Wednesday, 04 September 2013

Shouting us Down

Is it any wonder people are reluctant to be involved in politics and public debate?

The feeling that this is the worst election evah pervades political coverage and discussion. Professionals and nonprofessionals alike complain about the quality of the leaders’ debates (and the quality of the leaders!), the uselessness of the media coverage, and the disengagement of the voters.

Enough.

It’s not that I disagree with these assessments, or think that they shouldn’t be expressed; it’s just that I’d like to come at it from a different angle. In particular, I want to address the assertion about voter disengagement. That’s a particularly troubling assumption for a democracy to make about itself, and what concerns me is that it’s an assertion generally made in isolation from the other concerns about leaders and the media. It is almost always made with no attempt to address the issue of power.

So let’s start with the dilemma at the heart of voter engagement.

People cannot develop the skills and experience and knowledge necessary for meaningful public engagement in the absence of meaningful public engagement.

Very few of us come to the public sphere as fully formed Martin Luther Kings or Pericles or even Adam Sorkins. We are all in need of experience in expressing ourselves in public and that has to start somewhere.

Moreover, public debate is not just where we learn to express ourselves, it is where we learn.

As conservative US commentator Christopher Lasch once put it:

What democracy requires is public debate, not information. Of course it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can be generated only by vigorous popular debate. We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of relevant information. Otherwise we take in information passively—if we take it in at all.

Lasch’s formulation - that debate precedes knowledge - is a great democratic insight. If you can get past its counterintuitive veneer, it is a truly empowering idea. But it is one we ignore all the time.

Let’s consider a few examples.

Look what happened to One Nation candidate, Stephanie Bannister. She was the woman who was forced to withdraw from the election after she let fly with the comment that, “I don't oppose Islam as a country, but I do feel that their laws should not be welcome here in Australia.”

Now, on one level, the comment is truly awful and speaks to a level of ignorance that you probably don’t want to see in a member of parliament, and maybe it’s right that she is no longer running. Maybe.

But the fact is, you can’t fault her for not being engaged. This is an ordinary woman who decided to take up the democratic challenge and actually run for parliament. Yes, she made an almighty error, but in another way she is proof positive of Lasch’s contention that, “We do not know what we need to know until we... [subject] our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy.”

But Bannister was hounded from public life before she had a chance to learn. Her comments went viral and she was subject to ridicule around the world in a matter of minutes.

Who, from the serried ranks of “ordinary people”, is going to risk this sort of embarrassment by becoming properly engaged in our politics?

A similar thing happened to Liberal candidate Jamie Diaz. He was the guy who was caught in a shopping centre interview proclaiming the greatness of his party’s six-point plan for dealing with asylum seekers but who then could not name the six points in the plan he was promoting.

Now, I have no criticism of the journalist who kept pursuing him on the matter, but the net effect is not only that Diaz no longer speaks on the record, but that the Liberal Party has also banned other neophyte candidates from speaking to the media for fear they will “do a Diaz”.

How is this good for democracy? And how, then, do we turn around and moan that people are disengaged, let alone that they are stage managed and tightly controlled?

Yes, Diaz should’ve known the six points, but again, the public debate that exposed his lack of knowledge should be a place for learning, not a place for gotchas and fodder for viral videos that we all get to laugh at from the comfort of our own disengagement.

And what about the woman at the Rooty Hill leaders’ debate who asked the question about superannuation? Social media filled up with people - professional and otherwise - who made fun of her, told her to shut up, cast aspersions on her sanity.

Host David Speers consistently tried to shut her down because she wasn’t playing by his rules of engagement.

Now honestly, I thought she was annoying and misguided too, and I rolled my eyes, but on reflection, I don’t think I should have.

Here she was, with possibly the only opportunity in her life to actually speak face-to-face with the prime minister and the alternative candidate - and in that, she stands as a proxy for most of us - and we mock her and shame her and try and close down whatever it was she was trying to say, simply because she wasn’t some silver-tongued, experienced orator; or because she wasn’t fitting in with the dopey rules decided by a television station in conjunction with the political parties, rules designed to fit with, in the case of the former, their production schedule, and, in the latter, their desire to not be asked questions they don’t want to answer.

I mean, who exactly is disengaged here? The woman who shows up to the debate at the RSL club, or the media and political operatives who design such events in ways that minimise rather than maximise voter involvement?

Yes, in some ways she was dreadful and boring and embarrassing, but how in god’s name do we expect people like her to get any better at this sort of thing when their opportunities for engagement are so limited, and when we ridicule them mercilessly when they even try to participate?

The public sphere is an increasingly professionalised space, controlled by politicians, the media and other experts and elites who exercise a ruthless control over who gets to speak in it. That control is administered in all sorts of ways and one of them is to shame people who are - by the lights of these elites - judged to be somehow unacceptable.

But the attacks on non-elites who dare to engage are hardly limited to shaming.

Look what happened to the Occupy Melbourne movement. Not only did new and old media fill up with various experts mocking the movement’s lack of knowledge and lack of focus, but the Melbourne City Council deployed the police force to have them removed from the public spaces where they tried to have their discussions. Barely a whimper was raised in polite society about this, the same polite society that complains about people’s lack of engagement.

Again, there probably was a level of ignorance on show in some of what Occupy was saying, but what chance do they have to learn if they are not only mocked by their “betters” for even having the discussions, but forcibly removed from public spaces and taken to court?

We could also point to the example of Greg Jericho. Here was a guy with a day job who decided to, in his own time, chat on his blog about stuff under the nom de plume of Grogs Gamut. Against the odds, he actually started to get people to pay attention to what he was saying. He built up an audience and was even quoted by the head of the ABC.

For his trouble, The Australian newspaper decided that it was their duty to “out” him, to expose his real identity and to even suggest that, as he was public servant, he was possibly in breach of the service’s code of ethics.

The full force of a major mainstream institution was brought down upon his head because he dared to engage.

Jericho is hardly the only person to meet with this sort of reaction.

The editor of the same newspaper pursued legal action against academic Julie Posetti when she tweeted some comments made by a former Australian journalist who was speaking at a conference.

Fortunately, Posetti’s employer, the University of Canberra, went into bat for her and organised the legal response, but nonetheless, the price of Posetti’s public engagement was to have a legal threat hanging over her head for a year and article after article in the mainstream media attacking her.

Why would anyone risk any of this by being “engaged”? Who wouldn't think twice before opening their mouth in public?

And really, it just gets worse. We have The Daily Telegraph in Sydney organising a campaign against “trolling”, and calling down the full force of the law upon, not just criminals but against anyone who doesn’t live up to their self-proclaimed standards of civility (something I discussed in this article). They were supported in this “campaign” by everyone from the Australian cricket captain to the Attorney General.

We also have the British Government forcing The Guardian newspaper to destroy hard drives while telling them, “You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more.”

The same government used anti-terrorism laws to detain the husband of a Guardian journalist who was passing through Heathrow airport while, apparently, carrying files to do with a story the journalist was pursuing.

We have various governments, led by the Obama Administration, spying on nearly everything we transmit via electronic means, while using all means available to them to shut down those who try to shine a light on such activities. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning is in gaol for thirty years. Edward Snowden is in exile and on the run. Julian Assange is locked inside an embassy in London.

Yes, yes, I know not all of these cases are equivalent and maybe in some instances the people involved arguably had legal cases to answer. And yes, Assange is a dick.

But the unifying point is that they all illustrate the sheer difficulty of what we like to think of as genuine democratic engagement.

