Whither the Left: Part 1


A History Lesson: the revolutionary period

My politics was moulded in the late 1960s, a great time in my view for the Left. The ’60s (into the ’70s) was dominated by revolutionary and liberation movements around the world — an era when Africa was completing its decolonisation. For want of a better phrase, I was an ‘armchair revolutionary’, although I was active in sit-ins and demonstrations. I drew my inspiration from the Black and Celtic liberation movements: the ANC in South Africa, the Black Panthers in America, the IRA in Ireland, ETA in the Basque country and the MAC in Wales (as tiny as that last group was). I accepted that violence was a legitimate means to counter the violence of the State. Yes, the ‘terrorism’ of the time but as was said in 1975 (admittedly in a novel) ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. (I would like to point out that the ‘terrorists’ of the time usually tried to avoid or minimise civilian casualties, unlike current terrorists who specifically target civilians.)

From 1960, Africa’s process of decolonisation proceeded rapidly. Seventeen countries gained independence in 1960, a further fifteen in the rest of the decade, and nine in the 1970s, but the process was not easy. Decolonisation proceeded on the basis of boundaries that had been imposed by the colonial powers, often simply lines drawn on maps in European capitals that bore little relationship to the different peoples who made up the ‘nations’ within those borders. In 1967, for example, the Biafran war commenced as the people of eastern Nigeria sought their own independence (I supported Biafran freedom) and in 1976 Western Sahara was granted independence but was immediately seized by neighbouring Morocco (which has led to a continuing conflict).

In South Africa apartheid was in full flow, leading to the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960 in which 69 died and 180 were seriously wounded. The following year MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, ‘Spear of the Nation’) was formed by Nelson Mandela as the militant arm of the ANC. When passive resistance was met by violence, some in the ANC thought that a violent response was the only answer. Initially the MK’s targets were infrastructure and government installations which led to the charge of sabotage against Mandela at his trial in 1964.

In America, the civil rights movement had been campaigning since the 1950s (the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955). The first Civil Rights Act was signed by President Johnson in 1964, but civil rights demonstrations were still being attacked by state troopers in 1965; Malcolm X was also assassinated that year. The Black Panthers formed in 1966. Race riots in Newark and Detroit in 1967 each began as a result of police actions in Black areas. As well as police, the National Guard responded in both instances: in Newark after six days of rioting 23 people were dead, 725 injured and almost 1,500 arrested; in Detroit from five days of rioting, 43 died, 1,189 were injured and over 7,000 arrested. These were but a curtain-raiser to the massive rioting across America following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr in April 1968.

In Ireland, the official IRA was in decline and would be effectively replaced by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland from 1969; in Wales, MAC (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, ‘Movement for the Defence of Wales’) carried out a number of bombings between 1963 and 1969; and in the Basque country ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ‘Homeland and Liberty’) began its bank robberies and shootings during the 1960s and became more active in the 1970s.

Students had already played a major part in the civil rights movement in America. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960 but from 1965 adopted a more radical stance drawing on the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. Even in Biafra, it was university lecturers and their students who formed the basis of the Biafran army. While many of these movements had their genesis in the previous years it came to a head in 1968 with student risings around the world.

In Mexico, student unrest began in 1967 and escalated prior to the 1968 Olympic Games: one of their key demands was that more should be spent on domestic needs rather than the Games. The government response, however, led to bigger demonstrations and student strikes culminating in police occupying two tertiary institutions in September 1968. About 14,000 people, mostly students, rallied at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (‘Plaza of the Three Cultures’) in the suburb of Tlatelolco in Mexico City on 2 October. The police and the army moved violently on the rally: although the number of deaths has never been confirmed, it has been estimated at anything between 40 and 400. It became known as the ‘Night of Sorrow’.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro students rioted for two weeks in March after a student had been killed by police. Three more students died and schools were closed and Rio occupied by the army. Riots spread throughout the country and continued until 1,240 students were arrested in Sao Paulo in October.

In Argentina, 23 students were shot dead in May 1968, and 400 students occupied the University of La Plata in Buenos Aires on June 12 in protest at the government's repression. Exactly three months later, a student strike in the capital erupted into a bloody clash with police.

In Japan in June of 1968 students occupied the medical school of the Todai University in Tokyo — considered the most prestigious in Japan. The occupation was not lifted until January 1969 after a three-day battle with police.

In Italy, during 1968 most universities were taken over by students and run by democratic assemblies. This trend started at Turin in 1967, spread to Rome early in 1968 and then, as the student revolt in France revealed itself, spread with sit-ins and student strikes and increasing contact with workers’ movements, culminating in a strike two million strong in 1969.

In West Germany, the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund) was the dominant radical student organisation. A student was killed by police in a demonstration against a visit by the Shan of Iran in June 1967: 20,000 marched in his funeral procession. At the annual Easter peace march in 1968, 300,000 marched in the midst of upheaval caused by the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke (‘Red Rudi’), one of the principal spokespersons of SDS. Further demonstrations followed the shooting and the Bundestag (parliament) was preparing emergency laws to control the social unrest. That itself led to larger demonstrations and strikes against the laws. On the day the emergency laws were passed, 20 May, demonstrations blocked traffic in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Hanover; in Munich, the tracks at the central train station were blocked by thousands of people; and in Bonn, 100,000 marched in protest. The Left in Germany took a more militant direction in the form of the Red Army Faction and the June 2 Movement but as a mass movement it began to decline after internal disagreements and a fear of ‘Left fascism’.

In France, the disturbances began at Nanterre University in March, initially about university issues. It was the heavy-handed response of closing the university in May that helped trigger the wider revolt. The violent police response to the subsequent student street marches and barricades brought support from workers and a General Strike was called for 13 May. On that day 800,000 to 1,000,000 demonstrators marched in Paris. Having earlier closed the Sorbonne in response to student protests, the Government reopened it after the 13 May strike, but it was then occupied by students and declared an ‘autonomous people’s university’. Workers also began occupying their factories — managers were locked in their offices at the Sud Aviation plant. By 20 May 1968, ten million workers were on strike. Eventually De Gaulle responded by calling a new election and threatening a state of emergency — 20,000 troops were being prepared for the occupation of Paris. Workers won improved pay and conditions and drifted back to work. Police retook the Sorbonne on 6 June. Student demonstrations were banned on 12 June. De Gaulle overwhelmingly won the election later in June and a bill reforming higher education was passed soon after.

In addition to the above examples, student unrest occurred in countries as diverse as Uruguay, Spain, Poland, Yugoslavia and Pakistan.

It was also the year of the birth of ‘liberation theology’ within the Catholic Church in South and Central America.

It had been American students who pioneered the ‘sit-in’ and ‘occupation’ (of buildings), starting at Berkeley in 1964. In 1968 student unrest continued in America, such as the ‘occupation’ at Columbia University, protesting the university’s involvement in weapons research and also local racism. Police broke up the sit-in in a five-hour battle in which 150 people were injured and 700 arrested. This, and events such as the Chicago Democratic Convention riot in August, led to the radicalisation of the student movement and some militant groups, for instance ‘The Weathermen’, were formed.

American student unrest, however, actually reached a peak two years later in May 1970.

The 1970 student protests were widespread. They started in April at Yale University with support for the Black Panthers, demanding the release of Bobby Seale, but at the end of the month Nixon announced the invasion (called an ‘incursion’) of Cambodia and the two issues melded. By mid-May more than 500 colleges and universities were directly involved with strikes and protests and by the end of May the number climbed to about 900. George Katsiaficas in his book The Imagination of the New Left, described the response to the May demonstrations like this:

During May, over 100 people were killed or wounded by the guns of the forces of law and order. Besides the four murdered and ten wounded at Kent State on May 4 and the two people murdered and twelve wounded at Jackson State on May 14, six black people were murdered and twenty were wounded in Augusta, Georgia; eleven students were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico; twenty people suffered shotgun wounds at Ohio State; and twelve students were wounded by birdshot in Buffalo.

The ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia was an event of a somewhat different kind. Student protests against the leadership of Novotny in October 1967 contributed to his replacement by Dubček in January 1968. In response to Dubček’s reforms the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on 20 August. Students were again involved in the passive resistance that followed. They avoided confrontation (even the Government ordered the small Czechoslovakian army to remain in its barracks) so as to give no excuse to the Soviets for military action. Dubček was taken to Moscow on 23–26 August and agreed to water down the reforms in return for remaining in power, but resistance continued until Dubček was replaced in April 1969 and the new government cracked down on protests.

Why were students at the forefront of these protests and demonstrations? In simple terms, they were youthful, without the responsibilities that may have held back their elders and they were partially segregated on campuses which gave them a critical mass for action. And in an important sense they were continuing the struggles of the working class. They were not really a new middle class, as some have claimed, but an emerging new working class. Following WW2, intellect was being commodified and added to the production process.

The role of college training is increasingly important for the functioning of industrialized societies. Large-scale industry needs more technicians within its offices to coordinate space-age production, more managers to administer it, more psychologists to find ways of keeping employees working, advertising specialists to market the goods of the new consumer society and sociologists to maintain the system's overall capacity to function.

The radical students and those who followed are often referred to as the New Left, but what was new about it? It was inspired by the writings of people like Frantz Fanon and the speeches of Malcolm X; it utilised Che Guevara’s theories of guerrilla warfare, not to wage war, but to organise in new ways; it rejected not only the capitalist system but the bureaucratic and totalitarian nature of Communism. And although there were political elements to their demands, many demands questioned basic social assumptions of the time —‘the cultural conformity of consumerism, the oppression of women, discrimination against minorities, and the segregation of youth.’ Human rights and the human condition were often central to or underpinned their demands. The students challenged governments for not living up to social ideals.

The movements were not successful, owing primarily to massive repression by the State — the number of deaths throughout the world testify to that. The workers who were involved often returned to normal work as unions reasserted control by negotiating improved wages and conditions.

The integrity of the New Left's vision and the high hopes of movement participants were some of its chief strengths, but with the assassination of Martin Luther King, the failure of the near-revolution in France, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the pre-Olympic massacre of hundreds of students in Mexico City, and the election of Richard Nixon, the hopes of the New Left were dashed against the hard rocks of reality.

Another crucial factor in their failure was internal dissent, as debate centred on the way forward. As the State reaction was violent some leaned towards responding in kind. But many women in the movement turned away from that, seeing it as a ‘macho militaristic’ stance. There were internal inconsistencies within the movements.

The world has changed. Since then there have been successful people’s movements such as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia and the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine but these occurred in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union when the respective States were less willing to intervene with force.

At a political level, thanks largely to Thatcher and Reagan, economics has come to dominate political discourse. The old idea of an equitable society has been subsumed, even within centre-left political parties, by the idea that equity cannot be achieved without a strong economy. There is some validity to that but the debate has moved too far in that direction. Those espousing social change are drowned out by the economists.

We also suffer from the fact that many revolutionary movements these days are in the Middle East among Islamic societies and they tend to be right-wing, especially with the fervour of the Islamic fundamentalists – that does not provide any sustenance to the Left in the West. (Although I note as a late addition to this piece that the Ukraine is at it again and more power to them!)

So where does that leave us? Part 2 to follow – A New World for the Left.

What do you think?

The Xmas attack on climate change

Human-caused global warming is the single biggest threat facing humanity today. Solving it requires a rapid worldwide transition to renewable energy economies, leaving the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. Preserving a habitable climate depends on decisions made in this decade. At less than 1°C of global warming, we’re already experiencing impacts costing human lives, including worsening heatwaves, floods, droughts, and bushfires. Under current policies we’re headed for 4°C warming or greater, a temperature unprecedented for the human species. Civilization has flourished over the past 10,000 years because a stable climate sustained us (global temperature varied but less than 1°C). An increase of 4°C would be an unimaginable catastrophe, probably beyond our capacity to adapt. 

Yet over the Xmas break while you were distracted with seasonal festivities and summer sports, the Abbott government quietly progressed policies which will exacerbate the problem, following a long-standing tradition of avoiding scrutiny by making announcements during the holidays.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt (who would be more appropriately titled the Anti-Environment Minister) approved Adani’s proposed coal export terminal, and dredging for two other new terminals, at the (appropriately named) Abbot Point. Abbot Point will be the world’s biggest coal port and open up the Galilee Basin, whose nine proposed mega-mines would export enough coal to produce potentially 700 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, almost twice Australias domestic emissions and greater than the emissions of all but six countries. Hunt also approved four other fossil fuel projects: an Arrow coal seam gas processing facility on Curtis Island; a transmission pipeline to supply it; billionaire politician Clive Palmer’s China First mine; and the Surat Gas Expansion (the last two on the Friday before Xmas).

They joined two previously approved Galilee coal projects: GVK’s and Hancock’s Kevin’s Corner mine (approved in November), and GVK’s Alpha mine (approved by the former government in 2012).

In his press release approving the Abbot Point expansion, Hunt had the gall to say: ‘Today I am announcing new plans to protect the long-term future of the Great Barrier Reef. His plan consists of ensuring dredging occurs close to the shore — never mind that global warming is killing coral reefs as well as endangering humans. The approval process ignores climate change because emissions from burning the coal will occur overseas. But denying responsibility for those emissions is like believing we won’t be harmed by cigarettes we sell to a chain-smoker in our lounge room.

The industry department released an energy issues paper early in December. Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has accused the former Labor government of having ‘bungled its Energy White Paper process [by introducing] the carbon tax and mining tax, and new layers of regulation and red tape’ — code for saying it wasn’t fossil-fuel-friendly enough. Macfarlane’s issues paper outlines the Government’s energy policy priorities: fossil fuel industry growth, productivity, environmental deregulation, and marketing fossil fuels to the public. It foreshadows possible consideration of investing in nuclear power and dividing up the Renewable Energy Target (RET) into bands including emerging technologies, reinforcing the Government’s incorrect belief that existing renewables cannot provide 100% of Australia’s energy. It says the major contributor to electricity prices, network costs, will continue rising, revealing the Government’s hypocrisy in complaining about the relatively small price impacts of climate policies. Instead we should invest in energy efficiency and renewables, where prices are falling rapidly as technologies and scale improve. It seems the Government really wants higher electricity prices because that means greater profits for fossil-fuel-fired generators.

Also in December, the prime minister’s department released terms of reference for an agriculture white paper which failed to mention climate change. It is not clear how the Government expects Australian agriculture to prosper in the face of the impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions and coal seam gas development promoted by the Energy White Paper. The Government has since announced a drought policy which also fails to account for climate change.

The Government’s budget update, MYEFO, cut funding to the Australian network of Environmental Defender’s Offices (which provide expert legal advice on environmental issues and are thus opposed by mining companies) and the Energy Efficiencies Opportunities Program (which actually raises public income, but is opposed by generators because reducing energy demand lowers their profits). There were no cuts to fossil fuel subsidies. The document contained no mention of the Emissions Reduction Fund, the centrepiece of the climate Direct Action Plan. The only fully costed climate policy was $800 million over five years for the ‘Green Army’, which would employ 15,000 young people to take feel-good actions like re-vegetation and clearing rivers, which fail to target the main cause of global warming, the fossil fuel industry.

In an interview, Tony Abbott indicated the RET may be scrapped or weakened by an upcoming review, claiming it causes ‘pretty significant price pressures’ and he would consult with his business advisor Maurice Newman, a climate change denier who opposes the RET. In fact, the RET has reduced wholesale electricity prices: a 2012 review found the cost impact of the RET was minuscule, and the major factor in rising retail electricity prices was over-investment in poles and wires. Again, Abbott’s real concern is that the RET reduces profits for coal-fired generators. The RET review will be conducted by a panel including several climate change deniers. It looks like history is going to repeat itself: the last time the Liberals were in government, they colluded with the fossil fuel industry to sabotage their own Renewable Energy Target.

In the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks, Australia offered to agree to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in exchange for greater access to sugar markets, while Trade Minister Andrew Robb announced a Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement also including ISDS. Investor-state dispute settlement would give multinational corporations the power to sue a government for any policy that hurts their profits in an unaccountable tribunal with unlimited powers. Any effective climate policy would threaten corporate profits, and hence could be overturned through ISDS. This represents an attack on national sovereignty and democracy at a time when we need accountable government more than ever.

The Government has refused to publically release the text of either agreement, even after the Senate passed a Greens motion ordering them to release the text of the TPP.* Robb says ISDS will not apply to ‘public welfare, health and the environment’, but similar safeguards in the Peru-US Free Trade Agreement failed to be implemented. It looks like free trade talks are being used as an opaque avenue to sneak through policies advancing corporate power which can’t be achieved through democratic domestic political processes. An Australia Institute survey found that only 11% of Australians know about the TPP, almost 90% want the details of such deals made public before they are signed, and 75% oppose allowing American corporations to sue Australian governments.

At the Council of Australian Governments, all states and territories signed up to take on responsibility for federal environmental assessment powers within 12 months (including Labor governments, despite federal Labor claiming to now oppose the policy). This made official what began in September as a secret agreement between the federal Government and the coal state Queensland. State governments are notoriously pro-development: that is, even more so than federal ones. As Greens Senator Larissa Waters pointed out, "If states had this power in the past, the Franklin River would be dammed, cattle would be grazing in the Alpine National Park and there would be oil rigs on the Great Barrier Reef.’

In Parliament, Labor helped the Government pass legislation through the lower house preventing Australians from legally challenging projects approved before 1 January 2014 on environmental grounds. (The bill is now before the Senate.) This effectively allowed the Government to dodge accountability for ignoring expert advice on the environmental impacts of any project approved prior to 2014.

Attorney-General George Brandis appointed the IPA’s Tim Wilson as ‘freedom commissioner’ at the Human Rights Commission (which the IPA want abolished). Unlike other commissioners, Wilson did not have to apply for the job; Brandis just rang him up and asked if he wanted it. Wilson argues he is qualified because ‘Private property is in itself a human right, and one of the things that I have always focused on is free trade which is ultimately an extension of private property’ and suggests that critics of his appointment ‘look at human rights as some sort of legal gift from government’. Wilson’s comment on Occupy Melbourne was ‘send in the water cannons‘. Brandis also announced a law reform inquirywhich will focus largely on the supposed infringement of corporate rights by environmental regulations. Destroying the environment we depend on apparently does not count as an infringement of freedom.

Finally, on 20 December the environment department released the Emissions Reduction Fund Green Paper, which essentially remains the ineffective voluntary climate policy the government took to the election. Also announced was an Expert Reference Group to advise on the Fund’s design, whose members are almost all corporate lobbyists who oppose strong climate action. And of course Abbott continues to push legislation to repeal the carbon price, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and Climate Change Authority.

With no remaining legal avenue to challenge approved mining projects, protestors blocked construction at Whitehaven’s Maules Creek coal mine in NSW. Simon Copland from 350.org: wrote about it afterwards:

It is unfortunate that it has to come to this, but we have no choice. When the Government fails, as it has so drastically with this mine and with so many other coal and gas mines around the country, it is up for [sic] the community to take a stand.

This government is only a few months old and already its level of secrecy, deception, misdirection, and irresponsibility on climate policy is staggering. Abbott says, ‘Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics.’ But the game our future depends on is being played out in Canberra, as far from a public audience as Tony Abbott can get.

* The details of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) were finally released on 17 February and it does include the ISDS.
 


Green parasols

'You have come down here to see an election - eh? Spirited contest, my dear sir, very much so indeed. We have opened all the public-houses in the place. It has left our opponent nothing but the beer-shops — masterly policy, my dear sir, eh?' The little man smiled complacently, and took a large pinch of snuff.

'And what is the likely result of the contest?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.

'Why, doubtful, my dear sir, rather doubtful as yet,' replied the little man. 'Fizkin's people have got three-and-thirty voters in the lock-up coach-house at the White Hart.'

'In the coach-house!' said Mr. Pickwick, much astonished.

'They keep 'em locked up there till they want 'em,' resumed the little man. 'The effect, you see, is to prevent our getting at them. Even if we could, it would be of no use, for they keep them very drunk on purpose. Smart fellow, Fizkin's agent very smart fellow indeed.

'We are pretty confident, though,' said Mr. Perker, his voice sinking almost to a whisper. 'We had a little tea-party here last night, five-and-forty women, my dear sir and gave every one of 'em a green parasol when she went away. Five and-forty green parasols, at 7/6d each. Got the votes of all their husbands, and half their brothers. You can't walk half a dozen yards up the street, without encountering half a dozen green parasols.'

'Is everything ready?' said Samuel Slumkey to Mr. Perker.

'Nothing has been left undone, my dear sir. There are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you're to pat on the head, and ask the age of. Be particular about the children, my dear sir. It always has a great effect, that sort of thing.

'And perhaps if you could manage to kiss one of 'em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd. I think it would make you very popular.'

