What happened to leadership and conviction?

Why are politicians reacting to polls instead of driving them?

In a previous piece on TPS, I contended that politicians had granted political influence to Rupert Murdoch by believing they will ‘live and die’ by the polls and reacting to the fortnightly Murdoch (Newspoll) polls rather than attempting to drive them.

There are two types of relevant polling: ‘voter intention’ polling and ‘issues’ polling. Most attention is given to the first. Politicians, however, often attempt to influence voter intention by reacting to some aspect of issues polling – but this is not driving the polls.

What I mean by ‘driving the polls’ is setting the agenda through displaying leadership and conviction, acting on principle and providing inspiration for a better future. They are the approaches that I believe can make people take notice and that will then be reflected in the polls.

First, one needs to understand what polls are telling us.

All pollsters when put on the spot will fall back on the old rule that a poll only measures public opinion, it does not predict it. Polls tell you what public opinion was, not what it will be.

Which is where people misunderstand the meaning of margin of error. This weekend Newspoll will be polling Federal voting intention, and the poll will be reported with a margin of error of about 3%. That means there is a 95% probability that the real measure of people’s voting intentions this weekend will lie within 3% of the figure reported by Newspoll.

That does not mean that come the election, the result will be within 3% of the poll. The margin of error is a measure of the error margin on a sample, not the error margin on a prediction.

Followers of TPS well know that the media pursues each voter intention poll as if it is predicting the outcome of any forthcoming election, even twelve months out. Reports will often carry the caveat, ‘if an election was held this weekend’, but the accompanying commentary usually makes it appear this is bad for the election prospects of whichever party is trailing.

The other major issue with media reporting of polls is the insistence that every little movement has meaning. The truth is that if a poll moves only 1-2% it is within the margin of error and may, in fact, indicate no movement at all.

Unfortunately, politicians seem to believe this media commentary and start trawling the issues polling for something they can seize on that may lift their standing in the voter intention polls.

While voter intention polls are not predictive, they do say a great deal about the electorate’s view of politicians at particular points in time.

Before the 2007 election Rudd was telling the populace, and indeed later repeated it at the United Nations, that climate change was ‘the greatest moral challenge facing our generation’. In meeting that conviction after he came to Government, he negotiated a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) with then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. (The value of that scheme has been much debated but that aspect is irrelevant to the argument here.) Whatever its worth, it was a fulfilment of the rhetoric that preceded it. He also ratified the Kyoto Protocol and gave a national apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations, both of which he had promised during the election campaign. It gave the appearance of conviction and leadership.

After being elected in 2007, Labor had maintained a strong ‘two party preferred’ (2PP) lead over the Opposition in the polls but on 27 April 2010 Rudd announced he was abandoning, at least for then, the CPRS.

The Newspoll results before and after the announcement make a telling point.

Poll dates
Labor primary
vote (%)
LNP primary
vote (%)
Labor 2PP
vote (%)
vote (%)
16-18 April 43 40 54 46
30 Apr – 2 May 35 43 49 51

Labor suffered an 8% loss in its primary vote and a 10% turn-around in the 2PP in just a fortnight. Voters were disillusioned - again!

Rudd had given the appearance of a man of conviction, with a grand rhetoric of his vision, but shown there was little conviction behind the rhetoric. He had abandoned leadership and the voters knew it.

Julia Gillard’s reference to the ‘real Julia’ during the 2010 election campaign confirmed the view that politicians are all ‘spin’, reacting to polls, being told what to say and do by media advisers, and offering little to lead the nation.

Abbott’s later inflated rhetoric, such as Whyalla being wiped off the map by the introduction of a carbon price, didn’t help. After the introduction of the carbon price on 1 July 2012, none of Abbott’s hyperbole came to fruition. For much of the electorate it was simply another case of not being able to believe what politicians told them.

What Rudd, Gillard and Abbott managed to do was reinforce the population’s low regard of politicians as demonstrated by the Reader’s Digest annual poll of ‘Australia’s Most Trusted Professions’. Although the number and naming of professions has changed over the years, politicians have consistently rated near car salesmen and similar groups:

  • In 2007 politicians were ranked equal last, with car salesmen, of 40 professions (actually ranked 38th owing to tied results). Journalists were ranked 34th, with real estate agents, sex workers and psychics-astrologists separating them from politicians.
  • In 2010 politicians were ranked 38th of 40 professions, having climbed above car salesmen and also above telemarketers. Journalists were then 35th, with real estate agents and sex workers still between them and the politicians.
  • In 2013 the list included 50 professions and politicians ranked 49th, above only door-to-door salespeople. Journalists were then 43rd while talkback radio hosts, real estate agents, sex workers, call centre staff and insurance salespeople ranked below them but above politicians.
It could be said that this creates ‘a perfect storm’ fuelling the electorate’s cynicism: untrusted journalists reporting on untrusted politicians, using polls in unjustified ways.

The Rudd example in 2010 demonstrates that what politicians say and do influences the polls, particularly negatively when what they do does not match what they say.

