20 July 2014

Brand positioning

Clive Palmer has sold down the carbon tax, the mining tax, and consumers of financial planning for no net benefit - not to anyone, not even himself.

For a while there, he had all the makings of a sustainable niche in Australian politics. The carbon and mining taxes have gone - but household expenses and unemployment will go up, not down. He'll try a bit of product differentiation but it won't be enough any more. Having pretty much caved into the government, if Palmer seeks to amend a government initiative and fails, he will look ineffective; if he seeks to amend a government initiative and succeeds, the government gets the credit.

The best profile on Palmer is this one. Gilmore invokes Palmer as the 'holy fool' who keeps serious matters light but who gets away with telling truths that bring official displeasure upon more earnest courtiers. Shakespeare was big on holy fools. The press gallery would have applauded King Lear for his "message discipline" in dispatching Kent and Cordelia decisively and early, but that was where his problems began rather than ended.

Palmer could have survived if he differentiates himself sufficiently from government, but like the Democrats following the GST Palmer has tarnished his once fresh and irreverent brand.

To read this piece, you'd think Palmer was the first politician to say one thing before an election and do another afterward (I mean, when has that ever happened?). Abbott's inability to dish out this treatment to a government but not be able to handle it once in government is the issue here, with Matthewson too invested in the government to notice. Apparently Palmer is to be condemned because he ran for parliament and voted in his own interests - had he simply funded an ad campaign, as mining companies did in 2010, or had he operated in the shadows with fundraising and lobbyists (like Gina Rinehart and Rio Tinto are doing), this would be better than operating in clear sight of journalists.

Brand differentiation is Palmer's problem (and Matthewson's, from other press gallery hacks). Our problem is that we need information on how we are governed, and to use that information ahead of elections. In this piece, Lenore Taylor pursues the parlous, arse-covering assumption that the parlous state of Coalition climate policy comes as a surprise:
What a complete and catastrophic failure of the political system.
The failure derives from the press gallery refusing to think through Coalition policy pronouncements, presuming instead that anyone who criticised Gillard should get a free pass - which is what Taylor and her press gallery colleagues did throughout Abbott's Liberal leadership. Other aspects of system failure are downstream of this. It's a failure of misinformed voters, which means that all those responsible for misinforming the voters attract - and deserve - resentment from the misgoverned.
After climate policy helped dispatch three prime ministers and two opposition leaders, and dominated three election campaigns and eight years of polarising political debate, it has come to this: we have no national climate policy.
What Taylor is describing is a failure of the political class to act in the nation's best interest. A vote for Abbott was always a vote for no climate policy to speak of. The press gallery knew this, and at the time they pretended it didn't matter. They blamed Gillard and Rudd for "not being able to sell", whatever that meant, too busy listening to Joel Fitzgibbon snickering about polls and not working through what Abbott's pronouncements might mean.

Don't blame voters for making misinformed choices. The press gallery exists for no reason other than to inform voters who want to be informed. If voters are misinformed, this is a professional failure on the part of the press gallery; it is not an excuse for the press gallery to rail at those they have misinformed.
After all that vitriol and hyperbolic attack and all those reports and modelling and studies, and all last week’s drama, we are back to exactly where we were before John Howard reluctantly said he would introduce an emissions trading scheme in 2007. (He later said he did it only because of political pressure, and never really believed in the idea.)

We know more than ever before that global warming requires urgent international action, and we still know that a market mechanism is the most efficient way to respond. But we appear to be politically incapable of doing anything about it, other than watch people yell at each other.
Yes, we do. But we know all that by going around the press gallery, because all they ever covered was "all that vitriol and hyperbolic attack and ... last week’s drama". We got the other stuff by going beyond the press gallery.