[from Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, the Eatanswill election]

Well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, eh? Oh the details of elections may vary a little from 1827, but the same tactics apply — get the voters stupefied, lock them in to voting for you, carry out some mindless stunts for the media. Gain power by whatever it takes. But, whatever you do, don't mention policies.

The way it worked for the conservatives (‘Liberals’ is one of the most misleading political names in history) in Australia in 2013 was very similar.

Before the election they engage endlessly in stunts for tv cameras, in fancy dress they lob into some known-to-be-friendly site, hold something mindlessly for the cameras, and repeat, yet again, one of a small set of focus-group-tested three word slogans.

The slogans relate to one or two policies that can be made to seem appealing to people stupefied by a diet of commercial television and News Ltd papers. Reducing electricity prices by dropping a price on carbon (‘axe the tax’), punishing brown-skinned desperate asylum seekers (‘stop the boats’), creating a Budget surplus (‘cut the waste’).

Just two other things they need to do. Claim that, apart from those few policies, in every other respect they and the (then) government are as one. Promise, implicitly or explicitly, that all the popular programs the government introduced in education, health, social services, environment, foreign affairs, workplace relations, and so on, will be retained. That in fact a change in government will be, with the exception of those popular slogan-based promises, almost un-noticeable. But better of course, because of their other claim — of competence, experience, professionalism, a ‘grown-up government’.

Home and hosed, with a lot of help from their media friends who promote slogans and stunts and grown-upness, and we have a brand new day.

After the election, while they will indeed aim to get rid of the carbon price and screw the refugees, it will suddenly appear that there were dozens, hundreds of policies never mentioned in the election campaign which are of extreme urgency. Beginning immediately, all climate change and renewable energy programs are slashed or marked for slashing; the Gonski school funding plan rejected; disability schemes abandoned; work place relations marked for big change; Medicare co-payments flagged; Australia Post set up for privatising; environmentally damaging projects approved; racial vilification laws removed; aged care damaged; NBN dismantled; ABC attacked and threatened; Indonesia insulted and her borders breached; Same Sex marriage challenged in the High Court; Aboriginal programs combined and cut, and so on. Commissions and Reviews are established to rewrite the national curriculum with a right wing and religious bias, and to slash all government spending, notably social services.

That is, just as in Eatanswill, the election of 2013 (like that of 1996) was marked by a total disconnect between a campaign aimed at winning power, and the subsequent use of that power. John Howard established the principle with his ‘core and non-core promises’, a distinction unmentioned before the election, and Abbott has continued with his proposition that only things he read out from a piece of paper, not things he said in an interview, carried any implication of reality.

The approach the Right has adopted is this: their ideology, in reality, is unpalatable to all except a tiny number of very rich people plus the small audiences of rabid shock jocks — that is, if they told people up front, during an election campaign, what they actually intended to do they could never win.

So they don't. They find a couple of policies that their rich supporters will like and which can be made popular to the masses with the help of that section of rich people who own media outlets. They engage in baby-kissing type stunts. They promise green parasols to those who vote for them. The media run interference by destabilising, attacking, delegitimising, the existing government. At the same time they totally cover-up the real ideology and agenda of the Opposition. With no reason not to vote for them, and with the green parasol tantalisingly in reach, sufficient votes are moved to get the conservative party into power.

At which point, rather like aliens (say the Slitheen of Dr Who) who rip away a human mask to reveal their true nature, the Liberal Party goes to work, as outlined above. Fake enquiries staffed by business mates will be set up to provide an alibi for the slashing and burning of the economy to disadvantage the poor and reward the rich. But generally, these days, with an acquiescent media and journalism for the rich, even the old ‘budget in worse shape than we thought’ lie isn't really needed. They can proceed quite confidently to do many things they never mentioned in the campaign, and the opposite of some things they did, knowing that the media will point out neither surprises nor contradictions. Oh, and it will turn out, so sorry, budget problems you understand, that the green parasols will only go to the rich who already have parasols of other colours.

But, you say, all very well, and a lot of damage can be done in the first term of office of a government. But obviously, after three, four, five years, depending, these vandals, masks long since ripped away, will have to face the voters who will be ready, surely, to vote early and vote often, in a fury, in order to wipe these conservatives from the political map? Er, no, sorry.

For several reasons it is very common for these conservative governments to be voted back in for several terms of office. First, come election time, they will have the advantages of incumbency — control (in Australia) of election timing, of public service, of ‘public information’ advertising, of spending, of media appearances. They can in fact go through the whole kissing babies/green parasols routine more effectively this time, and the media will keep voters stupefied; will fail to talk about the record of the government and its implications, and the public, if not reminded, forgets; will set the shock jocks to work damning the Opposition and praising the government.

Generally speaking all of that is enough to get even the most vicious and destructive government at least a second term, probably more. But these people, and their promoters, don't take chances — far too much money is at stake, far too many glittering prizes for political and business winners. So to make sure it is not uncommon to bring out the big guns. From time immemorial electoral success for an incumbent government can be guaranteed by the Falkland Gambit — rumours of war, border incidents, and, at times, the full monty, actual war, preferably, indeed invariably, against a weaker opponent.

And so Thatcher had her Falklands, Bush had his Iraq, John Howard had his Tampa incident, then Iraq, and so on.

Tony Abbott has already begun, astonishingly early, to irritate Indonesia with border incursions, and ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, Three Star General on board. Probably no coincidence given that he has gone in much harder and earlier (than, say, John Howard) in his program to turn Australia into a neo-con paradise, starting by changing 2013 to Year 0. The only question remaining is where will he find a weaker opponent for the Falkland Gambit in 2016. Make no mistake, the billionaire backers of Tony Abbott have absolutely no intention of losing him after one term.

Oh, and also get ready in 2016 for more green parasols like Paid Parental Leave. And plenty of baby kissing by a man wearing rather odd costumes and head gear!

The thought thief

Two events occurred in January that have alarming parallels.

The Book Thief was released in cinemas across the country and Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced yet another review of the school curriculum.

The movie is based on the book by Australian author Markus Zusak. A synopsis of the story is here. While one would assume that there is some literary licence in both the book and movie, the burning of books in 1930’s Germany is fact. The ‘book burning’ was a staged event to remove ‘unGerman spirit’ from society and is discussed on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades ‘against the un-German spirit’. The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and ‘unwanted’ books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called ‘fire oaths’. In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: ‘No to decadence and moral corruption!’ Goebbels enjoined the crowd. ‘Yes to decency and morality in family and state!’

It is well documented that the Nazi Party was very successful in modifying the mindset of the German population in the lead up to World War 2. Communication in the ‘teen years of the 21st century is considerably better than the 1930’s with the internet and faster travel across the globe allowing people from different countries and cultures to meet and interact on a regular basis. It is a common occurrence for events around the world to be reported as they occur in 2014 due to the use of satellites and the internet — Goebbels' practices would need to be updated if they were attempted now.

While some countries do attempt to restrict the use of common electronic communication technologies, the results are variable. For example, North Korea severely restricts use of the internet but there is a domestic communications framework and some links to the ‘outside world’. There was considerable reporting of Dennis Rodman’s recent basketball tour of North Korea — including singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean Leader (here is a link in case you want to relive this momentous event). North Korea also thought it was a good practice to remove all public references to Kim Jong-un’s uncle who was recently executed for a crime against the state. Unfortunately, the alterations were discovered and the story reported worldwide in The Guardian.

If book burning and restriction of communications won’t work to alter the mindset of a population in 2014, what will?

Stockholm syndrome’, sometimes referred to as ‘capture bonding’, relates to a situation from which people cannot escape and may bond with their abductors or abusers and demonstrates one intriguing way that mindsets can be changed. It was first described after some bank staff were held captive in a bank vault for six days in 1973 while the criminals were negotiating with police. The bank staff identified with the criminals and refused assistance to leave the vault, as well as defending them once the stand-off had ended. In a similar fashion, you could argue that the mass displays of ‘affection’ for Kim Jong-un and similar leaders that do get reported in Australia demonstrate some level of acceptance of the status quo despite documented hardships, such as lack of food or shelter; and it could also be said of the German population of the 1930’s when it accepted the need to ‘cleanse their culture’.

Education is another way. School age people are impressionable as they rely on their ‘teachers’, both inside and outside the classroom, to guide them. Harry Chapin (a US singer/songwriter who tragically died in a car accident in the 1980’s) wrote a song about altering the mindset of school children.

In announcing the curriculum review Christopher Pyne said he wanted the national school curriculum to have a greater focus on the benefits of Western civilization.

Also, in an opinion piece written for The Australian (reported in Fairfax media outlets) Pyne wrote:

concerns have been raised about the history curriculum not recognising the legacy of Western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia's history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day.

Australia’s national curriculum is developed and written by an organisation called ACARA (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority). The body is funded by government and is also responsible for the national annual NAPLAN testing and ‘My School’ website. Professor Barry McGaw AO is Chair of the ACARA Board, Mr Tony Mackay is the Deputy Chair, and it has 11 other members, representing the Australian Government and all education systems (independent, government and Catholic) across states and territories.

Yet Christopher Pyne, an MP since 1993 — he was 25 at the time — and prior to that a ‘practicing solicitor … and senior member of the Liberal Party’ tells us that ‘ACARA is ‘not the final arbiter on everything that is good in education'. Pyne obviously thinks he knows better than an eminent panel of educational professionals.

Christopher Pyne’s announced review of the Australian national curriculum will be headed by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire. Donnelly was Chief of Staff in 2004 for Kevin Andrews (of ‘Workchoices’ and recently ‘the $200 for marriage counselling’ fame). They each come to the review with strong pre-existing views on what should be done.

Donnelly has stated:

In recent years several education groups have sought to introduce gay, lesbian and transgender studies in the classroom and to convince schoolchildren that such practices, along with being heterosexual, are simply lifestyle choices open to all.
and
Multiculturalism is based on the mistaken belief that all cultures are of equal worth and that it is unfair to discriminate and argue that some practices are wrong.

Perhaps of more concern is Donnelly’s work in designing a school program to discuss peer pressure and decision making funded by Phillip Morris — the manufacturers of a number of cigarette brands. Donnelly is also on the record as saying that Australian education has become too secular, and the Federation's Judeo-Christian heritage should be better reflected in the curriculum.

Wiltshire has described the current educational funding system as a failure and suggested in 2010 that the independent politicians holding the balance of power should support the Coalition.

Pyne acknowledges that not everyone will be pleased with his choice of who will review the curriculum, but insists it will be ‘objective and fair’.

‘It's not possible to appoint anybody to review the national curriculum who doesn't have a view on education,’ Mr Pyne said.

‘The important point is to appoint people who are going to bring an intelligent and considered approach to the review, and both Kevin and Ken have a long history and experience in education.’

Various state education ministers, teaching unions, other political parties, as well as at least one state’s Parents & Citizens association, have rubbished this claim. The former Tasmanian Education Minister (a member of the Greens) stated: 'The Abbott government’s overhaul of the national curriculum appears to be a ‘brainwashing and propaganda mission'. 
 
It is said that the sum total of human knowledge increased exponentially in the 20th century, and continues to do so. As evidence, your car, provided it is not an ‘old banger’, has more computing power than NASA relied on to get Apollo 11 to the moon.

In 2008 all Australian education ministers agreed to the ‘Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians’. It commits to supporting ‘all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens’. This document provides the principles and scope for the development of the Australian Curriculum. Many educational institutions promote and pride themselves on producing ‘successful lifetime learners’ as a result. The reality, with human knowledge increasing at an exponential rate (as the comparison between Apollo 11 and the modern car demonstrates), is that no one person can ‘know everything’. Or as Michael Legrand said: ‘The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know.’

Book burning and the imposition of restrictions on the use of online material doesn’t work. If books are removed from circulation, the book is either available for sale from another jurisdiction or can be accessed online. Australians apparently excel in the breach of copyright laws through downloading entertainment from the internet: it stands to reason that if people are being encouraged to become ‘successful learners’ and ‘active and informed citizens’, as planned by Australia’s education ministers in 2008, they will be skilled in the tools and knowledge necessary to discover for themselves information that they are interested in or need to know. A part of this process will be the ability to determine if the information is reliable.

So how does a government develop a compliant citizenship that believes the myth of the superiority of ‘western civilisation’ or the ‘evil’ of alternative lifestyle choices? It withholds teaching of the ability to discover and assess information that is relevant to the individual while the individual is impressionable. The Jesuit premise of ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ has been tested by the 7 Up English television series since 1964 and, admittedly from a small sample, seems to have some basis of truth. (Australia’s current prime minister received a Jesuit education.)

While the concept of reminding our school students of Australian historical events rather than the date Columbus ‘discovered’ America has merit, should we be concerned about the deliberate choice of two conservative ‘experts’ to conduct a review of the educational system? Of course we should! While Pyne, Donnelly and Wiltshire are entitled to their opinions, where are the differing opinions that would promote balance and integrity in this proposed review?

Why the urgency to replace portions of a national curriculum that is so new parts of it have not yet been implemented?

How do we ensure that our children have the ability to think critically rather than just absorb (sometimes useless) information as was done in the past?

How do we justify to our children that a government minister with a clearly ideological agenda sidelines the body set up to manage a national curriculum?

What do you think?

Do you not remember the Twentieth Century?


Dear Mr Abbott,

You promised to take us back to the halcyon days of your Liberal Prime Ministerial predecessor John Howard and, like him, hoped to put sport rather than politics back on the front pages. I fear, however, your time machine has overshot the mark and we are heading rapidly towards the 1800s.

Do you not remember the Twentieth Century?

First: On 15 September 2013 you proudly announced your new Cabinet — with one woman!

Do you not recall Australia gave women the vote in federal elections in 1902 after campaigning by Australian suffragettes such as Vida Goldstein, Mary Lee, Henrietta Dugdale and Rose Scott? If not those names, you must remember Edith Cowan who went on to become the first female elected to any Australian parliament.

Women, however, did not get the vote quite so easily in the United Kingdom. Do you not recall Mrs Pankhurst and the British suffragettes who, from 1908, had to resort to militant tactics to achieve the vote?

Do you not remember Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and the ‘women’s lib’ movement (or second wave of feminism) of the 1960s and 1970s; the creation of the Women’s Electoral Lobby early in 1972; or the equal pay case of 1969; or women being allowed to drink in public bars and breaking down other social barriers?

Do you not remember that women have already fought much of this battle? Perhaps not, for they still have to fight to get into your Cabinet.

Second: During the 2013 election campaign you treated Indonesia like a colony, saying what Australia would do to protect its sovereignty and its borders from the evils of people smuggling without first asking Indonesia about your approaches that encroached on its sovereignty.

When in Opposition you attacked human rights in Malaysia and after you were elected were forced to apologise.

Did you not remember that south-east Asia was decolonised after WWII, that Indonesia first declared independence on 17 August 1945 but the Dutch tried to return? Do you not recall how from March 1946 Australia supported Indonesia’s independence and played a significant role in having the United Nations involved in negotiating an agreement leading to the Dutch withdrawal in 1949? Perhaps you would prefer not to, for that was a Labor government.

Did you not recall that Malaysia became completely independent from the UK in 1957 after a few years as a self-governing protectorate; that Australia sent military personnel to support Malaysia during ‘the emergency’ in the 1950s?

Why did you think that you could speak about our Asian neighbours in the way you did? Was it simply that you did not remember the Twentieth Century?

Third: You and your Ministers have demonised refugees arriving by boat, now making it official policy that they be referred to as ‘illegal arrivals’, despite Australia being a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Admittedly we did sign it during the Twentieth Century, which may make it somewhat difficult for you to recall.

Do you not remember that we are a nation of migrants and refugees? From what I can find out, you may have arrived as a ‘£10 Pom’. Was your family seeking a better life when they left England behind? What is it that the boat people say — oh, yes, they are looking for a better life? It does have an air of familiarity that you should recall. Or in overlooking the Twentieth Century have you also forgotten your own arrival?

Have you forgotten that people escaping war-torn Europe after World War II were welcomed — about 171,000 arrived between 1947 and 1954 under the migration program operating at the time. In fact, in those years the total net overseas migration was about 680,000. So we not only sponsored migrants, we welcomed four times as many.

One of your Liberal predecessors, Malcolm Fraser, supported the Vietnamese boat people who came to Australia in the mid-1970s. He sent migration officials to the refugee camps to speed the processing of claims and, you may be surprised to learn, that kept down the number arriving by boat — 2,059 boat arrivals between 1976 and 1981 compared to total net migration of 442,000, including about 56,000 Vietnamese who applied as refugees. Not a bad plan in my opinion.

Perhaps it is something you could consider. But then again, I imagine you don’t like to recall that part of the Twentieth Century because Fraser resigned from your Party when he saw how refugees were being treated.

Fourth: You have hidden from and, indeed, run away from interviews and gagged your Ministers.

Do you not remember that, after an initial decision in 1992, the High Court confirmed in 1997 an ‘implied right’ of constitutional freedom of political communication?

… ss 7 and 24 and the related sections of the Constitution necessarily protect that freedom of communication between the people concerning political or government matters which enables the people to exercise a free and informed choice as electors …

The High Court created a nexus between political communication and federal voting choices. This right of political communication is not restricted to election periods but can include any political communication between elections that may influence voting.

As electors we need to be informed what each party stands for, to know what the Australian Government is doing. There are also political communications with the Government to express our views, to try to change a policy or have new policies considered. How can we have political communication with you if you don’t even tell us what you are doing? We are not informed by your Government’s silence!

I can take you back to something you should remember because it occurred before the Twentieth Century.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804:

… man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear investigation of their actions.

A free press is considered a cornerstone of democracy (leaving aside for now discussion of the Murdoch press) by providing information to the people and creating an informed electorate. If you persist with keeping information from the people, we will be left to assume you ‘fear investigation of [your] actions’ or are hiding something from us — perhaps you already are!

Fifth: You have re-introduced ‘flexible workplace relations’ into the administrative orders for the Department of Employment, although in searching your pre-election policies I can find no reference to it. Is this double-speak for more of WorkChoices or at least individual bargaining between employer and employee? You are obviously aware, being a Rhodes scholar, that in that relationship the employer holds all the power — it can be a very one-sided negotiation.

Do you not recall what Justice Higgins said in the ‘Harvester case’ in November 1907:

The provision of fair and reasonable remuneration is obviously designed for the benefit of the employees in the industry; and it must be meant to secure to them something which they cannot get by the ordinary system of individual bargaining.

That is my emphasis to Justice Higgins’ words but, yes, back in those times individual bargaining was the norm. Even then, however, it was seen not to work well for the employee. But I suppose that is another part of the Twentieth Century you have overlooked in your hurry to take us back in time.

Do you not recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911? One hundred and forty six workers — mostly women — died, leading to changes in factory conditions and safety in the US.

Here in Australia, do you not remember the Mt Kembla colliery disaster in the Illawarra in NSW in July 1902 when 96 workers, men and boys, were killed, or the collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne in 1970, killing 35 construction workers and seriously injuring 17?

Do you not recall that it was the workers represented by their unions who fought for workplace safety for decades, yet still over 100 workers die at their work every year in Australia and over 100,000 serious worker’s compensation claims are made. In fact, 212 died in 2012 and 185 in 2013.

How can an employee demand a safe workplace through individual bargaining? Would you allow, in the name of flexibility and reducing regulation, lesser health and safety standards for businesses? Would you take us back to those times when the bosses decided what was ‘safe’? How many more lives will be lost if you allow that?

Sixth: You have promised $70 million to encourage 1,500 existing public schools to become independent. And you launched your education policy at a fundamentalist Christian school in Sydney’s western suburbs. You said you did not agree with its views on homosexuality and respectfully disagreed with a number of other pronouncements in its Statement of Faith — but not all of them? Perhaps you do agree with some because, after all, they are (or at least appear to me) more akin to Christian views of the 1800s.

Do you not recall Australia’s long history of a free secular education at the primary and secondary levels? New South Wales has been doing it since late in the 1800s (so perhaps that should be within your ken) and in 1912 Queensland began creating high schools for all when it worked out it was cheaper than their previous model of ‘grammar schools’.

Do you want to take us back to the mid-1800s when the Catholic and Protestant churches provided the schooling and there was competition between them to gain pupils?

Just as an example of those times, a Dr Braim JP wrote to the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne in 1849 complaining about a Jesuit priest in his local area (and I understand, you do know something about the Jesuits):

He is to be found in every house, where he has a chance of effecting an entrance, and is very active in trying to persuade parents to prefer his school to ours for the education of their children.*

*You can find this quote in the section ‘Orphan girls’ near the end of a very long letter on the Bishop’s travels through his Diocese.

