Both pieces arose from a special feature run by ABC’s Lateline on political image.
You can see the feature by clicking here to get to the Lateline website.
Here’s my latest for ABC’s The Drum, following on from last night’s Lateline feature which examined the influence of image on our voting choices.
If you’re stout of heart, you might like to contribute to the comments!
I’ve written before that Twitter has become an unexpected school of politics, providing a unique forum for people with less knowledge of our civic processes to learn from those with more. When those discussions are taking place, Twitter is vibrant and all-embracing democracy at its best.
Well, Wednesday night was NOT one of those times.
Over a particular 24 hour period Twitter demonstrated just how aggressively puerile it can be. And in spitting their dummies in ever-lengthening arcs, partisan tweeps missed the point altogether.
The event in question was the long-awaited interview by 730’s Leigh Sales of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.
The interview was long-awaited for two reasons: it had literally been quite some time since Sales had last interviewed Abbott. The Leader of the Opposition’s team had clearly been keeping him away from “hard” political interviews, choosing instead to conduct photo-opportunities with limited questions from the media, stand up press conferences from which he could stride away when the questions become unwanted and set-piece speeches and events like the recent community forum with its hand-picked audience.
The other reason the interview was long-anticipated was that on the previous occasion Abbott had been interviewed by Sales, he’d been ill-prepared and she’d made the most of it. Abbott’s poor performance that night was the main reason he’d been kept away from hard interviews ever since.
But Wednesday afternoon, Sales tweeted as she often does at that time of day to announce her interview guest would be Tony Abbott. Twitter went aflutter. The Press Gallery must have too, with Age columnist Tony Wright writing this breathless preview.
From then until the program went to air, Sales was bombarded with tweets giving gratuitous advice on what questions she should ask.
Others opined that Sales should just “do her job” which was variously interpreted as being everything from not saying anything to interrupting or … not interrupting.
When the time came, I chose to watch Twitter instead of the interview (mostly because I don’t watch tv news and current affairs, but also because I knew I could time-shift it later).
Conspiracies began to fly, principally that Abbott’s mistakes would be edited out by the ABC and/or that Sales’ questions would have been provided to Abbott before the interview. (No similar criticism was made when Sales’ recent interview with the Prime Minister was also pre-recorded.)
The Twitter meltdown was spectacular and lasted well into the evening, as well as the next day.
Having already pruned my tweetstream of most offensive tweeps I did not see the worst of it. Sales gave us a glimpse the next day.
An interesting contribution was made by Peter Clarke over at Australians for Honest Politics. As a former broadcaster and an educator, Clarke provided a critique of Sales and suggested what she should have done during the interview. He produced a similar critique for Sales’ interview of the PM. (I look forward to future analyses of Tony Jones, Emma Alberici and Barrie Cassidy’s interviewing prowess or lack thereof.)
The critique of Sales’ Abbott interview was diminished considerably by the conspiratorial allusions that followed:
Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?
Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.
In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?
While it’s fair to ponder the extent to which the ABC might pull its punches to stay onside with an incoming government, there was little evidence of this occurring in the Abbott interview (yes I have watched it). Sales was well-prepared and took Abbott up on most of his rebuttals, even though she has toned down the interviewus interruptus style that so annoyed viewers during the previous interview with the Prime Minister.
Peter Clarke criticises Sales for not pressing Abbott on several occasions when opportunities presented themselves. But with this being a pre-recorded interview and likely edited down to 13 minutes from a longer version, it’s quite possible Sales did pursue several lines of questioning. If Abbott was ultimately able to evade these questions there would have been no point leaving his manoeuvring in the final cut, particularly with so many topics vying for air time.
Even though there was no gotcha moment similar to that which brought on Abbott’s gaffe last year, Sales did elicit some interesting and newsworthy pieces of information:
Most interesting was Abbott’s concession about needing to “grow into” the role of PM, as he once grew into the role of health minister. This suggests Coalition market research is finding voters think Abbott might not be PM material.
Meanwhile a heretofore unknown blogger [to me], Anthony Bieniack, made this illuminating observation in his post “Repeat after me: Leigh Sales is not the problem”:
There’s a lot of theories as to why to Tony Abbott is doing so well – with varying degrees of merit – the one I personally believe is that the ALP have a particularly bad communications team, good policies are not being heard and bad news is reverberating, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it’s us.
It’s Twitter, its Facebook, it’s slacktivism – and it’s killing us, because while us Twitter-loving commies are sitting around patting each other on the back and pretending we’re valiantly fighting a tory threat – our opponents are recruiting and growing. While we’re writing obscure blog posts about percentages of GDP and preference-sharing and telling each other how clever we are – our opponents are telling a plumber that Julia lied to us and Abbott is our saviour.
