Time to throw out the astroturf and step forward

Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

Wikipedia.com

At any given point in time activists, political parties or business interests are at the forefront of techniques carefully honed to influence public opinion.  We never really know for sure which of these has the ascendancy until one of the combatants blows another’s cover.

The nature of the “disguise” has changed over the years.  Decades ago, when a vested interest provided a public rationalisation for their actions, they would automatically be met with a variation of the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “well you would say that, wouldn’t you”.

It was clear at this time that those who sought to influence opinion could not credibly do so in their own right.  Alternative methods were identified and explored.

As the art of influence became more sophisticated, the players took note of market research that indicated people were most likely to believe what scientists and esteemed scientific institutions such as the CSIRO had to say about contemporary and controversial public policy issues.  This finding heralded the “battle of the boffins” era.

This era saw governments and corporates mobilise behind the scenes to identify, solicit and enlist scientifically credentialed third parties to “endorse” their preferred position.  Activist and pressure groups refined this dark art even further by strategically placing a number of their field-savvy campaigners into scientific roles in academic institutions, as well as establishing their own think-tanks and creating their own “independent panels of concerned scientists”.

This approach proved to be counter-productive for all concerned.  Faced with scientific boffins squabbling over what were generally seen to be esoteric issues, ordinary people turned their backs on the divided scientific community and looked inwards to their core values for guidance.

Arising from this introspective mood is the phenomenon we now know as astroturfing.  At its heart, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign.

Once the vested interests realised that they had lost the community’s hearts and minds with their battling boffins, they undertook more market research and found that people had reverted to focusing on the mitigation of tangible issues at the local level.   Those seeking to influence public opinion studied and learned from the successes of Landcare and Rotary and then established faux local interest groups to support and promote their own interests.

Activist and interest groups followed swiftly with the establishment of similar entities.  Some did not make much effort to hide this sleight of hand, with some “local interest” groups publicly sharing fax numbers and postal addresses with high profile activist groups.

Today, the casually interested observer in political and public policy issues is confronted with an array of information sources, some of who may or may not be who they say they are.  No wonder there is little confidence in the credibility of most public information sources.

The huge irony in all this, is that people are now demanding that vested interests step forward and publicly defend their own positions. Many people have moved on from the Rice-Davies form of skepticism to a new variation that says “if you are not prepared to publicly defend your own position, product or party then there must be something indefensible about it”.

Activists, political parties and business interests should take note of this change in community expectations.  Throw away the Astroturf and step forward.  Being prepared to publicly defend your position is the first step in winning new hearts, minds and supporters.

In defence of Tony Burke’s tweets

It’s not that the Member for Watson, Tony Burke, isn’t big enough or tough enough to defend himself.  In fact I suspect he’s more than capable, being a member of the NSW Right.  But after watching the (not so) lighthearted journo jabs at his tweets in my Twitter-stream today, I feel compelled to jump to his defence.

It’s not easy for a politician to hit the right note on Twitter.  Some think its just another megaphone with which to blast criticisms at their opponents.  Others use it to mouth their own party’s meaningless pap and propaganda.

But Burke has got the balance right.  He uses it to make real connections with real people.  How do I know this?  Because I talked to him about it.

I first started to take notice of Burke’s Twitter-style when he began to tweet about his road trips to Canberra each Sunday before a parliamentary sitting.  The old political campaigner in me thought “How clever, to send such an innocuous tweet with such a powerful subliminal message.”  In my mind’s eye I could see those of Burke’s constituents on Twitter nodding with approval that their MP drove himself to Canberra rather than take the easier limosine-plane-limosine option.

When I commended Burke on this cunning strategy he demurred.  He claimed that he tweets his movements for more modest reasons (1) to let his constituents know where he is and what he is doing, (2) to let journalists know when he is on a plane so they know when he is uncontactable and (3) to let his staff, friends and colleagues know when it is a good time to call him.