Do you not remember that the Twentieth Century placed a high priority on education and that government schools made it accessible to all?

Your Minister for Education floated the idea of reintroducing ‘caps’ on university places. You did contradict him and said it would not happen but, given your approach to promises (only what is written; only what we do, not what we said we would do — ring any bells?) I’m not sure I can believe you. It smells to me of re-creating an elite and making sure the rest of us know our place.

Last, at least for now: You said in your book Battlelines that conservatism prefers facts to theory; practical demonstration to metaphysical abstraction; what works to what’s in the mind’s eye.

Do you not recall George Bernard Shaw’s words, famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in 1968:

Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not?

In your world, things would change ever so slowly. It is the dreamers who drive progress. Even you should understand that it is also the dreamers who drive capitalism.

Do you not remember it was Henry Ford who dreamed of making cars affordable for ordinary people and from 1908 made that dream real? Or in the 1980s, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who had a similar dream of making computing available to all? If you only believe in what already works, your much loved capitalism would grind to a halt!

I will finish there but only because I have better things to do with my time and no inclination to continue this list: it could take me weeks.

You may be a conservative but you seem to be ignoring the past, ignoring what has already been done and already shown to work. You seem to have forgotten most of the Twentieth Century in your rush to take us back in time.

Perhaps your vision is of a late Victorian patriarchal upper middle-class family following correct etiquette and manners, with the elite paternalistically watching over the rest of us. It may reduce our cost of living if we no longer need televisions, computers or cars; you will not need to spend billions on motorways but perhaps more on trams — and horses! We may, however, need to use more coal and timber and, in the twenty-first century, other nations may not thank us for that.

I am sorry to remind you, but those times are gone. The Twentieth Century did happen!

Yours faithfully

Ken Wolff

PS: If I have some of my details wrong, I apologise, but at least I can recall the Twentieth Century.

What can you add to my letter?

What else has Abbott forgotten from the Twentieth Century?

What do you think?



Who killed Cock Robin?

I read that opening stanza of the old rhyme as a metaphor of the continued and repeatedly frustrated human progress toward social advancement. It is the most disappointing certainty that as soon as the human collective gets its act together and starts to achieve really useful advances in all things supportive and advantageous to the promotion of the human condition, along come those who set it all back a generation or two, or worse. The person who first wrote the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden must have felt the same way. Take away the biblical language and I think it could go like this:

Here we have two people, a young man and a young woman, attractive and attracted to each other, living in the best of any world, a veritable Garden of Eden: no worries, all the food they can want, all the time in the world; nothing to do but eat, drink and make love; and what to they do but screw it all up! I tell you, it's a mug's game!

So let's forget about the many, many thousands of like-managed scenarios throughout history where exactly the same action has been repeated ad-nauseam with exactly the same result. Cut to the recent election where a majority of our own society, our own people, voted in just such a destroyer of many good policies even against their own interests. No-one can deny that Gonski was for the benefit of the vast majority of citizens; no-one can deny the NBN was for the benefit of the vast majority of citizens; no-one can deny that action on climate change in a coordinated policy with the rest of the world was for the benefit of a vast majority of citizens. So why do we always screw it up? What is this inherent 'evil' that, like some incubus, sitting, waiting for the favourable moment, then strikes to undo and demolish any or all good works that have taken years to put in place?

Who killed Cock Robin?
‘I’ said the Sparrow, ‘with my little bow and arrow’

Sadly, dear friends, it is the collective ‘We’, ‘We the people’ who kill the ideas that enhance a society. Take the NBN for instance. Under Malcolm Turnbull, who just a couple of years ago we would have considered a moderate liberal, a reasonable man, we see the total destruction of any meaningful future for a high-speed broadband network for a majority of Australians. Who would have thought when voting in such a person as the current minister, himself a self- and publicly proclaimed citizen loyal to the republican cause and the nation, he would descend to such a level as to destroy the best system so as to build an inferior system more favourable to a foreign national citizen and corporation — a corporation whose former highest executives, at this very moment, are before the Old Bailey on charges of grave criminal concern. Who would have thought this ‘honourable man’, this ‘everyman’, would cheerfully work with such players to destroy infrastructure put in place for the benefit of the nation?

‘...with my little bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.’

Of course, this methodical destruction of government institutions is all to serve the ideology of economic rationalism, a crude, barbaric system that favours individual speculation over government stimulus and investment; that favours corporate structures over what is spoken of in the economic rationalist circles as ‘socialist intervention’ by government. So we now weirdly have a free enterprise government that scorns public sentiment and investment but was voted in on a media-manipulated social platform of ‘all-inclusive democracy’. Even more strangely, it is now withdrawing what it sees as democratic-state social obligations toward the citizen body in favour of corporate entrepreneurial speculation that in itself is, in theory, a body wholly and completely founded on an all inclusive social-democratic principle of multi-shareholder citizens, valued employee citizens, serviced customer citizens and corporate responsibility ethics. If that doesn't sound like a humble all-for-one/one-for-all socialist principle, then nothing is!

When Margaret Thatcher said, ‘There is no such thing as society...’ when talking to Woman’s Own magazine, a magazine that delivered news and views to a broad English society, it had to be one of the most fatuous statements ever made! She might as well have said: ‘There is no such thing as sunshine: there are only beams of light’. Her comment reflects the contradictions in the perceptions of the right-wing mind, as in a society where the entire corporate success story is totally reliant on mutual cooperation between the executive, middle-management, shop-floor production and sales and distribution; and that is only sustainable over the long-term by employing fair-wage workers within a stable society. Surely a marvellous example of mutually beneficial socialist democracy at work! So what those in the right-wing think-tanks and those in the current government have not realised, even in their most lucid moments, is that all their cynical dismantling is doing is putting themselves out of perhaps the only job they are capable of, replacing themselves with corporate socialism. Murdoch/Rinehart/Forrest et al must be laughing at those pollies all the way to their ‘comrade investor’ shareholder cooperatives!

The contradictions of the corporate mind are evident in the ‘confected’ conflict between corporations and labour and that conflict must be addressed. It must be addressed by those two players as they are the crux of power in a modern democracy. The politicians are now just the bull-horn mouthpieces of these centres of power. While the Labour unions may seem decimated at the moment, they are still the ‘eye of the storm’ in their capacity to organise and negotiate outcomes. The capacity to recruit is there, as is a future recruitment pool — labour is labour is labour! Ever since the collapse of aristocratic control of parliament, the corporate middle classes have exerted their power on parliament and democracy. Given a full head of steam, we have seen them rise on the wings of fascism to seek total dominance over all forms of wages and labour. It is in their DNA to try and dominate. It is a necessity of the ‘bottom line’ profit margin to skim and skin, always looking for the ‘cheap-labour’ demographic and then to capitalise, coerce and govern through it.

But back to the rhyme …

Who caught his blood?
‘I’ said the fish ‘with my little dish’

What do the politicians supporting these people think will be the end result of their destructive machinations? Do they think the citizen body will respect them?

‘The Mateship’ from Keating; The Musical

Do they think the corporate body will even consider them as useful after they have done the dirty work? Do they think their lot in life will be a peaceful retirement after they have reduced the living standard of many of those fellow citizens around them? They have to go to the shops. They will want to go to the beach, to the hotel or restaurant. They will be noticed, they will be pointed out. Will they demand some sort of security to accompany them every time? If we consult The Discourse of Titus Livius by Niccolò Machiavelli, we will read where he recommends, ‘To deal judgement on a person of power, first remove him from his position of power and then deal with him at your leisure.’ Such will be the reward of those who spite and cruel the citizen body. There are few examples in history where vengeful memory has not brought some sort of rough-justice to such perpetrators of injury.

Who'll toll the bell?
‘I’ said the Bullfinch ‘cause I can pull, I'll toll the bell.’

There is an inherent truth in the line, ‘No man is an island unto himself ’. What we do unto one, we do unto all and only a child or the fool will delude themselves that they can get away with a secret deception. We of aged years know from rich experience that there are no secrets; there is no devious act nor kindness that is not noted and reciprocated. There is a hunger in the honest soul for justice. There is a hunger in the virtuous soul for kindness. There is a hunger in the community soul for equality in labour and reward. Those who would deny or willingly destroy such ambition in the spirit of a nation, history notes, will be culled from the citizen body before they infect the entire life-blood of a nation. History shows us there are two methods this can be done. One is the taking up of arms — an ugly result! The other is a better justice, a more resounding justice: to vote the bullies out in no uncertain terms at the ballot box. That is the greater justice, for that tells them to their face, ‘You are not wanted in this House’.

Who killed Cock Robin? 'I' said the sparrow 'with my little bow and arrow'.

Who'll be the mourner?
‘I’ said the Dove.
‘I'll mourn for my love,
I'll be the mourner.’

Maintain the rage!

What do you think?



So that was … 2013

Welcome to 2014!

And we welcome you to your next ‘open thread’, which will run until the 2nd February, when our conversation starters, and Casablanca’s Cache, will return.

It seems to be traditional at this time of the year to reflect on what has been, and to look forward to what is to happen.

To be fair, 2013 wasn’t the greatest of years.

They say the only constant is change. We leave 2013 with our third Prime Minister for the year and the election of a Federal Government of a different political persuasion to the one we started with. After the event, it seems that the newly elected Government’s politicians proposed to honour their promises more in the breach than the observance. If Parliament House had a ‘service desk’, it would be doing a roaring trade in exchanging votes this holiday season – if the polls can be believed.

Around the world, Barack Obama commenced his second term in January 2013 before walking into a ‘Government shutdown’ over Obamacare. Late in the year the world lost Nelson Mandela – one of the greatest identities of our era. (As an aside, Mandela was still on the US Government’s ‘terrorism watch list’ in 2008 and had to apply for special permission to enter the USA – yet US Presidents of the era still attended his funeral.)

The media landscape also changed in Australia during the year with the commencement of an Australian version of The Guardian. According to an online question and answer session with its editor during November, they are ahead of their expectations of success. The Daily Mail will join them by launching an Australian website in 2014. Various News and Fairfax publications erected paywalls during 2013 and seemingly aren’t commenting on the success of the ventures. NewsCorp is still ‘out to get’ the ABC – especially since the ABC and The Guardian teamed up to break the recent story regarding Australia spying on our neighbours.

The Political Sword is also constantly changing. You’ll find details of the level of change that occurred on this site during 2013 in the previous post. So far the response to the changes has been overwhelmingly positive, and the TPS Team are extremely grateful for your continuing support.

If you would like to write a piece in 2014 as a conversation starter for TPS, we’d love to hear from you. TPS is always looking for new voices, whether you’ve ever written a blog post before, or not. Send us an outline, or a rough draft, or a complete piece: we will be happy to work with you to bring your ideas to fruition.

The TPS Team is also looking for some more regular readers and/or commenters to join the team that now ‘manages’ TPS. Many hands make light work for all of us – and most of the present 2013 team have ‘day jobs’.

As you’re probably aware, all pieces submitted to TPS are reviewed. One way to join the TPS Team, but take on an easy task that doesn’t take a lot of time, and that doesn’t have to happen often, is to offer to review – that is, become a TPS reviewer. Reviewing is a bit like getting to comment, but before we actually publish a piece. (Needless to say, your comments ‘below the line’ are always welcome!)

We are also looking for one or two additional people who might have had editing experience and who might have time to edit a piece for TPS every now and again.

If you have any interest in writing for TPS or helping out as a reviewer or editor, do email us.

As we are in the middle of a period where cricket, surf reports and families seem to be more important than politics, rather than analyse what politicians said versus what they did – the TPS Team is interested in how you see 2014 panning out.

Will you have a great New Year’s resolution story (giving up smoking, catching the bus to work, travelling Australia)?

Do you think it will be a better year for the world, country or you personally?

Do you think Australian politicians will develop an understanding of the common meaning of the word ‘promise’?


The Political Sword Team wishes all our contributors and readers a wonderful year of discussion and of sharing various points of view.

As always, we look forward to you telling us what you think.



‘Happy Summertime’ from the TPS Team!

From this week The Political Sword goes into recess for the summer period until the 2nd February 2014.

Well, its authors, and Casablanca’s Cache, will have a break, but all of you who love to comment and share links and thoughts and fun on TPS don’t have to do the same.

Comments on this page will stay open until the 1st January 2014. Then, the TPS Team will put up a new page, where comments through January can stay open until the first discussion starter by an author for 2014 goes up on the 2nd February.

This past year, 2013, has been a big one for The Political Sword. It’s not only the change of government; it’s that two stalwart Swordsters, Ad Astra and Lyn Linking, retired from their daily and full-time commitment to this long-term blog. We mourned their loss, and wondered about life with no TPS.

But little by little, The Political Sword found itself renewed and revived as a group effort, with a team that now chuffs along behind the scenes, and with regular team authors Ken Wolff and 2353 mixing it up with guest bloggers. This year we’ve been lucky to have well-known writers Barry Tucker and David Horton guesting, as well as Ad Astra on a guest-spot return, and jaycee, long-time commenter, trying his hand at a discussion starter for the first time.

We thought you might like to know who your TPS Team in these last three months of 2013 has been. We were:

  • Bacchus, who provides all general tech support, as well as email and TPS Twitter account support;
  • Casablanca, who puts together the ever-extraordinary ‘Casablanca’s Cache’;
  • Catching Up: email support and comment moderating;
  • Janet (j4gypsy): editing and Twitter support;
  • Ken Wolff: regular authoring and reviewing, as well as editing support;
  • Pappinbarra Fox: regular reviewing support;
  • Talk Turkey: reviewing and comment moderating support;
  • 2353: regular authoring and reviewing as well as online/html coding support;
  • Ad Astra who, as well as mentoring us all through the process of becoming a team, has acted at different times as editor as well as author, and regular TPS site technical support.
We also thought we could all end the year with some visual moments – anything from a cartoon to YouTube grabs -- that capture any of the lowlights or highlights of the 2013 political year, and in whatever seasons TPS contributors might have celebrated or will celebrate this year.

We invite you to add your visual moment (or two) of the year in a comment below, and tell us why you chose it.

Here’s one, with a ‘why’, to start the ball rolling.


2353 picked this, because, he says:

While this clip is really a commercial it demonstrates that some corporations do have a sense of community and of the greater good. Community and the greater good are two things we all should remember in our own dealings and insist on in others during 2014. From my family to yours: we hope 2014 is everything you want it to be and full of peace and prosperity. Take care over the festive season and throughout the year.

We wish you, from us all, a happy and safe summer holiday season.

The myth of political sameness

Cock your ear at your local watering hole, listen to the boys as they clasp a frosted schooner of VB, and you’re bound to hear: ‘They’re all the same these pollies. Ya just can’t trust em’. Of course they are right to some extent. The deception and deviousness we see day after day from our politicians has earned them that condemnation. On the other side of the coin, by and large politicians enter public life to make a difference, to do good things, to make life better for their electorates, indeed the whole nation. Only the Eddie Obeids of this world have self-interest as their driving force.

Similarly, political parties have good intentions and many comparable policies. It’s not surprising then that many voters perceive politicians and parties as ‘all the same’.

This notion of sameness needs debunking, lest too many entitled to cast a vote swallow the myth that the ‘sameness’ of the parties absolves them from making a critical decision about who is best equipped to lead the nation, who has the best policy agenda, who has the most acceptable ideology, who has the most suitable approach to policy development, who can take us to a better future.

Politicians and parties are not ‘all the same’.

In his book: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002), George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive scientist, tells us how very different are conservatives from progressives, and how the major differences in their mindset affects their approach to politics. Because he studied US politics, he uses the term ‘liberal’ to describe ‘progressives’ (in the US, Democrats; in this country Labor and perhaps the Greens), and ‘conservative’ to describe conservatives (in the US, Republicans or their extreme variant, The Tea Party; in this country the Liberal National Party, the Coalition). Most of the quotes in this piece are from this book. I quote him extensively; my words could not do a better job than his.

His underlying thesis rests on a central metaphor: ‘Nation as Family’. He elaborates on this as follows:

The Nation is a Family.
The Government is a Parent.
The Citizens are the Children.

We know that the metaphor is not wholly applicable, but many people find it a comfortable one with which they can identify readily. They can accept that family dynamics and economics might be seen as applicable to the nation’s dynamics and economics, even though there are many fundamental differences. Our politicians often use this metaphor, making reference to the family budget to argue that the nation, like a family, must ‘live within its means’.

Building on the Nation as Family metaphor, Lakoff identifies two types of family based upon two distinct styles of parenting, which he assigns to conservatives and progressives respectively. When applied to the Nation as Family metaphor, they result in vastly different behaviours.

The two parenting styles are:

The Strict Father model, and
The Nurturant Parent model.

At the center of the conservative worldview is a Strict Father model; the liberal (progressive) worldview centres on a very different ideal for family life, the Nurturant Parent model, which encompasses both parents.

Lakoff asserts that the Strict Father model is a metaphorical version of an economic idea. He explains:

It is based on a folk version of Adam Smith’s economics: If each person seeks to maximize his own wealth, then, by an invisible hand, the wealth of all will be maximized. Applying the common metaphor that Well-Being Is Wealth to this folk version of free-market economics, we get: If each person tries to maximize his own well-being (or self-interest), the well-being of all will be maximized. Thus, seeking one’s own self-interest is actually a positive, moral act, one that contributes to the well-being of all.

Lakoff goes on to cite some words and phrases used over and over in conservative discourse, words that reflect the Strict Father model:

Character, virtue, discipline, tough it out, get tough, tough love, strong, self-reliance, individual responsibility, backbone, standards, authority, heritage, competition, earn, hard work, enterprise, property rights, reward, freedom, intrusion, interference, meddling, punishment, human nature, traditional, common sense, dependency, self-indulgent, elite, quotas, breakdown, corrupt, decay, rot, degenerate, deviant, lifestyle.

How many times have you heard Coalition members use these words, particularly those who have responsibility for the economy: Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann? Countless times!

Lakoff continues:

Liberals [progressives], in their speeches and writings, choose different topics, different words, and different modes of inference than conservatives. Liberals talk about: social forces, social responsibility, free expression, human rights, equal rights, concern, care, help, health, safety, nutrition, basic human dignity, oppression, diversity, deprivation, alienation, big corporations, corporate welfare, ecology, ecosystem, biodiversity, pollution, and so on. Conservatives tend not to dwell on these topics, or to use these words as part of their normal political discourse.

How often have you heard Labor members and Greens using these words? Over and again!

Lakoff summarises:

The conservative/liberal [progressive] division is ultimately a division between strictness and nurturance as ideals at all levels—from the family to morality to religion and, ultimately, to politics. It is a division at the center of our democracy and our public lives, and yet there is no overt discussion of it in public discourse.

He continues:

Yet it is vitally important that we do so if Americans are to understand, and come to grips with, the deepest fundamental division in our country, one that transcends and lies behind all the individual issues: the role of government, social programs, taxation, education, the environment, energy, gun control, abortion, the death penalty, and so on. These are ultimately not different issues, but manifestations of a single issue: strictness versus nurturance.

In Australia, an identical and just as fundamental division exists between the Coalition, the conservatives, and Labor and the Greens, the progressives. This division results in the striking differences in attitude, behaviour, rhetoric, policy, and indeed morality, which day after day define our own conservatives and our own progressives. It explains so much of the contrast we see.

Lakoff summarises the relationship between morality and politics as follows:

The Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models of the family induce…two moral systems...

The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is, namely, as a family. It is the common, unconscious, and automatic metaphor of the Nation as Family that produces contemporary conservatism from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nurturant Parent morality.

According to Lakoff, conservatives cannot understand the thinking of progressives, nor can progressives understand conservatives. Conventional logic does not help; it is only when the two methods of parenting are used as explanatory models that understanding comes into view with a startling flash of insight.

To assist understanding, Lakoff compares conservative and liberal (progressive) moral systems:

Conservative categories of moral action:

1. Promoting Strict Father morality in general.
2. Promoting self-discipline, responsibility, and self-reliance.
3. Upholding the Morality of Reward and Punishment.
a. Preventing interference with the pursuit of self-interest by self-disciplined, self-reliant people.
b. Promoting punishment as a means of upholding authority.
c. Ensuring punishment for lack of self-discipline.
4. Protecting moral people from external evils.
5. Upholding the Moral Order.

Liberal categories of moral action:

1. Empathetic behaviour, and promoting fairness.
2. Helping those who cannot help themselves.
3. Protecting those who cannot protect themselves.
4. Promoting fulfillment in life.
5. Nurturing and strengthening oneself in order to do the above.

