Intergenerational Reports: what are they on about?

There have now been four Intergenerational Reports (IGR) from 2002  to 2015, issued by three treasurers: Costello (2),  Swan  and Hockey.  They were meant to come out at five-yearly intervals but Swan (and Rudd, although officially they are the Treasurer’s report) brought forward what should have been the 2012 report to 2010.

I will compare what each report has projected for the future, particularly the changes that have been made between each report, and how they relate to Hockey’s 2015 report.

The basics each report addresses are:

  • demographic changes (population, ageing, immigration)
  • GDP growth (population plus productivity and participation)
  • and what they mean for commonwealth government fiscal policy (revenue and spending)

 Population and ageing

There have been significant changes in the total population projections: from 25 million in 2042 in the 2002 report, to 28.5 million in 2047, 35.9 million in 2050 and 39.7 million in 2055 in the 2015 report. Australia’s population in 2014 was about 23.5 million.

The fertility rate has influenced the population projections as it was forecast to be only 1.6 in 2002 IGR but in the last two IGRs was forecast to be 1.9. The biggest change, however, comes from immigration projections. The original 2002 IGR forecast average nett immigration of 90,000 per year over the next 40 years but that increased to 110,000 in the 2007 report, 180,000 in the 2010 report and is now projected to be 215,000 per year, which suggests that immigration alone will add 8.6 million to the population by 2055 and leaves about 7.6 million in natural growth.

Those higher population figures have lowered the proportion of people aged 65 and over from a high of 25.3% forecast in 2007 (2002 was slightly lower) to 22.6% in the latest IGR (compared to 15% in 2014). The proportional fall is not quite as high as it could be in a larger population because it is forecast that people will live longer. 

Life Expectancy 2002 IGR for 2042 2007 IGR for 2047 2010 IGR for 2050 2015 IGR for 2055
Women 87.5 89.8 90.5 96.6
Men 82.5 86.0 87.7 95.1

 

What do you make of that? Quite a big jump in the latest IGR. One reason is that the methodology changed. The 2010 IGR used the ‘period’ method (as used by the ABS in its ‘Life Tables’) which applies age-related mortality rates in the year a person is born but Hockey’s IGR has used a ‘cohort’ method which makes assumptions about medical improvements over a person’s life time. Appendix C (Table C1) of the current report shows that, using the ‘period’ method for 2055, there is actually a marginal decline in the projected ages from those in the 2010 report: females 90.1 and males, 87.5.

I have my doubts of the headline figures in Hockey’s report. Unless we discover the ‘elixir of youth’ (which can’t be entirely ruled out!), I believe there is likely a biological limit to human lifespan. Some credence is given to my view by information contained in the reports that remaining life-span at age 80 has not significantly improved in a hundred years. I think Hockey has deliberately changed the approach to justify his cries of ageing and scare the population into supporting his draconian policies: the marginal drop in life-span using the ‘period’ method would not fit his argument.

Hockey has also emphasised the ‘dependency ratio’ of 2.7:1, which is the number of people aged 15-64 (the ‘working-age population’) for each person aged 65 and over, as though this is leading us towards disaster. The current figure, however, is slightly better than the 2.4 in 2007 and 2.5 in 2002 (and is the same as 2010). I find it interesting, however, that the ratio was 7.3:1 in 1974-75 and in 2014-15 is 4.5:1. We have already lost 2.8 workers for every ‘retired’ person and yet seem to have done so without major problems and will lose only another 1.8 over the next 40 years.

Despite all of the dire warnings about ageing, the international context, as reported in the IGR, makes it appear that Australia is still relatively well-placed.

Australia’s population, although ageing, is neither as aged nor ageing as fast as some other countries. Japan’s median age is almost 45 years and many European countries have a median age in the forties. By contrast Australia’s median age is 36.8. The proportion of the Australian population aged 65 years and over is smaller than many OECD countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. On the other hand Australia has a much larger proportion of its population aged 65 years and above than China, India and Indonesia.

Economic projections

The main measures are real GDP growth, real GDP growth per person (which implies improvements in the standard of living), and they are influenced by productivity, participation (the proportion of people aged over 15 who are in the workforce) and hours worked. 

Annual average 2002 IGR for 2042 2007 IGR for 2047 2010 IGR for 2050 2015 IGR for 2055
Real GDP growth 1.9% 2.4% 2.7% 2.8%
Real GDP growth per person 1.5% 1.6% 1.5% 1.5%
Productivity 1.75% 1.75% 1.60% 1.50%
Participation 56.0% 57.1% 60.6% 62.4%
Hours worked per week 34.25 34.5 33.6 32.0*

 

* The 2015 IGR doesn’t give an actual figure, only a graph, and this is my best estimate from the graph, although it does seem a significant drop compared to the earlier figures.

