When will progressives learn to speak to people? Not at people. Speak to people. A great example of the wishy washy language that the left uses to try to convince people of the merits of their ideas is contained in this article about wealth inequality by Richard Denniss. Denniss wrote this fantastic piece in response to Amanda Vanstone’s whine about the poor-rich-people getting picked on which conveniently forgot to mention that wealth doesn’t trickle down and was therefore total bullshit. Denniss clearly knows his stuff. If you’ve not heard of him, you can read all about him and his progressive think tank, the Australia Institute in the Saturday Paper. So you’ll notice I did just say that Denniss’ piece was fantastic, but I also called it wishy washy. Contradictory yes, but keep up because what is fantastic to the left can be completely wasted on those who don’t share the left’s values. And this is what I’m talking about when I say progressives need to learn to speak to people in a way that will actually convince them to think differently about something they thought they had firm views on. Like ideological positions towards wealth inequality. For instance.
Before you go and say ‘who does this nobody blogger think she is telling a certified expert think tanker (do they actually think inside tanks?) how to communicate’, let me preface my argument by explaining that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have many of them. Because I too can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would have voted for Tony Abbott, and every time I get into a conversation with one of them I have to take a deep breath and walk quickly away before I lose my temper. But we need to remind ourselves that we can’t understand why anyone would vote for Abbott because we don’t think like Abbott voters. And it’s not until we work out how they think that we can possibly even begin to think about how we speak to them. Not in a weird ‘let’s hypnotise or brainwash Abbott voters to convince them never to do that again’, (although if anyone has any thoughts on this I’d be happy to hear them). But what I’m saying is that progressives need to learn how non-progressives understand the world before we can explain why progressive policies are in everyone’s best interests. Because we do believe that don’t we?
A perfect example of this is Denniss’s very logical argument about wealth equality, or fairness, being good for all of us. This is 100% true, and I’ve written before about how this concept should be adopted by the Labor Party as the overarching narrative to define their policy purpose. When I read an article about the ill-effects of wealth inequality for all of us, rich and poor alike, I nod my head and in total agreement I say ‘well that’s sorted, we need to ensure there is wealth equality, done, let’s move on’. But I would say that wouldn’t I. And so would most other people who share my values and are likely to agree with Denniss’s article. So he’s preaching to the converted. But what about non-progressives and those who don’t sit firmly in either camp? These are the people we need to think hard about and work out what they see when they read such an article. Words like ‘fairness’ and ‘equity’ are littered throughout progressive communications, and of course they are feel-good words for people who value fairness and equity inherently. But what about those who believe in the merits of a free market above all else, who when a left-winger says ‘fairness’, hear ‘you’re trying to take away money I’ve earned to give to someone who hasn’t earned it, which is not fair’. It’s the same word, but the meaning behind it, and what is understood when it is heard is completely different for people with different values.
I said I didn’t have all the answers to this dilemma, but let me at least try to give you an example of how we could try speaking to Abbott voters (who, by the way, definitely don’t read this blog so please don’t point this out in the comments because I am fully aware I’m talking to progressives plus creepy conservative Ian Hall). But just say a progressive think tanker is writing in a mainstream newspaper. When they’re talking about wealth equality and the reasons why we need to reduce wealth inequality for the betterment of all of us – it’s the growing the pie rather than divvying up the same sized pie argument – they need to stop relying on statistics. Denniss used an awesome one right at the start of his very awesome article: ‘Australia’s richest seven people have more wealth than the bottom 1.73 million households combined’. To someone who thinks that wealth inequality is a problem, this statistic clearly shows its urgent magnitude. But to most Abbott voters, wealth equality is not a problem. It is an aspiration. Those richest seven people are heroes to many right-leaning Australians. To the aspirant, free-market-loving, keeping-ahead-of-the-Joneses-by-buying-a-better-than-your-neighbor’s-new-car-every-three-years and only-being-happy-when-you-have-the-most-expensive-house-on-the-street and the-wearing most-obvious-wealth-consumption-designer-clothes section of the Australian community, anything that opposes wealth inequality sounds suspiciously like higher taxation and a slippery slope to communism. So what do we say instead?
