The corrosive effect of political slogans

Spin doctors love slogans.  Their focus groups test them for efficacy.  They launch them, repeat them incessantly until their use-by date, then go onto the next.  They know the corrosive effect the negative ones can have on those to whom they’re applied.  The media too loves them.  Great headlines and acerbic copy flow from them.  Who knows how much they influence the public?

Take ‘Kevin07’. A smart slogan, but it invited variants. Kevin Rudd’s frenetic pace gave rise to ‘Kevin24/7’, but not satisfied with that benign label, the media launched a campaign condemning not Rudd’s own work patterns, but that he was placing the public service under intolerable pressure.  Fatigue, exhaustion, even staff revolt and loss of staff were predicted.  ‘Ain’t it awful’ was the media message.  The public weren’t all that impressed, indeed they not unreasonably expected the public service to get stuck in and support a new Government trying to implement the policies on which it was elected.  This campaign has fizzled as the public accepts that it’s not a bad thing to have a hard-working Government.  But while it lasted, it did have a corrosive effect.

‘Control freak’ is a slogan that evolved from Kevin24/7. The accusation was that Rudd had to have his hands on the wheel at all times; and that this resulted, to use Glen Milne’s words, in a “constipation of process” – everything had to flow through “self-obsessed sclerotic arteries that run from the PM's office”.  The only evidence advanced to support this assertion was the obvious: “every senior bureaucrat knows”.  ‘Control freak’ seems to be dying a natural death, as Rudd’s ministers do their own thing, Stephen Smith travels as Foreign Minister more than does Rudd, and Wayne Swan flies off to New York this week for a Finance Ministers’ meeting without Rudd holding his hand.  But don’t be surprised if it’s resurrected when the Opposition or the media thinks fit.

Kevin 24/7 morphed into Kevin747 when Rudd recently flew to Washington and New York for the meeting of the UN and for talks with world leaders about the gathering financial crisis.  Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb had great fun with it and added ‘Prime Tourist’ to their repertoire, again with great hilarity.  The fact that the PM was attending critically important meetings, at which any sensible citizen would expect him to attend, did not inhibit the Opposition in ‘making hay’.  Again, it had an adverse effect – a relative, not prone to thinking too deeply about such matters, echoed the criticism – ‘Rudd's always flying off somewhere’.  Mud sticks.

Then there was Wayne Swan on his ‘training wheels’.  This might have been just a good-humoured jibe had it not been for the accompanying by-line: “He has no idea what he’s doing.” oft-repeated by Malcolm Turnbull, then Shadow Treasurer.  Now that it is evident even to Turnbull that he does know what he’s doing, and is doing it well, it would be too much to expect that Turnbull, or the media who repeated this line ad nauseam, would acknowledge that he no longer needed his training wheels.  Julie Bishop, who began her short career as Shadow Treasurer with a couple of gaffes and an inauspicious first month certainly looks as if she’s still on her ‘training wheels’, but not a word of this in the media.  ‘Training wheels’ apparently applies to Labor people, not Liberals. More...

Why is the Opposition antagonizing the banks?

Isn’t it curious that the conservative side of politics, the free-marketeers, are now at loggerheads with the banks.  All the more so with a leader who is an ex-merchant banker.

It was the previous Treasurer who defended so fiercely the independence of the Reserve Bank, and indeed took much of the credit for it.  Despite such affirmation of independence, when meeting times came around and interest rate determination was on the agenda, it did not inhibit the Coalition from giving thinly-veiled advice to the Bank Board.  “There is no reason for a rate rise” was often heard from the PM and Treasurer at times when they feared another.  But apart from these mild indiscretions, the Board was left to do its job, and it seemed to do it irrespective of what the Government said, even increasing the base rate during the 2007 election campaign.