Abbott fed this constantly in his attacks on the Government when Opposition Leader and reacted to it at his swearing-in as Prime Minister when he said ‘We hope to be judged by what we have done, rather than by what we have said we would do.’ He is essentially trying to ‘cover his arse’ for those times when his actions do not match his words. He is not attempting to drive the polls in any positive way but merely trying to dampen them in advance.

In the lead up to, and during the 2013 election, there were many examples of politicians reacting to both voter intention and issues polling and precious few (actually none that I recall) of attempting to drive the polls. Their reactions were intended to neutralise issues the polls were telling them may influence voters; for example:

  • Abbott accepted the NDIS and ‘Gonski’ because the polls showed these were popular in the electorate and would favour Labor if he opposed them;
  • Rudd brought forward the move to emissions trading by one year, to replace the fixed price on carbon emissions, and adopted a much tougher stance on refugees arriving by boat, also in response to polling.
What neither chose to do was state that their position was right and argue for it: conviction had disappeared. The voters saw this for what it was: simply politics, no conviction, no leadership, resulting in an increased vote for minor parties (12.4%, excluding the Greens, compared with 6.9% in 2010). The electorate knows that a minor party will never govern the country but at least they appear to stand for something, even Family First, rather than wavering in the wind to every nuance of the polls.

By the time of the election, I think many voters were feeling they had Hobson’s choice between a media-managed politician and a poll-driven politician who had previously lost credibility.

Abbott’s approach can perhaps be justified because the LNP held a comfortable lead in most polls leading to the election, and to keep them that way he essentially had to do nothing – which is exactly what he did!

Rudd had lost credibility after his 2010 decision and did nothing during the campaign to regain it. There was an initial surge in the polls when he resumed the leadership but his decisions, such as those noted above, merely reiterated he was just another politician reacting to polls. To overcome his previous loss of credibility he needed to display conviction and provide inspiration, but he didn’t.

In December 1941, John Curtin took the nation with him in his inspiring speech that Australia would ‘look to America’. It is sometimes forgotten that the speech also took the nation to a full ‘war footing’, affecting the lives of every Australian and promising difficult times ahead. Leadership can be about unpopular but necessary decisions, and arguing the case and inspiring people to accept them for future benefit. But current politicians, by constantly reacting to polling, are avoiding such decisions.

There are more recent speeches that have provided inspiration: e.g. Keating’s ‘Redfern speech’ and his speech at the entombment of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial, and Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.

There was positive movement in the polls after Keating’s speech at the Australian War Memorial (11 November 1993): Labor increased 2% in voter intention, the LNP dropped 3%, and Keating’s ‘satisfaction’ jumped 3% (but only from 26% to 29%).

There was also a movement in the polls around the time of Rudd’s ‘apology’ (13 February 2008). In the Newspoll conducted on 15-17 February 2008 Labor’s primary vote was 46% but a fortnight later had jumped to 51%. I think the ‘apology’ played a part but the poll may have included a reaction to the Coalition’s childish behaviour on 22 February when it took a cardboard cut-out of Rudd into the Parliament. The Coalition’s behaviour may have made, by comparison, the speech’s dignity and inspiration appear more relevant.

It suggests such inspirational speeches can have an impact. And if joined with conviction, principles and leadership, they become a more potent force for driving the polls.

When politicians take a stand, it is legitimate to ask are they are doing so on principle or reacting to something appearing in issues polling? Even if the latter, a principled stand on an issue can give the politician credit for the future and flow into voter intention.

John Howard, for example, not known for his oratory, at least took a principled decision regarding the ‘gun buy-back’ after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. He did so despite strong opposition from gun owners and some National members of his own Coalition, but with the overwhelming support of the majority of the population. In that case, he was reacting to strong public opinion following the massacre (at the time the worst in the world in terms of numbers killed by a lone gunman) and followed through despite the opposition.

In a modern democracy, issues polling can be important in revealing the ‘will of the people’ but if followed unthinkingly by politicians, without underpinning principles to weigh the polls against, politicians will often react with bad policy that has not been thought through.

If the electorate is currently cynical and distrustful of politicians, it is because the politicians have given them good grounds to be. To change the electorate’s perception, politicians need to stop reacting to polls with ‘band-aid’ (bad) policies. They need to:

  • provide inspiration,
  • show conviction for what they believe, and
  • provide leadership.
With conviction, leadership and inspiration they can shape the issues polling and influence voter intention. If they do this, politicians will be driving the polls again, something they have chosen not to do since … well, I’m not sure I can remember the last time!

Can politicians really set the (issues) agenda with genuine leadership?

Will the electorate listen if they hear conviction in political statements?

Can an inspiring vision for the future change voting intention?

Will all three together drive the polls?

What do you think?

Time for a third force in Ozpol

Australia needs a third, viable, major political party.

This is obvious, to me. At their core, the policies of the two major parties are diametrically opposed. The Labor party is the progressive party that builds the country’s infrastructure and provides welfare programs. The Liberal party is the regressive party that sells the infrastructure and bolsters business in the fond belief that the created wealth will trickle down to those less well off.

