Mal’s Coalition cascades into chaos

When we posted How are the ‘adults’ managing our economy? on The Political Sword in April it seemed as if Turnbull’s administration of his Coalition couldn’t get any worse. We were wide of the mark! Now he sits apprehensively and indecisively on his house of cards, on tenterhooks lest he lose his balance, praying it doesn't collapse.

That piece was written as the 2017 Budget was being prepared. Scott Morrison was warning us about what we might be in for. Knowing that debt would increase, he tried to butter us up with talk of ‘good debt’ (spending on infrastructure) and ‘bad debt’ (recurrent spending on, for example, welfare). With his credibility in the doldrums, it is doubtful if anyone listened, let alone believed him.

The April piece on TPS began:
Who will ever forget the insults, the slurs, and the slander that the Coalition heaped upon Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan as they managed the economy through the Global Financial Crisis and beyond? They were depicted as children playing games in their political sandpit with no idea of what they were doing, making one catastrophic mistake after another.

Remember how the Coalition boasted that the children should get out of the way and let the adults take over, insisting as they did that they were the experts at economic management. So convincing was the rhetoric that the electorate believed them and has consistently rated them as superior to Labor in economic management in opinion polls.

Recall the ‘debt and deficit disaster’, a mantra with which they assailed Labor for years. Remember the ‘intergenerational debt’ they accused Labor of accumulating.

Since their election in 2013 they have had their chance to show their much-vaunted expertise under the skilled management of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, and then Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, with Mathias Cormann a consistent shadowy presence. How have they done?
We know how they have done – appallingly. The Coalition’s incompetence and mal-administration is now legend.

Here are some contemporary facts:

Wages growth is the weakest on record, dating back to the late 1990s. Underemployment remains high with an increasing trend towards part-time work, creating the “gig” economy.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe warns that record high household debt and record low wage rises are constraining consumer spending and hurting the economy.

The economy is under performing and will continue to do so through 2017 and beyond.

Stephen Koukoulas summarized the situation in The Guardian as follows: 
Based on the performance of the economy since the last fiscal update in December 2016, the budget is likely to confirm that this is a big-spending, big-taxing government with a strategy for continuing budget deficits and rising debt as it funds some of its pet projects.

It is all but certain that government debt will remain above 25% of GDP in 2017-18 and the forward estimates, meaning the government will be the first in the last 50 years to have spending at more than a quarter of GDP for eight straight years.

At the same time as spending is entrenched at high levels, the tax to GDP ratio is set to exceed 23% of GDP for only the eleventh time in 50 years. Tax revenue is growing solidly, in part in line with the expansion in the economy.

It is also close to certain that the level of net government debt will be projected to reach 20% of GDP, up from 10% when the Coalition won the 2013 election and the highest since the 1940s when the war effort boosted borrowing to record highs.
At as 30 June 2016, gross Australian government debt was $420 billion. In June 2017 the Turnbull government breached the $500 billion mark, (expressed alarmingly by some economists as half a trillion dollars) thereby doubling the deficit it inherited from Labor. Gross debt is projected to exceed $550 billion this year. Morrison is hoping to recoup some of this in this year’s budget with his $6 billion tax on the banks, but still intends to give a $65 billion of tax cuts to business!

We all know that housing affordability is worsening, locking out of the market young folk who do not have wealthy parents. The Coalition refuses to do anything about this as it sticks to negative gearing and the generous tax concessions around capital gains, thereby perpetuating the advantage moneyed investors enjoy over the young.

And as for the NBN, it continues to be a hybrid, copper-dependent mess that is not delivering what business needs, is rolling out far too slowly, and eventually will cost more than Labor’s superior FTTP design. It has been an Abbott/Turnbull debacle from the moment Abbott instructed Turnbull, then communications spokesman, to ‘Demolish the NBN’. Will it ever recover from that?

Need I give you any more evidence that our nation is steadily going backwards under the mal-administration of our economy by the Turnbull government?

On top of all this financial ineptitude, we have witnessed chaos writ large as Turnbull and the fractious conservative right squabble about how to handle the issue of same-sex marriage.

The chaos intensified when a postal ballot that will cost $122 million, was chosen. Astonishingly, the ballot won’t be carried by the Electoral Commission, but by the Bureau of Statistics, which has shown that it can’t carry out even a routine census proficiently. The High Court will decide if such an arrangement is constitutional. How the ABS will conduct the ballot is a mystery, as it’s a statistics-gathering organization. Long delays are likely before we will know the outcome of yet another Turnbull government stuff-up.

Then, as if that shemozzle wasn’t enough, Turnbull and his ministers have become entangled in the dual citizenship fiasco. They have been quite unsure how to handle it, and woefully inconsistent in their approach. Turnbull was only too ready in his characteristically sarcastic style to lampoon the Greens after Scott Ludlum and Clarissa Waters discovered their dual citizenship and resigned. “It shows incredible sloppiness on their part” bellowed our PM in parliament. Now, with several of his own ministers, no less the Deputy PM, the Deputy Leader of the Nationals, and his Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science all caught up in the saga, Turnbull’s barefaced inconsistency has been exposed. Canavan has been excluded from ministerial duties, while Joyce and Nash are permitted to continue as if nothing had happened!

All the time Turnbull is fighting a guerrilla war with the hard-right agitators in his party room, who threaten him with retribution unless he follows their dictates. He is so shackled, hog tied, clapped in irons – use whatever metaphor you like – that he is rendered impotent strategically, administratively, politically, and as a leader.

The voters continue to be unimpressed. We have now had the eighteenth Newspoll in a row where the Coalition trails Labor, this time by eight points: 54/46. If this trend continues, by February of next year Turnbull will have passed Abbott’s infamous record of thirty bad polls in a row, Turnbull’s raison d'etre for upending him.

Essential poll shows the same result. Turnbull’s satisfaction score continues on its poor trajectory, now minus 20. The Guardian features images from the Essential Report that illustrate Turnbull’s dilemma graphically.

Now that the Coalition sees defeat coming at election time, worried that Shorten’s “inequality” meme is biting, Mathias Cormann was sent out to launch a panicky attack on him in a speech at the Sydney Institute.

Writing in The Age in an article titled: 'Socialist revisionism': Mathias Cormann's doomsday warning of 'success exodus' under Bill Shorten, James Massola says: ‘Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has painted a doomsday scenario of Australia under a Shorten government, claiming a "cocky" Labor leader is relying on the politics of envy to propel him to the Lodge as people forget the failures of socialism. In an extraordinary speech …Cormann charged Shorten with making a "deliberate and cynical political judgement that enough Australians have forgotten the historical failure of socialism" and exploiting the politics of envy’, even describing Labor’s policies as akin to communist East Germany.  

Need I go on further to convince you of the widespread paralysis that is afflicting Mal's Coalition? You may care to remind yourself of what we published in April, just four months ago, in How are the ‘adults’ managing our economy? To do so click here.

The piece concluded:

The unavoidable conclusion is that this ‘adult’ government is economically incompetent, driven by its conservative rump, quite unable to see its way through the nation’s economic difficulties, incapable of analyzing the economic situation, inept at deriving solutions, bereft of planning ability, and hog-tied by ideological constraints. Moreover, it is so unutterably arrogant that it cannot see its ineptitude. And even if it could, would it be capable of doing anything about it?

As a substitute for informed opinions, all we get is self aggrandizement and platitudes from Turnbull, and a torrent of meaningless drivel from the Coalition's two motor-mouthed financial Daleks: Morrison and Cormann.

How has it come to this with the adults in charge?
Has the situation improved? You be the judge. Click here.

What is your opinion?
How do you assess the Coalition's performance?

Can it regain traction before the next election?

Let us know in comments below.

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Inequality amblyopia



Inequality amblyopia is a condition affecting some conservatives, who simply cannot see inequality when looking directly at it. The facts and figures that convince objective observers that there is increasing inequality in our nation, are simply not visible to them.

As in childhood amblyopia, or ‘lazy eye’ as it is called colloquially, there is nothing wrong with the eye. Amblyopia results from a developmental problem in the brain, not the eye. The part of the brain that receives images from the amblyotic eye is not stimulated properly.

