Barack Obama’s message to Australian politics

Barack Obama began his acceptance speech “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”  He went on to say “It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America. It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

There’s a message there for Australia, for Australian politics, for the Australian media.  We have a multicultural society, we have the same groups, we have the same political divide, and we have the same cynicism, fear and doubt, much of it generated not just from contemporary circumstances, but by politicians and particularly the mainstream media.  At this time of international crisis, we need what Obama offered – hope.  He said: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.”

The message is not just one of hope, not just that ‘we will get there’, but most importantly ‘we as a people will get there’.  At times of war, we in Australia have stood together as a people.  Now with the global financial crisis inundating us, we need to stand together, put aside partisan positions and work together to stay above the tidal wave and ride it until it dissipates.  To do this we need statesmen, not politicians.  Martin Luther King said "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."  All politicians should have that hanging in their walls, stamped on the top of their letterheads - it may drive them towards statesmanship.  Those in the media should rally round the politicians as they stand together, as they strive for statesmanship.

That there is a long way to go is evidenced by the coverage of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, MYEFO to the in-group.  [more]

The first reaction by the Opposition was that its release on the day of the US elections was a “cynical political exercise” designed to cover up the Government’s ‘botched handling of the economy’ – standard phraseology, but with little meaning. As ‘cynical’ is defined as ‘incredulous of human goodness, sneering’, it’s hard to see its relevance here.  As pointed out on ABC 774 radio by Laurie Oakes, whose long experience might render him cynical, Wayne Swan was ‘jammed’ by events.  A similar accusation would have been made if MYEFO, which was due for release in early November,  had been released last Friday – just before a weekend, Monday – before the Melbourne Cup holiday, on Tuesday – Cup Day, or Thursday after Swan had departed for the Finance Ministers’ conference in Brazil.  So the criticism was spurious, and intended to do political damage.   Then, since MYEFO showed there was a $40 billion ‘hole’ in the budget, Malcolm Turnbull asserted that Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan were ‘out of their depth’.  Clearly that was the genesis of the hole, rather than the GFC.  Julie Bishop followed a similar line “This was an attempt to distract the Australian people from the Government’s bungled handling of the economic conditions in this country.  The Government is keen to blame the global financial crisis for everything, but in fact a number of the Government’s policies ...have made conditions worse in Australia.”  Nice generalizations without the benefit of specific examples.  Then she reiterated a theme that we’ll hear again and again, that with growth forecast at 2%, there was “absolutely no reason” for the budget to go into deficit.  As avoiding a deficit has been the Holy Grail of Coalition politics, expect to hear a lot about previous Labor deficits, and the evil of them, despite several economists insisting that a deficit may be not just desirable, but necessary to sustain economic growth at this difficult time.  Economic logic is irrelevant if superficially plausible political points are there for the making.

Next consider the commentary on Wayne Swan’s presentation of MYEFO.  Clearly it was not his best performance.  He was described as being nervous as well one might expect him to be delivering such a pile of unpleasant economic news.  Then there was a complaint about the MYEFO booklet not being available at the beginning of the press conference.  Perhaps it should have been, but anyone making a PowerPoint presentation is entitled to have the audience’s attention, rather than have it flipping through printed pages.  But Swan’s greatest sin was not having the revised inflation figures at the forefront of his mind, and taking 80 seconds, someone timed it, to find the figures in the report.  A whole 80 seconds!  This deficit was widely reported in radio and TV news, taking almost as much time as the guts of MYEFO.  Reporters thought it was great fun recounting Swan’s uneasiness, and photos purporting to show his discomfort appeared in the papers.  Mind you, he didn’t get them wrong as did Julie Bishop get the interest rates wrong, for which she was pilloried, he just couldn’t recall them.  His effort to give accurate information was turned against him.  Maybe he should have known, but why make such a fuss about it, why talk about a ‘Kerin moment’, why focus on that when it’s the economic data that’s critical.  Katherine Murphy tried to give a humorous account of it in The Age, and even respected Lenore Taylor did the same in The Australian; she should have known better.  The Financial Review gave all the details and its considered views without finding it necessary to talk at all about Swan’s presentation. 

The comments of some at the press conference sound like the reactions of a small child deprived of its security blanket, but with pen in hand read like attack dogs at work sensing thay have found a vulnerable prey.  Some are even predicting that Swan has delivered his last budget.  What a pitiful exercise of what the media believe is their make or break power.  It is this the public should fear, not a single suboptimal performance from the Treasurer, who deals with more complexity in one day than most journalists deal with in a month.  This is media muscle flexing at its worst, and even more lamentably there seems to be a contest among the attack dogs to see who can inflict the most damage and kill the prey first.  