The above view is a simple one. Some may argue that the policies of the two major parties are very similar. I have never thought so. I think the claim of ‘similarity’ is easily made, picked up and repeated without being thoroughly examined. Recently, for example, the former LNP Opposition argued against the Labor government’s Better Schools funding (Gonski), but at the last minute agreed to maintain the policy if it won government. This does not mean the two major parties now have the same policy. It means a bone of contention was removed at the last minute to appease certain sections of the electorate.

There is no guarantee the LNP government will keep the policy because it has a strategy of maintaining fears and doubts about the state of the economy and a mania for a Budget surplus. The same could apply to Labor’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Consider also the different approaches of the two major parties to environmental protection and carbon pollution.

I’ll leave it to others to nit-pick over the sameness and differences of the two majors. I’ll simply state that the almost unbelievable arrogance and self-indulgence of the Labor governments of the past six years have given the LNP Coalition a free ride into office. If the people were forcefully rejecting Labor, they were not necessarily voting for the coalition’s policies. Given the nature of the news media coverage at the time, few would be aware of what policies were being offered by either party.

We now have to endure the dismantling of some of Labor’s achievements and the sale of public assets, not because that is what Australia needs right now but because it is what Liberal political philosophy dictates. This will happen because there is simply no choice at present. You either have government by Labor or Liberal, and they are worlds apart (see: Prologue to IPA’s 100-item list to change Australia).

If former PM Kevin Rudd’s party reforms work, there is hope for a more stable Labor government at some future time. But it was Rudd’s opposition to union factionalism (and a decline in opinion polling for a number of reasons) that got him sacked in the first place – by the Right-wing union faction. The Right wing’s man, Bill Shorten, has won the leadership contest over Anthony Albanese, and it remains to be seen if the internal wrangling will continue, with Rudd fiddling away on the back bench, playing the game of sabotage for which he is renowned.

The Liberal party coalition with the National Party of Australia is not as secure as the Liberals would have you believe. There were tensions during the past three years (notably between the WA Libs and Nats over issues related to wheat marketing), but the Liberal PR machine did a good job of largely keeping it out of the news media.

New points of contention are rising. They concern the fate of the National Broadband Network (NBN), the sale of wheat marketing infrastructure and agricultural land to foreigners and the continuing feeling of isolation and neglect in country and regional areas. Liberal plans to cap university places and a disguised attack on university union funding have led to protests from the Nationals and their country cousins. The Liberal’s plans to devolve environmental decision-making to the States in order to speed up mining project initiation will lead to more friction. Farmers and some country townsfolk have for years been concerned about the encroachment of mining and fracking activities and their effects on lifestyles and health. The abolition of the carbon tax, the cutting of red and green tape and moves to fast track mining approvals are causes for concern – creating points of tension.

The Liberals are unlikely to gain government without the support of the Nationals (2013 federal election primary vote ALP 4,311,431 - 33.4%, Liberal 4,134,750 - 32%, Nationals, various forms, 1,748,066 - 13.5%). Is it conceivable that the Nationals could withdraw their support of the Liberals? Is it more likely they would use the threat of withdrawal to force concessions on policies? Their deputy leader, Barnaby Joyce, has achieved stage two of his goal to become the federal leader: he now has a Lower House seat. When federal leader Warren Truss retires, Joyce probably will become federal leader of the National party. When he became leader of the Nationals in the Senate in 2008 he warned the Coalition government it could no longer rely on the support of his party in the Senate. Joyce crossed the floor 19 times during the Howard government era and is a threat to Liberal power. I’ve no doubt the Liberals will use their news media machinery to destroy him if push comes to shove.

The Liberals and the Nationals have an agreement to contest the same seats in some areas. I don’t know how either party finds that situation tolerable. Losing a seat to your ally must create an uneasy situation, especially when there are differences in party policies.

If the Nationals were to pull support, would another party fill the void in the coalition, would Labor govern for decades, or would a third party arise? Neither Katter’s Australia Party nor Palmer’s United Party are yet strong enough to constitute a third, viable, force. Katter and Palmer have their origins in Queensland’s Liberal National Party. The Nationals had their origin in the defunct, or rebadged, Country Party. Given their history and interests today, both men are likely to side with the Liberal federal government, although Palmer’s collection of policies and some of his public pronouncements are hard to reconcile with Liberal philosophy.

Illustration by Kaja Malouf

There are also serious questions about whether Katter and Palmer are stable enough to be taken seriously. In my opinion, Joyce, Katter and Palmer belong in the same silly boat – each of them rowing in a different direction. Why the eponymous party names, in the case of Katter and Palmer? Are they capitalising on the unfortunate trend towards Presidential personality campaigning? The last thing this country needs is another egomaniac pulling the levers and it seems the ALP has recently recognised the dangers in that.

Putting aside the turmoil of WWII Australian politics, there have been few notable attempts to establish a third, viable, political party. Some may remember the split in Labor ranks (1955) that led to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party (1957), with one elected Member today (Senator John Madigan). For that split we can thank the extreme Right-wing Catholic ‘Bob’ Santamaria. His ghost and anti-union rhetoric lives on today in the form of arch disciple Tony Abbott.