In conservatives that part of the brain is where political concepts, ideology and entrenched beliefs live. So ingrained are these beliefs that no contradictory facts or figures can erase them. The beliefs are unshakable. Evidence has no impact; it is invisible.

This is why Scott Morrison was able to argue that rather than increasing in Australia, inequality was decreasing! He said: “The latest census showed on the global measure of inequality, which is the Gini coefficient, that is the accepted global measure of income inequality around the world, and that figure shows it hasn’t got worse, it has actually got better,”

Even if Morrison actually understood how the Gini coefficient was computed, what it measured, and the nuances that surround it, he is pushing his luck to base his refutation of Shorten’s inequality claim using only the Gini to 'prove' that inequality is decreasing, not increasing. More of this later.

For those not familiar with this measure of inequality, the following explanation extracted from Investopedia may be of value.
The Gini index or Gini coefficient is a statistical measure of distribution developed by the Italian statistician Corrado Gini in 1912. It is often used as a gauge of economic inequality, measuring income distribution or, less commonly, wealth distribution among a population. The coefficient ranges from 0 (or 0%) to 1 (or 100%), with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 representing perfect inequality. A country in which every resident has the same income would have an income Gini coefficient of 0. A country in which one resident earned all the income, while everyone else earned nothing, would have an income Gini coefficient of 1.

The same analysis can be applied to wealth distribution (the "wealth Gini coefficient"), but because wealth is more difficult to measure than income, Gini coefficients usually refer to income and appear simply as "Gini coefficient" or "Gini index," without specifying that they refer to income. Wealth Gini coefficients tend to be much higher than those for income.
Morrison has likely made his assertion after reading the 12th iteration of The University of Melbourne Melbourne Institute’s annual study of The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (HILDA). The preface to the HILDA Survey explains that it ‘…seeks to provide longitudinal data on the lives of Australian residents. It collects information annually on a wide range of aspects of life in Australia, including household and family relationships, child care, employment, education, income, expenditure, health and wellbeing, attitudes and values on a variety of subjects, and various life events and experiences. Information is also collected at less frequent intervals on various topics, including household wealth, fertility-related behaviour and plans, relationships with non-resident family members and non-resident partners, health care utilisation, eating habits, cognitive functioning and retirement.’

The important distinguishing feature of the HILDA Survey is that the same households and individuals, 17,000 persons in all, are interviewed every year, allowing the study to see how their lives are changing over time.

Of relevance to this piece is one of the findings of this year’s HILDA: ‘The Gini coefficient, a common measure of overall inequality, has remained at approximately 0.3 over the entire 15 years of the HILDA Survey.’

The flakiness of using this measure to support a political point of view about the level of inequality in Australia is illustrated by Figure 4.2 on page 48 of the 2017 HILDA Survey, which details the Gini coefficient up to 2015 for males and females based on the weekly earnings of full-time employees. The graphs show a tiny downward flick for males (indicating less inequality), but there is a larger upward flick for females (indicating more inequality). The movements are so small that to claim inequality is decreasing is patently dishonest, particularly as the Gini for males and females go in opposite directions, females more than males.

Do take a look at Figure 4.2 below to convince yourself of Morrison’s deception.


The OECD Economic Survey Australia 2017 also comments on the Gini. It states: ‘The Gini coefficient has been drifting up [towards inequality] and households in upper income brackets have benefited disproportionally from Australia’s long period of economic growth. Real incomes for the top quintile of households grew by more than 40% between 2004 and 2014 while those for the lowest quintile only grew by about 25%.

You may care to look at Figure 3 on page 8 of this report that compares the Gini coefficient of Australia, Canada and the US. It shows how much the income of the top 1% has grown, as it benefitted most from the economic boom.

So let’s dismiss any serious claim that Gini ‘proves’ that inequality is decreasing in Australia. There is so much other evidence to the contrary that inequality amplyopia must be affecting the brains of those who argue so.

Conservative commentators too, such as Adam Creighton, economics correspondent for The Australian, and Paul Kelly, editor-at-large, were quick to attack Shorten’s call of inequality. Creighton wrote a headline in The Weekend Australian of July 22-23 that read: ALP’s ‘false’ pitch on inequality. He goes on to assert that Shorten’s claim that inequality is at a 75-year high is ‘patently false’. Creighton supports his argument by quoting Professor Roger Wilkins, author of HILDA, who told an Economic and Social Policy conference that “Inequality is still relatively high by modern standards but the narrative that says inequality is ever rising is patently false…”, and that the proportion of Australians over 15 with incomes less than half the median level of income had fallen to about 10%, adding “That if anything inequality has been declining”.

So the game, as always, is to quote the data, or the person that supports the argument being made. This is what Morrison, Creighton and Kelly have done, shamelessly, although it flies in the face of the facts and figures.

Yet, ask the average person in the street whether they believe that they, or Australians in general, are becoming better off or worse, and the predominant answer will be ‘WORSE’.

Writing in Crikey, political editor Bernard Keane says: ‘We're missing the point on inequality. Arcane debates about measures of inequality don't deal with the day to day perceptions of voters of an economic system that has stopped delivering for them.’

He goes on: ‘Is inequality in Australia getting worse? Is the Gini coefficient going up or down? Who’s right, Bill Shorten or Scott Morrison and the conservative newspapers beating the bushes for academics who’ll back them up? It doesn’t matter, and the longer the government and its media allies debate it, the more they’ll play into Shorten’s hands on what will become a key issue for the next election.

'Inequality is a central outcome of the kind of market-based economic reforms we’ve pursued since the 1980s. That’s how neoliberalism works. It has made us all wealthier – even the poorest Australians are wealthier than they were 30 years ago, in real terms. But the wealthiest have benefited more than the rest of us. This is indisputable.'

Writing in the same issue of Crikey Helen Razer says Inequality IS the point’. She continues: ‘Inequality has reached a crisis point in Australia, no matter your definition. The poor can't afford homes or electricity, and something has to be done. Rising inequality, says the Leader of the Opposition, is a terrible fact of Australian life. Rising inequality, says the Treasurer, is a non-fact that opposition leaders evoke when what they really want to do is stunt economic growth.

'The Herald Sun says that everyone should just shut up about rising inequality, because causing people to worry about what they don’t have and can’t get is a destructive “politics of envy”. There’s no point in scrutinising the odd claims of the Herald Sun – it’d be a bit like arguing with my Aunty Dot about global warming three sherries in. But there must be a point in scrutinising what is meant by “inequality” and how much of it we have, or don’t have, in this nation.’


Also in Crikey Alan Austin writes: ‘ Company reporting season begins this week with confidence sky high that record annual profits will be achieved. With these will come exciting news of higher executive salaries, well-earned performance bonuses and, of course, increased shareholder dividends. These are already being hailed by the corporate media as proof that all is well with the world. Meanwhile, data on Australia’s economy published in July confirms two things. First, that much of the increased income and wealth accruing to rich corporations and individuals is taken from the poor and the middle. And second, that this rate of transfer is accelerating.

Peter Martin, economics editor at The Age frontally addresses the disparity between Shorten’s claims and Morrison’s in his article: HILDA. Why we're suddenly concerned about inequality. Things have stopped getting better.

Martin begins: 'Bill Shorten's on to something. Not the pointless debate over inequality – whether it's rising or not depends on what you measure – but the truth that lies beneath the debate. It's that, unusually, life is getting harder.'

He goes on: 'In all but four of the past 15 years, things were getting better. Two of those four years followed the global financial crisis. The other two were the two most recent years for which we have data: the first two full years of the Abbott-Turnbull government. It means that whereas before the election of Tony Abbott, a typical Australian family took home about what it did in 2009, it now takes home less, after adjusting for inflation.'

He quotes Shorten: ‘As Shorten put it in a speech that purported to be about inequality but was actually about declining real incomes, "It feeds that sense, that resentment, that the deck is stacked against ordinary people, that the fix is in and the deal is done." We didn't get that sense when ordinary incomes were rising, even though inequality was widening. Only now, when real incomes are slipping, do we feel resentful. And it's mainly men who are resentful. Female earnings are trending up, especially those of women employed full-time. Male earnings are trending down.’

