I have a dream – no, I have a hope

It would be presumptuous to use Martin Luther King’s 'I have a dream’ theme; modesty dictates I use ‘I have a hope’.

I have a hope that one day the MSM will understand the use of language in Australian politics; I underscore Australian, because language here is unique.  Spurious comparisons have been, and will continue to be made between the oratory of Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd, and it’s no surprise who comes off best.  If simple oratory or even the capacity to write stirring prose is the basis for comparison, how does Rudd’s ‘apology’ rate against Obama’s Inauguration speech?  Both were well written, both well delivered, both were applauded.  Judging from media assessments, Obama’s speech was competent but did not reach dizzy heights.  So maybe Rudd’s ‘apology’ was better.

Yet commentators still lament Rudd’s ‘acceptance speech’ on election night.  Crikey’s Jonathan Green’s assessment was, and still is, ‘O dear’.  That Rudd’s speech was not Obama-esque is hardly surprising.  The two events, the two circumstances, the build-up, the audiences, were different.  Did Green expect an Obama-like oration from Rudd on November 24?  Culturally the two audiences were poles apart.  How would Aussies have reacted to soaring oratory at the end of a long election night?  We didn’t hear John Howard’s 2004 acceptance speech criticized. Yet it was no paragon of oratory.  Read it here Compare it with Rudd’s 2007 acceptance speech here.  Both begin with broad comments, both thank those who made victory possible, both end with a modest flourish.  Pick the difference if you can.  Work out why Rudd’s was criticized, Howard’s not.  That Green has a bee in his bonnet about Ruddspeak is suggested by his throwaway line on Crikey on 21 January and repeated that day on 774 ABC radio Melbourne, that Obama’s speech didn’t mention ‘working families’ once.  Really!  He was at it again in the 23 January issue of Crikey with his piece Rudd struggles to sell his Things Are Seriously Bad tour   Strange obsession!

Rudd fashions his words to suit his audience, just as one would expect.  Note the difference between his words to soldiers in Afghanistan, in his doorstops talking about the economy, in his press conferences, in his radio and TV appearances, on solemn occasions, and in parliament.  Each shaped for the audience.  Try to recall John Howard’s manner of speaking.  Competent, directed to his audience, not flamboyant, not over-the-top.  Both men are workmanlike, competent communicators.  So why is Rudd pilloried when Howard was not?  It might seem uncharitable to suggest that media bias is the reason.

In The West Australian on 9 January in a piece Nation lost for words at Ruddspeak howlers presumably written by the paper’s Andrew Probyn, old ground about Rudd’s language is laboriously re-worked.  He must have been light on copy.  It was so old-hat, so tiresome, so boring, so uninformative, so inconsequential, so unworthy of a decent journalist. 

I have a hope one day the media will understand and accept Ruddspeak, but don’t hold your breath.

I have a hope that one day the media will recognize that old political paradigms are dying.  The Piping Shrike alluded to this during 2008, perhaps most forcefully in his June 12 piece The rats’ problem with Rudd where he writes about three main planks of Rudd’s agenda: “...sidelining the political process, acknowledging the impotence of government and opening up to the international stage.”, all of which he saw as causing the media problems.  ‘Sidelining the political process’ is a reference to the time-weary left-right paradigm, which, while convenient as a descriptor in defining some politicians, has little utility in defining a government’s or a leader’s position.  In his acceptance speech Rudd said: “I want to put aside the old battles of the past.  The old battles between business and unions.  The old battles between growth and the environment.  The old and tired battles between federal and state.  The old battles between public and private.  It's time for a new page to be written in our nation's history.”  Obama said something similar“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...”   

Janet Albrechtsen in her 21 December piece Seduced by the Saint in which she sideswipes the media because she thinks Obama  will get “a free pass on tough media scrutiny largely because so many journalists share his politics...”  uses the left-right paradigm over and again.  She suggests: “...there is likely to be a deeper, though related, reason for the [media] bias. Progressive politics is essentially an emotional, rather than rational, pursuit. Its foundations rest on altruistic, even utopian, beliefs about the perfectibility of man and society. For progressives, hope triumphs over experience. That causes leftist politicians to place a large premium on myth-making, rhetoric and romance. And leftist journalists swallow it whole.”  Janet is like many other political commentators – seemingly unable to think outside this paradigm.  As Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, those wedded to a paradigm find it unbearably difficult to change.  Even as evidence builds to incontestable proportions, they adhere to their favoured paradigm until the evidence against it becomes overwhelming and in favour of another, whereupon a sudden ‘paradigm shift’ occurs.  (See the Wikipedia synopsis and Max Planck’s quote under ‘Transition period’: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.)  Janet and her colleagues seem a long way from a paradigm shift.  The Coalition too seems caught in the old paradigm.  Recently Christopher Pyne was advocating it ‘shift to the centre’, whatever that means.  Does he know?  He was admonished by Eric Abetz who likened him to a snake-oil salesman as reported in a Phillip Coorey article in the SMH on 23 January Turnbull puts himself in the middle   Abetz too flogs the left-centre-right argument.