He clarifies these concepts as follows:

In the conservative moral worldview, the model citizens are those who best fit all the conservative categories for moral action. They are those (1) who have conservative values and act to support them; (2) who are self-disciplined and self-reliant; (3) who uphold the morality of reward and punishment; (4) who work to protect moral citizens; and (5) who act in support of the moral order. Those who best fit all these categories are successful, wealthy, law-abiding conservative businessmen who support a strong military and a strict criminal justice system, who are against government regulation, and who are against affirmative action. They are the model citizens. They are the people whom all Americans should emulate and from whom we have nothing to fear. They deserve to be rewarded and respected.

These model citizens fit an elaborate mythology. They have succeeded through hard work, have earned whatever they have through their own self-discipline, and deserve to keep what they have earned. Through their success and wealth they create jobs, which they “give” to other citizens. Simply by investing their money to maximize their earnings, they become philanthropists who “give” jobs to others and thereby “create wealth” for others [trickle down economics]. Part of the myth is that these model citizens have been given nothing by the government and have made it on their own. The American Dream is that any honest, self-disciplined, hard-working person can do the same. These model citizens are seen by conservatives as the Ideal Americans in the American Dream.

We can now see clearly why liberal [progressive] arguments for social programs can make no sense at all to conservatives, whether they are arguments on the basis of compassion, fairness, wise investment, financial responsibility, or outright self-interest. The issue for conservatives is a moral issue touching the very heart of conservative morality, a morality where a liberal’s compassion and fairness are neither compassionate nor fair. Even financial arguments won’t carry the day. The issue isn’t about money; it’s about morality.

What we have here are major differences in moral worldview. They are not just differences of opinion about effective public administration. The differences are not about efficiency, or practicality, or economics, and they cannot be settled by rational argument about effective administration. They are ethical opinions about what makes good people and a good nation.

Lakoff illustrates his thesis with an example from America that has application in this country:

Take a simple example: college loans. The federal government has had a program to provide low-interest loans to college students. The students don’t have to start paying off the loans while they are still in college and the loans are interest-free during the college years [similar to our HECS - HELP loan program].

The liberal rationale for the program is this: College is expensive and a great many poor-to-middle-class students cannot afford it. This loan program allows a great many students to go to college who otherwise wouldn’t. Going to college allows one to get a better job at a higher salary afterward and to be paid more during one’s entire life. This benefits not only the student but also the government, since the student will be paying more taxes over his lifetime because of his better job. From the liberal [progressive] moral perspective, this is a highly moral program. It helps those who cannot help themselves. It promotes fulfillment in life in two ways, since education is fulfilling in itself and it permits people to get more fulfilling jobs. It strengthens the nation, since it produces a better-educated citizenry and ultimately brings in more tax money; and it is empathetic behavior making access to college more fairly distributed.

But through conservative spectacles, this is an immoral program. Since students depend on the loans, the program supports dependence on the government rather than self-reliance. Since not everyone has access to such loans, the program introduces competitive unfairness, thus interfering with the free market in loans and hence with the fair pursuit of self-interest. Since the program takes money earned by one group and, through taxation, gives it to another group, it is unfair and penalizes the pursuit of self-interest by taking money from someone who has earned it and giving it to someone who hasn’t.

Lakoff explains:

I started with college loans because it is not as heated an issue as abortion or welfare or the death penalty or gun control. Yet it is a nitty-gritty issue, because it affects a lot of people very directly. To a liberal, it is obviously the right thing to do. And to a conservative, it is obviously the wrong thing to do.

I trust that these extensive quotes from Lakoff’s book paint clearly the differences that he postulates exist between the mindset and thinking of conservatives and progressives.

Although Lakoff’s description of the extremes of conservative and progressive thinking might lead one to conclude that there is a spectrum along which this thinking is distributed, somewhat after the fashion of a bell-shaped curve, which could throw up ‘moderate’ or ‘middle of the road’ conservatives and progressives, Lakoff maintains that there are no such politicians. He acknowledges that sometimes conservatives may have a progressive view on some issues, and progressives may have a conservative view on other issues, but insists that there are no moderates. A conservative is a conservative, and a progressive is a progressive.

Lakoff spells out in detail just how conservatives and progressives see the world:

It should now be clear why, from the conservative world-view, the rich should be seen as “the best people”. They are the model citizens, those who, through self-discipline and hard work, have achieved the American Dream. They have earned what they have and deserve to keep it. Because they are the best people – people whose investments create jobs and wealth for others – they should be rewarded. Taking money away is conceptualized as harm, financial harm; that is the metaphorical basis of seeing taxation as punishment. When the rich are taxed more than others for making a lot more money, they are, according to conservatives, being punished for being model citizens, for doing what, according to the American Dream, they are supposed to do. Taxation of the rich is, to conservatives, punishment for doing what is right and succeeding at it. It is a violation of the Morality of Reward and Punishment. In the conservative worldview, the rich have earned their money and, according to the Morality of Reward and Punishment, deserve to keep it. Taxation – the forcible taking of their money from them against their will – is seen as unfair and immoral, a kind of theft. That makes the federal government a thief. Hence, a common conservative attitude toward the government: You can’t trust it, since, like a thief, it’s always trying to find ways to take your money.

Liberals, of course, see taxation through very different lenses. In Nurturant Parent morality, the wellbeing of all children matters equally. Those children who need less care, the mature and healthy children, simply have a duty to help care for those who need more, say, younger or infirm children. The duty is a matter of moral accounting. They have received nurturance from their parents and owe it to the other children if it is needed. In the Nation as Family metaphor, citizens who have more have a duty to help out those who have much less. Progressive taxation is a form of meeting this duty. Rich conservatives who are trying to get out of paying taxes are seen as selfish and mean-spirited. The nation has helped provide for them and it is their turn to help provide for others. They owe it to the nation.

He could scarcely make it any clearer. How relevant is this exposition to the contemporary dispute about the Gonski model for school funding here!

Lakoff goes on to assert a worrying trend:

The conservative family values agenda is, at present, being set primarily by fundamentalist Christians. This is not a situation that many people are aware of.

These groups have been most explicit in developing a Strict Father approach to childrearing and have been extremely active in promoting their approach. On the whole, they are defining the conservative position for the current debate about childrearing, as well as for legislation incorporating their approach. Since the ideas in conservative Christian childrearing manuals are fully consistent with the Strict Father model of the family that lies behind conservative politics, it is not at all strange that such fundamentalist groups should be setting the national conservative agenda on family values.

In short, conservative family values, which are the basis for conservative morality and political thought, are not supported by either research in child development or the mainstream childrearing experts in the country. That is another reason why the conservative family agenda has been left to fundamentalist Christians. Since there is no significant body of mainstream experts who support the Strict Father model, conservatives can rely only on fundamentalist Christians, who have the only well thought out approach to childrearing that supports the Strict Family model.

The claims to legitimacy for the conservative family values enterprise rest with the fundamentalist Christian community, a community whose conclusions are not based on empirical research but on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. And that…is based on Strict Father morality itself. Thus, there is no independent or non-ideological basis whatever for conservative claims about family values.

Is this group of fundamentalist Christians representative of conservative attitudes about childrearing? I don’t know, but they are in charge. They are the people setting the conservative family values agenda.

We have become aware of the influence of fundamentalist Christians in The Tea Party on the recent debt ceiling debate in the US, which resulted in the closure of some government departments, and threatened the government with the prospect of defaulting on repayment of its borrowings. They pressured their less radical Republican colleagues and almost succeeded in overwhelming them.

Lakoff comments on the funding of policy think tanks:

Because of the way conservative think tanks are funded – through large general block grants and virtually guaranteed long-term funding – conservative intellectuals can work on long-term, high-level strategies that cover the whole spectrum of issues.

Liberal [progressive] think tanks and other organizations are not only out-funded four-to-one, they are also organized in a self-defeating manner. There are three general types: advocacy, policy, and monitoring the other side. The advocacy and policy organizations generally work issue-by-issue. Few are engaged in long-term, high-level thinking, partly because of the issue-by-issue orientation, partly because they are kept busy responding to the current week’s conservative assaults, and partly because they constantly have to pursue funding. The funding priorities of liberal foundations and other funders are also self-defeating. They tend to be program-oriented (issue-by-issue) and relatively short-term with no guarantee of refunding. Moreover, they tend not to give money for career development or infrastructure. And liberal organizations tend not to support their intellectuals! In short, they are doing just the opposite of what they should be doing if they are to counter the conservatives’ successes.

I’m sure these words will resonate in Labor hearts in this country, where we have seen several well-funded conservative think tanks (the IPA is a classic example) outperform the few progressive ones, set the policy agenda for the Coalition, and fashion the most effective framing of these policies. Labor has not been able to match this, has been manipulated to use the frames set by the Coalition, and thereby has repeatedly failed to get across its message.

It is heartening to see that the Centre for Policy Development, a local progressive think tank, has this year written a book: Pushing Our Luck: ideas for Australian progress, about which reviewer Ken Wolff tells us that it ‘presents a wide ranging picture of the changes needed in our economic and social structures if we are to maintain our “luck” into the future’.

Finally, in another Lakoff book: The Political Mind – A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to your Brain and its Politics (Penguin Books, London, 2009), he asserts that the different thinking of conservatives and progressives has a neural basis. He argues:

To change minds, you must change brains. You must make unconscious politics conscious. Because most of what our brains do is unconscious, you can’t find out how people’s brains work by just asking them. That is why neuroscience and cognitive sciences are necessary.

There is not space here to elaborate; that will have to wait for another piece.

To me, Lakoff’s thesis was a revelation. As one who applies logic to resolve puzzling matters, Lakoff showed how pointless this process is in attempting to understand how conservatives and progressives think, and why they think so differently. He also showed the pointlessness of expecting conservatives and progressives to explain why they are so different; they don’t know themselves!

Lakoff provides a plausible explanatory model. I for one believe he has tapped into a rich vein of understanding that for me explains the extraordinary differences between our own conservatives and progressives, which until I read his thesis, defied explanation. What he says makes sense. Hereafter, it will enable a depth of comprehension for me that was not previously possible.

Try keeping Lakoff’s thesis in mind as you now listen to political dialogue, no matter what the forum. You might be surprised how much more sense you are able to make of it!

What do you think?

Generational change and the ALP

In the Abbott Cone of Silence since the 2013 election, the media has actually been looking around for other things to report on. There are two issues that caught my interest recently.

The first was the reporting of a survey conducted by Monash University and funded by the Scanlon Foundation. The survey suggested that while Australians like immigration, they dislike ‘boat people’. (The Scanlon Foundation website discusses the objectives of this organisation as well as linking to the current and previous surveys.)

Unfortunately (for me), I can remember the 70s and 80s and the Vietnam War. I can also remember that there was bipartisan support for a considerable number of people displaced from South East Asia as a result of that war who became refugees in Australia. At the time, part of the discussion on why we should accept asylum seekers from South East Asia into Australian society was that Australia was partly responsible for the displacement of fellow human beings. There was a certain amount of logic to this argument as Australia was part of a multi-national force that had attempted to bomb the Vietnamese Communists into submission.

The Australian Government of the time assisted asylum seekers into the country; then, through a number of paid and volunteer groups gave assistance to the refugees until they ‘found their feet’ in Australia and started to contribute to our society. The National Archives website claims:

… the impact of the Fraser government can best be seen in its revitalised immigration program. From 1975 to 1982, some 200,000 migrants arrived from Asian countries, including nearly 56,000 Vietnamese people who applied as refugees. In addition, policies were put in place to grant entry to 2059 ‘boat people’ – refugees from Vietnam who arrived without documents or official permission after hazardous sea voyages to the northern coast of Australia. The immigration program focused on resettlement and multiculturalism. In 1978 the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs was created. Petro Georgiou, the Prime Minister’s immigration adviser, suggested in retrospect that: ‘Viewed in the longer run it was the entry of Vietnamese refugees that made Australia’s migrant intake multiracial … it was under [Fraser’s] management that Australia first confronted the real consequences of abolishing the White Australia Policy.’

Between the 1930s and now, it is estimated that Australia has become home to over 750,000 refugees. The National Archives attributes over 56,000 of that number to the eight years of the Fraser Government.

The interesting thing about this period of our history is that the Australian Prime Minister at the time – Malcolm Fraser – was a member of the Liberal Party and described at the time as extremely conservative.* In his defence, though, his predecessor was Gough Whitlam so the comparison is probably more marked than it could have been. Fraser was conservative economically; he commissioned a review of the Public Service as well as cutting expenditure and reducing services (sound familiar?). Fraser’s Government – his Treasurer was John Howard – had the Australian economy in recession in 1983 when Bob Hawke and the ALP were voted into power.

Come forward to 2013 and we have both political parties in Australia attempting to outdo each other in rhetoric demonstrating they are ‘tough’ on asylum seekers. The Political Sword has previously discussed some of the current practices in relation to asylum seekers, and we won’t go there again now. However, we can ask why there was bipartisan support for asylum seekers in the 70s and 80s and why in 2013 there is bipartisan support for what could be described as an ‘anywhere but Australia’ policy.

The second issue in the media that caught my interest was the ‘debt ceiling’ debate in the United States. While I won’t claim to know enough about the practicalities and politics of the issue, there has been considerable reporting on it. This News Limited business article ‘Tea Party candidates behind the US government shutdown’, written before the very public back down from the Republican Party that allowed the US Government to resume ‘normal service’, details some of the issues involved.

The Tea Party is a very conservative political group that has a number of ‘non-negotiable’ core beliefs. These are listed on their website and seem to be similar to some of the 75 points the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) believe are necessary in Australia. Ironically, the linked article from the IPA sheets a considerable part of the blame for Australia’s ‘failings’ to Fraser’s Government. There is a local Tea Party, too, calling itself CANdo. You might recognise some of the players in, or offering patronage to, that organisation: for example, David Flint, Hugh Morgan, Alan Jones.

That the conservative end of the Republican Party – backed by their Tea Party – is bringing to America significant personal tragedy and heartache is demonstrated by the personal story of an IRS government employee caught in the shutdown, Jenny Brown of Ogden Utah, as reported by George Packer in The New Yorker. In ‘Business as usual’, Packer notes that:

According to an estimate by Standard & Poor’s, the Tea Party’s brinkmanship cost the American economy twenty-four billion dollars—more than half a percentage point of quarterly growth. House Republicans have suffered a huge tactical defeat of their own devising, and their approval ratings are at an all-time low. President Obama and the Democrats in Congress appear strong for refusing to give in to blackmail.

But he then reflects that:

… in a larger sense the Republicans are winning, and have been for the past three years, if not the past thirty. They’re just too blinkered by fantasies of total victory to see it. The shutdown caused havoc for federal workers and the citizens they serve across the country. Parks and museums closed, new cancer patients were locked out of clinical trials, loans to small businesses and rural areas froze, time ran down on implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law, trade talks had to be postponed. All this chaos only brings the government into greater disrepute, and, as Jenny Brown’s colleagues dig their way out of the backlog, they’ll be fielding calls from many more enraged taxpayers. It would be naïve to think that intransigent Republicans don’t regard these consequences of their actions with indifference, if not outright pleasure. Ever since Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural, pronounced government to be the problem, elected Republicans have been doing everything possible to make it true.

While the Republicans may be seen to be ‘winning the argument’, it seems, however, that all is not well for the Tea Party’s role within the Republican Party – as this Bloomberg report, ‘Republican Civil War Erupts: Business Groups v. Tea Party’, explains. Harold Meyerson, in ‘A tea party purge among the GOP’ (The Washington Post) also analyses the issue.

Both articles reflect on the predominance of ‘older white Americans’ in the US Tea Party. Apparently, one of the ‘big issues’ with the US Government shutdown with older white Americans was the closure of the World War II memorial in Washington – an interesting comment on the demographics and perceptions of the Tea Party’s membership! Perhaps Gary Younge of The Guardian has the answer, in terms of this group in the US:

Central to this deep-seated sense of angst is race. In 2012, 92% of the Republican vote came from white people who, within 30 years, will no longer be in the majority.

Back in Australia, it seems that the same people that are publically backing the self-proclaimed ‘Australian Tea Party’ – CANdo – also have considerable influence in our major conservative party, the LNP, particularly in relation to its leadership.

After Kevin Rudd and the ALP were voted into office, the Parliamentary Opposition Leadership position seemed to be a revolving door – with Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull both being ‘tapped on the shoulder’. On both occasions, this occurred after they seemed to agree with a proposal from the ALP Government that wasn’t conventional – the GFC economic stimulus plan and the carbon pricing scheme, respectively. Abbott won his 2009 leadership vote by one vote and was the third Opposition Leader since the 2007 election. The LNP leadership challenges were reported at the time as being orchestrated by the LNP’s ‘power brokers’ such as Nick Minchin a (now retired) Liberal Senator from South Australia. But Phil Dobbie (a broadcaster with considerable experience) also links the influence of the Alan Jones’ Radio Show with the various changes in Liberal Party leadership during the period 2007 to 2010.

Can George Packer’s comment that the conservatives are ‘really winning the argument’ be seen as valid across the Pacific in Australia?

I believe it can be. The Scanlon/Monash survey on Social Cohesiveness suggests that in 2013 this country is ‘against’ asylum seekers – in spite of bipartisan support in the 1970s and 1980s where a resettlement policy was managed by the ruling Liberal/Country Party Government. Reflecting such findings by the Scanlon/Monash survey, the current Government used the three-word ‘Stop the boats’ mantra while in Opposition and claims that they stopped the boats in their first 50 days of Government.

The ALP seems to have recognised this trend and in these days of focus groups and marketing experts also seems to be heading to the conservative side of politics, allowing for a vacuum to be created on the progressive side of the political landscape.

While ‘aping’ your competitors may work when selling TVs, it is potentially a lesser advantage when selling ideas and strategy. The ALP is responsible for a number of great social advances in Australian history, from paid annual leave to disability care. Should the ALP, in an attempt to court a group of voters that are literally dying out, (ageing conservative men and women) continue to copy the LNP’s position on a number of issues, or should it stand its ground on its own principles?

Obama and the Democratic Party in the US seem to have decided to hold their ground – and for the moment they are successful. It seems that they have begun to fracture the conservative alliance of the Tea Party and Republican Party by standing by their principles on the debt ceiling issue and demonstrating that the Republicans are being held to ransom by an ideological rump. Since the same issue arises again early next year, the battle is not over and it will be interesting to see if the ‘Tea Party’ or ‘Business’ Republicans (see again the Bloomberg report) win the day.

As older conservative Australians die out, will the ALP survive the current generational or demographic change within Australia?

Can the ALP determine a strategy to promote the real differences between them and the LNP?

Might the ALP model itself on the US Democratic Party in order to reach out to those that are not represented by the LNP?

What do you think?


* Note: We never see Malcolm Fraser as an honoured guest at events such as Liberal Party policy launches these days despite his engineering of the fall of the Whitlam Government. He resigned from the Liberal Party in 2009, and campaigned for a Greens Candidate at the last Federal Election.

The Meaning of Treason



In the closing days of the Second World War, the name ‘Lord Haw Haw’ was synonymous with the cry: ‘traitor!’ In those days a traitor was seen as a clear-cut thing. In The Meaning of Treason (Penguin, 1965), Rebecca West identifies him as a traitor:

... by broadcasting between '... the eighteenth day of September 1939 and on other divers days thereafter, and between that day and the second day of July 1940, being then to wit, on the said several days, a person owing allegiance to our Lord the King...' It was in fact the case for the prosecution that a person obtaining a passport placed himself thereby under the protection of the crown and owed it allegiance until the passport expired.

A clear case of loyalty to the crown, His Majesty, The King.

These days, loyal allegiance is somewhat more ‘beige’. Today's democracies lean more toward public perception and cultural authority for a definition of loyalty. But to work hand in hand in a brazen manner to both bring down the democratically elected government of the day and, by obfuscation, stealth and deliberate slander to work to have elected a ‘favourite’ of the vested interests that had the intent of demolishing national infrastructure and working against the social equality of the peoples of the nation, has to equate with a definition of treason.

To my mind, there is no doubt that we, as a nation, have been betrayed. Those many ‘national interest’ policies: the NBN, Gonski, NDIS, ETS, Environmental Protection, and National Parks, that are in the national interest, and coupled with a now recognized ‘non-emergency with the budget’, are at risk, and indeed in some cases will be dismantled for no other reason than to satisfy vested or financial interests, not solely out of a twisted ideology, but out of insatiable greed.

It would be an act of treason to betray the nation’s interest by destroying national infrastructure and public policy that benefits the majority of citizens, while giving financial reward to a tiny minority of capital-invested players. That would be treason, in every sense of the word and meaning. Judas would get his thirty pieces of silver. The fact that these modern major players are set to gain billions of dollars through such acts of vandalism against the nation is their treason, in every sense of the word.

