01 February 2015

Bad reporting, bad decisions

If you believe that Anna Bligh led Labor to defeat with a huge swing in 2012 over asset sales, then you must also believe that Campbell Newman led the LNP to defeat last night for the same reason.

Policy matters in political analysis. Only the analysis about what state government is actually for, the focus on schools and hospitals and law-and-order, makes any sense of why Queenslanders voted as they did.

The people of Queensland have permanent interests, rather than permanent friends or enemies in politics. Once you understand that - if you can understand it - you can get past the idea that it is the political class that is fickle and obtuse, and not the electorate.

Queensland's optional preferential system, combined with the significance of parties outside the LNP and ALP, makes a mockery of polling in other jurisdictions. On the ABC election coverage Antony Green once again fought a brave but losing battle with his own software. I was half expecting it to rise up, like Frankenstein's monster, and proclaim Aidan McLindon the next Premier. Green's on-screen troubles pointed to a wider problem in the quasi-profession of political punditry.

Polls predicting Queensland elections have always been crap. Nobody predicted Goss would lose in 1996 (and nobody looked at Kevin Rudd's role in that government to assess how he'd go as Prime Minister, but don't even get me started on that). Nobody predicted Beattie would scrape back in so soon afterward, and everybody was astonished when he was re-elected in successive landslides. They were amazed by 2012, and amazed last night, and the same people will be amazed in 2018 (whatever the result then) too.

Queensland should be the place were political punditry goes to die. Yet there are actually members of the federal parliamentary press gallery who actually tout their experience from one of the worst black holes in Australian journalism. Go here, download the Fitzgerald Commission report and go to section 3.9, and understand why I expect more of political journalism than press gallery denizens can deliver. Those people are as guilty as anyone of treating political game-changing phenomena coming out of that state - Rudd, Palmer to name but two - as a freak show, rather than a predictable phenomenon with strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

All the poll-jockey journalism about Queensland was bullshit. All of it. This is not the worst example of it, but it will stand in for the rest:
Naive people with way too much hope and way too little knowledge of politics looked on in awe as their Great Leader gave his interviews. One of those interviews was conducted by me ...
Richardson has always believed members of his own party to be mugs, and he has the backroom boy's contempt for the public mouthpiece. That said, Bob Katter is basically offering economic protectionism without the nasty racist edge of Hanson, and that has no future - but nobody expects yer man Richardson to go into policy detail. He's engaging in after-the-event wisdom against Katter, which is why I have no compunction about doing so here.
Katter’s bad luck didn’t end there. At the last federal election the Palmer United Party appeared out of nowhere and dashed his chances of picking up a Senate spot.

The limelight shifted to the new Saviour when, once again, it seemed that many voters were looking for an alternative to the major parties.
Palmer was more successful than Katter because Palmer seemed to have a better understanding of the economic factors shaping Queensland than Katter, who even wears three-piece suits in homage to Ted Theodore and T J Ryan. When Palmer referred to the Chinese as "bastards" on Q and A, the veneer of the sophisticated businessman disappeared, and he became another populist clown. His accommodations with Abbott government policy made it look as though there were no ideas other than the deeply unpopular and half-baked ones put up by the government. Palmer looked like Abbott's dupe, even though Abbott was supposed to be led by the nose by wealthy people like Palmer ... which made the whole show seem like a bit of a circle-jerk really.
Within a few years the PUP will be little more than an unpleasant memory as this Queensland state election campaign is showing.
OK, so PUP didn't win any seats - not even serial loser John Bjelke-Petersen, who has been running unsuccessfully for three decades, has been in more parties than Paris Hilton (one of the few hackneyed old jokes about politics that's actually funny), who always gets a welter of free publicity - and whose community just does not want him to represent them. At all. Ever.

PUP did win about 8% of the vote in their enfeebled state. There are Labor MPs heading to George St to replace LNP members as a result of that vote, which is Palmer's main motivation and the main thing most reporting on Queensland missed. The whole idea of creating the LNP was to focus the right-of-centre vote in Queensland. Far from being united, the anti-Labor vote fragmented under Newman - even Pauline Hanson got in for her chop. By contrast Labor's vote did not fragment; there was no big stoush like Farrell-Weatherill in South Australia, nor the bitter warfare that often takes hold in Victoria.

As Mark Bahnisch points out, Queensland has a different political history. The Liberal-National Coalition might unite liberals and conservatives closely but not too tightly in other states, but in Queensland the two-party thing just looked muddled. Goss and Beattie brought a generation of educated people who might normally have been small-l Liberals into the ALP. Now that the unity thing hasn't worked and the LNP brand is essentially one of mendacity, and it complicates things in Canberra, what even is the point of keeping it going?

