It skews all reporting and makes journalists incapable of explaining why and how things change. Given that change is a constant in politics, this is stupid and self-defeating behaviour on their part.
Fairfax failure on poll interpretation
In the past week Fairfax did a poll. There wasn't much in it - a year after a resounding win, nobody cares whether Abbott stays or goes. Nobody regards his as any better than the previous government. Yet, Fairfax's (male) senior political journalists fell onto it like gulls to a flung chip. All political coverage Fairfax does over the next few weeks will be traceable back to these articles, even where the evidence goes against or is irrelevant to this data.
What follows here is not a quibbling with the poll data, which I haven't seen, nor with statistical theories, in which I am no expert. This piece is all about the cod interpretation and the insufficiency of horse-race journalism itself.
Horse-race journalism articles should be viewed as arse-covering on the part of an organisation with no real clue about its role. Whether we're talking declining traditional media organisations, or political parties declining in popular participation and legitimacy, the increasing sophistication of market research should mean their understandings of what people want should be much, much better than they are.
Even the opening sentence of this piece is bullshit:
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's personal approval has surged with voters over the past three months, while the Coalition has also clawed back support but still narrowly trails Labor in the two-party preferred vote.No, it hasn't. That isn't what the data says at all.
Note also the pictures used in this article: the picture Fairfax chose of Abbott shows him smiling and assertive, while Shorten is protesting and defensive. These pictures are meant to suggest positions that the subject matter can't sustain.
Overall, the poll ... shows the Coalition trails Labor 49 per cent to 51 per cent, meaning the government would probably have narrowly lost an election if one were held over the weekend.Again, no it doesn't. Polls have a margin of error of about 3%. What this really means is that it's anyone's guess who would win the election. Massola and Aston are pretending certainty exists where it doesn't.
This government won a decisive election a bit over a year ago. What those results show is that people don't care whether it stays or goes.
Contrast this with a bit over a year after the 2010 election. The then government hadn't won decisively. It had introduced unpopular policies, such as carbon pricing. Its position in the polls was about where this government is now - yet everyone agreed the government then was terminal.
But the government will be buoyed by a surge in support since the last Fairfax Nielsen poll was conducted in July.These writers are looking for excuses to make the current government feel "buoyed".
During that time, Mr Abbott has crafted a an uncompromising reputation on national security, taking a lead role in the outrage over the downing of Malaysian Airways flight MH17 and his now famous threat to "shirt front" Russian President Vladimir Putin.
All those examples are symbolic. He hasn't actually done anything about MH17 (nor MH370, let's not forget). He looked like an oaf over Putin, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Abbott will either overreach or back down when confronted with Putin himself, and the possibility of looking like a bad host.
The Coalition's two-party preferred vote has risen from 46 per cent to 49 per cent and its primary vote has risen from 39 per cent to 42 per cent ... Labor's two-party preferred vote has fallen three points, from 54 per cent to 51 per cent, while its primary vote has dropped from 40 per cent to 37 per cent.These are all within the 3% margin of error; it is entirely possible the polls have gone nowhere at all, cementing impressions about the government while reaffirming the ambivalence in which the alternative is held. This renders the two paragraphs I omitted from the above quote entirely moot, typical of press gallery coverage.
Fairfax Ipsos pollster Jessica Elgood said Mr Abbott appeared to have benefited from, among other things, his government's strong national security focus.It's hollow symbolism, it cannot possibly last. This is the point where simply quoting Ms Elgood becomes insufficient and the journalism should kick in.
"In terms of the Coalition figures, the increase reflects Mr Abbott's greater international profile and his strong position in deploying troops and taking on Vladimir Putin," Ms Elgood said.
"That has played strongly for him but time will tell if that's a longer-term trend."
In this case, the opposite has happened.
Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten are now tied as preferred Prime Minister on 41 per cent each, with no change recorded for Mr Abbott, and Mr Shorten seeing a 5 per cent drop in support since July as preferred prime minister.Remember what I said about the margin of error?
And while Labor has seen its two-party preferred and primary votes fall away, opposition leader Bill Shorten's bipartisan approach to these international events appears to have paid dividends.
His approval rating has risen 2 percentage points since July to 43 per cent, while his disapproval rating has fallen 4 percentage points since July.
Right, so Shorten has:
- adopted positions that are close to those of an unpopular government; and
- his ratings and those of the ALP have declined; and
- this is a good result for Shorten, and for the party he leads.