Would a businessman, worried about the effect of MYEFO’s forecasts on his sales, or a wage earner, alarmed by the prospect of losing his job, be remotely interested in Swan’s inability to supply the revised inflation figures for 80 seconds?  Where has a sense of perspective gone?

The point of mentioning these somewhat tedious matters is simply to exemplify how far politicians still have to go to reach the level of statesmanship and the media to reach an acceptable standard of responsible reporting.  When will they realize how important this crisis is to us all, and desist from political points scoring and journalistic ribaldry about deadly serious matters?  When will all politicians work collaboratively to contribute to adapting to the world’s economic crisis?  When will the media stand shoulder to shoulder with them? 

When will we observe how they stand “at times of challenge and controversy” and not be disappointed?

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Bushfire Bill

8/11/2008I wonder if you felt embarrassed about writing the phrase "standing shoulder to shoulder" with the government? I certainly felt a little embarrassed to read it, but you're absolutely right: we [i]are[/i] in a national crisis of sorts, and we need to all work in the same direction, not carp and whinge around the edges about nuance. The media is playing this crisis as if it was put there entrely for their sport. Why write about something seriously when you can indulge in a journalistic circle jerk over a gaffe, or a hesitation? When will the fiction that Treasurers should be first and foremost expert economic technicians, with all the figures at their finger-tips for instant recitation finally lie down and die? Costello has a lot to answer for, for inventing the Ferrari Mechanic myth, as does the media for running with it. In two articles in the past week, amounting to a mere 1,100 words combined, Michelle Grattan, the "La Stupenda" of Australian political journalism used the following phrases: [i]"The Government is deeply worried.... NSW "had a shocking month"... As the economic crisis deepens worldwide... the state of the much-diminished surplus... whether the budget is likely to go into the red in 2009-10... The Government is spending half this financial year's surplus on its cash-splash... It will be a moment of truth for the Government... Rudd is desperate to keep "ahead of the curve"...The mortgage fund crisis has turned into a nightmare for the Government... it struggled with how to find a way to free up the mega-billions frozen in these funds... arrangements to let people in "hardship" take out money... really bad times... the political paradox of good news (an interest rate fall) signalling bad tidings...confidence deteriorating... unemployment will take over... unseemly political scrapping... yet more of the surplus will be spent... What's left of it, that is... revenue falling... situation changing week by week... very downbeat language... softening it up for the nastier times ahead..."[/i] Then at the end of both articles she lamented that the thing that's missing from our society right now is... confidence! Faced with the outstanding poll performance of the government, over the period of its incumbency and for over a year before that, Shaun Carney let out a giant dummy spit in today's [i]Age[/i]: [b]"Almost a year into its life, the Rudd Government does not look altogether comfortable in its skin. Some days are better than others. A fair bit of the time, it gets close to appearing to know what it's doing."[/b] I would have thought 61-39 (as reported in the latest Essential Research poll) would provide a lot of comfort, skinwize, but Shaun has the gotcha: Howard, Bush and Blair are all gone. Political success is followed by political failure. What goes up must come down. These are almost Grattanistic, La Stupenda-esque insights, from a writer clearly at the top of his game. With the Rudd government not yet a year old, Shaun is already writing it off as one that - some day - will lose power. Gee, how brilliant is that? I guess we don't have to be serious about political analysis for the duration of the slippery-slide down to abject defeat, 'cause one day Labor will lose an election. I mean, what's the point? There's even a snarky bit in there about the bank guarantee. After, on occasion, "appearing to know what it's doing", Rudd's amateur lot "drags its feet about tying up the details on its bank guarantee". Little consideration is given to the possibility that the [i]bank[/i] guarantee was only meant to be applied to registered [i]banks[/i], with strict prudential reporting obligations, as opposed to other financial institutions who deliberately knocked back morphing into [i]banks[/i] so they could offer higher - but riskier - interest rates to the baby boomers in smug, self-funded retirement... all based on [i]property[/i], y'know, the cause of all this meltdown business in the first place, as in "property not worth its paper value." Sheesh, how many ways can you interpret the phrase "[i]bank[/i] guarantee" to argue that it really means (or should mean) "universal insurance for anyone who has any money invested in any mortgage fund, dodgy or otherwise"? The reason the squealing BBs didn't deposit their money in [i]banks[/i] is because their smartie financial advisers told them that the funds would offer a higher rate of return. Perhaps the silk-suited BMW types flogging these schemes skipped over the really fast mumbly bit at the end of the radio ads, or the fine print at the bottom of the brochure that read "Conditions Apply"? Conditions like: "[i]Psssst!... [/i]We're not a [i]bank[/i]"? Faced