03 May 2014

Magical Thinking 2: venting and hyperventilating

And there you have it: the politico-media complex is as one on this. You can either agree with the government (on the 'budget emergency', and the need to make the cuts identified by the 'Commission of Audit') or you are 'hyperventilating'. There is no third option.

Faster-than-normal breathing is part of the body's reaction to stress: whether you're going to "fight or [take] flight", you're going to need additional oxygen. Hyperventilation occurs when people experience stress but neither fight nor flee (we could go on about the science of balancing gases in the bloodstream, but who even cares about science in Abbott's Australia?). It is the helpless inaction of critics that is being mocked by the use of this word - for example, young girls in the presence of pop idols who can neither have their idols nor go and do something more productive. When political-class operatives talk about 'hyperventilating' this is what they mean: they mock the inability of critics to either make the changes they would wish to make, or (as they do) to quietly accept the government's prerogatives and play their little part in fulfilling its objectives.

Maybe the choices aren't so black-and-white, and maybe you can criticise the government without 'hyperventilating'. Maybe this is what Bill Shorten is doing, who knows?

Previous governments would float ideas through various mechanisms - royal commissions, backbench committees and so on - and then gauge the extent to which they can push through the outrage or drop it altogether. With Howard, an idea would float, generate outrage and then he'd back away from it, causing this grey rhetorical fog to descend followed by some muddled compromise. With Rudd, an idea would float and whatever its merits, he'd move onto something else. Our three correspondents above, bless 'em all, assume this government is a continuation of its predecessors despite having closely observed evidence that it is not.

Abbott does not have the moderating impulses that Howard or Rudd had. This is a matter of public record over many years, not some sudden surprise. He lacks the comforting grey fog with which Howard and other long-term leaders could smother public debate and marginalise the sharper edges. Whether we're talking about the Commission of Audit proposals, or any other predicament before government, only Liberal loyalists who say: don't worry, Tony Abbott is across it (the very prospect frightens everyone else).

The Commission of Audit report is not just another competing agenda in the intellectual foment of a capable government; it stands like a lemonade stand in a desert, ramshackle and badly stocked, not the most attractive option but what else is there? Stop hyperventilating and suck it down.

Even if the Budget does not implement all of the proposals of the Commission of Audit, no comfort should or will be taken from that. No comfort can be taken from denials of how this or that will ever see the light of day, because this government will just lie doggo on such proposals and slip them in just before the next long weekend. There is no 'relaxed and comfortable' under this government. The only people impressed by this kind of pantomime are the political-class operatives for whom it is performed, including journalists so jaded they no longer capable of actually describing what is going on.

Tim Dunlop believes it is necessary to record one's dissent; and it is, however insufficient it may appear. As Dunlop has also noted, because the traditional media has framed itself out of being able to report on matters such as demonstrations of dissent, then the mechanisms by which dissent is made and registered are broken. We are now in a position where, when the effects of dissent to this government's policies become felt, the grounds for the dissent will be disconnected from the effect.

Lacking authentic political bases in their own right, modern political class operatives rely on polls and pollsters to warn them about sources of dissent. One of the better ones was Peter Brent. When the Coalition were ahead in the polls he was happy to identify why and brooked no nonsense that merely being clueless and inept was some sort of barrier to winning and staying in office. With this piece, Labor are ahead in the polls so he's dropped the stats and relied on bull-headed assertions and thunderous warnings which are the house style for News muppets.
WITH so many broken election promises in the pipeline, and a prime minister never much loved in the electorate, you might think the Abbott government is in a spot of political bother.

It depends what one means by “bother”.
Doesn't it always? Do I look bovvered?
They have a secure majority on the floor of the House and there is no poll due for two-and-a-half years.
Though they were outside her own party, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were more loyal to Gillard than many - eventually, most - of her own party. Gillard had a majority like Menzies did in 1961. Look at the polls six months into Gillard's term and then look at Brent's commentary on them, compare them to his more recent work at the same electoral point.
And, in the end, politically, that election result will be all that matters, all that’s remembered.
Honestly? Of everything that happened in Australian politics over 2007-13, only people like Peter Brent remember what the membership numbers were in the House of Representatives at the three elections. The memorable bits didn't happen on election night. Leave the assertions to bloggers Peter, or that Kenny van Onselen fellow a few desks over.
Those words should be on the wall of Labor headquarters. Not because they’re true, but because so many people believe them.
But when Labor people assert untruths, or try to operate on the basis of untruths, News outlets call them liars. I'm no strategist, but I have noticed that every piece of advice to the ALP coming out of News tends to be bullshit. Maybe the next Peter Brent could do some analysis on that.
And Labor’s debt and deficits albatross will see the Abbott government re-elected in 2016, pretty much regardless of what they do.
Hardly. While Howard was re-elected in 1998, and while he banged on about the fiscal position left him in, Howard had a bigger margin and more credibility than Abbott has today.
Shorten’s tactic is to avoid, deflect, get back on message: broken promises, “skewed priorities” and a government out of touch with people’s concerns.

