A picture is worth a thousand votes: images of a leader


Image: it’s politics’ dirty little secret. Despite protestations that our voting decisions are driven by parties’ policies, the truth is our choice is significantly influenced by the image our political leaders project.

We don’t like to admit we’re that superficial, that we could choose a government on the colour of a man’s tie or the timbre of a woman’s voice, but this is the political reality being managed, if not manipulated, by political strategists.

Continue reading “A picture is worth a thousand votes: images of a leader”

Not Leigh Sales’ job to save Labor

I’ve written before that Twitter has become an unexpected school of politics, providing a unique forum for people with less knowledge of our civic processes to learn from those with more. When those discussions are taking place, Twitter is vibrant and all-embracing democracy at its best.

Well, Wednesday night was NOT one of those times.

Over a particular 24 hour period Twitter demonstrated just how aggressively puerile it can be. And in spitting their dummies in ever-lengthening arcs, partisan tweeps missed the point altogether.

The event in question was the long-awaited interview by 730’s Leigh Sales of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.02.27 AMThe interview was long-awaited for two reasons: it had literally been quite some time since Sales had last interviewed Abbott. The Leader of the Opposition’s team had clearly been keeping him away from “hard” political interviews, choosing instead to conduct photo-opportunities with limited questions from the media, stand up press conferences from which he could stride away when the questions become unwanted and set-piece speeches and events like the recent community forum with its hand-picked audience.

The other reason the interview was long-anticipated was that on the previous occasion Abbott had been interviewed by Sales, he’d been ill-prepared and she’d made the most of it. Abbott’s poor performance that night was the main reason he’d been kept away from hard interviews ever since.

But Wednesday afternoon, Sales tweeted as she often does at that time of day to announce her interview guest would be Tony Abbott. Twitter went aflutter. The Press Gallery must have too, with Age columnist Tony Wright writing this breathless preview.

From then until the program went to air, Sales was bombarded with tweets giving gratuitous advice on what questions she should ask.

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 12.40.25 AMThe mob was just getting warmed up. I made a fairly obvious comment about the invidiousness of Sales’ position and was called an MSM apologist.

Others opined that Sales should just “do her job” which was variously interpreted as being everything from not saying anything to interrupting or … not interrupting.

When the time came, I chose to watch Twitter instead of the interview (mostly because I don’t watch tv news and current affairs, but also because I knew I could time-shift it later).

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 10.51.17 PMAbbott had minutes before tweeted about the interview, making it clear it was pre-recorded.

Conspiracies began to fly, principally that Abbott’s mistakes would be edited out by the ABC and/or that Sales’ questions would have been provided to Abbott before the interview. (No similar criticism was made when Sales’ recent interview with the Prime Minister was also pre-recorded.)

The Twitter meltdown was spectacular and lasted well into the evening, as well as the next day.

Having already pruned my tweetstream of most offensive tweeps I did not see the worst of it. Sales gave us a glimpse the next day.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.51.35 PM

An interesting contribution was made by Peter Clarke over at Australians for Honest Politics. As a former broadcaster and an educator, Clarke provided a critique of Sales and suggested what she should have done during the interview. He produced a similar critique for Sales’ interview of the PM. (I look forward to future analyses of Tony Jones, Emma Alberici and Barrie Cassidy’s interviewing prowess or lack thereof.)

The critique of Sales’ Abbott interview was diminished considerably by the conspiratorial allusions that followed:

Has Sales personally or the 730 program generally lost their knack to scrutinize the man (and woman) competing for the prime ministership? If so, what veiled process has brought us to this? What has happened to Sales’ previous admirable abilities to forge and ask, in context, sharp, forensic, confronting questions on our behalf? And to deploy the right tone and weight of personality and to be flexible with those choices on the run?

Where was the clear evidence of a pre-planned strategy for this interview from Sales and her team? If they had one, it went to water early on.

In short, what is actually happening behind the scenes at 730 to leech this program of its effectiveness just when we need it most to do its fourth estate job effectively without fear or favour?

While it’s fair to ponder the extent to which the ABC might pull its punches to stay onside with an incoming government, there was little evidence of this occurring in the Abbott interview (yes I have watched it). Sales was well-prepared and took Abbott up on most of his rebuttals, even though she has toned down the interviewus interruptus style that so annoyed viewers during the previous interview with the Prime Minister.

