04 August 2013

The beam in your own eye

I really do not give a damn when the election will be held. I know there are constitutional measures to bring it about within a given timeframe. Having observed federal politics for decades now I accept the idea that the Prime Minister effectively schedules the election at a time most advantageous to his/her party, whether or not that judgment is borne out in the result. Pretty much all press gallery journalists have predicted when the election will be held and all have so far been proven wrong about that, too. In this piece, Paula "Drag0nista" Matthewson seems to agree that the election date is immaterial.

What follows here is an examination of Liberal received wisdom about what the nation wants and thus their best strategy to win the election. Matthewson passes it on, and is responsible for what she writes, but it is important to realise she is not responsible for shaping that strategic thinking.

How disappointing that Drag0nista used her piece to engage in one of those half-baked poll-entrails things that journalists do in an attempt to tailor their output to what they perceive their audience to be thinking. Matthewson knows that people who are taken seriously in election campaigns are those who root through the entrails of polls in the manner she does here, and in the manner that senior press gallery journos do in their attempts to form solidity from pure wind.

Maybe if you commission your own polls and pay top dollar for them to people who know how to do it properly, you'll get the real deal. The polls published in the newspapers are not the real deal. Hell, the political journalism published in the papers isn't even the real deal.

If the polls say anything useful at all, it is that Tony Abbott is no more convincing as "Howard 3.0" (was there a Howard 2.0? A Howard Vista?) that he is as C3PO. People are about as impressed with him than they were when he was challenging the supposedly mortally wounded Malcolm Turnbull in December 2009. The same people who always liked Abbott still do, the same people who hated him still do, and those who are indifferent to the man clearly sit on one of the comfiest and strongest fences in existence. Almost four years of frenetic campaigning, framing and reframing has impressed nobody other than Chris Kenny, and Drag0nista.
Whatever the election date, yesterday’s economic statement by the Rudd Government signified the hoisting of the goal posts onto Labor’s chosen playing field: Stadium Economy ... It’s quite a risky strategy on the part of Rudd and the Labor strategists.
The activity undertaken by the Rudd Government since it regained office is much the same as the activity undertaken by the new Gillard government in the lead-up to the 2010 election: that is, getting politically contentious matters off the table swiftly, if ultimately untidily.

In 2010 the issues were the mining tax, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, asylum seekers, and the idea that schemes alleviating the global financial crisis of 2008 (e.g. those building school halls and insulating roofs) had been rorted. In 2013 they are asylum seekers, and the changes to the economic assumptions brought about by slowing growth in China and other economies which are important trading partners to Australia. Back then, Gillard and Swan and other senior members of the ALP and the government worked to get resolutions that "took the issues off the table", i.e. which blunted predictable attacks from their opponents over the following weeks of the campaign rather than setting up long term, soundly-based policy solutions.

What Rudd, Bowen et al have done over the past few weeks is the same sort of thing - not determining the ground on which the campaign will be fought but denying it to the enemy. Matthewson allows for the possibility and its potential impact on Abbott but dismisses it, simply insisting that Abbott can and will lead us back to the milk-and-honey of the Howard years. Jonathan Green noted:
... dealing with asylum seekers itself is not a vote swinging issue. But it is a proxy for issues - like the economy, housing and employment security - that are.
Likewise, the statement by Bowen and Wong where they cut this and that and increased something else - not vote-swinging either, but a proxy for the idea of competent economic management. The Coalition may or may not have a "lead" in economic competence, but so what? They had one in 2007. The Howard government was dispatched to political history with its "lead" intact. Maybe it kept some people warm at night. Maybe Abbott is trying to hock it for one last go-around - this time for sure! - but it isn't the trump card Drag0nista assumes it to be, and would have you believe.
Part of the skill in election campaigning is to ensure your message cuts through to your potential supporters and is memorable when it does so ... Tony Abbott’s slogans, while annoying to those actually engaged in politics, have the cut-through and memorability necessary to stick in the minds of non-engaged voters. Often that’s all it takes to secure a vote on polling day.
The assumption there, not challenged in Drag0nista's piece but very much challenged here, is that once you've got the message across it's job done. Certainly from Matthewson's point of view, as a communications person, it is job-done I suppose. But this is where the problems of Tony Abbott (a former comms person who is seeking a more substantial role) really begin. Everyone knows Abbott is the guy who whinges about the government all the time. The case has not been made, despite all his and Matthewson's wishin' and hopin', that he has what it takes to make important things better than they are.

