Love to hate, but don’t love the haters


Why do we love to hate someone when vigorous disagreement should be enough? In competitive arenas such as sport why do we get so much joy from seeing the object of our hatred not only lose, but also be smashed into oblivion?

Perhaps even more curiously, why is it that we love to hate but we don’t love the haters?

I’m not sure why, but I suspect Tony Abbott should be thinking very carefully about this curly question.

One could argue that it’s harmless to hate in sport; some might even say it enhances our enjoyment. As the saying goes, nothing builds team spirit more than a common foe (such as Collingwood, for example).

That may be true, but the increasingly gladiatorial nature of Australian politics has led us to bring our sporting hatred into the political arena.

Thirty years ago, political allegiances were reasonably straightforward: 40% voted for Labor, 40% for the Coalition, and elections were fought over the 20% swinging voters who remained undecided. Labor’s strength came from its blue collar foundations, the Liberals from their white-collar and small business supporters, and the Nationals from the bush.

In those days, people tended to vote the same way their parents did; much the same as they would follow the same footy team.

Today, it’s an entirely different story. We are less, but strangely more, tribal. No longer do we naturally gravitate to the party our parents supported. Mainly this is because we cast our votes more on values than political philosophy.

But we do love to hate politicians and we do it in a visceral, tribal way, just like we do with our footy adversaries.

I can’t pinpoint the time I realised that hatred of politicians had become a sporting event for Australians. Perhaps it was Treasurer Keating and the “recession we had to have” that started it all. Maybe it was PM Keating’s revoked L-A-W tax cuts, or his “get a job” election campaign jibe that caused voters to wait patiently for him on their porches with baseball bats.

Then there were the Howard haters, who made vilification of the then Prime Minister a national pastime. Their rejection of Howard’s positions on climate change, asylum seekers and IR was blisteringly intense then and still lingers, with references to the rodent still echoing today in the public discourse.

And now, we have not one but two new villains to heckle and abhor. Both Prime Minister Gillard and her opponent Tony Abbott are perfect lightning rods for our prejudices, resentments and hatred.

Gillard knifed her predecessor, robbing voters of the chance to punish him, and now courts the Greens to get her government’s initiatives through parliament.

Abbott also knifed his predecessor, shattering the hopes of progressive Liberals and giving succour to the extreme right edge of the party.

So I guess there’s no surprise that we love to hate either one or both of them.

But the irony, and the warning for Tony Abbott, is that we may love to hate our sporting and political opponents, but we seem much less inclined to embrace the haters themselves. While a little jovial sledging on the field is acceptable, we give short shrift to those who indulge in racism or other forms of bigotry.

Admittedly, we did have a soft spot for Paul Keating, arguably the best hater that Australia’s black-Irish population has ever produced. The ferocious beauty of his recently “re-released” note to NSW Labor MP (now opposition leader) John Robertson exemplifies the man’s ability to render abuse more finely crafted than the curlicues of any antique clock.

Having said that, it must also be remembered that Keating’s highest ever approval rating was 40%, the second lowest on record for a modern-era Australian Prime Minister. Keating also holds the record for the lowest Prime Ministerial approval rating at 27%.

Putting Keating to the side for a moment, I’d argue that we dislike, even abhor, politicians who are haters. We certainly don’t make them Prime Minister; with Mark Latham being the perfect example.

Latham was reported as having told The Bulletin in 2002, “I’m a hater … Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness.”

Another proficient hater, tabloid columnist Miranda Devine described Latham this way when he was Opposition Leader in 2003-04: “The more we see of Mark Latham the more it seems that underneath some admirable qualities seethes the heart of a hater, consumed with a clotted class envy that will be his downfall.”

Latham’s hatred and self-proclaimed appointment as class-warrior were key factors in his federal election loss. Women voters in particular deserted him in droves. Many of us were unnerved when Latham attacked private schools and other elements of the “privileged classes”. We needed little more encouragement than his bully-handshake with Howard to walk away altogether.