The hours worked reduce as part-time work increases, catering for older people and more flexibility for working women. Productivity projections are simply based on the average of the previous 30 years, so as the reports now span 13 years, some earlier higher annual levels of productivity in the 1970s have dropped out. Productivity has been as low as 1.2% in recent years: if that picks up again in the next five years, before the next IGR, that would be reflected in a slightly higher figure then. The report does concede that lower productivity in the 2000s was partly a result of the massive investment in mining infrastructure: while such investment boosts GDP it adds nothing to productivity until the mines are actually in production.

The new, and higher, population figures in each IGR have led to a continuing rise in the participation rate. That change is partly due to the projected higher immigration as the majority of migrants are of prime working age. Hockey is also projecting that participation by those 65 and over will increase from 12% to 17%. The main working age group, aged 15-64, will increase from 15.8 million currently to 23.8 million in 2054-55 and while not everyone in that age group works (a number of the 15-24 age group are still in education), the workforce is projected to be over 20 million in 2054-55 compared to about 11.5 million at the start of 2015. We will have almost 9 million more people paying income tax and yet we have a major problem!

A significant change in the figures is in the ‘real’ GDP growth. It has improved in each successive IGR. If GDP had remained at 1.9% as forecast in 2002, then, I agree, that we may have been facing long-term problems but if we are now predicting real growth of 2.8%, then the problems should be proportionally less, not worse as Hockey is telling us — but perhaps he thinks no-one has bothered looking at the previous reports.

Some economic projections have remained consistent throughout the reports, notably inflation at 2.5% (the Reserve Bank’s target) and unemployment at 5%. The unemployment remains constant because this is the NAIRU (Non-accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) level, below which inflation may increase. I have read criticisms of the whole NAIRU approach. To my layman’s eye, it seems no more than the neo-liberal position that lower unemployment may force employers to offer higher wages to attract workers, and that will lead to inflation. On the other hand, I would have thought that fewer unemployed would help boost GDP: it would certainly boost government revenue and also reduce government outlays for unemployment benefits (Newstart).

Government’s fiscal position

The four reports focus on commonwealth government expenditure that is influenced by demographic changes, such as spending on health, aged care, pensions, payments to families, and so on.

In the following table I compare only the first three IGRs because Hockey’s IGR approaches the issue differently and I will discuss that separately. 

Per cent of GDP 2002 for 2042 2007 for 2047 2010 for 2050
Health 8.1% 7.3% 7.1%
Aged care 1.8% 2.0% 1.8%
Aged & service pensions 4.6% 4.4% 3.9%
Payments to those of working age 1.9% 1.8% 1.9%
Payments to families 0.9% 1.0% 0.9%

 

As you can see, up until 2010 there was no major change to projections for aged care and payments to those of working age and to families. The projections for health spending and pensions were already trending down, indicating that previous governments had already taken measures to slow the rate of growth of commonwealth spending. That also suggests that a moderated approach with appropriate changes over time is already achieving reductions in future government spending. Instead of continuing that approach, Hockey was insisting we required drastic measures now.

Each of the previous reports has taken the line that the projections are based on current policy settings, although they also comment on possible future approaches to meet the fiscal challenges. As you know by now, Hockey included three projections based on previous (Labor) policy, current legislated policy (what he has managed to get through the Senate) and proposed policy. 

Per cent of GDP 2014-15 current spending 2054-55 current policy 2054-55 ‘proposed’ policy
Health 4.2% 5.7% 5.5%
Aged care 0.9% 1.7% 1.7%
Aged & service pensions 2.9% 3.6% 2.7%
Payments to those of working age 2.8% 2.6% 2.4%
Payments to families 1.8% 0.9% 0.8%

 

I have ignored Hockey’s so-called ‘previous policy’ because it is such a flagrant lie. He alleges it is based on former Labor policy but it is based on the problems created after Abbott and Hockey eliminated Labor’s revenue measures and increased the deficit in the 2013-14 MYEFO — and of course those changes carried into the 2014-15 budget. It is true that health spending was forecast to increase to 7.1% of GDP by 2050, and that was contained in Swan’s 2010 IGR, but it should be taken in the context that measures by various governments had already reduced that from 8.1%. And the same can be said of aged and service pensions.

