If Kevin Rudd thought Insulgate was going to go away with a mea culpa, he was wrong. Note that I refer to ‘Insulgate’... the beat up, the bootstrap, not the reality-based situation.
We have seen recently the first (and perhaps the last) attempts at factual examination of the death and fire statistics in the insulation industry. Possum started it off in Pollytics. There was also an independent report in The Australian Financial Review last week analysing OH&S statistics. The Age chimed in on Wednesday with another piece (which borrowed some of its points from Possum, with appropriate acknowledgements).
These have been like water off a duck’s back as far as the rest of the media is concerned. They’ve got their meme, and they’re sticking to it. There appears to be a wilful refusal to consider an alternative point of view, even if only to rebut it. As far as the media is concerned, the factual situation of the Insulation Stimulus Plan is established. Anything else is irrelevant to the main story.
What is ‘the story’? The story is not necessarily that the government provably botched the Insulation Stimulus. The story is that the media have decided on the story. Without an external factual reference, one which is presented in rational context, the media’s coverage can only be self-referential: they are writing up what each other thinks about the Rudd government. They are bootstrapping.
At the heart of this is the oft-quoted concept of perception being ‘everything’ in politics. You hear it trotted out regularly, as if it’s not only some kind of law of nature, but rightly occupies that status. We are seeing at the moment a momentous battle between fact-based reality and pure perception. For ‘perception’ read: ‘opinionation’. Opinionation has become more important and easier to manufacture than messy facts, which if they don’t, or might not fit the meme, are ignored.
Recently on The Poll Bludger there was one commenter who was in twitter communication with a young gallery journalist called
Latika Bourke Bree Roberts, who works for radio station 2UE network DMG. It was fascinating (in a scary way) to read Bourke's Robert's points of view. One of her twits (perhaps an appropriate description in her case) was that she believed she didn’t need to read the Minter Ellison Report. Here we had a parliamentary press gallery participating journalist actually saying she didn’t need to read fundamental source materials on which she was basing her criticism of the government.
(Note: a commenter pointed out I had the name wrong. Apologies to Latika and the opprobrium is transferred to Bree)
While this may be her problem to some extent, we can say with certainty it is definitely Rudd’s problem too. Journalists and columnists are just making up the news as they go along. For politicians, if that practice gets too out of control they’re in dangerous waters.
Two examples: an AAP story regurgitated on the Herald site on last week told us of ‘thousands of electrified roofs’. A few days before, this figure’s early ancestor was ‘up to 1,000 roofs’ extrapolated by Greg Hunt from a surveyed figure of 17 roofs out of 700 early on in the bootstrap’s progress. Dennis Shanahan turned it into a solid ‘1000 roofs’ and by the time AAP had finished with it, it had become ‘thousands of electrified roofs’. The figure must have been made up. How else could 17 actual roofs become ‘thousands of electrified roofs’?
On Thursday an article in The Australian referred to Greg Hunt having "scores" of complaints (i.e. minimum 40, with the implication of more than that) from Insulation ‘victims’ about installation that did not ever take place and therefore needed Federal Police investigation. The actual figure? From Greg Hunt’s mouth: ‘at least a dozen’, later confirmed at 13. The Australian just made it up.
Why is the media doing this?
Because they can.
Kevin Rudd has given them permission.
Last Friday Rudd conceded their view that politics was all perception by admitting to just about everything they had said about him and his government. He admitted the Health program was nine months late when that was not the case. He demoted Garrett, thereby legitimizing all their crazy accusations about the Insulation Stimulus plan after the fact. He wrote off the GFC response as ‘context’. It was as if Rudd retrospectively pardoned them for their sins.
The idea was put about that he did this to clear the decks of Insulgate. But it was too late. In the last couple of days every second journalist has asked him the same tedious question: “If you completely botched Insulation, how can we trust you to do Health properly?”
They were lining up to put it to him. They know he won’t answer the question by saying:
“Gosh! You’re right! How can we be trusted to get anything right. Thanks for making me realise that!”
... but the sting is in the question, not the answer. It is a taunt that they know he must put up with. That stupid, pointless enquiry of the Prime Minister has become, overnight, a mandatory rite of passage for any self-respecting journo. If Rudd had tried to clarify the facts, to put them in context, he would have been accused of having a ‘glass jaw’, or ‘coldly dissecting the tragedy of four young lives lost’. As the articles that tried to establish the facts were ignored, Rudd would have been vilified as a shabby excuse-maker. He was not prepared to take on this fight, but I believe he should have been.