The biggest loser in the October poll is the Palmer United Party. Its primary support almost halved to just three per cent as leader Clive Palmer struggled to keep a handle on volatile Senator Jacqui Lambie and sided with the government on a number of issues.Again, let's see if I understand this:
- Senator Lambie has made a number of inflammatory statements that go beyond, but not against, the government's agenda against asylum-seekers and a nuanced understanding of western Asian politics; and
- Clive Palmer, like Bill Shorten, has voted with an unpopular government; and
- The PUP vote has moved within the margin of error; and
- This is bad news for Palmer, while a similar result for Shorten was good.
Support for the Greens remains stronger than at the 2013 election at 12 per cent.If you look back at Fairfax coverage of the Greens over the past month or so, they all agree that the Greens risk becoming irrelevant by opposing this government and everything it does. Again, a bit of recent history is instructive: Abbott opposed the previous government and everything it did, and is now Prime Minister. It's funny how things turn out, isn't it.
The government has just two weeks to pass its reforms through the Senate if the new system is to begin in 2016 but Mr Pyne said on Friday that he was willing to delay the start date to get the reforms through.No, that's not what it means at all.
That means school leavers will be forced to apply for courses without clarity on what the total cost of their degree or diploma will be.
The government's current proposals do not apply to current students, nor to those enrolling next year, but to those commencing their studies after 1 January 2016. If Pyne delays it by a year it will apply to those students who enrol after 1 January 2017.
There's a whole other question about the reliability of a Pyne statement, but we've overloaded the precious poppets with criticism already.
Deregulation of the sector is supposed to fund an expansion of government subsidies for diploma courses and bring student loans for private and TAFE students into line with the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS).Is that what the polling data says? Is that what the budget papers say? In the context of a polling article, surely the unpopularity should be enough.
And while Tony Abbott may want a "mature debate" about reforming Australia's federation and tax system, just 41 per cent of voters would support an increase in the consumption tax even if their personal income tax was cut as well.First, over more than two decades in public life, it is clear that Tony Abbott is not capable of a mature debate. He can tear down positive proposals (e.g. the republic), but he cannot advocate for them (e.g. his various proposals for health reform whenhe was Health Minister).
Second, you can't pre-empt a debate by presenting a result like that as a settled result. That's why polls are lagging not leading indicators.
Raising the rate of the GST is also more unpopular outside capital cities, in the National Party's political heartland, too.Fracking is also unpopular outside capital cities, in the National Party's political heartland. Companies that frack donate to the Nationals. Dead communities pay no GST. The Nationals are embarked on a fascinating historic experiment on the extent to which money compensates for a lack of popular support.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's signature $5.5 billion paid parental leave scheme enjoys more than two-thirds support from voters under 40, but is still unpopular with voters overall.We're moving into a gerontocracy, folks, where something resoundingly popular with voters under 40 is not the done deal it might have been in years gone by:
The scheme is due to commence operating from July 1, 2015. With just two more sitting weeks due in the parliamentary year, the expectation among Coalition MPs is that the legislation to establish the scheme will be introduced in early 2015.Abbott doesn't trust people to discuss and get behind the scheme. He wants to spring it on Parliament at the last minute and wedge it through in a series of backroom deals.
It is politically unpopular in the Coalition party room too, with five of Mr Abbott's own senators flagging they may vote against the scheme when it is presented to the Parliament."Flagged", pfft. What even is "flagged"? This would not survive a hot blast of invective from Peta Credlin. Experienced journalists should know this, rather than pulling the drama-queen trick of pretending a non-existent division is somehow real.
Not content to leave this drivel to the backroom boys, two of Fairfax's most senor political reporters chewed over it. Peter Hartcher set up a few straw men:
Abbott's wrestling of the hydra-headed beast of threats to national security has won him a growing, grudging respect.Abbott has no experience in national security or diplomacy. Included in those measures are measures that get investigative journalists sent to prison, which will not affect Hartcher or the camp followers who report to him.
His activism, firmness and clarity have marked him as something better than the brawling thug that many voters had him pegged as.
Abbott isn't so much an unconstrained thug as a poser. He poses here, he poses there, an achieves very little anywhere. This is what he's done with national security. Hartcher, as his employer's political and international editor, has missed the insubstantial nature of Abbott's record, and his shedding the advantages of incumbency.
His swipe at Shorten in the name of accruing praise to Abbott is also silly, especially when you consider how he gushed over Abbott as opposition leader so recently.
Michael Gordon also piled on, as part of his transition from a political commentator to a poll jockey.
Tony Abbott's national security-led recovery has put the Prime Minister back where he was before the wheels fell off with a first budget that most voters saw as unfair and a breach of trust.A clumsy sentence is usually a sign of clumsy thinking, and so it is here. Gordon is hungry for an opportunity to recover some of that sunk credibility he, and the rest of the press gallery, poured into Abbott.
