Does social media influence politics?

The new fashion in Australian politics seems to be leadership change. In the past ten years, we’ve seen Rudd overthrown by Gillard (only to succeed in a subsequent challenge a couple of years later), three federal opposition leaders in the Rudd/Gillard government era, the overthrow of a Victorian premier and subsequent election loss, two or maybe three leadership spills in the NT, and a Queensland premier suffer a thumping loss at an election. Political life seems to be a lot more unsettled now than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So, what would happen if Holt, Gorton and McMahon were reincarnated and chose to be politicians in the ‘twenty-teens’? How would they cope with the constant news cycle where any mug (this one included) can write a blog, send a tweet or post on social media and have a chance that it will be noticed and assumed to be ‘the truth’?

Technology is an amazing thing. Children today just ’don’t get’ the miracle of Instant Messaging, ringing people outside the same ‘zone’ and the ability to gain information on practically any subject on a device you hold in your hand. In the days of Holt, Gorton and McMahon, as there is today, there was a press gallery in the Federal Parliament House. The difference is that ‘back in the day’, the press gallery members were the only ones who had ready access to the political players of the day. Today, it is somewhat expected that political parties, politicians and members of the press gallery all maintain social media accounts, where should you feel the need or desire, you can read the infinite wisdom of the politician or reporter of your choice as it leaves their keyboard.

It is clear that political intrigue occurred in the past — otherwise the term wouldn’t be in common use. History tells us that Billy Hughes and Sir Robert Menzies were prime ministers while representing different parties at different times. The ALP split into two different organisations during the 1950s. In addition, John Gorton effectively ended his prime ministership when he voted against himself in a leadership vote in 1971.

Whitlam became leader of the opposition during the short reign of Prime Minister Holt (who vanished at sea off Cheviot Beach in Victoria). He was far younger than his predecessor Arthur Caldwell (1966 election campaign advertising clip here) and set about modernizing the ALP. By the 1972 election McMahon was prime minister. McMahon’s 1972 policy speech is an earnest appeal for votes but demonstrates how totally unprepared he was for the emergence of the ‘It’s timecampaign of the ALP led by Whitlam. Like Newman in Queensland 40 years later, Whitlam managed to alienate a significant section of the community in three years. The Liberal Party had developed a pale imitation of ‘It’s Time’ for the 1975 federal election, using the slogan ‘Turn on the lights’ with associated campaign material for the successful campaign to elect Malcolm Fraser. Since then, the marketing of our politicians and politics has only intensified. During the ’80s, Hawke and Keating announced proposed changes to the Australian taxation system prior to the 1984 election and promised to hold a summit to discuss the policy and its implementation after the election. The ‘tax summit’ was held in July 1985.

By the time the GST was introduced in 2000, the campaign had moved to television advertising. The internet was still young in 2000 and ‘social’ media was the ‘women’s section’ of the paper where the latest fashions and who was at the latest elite society party were the general subjects for discussion.

In the past 15 years, there has been a significant shift in the technology available to society. Social media is now considered to be a number of computer applications where anyone can write, discuss ideas and discuss issues relevant to them. Generally known as the ‘fifth estate’, social media (such as this blog, Instagram and similar platforms) gives people without any qualifications as a journalist the ability to discuss current issues and express opinions — potentially to a large audience. Traditional media (the ‘fourth estate’) has responded by creating websites that mirror the content of their existing publication — be it newsprint or electronic media — available through the internet for instant access (usually) wherever you are in the world. In addition, 24 hour news channels have been created such as Aljazeera, CNN and ABC News 24. Nature abhors a vacuum, so there has to be content for all these additional ‘instantaneous’ news channels. Those in the ‘fourth estate’ — some would argue attempting to retain their relevance — now seem to grab every opportunity to quickly publish on their organisation’s website any small piece of information they discover, only to be analysed and discussed by others and then republished.

It is clear that today’s political leaders have more training in how to behave in front of the media than Arthur Caldwell and Sir William McMahon did. Although being in the lifetime of a considerable percentage of the population, Caldwell and McMahon’s wooden delivery seem rather old fashioned today.

None of our three examples were examples of classical beauty. Holt looked his age, Gorton carried the reminders of a nasty accident when a pilot in World War 2 while McMahon was somewhat unkindly referred to as a VW Beetle with the doors open — matched with a crackly high-pitched voice. In contrast, more recent prime ministers, such as Julia Gillard have been subject to discussion of their looks, fashion sense and living arrangements, as well as their physical appearance. It should be said that looks, living arrangements and so on do not in any way determine the quality of decisions made in a leadership position.

We discussed above that you don’t have to be ‘in the media’ to make your opinion known. There are various social media sites that openly publicise their political beliefs (including The Political Sword, The Hoopla as well as the Don’t blame me I didn’t vote for Tony Abbott, a Facebook page). There are a number of equally blatantly conservative political Facebook and internet sites around — ‘search’ is your friend.