Matthewson and Abbott and others have described the mote in Rudd's eye in some detail. They have not, however, acknowledged the beam in their own, in terms of Abbott's gaping lack of credibility. Polls lag reality, and the reality is that Abbott has little to say on how he addresses the actual problems facing this country (and changing the government won't do when Abbott is mostly offering less than the incumbents in pretty much every policy area).

He has little to say because he is so rarely asked, and people who do ask are made to feel bad; as though they've hurt the feelings of people like Tony and Paula and all who sail with them, and as though their feelings matter more than other factors.

You can bury yourself in polls as much as you like. For an organisation and its leader four years of policy torpor at a time of far-reaching change makes you unfit for government, unfit for the rigours of a few weeks' campaigning let alone years and years in office. So much for flicking the switch.
In these days of digital communication and self-inflicted exposure to multiple sources of around-the-clock information, this task is made all the more difficult for political campaigners.
That quote reveals a lot, however unwittingly, about the limitations of those who would do the campaigning. It reveals a lot about how they regard those whose minds form the terrain on which the campaign is waged. The editor of AusVotes2013 would have a lot to teach the Coalition about that, if only its content wasn't generally so damned nuanced and multipartisan.

Here's the point where Matthewson's argument sheared off the rails:
Discerning political observers have undoubtedly noted there are vast differences between Abbott and Rudd’s positions on carbon pricing and Gonski (but not so much on asylum seekers).

That doesn’t matter out in voter-land. As far as the bulk of voters are concerned, and as evidenced by the shrinking trust gaps in the Essential Poll ...
"Voter-land"? This impertinence is the 2013 equivalent of referring to your fellow citizens as "the punters". The very use of this term means you don't understand that to which the term supposedly refers. Do you, dear reader, live in "voter-land"? Do I? Who does? I've counted thousands of ballot-papers as a party scrutineer and as a polling official, and I could never tell a "discerning political observer" vote from a "voter-land" one.

I think what Matthewson is trying to do here is give some sort of credence to the insider/outsider, "New Class" argument that has animated right-wing politics since Richard Nixon, and particularly in this country since Howard; namely that you are either a "discerning political observer" (university educated, latte/ chardonnay sipping, etc.) or you're "voter-land" through-and-through (self-employed, bourbon-and-coke-imbibing, none of your wanky uni crap etc). You can only cross the divide by studying polling/focus-group data, and by so doing you ascend to a higher plane of knowledge and citizenship. Such study, or the bluff appearance thereof, will make you some sort of ambassador for "voter-land" among the "discerning political observers".

You might have fought your way up through a political party and sit in parliament. You might be an experienced journalist, you might have some other grounds for believing that you understand politics - but any opinion you might have can be swept aside by a "voter-land" ambassador eructing numbers and catchphrases, trying to achieve certainty and security in an essentially uncertain and insecure business. Such people are to politics what accountants are to business: people who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. This is the game Nick Cater and Paul Sheehan are playing at, and there is no reason to think Paula Matthewson can't play it too.
With the effluxion of time, Howard’s children overboard obfuscation, non-core promises and interest rate rises have faded in much of the collective memory. Now he stands for dorky tracksuits, political stability and economic prosperity.
Tell her she's dreamin', insofar as you can tell Paula Matthewson anything:
  • John Howard is a figure from history now. Howard was dispatched from office for a reason and the man who lead Labor to its final victory over him leads Labor today. While it is true that staffers in a Liberal government might wish to become staffers again, it is no more true that Australians want Howard back (in whatever form) than they/we want to bring back pounds, shillings, and pence to replace decimal currency: it's over, move on.
  • I don't know whose idea it was for Peter Reith to appear on political chat-shows trying to play down Abbott's inadequacies and create continuity between between Howard and Abbott, but Reith is Mr Children Overboard. You don't see Phillip Ruddock on every dog-and-pony show going, do you? That's because Ruddock knows the value of laying low in rehabilitating one's reputation.
  • Menzies stood for dull prosperity and competence in many voters' minds, and in the Liberal messaging of the time, but that wasn't enough to prevent Whitlam from being elected or re-elected. Tony Abbott has achieved a fragile stability of character that Billy Snedden eventually attained as leader, but like Snedden his credibility in promising a return to tried-and-true doesn't wash (Snedden had been a minister in Menzies' government, and had a number of Menzies' ministers on his front bench. But that didn't matter then either). The fact that the conservatives have made this mistake before and are determined to make it again - while expecting a different result - says little for latter-day conservative strategists. Their message and assumptions are not questioned by Matthewson but she is happy to pass them on in the hope that others (discerning political observers, voter-landers, you over there; anyone at all, really) might come to accept them.
Conservatives have always regarded the 2007 election as some sort of swindle, and the 2010 very much so. For them every election will be a re-election/vindication of Howard, until they wake up to themselves. Nobody regarded the 1974 election as re-electing McMahon. Nobody in 1984 was voting for the return of Fraser. In 1998, Labor wouldn't have got half the swing it did had people thought they were vindicating Keating. Howard eventually created an impression that he knew what he was doing, but the reason why he lost in 2007 was because that impression no longer held.