First we ask them what they do for a living. Bill says he sells home insurance. So you ask Bill, how many people get home insurance who can’t afford to buy their own homes? Wouldn’t Bill’s market be much bigger, and his job much easier and more prosperous if more people could afford to buy their own homes? That’s why Bill should be worried about wealth inequality. Gloria owns a restaurant. So you ask Gloria, is it true that people eat at your restaurant because they have disposable incomes? If lots of people are poorer than Gloria, and don’t have any money left over at the end of the week, who will come into Gloria’s restaurant? The very rich can only eat so much. I’m sure Gloria would love it if one of the seven richest Australians came into her restaurant, because one might assume there would be a sizeable tip (although this might be a flawed assumption). But the rich have lots of other restaurants to visit. And the poorest 1.73million can’t afford to even think about visiting any restaurant, let alone Gloria’s. Isn’t Gloria worried that if the number of well off Australians shrinks, and the number of poor Australians grows, her business won’t be able to sustain her aspirational-affluent lifestyle? As I said when I last wrote on this topic, who is going to shop at Walmart if even those people who work at Walmart can’t afford to shop there? See how we’re all better off if we’re all better off?
Think like they do, and speak to them. Otherwise we’ll get Abbott again and the wealth inequality gap will continue to grow. Please help us!
I often complain loudly that Abbott got a free run in the media during his time in Opposition and while he was campaigning (sloganeering) for the top job. Someone said to me the other day that I shouldn’t blame the press for giving Abbott this free run, because Abbott did do his very best to keep his plans as secret as his daughter’s design school scholarship. I can’t deny that Abbott and his colleagues tried to hide their moral nakedness from voters until it was too late for us to do anything about it. They clothed themselves in Labor bashing, in three-word-slogans and in yellow-vest-wearing-banana-stacking-fear-campaigns and produced a thin policy pamphlet full of promises that have now been broken.
But hang on folks. Hang on. If Abbott really did fool the media into thinking he wasn’t naked, and they in turn fooled voters, why is it that untrained amateur writers like me were spot on in our analysis of Abbott long before he became PM? Why did the open letters I and others wrote to Abbott, numerous times, so miraculously predict, like crystal ball reading savants, exactly the type of Prime Minister we have ended up with? A nasty, bigoted, sexist, rich-loving, poor-hating, expert-deriding, anti-science inarticulate thug who embarrasses the nation every time he opens his mouth? Why, when so many of us were saying that Abbott wasn’t wearing any clothes, did the mainstream media do their best to sheath the man in Teflon coated budgie smugglers, which enabled him to unleash his wrecking ball so shockingly on a mostly unsuspecting public? What I’m saying is, how did people like me see what was coming, but the mainstream media didn’t? Or worse, if they did, why didn’t they tell us?
I am upset by the Abbott government in varying degrees every day. There have been lower than usual points, like the commission of audit, the release of the budget and every policy within it, the lies about Gonski funding, the Royal Commission witch hunt into Julia Gillard and unions, the war-mongering in the aid of a poll boost, and just this week, a discriminatory stance to ban female Muslims wearing religious clothing in Parliament House. This last one seemed to finally crack the veneer of ‘nothing-to-see-here-move-along’ mainstream press reporting of the Abbott government, with, frankly better-late-than-never impassioned and obviously entirely outraged writing from the likes of Waleed Aly and Peter Hartcher. As a side note, I can’t help but wonder if Fairfax will notice the spike in traffic to these articles now that they’re finally revealing the real Tony Abbott and the justified outrage at the way he behaves.
But let’s not forget that this dog-whistling-with-a-mega-phone, Cory-Bernardi-look-alike Prime Minister hasn’t changed a bit since we first met him as the aptly described by Paul Keating ‘resident nut job’ from the Howard government. Tony Abbott has always been a creep. Tony Abbott has always wanted to wage an ideological class war on Australians and he is relishing his opportunity to do this as Prime Minister of Australia. Australians are suffering from the results of this war, as the naked-man-wrecking-ball smashes through our social welfare policies, education funding and the core pillars of universal health care. I know no one likes a know-all who says ‘I told you so’, but I totally did tell you so. Because it was obvious. He was standing right there and all I had to do was look at him, scrutinise for a millisecond and I knew what a disaster PM he was going to be. I’m not naïve enough to expect that the mainstream media would describe the coming disaster in quite as colourful language as I do. I understand the need for balance in journalism as opposed to partisan histrionics in commentary and blogging. But this doesn’t excuse mainstream journalists from doing their jobs. Please guys. Just some basic facts would be useful. Next time there’s a naked man, wearing red budgie smugglers that don’t even try to hide the horrors behind them, please consider doing your jobs and warning the public not to give this man the keys to the country.