In the recent Queensland election campaign, various people and groups took to social media to attempt to influence the vote. It is fair to say that, in addition to the political parties, mining companies, unions and other interest groups all bought advertising on established media as well as social media websites to advance their respective positions. Others such as Dr David Pascoe created Facebook pages to discuss their individual views and by doing so they attempted to influence others. Pascoe somehow promoted an alliance between Alan Jones (2GB announcer), Katter’s United political party and Peter Wellington, independent MP for the Queensland seat of Nicklin, and made a number of posts critical of former Premier Newman and the state’s LNP for his alleged closeness to mining companies while ignoring primary production. While no one will ever know if Pascoe’s Facebook page affected the outcome of the election, he claims he has influenced large companies in their business dealings with their customers here and here — both ironically reported in a newspaper. Pascoe continued his crusade against coal seam gas development by commenting on the New South Wales state election.

Cathy McGowan is the independent federal MP for Indi. She won the seat — a conservative ‘stronghold’ — in 2013. In fact, Indi was the only Coalition loss at the 2013 election. ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy wrote a piece on The Drum describing the process. Cassidy’s article demonstrates social media played a large part in the organisation of the group, and McGowan’s win.

Holt, Gorton and McMahon were intelligent people and rose to the leadership level of a political organisation, so they knew how to ‘play the game’. In the days of media and image management, paid for by the political parties, their images could have been cultivated to make them ‘acceptable’ for the TV news sound bite. The major difference probably is that they wouldn’t have the luxury of reading the morning papers, crafting a message for broadcast that afternoon and moving on, only needing to interact with the established press gallery. The press gallery would have also respected ‘the rules’ and not led discussions on leadership spills and the like, realising that their access might be restricted if they did.

Has the rise of social media made it harder for politicians? In all probability it has because, while they still have the ability to ‘craft’ a message, any personal, private or public misstep is reported. They also have to be ‘on top of the game’ 24 hours a day, as once the audio and footage has been transmitted back to the base or someone has posted an event on Facebook or Twitter, it is out there, without the ability to ask for the story to be corrected or retracted. The public will no longer accept a speech from a politician sitting behind a desk looking authoritarian and like the protector of all they can see. Australian prime ministers for a decade or so now have been walking out to the podium in the courtyard at Parliament House in response.

It seems that social media has influenced politics. Dr David Pascoe and Cathy McGowan would certainly argue in the affirmative. Politicians now have to attempt to make the news, not be the news, while crafting a message and delivering it on cue and accurately. While they are doing that they have to seem to be relevant and responsive to their communities. The alternative is losing the leadership or, even worse, the election.

What do you think?

Postscript: You could also ask if Holt, Gorton and McMahon would be happy to be members of Abbott’s ultra-conservative Liberal Party — after all, former Prime Minister Fraser has resigned from the Liberal Party. That is another discussion entirely.

About 2353

This week 2353 asks whether social media and the fifth estate influence politics. Well, you are here reading this, so perhaps you can answer the question. Please leave a comment.

Next week Ken will take a look at the Intergenerational Reports, not just the recent one released by Hockey but the four that have been put out since 2002.

Surprise, surprise …

Not very long ago, during the annual meltdown into the pleasantly torpid stasis that is the great Aussie January holiday time, Peter van Onselen zapped out this Tweet:

From van Onselen, that was quite, well, shocking. More especially because just two days before he had tweeted:

Peter van Onselen…@vanOnselenP

The way the government has kept faith with voters up until now should give them the political capital they need to sell the Medicare cuts... 13 January 2015

While the Tweeps suggested he was in ‘irony font’ with that one (no, I don’t believe ‘PvO’ can ‘do’ irony either), in between the two tweets, Peter had dashed off a few others:

Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 13

The govt start 2015 with a move putting the focus on health...consistently polled as a Labor strength. Plus the new minister is on holidays

Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 14

What is wrong with this government, it is like watching a circus...

Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 14

Yesterday the PM was explaining why the Medicare rebate cut is necessary, today they are backing down on it. They are SO incompetent...

Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 14

Me: "what's going on?" (re Medicare rebate). Liberal MP: "How would I know, I'm only a minister". Adults in charge...

And two days after his ‘concern’ that he hadn’t made his apparent position on the government ‘clear’, came these:

Peter van Onselen @vanOnselen Jan 17

Yep this is what happened. Others didn't want to make the damaging change, PM insisted. He was warned, didn't listen.

Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP Jan 17

There is a staggering amount of discontent with the PM amongst his colleagues. Day one back at work and hitting the phones...not pretty!

There’s general agreement in the Twitterverse, at least from more progressively minded Tweeps, that van Onselen is the weathervane, the cut-tin mainstream media rooster perched on the roof peak of Australia’s fourth-estate political commentary. Indeed, van Onselen oscillates on his rooftop so rapidly that it seems the only way to determine his ‘speaking position’ is unfailingly to remind ourselves of upon whose rooftop he roosts (Rupert’s of course: Sky, The Australian, the Sunday Times).

