Dear Labor – enough with the beige!

BillShortenMemeIt’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.


The voiceless and faceless public

Bust the budget rallyI 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?


Abbott’s first year: the media narrative

CarbonPriceCelebrationSince 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.


An Open Letter to Joe Hockey

JoeHockeyDear Joe Hockey,

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.

Yours Sincerely

Victoria Rollison


Judging the sales pitch: #mediafail

MemeLegislationAs 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?


‘Middle-Out’ Economics

Russell Brand Wealth InequalityHere it is. Here is the wealth inequality narrative progressives have been searching for. Yesterday I wrote about rich wankers and a couple of helpful commenters contributed the following two articles on the subject of wealth inequality:

‘Middle-Out’ Economics: Why the Right’s Supply-Side Dogma Is Wrong

The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats

Both articles are written and co-written by Nick Hanauer – a member of the 0.01% wealthiest people in the world thanks to his foresight in investing early in Amazon. Hanauer is arguing for a progressive narrative to replace the right’s reliance on ‘trickle down economics’. I would suggest reading both articles, as I really believe Hanauer is spot on. Hanuaer’s 2012 TED talk is also worth watching.

I am currently studying political narrative and framing and through this research, I have become interested in George Lakoff’s work in trying to convince the US Democrats to be smarter about the language they use to argue against Republican and Tea Party policies which widen the gap between rich and poor. Policies like tax breaks for the rich, using the incorrect excuse that the rich are job creators. And policies that aim to make the government smaller and more ineffective in stemming capitalist greed. Hanauer argues that there is no empirical evidence that tax breaks for the rich create jobs. He also argues that the best way to reduce the size of government is to reduce welfare payments by expanding the size of the middle class. Someone needs to show Joe Hockey this suggestion. People don’t want to be on welfare and would support a government who supports them to be trained and prepared for meaningful, well paid work. This is simple, yet powerful stuff.

The crux of Hanauer’s narrative is that middle class spending creates demand in the economy and in turn, creates jobs. As Hanauer explains, from his own experience as a member of the ultra-rich American community, he might earn 3,000 times more than the average worker, but there is no way he consumes, or buys, 3,000 times more than the average worker. His excess money goes into his own savings and investments, which help him to get even richer, widening the gap between his wealth and everyone else’s. Hardly any of Hanauer’s wealth influences the wealth of the middle-class in his community and contributes to job creation. As he simply says, if Walmart employees can’t afford to be Walmart consumers, who is going to ensure the long term sustainability of Walmart’s business model? His arguments are not social ones, although of course they do affect social policies. His arguments are economic. The loss of America’s middle class means the loss of their consumer base.

Here are Hanauer’s suggestions as to how ‘Middle-Out’ economics can become a thing as published in The Atlantic:

  • First, relentlessly frame the choice as a choice. It’s trickle-down and middle-out economics. Not “top-down.” Not “the old ways that got us into this mess.” Trickle-down vs. middle-out. If we don’t have the courage to name our alternative, and repeat it relentlessly, we haven’t given people a clear choice. We will never displace trickle-down ideas if we don’t provide a clear, concise, and compelling alternative. Neither term has inherent force; it’s only in the contrast that we win.

  • Second, propagate the one pivotal meme at the heart of this entire effort: that rich businesspeople don’t create jobs; middle-class customers do. To put it another way, the right’s claim that rich businesspeople are job creators is the critical vulnerability deep in the heart of the Death Star; if we can target our ammunition to obliterate that single claim, the entire Death Star of right-wing ideology will implode and disintegrate. Why? Because without that claim, there is no way for the trickle-down camp to justify the absurd preferential treatment in the tax code and the regulatory regime for the rich and for large corporations. Without that claim, trickle-down economics reduces nakedly to a rent-seeking, self-serving agenda by the very rich to extract wealth from the poor and middle class. In short, we need to pick a fight with the right about the origins of prosperity in a capitalist society. Middle-out economics will prevail.

  • Third, make every economic issue an example of middle-out economics. The Ryan budget fails not because it is unfair or heartless or draconian. It fails because it perpetuates trickle-down thinking and cripples the ability of the middle class to generate national prosperity. Entitlement reform is not about the virtue or vice of running deficits. It is about whether we create enough security for middle-class consumers and workers to participate in the economy. The Affordable Care Act is not about the byzantine bureaucracy of health-care delivery. It’s about whether the middle class can dedicate its purchasing power to productive economic activity instead. And so on with sequestration, fiscal stimulus, and tax reform.

  • Fourth, recommit to capitalism — in a truer and more effective form. Middle-out economic policies aren’t just good because they benefit the middle class or the poor in the near term. They are great for the United States as a whole in the long term because they drive prosperity for all, including the rich. Our agenda is to make capitalism be all it can be for all of us.

  • Fifth, take this case to the people in the form of story. The argument we make here is a conceptual one. But the delivery device for that argument has to be narrative. Perhaps unfortunately, the last 30 years provide a very simple narrative arc — the tale we told at the very start of this article. That kind of storytelling must become second nature to progressives. Indeed, on all these fronts, progressives need dozens of complementary and simultaneous efforts to turn middle-out economics and the job-creator meme into products — media stories, policies, bumper stickers, viral videos, school curricula.

The fifth point is the one that most interests me and my study into political communication and narrative. The left need a new narrative. And ‘Middle-Out’ provides this narrative. As I have previously written, wealth inequality needs to be at the heart of the left’s new narrative. Hanauer’s suggestions provide the left with a way to make this happen.