But we are told that the government was voted in by over half the population. That is correct, but we are also aware that much of the voting public is neither politically perceptive nor very interested in political outcomes, other than to effect a strange ‘payback’ for the illusion of injury that has been trumped-up by the Mainstream Media. Whatever swayed the voters it certainly was assisted by some outright lies and slanderous accusations in the MSM against the sitting government.

The political players, in collusion with big media and big business, have done the most damage, particularly the Mainstream Media. We know their names, we have railed against them here and elsewhere for their perfidious behaviour, and they continue to obfuscate and manipulate out of self-interest, financial gain, or a perceived political future too obscure for mere mortals to comprehend. Only now are we reading of the vast number and scope of the rorts perpetrated by the then Opposition, now the Government. Why was this information hidden when members of parliament, and even the Speaker of the House, were being goaded to resign and were being vilified over lesser amounts? There can be only one reason.

This Government was voted in after a campaign based on fraud and deception, one perpetrated by the Mainstream Media and its employees. Who can deny the fact that many of the Government’s so-called policies were unexamined, uncontested and unopposed by that very estate that sanctimoniously holds itself up as the Fourth Estate of democracy? Indeed, it continues to this day to support the Government’s policy agenda. Even the recent trips to Indonesia and Asia by the PM were deemed a roaring success, not because of what was achieved (there was more given away!), but because it was deemed so by the Fourth Estate! The lies were maintained; the circle is complete!

In The Meaning of Treason, Rebecca West makes some very interesting observations on how the modern media has played its part in the dissemination of propaganda:

Never before have people known the voice of one they had never seen as well as if he had been a husband or brother or a close friend; and had they foreseen such a miracle they could not have imagined that this familiar unknown would speak to them only to prophesy their death and ruin.

She speaks of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw). She continues:

He was not only alarming; he was ugly. He opened a vista into a mean life. He always spoke as if he were better fed, and better clothed than we were …

The above portrayal is an example of the malicious persuasion that manipulates a people, a people hungry for simplicity of policy, for entertainment, contentment and insulation from the harsh realities of the world on their doorstep. It is the style of propaganda of those who have in many cases helped cause those very disasters that bring trouble to our doorstep, propaganda that is trying to stop programs that could alleviate and soften such events in the future. Such people portray a meanness of spirit and ugliness of heart that opens the door to cruel intent. That is a betrayal of the trust given to the Mainstream Media, a trust that was bestowed upon those called to shine a light on duplicitous behaviour that can ruin a society, not to collude with reckless abandon in that very behaviour.

I give the last words on such a tawdry subject to Ariel Gonzales on Rebecca West's book:

The Meaning of Treason reminds us that sometimes the worst betrayal is the trading of values for the illusion of safety.

That is the meaning of treason!


Review of ‘Pushing Our Luck: ideas for Australian progress’

If you want an alternative to the Abbott future for Australia, this book is for you. It has the ideas and policy approaches with which to bombard politicians and opinion-makers.

The publisher, the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), was established in 2007, a progressive think-tank that grew out of New Matilda, providing an important counter to right-wing think-tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

This IPA article is an example of what we are up against and why this book is so important.

In its six years of operation, CPD has already influenced Labor policy on health and its members regularly attend conferences, write articles, and make appearances on The Drum on ABC News 24. A young organisation, CPD is already making its mark. The people involved and who have contributed to this book help explain why. Many of the authors, experts in their field, you will know: for example, the editor Miriam Lyons; Eva Cox on welfare; Ian McAuley on restructuring the economy; Jane Caro, well-known from the ABC’s Gruen Transfer and a strong proponent of public education, one of two authors on education; and Geoff Gallup, former WA Premier, on a national vision and strategy.

I come to this book after 30 years of policy work in Aboriginal affairs, covering issues such as education and training, economic development and ‘development approaches’ to service delivery. I understand policy, and implementing policy, and the interplay of economic and social issues as they affect everyday lives. I know and like what this book is about.

Pushing Our Luck presents a wide ranging picture of the changes needed in our economic and social structures if we are to maintain our ‘luck’ into the future. Its approach matches my own experience linking people and economics, not considering the two as somehow divorced.

Such a linkage was stated strongly by the OECD in 2005:

... children of poor parents have less chance of succeeding in life than children of rich parents: a widening inequality of income risks leading to a widening inequality of opportunity. Because of these factors, a failure to tackle the poverty facing millions of families and their children is not only socially reprehensible, it will also weigh heavily on our capacity to sustain economic growth for years to come.

Despite that, our governments appear not to have come to grips with the concept. This book does and deserves attention; and deserves to be put under the noses of our politicians.

The ‘Introduction’ (by the editor, Miriam Lyons) asks the question why Australians feel financially insecure when economic indicators suggest Australia is at or very near the top of the league of developed countries. There is rising inequality and governments are providing fewer services, placing more risk and uncertainty back on the individual. The economy of the nation may be travelling well but many people are working longer, often in less secure employment, and not seeing the benefits of our economic success.

Returning to the old Australian concept of a fair and egalitarian society is part of the answer. Lindy Edwards pursues this in Chapter 9, ‘Welcome Home: Preventing the next culture war’. She asks for more emphasis on Australia’s democratic history: the radical path we trod in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving women the vote and allowing ordinary people, not just an elite, to be elected to parliament. She relates the story of an early member of the Australian Parliament making a speech with holes in his suit pants because it was the only suit he had. The fact that Australia had the world’s first Labo(u)r government was no accident but a result of our founders ensuring that ordinary people were drawn into the political process.

The idea that human societies are not chained to repeating history and that we can create a better world runs deep in the Australian tradition. In recent years we have lost sight of how rare that philosophy was, and still is.

She calls her approach ‘egalitarian nationalism’ and presents it as an alternative but inclusive national narrative to that of multiculturalism. It is also highly relevant to the rest of the book as such a shift in our national narrative could create greater acceptance of the alternative policy proposals.

In both the health chapter (Chapter 3, ‘Getting better: prescriptions for an ailing health system’, Jennifer Doggett) and the education chapter (Chapter 2, ‘Getting past Gonski: every child deserves a good school’, Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro), the authors show the increasing divide occurring in access to services, with the well-off using private schools and private hospitals while public systems remain under-resourced.

In education both higher and lower achieving students are becoming more concentrated in separate schools. The authors support the Gonski approach to increase funding to those schools most in need but suggest neither the Coalition nor Labor is committed to taking all the steps necessary for equity and opportunity.

It is amazing that we are still discussing inequality in education. I have, from a time when we did believe in equality, Tom Roper’s 1971 book The Myth of Equality. In the subsequent 42 years there have been many changes in our education systems but Roper would recognise the same failings. We have not provided the funding necessary, nor adopted the policies that would change it. I agree that much needs to be done, perhaps even more than suggested by this chapter.

Eva Cox’s chapter on welfare (Chapter 4, ‘Putting society first: welfare for wellbeing’) argues for welfare payments that provide a reasonable income, not a minimalist safety net, and that pushing people into employment should not be the driving force behind welfare support. She refers to our current job market offering fewer secure jobs with predictable hours as a problem that our welfare system must address.

International literature refers to such work as ‘precarious’ employment and it is covered in detail in Chapter 6, ‘Taking the high road: a future that works for workers’ by Lisa Heap. Australia has an increasing number of workers who are casual, part-time, on fixed term contracts and similar forms of non-standard employment that may not offer the benefits of holidays, sick leave and so on. She proposes a basic set of conditions that should apply to all workers irrespective of whether they are full- or part-time. Employers are also avoiding their responsibilities to their workers by using them as sub-contractors or taking them from labour hire companies. This requires a broader definition of employment. Government, business managers, industry associations and unions need to look afresh at the way we now work rather than maintain an out-dated focus on ‘male full-time employment’.

In Chapter 5 (‘After the boom: where will growth come from?’, Roy Green) and Chapter 7 (‘Life after luck: building a more resilient economy’, Ian McAuley) the proposals are about productivity and economic restructuring. Green argues for new and smarter management and quotes evidence that changes in management have a proportionally greater impact on productivity than changes in labour and capital. The changes we need include not just technical but organisational innovation.

McAuley says our reliance, historically, on resources like gold, iron ore and coal has created a mentality not conducive to a modern economy.

Both agree we need to add value to our products and that simply reducing costs is no longer an answer. McAuley puts it like this:

Cost-based competition will always be a struggle. Instead focus on providing so much customer value through products or services that they can command premium prices.

As expected on such an issue, Chapter 8, ‘Climate change: reconnecting politics with reality’, John Wiseman goes furthest regarding the changes required to meet the challenges. Issues of productivity, economic restructuring, and creating an equitable society also link with these changes. A key difference in this argument is that the time has passed for incremental change. It is now necessary to adopt something like a ‘war footing’ to achieve a rapid transition to a new carbon-free economy.

In the book, ‘Chipping in: paying for a good society’ is rightly the first chapter, but I also link it to the big picture of the final chapter because it addresses how the alternative policies can be funded by government. Four authors were involved in this chapter (so I won’t list them all). I liked their reference to the ‘reality triangle’ in the business world: ‘fast, ‘good’ and ‘cheap’. The concept is that a product or service can achieve any two of these but never successfully all three. They suggest a similar triangle for governments: ‘low taxes’, ‘balanced budgets’ and ‘high quality public services’. In the electoral chase to lower taxes, we have been running into problems with the other two.

They propose changes to increase revenue and suggest the electorate may accept increased taxes if these quickly result in improved services, or if it can at least be shown that the increased revenue is committed to the services. That is consistent with the general support for tax levies identified for specific purposes, such as the ‘gun buy-back’, the ‘flood levy’ and the increase to the Medicare levy to help fund the NDIS.

The last chapter (Chapter 10, ‘The vision thing: we need a national plan’) by Geoff Gallop, provides a means to draw together the previous proposals. The author discusses a national plan and points to some successful approaches through the COAG Reform Agenda and the earlier introduction of the National Competition Policy.

It focuses too much on the practical aspects (as important as they are) and ignores key elements of a ‘vision’. In my experience, the vision is vital in showing how the underlying strategies fit into the whole: for example, how the education strategy ties into economic and social inclusivity strategies; why ‘a’ must precede ‘b’, thereby allowing people to understand why there is increased funding for one and not the other.

It should be obvious that one can’t provide refrigeration and computers to a community that doesn’t have a reliable electrical supply but that is a situation I encountered in my working life. It arises if a strategy is not linked effectively to an overall vision or, sometimes, an attitude that the important precursors are too expensive so let’s move straight to the cheaper parts. They are issues that can be overcome in the logic of the vision. Politicians should play a key part in explaining that logic – but first they have to find a vision! Starting with the policies in this book would help them.

In this short review I cannot do justice to the policies, evidence and background presented. For example, I found the first chapter on tax reform also effective as an economics primer. There is much to be found here, including the many sources listed at the end of each chapter.

This collection of articles, although only ten in number, is vital in developing an overall progressive vision for the future of Australia, one building on our luck not relying on it, and again making Australia an egalitarian society. I strongly recommend it for your Christmas list.

Pushing our Luck: Ideas for Australian Progress edited by Miriam Lyons with Adrian March and Ashley Hogan, published 2013 by the Centre for Policy Development, Haymarket NSW

If you want more information, or a copy of the book go to the Centre for Policy Development.




Lights out

The last time an Australian Labor leader came up with a phrase that was both memorable and of positive benefit to the Party was Ben Chifley's ‘Light on the Hill’. So good was it, in fact, that the media have deliberately tried to turn it into a joke phrase.

Oddly, the phrase is part of an otherwise forgettable piece of prose:

I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.

Indeed the memorable ‘light’ part bears no obvious relation to the rest of the worthy description, and that in turn, though it is worthy, is totally unclear. ‘Better standards of living’? ‘Greater happiness’? You see what he is trying to get at, but it is no ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, is it?

Nevertheless, it is a hell of a lot better than to suggest that the programmatic specificity of the Party was to incrementally adjust the economic indicators of the lower socio-economic groups in order to improve their wellness parameters.

The ‘Light on the Hill’ phrase is a ‘frame’. It is not a factual description of anything, but an image, a metaphor, which each person reading or hearing interprets according to their own ideas and experience, and as such is much more powerful than a long lecture or a text book. ‘Frame’ is a term coined by George Lakoff in a book whose title – Don't Think of an Elephant – makes clear the meaning. (The word ‘elephant’ carries such strong images that if you tell someone not to think of one they will be unable not to.)

For example, the ‘Light’ in Chifley's frame is usually considered to be a lighthouse, perhaps a beacon, showing the way. I read it rather as a farmhouse on a hill, with one light showing on the porch, guiding the way home for the weary traveller. With a Labor government in power eventually we will all find our way home to warmth and succour and rest – a very powerful image.

From that time onwards it has all been, so to speak, downhill for the Labor Party. The next memorable framing is Whitlam's ‘It's Time’, and this is another (two-word!) slogan often praised for its effectiveness. But in 1972 any old drover's dog's breakfast of a slogan would have beaten McMahon. And it's worth looking at this slogan with fresh eyes. All it was really saying was that, after 23 years, surely it was Labor's turn: what about us, it isn't fair, we don't get enough, now we want our share. Not exactly aux armes citoyens is it?

But, a trifle unfair, it also carried the connotation of ‘It's time we joined the twentieth century’ and ‘It's time we did all the things that have been neglected since Menzies became PM’ and ‘It's time to dump McMahon into the dustbin of history’. And these readings, this framing of the election choice, was emphasised emphatically after the Labor win as the Duumvirs Whitlam and Barnard – no time (!) to muck around waiting for caucus to elect a ministry – got stuck into a mountain of policy implementation in the most astonishing short period of government in Australian history.

So, benefit of the doubt, a deliberate and successful framing. But what else of Whitlam's words sticks in your mind? Ah yes, from the day the lights on the hill were turned off and the dream ended: ‘Well may we say “god save the queen” because nothing will save the governor-general’.

Now if you know nothing else about Whitlam you will know that phrase. Must have been replayed a million times in the next four decades. But, um, what does it actually mean? Who was saying ‘god save the queen’ exactly? And what is the meaning of the words ‘well may’ and ‘because’ in the sentence? And from what was the GG not being ‘saved’ and when? No, the whole thing is nonsense, words that individually have meaning but collectively are gobbledygook.

Those assembled cheered of course, would have cheered whatever he said, but I wonder if afterwards they were puzzled about why they cheered? If this was Whitlam's attempt to frame the events of Remembrance Day 1975 it was an abysmal failure. Apart from anything else, Kerr was merely a tool of Fraser (and Murdoch). The framing that was needed was to explain to the people precisely what was happening and why. But he failed to do that, and so the Fraser/Murdoch framing (Loans Affair, bad government) is what people remembered and proceeded to vote on a month later.

Then we come to Hawke. Someone I had remembered as, along with Keating, being good at framing. But what do we remember of the millions of words he spoke as PM? Just two phrases – ‘any boss who sacks a worker for being late this morning is a bum’ and ‘by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty’. Oh dear. Clearly a drover's dog could do a better job of framing than Hawkey.

‘Bosses’, ‘sack’, ‘bums’, all said with a mad cackle and a stupid smile while wearing a clown's jacket? Were the Lib minders organising the show? How about ‘under Labor Australians are encouraged to be world beaters by combining mateship with technology and skill’ or ‘boats will always sail faster under a Labor government’.

And the other one on children and poverty? Talk about providing hostages to fortune and the Opposition! What did such a boast mean? How would you measure it? How could you possibly achieve whatever ‘it’ was in such a short space of time? As a result it went down in history not as Hawke's ‘Light on the Hill’, which it was obviously meant to be, but a hollow boast signifying nothing. Why not ‘Labor believes all children are created equal’? What about ‘Labor always strives to give children a helping hand through the obstacle course of poverty’? Anything really except what he did say.

Then it was Keating's turn. Yes, yes, I know, pithy phrases, rotten carcasses swinging in the wind being done slowly and all that. But the one the public remembers, the one indelibly branded on Paul's forehead like the tattoo of a French clock? ‘This is the Recession we had to have’! I mean, if you wanted to save the Lib's faceless men time by thinking up negative framing for Labor that's the kind of phrase you might come up with. Alternatives? Well, I don't know, but perhaps ‘Labor has brought boom times for all Australians, but now we need to take a smoko for a moment while the economy readjusts’? Or something of the kind?

No good Paul, no good at all, and I doubt that he ever, in spite of perceptions, ever understood framing. Or perhaps he did mean to suggest to the voters who thought this the greatest country on the planet that Australia was instead the ‘arsehole of the world’. Is that a vote-catching frame or what?

So, goodbye true believers, hullo straighteners and levellers: John Howard, soufflé having risen for the third time, Lazarus having had his bypass, was in power. And immediately began talking as if he had learnt to speak Frame in the cot. Every sentence would have made George Lakoff proud, not a word wasted in driving home the message ‘Liberal good, Labor bad’.

You remember (and that is the point) ‘interest rates always lower’, ‘we will decide who comes here’, ‘lacks ticker’, ‘black armband’ and so on. Perfect framing every time. So perfect that he easily threw off every Labor challenge, all of them frame-free and totally forgettable as you walked into a polling booth. But then Howard's faceless men over-reached. Creating for their corporate masters a system of industrial relations which destroyed unions and took Australian workers back to Dickensian satanic mills, the likely lads of Menzies House called it, in an attempt to create the most improbable frame of all time. ‘Work Choices’.

The men and women of Australia, ultimately demonstrating that you can frame some of the issues all of the time, and all of the issues some of the time, but you can't frame all of the issues all of the time, saw through Work Choices as Hobson's Choice, and dumped Howard into the dustbin of history. Replaced by Kevin07, a slick marketing frame with not much behind it. Immediately confirmed by Mr 07 holding a 2020 Summit at which he sat taking notes at the feet of Australia's Best and Brightest for three days, and then, when the TV cameras stopped focussing on the bold and the beautiful of Australia's A-List, Kevin firmly established as one of them, dumped the notes into the dustbin of Parliament House and promptly forgot about them.

It was a kind of grand visual framing of how he saw his prime-ministership unfolding in the Versailles of the Southern Hemisphere, but it ended there. No one can remember anything Rudd said – backward ran sentences until reeled the mind – except for a few flourishes which became jokes: ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’, ‘gotta zip’, ‘programmatic specificity’.

And Julia Gillard was if anything worse. Given a clever program of reducing CO₂ pollution by putting a price on carbon for the big polluters while subsidising the public to compensate, she called it a ‘carbon tax’. Not only was this a gift in itself to the Likely Liberal Lakoff Lads, instantly referring to a ‘great big new tax’ when they weren't referring to a ‘toxic tax’, but she had apparently made herself seem to be a liar, having said that she would not introduce a ‘carbon tax’ (but would, in a second part of sentence never shown to the public, put a price on carbon) before the election. I'm thinking the frame writers in Abbott's office must have been pinching themselves in disbelief each morning after making an offering to Hanesha, the Elephant God in the room.

Having produced a negative frame for yourself and seen it used to enormous effect by the Opposition, Gillard (or her advisers) seem to have decided that frames were a Very Bad Thing and they would never use one again in case it turned out to be negative and they shot themselves in the foot once more. They ran so far in the opposite direction in fact that they produced a kind of anti-framing (on the principle of anti-matter) – political nomenclature that was so bland that not only did people not listen to it, they couldn't listen to it.

Thus a wonderful proposal to reverse the Liberal emphasis on rich private schools and begin funding on the basis of the needs of poor public schools was not framed in terms of benefit to students, or educational opportunity, or social justice, but was referred to solely as ‘Gonski’, the name of the man who produced the report on which the proposal was based. The use of such a meaningless anti-frame seemed so pleasing to Labor that they expanded on it with the even more meaningless slogan: ‘we give a Gonski’. Needless, perhaps, to say, the proposal was not understood by the public, not supported, and was attacked by the Liberals with that wonderfully cynical frame of ‘class warfare’.

Also popular were mind-numbing acronyms, beloved of bureaucrats and now it seemed of the determinedly non-framing Labor Party. A much needed scheme to improve funding for disabled people, so long casualties of the free market excesses of neo-conservatism, was referred to constantly simply as NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme), thus ensuring again that no member of the public would ever hear of it. A similar example was the NBN (National Broadband Network) with its related acronym FTTH (fibre to the home). The constant use of these acronyms left the public in the dark about the benefits of this extraordinary nation-building effort, and left it open for the opposition to obfuscate about its alternative, inferior proposal with its own acronyms like FTTN (fibre to the node).

As a kind of unconscious symbolism of the underlying problem, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese kept crowing about the 500+ ‘pieces of legislation’ they had passed through a hung parliament, as if the number of these, not their objectives, was the whole aim of the exercise of governing. Five hundred pieces of legislation is a substantial body of work that could be used to explain to voters what you were on about, how you were aiming to reach the light on the hill, and how you differed from the Opposition (who were determined, and immediately on election set about, to erase all 500 from the statute books).

