and reliable, it is how the journalist evaluates its importance that determines how the story is written. A tiny piece of information, no matter how valid and reliable, does not a major story make, yet that is what the Fourth Estate too often dishes up to us. Corridor whispers, an overheard comment, a story exchanged between journalists at their favourite drinking hole, seem too often to be the basis for a big story, a prediction of major importance. Reflect for a moment on how many times senior journalists have predicted PM Gillard's political demise, how often they have suggested she step down. They still are! The media, becoming desperate as time for a change runs out, is pulling out all the stops to dislodge our PM. This weekend, Andrew Holden, editor of The Age, perhaps miffed that PM Gillard did not fall on her sword after his Nielsen poll last Monday, is now somewhat arrogantly insisting in an editorial that she must stand aside ‘for the sake of the nation’.

How many times have we been told that she will be gone by Christmas - the killing season – or by Easter, or by the time parliament rises, or when the caucus next meets, or when it has its last meeting, or by whatever date the journalist conjures up, and in any year you care to imagine. Yet she is still standing - 'she won't lie down and die'. Maybe she will meet the fate that has been predicted for almost three years now in the three months before election day. But so far predictions have all been wrong. But like stopped clocks that are bound to be right twice a day, journalists continue to hope that eventually they might be right.

Journalists in the Fourth Estate often place too much reliance on unreliable information, on invalid intelligence, on at times deliberately false information fed to them by people with a subterranean political agenda into which they allow themselves to be sucked, and thereby conned. Faulty information would not be so much of a problem to them if they sat on it until it could be checked for its validity and reliability, an exercise good journalists carry out routinely, but instead they take up their megaphones and shout their paltry and sometimes shonky messages for all to hear, and they go on doing this time and again despite them being wrong over and over. And when something really important does actually happen, they often miss it, as they did when they missed Kevin Rudd's removal until almost the last minute, and completely missed Bob Carr's appointment as Foreign Minister.

By the way, we can’t let journalists off ‘scot-free’ on the charge that they don’t make stories up. Reflect on the second half of last week. There were no more polls, and as far as I am aware no comments from Labor that could be mined for flecks of gold, yet Leigh Sales managed to spend most of her Thursday 7.30 interview of Craig Emerson fishing for leadership tidbits; Tony Jones’ Lateline featured an unnecessarily convoluted piece by Tom Iggulden that explored what might happen constitutionally if leadership changed; and on Friday, ABC news picked up on words Kevin Rudd used on Seven’s Sunrise when asked about a potential bid for leadership: ”I don’t believe there are any circumstances in which that would happen”, and wove them into a story that this was a less vehement denial, and therefore significant! Can you believe it? Yes you can. Journalists do make up some stories, and they do ‘beat up’ others. Read what Michelle had to say about the Leigh Sales interview in her blog piece: Dear Leigh Sales. I’m sure many would echo her sentiments.

It is the rush to the megaphone to shout their stories on every medium they can access without proper checking, or simply the rush to shout a story they have made out of nothing, which characterizes far too much political journalism today, and brings it into disrepute. Is it any wonder the public holds journalists in such low regard, and levels at them accusations of poor quality journalism, of 'making stories up', and of 'media beat ups'?

We all know though that there is another reason for the rush to the megaphone. Journalists, fearful about their own jobs, are mindful of the need to please, or at least not seriously upset, their proprietor and editor. They know their political agenda, which for most of the Fourth Estate seems to be the removal of the Gillard Government and the replacement of it with a Coalition government led by Tony Abbott. Every story about leadership destabilization, every story about PM Gillard being replaced, every related adverse event, is grist to the News Limited and Fairfax mills. So megaphone journalism aimed at discrediting PM Gillard and her Government is OK by these media outlets, no matter how unreliable and flimsy it is. It adds inexorably to the poor image of the PM and the Government it has been creating for years.

Let's return to the killing machines, which for News Limited is its heavy weapon, Newspoll, the most lethal killing machine of all.

Try this exercise in your imagination. Reflect on how different political journalism would be if there were no opinion polls. I realize that means exploring a fantasy world that will never become reality, but bear with me.

Ask yourself what journalists would write about leadership without polls results to underpin their stories. It is the results of the polls of voting intention and personal approval, and comparisons of the popularity of potential leaders (Gillard/Rudd and Abbott/Turnbull) that give them the material they require to write about leadership. It is the poll of who would save the most seats for Labor that energises journalist's comments about leadership. When the TPP is going against a party, particularly the one in power, journalists jump on it because, to use the words they use habitually, it 'calls into question' the position of the leader, and ‘renews/fuels/ignites/heightens leadership speculation’. If the leader is less popular than the contender, as has been the case with Julia Gillard versus Kevin Rudd, if the challenger might save more seats, that adds to the speculation. If there were no poll results, there would be no leadership speculation, as indeed is the case between polls, when speculation subsides. But the day the poll comes out, especially if it is Newspoll, which seems to have assumed superior status among the many polls, the media: print, radio and TV is ablaze with strident recitation of the results and the dire implications. It's great copy for journalists, hungry for a scoop.

Without the polls, they would have to undertake real journalism; they would have to seek sources, solicit information from those whose opinion is worthy, check its veracity, double check, analyze what the sources told them, and reach a considered conclusion about the status of the leader in question. That's arduous work; it involves 'working the phones' and 'wearing out boot leather', as their predecessors once did. Poll results obviate this weary toil. Writing up poll results is child's play, and any interpretation can be placed on any result, depending on what story the journalist wants to write. We saw Dennis Shanahan's convolutions in the dying days of the Howard Government, when, no matter how poor the results were for John Howard, Dennis could always find a ray of hope to head his analysis.

There are other polls, carried out privately by pollsters on behalf of political parties and their supporters. These are never reported publically, but are regularly ‘leaked’. The fact that they are not subject to the same methodological scrutiny as commercial polls means that their validity and reliability are not questioned. The fact that those who commission these polls choose to leak them to the media suggests that the leaking is a tactic to advantage one side or disadvantage the other, or both. That alone calls into question their veracity. While some question the validity of commercial polls on the grounds of methodology, for example the use of landlines versus mobile phones, I believe commercial pollsters are proficient and attempt to do their polling professionally, striving for representative samples of sufficient size. On the other hand, private polling, or at least its reporting, is suspect, as is the output from focus groups. I place no store on reports in the Fourth Estate of private polling.