Another serious attempt to form a third force was made by the Australian Democrats (1977), a merger of the Australia Party and the New Liberal Movement, led by former Liberal federal Minister Don Chipp. The Australian Democrats had promise and some success in getting Senate seats, before gradually tearing itself to pieces over a 30-year period. It is reorganising, but initially on a States-only basis.

There was also Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Its xenophobic stance attracted wide support in Queensland, where the party originated, but attracted anger elsewhere, especially in the federal parliament and the news media. The party won 19 State seats in Queensland – scaring the pants off the Liberal party. The now xenophobic ‘Stop the boats’ Tony Abbott responded by creating and raising funds for the Australians for Honest Politics Trust – money that was used to take Hanson and co-founder David Ettridge to court for ‘electoral fraud’, which resulted in them being jailed for some months. Ettridge is now suing Tony Abbott, claiming $1.5 million damages. Hanson failed to win a NSW federal seat at the 2013 election.

‘Tearing itself to pieces’ seems to be the disease of the Australian Labor Party – and it’s contagious. The Greens caught the bug some time ago and went into severe regression on 26 September, 2013. Numerous staff resigned over the running of the federal election campaign. There is some uncertainty about whether there was a simultaneous attempt to install the party’s deputy leader, Lower House MP Adam Bandt, or Senator Sarah Hanson-Young as national leader in place of Senator Christine Milne.

The Greens need to pull themselves together after the punishing swing to the Liberals, which cost the Greens 4.7% of their vote, along with two Senators (although ‘Senator’ Scott Ludlam has won a rare recount). It would be a shame if the Greens were to destroy themselves as other alternative parties have done. They seem to me to be a natural partner for Labor, although they have had problems aligning policy details on carbon pricing and refugee or asylum seeker policies.

Perhaps the problem with a Greens Labor alliance is that Labor sees itself as the party with all the policies and all the solutions for any given problem. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how it could cooperate with any other party, even one that was somewhat similar. In that case, it has to find some way to counter the LNP coalition, the future risk of ‘hung’ or minority governments, the trend towards increasing numbers of Independent or non-aligned Senators and the frustration of losing an election due to the distribution of preferences.

There is also a risk that Labor is not strong enough to overcome the powers aligned against it today, especially the commercially owned news media and the persistent effort over the past decade at least to install a Right-wing bias in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). To get off topic for a moment, some way must be found to guarantee the impartiality of ABC News and Current Affairs because its untraceable efforts at ‘balance over time’ make it appear to be always unbalanced in one direction or the other. The balance within its supposedly independent complaints body also warrants investigation.

The September 2013 election was remarkable for the number of new parties that fought for a seat, especially in the Senate. Next July we will have a motley crew of ‘Independent’ Senators, with a bloc of four consisting of three Palmer United Party Senators and Senator Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party. Writing in the Business Spectator (a wholly owned News Corp subsidiary), veteran business journalist Robert Gottliebsen claims Tony Abbott has the Senate sewn up and the PUP bloc, including Senator Muir, will support the Liberal government’s policies. That article, written on 9 October, is at odds with what Clive Palmer said the following day, commenting on his deal with Senator Muir.

It’s just possible that none of them will sit in the Senate because the Mad Monk may bring on a Double Dissolution to satisfy his lust for unrestricted power. See Gottliebsen’s first six points below for his thoughts on what might trigger a DD. But Gottliebsen also says Tony Abbott might avoid a DD because the voters hate early elections. I have yet to read or hear anyone ask why Tony Abbott wants total power in both Houses and what he’ll do with it if he gets it (see ‘What Tony Abbott will do’, in relation to the proposals of the Institute of Public Affairs).

Gottliebsen, who might have a reliable source of information within the federal government, has also written about Tony Abbott’s 12-point plan to transform Australia. (See Gottliebsen's first six points of Abbott's 12-point plan and the second six points.)

That 12-point plan is another reason why Australia needs a viable third political party. As stated above, when you get down to it the two majors are not similar – they are very different. When the government changes hands, the country swings wildly to the Left or the Right. The Right believes it must move much further to the Right because the Left will inevitably take the country further Left again (see again IPA 100 item agenda prologue). It’s about as silly as politics can get, with ideology overruling common sense and even the common good. Prime examples are Abbott’s determination to abolish carbon pricing, disband environmental advisory bodies, cut funding to NGOs, install a third rate NBN and introduce an outlandish Paid Parental Leave scheme to replace the one we have.

Gottliebsen’s 12-point plan story and the IPA’s 100-point plan (12 of which points Tony Abbott has said he will adopt and implement) demonstrate the chaotic nature of the Duopoly roundabout.

A third party that can win and govern alone would interrupt these wild pendulum swings. If a third party was occasionally successful in gaining government there would be less opportunity and a longer wait between ruinous bouts of excessive sell-offs and cutbacks or expensive social welfare programs.

