Voters don’t care about political lies

The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.

These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.

Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.

The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.

While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.

During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.

Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.

Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.

Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”

The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”

Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.

Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)

An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”

This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.

The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”

This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.

This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed

Clive Hamilton – an out of touch eco-warrior

It must be sad to be an old environmental warrior: to reminisce about the days of barricades, placards, chants, feathers, drums and, well, copious amounts of hair. Clearly Clive Hamilton has been in a reminiscent mood. Perhaps he’s been fretfully stroking his shiny cranium while remembering the good ole Franklin Dam protests and what they achieved. Perhaps he nibbled on one of those special cookies that were so popular in those days.

How else could he come to the conclusion that mainstream environmentalism has failed because of “the professionalisation of environmental activism over the past two decades.”

Perhaps you, like me, read this and muttered the classic teenager response, “huh?”

Perhaps you, like me, wondered if you had totally misunderstood the clean-shaven and articulate environmental activists that have emerged over the past two decades? Why is it that we found them persuasive and convincing when Dr Hamilton says they were sell-outs to incrementalism and professionalism?

What did we miss?

Perhaps it’s not what we missed, but that which is being missed by the well-meaning Dr Hamilton.

Just like the far-left elements of the Labor Party and some of the Australian Greens, Clive is simply feeling cast adrift because environmentalism is now mainstream. In fact, the broader concept of sustainability – the combination of economic, social AND environmental responsibility – is being embraced across business, government and the broader community.

Admittedly, we have a long way to go. Australians are big talkers when it comes to environmental action and don’t always follow through with consistent actions, but our minds and hearts are open to opportunities to do something for the common good. The outpouring of support for Queenslanders affected by the floods is a perfect example.

Surely Clive Hamilton is being disingenuous when he says that:

We need a new environmental radicalism made up of those willing to put their bodies on the line; because no one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable.

Does Australia really need more radicalism, at a time when religious radicalism is being blamed for racism and other forms of bigotry?

Surely the incremental, professional and constructive way to approach environmental responsibility makes the most sense?

Yes it does.

Many words have been written elsewhere about environmentalists realising that they had to dress, think and talk like corporates and government policy-makers if they were going to influence environmental decision-making within either type of institution.

As a result, green activists were sourced from a broader range of disciplines including economics, law, the physical sciences like geography and chemistry, and the behavioural sciences like psychology.

Only once they were equipped to step into corporate boardrooms and departmental meeting rooms, and speak the same language as their antagonists, were environmentalists able to make ground on a raft of issues.

Without the professionalism of green activists, and their acceptance of incrementalism as a means to an end – two of the three weaknesses identified by Clive Hamilton – many of the environmental reforms we take for granted today would not be in place. These include the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the National Pollutant Inventory, and the programs to protect Australia’s native forests and the Great Barrier Reef. None of these reforms are perfect, but they are a vast improvement on what existed before, which was nothing at all.

I can’t conclude this note without mentioning a few green activitists whose achievements are the best counterpoint to Dr Hamilton’s fretful illusions.

Each of these people put on a suit, learned to talk in corporate-speak and made a material difference to the way the environment is valued and managed by corporate Australia and the Australian Government (and none of them will thank me for mentioning them):

Paul Gilding was CEO of Greenpeace International and after he left was a trail-blazer in advising corporations how to adopt sustainable practices. He now works with individuals, businesses, NGOs, entrepreneurs, academia and governments.

Tricia Caswell was on the Executive of the ACTU and then went on to be Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation. After that she was the Executive Director of PLAN Australia and then went on to found the Global Sustainability Institute at the RMIT University that initiated most of the discussions around triple-bottom line reporting for business in the early 2000s.

Michael Rae was with WWF Australia when he worked with the Australian minerals industry to improve their performance on environmental and social matters. Michael also led the charge at the international level, during the Global Mining Initiative, to reduce the use of cyanide in the mining and production of gold. He now runs the Responsible Jewellery Council.

Erwin Jackson progressed from Greenpeace to the ACF and is now the deputy at the Climate Institute, which is so derided by Clive Hamilton. Strangely, Dr Hamilton does not mention that he used to be Chairman of the Climate Institute, and perhaps this is the real source of his bitterness. That aside, Erwin has been instrumental in keeping the Australian Government’s hand to fire when it comes to climate action, and his patient approach suggests he knows that this is a long game to be won by engaged experts and not by the whingers braying on the sidelines.

Clive Hamilton would probably call these people environmental sell-outs. I call them true environmental activists and ultimately, success stories. They have kept to their principles but adapted to the corporate/government world, and they have made a material difference.

This is something that the reminiscent Clive Hamilton can only aspire to.

This post also appeared at Crikey.com and The Drum: Unleashed

Shit happens: What should Abbott have done?

I’m not one to jump to the defence of Tony Abbott. Regular visitors to this blog know I’m more likely to criticise him and offer gratuitous advice.

But last night I found myself defending Abbott’s non-response to an offensive line of questioning from a journalist.

Early reports of the incident suggested that Abbott was gobsmacked by the footage of him using a ribald colloquialism in a clumsy attempt to show blokeish empathy with his defence force hosts. It was said that he could do nothing more than stare silently at the journalist.

In reality, Tony Abbott responded to the journalist several times and, when the reporter tried to mimic an old Kerry O’Brien tactic by asking the same question over and over, Abbott chose to say nothing rather than dignify it with an answer. Which is in fact what he said once the hack finished his poor imitation of O’Brien.