Whether he does it for political or practical reasons, I think Burke tweets well.

And I’m surprised that the journos making fun of him today (@BernardKeane “I’ve grabbed a coffee on my way to the study) didn’t think to look a little further into Burke’s objectives before making fun of him.

We are ashamed but must accept that politics eats its young

Like many people, I was deeply moved by Kevin Rudd’s final press conference this week.  I held my breath each time he paused, silently willing him to hold it together.  I shed a tear when his voice trembled.  And I also felt ashamed to be excited by the momentousness of the occasion, when I could see in High Definition the immense anguish it had wrought upon a man of faith and conviction, who was clearly loved by his wife and family.

Kevin Rudd’s world changed irrevocably in a matter of hours.  That is the nature of politics – it is a huge and relentless beast, constantly in motion and oblivious to good intentions, time-honoured philosophies and the frailties of humankind.  It hungrily and indiscriminately consumes hours, words and souls, all in the name of public good.

Some members of the commentariat have indulged in confected rage over Rudd’s treatment by “faceless apparatchiks”.

This is not so much because of empathy for Rudd, but because they feel affronted by the ruthless installation of an unelected Prime Minister purely in order to win the next election.  This indignation is quite amusing to those who have worked within party machines.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that a party cannot serve its electorate without first winning and then holding the Treasury benches.  As my teenage daughter would say, “well, duh!!”

Rudd was not so much a victim of his party, but of politics itself.  It is the undeniable preoccupation of any incumbent side to want to retain government and of the other side to wrench it from the incumbent’s grip.  It is the undeniable preoccupation of the fourth estate to convey this struggle with as much drama as possible, while securing stories (or scalps) that differentiate them from their competitors.

Therefore the political beast can best be illustrated as something conjured by Dante.  It is the sum of its many parts: politicans, parties, the parliament and media.   Perhaps the irate journalists need to look in the mirror before they accuse others of having Rudd’s blood on their hands.

In conclusion, I want to say that I’ve been thinking about others who’ve been mauled by the political beast.  Whether they first taunted the creature is another question altogether.

Does anyone ever spare a thought for Godwin Grech?  I was distressed to hear recently that he is still hospitalized and that his house and possessions have been auctioned off.

I feel sad for people like John Brogden and Nick Sherry who will always carry the scars of their encounter with the beast.

And relieved that others like Grahame Morris and Cheryl Kernot survived their skirmishes relatively unscathed.

And finally I am in awe of people like Lindsay Tanner and Geoff Gallop, who have resolutely stood before the slavering creature, stared into its red maw, and then calmly walked away.

Conned or captured? Voter sentiment and Rudd’s demise

A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, swindle or bamboozle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence. The victim is known as the mark, the trickster is called a confidence man, con man, confidence trickster, or con artist, and any accomplices are known as shills. Confidence men or women exploit human characteristics such as greed and dishonesty, and have victimized individuals from all walks of life.

http://www.Wikipedia.com

It seems that many people are stunned by the swiftness with which Kevin Rudd was despatched. Events over the past couple of days have diverted us from being stunned by the speed with which the Australian public turned on the Prime Minister.

I believe the Australian community became deeply angry at Rudd because they finally realised they were the victims of a confidence trick.

It’s interesting how we all love a Hollywood con artist but not the real thing. We delight in watching tv shows and movies that depict an unsuspecting but usually deserving schmuck being skilfully taken for a ride. Our anticipation ratchets with every deceptive twist and turn until we give a satisfied chuckle as the realisation dawns on the “mark” that their perception of reality is far from the ugly truth.

We’re entertained by the glamorous con even though we know that grifters who operate in the real world target the gullible, the weak and the unprotected. When faced with stories of real exploitation, we take the side of righteousness, nod in agreement when the ghouls of the foot-in-door media expose the conmen and cheer when they are entrapped or hunted down.