Yesterday Joe Hockey lambasted the Reserve Bank during a radio interview.  He questioned the judgement of its members.  He insinuated that they had made a misjudgement when they had previously increased the base rate, especially during the election campaign, and implied that they were now correcting that mistake.  His questioned why increasing interest rates to bring down inflation had given way to now reducing them even although inflation was still unacceptably high.  As Shadow Finance spokesman, one would have thought he would have noticed the monumental change in global financial markets from last year, a change that required a shift from curbing inflation to stimulating a slowing economy.  He sounded angry.  Anger in defeat has been a feature of the behaviour of some Coalition members, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop prominent among them. His outspoken condemnation would not have gone down well with the Board Governor, Glenn Stevens.  I heard no correction of Hockey’s outburst by Malcolm Turnbull.

But Turnbull too has taken aim at the banks, the commercial ones.  His insistence that they could afford to pass on the full rate cut, and his self-congratulatory assertion after they passed on 0.75 to 0.8% that they must have done so as a result of his pressure, would not have impressed the banks.  Indeed Saul Eslake, chief economist of the ANZ Bank, labelled his utterances as just political populism.  Most commentators agreed; just a few thought it was smart politics.  Turnbull’s characterization of the banks as greedy, something he says he knows about as he’s been a banker, must have been a calculated move.

So why would the Opposition, especially with an ex-banker as its leader, set out to upset the banks and the Reserve Bank at that?  Presumably it was based on an assessment that more would be gained politically by being anti-bank.  It’s a dangerous gamble.  Unless swinging voters move toward the Coalition as a result, and the polls so far give no indication that this is so, Turnbull and Hockey, with Bishop trailing well behind, will have gained nothing, and lost favour with the commercial banks who would be less inclined to support the Coalition financially, and more significantly the Reserve Bank, alongside which every federal government has to work in managing the nation’s finances.

But perhaps political judgement is being distorted by Turnbull’s ego.  There has been much talk about it since he entered parliament, but any doubts about its size will have been dispelled during the rate cut discussions.  His interview with Fran Kelly on ABC Sydney radio left her astonished that he could be so confident that he’d influenced the banks; the only concession he was prepared to make was that he couldn’t say how much.  If Turnbull’s ego overrides his political common sense to that extent, we shouldn’t be surprised at similar lapses in the future.  The pity is that while the focus is on his ego, either because he makes it so, or because the media home in on it, he's not engaging in meaningful debate about the diverse factors that contribute to the global financial mess we’re in.  As Wayne Swan put it: “...there are some events in the world which are much bigger than Mr Turnbull’s ego."  Whether Malcolm is able accept this may determine his future.


So will interest rates now always be lower under Labor?

It’s almost a year since John Howard parted the scene, but his mantra “Interest rates will always be lower under the Coalition” still rings in our ears.  It was powerful, memorable and effective, except at the last election, when so many of the people stopped believing it, or just stopped listening.

It was always a misleading slogan.  Howard himself knew that, he knew who set interest rates, but perhaps he believed that the economy that he had nurtured for so long favourably influenced the Reserve Bank’s decisions.  Anyway, it served him well almost until the end.  The fact that ten consecutive quarter percent interest rate rises occurred before the election did not deter him from endlessly repeating his mantra and using it in campaign ads.  Since the election there have been two quarter percent rises, one quarter percent fall, and now a one percent fall, so that the rate is now three quarters of a percent below the last level under the Howard Government.  So interest rates are not always lower under the Coalition after all.

So should Kevin Rudd now re-work the slogan to “Interest rates will always be lower under Labor”?  I hope not, and I don’t think he will.  It would be a dishonest thing to do. There would be few, even among the politically disinterested, who would not know that the Reserve Bank sets interest rates, and that the Bank has been deemed to be independent by all political parties, who have largely respected that independence. We know that there are numerous factors that influence Reserve Bank decisions, and that although the state of the economy over which the party in power has some influence is one, many international factors, over which no one in this country has any control, are often overriding factors.

The point of this piece is to point to the political dishonesty of the party in power making claims they can or will keep interest rates low.  Quite apart from the fact that such claims are without foundation, such claims can blow up in their face, as has happened now.  I don’t expect we'll hear anything from the Coalition about the now-apparent falsity of this slogan, but Labor may find it hard to resist the temptation to rub the Coalition’s nose in it.

