Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Media

Understanding the world through the media

One of the thing that has amazed me over the last few years is how badly the Australian press understands America. I had thought this was a symptom of George W.Bush being in the white house, a character so unusual to the Australian mindset that we never got a bearing on him. But it continued through the2008 election campaign and through to today. This isn’t just a function of remoteness either, take todays effort by Brad Norrington, The Australian’s US based reporter:

If any proof were needed that US foreign policy, especially in the Pacific, is far down the list of priorities for Obama and his team then here it is.
George W. Bush ignored the region, say his detractors. What about Obama? The President’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, stumbled through a prepared script yesterday. But he put the situation aptly: “The passage of health reform is of paramount importance and the President is determined to see this battle through.”
In other words, Obama’s domestic push to pass a watered-down version of health reform in the US congress so he can chalk up a legislative victory after a year of bumbling comes first. The message to Indonesia and Australia could not be clearer.

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The openly cynical conviction politician

One thing to like about Tony Abbott is that he has a clear set of beliefs and is in politics because he wants to be the engine that implements these views. His numerous “gaffes” (in the eyes of the media) are generally just cases of him saying what he believes when it’s impolitic rather than actual mistakes. Therefore, with his advisors surely very keen to play up this image of a straight shooting man, it was odd to see two significant counter-examples on Four Corners last night
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It’s not just porn: Net filter will limit culture and public debate

I had such high hopes for Stephen Conroy as Communications Minister. After the corruption of Richard-what free tv-Alston and luddite Coonan (not to mention the decidedly not tech-savy Howard), Conroy seemed a breath of fresh air. Having watched him operate in several years of Estimates hearings, he clearly knew his way around a PC Whilst asking questions to officials (when in opposition) he often was able to quickly call up relevant data to challenge claims made by wayward or mis-informed ministers or their public servants. His boss may have been a bit socially conservative, but he could tweet & sms easily. That Conroy under Rudd’s direction has taken Australia into such a embarassing and frankly authoritarian direction online is therefore a great shame.
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Don’t be afraid of the public

Discussing the pro’s & con’s of Democrats passing the health care bill in the US, Reason.com’s Peter Suderman writes

the choice for Democrats may actually be whether they want they want to be portrayed as so single-minded in their determination to push their unpopular agenda on the public that they are willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery they can come up with to get it passed, or whether they want to be able to make the argument that they responded to the public’s clear concerns and backed off an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation when they had the chance.

Suderman of course doesn’t want the bill to pass, but his reasoning is an all too clear example of the fear the political class have of a voter backlash for their actions. Indeed the political class and Center-Left wing politicians, especially in the USA are almost paranoid in its worry about appeasing the voters, to the extent it ends up doing a much poorer job & therefore looking much less competent than it should otherwise. To fix this, left wing leaders need to take a leaf out of conservatives like Reagan, Bush and Howard and have the courage of their convictions. The media and political class will always be jumpy, but our leaders ought to know better. Obama seemed to promise this at the start, but the fear seems to have crept in of late.
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Facts are sometimes the easiest thing to burn: The Indian attacks and the media

I somewhat understand why the Indian media is so keen to play up the idea that Indians are victimised in Australia. The government is pissed at Rudd over Uranium/NPT, and its always popular to play the nationalist card. What I don’t understand is why the Australian media seems to be aiding them:

INDIA’S high commissioner, Sujatha Singh, will return to Delhi for talks next week amid rising diplomatic tension over attacks on Indian students in Australia. Mrs Singh made a stinging complaint to the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, over the attacks in Melbourne, labelling Victoria a state ”in denial” over the severity of the problem.
Word of the envoy’s return came after India’s External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna, issued a strong statement on the attacks, demanding they be “stopped forthwith”. Mrs Singh will travel to Delhi to explain her perspective on the violence, which threatens to seriously damage relations between the nations.

This sounds like a major diplomatic incident. Especially in an era of easy phone, electronic and video communication, recalling a diplomat to discuss a problem is a gesture heavy with meaning. Indeed my first thought on reading the story was ‘what has set off this new row’ that such a step would be made.

Only it turns out, Singh isn’t heading back because of the attacks, and this is all just routine: (From the same article a few paragraphs down)
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Abbott succumbs to the stereotype

When Abbott took over, I argued that he would surprise many for the moderateness of his views. The public, I thought would get a chance to re-examine him, but it seems a combination of clumsy language on Abbott’s behalf, and a bored media are going to ensure he will be back to the caricatured mad monk before the month is out. Take this piece from The Australian:

Tony Abbott warns women against sex before marriage
TONY Abbott urges women to save their virginity for marriage and reveals mixed feelings about contraception in a new interview.