I believe it’s this righteous undercurrent in Australian voter sentiment that led to the dramatic drop in Kevin Rudd’s popularity, as measured by both public and private opinion polls. Voters felt angry and wanted retribution because they felt like a mark struck with the growing realisation they were the subject of a long con.

Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to the 2007 election as Howard-lite. The significance of this strategy cannot be downplayed. Howard did not retain government for nearly 12 years because of his popularity. His electoral appeal was, ironically, grounded in trust. Whether voters liked him or not, whether they supported his policies or not, they trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. And Howard did not betray this trust until he let the power of Senate majority go to his head and he self-indulged his philosophical yearning for IR reform.

Rudd studiously capitalised on Howard’s strengths as well as his weaknesses. He framed himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

Tragically for Rudd, and surprisingly for an experienced diplomat, he made the grave mistake of exaggerating the difference that Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol would materially make to global climate change. He should have known full well that ratification meant putting a price on carbon, that this could lead to painful structural change in the Australian economy, and that China and India would not countenance climate action until they had brought their people out of poverty.

Rudd could never deliver on climate change but he promised the Australian people that he could and would. This is only the most prominent of several examples. Like any confidence man, Rudd convincingly promised things that would realise voters’ dreams and others that would allay their fears. The fact that voters eventually saw the small man behind the curtain will always overshadow the fact that he actually did deliver on some of those promises.

By playing a confidence game with the Australian people, instead of being honest with them, Rudd squandered their trust, optimism and (somewhat begrudging) respect.

Perhaps this anger would not have been so intense if the electorate had felt they had been provided with a credible alternative at whose feet they could throw their protest vote. However, voter antipathy for Abbott shows they felt both conned and captured by Rudd’s sleight of hand.

Clearly the ALP apparatchiks who took action this week saw the truth of the matter. They saw the growing number of voters, once vividly depicted by Premier Wayne Goss during Keating’s reign, waiting on their verandas with baseball bats to deal with the Prime Minister who had let them down. So they took their bats to him first.

This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.

Democracy, by-lines and the cult of celebrity

I have a little theory that needs to be refined.  So I encourage you, dear reader, to comment and correct me.

My theory is that the advent of by-lines and the cult of celebrity have irrevocably changed the nature of democracy in Australia.

When I moved to chilly Canberra to be a neophyte press secretary in the 80s, not every journalist had a by-line.  That honour was bestowed only upon senior reporters and feature writers.  Most Canberra journalists were reporters in the truest sense.  They were required to succinctly, accurately and anonymously report on newsworthy matters of the day.

While most journalists I know have a strong point of view, in those days they were proud of the objectivity they displayed in their work.  Their saw their role as information providers, and had faith in the public reaching their own informed views about the matters that were important to them.

My middle-aged memory fails me when I try to pinpoint the turning point – when journalists became participants in, rather than reporters of, the political process.  But I have no doubt that the advent of the by-line was a contributing factor.

When you are a Canberra operative you tend to notice these things, such as the infectious “title inflation” that has been going on in the print media.  Back in the 80s and early 90s, political reporters clamoured just to get a by-line.  Earlier this decade there was fierce competition to see who could become “senior” or “chief” political reporter.  Nowadays, you’re nobody unless you’re a “political editor” for your newspaper.  Even the neophyte political pundit Peter Van Onselen has managed to procure the title of “Contributing Editor”.

My recollection of the advent of the by-line in Australian print media was that it coincided with the emergence of 24-hour television news in Australia, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer and his CNN coverage of the first Gulf War in Kuwait.  This was perhaps the first time that a serious journalist (as opposed to a glamorous newsreader or TV show host) had become a celebrity in Australian homes.  At the same time, both Laurie Oakes and Peter Harvey’s celebrity status began to rise outside of Canberra political circles.  Oakes was the man of substance, getting the leaks and interviews that no-one else could.  Harvey was The Voice intoning, “Peter Harvey, Canberra” on Australian families’ television news each evening.   Although not based in Canberra, Andrew Olle and Jana Wendt are two other examples that spring to mind.