Can Morrison or Creighton or Kelly counter these feelings? Especially when the average Joe sees corporate high fliers sitting on salaries and bonuses that often run into millions. No, not with their amblyotic vision! The visual centre in their brains can’t process the facts and figures that we all can see.

Let’s look at some of the facts that Martin extracted from HILDA:

Education:
University graduates earn much less than their predecessors used to ($1023 a week, down from $1468) and they are much less likely to be in full-time jobs four years later (73 per cent, down from 91 per cent). Australians with only a high school qualification are even worse off. When the survey started, 81 per cent of them were employed full-time within four years. Now it's 62 per cent.’

Work:
As more and more of us work in part-time rather than full-time jobs, an increasing proportion are combining part-time jobs in order to work full-time. This means that part-time jobs are more common than the Bureau of Statistics survey suggests and that full-time jobs are harder to get.

Australians are working longer without waiting for the pension age to rise. The typical retirement age has climbed from 62 to 66 for men, and for 61 to 64 for women. And retirement is less likely to be a one-off event. Thirteen per cent of men who retired between the ages of 60 and 64 find themselves back at work within a year, up from 9 per cent. Seven per cent of the women who retired between 60 and 64 find themselves back at work in a year, up from 4 per cent.’


Superannuation:
‘Even now, a quarter of a century after the introduction of compulsory superannuation and 15 years after compulsory contributions of around 9 per cent, the balances of retirees are surprisingly low.

‘Thirty per cent of men retire without super, and 29 per cent of women. The men who do have super retire with a typical balance of $325,200; the women with $110,952. That typical balance is the median, meaning half of the retirees will have more, and half less. The mean (average) is much higher, pushed up by very big retirement balances at the top.

‘Retirees with low balances are highly likely to use them to pay off debts, obliterating 58 per cent of their super (men) or 70 per cent (women) in one go.’


Home ownership:
’Home ownership rates for the under-40s have collapsed. In 2002 when the survey began, 32.5 per cent of 18- to 39-year-olds owned a home. It's now 24.9 per cent.

‘The proportion of men in their early-20s living with their parents has jumped from 43 per cent to 60 per cent. The proportion of early-20s women staying at home has jumped from 27 per cent to 48 per cent.

‘Those who can buy houses find it hard to pay them off. The average mortgage taken out by a young homebuyer has almost trebled – jumping from $120,813 to $330,687. Going back to the same homeowners year after the year the survey finds that in most years the amount owed climbs as a substantial minority of young homeowners refinance or redraw or fall behind on their loans. HILDA author Wilkins says if they continue like this – using their mortgages to fund day to day expenses – there will be "real implications for future aged pension liabilities".’


Martin concludes: 'Australia remains a wealthy country. But it isn't absolute wealth (or even relative inequality) that matters most when it comes to our feelings. It's whether or not things are getting better. HILDA suggests they are getting worse.'

The following McCrindle image of Australian Income and Wealth Distribution 2016 summarizes inequality in this country graphically:



Morrison, his Coalition colleagues, and their conservative cheerleaders in the media are petrified about the impact of Shorten’s inequality message. No matter what counter messages they shout over the airwaves or through the Murdoch media, they know that the people out there, most of whom have never heard of the Gini coefficient, let alone its variations over time, realize that they are worse off than before, know that life is getting harder for them as their wages stagnate while the costs of living continue to rise. They know that as they struggle to pay off their mortgage and their rising power bills they have less and less for food and other essentials. No amount of tough talk from Morrison and Co., no amount of quoting Gini, no amount of slick political blather will convince them otherwise.

The sad fact is that despite these verifiable facts, Morrison and his Coalition colleagues are incapable of processing what everyone else can see, now reinforced by HILDA data. They can see the facts just as anyone else can, but because of their inequality amblyopia their brains cannot process these facts, distorted as their thinking is by inbuilt ideological biases and deeply entrenched beliefs. Their eyes see the facts; their brains cannot, and never will.

Only by recognizing this form of amblyopia will ordinary citizens ever be able to understand how conservatives can deny that life is getting more difficult for so many, how they can deny that inequality is increasing.

Shorten is on a winner.




Postscript: If any of you doubt the soundness of the 'inequality amblyopia' allegory, you might be interested to read a pertinent article in Friday's issue of The Conversation: How do you know that what you know is true? That’s epistemology by Peter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking at The University of Queensland.

Do you believe inequality is increasing in this nation?

Let us know what you think in ‘Comments’ below.

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How has it come to this?



The MSM and blog sites abound with critiques of the election and tentative predictions of the political outcomes. So why bother writing yet another to explain how it has all come to this? You will judge whether this analysis adds anything useful.

Far from fulfilling his oft repeated promise of stable government and sound economic management; far from avoiding the 'chaos' of a close result, Turnbull seems unlikely to achieve either. The consensus among those analyzing the election results, the commentariat, and the social media, is that the outcome will be a narrow LNP majority.

I’ll not try to best guess the long-term political outcome, and instead ask what has brought about this situation.

While acknowledging that multiple factors bring about any election outcome, I propose that this time five significant factors have been in play: the Turnbull character; Medicare; Inequality; Turnbull reversals on the NBN, marriage equality, global warming and the republic; and insensitivity towards the Coalition’s constituency.

The Turnbull character
We don’t have to go far back to gain insight into Turnbull’s character. Annabel Crabb’s 2009 Quarterly Essay: Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull spells it out in detail. You can read a summary of it in her article on the ABC website, updated on 16 May this year.  This is what we wrote about it on The Political Sword in June 2009.

Against the background of Turnbull’s successful involvement in the Spycatcher case and his representation of Kerry Packer (the Goanna) in the Costigan Royal Commission into the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, Crabb writes: “From the Costigan affair we can draw some preliminary conclusions about the young Turnbull. The first is that he has no regard for orthodoxy...” and “This refusal to ‘play by the rules’ is something of a lifelong pattern for Turnbull; it explains much of his success, but also accounts for the worst of his reputation.”...“The second thing we learn from Costigan is that violent tactical methods are not just something to which Turnbull will contemplate turning if sufficiently provoked. It’s not enough to say that Turnbull is prepared to play hardball. He prefers to play hardball – that’s the point. It is impossible to rid oneself entirely of the suspicion that Turnbull enjoys the intrigue – the hurling of grenades...”

Turnbull is a risk taker. He backs his own judgement. He gambles on being right. Often he is, sometimes not. His gamble this year to take on Tony Abbott by challenging his leadership paid off immediately with a convincing win in the Liberal party room, high popularity in the electorate, and improving polls. But his gamble a couple of months ago to call a double dissolution election predicated on the urgent necessity to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission, if needs be by a joint sitting of parliament, has ended in disaster for him. It was a charade from the beginning, hardly mentioned in the campaign, and now unlikely ever to pass a joint sitting. This episode was vintage Turnbull risk taking, foolish risk taking.

It is understandable that the relief felt by the electorate when he replaced the calamitous Abbott has dimmed memories of Turnbull in his earlier days as opposition leader and minister for communications. Then he performed as he is performing even now: incautious, indecisive yet at times precipitous in decision-making, inadequately prepared, and lacking in due diligence.

You will all remember ‘Ute-gate’, where Turnbull was conned by a Liberal mole in Treasury, Godwin Grech, into believing the contents of what turned out to be a fake email that attempted to implicate PM Rudd and Treasurer Swan in an underhand deal in which a car dealer gave Rudd a ute for campaigning in return for OzCar favours. Turnbull swallowed the story, hook, line and sinker, as did Murdoch journalist Steve Lewis. Turnbull, the accomplished barrister, had failed in due diligence, as had his collaborator, Eric Abetz.

In case Turnbull’s recent prime ministerial aura, such a contrast to Abbott’s embarrassing ineptitude, has erased the memory of his earlier days as Liberal leader, go to the archive of The Political Sword and re-read: The old rusty uteAfter TurnbullWhat will Turnbull do now?The Turnbull endgameTurnbull in a China shopMalcolm Turnbull’s intelligenceWhat is Malcolm Turnbull up to?, The Turnbull Twist, and Why does Malcolm Turnbull make so many mistakes?.  

It would take you hours to do so, and there are still more, but they will be sufficient to remind you that Malcolm Turnbull has not changed. What was written then could be written now. The context has changed, but the man has not. He creates his own disasters; he makes the going tough for himself.



