This time, the MSM got it right

Photo by Alex Ellinghausen

Before I get to the substance of this post, I’d like to provide some context. I’m a former Liberal staffer. The last time I was employed as a political staffer was in 1993, and I’ve never worked for the Liberal Party since, nor am I member of any party. I do not vote, and have not done so for the past two ACT and federal elections. I will not be party to any vote that results in Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister.

I like Julia Gillard. She is a gutsy, intelligent and compassionate woman who I consider to be a formidable role model for all Australian girls and women. But I will not vote for her party either.

I provide this background in the hope that readers will accept that I have no political axe to grind when I say that the MSM’s coverage of yesterday’s political events is more perceptive than they are being given credit for, and that there seems to be a number of people using social media who are deluding themselves as to what actually happened.

Let’s revisit the event. After asking the Prime Minister in Question Time whether she continued to have full confidence in the Speaker and, if not, what steps she would take to remove him from the position, Tony Abbott then moved a motion to remove the Speaker due to him not being fit for office.

Abbott specifically used only the content of Slipper’s texts, which are in the public domain and uncontested, to craft his accusation against Slipper. Building upon the growing sentiment in the community against misogynist views and language demonstrated by the #destroythejoint movement, Abbott painted Slipper as a man who spoke of women generally, and one female Liberal MP specifically, in derogatory terms. He argued that a person with such objectionable views about women and who clearly had a bias against at least one MP was not fit for the non-partisan office of Speaker.

Abbott accused Slipper of being unfit for office based on the texts, not Ashby’s allegations which are still before the courts. In avoiding use of the Ashby allegations, Abbott denied the Government any grounds upon which to avoid the question of Slipper’s fitness for office, particularly that of needing to follow due process.

Nevertheless, due process was the Government’s chosen shield.

In fact, the Government had little else with which to defend itself. Having invested considerable political capital, in the form of senior female ministers, to raise and maintain concerns over Tony Abbott’s problems with female voters, the Prime Minister became wedged by Abbott’s motion. Abbott’s speech drew a clear connection between the Prime Minister’s fitness for office and Slipper’s, thereby making the motion about her judgement in recruiting him to bolster the Government’s numbers.

The PM was faced with a stark choice: oppose the motion and be seen to be defending the Speaker, or support it in the knowledge that this would be seen as a concession of ill-judgement on her part. Any such concession would also cast a shadow over the PM’s judgement in related decisions such as the formation of minority government with the independents and the Greens.

So the stakes were high when Abbott moved his motion. I initially misunderstood his reason for doing so, thinking that its purpose was to remove the Speaker. In fact, the purpose of the motion was to wedge the Prime Minister into having to oppose it, defend her own judgement, and by association, that of Slipper’s too. It does not matter that Julia Gillard said not one word in defence of Slipper during her speech: Abbott expected that her opposition to the motion would be damning enough.

What Abbott did not expect was the damning words that the PM levelled at him during her speech; a speech which appears to have divided Labor supporters due to its visceral content and emotive delivery. Some voiced concern that the speech was not befitting of a Prime Minister and that it might be seen by casual political observers as an intemperate outburst.

Conversely, the PM’s speech was embraced by the people who have recently formed a front line against misogyny, chauvinism and disrespect against women in public discourse. The coincidental timeliness of the PM’s rousing words raised the spirits of those now experiencing and witnessing a withering backlash against the #destroythejoint movement.

And what of those not involved in or supportive of the DTJ campaign? It is important to look outside that bubble to really understand how yesterday’s events are being interpreted.

For those much less engaged in politics than us – and let’s accept that there are many of them – the event played out thus: Slipper sent texts that were derogatory of women and Abbott claimed a person that held such views was not fit to be Speaker. In opposing Abbott’s motion to remove the Speaker (read: defending the Speaker), the Prime Minister unleashed a tirade against Abbott recounting the many sexist views leveled against her personally, or women generally, which he had never withdrawn or denounced.

In base political terms, Abbott won the day: he wedged the Prime Minister into supporting the Speaker, and was unintentionally rewarded with Slipper’s scalp later that evening. Abbott has however set a dangerous precedent for judging an MP’s character based on their private text messages.

Perhaps the Prime Minister’s impassioned speech compelled some concerned female voters away from Tony Abbott and towards her. Maybe, if they are prepared to overlook her refusal to see Slipper’s texts as evidence that he was unfit to be Speaker. And maybe, if they are also comfortable with the PM delivering highly emotive attacks in Parliament.

Looking at it this way, it is understandable why the media may interpret yesterday’s events as being a potential setback for the Government. Sometimes we need to take a step back to see the whole picture.

Who should we blame when politicians lie?

Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…

Late in August, the Canberra Press Gallery awoke from a collective slumber and simultaneously concluded that Tony Abbott hadn’t been entirely honest with them. Or with the Australian people.

Well at least that’s one way of interpreting the political news at the time, following on from Leigh Sales’ challenging of Abbott’s relationship with the truth in one of the Opposition Leader’s all too rare appearances on a “serious” current affairs program.

Those of us whose cognitive capacities haven’t been entirely reduced to that of goldfish by the Age of Twitter can vaguely remember that at different times last year the media had similar revelations.

In March there was a searing piece in which Bernard Keane positioned 11 Abbott statements with another 11 that contradicted them. Annabel Crabb noted in July, “Mr Abbott’s one-man battle against demonstrable logic has entered a new and compelling phase”.

The cycle repeated in October, with Laurie Oakes reminding us, “while he lambasts Gillard over her broken “no carbon tax” promise, Abbott has form on the broken promise front himself”. Lenore Taylor questioned the veracity of both leaders, noting that “politicians have always gilded the lily, spun the message — in effect, stretched the truth. But lately they seem to feel free to take things one step further and ignore facts altogether.”

Then, as if an invisible hypnotist had snapped his fingers, the Press Gallery again fell into a snooze and Tony Abbott’s cursory relationship with the truth was almost entirely dropped by the mainstream media.

That is, until last month, when the revelation was experienced all over again.

What was different this time was the media’s collective conscience had been pricked by a non-journalist challenging them to acknowledge that they could no longer simply observe Abbott’s deceptive tactics. Journalists were embarrassed into exposing those lies and reporting what their consequences would be.

It was The King’s Tribune writer, Tim Dunlop, who called the Press Gallery to account. He described the Gallery’s theretofore admiration for Abbott as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, with senior journalists like Laurie Oakes giving Abbott points for being the most negative Opposition Leader ever, Phil Coorey judging him “wise” for refusing to answer questions on funding, and Lenore Taylor publicly acceding to the Coalition’s tactical avoidance of the media on a “tricky policy issue”.

Click here to read more…..

Were we trolled by Bernardi today?

There’s an episode of the politico-drama television series Boss where Chicago Mayor Tom Kane must deal with evidence of his involvement years before in the cover-up of a chemical spill. Kane’s political enemies have leaked the documents to link him with the cancer-riddled cluster of children living unknowingly near the spill site.

Kelsey Grammer, previously the master of grown-up tv sitcoms, deftly plays the deadly-serious, saurian Kane. He wields his political might like a grandmaster: strategically placing, threatening and if necessary sacrificing and removing his opponents, allies and even family members to maintain his dominant position.

Tim Dunlop aptly described Boss the other day on Twitter as being “unSorkin”, lacking as it does Sorkin’s “optimistic, uplifting approach to politics”.

Uplifting it’s not, but Boss is certainly mesmerising. And while it’s merely a dramatisation of the grubby political world, its depiction of that world is still close enough to make me uncomfortable, in the same way that The Hollow Men or The West Wing makes me cringe or laugh or sigh.

I was reminded of Kane today when I witnessed my corner of Twitter having a meltdown over Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi suggesting last night that marriage equality could lead to bestiality. Being the type who tends to suspect conspiracy over stuff-up, I wondered why Bernardi would say that at this particular point in time.

Sure, it was straightforward on the face of it: parliament would vote today on proposed same sex marriage laws, but Bernardi’s intervention would make no difference to the bills’ passage. There was little chance the bills would pass with the Coalition voting in a bloc against them and the Government’s vote being split through a conscience vote.

It was then I recalled the episode where Mayor Tom Kane managed to transform himself from a villain to a hero by playing sleight of hand with the media. Now, I know, television is not real but what occurred in that plotline was reasonably plausible.

The main objective of the Mayor’s team was to reframe media coverage of the chemical spill cover-up so that it no longer focussed on Kane but on the crisis being faced by the affected community. They provided individual journalists with various off-the-record leads that diverted attention from the Mayor to the local community’s (orchestrated) bottled water drought and (confected) housing value slump. The journos rushed to publish the stories, giving the details minimal scrutiny in the name of the all-important exclusive. Other media outlets were forced to play catch up and cover the same story. One by one, as each media organisation’s news cycle clicked over, Mayor Tom Kane’s role disappeared from the day’s headlines and lead stories.

Before long, the community and media had whipped themselves into a frenzy of outrage fed by powerlessness and fear. Mayor Tom Kane re-entered the fray as their leader and protector, offering clean water and a speedy restoration to the spill site. He went from villain to hero purely by exploiting the speed and ravenous nature of the media cycle.

Which brings me back to Cory Bernardi… well actually it brings me to Tony Abbott. Today was going to be the Leader of the Opposition’s first real public appearance (other than attending military funerals) since last week when Treasurer Wayne Swan accused him of “going the biff” and being a thug, on the back of David Marr’s wall-punch expose. Abbott has mostly avoided the media since then, minimising his safety-vest photo opportunities and sticking to interviews on soft news programs.

No doubt Swan’s jibes were an attempt to tap into the unease that voters felt about another pugilistic Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, almost a decade ago. It would seem Labor strategists are confident that if enough people say enough times that Abbott has a problem with women, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A possible return to the “Abbott is a thug” theme at Question Time today could well have been on the minds of the Opposition’s leadership team last night. While Abbott was given a period of grace during his funeral attendances, the Government could have generated considerable momentum between this morning’s early doorstops and Question Time – with the willing complicity of the drama hungry media – thereby preventing Abbott from regaining the political advantage he so desperately needs right now.

So I’m sure Abbott must have secretly been relieved when Cory Bernardi unleashed his inner Tea Party Animal in the Senate last night. The combined disgust and rage of free speech-loving tweeps, equality-loving MPs and scandal-seeking journalists created a torrent of condemnation that swept all mention of Abbott’s thuggery from our tweetstreams, RSS feeds and tv screens.

At the crescendo (and not coincidentally at exactly the same time Penny Wong was speaking on marriage equality in the Senate), Abbott re-entered the fray as the Liberal Party’s voice of reason and moderation. Abbott ameliorated our sensibilities by extracting Bernardi’s resignation from the Shadow Ministry as penance. While by most measures Abbott had been a villain for the past few weeks, at this moment he was the upholder of principles and morality. Like Kane, Abbott turned his own fortune around within a few short media cycles.  Whether Bernardi’s role in that turnaround was deliberate, we’ll never know.

Bernardi is nothing if not a loyal Liberal foot-soldier with one eye steadfastly locked on the main game: that is, the election of an Abbott Government in 2013. He’s lost nothing more than a fancy title in resigning as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary due to there being no additional staff or remuneration attached to the position. And now that he’s a backbencher, Bernardi is arguably less constrained to speak out than he was before today. Perhaps he’ll become Abbott’s equivalent of Howard-era henchman, Senator Bill Heffernan, whose controversial behaviour was privately considered to have more benefit than it had drawbacks.

For mine, I’m sure Bernardi deliberately trolled us last night to upset any momentum the Government hoped to gain with its “Abbott goes the biff” campaign. Today ended with Bernardi enjoying the pointy end of an international airplane, Abbott getting positive media coverage, and the marriage equality bill being soundly defeated in the Parliament.

All in all, not a bad day’s work if you’re a Tea Party Animal.

Postscript: This article notes that Bernardi has since been quietly appointed by the Coalition as a temporary Chairman of Committees, a role which attracts a 3% salary loading.

Belling the Abbott cat

To bell the cat: To undertake a dangerous action in the service of a group.

So that this does not become a pissing competition and miss the point altogether, this post is an attempt to capture all of the articles and posts that have challenged Tony Abbott’s merry dance with the truth. Posts from bloggers are marked in this colour. I’ve included those that I’ve noticed – let me know in the comments or on Twitter any other examples and I will include them:

 

Exposing Rudd camp’s attempt to rewrite history

Australians have witnessed considerable rewriting of the political rulebook over the past decade.

Mark Latham ran an unconventionally hokey campaign in 2004 that almost got him elected. He focussed on populist issues such as MPs’ superannuation and reading to children, when the rulebook says that oppositions should stick to the big policy issues like the economy and health.

That same election, John Howard unashamedly and un-ironically used “trust” to beat Latham. The rulebook says he should have avoided this political battleground when the community clearly had their own trust issues with the then-PM.

New rules were written in 2007 when Kevin Rudd barnstormed the election with his “me too” campaign, promising to be Howard-lite with added features like the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Never before had a politician offered to be “the same, but better” than his opponent. It was however the perfect pitch for Howard-weary voters looking for another safe pair of hands to run the economy.

And now, Tony Abbott is defying all known rules on negative campaigning by running the longest anti-campaign any of us have ever witnessed. The success of that strategy is yet to be borne out.

Perhaps the most “bent but not broken” rule in the political playbook to date, is that which says history is written by the victor. I mention this because of the concerted effort being made by the Rudd camp to re-play the Howard trust card, and claim that Julia Gillard lost the trust of the Australian community by wresting the Prime Ministership from Kevin Rudd in 2010.

This narrative might suit the combatants’ purposes, but it’s not backed by the facts.

Support for the Labor Government increased after Julia Gillard became leader, from 52% before the change in Prime Ministership, to 53% after the change and 55% two weeks after that. Similarly, support for PM Rudd as preferred Prime Minister was 46% prior to the change, and then for PM Gillard was 53%, increasing to 57% two weeks later.

So, up to three weeks after the “coup”, the Australian people were swinging back to the Labor Government and Julia Gillard as PM. Surely if there was outrage or resentment about the way in which Kevin Rudd was dispatched, it would have emerged in the opinion polls. But no, it did not.

The polls did dive three weeks after the change in leadership, but not because of any perceived poor treatment of Rudd. The polls dived because the Australian community realised they’d be sold a pup. Not once, but twice.

I’ve written before that people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be Howard-lite proved to be empty. Rudd created the expectation but did not deliver. While he promised to be a man of action, he proved to be a man of indecision, committees and reviews.  Rudd proved to be nothing like Howard, showing none of the former PM’s ability to provide a narrative to give meaning to the government’s efforts. Nor could he speak like Howard to the community, in a language they understood.

So, in June 2010 the Australian community were well on the way to understanding that they’d been conned by Kevin Rudd. That’s why there was no uproar when he was deposed. Instead there was a cautious optimism that maybe the Labor Party had made a necessary course correction.

The shattering of that optimism is the reason why Julia Gillard no longer has the faith of the Australian people.

Julia 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 asylum seekers.

On 2 July PM Gillard announced a resolution to the mining resource tax that was reported by the media as being a backdown. Then on 6 July 2010 the PM made a strong speech to the Lowy Institute committing to solve the issues relating to boat-borne asylum seekers. Even though her asylum-seeker solution was scuttled shortly after, the public remained optimistic and the PM registered her highest approval rating (57% on 16-18 July 2010).

But on 23 July 2010 PM Gillard announced that her government would create a citizens’ assembly of ”real Australians” to investigate the science of climate change and consequences of emissions trading, under a plan to build a national consensus for a carbon price. This proposal was widely derided as setting climate policy by public opinion instead of science, and a further repudiation of the emissions trading scheme shelved by Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

This was the point at which the penny dropped. Voters realised that they’d not only been gypped by Rudd, but also by Gillard, and so the opinion polls began to fall.

At the time of the citizens’ assembly announcement, PM Gillard’s rating as preferred Prime Minister fell from 57% to 50% (23-25 July) and the Government’s standing from 55% to 52%. A week later, the parties stood at 50% each.

The rest, as they say, is history. On this occasion, the facts are borne out by the numbers and can’t be bent to show anything other than the truth. Attempts to recast them for political purposes should be exposed for what they are – blatantly misleading and condescending to all of us.

(All opinion poll data is sourced from Newspoll).

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

Is the tide turning for Tony Abbott?

It’s a truism in politics that while one opinion poll might evoke an interesting point, it’s the trend in poll findings that reveals much more.

The same could be said for opinion pieces written by journalists who report federal politics. Each piece has its own merit (or not), but when there’s a trend in the opinion being advanced, then this is something worth noticing.

Why? Because the appearance of a theme in a string of opinion pieces suggests, not that several journalists autonomously and simultaneously came to the same conclusion, but that an external action or actor initiated that thought.

The external factor could range from something as innocent as journalists musing aloud to colleagues over coffee, to something more Machiavellian like a political operative briefing against opponents. Either way, it’s worth taking note when a trend appears in political opinion pieces.

Such a trend appeared this weekend. At a time when there is seemingly unending mainstream media criticism of the PM and her government, not one but five senior political reporters appeared to significantly escalate their scrutiny of Tony Abbott’s tactics and policies.

In his weekend column, SMH Political Editor Peter Hartcher ran the rule over the Coalition’s known policy positions and found “the Coalition is changing from the free-market, pro-business, economically sound party of Howard and Costello to a populist party under the influence of Abbott and Barnaby Joyce.

“Abbott’s opposition shuts down debate about workplace reform, shows signs of being tempted away from a wholehearted commitment to free trade, proposes a new tax on big business to fund an expensive parental leave scheme, and, while it certainly monitors government spending closely, has yet to explain its own fiscal policy.”

Hartcher’s stablemate, Lenore Taylor, pointed in her weekend column to the new heights in spin being employed by Abbott, “ignor[ing] facts altogether” to score political points.

Yet another Fairfax journalist, the Age’s Associate Editor Shaun Carney, sharpened the policy scrutiny focus even more in his weekend piece:

“Abbott’s assault on Labor has been almost entirely policy-free… He attracts support largely because of what he says he will not do and by his relentless critique of the government. His vision for Australia is defined by his negative appraisal of Labor. Even with the Coalition’s massive opinion poll lead, the time is coming when Abbott will have to do more than that. Perhaps it has arrived.”

Similarly, the West Australian’s Federal Political Editor Andrew Probyn, blogged that “Tony Abbott has sown the seeds of his own destruction. It’s not that he won’t win the next election. He most probably will. But unless he sets about seriously reconfiguring various policies, when he becomes prime minister he will either have to break promises, commit humiliating backdowns or attempt to wheedle his way out of controversy.”

And over in the News Ltd camp, somehow foreseeing this trend, The Weekend Australian’s National Chief Reporter Tom Dusevic contributed a feature on Abbott that examines his policy credentials.

What does this mean? It’s not that these pieces are the first to canvass the need for Abbott to show policy depth and integrity. Incoming Liberal Senator, Arthur Sinodinos, advanced it in his weekly Australian column back in early September. Canberra Press Gallery doyen, Laurie Oakes, covered it in his opinion piece last week on politicians lying.

But other columnists did not pick up the point until now. And all at the same time.

What does this mean? Do the reporters in question regularly chat, and decided last week that it was time to turn the heat up on Abbott’s policy credentials? Is this an indication that the tide is turning for Abbott in the Canberra Press Gallery? Perhaps.

Or has the Prime Minister’s newly-appointed Communications Director turned the heat up on journalists and demand parity in policy scrutiny? Maybe, but he has not yet officially started in that post.

We’ll never know how this alignment of political opinion pieces came about. Whether through independent thought, osmosis or suggestion, they do suggest a turning point; the beginning of a new phase for the Opposition Leader in which he is expected to do more than just oppose.

Time will soon tell whether a new trend has emerged. Stay tuned for more: it will be fascinating to watch.

Postscript: One week later – this from the Financial Review’s political editor, Laura Tingle. And then this from Laurie Oakes. Other notable pieces since then include this from The Australian’s Paul Kelly (paywalled), and this from Michael Gordon.

Abbott in a Zegna suit?

Shaun Carney’s recount today of former Treasurer Howard sending Treasurer Keating a congratulationary note on becoming the world’s greatest treasurer, caused me to ponder what sort of Opposition Leader Keating would’ve been.While no more than a fantastical imagining, I can’t help think he’d be more in the Abbott mould than the Turnbull one.

Because, when you think back, is there any other modern Australian politician who was more singularly negative in pursuit of their political quarry than Keating was?

My memory is a little dusty but I can’t recall Keating employing the Howard/Rudd tactic of agreeing with the other side’s policies when they had merit. Putting aside that this was a tactic to emphasise the points of difference, I can only remember Keating going for the jugular every time.

While Keating had more rhetorical flair to his parliamentary jibes, he never pulled his punches. Andrew Peacock was the soufflé that wouldn’t rise twice; John Hewson was the feral abacus who’d be done slowly; Alexander Downer was ole darlin’ and the salmon who jumps on the hook for you; and John Howard was a miserable political carcass.

Would Keating have traipsed into misogyny to score a few points? Maybe. The PM who implemented a number of progressive policies for women, was nevertheless known to universally address them as darl’ and sweetheart.

Would he mercilessly court the media to support his policies to the exclusion of all others? Well, yes, because that’s exactly what he did. There was nary a journalist or news organisation that did not support his tilt against Bob Hawke, his destruction of Hewson and the Fightback package, and his ill-fated run against Howard.

Would Keating have abandoned ALP philosophies and overturned public promises to get back the political advantage? Of course! Do the sale of the Commonwealth Bank or “L.A.W. tax cuts” ring a bell?

As astute political observer Malcolm Farnworth said recently on a related topic,

… politics in 2011 may be lively but it barely rates against some of the great upheavals in our history. Those who see the nation beset by crisis really should do some reading.

Perhaps the same observation applies to our perception of Tony Abbott as the most negative politician to have ever walked Australia’s democratic stage.

Leadership is True North for our political compasses

What is this malaise that’s gripping Australian voters? According to the latest opinion poll we’re deeply unhappy with Julia Gillard (disapprove 50%, approve 37%) yet we still prefer her to Tony Abbott as Prime Minister (Gillard 42%, Abbott 33%). Even more confusingly, despite our concerns about Abbott, it seems we would elect a Coalition government tomorrow if given the chance.

What is it that makes us unable to embrace the combination of party and leader currently on offer? Perhaps it’s that we don’t carry the same tribal allegiance to political parties that our parents did. Today, many people have no such allegiance and therefore cast their vote on a case-by-case basis depending upon contemporary values and how they are to be realised through election commitments.

It’s for this reason that political leadership is often the vote clincher. An effective leader is the embodiment of the values that a voter holds most dear. Values such as honesty, integrity, compassion, altruism and the capacity to make hard decisions for the greater good – these are the values that modern Australians want to be exemplified by the people for whom they vote.

Is this a big ask? Yes indeed. And what are the implications when a politician does not meet the mark? Well, look no further than the mixed fortunes of Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and their respective parties for the answer.

Australian voters are all over the place when it comes to political support because they want leadership and simply can’t find it. Leadership is the True North that we all need for our political compasses.

In response to a recent poll, only 34% of voters agreed that federal Labor had a good team of leaders, while 40% made the same assessment of the Liberals. The Greens garnered even less support with only 29% considering them to have a good leadership team.

Perhaps even more damning was the percentage of voters who believed that a party would promise to do anything in order to win votes. An astonishing 72% believed this description applied to Labor, with 65% for the Liberals and 52% for the Greens.

Successful leaders embody the values that their supporters hold dear. To do that, they need to understand their followers. Considering that a majority of voters think the parties have poor leadership and would say anything to get a vote, it comes as no surprise that they’re also considered to be out of touch with ordinary people. Voters decry the three parties as similarly disconnected, with 61% saying that Labor is out of touch, 54% for the Liberals and 60% for the Greens.

These findings show that contemporary political leadership has been scrutinised by everyday Australians and has been found wanting.

In management theory there are many types of leadership. Some effective leaders work within their constituencies and empower others to be the source of motivation and direction. This type of leader seeks neither a profile nor recognition because that would detract from the group dynamic.

The more commonly known leadership type is that which inspires and achieves action by motivating constituents who admire and emulate the leader. This type of leader does not shy from stepping out in front, capturing the limelight and being placed on a pedestal.

If left unchecked, this follow-me leader will have to continually ramp up their followers’ expectations in order to maintain high levels of motivation. Leaders that encourage hero-worship like this inevitably create unrealistic expectations and are brought back to ground by their disillusioned fans.

Perhaps this is the problem right now in Australian politics. We’re not holding out for a hero (with apologies to Bonnie Tyler), we just want someone whose words and deeds are worth admiring and emulating. We don’t necessarily want a popular Prime Minister, just a strong leader who will do the right thing for the country and thereby for all of us.

For many years that politician was John Howard. While he was never a popular politician, Howard had the ability to secure the votes of people who didn’t like him or didn’t usually vote Liberal. These people didn’t necessarily agree with Howard but they responded to his leadership and trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. Admittedly Fraser also won elections while unpopular, but Howard did so after making some very unpopular decisions.

It’s a matter of record that Howard threw that trust away. He squandered the electoral asset that he’d carefully built over years in high office with acts of indulgence and hubris. People lost faith in Howard as they watched him put personal political philosophies ahead of the public interest. He stopped being the leader that people respected and so he lost their support.

Rudd relinquished his claim to strong leadership in a much shorter space of time, by failing to 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 did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so, among other reasons, because they knew voters had lost faith in him and were waiting to demonstrate this at the ballot box.

Gillard similarly built up and then shattered voters’ expectations. 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 asylum-seekers. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; capitulated on a promise not to introduce a carbon price; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

It’s hard to think of an action the current PM has taken that any Australian would be inspired to emulate: her 50% disapproval rate is confirmation of that.

And finally, there is Tony Abbott. Despite Julia Gillard having shattered their high hopes, only 33% of voters prefer Abbott to her. Abbott is not a viable alternative to Gillard because, despite his machismo, he’s just not seen as a leader. Abbott displays none of the humanity and common decency that distinguished both Howard and Rudd during their time as Opposition Leader. He does not attempt to enable others as leaders, nor does he attempt to inspire: his demeanour is menacing and his rhetoric is consistently negative. No wonder his disapproval rating is 48%.

So here we are, disillusioned, disoriented and perhaps even disenfranchised by the lack of political leadership in Australia.

Ironically, politicians are disillusioned with voters too. Sadly, they seem unable to identify the cause of our malaise. It’s simple, we need a leader – someone with integrity and courage, with humanity and compassion, who knows us and will do the right things by the country.

Perhaps it’s too late for Gillard and Abbott, or perhaps they can look within and find the leader that they need to be and that we need them to be. Without such a leader we will all struggle on, as if without a compass, through the Australian political wilderness.

This piece originally appeared at The King’s Tribune

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.

Shit happens: What should Abbott have done?

I’m not one to jump to the defence of Tony Abbott. Regular visitors to this blog know I’m more likely to criticise him and offer gratuitous advice.

But last night I found myself defending Abbott’s non-response to an offensive line of questioning from a journalist.

Early reports of the incident suggested that Abbott was gobsmacked by the footage of him using a ribald colloquialism in a clumsy attempt to show blokeish empathy with his defence force hosts. It was said that he could do nothing more than stare silently at the journalist.

In reality, Tony Abbott responded to the journalist several times and, when the reporter tried to mimic an old Kerry O’Brien tactic by asking the same question over and over, Abbott chose to say nothing rather than dignify it with an answer. Which is in fact what he said once the hack finished his poor imitation of O’Brien.

In retrospect, what gratuitous advice would I give the Oppostion Leader? Absolutely none.

As a former media adviser with a communications background rather than a journalistic one, I believe Abbott did the best he could.

What were his options?

1. Keep answering the question? If he had done so the journalist would have taken the next line of questioning – will you apologise, is this the type of behaviour befitting an alternative PM, will you resign? Acknowledging any of these questions with an answer, even if it is merely a repetition of your own message, will send you down the slippery slide of indefensible questions.

2. Walk away? Abbott found out during the recent federal election campaign that refusing to answer questions and walking away from a media event, even if it is merely a photo op, is deemed equivalent to running away and will be portrayed as such.

3. Hit back – either orally or physically? As much as Abbott would have liked to, this clearly was not an option.

Which leaves us with Option 4: say your piece, wait out the journalist’s attempt to further Shanghai you, then say your piece again. If the journalist persists, stay silent again until he/she gives up.

In choosing to meet this line of questioning with silence, Abbott used the aural equivalent of a simple tactic used by celebrities to ruin paparazzi photos by closing their eyes and rendering the shot unpublishable. On rare occasions such as this one, the closed eyes or deliberate silence become the story due to the determination of the media outlet to have a story, and nothing more.

In reality, Abbott was on a hiding to nothing no matter what he did, and he chose the option that would minimise the damage to him. I believe this will be borne out in the hours and days ahead.

Post script: This article by Crikey reports that the “shit happens” comment was found by accident after Channel 7 FOIed the Defence Department footage to obtain vision of Abbott shooting a variety of guns. It was this that the Opposition Leader’s office was resisting being released to the public. However, Crikey also reports that Abbott was given a couple of hours notice about the line of questioning that Riley intended to use.