Hence the cult of celebrity began to infiltrate, and inextricably change, the reporting of Australian politics.

The cult of celebrity emerged hand in hand with reality television.  People became famous simply for being famous, with Big Brother and Idol winners, along with hotel-chain heiress Paris Hilton, being the epitome of this phenomenon.

It’s my recollection that political journalists took this new paradigm much more seriously to heart.  With the advent of the byline and a new focus on celebrity reporters, I remember several Canberra journalists saying that they had taken on a didactic role.  Rather than simply reporting political matters and leaving the public to reach their own conclusions, these journalists began to see their role as having to “teach” the public about the pros and cons of certain political positions and policies.

Certainly one could argue that there is just as much need for teachers to be objective about the information they convey.  However, I believe that the shift from journalists as reporters to teachers was accompanied by a growing self-belief that political journalists know more and therefore know better than Joe Public.  This mind-shift has created the way for journalists’ personal views to creep into their work.

Thus began the infiltration of opinion into political reportage.   Over time, the lines have increasingly become blurred between political reporting and opinion masquerading as analysis.  Canberra practitioners see these comments in the context of the journalist’s opinions and biases, but the everyday newspaper reader and television watcher does not.   Many, and particularly the politically disengaged, tend to take the information provided by their favoured media outlet, or celebrity journalists, as gospel.  This is an unacknowledged but serious distortion in Australian democracy.

Today, there seem to be no bounds to the excesses and influence of some celebrity journalists.  The perceived importance of their opinions has become so inflated that television programs now offer “analysis” in the form of high profile political journalists interviewing or chatting to each other.

I hasten to add that I am not tarring all famous journalists with the didactic brush.  Some have begrudgingly accepted their higher public profiles and treated the responsibility with the solemnity and objectivity that it demands.

Others have become addicted to influence and are now willing participants in Australian politics.  They are the favoured recipients of regular partisan leaks.  Or they willingly beat up or play down speculative matters designed specifically to destabilise opponents or even colleagues.   And most are prepared to willingly hunt with the pack to build up or tear down a politician just for sport.

It’s a truism that voters get the government they deserve.  But what did we do to deserve journalists who truly believe their task is to not inform but to guide us?  Unfortunately we are all disenfranchised when it comes to the participatory role that celebrity journalists now play in Australian democracy.

This post also appeared at The Notion Factory.

Political private lives CAN be a public issue

I’ve lived and worked in Canberra for over 20 years, in reasonably close proximity to federal parliament and the various professions that hang off it like limpets.

This close observance has caused me to see politicians as ordinary people, thrust into extraordinary jobs.  Sometimes extraordinarily boring jobs, sometimes extraordinarily frustrating jobs, and sometimes a job that makes an extraordinarily positive contribution to Australia and its people.  Nevertheless, they are flawed and fallible humans just like the rest of us.

Most people who follow the call to a politician’s life accept the 24/7 nature of the role and the accompanying expectation that they will at all times meet a standard of professional and personal behaviour much higher than that required of almost any other profession.

The fourth estate has always played an important role in ensuring these standards are upheld, although it has sometimes been hard to tell whether the media exposure of rorts and deals has been to hold politicians to account or to increase readership.

However, journalists traditionally have been less enthusiastic about exposing low standards in politicians’ personal behaviour, particularly those occasions involving the infidelity of politicians who claim to be happily involved or married and therefore loyal to another person.

I certainly understand the highly-charged nature of the political workplace and the temptations presented by working long hours alongside equally committed colleagues.  This hot-house environment is not an excuse, however, to dismiss political extra-marital affairs as professionally inconsequential.

In fact, it is within the professional context that the infidelity of politicians should be scrutinised.  While it is tragic when one private citizen is unfaithful to another, it is essentially a matter for them and their families.