PM Turnbull is the same man who over the years has been a big risk-taker but has lacked judgement and has eschewed due diligence. His successes have been overshadowed by his failures. We are now witnessing his most spectacular failure, one that will affect us all as politics in this nation enters an uncertain phase where governance will be very difficult.

Medicare
In an angry, ungracious speech on election night, Turnbull blasted Labor for its ‘Mediscare’ campaign: “Today, as voters went to the polls, as you would have seen in the press, there were text messages being sent to thousands of people across Australia saying that Medicare was about to be privatised by the Liberal Party. The SMS message said it came from Medicare – an extraordinary act of dishonesty. No doubt the police will investigate. But this is, but this is the scale of the challenge we faced. And regrettably more than a few people were misled ... But the circumstances of Australia cannot be changed by a lying campaign from the Labor Party.”

Turnbull sought to label the Labor campaign as the prime cause of his loss of support. The following day Scott Morrison was equally adamant; he was arrogantly unwilling to concede any fault on the Coalition side.

The next day though Turnbull was prepared to acknowledge that ‘Mediscare’ worked because the seeds of the scare ‘had fallen on fertile ground’, no doubt a reference to the suspicion created in the electorate by the Coalition’s many recent attacks on Medicare: the threat of a GP co-payment, the freezing of GP rebates until 2020, the threat to remove bulk billing inducements for imaging and pathology tests, and the increased co-payment for pharmaceuticals. Turnbull ought not to have been surprised that voters were susceptible to believing Labor’s assertion that the Coalition intended to privatize Medicare. The Coalition’s past and more recent attitude toward Medicare rightly made them suspicious. Turnbull’s denials and voluble reassurances were simply not believed.

’Mediscare’ was a significant factor in Turnbull’s humiliation at the polls, but not the only one. He reaped what he had so abundantly sown.

Inequality
Although the word was seldom uttered, the people were aware of the widening gap between those at the top and those languishing at the bottom. They spoke of feeling they were being left behind, struggling with cost of living pressures, and finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Many were finding it hard to get a satisfying job. Their feelings of abandonment and resentment were accentuated by Turnbull’s continual reminders that there was “never a better time to be an Australian!”, something they were not themselves experiencing.

Voters needed no more than their contemporary experience to feel left behind, but then along came the Turnbull/Morrison move to give $48 billion of tax relief to businesses, extending over the decade to the big banks and multinationals, the very ones whom we all know do not pay their fair share of tax. The tax rorters were being offered a generous tax break!

The Coalition mantra of ‘Jobs and Growth’, on which they based their much-vaunted ‘economic plan’ was yet another example of the Coalition’s faith in ‘supply-side’ economics, despite it having been discredited repeatedly. The term ‘trickle-down’ began to be mentioned by commentators and included in questions to politicians, and even the long-debunked ‘Laffer curve’ was mentioned in a question on Q&A. The public became aware of the fraud they were being offered by the Coalition with their monotonously repeated and meaningless three-word slogan: ‘Jobs and Growth’.

I wrote in April that inequality would be a hot button election issue and it was - not in overt terms, but simmering angrily below the surface and significantly influencing voters’ preferences. Will the Coalition heed their desire for a fairer deal?

The Turnbull reversals
Countless comments have been made about Turnbull’s reversals of position. There has been widespread disappointment at his stance toward crucial issues. They are familiar to you all.

The NBN
In his attempt to avoid Abbott’s ‘demolish the NBN’ instruction, he has given us a hybrid multi-technology fibre to the node (FTTN) mishmash with speeds slower than are needed by a nation competing on the world scene, far too slow in rollout, and possibly more expensive than Labor’s superior fibre to the premises (FTTP) model, which Turnbull ridiculed so sarcastically. For such a tech head to oversee the introduction of this inferior technology is disgraceful. People are appalled, angry, and disappointed, especially those in rural areas, who if they can get connected to the Internet at all, suffer debilitating buffering.

Marriage equality
Marriage equality is the focus of another Turnbull reversal. In an earlier life he was strongly in favour and insistent that it should be resolved with a conscience vote of the parliament. But he reneged on that to placate the hard right conservatives who want a plebiscite, designed by Abbott to delay the debate, allow it to be debased by the bigots, and eventually to be defeated. Another disappointing Turnbull reversal!

Global warming
After all the talk in his early days: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am”, he has disappointed the climate lobby by insisting that the Coalition’s paltry ‘Direct Action Plan’ is all that we need, and that it is working. All his devotion to an emissions trading scheme has evaporated, simply to appease the climate skeptics in his ranks and thereby secure his leadership. It is to many his most profound, his most disturbing and disappointing reversal of principle.

The Republic
The cause to which Turnbull devoted himself so fully for so long no longer attracts his interest. He has discarded any intention to move soon on this, much to the chagrin of those who feel it is high time Australia became a republic. While it was unlikely to be a vote changer; it did confirm in many minds Turnbull’s willingness to sacrifice his principles for personal advantage.

Insensitivity to the Coalition’s constituency
Whatever else a politician does, he needs to avoid alienating the people who support him financially and who vote for him.

Turnbull has managed to alienate a large group of wealthy superannuants by proposing that changes to superannuation be made that will disadvantage them, and by the prospect of the changes being retrospective. In some analyses of the poor result for the Coalition at this election, anger over proposed changes to superannuation among his constituency have been cited as a powerful force that tuned away Coalition voters.

Another group that has been alienated are the hard right conservative clique that is currently agitating for more say, more clout, and more recognition, led by Tea Party admirer Cory Bernardi who wants to establish a group like GetUp, but right leaning, one that can represent conservative views. Because Turnbull is a moderate with progressive views, this group may cause him more grief than his traditional opponents as he tries to keep conservatives and ‘small l’ Liberals together. The conservatives are hostile and dangerous, still angry that he toppled their patron, Abbott. They paint Turnbull as a fraud, a traitor to their cause. Writing in The Australian, right-wing Sky News commentator Graham (Richo) Richardson's assessment is: “Turnbull is a traitor to his class and constituents.” His opponents will erode his standing in the party through internal sabotage. The sharks are already circling! We saw it when Kevin Rudd sabotaged Julia Gillard; it can happen again. It is more debilitating than external attacks.

In an attempt to reverse the alienation among Muslims that Abbott provoked with his anti-Muslim attitude and his obsessive focus on terror threats, Turnbull held out the hand of friendship, even to the point of inviting several prominent Muslims, including a radical sheik, to an Iftar dinner that he hosted for Ramadan. Whilst applauded by some, it has further alienated those who follow Pauline Hanson, who has now added to her anti-Asian stance an equally aggressive anti-Muslim one.

When the Coalition gets around to analyzing why it has done so poorly at this election, coming close to defeat, expect it to include pointed reference to the alienation of important parts of the Coalition’s constituency, with accusatory fingers pointing firmly at Turnbull.

You are bound to read about reasons for the diminishment of Turnbull’s prestige and standing, other than those cited above. Tell us about them in a comment.

How has it come to this? PM Turnbull has ‘won’ but is apprehensive; Opposition Leader Shorten hasn’t, but is smiling?



Whatever other factors were in play during the election, prominent factors were: Turnbull as an incautious risk-taker; the Medicare bogey; the unfairness and inequality felt by those on Struggle Street angrily watching the top end of town get the rewards; the reversal of deeply held Turnbull principles on the NBN, marriage equality, global warming and the republic, all sacrificed at the altar of self interest; and insensitivity towards the Coalition’s natural constituency. All were recipes for failure, and at worst, political disaster. Time will tell how potent they were.

What do you think?
What do you believe are the most significant factors in the Coalition’s poor showing?

Please offer your suggestions in comments below.

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Hordes of illiterates



If you had to pick a minister to deliver a nasty message, you would not go past Peter Dutton, master of cruel comments, replete with his trademark po-face and matching body language. Last week, on Sky News, responding to the suggestion by the Greens that we should up our refugee intake to 50,000, his comment was: “They won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English. These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that. For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it, so there would be huge cost and there’s no sense in sugar-coating that, that’s the scenario. To be clear: they’ll take all our jobs and also they won’t get jobs.”