More dangerously for Rudd, the unanswerable question, the gotcha du jour, has become the basis of much of the opposition to the Health initiative. Rudd is like a skydiver, plummeting towards earth, who cannot open his emergency chute because it is tangled in the flapping wreckage of his main canopy. The bootstrapped Insulation fake scandal has become the seed of the coming Health fake scandal. We have been told Rudd has bet the farm on Health being a winner. And who will be judge of whether it is successful? The same people who either don’t bother to read or wilfully ignore reality, relying instead on their own groupthink version of events... the same people Rudd has oxygenated.
Health, in the time interval of 48 hours has become ‘all disaster, all the time’. Of course, there are many who think it is a great concept, a first, a historic reform. The 7.30 Report the other night had a serious, informative interview with three stakeholders who were in sometimes cautious, but nevertheless broad agreement that it was a sound idea and an encouraging start. But we are not hearing from them anymore.
Instead, now we’re hearing that nurses are objecting, local hospitals will be summarily closed, taxes will have to be raised, the states are in revolt, it is taking too long, it is too hasty, it will cost too much money, they aren’t spending enough, it is too complicated, it is simplistic and lacking in detail and, of course, if they can’t do insulation, how can they do health?
To my mind Rudd made a bad decision to go through with what is called his ‘mea culpa’ on the weekend. It has only encouraged his enemies to go harder, and to use his retrospective legitimization of their fairy stories as now rock solid proof they had gotten it right all along. I predict it won’t take long until the next big policy release is received with, “If he can’t do Insulation or Health right, how can he do anything?” The new bootstrap will build on the established one.
Rudd’s giving into the media’s confected claptrap – seemingly just to make it go away – is ultimately a recipe for the abrogation of government. Achievements don’t matter, analysis of reality doesn’t matter: only bootstrapped opinions and perceptions, carefully seeded by an antagonistic media, matter. Rudd’s mea culpa may well lead to disaster, used as the raw ingredient for a feast of fiction, cooked up in a lazy nihilist kitchen by cynical chefs whose party trick is to spit in the soup and brag about it amongst themselves.
In my opinion the government had the media battle won last week, but they panicked and sought to buy off their enemies with a cheap and (worse) unnecessary concession. Insulation would have been forgotten by now, a distant bleat by an Opposition bereft of ideas, clinging to their one possession like dogs with a bone. Rudd has allowed them to get away with murder when he
almost had them in the bag. This is why so many commentators called his Insiders mea culpa ‘extraordinary’. They couldn’t believe their luck.
However, it’s perhaps not a total defeat. There may, and almost certainly will come a time when the public will have had their fill of negativism and of Tony Abbott on dirt bikes doing the Action Man thing. One more near-miss traffic accident or lost-in-the-wilderness stunt and he’ll become a laughing stock, if he isn’t already. The public will want to see performance, not circus tricks. There is also the possibility that, given free rein by Rudd, the media will go too far, that their closed-loop fantasies will finally become so ridiculous that they won’t pass the laugh test. Maybe Rudd wants to gee-up the troops, to shake them out of their poll-based complacency. I recently saw one hypothesis that Rudd was deliberately making the choice between himself and Tony Abbott as Prime Minister starker, to focus the public’s mind. There are any number of theories as to how this is a brilliant Machiavellian tactic which will deliver an even more glorious election victory.
But, in my view, Rudd’s needless surrender, made at the point of victory, has nevertheless set the clock back. It has taken the nation’s attention off the merits of new and much-needed Health policy and has allowed the media to frame everything in a gilt-edged, bootstrapped fairy story about how roofs catching fire, metal staples and toxic batts have somehow brought the nation to its knees... no matter how remote the connection.
The saddest thing is that it has served to re-enshrine the position of an ailing mainstream media’s perception as paramount in our political discourse, as opposed to a balanced discussion of verifiable fact. In today’s media reality is not the story. The story is the story. Rudd gives this monster a new lease of life at his, his party’s and his supporters’ peril.
Well, that’s what I think. How about you? I’m hoping somebody out there can convince me I’m wrong.
* Note: Lacing methods in the graphic are from the excellent Ian's Shoelace Site ... where you can find out not only why your shoelaces are always unravelling, but you can also drive yourself nuts trying to copy the techniques illustrated! A visit to the site by those out there who are shoelace challenged is highly recommended... or just check it out if you want to have some fun reading about something seemingly completely trivial on the one hand, but (when you think about it) quite important to everyday life on the other.