The 2004 federal election tally speaks for itself: the Howard/Liberal first preference vote of 40.5% was 3.4 percentage points higher than the previous election. This was the party’s highest first preference vote since the landslide of 1975 (41.8%), and only the fourth time since its creation that the party had secured 40 per cent of the national total.

Latham/Labor’s first preference vote of 37.6% per cent was its lowest vote since the elections of 1931 and 1934.

An even more fascinating parallel is that, despite an overall trend in the other direction, at both Keating’s 1993 election and Latham’s 2004 election, women were more likely than men to vote for the coalition (44%-37% in 1993 and 47%-42% in 2004).

It’s little wonder that Kevin Rudd did his very best during the 2006 federal election to avoid the mistakes made by Latham.

Rudd deftly positioned himself as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd may have been a hater behind the scenes (he certainly seems to have been a tantrum-thrower), his diplomatic training or political instinct ensured that it was kept securely behind closed doors.

As a result, Rudd equalled the highest ever approval rating achieved by an Australian PM, namely Bob Hawke, at 75%. It’s worth noting that Hawke wasn’t much of a public hater either.

And now we have Tony Abbott, who should be taking note of both Latham and Rudd’s experience as Opposition Leaders.

It’s no mystery that, while the Federal Opposition is polling better than the Government at present, Abbott still trails behind Julia Gillard as the preferred PM and in the approval stakes.

Many of us have our doubts about Abbott, just as we did about Latham. This doubt has the potential to harden into distrust and dislike if Abbott is seen to have crossed the line from gentlemanly sledging to encouraging, if not publicly using, hate-based language.

Obviously Abbott is capitalising on the fact that voters love to hate. But does he realise that we are simultaneously repulsed by politicians and others who are haters?

Perhaps not, and if that is the case then someone should draw this idiosyncrasy to his attention. This small detail may yet prove to be Abbott’s undoing.

This article originally appeared at The King’s Tribune.

Reports of Labor’s death are greatly exaggerated

Last weekend the SMH’s political editor, Peter Hartcher, made an extraordinary claim that “Labor’s looming death as a stand-alone political entity is the biggest story in contemporary Australian politics.”

Hartcher is an experienced and astute political analyst, having reported politics for the Herald not only from Canberra, but also Tokyo and Washington. However, his prediction seems disconnected from reality.

Hartcher’s thesis is that Labor has lost its progressive supporters to the Greens and has no chance of getting them back. He says that “Labor has yet to squarely confront the fact that it is on track to bring the two-party system to an end as Australia witnesses the rise of a three-party system,” and that “even if [the Prime Minister] can win passage of a carbon tax through the Parliament, it will not be enough to save her, and Labor, from oblivion.”

I don’t quibble with Hartcher’s contention that Labor has had a tactical tendency to lurch to the right on contentious issues to prevent voter leakage to the Coalition. Nor do I dispute that this has caused some progressive voters at the other end of the political spectrum to abandon the ALP for the Greens.

I can even agree that Labor’s low primary vote (37.99%) at the 2010 federal election was mostly attributable to “disillusioned and disgusted Labor voters going across to the Greens”.

But there is no evidence to suggest, as Hartcher does, that these voters are lost to Labor forever. To do so would be to fundamentally misread (or rewrite) what occurred.

The Greens garnered 11.76% of the primary vote at the 2010 election, a swing to them of 3.97%. However, nearly 80% of that vote went back to Labor in preferences, just as it did at the previous federal election.

Interestingly, 26% of Green voters said they did not make up their mind how to vote until 24 hours or less before casting their vote, compared with 17% for Labor and 9% for Coalition voters. This proportion of votes, decided so close to polling day, is unusually high compared with previous elections.

The combination of Green votes preferenced back to Labor, with the delayed decision to vote Green, suggests that many more potential voters wanted to vote Labor but couldn’t bring themselves to do so.

When voters are uncertain about which party to choose, they usually lean towards the devil they know (the incumbent). But on this occasion they were faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity were in question. As a result, some voters ended up rejecting them both.

Unfulfilled expectations also played an important role in that rejection.