Framing the Greens’ and Labor’s asylum seeker policy
Dutton’s outlandish claims are untrue, and he knows it. So what was he up to? The most obvious conclusion is that he was trying to wedge the Greens for advocating an extra refugee intake, and Labor, whom he insisted are seriously divided on asylum seeker policy. This framing was embellished by drawing attention to the association of Labor and the Greens. It was a triple whammy that only Dutton, redolent with all his innate nastiness and vindictiveness, could deliver.

But was it just another instance of Dutton spewing his venom all over his enemies and those loathsome asylum seekers that cause him so much angst? Commentators were quick to assert that his mouthing-off was not just same-old Dutton, but a well-planned Coalition strategy to frame the progressive parties as soft on border control, keen to bring in even more asylum seekers, who, despite being illiterate, would take jobs away from Australians, would join the queue of the unemployed, would thereby be a burden on our social security network, and would cost taxpayers a fortune. How they would both take away our jobs and yet be unemployed was not explained.

The fact that Julie Bishop and later Malcolm Turnbull quickly supported his remarks suggests powerfully that they, and the LNP machine, were not just backing Dutton, but had thrust him out there to do his dirty work. When Turnbull said “Peter Dutton is an outstanding Immigration Minister” he was confirming that the Dutton ‘outburst’ was a deliberate strategy to re-focus attention on the always-successful-for-the-Coalition boat people theme.

A day later Turnbull might have been having second thoughts about his unequivocal endorsement of Dutton when he described Australia as an ‘immigration nation’, a subtle variation on his ‘innovation nation’, and again when he wrote an opinion piece in Fairfax media attempting to justify the Coalition’s attitude to immigration. To add insult to injury, Turnbull then self-righteously accused Shorten of demonizing Dutton! Such bizarre political rhetoric seems to have no bounds.

Some have labeled the Dutton episode as an example of the ‘dead cat’ strategy. Attributed to Lynton Crosby, who used it in the UK elections when he was assisting David Cameron, it goes like this: You throw out an outrageous proposition to distract the media and say, to use Crosby’s words, “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!” Journalists will then talk about the dead cat, and will stop talking about issues that have been causing grief, or issues that favour one’s opponents. 2353NM has written extensively about this in Dead cats and reset buttons.

Dutton’s mouthing-off is a classic example of the LNP’s vindictive framing of both Labor and the Greens. Coalition members will ignore the indignant calls for an apology from Dutton, because what he did was under instructions from his party, who knew nobody could do it with more venom than could Dutton.

There is no doubt that PM Turnbull and his Coalition colleagues will use the asylum seeker issue relentlessly to frame progressives, especially those who would prefer a more humanitarian approach. They will be framed as soft, unwilling to strictly protect our borders, unwilling to protect Australian jobs, indeed unwilling to protect our way of life, which Dutton asserts is now threatened by hordes of illiterates, and that their approach is hugely expensive and a threat to our treasured multiculturalism.

Bill Shorten did hit back, but rather mildly with: “Mr Dutton’s comments are comments Pauline Hanson would be proud to make, and if this is the best the Liberal party can do, it is not very good at all.

The Coalition’s framing, indeed its xenophobic dog-whistling, will resonate with many voters, especially those in the marginal seats of Western Sydney, but as an insult to all refugees, and, as Lenore Taylor says, to Australians generally, it may not be as potent as it might have been.

How well Shorten’s rebuttal resonates with them, time will tell. But the Greens’ framing of Labor as indifferent to the suffering of those in offshore detention will blunt Shorten’s attempts to take a firm but humanitarian line on asylum seekers that might appeal to moderate voters.

The last piece on this subject on The Political Sword: Top hats versus hard hats outlined a number of instances of framing used by the main political parties; this piece builds on it, so let’s look at some more.

Framing the Green/Labor alliance
Another powerful LNP framing strategy will be to play on the possibility of an alliance between Labor and the Greens, something the latter have canvassed openly, from which Labor has speedily run away. The LNP will characterize such an alliance as a reprise of the Julia Gillard/Bob Brown alliance, the public signing of which we are now being reminded. Painted by the LNP as a catastrophe to be avoided like the plague, this alliance, with the support of the rural independents, resulted in one of the most productive periods ever in federal politics with around six hundred pieces of legislation passed, some of it epochal.

But the Coalition continues to portray it as a disaster never to be repeated. Facts are irrelevant; the perception of chaos and disunity in Labor that Tony Abbott and the Coalition exploited prior to the 2013 election was a prime reason why Labor lost. You will have noticed how quickly Turnbull and his ministers jumped on Richard di Natale’s desire to form an alliance with Labor as an opportunity to wedge Labor.

Framing health – a Labor strength
Labor has always been strong on health. So when Shorten announced, on World Family Doctor Day, that Labor would defend Medicare, would protect bulk billing, and would unfreeze the indexation of Medicare benefits, frozen by the Coalition until 2020, and inject $12.2 billion into this over a decade, family doctors and Brian Owler, president of the AMA, applauded, pointing out that this would reduce the cost to the patient of a GP visit by around $20, halting the imposition by stealth of the dreaded GP co-payment, already rejected by the Senate. Shorten made the telling point that the Coalition can find almost $50 billion to give tax cuts to businesses and multinationals ahead of funding Medicare - powerful framing!

Reflexly, Coalition spokespersons labeled the move as ‘same old Labor’. Scott Morrison said: “Every time you see Bill Shorten’s lips moving in this campaign, he’s spending more money that he doesn’t have.” ‘Same old Morrison’! So the old, old framing of Labor as profligate spenders racking up more debt and deficit continues, and will do so until Election Day.

Global warming a rich area for framing
Surprisingly, there has not been much emphasis yet on climate change, but that will change as we approach the election. Both Labor and the Greens have set carbon mitigation targets much more ambitious than has the Coalition, and will frame the Coalition as wedded to fossil fuels and those who own them, endorsing more coal mines even as the threat of global warming increases month after month. April was the hottest April on record for the globe, and we are heading for 2016 being the hottest year on record! They will frame the Coalition as short-sighted denialists, environmental vandals, and in the pocket of the coal lobby. It beats me why the don’t ask them: “Where is Abbott’s much-vaunted ‘Green Army?’, which was so central a plank in his carbon mitigation platform.

The Coalition, via their loquacious spokesman, Greg Hunt, will ignore the facts (always ‘with great respect’), will continue to assert that they are on track and will easily ‘meet and beat’ their emissions targets, will deny that emissions are actually increasing, will boast that Australia has higher targets and is making better progress than comparable nations, and that nothing more needs to be done but to implement their ‘Direct Action Plan’, which environmentalists and economists alike ridicule. Although forced to acknowledge the damage being inflicted on the Great Barrier Reef, Hunt was able to make light of it, make upbeat prognostications about its future health, and insist that he is devoted to improving water quality in the vicinity, as if that’s all that is necessary to preserve this iconic natural wonder and tourist bonanza.



Already Hunt is re-stoking scaremongering about Bill Shorten's ‘massive new electricity tax’, insisting that both Labor’s and the Greens’ emissions targets and their intention to re-introduce a carbon pricing mechanism to reduce carbon pollution “couldn't have a worse impact in terms of electricity prices”, which he insists will skyrocket for us all. He likes to emphasize its impact on the less well off, for whom he shows pseudo concern. Again it’s the ‘same old, same old’ carbon tax argument that served the Coalition so well under Abbott.

Out of touch Turnbull
By framing Turnbull as a man in a top hat in a harbour side mansion who is out of touch with ordinary people and the travails of Struggle Street, Labor and the Greens have attached a label to him that will stick. It contrasts with Labor’s framing of itself: Putting people first.

For his part, Turnbull has tried to negate this by travelling often on public transport, always ready to take ‘selfies’ for his Facebook and Twitter accounts. He doesn’t try to disguise his wealth, attempting instead to represent it as a result of enterprise and hard work, two attributes he values in others, and indeed wishes upon the whole nation.

How well Shorten’s ‘out of touch’ frame will dominate Turnbull’s frames: ‘jobs and growth’ and ‘enterprise and hard work’, is one of the intriguing questions that the long election campaign eventually will answer.

