09 May 2013

Calibre

We do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career. If we want women of that calibre to have families, and we should, well we have to give them a fair dinkum chance to do so. That is what this scheme [Coalition policy] of paid parental leave is all about.

- Tony Abbott, 7 May 2013, defending Liberal policy on paid parental leave
Tony Abbott has copped a lot of stick over the use of the word 'calibre' to describe well-educated, highly paid women, in an attempt to ascribe inherent virtue to them that goes beyond an individual's intelligence, drive, support networks, and good fortune. Some of it comes from a transgression of a basic rule of politics, but most of it comes from the force that comment has in smashing the contorted views of Abbott that are starting to appear like so many mushrooms: that Abbott is actually a nice guy, that he's not a snob or a sexist, that he'd be a decent Prime Minister, and that there is some sort of link between what he says and the policy outcomes we can expect from him.

It's a basic rule of Australian politics that Liberals can't afford to be seen to be snobs. Every successful Liberal leader has promised stability and opportunity for (pretty much) everyone. Every failed Liberal leader has, fairly or not, created the impression that only those who are already wealthy deserve tax breaks and subsidies and other measures that cement them at the top of the heap. Current Liberal proposals to lower the tax-free threshold and tax superannuation for lower-income earners is mind-bogglingly stupid. It's hubris in its purest essence, and they will not look convincing when they have to run away from it.

As David Marr points out, Tony Abbott comes from a group of ambitious North Shore people who have been given lots of advantages in life and who are driven by a wish to appear to make the most of them. He's engaged in mutual admiration with Nick Cater over what they see as virtuous defence of the wealthy and the unity of wealth with virtue. Another high-profile example of this phenomenon is Miranda Devine, Abbott's sister-from-another-mother. Marr claims Abbott is not a snob, a common Canberra Insider theme, yet he acts all surprised when Abbott comes out with the 'calibre' comment, or the idea that men are to have dominion over women, or this excerpt from a speech he wrote for John Hewson twenty years ago (complete with, ah, Abbott's verbal, um, mannerisms):
In any street, of course, it's always easy to tell the rented houses. They're the ones where the lawn isn't mowed, the plants aren't watered and the fences aren't fixed.
Abbott isn't a snob, he's an honourable man: and so says David Marr.

Abbott's Pollie Pedal is supposed to balance his fitness obsession with his generosity of spirit. No journalist looks into where the money goes, or even whether it's appropriate to bedeck himself in sponsorship. The fact that he claims a daily allowance for this supposedly recreational/charity work shows you what no journalist can bear to confront about this man. Marr wrote about Abbott's drop in income after going into Opposition without questioning why others similarly affected sucked it up and moved on.

Marr says Abbott is generous and unconcerned with money, and Marr is a great journalist.

The Liberals have put a lot of work into convincing aspirational voters who rely on their own efforts, and who no longer have steady, unionised jobs on offer, that a Liberal vote is the right vote for them. A retreat into the university-educated professions imperils that, and makes a joke of twenty years of careful long-term strategy. They sneer at Prime Minister Gillard for her insistence that a good education is the answer, yet in the 'calibre' comment is the tacit admission that she's right.

Clementine Ford makes two important points about Abbott's paid parental leave (PPL) policy. The first is that we are being asked to believe that he really is committed to his policy in a time of austerity, when he wasn't at a time of relative plenty:
When Abbott says, "we do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career", he's echoing a long held (liberal) feminist viewpoint. What was forgotten in Tuesday's online melee was that Abbott had earlier also said, "It's a very important sign that we get it when it comes to the modern family, the modern family invariably needs more than just one income. If we want to encourage families to have kids, if we want to make it easier for women to have careers and families, we need something like a proper paid parental leave scheme.

"We can't really afford to lose so many highly capable women in the prime of life and from the workforce. So I think this is not just a family policy or a social policy. It's not just something for women. This is something for everyone."