A good frame for a political policy does two things: it makes the policy memorable and it provides a succinct statement about its purpose. By avoiding frames Labor abandoned all hope of doing either thing. Indeed they often, as in the case of the carbon tax, sorry, price on carbon, seemed to be clueless themselves about the purpose, blathering away about the technicalities of the scheme while rarely if ever mentioning climate change.

So while the Labor ants were busy busy busy working industriously away in the bowels of Parliament House, making provision for the winter, the Lib grasshoppers strutted around in the sunshine attracting attention with stunts and slogans. The slogans were the frames; the stunts were a way of hammering home those frames night after night: ‘Axe the tax’, ‘Stop the boats’, ‘End the waste’, ‘Balance the budget’, ‘Bad government’, ‘Ditch the witch’ and so on. The Liberal faceless woman had decided that any frame could be represented by a three-word slogan, a dressing-up outfit, and a Lib-voting shopkeeper. Enormously effective in both getting the message to the public and in forcing the government to play on your preferred turf, completely negating the home ground advantage an incumbent government normally enjoys.

Meanwhile, Labor ministers kept wandering around, convinced it seemed that good deeds were their own reward, and turning up with folders of facts and figures to counter three-word slogans. Never take a fact knife to a frame gunfight, I could have told them.

It's Time - time the Labor Party began to employ some Lakoff students to not only run campaigns but to do so while understanding that these days the next campaign starts the day after the election. You need to frame your win or loss and take it from there.

The early days of Bill Shorten, including his continued referral to ‘carbon tax’ and mutterings about whether they will vote for its removal, and his complete lack of ability so far to frame responses to any of the Liberal omni-shambles of their first month in office (secrecy, asylum seekers, dumping clean energy finance, dropping funding and standards for preschool and aged care, money borrowing, expenses rorts, handing the environment to states to wreck, and so on) makes it look as if this Dream Team thinks it can win the next election without a good dose of the Lakoffs.

The Light has gone out on the Hill.

How many Labor members will it take to fit a new bulb?



Do I have a mandate for you!

Prior to the election, Tony Abbott claimed that the election would be a referendum on the carbon price and Julie Bishop repeated this the day after the election (8 September). Since the election both Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt have claimed people voted to repeal the ‘carbon tax’ and have been pressuring Labor without necessarily using the word ‘mandate’. But on 10 October, in response to Clive Palmer creating a four-member voting bloc in the new Senate, Abbott did say:

I’m confident that everyone in this parliament very well understands that the new government has a clear mandate to get certain things done.

What is this mythical beast called a ‘mandate’?

There is no doubt that Abbott has a mandate to form a government as he has a majority in the House of Representatives, the Parliamentary chamber in which governments are formed. The Governor-General asks a person who has ‘the confidence of the House’ to form a government and, unless there is a split in the Coalition, Abbott can clearly claim that confidence.

No problems with that mandate, but that is the end of certainty.

Votes can be one way of considering a ‘mandate’ but the national vote does not automatically lead to Government. In fact, five times in 26 elections since 1946 a government has won the seats it needed to form government with less than half the national two party preferred (2PP) vote:

YearWinnerWinner’s 2PP (%)Winners majority
1954 Menzies 49.3 7
1961 Menzies 49.5 2
1969 Gorton 49.8 7
1990 Hawke 49.9 9
1998 Howard 48.9 13

John Howard in 1998 is a stand-out: the lowest recorded 2PP to win government but with a significant 13-seat majority. My own recollection of the 1998 election is that much of Labor’s increased vote occurred in Labor’s own seats, which did nothing to help it gain the additional seats it needed to win, although increasing its national vote.

So it is possible to achieve a mandate to govern but not a popular mandate from the voters.

Can we take the number of seats or the size of the majority as an indication of a mandate?

The way the single member seats in the HoR work also reflects that national votes do not match seat numbers. As the vote increases, the number of seats often increases in greater proportion. Some of the more significant wins in this way are:

YearWinnerWinner’s 2PP (%)Winner’s seats/seats in HoRWinner’s seats (%)Winners majority*
1949 Menzies 51.0 74/121 61.2 27
1958 Menzies 54.1 77/122 63.1 32
1966 Holt 56.9 82/124 61.2 27
1975 Fraser 55.7 91/127 71.7 55
1977 Fraser 54.6 86/124 69.4 48
1983 Hawke 53.2 75/125 60.0 25
1996 Howard 53.6 94/148 63.5 45
2013 Abbott 53.5 90/150 60.0 35

[* The majority shown is over the other major party and does not include minor parties or independents.]

Two other interesting results were:

YearWinnerWinner’s 2PP (%)Winner’s seats/seats in HoRWinner’s seats (%)Winners majority*
1980 Fraser 50.4 74/125 59.2 23
1987 Hawke 50.8 86/148 58.1 24

In both cases, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke won the national vote by less than 1% but finished with comfortable majorities.

By contrast in 2010, Labor under Julia Gillard scraped home in the national vote, 50.1% to 49.9%, but managed only 48% of the seats (72 out of 150).

In the recent election about a quarter of Abbott’s seats came from the conjoined Liberal National Party in Queensland. It won 22 of 30 seats on a 8.9% share of the national first preference votes. Its share of the Queensland first preference vote was 45.7% and its 2PP, 56.5%: but this gave it 14.7% of the seats in the House of Representatives, and an amazing 73.3% of the Queensland seats.

So the number of seats in the HoR bears no direct relationship to the proportion of votes and suggests, that other than being able to form government, the number of seats held or the size of the majority are not very good indicators of a mandate.

And the vote was so close in a number of electorates that a shift in vote of 4,754 voters (about 0.04% of total votes) would cause Abbott to lose eight seats; a shift of 7,196 votes (0.06%) would lose him 12 seats; and a shift of 29,904 votes (0.25%) would lose him government (18 seats). While Abbott may claim a win on national votes and seats, it is on a slim margin when examined at the seat level.

If we break-down the 2013 election there are, in fact, several different mandates and not each is consistent with Abbott’s claim of a mandate.

In Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, the Coalition won the 2PP but by less than 1%. It would have taken only 20,809 voters in total across those three jurisdictions for Abbott to have lost the 2PP in them. Does he claim a mandate from those jurisdictions because 0.6% of voters (or 0.17% of the national vote) made the difference between winning and losing the vote? A fairly flimsy claim in my opinion, which means his mandate from Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory is marginal at best and in Victoria Labor did win a majority of seats.

In the ACT the vote was strongly Labor: 42.9% of first preference votes and 59.9% of the 2PP. So there is definitely no mandate for Abbott there, which is quite understandable given his ‘promises’ regarding the Public Service.

Chris Graham has also analysed the vote in distinctly Aboriginal communities and shown that in communities outside the Northern Territory the average vote for Labor was in the order of 71% and as high as 94%. In the Northern Territory seat of Lingiari different Aboriginal communities showed different swings, both to Labor and to the Coalition, but generally a move back towards Labor after a strong shift to the Coalition in 2010. As Graham headlines his article: ‘Abbott has no mandate from Aboriginal Australia’.

Abbott said in his victory speech that ‘a good government is one that governs for all Australians. Including those who haven’t voted for it.’ Does that mean he will take account of the mandates he does not have, from Aboriginal people and the ACT voters, or the marginal mandates from Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and also the views (mandate) of the 5,583,200 who did not prefer the LNP as their government?

If he doesn’t, can we say that his is not a ‘good government’ by his own definition?

If he can’t really claim a mandate on the proportion of votes or the number of seats, or lacks a clear mandate from some groups and jurisdictions, that brings us to Abbott’s claim that the election was a ‘referendum’.

To be won, a normal referendum requires a majority of the votes and a majority (4) of the States. He did win the vote, 53.5% to 46.5%, and he also won all six States but, as with the discussion of the size of his victory, he won two by less than 1.0% and one by 2.4%. It would have required only 22,116 voters out of about 12 million, or 0.18%, for Abbott to have lost three States and therefore technically to have lost a ‘referendum’ – I think a bit too close to claim as a clear mandate.

Although on the figures Abbott may have just won a referendum, did the voters really enter polling booths with the carbon price foremost in their thoughts?

In July, prior to the election, polling was showing that, although a majority still opposed the carbon price, 53% against and 34% for, there was a general trend of slowly increasing acceptance since 2011. Also, a month before the election ‘climate change’ was rated last of ten issues that may influence voting. There was, however, a marked difference on party lines: while climate change was a clear last amongst LNP voters, it was actually sixth for Labor voters. How this may have affected voting is impossible to say but it does reduce the likelihood of voters seeing the vote as a referendum.

The fact is that on election day exit polls suggest between 3% and 8% of the voters considered the ‘carbon tax’ an influence on their vote. Only 1% of LNP voters mentioned the environment or climate change as an important consideration while 13% of ALP voters did.

So perhaps it was not a referendum at all – well, at least, not so far as the voters were concerned!

The final word on ‘mandates’ should rightly belong to Abbott himself. After the LNP election loss in 2007, he wrote:

The elected Opposition is no less entitled than the elected Government to exercise its political judgment and to try to keep its election commitments.

So, thank you Tony: the 5,583,200 voters who preferred Labor have also created a mandate as you pointed out in 2007, although it is not the one you are claiming now.

What do you think?

Where on earth is Lampedusa?


Australians are unfortunately used to headlines that another ‘boatload of asylum seekers’ has called for help near Christmas Island. All too frequently the Australian Navy is called upon to rescue people from boats that were not seaworthy enough to make the journey from a port in Indonesia, Sri Lanka or another location to the north of Christmas Island.

Enough printer’s ink to fill Sydney Harbour, and hundreds of millions of electrons, have been used in the past twenty years to ‘explain’ (read justify) positions in relation to asylum seekers. If you want to discover the actual and legal position on ‘irregular arrivals into any country’, you could begin with the Refugee Council of Australia’s website. The Refugee Council of Australia offers the following definition of a refugee – from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – to which Australia is a signatory:

Any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.

Like a lot of Australians I was saddened but not surprised at the loss of human life when the media reported during October this year that another boatload carrying asylum seekers had sunk – and it was estimated that 345 of the passengers on the ship had drowned. What I wasn’t expecting was the mention of the location of the incident – Lampedusa. I have a reasonable knowledge of Australian geography and my first question was ‘Where on earth is Lampedusa?’, given that the narrative widely promoted within Australia for a number of years described asylum seeker boats as a purely Australian/South-East Asian problem. I was curious when I found out that Lampedusa is, in fact, in Italy – and the asylum seekers were from northern Africa.

It was reported widely in Australia, as in Guardian Australia on the 10th October, that those that drowned at Lampedusa were to be given a state funeral by the Italian Government. When the Italian Government later determined that those who lost their lives would receive a memorial service rather than the state funeral promised by the Italian Prime Minister, criticism came from a number of influential parties, including the Mayor of Lampedusa.

Guardian Australia also reported that:

This year more than 30,000 migrants have sailed to Italy, of whom 7,500 were Syrians fleeing their civil war, 7,500 Eritreans escaping a brutal regime and 3,000 avoiding violence in Somalia.

By contrast, Operation Sovereign Borders Acting Commander, Air Marshal Mark Binskin announced the same week:

For the October 4-11 reporting period, a total of 111 people were transferred to the offshore processing centres on Nauru.

Since the new government's Operation Sovereign Borders began three weeks ago, a total of 215 arrivals have been transferred to the centres, including Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

As of Friday, there were 1059 detainees on Manus, 800 on Nauru and 2176 on Christmas Island.

Let’s compare those numbers. Up to 345 people died at Lampedusa while 111 people in total arrived in Australia in the same week. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) gives a detailed listing of asylum seeker numbers, globally, in an Excel spreadsheet.

Australians have often been described as living in a land where ‘everyone is equal’ and ‘where Jack is as good as his master’ and in a society ‘where anyone will help out a mate’. There is some evidence to support this mantra; for example:

  • In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 flooding throughout Queensland, a number of cities and towns were overwhelmed with volunteers willing to help those less well-off get back on their feet. Brisbane City Council provided a fleet of buses to transport the ‘mud army’, consisting of thousands of people, across the city to areas of need.
  • Every SES person on the ground from Byron Bay to Port Headland is a volunteer, as are those members of service clubs such as Apex or Lions. They all make a magnificent effort to help out a mate who needs it, in some form or other, every year.
Australia is supposed to be a Christian country. Our current Prime Minister is a self-confessed practising Roman Catholic – and commenced training to be a Jesuit priest. His immediate predecessor was frequently shown on the Sunday news bulletins leaving an Anglican church. There is a paragraph in the bible that can be paraphrased as ‘do unto others as they do to you’. There are similar sentiments in the holy book of Islam, The Koran, and in Buddhism.

Despite this tenet of faith, and the claims of being a ‘Christian’ country, Australians frequently make the following statements:

1. People who arrive here and claim refugee status are taking our jobs.

The evidence would suggest not, as the unemployment rate in Australia has been sitting at under 10% since the days when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. In fact, the entire argument for the resettlement of refugees from Europe, post World War II, was to expand the country and its economy.

In Italy, for example, towns are welcoming the chance to be revitalised by the settlement of asylum seekers seeking refugee status.

2. People who arrive here and claim refugee status can claim more benefits than ‘ordinary Aussies’.

The Refugee Council of Australia states:

A refugee who has permanent residency in Australia receives exactly the same social security benefits as any Australian resident in the same circumstances. Refugees apply for social security through Centrelink like everyone else and are assessed for the different payment options in the same way as everyone else. There are no separate Centrelink allowances that one can receive simply by virtue of being a refugee.

3. Asylum seekers are queue jumpers or ‘illegal immigrants’.

Under the UN Convention, you cannot apply for refugee status from your own country. Refugee camps also work on a needs basis – rather than a formal queue.

Illegal immigrants are those that enter legally and overstay their Visa – there were in excess of 60,000 people in this group in the end of 2011, according to the Herald Sun, and the report suggests the number is climbing. By contrast, at the beginning of October 2013, slightly over 4,000 people are in asylum seeker camps established by the Australian Government.

Australians raise these kinds of questions regarding refugees. Italians criticise their government for not providing state funerals, although attempting to provide assistance and support to those that survive. Why is there such a difference in attitude between the Italians and the Australians?

According to UNHCR, Italy had 17,352 people request asylum in 2012; Australia had 15,996. Remembering that you do not have to claim asylum in the first country you come to, the EU had 358,285 people claim asylum in 2012; our region (Australia and New Zealand) had 16,320. Italy offers state funerals to a large number of victims of a ship sinking – Australia makes pregnant asylum seekers give birth in sub-standard conditions, something criticised by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

Various Australian politicians have suggested ‘tough’ asylum seeker policies will stop people getting on unsafe boats and subsequently dying at sea. In Europe, they are asking why people get onto unsafe boats.

You may be surprised to know that even the ultra-conservative Fox News in the US reports European asylum seeker boats that sink sympathetically and apparently has done so for some time; until recently, our media hasn’t.

While the Europeans are discussing ways to ensure people don’t have to get onto unseaworthy boats, we are not. Australian politicians, and sadly a significant proportion of the Australian public, seem to believe that being ‘tough’ on asylum seekers who arrive here will help people accept what may be draconian living conditions in their home country – which is clearly a fallacy. This is treating the symptom rather than the root cause. It could be compared with attempting to turn off a dripping tap with greater force (symptom) rather than replacing the washer (root cause).

The previous and current Australian Governments both claim to take the high moral ground on a number of issues with self-confessed practising Christians as the last two respective Prime Ministers. When the Italians who receive a higher number of asylum seekers per annum than we do are so upset about the unnecessary death of over 300 people – as they should be – what is this country’s excuse for using asylum seekers as a ‘tough on crime’ issue in a similar way to how various state governments are using ‘outlaw’ motor bike groups?

What happened to ‘do unto others’?

How does our treatment of asylum seekers in the 21st century demonstrate the fabled ‘help a mate’ attitude of Australians?

Why are immigrants to Australia victimised when we are all descended from immigrants?

Why are asylum seekers a domestic political issue?


Probably the saddest thing about this issue is that so-called Christian politicians, who claim to value human life, are so blinded by the domestic political opportunity they forget a fundamental belief they claim to live their lives by – ‘do unto others as you wish them to do to you’ – and have convinced a significant proportion of the population of the merits of the case.

What do you think?

What happened to leadership and conviction?

Why are politicians reacting to polls instead of driving them?

In a previous piece on TPS, I contended that politicians had granted political influence to Rupert Murdoch by believing they will ‘live and die’ by the polls and reacting to the fortnightly Murdoch (Newspoll) polls rather than attempting to drive them.

There are two types of relevant polling: ‘voter intention’ polling and ‘issues’ polling. Most attention is given to the first. Politicians, however, often attempt to influence voter intention by reacting to some aspect of issues polling – but this is not driving the polls.

What I mean by ‘driving the polls’ is setting the agenda through displaying leadership and conviction, acting on principle and providing inspiration for a better future. They are the approaches that I believe can make people take notice and that will then be reflected in the polls.

First, one needs to understand what polls are telling us.

All pollsters when put on the spot will fall back on the old rule that a poll only measures public opinion, it does not predict it. Polls tell you what public opinion was, not what it will be.

Which is where people misunderstand the meaning of margin of error. This weekend Newspoll will be polling Federal voting intention, and the poll will be reported with a margin of error of about 3%. That means there is a 95% probability that the real measure of people’s voting intentions this weekend will lie within 3% of the figure reported by Newspoll.

That does not mean that come the election, the result will be within 3% of the poll. The margin of error is a measure of the error margin on a sample, not the error margin on a prediction.

Followers of TPS well know that the media pursues each voter intention poll as if it is predicting the outcome of any forthcoming election, even twelve months out. Reports will often carry the caveat, ‘if an election was held this weekend’, but the accompanying commentary usually makes it appear this is bad for the election prospects of whichever party is trailing.

The other major issue with media reporting of polls is the insistence that every little movement has meaning. The truth is that if a poll moves only 1-2% it is within the margin of error and may, in fact, indicate no movement at all.

Unfortunately, politicians seem to believe this media commentary and start trawling the issues polling for something they can seize on that may lift their standing in the voter intention polls.

While voter intention polls are not predictive, they do say a great deal about the electorate’s view of politicians at particular points in time.

Before the 2007 election Rudd was telling the populace, and indeed later repeated it at the United Nations, that climate change was ‘the greatest moral challenge facing our generation’. In meeting that conviction after he came to Government, he negotiated a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) with then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. (The value of that scheme has been much debated but that aspect is irrelevant to the argument here.) Whatever its worth, it was a fulfilment of the rhetoric that preceded it. He also ratified the Kyoto Protocol and gave a national apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations, both of which he had promised during the election campaign. It gave the appearance of conviction and leadership.

After being elected in 2007, Labor had maintained a strong ‘two party preferred’ (2PP) lead over the Opposition in the polls but on 27 April 2010 Rudd announced he was abandoning, at least for then, the CPRS.

The Newspoll results before and after the announcement make a telling point.

Poll dates
(2010)
Labor primary
vote (%)
LNP primary
vote (%)
Labor 2PP
vote (%)
LNP 2PP
vote (%)
16-18 April 43 40 54 46
30 Apr – 2 May 35 43 49 51

Labor suffered an 8% loss in its primary vote and a 10% turn-around in the 2PP in just a fortnight. Voters were disillusioned - again!

Rudd had given the appearance of a man of conviction, with a grand rhetoric of his vision, but shown there was little conviction behind the rhetoric. He had abandoned leadership and the voters knew it.

Julia Gillard’s reference to the ‘real Julia’ during the 2010 election campaign confirmed the view that politicians are all ‘spin’, reacting to polls, being told what to say and do by media advisers, and offering little to lead the nation.

Abbott’s later inflated rhetoric, such as Whyalla being wiped off the map by the introduction of a carbon price, didn’t help. After the introduction of the carbon price on 1 July 2012, none of Abbott’s hyperbole came to fruition. For much of the electorate it was simply another case of not being able to believe what politicians told them.

What Rudd, Gillard and Abbott managed to do was reinforce the population’s low regard of politicians as demonstrated by the Reader’s Digest annual poll of ‘Australia’s Most Trusted Professions’. Although the number and naming of professions has changed over the years, politicians have consistently rated near car salesmen and similar groups:

  • In 2007 politicians were ranked equal last, with car salesmen, of 40 professions (actually ranked 38th owing to tied results). Journalists were ranked 34th, with real estate agents, sex workers and psychics-astrologists separating them from politicians.
  • In 2010 politicians were ranked 38th of 40 professions, having climbed above car salesmen and also above telemarketers. Journalists were then 35th, with real estate agents and sex workers still between them and the politicians.
  • In 2013 the list included 50 professions and politicians ranked 49th, above only door-to-door salespeople. Journalists were then 43rd while talkback radio hosts, real estate agents, sex workers, call centre staff and insurance salespeople ranked below them but above politicians.
It could be said that this creates ‘a perfect storm’ fuelling the electorate’s cynicism: untrusted journalists reporting on untrusted politicians, using polls in unjustified ways.