Framing the NBN
Events of last week highlighted the importance of the framing of the NBN. The AFP raid on Senator Conroy’s office and the home of one of his staffers in pursuit of the source of leaks from NBN Co. Limited, underscores how sensitive an issue this is for both parties. When, in a fit of pique at Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises NBN initiative, Tony Abbott instructed Malcolm Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’, tech-head Turnbull decided that instead of killing it he would create a hybrid mixed-technology system using fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), with Telstra's ageing copper wire from a box on the street corner connecting it to the premises. It ended up being second-class, soon attracting the tag ‘Fraudband’. Not only is it poor technically, it is slower, behind in its rollout, and increasingly costly, possibly eventually costing more than Labor’s FTTP version. In short, it is a flop. This is what the leak is said to expose.

To counter this embarrassment, and Labor’s framing of Fraudband for what it is, an inferior system, the AFP raids were a distraction welcomed by the Coalition. Turnbull angrily framed Labor’s protest about the raids as politicisation of the NBN initiative, labelling it a shameful slur on the integrity of the AFP, even putting our national security at risk! No one has yet explained how the AFP, supposedly free of political bias, chose the second week of the election campaign to add these raids to its six-month long investigation, how Sky News was there to report and film it, and how an NBN employee was allowed to photograph seized documents (subsequently ordered to be destroyed).

These recent developments have blunted the Coalition’s framing of Labor’s version of the NBN as grossly expensive, indeed unaffordable; Labor has countered by labelling the Coalition version as a dud, and an expensive one at that.

Framing ‘Jobs and Growth’ versus ‘Putting People First’
It seems appropriate to end this rather long piece with ‘Jobs and growth’, the Coalition’s most frequently used three-word slogan. The LNP has tacitly assumed that voters will interpret ‘Jobs’ as ‘jobs for you’, and that ‘Growth’ will be interpreted as a ‘growing, prosperous economy’. They have assumed also that these two concepts will be an object of admiration for voters, who will therefore vote for the party that espouses them.

What they never explain is how they will achieve jobs and growth, except to hint that if tax breaks are given to businesses they will invest more, expand their scope, boost the economy, and of course employ more. Their belief is that reducing company tax to 25% over a long period will provide the stimulus that will bring about ‘Jobs and Growth’. This is based on the old and long-discredited concept of ‘trickle down’ economics, which has been dealt with extensively in Trickle down thinking breeds inequality, published on The Political Sword on 11 May.  

Apparently, the Coalition is hoping that framing ‘Jobs and Growth’ as the centrepiece of its election pitch will win the day without having to explain what it means in explicit terms, and how it will work; indeed whether it can work at all!

In pursuit of his goal of fairness for all, Bill Shorten is framing his campaign messages under his three-word slogan: ‘Putting People First’. His object is to cast Labor as personally concerned about individual people rather than being wedded to the inanimate concept of 'Jobs and Growth'. He embellishes that framing by asking voters: “What sort of country do you want to live in?” His implication is that Labor seeks to provide a country that is fair to all, one that gives educational and job opportunities to every individual who can benefit.

Every time Shorten makes a promise to fund an initiative, Turnbull frames him as being on a 'spendathon', digging a bigger and bigger black hole of deficit.

Time will tell which framing, the Coalition’s economic one, or Labor’s personal one, will prevail.

As the election campaign continues, you will recognize many other instances of framing. Whatever messages politicians seek to transmit, they will place each of them in a frame that embellishes and enhances the message, that gives it deep meaning for voters, and that appeals to voters’ sentiments, and at times voters’ self-interest. They will seek to frame their opponents' messages and policies as ill-conceived, poorly thought through (thought bubbles), unworkable, extravagant, unfunded, and sometimes, ideologically driven.

As voters, we need to recognize the framings that politicians are using so that we can analyse and appraise their inherent merit, their feasibility, and their validity for each of us and for the nation as a whole. I hope this and the previous essay about framing: Top hats versus hard hats will assist you to do this.

What do you think?
Are you picking up the framing that all sides are using?

Have you seen other examples of framing and counter-framing?

Let us know in your comments below.
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Top hats versus hard hats



Now that the official election campaign has entered its second week, it’s time to assess how each of the major political parties is framing its narratives.

You will recall that earlier this year there were three pieces on The Political Sword on framing: Framing the political debate – the key to winning, More on framing the political debate – the key to winning, and Still more on framing the political debate – the key to winning.

The series began by asserting that the most plausible explanation of why Tony Abbott did well as an opposition leader but was an awful failure as prime minister was that in opposition he had the uncanny ability to frame the political debate in his favour, but in government that ability deserted him.

Abbott is gone but his voice has not. He still talks of the ‘legacy of the Abbott government’, or more pointedly, the ‘Abbott/Turnbull government’. What’s more, the guru who directed him all through his period at the top, Peta Credlin, has reappeared as an ‘election commentator’ on Sky News to offer her sage remarks.

Perhaps unintentionally, when Credlin labeled Malcolm Turnbull “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, she reinforced Bill Shorten’s early attempts at framing the political debate with his catchy phrase: “Top hats versus hard hats”. Shorten will try to frame the contest between the Coalition and Labor as one of the toffs versus the workers. Derived from British slang, a ‘toff’ is a derogatory stereotype for someone with an aristocratic background or belonging to the landed gentry, particularly someone who has an air of superiority, who is often caricatured as wearing a top hat, a monocle and a bow tie. Although Turnbull does not fit this stereotype precisely, we have already seen him characterized in this way in the mainstream media, particularly by cartoonists.

Top hats and hard hats are easily recognized icons that people in the street will intuitively apply to the top end of town and the workers toiling in uncongenial labour.

This framing will enable the electorate to give concrete meaning to the blight of inequality in our society, which will be a hot button election issue. While some might find the notion of inequality difficult to visualize, its real world manifestation, top hats and hard hats, will be visible to all.

This imagery captures the real meaning of Labor’s campaign slogan: "Putting people first”, which is code for "putting ‘ordinary’ people first".


Expect Shorten's ‘top hats and hard hats’ framing to be prominent throughout Labor’s campaign, and expect Turnbull and the Coalition to try to negate it. We saw this played out after Turnbull’s name was found in the Panama Papers. Although there was no hint of impropriety by Turnbull as a company director, a point the media and Shorten himself acknowledged, the mere mention of Turnbull in the Papers ‘raised eyebrows’ because of the now infamous connection in the Papers between individuals and companies and shady offshore manoeuvres to avoid paying tax. Turnbull seems completely innocent, and has said so, yet the association will remain throughout the campaign with the help of reminders from Shorten like “To be fair to Mr Turnbull, he should be given the chance to fully explain himself”. Expect more of this because the Panama connection reinforces Shorten’s framing of Turnbull as a toff in a top hat.

The ‘top hats versus hard hats’ framing will be strengthened every time Turnbull attacks trade unions, every time he insists that the Australian Building and Construction Commission must be reinstated to counter “lawlessness and thuggery in the construction industry”; indeed he will remind us that this is so important to the economy that the double dissolution election we are about to have was called because of the Senate’s refusal to reinstate the ABCC.

Top hat versus hard hat framing will also be reinforced every time Shorten points to the unethical, and at times fraudulent behaviour of the big banks, and how this has impacted on the ordinary man in the street, some of whom have lost their life’s savings or have been denied legitimate insurance claims, all because of the banks’ system of paying personal bonuses to executives who make or save the bank money. Shorten will continue to press for a Royal Commission into banking (which has wide appeal in the electorate); while Turnbull will insist this is overkill and that the Coalition has the banking problem in hand. What’s more, he’s given them a stern lecture!

This framing is now set in concrete and will be restated and reinforced by Labor every single time instances emerge of the little man at the bottom of the pile being done over by the big man at the top. Shorten will see to that.

There are countless examples of the well off receiving advantages that are denied to the less well off; the budget provided still more. Newly announced Coalition policies will do so again and again as it embeds its trickle down philosophy into its economic plans for “jobs and growth”, which is another version of Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid”. For ages, the Coalition has portrayed itself as the ‘adult’ party best suited to manage the economy, and Labor as kids without a clue. By focusing on “jobs and growth” the Coalition is reinforcing this framing.