John Howard lost in part because his insincerity on this issue was palpable, obvious to everyone outside the press gallery, whose focus was on nothing but quoting his words accurately.
It is, of course, possible to reduce emissions by means other than a carbon price. Tough regulations or carefully targeted and rigorously assessed government incentives can also do the job.
Yes, but any and all debate on those issues was simply reported as 'Labor disunity' rather than as substantive issues that go beyond the antics of Capital Hill, or even the Labor Party. All press gallery journalists including Lenore Taylor reported those issues in that way, pursuing that essentially dishonest objective of selling the sizzle rather than the steak.
But the government’s alternative “Direct Action”, as it stands, is no such viable alternative.
This was obvious well before last September. It's too late to point this out now. If this point had been made before last September, one of two things might have happened:
  • The Coalition might have set to work on a better policy; or
  • As in 2004, a vigorous but clueless opposition might have cooled its heels a little longer, leaving a flawed government in place until a better option (from either side) presented itself.
Either of those outcomes would have been better for the country than the predicament in which we find ourselves, the predicament the press gallery helped bring about.
The legislation that gives it any rigour may or may not pass the Senate.
That applies to any legislation, really.
And there is evidence Direct Action – which hands out competitive grants to those volunteering to reduce emissions, but imposes no overall limits on greenhouse pollution – will cost far more to achieve far less than the carbon price would have, with the cost being levied on taxpayers rather than on polluting industries.
Should've pointed that out well before last September, and framed your coverage of Coalition claims and counter-claims accordingly.
It is possible the amendments being negotiated with the government by independent senator Nick Xenophon might make the scheme slightly more credible, but not by much.
Should've pointed that out, too. Too late now.
The government did win an election promising to “axe the tax”. But did the voters who backed the slogan really intend that Australia be left with no climate change policy at all?

Did they really think they would be $550 a year better off?
Yes we did, because experienced political journalists like Lenore Taylor simply quoted Abbott's words to that effect, and never really questioned what they might mean - or whether there might be some sort of difference between what Abbott says and what he brings about, as happens with other politicians.
That lamb roast didn’t get any more expensive when the tax was imposed in 2012 and it won’t be getting any cheaper today. So many doorstops, so little substance.
I always thought it was crap, but the press gallery just quoted that clueless yokel without qualification. Where is he now - oh, he's in Cabinet? Still doing those doorstops, are you?
As eight years’ work by thousands of people disappears with the Senate’s vote, many may have cause for regrets.
The press gallery must be full of such people, gnashing their teeth and rending their garments. At long last, from the ashes of political calamity, we can pull press gallery credibility out of the wreckage, yeah?
Labor deliberately ... The Greens must surely ... And those in the Coalition ...
Sadly, no. It's everyone else's fault, including yours - never the press gallery.
... the absence of any credible policy is the big and pressing question for the future.
It has always been the big and pressing question. It has always been much more important than watch Tony gut fish, watch Tony drive a truck, listen to Joel giggle about Newspoll, watch Lenore land a new job despite her professional failure, etc.
Whatever happens, Direct Action will probably only matter for a short time – because even if it manages to reduce Australia’s emissions for a few years, its cost will quickly become prohibitive as Australia is required to reduce its emissions further. That point was made repeatedly by Malcolm Turnbull back when he still talked about these things, and has been repeatedly borne out by modelling (done by third parties because the government hasn’t done any, preferring as prime minister Tony Abbott said during the election campaign, to just “have a crack”).
It need not have mattered at all, if only the traditional media had seriously investigated what an Abbott government might mean in the same way they investigated the prospect of a Latham government.
Which means those concerned about climate change, and the need for Australia to do its fair share of the international task of reducing emissions, need to regroup and re-prosecute the case for some kind of market mechanism or some other effective policy.
Do you seriously think that "those concerned about climate change" had not been doing this? Why would they get any more attention now?
A good place to start would be the widely accepted, but misguided, idea that the point of comparison for our efforts on this issue vis a vis other countries is whether or not they have an ETS. No, the point of comparison is the target by which each country agrees to reduce their emissions.
Honestly, this is what the previous government was saying in response to Abbott - but you simply took Abbott at face value and dismissed the then government as a rabble. It was the press gallery who were the rabble (and, in the face of so little turnover despite this collective failure of judgment and reporting, they remain so).
Clive Palmer’s alternative emissions trading scheme is now delayed and looking increasingly meaningless. It would put the existing architecture into a kind of zero-price “sleeping beauty style” hibernation, with the independent Climate Change Authority getting a last-minute stay of execution so it can advise on when it should be re-awoken. But the conditions for reawakening are becoming so onerous, it is unlikely to matter.
That should have been reported ahead of time rather than afterward.
Those concerned about climate change will have to re-prosecute the case over time, as international action accelerates and Direct Action is found to be wanting.
If the Prime Minister slips back into his hi-vis again, how will you resist the opportunity to re-suspend your judgment? The credibility of climate action advocates is not at issue here, it's the buyer's remorse of the press gallery. Taylor and her colleagues should have known better, done more investigation into Coalition policy, and put a better brief to the public than they did.
Perhaps the last word should go to those well-known job-destroying, economy-hating, green-left anarchists in the federal treasury ...
That would be the entity that is being decapitated because it is offering advice like that, and which lumped all of its long-held wishlist items into the most recent budget to the point where its political masters can't get the Budget through parliament after two months. Experienced press gallery journalists should have identified that, too.