The Rudd example in 2010 demonstrates that what politicians say and do influences the polls, particularly negatively when what they do does not match what they say.

Abbott fed this constantly in his attacks on the Government when Opposition Leader and reacted to it at his swearing-in as Prime Minister when he said ‘We hope to be judged by what we have done, rather than by what we have said we would do.’ He is essentially trying to ‘cover his arse’ for those times when his actions do not match his words. He is not attempting to drive the polls in any positive way but merely trying to dampen them in advance.

In the lead up to, and during the 2013 election, there were many examples of politicians reacting to both voter intention and issues polling and precious few (actually none that I recall) of attempting to drive the polls. Their reactions were intended to neutralise issues the polls were telling them may influence voters; for example:

  • Abbott accepted the NDIS and ‘Gonski’ because the polls showed these were popular in the electorate and would favour Labor if he opposed them;
  • Rudd brought forward the move to emissions trading by one year, to replace the fixed price on carbon emissions, and adopted a much tougher stance on refugees arriving by boat, also in response to polling.
What neither chose to do was state that their position was right and argue for it: conviction had disappeared. The voters saw this for what it was: simply politics, no conviction, no leadership, resulting in an increased vote for minor parties (12.4%, excluding the Greens, compared with 6.9% in 2010). The electorate knows that a minor party will never govern the country but at least they appear to stand for something, even Family First, rather than wavering in the wind to every nuance of the polls.

By the time of the election, I think many voters were feeling they had Hobson’s choice between a media-managed politician and a poll-driven politician who had previously lost credibility.

Abbott’s approach can perhaps be justified because the LNP held a comfortable lead in most polls leading to the election, and to keep them that way he essentially had to do nothing – which is exactly what he did!

Rudd had lost credibility after his 2010 decision and did nothing during the campaign to regain it. There was an initial surge in the polls when he resumed the leadership but his decisions, such as those noted above, merely reiterated he was just another politician reacting to polls. To overcome his previous loss of credibility he needed to display conviction and provide inspiration, but he didn’t.

In December 1941, John Curtin took the nation with him in his inspiring speech that Australia would ‘look to America’. It is sometimes forgotten that the speech also took the nation to a full ‘war footing’, affecting the lives of every Australian and promising difficult times ahead. Leadership can be about unpopular but necessary decisions, and arguing the case and inspiring people to accept them for future benefit. But current politicians, by constantly reacting to polling, are avoiding such decisions.

There are more recent speeches that have provided inspiration: e.g. Keating’s ‘Redfern speech’ and his speech at the entombment of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial, and Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.

There was positive movement in the polls after Keating’s speech at the Australian War Memorial (11 November 1993): Labor increased 2% in voter intention, the LNP dropped 3%, and Keating’s ‘satisfaction’ jumped 3% (but only from 26% to 29%).

There was also a movement in the polls around the time of Rudd’s ‘apology’ (13 February 2008). In the Newspoll conducted on 15-17 February 2008 Labor’s primary vote was 46% but a fortnight later had jumped to 51%. I think the ‘apology’ played a part but the poll may have included a reaction to the Coalition’s childish behaviour on 22 February when it took a cardboard cut-out of Rudd into the Parliament. The Coalition’s behaviour may have made, by comparison, the speech’s dignity and inspiration appear more relevant.

It suggests such inspirational speeches can have an impact. And if joined with conviction, principles and leadership, they become a more potent force for driving the polls.

When politicians take a stand, it is legitimate to ask are they are doing so on principle or reacting to something appearing in issues polling? Even if the latter, a principled stand on an issue can give the politician credit for the future and flow into voter intention.

John Howard, for example, not known for his oratory, at least took a principled decision regarding the ‘gun buy-back’ after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. He did so despite strong opposition from gun owners and some National members of his own Coalition, but with the overwhelming support of the majority of the population. In that case, he was reacting to strong public opinion following the massacre (at the time the worst in the world in terms of numbers killed by a lone gunman) and followed through despite the opposition.

In a modern democracy, issues polling can be important in revealing the ‘will of the people’ but if followed unthinkingly by politicians, without underpinning principles to weigh the polls against, politicians will often react with bad policy that has not been thought through.

If the electorate is currently cynical and distrustful of politicians, it is because the politicians have given them good grounds to be. To change the electorate’s perception, politicians need to stop reacting to polls with ‘band-aid’ (bad) policies. They need to:

  • provide inspiration,
  • show conviction for what they believe, and
  • provide leadership.
With conviction, leadership and inspiration they can shape the issues polling and influence voter intention. If they do this, politicians will be driving the polls again, something they have chosen not to do since … well, I’m not sure I can remember the last time!

Can politicians really set the (issues) agenda with genuine leadership?

Will the electorate listen if they hear conviction in political statements?

Can an inspiring vision for the future change voting intention?

Will all three together drive the polls?

What do you think?


Time for a third force in Ozpol

Australia needs a third, viable, major political party.

This is obvious, to me. At their core, the policies of the two major parties are diametrically opposed. The Labor party is the progressive party that builds the country’s infrastructure and provides welfare programs. The Liberal party is the regressive party that sells the infrastructure and bolsters business in the fond belief that the created wealth will trickle down to those less well off.

The above view is a simple one. Some may argue that the policies of the two major parties are very similar. I have never thought so. I think the claim of ‘similarity’ is easily made, picked up and repeated without being thoroughly examined. Recently, for example, the former LNP Opposition argued against the Labor government’s Better Schools funding (Gonski), but at the last minute agreed to maintain the policy if it won government. This does not mean the two major parties now have the same policy. It means a bone of contention was removed at the last minute to appease certain sections of the electorate.

There is no guarantee the LNP government will keep the policy because it has a strategy of maintaining fears and doubts about the state of the economy and a mania for a Budget surplus. The same could apply to Labor’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Consider also the different approaches of the two major parties to environmental protection and carbon pollution.

I’ll leave it to others to nit-pick over the sameness and differences of the two majors. I’ll simply state that the almost unbelievable arrogance and self-indulgence of the Labor governments of the past six years have given the LNP Coalition a free ride into office. If the people were forcefully rejecting Labor, they were not necessarily voting for the coalition’s policies. Given the nature of the news media coverage at the time, few would be aware of what policies were being offered by either party.

We now have to endure the dismantling of some of Labor’s achievements and the sale of public assets, not because that is what Australia needs right now but because it is what Liberal political philosophy dictates. This will happen because there is simply no choice at present. You either have government by Labor or Liberal, and they are worlds apart (see: Prologue to IPA’s 100-item list to change Australia).

If former PM Kevin Rudd’s party reforms work, there is hope for a more stable Labor government at some future time. But it was Rudd’s opposition to union factionalism (and a decline in opinion polling for a number of reasons) that got him sacked in the first place – by the Right-wing union faction. The Right wing’s man, Bill Shorten, has won the leadership contest over Anthony Albanese, and it remains to be seen if the internal wrangling will continue, with Rudd fiddling away on the back bench, playing the game of sabotage for which he is renowned.

The Liberal party coalition with the National Party of Australia is not as secure as the Liberals would have you believe. There were tensions during the past three years (notably between the WA Libs and Nats over issues related to wheat marketing), but the Liberal PR machine did a good job of largely keeping it out of the news media.

New points of contention are rising. They concern the fate of the National Broadband Network (NBN), the sale of wheat marketing infrastructure and agricultural land to foreigners and the continuing feeling of isolation and neglect in country and regional areas. Liberal plans to cap university places and a disguised attack on university union funding have led to protests from the Nationals and their country cousins. The Liberal’s plans to devolve environmental decision-making to the States in order to speed up mining project initiation will lead to more friction. Farmers and some country townsfolk have for years been concerned about the encroachment of mining and fracking activities and their effects on lifestyles and health. The abolition of the carbon tax, the cutting of red and green tape and moves to fast track mining approvals are causes for concern – creating points of tension.

The Liberals are unlikely to gain government without the support of the Nationals (2013 federal election primary vote ALP 4,311,431 - 33.4%, Liberal 4,134,750 - 32%, Nationals, various forms, 1,748,066 - 13.5%). Is it conceivable that the Nationals could withdraw their support of the Liberals? Is it more likely they would use the threat of withdrawal to force concessions on policies? Their deputy leader, Barnaby Joyce, has achieved stage two of his goal to become the federal leader: he now has a Lower House seat. When federal leader Warren Truss retires, Joyce probably will become federal leader of the National party. When he became leader of the Nationals in the Senate in 2008 he warned the Coalition government it could no longer rely on the support of his party in the Senate. Joyce crossed the floor 19 times during the Howard government era and is a threat to Liberal power. I’ve no doubt the Liberals will use their news media machinery to destroy him if push comes to shove.

The Liberals and the Nationals have an agreement to contest the same seats in some areas. I don’t know how either party finds that situation tolerable. Losing a seat to your ally must create an uneasy situation, especially when there are differences in party policies.

If the Nationals were to pull support, would another party fill the void in the coalition, would Labor govern for decades, or would a third party arise? Neither Katter’s Australia Party nor Palmer’s United Party are yet strong enough to constitute a third, viable, force. Katter and Palmer have their origins in Queensland’s Liberal National Party. The Nationals had their origin in the defunct, or rebadged, Country Party. Given their history and interests today, both men are likely to side with the Liberal federal government, although Palmer’s collection of policies and some of his public pronouncements are hard to reconcile with Liberal philosophy.

Illustration by Kaja Malouf

There are also serious questions about whether Katter and Palmer are stable enough to be taken seriously. In my opinion, Joyce, Katter and Palmer belong in the same silly boat – each of them rowing in a different direction. Why the eponymous party names, in the case of Katter and Palmer? Are they capitalising on the unfortunate trend towards Presidential personality campaigning? The last thing this country needs is another egomaniac pulling the levers and it seems the ALP has recently recognised the dangers in that.

Putting aside the turmoil of WWII Australian politics, there have been few notable attempts to establish a third, viable, political party. Some may remember the split in Labor ranks (1955) that led to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party (1957), with one elected Member today (Senator John Madigan). For that split we can thank the extreme Right-wing Catholic ‘Bob’ Santamaria. His ghost and anti-union rhetoric lives on today in the form of arch disciple Tony Abbott.

Another serious attempt to form a third force was made by the Australian Democrats (1977), a merger of the Australia Party and the New Liberal Movement, led by former Liberal federal Minister Don Chipp. The Australian Democrats had promise and some success in getting Senate seats, before gradually tearing itself to pieces over a 30-year period. It is reorganising, but initially on a States-only basis.

There was also Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Its xenophobic stance attracted wide support in Queensland, where the party originated, but attracted anger elsewhere, especially in the federal parliament and the news media. The party won 19 State seats in Queensland – scaring the pants off the Liberal party. The now xenophobic ‘Stop the boats’ Tony Abbott responded by creating and raising funds for the Australians for Honest Politics Trust – money that was used to take Hanson and co-founder David Ettridge to court for ‘electoral fraud’, which resulted in them being jailed for some months. Ettridge is now suing Tony Abbott, claiming $1.5 million damages. Hanson failed to win a NSW federal seat at the 2013 election.

‘Tearing itself to pieces’ seems to be the disease of the Australian Labor Party – and it’s contagious. The Greens caught the bug some time ago and went into severe regression on 26 September, 2013. Numerous staff resigned over the running of the federal election campaign. There is some uncertainty about whether there was a simultaneous attempt to install the party’s deputy leader, Lower House MP Adam Bandt, or Senator Sarah Hanson-Young as national leader in place of Senator Christine Milne.

The Greens need to pull themselves together after the punishing swing to the Liberals, which cost the Greens 4.7% of their vote, along with two Senators (although ‘Senator’ Scott Ludlam has won a rare recount). It would be a shame if the Greens were to destroy themselves as other alternative parties have done. They seem to me to be a natural partner for Labor, although they have had problems aligning policy details on carbon pricing and refugee or asylum seeker policies.

Perhaps the problem with a Greens Labor alliance is that Labor sees itself as the party with all the policies and all the solutions for any given problem. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how it could cooperate with any other party, even one that was somewhat similar. In that case, it has to find some way to counter the LNP coalition, the future risk of ‘hung’ or minority governments, the trend towards increasing numbers of Independent or non-aligned Senators and the frustration of losing an election due to the distribution of preferences.

There is also a risk that Labor is not strong enough to overcome the powers aligned against it today, especially the commercially owned news media and the persistent effort over the past decade at least to install a Right-wing bias in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). To get off topic for a moment, some way must be found to guarantee the impartiality of ABC News and Current Affairs because its untraceable efforts at ‘balance over time’ make it appear to be always unbalanced in one direction or the other. The balance within its supposedly independent complaints body also warrants investigation.

The September 2013 election was remarkable for the number of new parties that fought for a seat, especially in the Senate. Next July we will have a motley crew of ‘Independent’ Senators, with a bloc of four consisting of three Palmer United Party Senators and Senator Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party. Writing in the Business Spectator (a wholly owned News Corp subsidiary), veteran business journalist Robert Gottliebsen claims Tony Abbott has the Senate sewn up and the PUP bloc, including Senator Muir, will support the Liberal government’s policies. That article, written on 9 October, is at odds with what Clive Palmer said the following day, commenting on his deal with Senator Muir.

It’s just possible that none of them will sit in the Senate because the Mad Monk may bring on a Double Dissolution to satisfy his lust for unrestricted power. See Gottliebsen’s first six points below for his thoughts on what might trigger a DD. But Gottliebsen also says Tony Abbott might avoid a DD because the voters hate early elections. I have yet to read or hear anyone ask why Tony Abbott wants total power in both Houses and what he’ll do with it if he gets it (see ‘What Tony Abbott will do’, in relation to the proposals of the Institute of Public Affairs).

Gottliebsen, who might have a reliable source of information within the federal government, has also written about Tony Abbott’s 12-point plan to transform Australia. (See Gottliebsen's first six points of Abbott's 12-point plan and the second six points.)

That 12-point plan is another reason why Australia needs a viable third political party. As stated above, when you get down to it the two majors are not similar – they are very different. When the government changes hands, the country swings wildly to the Left or the Right. The Right believes it must move much further to the Right because the Left will inevitably take the country further Left again (see again IPA 100 item agenda prologue). It’s about as silly as politics can get, with ideology overruling common sense and even the common good. Prime examples are Abbott’s determination to abolish carbon pricing, disband environmental advisory bodies, cut funding to NGOs, install a third rate NBN and introduce an outlandish Paid Parental Leave scheme to replace the one we have.

Gottliebsen’s 12-point plan story and the IPA’s 100-point plan (12 of which points Tony Abbott has said he will adopt and implement) demonstrate the chaotic nature of the Duopoly roundabout.

A third party that can win and govern alone would interrupt these wild pendulum swings. If a third party was occasionally successful in gaining government there would be less opportunity and a longer wait between ruinous bouts of excessive sell-offs and cutbacks or expensive social welfare programs.

Looking way ahead, what is the outcome of the platforms of the two major parties, and where do we go from there? After the Liberals have sold everything and cut taxes, regulations and wages to the bone, what’s next? After Labor has cemented every possible workplace and social welfare program permanently in place, what then? Is this why these two major parties are subtly changing, sometimes appearing to be similar, but always retaining the essential difference of Labour versus Capital? There is, perhaps, only so much political parties can achieve before they become irrelevant, useless or merely tax collection and distribution agencies.

In the meantime, where is the third alternative or even steadying influence? One party that emerged about 12 months before the election was The Australian Independents. It had a decent list of policies and some wholesome middle-class candidates. But it played its cards a bit too close to its chest and seemed to be publicity shy, which is not to say it was secretive. The leader, Dr Patricia Petersen, who I am told is a long-term perpetual candidate, is unfortunately hard to contact.

Katter’s, Palmer’s and Petersen’s parties offer something that was pioneered by the Australian Democrats. They say they are recruiting candidates who will swear to vote for local issues – true local representatives. Revisiting this issue is a reflection on how fed up we are with the majors and the bigger minors*. But how will the practice work out when a local issue clashes with the party’s stated policy?

*See The Sydney Morning Herald editorial of 24 September, 2013: ‘Greens need to win middle Australia - and follow Don Chipp's diktat’.

I’d vote for an Atheists Party. An atheists party can’t simply stand for non-belief in a spiritual being. It must have a raft of policies. One would be getting religion out of schools and focusing on science and ethics instead. I see atheism as essential for the future well-being of ourselves and our planet – especially for the environment and the critters we should be sharing it with. My atheism is about reality, about being grounded in reality and relying on science to understand our world and our place in it. We need to get real about our world, our situation (see IPCC Summary for Policymakers, the 2013 report). Leaving the big outcomes to the good graces of a mythical being is a risky strategy.

I have avoided a detailed discussion of policies and their alternatives. We are not short of political parties or policies. Like many other things in this country, we now have an embarrassment of riches. What we don’t have is a viable third force. But we do have alternatives that do not represent a drastic, even catastrophic, change. We need one of these third elements to gain sufficient support so that we can have change without chaos. Moving back and forth from Liberal to Labor is chaotic – the change is often too great and too disruptive.

I don’t want to overplay the Labor drum, but for its sins of self-indulgence Labor has been turfed and the people have no choice but to give the Liberals another go. They have made that decision without being fully aware of the Liberal agenda, of the changes that will now take place. It is naïve of anyone to think the agenda consists merely of Tony Abbott’s six-point slogans:

  • We’ll build a stronger, more diversified economy so everyone can get ahead;
  • We’ll scrap the carbon tax so the average family will be $550 better off next year alone;
  • We’ll get the Budget back under control by ending Labor’s waste;
  • We’ll create two million new jobs within a decade;
  • We’ll stop the boats with proven policies;
  • And we’ll build the roads of the 21st century.
If you can read between the lines of the above slogans, you will see there is a lot of missing detail. The devil that is the Liberal philosophy is in those missing details of policy implementation and what that means for various classes of citizens.

There’s plenty of room for a strong third party, plenty of people fed up with the chaos of frequent change within the Duopoly. We don’t need a political party that scares industry, business and investors to death, or one that drives pensioners, the disabled and the disadvantaged to an early grave. Because of eternal frustration with the Left Right swing of the pendulum, it is time for a third party with a broad vision and a plan for our future.

For those who are not welded to one ideology, I’ve put links to several parties’ policies on one page on my website. You’ll find a menu under Categories, on the left-hand side.

Tony Abbott’s ‘Cone of Silence’


Those ‘of a certain age’ will remember the 60s’ TV show Get Smart that featured the brilliant writing of Mel Brooks as well as the incredible acting of Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Edward Platt. Don Adams was Agent 86 in the US Secret Agency known as Control; Barbara Feldon was Agent 99 and Edward Platt was ‘Chief’. Their nemesis was an organisation called Kaos. Those who know the show will instantly remember the ‘Cone of Silence’, a piece of ‘high technology’ equipment. It was supposed to ensure that if microphones were planted in the Chief’s office, they would be useless. While the Cone of Silence may have been a good idea, the implementation left a lot to be desired. (For those unfamiliar with the concept – this clip explains how it failed.)



In a complete turn-around from his actions in Opposition - where appearing in an industrial setting with freshly ironed hi-vis vest was de rigueur - the Prime Minister now wants to control the information flow to the media differently. It seems, now that the LNP has won the election, the Prime Minister wants to operate in a Cone of Silence. Will it be any better than the version that people have been laughing at for decades on TV?

Tony Abbott has declared at a news conference that he will only speak as Prime Minister when he has something to say and that he won’t be feeding the 24-hour news cycle. It has also been widely reported that all interviews with Ministers have to be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office 24 hours prior to the interview. (It is ironic that the decision that all Ministers must seek approval prior to participating in interviews was leaked!)

Evidence of this ‘cone of silence’ policy can be found in three recent events:

  • Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announces that refugee boat arrivals and ‘turn backs’ will be only discussed at a weekly briefing due to ‘operational security’ rather than as the event occurs.
  • Treasurer Joe Hockey announces that the Federal Government’s finances are being investigated line by line, while having to announce a better than expected result from the last financial year.
  • Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets with her Indonesian counterpart to discuss refugee boats and declares the meeting details will not be disclosed or discussed.
A month or so into the term of the Coalition Government, just how is this policy panning out?