Take a look, though, at just a few of the columns van Onselen had written for The Australian during December and January and one just might suspect that van Onselen had ‘turned’:

    • December 3, 2014 ‘Respect the only answer for Abbott’: ‘Only a popular and well respected prime minister can mount a recovery for the government now, given the dire state of the polls.’
    • December 13, 2014 ‘Peta Credlin has become the story and that’s bad news for Tony Abbott’: ‘The volunteer firefighter, surf lifesaver and pollie pedalling fundraiser, who could almost always win over anyone he met, now seems to be living in a prime ministerial bubble …’
    • December 23, 201: ‘Tony Abbott’s reshuffle a rebuke for Julie Bishop’: ‘The Bishop slight within Abbott’s reshuffle didn’t end there ... Make no mistake, this was a deeply politically calculated and calibrated reshuffle …’
Well, almost suspect a turning — until you read this consummate bit of van Onselen sleight-of-hand: ‘ALP needs big-picture manifesto, not small-target strategy’, which, along with his sage advice to the ALP, includes these kinds of statements:

However dysfunctional Abbott’s team has been and continues to be, it pales into insignificance alongside what occurred under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd …

Bowen’s knowledge of financial issues and governance combined with Leigh’s outside-the-box thinking just might lift Labor’s economic credibility …

Really? Pales into insignificance?

Really? Lift Labor’s economic credibility? Not evidenced-based statements, these.

Van Onselen has been, and I think still is, a cake-and-eat-it academic who plays at journalism, or perhaps vice versa. His journalism, so-called, has always been and remains biased towards the LNP and its ideology, positions and policies. But he writes and speaks from a pose of academic distance. This translates into the false-prophet scourge of political journalism today — assuming that a position of so-called journalistic objectivity is achieved by putting the all-omnipotent boot into one’s own side, when perceived as needed, while measuring out in teaspoonfuls sage advice on how that home side can improve. Like the prime minister whose advisor he once was (when Abbott was Workplace Relations Minister in the Howard government), van Onselen is, while taking on the role of providing professional and fair reportage or commentary, the spinning weathercock incapable of offering his own political position for scrutiny, incapable of acknowledging that he is, indeed and inevitably, partisan. And that way reader distrust must inevitably lie.

Van Onselen’s almost naive posture of objective commentary could never hide his inevitable, default-position wish for a successful conservative government — even though he’s been pretty busy throwing Tony under a bus for quite some months. No, van Onselen hasn’t turned, but like a number of the fourth estate who gave Abbott and the LNP an unexamined free ride into power and the people a federal government not worth the examining, let alone the living with, he seems, variously of course, open-mouthed in surprise at what collusion in deceiving a citizenry and changing a government has wrought and, apparently, he has been fearful enough to show it. But not responsible, of course. Never that.

The 19th of January this year marked the 500th day of the Abbottian era of federal politics and political journalism.

While Peter van Onselen was spinning away, how have other political journalists fared in the now 500-plus days? In Peter Hartcher and Mark Kenny — two Fairfax journalists who in this first half of the Abbottian reign assumed that a calm, consistent, steady and above all ‘adult’ period of governance had been ushered in on the 7th September 2013 — we can spy a reluctant shift becoming more emphatic over time.


In ‘Abbott’s in, now what?’ (November 30 2013):

The Abbott government has been quietly putting in place processes for a substantial agenda of economic reform. But none of that is yet showing results. In the interim, the news is full of Abbott's poorly managed events and Pyne's broken promise.

His government wants Australians to go to their Boxing Day barbecues remarking on how the new government is in charge, and looking after things that matter to ordinary people. They have a lot of work to do.

In ‘Tony Abbott choked by lack of vision, not ideology’ (June 21 2014):

… it was Hewson’s negative model of politics – how to lose an election by telling the people the truth – that had a greater impact on his apprentice than any of his positive lessons. Abbott so far has resisted the urge to utter a word of criticism of his former employer …

Besides, Abbott is not taking a vindictive approach to critics from his own side of politics.

In ‘Abbott unmasked: ideological warrior marches to the right’ (September 6 2014):

Abbott has set out to resume the Thatcher-Reagan revolution where Howard left off. He intends to advance it to a new apogee … To date, he has failed to take the country with him. But he has only just begun.

In ‘Tony Abbott’s national security address a siren call to the nation’ (February 26 2015):

By choosing to foster fear and division, by failing to embrace truly meaningful security recommendations such as a gun crackdown, Abbott has inadvertently exposed his weakness, not his strength. If we withdraw the benefit of the doubt, we see a failing leader merely posturing on national security in a sad effort to hold his job.

In ‘PM Tony Abbott’s “positive” poll shows he’s a dead man walking’ (March 2 2015):

Tony Abbott's supporters will claim today's poll as proof that there is life in his prime ministership yet.

Only a superficial reading can support this conclusion. In truth, it shows that it is already dead.


In ‘Abbott is a new man, but the left can’t see it’ (September 14 2013):

The truth is, Abbott in government is likely to be populist, political and pragmatic, rather than right-wing, reactionary and regressive.

In ‘Abbott in China shows skills beyond his years’ (April 10 2014):

But Abbott has spent a political career surprising those who underestimate the power of his intelligence, his people skills (funnily enough), and perhaps most importantly, his directness.