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he didn’t deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

Julia Gillard was also damaged by the mismanagement of expectations, but not in the irretrievable way suggested by Hartcher. She became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

Hartcher claims these actions were a grievous insult to the progressive side of the ALP and caused a permanent mass exodus of voters. In fact these actions were viewed much more simply, and by a broader range of Labor voters, as yet another PM welshing on their commitments.

While Hartcher seems to think the battle has been fought and won by the Greens, they should take no comfort from the fact that a chunk of their voter base is comprised of disaffected major party supporters.

The published opinion polls mean nothing this far out from an election: the Greens’ support is nothing more than soft and fickle at this point. It’s conditional upon two things: (1) continued voter antipathy towards the major parties and (2) the Greens’ capacity to deliver on the high expectations they’ve created for themselves.

The Greens shouldn’t lose sight of what happened to the Australian Democrats when placed in a similar position 30 years ago.

The Democrats held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, they also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated. It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing.
When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. The Greens will need to manage voter expectations better than the Democrats to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, on either side, but if the Prime Minister can find ways to wedge the Greens on their legislative wish-list it will be the minor party and not Labor that will face public opprobrium for unpopular decisions.

This dissatisfaction will then be played out at the ballot box.

Hartcher says Labor is finished as a major party and that it “cannot hope to govern in its own right any more.”

His prediction is a long way yet from being fulfilled.

Tastings from the 2010 political buffet

At the end of this week, just before the official start of summer, the Australian Parliament will rise, politicians will head home to their electorates and voters will focus on how many meats to serve on Christmas Day or the quickest route to the beach. For many, the summer break is for relaxation; yet for others it evokes reflection about the year just passed. Given the political year we’ve just had, the reflective folk will have much food for thought.

From my perspective, the two leadership challenges, two state elections and the federal poll have challenged conventional wisdom and rewritten election playbooks, but also confirmed some political trusims. I don’t pretend to be a psephologist or political pundit, but I’m hopelessly attracted to the world of politics. I can’t help but look for patterns and cause-effect relationships and wonder how these might alter the path of political endeavour in the future.

With that caveat, I offer up for your degustation these observations from the political buffet of 2010.

Appetiser: Australian voters want their politicians to be genuine

At times during the federal election, it was hard to distinguish a 7.30 Report interview from the latest instalment of Kath and Kim, such was the broadness of Aussie accent on display. Both Gillard and Abbott went to great lengths to prove they were genuine and in touch with real Australians – particularly compared to their predecessors, the densely verbose Rudd and the tree-hugging patrician Turnbull.

However, Gillard’s authenticity was somewhat inconsistent during the early days of the campaign. At one point she morphed into a Stepford Prime Minister, nodding sagely to the cameras while using the calming tones of a pre-school teacher. This persona grated on voters’ sensibilities and she was quickly cast off in favour of the New! Real! Authentic! Julia. While undoubtedly relieved, voters were nevertheless left to wonder about the previous incarnations of Ms Gillard and their authenticity.

Tony Abbott’s misstep was equally unsettling, telling Kerry O’Brien that he couldn’t necessarily be held to account for words spoken in the heat of the moment, but that his written word was trustworthy. While operatives tried to spin this blunder as candour, it undoubtedly left a crack in Abbott’s everyman persona.

While there were many factors that contributed to the federal election outcome, I believe the genuineness of the party leaders was one of them. Faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity was in question, many voters chose neither. The perception that neither Gillard nor Abbott was genuine contributed to the shift of votes to the Greens.

Gillard and Abbott are now on probation – the media and voters are alert for any more cracks in their authenticity. So too will the country independents be scrutinised to see if they are as genuine as they currently seem.

Entrée: Unfulfilled expectations will come back to bite you

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. As I wrote back in June, Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

PM Gillard almost paid the ultimate price by making the same mistake soon after she replaced Rudd. Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme. Voters would have been forgiven for wondering why the PM who couldn’t fulfil commitments was brutally torn down for another with the same failings.

Gillard was damaged by that early mismanagement of expectations. It will be interesting to see whether the Labor Government, the Greens and the independents are wary of creating (or maintaining) expectations in 2011 that cannot be met.