... in April, when voters were evenly split on the question of whether they preferred Abbott or Bill Shorten as prime minister.Never mind the budget. The benchmark here is whether or not voters' faith in Abbott has been vindicated. It hasn't.
Clearly, several domestic policy successes have helped right the Coalition ship – the boats have stopped, the carbon and mining taxes are gone and legislation to implement Abbott's Direct Action policy has passed through the Senate.Nobody knows whether or not refugee boats have stopped because this government treats them as national security emergencies rather than domestic policy matters. A regime where people die because of cut feet or random thug invasion is not a success in any sense. There is no proof the other issues made a blind bit of difference to the polling. Gordon is imposing his own feelings, biases, and guesses onto the data.
... these results indicate a 4.5 per cent swing against the government since the election of September 2013.That should be the lede, replacing the clumsy effort he and his superiors ran with. The nine words I cut from that sentence were waffle.
The most immediate, and most sobering, implication is in the state breakdown, revealing the Coalition primary vote in Victoria at 38 per cent just four weeks out from the state election.Did the poll measure federal voting intention or state? You know they're different, right?
Consider that Abbott has learned the lesson Howard learned: that the fewer state Coalition governments there are, the less compelling the reasons to throw out a federal Coalition government.
No wonder Denis Napthine looked so uncomfortable last week when Abbott offered a hug.Again with the misinterpretation of what you see before you due to silly preconceptions. Abbott was giving Napthine pre-emptive consolation. He knew he was going to do him over, as he has with spiking the car manufacturing industry, spiking the state's education and healthcare sectors, and now the petrol excise.
Watch Abbott do the same thing to Mike Baird and Campbell Newman next year. Watch Michael Gordon affect surprise then, too, based on his years of experience as a political journalist.
The best example of the sheer futility of horse-race journalism in explaining anything about how we are governed came fromn Michelle Grattan, when she joined The Conversation:
... I will of course be concerned with the “horse race” aspect of the contest. After all, the “horses” carry the policies – who is first past the post will determine the shape of the future.Of course. The rationale is entirely wrong when it comes to this government - with half a dozen or so exceptions there is almost no correlation between policies and horse-race positioning.
This is why, less than a year later, the sheer bankruptcy of this position was on show when she surveyed the wreckage of the hopes and dreams invested in the Abbott government:
It is seriously difficult to understand how the government has come to be as bad as it is. Yes, it is hugely tribal, its ministers are convinced they know better than anyone else, and it has a faith in “spin” that has dramatically underestimated the public’s ability to judge for themselves.As an analytic tool, as a standpoint for improving understanding, as a basis for a career - horse-race political journalism is totally, utterly useless.
The headache of cognitive dissonance
This brings us to Paula Matthewson, who has not so much lost what little perspective she had as a blogger as wantonly discarded it, buying into insiderdom and the horse race to an extent that can only be described as tragic.
The first thing to be said is that Matthewson does not take criticism well, or at all really. She cannot distinguish between principles and standards about how we are governed and how that is covered, and personal attacks. Had anyone else written this about Matthewson, it would be a swingeing ad-hominem attack rather than fair comment. It's a great illustration of the bankruptcy of insiderdom and the pointlessness of trying to interpret it to the very public it exists to defraud and disenfranchise.
Jacqui Lambie was a non-commissioned officer in the Army. Before joining the PUP and being elected to the Senate, she was politically motivated by a desire for better conditions for serving Defence personnel, and for veterans, and their families.
Neither the ALP nor the Liberal-National-LNP-CLP Coalition offers a strong or proud record in this area. These may not be priorities for you or me but they are perfectly legitimate motivations and focus areas for involvement in politics.
You might quibble with the way Lambie goes about her business, as Matthewson does (strangely calling her both a "problem child" and a "Queen"), but the issues that Senator Lambie raises are worth examining and may explain her position better than Matthewson seems capable.
Matthewson is consistently critical of MPs who speak out against their party, regardless of the reason. People are right to be critical of MPs who vote on legislation they know nothing about, other than the dot-points fed to them from ministers' offices by people not very different from Matthewson.
Most major party MPs have no principles that motivate them one way or another on policy, which is why it is reasonable to expect them to vote and speak as their leadership bids them do. If you assume that a backbencher holding a policy position they have developed themselves is illegitimate, and can only be motivated by self-aggrandisement rather than the position itself, then of course such a position is going to seem self-aggrandising.
This explains why she refers to the prospect of an MP being expelled from a political party - a regular event in our political history - as "ex-communication". One is excommunicated from a religion, not from a political party. She refers to both Lambie and Palmer as "dogs", a term used to denote contempt and disloyalty.