Of course, polls would have lesser influence on political dialogue if Labor members declined to engage in public or private conversation with insistent journalists hungry to extract a morsel they might be able to fashion into a story. Although they know that whatever they say journalists will use it in whatever way they prefer, politicians seem to be unable or unwilling to tell them to get lost. And even if they stay mute, the headline is: ‘X refused to confirm or deny’, or ‘avoided the question’, leaving the news consumer thinking that something suspect is going on.

Some Labor politicians, the Rudd saboteurs, are deliberately obtuse, and repeatedly feed the story of a Rudd revival to eager journalists, all the more so when Kevin Rudd’s popularity comes out much higher with the public than Julia Gillard’s. They are a destructive force that gives journalists the tidbits and rumors, true or otherwise, that they crave, and do so for their own selfish purpose. Some of the others, who pander to the press by responding to questions and then do so incompetently, seem to be plain stupid, unaware of, or careless about the damage they are doing. Fortunately, there are those who give unequivocal messages about leadership such as Wayne Swan, Craig Emerson, Greg Combet, Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and Peter Garrett, to name just a few. If only the others would emulate them.

So while we can correctly blame the media for the so-called journalism they offer, we need to acknowledge that a few malcontents do feed them bits and pieces from which they construct their stories. What is reprehensible is that most journalists endow such morsels with a credibility they do not deserve, and don’t bother to check their veracity before enthusiastically taking up their megaphones hoping for a scoop.

Stories about poll results have a profound effect over time. While one bad poll result takes its toll, bad result after bad enables journalists to paint a more damaging picture of the party that is lagging – one of a party that is doomed, fated to lose in a landslide, to be reduced to a mere ‘rump’. Add to that the long-standing media narrative that the Gillard Government is ‘the worst government in Australian history’, indeed ‘a bad government getting worse’, that PM Gillard is an incompetent, untrustworthy liar, who makes one mistake after another, that her popularity is sinking inexorably, that she is dragging Labor down to a catastrophic defeat, and you have a vivid picture of a certain loser, who by that account deserves to lose. This image feeds into the next poll and reinforces the negativity. When that poll turns out poorly, the vicious circle continues. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser, so the downward trend is amplified, again and again. This is what so many News Limited journalists want, as do many in Fairfax.

In case you think I’m in a minority in my view that polls are killing machines in the hands of antagonistic journalists, read what Letitia McQuade had to say on Independent Australia in Gillard, polls, porkies and popularity. Read this too in The Conscience Vote: Dear media, write about something else, and Truth Seeker’s Murdoch’s poll machines stuck on spin cycle, and Jeff Sparrow’s piece in The Guardian: What is the Gillard v Rudd civil war all about?.

This piece describes and deplores the malevolent influence that opinion polls of voting intention and popularity have on political discourse in this country. Poll results are ammunition for adversarial journalists to fire at politicians and parties they oppose. They use them ruthlessly to wound and kill their opponents. They use them to reinforce the stories they write, stories too often based on whispers and questionable intelligence; they use them to create a repetitive story of incompetence, of failure, of a fate worse than death at the upcoming election, of a party that must be decisively discarded. Polls are used to manipulate minds in the desired direction; with every negative poll that arrives, the more the voters are persuaded in that direction.

Sadly, amongst all this, policy issues vital to this country’s future, and that of all its citizens, are diluted or simply ignored. How on earth can the voters decide?

In the hands of journalists polls are killing machines, and the most potent of all is News Limited’s Newspoll. And they are killing not just politicians and parties, they are killing the intelligent policy debate every strong democracy needs.


What do you think?

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The culture of disrespect

In the week just gone there was an extraordinary coincidence of events that starkly reminded us of just how much disrespect contaminates our society, most of it directed towards women. It is a scourge that dates back for centuries, one though that the forward-looking fondly believed was losing ground as more enlightened attitudes appeared to be emerging. What happened last week calls that hope into question.

When Julia Gillard made her speech at the launch of Labor's Women for Gillard campaign in Sydney last Tuesday, she let surge into the open the simmering undercurrent of sexism and discrimination against women that we all know continues to afflict our society, one that many prefer not to see or acknowledge.

Albeit unintentionally, as if to confirm her point, later that day at the post-match press conference after the Socceroos four-nil win against Jordan, coach Holger Osieck set the ball rolling when he made a sexist slur that "women should shut up in public". The following day Jason Hickson, president of the Cessnock Hunter Young Liberals branch, tweeted: "Fairly certain Socceroos coach was referring to @JuliaGillard last night . . . not women in general. Heres [sic] to Holger if that's [sic] the case! #auspol." This earned him suspension from the Liberal Party by NSW Liberal Party state director Mark Neeham.

The PM’s message was that Labor supported women in a way unmatched by the Coalition, and that if Tony Abbott should become PM, women would “once again [be] banished from the centre of Australia's political life”, reinforcing that with her claim that ‘men in blue ties’ would marginalize women. Labor’s front bench of one woman in three against the Coalition’s less than one in five, goes some way to validating her assertion.

She also put abortion back on the agenda with: “We don't want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better”

Fuming with righteous indignation, Julie Bishop quickly labelled her speech as indulging in the “base politics of fear and division”, of “waging a gender war”, insisting it was “patronising and insulting”, and “a speech not worthy of a prime minister”.

The reaction to PM Gillard’s speech among women was mixed. Some felt uneasy that the gender issue had been raised in a political context, and that abortion had been resurrected as an issue. Even some feminists and commenters on Hoopla expressed concern, some dismay. Of course, male columnists and several female, notably Janet Albrechtsen, were delighted to agree with Julia Gillard’s critics. Even a couple of Labor backbenchers expressed concern.

However, in PM right to put gender on the agenda in the Sydney Morning Herald, Leslie Cannold, Melbourne academic and writer, and President of Reproductive Choice Australia, pointed out that Tony Abbott had made many statements about abortion: “I think it is a tragedy that we have as many abortions as we do…” and “I'm a bit like Bill Clinton…who said that he thought it should be safe, legal and rare. And I underline 'rare'”. In Abbott’s words, a last resort.

