Dragon’s diary: Tragedy and farce

Joosep Martinson/Getty Images
Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

I won’t add my thoughts to the likely millions of condolences expressed at the sudden death of Phillip Hughes. Mainly because I’d never heard of him until this week as I don’t follow cricket.

That’s not to say Hughes’ death didn’t affect me. I was reminded of my own fragile mortality, gave thanks for the health and safety of those I love, and also looked afresh at the week’s political antics.

Continue reading “Dragon’s diary: Tragedy and farce”

ABC cuts: Controlling the Bleeding

If Mark Scott is able to maintain the ABC’s support through its digital presence over the next two years, while successfully laying blame for the closure of regional offices and rural programs at the Coalition’s feet, pro-ABC policies could be a deciding factor in the election, particularly among Australia’s highly contested rural electorates.

Weekly column for The Hoopla (3 free reads each month).

Coalition needs a better budget, not better PR

It’s hard to know why some of the Abbott Government’s biggest and most vocal media supporters have chosen the past week to complain about its abysmal performance.

Other than the Government’s abysmal performance, of course.

Last week’s Newspoll shows Labor has a 10-point lead on the Coalition once notional preferences are distributed, and that any increased approval rating for the Government from the national security issue has been short-lived.

This deterioration confirms the trend highlighted by polling analyst Andrew Catsaras on yesterday’s Insiders program, in which the Abbott Government is consistently faring less well than it did at the federal election. This is in stark contrast to the first-year polling performance of the previous Howard and Rudd governments:

… for the first 15 months the Howard government averaged a vote of 55.5 per cent, 2 per cent higher than the election. The Rudd government averaged a vote of 57 per cent, over 4 per cent higher than the election. Whereas the Abbott Government has averaged a vote of 48.5 per cent, 5 per cent lower than the election.

Catsaras also emphasised that polls are reflective, not predictive, so it’s curious why members of the Government’s conservative media cheer squad have turned into nervous nellies two years out from the next federal election.

Yet rightwing shock jock (and staunch Coalition supporter) Alan Jones berated the PM last week for failing to meet the “pub test” on the free trade agreement with China. Conservative blogger (and arguably the nation’s biggest Coalition fan) Andrew Bolt followed swiftly with a 19-point deconstruction of the Government’s woes entitled “The Abbott Government must now change or die”. And then The Australian newspaper, which has unambiguously nailed its colours to the Coalition mast, joined the lament with an editorial insisting that “The Abbott Government is doomed without narrative”:

Limply, the Prime Minister is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why. At stake is his political credibility, no less. Mr Abbott risks becoming a “oncer” if he allows his opponents to constantly control the agenda.

Amongst this litany of complaints, the common thread is that the Abbott Government’s problem is one of poor communication; that the Coalition’s less than sterling performance would be remedied with better media staff, a more strategic approach to communications, and a narrative.

These could help, but as former prime ministers Rudd and Gillard could attest, a slick media strategy or strong narrative are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable.

The Abbott Government is not lacking a narrative, as claimed by The Australian, but saddled with one that is not of its choosing. Having been presented with the Government’s weasel words and black-is-white recasting of commitments and lies, voters have taken a lead not from its rhetoric but the Coalition’s actions to identify its narrative.

In its own words, The Australian’s editorial best encapsulates that narrative:

Voters are left with the impression that Mr Hockey’s May budget was a litany of broken promises, designed to inflict severe pain on low-income workers and the poor, and that the deficit crisis was not as acute as the Coalition presented it.

Well, yes.

And there is next to nothing, in the Government’s words or deeds, to suggest that voters should think otherwise.

Voters did feel more receptive to the Prime Minister when he was fulfilling his “protector of the realm” role after the MH17 tragedy and in response to the heightened terrorist threat from Islamic State, but that perception took a hit at the G20 when Abbott ended up looking cowardly and weak through no-one’s efforts but his own.

This has increased the pressure on Treasurer Joe Hockey to successfully “sell” the budget and the Government’s broader economic reforms in order to protect its only remaining perceived strength – that of superior economic management. Hockey’s next best chance to retrieve this sales job is the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook report, which is due in December.

The Government could roll out a shiny new narrative at that time, which more successfully pitches the prosperous Australian future that will emerge as the result of everyone taking on their “fair share” of the burden created by the necessary economic reforms.

And Coalition MPs could refrain from foolishly drawing attention away from that message with political self-indulgences like cigars, Knights and Dames awards, whining about being unloved, or Gonski-type triple backflips.