Abbott has never been able to create an impression of stability and competence in any area other than media strategy. Getting a gullible herd of journalists to swoon over you ("best Opposition Leader ever"!) isn't much of an achievement, and it won't keep you warm on election night.

Abbott's response to what Matthewson calls "me-tooism" is telling, and his problems aren't all Rudd's doing. By seeking to sharpen differences over asylum-seeker policy, Scott Morrison is making Coalition policy appear significantly more cruel than Labor's policy. By seeking to erase differences over school education funding, nobody believes yesterday's announcement that a Coalition government would spend a single cent on education more than the incumbents are spending now, and would probably spend quite a bit less. Attempts by Pyne and Abbott to pressure conservative state governments and private-school bodies into not supporting the Better Schools (Gonski) program bode poorly for federal-state relations.

This blog has gone after Matthewson before. She's easily wounded and can't pick the difference between a disagreement on objective phenomena and a swingeing personal attack; she goes from claws-out brashness to put-upon victim faster than Janet Albrechtsen did back in her day. I tweeted my dislike of the term "voter-land" and she tweeted this back:

I wonder who or what she was checking - I wonder if she even knows, or why she granted herself an exemption from her insistence on online civility. You can see what I mean about blurring the distinction between objective discussions and subjective attacks.

Why even bother with some inter-blog spat? As I said up front, my target here is not Matthewson/ Drag0nista but the assumptions which she fails to question (or does not do so publicly) the bill of goods received wholesale from Coalition strategists - namely, that at the election of 2013, Australian voters:
  • want both a return to the strengths and weaknesses of the Howard government, accepting that this government was as good as this country gets and was/is no better than we deserve;
  • want and trust Tony Abbott to secure such a return; and
  • believe and accept that the challenges facing Australia which Howard failed, squibbed, or never encountered are challenges that we as a nation are happy for our leaders to forgo.
Interestingly, the polling data examined by Matthewson does not appear to address any of those propositions directly. Must be "the vibe", or something that the beam in your own eye prevents you from seeing. If you're going to check anything, check that.


  1. Simple slogans `stop-teh-boats` and wordy `nuanced` long-form is the standard the teabags are running with, as it fits their demographic targets, `discerning-uni-latte-types` not `beer-bourbon-working-class` voter-land.
    Voter-land largely don`t have the time and energy to ponder wordy `nuanced` long-form that says little to nothing.
    lt is more about the `discerning` talking to the discerning than getting any real or convincing message out to the wider voting public.
    There is no switch to flick, the cos exit strategy is in place, the usual suspects will get shriller.
    What`s not to like.?
    Enjoy the election.

  2. Lachlan Ridge4/8/13 4:09 pm

    What do they know of Voter land those who only Voter Land know?

  3. I couldn't believe Peter Reith's reappearance either. Clearly he has some hope of running the party still but how he imagines he's elder statesman material is a mystery to me.

  4. I think the issue here is that how many people are influenced by news sound bytes and headlines. SMH had a headline 'Australia has a debt problem'. However if you read the article the point made is that Australia does not have enough debt. If somebody just scan through the headlines or just listen to the slogans without engaging themselves then they could come to a wrong conclusion. There are rusted on partisan voters. This leaves around maybe 12%. I presume some portion of this could be called the 'voterland'

    1. But it's never you or me, is it? Always them. Anyone who speaks for 'them', however tenuously, has power that they wouldn't have by themselves.

  5. I feel Good reporting should "give a fuck" and you seem to Andrew . But as its been said 'Australia is immature' and the biggest percentage of our political reporting shows (or are catering or creating ) this immaturity .