Shorten comes from the party machine. He is rehearsed. He keeps it simple.
Substitute 'Abbott' for 'Shorten' and, again, go back to about six months after he became Leader of the Opposition.

The following four paragraphs are the ones that really show that Brent makes a more convincing pollster than political analyst:
Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen has more of a go, but like the rest of his party is trapped in the Keynesian narrative of Labor’s decision to go into deficit rescuing the country from recession.

That’s a shocking political message, because it implies they had a choice about going into the red.

The only politician on either side who has publicly stated (or conceded) that had the Coalition been in government during the GFC they too would have presided over debt and deficits, is the treasurer, Joe Hockey. I believe he’s only done it once (in opposition).

Most Australians, including it seems most political journalists, would be surprised to learn this. But it never seems to occur to anyone in the ALP to make this argument.
The job of political journalists is to tell Australians what is going on inside their government and their parliament. Over the previous three to six years, political journalists simply ignored political messaging that did not fit their pre-existing prejudices frames. Labor, having been punished for trying to push such messages, seem to have given up kicking against media prejudice framing - and Brent is stumped as to why Labor won't keep making arguments that lead them to defeat.

In the tweets at the top of this page, Brent's colleague David Crowe purports to quote someone, but it isn't clear who - this is a real worry when you consider that for Crowe, as with most in the press gallery, stenography is the most significant part of his journalistic skill.
Last week the Saturday Paper took us inside Labor’s “war room”, where the party brains trust divulged some of their strategy for returning to government at the earliest opportunity.

Oh dear.

Some of their thinking was sound, but the core plan seems to be catching Abbott out on broken promises, cultivating voter anger that the Coalition government is proving to be different to that which was promised before the election.

Maybe the brains trust is too young to remember, but every party that moves from opposition into government breaks promises.
No, read the article Peter: Labor is claiming that the government is fundamentally different from what it promised before the election, way beyond this or that broken promise.

Besides, after the last election, when Shorten's immediate predecessor as Opposition Leader was banging on about broken promises, political analysts were much less blithe.
And always the leader and the party have been almost unrecognisable in office compared with the versions in opposition.
Different, yes, and the better ones grow in office - but "unrecognisable"? Really?
Short-term disgruntlement is the sort of thing that shows up in focus groups and makes opposition party strategists satisfied with their work. But elections aren’t won in focus groups, especially ones held months and years before election day.
Oh, aren't they? The whole mythology of Mark Textor is that they are.
The Abbott government will go to the 2016 election saying what they’re saying today, that Labor left a horrible mess and they had to fix it.
The Howard government went to the 2007 election saying what they said in 1996, that Labor left a horrible mess and they had to fix it, and all of a sudden there was no point in voting for a powerless government. Like Drag0nista, Brent confuses stating what Coalition strategy is with the ultimate victory of that strategy.

Speaking of Drag0nista:
Palmer tells people what they want to hear, with seemingly little thought given to the possibility that conflicting promises will be exposed or indeed whether they can be achieved at all.
It would be rude to call this 'hyperventilation', wouldn't it.

Small parties disappear when they lose faith with their voters. Getting stuck into big parties is how they get noticed. Don Chipp even referred to members of big parties as 'bastards'. His party, the Democrats, lost faith with its voters decades later when it tried to accommodate the then government; commentators at the time applauded then-leader Meg Lees for being 'responsible'.

Not content with death-riding the Greens, Drag0nista has now set her cap at Palmer. She is convinced that wherever little parties take on big parties the smart money is on Goliath. As with Brent's piece, there is the assumption that Abbott and the Coalition are safe so long as other parties can be shown to be flawed too, and thus Abbott should continue receiving the benefit of the doubt no matter what he does.

Big parties are becoming small parties. In the aftermath of the NSW ICAC hearings, it is likely that the officials of what have traditionally been the parties of government who emerge from the rubble will be the sorts of people with very little of the big-time political experience that you need to operate at the highest levels of politics. The same goes for the Queensland LNP - all the old men who made that work are transitioning from hopefuls to has-beens, and a future based upon Jarrod Bleijie and Wyatt Roy is less promising as some might hope. The future of the Victorian Libs is also far from assured beyond Christmas.

This scourge of the majors may uncover some impressive leaders who might not otherwise have made it, like Adenauer and Erhard in postwar Germany, but then again they might Yelstin themselves into irrelevance. It's hard to tell from this angle. What is clear, however, is that blithe assurances of the same old same-old are bullshit, and that so-called experienced observers only assert their own irrelevance by cleaving to conventional wisdom.