Cannold goes on to quote Abbott again:“I certainly have always said that the whole issue here was to try to ensure that we empowered women…[and] gave women in a very difficult position all the support they needed to make what was for them the best possible choice”. (For those confused by that gobbledygook, that was Abbott signalling to his anti-choice supporters that his government could return to the Pregnancy Support Measures of the Howard era designed – and here I quote Abbott – to “reduce abortion numbers through pregnancy support counselling”.)” Cannold fears that the shaming and stigmatizing of the one in three Australian women who have an abortion will escalate under an Abbott government.

Abbott’s unsuccessful attempt when he was Health Minister to assume control of the use of abortion drug RU 486 is another indication of his past attitude to abortion.

On the Jon Faine show on ABC 774 radio on Friday, Cannold said she had looked for any sign that Abbott had changed his attitude to abortion, but had seen none. She believes that Julia Gillard was right in raising this issue.

So unless Abbott has undergone an epiphany on the subject of abortion, expect that an Abbott government would take a regressive attitude.

No sooner had her speech hit the headlines than, seemingly out of the blue, a report emerged of a highly offensive menu at a dinner for twenty in March to raise funds for endorsed Liberal candidate for Fisher, Mal Brough. It described our PM as a quail dish, elaborating on her physical features and her genitals in a deeply odious way. Descriptions on the same menu of two Labor males, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, although grossly rude, carried no sexual connotations. Tony Abbott and other Liberals quickly denounced this sexist attack on Julia Gillard, and Mal Brough apologized. Joe Hockey, a special guest at the dinner, said he never saw the menu, and came over all offended, accusing the PM of calling him a ‘fat man’ in parliament, and insinuating that her reaction to what the journalistic fraternity now insist on calling ‘menugate’, was unfairly directed at him.

Then it emerged that Brisbane businessman Joe Richards had written the offensive menu. He passed it off as ‘a lighthearted joke’, which he had created with his son, a joke that he never intended to be made public. But when Chef David Carter posted it on Facebook it became very public. Subsequently Abbott declared that the menu had never left the kitchen. It was stylishly printed though, and as Brough immediately apologized for the menu, describing it as "deeply regrettable, offensive and sexist", it is curious that he did this, as now denies knowledge of the menu.

In the light of the Richards story, instead of trying to weasel the Coalition out of the firing line, as Abbott would characteristically have done, he suggested that it was time for everyone to ‘move on’. I wonder how much he really knows about ‘menugate’?

News Limited papers, by attempting to connect Labor figures with Richards, are now trying to limit the damage this episode has done to the Coalition, I suspect in vain.

I expect we will never know the full story, but the fact that the menu was for a Liberal fund-raiser, suggests the involvement of Liberal supporters, and will reflect adversely on them.

Whatever the true story, the undeniable fact is that this menu reflects deep-seated disrespect for our PM and deeply sexist attitudes towards her. No one has defended the menu, and politicians from all parties have been outspoken in condemnation. It is yet another example of the culture of disrespect that afflicts politics today, disrespect that is often directed to the nation’s first female Prime Minister.

As Julia Gillard's speech was being dissected and critiqued, another event intervened: General David Morrison, Head of the Australian Army, reported on an extensive study of sexism in the Army, revealing investigations into as many as 90 serving officers who might be guilty of producing what he called "highly inappropriate material demeaning women" distributed across the Internet and Defence's email networks. He added: "If this is true, then the actions of these members are in direct contravention of every value the Australian Army stands for." He bluntly told those involved that if they could not accept the Army’s values they should ‘get out’. Much more will be revealed about this scandal in the weeks ahead. Defence Minister Stephen Smith said that the culture that allowed such actions to occur was not recent; it was decades old and represented a major eradication challenge for the Army.

Although not related to the political events of the week, the Morrison report highlighted the widespread nature of disrespect for women in the Army, one likely reflected in the community generally.

Then came the most infamous event of all, the interview of PM Gillard by shock jock Howard Sattler on radio 6PR in Perth on Thursday evening.

His insensitive probing at the very beginning of an arranged interview with the PM into the sexual preference of the PM’s partner Tim Mathieson with the blunt: “Tim’s gay”, and his persistent questioning along these lines, has brought him universal and strident condemnation from politicians, commentators and the media, including such outspoken shock jocks as Derryn Hinch, and even Ray Hadley. Alan Jones seems not to have commented; I suppose it’s a case of ‘people in glass houses…’. Sattler was subsequently suspended and sacked; Fairfax apologized. Sattler was unrepentant; ‘he had no regrets’. So much for his attitude to Julia Gillard, whom he regards as ‘fair game’! There’s no need to go into details; you probably know them already after all the publicity this event attracted. If you want to, take a look at the video in this piece.

What is important is that here is a radio personality of long standing, who thought it was appropriate to be grossly disrespectful to the nation’s Prime Minister. Would he have been so had the PM been male? Would he have asked about the sexual preference of the PM’s partner? You know the answer.

Julia Gillard’s fear was that an interview like this might deter young women from undertaking a career in public life and in politics.


On Friday’s episode of ABC’s
The Drum, where there was condemnation by all the panellists, Mary Crooks, Executive Director of the Victorian Women's Trust, and author of A Switch in Time – restoring respect to Australian politics, added her words of denunciation about the disrespectful and sexist attacks on our PM.

Anne Summers reinforced Julia Gillard’s assertions about the paucity of women in the Abbott team, and his longstanding attitude towards abortion.

On Friday’s PM on ABC radio, Martin Cuddihy interviewed a Sydney hairdresser who said: “It's really rude to talk to the Prime Minister about her personal life", and when asked what he thought about the implication that because the Prime Minister's partner is a hairdresser, he's gay, he replied: “Really I don't know man, but I feel really sorry about the Prime Minister, the way he talked to her and she felt a little bit embarrassed and I think this is really rude and bad.”

Cuddihy then turned to Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, who when asked her opinion, said: “I think what it really was about was yet another example of Julia Gillard being interrogated in very intimate personal ways that we have not see any other politician being interrogated before and being slandered and slurred and derided on the basis of personal intimate things.” When asked what Sattler was trying to ask about her, she replied “He was basically trying to imply what kind of a man would be interested in being with Julia Gillard. What kind of a person is she? Is she desirable? The inference, of course, from his perspective, is no and therefore it's a slight on her sexuality and her appeal and her desirability and what kind of a woman she is". In Rosewarne’s view, the thrust of Sattler’s question went well beyond the ‘gay partner’ query.