The default position of a democracy should be that all information is freely available unless there is a good reason it shouldn’t be, and the onus should be on governments to make the case for secrecy.

Increasingly the opposite is true: everything is presumed secret and it is up to us - whoever “us” is - to prove that it shouldn’t be. Under such circumstances, leaking and hacking and whistleblowing are basically the only ways that important information about government practices - practices that sometimes violate the law and certainly the spirit of a free society - can be disseminated to a broader public and discussed and hopefully corrected.

Incredibly, though, when such hackers and leakers appear, they are not only pursued as traitors and terrorists by governments, attacked by individual members of Congress and parliament, they are also attacked by members of the so-called fourth estate, the very people who like to revel in the idea that they are our ultimate watchdog on power.

Journalists have been amongst the most openly critical, not just of the people who did the leaking, but of the other journalists who helped bring the leaked information to light.

David Gregory, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press program, is emblematic of the type.

When interviewing Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald about Edward Snowden, the NSA employee who leaked information about the US government’s program of spying on people’s emails, Gregory asked, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn't you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”

Tell me again about who is disengaged and who isn’t pulling their democratic weight?

The chances are, if you stick so much as your little toe into the public sphere, whether as a whistleblower, a candidate for a party, or as a humble blogger, there is likely to be someone with more power, more prestige, more and better access to more powerful platforms backed by entrenched and powerful institutions - from businesses to political parties to media organisations to the law itself - who are going to, on very little provocation, whip out the bolt cutters and remove said toe.

And now that we all have access to social media, we can all vicariously deploy those same bolt cutters by sharing the videos and quotes of these people with our friends and family, laughing along as we send their pain and foolishness viral, all of us thus helping to sell the message that engagement is dangerous, while all the time moaning about people’s ignorance and their lack of engagement.

The issue is not disengagement: it is power.

Until we come up with a way to equalise the power differential between the professionals of public debate and the rest of the citizenry, we are going to be stuck with the sort of shitty election campaigns we are currently enduring. We are going to be stuck with a democracy that worships at the altar of elite concerns and ignores everyone else. And we are going to be sucked into the vortex of social media meta-discussion where all we do is talk about the problem while never solving it.

Think again about the paradox of that quote from Christopher Lasch: “What democracy requires is public debate, not information. Of course it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can be generated only by vigorous popular debate.”

If we close off the public sphere as a place where ordinary people can engage and learn; if the only people allowed to survive in it are the professionally trained, the institutionally approved, the individuals who just happen to have an above average level of thickness in their hide such that they are big enough arseholes themselves to cop the abuse that rains down upon them when they make a mistake, then we shouldn’t be surprised, not only that most people will simply not engage, but that the only ones who will are the professionally trained, institutionally approved, thick-skinned arseholes that we all complain about.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 28 August 2013

13 Senators

The Senate is too often ignored in the lead up to elections, but the make-up of the senate will determine how and where the newly elected government can spend the tax payers’ dollars.

There are thirteen seats in the Senate that will be fascinating to watch in the fortnight or so after the election. Senate seats are subject to different pressures than the House of Representative seats, with the Lab-Lib continuum only one of the forces acting on them. The Senate results will mess with the legislative agenda of the government for years, just as they always do. But it’s part of the Canberra pantomime, that developments from the Senate take the press gallery by surprise, every time.

At each election, all the Senators from the territories and half the Senators from the states go back to the voters. Those who were (re-)elected in 2010 won’t go to the polls until 2016. The Senators up for election this time won their seats in 2007.

I hear you doing the maths: there are 40 spots in the Senate up for election this time (six from each of the six states, two from the ACT and two from the Northern Territory). Why are we only talking about thirteen of them?

You can give 27 of those 40 away to the majors, and almost all of those will be called on the night of the election. The top two candidates from each of the state Labor and Liberal/Coalition tickets are pretty much assured of winning, as are the top candidates of those parties in the NT. That’s a third of the vote in each jurisdiction to Labor and Liberal/Coalition. It’s the other third where the action is.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the ACT. Labor Senator, Kate Lundy, is almost certain of re-election. That second Senate spot for the ACT, and the last two from each state, are worth watching:

NSW

In 2007 NSW elected 3 Labor and 3 Coalition senators. The two seats up for grabs might go to the majors but they will certainly split between the broad left of politics and the broad right.

Third on the Coalition Senate ticket is Liberal Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard’s former chief of staff, who is highly regarded in Liberal circles. The Coalition vote in NSW is such that he is likely to be re-elected, with the support of other parties with a conservative agenda whose preferences flow to the Coalition (parties like Katter’s, Palmer’s, Fred Nile’s Christianists, and a range of economic and immigration protectionists will have small votes in NSW).

Sinodinos is a former director of Australian Water Holdings. One of his fellow directors is a son of notorious Labor politician Eddie Obeid, which is the sort of thing that a relentlessly investigative media might have investigated in years gone by. It’s likely that Sinodinos would become a member of an Abbott Cabinet, and equally likely the aforementioned matter would catch up with him then.

There has been a bit of media chatter about Pauline Hanson being a strong contender for a Senate seat. Even though she almost made it to state parliament in 2011, this is unlikely. Firstly, the Coalition will do nothing to undercut Sinodinos and will fight harder for him (and thus to maximise the overall Coalition Senate vote) than would have been the case had they simply put Sinodinos atop the Coalition ticket and forced Senate veteran Marise Payne to third. Secondly, the mainstream political parties have pretty much adopted Hanson’s agenda – stop the boats and control Aborigines – and she hasn’t spent the 15 years since losing her seat from her native Queensland developing a fresh new appeal.

Labor Senator Ursula Stephens is facing a huge challenge from the Greens’ Cate Faehrmann. As with Tasmania, the Labor vote may not be high enough to elect a third Senator from that party. It might have been different had proven vote-winner Bob Carr contested the third position, but Carr would have only taken his job with a guarantee of a rails run.

It’s possible that a candidate from one of the smaller parties may come through the ruck of preferences and snatch one of these two seats, vindicating the long-term work of small-parties mastermind Glenn Druery, but it’s unlikely. The DLP, highly active in Victoria, is moribund in NSW. The guns-and-fish parties are divided and have overplayed their hand in state politics. NSW has always been fallow ground for libertarians, and their repeated insistence on running a candidate whose surname looks like a spoonful of alphabet soup is puzzling.

My guess for my home state is that Sinodinos and Faehrmann will win the two final Senate spots.

Tasmania

Tasmania will almost certainly re-elect Green Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, appointed to replace Bob Brown after his retirement from politics. The Labor vote in that state has declined due to a long-term, unpopular state government, and will not be strong enough to elect a third Senator. The Liberal vote will probably be strong enough to elect their third candidate, Sally Chandler, and if not Christianist and guns-and-fish independents will carry her across the line.

Other minor parties may, but are unlikely to, swap preferences so effectively that they get one of their own elected. I know I gave the impression that this article, and the Senate races, would be hugely exciting and random, but sometimes they aren’t. Sorry.

South Australia

The Liberals in SA used to have a strong contingent of moderates, drawing on a strong moderate-right vote across the community. Nick Minchin has largely succeeded in driving moderates from the ranks of the party; those who stayed, like Christopher Pyne, gave up being moderate, while those who remained moderates, like Nick Xenophon, took their chances beyond the ramparts. Xenophon has a high personal vote and will take any preferences from the Liberals, whose agenda he broadly supports, left over from their top two.

Like JFK and PJK, Green Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is widely referred to by her initials. She is likely to beat lower-profile Labor candidate, Simon Pisoni, while taking Labor preferences that he would need to win. The Labor-Green relationship is like that; but who’s the scorpion and who’s the frog is up for debate.