However, it is different when a politician with decision-making powers, or ambitions to attain these powers, is unfaithful.  It is not a question whether they have a faulty moral compass, as suggested by some journalists who have exposed straying politicians, but whether they possess the personal fortitude to make and implement decisions that can impact upon the community or the nation.

When a politician in high office embarks on an extra-marital affair – it shows that the politician has poor judgment and limited willpower.

When such a politician denies the affair and reaffirms their marital fealty – it shows that the politician is capable of mouthing commitment to one thing while intentionally doing another thing to undermine that commitment.

Most importantly of all, when such a politician puts their own satisfaction before dealing honestly with the people that are most close and loyal to him or her – it shows that the politician would most likely put their own needs before that of the community and the nation.

It is in this context that political lives can be a public issue.  And I believe that the media usually misses this point.  Having broken their unspoken rule to expose such matters, the media now focus on the salacious details that have no real bearing on the fitness of the person to hold high office.  Perhaps it’s time for the media to check their own moral compass and adjust their course accordingly.

Who’s the demon?

At the risk of being called naïve or an apologist, I feel compelled to challenge the demonisation of big business.

While it is something that has been troubling me for a while, my concerns have become crystalised by the anti-mining mutterings of my esteemed colleagues on Twitter.

In recent days, the more we non-economists hear about the misnamed Resource Super Profit Tax, the more sensible it seems.  But it has taken serious journalists such as Peter Martin and George Megalogenis to take the time to translate this arcane but practical arrangement into plain English.

We should not have been subjected to the shrill objections and counter-claims of the mining industry and Government.  Any government worth its salt on the issues management front could have turned this resource and risk sharing arrangement into a good news story by bringing the mining industry into the tent and getting them on side before the RSPT announcement was made.

Is this me being naïve?  Or did the Government want the mining industry to be seen to be taking a hit swiftly after it dodged an earlier bullet with the abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme?

Did the Government consciously demonise the mining industry in an attempt to regain a few brownie points from the electorate?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the title for the new scheme.  The moniker given to the Resource Super Profit Tax smacks of the same hyperbole applied to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.   The RSPT is no more a real tax than CO2 is real pollution.  But these labels provide a mechanism for the government to simultaneously suggest there is a serious problem and that it is addressing this problem with a new acronym, I mean, program.

Aside from this, is the demonisation of the Australian mining industry justified?

Yes there have been sins in the past.  And there are still some out-riders who think they can still get away with it dodgy practices.  But it is no more logical to burden all miners with the sins of the few, than it is to do the same with teachers, car drivers, or internet users.

Mining companies work on 20 and 30 year timeframes.  They understand better than most of us the bounty and the limitations of the earth.  Even so, it took them a while to realise that the natural environment is not limitless in its capacity to rebound from the stresses of mineral extraction.  It took them even longer to understand how their operations impact on people and societies.  But they did come to understand these factors and they took action to change.

Around 10 years ago, led by Australian mining company CEOs, the global industry took the unprecedented step of commissioning an international NGO called the International Institute for Environment and Development (www.iied.org) to run the world’s biggest community attitudes survey.  The survey was to find out what communities, governments, environmentalists and other activists in both the developing and developed worlds thought about the mining industry and what they wanted to change about how the industry went about its business.

Some mining companies walked away from this process because they found it too confronting.  To my knowledge, none of those companies operate or have a presence in Australia.  Some NGOs walked away too because they thought it was a greenwashing exercise.  But after two years of the community talking and the mining industry listening, some real outcomes emerged.  Perhaps these were less ambitious than some would have liked.  But they were a start.  A new mining entity was established at the global level to continue the discussion with NGOs and to deliver the undertakings.

My point is that mining companies know better than most that they have to be “good corporate citizens” in order to keep their social license to operate.

It is these companies who have built roads and communities alongside their operations in rural and remote Australia.  They have built infrastructure for water and electricity generation.  They have education and employment programs for their local people.  They have invested in these communities with their shareholders’ funds because governments would not.  And as a result they have a relationship with their communities that politicians and other companies could only ever dream of.