We aren’t fighting anything – we’re preaching to the choir and wasting time doing it.
We’ve become lazy, we’ve got faith in the failed logic that policy is all that matters and that Leigh Sales will eventually be our hero – she’s not our hero, she’s not our saviour and that isn’t her job – it’s ours.
Stop Tweeting, stop blogging, stop retelling the same anti-Abbott stories to people who have already made up there mind. Simplify your message and tell it to the people who don’t care much for politics. Tell your hairdresser, tell the guy next to you on the tram. Listen to people and find out why they’re not on your side and have a succinct response. Join a political party, get some flyers, spread the word and stop blaming the media.
After all, if your friends have more faith in the Herald Sun then they have in you – you have the credibility problem.
If Abbott wins it won’t be because the ABC didn’t harass him about his education policy – it will be because when people were deciding who to vote for, we were telling each other how funny we were on Twitter.
That’s the problem with leadership challenges: they’re not on until they’re on. The twice-spurned-but-hopes-to-be-vindicated-Prime Minister-in-waiting, Kevin Rudd, won’t declare his hand until he has the numbers.
And right now it appears that he does not have them.
That’s the reason for the flurries of speculation we’re seeing in the media. Rudd supporters are using every known technique to dragoon disillusioned and despairing Labor MPs into knifing another unpopular Prime Minister, in the interests of having at least a fighting chance at the upcoming federal election.
For weeks MPs have been hinting that the showdown would take place this fortnight, being as it is the last parliamentary session before the Federal Budget. Some even went as far as to name the date, although at least two different dates were nominated. This lead to the political equivalent of dry humping last week when the spill did not eventuate, a turn of events that was frustrating and unedifying for pretty much all involved.
But the main game was always due to take place this week. If it does. And then again, it might not.
All will depend on whether a sense of momentum can be created, setting off a wave of inevitability that would sweep the required number of caucus votes away from the listing ship Gillard to the dodgy lifeboat called Kevin.
A number of today’s events can be seen clearly as the Rudd camp working hard to create this momentum:
They know they are being drafted as active participants in this saga, and rather than miss out on a story or – heaven forbid – a scoop, they comply with differing degrees of willingness. As we can see from Laurie Oakes’ non-breaking story this evening, not even mighty Walkley Award winners are immune to the lure of a potential leadership spill.
And so, the rest of this week will play out. There will be a challenge if Rudd can get the numbers. But there will not if he cannot.
If the numbers fall Rudd’s way, it will be academic whether he challenges, is drafted or whether Gillard stands down. But then again, it may not…
Post script: The momentum builds.
Voters’ ability to express their displeasure through seemingly perpetual opinion polls has created an entire generation of risk-averse, poll-driven politicians. But who is actually to blame for this populist approach to public policy and the tenure of political leaders?
As Katharine Murphy observed earlier this week:
We elect governments as an investment in [the] long game, yet tear them to shreds for not delivering for us in the here and now. It’s always been thus, an enduring perversity of expectation about politics, but I worry it’s getting worse.
I worry that politics is losing some of its capacity to stand its ground against the various toxicities in the media cycle, and dysfunctions within the parties themselves – that too many perverse incentives are being created to mortgage the future for the present.
The most obvious symptom of this is the trashing of political leaders we’ve seen over the past few years. Politics is itself devaluing the currency of leadership in some Faustian bargain to remain one step ahead of opinion polls.
Our elected representatives once were leaders we admired, or at least respected, and we were confident they would make the right decisions on our behalf.
While Katharine Murphy invokes Faust in her analogy of how our leaders have become devalued, I’d suggest a different type of demonic force has infiltrated our democratic processes: our politicians have become doppelgangers, mirroring our views, our concerns and yes, even our basest prejudices to win favour and the approval of the Newspoll gods.
We need to keep this in mind when railing against policies such as the Government’s proposed changes to 457 visas or the Opposition’s approach to asylum seekers.
Both these positions are mirrors, reflecting the views of the parties’ prospective supporters back to them. The parties do this to convey not-too-subtle subliminal messages to the visceral voters who ultimately will decide the election. “We are like you”, the messages whisper, “we share your concerns” and “your priorities are our priorities”. The parties do this in the hope of making a connection that will deliver a vote on election day.
Whether it is based on fact or fiction, job security and the broader question of employment continue to be voters’ number one obsession. Many factors contribute to this fixation including the inequities of the two-speed economy, the pressure of huge mortgage commitments and the uncertainty associated with GFC-diminished superannuation.
Job anxiety is also a political legacy, an albatross borne by both major parties directly as a result of the fear campaigns they ran against Work Choices, in the case of Labor, and the Liberals’ crusade against the carbon price.