Although the extent to which political influence can be exercised over commercial banks is debatable, Malcolm Turnbull has already expressed the view that it was his advocacy for mortgage holders, his “standing up” for home buyers and small business, that has resulted in the fairly high 0.75 to 0.8% passing-on of the rate cut.  He has quickly taken credit for this, mind you not total credit.  And in the process he has lampooned Rudd and Swan for “caving into the banks”.  That their concern was to ensure stability among the banks in the face of steeply rising costs of borrowing drew no acknowledgement from Turnbull; he was hell-bent on extracting as much political capital as he could.  How much his line was swallowed by the public only subsequent opinion polls will tell, but one can be confident that the banks will not be too pleased with him, and will not be impressed with his distortion of the decision making processes banks use to reach such decisions, and his belief that leaning on them bears fruit.  With his merchant banker knowledge and understanding he would know his public rhetoric was disingenuous; if not, his competence in matters financial is called into question.

If Turnbull is prepared to embrace such populist positions in an attempt to bolster his position, even at the expense of his credibility, don’t be surprised if he repeats the Howard mantra, or something like it, sometime in the future when it suits him politically.

Why do so many in the media enjoy a beat-up?

This morning on ABC 774 radio, Kathy Bedford, a temporary morning announcer, raised the matter of a brutal assault on Dr Mukesh Haikerwell, past President of the AMA, that resulted in his being admitted to the Western General Hospital in suburban Melbourne for ‘brain surgery’.  Fortunately he is recovering well but will need rehabilitation.  Had Kathy focussed on the brutality of the assault on a gentle man who has done so much to improve health care, or even on the nature of his injury and what can be done to save lives and prevent permanent damage in such cases, she might have engaged her audience meaningfully.  Instead, she played the line that Dr Haikerwell might have received ‘preferential treatment’ by being given neurosurgery at Western General rather than at a large city hospital where such surgery is more commonly performed.  She asked: “If Dr Haikerwell could receive surgery there for head injury, why are others transported to city hospitals?”

She carried on this conversation in almost total ignorance of the different types of intracranial bleeding that could occur after head injury.  Despite two doctors explaining the different trajectory of different types of intracranial bleeding and the different consequences, she persisted with her ‘preferential treatment’ query.  This was despite both doctors explaining that one type of intracranial bleeding following head injury, so-called extradural haemorrhage, requires extremely urgent treatment.  Lives can be lost in a matter of minutes unless surgery is undertaken.  Not wanting to speculate on Dr Haikerwell’s situation, both doctors emphasized this in general terms, but to make the point, one described a case when despite an urgent operation in the ward immediately on admission, the patient had died. 

This did not deter Kathy from her pursuit of the possibility of a well know doctor receiving preferential treatment, even after one doctor informed her that there were neurosurgeons on staff at Western General who regularly performed brain surgery, referring elsewhere only the most complex cases.

Even when she acknowledged receiving a batch of text messages castigating her for her insensitive interview with the doctors, she pressed on, seemingly undaunted.  It was as if, having dug herself into a hole, she was determined to dig her way out and restore her credibility.

When radio journalists decide to stretch credulity to make something out of a situation, a so-called ‘beat-up’, they should at least bone up on the technicalities.  No one expects journalists to be medical experts, but if Kathy had taken a quick look at Wikipedia beforehand she would have sounded less foolish, and listening attentively to what the experts had to say would have been a sound cautionary move.  But the desire to ‘beat-up’ seemed too irresistible.

That this journalism upsets those who know better is bad enough; what is worse is that the public may be mislead and persuaded to the view that this patient did unfairly receive preferential treatment because he was a well-known doctor, which was the whole point of her story.

The media has the capacity to influence thinking profoundly.  It needs to be very careful how it promulgates information, and sensitive to its ‘rabble-rousing’ potential if it gets its facts wrong, if it interprets them incorrectly, and especially if it indulges in blatant ‘beat-ups’ in pursuit a ‘good story’.