While some critics of mining are prepared to acknowledge this investment, they call it the resource curse – communities and economies made dependent on mining revenue that are left stranded when the operation ceases.  This may well occur if a mine is closed before its time due to emergency or insolvency.  But most major operations include the cost of withdrawal from the community in their initial project costings.  This withdrawal includes building capacity within the community to ensure that it can continue to thrive once the mining project has concluded.  If you want a real example of that strategy, then look no further than the thriving ex-mining town of Newcastle.

I’ll have other things to say about the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist bandwagon.  But for today, I’ll finish by saying this: when a politician points at someone and says they are bad and need to be dealt with, first ask yourself why the politician wants you to believe him …….

Nirvana revisited

There’s not many things I enjoy more than a passionate discussion.  Maybe a Cherry Ripe straight out of the fridge.  Or the smell of kitten’s paws.  But that’s about it.

Some people have to jump from great heights or hurtle along the road to feel like they’re really living.  My thrill comes from the jousting of thoughts and words.

My passion for debate was kindled at university.  I’d been led to believe at high school that academic success was to replicate what I had been taught.  This edict was turned on its head at university when a philosophy lecturer told me that any answer was right, as long as you could argue it convincingly.

So begun my inquisitive and outspoken approach to most things.

My degree in English literature and psychology led to a career in public relations.  Soon enough, the political world beckoned.

It was my Nirvana to be working and socialising with so many talented wordsmiths, advocates and strategists.  Fourteen hour days were barely a nuisance when they culminated in a philosophical debate with colleagues and opponents in the early hours at a seedy bar.

Those days are long behind me.  It is nearly 20 years since I was a partisan participant in the gladiatorial arena that we politely call politics.  Looking back on those days, I truly believe it is the debates and discussions, rather than the election campaigns and victories that are the addictive element of political life.  We pine for the battle of minds and words with respected friends and adversaries long after we’ve moved on to the “real” world.  Like any addiction, this desire only ever lies dormant.   It can never be excised or cured.

Which leads me to the purpose of this blog.  I realise that it doesn’t actually need a purpose, but for me it is like a secret door to a place I thought I would never visit again.

These days I’m what you might call a “lapsed” political junkie.  There was a time when I would listen to three radio programs and read six newspapers before I was prepared to start planning for the day ahead.   I would read the editorials and the views of the esteemed columnists in each major newspaper before concluding whether yesterday had been a good or a bad day.

Once I ceased to work as a political operative, it occurred to me that I had lapsed back to my high school way of thinking.  I was just replicating what others were thinking and saying.

From that point I decided to use my own knowledge and experience to analyse what was happening in the political world.  These days, I shun all news and current affairs programs.   I skim three newspapers each morning, and receive two electronic media summaries on daily basis.  I don’t read editorials or opinion pieces.

I trust my own judgment and I form my own views.

This is liberating, but mostly pointless because I don’t have any means to put my views to the test.

That is, I didn’t, until I stumbled upon the Twitterverse.    And what an amazing place it is, with whimsy and silliness at one end, sharp edged philosophical debate in the middle, and porn-spam at the other.

I found very quickly that Twitter is like a university pub writ large – a place for high-brow satire, Pythonesque plays on words, hilarious and short-lived situational jokes, love and lewdness.  It is true that prejudice and bigotry make the occasional appearance but they are quickly bounced out the door.  Most of all, the Twitterverse is a place for respectful but lively exchanges of considered thought.

I am besotted with this world and have quickly followed the lead of other Tweeps to the land of Blog to let the thoughts that I’ve had to prune to 140 characters expand and roam free.

I’m not sure what I will write here, or whether it will be interesting enough for others to read.  It will be like putting my views to a rather rowdy bunch at the uni pub on a Friday night – there might be a couple of nods, or I might be denounced or even totally ignored.  Who knows, but I am going to give it a try.