Competency, not truth, will decide this election

Guardian Australia’s political editor Lenore Taylor wrote that we’re heading to a post-truth election.

This might have come as a surprise to the many political observers who consider truth to be a quaint artefact from a golden age of politics that may not have actually existed. Truth, or its absence, has not been a deciding factor in politics for a very long time. Nor will it play a definitive role in the 2013 federal election.

The result will, however, pivot on the questions of trust and competency.

Taylor cites as evidence of the post-truth paradigm the Opposition’s current strategy of dismissing Government undertakings as lies or broken promises-in-waiting, while the Government paints its opponent as a bogeyman with manifold hidden agendas.

While “Politicians have always tried to paint their opponents in an unflattering way and cast doubt upon their promises and credibility,” says Taylor, these days “the story politicians tell about themselves and their opponents bears scant relationship to the actual policies on offer.”

But it has ever been thus.

As Laurie Oakes wrote last year “Let’s not beat about the bush. Tony Abbott tells lies. So what? Is there anything surprising about that? After all, he’s a politician”.

This view is supported in the opinion polls. Fourteen per cent of Coalition voters believe Tony Abbott won’t actually scrap the carbon and mining taxes. Twenty-eight per cent believe he’ll bring back WorkChoices. And yet they say they will vote for him.

The sad truth is that we expect politicians to lie: it is simply part of what they do. While we denounce the lies of politicians we’d never vote for, we forgive the untruths of those we support.

This ‘compact of deceit’ saw Prime Minister John Howard re-elected in 2004 even though voters believed he’d lied about the children overboard affair. Newspoll found the proportion of voters who perceived Howard to be trustworthy dipped from 57% in July to 51% in September that year. Nevertheless, Howard defeated Mark Latham just a month later at the October 2004 federal election even though Latham’s trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

That’s because voters considered Howard a competent Prime Minister and the trust they vested in him was to run a strong economy and make the right decisions for the nation. (Granted, there was no discussion of the structural deficit Howard ended up bequeathing to the nation’s future economy.)

So while Lenore Taylor picked the right examples of election strategy at play, she misinterpreted their intent. Both sides joust using the language of untruth, but in reality they’re evoking another thing altogether: the equally emotionally-vested concept of promises broken and expectations dashed through foolishness and incompetency.

Howard campaigned against Latham in 2004 with a strong economic track record allowing him to make a claim for trust and competency. Gillard finds herself unable to communicate a similar advantage over Abbott despite shepherding Australia’s economy through the GFC. Her backflip on the carbon tax, followed by the watered down mining tax and the missteps in dealing with asylum seekers, compounded by the people’s convention on climate change and the littany of strategically dumb decisions like announcing the election date early, has etched the PM’s reputation in voters’ minds as not only an oath-breaker, but a foolish and incompetent one at that.

While 27 per cent of voters currently say the Government is unpopular because people don’t trust Julia Gillard (followed by 19 per cent saying it is because the Government is divided and can’t govern properly), a staggering 71 per cent said the Labor Government will promise anything to win votes. Admittedly only four per cent less think the Liberal Party would do the same.

However it is in the competency stakes that the Liberals have the important edge: they’re seen as being better than Labor in having a vision for the future, understanding Australia’s problems, being in touch with ordinary people, having good leaders and keeping their promises.

Labor may think they’re tapping into voter unease about Tony Abbott by playing the truth card. But truth isn’t the same as trust, and as Mark Latham discovered to his detriment in 2004, even trust is a two-edged sword (see video below). Without competency, neither truth nor trust will win the federal election.

Will Abbott’s ‘campaign of no’ make him PM?

For political analysts and pundits alike, Tony Abbott is the Impossible Opposition Leader. Never before have we seen an alternative prime minister run such a relentlessly negative campaign for so long.

Big on three-word slogans but small on policy detail, Abbott has single-mindedly focused on running Labor into the ground since he beat silvertail Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in December 2009. With this slender mandate, Abbott lurched the Liberal party to the right of the middle ground, being uncomfortably straddled by Labor as it tried to appease not only its labour antecedents, but also an idealistically progressive rump.