It’s really hard to find someone who voted for Abbott’s Liberal government who is willing to justify their actions without mentioning the Labor Party. I also find Greens voters share this trait, in that they often position their support for the Greens as being ‘anti-Labor’, more so than they are ‘pro-Green’. When you also take into account the mainstream media’s obsession with Labor bashing, it’s clear why Labor is permanently on the counter-attack from a pincer movement of anti-Labor-for-this-reason-or-another-culture that dominates Australian political discourse. So when people like me try to defend my support for the Labor Party by explaining by deep attachment to the Labor Party’s values and policies that are intrinsically tied to these values, I get a constant barrage of criticism and abuse from the aforementioned pincer movement. It’s fair to say that being a Labor supporter in this country is a fairly unrewarding exercise.
So why does the Labor Party, whether in government or opposition, bear the brunt of so much disappointment, criticism and abuse? I think it’s because the party’s mission is such a difficult one that it’s seemingly impossible to live up to the huge weight of expectation placed on it through its promise to protect us all from the economy that we also rely on for the continuation of our society.
Put simply, in my view, the Labor Party exists to cushion the community from the negative side-effects of a capitalist economy. But just knowing this is not very helpful if you don’t acknowledge the difficulty in achieving this quest. Because there’s an added complication to the battle between labour and capital (workers and those they work for); the Labor Party has promised to be both saviour for the labour side, and defender and concierge for capital at the same time.
A perfect example of the dichotomy between defending labour and capital is the criticism Prime Minister Gillard received for moving single-mothers from the sole parent payment onto Newstart when their youngest child turned eight. It’s worth noting that Gillard didn’t in fact introduce the policy, but rather brought all sole parent payment recipients in line with the policy Howard introduced. Yet the criticism I saw about Gillard making this change was disproportionately fiercer when compared with the criticism the Liberal government received for making the policy change in the first place. This is because Labor is expected to look after the poor, and the Liberals don’t carry this expectation. It’s when those we trust let us down that we’re most upset, but those we expect to let us down just meet our expectation when they do.
But discounting this emotional reaction, when you look at how Gillard’s decision aligns to Labor’s promise to defend labour against capital, the policy change actually does make sense. Because Gillard was no doubt hoping that the change in their pension situation, once their children are at school, would encourage single mothers to go back to the workplace. Workers are better off than people on pensions. Families where a parent works have more money to provide their children with basic necessities. You might think I’m harsh and uncaring for saying this, but I won’t apologise for pointing out that there is dignity in work, and as a society, we should do everything we can to encourage and support those who can work to do so.
In actual fact I disagreed with Gillard’s decision to move single mothers onto Newstart for two reasons – one because the decision was not also coupled with an acknowledgement that the Newstart allowance is not enough to live on, even as a temporary stop-gap between jobs. And the other is because a smarter policy would have been to encourage and support single-mothers into training to prepare them for the workplace, where there is increasingly less opportunity for un-educated people to find work. Gillard could also have focused on the reasons single mothers often can’t work, such as lack of child-care and the availability of stable part-time work.
The mistake Gillard made was wrongly positioning the policy change as a cost-saving measure at a time when her government was receiving constant criticism about over-spending, budget deficits and waste. And here lies the problem for Labor. The party is expected to look after everyone, from the unemployed and single parents, to workers, to the rich business owners, to multi-national corporations and their shareholders by keeping the economy in tip-top-profit-making shape and the budget in balance and also providing all the government payments and services required to stop people falling behind, all at the same time. Talk about an impossible expectation to live up to!
The Labor Party is also expected by many left-leaning voters to live up to the unreasonable expectation of having a policy platform that perfectly aligns with every single left-leaning voter’s policy preferences, bar none. For instance, many ex-Labor supporters on the left, who mostly now support the Greens, seem to have withdrawn their support of Labor due to one or sometimes two Labor policies they don’t agree with. Whether it be single parents on Newstart, asylum seeker policy, gay marriage or environmental policy, it would seem that there are huge numbers of left voting Australians who hold Labor up to an unobtainable standard of perfection. They want a Labor policy platform where they agree uncompromisingly with each and every policy, and anything short of this turns them into Labor haters, blind to every Labor policy they actually support and blind to the fact their lack of Labor support assists the Liberal party to win power.
