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!
The most significant thing that emerged from the mea culpas and post mortems that littered the coup-that-wasn’t battlefield was the notion that journalists are willing to be made patsys.
What other explanation can there be for the role the media played in the Rudd camp’s most recent premature leadership tourney?
Seasoned journalists proved yet again their willingness to publicly be made to look fools in return for being able to participate in private leadership maneuverings.
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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.
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.
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Relentless. There’s simply no better word to describe Australia’s current political atmosphere. Ever since Julia Gillard became the nation’s 27th Prime Minister in June 2010 we’ve been caught in a groundhog day election campaign.
Tony Abbott’s determination to tear down the Gillard minority government, and belief that he will ultimately succeed, has seen him treat every day since the 2010 election as yet another campaign day. He’s constantly subjected us to a scrappy, negative campaign distinguished only by factoids, fluro-vest photo-ops and three-word slogans.
The Prime Minister has had no choice but to respond in kind, and her counter-campaign has been no less intense. Julia Gillard has left no media opportunity unexploited to reaffirm her legitimacy, proclaim her government’s fiscal virtuosity and stake her claim for posterity. But no-one is meant to run a country while simultaneously fighting an election campaign. That’s why we have caretaker arrangements once an election is called, to shift the running of the government into the hands of an apolitical public service. This ensures the grubby business of vote-winning does not contaminate government decision-making.
But the faux election campaign being waged right now has no such separation. Time and again, we’ve witnessed craven electoral politics triumph over responsible government and sensible policies. A confident and secure government, not stuck in an election campaign loop, would have taken a strong leadership position on issues such as the mining tax, climate action and asylum seekers. The more politically palatable options chosen instead by the Gillard government serve as a constant reminder that in this groundhog election campaign, vote-winners will prevail every time.
Minority government too has compounded our sense of a never-ending election. The Opposition and some quarters of the media have attempted smear and character assassination to change the parliament’s composition and trigger an early election. Lobbyists and activists, meantime, have felt a strengthened sense of purpose with the small number of unaligned and minor party MPs holding the balance of power. Vested interest campaigns have been redirected and redoubled as a result, in an attempt to put greater pressure on the minority power-holders.
It’s not just the leaders and lobbyists that are carpet-bombing us with faux election hype. All MPs seem to have defaulted to constant campaign mode. Once there was nary a politician to be seen between election campaigns, but now they are ubiquitous. Parliamentarians tout their wares on our televisions most mornings and every weeknight. Weekends are no longer sacred but crowded with political chat shows and interviews that yield little more than the lines of the day. Our local MPs now lurk in shopping centres and main streets, as well as sending us stalkerish letters and robocalls or popping up on our Twitter streams and Facebook pages.
The only respite we’re given is the Christmas break; the political hiatus when voters and parliamentarians alike flock to the beach and the barbie, preoccupied by little more than the batting average or the plot of a good novel.
But summer days are starting to shorten again and soon the campaign will begin afresh. Despite feeling that we’ve been living with a looming election for the past two years, the real campaign will commence sometime this year and an election will be held even as early as March.
It’s little wonder then that we’re heartily sick of the federal election, even before it’s officially underway. There’s only so much hype and harping that we can hear; only so much politics trumping policy that we can swallow. For many, the temptation to switch off from it all is particularly strong.
But for others, the lure of dissent prevails. These are the voters who’ve added their voices to the shrill and the shouty. Perhaps this explains the negativity that pervades our current political discourse. The groundhog campaign, more than the shockjocks, Twitter trolls, combative political talk shows or online disinhibition effect may be the reason we’ve turned into curmudgeonly quarrelers.
Perhaps the online commenters who habitually seek to discredit the authors of political news, analysis and opinion do so because they’re sick of campaign spin and cant. Perhaps political discussions on Twitter and Facebook have been reduced to snark and the crushing of alternative views in response to the infestation of sock-puppets and shills. Or perhaps we’re simply more cantankerous and less tolerant than we used to be.