In ‘Abbott weak on home front, but a lion abroad’ (September 26 2014):

Despite his promise of smaller government and a smaller country, it has been Abbott's face-to-face relationship building and his deft leverage of Australia's Security Council presence, that has defined his administration's greatest heights – such as they are.

In ‘Abbott’s choice: change or face the axe’ (January 30 2015):

In a succession of dud decisions, their PM's gone quietly rogue, unburdened by the normal checks against gross error built into the system.

It’s the surprise at a failing Abbott, but even more the gravitas of the now-constant admonishing from some political journalists who before the 2013 Federal election failed to examine the kind of Abbottian government we were likely to get that … well … surprises. Never mind ‘don’t write crap.’ I just want to holler: ‘How in the name of every billion words poured onto the hapless heads of the previous Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government, not to mention on the heads of the Independent seers Windsor and Oakeshott, who detailed so fully what would come with an Abbott-led government, could YOU not see this coming?!!

I said to a mate recently that I was trying a look at whether and, if so, how Australian political journalists had managed to see through their own bias ‘for’ the Abbottian government and question its people and policy directions across its thus far brief era of custody. The mate’s response was that I should also consider ‘who cares?’ (implying himself).

So let’s consider who does care. Who cares whether political journalists and especially the press gallery, with noses pressed so closely to the ever-murkier glass of the chamber where the House of Reps sits, might have come to any realisation of what many have called their pre-election years of collusion or complicity or betrayal — or even treason?

Well I do.

And so, probably, do you, and every person who reads online blogs in Oz analysing the political state of the nation from a ‘progressive-ish’ point of view.

And every person of any and all ages and demographics who hit the streets, often for the first time in their lives, in the countless citizen protests, marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, vigils, lock-ins and lock-downs that erupted within three months of the Abbott government’s election and ceaselessly continue. Jonathan Green, host of ABC RN’s Sunday Extra, on the 14th December 2014 and in his last program for the year, ‘The Year That Was’, introduced a discussion segment with Melbourne-based playwright, activist and Guardian Australia columnist Van Badham this way:

There's a booming protest culture in Australia with almost as many people taking to the streets as the Vietnam protests of the sixties.

Green begins the segment suggesting that one way 2014 could be described is as ‘The year of protest’. Van Badham, in a brief but startlingly complete overview of protest activity across Australia in 2014, describes that parade of protest as a ‘carnival’ and pinpoints the use of social media as its vital and growing resource. (The Green and Badham discussion runs from 1 min 50 sec to 7 min 16 sec.)

Add, too, to those who care, every person who has been picking up in ever-increasing numbers on independent and ‘citizen’ online media outlets as they have grown ever-more dissatisfied with the fourth estate, this phenomenon being tracked especially by Margo Kingston’s No Fibs and David Donovan’s Independent Australia. (Very worthwhile reading lies at both links.)

Then add some well-known commentators on the state of Australian media.

Andrew Elder cares. Elder has been continuing his severe school for the serious reconstruction of recalcitrant political journalists all through the Abbottian era, handing out praise when considering it due and biting off those typing fingers considered fiddling about with irrelevance when not. Or savaging those media organisations, especially Fairfax (and no doubt soon the ABC), whom he considers have sunk to hiring the inept and avoiding the oncoming ‘brightest and best’ of future political journalism.

Tim Dunlop, eminently accessible as commentator on the media, cares, recently offering in ‘Is media objectivity an outdated mode?’, quite the most readable re-expression of the debate on the consequences of so-called objectivity and balance that has raged for decades across western journalism.

Dunlop compares two articles ‘reporting’ on Abbott’s Monday 23 February speech on national security (in front of six Australian flags): one by Michele Grattan and the other by Lenore Taylor.

About these he states:

… you could argue I am comparing chalk and cheese in that Taylor's piece is labelled analysis while Grattan's specifically isn't, and that's fair enough.

The bigger point, though, is: what even is the point of the sort of “straight” reporting Grattan has produced?

By striving to be "objective" her article is actually biased towards Mr Abbott's position. How does that help anyone? Except Mr Abbott, of course.

The bottom line is that governments and parties and various interests groups spend vast fortunes finding ways to manipulate information and public opinion. (All those flags behind Mr Abbott on Monday didn't appear by accident.)

Worse, the media is too often complicit in the manipulation.

Well, of course.

(And by the way, Hartcher’s pieces are labelled ‘analysis’ and Kenny’s ‘comment’. You spot the difference.)

Dunlop concludes by arguing that now social media can be the ‘journalist’s friend’ if they can bravely ‘own their own positions’ because ‘engagement with the audience is the new objectivity’. How? Because on social media a reader can demand the contexting of facts which, when only merely reported, can be intrinsically biased towards one side of politics or the other.

Last words to van Onselen:

Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP March 3

I have to say, Tony Abbott is doing a good job of showing contrition on the GP copayment. Taking blame himself for the lack of consultation

Peter van Onselen @vanOnselenP March 3

.@MjrElvisNewton can I hire you to work your way through the right who slam me as a leftie to tell them all I'm actually one of them?