The community’s belief that Labor can be everything to everyone all at the same time is crushing the party, leaving many Labor politicians, and certainly Bill Shorten, so scared of doing anything to hurt one group over another that they would prefer to say and do nothing at all most of the time.
But if Labor is ever going to get back into government, they need to get over this fear. This beige must end. So what should Labor do?
First and foremost, Labor must be brave. Forget about the pincer movement. The Liberals and the Greens, and to some extent, the media, have a vested interest in attacking Labor whenever Labor opens its mouth. Get used to it and get over it. Bravery also means sticking to your values no matter what the opinion polls say. I don’t know this for sure, but I can bet Labor sided with Abbott to let through draconian ASIO powers last week because they didn’t want to appear soft on terror. But in doing this, they have just looked even softer. So it’s a self-perpetuating problem.
Secondly, Labor must build a stronger narrative. A narrative tied to their values, tied to their policies. Not a slogan. A narrative. Not a beige ‘fairness this’, ‘safety-net- that’ wet-lettuce-leaf-key-search-phrases-white-noise-dribble. A strong and meaningful narrative is what is needed.
For the past year, Labor promised to oppose Abbott. Abbott has given Shorten a dream-run of policies to oppose, and to be fair Shorten has been passionately against Abbott’s budget and the few policies Abbott has managed to get through parliament. However what’s lacking from these policy debates is the overarching story about why Labor opposes the policies. It’s not enough to jump from an anti-Medicare co-payment campaign, to a pro-climate change action campaign, to a pro-tertiary education campaign without a rock-solid chain linking all these micro-campaigns together. Shorten has told Michelle Grattan that the party is working on such a narrative. It’s good to hear him admit this, as Labor clearly don’t have one yet. If you’re interested in reading my thoughts on what this narrative could possibly look like, I wrote about this very subject here.
Labor has two years until the next election to work out how they are going to explain to the electorate that their party is the best option to tackle the problems our community face, whilst managing the high expectations of a broad range of people, all with competing priorities. Labor can’t fall into Abbott’s trap of believing they can win because people will vote against Abbott’s Liberals. Labor needs to be better than this. It doesn’t sound easy. It’s not easy. But if Labor can’t at least start to make some improvements, Abbott will win a second term. We all know what is at stake if that happens.
I was listening to the ABC’s Radio National news this morning and it suddenly struck me – mainstream news media, including everyone from the ABC to Murdoch, are incapable of providing the general public with a voice or a face. Two news items were perfect examples of this problem. One was about opposition to marine parks, where a lobster fishing industry spokesperson was invited to comment. And low-and-behold this industry spokesman was totally against marine parks. Another news item was about the South Australian government’s city car park tax which will be used to improve public transport. And you guessed it – a city business lobby group was invited to comment. And surprise surprise they were totally against the Labor government’s car park tax.
I often find myself muttering or shouting at the radio/TV/newspaper ‘well he would say that, wouldn’t he’. Because it’s fairly predictable that industry is going to be against anything that negatively impacts on them. Think mining industry and the mining tax. But what the media need to realise is that just talking to the person who is against a progressive policy doesn’t make that policy a bad policy. There’s another group who needs to be given a voice or a face in these conversations. And that is the public. Where is the commentary about the public good?
For instance, when we’re talking about marine parks, clearly there’s a valid reason why marine parks exist. It’s not just so that over-fishing doesn’t destroy our natural environment (although this on its own would be justification). It’s also to improve the long term sustainability of fish stocks. Which is important for the public good in the long term, even if it effects the lives of recreational fishers and the fishing industry profits in the short term. So speaking to someone who is whining about their recreation or profits tomorrow doesn’t really give the public a valid argument for why the policy shouldn’t be implemented for the public’s future benefit.
Or in the case of a car park tax, just because the Liberal Opposition is whinging about the cost imposition on those who can afford to park their cars in the city, and just because businesses in the city are convinced that the car park tax will negatively impact their profits, doesn’t mean that the public good argument isn’t just as valid. Why doesn’t the ABC news ever interview a low income family who can’t afford to park in the city but needs better public transport to get to work? Why doesn’t a government representative have a chance to explain that the revenue from the tax will be used to improve public transport, with the aim of bringing more shoppers and workers into the city in the long term, which would improve business activity and profits for the whinging business owners too?