Family First’s Bob Day is a former Liberal and would be unlikely to edge out Xenophon, Liberal third candidate Cathie Webb, Hanson-Young, Pisoni, or any of the other smaller outfits to take one of the two spots open to the minors.

Western Australia

Katter and Palmer could’ve had more influence in WA had they set their parties up earlier. The DLP is almost non-existent and Christianist groups could be a lot stronger if they got their acts together. A Xenophon-style moderate liberal force from the 1990s, Liberals for Forests, has now dissipated.

Almost no other party is preferencing Green Senator Scott Ludlam – not even Wikileaks, despite Ludlam flying to London at his own expense to help Julian Assange. He could well come seventh in a race that only awards six places (Ludlam, that is, not Assange).

The WA Nationals are more loosely aligned to the Liberals than elsewhere in the country, and their lead candidate is former footballer David Wirrpanda (just to reinforce this, the second candidate on the WA Nats ticket is a man named Eagles). If any state is going to return four Coalition Senators, WA could be it. The collapse in support for the recently re-elected state government, however, may work against the election of a third Liberal.

Queensland

If Senator Mark Furner, third on Labor’s ticket, was a household name you’d have to give him one of these spots; but he isn’t so you won’t and neither will the voters of Queensland. Same with the LNP’s third candidate, Matt Canavan.

Roy and HG gave tough Queensland rugby league players in the 1990s nicknames like ‘Cement’ or ‘The Brick With Eyes’. Glenn Lazarus, Palmer’s lead Senate candidate, was known as ‘The Pillow With Feet’. He was captain of the Melbourne Storm when, in their second year from a city whose sheer apathy toward rugby league knows few bounds, they won the premiership. He showed a selflessness and a broader awareness amazing for a league man when he dedicated the victory to the troops in East Timor.

James Blundell, Katter’s lead Senate candidate, was a country musician who has since become a grazier. He once recorded a duet with James Reyne, the only singer in Australia then or since with worse diction. Katter’s party exists to funnel preferences away from the conservatives to Labor, because Katter’s party is all about nostalgia for a Labor Queensland that is now lost; they are like a reverse DLP. Had Rudd not done that deal with Katter we might have seen Queensland elect 3 LNP Senators, plus Blundell.

Either Lazarus or Blundell will become a Senator and their vote will determine what you can or can’t do, and upon what your money will or won’t be spent.

Stopped laughing, haven’t you?

Adam Stone is the Green candidate, and he will probably take the last spot unless the Christianist parties give the LNP a boost; this is unlikely since serial splitter Aiden McLindon is on that case. Greg Rudd is also running as an “ungrouped” independent (which is different to being merely independent, it would seem).

Victoria

On Sunday 18 August it was announced that the Wikileaks Party wasn’t going to preference their helpmeets in the Greens and in other political movements dedicated to freedom of information and other civil liberties, and instead were going to preference the AFP (Australia’s Illinois Nazis) or the WA Nationals, or other parties not known for their civil liberties agenda or even basic IT understanding. Unlike other parties, Wikileaks’ entire base is on Twitter, and the meltdown that resulted was something to behold. Julian Assange has no chance of becoming a Senator or influencing those who will as a result of the preference process.

Rise Up Australia is running on a Christianist, anti-immigration agenda, led by a migrant in the country’s most secular state. The LDP will be flush with cash from the IPA, but the conflict of little-government guys chasing a taxeater job will do them in. Democrat David Collyer, Sex and Secularity and other minor parties will dislodge small tufts of votes which, when joined with those from other parties, cause mighty avalanches and ground-shifts.

The biggest beneficiary of all this will probably be the Greens’ Janet Rice. A state which has no Green senators three years ago will soon have two (Senator Richard di Natale was elected in 2010), another one in the eye for Assange and those who believed in him.

The third candidate from Labor, David Feeney, chose to take his chances in the House against a strong Green candidate rather than stand and fight in the Senate. Mehmet Tillem, Feeney’s replacement, actually lists his profession as ‘Unemployed’ on his declaration to the Electoral Commission.

The third Coalition candidate is Senator Helen Kroger, who started off supporting her then-husband’s career in politics but eventually overtook it. She probably does not deserve her reputation as being perpetually cranky, and she does not have the consolation of having been defeated by better candidates; but then nobody deserves a spot in the Senate indefinitely either. Kroger’s likely loss is the nightmare of all career politicians: too young to retire, but too old to return to her former employment (recruitment, running a Malvern deli, fundraising at a school her children no longer attend), and too little clout to claw her way back into politics or some other sinecure.

The Country Alliance, a group of normally conservative people agitating against cuts to government services in rural areas (and more authentically Victorian than Queensland interlopers Katter and Palmer), will be interesting to watch as far as preferences go. They will take votes from the DLP, a novelty act that risks becoming zombies. If any party is going to repeat the 2004 fiasco that saw Family First win a Senate seat from 2% of the vote, they may well be it.

ACT

Since 1977 the ACT has elected one Labor senator and one Liberal. They looked set to do so this time too until two things happened: the Liberals announced they were going to sack 20,000 public servants, and replaced affable proven winner Gary Humphries with ineffable loser Zed Seselja. In 2010 the Greens came close to winning a quota at the expense of the Liberals. Green candidate Simon Sheikh may go one better this time, but then again he may not and the good voters of Canberra may want a representative inside an Abbott government.

Polls

Polls rarely address Senate voting intention, and when they do there is little correlation between poll results and what actually happens.

Outcomes like the 2004 election of Family First and four Coalition Senators from Queensland take even the tough nuts by surprise. Senators tend to be loyal to their party rather than to a temporary leader who isn’t even a member of their House – if they’re in a party at all.

So who will win those 13 Senate seats? The ones that are the least secure and the most interesting - in the manner of their election and in their impact on legislation - no matter who wins the main game.

Polls consistently show Greens languishing. Elections consistently show Greens getting elected. Election sample size is bigger and better than any poll. All but the smuggest pollsters will have to change the way they operate, just as astrologers adjust to dying stars or new constellations. The Greens are going to end up with between eleven and thirteen Senators, and you can bet the press gallery will fall about in shock (especially the Murdoch crew, who have hypnotised themselves into thinking it’s impossible).

Developments in the Senate count won’t make the headlines, because reporters can’t cover what they don’t understand and can’t persuade their equally ignorant editors to do so either. But, with the wonders of the internet, you can spend much of September getting your vote-count fix (far more satisfying than the inanities of endless polling) by watching one shoe drop, then the other one, then yet another one, until all the shoes of the thirteen Senate spots up for grabs are filled.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The youth vote

Before either party start chasing the youth vote they have to get the young people of Australia to care enough to vote.

Several Millennia ago, at the beginning of this election campaign, there was a flurry of activity to get people onto the electoral roll. During the seven day period between the signing of the writs and the closing of the roll, flyers were circulated in workplaces and on campuses, ads appeared on Facebook and online news sites, and Twitter was jammed with celebrities and politicians urging the un-enrolled to claim their democratic right.

Much of the effort came from the Australian Electoral Commission in an attempt to enhance the nation’s democratic wellbeing. The AEC has, for some time, been attempting to draw the broader community’s attention to the growing number of Australians who simply choose not to participate in our nation’s compulsory voting system. In recent times the number of people missing from the electoral roll has been as high as 1.4 million, or around 10 per cent of people eligible to vote, with more than 500,000 of the un-enrolled aged from 18 to 24.