Looking way ahead, what is the outcome of the platforms of the two major parties, and where do we go from there? After the Liberals have sold everything and cut taxes, regulations and wages to the bone, what’s next? After Labor has cemented every possible workplace and social welfare program permanently in place, what then? Is this why these two major parties are subtly changing, sometimes appearing to be similar, but always retaining the essential difference of Labour versus Capital? There is, perhaps, only so much political parties can achieve before they become irrelevant, useless or merely tax collection and distribution agencies.

In the meantime, where is the third alternative or even steadying influence? One party that emerged about 12 months before the election was The Australian Independents. It had a decent list of policies and some wholesome middle-class candidates. But it played its cards a bit too close to its chest and seemed to be publicity shy, which is not to say it was secretive. The leader, Dr Patricia Petersen, who I am told is a long-term perpetual candidate, is unfortunately hard to contact.

Katter’s, Palmer’s and Petersen’s parties offer something that was pioneered by the Australian Democrats. They say they are recruiting candidates who will swear to vote for local issues – true local representatives. Revisiting this issue is a reflection on how fed up we are with the majors and the bigger minors*. But how will the practice work out when a local issue clashes with the party’s stated policy?

*See The Sydney Morning Herald editorial of 24 September, 2013: ‘Greens need to win middle Australia - and follow Don Chipp's diktat’.

I’d vote for an Atheists Party. An atheists party can’t simply stand for non-belief in a spiritual being. It must have a raft of policies. One would be getting religion out of schools and focusing on science and ethics instead. I see atheism as essential for the future well-being of ourselves and our planet – especially for the environment and the critters we should be sharing it with. My atheism is about reality, about being grounded in reality and relying on science to understand our world and our place in it. We need to get real about our world, our situation (see IPCC Summary for Policymakers, the 2013 report). Leaving the big outcomes to the good graces of a mythical being is a risky strategy.

I have avoided a detailed discussion of policies and their alternatives. We are not short of political parties or policies. Like many other things in this country, we now have an embarrassment of riches. What we don’t have is a viable third force. But we do have alternatives that do not represent a drastic, even catastrophic, change. We need one of these third elements to gain sufficient support so that we can have change without chaos. Moving back and forth from Liberal to Labor is chaotic – the change is often too great and too disruptive.

I don’t want to overplay the Labor drum, but for its sins of self-indulgence Labor has been turfed and the people have no choice but to give the Liberals another go. They have made that decision without being fully aware of the Liberal agenda, of the changes that will now take place. It is naïve of anyone to think the agenda consists merely of Tony Abbott’s six-point slogans:

  • We’ll build a stronger, more diversified economy so everyone can get ahead;
  • We’ll scrap the carbon tax so the average family will be $550 better off next year alone;
  • We’ll get the Budget back under control by ending Labor’s waste;
  • We’ll create two million new jobs within a decade;
  • We’ll stop the boats with proven policies;
  • And we’ll build the roads of the 21st century.
If you can read between the lines of the above slogans, you will see there is a lot of missing detail. The devil that is the Liberal philosophy is in those missing details of policy implementation and what that means for various classes of citizens.

There’s plenty of room for a strong third party, plenty of people fed up with the chaos of frequent change within the Duopoly. We don’t need a political party that scares industry, business and investors to death, or one that drives pensioners, the disabled and the disadvantaged to an early grave. Because of eternal frustration with the Left Right swing of the pendulum, it is time for a third party with a broad vision and a plan for our future.

For those who are not welded to one ideology, I’ve put links to several parties’ policies on one page on my website. You’ll find a menu under Categories, on the left-hand side.

Tony Abbott’s ‘Cone of Silence’

Those ‘of a certain age’ will remember the 60s’ TV show Get Smart that featured the brilliant writing of Mel Brooks as well as the incredible acting of Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Edward Platt. Don Adams was Agent 86 in the US Secret Agency known as Control; Barbara Feldon was Agent 99 and Edward Platt was ‘Chief’. Their nemesis was an organisation called Kaos. Those who know the show will instantly remember the ‘Cone of Silence’, a piece of ‘high technology’ equipment. It was supposed to ensure that if microphones were planted in the Chief’s office, they would be useless. While the Cone of Silence may have been a good idea, the implementation left a lot to be desired. (For those unfamiliar with the concept – this clip explains how it failed.)

In a complete turn-around from his actions in Opposition - where appearing in an industrial setting with freshly ironed hi-vis vest was de rigueur - the Prime Minister now wants to control the information flow to the media differently. It seems, now that the LNP has won the election, the Prime Minister wants to operate in a Cone of Silence. Will it be any better than the version that people have been laughing at for decades on TV?

Tony Abbott has declared at a news conference that he will only speak as Prime Minister when he has something to say and that he won’t be feeding the 24-hour news cycle. It has also been widely reported that all interviews with Ministers have to be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office 24 hours prior to the interview. (It is ironic that the decision that all Ministers must seek approval prior to participating in interviews was leaked!)