No, still don’t think Peter can do irony.

So, can we smell chunks of the political fourth estate on the run?

Or is it the scent of those who refused to see but — surprise, surprise — are now open-eyed and so very disappointed?

Are some turning?

What do you think?

About @j4gypsy

We hope you enjoy Jan's excellent piece on the changing media approach to Tony Abbott. Has the media turned against him or are the journalists, as Jan suggests, just 'surprised' and now frustrated that he has not turned out as they had hoped? Please let us know what you think. We know you won't be surprised but why are the journalists?

Next week we continue the media theme with 2353 examining the question 'Does social media influence politics?'

President Abbott: or why prime ministers should not be immune from removal by their party

After the failure of the ‘spill’ motion on 9 February, Abbott said:

We think that when you elect a government, when you elect a prime minister, you deserve to keep that government and that prime minister until you have had a chance to change your mind.

Ignoring that the polls were indicating the people had already changed their mind, the statement continued Abbott’s approach in the lead-up to the spill motion (and since) that he was elected by the people, whereas John Howard had previously said the ‘leadership’ was a ‘gift of the party room’.

Who is right?

Abbott’s approach, as was Kevin Rudd’s, is that he was elected by the people as prime minister but under the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, which we use, members of the House of Representatives (where governments are formed) are elected by the voters of single electorates. They are elected to represent those electorates. Under the Westminster system, we have a strong party system in place to provide stable government — it would be next to impossible to have stable government if every individual member acted as an independent in the interests of their own electorate. That means that when we elect an individual member for an electorate, we also know to which party he or she will add their vote in the parliament. The leader of each major party, whether Liberal, Labor or National, is elected by the members elected to the parliament for that party (although Labor now includes an element of membership participation in a contested vote). It is true that we know the leader of each party going into an election and therefore who will probably be prime minister if the party wins enough seats to form government, but there is no rule that says that must be so — it is an expectation that has been created.

It is also true that election campaigns now tend to focus around the leader of each party and, in that sense, there is an element of a presidential election about the campaigns. (Whether that is good or bad is a debate for another time.)

In essence, we now have a Westminster system operating for and in the parliament but something closer to a presidential system operating in the way election campaigns are conducted. It is little wonder that voters become confused.

Despite claiming he was elected by the people, like a president, Abbott tried to use the Westminster system to defend his position in the spill motion. He called on his ministers to support him under the Westminster convention of ‘cabinet solidarity’ but ‘cabinet solidarity’ is primarily about policy decisions: it says that, no matter how much argument goes on in a cabinet meeting, once a decision is agreed each minister is bound to support that decision publicly — it is not meant to be about internal party politics.

There are significant differences between a Westminster democracy and a presidential democracy, particularly as operates in the US — from which we seem to draw most of our election campaign techniques.

The first major difference is that the US president is not only head of the executive government but also head of state. Our prime minister is only head of the executive government. The Queen of Australia is our titular head of state but the role is fulfilled by the governor-general and under our system the head of state has next to no role in the daily activities of government but the US president does. Our governor-general still signs laws into effect but does so on the advice of the government of the day and, certainly by convention, has almost no power to over-ride that advice. The US President can veto legislation passed by the congress if he (no ‘her’ as yet) does not like it.

A second major difference is that the US president selects his cabinet from anywhere — they don’t have to be members of the congress, indeed rarely are. In our case, not only the head of the executive government but members of the cabinet are drawn from those elected to the parliament. There is no rule that this should be so but it is one of the conventions of the Westminster system. The fact that the Westminster system relies on convention, rather than being enforced by rules, was evident when Campbell Newman first became leader of his party in Queensland while still outside the parliament: we could not countenance, however, that he could become a member of the government while outside the parliament and a seat had to be found for him before the ensuing election.

The American system is very much the old system of a democratic monarchy. The monarch (president) selects his own ministers (secretaries of state) and they are required to appear before parliament (congress) to answer questions about, and be held accountable for, actions they may have taken or not taken, as the case may be. Basically all the Americans did when they achieved independence was replace the monarch in that system with an elected president. And a little like the Abbott and Rudd misapprehension in Australia that people vote directly for the prime minister, it is also a misapprehension in the US that people vote directly for the president. They are actually voting for members of an ‘electoral college’ at the state level, who then join all those elected by other states and select the president. Originally members of the electoral college were free to vote for whomever they liked but now most states nominate all their electoral college votes to the winner of the popular presidential vote in that state. The electoral college was introduced because the early founders of the US republic were wary of giving the people a direct say in the election of the president and because it was feared that someone sympathetic to the British could be elected and effectively ‘undo’ the revolution: the college was an intermediary that also gave the states a greater say in the election of the president. (Apparently there have been four occasions when the electoral college votes did not match the popular vote, including in 2000 when George W Bush was elected.)

Which approach is more democratic? (As an aside, I did once convince an American, using the preceding arguments, that their system was closer to a democratic monarchy.)

In our system all members of the government have been voted for: they have won an electorate somewhere in the country or a large enough proportion of the vote to be elected to the Senate. There are no outsiders. Ministers can be voted out of parliament just like any other member, as can prime ministers (Howard) and state premiers (Newman).