This is part of a larger concern, with three million Australians not voting in the 2010 federal election. From the AEC’s perspective, a higher proportion of eligible voters being enrolled – and lodging a formal vote – strengthens the legitimacy of the election result.

But from the perspective of political parties, new voters can also mean additional votes: it’s the electoral equivalent of printing money. With 15 per cent of young voters having deserted Labor since Kevin Rudd’s election in 2007 for the Greens in 2010, it’s hardly surprising that both parties of the left have put considerable effort into signing up young new voters in preparation for the 7 September poll.

In tight marginal seats, a successful enrol-to-vote campaign could possibly result in young voters deciding the election outcome. It’s been reported that in some electorates (including the marginal seat of Melbourne, currently held by the Greens) non-enrolment of under-25 year olds could be as high as 80 per cent.

Nevertheless young voters have a better chance of influencing this year’s election outcome in the Senate than the House of Representatives because of their increased likelihood to vote for minor parties.

And this is where the hunt for the youth vote becomes challenging. While it’s one thing to get young people to register on the electoral roll, it’s another thing altogether to secure their mercurial vote for your party.

Younger voters are considered by campaign strategists to be driven by values but to have very little loyalty to any one party. One academic study has gone so far as to suggest that politics as we know it is being fundamentally changed by “the electoral volatility and political behaviours of young people”. This lack of partisanship is what makes young voters persuadable and therefore of particular interest to the competing parties.

Labor and the Greens have established strong online campaigns to connect with young voters, who are generally not consumers of conventional news media and more likely to go directly to original sources of information such as party websites. Both parties are drawing on the successful digital campaign tactics that played a part in US President Obama’s re-election, with Labor going so far as to second members of the Obama campaign team to their own. For their part, Greens campaigners are using the latest digital approaches they learned while working on the ground in last year’s Presidential campaign.

That’s not to say the Coalition is ignoring the youth vote, only that both Labor and the Greens need to secure more new votes than the Opposition does.

A common interpretation of young peoples’ inclination not to enrol to vote is lack of engagement due to apathy. However, the young voters who are engaged are stressing that any digital campaign must have substance if it is to have an impact.

Putting aside the possibly negative implications of being seen to be try-hards on social media (“While the uptake of social media by political parties and candidates looks promising, it's kind of like having your parents friend you on Facebook.”), parties must have something credible to say on matters that are of concern to this age group. According to one recent study, these matters include jobs, rent and housing affordability, university funding, same sex marriage and climate change.

In short, parties need to treat young voters like adults and not kids.

So how successful was the enrol-to-vote campaign at the beginning of this election? Disappointingly a mere 3,641 voters aged 18-19 and only 25,000 aged 18-24 have enrolled since the previous federal election in 2010, leaving around 400,000, or 17% of that age group, still unable (or unwilling) to vote. That’s compared with a total of 160,000 voters across all age groups who have registered to vote since Kevin Rudd called the election on 4 August.

The AEC will need to go back to the drawing board to find more innovative ways of motivating young Australians to vote. That challenge may be compounded by an anticipated rise in deliberately informal votes this election as the public vents its frustration over having to choose between two unpalatable options on polling day.

As for the parties, they’ll need to look at the question of disengaged citizens with fresh eyes too – particularly those in the younger demographic groups. For, despite their lack of participation in formal democratic processes, disengaged young citizens will nevertheless have their say on whatever issues peak their interest, across legion digital platforms. However small the influence of young people may seem in terms of votes, their influence in terms of tapping into and driving the opinions of their peers and broader networks cannot be underestimated.

 

Published in Weekly Email
Friday, 23 August 2013

Back to the future egos

Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd both have the same problem with their election campaigns. The only place they can go for a winning campaign strategy is walled off by their gigantic egos.

Rudd’s attempt to win a presidential–style election with his folksy charm and winning personality is a successful as anyone but he could have predicted.

Abbott’s attempt to win on an all-you-need-to-know-about-us-is-we’re-not-them platform is proving equally successful.

And thus we have both parties sitting on about 50-50.

The Labor government did achieve some big ticket items – Gonski, DisabilityCare, reasonable paid parental leave and putting a price on carbon, all negotiated through a difficult minority government. All things you would expect to take a leading place in their campaign for re-election. But they can’t, because most of those things were achieved by Julia Gillard, and Rudd can barely bring himself to say her name without his lips disappearing down the back of his throat to choke him.

The Coalition may very well have some strong policies to correct some of the looming economic issues that could swamp us over the next few years, but we don't know what they are. And hiding them, particularly under constant questioning, make all their spokespeople look shifty and dishonest.

The first leader’s debate was both screamingly boring and stupefyingly frustrating. The questions were vague, the answers vaguer and the lack of follow up from supposedly professional political journalists would have been laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. Most people who watched it ended up asleep or apoplectic by the end.

The second debate was better, the questions more interesting and the answers less scripted. But still, both leaders spent the entire time desperately finding more words with which to not answer the questions they were asked and trying to drive each other into the dark corners they're both so desperate to avoid.

And as Rudd tries to ignore the past and Abbott tries to ignore the future, the final debate next week is looming over those of us who have to watch it as another crucifixion on an extraordinarily dull cross.

What would happen though, if one or both of them threw their ego out the window for an hour and leapt straight into the one place they don’t want to go? What if Rudd shouted loud and proud about Labor’s achievements under Gillard? What if Abbott yelled out policies and costs with no dodging or weaving?

There’s a viral youtube video right there. Maybe even enough to turn the few percentage points either of them need to win.

But we’ll probably never know, so here’s a youtube video of much more lovable muppets talking about boats for you instead.

 

 

 

 

Published in The Shout

It’s a mystery how someone as maladroit as Tony Abbott managed to lurch into the Coalition leadership. It’s even more of a mystery that he’s stayed there and is likely to become our next PM.

120 days ago Tim Dunlop wrote this piece about the unedifying prospect of Tony Abbott as our next Prime Minister. Dunlop is a masterful writer, but this paragraph in particular, summed up the feelings of many of us at the time:

That a lightweight, puffball cypher like Tony Abbott, who demonstrably lacks popular appeal, and who has singularly failed to articulate a viable, positive justification for his claim to the prime ministership, is in hot contention for that very job is as good an indication as you could find of the power of oligarchs to shape the world to their own will, of the ineptitude of those who stand against them, and of the inability of our media - old and new - to deliberate outside the narrowest understanding of the national interest.

A lot has changed in 120 days. Julia Gillard is no longer the Prime Minister and has disappeared into a dignified silence, most noticeable by its comparison to Rudd’s antics after his disposing. We’re now into the third week of an execrable election campaign that has become an international joke, perfectly summed up by the image of the adulterous cock of the head of the Parliamentary Ethics Committee defiling a perfectly good glass of shiraz.

But far worse than the toxic levels of derpery being vomited out by the campaign is the appalling prospect of Tony Abbott as our next Prime Minister.

This is not about partisanship, indeed, as I have written recently, I am seriously considering voting Liberal, because our ignominious local member Michael Danby (ALP) is so thoroughly outclassed by the Liberal candidate for Melbourne Ports.

And, although I am (proudly) a feminist, my objections to Tony Abbott are not based on his pervasive sexism, it's entirely about his ability to fulfil the role of the Prime Minister and the effect his failings will have on the country.

The role of the Prime Minister is not specifically defined in our constitution, but the excellent resource AustralianPolitics.com describes it thus:

1. The PM allocates ministerial positions. In the Labor Party, the ministry is elected by the Caucus, whereas a Liberal leader is able to choose ministers from within the parliamentary party.

