The Liberals are playing the ref by tagging Labor’s dividend imputation policy a ‘retirement tax’. It is not surprising they see this as a productive strategy since the same thing worked with their carbon tax scare campaign.
Political journalists self-identify as watchdogs for democracy who hold the powerful to account by shining a light on the political system. This position places them between opposing political parties much like an umpire or referee neutrally enforces the rules of the game by calling out infringements.
But what happens when a team is infringing and the umpire fails to blow their whistle? Football fans know the loudest boo is reserved for bad umpiring. The rules are sacred. When they are flouted, the game is not fair, the cheaters prosper and sometimes it can even feel like the opposition has an extra player.
If rule-breaking becomes a winning strategy, umpiring business-as-usual needs an urgent review. Even with the best of intentions, if umpires are emboldening rule infringements or even encouraging blatant cheating, something urgent must be done to bring civility back to the game.
There is much discussion of journalism in crisis. Technological disruption, the rise of independent and social media and unprofitable business models are often cited as the problems. There is less analysis of how journalists’ media routines might be contributing to their own harm.
One of the most common routine formats which is supposed to represent balanced umpiring for reporting of politics is what media critic Jay Rosen refers to as ‘he said, she said journalism’. This style, however, turns journalists into stenographers rather than critical analysts of politics and is akin to an umpire ignoring the holding-the-ball rule while protecting their own credibility through the alibi of quotation marks.
Politicians take advantage of this media routine. They have learned they will get away with tucking the ball under their arm and striding boldly through the goal posts unencumbered by the whistle. The Liberal’s tagging of Labor’s dividend imputation policy as a ‘retirement tax’ is such an example of them successfully playing the ref.
By any definition, it is demonstrably false to depict Labor’s dividend imputation policy as a tax. No doubt journalists can see this for themselves. However, they have backed themselves into a corner by quoting directly Liberal government spokespeople and advertising which uses the phrase ‘retirement tax’. This coverage convinces the public Labor is introducing a new tax, thereby representing a distortion of reality.
The words ‘retirement tax’ are now in the public lexicon. The fake tax becomes a thing which is basically impossible for Labor to get rid of. The voting public rely on news media to tell them about politics. When the umpire fails to do their job, there are consequences not only for the health of democracy, but for the health of the journalistic profession. Who will ever trust the ump again?
It is not like journalists haven’t been here before and seen the damage for themselves. The Labor government’s Carbon Price was not a tax. Yet, from the very first day it was announced, the name of the policy was interchangeable with Tony Abbott’s tag of ‘carbon tax’. Using The Australian as an example, from the day Labor released the Carbon Price policy on 27 September 2010, the newspaper has referred to the carbon tax 7,735 times, as compared with the Carbon Price 2,260 times.
To add insult to injury, Gillard’s ‘failure’ to win this policy argument was then framed as her responsibility. For example, Ross Fitzgerald writing in The Weekend Australian on 30 July 2011 said the carbon tax debate was negative for Gillard because of her ‘flawed political judgment and poor communication skills’. By blaming the players for their poor result, the umpire maintains their self-perception as a neutral arbitrator of the rules and fails to see how their own actions have influenced, sometimes decisively, the terms of the debate.
In 2017, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, admitted the Carbon Price was not a carbon tax. She confessed the coalition ‘used that label to stir up brutal retail politics’. The players knew they were cheating. Why not if cheaters prosper? But what is the role of the umpire in brutal retail politics? According to The Australian’s Chris Kenny, ‘Scare campaigns are to politics what tough defence is to footy – an unavoidable part of the contest if you want to win’. When the umpires put down the whistle and see clear-as-day infringements as just par for the course, it is no wonder footy supporters are walking away from the game.
There is no such thing as Labor’s ‘retirement tax’. The Liberals are playing the ref by using journalists to pervert truth and in turn legitimise their misrepresentation. The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy said on ABC’s Insiders that Labor is ‘facing a battle to explain’ their dividend imputation policy. Labor have explained their policy numerous times. Of course it is up to journalists how they choose to frame such information.
Murphy agrees that calling the policy a ‘retirement tax’ is clearly not an accurate description. Outlets who parrot this Liberal phrase are misrepresenting and constraining public debate about the policy, serving no one’s interests except the Liberals’.
Journalists are under no obligation to uncritically repeat and adopt false information from the Liberal government. Footy is a game, but politics is not. The public need journalists to blow the whistle in the interests of democracy. If they continue to fail to do this, they are forgetting the very reason they exist.