with the government's surging popularity, with a big tick being given by the public for it doing pretty damn well, considering, in handling the financial crisis; faced with unemployment figures that "counter-intuitively" (a delightful Stupenda-ism I couldn't resist) didn't "nosedive", "blow-out", "take a tumble", "trip up a bit" [i]or even change at all[/i] in any downward direction, the opinionistas are left with the savant-like pronouncement that one day the so far successful and popular Rudd government might do something wrong, with the hinted conclusion lingering that, knowing this, we may as well write them - and their prospects of handling the GFC well - off right now. "Sex, death and misery sell." Why be optimistic, or even balanced and level-headed on any subject, when you can take a fabulous poll performance, general agreement that the government is coping quite well in a fluctuating situation, record low unemployment and a little thing like the saving of our economy so far through rapid, accurate decision making and turn it into "A fair bit of the time, it gets close to appearing to know what it's doing"? The people I am working with at the moment, generally a dour bunch who would rather "get the quote out" than breathe, or watch the football than waste any mental energy on sentient thought, get animated about one thing that isn't on YouTube or the lunchroom Foxtel: their super. They're aghast that it's worth but a fraction (albeit a largish one) of what it was a year ago. Any do you know who they blame? Not the government. They realise that much of what we see happening on the stock market and in house prices is caused by fear, loss of confidence and the "you go first" syndrome, as in "you jump in the river first and see if there are crocodiles in it." In short, they blame the media, so full of itself with reporting, nay talking up misery and doom, and touting poor governance in Canberra, that the whole country is panicking for nothing except the bloated egos of the misery-gutsers who write the depressing trash offered to their readers and viewers day after day. From talking to many other people, I'd guess that this is a pretty widespread opinion out there in Voterland. It's the one thing anyone I've asked about it gets angry about. Although I can't remember a specific occasion, I'm pretty sure my mum told me that if I couldn't say anything nice about someone, then I shouldn't say anything at all. I certainly don't say very many nice things about certain journalists and politicians, but then again I don't have an audience of hundreds of thousands like Shaun Carney and Michelle Grattan do. Rolling-about tummy tantrums like this morning's Carney piece are just nasty. If he can't think of anything nice to say about the government and the way they're looking after the state of our country and economy, why not write about the cricket, or the footy, anything but politics? Thesaurus-like recitations of a thousand ways to say "misery", like Grattan's two pieces earlier in the week are no help at all. In their small-minded desperation to belittle the governance of Australia in order to score a few quick - and cheap - snark points, the opinion writers (and who [i]isn't[/i] an opinion writer nowadays?) are doing a lot of damage that needn't be done. In a perverse way it's kinda reassuring. It shows that, deep down, they have latched onto the real truth of what's going on in our country's case: things are serious, but not [i]so[/i] serious as to force them to change their negative ways, frivolous levity and downbeat attitudes to just about everything which crosses their minds. In that possibility, I take a small measure of comfort.

janice

8/11/2008You've said it all once again Bushfire Bill. Your Mum must have come from the same mould as my mother who abhorred gossip and mischief-mongering and was quick to slap her offspring down by suggesting that we, her offspring, step into the victims shoes. 'Think', she would say, 'question the truth or otherwise of the information, and never ever repeat gossip'.

Ad astra reply

8/11/2008Bushfire Bill, your post today is brilliant. You should run your own blog - you'd soon attract an audience, with me at the top of the queue. You have amplified what has been said in my post with telling examples. I haven't yet seen this morning's papers, but I'm bracing myself for the Carney piece. As you describe it, we have the Government grappling with the most serious and complex financial emergency in many decades, straining every muscle in its attempt to do the ‘right thing’ to counteract and eventually reverse the trend, while much of the media responds to the situation as if it was a sporting fixture, always looking for winners and losers, preferably the latter as that makes ‘better’ copy. The overblown language is a measure of the indifferent quality of much of what passes as journalism in this country. An experienced journalist like Michelle Grattan should know better than to resort to such extravagance. It saddens the heart to read what is said about our politicians who generally try hard to do the right thing and make a positive difference to our society. As Laurie Oakes said this week on ABC 774 radio, being a politician is an awful job. When one reads the barbs and arrows flung so irresponsibly by some sections of the media at all our politicians, one can only agree with him. It’s a pity, as newspapers struggle to sustain their readership, as they try to reverse their downward trend, that they believe that resorting to the approach you describe so vividly will save them from becoming moribund. They may be a bad misjudgement. Time will tell.