2. The PM chairs the Cabinet, determines the Cabinet agenda and oversees the work of the government. In this, the PM is supported by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

3. The PM chooses election dates. Both parties allow the PM complete discretion to determine election timing.

4. The PM is the public face and spokesperson for the government, both domestically and internationally. Even though a Foreign Minister is appointed, the PM usually takes on the role of international spokesperson for the nation.

5. The PM’s position assumes power and prestige because the media focuses on the PM. This means that the PM is able to go over the head of his colleagues and party and communicate directly with the electorate.

6. The PM has the power of patronage. In Australia, positions such as Governor-General, judge of the High Court, Chairman of the ABC, etc., fall within the gift of the prime minister.

Abbott likes to position himself as John Howard's heir apparent, but in fact he is far more a Nick Minchin acolyte. If he wins this election he will give far more power to the conservative right within the party than the few remaining progressives. He will allocate ministries, as demonstrated by the current Coalition front bench to the likes of Sophie Mirabella, Mathias Corman, George Brandis, Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison (despite their notable absence from the election campaign). Under their guidance, the Coalition Government will take a divisively conservative approach to social issues and a fiscally irresponsible approach to issues like climate change (despite most businesses saying they would prefer an ETS), asylum seekers, middle class welfare, poker machines and paid parental leave.

Abbott’s lack of economic credentials, which even more disturbingly, appears to be shared by the shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, are surely a serious failing in our putative head of government. International finance, the cost of carbon their ability to understand and cost their own policies and Abbott's self-declared lack of understanding of the infrastructure needs of the future does not bode well for an economy no longer propped up by an escalating mining boom.

And how is Prime Minister Abbott Prime going to deal with points 4 and 5 of the list above? How will he influence the direction and level of public debate in Australia? He is awkward and inarticulate in the very few interviews he grants and seems either unable or unwilling to discuss the detail of policy. Six years in opposition, leading a crudely effective but simplisticly negative campaign against the government (with the mainstream media's willing assistance) has not prepared him in any way for a positive or nuanced discussion with the Australian public. Abbott stilted avoidance of any weighty discussion will only encourage the media's tendency to uninformed opinion and paucity of balanced, professional analysis. When the vast majority of the electorate find their information and understanding of government activities from the mainstream media, this is a serious concern.

Malcolm Turnbull, so obviously preferred by the majority of the electorate, is no shining light of moral rectitude. He is undoubtedly as venal and ego-driven as any other politician, but he is a persuasive, knowledgeable and articulate public speaker and it's highly unlikely that anyone would have any doubts about his ability to understand the policies he's implementing. He, more than any other politician in Parliament at the moment (with the exception of Penny Wong) would be like to force the public debate to a detailed, centrist discussion, if only because it's his natural level of discussion.

Additionally, the idea of Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia, square-gaiting around the international stage, leering lizardously at female heads of state and dropping malapropisms all over the world is shudderingly embarrassing. Worse, his inability to compromise or negotiate, as cited by Tony Windsor (who is certainly in a position to judge this) and reinforced by his refusal to work with a minority government, does not give any confidence that he will be an effective spokesperson for Australia.

Despite the likelihood of a coalition win, Abbott has been consistently polling as preferred Prime Minister at around 35%. If the coalition lose this election, it will not be because most people prefer a Labor government, but because too many people, who would otherwise vote for the Coalition, can't stomach the thought of Abbott as Prime Minister.

And who can blame them?

If only we had an alternative other than the inept, oleaginous little shit current leading the tattered remains of the Labor party.

Published in Weekly Email
Tuesday, 20 August 2013

By demons be driven

The Gillard government was so rent by errors and toxic politics, and Abbott is just so scary, that it's too easy to forget what a poor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was, is and maybe will be.

In a little over a fortnight we will have a new Parliament and thus a new government. At this stage the more likely outcome will be Tony Abbott, Prime Minister. While that terrifies me, the thought of Rudd somehow sliming his way back in just disgusts me.

I wrote a couple of years ago of my belated, begrudging acknowledgment of John Howard’s Prime Ministership, but on reading back over the intro to that piece, from Election Night 2007, this, bit in particular, struck me:

I wondered what it was that I had just seen and why it made me so sad; the night should have been a celebration, gloating and cheering and inventing new, clever ways to say “Bye bye, Johnny”. But it wasn’t.

(It) was Rudd’s speech; a collection of buzzwords and bland mission statements, delivered without passion, without promise, without soul. Mission Accomplished, Rudd seemed to say: we’re here now, we’re in government, which was all we had to do.

“After eleven years of Howard”, I yelled, “THIS is what we get?”

And now, nearly six years later, after his first term of notable actions (The Apology, Kyoto) and abysmal failures (Mining Tax, ETS), then three years of destabilising leaks and venal plots against Gillard, he’s back.

He promises “A New Way”, which bears a remarkable resemblance to what he said when newly-elected as Labor Leader:

At his first press conference as Labor Leader, having thanked Beazley and Macklin, Rudd said he would offer a “new style of leadership” and would be an “alternative, not just an echo” of the Howard Government.

It is a mark of Rudd’s tenacity, ably assisted by the attack dogs of the Opposition and most of the country’s media, that Julia Gillard’s term as Prime Minister, despite the hundreds of pieces of law passed through a hung parliament, was and is still seen as a disaster. Enough of a disaster that we appear to be prepared to forget what Rudd’s first term was like, telling ourselves that it couldn’t be as bad as They Who Know keep telling us the last three years have been.

It is a mark of his ability and preparedness to re-invent history that he now disowns his greatest political failure, the Mining Tax.

All it took was a few million dollars’ worth of TV ads and Twiggy Forrest yelling at his workers from the back of a ute that he was going to have to sack them due to the expected percentage point of profit he was going to lose, and our Dear Leader folded like the origami unicorn we were all starting to see him as.

A month later he was gone.

Or Climate Change, “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, until it got to the pointy end, when targets were lowered and timeframes extended to the never-never.

There was the tantrum on a plane, the micro-management and high staff turnover, duly reported by US diplomats as revealed by Wikileaks

The United States diplomatic cables leaks revealed that Robert McCallum, the former US Ambassador to Australia, described Rudd as a “control freak” and “a micro-manager”, obsessed with “managing the media cycle rather than engaging in collaborative decision making”. Diplomats also criticised Rudd's foreign policy record and considered Rudd's “mis-steps” largely arose from his propensity to make “snap announcements without consulting other countries or within the Australian Government”

His obsession with being on top of the shallow and pointless 24-hour media cycle, commenting on things that were simply beneath the office, became simply draining after a while. Whether it was Big Brother or Bill Henson he had to be front and centre of that night’s TV news, had to be on the front page.

After Simon Crean’s abortive “oh yeah I should’ve checked my text messages before I committed” leadership challenge in February of this year, many MPs and Ministers spoke out with what they thought was the safety of Rudd’s final political death.

But they should have known better.

Stephen Conroy (resigned from Communications portfolio): (Rudd had) “contempt for the cabinet, contempt for the caucus, contempt for the Parliament”

Craig Emerson: said he would not serve under Rudd and he was right.

Greg Combet, one of the few Ministers with a real chance at leading the ALP into the 2020s and beyond: not contesting the election in September.

Peter Garrett, still finding his feet as a Minister when Rudd left him to take all the heat for pink batts, a policy Rudd himself rushed through: Won’t contest Kingsford-Smith, after saying that he wouldn’t serve in a Rudd ministry even if asked to.