Fine words from a man who once said compulsory paid maternity leave would happen "over this government’s dead body, frankly. What we'll end up doing [with universal maternity leave] is creating more resentment in society. More division, more alienation and, I suspect, not produce more freedom of opportunity for women to enter the workforce."
Not quite 'something for everyone'. It represents an improvement over the government's current policy (a reverse of the parties' relative NBN policies), so in that sense Abbott is devoting a lot of effort to solve what in policy terms is a non-problem. What he is doing, of course, is attempting to address the very real problem over his perception by women - until he disowns it in the name of a budget surplus.

Ford's point about analysis is well made. Rather than go for the gotcha, the media should analyse policies to the extent that Eva Cox did on PPL. It's inadequate to describe the Coalition's workplace relations policy to the extent that it isn't like WorkChoices, nor like Fair Work - hardly seems worth doing, really. The press gallery seem to be taking it seriously, and when you're stuck in the politico-media complex that counts for everything.

Tony Abbott was raised to think that social cohesion is under threat, and that women in the workforce is one of those threats: yet he is married to a woman with a career, and may well regard his daughters among the 'women of calibre' he describes. The trouble is, he hasn't reconciled those thoughts in his own head, and hasn't worked out which forms the basis for the policies with which he would govern us. He might recite Shakespeare or Augustine by the yard, if not the chain, but he can't reconcile competing thoughts within his own skull. It's that compartmentalisation that makes him unstable: you never know which bucket - thug bucket, Oxford bucket, Santamaria bucket - his thoughts will come from.

Marr can't critique Abbott effectively because he accepts Abbott's compartmentalisation. Tony Abbott is an intelligent and thoughtful man, and so says the press gallery.

This gets to the most genuinely horrible defence of Tony Abbott, by Mia Freedman:
Ok. So he proposes to do something extremely progressive, swims against the tide of many in his own party and floats a Paid Parental Scheme that leap-frogs the current scheme to the overwhelming benefit of women. And? Those same women seek to slam him for it, based on a single word.

These predictably gleeful Gotcha! moments have become the toxic albatross of politics, sapping it of all authenticity and turning it into stultifyingly boring rhetoric. Wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah.
OK.

So what Tony giveth, Tony can and often does take away. If you know anything about Abbott at all (and the whole idea of the pics that prop up Freedman's piece is that she has some direct personal insight into those people that you and I lack), you know that his entire public life has been this doh-si-doh of making a statement, backtracking on it, making another statement etc.; anything to keep his name in the media without clarifying what he might do.

It's telling that the Liberal Party's once-formidable women were not the source of PPL policy; and that if Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb change their minds on it, there's bugger-all those women can or will do about it (more so for non-Liberal proponents like Cox or Freedman). Labor and Greens people complain about abuses of democratic party processes more than Liberals, but if you're going to live by the sword of unilateral power then be prepared to die by it.

What's really revolting, though, is the idea that the penalty for going after Abbott's true opinions is to suffer more and more bullshit. The "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah" only occurs when you have a media that places more of a premium on dumbly quoting what is said and avoiding actual analysis of policies and motives.

The reason why politicians' words are scrutinised, and why journalists occasionally draw them out on what they say, is because we need to know what they are doing with the power they have and what they might do if they had more. The sorts of people Freedman are used to interviewing are celebrities, who generate "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah" because that's what they do. Tony Abbott's words are scrutinised because if he becomes Prime Minister, his words and actions will have real impacts on the real lives of real people. Abbott's verbal doh-si-dohs means you can't really tell what he thinks or what he might do.

Freedman sees bullshit (or as she calls it "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah") as some sort of punishment for examining what is true - and that only if we accept what is said and done passively, then the defensive wall-of-blah might go away. I can't describe how much I reject that. There is no proof for it and we would be no better off, not even Freedman whose picfac opportunities (and that's what she really cares about, amirite?) would continue regardless.