Since then, certainty and competency have been the names of Abbott’s game. At a time when voters are unsure who the Labor leader will be tomorrow morning, or which promise they will break next, Abbott offers them a beacon of dark light with simple pledges of negativity that do little more than emphasise the government’s key failings.

The “stop the boats” rhetoric not only dog-whistles the community’s xenophobes and bigots, but signals that Labor can’t protect the nation’s borders. “Scrap the carbon tax” comforts not only those who think climate change is crap, but reminds how Julia Gillard broke a promise to form a devilish pact with the Greens to secure A minority government. Perhaps most transparent is Abbott’s new pledge, “no surprises and no excuses”, which paints the government as chaotic and irresponsible.

The consequences of Abbott’s “campaign of no” are all too clear. Political discourse in Australia has descended into megaphone territory, with partisans using any and all platforms to besmirch, ridicule and aggressively denounce those who don’t agree with their party’s line. Skirmishes and biffs constantly break out on social media and talkback radio, while confected conflict masquerades as news on tabloid television and in the print media. We are all the poorer for it.

Meantime, Abbott has also paid a price. Not since the Liberal’s twice-risen soufflé, Andrew Peacock, has a leader of the opposition had such a high disapproval rating while simultaneously delivering a strong primary vote for their party. Granted, with a disapproval rating higher than Abbott’s worst (67% compared with 63%), Peacock still took the Coalition to within a bee’s ding of victory at the 1990 federal election, securing 20,000 more votes but nine seats less than Labor. We’re much further out from the election than Peacock was when he scored that career-high disapproval rating just two weeks before polling day, but it’s instructive to note the Coalition enticed back 4.5% of voters in those last few days.

Support for the Coalition is much stronger today, but there are still enough soft voters currently “parked” with the opposition to change the election outcome if they decided their disillusionment with Gillard was insufficient justification to vote for Abbott.

Abbott and his strategists know this, and are determined to avoid the Pox On Both Your Houses effect that delivered the balance of power to a motley collection of Greens and Independents at the 2010 federal election.

Recognising this, Abbott has thrown the switch to Statesman. The daily Question Times rants have disappeared, or been relegated to shadow ministers. The look is more polished, the language more considered, and the message has evolved from one-dimensional chants about stopping the boats and scrapping the tax to incorporate a positive element with pledges of hope, reward and opportunity.

It’s too early to tell whether a navy suit (which is meant to engender trust) and a less hectoring tone will be enough to convince us that Abbott is prime minister material.

The transformation is at least entrancing the federal parliamentary press gallery. In a celebration of “savviness” that would make Jay Rosen’s head spin, the gallery’s breathless reports of Abbott’s budget reply focussed less on the substance of his budgetary measures than the audacity of him outlining them at all. We’re yet to see whether the transformation to Statesman Tony™ has even registered with the voting public, let alone whether they buy it.

Strategically deploying new suits, blue ties and slogans, Abbott is making this federal election about certainty and competency. Some days, the government seems to be doing everything it can to help him.

The last time an opposition leader took such firm control of the election agenda, it was Kevin07. Rudd masterfully shaped the entire election campaign by pledging to be just like John Howard, but with bonus features like the ratification of Kyoto and scrapping of WorkChoices.

And hey, that worked out so well, didn’t it?

This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.

The myth of objectivity

Do political journalists truly maintain objectivity? Do we even we really want them to?

As a long-time observer of politics, I’ve often struggled with the question of journalists’ political views. That they have them is indisputable. Whether these views colour their political reporting and analysis is another thing altogether.

Former journalist, editor and now ABC radio presenter Jonathan Green wrote last week

Who knows how many journalists have personal political sympathies to the left or right? What is certain is that it should not matter. Journalism is a trade in which personal conviction is one of two things: an irrelevance or a death sentence. Journalism tainted by conviction just isn’t. That’s the simple truth of it.