I have a hope that one day, soon, the media will make the paradigm shift away from the old to the new age of politics, where engaging any who can assist, no matter what their background or imagined political orientation, is the norm.  Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama have.  Rudd is not defined by the terms ‘left’, ‘right’, or ‘centre’ – to him the terms are pointless.  Turnbull and Obama likewise.

I have a hope that one day before rushing into print, columnists commenting on political polls will take a short course in elementary statistics, at least covering the concepts of ‘margin of error’ ‘confidence intervals’ and ‘trend’  If only they would read Possum’s  Pollytics Pollytrack and ‘Pollytrend’, they may be less inclined to over-interpret results from a single poll.  They may also see the value of acknowledging the other polls appearing at the same time, whether or not they show different results.  All pollsters compare the most recent poll with their own previous polls as if the others did not exist – commercial competition at work I suppose - they never take in the others.  The most recent Newspoll illustrates this point.  By comparing its first poll for 2009 with the last for 2008, commentators saw a marked ‘reeling in’ of the Government’s lead, which they saw shrinking 10 points from 59/41 2PP to 54/46.  The maths were right, but the stats were misinterpreted.  The commentators failed to point out that the 59/41 result in December was the ‘odd man out’ in a series of Newspolls that showed around a 55/45 result consistently over several months.  So the 54/46 result was most likely a return to the Newspoll ‘norm’.  The aberrant December 59/41 result may have been due to the coincidence of the poll with Government’s economic stimulus package, but to place much significance on the change was unwise statistically, especially as two polls at about the same time of the January Newspoll (Morgan 60/40) and (Essential Research 59/41) showed the Government ahead by margins similar to their previous polls. 

Of course for Newspoll to concede that its last 2008 poll was aberrant would have negated its wild interpretation of it as a Coalition disaster.  We’re waiting expectantly for tomorrow’s Newspoll.

Another example of over-interpretation is making much of as little as a two point shift in 2PP, although it is well within the MOE.  Even Roy Morgan, who should know better, is a culprit.  In his most recent poll he pointed to a one point change (from 60/40 to 59.5/40.5 2PP) without bothering to mention that this was well within the MOE using a 95% confidence interval.  Pollsters have such touching faith in the veracity of their own polls, and their capacity to detect small changes that are genuine.

Maybe commercial considerations and the exclusivity of each poll to its sponsor makes sensible and legitimate commentary unlikely – maybe editorial copy and striking headlines are the prime object.

For serious poll addicts who value sound statistical analysis, there is no better site than Pollytics The Poll Bludger keeps up-to-date with each emerging poll and gives a balanced commentary.

I have hope that one day columnists will make comments on polls that are accurate, and frame interpretations that flow from the data by using the basic principles of statistics.

I have a hope!


The Political Sword 2009

The Political Sword resumes usual activity today.  With the resumption of Federal Parliament tomorrow, there will be plenty of political activity upon which to comment. 

The prime focus of this site is Federal politics, the reporting of it, and the comments and opinions expressed in the media.  One aim is to critique the media’s contribution to an understanding of, and informed discourse about the political process, with the hope that standards of journalism might be improved.  An article on Crikey’s Content Makers titled How Blogging Changes Journalists suggests that journalists are susceptible to the opinions of bloggers, and as a consequence may change their behaviour.  So there is hope.

The site’s additional features are intended to make it easier for visitors to keep up with political blogs; Blog Watch is updated as new items appear on the main political blog sites.  Government Watch is updated whenever the ALP website is updated and Opposition Watch when the Liberal website is updated.  It is hoped these features will provide an easy way of checking the original media releases, speeches, doorstops and media interviews that are posted on these websites, from which the media derive much of their content.