It’s easy for those of us with tertiary educations and regular pay cheques to dismiss such job anxiety as an indulgence of the narrow-minded and ignorant:
But the reality is that every adult Australian, ignorant or not, has the right to vote with as much or as little thought as they care to exercise.
And let’s face it, while its honourable to urge politicians to resist being guided by the ignorant majority, to show some leadership and do what is right, the political reality is inconsistent with that noble goal: there’s little chance of implementing a suite of worthy policies from the opposition or cross-party benches. Just ask the Greens…
It seems the days are long gone when the public supported a politician for doing the right but unpopular thing. In fact, we may well have lost respect for our political leaders altogether. As Jonathan Green observed this week after a (possibly orchestrated) outburst from the parliamentary public gallery during Question Time:
It would be fair to say that many Australian voters view their politicians with something more than laconic distaste and a lot less than humble awe. But this Question Time outburst had that special feeling that is close to a defining feature of our modern politics: that edge of guttural, contemptuous ugliness.
In the converse of my mirror theory, Jonathan Green posits that the depth of voters’ current disdain for political leaders is a reflection of the disrespect with which they are held within their own parties:
Last week we saw the effect again in full and fatal swing, with Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu losing the confidence of his party and thus his job … If the role is so easily tradable, the office so easily removed, is it truly worthy of the sort of respect it has traditionally attracted? … It seems logical that if political parties see leadership as something so casually vulnerable, then the voting public will follow suit and look at those high offices with scant respect.
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke apparently also canvassed this issue when he addressed a reunion celebrating his time in office at the National Press Club last weekend. Dennis Atkins reported that the striking thing about Hawke’s address was that he didn’t simply dwell on the good old days:
Hawke laid out his story of 1983 to 1991 with typical clarity – explaining the problem his government inherited and how they tackled the momentous challenges. He also pinpointed a central problem of the present broken system of politics and government – that Parliament is held in low regard.
Hawke said the contempt for national politics had to be tackled urgently. He proposed breaking down the way parties approached agendas by having one set of issues that fit neatly with Labor or the Coalition and bigger, more contentious matters handled in a new way. Hawke said these challenges wouldn’t go to party rooms but to parliament to be thrashed out and voted on without politicians bound by pre-determined positions.
There certainly is merit in Hawke’s proposed approach, encouraging parliamentarians to venture beyond their party platforms and explore what their communities think and want. But it does nothing to address the real faultline in Australia’s democracy – the reality that voters are likely to think and want things that might not actually be in the nation’s best interest.
Meanwhile, opinion polls continue to drive our political conversations and popularity remains the most important element of a policy, causing politicians to resort to lowest-common-denominator policies in order to survive.
As Katharine Murphy notes, this approach:
… prioritises personal survival over coherence: it creates a palpable sense of contingency.
In that frame, who will take on hard reform?
The first step towards answering that question is for us, the voters, to accept that our community’s views are at least partly responsible for the populist but ultimately self-destructive state of Australian politics today.
Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…
Despite our protests to the contrary, on 14 September Australians will vote for whichever federal parliamentary leader they find less distasteful.
Yes there’s a lot of white noise about values and policies, but when it comes down to essentials the vast majority of voters’ choice will be based on gut-feeling, not careful analysis.
It’s quite confronting to vest one’s principal democratic right in a visceral response to just two individuals. Yet, most voters will give only fleeting attention to parliamentary teams and policy paraphernalia. That’s the nature of contemporary Australian politics: it’s the presidential campaign you have when you don’t actually have a President.
So what will guide voters’ choice of leader this federal election? What emotional signals will influence them at the ballot box? I’m not referring to the loud, but small, subsets of voters on social media and talkback radio, I mean the much quieter majority, who are generally disengaged, at least until the election campaign proper (and often not even then).
Click here to read more…
Whether we like it or not, 2013 is going to be the year of the broken promise.
While it’s hard to believe there remains even one voter not yet reached by Tony Abbott’s campaign to brand Julia Gillard a venal oath-breaker, there still remain enough politically disengaged Australians to decide the election. And we can be confident that Abbott won’t leave their ultimate voting decision to chance.
An oft-quoted campaign idiom is that only once you’re sick of hearing your own voice can you be confident your message is starting to cut through. So even though political observers are heartily sick of the Opposition Leader’s mantra, he’ll keep chanting about the broken carbon tax promise confident in the knowledge that it has yet to lodge in the brains of the politically disengaged.
Whether this strategy will bring voters to Tony Abbott is another matter altogether.
Click here to read more…
And so today Tony Abbott has launched an attempt to reinvent himself, in an effort to convince voters he’s more than the extraordinarily successful wrecker he’s portrayed since becoming Opposition Leader in November 2009.