After conducting a charm offensive over the summer break and rejecting suggestions his conservative social views were a turnoff to women, the Liberal leader has been subjected to a grilling in the next edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly about his views on sex, marriage and his own daughters’ virginity.

The new Liberal leader is understood to have suggested men and women should try and adhere to “the rules” when it comes to sex before marriage and when they can’t he has conceded they should use contraception.

Which isn’t that far from what he said in 2005 “they[his daughters] should be very careful about doing things that they might regret and doing things that might in the long run cause them to have less self respect and less respect for others than might be the case”, which is also in line with what he says in his book.

It’s also not far from what every father has said to their kids since time immortal (and a lot more accepting than most would have been).Yet the instant reaction from the ALP, Greens, womens groups and even the conservative press is to tag anyone who even addresses the issue of contraception, or abortion as an invasive reactionary.
I’m in two minds about this, given my own liberal views on the importance of individual freedom, and arbitrariness of what conservatives claim are the “rules”, on the other hand, Abbott like all public figures ought to speak on important issues, and we ought to be able to have an open discussion about it. (Some might call this the burden of political correctness at work, but its a feather weight if that). Radically, he answered a question when asked, and advocated views that few would disagree with, and yet he has suffered two days plus of grief for it. The fault is partly his for clumsy language, but also because people are seeing the stereotype at work instead of what was actually said.

On Immigration, a similar story was visible over the weekend. A poor choice of words and political strategy by Abbott and the nature of the news beast:

Obey the law at least, Abbott tells migrants

Speaking at a dinner hosted by the Australia Day Council in Melbourne, Mr Abbott said Australians were worried about the rise in the number of boat people, the ability of migrants to obey the law and the strain new arrivals put on the nation’s resources….Migrants would be more popular if minority leaders encouraged them to adopt more mainstream values and abide by the law, he said. ”The inescapable minimum that we insist upon is obedience to the law,” Mr Abbott said. ”It would help to bolster public support for immigration and acceptance of social diversity if more minority leaders were as ready to show to mainstream Australian values the respect they demand of their own.”

Abbott’s claims here are no more than any Prime Minister from Post-WW2 has said. Indeed was anyone at any doubt that following the law was a requirement of citizenship? Perhaps the migrants of whom 96% passed the citizenship test were unaware of this basic fact. Abbott’s point is therefore both true but also banal. From the mouth of Rudd such words would have gone entirely un-noticed, but when Abbott stumbles in with such pointless claims, he makes himself out to being a intolerant fool. This is not some devils curl of the tongue to entice the former one-nation voters, Abbott is simply being in artful & bland, whilst re-enforcing a stereotype that is certainly wrong on immigration (none in the Coalition did more to bring down One-Nation than he) and damaging. Amazingly in the same speech Abbott even claims “The last thing that any Australian should want is to make recent immigrants feel unwelcome in their new country,”, yet his speeches and more importantly the media reports of these will if anything add to that impression. It’s an own goal rhetorically.

Abbott is rather progressive for a conservative Christian on issues of contraception, abortion and immigration. Yet though his first month in the job has been solid, he has done little to counter the image once built up on him, which is allowing a bored press and an only half-observant public to see his new actions through the old cut out image they held for him. The picture might not yet fully fit within the lines (esp his speeches on Aboriginal affairs and the Environment), but it still seems close enough. Like “headkicker” Latham who surprised many with his talk of reading to preschool kids, or “nerdbot” Rudd with his emotive talk about growing up poor & in the country, Abbott needs a way to break the stereotype that was in place as a minister, briefly lifted when he took over but is now slowly dropping back down into place over him.

While I take a more liberal line than him on such issues (I’m not sure that ones virginity is that important, and a focus on it not only slightly creepy but a hold over from negotiations for arranged marriages), Tony Abbott should be applauded for his willingness to speak up on such important social issues and being willing to directly answer the question. Yet it’s not just spur of the moment choices that are getting him in trouble, the same lack of political strategy is evident in his prepared speeches such as on immigration. Abbott & coalition strategists need to work quickly on shaking up how the press and public see him, otherwise this election will be an embarrassing rout, with the liberal leader unheard and ignored for the rest of the year (The same fate his mentor Howard suffered during 2007).

Bring out your dead

Politician: 'But i'm not dead yet'

Media: 'You will be soon, get on'

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of reading Doris Kearne Godwin’s book Team of Rivals on the rise to power and administration of Abraham Lincoln. Not only a great read, it illustrates a point I’d been wanting to make for a while: Our current ‘one strike and you’re out’ culture in politics is historically unique and damaging to the quality of our governance and polity.