On the ABC’s AM yesterday, former Premier of Victoria, Joan Kirner, expressed her outrage at Sattler’s questions and went onto say “Men are rarely questioned on their spouses or their partners, and nor should they be. And the question to ask is why is this done to women? And the answer is because we still see women as appendages to males and not standing there with their own rights, with the capacities to exercise power.” She too suffered at the hands of the media; cartoonists regularly depicted her in a polka dot dress, sometimes so offensively that her daughter would advise her: “Don’t look at the cartoons today Mum!”

There’s no need for any more evidence about what has been a week characterized by one sexist episode after another, unrelated, but pointing to the worrisome residue of sexist behaviour in our community, in these examples directed towards service women, women in general, and PM Julia Gillard in particular. Her speech on Tuesday along these lines, criticized by many, including feminists, seems to have been vindicated by subsequent events: ‘menugate’, the Army scandal, and the Sattler interview.

How has this come about? It seems as if all the efforts of those who have fought for equal rights and recognition for women for so long, still have a battle ahead of them.

Who is responsible?

The Army scandal appears to be the persistence of a culture of disrespect towards women from Army men. The recent exposure follows a long line of similar, although perhaps less pervasive episodes. It points to widespread cultural problems that so far have not been addressed, or have defied correction. This time, General Morrison seems determined to root out the offenders and cleanse the Army of this scourge. We hope he succeeds.

But what of the poisonous sexism and disrespect that pervades our body politic, where menus demeaning the PM in an offensively sexual way are printed, where she is subject to grossly inappropriate questioning by a Perth shock jock? Who is responsible for that?

As in all complex issues there are multiple factors. No one person or group is wholly responsible. But to avoid looking for some of the culprits is simply a copout. The Fourth Estate will not even attempt to ask why we are in this position, nor will it look for the perpetrators. Only the Fifth Estate will dare.

If we look for how the level of disrespect and sexism has come about in Federal politics, the first place to look is at the leadership of the Coalition.

Look at the track record of the Leader of the Opposition. Here is a man with a long past history of aggression and disrespect towards women who have defeated him in political combat. Here is the man who punched the wall near Barbara Ramjan after she defeated him in a student politics battle, who kicked in a glass door after another defeat. His supporters argue that was many years go when he was at university, but we have seen similar behaviour more recently. Ever since he was outmanoeuvered by Julia Gillard in the negotiations with the Independents and she became PM in a minority government, Abbott has called her prime ministership, and her Government ‘illegitimate’. He still insists the prize should have been his. As he has done in the past, he has set himself on a path of destruction of her and her Government.

This path is littered with demeaning insults. He has persistently used the terms ‘she’, ‘her’, and ‘this Prime Minister’ to diminish her standing. She is not the only object of his disrespect. He persists in calling the parliamentary Speaker, who has requested that term be used, ‘Madam Speaker’, just as he called the student chairperson who defeated him back in student days ‘Chair thing’, a sign of his disrespect that continued all year.

In parliament he attacks her like a rabid dog, over and again, as do his front bench: Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop. Read Political hatred: its genesis and its toll, and take a look at their faces contorted with rage, hatred and disrespect. Just this week, Joe Hockey tweeted about Julia Gillard: “She has never deserved respect, and will never receive it.” Think of that for a moment before anyone tries to argue that Abbott and Co. have not generated disrespect for the most senior political figure in this nation, for the high office of Prime Minister. Of course they have.

It was Abbott’s echoing in parliament of shock jock Alan Jones’ slur that her father had ‘died of shame’ because of his daughter’s behaviour, which precipitated her famous and inspiring so-called ‘misogyny speech’ that found favour all around the world, especially with women, who understood exactly what she was saying.

At doorstops, Abbott endlessly repeats his mantras: ‘the worst Prime Minister in Australian political history’, presiding over ‘the worst government in our history’, and ‘a bad government, getting worse’. He paints her as grossly incompetent, as having poor judgement, and as an untrustworthy liar. Both his frontbench and backbench faithfully echo his mantras with almost religious fervour, as do his media sycophants, uncritical of him or his disrespectful assertions. He can rely on Paul Kelly, Dennis Shanahan, Chris Kenny, Janet Albrechtsen and their ilk to back him in with all his disrespectful rhetoric.

Alan Jones’ infamous ‘Juliar’ interview, his ‘put her in a hessian bag and take her out to sea’, and his repeated vilification of our PM in the most offensive terms, have created an aura of disrespect for her and her position. Ray Hadley has joined in the demonization. Tony Abbott, Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella standing in front of ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs at an Alan Jones’ sponsored carbon tax rally in Canberra screamed disrespect for PM Gillard.

Is it any wonder that there is so much disrespect abroad that even school kids feel able to throw sandwiches at her?

We ought not be surprised that journalists and shock jocks feel free to ask her insulting and demeaning questions.

I lay most of the disrespect directed to PM Julia Gillard squarely at the feet of the would-be PM, Tony Abbott, and the rest of it at his front bench, his back bench, and his media supporters. By creating an aura of disrespectfulness, day after day, month after month, year after year, they have given ‘permission’ to every Tom, Dick and Harry to do the same, from school children throwing salami sandwiches at our PM, to shock jocks throwing insolent questions at her. If Abbott and Co had drawn a firm line below such disrespectful talk and action, if they had insisted that politics should be above this type of behaviour, or to use a favourite Abbott phrase: ‘We are better than this’, the gross level of disrespect that exists and has been exhibited so grotesquely last week, would not have occurred. Prove me wrong.

You won’t see anything like this in the Fourth Estate. You know why.


What do you think?

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Bronwyn Bishop, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus, Peter Dutton, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Christine Milne, Sophie Mirabella, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Tanya Plibersek, Christopher Pyne, Bill Shorten, Wayne Swan, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

What is the role of political blogsites?

Political blogsites proliferate almost by the week. Many reside in the Fifth Estate. While a few declare their political orientation overtly, most do not. It is possible though to ascertain this by reading the pieces they post. While some purport to be ‘balanced’, ready to criticize any or all political parties, or politicians of any complexion, these seem to be in a minority. Some sites attempt balance by using a variety of authors who hold different views. Individual authors though usually have an established position; it is uncommon to find an author who critiques and criticizes all parties and politicians with equal vigour. Most blogs seem to lean to one side or the other, and some, sponsored by the parties themselves, or closely associated bodies, such as the Institute of Public Affairs, lean exclusively to one party, and condemn almost everything the opposing parties propose or do.