It can't be denied that political fundamentals are changing in response to political-class tactics that once seemed smart, even inevitable. Those who are long-time observers of politics do us a disservice when they assert that the old patterns are sound, and they'd know what they are, when the men and methods that comprise them are so clearly unsustainable.


  1. Congratulations Andrew.

    Here in Victoria I see another nasty surprise for the liberals

    Saw a younger Liberal in a safe ethnic seat hanging around the main
    shopping trip trying to entice that
    minority vote...

    Even that demographic doesn't vote
    for them after the horrendous tactic of
    trying to repeal of the racial vilification
    act here in Multicultural Melbourne


    Stop smoking that weird stuff strategists. ..it's not working

    The designer clad princesses have moved on and are smarter than you.

    Point noted Andrew.

    You losing your trendy cousins down here with awful candidates!

  2. Lachlan Ridge4/5/14 1:56 am

    With eightbyfive fast turning into twobyfour I am trying to recall the Central Coast Liberal Party member who appeared to try to stand up to the Hartcher machine on the Central Coast over some preselections prior to the last state and federal electons?.

    Does anyone recall him? I believe the matter ended in court, and went badly for our subject. But given the current allegations he appears to be smelling rather rosy indeed.

    And on a tangential note, didn't the member for Dobell (and currentvguest of ICAC) squeak home on a rather slim margin? about 1500 votes after preferences from memory. An extraordinary result given she was riding the coat-tails of the Thom(p)son affair.

    From off the top of my head I believe that there is another baker's dozen or so seats that are also held on rather slim margins. So what is Brent prattling about? It's not as if Abbott is sitting on some invulnerable majority a-la Newman or Baird (nee O'Farrell).

    Smart people these political class.

  3. Thank the powers that aren't that we have people like you and Dunlop to call Brent & Matthewson on their desperate tugging of the Overton window. I suspect that some of them now realise that they are responsible for the Situation, and are thinking "Oh shit! That rumbling sound is either tumbrels or the coming of Clive Palmer"

  4. Andrew, you're right about old patterns not being right anymore. The media are still using the old thinking about party loyalty and at least 2 terms etc. That has changed, Rudd and Gillard shouted that the electorate is far less patient and forgiving than it used to be. Rudd's spectacular fall didn't happen in a vacuum, it was facilitated by the electorate. That same attitude has just as much ability to turn Abbott into a single termer. When you add in several Liberal Premiers who've been dispatched other than at the ballot box and the current ICAC shenanigans, the one-sided narrative being just a Labor thing collapses.

    The world has changed. Party membership has dwindled and we have an impatient electorate that wants results yesterday and a perfect life and any political party that doesn't give it to them will be shown the door. There is also, in my view, far more selfishness and accordingly the 'take one for the country' rallying call that worked in the past has lost some of its edge. It's the curse of a country that has had it so good for so long.

  5. I am with you Andrew and admire your energy.
    Peter B should read today's headlines across News Ltd papers. Stop the Tax because they are Stopping the Votes. Galaxy says Coalition would lose election if held now and that almost three-quarters of voters think the suggested debt levy is a broken promise.

    If the supposed carbon tax back pedal worked so well for Abbott then he has presented the same opportunity to shorten.

    Oh Abbott, you non-creative, sack-cloth, warrior person. You thrive on conflict don't you? He copies everything from more 'polished' players but is too ham-fisted and cauliflower-eared to carry it off. Yes Andrew he did not use the Relaxed and Comfortable line but he clumsily substituted that for No Surprises. No Shocks or no shocks no surprises. But he does not have Howard's faux kindly old uncle persona to carry it off. He is too prickly. Too strange. Too evasive. Too tricky.

  6. Re debt charges not being a new tax but a 'temporary levy' ....
    Mike Carlton tweeted yesterday that income tax itself was a temporary measure introduced by Pitt the Younger in 1798 to pay for the cost of the Napoleonic Wars.
    A handy reminder.

  7. Have just listened to Peter Brent on RN. On political honesty. He mumbled something.

  8. Andrew, I don’t agree that journalists are in lockstep agreement with the government regarding the CoA. Casting about seems to throw up opinions that run counter to your general assertion that reporting on politics has become muted. Crikey’s ‘errorist’ Bernard Keane is positively apoplectic in his reporting on the CoA. Peter Martin wants to know why the CoA carefully avoided an examination of taxation and Tom Allard over at The Standard has run his eye over the CoA and advises us to brush up on our funeral etiquette because the PM will be buried if he adopts all of the CoA’s recommendations. Even Bill Shorterm, fresh from his personality bypass, isn’t happy with the CoA’s findings. There are other dissentient voices.

    The above group is typical of some journos and bloggers whose saturnine disposition challenges the opinion of other journos and bloggers whom you seem to categorise as still life. The balance appears to be about right so it boils down to who you believe.