Let's be clear: the press gallery is the problem here. Unlike Lenore Taylor, I'm not being smart after the event or pretending this government's policy and tactical failures weren't foreseeable - go ahead, look at this blog's archives and compare it to the skip-bin of history that is the collective legacy of the Canberra press gallery. Taylor isn't the worst of the press gallery, but as one of its senior members and ever eager to defend the institution she will not escape the scorn that is its due.

The task of holding government to account extends to would-be governments before an election. The press gallery has failed in that task, which meant that voters were misinformed about their choices at the last election. The idea that the press gallery did its job while other aspects of the political system - including the voters - failed at theirs, is ridiculous. It enables the press gallery to persist in its failure and frustrates any hope that better policy and government might even be recognised, let alone come about.

The press gallery in general, and Lenore Taylor in particular, are "still wasting time, and the cost continues to climb".


I spent last Thursday and Friday not in the press gallery or lurking outside the Senate chamber, but attending this workshop, watching a new academic discipline emerge from the limitations of political science and marketing, with a combination of candour and rigidly framed skiting on the part of practitioners. Next year's conference should be interesting, but to what extent is what they call 'earned media' worth examining in that context? Does this blog have a more academic future, or is its future academic? Comments are welcome on this as ever, but let's make like the press gallery and save any predictions until after the event.


  1. Before and post the last election, the fifth estate railed and complained about the dumbing of the press-gallery in it's investigation of LNP. policies....even though the LNP. claimed "...200 policies, costed and ready to go!"....bullshit !...we yelled..let's see 'em..not one of substance was examined ...nothing..and some of us were left no avenue of complaint on "official" blogs like the ABC. "The Drum" but to vent abuse at the management and individual journos' until we were banned or culled from the boards...
    I even wrote a humble piece that I put up in various places calling att'n to "The Meaning of Treason" that the press-gallery had exercised over this nation...to no avail..I have , as has many others , complained about Taylor's continued presence on The Guardian as Chief Political reporter...a presence that throws, I believe, a wet-blanket over radical commentary...the entire senior OM. journo' staff, (sans a couple) of whatever news outlet seems to act to dull or dumb down, or even HOSE DOWN radical opposition to this govt'....it was through them that the Labor govt' could not be heard..it is now through them that the current govt' is being heard..though NOT in a deeply negative way...too much!....they (the MSM journos') have forgotten their own form of "Hippocratic" oath...: "See, Hear, Report without fear nor favour" .