Gillard supporters asked to stay on include the estimable Tony Burke, Gary Gray and Don Farrell, Albo (Stockholm Syndrome made flesh) and Penny Wong, because even Rudd’s vindictiveness wasn’t enough to blind him to her value.

It’s the vindictiveness, made of bitterness over not getting everything he wants, that we should remember and fear most of all. If it hadn’t been for his leaking of damaging Cabinet discussions during the 2010 election, Julia Gillard may well have governed with a majority, denying Abbott at least the “illegitimate” club with which he and his supporters in the media beat her daily.

If it hadn’t been for his constant drip-feeding to Hartcher in particular, leadership speculation may have died down for long enough for Gillard to have at least tried to run the country.

But she was PM and he wasn’t, and that just had to change by any means possible, because the job was his, Goddammit. Not that he has the conviction or the ethics or the morals or the ability to actually do the job, he just wants and wants and wants and He. Must. Have. It. If only because That Woman denied it to him.

As I said in the opening paragraph, an Abbott government terrifies me, for all the reasons (and more besides) in Jane’s article today. But another three years of Rudd? Just how many more platitudes and back-flips and unnecessary media appearances and mission statements and stressed-out OPMC staff can we bear?

We’ve got seventeen days, people. Just seventeen days to kidnap Penny Wong and Malcolm Turnbull and force them to take over their respective monkey enclosures, so we’ve got a choice slightly less distasteful than (to paraphrase a Jed Bartlet twitter account) choosing a boyfriend in Maximum Security.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 14 August 2013

GRRRRRR

Ok this has me cranky.

Both Abbott and now Rudd have come out with statements saying that they would not attempt to form a minority government. How very churlish, disrespectful and just flat out rude.

The Westminster parliamentary system allows for this outcome, it is a perfectly valid result. Try running the 'majority or nothing' line in places like Italy or Israel. Governing by coalition is valid and some would argue that the sort of negotiations that this model forces on the participants that it can provide improved legislative outcomes as more that one party line is observed.

So to our leaders here's a news flash. This is our democracy not just theirs. If neither party can secure a majority it's not in anyway the fault of the voters; we will NOT have got it wrong. Should such an outcome occur it will solely be down to a lack of vision, along with no policies to support that vision and the lack of any ability to engage a sufficient number of us with those policies.

So what else does this say? That woman is perfectly able to run a country for three years with a minority in the Parliament but these two men are too scared to try? What are they afraid of; that they'll be shown up as less competent than Ms Gillard in the herding of the cats, or are they just lazy?

I get Rudd is trying to differentiate the ALP from the Greens, and there a several schools of thought on whether that's a good idea or not, but what does Abbott's stance say about the Nationals? I know he means not negotiating with Independent MPs, but the Nats must be blushing. Then there's the Senate. Unless one party wins a majority in that place there will have to be some negotiating if a Rudd or Abbott Govt wants to get things through. So, all up, it's a very odd stance.

So, should we end up with no clear winner, what happens next? The caretaker PM (Rudd) will go to the GG and advise that he won't form a minority government. He will then advise either 1) fresh elections or 2) that GG has invited Abbott to form a minority government. The GG could invite Abbott off her own bat but would likely seek Rudd's ok to do so and Rudd could hardly decline to give his ok. Even though Abbott has said he wouldn't form a minority government the GG will want to be formally advised by Abbott that he declines her offer to form Govt.

With that we'd be back off to the polls again with a minimum 33 days campaign. And then politics will look even more like this than it does now. 

What happens if the 2nd poll returns a hung parliament is anyone's guess but whatever happens we won't be laughing.

As I said in the title: Grrrrrr

Editors: This was sent to The Tribune by a concerned citizen and it saved us having to write this rant ourselves. Thanks, CC.

 

Published in The Shout

About 15.8 million people are enrolled to vote in the 2013 election, roughly 91% of eligible voters. How many of them are informed voters. What even is an informed voter?

Among the many debates about the forthcoming election is the idea of the informed voter. Dragonista has argued that most people don’t bother with the minutia of politics and base their vote on gut feel. It’s a popular point of view among political wonks, those of us who obsessively watch parliament in action and squabble endlessly on social media about the decimal points of policy, but is it true? And how do we determine whether or not someone actually is an informed voter?

 

What are we watching on TV?

Despite the ubiquity of the internet, television still dominates (PDF) screen time in Australia, with 98% of households owning a TV and watching them an average of 92 hours per month. Only 80% of households have internet connected computers and they are only used about 51 hours a month. Consuming news is the 5th most popular activity during that time.

TV ratings regularly show that 7 and 9 nightly news are still the most watched shows on TV, garnering around 2 million viewers nationally each, every night. The more detailed political TV shows like Insiders rates around 300,000 and the 7:30 report around 700,000.

 

The election

Perhaps an indicator of political engagement in this election might be the interest shown in the leader’s debate on Sunday night. Of the 15.8 million registered voters in Australia, 2.3 million (14%) watched the debate. While no one could argue that watching it would in any way have assisted someone looking for detailed information on which to base their vote, it does shows some engagement with the process.

However, as Crikey’s Glen Dyer pointed out (PW):

But while the political battle rated well collectively, Seven and Nine with The X Factor and Australia’s Got Talent respectively were watched by more than 3.4 million viewers at the same time, making non-politics the overwhelming winner last night and justifying the decision not to screen the debate on the main channels.

 

How does that compare to online news consumption?

According to mUmBRELLA the news websites have an audience of between 1 and 2.5 million each.

neilson websites

But that still doesn’t describe the consumption of political news. Since the election was announced The Tribune has checked all the mainstream news sites and found that analysis articles were in the top 5 most read articles only 3% of the time. Without having access to the individual page views it’s impossible to tell for sure, but the most popular articles lists seem to indicate that crime, celebrity, and opinion pieces are the most read articles on all the news sites. Articles describing policy details (such as they are) or detailed analysis were almost never in the top 5.

It’s very difficult to get detailed information about the independent news and politics sites, but of all the publishers and bloggers The Tribune spoke to, the most popular sites talked in tens of thousands, the largest independent news sites in the very low hundreds of thousands, but no-one was anywhere close to the millions of reads the mainstream sites get.

 

Do we listen to the radio?

Yes and in large numbers. Every household in Australia has a radio, 75% listen to commercial radio and 30% to non-commercial radio. Millions of people listen to the FM stations like Fox and 2Day, which provide little or nothing in the way of political information or analysis. Neilson ratings for Melbourne in 2013 show that 75% of radio listeners are listening to the music/entertainment stations. This pattern is repeated across most of the major metropolitan areas of Australian.

radio neilson

 

What about print media?

According to Roy Morgan, the most popular magazine in Australia is The Woman’s Weekly, with a readership of about 1.8 million or 12.6% of the population over 14 years of age, followed by Woman’s Day (9.7%), Better Homes & Gardens (9.6%) and New Idea (6.3%). The Monthly, the only politically engaged of the magazines on offer, has a readership of 148,000 or 0.7% of the population over 14.

However, circulation figures are odd. Roy Morgan reports the newspaper circulation in 2013 (including weekend editions) as being quite high:

roy morgan newspapers

These figures seem dubious against the Audit Bureau of Circulations (via Crikey) data showing circulation figures (including weekend editions) at about a third of the Roy Morgan numbers.

ABC newspapers

Possibly they are measuring different data, but without the resources to purchase the reports, The Tribune is unable to investigate further. (If anyone is able to explain it, please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we’ll publish an update.)

However, assuming the Audit Bureau of Circulations is the more reliable data, at most, somewhere around 25-30% of Australia’s population read a mainstream newspaper.