Evidence of this ‘cone of silence’ policy can be found in three recent events:

  • Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announces that refugee boat arrivals and ‘turn backs’ will be only discussed at a weekly briefing due to ‘operational security’ rather than as the event occurs.
  • Treasurer Joe Hockey announces that the Federal Government’s finances are being investigated line by line, while having to announce a better than expected result from the last financial year.
  • Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with her Indonesian counterpart to discuss refugee boats and declares the meeting details will not be disclosed or discussed.
A month or so into the term of the Coalition Government, just how is this policy panning out?

After Abbott’s announcement, there had been plenty of muted supporting comment from the media: Jacqueline Maley’s ‘Don’t feed the chooks’; Barry Cassidy’s ‘Abbott wise to pull back... but not too far’; and Dee Madigan’s ‘Tone it down’.

Then on September 26, Fairfax headlined a piece ‘Abbott assures nation he is hard at work’. Perhaps Abbott realised that ‘refusing to participate in the news cycle’ could be construed as ‘nothing was happening’. Obviously this was a message the Prime Minister didn’t want to send.

And a rather interesting piece in the SMH from Tony Wright followed on 27th September:

Small factory in the suburbs? Check. Fluro jacket? Check. It is as if Tony Abbott never wanted the election campaign to end.

Mention the carbon tax? Promise to get the budget back in control? Stop the boats? Build the roads of the 21st century?

Check, check, check and check.

This report continues:

He could barely keep his hands off the containers of laundry powders and stain removers. His craving for a factory photo-op satiated, the Prime Minister offered himself to cameras and journalists for precisely the sort of doorstop he held every day of the campaign.

Scott Morrison’s clampdown on refugee boat announcements has gone equally as well.

Someone on Christmas Island has been using Twitter to advise how many people arrive on each boat. On 27 September the ABC and commercial media were reporting that 10 refugee boats had arrived since the election date, three of them since the Coalition Government had been sworn in. Over the weekend of 28 and 29 September, a news story unfolded on the commercial television networks reporting that people had drowned in another refugee boat heading for Australia. The reporters were stating clearly they were not getting comment from the Government – and that was simply not good enough.

Now that the Prime Minister and Foreign Ministers have spoken to their Indonesian counterparts, apparently the LNP policy wasn’t to ‘turn around’ refugee boats anyway:

Morrison said the Coalition had “never had a policy of towing boats back to Indonesia” and blamed “misrepresentation over a long period of time” in the media for that impression.

In late September Joe Hockey released the final accounting for the Federal Government’s 2012-2013 Financial Year where the headline was an $18.8 billion deficit (down from a projected $19.4 billion on August 2, 2013).

According to Michael Pascoe in Fairfax media:

It's yet another case of politics overshadowing economics: while newbie Treasurer Joe Hockey insinuates otherwise, the final count for the 2012-13 federal budget is an outstanding achievement, a monument to a skilled Treasury performance in very difficult circumstances.

Hockey certainly didn’t give credit to either his Department or the former Treasurer for a job well done. However, he has ‘deferred’ the surplus promised by Abbott while listing how often Swan promised the same thing.

The new Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, met her Indonesian counterpart at the United Nations in New York to discuss, amongst other issues, the Coalition Government policy on refugee boats. According to the Foreign Minister, the conversation was private and Australia’s position was explained.

The Indonesian Government had a differing opinion – it released the notes of the discussion while stating that the policy of ‘turning back the boats’ was not supported. As reported by the ABC:

The ABC's Indonesia correspondent George Roberts told PM, the statement is a rare move from a nation that is usually much more circumspect in diplomacy.

"Even in recent history, the foreign minister has been very reluctant to speak openly and has been very diplomatic about it," he said.

"So this kind of language is quite strong and quite interesting indeed.”

While there would be little support for yet another three years of election campaigning, does PM Abbott really expect that all of the fourth and fifth estates will, now that he is in power, concede ‘there is nothing to see here and let’s move on’?

Early in October, an opinion piece by Mark Kenny reported:

In one of the lighter moments towards the end of the recent presidential-style election campaign, Labor's campaign headquarters issued a press statement configured as a faux police bulletin.

It said grave fears were held for the whereabouts of once high profile Liberals, Peter Dutton, Sophie Mirabella, and Eric Abetz.

The respective health, industry, and workplace relations shadow ministers had become almost invisible. Labor was desperate to draw them on to policy terrain usually judged as stronger for the ALP.

The crux of the article is the ALP’s claim that while disciplined media management is a positive in Opposition, it is a negative in Government. Abbott is maintaining the same management policy in Government, which leads us as the employers of the Government to believe they are doing nothing. When the inevitable ‘crisis’ happens, not only are the relevant Ministers unprepared for the attention it will place on their shoulders, they will be an easy mark for the more critical elements of the media pack.

It is often said that those that don’t remember history are bound to repeat it. Probably the most relevant example of this is the former Premier of Victoria Ted Ballieu. News reports at the time of his overthrow (who said the ALP was the only political party to turf out current leaders while in power?) suggested that a large part of the reason for his demise was his lack of connection with the media, leading to the Victorian Government becoming almost invisible. Ballieu is still a member of the Victorian Parliament – but no one outside Victoria hears anything about him.