Study the figures closely. Hockey is not only proposing slowing the rate of growth of spending, which may be justified, but wants to achieve a final result that is below what is being paid by government in 2014-15 for pensions and welfare for those of working age (payments for families were projected to fall anyway). If you need justification of statements that Hockey and Abbott are attacking those on welfare, then surely that is it.

The three earlier reports each summarised the commonwealth spending by giving a figure for the ‘fiscal gap’ (the difference between forecast government spending and revenue expressed as a percentage of GDP). In the 2002 report that fiscal gap was forecast to be 5% by 2042; by the 2007 report it was down to 3.5% in 2047; and in 2010 it was down to 2.75% in 2050. Hockey’s report does not clearly give a figure. Again this shows that since 2002 governments had already taken measures to close that gap — or that changes in the parameters were having an influence (such as the increase in population).

What the reports tend not to address in any detail are the issues arising from a growing population, not just an ageing population. If we have 15 million more people in 40 years that obviously means we require more housing, better transport systems, more energy and water, and so on and that also has implications for our environment, including carbon emissions. The 2010 IGR is the only one to make this more of an issue:

Population growth has implications for the environment, including: greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and water availability; urban amenity; and infrastructure and government service delivery requirements. The risks in these areas are manageable provided governments take early action to plan for future needs and introduce efficient market mechanisms to transition to a less emissions-intensive economy.

Swan’s IGR also introduced a chapter specifically on “A sustainable society’ which looked at well-being and sustainability, and human and social capital which included health, education and skills. It discussed health and education and training as means of adding to future economic growth not just as a potential drain on commonwealth finances. The three reports prepared by Coalition governments have notably ignored that, other than a brief mention that they may have an influence.

While the IGRs consistently suggest that commonwealth spending on education will decrease, partly a result of young people being a lesser proportion of the population, it has recently been suggested by the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER)  that we will in fact need additional education facilities because of population growth in recent years. ACER suggested that Victoria would require an additional 448 primary classes each year over the next decade, Queensland 443, NSW 385 and WA 351, and that will translate to additional secondary classes from about 2018. That is primarily a funding issue for state governments but it raises questions about what the IGRs are actually achieving by their singular focus on commonwealth fiscal policy.

The focus of the IGRs is justified to some extent in terms of the ‘fiscal gap’. What the gap implies is the need to raise taxes or cut spending to meet projected future costs; a warning that commonwealth government spending could result in very high taxation levels, even above 30% of GDP, whereas historically we have usually managed to keep tax below 25% of GDP. Despite that, the reports do not actually prove that gap exists, only that it might if the forecasts are accurate. The changes that have already taken place between reports show how inaccurate such long-range forecasting can be and the figures appear, to me, not to justify that ageing is the central problem to long term spending. Ageing was relevant to Treasury primarily in terms of the retirement of ‘baby boomers’ from the public service because the government had a huge unfunded superannuation liability — which is why the Future Fund was established.

The IGRs are very limited in what they set out to achieve. Inter-relationships between some spending, such as health and education, and their capacity to improve future participation rates, productivity and GDP may be mentioned but are not explored in any depth. The impact of environmental change on the economy again is mentioned without going into great detail and yet climate change has the capacity to throw all those forecasts out the window. They are not providing a grand vision for the future of Australia. They are doing little more than addressing fiscal policy and then only the commonwealth government’s fiscal policy. They would be of more value if they did discuss a future Australia and the role of the states and what sort of funding they will also require to meet the infrastructure demands of a growing and ageing population (and to meet shorter-term challenges like the demand for more school places).

I can understand that originally they were Treasury’s attempt to warn the commonwealth government that it could not keep spending the way it was or handing away revenue. Even retaining a fiscal focus, they could have become so much more and could have fostered a conversation at all levels of government about Australia’s future and the finances required for it. I think the sole Labor government IGR did attempt to give the concept a slightly broader relevance but that has disappeared in Hockey’s IGR.

I think that while the reports maintain a sole focus on commonwealth government fiscal policy, the name ‘Intergenerational Report’ is a misnomer and, when Treasury can’t get budget estimates right from year to year, I’m not sure how much credence we can place on their projections 40 years into the future. 

What do you think?

About Ken

What do you make of the Intergenerational Reports? Are they giving us important information or are they not worth much in their current form? Ken doesn't think too much of them and certainly doesn't believe Hockey's most recent report. Let us know what you think.

Next week 2353 will look at 'The "trickle down" effect' in economics and discuss a successful alternative approach taken by a US state governor.

 

 

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.

Hartcher:

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.

Kenny:

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 ...'