In 1860 when Lincoln ran for the Republican party nomination, he had spent a few years in both the Illinois legislature, and House of Reprsentatives, but lost his last two US Senate runs A very able though provincial lawyer, his political career was one of regular failure alongside a constant effort of putting himself forward for office. Likewise his primary challengers and later cabinet members, Seward, Chase and Bates were all career politicians who had failed regularly yet chose to continue running (some like Chase even following Lincolns election!).

Closer to home the same pattern emerges. The most successful leaders seem to have all suffered significant setbacks before rising to power. John Curtin lost his seat in 1931 in the disastrous Scullin Government, before returning to become PM by 41. His rise to power came with the humiliation of Robert Menzies who was deemed unsafe even by his own party to lead the war effort, yet Menzies would go on to become our longest serving Prime Minister. And of course his biggest fan, John Howard was written off by most after his disastrous 1987 campaign, yet he was undoubtedly a better leader for it by the time he became PM in 1996.

Politics has never been a game that offers mulligans, but today we have a media and political culture that offers no second chances either. Tony Abbott is now the 11th Leader of the opposition since 1990. Only one of those got a second shot (Beazley), with 2 going on to become Prime Minister. This compares to only 5 between 1960-80. (Though the case can well be made that Evatt, Fadden & Whitlam held on far too long!).

This is a trend which seems to be driven largely by the media, with the politicians nervously following behind. Witness the outright mockery of Tony Abbott for giving shadow cabinet positions to Kevin Andrews, Browyn Bishop and Phillip Ruddock positions (The last of whom had only an explicit advisory role as cabinet secretary). There seems an unwritten rule that politicians are only on the make or on the demise.

Those who have faltered such as Downer, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Brogden, Nelson, Turnbull, have been quickly cast aside by the press. Downer took years to re-gain credibility as Foreign Minister, while Beazley’s short term role as shadow defence minister under Latham was quickly dismissed despite his outstanding qualifications for the job. His later ascension to the leadership after Latham faltered, was undermined from day one by the media; not because of bias, but because they have seemingly decided that second acts are impossible in Australian politics.

For this we lose significant talent. Malcolm Turnbull has much to offer, as does John Brogden from NSW yet neither are likely to be taken seriously again as future leaders or even significant political figures.. When he loses next year, Tony Abbott too will face this relentless and ruthless principle. Likely he will take the Crean, Downer path of trying to hold on regardless but with significantly reduced credibility. If the person who succeed’s him tries to keep Abbott in their shadow cabinet, they will likely be punished by the media for not following the rule of incessant ‘generational change’.

Of course not all want a second chance (Latham being a prime example), but politics is a profession which takes as much if not more time to learn than any other. Not only do individuals have to be across great swathes of policy detail, they need high level skills in administration, management, media, and understandings of human nature. And yet our media treats them like fireworks, praising their burning lights as they fly up, but quickly looking away once they first seem to level off.

And we joe public are the poorer for this attitude. It reduces focus on the rest of the parliament, reduces the emphasis on experience and puts undue pressure on young career politicians to put themselves forward early, perhaps too early if they want media support. It also makes politicians far too reticent to risk any undue policy or political defeats, when sometimes it is advantageous in the long run (in the publics view) for a politician to fight and lose on an important issue to prove their real commitment.

Of new media and new politics

In an otherwise interesting article on the role of new media and the Rudd Government, George Megalogenis (is there a better journalist working today?) writes:

To paraphrase Keating, when the media changes, so does the government. The wireless age marked the transition from Ben Chifley to Robert Menzies at the end of the 1940s. The colour TV age covered the shift to Gough Whitlam in the early 70s and, more tellingly, from Malcolm Fraser to Hawke in the 80s. The talkback radio age saw Howard eclipse Keating in the 90s. Now we are in the digital age, which began in 2007 when the young nerd, Rudd, trumped the old nerd, Howard.

That’s right, but precisely backwards. It is the leaders ability to utilise media that shapes its importance and their own dominance. Menzies was an undisputed king of TV when it first came in, just as FDR was able to make radio broadcasts his personal domain. Talk Radio wasn’t a new technology for the 1990′s, Howard simply returned to it as a medium in which his natural skills worked best, and that drove attention to it. Contra Megalogenis I don’t think that Rudd has made great use of twitter/blogs/websites, however he has at least done a damn sight better than the conservatives, and that matters (Obama’s advisors on the other hand made his website a key element of their electoral strategy).