Either way, when the federal election is finally held it will mark the end of the longest campaign seen in contemporary Australian politics, spanning as it will from the day after the 2010 federal election to the 2013 polling day. Official or not, the non-stop election campaign will be remembered for diminishing Julia Gillard’s capacity to run an effective government by denying her the free air needed to make necessary decisions despite their political unpalatability.
Hopefully, polling day will mark the end of the groundhog election campaign too, allowing the newly elected government to proceed comparatively unencumbered by short-term political considerations.
Such a government would be free to lead and make the right decisions, rather than the politically expedient ones. It could also set the tone for a new civic discourse, distinguished by respectful, constructive debate and a focus on policy. Over time, this could change how Australians participate in their nation’s democracy, and in turn influence what the media considers to be newsworthy.
In the meantime, we must endure. But at least we can do so in the knowledge that the groundhog election campaign will end within the year, and may yet bring with it the promise of better public debate in the years and elections to come.
This post originally appeared in The King’s Tribune
Some politicians are just accidents waiting to happen. They’re incendiary devices that, once triggered, may cause only enough devastation to harm themselves or widespread and indiscriminate collateral damage. While some are unobtrusive until their tripwire is breached, others tick loudly causing those nearby to glance anxiously and frequently in their direction.
Peter Slipper sits firmly in the latter category, and most people in federal politics know it.
In terms that can only have been triple-checked by lawyers, journalists freely refer to Slipper as “Slippery Pete”, an apparent reference to his ability to survive political embarrassment, and brazenly document his enthusiastic enjoyment of the trappings of office. Some of Slipper’s other proclivities are reported too, including late night incidents in bars, being refused permission to board a plane, and catching a few zeds in parliament. Others are not reported, protected by the code of silence between politicians and the media on matters considered to be of a personal nature.
While officially Slipper is dubbed a “colourful” personality, the unofficial consensus when he became Speaker was that the experiment could only end in tears. The only unknown was whose tears would they be?
Perhaps they should be ours. The grave lesson for voters to take from the Slipper saga is that Gillard and Abbott showed not a shred of political judgement when they made him their catspaw. They recklessly exposed their parties to potential reputational devastation, and gave no thought to the emotional price that might be extracted from Slipper.
The Prime Minister would have only had to occasionally glance at a newspaper to have Slipper’s measure before she wooed him to become Speaker. Clearly the greater temptation was to finish the 2011 parliamentary year on a high political note by strengthening her parliamentary numbers and being able to rescind the politically unpalatable promise on poker machines she’d rashly made to Andrew Wilkie.
Did the PM not stop to consider that Abbott aimed to tear down anyone or anything that stood between him and the early demise of the Gillard minority government? By making him Speaker, Gillard effectively put a huge bullseye on Peter Slipper’s head.
Tony Abbott knew too, as did successive Liberal Party leaders before him, that Slipper was a potential walking disaster zone. Even a cursory due diligence investigation, such as those routinely conducted by political parties to ensure their candidates meet constitutional, statutory and civil propriety requirements, would have set off the warning bells. Nevertheless Slipper was continually re-endorsed for election by the Liberals from 1993 until he resigned to become an independent Speaker in 2011.
In reality Abbott was no more oblivious to Slipper’s ominous ticking than Gillard was. Once Slipper was made Speaker, and without even the slightest hint of chagrin, Abbott intoned that “Slipper is Gillard’s problem now”.
Subsequently either the Liberal Party or elements within it did their best to detonate Slipper, placing Ashby in his office to entrap and then claim sexual harassment. However, things did not quite go as planned.
Firstly, Slipper proved to be an excellent Speaker, showing neither fear nor favour to any MP, and being the first to eject a Federal Treasurer from the parliament in 80 years. He demonstrated an accomplished working knowledge of the House of Representatives’ powers, practice and procedures which endured strenuous testing every Question Time. The new Speaker even won over some of the cynical Twitter crowd who’d been strong fans of previous Speaker Harry Jenkins, and his idiosyncratic return to the ceremonial garments was welcomed by many as an effort to increase respect in the parliament by reinstating some of the tradition associated with the role.