For the large part, Green was railing against New Limited’s uber-tabloidisation of political news: the reduction of nuanced policy discussions to absurd campaigns and the deification of shock-jock commentators such as Andrew Bolt.

While I agree with his sentiment, I suspect Green may be pining for a lost time that might not have even existed.

The reality is that journalists’ philosophical views do permeate their writing, not just in the blatant drum-banging of News Limited writers, but in the choice and subtle framing of political stories by all political writers.

The most obvious examples are the political journalists who specialise in policy. Environment writers tend to favour progressive policies that protect the environment, while business writers lean towards pro-business policies that inherently are conservative. Agriculture and resources writers usually support capitalist industrial-scale exploitation of Australia’s natural resources. And economics writers implicitly favour approaches aligned with whatever school of economic theory they support.

While bias is probably too strong a word for these predispositions, they still shape how journalists present stories and therefore our perception of the issue at hand. The ubiquitous commentary pieces that are the privileged domain of senior political writers can also distort our perception by blurring opinion with analysis and fact.

This can make it hard to get to the truth of a matter, for it is the truth that’s meant to be at the heart of journalism. Invoking CP Scott’s admonition that “facts are sacred”, Green also stresses:

Journalism is neither of the right or left; it is, for want of something less pompous, of the truth. In any journalism worth its salt the convictions of the reporter are an irrelevance and the journalism that might be produced under the influence of personal prejudice is a betrayal of professional practice and the implied trust of all who consume it.

Find and report the truth. That’s a noble goal: just ask church abuse whistleblower Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox. But sometimes it’s not: just ask former Speaker Peter Slipper. How the truth is wielded – for good or ill – is completely dependent upon what the journalist sees as being the public good.

Added to this diabolical conundrum is the cult of celebrity, which distorts how politics is reported. The personal branding of journalists has become so important that now some mistakenly assume their private views are as important as the news they report.

At its most benign, this phenomenon has delivered us endless panels of journalists interviewing journalists and, at its worst, political editors such as Michelle Grattan brazenly calling for the Prime Minister to resign and Peter Hartcher actively campaigning on behalf of Kevin Rudd.

However, journalists’ celebrity status does not necessarily have to go to their heads. Even though they’ve reported politics for two decades or more, I’d argue the political views of other high profile journalists such as Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis are unknown. So it’s not impossible to have a strong personal brand and still be an impartial journalist.

Extended to a broader canvass, we know that some news media organisations favour one political philosophy over another. The views of arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch are reflected in the editorial stance adopted by his newspapers and television stations. Conversely the Guardian newspaper continues to promote the small L liberal values upon which it was established.

It seems these days that any assessment of whether media bias is a good or bad thing is usually determined by one’s own political preference. Liberal supporters bask in the warmth generated by the Murdoch cheer squad while deriding the luvvies at the ABC for their (albeit limited) scrutiny of the Opposition. Meantime Labor supporters rail at the partisan News Limited, while calling for the soon-to-be-launched Guardian Australia to even up the score.

So what do we want? Do we want to “simply be informed without bias or favour” as suggested by Jonathan Green? Or do we want the media to support our chosen side?

It’s all in the hands of us, the consumers. But we can’t have it both ways.

Abbott’s image: an everyman for the every day voter

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We don’t have to go any further than the ubiquitous fluro vest for confirmation that image is as important to Tony Abbott’s election prospects as it is to Julia Gillard’s. The Opposition Leader’s man-of-the-people persona is as strategically fabricated as Julia Gillard’s portrayal of the strong, compassionate protector.

On Monday night, in the first instalment of Lateline’s feature on political image, we saw how Labor is crafting an image for the Prime Minister that says: I am strong, I understand your needs and I will fight for you.
The Opposition’s response has been to twist that perceived strength into self-centred ruthlessness and subvert any nascent respect for Julia Gillard with doubts about her competency.

In the second instalment shown last night, Labor strategist John Utting and the Coalition’s Mark Textor put their respective spin on how voters perceive the other prime ministerial contender, Tony Abbott.