There has always been a very strong link between journalists and politicians. Not in a biased way, but as a shared interest in the media and medium. Our second PM Alfred Deakin was a journalist & correspondent his whole life, as was Henry Parkes, Chris Watson, John Curtin, Malcolm Turnbull and his successor Tony Abbott. Our current PM wasn’t a journalist, but he spent his years in opposition being available for (if not inviting) media interviews at any time day or night. Just as you can’t be a good carpenter if you can’t handle a saw, or a good surgeon if you can’t weild a knife, a strength in using emerging media forms is critical to political success. I don’t see anyone in the current parliament who has a great handle on the new technology (here I think blogs have more potential than twitter), but Turnbull and Rudd both show at least a keen awareness. (As does Kate Lundy & Joe Hockey) Whoever does, is likely to become the dominant figure of the next 20 years. Let’s hope Abbott has some good new media advisors, but given his twitter account has only 7 (utterly boring) entries since becoming leader, it doesn’t seem likely.

Enter the clowns

So Malcolm ‘Mugabe‘ Turnbull is in trouble, and the brightest lights of the Liberal Party have stepped up to bring down the tyrant. Or maybe not:

Illustration: David Rowe -  Smh.com.au

Illustration: David Rowe - Smh.com.au

Former high-profile Howard government minister Kevin Andrews has confirmed he is prepared to challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the federal opposition.”There is growing concern in the electorate that this is going to be a massive tax by Mr Rudd which we will be paying for, not just for years, but for decades to come,” he said.

“There has been no economic debate about the real impact of this on Australians.”Meanwhile, prominent Liberal frontbencher Tony Abbott says he wants Mr Turnbull to remain Opposition Leader and that he won’t challenge him for the leadership.

“No, I won’t be challenging for the leadership,” Mr Abbott told the Nine Network.

It’s possible to see Andrew’s claim as a noble act. After all no one in the party wants to sacrifice their best candidates like Abbott and Hockey for what is a guaranteed electoral loss next year (Given that no one is allowed more than one election loss anymore, despite its historical absurdity). So Andrews could be a useful caretaker leader to try and limit the losses, esp to the more capable members left.

Thats perhaps the nicest spin you could put on it, more likely its pure vanity. Andrews might know he can’t be PM, but at a cost of major disunity to his party he is clearly willing to take on the job of opposition leader. Quite a stark comparison to Costello who wouldn’t challenge to be PM, Andrews is willing to challenge to never be PM, but I guess it helps his biography writers find something to talk about. Even Banaby Joyce at the Senator doorstops the moment wasn’t willing to say anything nice about Andrews, so no one is really taking him seriously.

Andrews would be an awful leader, having neither the respect of his colleagues or opponents, and he has a very poor image in the public if known at all. More likely people recall him as the one who has xenophobic views about Sudanese refugees

Andrews was also the minister for Workplace Relations, making him along with Howard a direct author of WorkChoices. So while the Labor party drooled at the thought of pinning Workchoices on Costello as treasurer who introduced it, Andrews would be a golden target to re-run the workchoices campaign. And with Andrews far less able to defend it than Howard was, which was why Howard took away responsibility in early 2007 and handed it to Joe Hockey.

I doubt we will see a spill on Thursday, however Turnbull’s leadership is clearly terminal. Abbott and Hockey are going to stay out of the fight, so he may well survive until the new year, but if Andrews, Tuckey and Jensen can add about 5 more members to their numbers in open rebellion, then he won’t be able to ignore them for too long. (The media will make sure of that!). Still if we discount the ‘elder taking the blows to protect the young’ thesis for Andrews run, this must be seen as one of the most vain and hubristic claims of any politicians in a long time.

One final point about yesterday’s entertainment, twitter really came into it’s own for me during these events. I had to carefully cull my list, but when it was just journalists on the ground who were tweeting, it was the closest thing to being there possible. I’m used to having journalistic friends send me txt’s about what’s going on, but twitter let me and millions others have access to the best people on the ground in just about every situation. So if one person was out for dinner or in a different area, others picked up the slack to ensure total coverage. Congratulations to Annabel Crabb, David Speers, Samantha Maiden, Latika Bourke, James Massola and others for having provided such great reporting during the days events. It’s not yet a substitute for considered reporting, and indulges some of the worst of the 24 hour news cycle, but for those of us stuck on the glass outside trying to peer in, its astounding.

Update: Turnbull called a vote on a spill, allowed a secret ballot, and won 48-35. In an interview immediately after, Joe Hockey said that the votes today were the same as yesterday. A statement he repeated twice.

That is, everyone who opposed the ETS, supported the idea of a leadership spill. So clearly the idea of loyalty to the leader wasn’t worth a single vote. Enter the summer of discontent for the Liberals. Just a matter of time until Hockey, Robb and Abbott decide to run, of which Robb seems most likely.

And thankfully that is as close as Kevin Andrews will ever get to being the leader of the country.