But Richo isn't on to deal with the big questions. Eventually, he gets over how wacky Queensland politics is. Sort of.
Meanwhile the Labor leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk has an enormous task to restore electoral credibility to her party. Aided by the arrogance of and immense dislike for Premier Campbell Newman, she has had some by-election wins and has several times reached 50/50 in the two party preferred category in Newspoll.
Talk about being damned with faint praise, more than half way down the article. At least he resisted the temptation that other commentators often lapse into when discussing Palaszczuk:
  • raking over her marital and pregnancy history
  • treating her like a placeholder for male alternatives who weren't in the last parliament, or
  • whoa, isn't her surname hard to spell!
Before the LNP was formed there were eight Liberals in an earlier Queensland parliament, and they split 4-4 in a leadership ballot. Visiting comedian Eric Idle offered himself as a candidate. It was not beyond possibility for Palaszczuk's small band to suffer a similar fate, and be mucked about by extra-parliamentary players.
Labor dropped two or three points the moment Newman announced this snap poll and this was to be expected. Even with two by-election wins, Labor holds only nine of the 89 seats in the Queensland parliament. With a uniform swing of 11 per cent, a result which is well nigh impossible, Labor would win 31 seats and Newman would still be Premier.
The idea of a political pendulum was an attempt to order a process that can resist easy definitions, and usually works best when swings are small. The higher the swing, and the greater the fragmentation of the vote beyond two parties (big swings and fragmentation being key features of Queensland politics), the less useful the whole 'uniform swing' construct is. Richo is clearly not the guy to ask about Queensland politics.
Palaszczuk has to climb Everest and then some.
Hundreds of people have summited [sic] Mt Everest since an Auckland apiarist first did it in 1953. It's time for another metaphor to describe the impossible.
Imagine the advantages of incumbency the LNP has. In 74 electorates across the state they have staff to burn. Every ministerial office has even more and none of them are doing constituency duties right now — they are all flat out on the election.
The LNP stuffed their parliamentary ranks with numpties. If you're going to do that your staff need to be very sharp: a hundred Credlins. Anyone with half a brain went to Canberra in September 2013 or made it to a ministerial office - and even they are having second thoughts by now, and overestimating how valuable their skills are in a flatlining economy.
The LNP coffers are full and Labor’s are near empty. Not too many businessmen will donate to a Labor Party which has no hope of victory with a vindictive Newman ready to pounce on them post the election.
Newman can be as vindictive as he likes, if you're running a business in Queensland which relies on state government (in terms of contracts, compliance, or both) and you have no ties to or contacts in the new government, more fool you.
If Labor can achieve a 7 per cent swing they can win eighteen seats. That would do real credit to Palaszczuk and any more would be a tremendous result.
Not being in Queensland last night, I watched the coverage from ABC24. Successful Labor candidates like Kate Jones, Jennifer Howard, and Palaszczuk herself talked about low-cost community campaigns rather than the big-money and smart-staffer assaults Richo is used to. Political journos can't imagine elections any other way. They got the standard big-politics treatment of being flown around the state in Newman's jet or transcribing Tim Nicholls' paeans to the economy. They patronised Labor candidates in shopping centres and public parks, forgetting that lo-fi grass-roots campaigns won key seats for Labor in Victoria, too.

Piping Shrike is right in saying that both parties have lost their social base. However thin it might be, Labor are (re)building one, which will make for a patronising and risk-averse politics to replace the fits-and-starts that the Coalition are playing out.
Labor will have its renaissance, but I suspect it is a few years off yet.

Much has been made of Jane Prentice's comments on Abbott for their federal implications, and while that angle is more than fair the contrast with state Labor is important, and could not have been more stark. Prentice talked messaging and swings and other political-class abstractions; Kate Jones talked about being approached about politics while walking her dog, or Palaszczuk discussing issues with her father. The contrast was telling and will remain so.

If Shorten starts running campaigns like that the federal press gallery won't be able to use its small array of blunt tools to describe his campaign either. The traditional media will run the whole of the next federal election campaign like this particular example of political journalism failure, where they simply will not be able to describe political events, or what they mean.

Brisbane has one major newspaper, The Courier-Mail, a Murdoch tabloid which went as hard for Newman as it had for Abbott. Its credibility is trashed. Since colonial times, newspaper proprietors have swayed elections and politicians have had to manage them: no more. After Victoria, where both The Age and The Herald-Sun supported the re-election of the Napthine Coalition government, we can now declare the age of the influential newspaper proprietor - and the press gallery doyen - over. Political careers stunted by fear of Murdoch are a thing of the past, there is no excuse for that now.