Main: Re-enfranchised rural Australians are watching carefully

Rural Australians are a canny bunch: they may have grown up in the arms of the Country or National parties, but they are open to any other party or individual who can protect their chosen way of life. This is clear from the diminishing number of National Party members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both the ALP and Liberals have developed “country” arms of their parties to capitalise on this opportunity.

Country independents are not new to our parliament. Up until now, most have languished on the cross-benches because their votes were not important. Now with deciding votes in the lower House, the current country independents are being watched very carefully by rural Australia. No doubt, National MPs are closely watching them too. Rogue WA National, Tony Crook, managed to do what the rest of his fraternity could only dream of by swiftly dissociating from the Nationals soon after the election and putting his vote up for auction.

If the independents and Crook can materially improve the lot of rural Australians with their pivotal votes, then National MPs could be faced with the unenviable choice at the next federal election of either becoming an independent themselves or being beaten by one.

Dessert: The Greens run the risk of dis-enfranchising their constituency

More than a decade ago the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate, just as the Greens will do on 1 July next year as a result of this year’s election. In order to extract certain concessions from the Howard Government, the Democrats agreed in 1999 to support the GST legislation in Senate. This decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles. It undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time on, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 federal election.

When the Greens attain the balance of power in July next year, they will discover as did the Democrats that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Cheese: The current model for election reporting is broken

Much has already been said and written about this final point. Political parties have so tightly orchestrated the involvement of mainstream media in election campaigns that the resulting coverage is so contrived that it’s meaningless. Senior journalists rarely travel with the Leaders’ teams any more, preferring to observe and opine from the comfort of their office. Journalists who do travel with the Leaders are told little, shepherded from venue to venue, and given little time to absorb policy announcements before being given access to the Leader who merely parrots the line of the day.

The current model is broken and probably cannot be repaired. I look forward instead to mainstream media outlets refusing to put anyone at all on campaign buses next election, the parties having to instead produce campaign footage for placement on YouTube, Leaders choosing to hold numerous town hall meetings around the country instead of pic-facs, and MP and candidates dealing directly with their constituents through Twitter, Facebook and Skype.

Now that will be an election to reflect upon!

Don’t mistake the organ-grinder for the lion-tamer: the media and the 2010 federal election

There’s a lot of outrage mixed with genuine bewilderment being expressed about the role of the media in the federal election campaign.

Much of this angst is due to a lack of insiders’ knowledge about how media, politics and policy work in Canberra and during election campaigns.

Annabel Crabb did a sterling job explaining some of the campaign minutiae in a recent piece. The scorn and derision she received from some readers would have been surprising if not for a related (and heartfelt) complaint by blogger Grog’s Gamut. Even the redoubtable Laura Tingle bemoaned the apparent lack of willingness by the political media to seek and scrutinise policy.

These posts elicited for me an excellent and thought-provoking Twitter exchange with journalism lecturer Jason Wilson during which we pondered why political journalists focus on the superficial drama of the campaign rather than policy. We explored whether political parties’ efforts to tightly manage the media and messages are a defensive move because journalists only focus on drama and superficiality, or whether it is an offensive move to ensure that the key message, and nothing more, makes the TV news each night.

From my perspective, based on real inside experience, it is the latter. Parties are the organ-grinders, doing everything they can to get journalists to dance to their tune, rather than lion-tamers holding a vicious beast at bay.

I believe much of the dissatisfaction with media coverage this election comes from Labor voters/sympathisers because they have not, for many generations, witnessed the degree of media scepticism that is currently being applied to the ALP. Their instinctive reaction is to label this media negativity as bias.

In fact, they are witnessing journalists rebelling against the parties’ (particularly Labor’s) “media management” strategies. Most journalists have finely tuned bullshit detectors and can identify even the most subtle attempts to manipulate them. Journalists’ instinctive reaction is to subvert and therefore expose this constraint in any way they can.

Before you jump to label me a Tory sympathiser, dear reader, cast your mind back over the past 30 years. Can you remember a time when the conservatives were overwhelmingly treated well by the media? I cannot. I’ve observed over that time that most journalists are “small L” liberal or left-leaning. This is no surprise considering that liberal philosophy fits so well with the journalistic motivation to facilitate the public’s right to know.