Is it because it’s just easier to get a sound bite from someone opposed to progressive policy that we only hear from the vested interests of the very rich and the lobbyists who are paid to represent them? Is it really just laziness on the part of journalists which stops the public hearing the other side of the argument – the one that gives them a voice and a face? Or is there a deeper problem?
I think too many journalists automatically equate the ‘business good’ with the ‘public good’ and aren’t skilled enough at critiquing a policy from any perspective other than the press release from the well paid lobby group. When I hear myself saying ‘well he would say that wouldn’t he’, I always wonder why the journalist hasn’t thought of this as well. Of course the mining industry is going to threaten to pull their investment out of Australia and reduce jobs in mining if they’re told they’re going to have to pay their fair share of the profits they make mining land that all Australians own. But this doesn’t mean this threat is real. Can a journalist not make the connection between a vested interest argument and a truthful statement? A super-profit tax, by very definition, doesn’t hurt investment or jobs. But how often did we get to hear from someone in the media who made this point? How often did anyone get to speak about the benefits of the mining tax for the public good – increased superannuation being just one of the benefits that the public has lost and now seem, way overdue, to be coming to terms with? It’s all too late now because the mining tax has already been repealed.
Every time the media fails to provide the public good with a face and a voice, they are letting the public down. I can understand why the Murdoch media behave in this way. They are run by the very vested interests I am talking about. But why the ABC? Why do they fall for this lame, lazy, unthinking journalistic style which makes it impossible for a progressive government to argue their case for change? I know I’ll never get answers to these questions, but I still can’t help but ask.
What surprises me most is that the Abbott government, who were enabled to come to power by this type of lazy journalism, are the ones who most need to be scrutinised. The Abbott government are the champion of vested interests and are seemingly against the public good. But it’s also worth remembering that the Abbott government are hell bent of destroying the ABC. Is this why the ABC are scared to speak truth to power?
It’s sad really. Just when we need the ABC to be the public broadcaster, champion of the public good, they are giving a voice only to the very people who plan to destroy them. And the saddest part – why should we have an ABC if they’re just going to take Murdoch’s side anyway? Why fight for them if they won’t fight for us, the public?
Since political journalists so love to talk about Labor Party narrative, I think it’s time we turned the tables and talked about mainstream media narratives instead. The one I would like to specifically discuss is the media’s recent coverage of the one year milestone of the Abbott government. From what I have seen and heard so far, these are the mandatory ingredients of the media’s narrative marking this occasion, with the consistency of a wheel in a track. This review of the media narrative also, handily, becomes my critique of Abbott’s first year as Prime Minister. One stone, two dead birds and all that.
Acknowledging the kept promises
Abbott is given a big thumbs up for doing what all Prime Ministers were expected to do until he broke pretty much every promise he made during his first twelve months and Teflon-like changed the expectations that a Prime Minister shouldn’t lie. So on the three occasions that Abbott didn’t lie – promising to get rid of the Carbon Price and Mining Tax and stopping the boats, he gets a round of applause from the mainstream media.
This applause definitely does not include any critique of the effect these decisions will have on the community. Because discussion of policy outcomes is forbidden. All the journos need to know is that Abbott said he was going to get rid of the Carbon Price, the Mining Tax, and stop the boats and he’s done that, so big tick to Abbott! You’ll see no comment on the devastation that the demise of the Carbon Price, with no policy to replace it, will have on our environment, even though a study has already reveals that emissions went up immediately after the repeal. You’ll see no comment on the impact of the death of the Mining Tax on wealth inequality.
And has Abbott really stopped the boats if they’re still leaving Indonesia only to be turned around in secret military-like on-water operations that break international treaties and desperate people are sometimes sent back to the hell-hole they came from? One murdered asylum seeker and one death due to sub-standard third-world medical care and a damaged relationship with Indonesia doesn’t seem to me to be a successful policy. But if it kept a promise, it’s fine apparently.
However, if you cared to judge the Abbott government not on their ability to keep a promise, but on their ability to be humane and to work in the best interests of the community while keeping a promise, they have clearly failed. You won’t hear the media making this point.
Praise for Abbott’s response to Malaysian airlines disasters
It is clearly not hard to put some glasses on and to look sombre while you speak pre-prepared consolatory words about an airline tragedy. And let’s be honest people, if that’s Abbott at his pre-prepared best, then he’s at best a mediocre public speaker who should never have got anywhere near the top job and at worst a George. W. Bush-like moronic bumbling ah-ah-ah-ah embarrassment to this great nation.