Grass-roots campaigns like Labor ran in Victoria, and now Queensland, only work against incumbent conservative governments. Volunteers are fired up and can wax lyrical about how things will be better under Labor. Once the Andrews and Palaszczuk governments have become a little shopsoiled, making some hard decisions/blunders, volunteer numbers will dry up and they will have fewer answers to growing concerns.

There are other limits to this approach as well, in terms of the utility of unions. Volunteers descended on Bundaberg and won for Labor a seat that - you guessed it - the pundits hadn't anticipated falling to Labor (even though Leanne Donaldson had been a strong and active campaigner for years and the seat had a long Labor history. One out of the box. Who would have guessed. Back to you in the studio, Richo). Bundaberg is a manual-labour town and union volunteers seemed to receive warmer welcomes than those most Queenslanders extend to blow-ins. In the lightly-unionised Gold Coast there was no grass-roots campaign of this type, against much weaker opposition, so five seats went begging for Labor.

Maybe the grass-roots union campaigns are overstated. The only other conclusion you can draw from traditional media is that there are more bikies in Queensland than one might imagine. See how bad political reporting in this country is? Bad reporting leads to bad political decisions, by politicians and voters alike.

What looks like a good result for the LNP on the Gold Coast, and an overall result where a majority is tantalisingly close, has to be weighed against the fact that their potential front bench is neither that clever nor that cohesive. They have no idea where or how they went wrong. What were the LNP thinking when they complained about unionists backing the ALP? That relationship has been established for over 120 years; while it hasn't always been smooth or even constructive, whinging about it makes you look like you don't understand politics.

With all due respect to everyone sweating on the wording and presentation as I write, so what if Tony Abbott pulls off a ripper speech tomorrow? The only truly great speech he ever made was at his preselection more than twenty years ago, when he beat off people like Kevin McCann and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Gillard's speech three years ago was quite good, but the press gallery couldn't get past her glasses or her nomination of an election date. Admit it, he's finished. Admit it, he never was any good - at speechmaking or anything else. Liberals like Prentice are, like the press gallery, thrashing about for a plausible reason why they overestimated someone they observed so closely but examined so little.

What the Liberals want is someone with the appeal of Turnbull but who won't do anything to interfere with the policy settings. The policies aren't just unpopular, they haven't been thought through, and those who point this out aren't just patsies to be dismissed lightly. If you think Tony Abbott is high-handed and doesn't consult, wait until you let Turnbull off the leash. But, more on that in the next post.


  1. "Polls predicting Queensland elections have always been crap."

    What so you make of Bob Ellis' accusations that Murdoch-owned polls commit fraud daily by ringing only those with landlines and at times when those without them wouldn't be able, or inclined, to speak to robots?

  2. Thanks once again Andrew for your thought-provoking analysis. I can't wait for the Turnbull piece.

    Thanks too for the Mark Bahnisch link. He has been an insightful provider of info on Queensland power plays and predicted a highly possible ALP win. Graham Richardson and others were taken by surprise because their prism has grown cataracts which blur and distort.

    It will be interesting to see if Turnbull takes over without it causing major ructions. I need to bring myself up to date about all the internal divisions within the government. It makes me wonder if Abbott's dilemma is not entirely of his own making, 'captain calls' aside. You would need to be a very wily fellow to deal with all those competing interests, both within and without. All that sneaking around and flip-flopping that is a consequence is unpalatable to the electorate.

    I will be interesting to see how Turnbull or Bishop deal with the neo-liberal zealots, the farmers, the social liberals, the IPA policy providers, Rupert's tweets, Bolt's advice, the miners etc etc.

  3. great article thanks

  4. chrispydog2/2/15 10:49 am

    The tea party is over and Rupert is reduced to enraged tweeting against the dying power of his newsprint.

    Queensland has almost restored my faith in the public's ability not to buy shite twice, and will be completely restored when the current travesty in Canberra is similarly dispatched.

    Good read as always Andrew.

  5. The Murdoch Media is on a pair. A golden duck 1st innings in Victoria another golden duck next innings in Queensland.
    What do they call a triple golden duck?

    1. The Golden Turducken?

      Triple stuffed!

      Olivia Illyria

  6. chrispydog2/2/15 11:08 am

    By the way, I've always described Turnbull's ego as being like the Tardis, gigantic on the inside. If he ever replaces Abbott his final implosion will be on the scale of a galactic event.

    Pass the popcorn...

  7. Re the Gold Coast result should also point out that GC has been the standout best performer in the state on employment over the past year.

  8. I'd just like to echo my thanks for this post and anticipation for your next...


  9. Joe Fitzpatrick2/2/15 7:20 pm

    Yes, Andrew, he's done.