But none of this will be enough.

As Abbott’s mentor, former PM Howard, made clear when he spoke at the National Press Club earlier this year, the community will only respond favourably to the type of change envisioned in the Coalition’s budget if it is satisfied the reforms are in the national interest and fundamentally fair.

And there’s the rub. The Abbott Government won’t be able to satisfy this fundamental requirement. The budget is neither in the national interest nor fair, and no compelling narrative or fine media strategy will be able to fix that.

Time to start blogging again

I was showing someone my blog yesterday and was mortified to realise I don’t post much any more, other than links to my columns and posts that are published elsewhere. This has made my blog a pretty boring place to visit.

Today I’ve decided to rectify this with at least a semi-regular commentary on my week (or so) in politics including published pieces and observations of the discussions that followed, particularly on Twitter.

Continue reading “Time to start blogging again”

Lambie doesn’t want to stay, doesn’t want to quit

It’s no longer a matter of when but how Jacqui Lambie will leave the party that delivered her one of the most decisive (and divisive) roles in today’s polity.

Back in 2013, with minimal experience in party politics and a fast-diminishing campaign war-chest, Lambie had her heart set on getting into the Senate despite having unsuccessfully tested the waters with Labor and been rejected by the Liberals.

The offer from cashed-up Clive Palmer to join the Palmer United Party’s Tasmanian Senate ticket must have seemed almost too good to be true.

And so it has been. Lambie may have ridden on PUP’s short-lived swell into the Senate – a feat she would not have achieved in her previous incarnation as an independent candidate – but since becoming a minor celebrity due to her pivotal membership of the Senate crossbench, the new Senator has quickly outgrown the limits of party solidarity.

Lambie has been agitating about her right to speak out on matters of interest, even if not necessarily of interest to PUP, ever since she arrived in Canberra. Various thought bubbles have ensued, starting with the one on mandatory national service for young Australians and most recently the even more controversial call to ban the “burqa”.

In response, Palmer has evolved from commenting that Lambie is entitled to express her own views, to having to reject some of her suggestions such as the call for a “silent protest” at Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Lambie has consequently been unhappy that party solidarity is not a two-way street, even though according to Palmer the Senator appears to have made no effort to bring those issues to the party room for discussion or to determine a PUP position.

Whether she’s perceived as behaving like a petulant teenager, or a passionate defender of those she represents, Lambie is ratcheting up the pressure on Palmer to throw her out of PUP. (Or her senior adviser is doing so, depending on the extent to which one believes Rob Messenger is Lambie’s David Oldfield or Svengali.)

Earlier this week Lambie delivered on her commitment to oppose all Government legislation until the ADF pay decision is overturned, and split from her party to vote against the revised social services bill. She also voted against anti-doping legislation that in other circumstances she says she would likely have supported.

Today’s news that Lambie will join Labor and most of the crossbench Senators to disallow the FOFA regulations continues that war of attrition. In voting to disallow the regulations, Lambie will directly oppose a deal her party leader made with the Government.

If Lambie had been a Labor member, voting against her party in this way could be grounds for expulsion. However, the Coalition is somewhat more flexible on such matters, with Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce being two high-profile examples of Coalition MPs having crossed the floor against their parties and not only survived but been appointed to Cabinet.

There is no question that Lambie will soon be an independent member of the crossbench. Over past days, the Senator has removed the PUP logo from her website, refused to attend PUP meetings, chosen to sit away from her party colleagues when attending the joint meeting of the Parliament, and removed all trace of yellow from her wardrobe.

In turn, Lambie has essentially been excommunicated from PUP: cut from the list of PUP MPs on the party’s website, removed as the party’s deputy Senate leader and deputy whip, and (in a classic case of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted) suspended from attending party meetings.

In short, Lambie is daring Palmer to sack her, while he in turn is trying to make her leave. This manoeuvring is all about who can position themselves as the victim once the split has taken place. Lambie wants to be sacked, firstly so she doesn’t have to break a previous commitment made to Palmer to stay, but more importantly so she can continue to claim underdog status.

Palmer however didn’t come down in the last shower. The canny operator is biding his time, putting pressure on Lambie to leave by isolating her and her staff from the party, while offering empty platitudes so that he can capitalise on what would be her broken commitment to stay and paint himself as the wronged party.

This will be important if Palmer follows through on a suggestion made last weekend that he will pursue Lambie with lengthy and expensive legal action if she leaves.