Then, when the detonation finally came, it was not simply confined to Gillard’s hands. Justice Rare’s dismissal of Ashby’s sexual harassment claim redirected much of the messy and indiscriminate destruction back on to the Liberals and Tony Abbott. If it wasn’t so serious it would’ve been funny to imagine the host of cartoonish political players with an “oh I didn’t expect that” look on their explosive-streaked hands and faces.
It’s hard not to see there was always a good chance that no-one would prevail in the Slipper affair – and no-one has. Not the PM and Labor, who made the dubious decision to offer Slipper the position despite the probable consequences. Not Abbott and the Liberals, who turned a blind eye to Slipper’s flaws when he was one of theirs but ruthlessly tried to tear him down once he wasn’t.
Not Ashby. Not Brough. Not Slipper. Not the media or even the voters. None of us have emerged from the Slipper saga with our hands or consciences clean.
In some ways we the people have chosen to be political pawns too. Even now we play our part as the chorus, cheering and hissing from the colosseum benches while our pygmy gladiators, Gillard and Abbott, continue their battle. And nary a glance is made by any of us at the carnage they continue to leave in their wake.
There’s an old fashioned quality that might be creeping back into Australian federal politics. I say old fashioned because you don’t hear it mentioned much these days. But I think it may well be the deciding factor in next year’s federal election.
I’m referring to respect. You know, that thing we used to hold for teachers, policemen, our parents and politicians. It was a sometimes begrudging acknowledgement that authority figures had our best interests at heart, even if we didn’t much like the way they went about protecting us.
I used to hear a lot about respect when John Howard was Prime Minister. While voters didn’t particularly like him, he was elected four times because they trusted him to do the right thing for the country, and for quite some time he delivered on that trust.
While it’s a truism to say that respect can only be earned, it can also be a fragile thing that is easily shattered. I’d suggest the community’s respect for Howard was his electoral strength and the loss of that respect, brought on by WorkChoices and his government’s treatment of asylum seekers, was the weakness that brought Howard down.
The Prime Ministers immediately before John Howard were more in the charismatic mold. Bob Hawke was the jovial larrikin while Paul Keating was the intellectual aesthete. In their own ways, both leaders had a George Clooney-like magnetism that made their respective supporters want to be like them. Their stock in trade was adoration, not respect. No such fan club existed for the tracksuit-wearing Howard.
Kevin Rudd brought even less charisma than Howard to the Prime Minister’s role. In fact he cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Ultimately, the creation of this expectation was Rudd’s downfall.
Initially, even despite his lack of animal magnetism, Rudd proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. However the public’s exuberance faltered when Rudd proved not to be like Howard at all, but an über bureaucrat who reserved all political and policy decisions to himself while setting up ever more labyrinthine committees and token consultation processes. Any respect the community might have had for Rudd arising from the apology to the Stolen Generations was quickly eroded by his seeming incapacity to deliver on anything much else.
Love or respect. Hearts or minds. That seems to be what it boils down to. Having failed to win the public’s respect with Kevin Rudd, Labor power-brokers then lurched in the other direction.
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Back in October last year, I pondered whether the tide was beginning to turn when a slew of serious journalists simultaneously started to question the ongoing viability of the Opposition Leader’s negativity and policy free zone.
While Abbott’s relentless campaign continued, the level of scrutiny and gallery scepticism demonstrated in the October articles did not. By February this year, the only political writer to objectively scrutinise Abbott’s headland speech to the National Press Club was GrogsGamut.