The closest our prime minister comes to a presidential power is the ability to select ministers, remove ministers and move ministers in what we commonly call a ‘reshuffle’. (Technically it is the governor-general who has that power but, because the governor-general must act on the advice of the government, it is effectively the prime minister.) While that has always been the Liberal way, Labor only adopted that approach when Rudd became prime minister. Before that the Labor caucus elected from its number those who would be ministers and a Labor prime minister could only allocate portfolios to those who were elected. (Labor returned to that approach in opposition when Bill Shorten was elected in 2013.) Ministers can be removed for many reasons: misbehaviour outside the parliament, not being a good minister, disloyalty (as perceived by the prime minister or the party), travel rorts, undeclared gifts, undeclared pecuniary interests, and so on, or simply the need to reward someone else with a ministry.

Abbott has already selected one ministry and conducted one reshuffle so he has exercised that power. If ministers can be removed in such a way, it logically seems to follow that prime ministers can also be removed within the parliamentary party system, not only by popular vote. Even the name ‘prime minister’ suggests that — the person is only the ‘first’ minister, or the ‘chief’ or ‘head’ minister, but still a minister. If people can only vote once every three years (in the normal course of events) who has the power to remove a prime minister in between? We know from 1975 that the governor-general is one such person but it requires extreme circumstances that cannot be resolved politically or by the courts.

There is an argument that democracy can be enhanced by the use of plebiscites and ‘recall’ votes, as in a number of US states. Such an approach certainly allows for democratic participation in consideration of major issues and legislation and provides a capacity to ‘recall’ a leader or representative who has lost the support of the majority of the population. Would such an approach work in Australia? I don’t think so.

Australians are notorious for viewing voting as an irksome duty, not something they willingly undertake to express their democratic rights. A majority tend to want to vote and then leave the government to ‘get on with it’ for the next three years and not bother them too much: as Howard once described it, we want to be left alone feeling ‘relaxed and comfortable’. But we do react when things are going on that we don’t like and that is expressed in the opinion polls, sometimes in public dissent and these days on social media.

Under the presidential system, when a policy proves unpopular, it is most likely that a secretary of state will be removed so that he or she is no longer a symbol of a disliked policy. The president, as head of state, must remain. Although it is also possible to remove a minister under our system, it has become the case that the prime minister now seems to represent all facets of the government and wears the blame for policy miscalculations. In Abbott’s and Rudd’s cases that blame is probably warranted because of the way they centralised power within their own offices. It can also apply more generally because our prime minister is head of the executive government and therefore bears some responsibility for all actions of the government (just as the CEO of a company does): our prime minister does not have the immunity of a head of state.

Popular expressions of discontent with policy can’t actually change the prime minister — only an election or a party-room vote can do that. Therefore public expressions of dissent between elections can only be meant to encourage the parties to change their policies or their leadership, or both.

Liberal party leaders have always had a lot of power, perhaps because the party was founded around an individual, Robert Menzies. That leads to many more ‘captain’s picks’ as we are now seeing with Abbott as leader. Labor leaders historically have had less power but Rudd changed that hoping to entrench his own position. Now a Labor party-room change of leader requires a petition signed by 75% of the caucus when in government, or 60% of the caucus when in opposition. It does not seem to apply if a leader steps down. If the new leadership is contested, then a vote takes place that includes Labor party members. It is not impossible to change a Labor leader between elections but it is more difficult under the new rules: it is likely to lead to greater use of the ‘tap on the shoulder’ to encourage a leader to resign rather than go through the petition process and also to factional agreements to nominate only one person for the leadership to avoid a vote.

One of the arguments that was put in favour of Rudd’s new rules was that it allows ‘hard’ decisions to be made without concern about the polls. In a democracy, however, governments should be in the business of convincing the people that hard decisions are justified. Hawke and Keating made major changes largely through consensus of key stakeholders and publicly arguing the need for change. Even Howard’s GST was spoken about for some time before it was introduced and did go through one election that the Liberals won despite the GST — so there was a mandate of a sort. If prime ministers are safe in their position, with no ability to remove them before the next election, then they may see no need to convince the people about the correctness of any policy approach — which seems to have been the attitude Abbott and Hockey took with the budget.

What is wrong with a party removing its leader if it is seen that the leader has lost the support of the people or that the policies being pursued are being rejected by the people?

I think that removing a party’s ability to remove its leader would lead us towards a presidential system that is undemocratic. Where is the democracy in a system that says the prime minister cannot be removed, except at an election, if the people are already speaking through the polls, through demonstrations and on social media? If a party cannot remove its leader in such circumstances, then it is not listening to the people — and that is not democratic.

Mr Abbott, like Mr Rudd before you, you are not a president, you are not a head of state, and your party room can remove you in the interest of democracy.

What do you think?

About Ken

This week Ken argues that the party-room removal of a prime minister is an expression of democracy, not an undemocratic procedure as Rudd and Abbott have claimed. Please express your own democratic rights and post a comment on whether Ken is right.