As the number of items on both Government Watch and Opposition Watch is large, a new page will be started for each at the beginning of each month.  The current month is the one with the month in capitals under ‘site pages’.

In response to a request, the font size used on the site has been increased.  I would appreciate feedback about this change.

I look forward to resuming the dialogue with visitors that began in the second half of 2008.  Suggestions for improvement of the site will be welcome.

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Added features on The Political Sword

I have added two features to Blog Watch Government Watch and Opposition Watch.  They are located in the right margin under 'site pages'.  Despite the ridicule to which the suffix ‘Watch’ has been subjected by the media (it’s almost as gross as adding ‘Gate’ to every scandal), I’ve chosen that term as the most descriptive. 

For Blog Watch, The Political Sword is literally ‘watching’ the commonly visited political blogs and updating Blog Watch regularly with the latest additions to those sites, each item of which (with the exception of Mumble), is linked to the original piece.  I hope visitors find this a time-saving device.

During 2008, the Government was lampooned by the media and the Opposition as being ‘all spin, no substance’, ‘all talk, no action’, and so on it went, thankfully diminishing somewhat as the year progressed as Government actions rolled out.  Anyone looking regularly at the ALP website would have wondered what all this was about, as it poured out hundreds of statements about its actions from the beginning of the year.  So this year The Political Sword, by watching the ALP website, is providing a running update of items appearing on it.  The item titles, linked to the full item, the date of publication, and the person making the statement are listed, together with the nature of the statement.  Almost all are media statements.  To see any item of interest, click the link.  As much of what is reported in the media emanates from these statements, Government Watch gives visitors the opportunity to read the original before the media have had a go at it.  I use the website's RSS feed service to see the latest items posted.

I’ve done the same for the Opposition in Opposition Watch.  The Items there are derived from the Liberal Party of Australia website.  They are in similar form: a linked item title, the date of publication, the author, and a brief description of the substance of the item.  The statements, rather than being mainly media statements, are often doorstops or media interviews.  Again, the idea is to provide information ‘from the horse’s mouth’, and the website's RSS feed provides the latest.

As both Government Watch and Opposition Watch items have turned out to be numerous, I will start a new batch at the beginning of each month.  So far this month Government Watch has added over 80 items; Opposition Watch over 50.

I hope both of these features will prove a useful source of unadulterated information from Government and Opposition sources.  They will be updated each time the websites are updated, with the date and time of the update indicated.

Normal transmission of The Political Sword will recommence on 2 February.

Time for hibernation

The last week before Christmas is upon us.  Let’s hope Kevin 24/7 hasn’t morphed into Kevin 24/365, and that for the sake of his health he takes a long break, and a real one, and gives all we political tragics a spell for a few weeks.

It’s been a long and frantic year.  Despite the ‘all talk but no action’ rhetoric from the Opposition and much of the media, 2008 has been a very busy year for the Government, and even this week the announcements have continued at breakneck speed   The White Paper on the CPRS, the Bradley Report on higher education, and a number of other statements and initiatives, plus a visit by Kevin Rudd to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf to deliver Christmas wishes to our soldiers and sailors, has kept the momentum going.  Many reviews are coming to a conclusion, which will set an even busier agenda for 2009. 

Malcolm Turnbull and the Opposition have gone quiet, no doubt regrouping for the battle next year, wondering how to play the CPRS and IR legislation.  The Greens will be devising their 2009 strategy, no mean feat if they intend to remain relevant instead of being sidelined as too radical on how to deal with climate change.

The assessments of the Rudd Government’s first year by the journalists have varied from enthusiastic, to grudging acknowledgement, to Dennis Shanahan’s recital of Rudd’s broken promises in this morning’s Australian – his Christmas gift to Rudd supporters.  They’re not really broken promises but promises that have been delayed in implementation, but enough for Shanahan to make a song and dance.  Bernard Keane has given an even-handed analysis of the year in Crikey, 2008: Dashed dreams and mouldy political compromise.

Hopefully next week will be quiet, although one would be unwise to bank on it.  So this is intended to be the last post for 2008, unless something spectacular occurs.

May I thank those of you who have visited The Political Sword, and particularly those who have taken the time to add your comments, among whom are some welcome regulars.  Compared with many other blogs I read, yours are among the most insightful and thoughtful I have read.  I look forward to your participation when The Political Sword resumes in February.

Season's Greetings to you all.