The voter doesn’t always know best

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.

Don’t be surprised – Greens are not ALP’s natural ally

I’m not a psephologist, so I’m quite prepared for this to be blown apart by Mumble or Poll Bludger.

But I’m being driven crazy by the political ignorance displayed by those gnashing their teeth over the recent ratcheting-up of the ALP’s stance against the Greens. In short, the ingénues are saying “why fight with each other when the Libs are the enemy?”.

Such naïveté ignores the reality that each political party considers all others the enemy – even the Libs and Nats vigorously compete against each other for a seat previously held by a retiring Coalition MP (sometimes to their detriment, and sometimes not).

The mistake being made by political newbies and idealists on Twitter is that Labor and the Greens are natural allies against the Coalition. They forget that in the real world, it is each party for themselves with all others being considered the enemy.

Since the last federal election, primary votes for the two major parties and the Greens have taken this path (according to Essential Research, whose polls trend similarly to those of Newspoll and Nielsen):

  • Liberal/National 43.6% → 49%
  • ALP 38.0% → 33.0%
  • Greens 11.8% → 10%
  • Other/independent 6.6% → 8.0%

Note that the only significant changes in support are from the ALP to the Libs/Nats and other/independents.

According to what Australian voters are telling pollsters at the moment, some who voted for the ALP at the last election have now parked themselves with the Coalition or the other/independent category. No Labor voters have shifted to the Greens since the last federal election.

Those aghast by the ALP’s demonisation of the Greens seem to think the ALP needs to win progressive voters back off the Greens to win. But they don’t – they need to win back disaffected Labor voters who are parked with the Libs or others/independents.

Yes, the ALP will still need Green preferences in some seats, but most likely they’re taking those preferences for granted. Green voters are likely to give their preferences to the ALP anyway.

As Andrew Catsaras pointed out on Twitter in response to this post: Every vote the ALP gets from Greens is worth 0.2 of a TPP vote, whereas every vote the ALP pulls off the L-NP is a full TPP vote. This is because Greens voters preference the ALP at about 80%.

The ALP isn’t trying to win progressive votes from the Greens, they’re trying to win the middle class, middle income voters who are parked with the Libs but are uneasy about Abbott. They’re also trying to win progressive voters parked with the other/independent category who find the Greens too extreme.

If you look at Labor’s approach through that prism, what they are doing makes perfect sense. They’re saying both Abbott and the Greens are too extreme, and that the safe harbour is with the ALP.

The by-election for the state seat of Melbourne is the trial run for the ALP’s campaign. Without a Liberal candidate, they can gauge the extent to which non-Green voters are willing to come back to the fold, using an anti-Greens campaign.

They lose nothing from running hard against the Greens, because the Greens’ votes are not the votes they want – they want votes parked with the Libs.

Make no mistake, the next election will have nothing to do with the Greens. It will be about voters returning to the major parties. The only question that remains is which party will they return to?

Post script: Interesting responses and related reads from Andrew Elder, Bernard Keane and Victorian ALP.

The Lost Tribe

Moir, SMH 4 Apr 2012

There’s a group of Australians that I’m beginning to think of as the lost tribe.

They’re average people in most ways. They earn average incomes and have vanilla tastes. They worry about servicing their mortgages, getting their kids through school, and funding their retirement. They do their bit for the environment by getting a smaller car, installing a rainwater tank or using re-usable shopping bags.

The focus of this tribe is home and hearth; while they might be active in their own communities, they don’t have the time or inclination to focus on the big issues that loom beyond their back fence. They generally are well-meaning, hard-working and kind-hearted, but right now they feel disenfranchised, abandoned and lost. This is because they’ve been alienated, even demonised and cast adrift by contemporary politics.

The tribe are the people variously called Howard’s battlers, middle Australia and working families. They embody a grab-bag of political philosophies. They support capitalism to the extent that it guarantees food on the table and a secure future for their children. They support socialism to the extent that it provides universal health care, free education and a safety net for the disadvantaged. Their inner libertarian supports the right to have a drink, a smoke and punt. Their inner egalitarian wants their wives and daughters to be treated with equality and respect.

But these people no longer feel an allegiance to any one political party because their values have become fragmented in a way that does not match what is being offered. It is because of their lack of tribalism that I see these people as a tribe; a tribe that is lost in the wilderness, anxiously looking for a political home.

This tribe bears no allegiance to any one party, because they believe every party has let them down. While Howard made them feel secure for a decade, he pulled the rug from underneath them with WorkChoices. While Rudd assured them he’d be a better version of Howard, he lost their faith when he lacked Howard’s knack of reflecting the tribe’s views back to them. Despite their antipathy towards Rudd, the brutal nature of Gillard’s ascendancy led them to see her as untrustworthy and illegitimate.