In a comment on the piece Political hatred: its genesis and its toll, Doug Evans, after conceding that the thought of the election of an Abbott government appalled him, went onto say: “I do not understand the unwillingness of intelligent articulate wordsmiths to critically address the shortcomings and missteps of the Gillard government alongside its (admittedly) largely unsung strengths.” His comment prompted me to question the role and orientation of this blogsite: The Political Sword.

Readers have only to read through a few pieces to ascertain that this site is supportive of PM Gillard and her Government. As the owner of the site, I believe that the Rudd/Gillard Government has been an active, reforming government, tackling some of the urgent issues facing this nation: global warming; a failing and inequitable education system; a health system, which although world class, is failing to meet fully the needs of the people, particularly the ageing population, the disabled, and those with mental illness and dental problems; an industrial relations system that was tilted too much to favour the employer; infrastructure deficits in road, rail and ports all over the country; a tax system that needed overhaul to correct anomalies and address the structural deficits in the tax system created by the Howard/Costello Government; a superannuation system that was not providing adequate security for workers; an inadequate communications network that needed upgrading to very fast broadband to keep pace within the developed world; a troubled asylum-seeker policy; and indigenous disadvantage that constituted a national disgrace.

The Government has tackled these and many other issues with purpose and vigour in the last three years, in the face of unremitting Coalition hostility in a minority parliament. Over five hundred pieces of legislation have been passed in this term, without a failure. And in the process, it has sustained the economy in a state better than in any other developed country, even despite the global financial crisis, a crisis that still exists and wreaks havoc in many countries. I applaud what the Rudd/Gillard Government has achieved under very difficult circumstances. For any who doubt the extent of these achievements, do read the comprehensive list in Judging Gillard and the Labor Government by John Lord in The Australian Independent Media Network.

I admire the strength of PM Julia Gillard and her persistence in the face of all the vitriolic hatred directed at her by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Coalition members, and the Fourth Estate, notably the Murdoch media. Is there any politician in recent times who has suffered such venomous abuse and denigration, such persistent personal castigation and demonization day after day, week after week, month after month? Is there any other politician that could have withstood it with such equanimity?

Moreover, the PM has shown herself to be highly intelligent and competent, a leader who has an astonishing grasp of every portfolio within her Government, who can answer any question she is asked, and despite the malevolent efforts of journalists, never seems wrong-footed. She does not walk away when the questions get tough. She has demonstrated her courage and persistence in the face of penetrating and sometimes personal questioning on many occasions, some of them marathons.

And I like her. Although we have never met, from all I have seen on TV of her interaction with the public at formal events, at community meetings, or on less formal occasions, and from reports posted here from our visitors, she seems to be genuine, personable, good humoured and charming. She relates comfortably to a wide variety of people, and enjoys especially her interactions with children, who genuinely seem to like her. I find it impossible to feel antagonistic to her, as many seem to feel, and deplore the hatred and loathing that the Coalition and much of the media directs at her continuously.

It is for all of these reasons that this blogsite is an enthusiastic supporter of the PM and her Government.

In stark contrast, from the very beginning her opponent Tony Abbott and his Coalition embarked on a campaign of negativity, obstruction, and vitriolic personal abuse. Progressively, they have announced a destructive plan should they win government, a plan to smash virtually every reform the Government has initiated. Whatever else Abbott says he has in his DNA, he has an abundance of vengeance.

Is there a downside for the Gillard Government? Like all governments before, the Rudd/Gillard Government has made mistakes. There have been matters they might have handled better. But their faults are nowhere near the magnitude that the Coalition and the complicit media paint. They have been deliberately and maliciously magnified. Reflect on how the Murdoch media amplified the difficulties encountered in the rollout of the HIP and the BER, both successful and socially beneficial programs, but painted as unmitigated disasters. Mendacious reporting, skewed analysis, distortions, misrepresentations, and at times blatant lies, were disseminated in place of accurate reporting and analysis.

Although it is not perfect, I support the Gillard Government because of its ideals of equity, fairness and opportunity, its vision, its narrative, and its policies and plans. I have held this position for years, and nothing I have seen has ever given me any encouragement to abandon PM Gillard and Labor and support Opposition Leader Abbott and the Coalition. I reject the ideology, the policies, and the plans of the alternative government, which are anathema to me.

Expect more of the same attitude and approach on The Political Sword.


I will certainly not behave as some Labor backbenchers are at present. The sniggering Joel Fitzgibbon and the spluttering Doug Cameron both mocking the ‘talking points’ given them by the media office was not just unedifying, but corrosive of party cohesion. Making public the packing up of their parliamentary offices by Daryl Melham and Alan Griffin as a sign they would lose their seats, was damaging to the Labor cause. Whatever these four backbenchers felt personally, such a public display of disdain and defeatism was both disloyal and stupid. They could have kept their feelings to themselves, as team players would have done. Surreptitious backgrounding of journalists with stories of dismay at the polling, and despair about the election, is another example of disloyalty; those who do this must know that their corridor whispers will end up being splashed throughout the media. These Nervous Nellies are unsuitable for politics, which always involves contests, and winners and losers. They lack loyalty and guts. They should learn about guts from their leader. So for those looking for criticism, here is a one of contemporary Labor: there are too many parliamentarians who are not pulling together in the interests of the Labor Party and the Labor movement; there are too many creating dissent.

With Labor parliamentarians behaving in this destructive way, should a site as supportive of Labor as The Political Sword embark upon criticism of Labor policies or plans or actions in pursuit of this elusive attribute called ‘balance’? Doug Evans hints that perhaps it ought.

There are two reasons why this seldom occurs here.

First, there are so many blogsites that criticize the Gillard Government incessantly, so many media outlets that do this unremittingly, scarcely ever giving the smallest commendation, that in the interests of fair play, it seems to be unreasonable for a supportive site to join the cacophony of censure, disapproval, and condemnation. Sites supportive of the Coalition do not waste words pointing out its defects, its mistakes. Never. They refrain from critiquing their own side at least in part because they know that their criticisms will end up on opponents’ blogsites as evidence that there is dissent in their ranks.