That means Abbott plans to dispel over three years of entrenched negativity in only seven to ten months*. Coalition spinmeisters are already hard at work, backgrounding senior journalists on the transition secure in the knowledge that if the media can be convinced about its effectiveness then so can the public.
Early results of this strategy are not particularly encouraging. Despite being quite comfortable telling the Prime Minister last year to resign, Michelle Grattan is currently more circumspect about Abbott. With an initial cursory nod to the likeliness that he will be in the PM’s office by the end of the year, Grattan then goes on to qualify this by questioning whether Abbott can successfully make the metamorphosis to Mr Positive:
He is obsessed with discipline though seemingly unable to avoid periodic lapses. He knows he can be his own biggest risk.
His deep personal unpopularity and his negative branding are problems to which he will apply his usual diligence. But can he change his image? And how much will it matter in the end?
The social researcher Hugh Mackay believes Abbott’s brand – being negative, destructive and dismissive – has been unchanged for so long that it has become ”indelible” and it’s hard to see him being able to break out of it.
But one of Abbott’s senior colleagues argues: ”He’s strong on the tangibles. He’s an Alpha male. Alpha males are runners, jumpers. They build things.” He believes Mr Positive will be convincing.
I heard a ghost of leaders past rattle its chains as I read those words: an echo of another Opposition Leader who successfully buried his past reputation as a thug and a bully, only to have it lurch from the grave at the election campaign deathknock and pull him back into electoral oblivion.
The moment we saw Mark Latham aggressively shake the hand of the smaller, frailer John Howard we knew Latham would not prevail at that election. The gesture pushed other memories to the surface of our consciousness: allegations of punch-ups at the Liverpool Council, images of a taxi driver’s broken arm, and echoes of pugnacious language such as arse-licker and conga-line of suckholes.
Those memories dispelled the positive views we’d developed about Latham’s suite of hokey but popular policies, and brought into sharp relief the doubts we’d already harboured about his economic credentials.
That’s all it took, just one handshake, to finally shatter the public’s faith in the strongest electoral alternative produced by Labor at that point against John Howard. Despite starting the election behind the Labor Opposition, and trailing them at various stages in the six-week campaign, the Government was then re-elected with an increased majority in the House of Representatives and a slim majority in the Senate (the first since 1981).
The Coalition’s current attempt to paper seven months of positivity over three years of Abbott negativity is a highly fraught endeavour. Recent political history suggests that Abbott’s Mr Positive will prove as brittle and short-lived as Latham’s Mr Congeniality. All it will take for the facade to be shattered will be an ill-considered remark or an unguarded moment.
Mark Latham’s despair will hover over Tony Abbott this election like the ghost of Banquo, providing an insubstantial but insistent reminder of past misdemeanours and their potential to bring ambitious leaders down. Whether Abbott heeds this salutary warning or dismisses it as the mere rattling of chains may well determine the outcome of the 2013 election.
*3 August 2013 is the earliest possible date to hold an election for both the Senate and the House of Representatives. An election for the House of Representatives only can be held at any time up to 30 November 2013.
You might recall I said in my rant about the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign that:
“there is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme.”
Many comments followed the post, here and on Twitter, and there has been a genuine attempt to identify ways to address the latter points.
While we might disagree on some things, Margo Kingston and I do agree that the Federal Court’s judgement raises matters for which Ashby and Brough must provide explanations. While the procurement and provision of Slipper’s diary might attract legal charges, it seems unlikely that any will arise from the abuse of court processes that was identified by Justice Rares.
Margo has already challenged the Sunshine Coast Daily to tackle Brough on his involvement with Ashby’s complaint.
But where is Ashby? Is his announced appeal against Rares’ findings actually a strategy to deflect media attention until some other political drama arises? Or is the media avoiding him anyway, in the same fashion they avoided anything other than scant coverage of the Federal Court judgement?
I’ve said I’d support actions that have substance and deal with known rather than suspected protagonists. In response Margo suggested I join her in challenging journalists to find the elusive Mr Ashby and get some answers.
And so I have. Consider it the inaugural D&M Newshound Challenge.
There’s plenty that we need to know, and only one person who can tell us. Why did Ashby accept a job in December 2011 with Slipper when he was already uncomfortable with texts he’d received from the then Deputy Speaker as early as October? Why did he not use other avenues of complaint/redress rather than going straight to courts? Why turn to Brough after describing him in considerably negative terms to Slipper? Who’s paying his legal bills? And was he encouraged to turn against Slipper in January 2012 and for what incentive?
So that’s the challenge. Find Ashby and find some facts. We’d love to read, hear or watch reports from fourth and fifth estate journalists on their strategies and progress in meeting this challenge. Surely there’s someone among Australia’s many talented investigative journalists, professional and amateur, who can succeed.