Peter Clarke criticises Sales for not pressing Abbott on several occasions when opportunities presented themselves. But with this being a pre-recorded interview and likely edited down to 13 minutes from a longer version, it’s quite possible Sales did pursue several lines of questioning. If Abbott was ultimately able to evade these questions there would have been no point leaving his manoeuvring in the final cut, particularly with so many topics vying for air time.

Even though there was no gotcha moment similar to that which brought on Abbott’s gaffe last year, Sales did elicit some interesting and newsworthy pieces of information:

  • Abbott refused to put firm timing on business tax cuts and the paid parental leave scheme
  • He continued to move away from promising a surplus and spoke instead about a “pathway to returning to surplus”
  • He claimed the Coalition had to find much less than $70 billion in savings
  • He attempted to portray commitments being made by Gillard, which dont have to be fulfilled until after the election, as ‘booby-traps’.

Most interesting was Abbott’s concession about needing to “grow into” the role of PM, as he once grew into the role of health minister. This suggests Coalition market research is finding voters think Abbott might not be PM material.

Screen Shot 2013-04-25 at 11.52.52 PMOf course, this fascinating point was lost amongst the wailing and rending of clothes on Twitter by Labor supporters.

Meanwhile a heretofore unknown blogger [to me], Anthony Bieniack, made this illuminating observation in his post “Repeat after me: Leigh Sales is not the problem”:

There’s a lot of theories as to why to Tony Abbott is doing so well –  with varying degrees of merit – the one I personally believe is that the ALP have a particularly bad communications team, good policies are not being heard and bad news is reverberating, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it’s us.

It’s Twitter, its Facebook, it’s slacktivism – and it’s killing us, because while us Twitter-loving commies are sitting around patting each other on the back and pretending we’re valiantly fighting a tory threat – our opponents are recruiting and growing. While we’re writing obscure blog posts about percentages of GDP and preference-sharing and telling each other how clever we are – our opponents are telling a plumber that Julia lied to us and Abbott is our saviour.

We aren’t fighting anything – we’re preaching to the choir and wasting time doing it.

We’ve become lazy, we’ve got faith in the failed logic that policy is all that matters and that Leigh Sales will eventually be our hero – she’s not our hero, she’s not our saviour and that isn’t her job – it’s ours.

Stop Tweeting, stop blogging, stop retelling the same anti-Abbott stories to people who have already made up there mind. Simplify your message and tell it to the people who don’t care much for politics. Tell your hairdresser, tell the guy next to you on the tram. Listen to people and find out why they’re not on your side and have a succinct response. Join a political party, get some flyers, spread the word and stop blaming the media.

After all, if your friends have more faith in the Herald Sun then they have in you – you have the credibility problem.

If Abbott wins it won’t be because the ABC didn’t harass him about his education policy – it will be because when people were deciding who to vote for, we were telling each other how funny we were on Twitter.

Boston news coverage – first is not best

Photo: Gawker.com
Photo: Gawker.com

Here’s my latest at AusVotes 2013…

Modern journalism is impoverished by the anachronistic need to be first.

Once upon a time, in the pre-internet days of the mechanical printing press and morning edition newspapers, there was real value in getting a story first. A scoop, leak or exclusive wasn’t just about journalistic cachet, it was about cold hard cash. Being first meant selling more newspapers than your competitors, by having a story they didn’t have until their next editions rolled off the presses.

As a result journalistic merit was, and often still is, measured by being first instead of best. Walkley awards have been handed out for scoops that resulted not from investigative journalism but journalists being strategically chosen by political players to be the recipient of leaked information.

This journalistic mind-set has not adapted to the digital age of instantaneity. While someone can still get a buzz from being the first to tweet an important piece of information, there is no monetary value that can be extracted from this primacy. [An increased Klout score resulting from 20,000 retweets doesn’t qualify.]

The redundant need to be first is mistakenly still equated with ‘winning’ and it sits at the heart of what is wrong with modern journalism. It drives journalists to publish half-baked stories and poorly-verifiedinformation. It encourages the substitution of analysis with opinion. In short it rewards shoddy journalism.

Click here to keep reading…

Twitter becomes the unlikely school of politics


Let’s face it: Australian politics is in a bad state. Politicians spew spin-doctored soundbites, journalists hyperbolise truth into click-fodder, and television talking heads blare contrarian rhetoric at each other’s unlistening faces.