 

What does all this tell us?

So, based on some quite rubbery numbers, around 4 million of the 15.8 million registered voters are watching the news every night, 4 million or so are reading newspapers and it’s almost impossible to know how many are consuming news online. At a straight addition, the Neilson figures above show 19 million, but we would have to assume that there is considerable crossover in that audience and that less than 20% of those are reading detailed information about policy and politics.

Would it be fair to assume that most people interested enough to read a newspaper every day would also watch the nightly news, or would you infer that, having read a daily paper or the online news, that there is no need to watch the TV news? Again, impossible to say. But if we’re trying to determine the number of informed voters, perhaps a better question, is: does reading the papers or watching the news on 7 or 9 make a person an informed voter?

 

What constitutes “informed”?

Most Tribune readers are probably fairly politically aware. We know the names of most of the major political players and many of the minor ones. We watch Insiders and 7:30 and Lateline, we read Crikey and The Guardian, The Australian and most of the political blogs.

But is this enough to constitute an informed voter? Would a truly informed voter understand all the intricacies of Gonski (is it funding for more computers, teachers, schools, text books or wider doorways)? Would they know exactly kind of assistance DisabilityCare will provide (vocational assistance, medical resources, alternative medicine, living assistance, carers’ entitlements?). Would they understand how the carbon price works and the effect the various permutations on offer will have on electricity prices (very little). Do they need to have an in-depth knowledge of macroeconomics and be able to explain the differences between all the various economic policies or their likely effect on economic trends? Would they know the details of the various policies on asylum seekers and the global as well as the domestic forces that dictate policy direction? If all these things are required to call yourself an informed voter, then only a tiny percentage of voters could claim that title. No matter how many blog posts we read.

For most Australians, the mainstream media is only source of information about politics and policies. None of the rest of us have the time, skill, knowledge or opportunity to review the actions of politicians or question them about those actions, so we are dependent on the media to do it for us. Even the so-called new media, with all its access to policy papers, interviews and press conferences televised on 24 hour news channels, must still rely on the media to provide most of their information, even if they then apply more time or even knowledge to its analysis.

In pre-internet days, newspaper circulation and television ratings data used to be the most reliable source of this sort of information, but that is obviously no longer the case. Not only are there many other sources of information now, but the amount and type of information given by the mainstream newspapers has changed. The necessary cost cutting across the Fairfax and News Corp papers means that the resources for genuine political journalism, providing detailed, knowledgeable analysis is much reduced. Opinion pieces are cheaper, require less time and skill and are easier to find when editors are searching for content to fill the demands of constantly updated webpages.

The result of this, as Andrew Leigh has argued, is a polarisation of the information we consume. The speech is well worth reading in full, but some of the most relevant excerpts are:

My central thesis in this speech is that the technological changes in media have led to greater inequality in political information than ever before.

From the perspective of the most engaged citizens, the media is more abundant, diverse and accessible than in the past. Yet that’s not how things look to many Australians. Taken as a whole, the media has become more opinionated, nastier and shallower. The shift has not taken place because individual journalists have grown horns and forked tongues, but because the technological changes have privileged those kinds of voices. Opinion, nastiness and shallowness have always been there – but they have flourished over recent decades.

Most of the new political news websites that have emerged over recent decades are dominated by comment. These include The Drum, The Punch, The Conversation, Crikey, Inside Story, The National Times, Australian Policy Online and Online Opinion. In fact, the only political news website that has not increased the overall opinion/news ratio is The Global Mail (which generally does not print opinion pieces). On television, stations such as Sky and ABC24 thrive on commentary. In some cases, guests on these shows are print journalists, who may sometimes do multiple interviews in a day, as well as writing for the web and print editions of their newspaper.

As former press secretary Lachlan Harris has argued, ‘every year the number of journalists goes down and the number of commentators goes up.’ In 1990, the Parliamentary Press Gallery had 252 journalists working in television, print and radio. In 2010 that had decreased to 179. One factor is simple economics: journalism costs money and comment is often free. And as comment proliferates, there is a temptation to blur the boundaries between news and opinion – to take the small but significant step from arguing that a policy could be implemented to arguing that it should be; to make oneself a ‘player’ not merely an impartial watcher from the sidelines.

A major driver of the shift towards shallowness is the rise of television and the decline of newspapers. Television news bulletins tend to provide less depth than newspaper reports. In 1970, there were more daily newspapers bought each day than there were televisions in the country. Now, there are four televisions for every newspaper purchased. The internet didn’t kill newspapers (their circulation was declining by the 1980s), but the shift of advertising to the web has dealt a brutal blow to the economics of newspapers. For the most engaged, the conversation may have become deeper and richer; but for disengaged citizens, the trend has been in the opposite direction.

To demonstrate his point, remember the famous birthday cake (video) interrogation? Where John Hewson came a cropper trying to explain the way the GST would impact the price of a birthday cake? That happened on A Current Affair. Politicians now rarely, if ever, appear on ACA, and if they did, they certainly would not be questioned by journalists with the knowledge, skill or tenacity of Mike Willesee. The ACA of today is the epitome of the sensationalist, opinionated, shallow and nastiness Leigh described, and yet ACA is the most popular current affairs show in the country.

The concept of the informed voter is somewhat arrogant, but the disengaged voters, the ones watching Australia’s Got Talent, reading Women’s Weekly, listening to 2DayFM, and clicking on linkbait far outnumber the ones reading Greg Jericho and listening to Ratio National.

We may not be getting the politics we deserve, but it seems that we are getting the politics we want.

Published in Weekly Email

For the next four weeks, much as you may want to, you can’t just hide in a cave with a glass of wine and a warm penis. The election is coming and you’re going to have to grit your teeth and get through it. Here are a few survival tips that we hope will keep you away from Assisted Suicide websites.

Unlike Master Chef or the Olympics or dysentery, an Australian election is not something you can avoid unless you're already dead, in which case you'll still be on an email list anyway, or at least listening to 2GB.

True, you could hide under a rock and turn off the internet but obviously that would result in the shrivelling of your soul and your genitals, so here are a few tips on how to, if not thrive, possibly survive the next few weeks.

Graphs have been used as a soothing balm for even longer than ground up tiger foreskins and are far more efficacious. They can be used in a number of ways, in most situations. When confronted by a newspaper/website headline that screams UNEMPLOYMENT PRODUCTIVITY DECREASE CONFIDENCE SHOCKER for instance, head over to Grog's Gamut and ease your palpitating hypothalamus with a selection of graphs that neatly explain, in a range of soothing colours, how much of a shocker the unemployment productivity decrease (or increase) in confidence (whatever that means), actually is (seasonally adjusted).

Of course, if your politics are more of the “MY MOM IS COLD” leaning and the latest IPCC announcement that the North Pole is a lake, the permafrost has turned into perma-mud and wind farms don't actually give you mumps has given you, well, mumps, you can turn to Andrew Bolt, who helpfully cuts out all the bits of graphs that will scare you.

(Bolt is also helpful if you feel that you, as a fair dinkum fifth generation white Aussie Battler, are Doing It Tough. He will explain to you how racism *really* works, and how the (well mostly white aren't they I mean really) Aborigines are actually being racist at *you* when they take offence at your hilarious petrol-sniffing monkey comedy stylings.)

Feeling better yet? No? Don't be concerned, there are many other techniques you can use.

One of the best things about election time is the media's reliance on “power brokers” and “king makers”. They have splendid hair and are available to prognosticate on Sky News at, seemingly, a moment's notice. Sometimes known as “Kroger” or “Richardson”, their ability to predict the exact opposite of what is about to happen will keep you warm on these cold election campaign nights.