By contrast, when the self-confessed ‘media tart’ Peter Beattie chose to run in a southern Brisbane seat in the recent Federal election nearly a decade after being Premier of Queensland he was the subject of national media coverage. Beattie knew how to participate in the media. He had been re-elected as Premier in 2001, and in 2004 in the middle of a scandal involving members of his Government – promising to ‘clean the mess up’. While publicity may not have helped Beattie win the Federal Seat in 2013, one never knows if the result would have been worse for the ALP if Beattie had not run.

Politicians in general like to control the message and in this respect Tony Abbott is no different from those that preceded him. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard attempted to manage the media in different ways: Rudd by going into infinite detail when questioned and Gillard on occasions by literally standing there and taking all questions until there were no more. Both of them had good policies and decisions to publicise but limited success in crafting a story that the media accepted. Ultimately, the lack of the ability to craft and generate ‘good’ news stories about life in Australia led to their demise at the hands of the members of their own political party. In both cases there were other factors at play as well. Rudd’s apparent ‘control freak’ tendencies, and various sections of the ALP never resolving their differences with the way in which Kevin Rudd was replaced by Gillard, certainly didn’t help. It could be argued that internal tensions didn’t help concentrate the previous Government’s mind fully on projecting their message to the country.

Despite the ALP Government’s success at managing the negotiation of a hung parliament for half the time they were in power, as well as leaving a number of programs that will benefit Australia for generations, they will be remembered for a largely self-inflicted loss of the media battle.

The Cone of Silence used on Get Smart was designed to be an object of fun and derision. There are already signs that the media is treating Abbott’s Cone of Silence with the same derision. Fairfax media has been ‘crowd surfing’ recently, asking people to help them find examples of ‘travel rorts’, while Abbott would have been much happier if his contribution to the current APEC conference in Indonesia was the only news.

Will Abbott eventually find the ‘sweet spot’ between Ballieu and Beattie’s media styles?

Will he ‘trust’ his Ministers to be the ‘adults’ he claims make up his Government?

What will the media do if Abbott continues the policy of non-engagement as media control? Will the reporters and editors that have been on a controlled drip feed from the LNP Opposition for the past three years make it up, look for leaks or accept the status quo as the Coalition Government ‘turns off the easy story tap’?

What do you think?


How the west was NOT won by Murdoch

Before the September election, some political pundits were predicting a Labor ‘wipeout’ in its western Sydney heartland. It did not happen.

Two Labor seats out of eight in western Sydney fell to the Liberals. Arguably, two seats, classified as southern Sydney by the Australian Electoral Commission, could be added to the list as they are part of Sydney’s central southern suburbs and border the central Labor belt (from Sydney to Penrith along the western railway line). There are reasons, however, other than the Murdoch press that these seats fell. More important are the six seats that did not fall.

The two western seats to fall were Reid and Lindsay: both border LNP seats and have areas (booths) that are predominantly Liberal voting. In Lindsay the central area around Penrith is Labor, but the northern and southern ends Liberal. In Reid, the northern half along the Parramatta River tends to be Liberal and the southern, Labor.

They are obviously seats that may move about in elections and be heavily influenced by small changes in electoral boundaries. When Reid was a Labor stronghold the seat included Labor-leaning areas to the west, towards Parramatta, but now those areas are in the Parramatta electorate and Reid includes more Liberal-leaning areas to the east, like the Drummoyne peninsula. Similarly, Lindsay’s boundaries have changed over time to include more Liberal-leaning areas in the north.

Of the two southern Sydney seats that fell, Banks has a similar profile. Barton is a little different, having some Liberal areas in the south, but is predominantly Labor – it was, however, lost by only 493 votes or 0.6% of formal votes. The retirement of the sitting member, Robert McClelland, probably had some influence on the outcome: in fact, the large swing against Labor in Barton (see table below) may also suggest an element of protest at the way McClelland was treated by his Labor colleagues during the preceding two years (demoted within the Ministry in December 2011, then dropped from the Ministry altogether in February 2012).

The swings in first preference votes in these electorates were:

Electorate Labor swing (%) Liberal swing (%) Greens swing (%)
Reid (west) -0.9 + 4.0 - 4.2
Lindsay (west) - 5.5 + 3.3 - 1.7
Barton (south) - 8.1 + 1.7 - 4.9
Banks (south) - 1.9 + 1.5 - 4.6

There is significant variation in what was happening in the electorates despite Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph being a common newspaper across these areas. But in only one electorate, Reid, did the swing against Labor result in an increased swing to the Liberals. The first preference votes went elsewhere and that is particularly marked in Barton.

Even if one argues that the Murdoch campaign was effective in reducing the Labor vote, these figures suggest that it did not have the corollary effect of convincing people to vote Liberal.

Some of those first preference votes moved to minor parties which may more reflect an attitude of ‘a pox on both your houses’.