I think Abbott's a bullshitter. He's about as likely to introduce a PPL as he is to climb Mount Everest. I also think he's a weak leader, as you can see buried in this story from a friendly media outlet that's not about PPL:
The referendum may be uncomfortable for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, following recent reports several in his party room oppose his in-principle support for it.
It can't be uncomfortable. He's been doing this sort of thing for more than three years as Opposition Leader:
  1. He floats an idea vaguely in agreement with the government, because he has few ideas of his own (believe it or not he did this with carbon pricing);
  2. The far right of the Liberal Party don't have many ideas either, but they need the kind of self-definition that can come with deep thought about what you value and your relationship with others. These fragile people have power over Abbott, they are his powerbase, but wherever he disagree with him they override him;
  3. In this instance, they gain self-definition by opposing what Labor proposes: Labor propose recognising local government, they oppose it. They've done it before, in 1974 and 1988, which gave Peter Reith a purpose that he has since lost (unless you count getting your face on ABC TV is a purpose) but may yet recover.
Tony Abbott is not his own man. There is no link between what he says and what actually happens. You can calibrate your assessment of him on the basis of what he says, and do so fairly. I don't care how David Marr or Mia Freedman feels about those descriptions, or about the following as it regards their (former?) profession. To come up with unflattering assessments like those about Abbott you need to free yourself of the mushroom-cultivation techniques that pass for media management. Media management only works if people believe what's in the media, and when content-providers link their words to what actually happens. It breaks still further when you have a man who will generate "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah" simply to attract attention. You kill it by refusing to engage.

Stop refusing to blame that man for generating pablum and nonsense. Stop claiming he's not a snob and whatever else the evidence points to, accept what he is. Stop blaming those he would govern. You reveal yourself as having too small a calibre to supply people with the information and policy outcomes that they - we - need to choose in order to build their/our - lives.

12 comments:

  1. Excellent as usual Andrew.

    "I think Abbott's a bullshitter."

    I don't think, I know - him being a bullshitter has come out of his own mouth:

    "Well, again Kerry, I know politicians are gonna be judged on everything they say, but sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks."

    How anyone can believe anything emitted from this man is beyond me.

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  2. one of my favourite internet moments is coming to Politically Homeless and finding Andrew has a new Tony Abbott post. Absolutely brilliant stuff.

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  3. Nailed it. The Australian voting population is not being well served by a media pack that is busy crumbling under the strain of economic rationalism...

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  4. Andrew,
    You've been so right in your analyses that I've got my fingers crossed that you're just as right in your predictions.

    Another great post.

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  5. Some quotes on Abbott's "calibre" from Robert Manne in his May 2010 essay from the book "Making Trouble":

    "...from everything I know, Abbott is a personally very decent human being [but] the moral insouciance he displays over the gravest questions of public life is something I find difficult to fathom or forgive."

    (Its unlikely that the intellectual giants of the Press Gallery have the collective nous to recognise, let alone write about, Abbott's "moral insouciance")

    "....Abbott claims to be a constitutional conservative. Yet the most significant reform proposal in Battlelines is a referendum that would effectively destroy the Federation..."

    (assuming this is a reference to the constitutional recognition of Local Govt. Abbott is well and truly wedged here with Gillard's announcement of just such a referendum. The Press Gallery has not yet noticed this little conundrum, how surprisement)

    More from Manne. Abbott's spending commitments back in 2010 included: "elimination of means tests for Family Allowance, the Baby Bonus and private health insurance; high salary increases for elite teachers; a major new road building program; the most fiscally generous parental leave system in the world, and...an extension of Medicare to a system of universal dental treatment...Even at the level of rhetoric Abbott is almost comically inconsistent. At one moment in Battlelines he solemnly promises a fiscal conservatism as rigorous as Peter Costello's in the budget of 1996. At another, he tells his readers that governments must learn to "spend" and not merely to "hoard".

    I could go on. Manne's chapter on Battlelines is worth a read if only for the laughs.

    And if the Press Gallery had any talent or wit available it might consider drawing up a parallel list of Abbott's gigantic spending promises in Battellines and the IPA's 75 item Wish List for Abbott's ascension to glory, where the federal government is taken out the back and drowned in a bathtub.

    Anyone who believes Abbott is his own man, whose word can be trusted, should watch him dancing backwards and forwards during the next few months on PPL, carbon pricing, Local Govt Referendum, IR, Gonski, etc etc.