So looking past what Abbott said, as he scheduled non-stop press conferences about plane disasters but wouldn’t talk about his failed budget, and focusing more on what he did, what did he actually do? He volunteered millions of dollars in Australian resources and never found Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, despite raising the victim’s family’s hopes unnecessarily and announcing in Parliament that the plane had been found when it hadn’t. He also volunteered Australian resources to help recover the bodies of victims of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 which, sorry to have to point this out, again raised the hopes of the victim’s families and again he failed to complete the mission, whilst also putting Australians in harm’s way.
Praise for Abbott’s Team Australia bullshit
Apparently it’s ‘statesmen like’ to rush to a war on terrorism. Talking about the merits of going to war for at least a few days before committing Australia to what could be an ongoing conflict in a country that still hasn’t recovered from the last time Australia rushed to help America and the UK wage a war, would to me, seem at least foolish, at worst criminal. But Abbott’s Team Australia khaki campaign, in aid of his personal polling, will no doubt be applauded by the press as long as it continues to help Abbott win the poll war. Because that’s how journalists judge the merits of a Prime Minister’s decisions – on their real or possible impact on polls. Didn’t you know?
Downplaying Abbott’s lies as ‘they’re not different from Gillard’s lie’
Even when journalists do bother to remind voters that Abbott’s first budget was based on a barrage of lies and broken promises, they always make sure to compare these lies to Gillard’s Carbon Price ‘lie’. A lie is something you know to be false when you say it. Gillard didn’t know she was going to have to make a deal with the Greens to form minority government when she said she had no intention of implementing a tax on carbon, and instead preferred an ETS. So if you believe Abbott is in the same boat as Gillard in saying no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no cuts to the ABC or SBS numerous times throughout the election campaign, and then immediately back flipping on all these promises because he was forced to by a change of circumstances, then where are the changed circumstances?
Abbott didn’t need to make deals in the lower house to put his budget together (although deals with the Palmer United Party over superannuation cuts in order to kill the mining tax are surely as close as Abbott has got to circumstance like Gillard’s Carbon Price policy). We could go on discussing the blatant differences between Abbott’s huge list of broken promises that culminated in the most unfair and cruel budget this country has ever seen, to Gillard’s decision to introduce a Carbon Price.
But the biggest difference I would like to point out, which you never hear a journalist mention is a really simple one and also such a whopping big one that it’s hard to know how journalists can even look at these two situations without seeing the gulf of difference between them. Simply, Abbott’s lies made ordinary Australians worse off. They are bad policies on every single measure you care to measure them by and were ideological assaults based on the lie of a budget emergency. Gillard’s decision to bring in a Carbon Price, followed shortly thereafter by the policy she did say she wanted to bring in – an ETS – is good policy that is good for the environment and an important step in the international challenge to mitigate climate change. But journalists either don’t or can’t seem to see the difference between good policies and bad policies. Are they scared to judge a policy in case they appear partisan? What is the point of political journalism if not to inform the public on the merits of public policy? Seriously, what is the point? It’s a bad budget just because it’s bad. Full stop.
So there you have it. You’ll see this narrative over the next few days. Of course there will be, thankfully, examples of journalistic work that swims against this narrative, and good luck to those brave people. I know that one year into Abbott’s government, the one thing I am most sure about is that if a Labor government had behaved even a little bit like the Abbott government has in their contempt for the voting public, the mainstream media would have drawn and quartered Labor by now. The lack of contempt for the Abbott government from our media is, quite frankly, alarming.
Back in 2012, when you said the age of entitlement was over, I was so relieved. I was relieved that highly-paid politicians like Tony Abbott would no longer think it acceptable to charge tax-payers for personal book tours. I was relieved that filthy rich politicians like Malcolm Turnbull, and like yourself, would put an end to ethically-suspect rental schemes, where your tax-payer funded Canberra housing allowance is paid to your spouses for investment properties they have cleverly put in their names. Which you will no doubt benefit from once again when they sell. I was also relieved to hear that this sense of entitlement would also be finished for the families of rich politicians, when the likes of Tony Abbott would say it was not acceptable to accept a secret scholarship for his daughter’s education. Nor a refund on a non-refundable deposit paid on a rented flat without proper due diligence that any other non-entitled member of the public is in no position to demand. Nor lavish trips to the Melbourne Cup to hob-knob with celebrities which even you can no doubt see is not in the public interest and therefore not an entitlement that should be charged to the tax-payer. Because these are the best examples I have ever seen of a sense of entitlement which is so entrenched and seemingly innate that it’s like an incurable disease that seems to have no end. So again, congratulations on declaring an end to it.