  2. Andrew.
    Once again, an insightful commentary on the goings-on in the msm. Personally, I have trouble coming to possible solutions to cure this malady. It appears blatantly obvious that the problem is a compliant bunch of unprincipled hacks who are appeasing their media owners by writing favourable articles that fit that owner's agenda, and thereby securing their job. This assumes that a. they are powerless to write articles that are counter to their owner's agenda, for fear of losing their job; b. they are either unprincipled, or c. they believe what they are writing is of some value to the readers. If a. is the case, I can see that the writer's livelihood is at stake and the 'survival' imperative is a mighty force, knowing that there are plenty more so-called journalists willing to take their place, with no improvement for the readers. If b. is the case, we the readers are still buggered as their work appears to have the tick of approval of the media owner. I have even more difficulty understanding c. as a possibility. If it is so, then the journalism educators need condemning for allowing these fools to graduate. What is the solution?

  3. The failure of the politically independent MSM over recent years is that it has forgotten, not only why it is there, but why governments and oppositions exist and how these institutions and forces can play out.

    By 'independent' I mean ABC, Fairfax and others who actually attempt to be politically impartial, as opposed to those propaganda outlets that change sides depending on the shifting interests of their feudal baron owners.

    The majority of Australian media reporting has treated national politics as a modern day gladiatorial contest between two feudal armies led by respective champions. Due to the wonders of modern technology the blows traded are covered in gory detail and the effectiveness of the tactics employed are commentated and analysed after every skirmish on the field of battle.

    Over the last 6 years most citizenry became rapidly disenchanted with the proceedings and did their best to tune out, but the modern media simply turned up the volume. The amplified roars of a tiny crowd of outlandish partisans carried far beyond their fringe constituencies until the political ruccus reached fever pitch and it was time to choose sides.

    The causes which the warring sides supposedly represented were never the focus of much scrutiny. The conventional wisdom found across the MSM prior to the election was that the policies of the two major parties in Australia were essentially indistinguishable: nothing to see - move along.

    Well! If the citizenry ever needed another lesson that complacency can lead to catastrophe, we've had it. It apparently never occured to our experienced, cynical and worldly wise political journalists that they had an opposition leader who would, in his own words, literally 'do anything to become prime minister'. Tony Windsor's warning should have rung every alarm bell but it was passed over and forgotten.

    'Do anything', as it turned out, included borrowing tactics perfected by the Bolsheviks and National Socialists: repeat a mantra of simplistic slogans often and loudly enough and the citizenry will start to think they must be true. 'Anything' also meant telling bald-faced lies to the electorate during the campaign about his policies and actions after the election.

    Consequently in 2013 53.6% of voters were hoodwinked by some of the oldest tricks known to perfidy - which the Fourth Estate had failed to uncover. The outcomes of this failure are clearly serious, but not yet known to history.

  4. Myself and several others had started a campaign on Guardian to provide comment section links to Andrew Elder's blog, whenever he has been critical of its journalists, particularly Lenore Taylor and Katharine Murphy.

    Recently and extraordinarily however, (including within hours of the above example) Guardian has closed comment very shortly after any such article of Mr Elder's has appeared.

    I am certain this is merely a coincidence...

  5. Anon....

    I repeat that German right wing governments are emulating our policies

    Fluffy fascism 101 is now mainstream

    The horse has bolted sadly....

  6. Hear hear.

    I agree. The Press Gallery, and the MSM in general are key to the parlous state of politics in this country. There is no such thing as substantive national debate. Instead we get a steady stream of rubbish regarding tactical minutiae from a group of so-called journalists with the collective memory of a flea. Disgraceful.

  7. Thanks Andrew , always good to read .
    Its strange that you would leave despotic billionaires out of your critique on the "Australian" press gallery ( pardon the pun ).To suggest that these people that badge themselves as journalists have the freedom to break ranks and tell the truth is " optimistic " to say the least. I think journalism is a very political system in its own right. Step outside of the party line and your not part of the party anymore , bills to pay kids to feed that sort of thing ..... look forward to your next writing