22 May 2011

Fault lines

The more one of the most popular Prime Ministers in Australian history listened to Lachlan Harris, the less popular he became. This happened because Lachlan Harris' advice was rubbish. It's still rubbish, as you can see from this sorry shower of garbage (perhaps I shouldn't be so prejudicial in framing Harris' piece, but it's in a Murdoch rag so stuff it).
In politics cynicism isn't a pitfall, it's an aspiration. Politicians, journalists and staffers pride themselves on being an unsentimental lot.

That's why Labor people wheel out the Curtin-Chifley stuff, both when they make a public announcement and when they cry into their beer about why they wreck their personal lives in order to work for someone they often secretly despise. That's why Libs wax indignant about "the mums & dads" or gild the lily about Howard under the same conditions. Sentimentality takes the role that knowledge and empathy should play in underpinning the analysis, development and presentation of policy. It is a pitfall, Lachlan, and you're still falling.
The harsh reality is that in modern politics lasting popularity is a thing of the past. This reality doesn't just apply in Australia. It applies in almost every comparable democracy around the world.

Popular oppositions still exist, but there is no compelling evidence to suggest that this popularity can outlive a year or two in government.

The Howard government hit a peak in popularity in 2001, its fifth year in government. The Carr government in NSW was never so popular than in 1999 and 2003, its fourth and eighth years respectively in office. The Bracks government in Victoria was consistently popular throughout its seven years in office. In Britain, the Blair government was consistently popular from its election in 1997 until 2003 - its sixth year in government Lachlan.

There are more examples against your contention than for it, Lachlan. Like much of your work, your opinions only makes sense if you don't think about them too much.
There are a variety of reasons for the end of lasting popularity as a realistically attainable political goal. The timidity of modern politicians, and the complexity of the remaining national reform projects, can take some blame.

Timidity isn't restricted to the modern era: Cicero and Sallust blasted their lily-livered (but self-described "hard-headed") contemporaries for imperilling the Roman Republic, and they lived to see the downfall of not just a government but an entire political entity. John Curtin was a timid man and the Second World War was pretty damn complex. You should keep that sort of talk for when you're half cut at The Holy Grail, if taxpayers and voters hear you talk like that they'll think you a fool.
Another extremely important reason for the end of lasting popularity as a reasonably attainable goal is the rise of the opinion cycle.

The short version of the reasons for the rise of the opinion cycle is this; opinion is cheap to form, easy to broadcast and interesting to share.

There are two basic reasons why the opinion cycle makes lasting political popularity (not short term popularity blips) a near-structural impossibility.

Firstly in the news cycle basic straight down the line government-governing stories (like most of your typical budget yarns) are the filler that keeps the news cycle cycling between big events, big announcements and big stuff-ups.

This loses sight of the fact that "the opinion cycle" is a circle-jerk of which voters/media consumers give not a shit. Seriously, media loses circulation and politicians lose credibility when they descend into the opinion cycle.

What's in the budget is what's going to be done this year, and what's not there probably won't. It's not filler - the "opinion cycle" is the filler. If you're too dumb to make a good story out of improved mental health care, get Andrew Bolt wound up about whatever. Just because you don't understand what government is, doesn't mean it's filler.
My column on Tony Abbott last week was a clear example of this type of content. These opinion-based critiques are much more brutal than their fact-based predecessors.

They are critical, polarising, and usually impossible to disprove.

They're not polarising if you don't give a damn. Facts may be ignored by they are not redundant.

As to "impossible to disprove" - the idea that the BER was a failure (journosphere/"hard head" received wisdom) rather than a success (Orgill Report and thousands of school principals and P&Cs nationwide) is a great example of this. The idea that hard-heads construe a success as a failure is pretty soft-headed, and as Orgill demonstrated easy to disprove.
The news cycle just needs newness to keep on keeping on; the opinion cycle needs newness and new divisions in opinion as well.

Voters/Media consumers need only relevance - the circle-jerk in which you have been a long-term participant isn't polarising, it's just irrelevant.
Budget numbers rarely divide opinion, which is why community fault lines not budget bottom lines dominate so much budget coverage in a cycle that is now just as dependent on opinion as it is on fact.

There is no link between what goes on in the community and what goes on in the politico-media complex, Lachlan. It isn't the community that's at fault here, they/we are right to be bewildered and even annoyed that these circle-jerks intrude on public debates. Just because you're in thrall to something called an "opinion cycle" doesn't mean we all are.
The chance of convincing someone you are governing responsibly through a flow of information that is dependent on personal criticism and divided opinion is basically nil.

So, the circle-jerk won't help you get through to people. What is it for, then?
The Budget wasn't perfect and the federal government has made its fair share of mistakes.

Those mistakes have centred on non-delivery, and assuming that you can engage in "opinion cycling" as a substitute for having delivered sound policy as proper return for votes and taxpayer largesse.
Freak emotional events that are well handled can result in almost Jekyll and Hyde like conversions of negative coverage into positive coverage (think Bligh/Floods or Obama/Osama).

Firstly, Jekyll and Hyde was a story about a drug addict (fact, not opinion) rather than a responsible government. Secondly "freak events" fail because delivery in one area (to use your example: Bligh/floods) doesn't result in delivery in other areas (Bligh/education, Bligh/health, Bligh/transport, etc).
In the opinion cycle, assuming the vast majority of opinion-based political coverage will be nasty, narky and negative, is a good rule of thumb. Forget about hitting the panic button because the Budget, or the carbon tax, or the pokies reforms got hammered. Nasty, narky and negative coverage is the new black.

It just gets ignored, Lachlan. If you want to get announcements out, make them real and stand up for them.
Lasting popularity in politics is dead ...

No, it's just too hard for you as a child of the "opinion cycle". To quote from a book with which your old boss may be familiar: you sowed the wind, and you reaped the whirlwind.
... taking action based on ideals (even if unpopular) may be the only effective communication tool left.

Action based on ideals is not a tool; it is that which is communicated by tools such as Lachlan Harris. Action based on ideals may be good or bad, depending on circumstances and on those to be affected by such actions. It will not be at all dependent on the "opinion cycle", a make-work scheme for failed Labor staffers like Andrew Bolt and Lachlan Harris.

Elsewhere: the essential Mr Denmore on how Bob Brown sent the opinion cycle into a tizz. He was caught out by Chris Uhlmann but basically he showed how it's done: make the opinion cycle spin on its own axis while you pursue your ends by other means. A self-referential opinion cycle is, at the risk of mixing metaphors like Lachlan Harris, digging its own grave.


  1. Oh thank goodness there is someone else out there who thinks Harris is a puffed up little twerp. His recent appearances have made usually level-headed folk go all dewy-eyed about some semblance of youthful Labor talent. For mine, he was at the centre of the whirlwind of incoherence that lead to the destruction of one of the most popular Labor governments to exist. His love of the opinion cycle links directly to a lot of things that were terribly wrong with the Rudd govt.

  2. Why would anyone give this character a column? Anytime I've heard him talk all he ever goes on about is the 24 hour news cycle, opinion cycle's etc like they have any sort of relevance.

    These are the exact kind of people (Hollowmen) the ALP need to move away from if they want to become electable again.

  3. Fuzzball, consider also that there were a lot of babies thrown out with the bathwater of the Rudd Govt. The idea that Harris gets thrown clear and throws up a column of pap a week has to rankle.

    Joe, he made them feel important. The relationship between polles and journos is like that scene at the end of Animal Farm where the men look at the pigs, the pigs look at the men, and they all look the same.