Next week we welcome the return of our resident gypsy, if a gypsy can be said to be resident. Jan presents a piece questioning why the mainstream media, after spending so long supporting Abbott, now seems surprised at his incompetence. The piece, of course, is entitled, 'Surprise, surprise ...'

But we’ve done tax reform – haven’t we? (Part 2)

Last week we briefly looked at some of the problems with the current tax system. It seems that a number of those who should have a high level of understanding of the fundamental flaws in the current taxation system agree that the system needs reform.

Price Waterhouse Coopers suggest:

. . . there is a clear need for comprehensive tax reform — done the right way. The ‘right way' means increasing those taxes that have the least effect on investment and employment, and at the same time reducing reliance on taxes that distort incentives to work, invest and transact business. It also means addressing those factors which increase the complexity of the tax system and the cost of compliance.

Business Spectator reports:

Without widespread tax reform, the Australian government faces a prolonged period of sluggish wage growth and poor productivity. That might sound pessimistic but that’s the simple equation laid out by outgoing Australian Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson.

Peter van Onselen wrote in The Australian (pay walled):

To the extent that consensus among tax professionals on the best way to collect revenue can be found, broad-based taxes are preferable to direct taxes. That’s because direct taxes such as income tax fall victim to bracket creep and stifle productivity. They feed into higher wages, too, which can affect inflation and Australia’s international competitiveness adversely.

But broad-based consumption taxes such as the GST can be regressive, in so far as they hurt lower-income families disproportionately to higher-income families given their flat application.

But this is a situation that can be easily overcome, is generally overstated and certainly isn’t a reason to abandon GST reform, which must be tackled boldly by our political leaders. It is always possible for policy decision-makers to make up for regressive GST application on the spending side.

Firstly, lets discuss the difference between ‘broad based’ and ‘direct’ taxes.

A ‘broad based’ tax is something like the Medicare levy. Everyone who pays tax pays a percentage based on their level of income to fund the ‘free universal’ healthcare system supported by the government. Distortions exist to ‘manufacture’ compliance with various social policies such as the surcharge made to those on higher incomes without private health insurance. GST is another ‘broad based’ tax: as the value of the tax is based, however, on the goods or services being purchased, rather than people’s incomes, someone on $40,000 per annum proportionally pays a higher rate of tax than someone on $140,000 per annum should they decide to purchase the same product. This distribution effect can be ‘engineered’ out through use of rebates etc. — as was promised with the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (Carbon Tax).

Direct taxes are charges such as income tax. You pay a certain percentage based on your income. While someone who is in the fortunate position to pay tax on the highest ‘margin’ pays more dollars than someone on the lowest margin, the person on the lower margin usually contributes a greater value of their annual income.

So, according to the experts, the problem is the complexity and ‘side effects’ of the current tax system: to fix the problems, move to broad based taxes based on equitable criteria and simplify the system. Sounds reasonably easy, doesn’t it?

This is where the politics comes in. In 1975, Asprey and Parsons handed over the full report of the Taxation Review Committee. The Asprey Report received little attention from Whitlam or Fraser: it did contain, however, discussion around the major taxation reforms of the 1980’s and 1990’s (capital gains, dividend imputation and GST to name a few).

The Rudd/Gillard government commissioned Ken Henry, former treasury secretary, to perform another review of the taxation system in 2010. Henry’s review (which was told not to look at the GST — one would assume for political reasons) suggested a number of reforms to improve the taxation system. The politics surrounding the review was that ‘a package’ would be recommended. Ken Henry obviously disagreed. The Henry Review advised:

The review has aimed to set strategic directions for the future architecture of the Australian tax and transfer system. It has not produced a one-off tax policy package, and it has not advanced the detailed design or timing of measures. Indeed, it is neither possible nor desirable to make all of these changes (138 recommendations) too quickly.

In the words of John Hewson:

. . .those expectations were there, so when they were thwarted, the Review was all too easily dismissed, politically, as “just another study/review/inquiry”, easily essentially shelved by the media, although [the government] also all too easily “cherry-picked” with attempts to implement just a handful of its recommendations.

Against this background, the [then ALP] government only picked some “high profile” recommendations immediately, such as the mining tax, and when that backfired, it then only did smaller issues, quietly, leaving the bigger issues like savings and State taxes untouched.

Hewson goes on to note that the Rudd/Gillard government implemented 40 of the Henry Review’s recommendations but the Abbott government has since reversed the implementation of all but seven of them — without identifying the recommendations came from the Henry Review.

This piece started with a comment from an accountancy/business services firm (Price Waterhouse Coopers) stating what it believes is necessary. Not to be outdone, others have expressed their opinion as well, including Ernst & Young, The Conversation here and here, the Housing Industry Association, Newscorp’s The Australian (pay walled) and Prosper, an organisation that has been campaigning for a century for a greater reliance on property taxes to replace direct taxes. There are no doubt others as well — time precludes finding them and space from listing them.