So, instead of adding to the cacophony, in my view a more productive approach for The Political Sword is to make positive and practical suggestions about how Gillard Government policy and its implementation could be improved. As the next section will show, this is easier said than done. This is especially the case where the problem is beset with complexity, is politically sensitive or threatening, and has the potential to influence election outcomes.

Here is a second reason why The Political Sword has hesitated to engage in critical comment. Some of the policies that Labor has implemented deal with exceedingly complex issues, issues that are prime targets for criticism by those who think they know better, issues that create hostility in a substantial part of the electorate. These critics offer criticisms of bits and pieces of a policy, but never offer a comprehensive alternative. It’s easy to pick holes in a policy and how it is being implemented, but much more challenging to put together an alternative. The asylum-seeker issue is a case in point.

To illustrate my point, I invite you to engage in an exercise with me. Let’s see how adept we are at devising an asylum-seeker policy, an area more contentious than almost any other.

I invite you to present your asylum-seeker policy in ‘dot point’ format because that will make it easier to read and assimilate. I also ask you to preface your dot points with a list of what you wish to achieve with your policy. In other words, aims first, then policy structure in some detail.

Let me give an example of how aims might read. In devising a policy, my aim would be the following:

. To establish a humane and welcoming approach to those escaping from fear of persecution and harm who seek asylum here.

. To arrange a method of arrival that did not include dangerous sea voyages on unsafe boats that risked drowning at sea.

. To ensure rapid appraisal of the legitimacy of claims for asylum of all arrivals, and prompt completion of necessary health and identity checks, with short stays in onshore detention while this is being carried out.

. Once the checks have been satisfactorily completed, to arrange re-settlement in the community, with access to jobs, services, schools, and opportunities for integration.

. To establish community reception amenities and staff, especially in areas that need workforce support, to welcome new arrivals and assist them to integrate into the community.

. To return arrivals that are not genuine asylum seekers according to UN criteria to their home country, provided it is safe to do so.

. To disrupt human trafficking and the business of those who are involved in people smuggling by boat.

. With UNHCR support, to establish processing centres in countries which asylum seekers traverse, and in countries of origin where possible, to provide rapid checks of identity, health and legitimacy of asylum claims, with air transport to Australia for community settlement once accepted. This would be an ‘approved’ way of entering Australia.

. To institute disincentives to dissuade those who might seek to engage people smugglers. This might involve the application of a ‘no-advantage’ arrangement whereby those who sought to bypass an ‘approved’ process, did not gain an advantage. Offshore processing with lengthy delays as a disincentive, ought to be a last resort.

. Recognizing that no one country could accommodate the millions of genuine refugees around the world, to establish community consensus about what constitutes an appropriate intake into Australia.

. Recognizing that asylum-seeker policy is a contentious and divisive issue, and for some in the electorate an explosive one, to establish a national program to inform citizens of our UNHCR responsibilities and to promote the concept of Australia as a decent nation willing to welcome a fair share of the world’s refugees, commensurate with its wealth and its capacity to do so. Such a program would have, as a major aim, the neutralizing of the issue politically.

. To attempt to achieve bipartisan agreement on asylum-seeker policy.

This list of aims is offered, not for your approval or endorsement, but simply to illustrate how aims might be formulated.

In formulating your policy, list first your aims as ‘dot points’, then list ‘dot points’ that flesh out how your policy would work in practice. I have not gone this far as I don’t want to preempt your offerings.

I know that should you respond you won’t insult our intelligence by simply regurgitating anything resembling the simplistic Abbott asylum policy: his three-headed plan to “Stop the boats” by ‘turning boats around when safe to do so’, ‘offshore processing’ and ‘temporary protection visas’. You may wish to include some of these, but please flesh them out more than Abbott ever attempts to do. He treats us all like mugs. We have had enough of this.

While other political blogsites will have their own concept of their role, in attempting to define the role of this particular site, and in response to the suggestion that The Political Sword ought to address deficiencies in the Gillard Government as well as its strong points, I believe that instead of joining with Labor’s opponents in strident condemnation, it is more appropriate for this site, which is supportive of the Gillard Government, to suggest ways that policy could be improved or implemented better. As an example, asylum seeker policy is proposed as the one that causes perhaps the most angst, the one that attracts the most criticism, the one where countless critics tell us by their words of criticism that it should be done differently, and much better. This piece offers the opportunity for these critics to tell us how they would fashion asylum-seeker policy, what aims it would have, and how it ought to be implemented, taking into account the multiple factors that operate in this vexed area of policy. The challenge, simply stated, is that instead of giving us your piecemeal criticism, you tell us what your aims would be and how you would achieve them, in some detail.

It’s especially an invitation to the scathing critics of Labor’s asylum-seeker policy that comment here from time to time, and who may return to comment on the unfolding tragedy near Christmas Island. Instead of another acerbic criticism of this or that aspect of the current policy, tell us in detail what your asylum-seeker aims are, and what your policy would be were you in government. Here’s your chance to put up or shut up.

Your thinking and your response to this challenge will be welcomed.

If you wish to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Adam Bandt, Julie Bishop, George Brandis, Doug Cameron, Jason Clare, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Alan Griffin, Sarah Hanson-Young, Joe Hockey, Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Leigh, Jenny Macklin, Richard Marles, Daryl Melham, Scott Morrison, Robert Oakeshott, Brendan O'Connor, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Bill Shorten, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, Warren Truss, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Political hatred: Is there a remedy?

The short answer to the question is ‘Yes’. The longer answer is ‘Yes’, but with a string of caveats. While the piece just gone: Political hatred: its genesis and its toll, attempted to define the origins of political hatred and describe the terrible damage it is causing, the damage it is doing to the fabric of our society, no attempt was made to suggest a remedy, indeed if a remedy is at all possible. This piece is to fill that void.

Using the medical model of first seeking an accurate diagnostic formulation before suggesting a remedy, let’s tease out the causes of hatred and how it manifests itself, then see what remedies might be available.

There are always multiple factors that contribute to complex problems, but let’s confine ourselves to just some of the major ones that might bring about political hatred: ideology, adversarial politics, power and money.