Unhelpful cynicism

Over at The Stump Bernard Keane notes Turnbull is again accusing the PM of misleading parliament, this time over whether the 78 on the Oceanic Viking recieved preferential treatment. He then goes on to say what is probably common sense in the press and public:

Who cares anymore about misleading Parliament? Do voters care? Does anyone outside Parliament and the Press Gallery? Given the way in which Question Time has devolved into a cross between a particularly dire amateur theatre performance and your most boring Economics 1 lecturer’s greatest hits, does the whole supposed sanctity of telling the truth in Parliament mean anything any more?John Howard didn’t resign after being forced to admit he misled Parliament about his meetings with Dick Honan in 2002. That was an open-and-shut case of misleading Parliament, but hardly the grounds on which any Prime Minister should have had to end their career.

On the other hand, remove Parliamentary accountability and one of the critical bulwarks of accountable government is ostensibly lost. The right of Parliamentary privilege also surely is accompanied by the responsibility of truth-telling. And yet those notions look curiously old-fashioned in an era when the truth is only one available narrative, and not necessarily to be regarded as any more useful than others that may be available.

The point is, it should matter. Everyone recognises that the public are the true barometer of the PM holding their job, and it would probably do more harm than good for the PM to be forced out over such matters, whether Howard with Refugees and Businessmen or Rudd in 09 over well Businessmen and refugees. (Just what is it about those two topics?) But it should be a matter that draws parliamentary rebuke and it should be a matter of embarassment to the PM and all members of parliament to be caught out. Yet when Australia’s most scathing mainstream outlet Crikey, and indeed perhaps their most Alan-Ramsey-throwback journo Bernard Keane is willing to let the government off the hook, then how are we going to hold politicians to standard. Indeed its misplaced to ask ‘why arn’t the public outraged’ and see that as a sign, when in all likelyhood they don’t even know because the press largely hasn’t covered it.

The days are long gone from the Whitlam era, where even accidental misleading of parliament caused ministers to resign, taking the blame for mistakes of their department. During the Howard years it became a veritable competition for Ministers to see how many times they could mislead or shirk responsibility for their own departments and keep their seats, a history that hasn’t yet been fully accounted (Kelly for instance ignores it). Rudd is somewhat better, but if the press keep giving him a free pass then he’s only going to get worse.

Someone needs to switch Keane’s chai latte for some bitter black coffee and start poking him with a stick untill he gets back into form. He’s one of the nations best political writers when having a go at our politicians, but this is the sort of issue that shouldn’t just be given a free pass.

Twitter’s growing pains

I’ve blogged about twitter before, yet I still find it a valuable service to keep updated of the news, and give me a peak at what journalists & politicians are saying. Only it may not actually be them at the keyboard:

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

It took Barack Obama only 25 characters to shock most of his 2,677, 720 followers to the core. “I have never used Twitter” confessed the leader of the Free World, when pressed on new technology by Chinese students in Shanghai. But, hang on a minute. Wasn’t this the first Social Media Presidency? One of the very first Twitter accounts to be verified? And if Barack says he really is all thumbs, just who is it who is doing all his tweeting?

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull appeared at ease during the Sydney Media 140 conference in discussion with broadcaster Fran Kelly, leaning comfortably back in his chair. But little did he know that only a few days later, he would looking for a new social media advisor, after his chief on-line strategist, Thomas Tudehope, was revealed to be linked to a version of the popular spoof Hitler “Downfall” video lampooning besieged Liberal politician, Alex Hawke.

The admission that “Tommy Tudehope helps with a lot of it” [Turnbull's tweeting] during the Media140 interview may well have contributed to the startling resignation. But I believe that what these events may reveal is a key danger of the burgeoning use of social media: politicians leaping on the bandwagon and the consequent use of new media tools for more complex political tricks.

To the twitterati, these revalations are a real outrage, and a slightly heartbreaking one at that. Social media has been seen as a way for direct, personal, unhindered contact between the elites and the masses. To find out it’s instead a staff member who is writing up the information seems to them to break the fundamental trust that they invest in the system. Yet whilst it’s unfortunate, it certainly isn’t surprising, at least no more than the use of speech writers or even media spokespeople. Politicians are immensely busy, their job is to both understand, decide and communicate on the issues of the day, and if they outsource the communication part occasionally, that’s not the worst sin in the world.

As a wanna-be speech writer, this has always been an issue that has interested me. Whilst the best remembered and usually most sucessful politicians are the best communicators (such as Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, Obama), all used some assistance to cover the sheer workload and variety and forms of communications which they are expected to produce. This isn’t too different from sending out supporters or influential figures to help advocate for your case as happened in the ancient greek agora. Everyone would rather be personally visited by the politician and asked for their support, or hear their arguments and have a chance to respond in person, but it was impossible in a city of 30’000 active citizens, and simply laughable in a country of 21 million or 300 million or 1.6 billion.