And oh how I wish I could leave this letter here. But I can’t. And you know why I can’t. Because I am mistaken. I am not mistaken that you wish to end the age of entitlement. What is clear is that you do in fact want to end what you call entitlement. The problem is, your definition of the problem of entitlement in our culture, and my definition, are completely different things. From the budget you’ve handed down, and from your recent statements about poor people’s spending habits on petrol (which no one misinterpreted, you really should own your mistakes Joe), it’s clear that you think entitlement is our community’s idea of rights. Rights to quality education. Rights to quality healthcare. Rights to a clean and sustainable environment. Rights to a social safety net when things go wrong. Rights to live in a community where it’s possible to be born poor, but to better our circumstances through hard work, encouragement and support from those around us. All these rights are what you call ‘a sense of entitlement’ aren’t they Joe? And aren’t these rights the things you would ideally like to end? Isn’t your budget, built on a foundation of lies about a non-existent budget-emergency, your campaign to kill the very culture that provides Australians with rights to all of these things that any first-world, educated, well-resourced and fair country like Australia should strive to protect? Isn’t your end of the age of entitlement just code for a user-pays capitalist small-government, tax-free wonder-land?
Well, had I known you meant to end this definition of entitlement, I would never have felt relief. You need a reality check Joe. Rights are not entitlements. And someone like you, with your family background, would surely understand this if you ever cared to think about it, perhaps while you’re enjoying a quiet sit and a cigar. On the profile on your website, you have published this:“Joe Hockey was born in North Sydney, as the youngest of four children. His father was born in Bethlehem of Armenian and Palestinian parentage and his Mum in Chatswood. His family worked hard running a small business on the North Shore, beginning with a deli in Chatswood and later, a real estate agency in Naremburn.” So you like to portray your family story as the classic ‘we pulled ourselves up from the bootstraps’ tale of social mobility. And like so many who have come before you having found riches and success in your careers, you now seem hell bent on destroying mobility for others by burning the ladder of opportunity that you climbed to the top. And that’s what you really meant when you said it is time to end the age of entitlement.
You’ve got it so wrong Joe. Social mobility is not an entitlement. Access to social mobility is a right. And it’s a right Australians will, when they wake up to you, fight to save. You and your rich Liberal Party chums portray the true meaning of entitlement through your little glass tower of privilege where you think it’s ok to simultaneously reap the rewards of tax-payer funded wealth, while destroying the rights of the community by wrecking the public policies designed to keep the playing field level. Shame on you Joe. Shame on you and your entitled Liberal government.
As I mentioned last week, I am researching political narrative by investigating the words that come out of politicians’ mouths and are written in press releases by their spin doctors. This research is in the field of political communications. And what has occurred to me through this research is that just about every political journalist in Australia is also interested in political communication. But the problem is, that’s all they’re interested in. The wrapper on the shiny policy launch. The sales pitch for the budget. The salesman for the new policy car. Of course I find any discussion of political communication fascinating and often worthy of a citation in a paper. But that’s just me. The rest of the community doesn’t need to hear about the success of the policy spin job. They care about the actual policy. The thing in the wrapper. The car the salesman is trying to sell. The impact that product is going to have on them. And that is where the political journalists in Australia let the community down. Because they never delve further into the cake than chatting with each other about the icing.
A perfect example of this type of journalistic style is Peter Hartcher. All the time. As the political editor for Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald, you would think Hartcher might be interested in political policy. But no. After many years of a total dedication to Labor leadership tensions due to his role as Kevin Rudd’s full-time-leak-recipient, he’s taken a few months into the Abbott’s government to work out what his new narrative might be. And predictably policy outcomes still don’t make an appearance. Instead, it would appear he’s settled on the well-worn ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ narrative to report on the Abbott Liberal government. Because that gives him plenty of opportunity to continue with his dedication to Labor bashing.