John Oliver’s recent segment about wealth inequality was both hilarious and depressing. It revealed to me that President Obama knows that he needs a wealth inequality narrative, but so far hasn’t been able to find one. Oliver quotes from this article which explains that when Obama’s historian, Robert Dallek, asked the President during a round table discussion what his administration needed help with, Obama’s response was:

“What you could do for me is to help me find a way to discuss the issue of inequality in our society without being accused of class warfare.”

I believe Hanauer is offering a possible solution to Obama’s problem. Coupled with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s ‘You did not build this on your own’, the Hanauer ‘middle-out not trickle-down’ narrative adds another layer of concrete to this concept. The genius of Hanauer’s argument is that you can’t be accused of class warfare when the advice you are giving helps every class. Every class benefits from a strong, productive, wealthy-enough-to-consume middle class. ‘Middle Out’ economics is the narrative Obama, and all progressives, have been searching for. Is the Australian Labor Party listening?


Rich wankers

Wealth does not trickle downLet me start out by saying that I know many rich people who have a social conscience and for whom this post is not relevant. But I also know many who are wankers. And I’m sick of these wankers ruining it for all of us.

When I say ruining it, I mean doing dumb things like voting for Tony Abbott. ‘It’ in this scenario is our community. But the problem with many rich people is that they don’t even think they belong to a community. Many try to closet themselves away from the ‘general public’, because they think they’re above all that. A great example of this sort of attitude is the very existence of ‘poor doors’ which I came across in this article about London housing. Of course Australia doesn’t have ‘poor doors’ because we have hardly any apartment buildings, or even suburbs, where ultra-expensive-designed-for-the-very-rich housing is mixed in closely with more affordable housing, or even public housing. But apparently in London, developers often need to include affordable housing within apartment blocks in order to get planning approval. So what do these developers do to make sure their rich clientele don’t have to even see the poor tenants in the building, let alone have to breathe the same air as them? Yes, you guessed it. They have separate entrances. The apartheid between rich and poor – a glamorous lobby for the rich and a meagre side-entrance in a scummy lane for the poor. It’s almost as if the rich are scared they’ll catch ‘poor’ off their neighbours and would prefer to live in a closeted bubble where they don’t have to know these nasty poor people exist. Unless of course they need a taxi, or a teacher, or a meal at a restaurant, or a trades person or, god forbid, a nurse in a hospital.

I also note that there is now solid evidence, in the form of peer reviewed research, that proves many rich people have a sense of entitlement which presents as the ‘asshole effect’. Have you ever noticed that it’s the large, shiny, expensive cars which appear to be driven by the most aggressive, least-likely-to-let-you-into-traffic, most-difficult-to-share-the-road-with-drivers? If you have noticed this, it turns out it’s not just in your head, because this research shows that it really is the rich drivers who are the biggest wankers on the roads. And I think this road user behaviour is a perfect analogy for the problems rich wankers cause in our community. The key point of this research is that the rich weren’t wankers to begin with, unless of course they started out rich. But it actually shows that when people reach a certain level of wealth they believe they are entitled to exploit others, to behave rudely and to be mean to their community because they have earned this right. Is this a good time to mention that all three men involved in the last Liberal Federal leadership ballot are Members from three of the richest electorates in the country – Turnbull in Wentworth, Hockey in North Sydney and Abbott in Warringah? Funny that. Is it any surprise that these men were the architects of the meanest Federal Budget this country has ever seen?

So we know many rich people are wankers and it’s clear they’re ruining our community for everyone, and I agree there is probably little we can do to change these people’s behaviour. Their narcissism is likely entrenched. However I would like to try a new strategy for encouraging these rich wankers to think twice before ruining it for all of us again. I have been harping on about this topic a lot in recent months, and let me be upfront in saying I’m not about to give up on this quest, because it’s important. Wealth inequality. The rich think wealth inequality is great for them and they’re more than happy to continue promoting it. In fact, they think they’re entitled to snatch and grab as much of the country’s pie as they can get their grubby hands on. Many no doubt think their greed is as natural as the animal instinct for survival. Most of them think tax-evasion is clever. However, it’s time to question the very basis of this attitude and to question it loudly. Because wealth inequality is not just bad for all of us who aren’t rich. It’s also bad for the rich. And no, I’m not about to say it’s bad for them because they should care about other people and they’ll find much more happiness in human relationships with a diverse range of people rather than falling in love with money. I don’t really care about the happiness of the greedy. I’m saying that what is bad for the wealth of the community is also bad for the rich. The rich need all of us to be wealthier in order to maintain their own wealth. The rich need to pay their fair share of tax so that the government can fairly distribute wealth for the betterment of all of us. The rich need to learn that the pie must grow in order to keep growing their piece of it. A rising tide only lifts all boats if the boats are in the tide, not broken and stranded on the shore. If you don’t believe me, ask Joseph Stiglitz. He’s got a Nobel Prize for researching this very idea. Or just have a think about how the rich got rich in the first place. Sure, some of them make money from the money they already have. But think of it this way. If people work full time and can’t afford to buy the things that the rich are selling – such as mortgages, consumer goods, food, education, insurance, cars, then how are the rich going to hold onto their wealth? And back to education, if the masses aren’t educated successfully, who will work for the rich? Because no one ever got rich on their own. Wealth does not trickle down and this should be just as concerning for the rich as it is the poor. Australia needs a large and strong working and middle class in order for the country to maintain a successful community AND a successful economy. People can be wankers on their own, but they can’t be rich on their own. That’s what we need to tell them.


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