    Its not what he says that matters, what matters is who is pulling his strings.

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    1. Great comment!

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  6. It's interesting that Abbott says "we do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career", while his party hammers the "job snob" rhetoric for both educated men and women who find themselves temporarily unemployed and seeking work in their fields.

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  7. got you late but still got you

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  8. “You Son of a Gun, Tony!” Or “What Has That Bastard Said Now?”

    While throughout Australia most folk are in bed,
    Tony Abbott is fretting over something he said.
    Not - “When you deliver, you’ll be fully paid.”
    That is a promise he swears won't be unmade.

    Journos are crowing over lines they’ve been fed.
    There’s even a ‘libber,’ not easily led,
    Loves his planned six months paid maternity leave.
    His polling’s improved like you wouldn’t believe.

    The Labor scheme – for rich, poor, married, unwed -
    All the same, even career gals powering ahead.
    What Gillard has given they think no big deal
    Because Abbott’s offering has far more appeal.

    But those on the right think his plan’s far too red,
    A shiver of doubt through some Liberals has spread.
    They’ve told their dear leader that he must facts -
    For businessmen levies are worse than a tax.

    His IPA ‘mates’ want the policy shed.
    “Close to Rupert now, Tony! Watch how you tread!”
    Peta’d said firmly, with her usual advice,
    “ Before you open your mouth, please, please, think twice!”

    In Canberra now, wide awake, not abed,
    Tony paces his room, feeling all muddlehead.
    What had he been thinking of earlier today,
    That some inner compulsion forced him to say?

    He can’t remember; was it something he’s read?
    He knows he’ll regret it till the day he’s dead.
    That’s it! One word - calibre! All about guns!
    Not women and babies.....unless.....they have sons!

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    1. Brilliant, Patricia.

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  9. VoterBentleigh11/5/13 4:40 pm

    Good to see the truth written in black and white. It's true that the Coalition scheme is unlikely to be ever introduced in its current form, if at all. The claim that it is generous for women and good policy for them is wrong, too, as the costs will be so great either to business or the taxpayer, employers will favour men over women of child bearing age and it will tend to take more women out of the workforce, especially if they start to have larger families - no wonder it appeals to the Opposition Leader! Labor's more economically viable and reasonable scheme encourages women in the work force and does not impose excessive strain on business, the taxpayer or the economy.

    The three aspects of the Opposition Leader's method of approaching policy are dead right, too.

    You mention the media's failure to actually analyze what is being said. The Opposition uses words and terms to deceive and via this means take Labor policy initiatives and twist their meaning, throwing the words back in the Government's face.

    For instance, in the Coalition's IR policy, they talk about “IFAs”. Under Labor, IFAs are Individual Flexibility Arrangements between employers and employees which allow for flexibility to enterprise agreements, but also provide a safety net or protection of workers' rights. So these arrangements do not affect all the worker's other conditions or their overall agreement with the employer. So the worker will be better off, not worse off under Labor IFAs.

    The Coalition has picked up on the term “IFAs”, speaking of Individual Flexibility Agreements, but they mean a completely different workplace policy, where the workers enter into unrestricted, flexibility agreements covering all of their conditions and enterprise agreement and where there is no protection of basic conditions. Employees may be able to ask for flexibility, but this will mean trade-offs as there will be no restriction on the use of IFAs. So, for instance, you can be paid in non-monetary terms. Sure, the worker can ask for flexibility, but the employer will be also able to impose flexibility, so workers can choose to enter into these agreements - or they can choose not to have a job!

    Sly and deceptive, but the use of the same term has fooled even the journalists who say to Labor MPs: But how can you criticise, because you've got IFAs in your policy too, haven't you?!

    Journalists seem unaware that IFAs under Labor are not IFAs under the Coalition. They appear not to examine even the little detail that the Coalition has deemed we should see.

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  10. Bullshit is only part of Abbott's arsenal. The other is telling people what he thinks they want to hear. He got caught out with his comments on Alan Jones' program where he gave comfort to farmers by saying that he would do something about allowing CSG development on their property. LNP policy is nothing of the sort.

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