In retrospect, what gratuitous advice would I give the Oppostion Leader? Absolutely none.

As a former media adviser with a communications background rather than a journalistic one, I believe Abbott did the best he could.

What were his options?

1. Keep answering the question? If he had done so the journalist would have taken the next line of questioning – will you apologise, is this the type of behaviour befitting an alternative PM, will you resign? Acknowledging any of these questions with an answer, even if it is merely a repetition of your own message, will send you down the slippery slide of indefensible questions.

2. Walk away? Abbott found out during the recent federal election campaign that refusing to answer questions and walking away from a media event, even if it is merely a photo op, is deemed equivalent to running away and will be portrayed as such.

3. Hit back – either orally or physically? As much as Abbott would have liked to, this clearly was not an option.

Which leaves us with Option 4: say your piece, wait out the journalist’s attempt to further Shanghai you, then say your piece again. If the journalist persists, stay silent again until he/she gives up.

In choosing to meet this line of questioning with silence, Abbott used the aural equivalent of a simple tactic used by celebrities to ruin paparazzi photos by closing their eyes and rendering the shot unpublishable. On rare occasions such as this one, the closed eyes or deliberate silence become the story due to the determination of the media outlet to have a story, and nothing more.

In reality, Abbott was on a hiding to nothing no matter what he did, and he chose the option that would minimise the damage to him. I believe this will be borne out in the hours and days ahead.

Post script: This article by Crikey reports that the “shit happens” comment was found by accident after Channel 7 FOIed the Defence Department footage to obtain vision of Abbott shooting a variety of guns. It was this that the Opposition Leader’s office was resisting being released to the public. However, Crikey also reports that Abbott was given a couple of hours notice about the line of questioning that Riley intended to use.

Has the flood levy damaged the carbon price?

The unknown extent of altruism in the hearts and pockets of Australian voters must be playing heavily on the minds of major political players right now.

They will carefully be examining taxpayers’ response to the flood levy to assess whether individuals truly are willing to pay more for the collective good.

This willingness has implications much broader than flood reconstruction – it goes directly to public acceptance of the carbon price that is now at the heart of the government’s climate change response.

Australian governments have been watching taxpayers for quite some time to gauge their willingness to take a little monetary pain for a broader public gain.

Evidence so far suggests that Australians are generally prepared to be altruistic when they can see tangible benefits delivered within a relatively short space of time.

Australians were happy enough to pay a levy to buy back guns or assist East Timor* because the “results” were depicted often and compellingly on our television screens. The twinge in our hip pocket nerve was ameliorated by the images of guns being turned into scrap and Diggers playing footy with smiling East Timorese children. In fact, we took pleasure from bearing a small cost which contributed to the mitigation of a much bigger problem.

The challenge facing Julia Gillard is that there is no similar way to depict how climate action costs which affect individuals will deliver community benefits. There is no tangible way to show how paying more for carbon-based goods and services today will reduce the effects of climate change in the future.

The Prime Minister needs to find a compelling analogue to help Australians feel directly connected with climate change solutions in order to be prepared to pay for them.

State governments have over the past decade been exploring this concept with their water restriction regimes.

Despite households consuming only one sixth (11%) of the water used by agriculture, the introduction of domestic water restrictions created the impression that individual members of the public were directly responsible for the success of their state’s response to the nation’s seven-year drought.

By drawing a link between climate change, the drought and dwindling water resources, state governments gave their constituents a way to see the tangible benefits of their water parsimony; whether they changed their water consumption behaviour, paid to install water tanks, or let their turf die.

The altruistic “payback” for these actions was the daily progress reports on roadside electronic billboards showing the results of the previous day’s efforts in terms of water used, targets reached and dam levels achieved.

Australians were happy enough to comply with water restrictions because they felt they were doing their bit for the collective good, and in reality the required change in behavior was not overly costly or inconvenient.

Compare the relatively benign stance on sharing this burden with that taken by the very same Australians on the flood levy. The levy is much less of an impost than water restrictions, the community benefit that it will deliver is undoubtedly tangible and compelling, but still barely half the Australian community supports it.

How can this be? Is it because we resent being forced to pay more when so much has already been given voluntarily? Or is it because the levy is seen as another tax grab that will be subsumed into consolidated revenue and never seen again? A poll taken by The Drum suggests it is a combination of these two complaints.

Let’s shift focus then to the carbon price. Australia’s economy is built upon an electricity supply system that is around 80% coal-fuelled. As a consequence, households and businesses currently enjoy some of the cheapest electricity prices in the world. A carbon price will increase the price of electricity as well as those goods and services that require electricity to be produced.

Will Australians resent being forced to pay more when they have already invested time and money in taking voluntary greenhouse actions? Or will they see the carbon price as another tax grab that will be subsumed into consolidated revenue and never seen again? Perhaps, yet again, it will be a combination of the two.

This is the conundrum facing the Prime Minister and her government right now.

If they don’t get the sales pitch right for the carbon price, if they don’t counteract the “I’ve already given at the office” mentality and dispel concerns about fiscal prudence, then the carbon price will sound the death knell for Gillard just as the scrapping of the carbon tax did for her predecessor.

*The East Timor levy was never actually imposed, being scrapped just before it came into effect.

An updated version of this post was written for Crikey.com