Bushfire Bill

8/11/2008Thanks for the compliment, AA and Janice, but no blog for me. Tried it once before and it took too much of my energy. I have to concentrate on a project I'm working on right now and the exigencies of blogging coupled with the work project would burn me out. Your own writing is superb. It was "must read" when you did a stint at Possum's. I'm surprised there aren't more people reading your stuff, and especially commenting. Other blogs, here and overseas, with much more prosaic writers get hundreds of comments. One example is the American blogger, Atrios, whose posts are often little more than, "Sunday Bobbleheads:document the atrocities", or "Oh, the horror!". Almost anything he writes has thousands of comments within half an hour. I can't figure it out. He can't write, or doesn't choose to, but scores big in hits (admittedly many of the commenters' comment are of the "Frist!" standard, but they're made nevertheless). Peter Martin is another example: a brilliant analyst and a really cluey guy, who can put an argument together cogently and clearly. Yet he only receives rare comments. I can't explain either of these two anomalies (and many, many more) but I'm sure there's a thesis in it somewhere for someone. Carney's piece today was like a dull, overcast day hanging a pall over everything. He could have said something positive about the government, or if not the government, the economy or the country. He could have praised Rudd's and Swan's efforts, been optimistic about the future along the lines of, "I don't agree with everything Rudd has done, but we all make mistakes... and it might be ME who's wrong anyway!". But no, he had to make that prissy, nasty, grudging statement: "A fair bit of the time, it gets close to appearing to know what it's doing." Not close to [i]knowing[/i] what it's doing, but close to [i]appearing[/i] to know what it's doing. As far as actually [i]doing[/i] something right, or good or even brilliant... in Carney's mind Rudd is still a country mile away from [i]that[/i]. What else would you expect from the bigrapher of Costello, who confidently assured us that for the two weeks after the official publication date of The Book it would be "all Costello, all the time." How wrong could a supposed "expert commentator" be? No much wronger than Carney was. And not much wronger than so many of the others have been, and continue to be. Yet they keep their gigs, and presumably their high salaries when guys like you are writing much more incisive, and I dare say, [i]balanced[/i] stuff (yes, with a twist of lefty, but a veritable full size scales of justice compared to the biases of some of them). There, and I didn't even have to write about Shanahan and [i]el Pequeño Presidente[/i], Mr. "Platform Shoes" Milne himself. They're so far off the mark you'd need a book-length post to explain where they got it wrong.

janice

8/11/2008Bushfire Bill, Shanahan et al sit on their intelligence. By the way, I like your 'el Pequeno Presidente, Mr Platform Shoes' - so apt a description. I read Carney's piece today and wondered as I usually do whether he really is the negative, nasty character that comes across in the articles he presents as journalism. Ad astra, Michelle Grattan is an enigma to me. She can write good stuff but more often than not she strays from the straight and narrow and resorts to the sort of 'group think' stuff. Sometimes I think she may suffer insomnia and the worst of her pieces are the product of interrupted sleep!

Monica aka Harry "Snapper" Organs

8/11/2008Ad astra, I am an avid reader of your blog even when I don't post a comment. Also regularly check Peter Martin, quality reporting or analysis being in short supply these days. I appreciate your analyses very much. Apropos Bushfire Bill's critique of the MSM, one with which I largely agree, Phillip Adams had an interesting piece in today's O.O. magazine. He thinks the "mass media" is wilting and the blogosphere runs the risk of fracturing critical analysis. The folk at Larvatus Prodeo have also been discussing "where to" for their own site, given the demise of Tim Blair's "The Road to Surfdom". I'd be interested to know what support people, such as myself could provide?

Just Me

8/11/2008<i>Tim Blair's "The Road to Surfdom"</i> You mean Tim Dunlop's RTS?

Just Me

8/11/2008Oops, wrong HTML tags.
How many oranges do I have if I have 3 oranges and take ONE away?