No matter who wins the ultimate cage fight victory, we all know who the real leader of the Liberal Party is. Whether Turnbull prevails to limp wet-lettuce-leaf-like to defeat at the next election, whether ScoMo blusters and lectures his way into high office, or whether the potato-man leaps triumphant from the boiling pot without being skinned, we know none of them hold any authority. No, the real leader all along is Rupert Murdoch. Always was.
Don’t believe me? Watch this rant by Chris Uhlmann who is being called brave by many other senior journalists who never had the guts to say the same. In a nutshell, Uhlmann has admitted that media commentators and journalists have become players in the political process, making themselves part of the story, and changing political outcomes because of it.
Uhlmann seemed fed up that powerful right-wing commentators have been helping Dutton to spill Turnbull’s job, suggesting that the game has gone too far. This reminds me of when I was a child. My sisters and I would be skylarking around, and my mother would say: this is going to end in tears. Uhlmann is crying because he doesn’t like the way Dutton’s media supporters are behaving, but that’s not to say Uhlmann isn’t a player too. He knows the game well. How else do you think he’s got where he is?
It’s lucky I don’t mind saying – I told you so – because I did tell you so. I’ve been talking about the disastrous impact of media ‘playing’ in the political arena for as long as I’ve been blogging. All the while, I’ve been criticised by the very few journalists who engage with me, for being a conspiracy theorist, for being ‘a broken’, for not knowing what I’m talking about.
There’s this idealism amongst media players about their role in society. They see themselves as the ‘Fourth Estate’, as watchdogs on democracy, holding the government and the opposition to account, all in the name of the public interest. We’ve been told that this leads them to be pure, objective observers of reality, and that they provide fair and balanced coverage of all things political, in order to help voters decide which leaders are worthy of our votes. This idealism tends to result in some fairly arrogant attitudes amongst journalists, such as believing they know better than the public, that they can see political events more clearly than us, and that they are un-biased in their analysis of news, unlike us ‘cheerleaders’ who take a side and can therefore not be trusted to have credible views on anything.
The clash between folk like me, who question whether journalists should be reporting leaked information from, say, disgruntled staffers in a Labor MPs office, when there is clearly a political motivation behind the leak, and the journalists who constantly claim everything is above board and there’s nothing to see here, move along, has become more and more toxic in recent weeks. I’ve been blocked by many senior political journalists for complaining they are inserting themselves into political games rather than being the objective and fair custodians of truth that they claim to be. I’ve complained that they, intentionally or not, bias their reporting towards ready-made narratives, without hearing, or seeking alternative explanations. I’ve complained that balance doesn’t mean ‘he said, she said’, it means investigating both sides of a story and giving the reader a fair assessment of the credibility of both claims. If one side says it’s raining, and the other says it’s not, it’s the job of a journalists to look out the window and tell us which is correct. I know it’s not always as easy as that, but at the very least, journalists could try.
I know there are good journalists out there, but there are also terrible journalists out there. Lot’s of them. Let’s get this straight. You are not a watchdog on democracy when you are a player in the political process. This whole situation has been made worse by the number of media players who have stepped straight out of political roles, and into the news media. There are media players who gleefully talk of vendetta journalism, like it’s totally normal that a journalist would campaign against political opponents (I’m looking at you Sharri Markson). Sharri, incidentally, doesn’t appreciate Uhlmann’s comments, what a huge surprise, and claims she can single-handily assure the public that News Corp has had nothing to do with Dutton’s campaign, because apparently she knows everything that is going on in that entire organisation, and the Daily Telegraph are pure news reporters who don’t play political games, and also there are fairies living in my bathroom cabinet.
The point is, the cat is now out of the bag, and we all knew it was there all along. So what? You don’t need to be writing a PhD thesis on this stuff, which I currently am, to understand why it’s dangerous for media players to be so tangled, twisted, intertwined and meddling in the political process. These people claim to be speaking the truth to power, when really they’re distorting the only version of political reality the voters can realistically access, using the voice of the powerful. This means that powerful people, like Rupert Murdoch, can, on a whim, decide to change the Prime Minister of Australia, and his media-playing-employees go about making that happen. It’s the stuff of dictatorships. It’s the stuff of corrupt, fascist, bullying regimes where the public are misinformed in order to control them. This is not small fry. This is our country, and Rupert Murdoch is pulling the strings.
I’ll finish on this. Jacinda Ardern, the young, optimistic, proactive, kind, authoritative and competent Prime Minister of New Zealand is paving a truly impressive progressive agenda for her country, and she is doing so with popular support from the public. New Zealand doesn’t have any Murdoch media. Enough said.
