Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: 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.

Read the full article »

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.
Read the full article »

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)
Read the full article »

Turnbull For NSW – Update

Seems there may be something afoot:

Samantha Maiden, Online Political Editor The Australian January 21, 2010
MALCOLM TURNBULL is being urged by supporters and business leaders to make a run for New South Wales premier in 2011.

“Everyone is telling Malcolm to quit federal politics and he think that’s the right thing to do. Everyone is telling him to have a go in state politics,” a Liberal supporter told The Australian Online..

“People are disenchanted with (New South Wales Opposition Leader) Barry (O’Farrell), they have reservations about whether he’s got the ticker. But there’s also a lot of rank and file anger about Turnbull’s behaviour. He would have to do a big mea culpa and apologise for his behaviour.”

Probably just summer speculations at this point, no figures openly promoting Turnbull, and Abbott & the federal leadership may figure Turnbull is too openly dangerous as a premier, even though they will still be in opposition come 2011. Still I liked the idea back when I proposed it on December 7th, and still like it now. If you want to see the arguments for & against, the post is here.

Would be a waste to see a capable guy like Turnbull leave public life so quickly.

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.

This can’t be right?

A wire service report from earlier today
parliament

Protesters blockade Parliament House
From: AAP November 23, 2009 12:34PM
CLIMATE change protesters have blockaded Parliament House in Canberra.

Security guards have shut the front entrance of the parliament and about a dozen police are at the scene.

Police are blocking the media from speaking with the 200 protesters who are a mix of the elderly, teenagers and mums and dads.

The demonstrators, in a statement, said they came from across Australia and are calling on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to secure a strong, legally binding treaty at the upcoming UN Copenhagen negotiations.

The Sydney Morning Herald is running the same story. I’ll update the post if the story changes, early reports can be wrong or simply mis-communications.

Obviously the right to protest doesn’t extend to blockades of the parliament, but surely the police can’t stop the media talking to the people. While its not too hard to have a protest at Parliament House (I’ve helped with one against the Net Filter), I’ve heard of several groups having issues with the police around parliament house, from the home birth mums to the crestfallen Republicans. Nothing major, but given the importance and specific design of the lawn across the road from Parliament, it would be a great loss if in the name of security or simply overzealousness we lost our freedom to protest outside our parliaments, as seems to have already happened in Tasmania with the arrest of Peter Cundall.

Update: If anything the media has re-enforced the story:

The Australian: “Police have formed a human barricade and are taking protesters out of the sight of the media. The Australian Federal Police have at least one video cameraman filming the protest. In Britain, police have used similar methods to gather intelligence on many left wing organisations.”

SMH.com.au: “Police dragged remaining protesters to an area under parliament, out of sight of reporters and photographers. An Australian Federal Police cameraman filmed the demonstrators. Some police officers involved were not wearing either name tags or identification numbers. One officer, when asked, said his was on his jacket which he had taken off.”

Obviously the decision to race the doors is unacceptable, and I think the police right to break up such a protest as soon as possible. What’s less forgivable is the effort to censor the protesters from the media, and prevent legitimate coverage of the event. No security risk was presented through the media interviewing such people, it was just damage control in the name of their bosses. That’s not a good enough excuse for curtailing freedom of speech and of the press in this 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.

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.

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.

Culture and Political language

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech to congress on Healthcare. The issue has been very contentious over the last few months, and Obama was hoping to push congress over the line with a vote before the year is out (My bet is that he will get his bill). However the show was almost disrupted when one Congressman, Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You Lie”. This prompted shock, condemnation and Wilson quickly apologised.
joe_wilson_lie
Yet this display in decorum is set against a political environment that has been filled with people bringing guns to political rallies, frequent comparisons of Obama’s introduction of Healthcare and the Nazi’s in pre-war Germany, and utterly false lies such as “Death Panels” which are breathtaking in their dissent from reality.