The influence of the press is further questioned when one considers that within Reid, there was actually a swing to Labor in the five booths that make up Auburn, a core Labor area of the electorate: the swings to Labor in those booths ranged from 0.6% to 5.7%.

Does this mean that the Murdoch campaign actually convinced more Labor-leaning voters to vote Labor?

Labor was also affected by the decline in the Greens’ vote, reducing its preference flow. Whether the decline in the Greens vote was a result of the long running Murdoch campaign against them or a result of Labor campaigning strongly to distinguish itself from the Greens is debatable but, given the tenuous impact in the west of the Murdoch campaign against Labor, I lean to the latter.

And among the seats in western Sydney that did not fall, the first preference swings were:

Electorate Labor swing (%) Liberal swing (%) Greens swing (%)
Chifley + 0.7 + 1.9 - 5.8
Blaxland + 4.8 - 0.6 - 3.2
Fowler + 7.9 - 10.2 - 3.3
McMahon - 1.1 + 4.3 - 5.1
Parramatta - 3.2 + 3.6 - 2.7
Greenway + 2.2 - 1.3 - 2.3

Overall, Labor increased its first preference vote in four electorates and the Liberal vote fell in three: hardly a ringing endorsement of the effectiveness of the Murdoch campaign! Perhaps on that basis, Labor should ask him to continue the campaign and help increase its vote further next time. And Chifley, Blaxland, Fowler and even McMahon were held on first preference votes alone.

Greenway was influenced by the Liberal candidate being Jaymes Diaz: as Anthony Green said during the election night coverage, it showed that ‘candidates matter’. I suggest, not being an expert, that one quantum of the ‘candidate effect’ in Greenway could be 5.8%, the sum of overcoming the national 3.6% swing to the LNP plus the 2.2% swing to Labor that was achieved. (I would also accept 4.9%, summing the national swing and Diaz’s loss, which would then suggest that, after removing the ‘candidate effect’, there was still a 0.9% swing to Labor.)

The somewhat unusual result in Fowler suggests that the perceived quality of the local candidates was also a factor there but I have, as yet, not found any evidence to confirm this. (If somebody knows, please post a comment!)

What do the results in western Sydney tell us?

On the above figures, it seems that if the Murdoch campaign had any influence it was merely to reinforce existing leanings of particular areas within electorates, whether Liberal or Labor, or of confirmed voters’ views that neither of the major parties deserved their first preference vote. In this sense, the Murdoch campaign may have had more influence in turning voters off politics generally than in influencing votes.

I am not suggesting that the Murdoch campaign had no influence whatsoever but that the influence did not match the effort put into the campaign; nor was it as effective as Murdoch would have us believe.

Clive Palmer’s advertising blitz demonstrates the impact media campaigns can have. In his case, however, because he was starting from scratch, the campaign was as much about what advertising experts call ‘brand recognition’. What he did effectively was make his party known and provide voters an alternative to voting for the major parties, which a proportion of voters was obviously seeking to do. What he had to say mattered less than simply being known.

Murdoch himself believes he is a political force but the screaming anti-Labor headlines of his Daily Telegraph mattered little in the final analysis and appear to have had minimal influence on the vote in western Sydney.

Murdoch was basically granted political influence by the politicians, both here in Australia and in Britain, because the politicians reacted to the Murdoch commentary and polling. Instead of governing, or seeking government, by promoting policies and a vision for the future, politicians slipped into the trap of believing they will ‘live and die’ by the polls. As long as they believe that, they will allow Murdoch to continue to hold sway over them. But as my brief analysis of the vote in western Sydney indicates, the Murdoch influence is not as strong in the electorate.

While the polls generally (not just Murdoch’s polls) were relatively accurate in predicting the national voting outcome, the Government is not elected by a national trend but by winning individual seats in the House of Representatives (HoR). In 1998, for example, Labor won the national vote (51% to 49%) but insufficient seats to defeat the LNP. The published polls have not been very successful in predicting how individual electorates will behave and the figures above show the wide variations that occur between electorates.

The ability of Tony Windsor to hold New England for so many years, before his retirement at this election, and the Jaymes Diaz effect in Greenway, show that the quality of local candidates is crucial. While people know their vote will influence who becomes Prime Minister, they also know they are actually voting for a local candidate, so the quality of that candidate influences voting much more than the Murdoch press.

Strong, locally based campaigns are another effective tool to overcome broader, negative media coverage. The success of Cathy McGowan’s campaign in Indi (in Victoria) against Sophie Mirabella, is evidence of this.

I believe politicians need to ignore the Murdoch press commentary and his fortnightly polls. They are just marketing, linking his news (opinions) and his polls in a continuous marketing cycle for his media, fodder for political commentators, but next to meaningless when a voter walks into a polling station and puts pencil to paper.

What do you think?

(The above analysis used data from three major sources: the Australian Electoral Commission’s The Official 2013 Federal Election Results as at 29 September; and seat by seat guides by Anthony Green from the ABC’s 2013 Federal Election site ‘Electorates A-Z’ and William Bowe’s (aka The Poll Bludger) ‘Election Guides: The House of Representatives’.)