There is a line in the brilliant Anat Shenker-Osorio’s book Don’t Buy It which Labor should use as their mantra when developing policies and communicating them. Attributed to political advertising expert Ryan Clayton, Anat says:
‘a winning message is one that engages the base, persuades the middle, and provokes the opposition to reveal its true colors’.
Too often, Labor seems to be trying to appease voters by being all things to all people. But this usually results in beige policy, and bland messaging which doesn’t cut through, and doesn’t rouse support.
It’s obvious why Labor does this. It’s particularly obvious to me, who is half-way through a PhD researching the way media reports industrial relations disputes and Labor policy. Labor, understandably, are wary of the media’s reaction to their policy announcements. And they have every right to be.
The patterned response by the media is the same whenever Labor offers up a progressive policy. Let’s use the example of the mining tax (which incidentally was the topic of my honours thesis).
Step 1: Labor announces the policy.
Progressives take a look and are impressed, noting that it is tackling wealth inequality and the two-speed economy, sharing the wealth from the sale of minerals owned by the entire community with that community.
Step 2: The triple-pincer-movement of opposition to the mining tax erupts.
The Liberal Nationals, mining company owners and the mainstream media commence a campaign of hyperbole, threats, doom and gloom, telling voters the latest Labor Great Big Tax is going to ruin us all, jobs will be lost everywhere, food will be taken out of children’s mouths, and the economy will retaliate against the little guys who should get back in their box and stop expecting wealth to be shared.
At this point I should note that my research showed 75% of mining tax newspaper articles from the day the policy was released, to the day the campaign culminated in Rudd being ousted as PM, shared the same ‘economy will suffer from the mining tax’ narrative as the Liberals and mining executives. So maybe not every article, but a dominant majority.
Step 3: The triple-pincer-movement discreetly shifts the doom and gloom narrative from complaining about the mining tax, to claiming it is an electoral problem for Labor.
This is a very clever strategy that certain vested-interests in the media use, fed no doubt by media ‘liaison’ from fellow pincers, to generate public opposition against Labor policies.
Simply, the media reports there has been a ‘backlash’ against the policy, and that creates a backlash against the policy. In a subtle form of agenda setting, the media know the news audience takes more notice of an issue when it is costing Labor votes than they do when it’s just the mining executives complaining about having to pay tax.
Where else have I seen this strategy used recently? Oh yes – Labor’s dividend imputation changes. Of course with any taxation change, there will be ‘losers’. In this case, Labor announced on the same day as they launched the policy that 200,000 non-tax-paying shareholders would stop receiving dividend cash back from the government. Immediately, journalists raced to find evidence of ‘backlash’ against the policy by framing these 200,000 shareholders as victims of a Labor policy.
Immediately, Labor was framed as villainously engaged in a ‘$59b grab’ – you grab something you’re not entitled to – therefore Labor was in the wrong for grabbing money from poor shareholder victims. And these victims were given various soap-boxes to tell their sad tale of victimhood, as evidence of the backlash against villainous Labor.
Then the narrative quickly shifted, in time for elections on the weekend to ‘how dumb of Labor to release a policy which incurs backlash on the same week as a state election and a Federal by election’. Greens leader Richard Di Natale piled on, trying to ‘capitalise on the backlash Labor has received’ and it certainly didn’t end well for him. History will show Labor won the by election and lost the state election, albeit with a 1.5% swing towards. But I digress.
The point of the imaginary backlash, or the focus on a very small number of unhappy well-off-people in the great scheme of things, which is to be expected when inequality is finally being addressed, or the focus on just the downsides of the policy, and not the upsides, is that the media is bringing about a certain response to the policy, by manipulating their reporting in favour of that certain response to a policy.
Back to the mining tax. In fact, the policy was broadly popular. As this Essential poll shows, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, after the pincer-movement-sky-is-falling campaign against it, and by the time the Liberal Party got their wish of using the promise to axe the tax to win an election, was supported by 52% of the population. Not exactly a mandated backlash then.
But there’s something even more important in this poll, which takes me back to Anat: ‘a winning message is one that engages the base, persuades the middle, and provokes the opposition to reveal its true colors’.
Look at the mining tax poll figures broken down by parties:
Approve of mining tax:
Labor voters: 76%
Greens voters: 79%
Liberal voters: 33%
Disapprove of mining tax:
Labor voters: 12%
Greens voters: 12%
Liberal voters: 55%
The base is clearly engaged. The middle is being happily persuaded; 33% of Liberal voters approve of the policy and therefore it can safely be assumed some of them might vote accordingly. Remember, Labor only needs a very small margin of people to stop voting Liberal and vote Labor in order to blitz the next election. A 3% swing would give Labor 14 additional seats. And the last bit – making the opposition reveals its true colours?