Watching this debate from Australia, I’ve been amazed that a somewhat healthy democracy like the US can have such a vile and angry debate about an issue like healthcare. To then have this sudden snap back to overtly respectful decorum is rather funny, if it weren’t also quite sad. Everyone who has visited the US seems to remark on the essential politeness of the people (esp in the south), and yet put them in a Town Hall to discuss giving healthcare to the poor and suddenly everyone who disagrees is the devil incarnate. It’s a weird mix. For while Obama should get through his bill, the inability of the US to have a reasonable conversation about technical policy issues is a worrying sign for the long term health of it’s polity and civil society. It has a media that increasingly is set to profit from increasing the divide within the society. The more they get angry, the more isolated the GOP becomes and the more angry those still within the bubble get. As Fox’s profits rise, their own side not to mention the overall level of political debate slumps – See the Graph

The other emotion I’ve felt watching the US debate has been one of growing pride that Australia manages itself in such a different manner. Whilst this morning brings a uncharacteristic whinge from the former PM (A man who rightly neither gave nor asked for any quarter and loved his partisan fights), Australians manage to be both foul-mouthed, (some would say creative) and strident in their attacks, and yet only a loony and utterly ignored few come anywhere near outright lies or claims of treason against their political opponents. Our debate is forthright and partisan, but even challenging issues like race and national identity get discussed in largely reasonable terms by our political elite and media. Had Joe Wilson been in Australia’s parliament he would have been asked to withdraw the comment as un-parliamentary, but the nation would have essentially ignored it. Though the essential difference is that what would have isolated a figure like Joe in Australia is his extreme policy, not his language.

While only a small minority in the world reject the idea of democracy as the best form of government, the greatest inhibitor is often not those currently in power who are resisting efforts, but the culture of societies that is coming to grapple with just what democracy means. Anyone can have elections, but democracy is far far more than that. In Cambodia, Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iran (to name just a few), sections of the population are happy to see a politics of division and sectarianism destroy any chance of real popular participation with government. Elites can rarely stand in control unless there is a part of the population who culturally accept the need to preface one ethnic group over the other, one religion above all else, one skin colour as superior to those around it. And in settled democracies it is culture again that goes to the heart and strength of the democratic practice. In Australia it is strong, though has at times (late 60’s, mid 90’s) been weak. In the US we are seeing it at a dangerous low ebb, paranoid and afraid and so facing a far greater political challenge in dealing with the 21st century, than the economic one people have long been predicting.

Below the fold. One of the greatest political takedowns in Australian Political History.
Read the full article »

Tab Dump

* While the US grapples to accept it was a torturing nation under the Bush Administration, Michael Johnson says (then retracts) what too many in this country think:

Queensland Liberal MP Michael Johnson said there was a place for torture. “I think that there is a very limited place for torture and, certainly where that torture takes place, it must be done in an appropriate way, and in an appropriate context,” the former barrister told Sky News last night. He added that it all depended on how torture was defined.
That prompted an immediate response from fellow panelist Labor MP Mark Dreyfus, another former lawyer.
“I think we need to resolutely say that there is no place for torture,” he said. Mr Johnson later issued a “clarifying statement” condemning torture. “Torture is unacceptable in any place at any time,” the statement said.

Johnson holds one of the liberals best seats since 2001, yet went no where under Howard, Nelson and likely now Turnbull. If smart the party will use this chance to dump him and demonstrate their morality in rejecting outright torture as a practice by modern societies. Conservatives worry regularly about the moral decay of our civillisation, but teenage promiscuity or drug use doesn’t remotely compare to the use and abuse of torture as the pre-eminent moral question of our time.

* From the Funny, Sad, Pathetic column: Yale is printing a book on the 2005 Danish cartoons that set of the riots, but refusing to publish the actual cartoons. Around 200 people died from this inability to accept free speech (almost exclusively Muslims). Hitchen’s skewers them as only he could.

* In news to warm the hearts of all Canberrans, the ACT is more important to the Australian Economy than China is. But it’s changing. H/T @Pollytics.

* With the US economy beginning to rebound can we say the bailout worked? Or more interestingly is the Administrations plan, with all its inherent debt a better outcome than the sharp market deflation that mass bank failure would have set off? Are we better off, (in terms of liberty and wealth) than had we let the markets run where they want ? Whilst others counter that we have over-reacted.

* The Daily Telegraph should stay away from photoshop, or hire someone competent. Ugh.