Whenever the well off seem to be gaining another benefit under the Coalition, and Labor objects and points to inequality, the Coalition will try to counter this framing with its ‘class warfare’ and ‘politics of envy’ catchphrases, which it trots out every time criticism is directed towards those at the top being given special advantages. It’s a slogan that resonates with the electorate; few people regard envy as a desirable attribute, so to be accused of envy is uncomfortable. Shorten needs to rebuff this characterization. I thought David Marr’s rebuttal on Insiders was clever. He hinted that ‘the politics of greed’ might be used to counter ‘the politics of envy’.

Let’s look at some other attempts at framing.

In the last few days, as several Labor parliamentarians and candidates have expressed discomfort at the punitive approach this country is taking towards asylum seekers, Coalition members: the Deputy Liberal Leader, the Immigration Minister, the Treasurer and his sidekicks, and any Liberal handy to a microphone, have lambasted Shorten and Labor for being 'soft on border protection'. They have been vigorously framing Labor as being disunited on border protection, even keeping an account of the numbers who seem to be at variance with Labor policy. Their framing has already extended to painting Labor as so soft on border protection that should Labor win government the people smugglers would soon be back in business, with boat arrivals starting up again in earnest, complete with all the horrible consequences: more drowning at sea, hordes of arrivals, long periods of detention, untold expense for the taxpayer, and a reversion to the ‘awful period under Kevin Rudd’.

This is powerful framing. Generally speaking, the electorate embraces the tough, albeit ruthless approach to ‘border protection’ the Coalition has in place, and in Western Sydney, where there are many marginal electorates, voters would react strongly against any relaxation of the Coalition’s measures. Abbott created this animosity to asylum seekers as soon as he called them ‘illegals’, stoked up his ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan, and implemented his harsh and unbending approach to what he liked to label ‘border protection’, as if we were facing an enemy invasion. Scott Morrison was ready to do his bidding, and now Peter Dutton seems to relish being Mr Tough Guy.

Peta Credlin too is onto the power of this framing and says so in an article in the Sunday Telegraph: Bill Shorten’s boats plan is sinking fast, reproduced in the Herald Sun:
We’ve seen this week that it isn’t just the senior Labor leaders who lack ticker on boats. At last count, 16 MPs or candidates have openly defied Bill Shorten. If they’re prepared to go rogue before an election, there’s every chance the boats will start again if Labor is put back in charge of our borders… It was a humanitarian catastrophe, a national security disaster and a budget calamity. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again.
This framing of Labor can be expected to exacerbate, especially if more Labor people abandon party unity and speak out against Labor’s established asylum seeker policy. Shorten must pull these dissidents into line. We understand and respect their feelings, but they need to decide whether they want Labor to succeed at the election. Although social media gives expression to many who endorse the dissidents’ views, such views are electoral poison to a hard-nosed electorate that Abbott has indoctrinated to be tough on asylum seekers and is averse to any hint of softness on border protection.

Some Labor people feel it would be better to spend another term in opposition than go along with the Coalition’s harsh policy, which by the way Turnbull has faithfully and forcefully reiterated with a gun at his head and hard line conservatives ready to pull the trigger. Who knows whether he believes his hard-line rhetoric? But be certain it will continue. Some Labor dissidents might prefer to be in opposition, but do their views coincide with their constituencies?

Here are some more contemporary examples of attempts at framing.

Malcolm Turnbull has vehemently condemned Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax, painting them as irresponsibly ‘smashing the housing market’, depreciating the value of many people’s largest asset – the family home, and pushing up rents. That most economists, many commentators, and the RBA itself disagree has not softened his attack. Obviously, he sees this framing as advantageous, taking, as he insists it does, wealth from families whom he asserts will lose out as their home loses value. He knows that taking away wealth or advantage always creates anger and resentment.

Typically, Abbott’s framing of Labor’s proposal as “a housing tax” was much more brutal!

Predictably, the real estate industry has come out against Labor’s proposed changes, and is threatening a campaign similar to that of the miners against the mining tax. Self-interest always trumps the common good.

For his part, Shorten has framed negative gearing as a taxpayer subsidy to enable the wealthy to buy their “second, third or tenth home”. Again, the toffs will do well while first home-buyers are left bereft, outbid by wealthy investors. Shorten’s line is appealing to young couples seeking to enter the housing market, and to their parents too.

How well these contrasting frames will play out, only time will tell.

The Coalition has had difficulties selling its planned changes to superannuation. It has framed this policy as hitting only the very wealthy (which it believes will appeal to most of the electorate) and that it is fair and is definitely not retrospective. Retrospectivity is an attribute voters hate. It is fascinating to hear well-informed economists and commentators disagree so strongly on the issue of this policy’s retrospectivity. I’m not going to canvass here one side of this debate, or the other. Read though what Peta Credlin had to say on this subject: 
"There are two problems with the Coalition’s changes to superannuation. First, every candidate has to be able to explain them and super is notoriously complicated at the best of times. Second, the government looks like it is using our savings to solve its Budget problems. Why should people trust a government that raids their personal, private savings whenever it needs money? We put our money into our super so we can look after ourselves. Claiming that the changes are not really retrospective, when they take into account contributions starting from 2007, makes the government look devious as well as unprincipled.”
Clearly she doesn’t think highly of the Coalition’s framing!

As if criticizing the Coalition’s superannuation policy was not enough, Credlin took a shot at Turnbull’s abandonment of his ‘Penrith walk’: “Added to this, cancelling a planned walk through a Penrith shopping centre was a bad look for the Prime Minister. I warned here last week that Labor would try to paint him as out of touch and he played straight into their hands.” Then, in an apparent attempt to soften her labeling of Turnbull, she added “Yes, he is “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, but he and Lucy bought their home after many years of hard work. He has an inspirational self-made background and he has to disable Labor’s attack by telling his story rather than let them define him.”

There it is, right out of the horse’s mouth! Being ‘out of touch’ is another frame Labor is attempting to put around Turnbull. Credlin can see this plainly.

And of course the old, old stereotypical framing of Labor as the profligate spenders, and the Coalition as the party that looks after the top end of town but says ‘No’ to spending on the less well off, will continue.

This piece is already long enough. The campaign has just begun. Many frames have surfaced, too many to discuss now, and many more attempts at framing will emerge. The Greens are vigourously framing themselves, Labor and the Coalition to suit their agenda. I will deal with all this next time around.


So until the next piece on framing, what do you think?
Are you picking up the framing that all sides are using?

Have you seen other examples of framing and counter-framing?

Let us know in your comments below.
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What can we expect in the coming election?


[Saint Malcolm?]

Apart from the obvious statements, we can also tell there is an election in the air as, after six months of inactivity, the Turnbull government has engaged in a flurry of policy announcements — or in some cases what should be termed policy ‘thought bubbles’. That is not to mention the concomitant increase in television advertising for existing government programs and policies.

Until recent times, the government had made few major announcements. Early on there were funding packages for domestic violence and the purchase of army vehicles but those were obviously developed prior to Turnbull becoming prime minister. His major announcement was the innovation package on 7 December, long on rhetoric and promises but short on substantive actions and new funding. Many of its proposed actions required no direct funding whatsoever, such as legislative changes for venture capital investments, employee share schemes and changes to bankruptcy and insolvency laws. Some had a potential impact on government revenue into the future, such as the tax incentives for early stage investors that will cost $51 million in each of 2017‒18 and 2018‒19. There was some direct funding for certain aspects of the package but it seems much of this was also funding redirected or rebadged from existing related programs. Essentially the strategy focuses on innovative business start-ups, improved collaboration between business and research institutions, a small investment in STEM teaching and digital literacy in schools, and the government itself setting an example in adopting new digital technology.

In The Conversation, Tim Mazzarol, Winthrop Professor, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Marketing and Strategy at the University of Western Australia, suggested that it was a start and was implementing some changes that had been sought since 2008. He quoted another professor, Mark Dodgson, that the money announced for the strategy did little more than ‘get us back to square one’. Mazzarol pointed out that successful start-ups were a very small percentage of businesses and many do not grow beyond ten employees. He referred to his attendance at a Business Council of Australia round-table regarding enhancing industry-research collaboration:
‘… there was also a recognition that many large firms, particularly foreign owned multinationals, do very little fundamental R&D in Australia. The pipeline for STEM graduates into industry and the willingness of many large firms to serve a “Keystone” role in local business ecosystems is currently missing.
So is the Turnbull plan missing the real issues?