The tribe now feel they’ve been cut adrift by the major parties and are wary of what the minors have to offer. They’re searching for security and certainty, but encounter only negativity and uncertainty. Most importantly, they hold the next federal election outcome in their hands.

Successive governments have courted the tribe and benefited from them feeling relaxed and comfortable. In doing so, both parties have actively demonised the other side as the harbingers of doom – higher living costs, soaring unemployment and increased social dislocation. Now the majors are reaping what they have sown; their negative messages have been so successful that the tribe simply doesn’t trust either of them any more.

Nor do they trust the minor parties who tell them they’ve never had it so good and now is the time to for sacrifice.

This is a difficult message for the tribe to accept. Having worked hard to get and maintain their comfortable lifestyle, they’re resentful of political efforts to make them feel guilty for it. Even if these efforts are for the greater good.

Equally difficult are the epithets that the tribe have to endure in the name of political discourse. They’re called racist when in fact they fear what is foreign to them; ignorant because they do not participate in scholarly debate; and selfish because they’re protective of the middle-class lifestyle they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Future elections will not be won convincingly, nor broad public agendas be progressed successfully, without the support and participation of the tribe. Their current alienation and non-alignment are the main reasons why the next federal election is still up for grabs. It is the tribe that is dissatisfied with both party leaders, who have tentatively parked their protest vote with the Liberals, and who are shunning the Greens.

The tribe’s loyalty may be hard to win, but it will be well worth it. The party who succeeds in winning back the lost tribe will be the one that makes them feel secure again, and the one who will next enjoy the spoils of government.

This piece first appeared in The Kings’ Tribune. It also appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Mirror, mirror on the wall: what do flood speeches say about us all?

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have said much about the floods in the past week. Both were pilloried and praised for their words, depending upon the critics’ points of view.

Gillard has variously been described as patronising, prime ministerial, prudent, or ruthless and a risk-taker. Abbott has been even more polarising, having earlier inflamed some observers (including me) with pointed questions about the budget surplus while the flood waters continued to surge and our screens were still filled with graphic signs of death and destruction.

But putting aside the perceived callousness, less than empathetic delivery or poor political wisdom of the leaders’ utterances this past week, there is an important element of their communications that has been overlooked.

We’ve been so busy judging the qualities of Gillard and Abbott that we haven’t noticed that both leaders told us a lot about ourselves when they delivered their keynote speeches. Their words held a mirror to the Australian community and reflected our current state of mind through the phrases, illustrations and analogies that they used.

I say this because no important political speech is drafted these days without the inclusion of market-researched elements to maximise the speaker’s chances of making a positive connection with their audiences. For Gillard and Abbott, these target audiences are concerned party members, disaffected supporters and those who have no firm party allegiances.

By using language or imagery similar to that used by these audiences, or which recognises their feelings or concerns, each leader can not only catch that audience’s attention, but also be seen by them as genuine, well-intentioned and persuasive.

That’s why so much money and effort is put into finding out what key voting groups think, and then reflecting these views back in high profile political speeches.

In accordance with the political calendar, both leaders would have been planning to make scene-setting speeches in late January in an attempt to take the upper hand before parliament resumes in the second week of February.

Consequently, both Gillard’s speech this week to the National Press Club and Tony Abbott’s to the Young Liberals would have been considered important speeches by their respective party machines, and work on them would have been underway for some time.

Gillard’s speech, out of sheer necessity, focused solely on her fiscally responsible approach to funding the flood recovery effort. Nevertheless, it contained key words and phrases that were designed to make a positive and assuring connection with anxious and disaffected Labor voters as well as those who have strayed to the Greens.

Abbott’s speech was modeled more on the headland speeches given by John Howard as Opposition Leader in the lead up to the 1996 election. While Abbott took every opportunity to cast Gillard and her government in a bad light, he also spelled out the principles that would guide his alternative government. Both sets of messages were crafted with words that would resonate with resurgent Liberal voters.

So what picture do we have of the Australian people based on these two speeches?

Firstly, both speeches confirm that we’re not sure whether Gillard is up to the job. She may well be the preferred PM in all the published polls, but the speeches show that both parties are detecting voter concerns about Gillard in their private research.

In Abbott’s speech you can see this doubt being reinforced in key phrases: “another Gillard decision that calls her judgment into serious question”, “only a prime minister who’s out of her depth would seek to exploit people’s generosity”, “a prime minister who’s unconvincing when responding to a natural disaster is unlikely to solve the much more politically and administratively complex problems that she had previously set herself to fix”, and the “Prime Minister [is] promoting lazy policy under the cover of sympathy for flood victims.”