* And finally, since in my last post I critercised The Australian for ignoring Nelsons retirement, and then did so myself, its worth noting that whilst Nelson is a good bloke, it is not befitting the honour and importance of Parliament to leave mid term for a rumored defence sector job. Nor to do so at a cost of half a million to the tax payers. He has perhaps only a year to go until the election if that, so ought to stick around. Much could still be done locally, and with nothing to lose or fear from his party leader could use his platform as former Education and Defence Minister to tell the country some hard truths that had been squibbed during the Howard years and are doing so today (like the ham-fisted way we run international student education, our need to develop high tech sectors as the manafacturing sector closes, or rethinking how we go about assisting the pacific region, including long term planning, rather than over-relying on the Military and police to race in and save the situation ala the Solomon Islands, or sit idly by as democracy buckles in Fiji. The great danger of our modern political environment is that it scorns old wisdom, always seeking the new. Political leaders are seen as either on their way up, or on their way out. We should encourage those who have served the leadership to try and stick around. But as it stands only 1 out of 10 past major party leaders since 1990 in the form of Simon Crean has stuck around after losing the leadership, now capably serving as the Trade Minister.

Take your medicine early

A slight follow on from yesterday’s post, but an instructive comparison in how to deal with bad news:

The Right Way:

Defence Minister Senator John Faulkner has made a personal vow to achieve greater transparency and accountability, much improved planning and better cost effectiveness within his portfolio, with the Government to shortly decide the future of a troubled $1.2 billion Defence accommodation project. Senator Faulkner…
also highlighted major challenges with ”projects of concern”. These included ongoing maintenance and crewing problems that have left only three of six submarines routinely crewed and all submarines spending part of the year awaiting scheduled and unscheduled repairs.

Every Single Defence Minister over the last 20 years has been weakened, often soon into their term, due to the constant leak of information about projects that are behind times, flawed or vastly over budget. Even those who thrived in the role such as Kim Beazley ended up looking the worse for wear, perhaps even incompetent due to the drip, drip, drip of bad news into the pres. By getting out the difficulties out now Faulkner pre-empts the media (who inevitably take much less notice of information publicly announced, over that they obtain privately) and even wins praise for his commitment to transparency.

The Wrong Way:

By deciding to vote down Rudd’s scheme in the Senate yesterday, Turnbull avoided crystallising this split on the floor of the Senate. If Turnbull had directed the Coalition to vote for the Government scheme, his weakness would have been fully exposed. The Nationals, and perhaps even some Liberals, would have defied him by crossing the floor in the Senate. But the Opposition Leader has only delayed the day of reckoning.

The Government will present the same legislation to the Senate again in three months. If it is rejected a second time it will give Rudd the option of calling an early, double-dissolution election. And that is when Turnbull’s position grows yet more difficult. An election would be, on current indications, disastrous for the Coalition. So in three months Turnbull will have to accept electoral Armageddon, or he will have to capitulate. Faced with this choice, he will yield to Rudd.

As Hartcher makes clear Turnbull will have almost no choice but to instruct his forces to vote for the bill in December/Early Next year. He has no hope of convincing such reasonable men like Joyce to vote for it, and will see some cross the floor. However enough will vote for it and the Government’s bill will become law. The only question is managing the damage.
If the Coalition had voted for the bill yesterday they would have received some praise, mixed with media mirth about those renegade senators who had crossed the floor. But whilst party unity is an obsession for party leaders and pundits, it really doesn’t matter to the wider public. The public already know about Turnbull’s problems, letting senators vote as they wanted however would have let Turnbull include both supporters and skeptics see something to like in the Liberals ‘Broad Church’ approach. By next week everyone would have forgotten who or how many senators had voted against it (Quick name the last senator to cross the floor and what the bill was? *) and the Coalition could have spent from now until the election badgering the Government both from the left (why are your targets so low, don’t you care about the environment?) and from the right (what are you doing to help Businesses and consumers who are being made poverty stricken by your scheme?). It wouldn’t have done much, but would ensure that the next election would be on issues such as Economics (where the Coalition was making ground post-budget) and not on Climate Change. Instead our media will talk about nothing else, slowly eating away at Turnbulls leadership or ability to change the topic.

So here’s today’s Politiking lesson: Take your medicine early. Admit your flaws on your own terms, take your hits as soon as possible before elections. The longer you wait the more the pressure builds, the more likely the media keep running the story.

*Update*:It may just be co-incidence, but Tony Abbott has an op-ed this morning arguing (along the lines of his book) that conservatives should note the broader historical winds and try and manage change rather than resist it. Not only does the ETS fall into this category, but the headline echo’s a theme of his book that Oppositions shouldn’t prevent Governments passing their major pieces of legislation. Abbott’s long been decried as having awful political skills, but the book shows he’s getting cannier, something Turnbull isn’t showing that much sign of.

(* Eggleston(L), Ferguson(L) & Nash(N) on the Communications Foundation December 2008)