Does ideology cause hatred?
While the extremes of ideological persuasion in politics are capable of bringing about hatred, as we have seen manifest in violent revolutions throughout history where, for example, capitalism and communism have clashed, do the different ideologies of our major political parties here cause hatred?

In my opinion, hatred is the most extreme response to ideological debate. What we ought to see instead is robust dialogue, argument, claim and counter-claim, agreement and disagreement, even opposition, but without the hatred.

To give an example of a major difference in ideology, conservatives believe, amongst other things, in free markets, light regulation, small government, enterprise, competitiveness, a modest safety net, and low taxes, or at least that is what they claim. Progressives believe in measures that ensure a strong economy that provides full employment and prosperity, but strongly emphasize fairness, equality, opportunity, a good education for all, universal health care, and now disability care, as the last five years have demonstrated. Conservationists put environmental concerns and ecological sustainability high on their list of preferences. It is when these are applied that the jarring differences become apparent.

During the global financial crisis, preferring a Keynesian approach, Labor applied a succession of stimulus measures to keep people in jobs and avoid the economy going into recession, preferring to incur debt in order to do this. It was successful. Australia weathered the economic storm better than all other developed countries and achieved triple A ratings from all three ratings agencies. The Coalition’s preference was to avoid debt, to apply modest stimulus, and to return to surplus budgets. The Greens generally supported Labor’s moves. Naturally, there was healthy argument about the pros and cons of Labor’s approach, argument that was expected and was an acceptable part of political discourse.

But it was when opposition morphed into strident, and at times vitriolic criticism, when Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey turned the criticism beyond debating the ideological and practical pros and cons of Labor’s Keynesian approach, into venomous condemnation of the Government, the PM and the Treasurer, that hatred was fostered. No longer was it an economic debate, it was ‘a Government addicted to spending and debt’, ruining our economy, and accumulating debt that would burden our grandchildren. No longer was Labor criticized for its economic policy, it was ‘a bad government getting worse’. Disagreement with Labor’s policy became condemnation of it as a party that did not know what it was doing, and a party in which its senior members were labelled as incompetent.

When the debate changed from an ‘academic’ debate about economics to a personal attack, loaded with invective and abuse, which is what took place, hatred was fostered. The voters were encouraged to suspect the Government’s capability and question its intent. ‘Addicted to spending and debt’ stuck in people’s minds and alienated them.

This is an example of where hatred was promoted, where it need not have been at all.

Let’s look next at climate change and Labor’s response. Labor is convinced of the reality of global warming. It favoured an emissions trading scheme as the most effective mechanism to reduce carbon pollution and curb temperature rises. You all know the history of how this was aborted by the Rudd Government, re-introduced by the Gillard Government, and modified after the advent of a minority Government. Julia Gillard’s determination to initially put a price on carbon morphed into a ‘carbon tax’ and her subsequent placing of a price on carbon morphed into a 'broken promise'. ‘LIAR’ was stamped across her forehead. What ought to have been a debate about the reality, or otherwise, of anthropogenic global warming became a personal attack on PM Gillard and the labeling of her as a liar, a denunciation that has stuck in voters’ minds, as the Coalition intended it to do. The debate about AGW, about which the Coalition still seems skeptical despite its recent parliamentary acceptance of it, and what to do about it, was lost in the vicious personal attack on PM Gillard, an attack intended to diminish her as a leader, and make her Government less electable. Some would say that is legitimate business for an opposition. But for the people of Australia I believe good governance is the most important expectation of the Federal parliament; instead, the alternative government is making governance as difficult as possible.

So there is another example of where sensible debate about an important political issue was perverted and transformed to a personal harangue that has generated hatred and loathing. Who loves a liar? It need not have been this way.

Is there a remedy for this phenomenon, for this pathological condition? Of course there is. Politicians could talk about their values, their ideology, their vision for the nation and the policies and plans they have to achieve that vision. They could talk about the raisons d'être of their Party and its ‘narrative’ for bringing about needed change, necessary improvements. Instead, they fight and demean each other, put up as many barriers to progress as they can, and seek to destroy their opponents. Is there any possibility that they might change to a form of debate that is more productive and less destructive?

In my view, it is an addiction to adversarial politics that creates this state of affairs.

Does adversarial politics bring about hatred?
While it is accepted as the norm in Australian politics, and indeed seems accepted as part of the Westminster system of government, is seems to me to be the genesis of much of the conflict and hatred we see day after day. Randolph Churchill’s dictum for oppositions: “Oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out”, has been adopted by Tony Abbott. Read his Battelines. The Coalition has followed this to the tee. Virtually everything the Government has proposed has been opposed, except for some recent legislation that happens to suit the Coalition as it anticipates taking over government. Even measures consistent with the Coalition’s ideology have been opposed, simply for opposition’s sake. It has been incongruous to see the Coalition, ‘the party of low taxes’, oppose tax reductions simply because they advantaged poorer folk.

When trenchant opposition unnecessarily obstructs good governance is it any surprise that anger and resentment is created, and eventually hatred. Why do we have to suffer adversarial politics? Politicians and most commentators accept it as the custom and accept mindless opposition as ‘what oppositions always do’. Does it have to be this way? Why are we wedded to adversarial politics when some countries, notably in Europe, have governments that operate by consensus? Why couldn’t we operate by consensus on every occasion where it was ideologically possible? One can only conclude that politicians don’t want it this way, that they enjoy the adrenaline rush adversarial politics engenders. Commentators too prefer adversarial politics because it generates conflict, contest after contest, winners and losers, all of which is great copy for our conflict, entertainment-driven Fourth Estate.

In my opinion, adversarial politics is a potent progenitor of hateful politics. Another model seems preferable, but there is no enthusiasm for change. If you believe the polls, our minority government, which has operated largely by consensus among the non-Coalition players, is not favoured by the electorate. A remedy for the ill affects of the adversarial approach remains elusive.

Is the pursuit of power the genesis of political hatred?
Yes. There is no room for disputing this. Politics had always been a power game. Politicians and political parties have always sought power. Power enables people and parties to do what they believe is desirable. In that sense, it is natural. But when the quest for power overwhelms, when its pursuit is the prime activity, perversion of the political process occurs, conflict abounds, and hatred is generated. Killing off an opponent, figuratively speaking, is seen as acceptable in the pursuit of power.