    It's reached childish levels, wherein a "great speech" is supposed to turn a nation around. Abbott spoke as he always did - in annoying, simplistic and inaccurate slogans. He insulted the intelligence of his audience again.

    This government is a university debating team that has grown a little older and suddenly found themselves in charge. And suddenly saying the neatest one-liner isn't enough.

    1. We had the TV on in the lunch room today, there was quite a crowd watching him an no one supportive. When he mentioned our $550 "on average" there was much laughter. He really ought to get out more, but maybe those in Grong Grong did get their $550 and I'm wrong.

      I want him to go, and I want Shorten to go as well.

  10. VoterBentleigh2/2/15 8:23 pm

    Thank you for stating this so well. The claims that voters are fickle and volatile have been giving me the pip. The Queensland voters were entirely consistent.

  11. Best post election analysis on this election that I've read - thank you

  12. Poor Libs. They look like having to blast Him out. What a surprise.

    Abbott seems to be a man who attracts conflict, who causes conflict and, alarmingly, requires it. The ALP and those 'too absent-minded' to vote for that party, have been his principal foes. Now it seems that Enemy No 1 is his own party. Again, what a surprise.

    Under Abbott and his urgers, the Liberals have set themselves at odds with many in the electorate. I believe they are deluding themselves that the polls are bad and state governments are tumbling because The Team is not communicating well and that Abbott knighted a prince.

    Voters have understood that the government wants 'to go forward' by slashing, burning, sacking and privatising. They do not like it. That is the problem for the Libs. The knighthood is just a hook upon which to hang accumulating grievances.

    Every time I hear that spin word 'reform' I shiver. Talk about change. It would lead to more honest discussion.

  13. Yet again, in the media today the problems of the government are attributed to "leadership woes". The fact that he does not consult with his colleagues, is not a good "salesman" is again the central theme. Sure enough, Abbott is a problem but the electorate is reacting to POLICY.....the policies that the cabinet, the Liberal party have all voted for, and supported. It is all very well to contemplate Bishop/Turnbull/ Morrison as alternatives, but do they offer different ideas? All of these people have been involved in determining the course of this government, but as usual, we see yet another press piece that implies government by PM. Pathetic really.

    The Lib/Nats bullied mocked and jeered their way into government offering VERY little policy. It offered a "pamphlet" of wishy washy concepts and concentrated on what it would REPEAL, not what it would enact. Where was the scrutiny of that? Undertakings that it did make have been routinely broken, not just by the PM, but by the government itself. The media seems determined to take a myopic and lazy route in covering that.

    Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech in the US few days ago, which is being applauded by some parts of the media. He talked about the need for leaders to explain policy, to take people "with them". In the same way, the media is banging on today about how the Newman government didn't SELL policy.

    I don't buy Turnbull for one minute. Am fed up with pollies that sound like they have just come out of a strategy meeting in an advertising agency. Of course it is true that leaders should explain, take people with them etc....as Keating did. (albeit that the current media landscape makes this very difficult).

    We need to hear about POLICY, not obvious truisms from clowns like Turnbull. And we need a media that DEMANDS it.They simply REFUSE to acknowledge the part that the MSM has played in denigrating the national discourse, in dumbing down political coverage etc etc. Fools like Maley, Peatling, Kenny, Hartcher, Coorey etc etc. As for News Ltd, they are not only fools, they are partisan hacks. That it was makes the Fairfax coverage so tragic.....they don't challenge the METHOD of coverage.

    I would LOVE to hear Turnfullofbull explain a budget that is fundamentally inequitable. A budget that hits our poorest hardest, while ignoring tax avoidance by corporates, which has cost us an billions in revenue in recent years. A budget that continues huge corporate welfare (subsidies to miners etc). A budget that has NO plan for our future, our economy, transition to clean energy etc etc etc (the list is endless).

    The MSM in this country is, by and large, RUBBISH, and is doing us, the electorate, a huge disservice.

  14. To add to my comment: looking forward to more discussion of Turnbull. Yet again, the press seem to have collective amnesia. They criticise Abbott for failing to consult colleagues. mmm, if I recall that was exactly was Turnbull was accused of. And how can we forget the comments of the seemingly fairly decent Brendan Nelson on the topic of Turnbull: "narcissistic personality disorder" ring a bell?

  15. My goodness, what an irrelevance Graham Richardson has become. He and Mark Latham should just call it quits.

  16. Yes, "reform". Everyone understands what that means now - the mum and dad in the street are being told to bend over yet again, while the so-called "lifters" get away scott free and often with an immense dollop of taxpayer subsidy to ease their pain. It stinks and we'll get outcomes like last weekend in Qld until the policy positions shift so that there is a more equitable sharing of structural change in the economy. And it's not about the "message" or, god help us, the "narrative", either.