Journalists’ liberal values were clearly observable during the Hawke, Keating and Howard years. During that time, conservative politicians and parties felt they could never win a trick with the print media, television networks or the ABC.

The political media participated in the Australian community’s adoration of Prime Minister Hawke during his heyday. As Hawke’s light faded, many journalists shifted to actively support Treasurer Keating during his campaign to destablise and ultimately overthrow Australia’s most popular Prime Minister.

At no time in the 80s or 90s were Opposition Leaders Peacock, Hewson, Downer or Howard feted by the media. The conservatives’ only allies were found amongst the conservative shock-jocks in the retail-communication worlds of tabloid newspapers and talkback radio.

Kevin Rudd, in fact, was the first Opposition Leader since Bob Hawke to be given the overwhelming support of the media. Can anyone remember a conservative Opposition Leader who enjoyed this support? No. Labor supporters may be upset at the current unprecedented lack of media support, but it cannot be labeled bias. Its real name is rebellion.

Ironically, and with foresight, the media’s support for Opposition Leader Rudd was begrudging. This sentiment sowed the seeds of the campaign media’s current discontent.

Kevin Rudd is known to have vigorously worked the media during his rise from regular Sunrise guest to Leader of the Opposition during the dark and final days of the Howard government. But once the election campaign-proper commenced, Rudd mimicked the successful small-target strategy utilised by Howard in 1996. Under the tight media-management direction of former Carr spinmeister Bruce Hawker, Rudd became unavailable to the “real” news media. Rudd opted instead to appear on youth-oriented radio programs and television variety shows – affording him the double benefit of direct access to mainstream Australians without having to address pesky questions of policy and substance.

Nevertheless, the political media were so enthralled with the community’s growing dissatisfaction with Howard and the prospect of the government being overthrown, that they were prepared to humour Rudd for the duration of the campaign. A story at the time featured former Hawke media adviser and now ABC Insiders host, Barrie Cassidy, candidly quoting another journalist saying ‘We all know we have to go to war against Kevin Rudd as soon as the election campaign is over.’

This media “war” was held off by the unprecedented honeymoon that Prime Minister Rudd enjoyed with the Australian public during the first two years of his term. Not only did the media sit back in awe of this popularity, so did the political hard heads in the ALP.

In the end though, perhaps Rudd the organ-grinder forgot that monkeys also have teeth. Or that other sidewalk entertainers can be ruthless enough to knife you for the optimal position on the street corner.

Those who wish to lay blame for the behaviour of political media in this election campaign should look no further than the genial Bruce Hawker and the entourage of former media advisers that he brought to Canberra in 2007-08 from the deeply unpopular NSW Labor government. While Hawker’s tight media management strategy, aligned to the relentless 24/7 news cycle, may have delivered for the state government, it did not fit well with the communication needs of a federal government.

Journalistic resentment about Rudd’s media management, and the ALP’s more generally, had been simmering for some time. This was exacerbated by Rudd’s inability to fulfil the great expectations that he created during the 2007 election campaign to positively differentiate himself from the ageing, discredited Howard.

As shocking as Rudd’s removal was, many journalists were relieved and optimistic that the Gillard era would herald a more sensible and less frantic approach to newsmaking. Some of these journalists are young and are travelling with the Leaders’ teams in their first election campaigns. Regardless of their experience, it is easy to infer from their various writings that most campaign journalists are tired, dazed and disoriented. They are sick of being herded from one pic-fac to another, told nothing, given no time to absorb or analyse, and no latitude to report anything other than the message of the day.

It is no wonder then, that they subvert the process by ignoring the strangled notes of the squeeze-box and dance instead to their own tune, asking the most inconvenient and embarrassing questions, and attempting to catch the Leader off guard? Is this natural reaction enough to justify their policy-free questions?

No it’s not. But it should also be remembered that the campaign we see on the nightly news is no more than a flimsy facade. The only campaign that really matters is being deployed in the marginal seats. The purpose of the national campaign is to maintain the status quo (not lose any “tribal” voters) and secure enough supportive voters’ attention/engagement to guarantee they turn up on polling day.