    1. Kabonese is a peculiar way of spelling Rupert.

    2. Lachlan Ridge5/5/14 6:09 pm

      So having two conflicting opinions is 'balance', as if they're both right. And you dish up Crikey, the Standard (wtf!) and the wonk Martin up as if they matter? What are channel seven, nine and ten saying? that's what your beloved election deciding bogans are watching.

      You really are a fool.

  9. I imagine the CoA cost a fair bit of money. It was also part of the L/NPs election promises. If the audit was just designed to whip up hysteria, wouldn't the next question be why was so much time and money wasted on it?

    1. https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/business/a/23208047/audit-costs-2-5m/

      It went way over budget, it cost more than double the original estimate, I find that terribly funny - in a sad sort of way.


  10. I take it you've read the commissions recommendations on managing expenditure : http://www.ncoa.gov.au/report/phase-one/part-b/7-managing-expenditure-growth.html

    With a few amendments most of it would be implemented by Hawke and Keating in a flash. They wouldn't have needed a commission to tell them what to do, either.

    Since you are an intelligent blogger, I assume the common sensibleness of these recommendations is the reason why you have spent two columns in circular waffling without even attempting to debunk the recommendations?

    1. Which ones, bb? Why should I take a slapdash assortment of ill-considered policies sprinkled with what-he-said endorsements at all seriously? They can stay in their bunk, and rot.

    2. This is where you are coming from on economic reform Andrew? Is your political home becoming PUP?

  11. I picked up a copy of the Guardian, the Communist Party Australia's newspaper and part of the editorial lashes one aspect of the CoA. Under the heading A Tax on the Sick the Guardian expresses its total opposition to any plans for a co-payment for those visiting a doctor. The editorial says that any co-payment will force people into the emergency departments of the hospitals.

    I don't know if Bob Briton or Vinnie Molina wrote the editorial (maybe it was a joint effort) so you can add one or two more players to the anti CoA team.


    1. I didn't know there was still a Communist Party, or that attempting to link people to communists was even worth doing. Like them, I suppose you need a hobby, and you deserve one another.

  12. Hi Kabonesa,

    I'd be fascinated to know how you picked up a copy of The Guardian Australia as it only exists online, there isn't a print version.
    This is really very poor trolling, I'm afraid I can only give you 1/10.


    1. The Communist Party does have a print Guardian newspaper, as opposed to the Manchester Guardian http://www.cpa.org.au/guardian/

  13. Pedro of Canberra6/5/14 10:46 am


    Perhaps you should change the subtitle on your masthead to "Tony Abbott will never be a two-term Prime Minister of Australia".

    Or would that be jinxing us?

    1. I've changed it enough. Abbott will collapse quickly

  14. This isn't a sentence "Whether we're talking about the Commission of Audit proposals, or any other predicament before government, only Liberal loyalists who say: don't worry, Tony Abbott is across it (the very prospect frightens everyone else)." which is very unusual for you

  15. Hi DiddyWrote,
    I was intrigued to see a copy of the Guardian on the desk where I volunteer. Our H/Q is at Surry Hills and so is the CPA NSW H/Q. I don’t know how our secretary came by his copy of the Guardian but I will ask him tomorrow and let you know.

    Thanks for the 1/10 mark. I can only allot you 1/10 for you description of me. Did you know that people who hold heterodox views are not necessarily trolls? Andrew Elder doesn’t seem to agree with the CoA so does that make him a troll? Doesn't Andrew Elder bang on about people being in lockstep agreement with this or that?


    1. No. I don't agree with the Communists of Australia (CoA) or whatever they call themselves, and fancy spending 150% of your budget to rubber-stamp a bunch of press releases. Why come here if you don't read the blog?

    2. Hi Kabonesa,

      I apologise for my mistake, when I read your description of The Guardian (Australian version of the British daily) as the communist party's newspaper I assumed this was similar to calling The Age as The Pravda on the Yarra.

      As Neale has kindly pointed out above the CPA actually have a real publication called the Guardian of which I was unaware.

      I'll now eat a large slice of humble pie.



  16. Karbonesa - maybe you could outline your heterodox views for us.

  17. Sorry to go off a tangent again...

    Had the privilege of listening to Malcolm Fraser last night promoting his book.

    This stalwart is very outspoken about the current Liberals.

    Words of wisdom included:

    Professional political class rely on politics to sustain them too much

    No life or work experience outside of it.

    He gave an example of Higgins preselection and it's candidates there

    High praise for George Bush as an outstanding U.S.A president.....

    Intelligence matter with Indonesia was a silly mistake not to apologize. ..
    Obama did the right diplomatic gesture to say sorry

    A great man with some wonderful insights


  18. Trust me says Abbott.

    No doubt some mugs will.

    Makes you wonder.