This is where Labor needs to embrace the obvious, predictable and reliable scare campaign that is thrown at them every time they introduce a Labor-values policy. And that includes the media. What do I mean by this? In the initial policy release, Labor should state in no uncertain terms that they expect the triple-pincer-movement – the Liberals, big business (the very rich) and their cheer squad in the media – to be enraged by the policy. Shorten did this nicely on the Today show, saying ‘I’m going to choose the battler over the top end of town’.
When the triple-pincer movement strikes, this just shows how the policy is the right thing to do. Because they would say that, wouldn’t they? The pincers don’t want to do something about inequality (show their true colours), and Labor do. The pincers always stick up the top end of town, and never the little guy (show their true colours), and Labor do. The media don’t report Labor policies in a fair and balanced way – and Labor should make this point clear.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr says he is over the mainstream media, and I agree with him. There are thankfully growing opportunities for Labor to bypass the traditional news, to reach the voters directly, opportunities they are clearly embracing. But, while they still rely predominantly on the mainstream media to inform the public of new Labor policies, the best way to develop a winning message – to engage the base and persuade the middle, is to heap the mainstream media in with the other pincers, who show their true colours like clockwork every time.
Note: If you haven’t watched The Handmaid’s Tale (SBS On Demand), and plan to, this post does not include spoilers. I will give a vague idea about what the series is about, but it won’t give the plot away.
The Handmaid’s Tale mesmerised and repulsed me in equal measure. Yes, it is fiction. I get that. But art reflects life, and the life this series reflects is a little too apparent in the attitude of many powerful people in our society to make me rest completely easy in ‘that could never happen to us’ fiction watching comfort. So, what have I learned about Conservative ideology from the fictional dystopia of the Republic of Gilead? Read on to share my horror.
The rights of women are hard fought and women should be proud of how far we’ve come. But, we have a long way to go, and we should never rest on our laurels to assume our rights cannot be un-done. Mike Pence, one impeachment away from the Presidency of the United States is a staunch anti-abortionist. President Trump won the presidency after a lifetime of misogynistic, sexually lewd and disrespectful behaviour towards women. A president who owned beauty pageants, who says he would date his daughter if she wasn’t his relation, who boasts about grabbing women on the pussy and forcing himself on them, and who thinks a compliment to France’s First Lady is to tell her she’s in ‘good shape’, is the same man now removing women’s rights to maternity care from health insurance.
These are two men with power over the lives of women. They were elected by both men and women who at least disregarded their attitudes towards women, and at most support these attitudes. And don’t for a moment think those men are over there in the US, and not here in Australia. Case in point: Tony Abbott. And Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull has continued Abbott’s legacy of disregarding the needs of women and undermining women’s rights in a myriad of seemingly small but individually devastating ways, such as through cutting funding to women’s domestic violence shelters and trying but thankfully so far failing to cut maternity leave pay.
The men who vote for, and cheerlead for these politicians are the same types of men who troll the internet for hours every day, writing abuse on Clementine Ford’s Facebook page, and supporting the army of conservative commentators who bully women who have opinions, such as Yassmin Abdel-Magied. These men, their ‘shock-jock’ idols, and their political heroes, would relish the opportunity to live in Gilead, where women aren’t allowed to read, own property, work or choose their clothes. The women of this fictional land, reduced to homemakers and childrearers, are meant to appreciate their freedom from the demands of modern society, allowing them to fulfil their ‘biological destiny’ as baby-makers. Yuck!
Why would these men relish such a world? Why would men, who campaigned to ‘lock Hillary up’ willingly take society back to the dark ages if it meant putting women back in their place, below men on the pecking order of moral authority, back in the kitchen, out of the workplace, away from decision-making, to be heard only when spoken to? There are obviously many theories about this, but the one I subscribe to is fairly simple: these men have weak characters and a low opinion of their own abilities. They don’t want to compete against women – for jobs, for respect, in an argument, in life – so the quicker women get out of their way, the better. And of course, if these same men can ensure there’s a woman slave waiting for them when they get home from work, dinner on the table, children looked after, house clean, cold beer in the fridge, well, that’s their ultimate fantasy come true.
Women like me, who dare have careers and raise children, who write political blogs, who have opinions and challenge patriarchal views, we would be hung-drawn-and-quartered in Gilead. Unless of course they needed our fertility; then we’d be raped monthly as surrogates, with the baby ripped from our arms in the birthing suite. It sounds extreme, but look how quickly men go to rape threats when challenged in online forums. Look at the way many men and women in Australia responded to our first female Prime Minister, subjecting Gillard to a barrage of misogynistic abuse, burning her at the rhetorical stake, campaigning to ‘ditch the witch’.