Defence personnel and veterans affairs policies are more than one MP's "pet projects", and deserve to be examined as such by reporters who cover politics. Matthewson and other horse-race aficionados can't do that. People with opinions about policy that are not handed down from official sources are self-indulgent, apparently. If you think about it, such a perspective - a bias - goes against what politics is about in a democracy.
Like it or not, everything is politics, she bleated in the face of earlier criticism which she failed to attribute to anything bigger than herself. That isn't true. Very little is politics, if your idea of 'politics' is limited to the daily sideshow from Canberra. The restriction of decision-making to an unelected, unaccountable cabal of staffers, and the idea of "message discipline" (i.e., that the whole country is no more perceptive than the dumbest member of the press gallery, and information is restricted and fluffed accordingly) means that perishingly little is politics. This is a point well made by Jonathan Green:
Like so many areas of Australian public life, the policy possibilities are well-canvassed, well-elaborated and thoroughly discussed. It's only when issues of substance sink into the pit of politics ... the most obvious current path to action ... that maturity departs and blind partisanship obscures what can often seem like common and consensual truths.Matthewson even believes in something called the politics of Ebola. As with any vicious disease, this can be interpreted as follows:
And this will bring a testing time for politics as we know it, for increasingly it is obvious, through the elaborate connectivity of our new age, that the solutions to many of the things that ail, limit or frustrate us are out there, graspable, well-formed and ready.
The gatekeepers of politics, the vested interests of big parties and formal power, no longer have a stranglehold over that information and maybe quite soon over the possible courses to action.
The fundamental disconnect of politics is here: that it substitutes something vindictive and obstinately childish for mature open-minded discussion, discussion most of us are more than capable of having.
It's not as if there were no models out there, versions of public discussion that might simultaneously inspire us and flatter our intelligence.
- Polls show that a majority of Australians are against vicious life-threatening illnesses; and
- A minority of Australians have any given vicious life-threatening illnesses at any one time; therefore
- Vote yourself well! The government can cut health funding knowing insiders like Matthewson will praise their savvy.
Apparently there is no reasonable opposition to this budget, or indeed the government; only petulance. Matthewson's idea of connecting with the governed is to sit in Canberra hunched over polling data, projecting her biases and fears and straw-man work like the old lags at Fairfax. Like them, any challenge or questioning can only be emotional and personal.
Why do editors bother commissioning such drivel? The editors who commission Matthewson are steeped in old-media thinking, sharing her assumption the passively observed horse-race is the essence of political reporting. Politics is something that happens in, and to, the nation as a whole. Clinging to the assumption that politics is confined to buildings in Canberra or Macquarie Street is the sort of thinking that has seen traditional media business models destroyed.
The nation sends elected representatives to Canberra. Some journalists take it upon themselves to do the reverse, to posit themselves as representatives of the political class to the rest of the country, explaining what happened and why in such a way that procludes discussion of how decisions might work (instead: how they "play", i.e. what other journalists might think of them), and how things might be different.
This is what Matthewson does, and she's found a circle of editors who will keep her in gin and cat food. What she hasn't done is used the perspective she gained from beyond State Circuit and the traditional media and brought it to bear on insiderdom. Those occasional glimpses were what made her writings valuable, not the did-I-tell-you-I-worked-for-John-Howard stuff. Bringing her in was the last hope the press gallery had to save itself from irrelevance, but by going-along-to-get-along she has reinforced them in their worst habits and stalest assumptions.
By default, Matthewson belongs in the bin of Too Silly To Read, to which many of this blog's press gallery chew-toys have been consigned. Their witterings and prognostications hold up scarcely better than discarded betting-slips. But as Lyndon Johnson once said after an unusually good speech from Nixon, sometimes chicken shit can become chicken salad; and in the same way, it is possible Matthewson will regain some perspective on what government is about, and what politics is for.
They shoot horses, don't they?
Insiders will tolerate set-piece debates only (where participants talk past one another on big ideas, and engage only over trivia), and then with gritted teeth. Wide-ranging debates are ignored or framed as chaos, as we saw under the previous government. They do not understand (let alone present) debates that seriously challenge or even overturn government decisions as democracy in action, but as some sort of political reflux to be resisted at all costs. Polls can measure disaffection but, overlaid with dopey assumptions and cack-witted agendas, they can't identify alternative ways forward. Only politics can do that.
Articulating alternatives falls to outsiders because insiders don't respect outsiders enough to explain, to draw them in, to assess impacts and consider different options. Insiders do horse-race reporting because everyone else does, because they can't snap out of it.
The horse race has held political reporting hostage for long enough.
All those named above could be replaced with one reporter (or even a piece of software), stumbling around Parliament scooping up press releases and gaffes, while greater scrutiny was brought to bear on how we are governed and what our options are.