But the quest for power extends well beyond politics. Many players seek the power to influence the political process, sometimes directly or overtly through the media, sometimes surreptitiously through lobbying in all its forms. We saw how the miners publically fought the mining and carbon taxes, how they still seek to influence the political process though their support for Coalition members. Think of Gina Rinehart and her closeness to Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce. Think even more deeply about the Murdoch influence on Abbott and indeed on the whole campaign. Think about how the full NBN would threaten Murdoch’s Foxtel empire, and about how media regulations, which a returned Labor Government would likely reintroduce, would threaten what Murdoch insists ought to be unfettered ‘freedom of the press’.

It is these peripheral players whose power is threatened, who believe their commercial interests are being placed in jeopardy, who are already exercising influence to such an extent that Tony Abbott and his senior Coalition colleagues seriously risk becoming mere puppets of Murdoch, Rinehart and anyone else who seeks power, who has money, and who is prepared to use it to get what they want.

It does not take a genius to imagine the dividend of this quest for power, this buying of favours. They want the Coalition and the sycophantic Abbott in power so that they can continue to exercise the power they need commercially. Those who pursue power for commercial reasons do not tolerate obstruction of their wishes. They will demean, diminish, degrade, disgrace, and if that creates loathing and hatred, so be it. We see this in the Murdoch media day after day after day.

Yet, it need not be this way. Labor politicians have shown that even as they seek power to enable their own plans, they can resist the power plays of those who seek to use them for their own ends, as has been the case with the media. Remember PM Gillard’s: “Don’t write crap”. But can Abbott, will Abbott, be able to resist these power plays? Does he wish to? Or is he happy to go along with these powerful people to get what he wants – political power, no matter what the cost to his political opponents, no matter what damage it does to the nation, no matter how much hatred is spread around? It seems as if the answer is: Yes!

In my view, the pursuit of political power by politicians, and by power seekers in the community who use politicians to achieve it, is a potent progenitor of hatred. But is there any remedy for this predisposition? How can those seeking power be persuaded to do so evenhandedly, free of malicious intent. Something approaching an epiphany would be necessary to convert the contemporary players.

How important is money in the genesis of hatred?
Of all the powerful factors that generate hatred, money is arguably the most important. The old adage: ‘Follow the money’ is as true in politics as in any other pursuit.

Money is what motivates the peripheral players. Businesspeople like Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart, to name just two prominent moguls, live and breathe money. Any threat to their continuing prosperity is attacked with vigour. No retaliation is too harsh, no action too severe. No matter how much hatred and loathing is generated, it is justified. The ends justify the means.

We see every day how the Murdoch empire pursues its quest for power through its media outlets. For two years now, noxious material about PM Gillard, her ministers and her Government have been disseminated through its press and its TV. Vitriolic hatred has poisoned the Murdoch offerings, unfortunately now replicated by Fairfax media, and even at times the ABC. Murdoch had created a loathing of Julia Gillard in the public’s mind, so much so that there have been two recent episodes of sandwiches thrown at her by schoolchildren. Imagine the conversation that must have occurred in the homes of these kids that would encourage them to throw missiles at our Prime Minister.

This is a reflection of the loathing and hatred that Abbott and his Coalition members have generated, which has been enthusiastically echoed and amplified day after day, in every outlet he owns, by Murdoch and his editors. He could have chosen to do otherwise. He could have chosen to have his journalists report facts accurately, to argue a position from them logically, to insist that opinion be based on evidence and sound reasoning. He chose to do the opposite: to distort information, to cherry pick the facts that suited his case, to misinform, even to tell downright lies, as hundreds of articles testify. He chose to vilify and demonize. He chose to use partisan opinion as news.

He chose to build up Opposition Leader Abbott, to overlook his misdemeanours, to not challenge his lies and mendaciousness, to echo his vile propaganda. He could have chosen otherwise. He could have chosen to be evenhanded and fair, and balanced in his media outlets. It was his choice to travel the Abbott road. It was his decision that this was in his commercial and ideological interests; it was his choice to do ‘whatever it takes’ to grasp the prize - a compliant, even sycophantic Abbott government.

Just imagine for a moment though what would happen if Murdoch were to call off his dogs, were he to indicate to his editors that he wished now to support PM Gillard, her ministers, and her Government, and wanted every good move it made given front page coverage, and also that he wanted Tony Abbott, his shadow ministers, and the Coalition publically excoriated day after day for their bad behavior, or for that matter, any behaviour at all. The attitude of the electorate and the opinion polls would be reversed in a matter of weeks.

Money drives ambition, avarice knows no bounds, little stands in the way of protecting money and making even more of it. It stands alone as the most powerful of all progenitors of hate and loathing. But is there any remedy for insatiable greed, and for the awful fallout that it can generate as the greedy pursue more and more wealth? Great wealth need not result in avarice and power plays to make more wealth. Bill Gates, the wealthiest man in the world, has found a way of having wealth but using it for the benefit of others. He does not need to generate hate to achieve his aims. Nor does Warren Buffett. Nor should any other wealthy person. Is the Gates/Buffett remedy one the wealthy in this country are prepared to adopt? I wonder?

This piece attempts to identify the factors that generate hate and loathing of PM Gillard, her Government, and the Labor Party. It is postulated that political ideology, the adversarial system of government, the quest for power, and the pursuit of money, all in their own way are capable of generating loathing and hatred, but none so powerfully as money. It suggests that it need not be that way; that it could be different. It suggests that ideological discourse need not end in vilification, that the adversarial system need not be as unremittingly negative as it has become, that the quest for power need not involve denigration, and that the pursuit of money can be associated with generous behavior, can be devoid of negativity, can be accomplished without the sinister overtones of hatred and loathing.

But is it like trying to catch rainbows to contemplate a different way of doing things; is it folly to hope for a change of behavior in those with entrenched views; is it silly to look for a miracle? Perhaps it is. But should the difficulty of effecting change deter us from trying? Should we just fold our tents and retreat? If no voice is raised in protest, if no one tries to change the monolithic structures that dominate the political scene, there is no hope for any of us. Even our small voices just might be heard, just might be amplified by those who feel similarly. So let’s speak up and keep up the pressure for change.

I know some will come here insisting that poor old Ad Astra has ‘lost the plot’, yet again, that I continue to live in a fantasy world, and that none of what I am advocating will ever eventuate. That will not stop me, nor should it you.

What do you think?