Then in August, it was deja vu all over again, this time prompted by an excoriating Tim Dunlop piece arguing that if Tony Abbott didn’t exist the press gallery would have had to invent him. While Leigh Sales got much of the kudos for belling the Abbott cat a few days later, pretty much every serious political journalist took the Opposition Leader to task following the Dunlop piece.
That was in August. At the time, I wondered whether the press gallery would again lose interest in holding Abbott to account. Many journalists did indeed become distracted with other matters during September including the first 50/50 Newspoll, Lindsay Tanner’s book tour and Kevin Rudd’s various “look at moi” moments. But there was also “the punch” revelations in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay and the government’s attempts to leverage them against Abbott. October then brought us the event now known universally as the Prime Minister’s “misogyny speech”.
But it has not been until this week’s sitting of federal parliament, in the face of Abbott’s resolute determination to stick to his “stop the tax, stop the boats” mantra, that gallery journalists have begun to question the Opposition Leader’s political judgement.
Initially, the AFR’s Geoff Kitney gave a clear-eyed explanation of Abbott’s tactics, noting that the Opposition Leader is an instinctive populist:
On the day when a new Newspoll showed the Coalition and Labor tied on 50 per cent each of the two-party preferred vote, boosting the government’s confidence that Gillard is gaining the upper hand over Abbott, the opposition’s tactics seemed to Labor MPs (and no doubt to a lot of Coalition MPs) to be strange.
Labor MPs (and the same doubting Coalition MPs) are beginning to think that Abbott has failed to notice that some of the horses he has been flogging are dead.
That Abbott so blatantly ignored the government’s [Asian Century white paper] agenda suggests that his own private polling is telling him that the issues that dominate the tabloid and talk-back media are still political winners for the Coalition.
But his judgment is now facing its biggest test since the last election.
Since then, though, less and less confidence has been reflected by writers usually considered more supportive of the Coalition. Former Liberal staffer Peter van Onselen and conservative journalist Jennifer Hewett both drew parallels between Abbott and his former boss John Hewson, who lost the unloseable election to Paul Keating. Meantime, the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Benson compared Abbott with another ill-fated, budgie smuggler-wearing opposition leader, Peter Debnam. Even Coalition flag-bearer Dennis Shanahan expressed his doubts.
Abbott’s easiest days as Opposition Leader are behind him as he moves into a period where the polls tighten, the frustration about an “early” election among voters will ease as an election nears and he will be more closely assessed as an alternative prime minister.
… Of course, Abbott won’t and can’t stop his carbon tax campaign because it would be suicidal for his credibility and a shift from a genuine area of public concern. There is clear evidence that Abbott’s aggressive campaign against the carbon tax has cost him personal support. His daily media appearance in a fluoro vest or hard hat is losing its appeal and appropriateness as the Opposition Leader needs to become more authoritative and considered.
Does the gallery really mean it this time? Have they finally set their forensic scopes on the Opposition Leader? Will we see sustained pressure on Abbott over the coming months to relinquish his mantra and deliver policies that are not only costed but funded?
I doubt it. The Christmas holidays are too close and the 2013 election is too far away (in relative terms). Aside from a few more demands for “less door stops and more policy”, I suspect most of the political media will close up shop and take an early vacation as soon as parliament rises at the end of November.
Yet again, Tony Abbott will win a reprieve. Whether this is enough to win him the 2013 election is another matter altogether.
Before I get to the substance of this post, I’d like to provide some context. I’m a former Liberal staffer. The last time I was employed as a political staffer was in 1993, and I’ve never worked for the Liberal Party since, nor am I member of any party. I do not vote, and have not done so for the past two ACT and federal elections. I will not be party to any vote that results in Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister.
I like Julia Gillard. She is a gutsy, intelligent and compassionate woman who I consider to be a formidable role model for all Australian girls and women. But I will not vote for her party either.
I provide this background in the hope that readers will accept that I have no political axe to grind when I say that the MSM’s coverage of yesterday’s political events is more perceptive than they are being given credit for, and that there seems to be a number of people using social media who are deluding themselves as to what actually happened.
