Patsys, players and the future of Australia’s political media

Here’s my latest post for the AusVotes 2013 federal election blog…

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.

Click here to read more…

#Kevenge2: It’s not on until it’s on

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:

  • The day kicked off with an opinion piece by overt Rudd supporter and political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher, claiming “the Gillard Government is suffering a gathering crisis in its leader” and that two Cabinet Ministers had deserted Gillard.
  • Meanwhile, on ABC’s The Drum, Rudd’s unofficial campaign manager Bruce Hawker, criticised the “government’s” handling of the media reform issue.
  • Hawker’s theme was then taken up by Rudd numbers man, Joel Fitzgibbon, during Labor’s caucus meeting and duly leaked to the media afterwards.

Meanwhile, the political media is acting like a diabetic kid locked in a lolly shop: they know they shouldn’t, but……

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.

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.

Bad vibes may determine who becomes our next PM

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).

Let’s start with the positives. There’s a certain calm strength in the Prime Minister, to which some people do respond positively. While much was made of her misogyny speech being a rallying cry for all women who are subjected to sexist behaviour, it had a much broader resonance. The speech struck a note, not just with feminists, but with all the people who had been waiting for a sign that Julia Gillard was capable of standing up and fighting for a genuinely heartfelt principle. Yes, there was the inconvenient (and, to some, inherently hypocritical) matter of sole-parent payments being reduced on the same day, but the speech signposted the point at which Gillard finally became the leader she claimed to be at the time of the Rudd coup.

Related to the perception of Julia Gillard’s strength, is the notion of respect. While some commentators have drawn parallels between Prime Ministers Gillard and Howard on their response to asylum seekers, I’d suggest Julia Gillard has taken yet another page from John Howard’s book. I’ve written elsewhere that, like Howard, Gillard does not command the voter adoration bestowed upon Hawke and Keating and is faced with the challenge of earning the community’s respect to ensure her political survival. I’d argue that a kernel of respect grew in voters’ hearts the day of the misogyny speech. Vague but politically favourable decisions on education, dental care and disability support have subsequently reinforced Gillard’s perceived strength, ironically enhanced, as it has been, by conservative state governments’ threatened obstruction.

The other visceral quality that benefits Gillard is that, in the flesh, she is a warm and eminently likeable person. The PM’s team has leveraged this advantage by exposing the Real Julia ™ to clusters of opinion leaders, be they “mummy bloggers”, leading female commentators and writers, or voters on platforms such as Google+ and live blogs. The ALP tacticians hope these chosen few will convey the likeability of the PM to their readers, families and friends, who will in turn tell others. (Of course there’s always a risk in depending upon independent third parties to generate such ripples of goodwill.)

Tony Abbott’s flouro-vest photo opportunities have a similar purpose, allowing workers and small business owners to meet and determine their own instinctive response to the alternative Prime Minister. As blogger Preston Towers wrote last week in a post about western Sydney, Abbott’s blokey demeanour is received well in those circles.

The man whose image …is part Vladimir Putin, part Bollywood star and part tradie. Indeed, some people might well believe that Abbott used to be a tradie in a former life, he wears headwear and safety vests so much. Tradies play well amongst many in Western Sydney, because they are the lifeblood of the region… The strategy of having him doing things, being physical, being an Alpha Male, does have resonance amongst those in the West who do similar things, or look up to people who do those things.

So it’s fair to assume that a number of the voters who encounter Abbott in this guise would pass on favourable feedback to their friends and families – determined not by the Coalition’s policies but whether Abbott struck them as a good bloke.

The Opposition Leader’s close association with the former Howard Government is his other advantage in attracting the visceral voter. Whether it is merited or not, many citizens have a retrospectively rose-coloured view of the Howard years. As Peter Brent recently pointed out, even though Howard’s Golden Age coincided with the pre-GFC days of economic prosperity “people don’t look back to the pre-GFC world, to them it’s the Howard one. Most people reckon Howard and Peter Costello knew how to run the economy and the current government doesn’t.”

So, in the absence of considered policy comparisons, and with little more than a fond memory of the Howard years, more voters trust Abbott to run the economy than Gillard. And a plurality are confident that his government will improve it. It seems Abbott’s blue-collar appeal, combined with hand-me-down economic credentials, account for a fair chunk of his electoral appeal.

On the other side of the ledger, however, people have the similar negative reactions to both Gillard and Abbott: they feel a sense of unease.

Voters were unsettled when the feisty and popular Deputy Prime Minister calmly dispatched her leader, proclaiming his government lost its way, while conveniently disregarding her own role in its meandering. They’ve been disconcerted since then by the parade of prime ministerial personas, including the sing-song Stepford PM and the first incarnation of the Real Julia ™ during the 2010 election campaign. And their anxiety has been compounded by the Prime Minister rescinding her carbon tax promise, sharing power with the Greens and being associated with an assortment of allegedly shady characters (something, something, AWU, something, Craig Thomson, something, something, Slipper).

However, looking to the blue corner, voters find no reprieve from their sense of foreboding. They’re apprehensive about the extent to which Abbott’s conservative Catholicism influences his decisions. They’re troubled by his simian swagger and the archaic prism through which he views women and gender issues more broadly. And they’re worried that Abbott’s emulation of Howard will extend to the reintroduction of WorkChoices (which means they can take our jerbs, doesn’t it?)

Come polling day, some people will vote for the party they’ve supported their whole adult lives. Others will base their choice on the handful of policy offerings they’ve taken the trouble to understand. And a very small number will compare the policies of all parties before coming to a considered voting decision.

But the vast majority will vote on instinct, choosing the party leader they feel most strongly about. At this point in the protracted (non) election campaign voters are similarly torn between the two leaders, with their positive response far outweighed by their negativeone.

This may change as the election date draws closer. But it is more likely that, come 15 September, our newly-elected Prime Minister will face the first day of their term knowing that although they were “popularly” elected, they were, in fact, judged by Australian voters to be the less distasteful of the two leaders on offer.

This post first appeared in The King’s Tribune.