Abbott’s tough talking comes undone at the G20

Other than the Chinese and Indian leaders’ addresses due to be given to Parliament this week, the G20 wagon train has already moved on, leaving Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government with the same thorny domestic issues to resolve as they had before the international summit began.

If anything, the G20 has made Abbott’s life just that much more difficult.

Despite the summit’s communiqué providing an action plan with over 800 measures agreed to by the world leaders, most Australians will have focused only on the nightly news version of the event. Their take-home message will be that Abbott wimped on representing the interests of devastated MH17 families to Putin, and was overruled on his domestic approach to climate change.

Abbott could well have done without having metaphorical sand kicked in his face, considering his “protector of the realm” persona is one of only two strengths the Coalition has left to build its next election campaign upon.

As it is, only 49 per cent of Australians recently surveyed said they were confident in Abbott doing a good job in representing Australia to the international community. Being seen as a coward and a weakling diminishes the PM’s ability to exploit the national security issue, particularly when Labor’s strategy of sticking closely to the Government on the issue has seen the Opposition successfully minimise any point of differentiation and therefore electoral advantage to be gained.

That leaves the Coalition even more dependent for political survival upon its other perceived strength: superior economic management. Whether deserved or not, the Liberals have traditionally been seen as better economic managers, but this trust has taken a hit since Treasurer Joe Hockey handed down his first budget in May this year.

Through no-one’s fault but their own, the Government is burdened with a triply-flawed budget: no compelling case has been made for its harshness, it places an undue burden on those least able to pay, and its most unpopular measures do little to reduce the deficit.

The budget has so few redeeming features that the Senate has no compunction in blocking it. As a consequence, the Government is getting opprobrium for its unfair budget but gaining nothing from the pain because the measures are not being passed. On top of that, Clive Palmer’s shenanigans are making Abbott look weak and ineffectual.

The Government has only a few weeks left this year in which to turn this perception of incompetence around before it becomes entrenched in voters’ minds and they switch off for the long summer break instead.

We can therefore expect to see a lot of “getting down to the serious business of fixing the economy” during the next month or so.

The Government has already shown the ability to get creative on the budget, bringing on the petrol excise increase before getting the relevant law through Parliament, and threatening to find non-legislative ways to establish other revenue-raising measures.

That creativity has extended to using public debate on the budget and economy to cause tension within other parties, such as that created by the petrol excise within the Greens, and the ADF pay package in the Palmer United Party.

The latter move may pay particular dividends, if Tasmanian PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie leaves the party. Despite Palmer’s dismissal of Lambie as having just one vote if she becomes an independent, the reality is that the Government needs any six of the eight Senate crossbenchers to pass its legislation. And without Lambie, PUP has only two senators, which potentially leaves them as the irrelevant ones.

Past and present ADF personnel as well as the people of Tasmania would do well from Lambie becoming an independent who is able to negotiate with the Government on her own terms instead of Palmer’s. This would likely be seen as restoring some order to the chaos created by Palmer, and reflect well on Abbott.

The other way for the Government to revive its economic reputation over the fading days of 2014 will be with the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) report, which is due before Christmas.

Despite one economic consultancy reportedly predicting the budget will miss out on $51 billion of savings over the next four years, Hockey has insisted he will not use the MYEFO to deliver a mini-budget with new budget cuts. This is hardly surprising given the Government is unlikely to get its existing cuts approved by the Senate, and there is nothing to suggest any new cuts would be considered more favourably.

The MYEFO will have to do something other than cut spending to restore voter’s trust in the economic credentials of the Coalition. As a result, it could have implications that stretch as far as the next federal election in 2016.

As the PM learned over the past weekend, talking tough can only take one so far when it comes to being in control of a situation. Hollow threats and platitudes can be quickly exposed, leaving one considerably weaker for having been the one doing the big-noting.

In failing the international leadership test at the G20, Abbott managed to single-handedly set back the Coalition’s re-election strategy. He could however reverse that situation with more genuine and inclusive leadership on the budget.

The next couple of weeks will show whether the Prime Minister has learned this lesson. Or perhaps, like most voters, he simply saw the G20 as a series of pointless and expensive photo opportunities.

‘Left-splaining’ to Bishop misses the point

Australian fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar has reportedly awarded Foreign Minister Julie Bishop the title “Woman of the Year”. In doing so, the fashionista’s bible has kicked the barely contained hornets’ nest that is the feminist movement’s need for the label to be embraced by all women.