Let’s revisit the event. After asking the Prime Minister in Question Time whether she continued to have full confidence in the Speaker and, if not, what steps she would take to remove him from the position, Tony Abbott then moved a motion to remove the Speaker due to him not being fit for office.
Abbott specifically used only the content of Slipper’s texts, which are in the public domain and uncontested, to craft his accusation against Slipper. Building upon the growing sentiment in the community against misogynist views and language demonstrated by the #destroythejoint movement, Abbott painted Slipper as a man who spoke of women generally, and one female Liberal MP specifically, in derogatory terms. He argued that a person with such objectionable views about women and who clearly had a bias against at least one MP was not fit for the non-partisan office of Speaker.
Abbott accused Slipper of being unfit for office based on the texts, not Ashby’s allegations which are still before the courts. In avoiding use of the Ashby allegations, Abbott denied the Government any grounds upon which to avoid the question of Slipper’s fitness for office, particularly that of needing to follow due process.
Nevertheless, due process was the Government’s chosen shield.
In fact, the Government had little else with which to defend itself. Having invested considerable political capital, in the form of senior female ministers, to raise and maintain concerns over Tony Abbott’s problems with female voters, the Prime Minister became wedged by Abbott’s motion. Abbott’s speech drew a clear connection between the Prime Minister’s fitness for office and Slipper’s, thereby making the motion about her judgement in recruiting him to bolster the Government’s numbers.
The PM was faced with a stark choice: oppose the motion and be seen to be defending the Speaker, or support it in the knowledge that this would be seen as a concession of ill-judgement on her part. Any such concession would also cast a shadow over the PM’s judgement in related decisions such as the formation of minority government with the independents and the Greens.
So the stakes were high when Abbott moved his motion. I initially misunderstood his reason for doing so, thinking that its purpose was to remove the Speaker. In fact, the purpose of the motion was to wedge the Prime Minister into having to oppose it, defend her own judgement, and by association, that of Slipper’s too. It does not matter that Julia Gillard said not one word in defence of Slipper during her speech: Abbott expected that her opposition to the motion would be damning enough.
What Abbott did not expect was the damning words that the PM levelled at him during her speech; a speech which appears to have divided Labor supporters due to its visceral content and emotive delivery. Some voiced concern that the speech was not befitting of a Prime Minister and that it might be seen by casual political observers as an intemperate outburst.
Conversely, the PM’s speech was embraced by the people who have recently formed a front line against misogyny, chauvinism and disrespect against women in public discourse. The coincidental timeliness of the PM’s rousing words raised the spirits of those now experiencing and witnessing a withering backlash against the #destroythejoint movement.
And what of those not involved in or supportive of the DTJ campaign? It is important to look outside that bubble to really understand how yesterday’s events are being interpreted.
For those much less engaged in politics than us – and let’s accept that there are many of them – the event played out thus: Slipper sent texts that were derogatory of women and Abbott claimed a person that held such views was not fit to be Speaker. In opposing Abbott’s motion to remove the Speaker (read: defending the Speaker), the Prime Minister unleashed a tirade against Abbott recounting the many sexist views leveled against her personally, or women generally, which he had never withdrawn or denounced.
In base political terms, Abbott won the day: he wedged the Prime Minister into supporting the Speaker, and was unintentionally rewarded with Slipper’s scalp later that evening. Abbott has however set a dangerous precedent for judging an MP’s character based on their private text messages.
Perhaps the Prime Minister’s impassioned speech compelled some concerned female voters away from Tony Abbott and towards her. Maybe, if they are prepared to overlook her refusal to see Slipper’s texts as evidence that he was unfit to be Speaker. And maybe, if they are also comfortable with the PM delivering highly emotive attacks in Parliament.
Looking at it this way, it is understandable why the media may interpret yesterday’s events as being a potential setback for the Government. Sometimes we need to take a step back to see the whole picture.