On 29 February, Turnbull told Cabinet:
The challenge for us this year is to ensure we lead Australia in a way that delivers a successful transition from an economy that has been buoyed by a mining construction boom to the new economy.

That transition is the big challenge and the big opportunity for us and so in this election year we know that the choice will be who is best able to lead Australia through that transition, who is best able to deliver the innovation, the investment, the infrastructure, the jobs that are going to ensure that our children and our grandchildren have the great, high paying jobs of the 21st century.
Turnbull may be telling his Cabinet that but it is not exactly inspiring stuff for the electorate: probably the explanation for so many television advertisements now trying to sell it as important for our economy and for our children — the latter a deliberate advertising ploy.

There have been more uninspiring announcements but announcements that fit with Turnbull’s background in merchant banking. On 16 March, it was announced that, in accord with the Harper Review, Section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act, regarding the misuse of market power, would be changed to prohibit those ‘with substantial market power from engaging in conduct that has the purpose, effect or likely effect of substantially lessening competition’. On 21 March, Morrison announced changes to support financial technology. He said:
FinTech is going to revolutionise how consumers and businesses, as the drivers of economic activity, interact. This is going to have big implications for demand in the future. We need to be part of these changes and we have got to work out the best way to engage with FinTech and prepare for the financial system and economy of the future.
And on 30 March, Morrison announced that the ASX would lose its monopoly on share clearing, ‘a move by the Federal Government to encourage competition’.

On issues that may gain more voter attention, there was an announcement to create ‘Health Care Homes’ to coordinate treatment of those with multiple chronic conditions (note, however, that this is only for multiple conditions, not a single chronic condition). And on 23 March, a $1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund was announced. This at last abandoned Abbott’s attempts to do away with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) as the fund would be administered jointly by it and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). However, whereas ARENA was previously able to make grants, the new arrangements will operate on a debt and equity basis.

And there was Turnbull’s promise on taxation reform where he initially said ‘everything was on the table’ but has subsequently taken the GST, negative gearing and superannuation changes off the table. They ran the idea of corporate tax cuts ‘up the flag pole’ but it remains to be seen whether they will make their way into the budget. Personal tax cuts seem to have disappeared, as too expensive, despite Morrison earlier having emphasised the need for such cuts to overcome bracket creep.

At the COAG on 1 April, Turnbull took another ‘thought bubble’ to the table: the idea that states could re-introduce their own income tax but it was firmly rejected by the Premiers and Chief Ministers. The idea was underpinned by the concept that states and territories would take over complete responsibility for education in government schools (and eventually hospitals), something which was also being pursued by Abbott and Hockey. I warned that this was likely in my piece ‘A smile is not enough’ early in February:
The Turnbull government is still pursuing the Abbott government policy of a transfer of powers to the states. Morrison has floated the idea that the states should receive a guaranteed share of income tax. The underlying idea is that the states become solely responsible for schools and hospitals and the commonwealth covers Medicare, the PBS and universities. Given that education and health are issues which the electorate sees Labor as better able to manage, the cynic in me suggests that this is also a political strategy to take away one of Labor’s strengths at the federal level.
State income tax was abandoned in 1942 and the idea that we could have different tax regimes between states runs counter to the concept of a national economy and would add to the complexity for businesses that operated in more than one state, whereas Turnbull and Morrison keep proclaiming the need to reduce red tape for businesses. We will now have to await the budget to see whether the Turnbull government can achieve any form of taxation reform to take to the election: the prospects do not look bright.

So far, very few of the government’s policies appear likely to inspire the voters. Perhaps Turnbull has a ‘vision’ with his innovative, agile economy but there is little substantive to talk about, little to grab the imagination of the voters.

Labor on the other hand has been releasing detailed policies for over twelve months, a strategy that has not been followed by Oppositions for twenty years. In that time, Oppositions have taken a low-profile approach and offered little in the way of major policy or have made such announcements only in the last week or so of an election campaign. The reasoning behind that approach was that the early release of policies allowed time for the government to refer them to the public service, or external consultants, to pull them apart and pick holes in them. The fact that the government has done little damage to Labor policies so far may suggest that the ‘holes’ are few and far between.

The government response to Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing brought not an attack on the detail but a ‘fear campaign’ and it could not even get that right with contrary claims that house prices would fall and house prices would rise.

Labor is also proposing changes to the tax treatment of high income superannuation, changes to the tax concessions for capital gains, an increase in tobacco excise and a target of 50% renewable energy by 2030.

Abbott, following his classical three-word pattern (he seems to have no other) has labelled these as ‘five new taxes’: a housing tax, a seniors’ tax, a wealth tax, a workers’ tax and a carbon tax. He ignores, of course, that, for example, an increase in tobacco excise will help reduce future health costs as more people give up smoking and that the so-called ‘carbon tax’ will actually promote and invigorate the renewable energy industry in Australia, thus creating more jobs and boosting the economy.

In the absence of inspiring Turnbull policies, I would not rule out Turnbull adopting a similar approach. As a matter of principle he would not use Abbott’s phraseology but he may well attack Labor’s ‘new taxes’ — or perhaps he will give Abbott his head and allow him to run such a campaign while Turnbull himself can remain aloof from such tactics. Don’t rule out anything!

Underpinning the Turnbull approach is the report of Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) and the legislation for the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). Turnbull has recalled parliament with the aim of passing the ABCC legislation and has threatened to use it as a double dissolution trigger if it is not passed (that, of course, after having already achieved changes to Senate voting). In other words, union ‘corruption’ will be a key election issue although Turnbull is trying to cloak it as an economic necessity, claiming it will improve productivity in the construction industry (although the Productivity Commission found no significant improvement in productivity when it previously operated).

Probably more importantly, Turnbull can use the idea of union corruption and the TURC report to attack Shorten personally. Although Shorten was cleared of any wrongdoing by TURC, the Liberals earlier showed their hand by suggesting that Shorten had sold out the members of his union in sweetheart deals with businesses — despite the fact that the deals Shorten negotiated appeared to achieve successful outcomes for both his members and the projects in which they were involved. Surely the Liberals should be supporting successful business outcomes! No, not if it impedes an attack on Shorten. I think we can expect a lot more of this during the election campaign.

Unless the government pulls a rabbit out of the hat in its budget — and so far most of its rabbits appear to have been DOA — it appears to have little to take to an election. Its policies do not match those already put out by Labor, although there is some overlap as in, for example, support for STEM subjects in schools. Its grand vision may be a vision but it is not an inspiring one for the electorate as it consists mostly of words and legislative changes which will not impact most people — what interest do people have in ‘FinTech’, the removal of the ASX’s monopoly or changes to laws relating to venture capital?

Polls consistently show issues like education and health are major concerns for the electorate — they are issues which Labor is usually seen as better able to manage. Turnbull and the neo-liberals have not yet achieved their aim of transferring education and health to the states, so they will remain in play for the coming election and the government is not looking strong on them at the moment.

The economy is also ranked highly by voters as an election issue and Turnbull will claim that only he can take Australia towards the new economy of the 21st century (as he told his Cabinet) but that somewhat misses the point. When people say they are influenced by the economy, they usually mean issues like unemployment, wage rises and inflation, not some grand vision of an agile economy. At present wages growth is the slowest it has been in twenty years and that is the sort of issue voters will look at when assessing the health of the economy.

At the moment, I believe the policy issues are mostly in favour of the Labor party so don’t expect policy to be the major battle ground in the coming election. It may play a part but Turnbull is more likely to focus on union corruption. Expect a dirt campaign aligning Shorten and Labor with the ‘corrupt’ unions. Expect personal attacks on Shorten regarding his time as a union leader. Expect some suggestions that it is the unions that are holding us back from the golden age of an agile, innovative economy. Expect attacks on Labor as the party of high taxes and high spending (although that is traditional Liberal fare).

And, of course, expect Turnbull to present himself as the saviour, the only one capable of leading our country into the new golden age.

What do you think?
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