Most policy announcements are designed to do nothing more than grab a headline to reassure a particular demographic. While it is understandable that amateur politicos would like to see genuine analysis of these policies, it’s worth remembering that most political journalists are not policy specialists and do not have a good understanding of how policy is developed or implemented. As a consequence, they pay less attention to these processes and only focus on what they know – the political dimension of policy.

In closing, let me remind you of one small matter. While I have lamented in the past that we do not elect our media, we are ultimately still responsible for their behaviour and their output. At no time have ordinary citizens had more power than now to shape their news media; with their purchasing power, with their voices and with their keyboards. I look forward to reading further contributions to this debate!

Postscript: This excellent piece by senior political journalist Tony Wright is an illuminating addition to the subject

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory.

Julia’s tenet – no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry

Zombies vote often, vote late

John Howard was pilloried during his time as Prime Minister for saying he wanted the Australian people to be relaxed and comfortable. It was, said the commentariat, evidence of Howard’s singular lack of vision, particularly when compared to his predecessor the vaudevillian Paul Keating.

No doubt Howard saw himself more in the mold of political warhorse than political visionary. He knew that an electorate generally satisfied with its lot would unlikely countenance the risk of changing its government.

It appears that Julia Gillard is deploying a version of Howard’s strategy, which is to keep the electorate bored, somnolent and disengaged. In the same way that Howard felt secure with a comfortable electorate, Gillard is depending on the tenet that no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry.

Consider the limited number of times that federal governments have been thrown out in recent decades. Fraser, Keating and Howard all incited considerable wrath within the community before they were ousted at the ballot box.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is observable in her public demeanour and utterances. While some have likened her new cadence to PM Thatcher, it strikes others as more a cross between our current Queen Betty and a pre-school teacher; soothing but protective, reassuring but authoritative. At times during the Leaders’ debate I recalled late-night horror movies where people were hypnotised through their crystal sets and wondered if this time it was for real.

It may well be that this strategy will pay dividends for the PM, but I suspect it will backfire because Tony Abbott is also trying to bore the electorate. Clearly he is not doing it for the same reason as Gillard. Abbott is using the small target strategy that worked so well for Rudd and Howard when they were both opposition leaders. It is the “I am a safe pair of hands and I don’t have the other lot’s nasty policies” strategy. Abbott too is trying to be reassuring but authoritative, so as not to alarm the electorate into reverting to the incumbent government.

So how will this play out on polling day? Taxi drivers all over Australia will tell you that their fares think this is the most boring election in memory. Will voters shuffle to their polling station like zombies or somnambulists and vote for the status quo because it is the path of least resistance?

Or will they rebel, mutter a pox on both houses, and vote green or not at all?

Symbolism or substance: Will a decarbonised Australian economy fix climate change?

As an old campaigner, I implicitly understand the need to condense complex matters into sound bites or slogans.  The problem with stripping the details out of an issue and reducing it to a memorable phrase is that people tend to defer to their own interpretation of what that phrase actually means.

This can be dangerous territory for a politician or party if the sound bite or slogan implies an undertaking.  While the nature of the undertaking may be clear in the mind of the spruiker, it might have an entirely different meaning to the audience.

Rudd’s lesson

Kevin Rudd learned this lesson the hard way.  During the 2007 federal election campaign, Rudd differentiated himself from John Howard on two points: he would scrap Work Choices and ratify Kyoto.  Neither Rudd nor the ALP made any effort to explain what ratification of the Kyoto protocol meant in practical terms.  They were content with the electorate inferring from this undertaking that Australia’s ratification would fix climate change.

But of course, it did not.  In reality, ratification of Kyoto granted access to a number of climate mitigation activities including a future global emissions trading scheme amongst parties to the protocol and emission credits for businesses investing in greenhouse gas reducing projects in developing countries.

After formally ratifying the Kyoto protocol, Rudd subtly shifted his language to the need for Australia to adopt an emissions trading scheme to fix climate change.  Having trusted the Prime Minister on ratification, and feeling no adverse effects, Australians were comfortable in the belief that adopting an ETS would be equally painless.