Meanwhile, the community’s political conversation is equally impoverished: reduced in most cases to debating the appearance, flaws and proclivities of our national leaders.

It’s difficult to say whether Australians’ superficial interest in politics prompted the tabloidisation of our democratic processes, or whether the opposite occurred. Accusations of blame are regularly flung in both directions.

Regardless, the public’s general lack of political knowledge is also a factor. It can be pretty daunting to launch into a political discussion without some understanding of how our bicameral parliamentary system works, how policies are developed, what political philosophies underpin our party system, and what constitutes smart politics, sound policy or a great yarn.

In the absence of this awareness, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama or distraction of the day – be it the Prime Minster’s new glasses, the Opposition’s latest dummy spit in Question Time, or an incremental move in one of the myriad opinion polls.

But there’s a change brewing. People are asking, learning and talking about politics in a manner that’s somewhat unexpected.

Twitter has been known to offer up a range of salutary experiences to anyone brave enough to venture an opinion on politics, but not many of those experiences would be considered particularly positive or enjoyable. Twitter was created long after trolls, shills and sock-puppets came into existence, but these beasts have thrived there and it’s become their natural hunting ground.

Up until recently, it was rare for respectful and open-minded political discussion to take place on Twitter. Regardless of one’s views, there always seemed to be a political staffer or other vested interest lurking nearby ready to delegitimise any contrary views and demonise those who hold them. It was the antithesis of democracy in action, with political interests actively seeking to close down and destroy any dissenting opinions.

And yet… there’s a growing number of brave souls venturing out into the Twitter plains. They’re asking the most basic of questions, because they’re seeking the most basic of answers. In the absence of a civic education and with the news media focused only on hyperdrama, these voters are turning to social media to learn the fundamentals. They want to know things like: why can’t a Senate election be held before August 3; what is caretaker mode and when does it start; why/how are the voting systems difference for the House of Representatives and the Senate; how can Barnaby Joyce run for a seat in NSW when he’s a Senator in Queensland; will a successful no confidence motion cause an early election; what’s a margin of error and why is it important in opinion polls; and why do politicians only care what the voters in their electorates think? And so on.

Twelve months ago, newbie questions like this would have been ignored or met with derision. As I said, Twitter is not a place for the faint-hearted. But now, many such questions receive meaningful responses and can lead to broad and rich political discussions.

Quite often, the ones providing the answers are political bloggers. The willingness of bloggers to engage with their readers, answer questions, discuss criticisms and consider other perspectives distinguishes them from the vast majority of journalists and commentators in the traditional media.

Thankfully, there are at least some journalists who’ve quickly and adeptly grasped that there’s a growing number of political readers who seek a genuine connection with their writers. And those readers will go where the interactivity takes them.

It’s still early days, but the one good thing the Twitter echo-chamber could do this election year is be a conduit between those who want to know more about Australian politics and those who are willing to explain and discuss it. One way or another, either through traditional or social media, blogs or simple discussion, more Australians are going to learn how their democracy works.

Educated voters are more discerning and they’ll be more demanding. They’ll want better behaviour from their politicians, better policies from the parties, and better reportage from the media.

This could make for very interesting civil discourse over the next few years.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

What Class War? Part 2

In my King’s Tribune piece for this month, I’ve gone against the Twitter flow and argued the Gillard Government really is waging a class war. (Just because The Australian says it’s so, doesn’t make it untrue.)

In fact, it seems the ALP is waging war, full stop, with entreaties currently placed on Labor’s website to “Join the fight today!”.

This is taking “get back to your labour roots” a step too far.

Does Labor honestly think the public wants to man the barricades against other members of the community who happen to vote another way? Do we want a society riven even more than it is now by differing views on climate change and asylum seekers?

Labor strategists have seriously misread voters’ positive response to demonstrations of strength by PM Gillard (to the extent that there has been one).

Voters respond positively to leaders who demonstrate they are prepared to stand up and fight for the community or oppressed elements within it (as Gillard did with the ‘misogyny’ speech and the Royal Commission into child abuse).

This does NOT mean that voters want to do the fighting themselves.

The line between assertive leadership and aggressive divisiveness is thin and fragile – just ask Mark Latham.

What class war?

A bizarre survey drifted into my corner of the interwebs on Friday night. It allocated respondents into one of the eight new ‘classes’ identified as the UK’s contemporary social hierarchy.