However, Gillard’s speech is more telling on this point. She speaks in the first person, using “I” nearly 50 times to describe what she has done or what she will do. This is a clear attempt by the speech drafters to show that Gillard is in charge, in control and is making the hard decisions. This rhetorical tactic certainly seemed to convince at least one important observer, with Federal Press Gallery doyen Laurie Oakes tweeting and later writing that it was Gillard’s “most prime ministerial performance so far”.

The second thing we learn about ourselves from the speeches is that we want our government to put the national interest first, and if that means making hard decisions, that’s fine, as long as the strong economy (read, our quality of life) is protected.

The title of Gillard’s speech reflects these sentiments: “I see what needs to be done and I will do it.”

In sketching out what needs to be done to pay for the immense restoration bill, Gillard preaches economic prudence and reflects the growing conservatism with which households are now managing their money.

With our growing economy and rising national income, we can pay for rebuilding now. And if we can, we should. We should not leave the task of finding the money until future years. My experience in Government since 2007 tells me that while we must plan to sustain growth we must never take future growth for granted, so we should not put off to tomorrow what we are able to do today. 
Solely borrowing to rebuild Queensland is a soft option I am not prepared to consider.

Abbott reflects the same community sentiment, but from another direction, attempting to use it to cast more doubt on Gillard’s judgment and prudence:

The problem is not the government’s spending on flood relief which is urgent and unavoidable. The problem is the government’s unwillingness to take spending restraint seriously coupled with its instinctive resort to a new tax to meet new challenges.

He reinforces this by repeating the well-crafted, and now familiar, refrain:

There’s a world of difference between a levy to fund unavoidable extra spending when there’s no fat in the budget and the Gillard government’s latest raid on people’s wallets. There’s about $2 billion uncommitted in various funds such as the Building Australia Fund, about a half billion dollars that the government is committed to budgeting for the National Broadband Network (plus tens of billions in government guaranteed borrowing), at least a billion dollars left in the Building the Education Revolution and about a billion dollars to buy back water which is no longer in short supply. As the Prime Minister conceded at the National Press Club, there is certainly further spending that could have been reduced or deferred for flood reconstruction without the need for a new tax.

The battle between the leaders for the high ground on fiscal prudence seems to be well underway.

There are several other interesting reflections of community views in the two speeches. For example, Gillard’s carefully chosen words on the availability of jobs for unemployed Australians as well as skilled migrants flags a tension within this issue that usually only lurks beneath public discourse.

Equally, the dichotomous reference by both leaders to a carbon price (either as the only effective mechanism to reduce greenhouse gases, or simply another price hike) suggests that the community is not yet settled on this issue.

The carbon price question dovetails neatly with that of the flood levy. While it would be easy to conclude that Australians are willing to pay a little more through their weekly tax to fund the flood effort, both leaders’ speeches suggest the matter is not that clearcut and that such widespread willingness is a chimera.

While Gillard emphasised at the NPC that the levy would impose only a $1-5 weekly increase on the majority of income earners, complaints must have been anticipated because she also stressed the need for all Australians to share the load in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Interestingly, a contemporaneous poll of readers at the ABC online forum The Drum, while not statistically rigorous, has consistently shown only 53% of respondents are willing to pay the levy.

According to poll, another 34% of readers are concerned the money will be wasted and 9% are upset because they have already donated money to the flood restoration effort. It is a combination of these two concerns that the Liberals decided to press home in Abbott’s Young Liberals speech.

This was always our money, not the government’s. It was supposed to be used wisely, not squandered. The Prime Minister is pitching it as a “mateship” tax even though mateship is about helping people, not taxing them. Mates choose to help; they’re not coerced. Mateship comes from people, not from government. It’s not the money so much as the principle. People resent being ordered to pay what they’d gladly give of their own volition especially by a government so reckless with taxpayers’ money.

It is yet to be seen which levy message has more resonance with the Australian community.

And so we have a snapshot of what the major parties believe important groups of voters are thinking as their elected representatives embark on the new parliamentary year.

In giving us this glimpse, they have unveiled the key political battlefields for 2011: fitness for office, protecting the national interest with fiscal prudence, and the preparedness of Australians to pay more for the collective good. It will be another fascinating political year.

This post also appeared at The Drum – Unleashed.

Refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

I have sympathy for people wanting more substance from the Australian media this federal election. Truly, I do. As I’ve previously explained, some of the political media’s obsession with election frippery is due to them rebelling against being tightly managed during the campaign. However, I’ve noticed an assertion creeping into some commentary that the media should not only be covering more policy announcements but actively analysing the policy content.

This seems to me to be an abrogation of the citizen’s responsibility to make their own mind up.

I’m not a journalist and I’ve never studied media but I’ve worked around journos for 20 years. I used to think the main value that drove journalists was the community’s right to know, but this has changed over time to a more didactic role. I think this is why I don’t read newspapers, watch tv news or current affairs or listen to the radio. (I will confess however to indulging myself with an occasional viewing of the Insiders.)

My self-imposed mainstream media blackout is due as much to source bias as it is to journalistic bias. I’m well aware that pretty much all information transmitted by the MSM has been massaged or spun by someone – a press secretary, a departmental or corporate PR officer, a lobbyist or an activist. This message is further “refined” by the journalist with juxtaposition against related information and arguments. By the time it’s published, the information can often bear little resemblance to the facts. So I just don’t bother wasting my time reading such arrant nonsense.

This distortion is amplified during an election campaign. Everyone is shrilly trying to achieve primacy for their version of the facts, with accuracy (or even truth) becoming the victim in these skirmishes.

Why has it come to this? Why have we regressed to mostly superficial and combative election campaigns? Is it because Australians have surrendered their natural scepticism when it comes to thinking about politics? Have we become accustomed to having our opinions spoonfed to us by the media and commentariat? I suspect not. The number of people who make up their mind in the last days and hours of an election campaign are enough to change the government. Nevertheless, we are a politically disengaged citizenry. I believe this is because we have never had to fight for our freedom or the vote.

This disengagement should not justify the media stepping in to perform what is each voter’s civic duty. While I agree with comments made elsewhere that journalists should not simply produce a hesaidshesaid story without questioning the credibility of the source, journalists should not be making any comment on the merits of an argument or policy. That is for the media’s audience to decide based on the information provided by the media, not the media itself. Being intellectually lazy enough to expect the media to provide “objective” analysis leads to an acceptance that what celebrity journalists say about matters or policies is an unchallengable truth – more often than not, it is nothing more than their (sometimes informed) opinion.

Anyone seeking to know about parties’ policies should do what they would do if they were about to make a huge financial commitment like buying a house – do your homework! Visit the parties’ websites, ring or email their campaign offices with questions. Talk to the candidates on Facebook and Twitter. Why leave it to Peter Hartcher or Michelle Grattan or Malcolm Farr to tell you what is a good or bad policy? How can you be sure they have the same values and needs as you?

The days of the media as a “medium” between the news-maker and the news-consumer are almost gone. We have made the transition through internet search engines, video on mobile phones and social media such as Twitter. So why do we still insist on MSM meeting our information needs during election campaigns? It’s time to refuse the election media spoonfeed and make up your own mind!

Julia’s tenet – no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry

Zombies vote often, vote late


John Howard was pilloried during his time as Prime Minister for saying he wanted the Australian people to be relaxed and comfortable. It was, said the commentariat, evidence of Howard’s singular lack of vision, particularly when compared to his predecessor the vaudevillian Paul Keating.

No doubt Howard saw himself more in the mold of political warhorse than political visionary. He knew that an electorate generally satisfied with its lot would unlikely countenance the risk of changing its government.

It appears that Julia Gillard is deploying a version of Howard’s strategy, which is to keep the electorate bored, somnolent and disengaged. In the same way that Howard felt secure with a comfortable electorate, Gillard is depending on the tenet that no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry.

Consider the limited number of times that federal governments have been thrown out in recent decades. Fraser, Keating and Howard all incited considerable wrath within the community before they were ousted at the ballot box.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is observable in her public demeanour and utterances. While some have likened her new cadence to PM Thatcher, it strikes others as more a cross between our current Queen Betty and a pre-school teacher; soothing but protective, reassuring but authoritative. At times during the Leaders’ debate I recalled late-night horror movies where people were hypnotised through their crystal sets and wondered if this time it was for real.

It may well be that this strategy will pay dividends for the PM, but I suspect it will backfire because Tony Abbott is also trying to bore the electorate. Clearly he is not doing it for the same reason as Gillard. Abbott is using the small target strategy that worked so well for Rudd and Howard when they were both opposition leaders. It is the “I am a safe pair of hands and I don’t have the other lot’s nasty policies” strategy. Abbott too is trying to be reassuring but authoritative, so as not to alarm the electorate into reverting to the incumbent government.

So how will this play out on polling day? Taxi drivers all over Australia will tell you that their fares think this is the most boring election in memory. Will voters shuffle to their polling station like zombies or somnambulists and vote for the status quo because it is the path of least resistance?

Or will they rebel, mutter a pox on both houses, and vote green or not at all?

No more posts.