  6. I am hoping the front page of the tele will have the opp,effect aust do not like being told.

    also Andrew I would presume there are policy releases for various areas of need that are genuine like Tasmania for example the transistion from forestry has been a big undertaking.

    so I am think living in hope your banner is still with you and your thoughts will look back later for inspiration

  7. Out here in "voter land" the problem presents itself as: Abbott gets power, then "oh yeah, I got voted in... I don't give a fuck what you think".
    Abbott is a ragged puppet to "faceless men" inside the liberal party and the church.
    The agenda has been set in stone for a long time now, vested interests,rent seekers, squash the Royal commision into kiddy fiddlers and roll out some more money for private schools.

  8. If I had a dollar for everyone who told me they hated Gillard and/or wanted Howard back, I'd have a handy pile of cash from the past few years. But you obviously don't hang out with those sort, you know, the ones who give you their opinion unprompted even though they've never mentioned politics before. Who do you talk too? Anyone?

    1. I don't only hang out with those sorts of people, if that's what you mean. Good luck with monetising your friends.

  9. Abbott ignores the social media at his peril. Young people do not read newspapers or have landlines which is why Murdoch's 'vote for Romney plea' in the NY headlines the night before the US elections was ignored. I am still laughing at a tweet last night suggesting Abbott does 'selfies' which is taking your own photo only his are at the pharmacy waiting to be developed.

  10. VoterBentleigh6/8/13 8:20 pm

    Totally agree with you, Andrew, especially your dot points.

    The use of the term "the punters" was irksome, as is "Voterland" (used also by Tim Colebatch in 'Voterland rougher terrain for Abbott'), which conjures up an image of "Toyland" or the like. But if anyone can point me in the direction of Voterland, I'd be grateful (just don't recommend getting there by boat).

  11. Apart from not getting this personal spat with Paula, I don't get the objection to the reference to 'voterland'. What's wrong with an elite recognising its minority status? Political journos and the politically engaged like us are a tiny fraction of the population and the way we see the world is utterly alien to the partisan and apathetic.

    1. If you don't get that it isn't personal, you'll never get it at all.

      The 'elite' (both powerless and powerful at the same time, and definitely excluding Nick Cater!) doesn't recognise its minority status because 'voterland' is such a stupid construct. Everything that's wrong with the way politics and broadcast media conduct themselves is because those operations are run by halfwits who think in terms like that.

    2. I can only get my cues from the way I read it.

      Anyway, is your objection to 'voterland' the nomenclature or is it structural? Is there something about the behaviour of the vast majority of the voting public that I'm missing, some great thirst for substantive, empirical policy analysis? Because, with a large chunk of my family from Western Sydney, I'm not seeing any of it.

    3. Lachlan Ridge9/8/13 4:05 am

      No, your not getting it. The 'other' of 'voterland' is an arrogant construct. It's never you, is it? Turn it around. Maybe you are voterland, and it's actually your family that's engaged? Absurd? No more so than the inverse. We all take our cues from somewhere and should never be so arrogant as to assume that our cues are more substantive than others until we've tested them. Hence the futility of elitism on anything, especially elitism that wields no power, such as that guy in the mirror.

      Might be a WA thing?

    4. Lachlan, I understand your argument and your position. But I don't think it's arrogance to recognise differences. There's no inherent better/worse qualitative judgement in difference until someone overlays it with their value system (which we will all do). But I think it's naive to think that we're all the same, with the same wants, needs, motives and prejudices.

      All I'm saying is that, from my (yes, passive subjective empirical) POV, the way I look at the world is different from most people I encounter. Statistically, I have an education that sets me apart from just about everyone, I earn an income that sets me apart from just about everyone, my values and my world view are vastly different to most people I encounter. I'm not politically partisan, which sets me apart from about 70-80% of the population (depending on which study you look at). I'm very much in a tiny minority, and it would be foolish of me to think that many others have a life and outlook like me. What's wrong with me seeing most people in society is 'other', when statistically they actually are? Otherness doesn't mean worse, but it does mean different. I accept that as the majority, they call the shots and make the decisions in a democracy. For me, they're voterland, they're the people who have the numbers to actually make a difference.

  12. Its called the "polity" derived from the Greek word "politeia" Andrew not..... "voterland" .



    pp et al

  13. http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2013/kroger-unapologetic-as-news-says-public-sorry-20130805-2ra35.html


  14. "Abbott has never been able to create an impression of stability and competence in any area other than media strategy. Getting a gullible herd of journalists to swoon over you ("best Opposition Leader ever"!) isn't much of an achievement, and it won't keep you warm on election night."

    Great call Andrew!