Each group that enters the tax reform debate overtly or covertly expresses an opinion that would assist their members or customers — as is their right. It certainly doesn’t help any government in designing a fair and equitable solution for all of society, especially when affected industry groups commission and use selected facts in television advertising that certainly don’t mention that compensation to taxpayers was a part of the deal.

Politically and economically, tax reform is a hard ask. Hawke/Keating and Howard/Costello both were successful to a degree in implementing reforms to the Australian taxation system. There are also those that suggest the whole system should be replaced by ‘flat taxes’.

Of course there are a number of versions of ‘flat tax’ from the ‘pure’ — everyone pays a percentage of their income with no deductions or rebates allowed — through to systems that allow deductions, negative taxes and other arrangements. Wikipedia discusses some of the different versions here.

The economics editor of The Australian argues that ‘flat tax’ is an economic necessity (pay walled). In 2010, Abbott, then opposition leader, suggested a version of flat tax would be beneficial and commented it was recommended by the Henry Review. The ALP disagreed. Greg Jericho, writing on ABC’s The Drum website, suggests that ‘Unless you’re wealthy, you’re not going to like flat taxes’. Jericho makes the point that flat taxes are by their nature regressive, as they are a ‘broad based’ tax.

Remember the disparity in the actual proportion of a person’s income when buying a product we looked at a couple of hundred words ago? Twenty per cent of $140,000 is $28,000 and 20% of $40,000 is $8,000. So the person on $140,000 still has $118,000 per annum to spend while the person on $40,000 only has $32,000. Regardless of the dollar amounts, the person on the lower income is paying more value from their income when a broad based tax (such as a GST or ‘flat income’ tax) is levied. Certainly there can be some ‘engineering’ of the tax system so that the value contributed by both the higher and lower income earner can be made fairer but that is adding to the cost of managing the tax revenue and reduces the ‘purity’ of the revenue collection system.

Hewson, in his paper, suggests that Hawke/Keating achieved some tax reform because they crafted a message supporting the need for change to the then system by way of the ‘Tax Summit’ and demonstrating that change would reduce the level of tax evasion, such as the ‘bottom of the harbour’ scheme that was apparent in the 1970’s and 80’s. He also claims that his “Fightback” package, that was taken to the 1993 election, was the subject of various campaigns to create fear, uncertainty and desperation. To an extent, it is a fair call. Hewson also suggests that 1% of tax revenue is taken by the administration of the tax revenue system — demonstrating its complexity.

It seems that a simplified revenue collection system is a given to make our taxes work harder. Another factor that needs to be considered is the current rhetoric from political parties of all colours that the country’s budget is closely related to a household budget and has to either balance or be in surplus.

To simplify the current revenue collection system, tax reform is needed. If tax reform is discussed, every ‘special interest’ group in the country will have its say in an attempt to protect the interests of their members/customers. While ‘flat taxes’ are superficially attractive, they do have a tendency to favour those earning a higher income unless ‘engineering’ is performed to make the tax impost fairer (in which case what is the point of a nominally one-size-fits-all ‘flat tax’ system?).

Something that recent governments have painted themselves into a corner on is the mythology that the country’s budget is similar to a household budget and must be balanced or in surplus. It doesn’t — as Australia issues it’s own currency. The Conversation recently discussed ‘Why the Federal Budget is not like a household budget’ and noted:

The real calculation faced by government should not be about how much money the government has — it has an infinite amount. The calculation should be about the capacity of the economy to absorb government spending without driving inflation.

Seeking a balanced budget and automatically borrowing any deficit spending (as we currently do) is an effective but unsophisticated way of ensuring government spending doesn’t cause runaway inflation. Taxes and government borrowing remove money from the private sector, creating space for government spending (which injects money into the private sector). Remember, the government does not have to borrow or tax in order to finance spending because they can create money.

The Political Sword has previously looked at the fallacy of the balanced budget debate here and here. Peter Costello (former treasurer) not unsurprisingly has a comment on the difficulty of balancing budgets versus tax reform:

This is harder than balancing a budget and I've done both.

John Hewson’s push to become prime minister in 1993 failed due in part to a lack of understanding of his tax reform measures. John Howard found that he could not pass the GST without diluting the ‘purity’ of the tax to appease the Australian Democrats; Julia Gillard had to negotiate to get a ‘watered-down version’ of the Mining Tax through the Senate. So far, Abbott’s government has not demonstrated that it can negotiate well enough to ensure that the minor parties and independents in the Senate would commit to a package of reasoned and logical tax reform.

During October 2014, Abbott called for a mature debate on inter-governmental relations in general and the GST in particular. It is unlikely to happen until either the current government learns how to build a consensus as Hawke and Howard did or has the numbers and the motivation to do something for the common good. Either way a mature debate cannot be conducted in 30 second sound bites so loved by our current prime minister and the media.

What do you think?

About 2353

This week 2353 completes his ‘Tax reform’ discussion and paints the political difficulties of achieving tax reform. As he writes, almost everyone agrees we need tax reform but we don’t seem able to come to agreement on what should be done. Please tell us your views of tax reform and how we can achieve it.

Come back next week for Ken’s view of "President Abbott: or why prime ministers should be not immune from removal by their party".