A successful opposition leader needs to be what the prime minister is not, and to demonstrate superiority in those points of differentiation. John Howard did so by styling himself as a man of the common people in contrast to PM Keating who was depicted as aloof from the broader community. Kevin Rudd similarly made ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and scrapping WorkChoices his points of divergence from PM Howard.

And so we see the Coalition carefully crafting Tony Abbott’s image to portray him as distinctly different from Julia Gillard’s Commander-in-Chief: he’s being pitched as an everyman, one of us, just another Joe who holds no airs or graces and understands the problems and concerns of the everyday voter.

This is what the endless shopfloor walks, truck drives, fish fillets and assembly-line inspections are all about. This tactic has particular resonance in western Sydney, the “crucible of modern Australia” according to Labor’s John Utting.

As political blogger Preston Towers recently wrote in a post about western Sydney, Abbott’s blokey demeanour is well received in those circles. According to Towers, Abbott is perceived as:

“…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 [Abbott] 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.”

Mark Textor confirmed as much last night, saying: “You need to demonstrate you are in touch with the community. The community volunteers on Clean Up Australia Day and the community goes out there and volunteers with the Nippers and the Surf Lifesavers. Tony has a history in always participating in those events even before he was Opposition Leader…”

Interestingly, Labor has not attempted to dismantle Abbott’s everyman construct, which could be said to be his strength. Instead, they’ve chosen to exploit Abbott’s weak spots: his perceived ‘woman problem’ and religious conservatism.

I wrote yesterday in the companion to this piece that our voting choice is significantly influenced by the images our political leaders project. We base our judgments about a politician’s suitability, trustworthiness or competency not only on what they say, but how they say it, how they behave, what they’re wearing (or not wearing), where they visit and who they’re with.

As a result, some voters are apprehensive about Tony Abbott and the extent to which his conservative Catholicism influences his decisions. They’re troubled by his 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.

John Utting explains it thus: “lots of women, especially younger women, are quite uncomfortable with what they perceive as [Abbott’s] white bread 1950s style social conservatism.”

The Coalition’s tactic to counter these concerns has been to stage media opportunities featuring Tony Abbott’s wife, daughters and gay sister, all of whom have heartily testified to the Opposition Leader’s late but genuine transformation into a new age guy.

While the strategy has been met with scorn from Labor voters, it is not aimed at changing the minds of those already decided against Tony Abbott. It is intended to allay the concerns of those who’ve not yet chosen which way they will vote.

Although Mark Textor was unwilling to confirm it last night, the high-profile presence of Tony Abbott’s traditional nuclear family is also a strong point of differentiation being made with the unmarried, childless Julia Gillard. This tactic is aimed at strengthening the Coalition’s base vote.

Perhaps the most telling attempt to influence voter perceptions of Tony Abbott is the recent entreaty that he “has changed”. Mark Textor says this is not necessarily a strategy to shape Tony Abbott’s image, but is more self-evident: “I think it’s the truth. We all grow.”

But on several recent occasions, Tony Abbott has effectively sought permission from voters to be able to “grow into” the prime ministership, as he did when he became health minister and, as Mark Textor mentioned last night, John Howard did when he became prime minister. This is an interesting new dimension to the construct that is Tony Abbott’s political image. It suggests there may be voter concerns the Opposition Leader is not ready, or equipped to sit in the big chair. Or it simply may be a tactic to assist the Opposition Leader’s transition from Dr No to the alternative prime minister.

Over the past two nights Labor’s John Utting and the Coalition’s Mark Textor have lifted the lid on the myriad perceptions, assumptions and biases that shape our voting decisions. They also set the scene for the real federal election battle that is yet to come.

According to the images being crafted for our political leaders, we are being given the choice between a strong, compassionate protector and an evolving man-of-the-people. Alternatively, we must choose between a ruthless incompetent and an anachronistic misogynist. Despite knowing that we are being manipulated by image-crafters like Textor and Utting into making this decision, the choice on polling day will not be any easier.

You can watch Suzanne Smith’s report – Opposition Leader’s Image – on the Lateline website.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.