We are thankfully emerging from the era of one to mass communication, with the decline of TV & Radio as the main communication sources. But we should not expect that the requirements of politicians are any less, even if we want no more than 140 characters out of them from time to time. To the good politician, such resources are simply another media outlet to be used in so far as they advance their cause. I know some federal politicians read this blog, along with their staffers, and taking a quick pulse check on what’s happening online may give them a heads up on issues the media may be looking at, or the way it is generally trending. But all this means more work, and more time spent hearing talk about themselves, and from competitors for the audiences attention.

The Twitterati are a smart bunch and will soon recover from this (in their hearts they probably knew it from the start). They may have lost the dream of reforming politics through their particular technology, but this happens every time a new technology is created. With its acceptance as a mundane addition the discussion can move to the truly important debates such as the social norms of it’s use, and the right and wrong ways to utilise it. Finaly it allows us to begin to measure its actual impact in real data, rather than against idealistic dreams of a new public sphere, dreams that have been floating around under the label of of E-Politics since at least the mid 1990′s if not in similar form for 2500 years.

Watch out Mr Rudd

rudd_bbqWhile the polls show that the public still strongly supports Rudd & Labor, it’s worth noting that a number of political journalists have begun to write very critical pieces of Rudd recently.

The past week brings hard hitting pieces by Paul Kelly Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oaks, Glen Milne (admittedly not a big surprise), Annabel Crabb, and Michael Sutchbury. I’ve left off the usual critics, but it seems pretty fair to say Rudd is fairly on the nose with the media as a class. Decisions like parallel imports on books are watched closely and personally (this is a class that reads a lot -ie likes cheap books- and has no time for protectionism), and I’ve heard a number of journalists say they just don’t like Kevin Rudd as a person. While most people don’t vote based on how Kelly & Grattan et all see things, editors and other journalists do take their cues from them. The press, especially up in the gallary at parliament house is a veritable pack, with no one keen to find themselves at odds with their colleagues on what the story of the day is, or who to focus on.

It might be a good idea for Rudd’s advisors to book a big Christmas function for the journo’s at Kirribilli, ply them with plenty of good grog, and try and get personally back on side with them. Most of our journalistic class will probably (in line with the public) vote for Rudd’s re-election next year, but he’s going to have a much harder and more stressful year if he loses a grasp on this group. It won’t be like the scorned lover treatment Keating got when he fell out with the press from 1994 onwards, but it could cost a seat or two, and damage his overall standing (which he needs to appear strong in the region when pushing his APc and the like). Time to fire up the barbie Kev.

An Uneasy Marriage

Politics involves three things. Power, Relationships and Compromise. And while Power (who’s up, who’s out) and compromise (who has sold out/who’s principled) are topics of endless conversation, relationships are almost never talked about. They are assumed eternal links, the union movement and labor, doctors and the conservatives. But like glaciers, their slow speed should not be mistaken for weakness and when they do bring change (Howard’s battlers) they fundamentally re-arrange politics far more than any policy or polling issue could hope for.

One of the more interesting relationships to watch over the last decade has been the de facto marriage between Economic Liberals and the small business/corporate World. On the face of it, these two groups should get along famously. The former favour a de-regulation of industries, reduced taxes, and the privatisation of government services. For the business world, this means they have to worry less, pay less, and can do more than previously. But the two groups interests don’t always run in parallel.

The clearest example of this can be found in the US at the moment, in the debate about Health Care Insurance. For the Libertarians/ardent Economic Liberals, Government shouldn’t be involved in the industry (like regulating about pre-existing conditions) and certainly shouldn’t be subsidizing or offering a public run insurance service (like Medicare). Given that health insurance is so critical, in the US businesses have slowly had to adopt a health insurance package as part of their salary offers. The problem with this is that it is very costly (and ties workers to jobs). So US firms that may compete with Canadian or European or Australian firms, have significantly higher overheads. Of course businesses in the Insurance industry love this set up, but for the vast majority of businesses in America, this is just a hassle and a cost. For them, it is far better for Government to provide Health Insurance. In this case the interests of the Economic Liberals and the Business community diverge, which Obama has been exploiting to aid his legislation, and confound the Republicans

In almost all cases, the relationship is dominated the corporate world. Business has resources to pressure politicians, and emotional arguments (you don’t want us to toss the workers onto the street) that dominate the usually more pragmatic than principled support for economic liberalism espoused by western politicians these days. In short the corporate world wears the pants over the economic liberals, and so have avoided most harmful changes save the short term pain of moving to low tariff economies for western countries in the 1980′s & 90′s. That however was offset consistently with increased corporate welfare. This payoff earned the ire of some economic liberals (though somewhat appeased as they had colleagues in government). It means taxes were higher, but whenever changes came through, like reduced tariffs, FTA’s, deregulation of industries, natural challenges (drought) or man made (airlines pre & post 9/11) the government was willing to step in to help the corporate and business world through. It contradicted all good economic policy, but it made pragmatic sense, kept business happy, workers employed and could generally be afforded.

I was thinking of all this whilst reading some recent reviews on the topic of the stimulus package in Australia. On the face of it, the Stimulus package has been a roaring success with Australia, almost alone among countries, staying out of recession. Indeed news today is that unemployment has fallen for September. On the other hand, it’s much much harder to link that spending to the economic performance of the country. We haven’t gone backwards, but nor have we gone forwards. So While the economic liberals point to this as evidence such spending routines are a complete waste of money (Malcolm Turnbull is currently making the exact same point at a press conference this morning), it’s important to note the business community isn’t completely on side with such claims.

For business, the stimulus meant a psychological and fiscal guarantee. It meant the bottom of the economy was never going to fall out, that taxpayers would in effect subsidize their continued operation, and therefore that they could continue to operate as normal. Economists models may try and sideline the role of psychology, but for the business community, such re-assurance is vital. The lure of extra corporate welfare, government spending (school construction for instance) and subsidies (pink bats) at least ensured that the economy would continue as normal, which is the pattern that we have seen. While business owners are also individuals with tax rates and an ideological worry about the debt, it has been noticeable how little energy or emotion came from the corporate world over the stimulus package. They don’t like government, but they knew they needed it. As such, economic liberal politicians who lack this connection to business (Turnbull, The US republicans) have been forced to throw themselves into the fray, without their usual cavalry, -in the form of the business lobbies-, to attack the government. They have become lonely soldiers on the battlefield, as business either holds back, or throws its self-interested lot in with the Keynsean big spenders in the hope of getting some of the loose dollars.

The relationship between economic liberals/libertarians and the small business/corporate world will continue to endure. They’ll patch things up over healthcare, and having seen off the economic crisis, will revert to attacking wasteful government spending and reject any cost cutting/tax rises to pay for the debt. But a smart politician who comes up against this collective force should recognise the fault lines in the relationship. There is a reason Howard (whose dad ran a suburban petrol station) was never keen on competition as an economic principle. There is a reason business is being very quiet about the ‘SOCIALISM!’ that Obama is supposedly introducing with his health care insurance policies, and likewise Rudd and his deficit spending. For this reason, Turnbull and Hockey this morning* are probably wasting their time trying to convince Australians they are the better economic managers by being so concerned about the debt. The public is only superficially concerned about it, and the silence of their favorite barometer, the business world, will tell them all they need to know about why they should stick with Rudd. The same thing happened in 07, when business failed to go into bat for workchoices. Noticing the quiet, the people decided that the policy was an over-reach that wouldn’t help the economy that much, and so could safely be rolled back under Rudd.

* The purpose of Turnbull & Hockey’s press conference this morning was a debt reduction strategy of 25%, which I found out about on Twitter. But when I looked for a news link, not a single one even mentioned the issue of debt. Not the SMH, not The Australian , not the ABC, or news.com.au. I love a good leadership story as much as the next political junkie, but surely just ONE reporter could actually mention the purpose of the press conference or attempt to talk about something different. I’ve seen schools of fish with more independent mindedness.

Update – Finally on the 14th, 6 days after the press conference we get our first serious engagement with the Coalitions 25% cut plans by a major media outlet. I hate that MSM v blogs argument, both are useful and necessary for different reasons, but this is a pretty stark comparison in how the media has become obsessed on personalities to the exclusion of everything else. The Australian people deserve and need better.

The Fight for Gillard

Perusing the newsagents this afternoon I noticed the October edition of The Monthly has a column reviewing Jacqueline Kent’s new biography of Julia Gillard (which I review here). The review says pretty much the same things I do, but what is noteworthy is that under the very weak defence of “biography wars”, the review was written by Chris Wallace the author of a soon to be released unauthorised biography on Gillard. Crikey has picked up the story, quoting Penguin’s editor Ben Ball who describes it as a “complete disgrace…shocking. ….This is the most sinister hook The Monthly have ever used to lure its readers”.

Crikey also note that on Wallace’s own site (an excellent collection of links to the days big stories) Breakfast Politics, the top story is her own review, something I had missed in my mid morning pre-coffee stupor. While there is a clear conflict of interest at work here, I think Penguin’s anger is more concocted than anything else. Book reviews should be done by other knowledgeable authors, so Wallace could offer something fresh as a reviewer. Kent’s book is solid but ultimately unsatisfying for a political audience (which The Monthly serves), so similar criticisms were likely to appear anyway. Their real fear is the loss of sales from that fact being known. Making a book review the cover story speaks more of the current interest in Gillard and paucity of material in this months edition of The Monthly, than evidence of a sinister desire to fool readers (Indeed Wallace notes it in the beginning of her review).

Rather, the real fault of Wallace’s is that having claimed the virtue of independence that outsider status grants (Kent got 3 interviews with the big G, Wallace none), she fails to deliver any worthy new tibits or hard hitting pieces of analysis. Surely these are being saved up for the book, but given that Gillard is such a careful and frankly bland character, it rather suggests she doesn’t have anything bold and new. If you want to be anti-establishment you have to show some teeth. Otherwise why bother. I doubt that this minor minor controversy will get The Monthly higher sales (I ended up dropping it back into the newsagent stands), but the new editor Ben Naparstek is showing he is willing to play for ratings. Given the great challenge of maintaining a political/literary magazine in Australia when literally thousands are giving their opinion and comment away for free (like me – but I’m willing to sell out!), it certainly can’t hurt and probably recommends the choice of one so young and inexperienced to run the magazine.

Either way, for an ethically fair review of the new biography of Kent simply click this link. Given the attention (and that my gillard review has been one of the most viewed posts here recently) I’ll be sure to purchase and review Wallace’s book when it comes out. Maybe then I’ll get a bit of a hold on our next PM, something Kent stumbles before the alter of admiration in doing.

Double-D Madness

At quieter times in the parliamentary cycle, we often see our political correspondents leading out a few rumors and stories as a way of generating some attention, controversy and generally getting something to fill the page for their bosses. This spring, its the idea of a Double Dissolution election over the Carbon Trading Scheme. While Rudd has already put up a bill that was voted down, he is already destroying the narrative by pledging “good faith” negotiations with the Coalition. If the resulting bill and amendments are substantially different to the first rejected one, and the Coalition does indeed again reject the bill (likely over the cries of Turnbull), then Rudd couldn’t use it as a trigger.

But even say he did go ahead, would the political strategists be supportive? Hell no, as Possum helpfully demonstrates:
cprs-DD election

There is strong support for an ETS, but it’s not strong enough to make people want an early poll. It may be accounting for some of the difference between the parties, but people clearly want to vote on other issues like the economy as well, and don’t in general like going to the polls early. After all for ALP voters an election would just be a lot of hassle to see their party remain in essentially the same place, perhaps slightly stronger in the senate. For Liberal voters, they know they wont be getting back into government so why bother with fiddling around in a few marginal seats. Win some, lose some, the only real difference would be the demise of Turnbull. Rudd might even look weaker or more intrusive by being seen to ‘rush’ to a DD election, despite the fact it would be held only be 6-10 months before he is likely to call one on the normal schedule. And having already raised the issue, have no doubt the media would make its narrative one of ‘racing to the polls early’. Never a good look for a PM.

Perhaps even more importantly however than all the optics is the straight maths, as Anthony Green notes:

Simply put, the mathematics of double dissolutions mean that Labor would be less well placed in the Senate after a double dissolution than it would be if it waited to have a normal House and half-Senate election at the end of 2010.
The reason for this is the complex proportional reprepresentation system used in the Senate and how this interacts with the lower quota for election that would apply at a double dissolution election.

(Full reasoning for the political junkies at his site)

Still all of that is slightly more sensible than the suggestion that Rudd would hold a DD election over a desire to means test private health insurance. If the PM is looking unlikely to use or even benefit from such an election on a issue of fundamental long term importance like Climate Change, there is no way, -unless he is literally out of his mind- that he would do so over making many Australians pay more for their health care. It’s beyond a joke, its simply misleading to the public to even speculate.

And finally, when even Australia’s weakest political mind Peter Costello can figure out that a DD election is neither a good idea, nor going to be adopted by Rudd, it is time for our political journalists and editors to take a deep breath and drop the whole story once and for all.

Headline writers everywhere will surely be disappointed at the loss of so many potential DD puns (Rudd exposes his DD’s, Turnbull crushed under DD’s, the public grapples with DD’s etc etc) its a small loss to ensure a basic commitment to honestly informing the public. Its fine to speculate and see how politicians respond, but given all the evidence to continue treating the idea of a Double Dissolution as a serious story is simply to mislead the public.