Having plugged in our responses and tweeted the outcomes, we egalitarian Aussies chuckled at the wacky descriptors and their unlikely recipients. Tweeps identified as the emergent service worker class took heart in their rich social life but empty bank accounts; whereas the precariats conceded they were just plain poor. (For the record I was classified as technical middle class, which must be code for “crazy cat lady who spends too much time on the internet”.)

Our amusement also stemmed from the very notion of class as an identity. Surely this alien social stratifier, imbued as it is with concepts of superiority, inferiority and entitlement, has no place in modern Australia. Surely most Australians consider themselves more or less equal to their compatriots. Classlessness is one of the things that define us. Isn’t it?

Then why is the current political debate encouraging us to make judgements of each other based on who has or has not?  What damage is risked to our social fabric by deploying the politics of envy in the name of votes?

I must stress I’m not referring to the long-standing tension between capital and labour. While capitalism endures as the basis for our economy there will always be a power differential between bosses and workers, mitigated to varying degrees by unions. But as more blue-collar workers have become self-employed and, in turn, become bosses themselves, the demonisation of employers has diminished. This is one of the reasons union membership has dropped in Australia.

That transition from employee to employer is part of our nation’s egalitarian ethos: everyone is entitled to a fair go. While the Great Australian Dream is different in many ways to its American cousin, it is similarly grounded in the belief that hard work delivers dividends and that he/she who toils is entitled to enjoy the fruits of their endeavours.

It’s for this reason that, while demographers and pollsters may prefer to label a particular segment of the Australian population ‘aspirational’, the term arguably applies to all of us.

The right to a fair go, and to make a go of it, applies equally to cabbies, bakers, brickies, and – yes – even corporate executives. Like it or not, people who are highly paid get the big bucks because they have skills and experience that the employment market has decided are worth more than, say, that of a cabbie. The fact that a person earns more does not make them a bad person, or any less entitled to enjoy what they have earned.

But that’s the subliminal message that’s emanating from the Labor Government, particularly now as we head to the federal election.

What’s curious about this strategy is that it’s been tried before, and it failed. Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s invocation of the politics of envy with his private schools hit list in the 2004 federal election was later identified as one of the reasons voters were uneasy about him as the alternative Prime Minister. Notably, the broad appeal of Gillard’s subsequent Gonski reforms is that they’re based on educational need, not whether a school is public or private.

Nevertheless, Labor has chosen to re-visit Latham’s ‘us and them’ rhetoric by creating baseless antagonism against high-income earners.

I’m not just referring to the latest proposed changes to superannuation, which would have met any sensibility test if not for the accompanying desperate scramble by the Government to unblock the dribbling revenue pipe. But even in this case, was there a need to demonise high-income earners (undefined as they were for much of the debate) as being selfish tax avoiders? Let’s not forget they are legally using a tax concession established to encourage our nation’s aging population to fund its own retirement.

Although Joel Fitzgerald’s intervention in the superannuation debate and depiction of his high earning constituents as battlers was risible, it was also a reminder that most Australians see themselves as working or middle class. What remained unspoken by Fitzgibbon was that, despite our self-perception of clustering around the middle of the pack, Aussies nonetheless reserve the right to be fabulously successful and rich.

Australians are incontrovertibly aspirational: we expect to own a home, we buy one million new cars every year, and a whopping 43% of adult Australians own shares.

So it would be a mistake to read our support for raising and redistributing the taxes of big business and high-income earners as a brimming well of class envy just waiting to be tapped. It is just part of our egalitarian nature: we ardently believe everyone deserves a fair go, and reasonable taxes are an effective way to ensure that revenue is raised according to who is most able to pay.

The merits of the Labor’s proposed changes to superannuation tax are clear without being dressed up as class warfare. To do so is unnecessarily divisive, particularly within what promises to be the most brutal federal election campaign we have ever seen.

While the more obvious culprits in the use of societal division as an election tactic are Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and the Coalition, it is not beneath the Prime Minister and her Government either – the rhetoric flying around superannuation and 457 visas has proven that.

The politics of envy should remain in the locked box of failed Latham rhetoric, along with the ladder of opportunity and the conga-line of suckholes. It is neither smart politics nor is it socially responsible for a political party to demonise one element of Australian society, or pitch it against another, for political gain.

This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune