27 October 2009

A little quirky

Dr Peter Phelps has hit the headlines again for all the wrong reasons. For someone with so much experience of political campaigning and media, he regularly makes the cardinal error of backroom advisors: he makes himself the story.

That said, this is a poor article. You have to get two-thirds of the way down to find that Turnbull's office received the email in question rather than generated it - none of us would wish to be judged by the emails we received. Matthew Franklin should have quoted Phelps' email more fully up front than he apparently did, explained who Phelps is in relation to Opposition staff and his background (yes, including his attempt to shirtfront Mike Kelly on "the Nuremberg defence" in 2007). If this is your idea of valuable content, Mr Murdoch, your paywall proposal is in trouble.

"You don't get news stories by trying to change perceptions, you get them by reinforcing stereotypes," said the email, penned by Peter Phelps, media adviser to opposition cabinet secretary Michael Ronaldson.

I have always hated the neologism "penned" but it's particularly inappropriate here: emails are not written with a pen, Matthew. Yes, I'm being a smart-alec but so were you by implying that the email had been written by Turnbull or one of his staff.

What follows here is not an assumption that Franklin has quoted Phelps fully, or fairly summarised his contentions. Where quotation marks have been used I will assume that they come directly from Peter Phelps' email and that Phelps himself wrote them, however inconvenient it may be for him to admit it: Franklin may be a hypemongering fool but let's assume he's honest.

It's precisely at the point where the stereotypes fail that you get real news. You can get through life with your stereotypes if they work for you: you don't need to read a newspaper at all if you live in a world where your stereotypes exactly match reality. While it's true that lazy journalists basically write stories that fit their stereotypes, it's also true that readership of newspapers that engage in this are in decline. The idea of the mainstream media as the conduit to the people (the stereotype, if you will) is unsustainable. It may be that the Rudd Government is among the last to be elected by courting "media proprietors".

People turn to the media for information as to why those stereotypes no longer hold, or situations that are so broad and so fluid that stereotypes are hard to establish in the first place (property prices are an example of this).

Some of us read more widely than the Australian mainstream media can provide in order to keep ahead of settled opinion that may not be appropriate; we might not be many, but we're not an "elite" and we used to be the very sort of people newspaper proprietors built their businesses around. There are more of us in marginal seats than you might realise, and by refusing to be patronised by dumb media we are regarded as "elusive" by both that same dumb media and those no brighter who second-guess them.

The stereotype is that the Rudd Government is doing a good job, and that Malcolm Turnbull is stumbling from one crisis to the next. The stereotype is that Labor is stronger than the Coalition on the economy, the environment, and all those other issues that change votes. If those stereotypes hold the Coalition won't win, can't win the election, Peter. You have to bust the stereotypes. This may mean that Glenn Milne might not want to lunch with you, but that need not be a great loss.

Stories worth pursuing should cover: "Fat cat public servants not caring about taxpayers, pollies with snouts in the trough, special interest groups getting undeserved handouts from tax taken from hard-working Aussies, a favoured pro-Labor contractor who seems to be getting all the work for a particular job etc," the email said.

The first thing that came to mind when I read this was the bipartisan support for polluters getting compensation under the CPRS.

The media might lap this stuff up, but the question is not what's in it for them: the question is, what's in it for the Coalition to point this out? There has to be a clear implication that the Coalition would do things differently, and better. Michael Baume wittered and jibbered away for a decade on this "wastewatch" stuff without shifting a single vote. Same with Labor: nobody recoiled from the Coalition at the last election (or the one before that, etc.) because some minister spent $20,000 on lunch. No such implication can be sustained without a clear policy directive from Turnbull himself about clean and transparent government, or using his backstory for good (e.g. "I'm so rich I don't need inducements").

In other words: policy, Peter, is what is needed here. Yes, Labor might pull it apart - but if you're scared of Labor you shouldn't contest elections at all (which is the position Peter Dutton appears to be taking).

As to stereotypes, Canberra fat cats (elected or not, Labor or Liberal) squandering tax dollars is politics as usual. Politics as usual means the incumbent government is likely to be returned. If the incumbent government is returned the media will go on as it has, but the Liberal Party will suffer, Peter (ultimately I think it will be for the best, but that's another debate to be had later).

"While policy discussions are nice, the simple fact is that in opposition, the majority of our successful news stories are going to be ones which are a little quirky and which draw the attention of journos."

For the Federal Opposition, policy discussions are "nice" in the way that it's "nice" to have a blood transfusion should you ever find yourself bleeding to death.

When an opposition releases policy (whether in the form of a speech, a discussion paper, an online forum or whatever) it is inviting people to consider how the country could be run differently, and better, than it is now. It dares the incumbents to assert both that a) things are as good as they can be, and b) that you can rely on the incumbents to make things better. Rudd himself and other senior members of his government get rattled when they have to defend themselves: putting the agenda back on the government would seem like a smart move for the Liberals.

Depends what you mean by a "successful news stories", though - successful simply in getting into the paper/being mentioned on electronic media at all? The Rudd Government shows that where it has nothing to say, it says nothing: the Howard Government also did this to effect when required. Compare and contrast with the dog-and-pony stunts of Stephen Fielding that have made him a national punchline (and even if they have raised his profile, he's not a serious candidate for government either).

A story that "draw[s] the attention of journos" is not enough for anyone other than the journos: some might ask you hard questions about policy that cannot be simply brushed away, followed up later by accusations of bias. Most of them won't ask hard questions: but all of them will report a failure to address a simple and relevant question as to how a policy proposal might (not) work. Yes, policy: everything else has been tried.

The definition of a successful news story should be one that positions the Liberal Party ahead of Labor as the most suitable government: not just one that creeps into a dying organ and is gone from sight and mind the day after it runs. Why bother with journos when you could be, should be appealing to voters?

Q: What do you think about Liberal policy?

A: I think it would be a great idea - and, in the current environment, a little quirky.


  1. Indeed.

    While I tend to find myself on the other side of politics to you, Andrew, I agreed that there is nothing good about a government with no serious opposition. Take Queensland for example.

    If there is going to be a serious opposition then it needs to be on the basis of policy rather than personality. The last couple of elections have clearly shown that the 'small target' strategy of policy differentation on small / minor issues only works when the government of the day is already on the nose. Obviously this is not that case now.

  2. Kevin Rudd put the lie to that, Anonymous. It's amazing how quickly a government goes from being 'on the money' to 'on the nose', but clearly for Turnbull & Co it's not quickly enough.

  3. derrida derider29/10/09 3:44 pm

    There's no doubt that democracy would work better if oppositions focused on policy rather than stunts. But whether it would work better for said oppositions is a different question.

    I think Phelps' thesis is right, no matter how dumb he was to commit such an inconvenient and unflattering truth to paper. Never forget that the classic swinging voter is the least engaged, least aware and all-round-dumbest segment of the population. They - not the true average person - decide who governs.

  4. Ah yes, the old Swinging Voters Are Morons routine. Conservatives and libertarians believe these people have some innate wisdom when they support policies that suit said ideologues, and when they don't they are just cattle.

    There is one politician who is following the Phelps playbook to the letter: Wilson Tuckey. Plenty of coverage, zero credibility.

  5. derrida derider30/10/09 3:34 pm

    Yep, and look how long he's lasted while vastly more talented and atractive people have gone.

    The point here is that we have to carefully distinguish the way the world actually works from the way we think it ought to work. The road to oblivion, like GWB's road to Iraq, is paved with wishful thinking.

  6. I'll disagree with your concept of political success. Longevity counts for little, especially when you consider how little credibility Tuckey has and how scant are his chances of being anything more than a rabble-rouser. Look at how the political complexion of the area in and around Tuckey's seat is changing, and ask yourself what he might have to offer the future of party and nation.

    Let's take a chance and write Tuckey's obituary now:
    - teasing Paul Keating over an ex-girlfriend from the 1960s
    - knifing John Howard in 1989
    - knifing Malcolm Turnbull in 2009
    - err ... that's it really.

  7. In the long run, a political media strategy based on getting lots of quirky stories isn't going to inspire alot of confidence in the electorate.

  8. Indeed not. Particularly when they are not quirky at all, but lame.