Watching The Handmaid’s Tale felt like a preview of what is at the end of a very slippery slope. And when you realise how many Conservative forces are pushing our society towards the slope, it is a confronting, and motivating force. We must push back. Women’s rights need to be constantly defended and aggressively fought for. The Conservatives know what they want. The Handmaid’s Tale should scare anyone against that vision to make sure we don’t proceed any way down the slope towards it.
I am terrified of Donald Trump. If he wins the Republican nomination, which he looks likely to do, he will no longer be able to be sidelined as the ‘joke’ candidate, as someone not representative of mainstream views. So what does Trump’s rise tell us about modern American values? How has a country who used to hold themselves up as the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ fallen so ashamedly to their knees, exposing the bigotry, racism, fear, hatred and misery of average Americans?
There is no shortage of analysis of this type being contributed by writers across the globe. Many blame the Republicans for harvesting the hate and fear that Trump is now exploiting, whereas others say Trump has just tapped into the hate and fear that lay dormant, waiting for a voice, through the marginalisation and undermining of poor Americans. I would like to look at two sides to this argument which could roughly be coined the ‘chicken and egg’ question: what came first; do millions of white Americans really hate people who don’t look like them so much that they yearned for a President who would give them permission to say out loud what they’ve always thought, who promises to not-just-figuratively-but-literally build a wall to keep ‘others’ out? Or did Trump put these ideas in the heads of the poor, the repressed, the under-appreciated, the resentful by blaming the ‘others’ for everything that has gone wrong in these peoples’ lives?
Bernie Sanders will always draw his argument back to income inequality because that is his very successful platform, and I applaud him to sticking like glue to his narrative. As he explained to Rachel Maddow, he thinks Trump has tapped into the anger felt by the hollowed out middle class, the anger at feeling completely powerless in the face of growing inequality, where the pie keeps getting greedily consumed by the richest of the rich, leaving nothing but crumbs for everyone else and has diverted this everyone-one-else anger from its real enemy – the system that caused this inequality in the first place. Trump has instead pointed the finger of blame at the easiest of soft targets – non-white Americans. Sanders argues the solution to this problem is to educate the masses about not only the real reason for their simmering anger, which he sees at completely justified, but also to show them that their insecurity is caused by a problem they are powerful enough to solve. But the only way they can solve it is together in a big group hug, rather than behaving like spiteful, divisive haters. This big group hug translates to voting for Bernie Sanders.
I like Sanders’s argument. The Republicans, in fact the right side of politics the world over, have always used fear and loathing as their favourite election-winning tactic. They know scared people don’t think straight. Scared people are easy to manipulate. Scared people are easy to convince to vote against their best interests. Like the screaming person in a horror movie being chased by the knife-wielding-psychopath, who chooses to be cornered by running up the stairs rather than choosing the obvious path to safety – the open front door. Sanders is the one out on the street, through that open door, ready to embrace the scared-out-of-their-wits electorate, to give them a way to solve their problems. Trump is the knife-wielding-psychopath who just so happens to be a member of the richest 1% of the richest 1% who would coincidentally find it very inconvenient if the frightened voters saw past his ‘look over there, it’s a coloured person’ scare-tactic and instead bore their anger down on his entrenched privilege. The fact that many Trump supporters respect Trump for no other reason than because he is rich is head-exploding dark irony at its best.
Then there’s the other argument which is far less sanitary. The other argument is that racism is alive and well in America, and that it’s always been alive and well, and that there is absolutely no surprise that Trump is able to use racism to win votes because the country may have had a black President and the world might have thought this represented a moment where America could no longer be perceived as a racist country, but that we then find we were wrong and that not only do the KKK still exist, but the Republican front-runner nominee refuses to criticise a clan leader through fear that this will lose him votes and that this culture is the real secret to Trump’s success. From this perspective, no matter how many good Americans there are who are absolutely mortified by Trump’s popularity, this popularity reveals undeniably that there is widespread racism in a country who have previously held themselves up as the welcoming home of immigrants looking for a better life; for opportunity, hope and optimism. In this argument, there is no excuse for the bad-behaviour of Trump supporters because there is no excuse for hatred and racism, with a big serving of sexism sprinkled throughout, and pardon my language but they can all go to hell, a place most of them claim to believe in, but also seem not to fear.
I don’t think there is a simple chicken and egg solution to this debate, and rather, as is often the case in politics the problem is caused by ‘a little from column A and a little from column B’. All I know is that whatever the underlying reasons for Trump’s rise, the world is watching on hoping and urging America will wake up to their better angels before it’s too late.