Excerpts of the magazine’s interview with Bishop, released to publicise the edition before it arrives in newsstands and on iPads, emphasise the Cabinet minister’s refusal (again) to describe herself as a feminist.

“Stop whingeing, get on with it and prove them all wrong,” Bishop is quoted as saying. In what has already been latched upon as criticism of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Bishop is also said to exhort: “Please do not let it get to you and do not become a victim, because it’s only a downward spiral once you’ve cast yourself as a victim.”

Such advice will likely kick off another round of condemnatory opinion pieces from the stable of fine Australian female writers who are proud to call themselves feminists. Just as they did after Bishop made similar statements to the National Press Club last month, feminists will imply Bishop’s rejection of the label equates with rejection of the movement and refusal to recognise what it has achieved.

The problem with these analyses is that none of the writers can possibly know what a “woman of the right” thinks about feminism. This is because self-proclaimed feminists almost universally have a progressive point of view and have little understanding (or acceptance) of how conservative or other right-of-centre values may influence the thinking of other women.

Just as a man trying to explain feminism is often dismissed as “mansplaining” because of the clear disconnect between the perspectives of men from women, it’s time we started calling out “left-splaining” when it comes to progressives telling us what women of the right think about feminism and the advancement of women.

Bishop’s comments about “getting on with it” and “proving them wrong” is grounded very much in the individualism that is part of the Liberals’ ethos: the power of the individual, the merit of hard work in the pursuit of excellence, and the right of those who’ve worked hard to enjoy the profits of their endeavours. This philosophy emphasises every individual’s responsibility to do the very best we can, and if we fail it’s not society’s fault but due to our own limitations – be they in capability or effort.

Bishop’s acceptance of this individual responsibility was evident in her comments to the National Press Club:

For me I refuse to acknowledge [the glass ceiling]. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. But the approach I’ve taken is that if I want something I’ll work hard and set my mind to it and if it comes off that’s great. If it doesn’t I’m not going to blame the fact I’m a woman. I’m not going to look at life through the prism of gender.

The extension of this philosophy is the refusal to use gender as an excuse for one’s lack of success or failure, or to become a “victim” of one’s gender.

Accordingly, Bishop accused Gillard at the National Press Club of “turning herself into a victim” rather than accepting that “she was judged by her competence and that’s where she was found wanting”.

It could be a mistake however to jump to the conclusion that a similar quote provided by Harper’s Bazaar is Bishop having another go at Gillard. In saying “Please do not let it get to you and do not become a victim, because it’s only a downward spiral once you’ve cast yourself as a victim,” Bishop could well have been exhorting women generally not to hobble themselves by accepting they’re handicapped by gender.

The flaw in this logic of course is that no matter how hard women strive, no matter how smart or what levels of excellence they achieve, there are still societal barriers preventing many women from achieving equity in pay or recognition let alone the levels of success envisioned by Bishop.

This is the nub of the disagreement between women of the left and women of the right over what should be done to progress the advancement of women. In the most basic terms, women of the left see the need for society to be changed, whereas women of the right see it as a matter of individual endeavour.

And without left and the right recognising and finding ways to accommodate these different perspectives, real progress will never be sustained.

It’s all very well in these days of fractured political philosophies and the rise of the anti-politician to say that left and right are no longer useful ways of grouping what people think. But when it comes to discussion of feminism, these labels are still a useful guide to the differences of opinion.

Women of the right are just as committed to the advancement of women as their sisters on the left. Women of the right are mothers too, and they want to see their daughters have prosperous and fulfilling lives. These women don’t reject the principles of feminism – equality and the advancement of women – but they see them being achieved in different ways. If that view is flawed, yelling at them to take on the feminist mantle will not correct it.

Perhaps the actual underlying concern for feminists is not that women of the right won’t accept the feminist label, but that they are disinclined to recognise the role of the feminist cause in what has been achieved so far. The union movement would be similarly disappointed in the lack of acknowledgement that it gets for having delivered improvements in pay and workplace conditions over the decades.

If that is indeed the root cause of the call for women of the right to embrace the label, then the feminist movement has lost its way.

Surely the advancement of women is an important enough issue for the need for accolades to be set aside. The only way forward is for women of the left to find a way to bring women of the right into the fold to work together on ending discrimination against women.

Some of those women will be the CEOs, board directors, and MPs of tomorrow. Only with their acceptance of the real need to address gender inequality, and knowledge of how to do it, will the task ever be complete.