Your jitters will simply melt away as Kroges and Richo fight out the seven thousandth round of “I hate the ALP more than you”, but if you find yourself strapped to an upside-down crucifix in a dungeon with a rubber ball in your mouth and your captor gives you a choice, trust me: go for the plaster-Virgin-Mary-in-the-anus option rather than the re-runs of the Richo and Alan Jones show.

You will need to take special care whenever the word “Latham” appears on a screen or, worse, is intoned from your radio. It's as if there are at least two, possibly fourteen, different Lathams. One is the gifted writer and policy expert, whose columns in the AFR have been known to make sense even to those of us who don't have a Kevin Rudd voodoo doll in the attic.

Any Latham you encounter not in print is that guy you move away from on public transport.

One of the most important things you can do to survive this election cycle is accept that none of it, absolutely none of it, makes any sense. Policy announcements are more than just a press conference and a collection of sound bites: they are pages and pages of carefully-focus-grouped and lobbyist-approved predictions and guesses, tied up in a branch of mathematics known as Utter Bullshit.

None of us has the time to properly digest any of these policies, even if we were allowed to get our hands on them which we're not because we're not journalismists. But the mainstream media are here to help and the most helpful of all is the ABC.

Rest assured that whenever a policy is announced, our terrified friends at Southbank and Ultimo will go straight to the other side for comment. You don't want to hear the government's PNG “solution” for asylum seekers explained by the government or even dissected just a little bit by a “journalist” now do you? No, let's go straight to Scott Morrison for his take on it.

Likewise, when the Opposition announces a plan to cut company tax by 1.5% you wouldn't be interested in anything like what the opposition has to say about it would you? Or, you know, a journalist with a bit of economicism experience? No, far better to have it explained by Penny Wong.

If you don't know how to find the ABC on your radio or you live in a part of Australia where www.abc.net.au has heavily-armed men in black overalls kicking in your door within minutes, you can try a commercial outlet - News Ltd will help you out with a pie chart proving that Kevin Rudd invented cancer, Fairfax will tell you what's wrong with Generation Y, and the Nein, Seven and Ten TV networks will keep you warm at night with dodgy weight-loss builder welfare cheats.

I hope some of these tips will help you get through the next few weeks, but if not, perhaps you'd like to send in your application to be a contestant on my new reality TV show: Let's Hunt Down And Kill Kyle Sandilands.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Uninformed, or just Uninterested?

Like Dr Worm, many of us are Interested In Things and it frustrates us that most of the media appears to have dumbed down its coverage of these Things. But they’re just doing their job and servicing their customers; customers who, it seems, know little and care less.

We all have pre-conceptions about people.

I don't mean pre-conceptions about homosexuals, or boat-people, or Collingwood fans. I mean about people generally - a world view that informs how we see mankind as a whole.

The best example is whether you think people are basically good, or basically evil. Do you see the Good Samaritan as proof of humanity's inherent goodness, or a pleasantly surprising departure from the norm?

The good/evil dichotomy raises all sorts of deep philosophical questions. But there is a question that tells us far more about politics today than good v evil and it is this:

Do you think that the public are generally astute, tuned in, and keen to be educated? Or do you think that voters are generally dumb, bored and just waiting for Big Brother to start?

The good/evil question helps us to work out whether a policy is better presented through the prism of “one day it might be you” or alternatively “look at these people who need help”. And I'm not saying that it's not an important consideration.

But it is the Australian people's fundamental inability to or lack of interest in actually understanding policy that tells us more about the state of politics today.

Think for a moment about the big policy achievements of the Gillard government. For a start, there is the Gonski plan to better fund school education in Australia. How many voters really understand that package?

I don't mean that friend of yours who works as a teacher in a public school, or that Labor member who has spent the last 6 months talking about the plan at branch meetings. I mean the average Telegraph reading, Channel 9 watching, talk-back radio appreciating punter. Do they understand anything about Gonski?

I fancy your truthful answer is “No.”

But, in fairness, the Gonski package is very complicated. How about the Carbon tax?

You know the one. $24.15 per tonne of Carbon, charged on facilities that produce more than 25 000 tonnes per year, transport and agriculture excluded.

If you think the majority of Australians understand even those details, then I'm afraid you're kidding yourself. Why else would those headlines telling us “Carbon Price Axed” have played so well? Of course, most of the people reading this piece understand that what actually happened was that Kevin Rudd announced that the country would move to an emissions trading scheme one year earlier than originally planned.

Technically, the tax was being done away with - but only to be replaced with a floating price on Carbon a little earlier than was originally planned. But it was clear that that distinction was flying well over the head of most ordinary Australians.

It's easy to blame the media for this. “Oh, if only the media informed people about policy rather than politics!” Well, maybe.

It's true that the mainstream media has done a poor job of informing the public of the details of government policy, and an even poorer job of holding our politicians to account. But the problem isn't really the media. They're just giving the public what they want.

The problem is the public doesn't really want to know the details of policy. Most people have no interest in the minutiae of the shift to the Emissions Trading Scheme. They could not care less about precisely how the Emissions Trading Scheme will reduce Australia's output of Carbon Dioxide.

And don't even start me on whether they want to know why Carbon Dioxide is a bad thing.

It's not so much that people are incapable of understanding these things - it's that they just don't care.

This is why our major media outlets have lurched towards the banal, favouring celebrity gossip and trivia over the policy. They have astutely (for once) realised what it is that the average media consumer cares about.

If you think this is an overly cynical view, consider this

It is a survey conducted earlier this year that asked Australians a number of fairly basic questions about science.

One of the question asked the respondents how long it takes the earth to travel around the sun. What percentage of people do you think got that one right?

59%.

Let that number roll around in your mind of a little while. Three out of five people, when given the choice between “one day”, “one week”, “one month”, “one year” or “not sure”, were able to dredge up the right answer. Not one demographic was able to manage 75%. Not the 18-24 age-group (68%), or 65+ (48%) or even “university educated” (71%).

Now this is just one survey of one science-based question. It doesn't in and of itself prove anything. What it does do is give us a small insight into the base-level of understanding most people have. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many people don't understand the science of global warming or the economics of a price on Carbon Dioxide when 40% do not know that the Earth takes a year to orbit the Sun.

In truth, most Australians are far more scientifically and economically illiterate than we are willing to admit. Not only do they not understand the intricacies of government policies, they don't want to. This means our politicians HAVE TO adjust their message so that it is comprehensible to the lowest common denominator.

In part, this is what Labor has failed to do over the last 6 years. It is easy to pour scorn on Abbott and the Liberals for “three word slogans” - but it may be that he has a far better understanding of the best way to communicate with Joe Average - not through high minded, multi-syllable exposition, but through simple, straightforward messages that you can absorb and comprehend whilst you keep one eye on Facebook

You can prattle on about policy and procedure all you like - but if you can't explain it in 20 words or less, it will fly right over the heads of most listeners. That is, if it doesn't exceed their attention spans first.

Kevin Rudd was always famous for “programmatic specificities” - wordy, complex, bureaucratic explanations that bore all but the most enthusiastic policy wonks. Somehow though, his folksy every-man charm seemed to win through and bring the Australian people on-side.

This time round, he is facing an opposition leader who has for years now been expertly refining simplistic, easy to understand arguments that he thinks will get him across the line with the Australian people.

Labor can pour scorn on that all they want - but they may just be digging their own grave if they do.

Published in Weekly Email