Green words not green deeds

It is important to understand that while people say they want environmental action, and that they are prepared to pay for it, their actions disprove their words.  Australian green energy schemes continue to languish in the single-digit percentages because people do not want to pay a premium for a product that has no discernable difference.  Surveys of grocery shoppers have found that the actual contents of their trolleys undermine their previously- stated preference for green products.

Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?
Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?

In reality, most people don’t want to pay more to be environmentally friendly – unless the expense can be expressed in a way that can be seen such as having a water tank or driving a hybrid car or carrying a green canvas shopping bag.

This is where Rudd came unstuck.

The point of an ETS is to wean an economy off fossil fuels.  This is done by putting a price on carbon so that fossil fuel based products become more expensive and the renewable based products start to look competitive in comparison.  That’s the economic theory.

Problems with decarbonising Australia’s economy

There are several problems with this theory for Australia.  Firstly, 80% of Australia’s electricity is generated from coal and we have coal reserves that could last for several hundred years more.   Our plentiful coal has allowed electricity prices to remain consistently low, and as a result we currently have the third lowest electricity prices in the world.

Not only have these low electricity prices brought energy intensive industries to Australia, they have contributed directly to the Australian community’s quality of life.  Around 11.5% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come from households and another 14% from transport (most of which is cars, trucks and planes).  An ETS would place cost pressure on the households to move them away from the activities and products that use fossil fuels.

Once voters began to realise this, they felt conned and unhappy.  This unhappiness has clearly been picked up by party polling, evidenced by both major parties moving to distance themselves from an ETS before the impending election.

While the ETS is now on the backburner, we will nevertheless continue to hear the latest slogan promoting the need to decarbonise the Australian economy if we are to fix climate change.

As point of substance, this contention is patently absurd.  Australia contributes less than 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  No amount of reduction in Australia will make a material difference to the phenomenon.  Even if every Australian house had solar panels, and every family drove a hybrid car and grew their own vegetables, there would hardly be a perceptible dip in global emissions.

So, as a point of symbolism, should Australia decarbonise its economy to show leadership and coax other developed nations into doing their fare share to mitigate the problem that they originally created?

If leadership leading to deep cuts in global emissions is the real objective of Australian action on climate change, then penalising Australians for their quality of life will not achieve that objective.

An unconventional solution

There is no way to stop the developing world from using coal in the foreseeable future.  These nations are rightly focused on bringing their people out of poverty and will use the most reliable, affordable and safe means of electricity generation available to them.

The International Energy Agency has projected that from the year 2000 to 2030 around $16 trillion dollars will be spent on developing and providing energy to the global population.  Over that same period, the number of people with no access at all to a reliable/commercial supply of energy will reduce from two billion to one billion.  Those of us sitting in our air-conditioned homes and offices need to bear this in mind when we nod sagely about the need to decarbonise the economy.  In 2030 there will still be people on this planet burning cow dung to heat their homes and cook their dinner.

Where does that leave Australia?  I believe we can take credible climate action that has both substance and symbolism.  Firstly we need to take the economists out of the equation – they have no interest in the human cost of their proposals.  Stop focusing on the business case too – there are too many vested business interests on either side of the climate change debate for the market to sort this out.

My solution lets all Australians feel involved, with minimal financial pain, and with greenhouse gas reductions being deployed where they are needed most.

Firstly, impose a greenhouse levy on all taxpayers in the same manner as the Medicare levy, which currently raises around $8 billion each year.  Attaching the levy to income ensures that those who earn more will pay more, and those who are disadvantaged or unemployed will not pay at all.

Secondly, use the funds to develop and deploy clean energy projects in the developed world – particularly those countries that have the potential to contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions in future.  In doing so, the Australian people would be getting more global greenhouse action for their dollar than they could ever hope to achieve at home.

Does this proposal make economic sense? No.  Does it make business sense? No.  Does it make sense in terms of Australia being a leader and making deep cuts in greenhouse emissions? Yes.

Maybe its time we changed the way we looked at climate change in Australia, and even the world.

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.