For example, this article from yesterday, helpfully titled ‘Tony Abbott’s Coalition making same mistakes as Labor’ might appear to the untrained eye as an article comparing the previous Labor government’s mistakes with the new Liberal government’s problems. But look closer. This article is not about politics. It is about political communication.
In fact I agree with Hartcher that Labor’s communication strategies were, in the most part, not up to the task of selling their highly successful progressive reform agenda and, along with disunity, were a key factor in their 2013 election loss. I’ve written about this failure myself. But, as part of the mainstream media’s synchronised failure to give credit where credit is due, again Hartcher misses to make the point that Labor’s policy success during the previous two terms was phenomenal, particularly in a hung parliament. Over 500 pieces of legislation were passed by the Gillard/Rudd government in their last term. And comparing the first 7 months of Gillard’s government with Abbott’s government is a ‘look at the scoreboard’ moment which should be impossible for journalists like Hartcher to ignore. 127 to 7. Including Abbott’s Knights and Dames farce. And it’s not like Gillard’s policy successes were minor. The Carbon Price, the Gonski reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the mining tax, the National Broadband Network. Literally just to name a few. But because Hartcher has decided Labor failed to sell these policies, he’s perpetuating the perception, through his influential position of political editor in the mainstream media, that these policies were failures, when really all he is commenting on is the communication strategy employed by the politicians.
A great example of this is Hartcher’s example of one of the policies mentioned above, which happens to be the policy I’m studying for my thesis: the mining tax. Hartcher says:
“The mining tax is a prime example. A perfectly reasonable policy, based on rational economic principles, that would have given Australia some lasting benefit from a passing boom.
But it was doomed by political mismanagement. It came out of nowhere, met a firestorm of opposition, was rewritten in a political panic, and soon disappeared into ignominy.”
When you read these sentences, they seem fair. Hartcher has given the mining tax policy a sort-of-thumbs-up by calling it a ‘perfectly reasonable policy’. But there’s a key element of this ‘doomed’ mining tax that you need to take into account, which happens to be the other topic of my thesis: I’m not just focusing on what politicians say, I’m also investigating how the mainstream media reports what politicians say. Even if Labor politicians while in government were saying ‘the mining tax is a perfectly reasonable policy’ until they were blue in the face, the public didn’t hear this if people like Hartcher refused to report it.
Out of curiosity, I had a look at what Hartcher said about the mining tax the day after it was announced. I found this article: It’s not the economy, it’s the election stupid. Remember what I was saying about the ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ narrative? This was a moment where Hartcher could have analysed the mining tax policy from the perspective of a political journalist interested in policy outcomes. This is where the public could have found out how the mining tax is designed to redistribute profits from billionaires and rich investors (mostly foreign) to the people who own the resources: all Australians. This is where, just imagine, Hartcher could have given the Labor government even 500 words of credit for developing a policy aimed at reducing wealth inequality by sharing the windfalls from a once in a generation mining boom. But no. Hartcher wasn’t interested in this type of article. Instead he accused Swan and Rudd of introducing the policy with the populist motive of winning an election. To improve Labor’s sales pitch. Because, low and behold, this is the only part of politics Hartcher focuses on. And in doing so, he’s letting down his audience, he’s letting down his profession and most importantly, he’s reducing politics to a PR exercise.
When the audience thinks they’re reading a comparison of Labor and Liberal policies, but they’re really just reading a review of the party’s communication strategies, the community might actually start to think the policies of the two parties are just the same. And look where that has got the community. It’s got us Teflon-Tony Abbott as Prime Minister with a majority of voters who seem to know little about what Abbott’s government was going to do, and are shocked at finding out too late that they don’t like any of it.
I wonder if this has ever occurred to Peter Hartcher. Abbott’s opinion polls dived soon after the public saw for themselves the new government’s policies. But if the public had a chance to read about Abbott’s policies before the election, Abbott’s budget would not have been a surprise. By judging Australia’s political journalists on how informed the electorate is about political policy, it’s clear that Hartcher and his colleagues have comprehensively failed. Their devotion to the reporting of political communication instead of policy leads them to blame the failure of Abbott’s budget on the budget sales pitch. But what if the icing isn’t the problem? What if it’s the policies in the budget that are to blame for Abbott’s problems? How about journalists have a look at what politicians are doing instead of focusing solely on what they are saying? What if Hartcher admitted you can’t polish a turd? Or does he know too little about political policy to make this call?