After Abbott’s announcement, there had been plenty of muted supporting comment from the media: Jacqueline Maley’s ‘Don’t feed the chooks’; Barry Cassidy’s ‘Abbott wise to pull back... but not too far’; and Dee Madigan’s ‘Tone it down’.

Then on September 26, Fairfax headlined a piece ‘Abbott assures nation he is hard at work’. Perhaps Abbott realised that ‘refusing to participate in the news cycle’ could be construed as ‘nothing was happening’. Obviously this was a message the Prime Minister didn’t want to send.

And a rather interesting piece in the SMH from Tony Wright followed on 27th September:

Small factory in the suburbs? Check. Fluro jacket? Check. It is as if Tony Abbott never wanted the election campaign to end.

Mention the carbon tax? Promise to get the budget back in control? Stop the boats? Build the roads of the 21st century?

Check, check, check and check.

This report continues:

He could barely keep his hands off the containers of laundry powders and stain removers. His craving for a factory photo-op satiated, the Prime Minister offered himself to cameras and journalists for precisely the sort of doorstop he held every day of the campaign.

Scott Morrison’s clampdown on refugee boat announcements has gone equally as well.

Someone on Christmas Island has been using Twitter to advise how many people arrive on each boat. On 27 September the ABC and commercial media were reporting that 10 refugee boats had arrived since the election date, three of them since the Coalition Government had been sworn in. Over the weekend of 28 and 29 September, a news story unfolded on the commercial television networks reporting that people had drowned in another refugee boat heading for Australia. The reporters were stating clearly they were not getting comment from the Government – and that was simply not good enough.

Now that the Prime Minister and Foreign Ministers have spoken to their Indonesian counterparts, apparently the LNP policy wasn’t to ‘turn around’ refugee boats anyway:

Morrison said the Coalition had “never had a policy of towing boats back to Indonesia” and blamed “misrepresentation over a long period of time” in the media for that impression.

In late September Joe Hockey released the final accounting for the Federal Government’s 2012-2013 Financial Year where the headline was an $18.8 billion deficit (down from a projected $19.4 billion on August 2, 2013).

According to Michael Pascoe in Fairfax media:

It's yet another case of politics overshadowing economics: while newbie Treasurer Joe Hockey insinuates otherwise, the final count for the 2012-13 federal budget is an outstanding achievement, a monument to a skilled Treasury performance in very difficult circumstances.

Hockey certainly didn’t give credit to either his Department or the former Treasurer for a job well done. However, he has ‘deferred’ the surplus promised by Abbott while listing how often Swan promised the same thing.

The new Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, met her Indonesian counterpart at the United Nations in New York to discuss, amongst other issues, the Coalition Government policy on refugee boats. According to the Foreign Minister, the conversation was private and Australia’s position was explained.

The Indonesian Government had a differing opinion – it released the notes of the discussion while stating that the policy of ‘turning back the boats’ was not supported. As reported by the ABC:

The ABC's Indonesia correspondent George Roberts told PM, the statement is a rare move from a nation that is usually much more circumspect in diplomacy.

"Even in recent history, the foreign minister has been very reluctant to speak openly and has been very diplomatic about it," he said.

"So this kind of language is quite strong and quite interesting indeed.”

While there would be little support for yet another three years of election campaigning, does PM Abbott really expect that all of the fourth and fifth estates will, now that he is in power, concede ‘there is nothing to see here and let’s move on’?

Early in October, an opinion piece by Mark Kenny reported:

In one of the lighter moments towards the end of the recent presidential-style election campaign, Labor's campaign headquarters issued a press statement configured as a faux police bulletin.

It said grave fears were held for the whereabouts of once high profile Liberals, Peter Dutton, Sophie Mirabella, and Eric Abetz.

The respective health, industry, and workplace relations shadow ministers had become almost invisible. Labor was desperate to draw them on to policy terrain usually judged as stronger for the ALP.

The crux of the article is the ALP’s claim that while disciplined media management is a positive in Opposition, it is a negative in Government. Abbott is maintaining the same management policy in Government, which leads us as the employers of the Government to believe they are doing nothing. When the inevitable ‘crisis’ happens, not only are the relevant Ministers unprepared for the attention it will place on their shoulders, they will be an easy mark for the more critical elements of the media pack.

It is often said that those that don’t remember history are bound to repeat it. Probably the most relevant example of this is the former Premier of Victoria Ted Ballieu. News reports at the time of his overthrow (who said the ALP was the only political party to turf out current leaders while in power?) suggested that a large part of the reason for his demise was his lack of connection with the media, leading to the Victorian Government becoming almost invisible. Ballieu is still a member of the Victorian Parliament – but no one outside Victoria hears anything about him.

By contrast, when the self-confessed ‘media tart’ Peter Beattie chose to run in a southern Brisbane seat in the recent Federal election nearly a decade after being Premier of Queensland he was the subject of national media coverage. Beattie knew how to participate in the media. He had been re-elected as Premier in 2001, and in 2004 in the middle of a scandal involving members of his Government – promising to ‘clean the mess up’. While publicity may not have helped Beattie win the Federal Seat in 2013, one never knows if the result would have been worse for the ALP if Beattie had not run.

Politicians in general like to control the message and in this respect Tony Abbott is no different from those that preceded him. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard attempted to manage the media in different ways: Rudd by going into infinite detail when questioned and Gillard on occasions by literally standing there and taking all questions until there were no more. Both of them had good policies and decisions to publicise but limited success in crafting a story that the media accepted. Ultimately, the lack of the ability to craft and generate ‘good’ news stories about life in Australia led to their demise at the hands of the members of their own political party. In both cases there were other factors at play as well. Rudd’s apparent ‘control freak’ tendencies, and various sections of the ALP never resolving their differences with the way in which Kevin Rudd was replaced by Gillard, certainly didn’t help. It could be argued that internal tensions didn’t help concentrate the previous Government’s mind fully on projecting their message to the country.

Despite the ALP Government’s success at managing the negotiation of a hung parliament for half the time they were in power, as well as leaving a number of programs that will benefit Australia for generations, they will be remembered for a largely self-inflicted loss of the media battle.

The Cone of Silence used on Get Smart was designed to be an object of fun and derision. There are already signs that the media is treating Abbott’s Cone of Silence with the same derision. Fairfax media has been ‘crowd surfing’ recently, asking people to help them find examples of ‘travel rorts’, while Abbott would have been much happier if his contribution to the current APEC conference in Indonesia was the only news.

Will Abbott eventually find the ‘sweet spot’ between Ballieu and Beattie’s media styles?

Will he ‘trust’ his Ministers to be the ‘adults’ he claims make up his Government?

What will the media do if Abbott continues the policy of non-engagement as media control? Will the reporters and editors that have been on a controlled drip feed from the LNP Opposition for the past three years make it up, look for leaks or accept the status quo as the Coalition Government ‘turns off the easy story tap’?

What do you think?

 

How the west was NOT won by Murdoch

Before the September election, some political pundits were predicting a Labor ‘wipeout’ in its western Sydney heartland. It did not happen.

Two Labor seats out of eight in western Sydney fell to the Liberals. Arguably, two seats, classified as southern Sydney by the Australian Electoral Commission, could be added to the list as they are part of Sydney’s central southern suburbs and border the central Labor belt (from Sydney to Penrith along the western railway line). There are reasons, however, other than the Murdoch press that these seats fell. More important are the six seats that did not fall.

The two western seats to fall were Reid and Lindsay: both border LNP seats and have areas (booths) that are predominantly Liberal voting. In Lindsay the central area around Penrith is Labor, but the northern and southern ends Liberal. In Reid, the northern half along the Parramatta River tends to be Liberal and the southern, Labor.

They are obviously seats that may move about in elections and be heavily influenced by small changes in electoral boundaries. When Reid was a Labor stronghold the seat included Labor-leaning areas to the west, towards Parramatta, but now those areas are in the Parramatta electorate and Reid includes more Liberal-leaning areas to the east, like the Drummoyne peninsula. Similarly, Lindsay’s boundaries have changed over time to include more Liberal-leaning areas in the north.

Of the two southern Sydney seats that fell, Banks has a similar profile. Barton is a little different, having some Liberal areas in the south, but is predominantly Labor – it was, however, lost by only 493 votes or 0.6% of formal votes. The retirement of the sitting member, Robert McClelland, probably had some influence on the outcome: in fact, the large swing against Labor in Barton (see table below) may also suggest an element of protest at the way McClelland was treated by his Labor colleagues during the preceding two years (demoted within the Ministry in December 2011, then dropped from the Ministry altogether in February 2012).

The swings in first preference votes in these electorates were:

Electorate Labor swing (%) Liberal swing (%) Greens swing (%)
Reid (west) -0.9 + 4.0 - 4.2
Lindsay (west) - 5.5 + 3.3 - 1.7
Barton (south) - 8.1 + 1.7 - 4.9
Banks (south) - 1.9 + 1.5 - 4.6


There is significant variation in what was happening in the electorates despite Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph being a common newspaper across these areas. But in only one electorate, Reid, did the swing against Labor result in an increased swing to the Liberals. The first preference votes went elsewhere and that is particularly marked in Barton.

Even if one argues that the Murdoch campaign was effective in reducing the Labor vote, these figures suggest that it did not have the corollary effect of convincing people to vote Liberal.

Some of those first preference votes moved to minor parties which may more reflect an attitude of ‘a pox on both your houses’.

The influence of the press is further questioned when one considers that within Reid, there was actually a swing to Labor in the five booths that make up Auburn, a core Labor area of the electorate: the swings to Labor in those booths ranged from 0.6% to 5.7%.

Does this mean that the Murdoch campaign actually convinced more Labor-leaning voters to vote Labor?

Labor was also affected by the decline in the Greens’ vote, reducing its preference flow. Whether the decline in the Greens vote was a result of the long running Murdoch campaign against them or a result of Labor campaigning strongly to distinguish itself from the Greens is debatable but, given the tenuous impact in the west of the Murdoch campaign against Labor, I lean to the latter.

And among the seats in western Sydney that did not fall, the first preference swings were:

Electorate Labor swing (%) Liberal swing (%) Greens swing (%)
Chifley + 0.7 + 1.9 - 5.8
Blaxland + 4.8 - 0.6 - 3.2
Fowler + 7.9 - 10.2 - 3.3
McMahon - 1.1 + 4.3 - 5.1
Parramatta - 3.2 + 3.6 - 2.7
Greenway + 2.2 - 1.3 - 2.3


Overall, Labor increased its first preference vote in four electorates and the Liberal vote fell in three: hardly a ringing endorsement of the effectiveness of the Murdoch campaign! Perhaps on that basis, Labor should ask him to continue the campaign and help increase its vote further next time. And Chifley, Blaxland, Fowler and even McMahon were held on first preference votes alone.

Greenway was influenced by the Liberal candidate being Jaymes Diaz: as Anthony Green said during the election night coverage, it showed that ‘candidates matter’. I suggest, not being an expert, that one quantum of the ‘candidate effect’ in Greenway could be 5.8%, the sum of overcoming the national 3.6% swing to the LNP plus the 2.2% swing to Labor that was achieved. (I would also accept 4.9%, summing the national swing and Diaz’s loss, which would then suggest that, after removing the ‘candidate effect’, there was still a 0.9% swing to Labor.)

The somewhat unusual result in Fowler suggests that the perceived quality of the local candidates was also a factor there but I have, as yet, not found any evidence to confirm this. (If somebody knows, please post a comment!)

What do the results in western Sydney tell us?

On the above figures, it seems that if the Murdoch campaign had any influence it was merely to reinforce existing leanings of particular areas within electorates, whether Liberal or Labor, or of confirmed voters’ views that neither of the major parties deserved their first preference vote. In this sense, the Murdoch campaign may have had more influence in turning voters off politics generally than in influencing votes.

I am not suggesting that the Murdoch campaign had no influence whatsoever but that the influence did not match the effort put into the campaign; nor was it as effective as Murdoch would have us believe.

Clive Palmer’s advertising blitz demonstrates the impact media campaigns can have. In his case, however, because he was starting from scratch, the campaign was as much about what advertising experts call ‘brand recognition’. What he did effectively was make his party known and provide voters an alternative to voting for the major parties, which a proportion of voters was obviously seeking to do. What he had to say mattered less than simply being known.

Murdoch himself believes he is a political force but the screaming anti-Labor headlines of his Daily Telegraph mattered little in the final analysis and appear to have had minimal influence on the vote in western Sydney.

Murdoch was basically granted political influence by the politicians, both here in Australia and in Britain, because the politicians reacted to the Murdoch commentary and polling. Instead of governing, or seeking government, by promoting policies and a vision for the future, politicians slipped into the trap of believing they will ‘live and die’ by the polls. As long as they believe that, they will allow Murdoch to continue to hold sway over them. But as my brief analysis of the vote in western Sydney indicates, the Murdoch influence is not as strong in the electorate.

While the polls generally (not just Murdoch’s polls) were relatively accurate in predicting the national voting outcome, the Government is not elected by a national trend but by winning individual seats in the House of Representatives (HoR). In 1998, for example, Labor won the national vote (51% to 49%) but insufficient seats to defeat the LNP. The published polls have not been very successful in predicting how individual electorates will behave and the figures above show the wide variations that occur between electorates.

The ability of Tony Windsor to hold New England for so many years, before his retirement at this election, and the Jaymes Diaz effect in Greenway, show that the quality of local candidates is crucial. While people know their vote will influence who becomes Prime Minister, they also know they are actually voting for a local candidate, so the quality of that candidate influences voting much more than the Murdoch press.

Strong, locally based campaigns are another effective tool to overcome broader, negative media coverage. The success of Cathy McGowan’s campaign in Indi (in Victoria) against Sophie Mirabella, is evidence of this.

I believe politicians need to ignore the Murdoch press commentary and his fortnightly polls. They are just marketing, linking his news (opinions) and his polls in a continuous marketing cycle for his media, fodder for political commentators, but next to meaningless when a voter walks into a polling station and puts pencil to paper.

What do you think?

(The above analysis used data from three major sources: the Australian Electoral Commission’s The Official 2013 Federal Election Results as at 29 September; and seat by seat guides by Anthony Green from the ABC’s 2013 Federal Election site ‘Electorates A-Z’ and William Bowe’s (aka The Poll Bludger) ‘Election Guides: The House of Representatives’.)

Truth in advertising?

Let me start off with a confession: I like French cars. So much so that I have been a regular poster on Aussiefrogs.com.au for a number of years. I could bore you silly with the differences between a 2009 and a 2012 Peugeot. But I won’t.

Like most internet forums I have seen, and heard about, there is an ‘off-topic’ area on Aussiefrogs that a certain level of membership will allow you to access. Aussiefrogs calls their off-topic thread ‘The Toad Pond’.

Someone recently posed there the question of the future of interest rates under the new Federal Government. After a number of comments from others, I made a comment that the last time the ‘official interest rate’ fell under a Coalition Government was in 2001.

The reality is that official interest rates are controlled by the Reserve Bank of Australia Board. But both sides of politics have claimed in the past (and probably will in the future) that ‘Interest rates will always be lower under a [insert party name here] Government’, while suggesting the media should call out both political parties for blatantly misleading statements.

In The Toad Pond I then pined for a return of some truth in political reporting – if not politics itself. Following my comment there came a number of good-natured ones suggesting that my request for a tad of truth in politics was an impossible dream (as well as questioning my grasp of reality).

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s website states:

The Governor and the Treasurer have agreed that the appropriate target for monetary policy in Australia is to achieve an inflation rate of 2–3 per cent, on average, over the cycle. This is a rate of inflation sufficiently low that it does not materially distort economic decisions in the community. Seeking to achieve this rate, on average, provides discipline for monetary policy decision-making, and serves as an anchor for private-sector inflation expectations.

Clearly, while the government of the day’s policy affects to some extent the monetary policy of the RBA, so does the world economy and other factors that will, in the view of the RBA Board, have a good or bad effect on the Australian economy. Effectively, ‘monetary policy’ is a tool used by the RBA to maintain inflation within the two to three per cent target band, and it changes its policy to achieve that result.

Financial institutions determine their interest rates in some shape of form using the ‘official rate’ from the RBA: products such as home loans are deemed to be newsworthy and usually track fairly closely to the current RBA determination. Business loans and instruments such as credit cards, which don’t really generate as many headlines, are not as volatile. While it might be nice for the Government’s Treasurer to stand in front of the press and suggest that he and the Government he is a member of have produced a fantastic result, in reality they had little to do with it. The recent policy of some banks to set rates independently of RBA decisions bears this out.

So I ponder:

Why are politicians allowed to claim credit for decisions they had little input into?

How is it they are able to make such misleading statements as well?

And how did they get away with the recent bout of election advertising that promised the world if we voted for whomever?


It has long been understood in Australia that there is some legislation that deals with truth in advertising. Clearly, claims that official interest rates will always be lower if a certain party is in power are incorrect because the RBA sets the ‘official interest rate’, not the government of the day.

If we look at the ACCC website, we find a number of organisations that determine if advertising is basically truthful, and that a number of these organisations publish their results.

The ACCC states that:

Honest advertising practices are not just good for business – they are required by law. The Australian Consumer Law contains a number of rules that businesses must follow when advertising and selling products and services …

A number of industry groups regulate advertising within their specific area of expertise, with assistance or oversight from the ACCC. In the case of vehicle manufacturers/importers, that industry body is the Federal Chamber of Automotive (FCAI) Industries. One of the issues FCAI monitor is the impression of ‘dangerous driving’ as reported on the Car Advice website recently when people complained about the lack of truth in a Nissan advertisement, where:

… the ad shows a man driving through the streets as his seemingly pregnant wife is in the passenger seat appearing to be in labor. When the couple arrives at a hospital, the man looks at his watch and proclaims a “personal best”, then the woman lifts her jumper to reveal a pillow playing the part of the baby bump. Reported by Mumbrella, the ASB investigated the ad following complaints that is [sic] displayed dangerous and illegal behaviour and promoted unsafe driving.

Apparently the Nissan advertisement was filmed at slow speed and ‘sped up’ using a faster frame speed and the addition of ‘suitable’ noises. There are two versions of the ad: the second was missing a number of tyre-screeching and engine revving sounds that the first advertisement contained.

In May 2012:

The Federal Government instituted an enquiry to investigate concerns that some ads promote dangerous driving. The inquiry comes in the wake of several car ads falling foul of the advertising watchdog, including an ad for Volvo V60 that this month was ruled to give an impression of ''reckless speed'' and ''unsafe driving''.

Volvo agreed to pull the ad from television after the Advertising Standards Board ruled it should be modified or withdrawn. Last month a Suzuki ad was changed after the ASB determined it promoted reckless driving.


Numerous examples of regulation are available: from protecting people from medicines that have no clinical proof of actually doing what they are claimed to do, to the colours and descriptions of foodstuffs, to claims that are unsubstantiated – such as sugar-filled cereals being ‘good for you’. While opinions may vary on the justification for regulation that can ban advertising that:

  • can be construed as dangerous driving,
  • suggests a medical benefit from taking tablets when there is no proof
  • promotes consumption of food with dubious health claims,
there is here an underlying theme: protecting society from harm.

Why isn’t the act of a political leader offering obvious falsehoods, such as ‘interest rates will always be lower’, also considered ‘illegal’ - given the regulatory theme of protecting society from harm?

Because it isn’t.

The Australian Electoral Commission’s Backgrounder on political advertising states that politicians or potential politicians can advertise whatever they like, provided they do not mislead or deceive us on how to cast a valid vote.

So, the situation is that Nissan, Volvo, Kelloggs or any other company advertising in Australia must remain within the bounds of truth, or someone will complain to the appropriate advertising standards agency. But if you are a politician, the content of your advertising is not regulated, provided you don’t suggest to people they ‘vote early and vote often’ or imply they don’t vote (because ‘it only encourages them’). Even worse, the politicians voted on this law, with an obvious double standard entrenched in its legislation.

Our politicians can tell us that they will ‘stop the boats’, ‘rectify a budget emergency’ (which has suddenly disappeared since 13 September) or anything else they like without any fear of exposure, legal consequences or, sadly, examination by a complacent media.

Why is it that society needs to be protected from ‘perceptions of dangerous driving’ when most drivers are well aware of the implications of the act while society is deemed to be quite able to determine the accuracy of arcane claims by politicians, such as ‘interest rates will always be lower’, without any requirement that the claim has any fact to it at all?

What is the real problem here:


  • that the Electoral Act doesn’t regulate the content of political advertising, or
  • that society, as demonstrated by a number of people in ‘The Toad Pond’, understands, accepts and is comfortable with the suggestion that politicians cannot be believed?
I’m not sure. The people are not ‘storming the barricades’ to eliminate such an obvious double standard.

What do you think?