Things to Keep in Mind When Destabilising Your Party Leader

Labour leader Ed Miliband (Wikipedia Commons)

It has been an eventful few weeks in British Labour Party politics, with the leader Ed Miliband being subjected to considerable pressure from rebellious elements within his party. The sense of dissatisfaction within Labour over Miliband’s leadership reached a crescendo in last week’s British Sunday papers, with headlines such as The Sun’s “Labour Push to Axe Miliband” typifying the sort of stories that have surrounded the leader for days.

This dissatisfaction has been expressed constantly and solely through off-the-record briefings and leaked statements. A prominent shadow minister, for example, “revealed his doubts [about Miliband] in private conversations with senior Labour colleagues”. Backbenchers contacted The Guardian’s political correspondent following a televised rebuke of the off-the-record briefings from a Miliband supporter, to give the following assessment “Even if Ed survives this he will not recover and the party has to come to terms with this. Two thirds of the party would be happy for him to go.” And so on.

The context of this challenge to Miliband’s authority is his poor performance at the recent party conference and poor personal polling relative to Prime Minister David Cameron, despite Labour leading the Conservatives on the primary vote. The gradual slide in Labour’s vote leading up to the 2015 general election has many MPs worried that they face another five years in opposition with Miliband at the helm.

Yet, while the context is different, the tactics used by Labour party members to attack the leader bear a strong resemblance to the tactics used by ALP members of the “Rudd camp” during the Gillard Prime Ministership. As with the current political environment in Britain, dissatisfaction with the leader was expressed via anonymous briefings to journalists, by the constant publication of opinion polls comparing the leader directly to their colleagues, by the constant implication that a huge and ever increasing number of party members have lost confidence in the leader and by the constant inference that they are on the verge of losing power.

The former aide to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Damian Mcbride, succinctly summarises the rationale behind this strategy; “Momentum is everything to succeed. The plotters must keep pushing the leader to the edge of the cliff. And the crucial determinants of that momentum are the media – if they say it is fizzling out, then that becomes self-fulfilling. If they say one more bad day will make the leader’s position untenable, then it usually will.”

The biggest difference between the Australian and British examples is that Kevin Rudd was widely regarded as being the ultimate source of the destabilisation, while in Britain the rebel MPs lack an actual candidate (Alan Johnson, the most popular Labour MP, has consistently denied opportunities to lead the party). Yet the nature of the tactics means that one can’t help but imagine that some Labour MPs have observed the success of the strategy in Australia and are utilising it against Miliband.

On a basic level, leaking against a party leader is not necessarily always a bad thing. If the leader is clinging on through a factional power arrangement that subverts the general will of party supporters and prevents them from having a reasonable prospect of doing well at the next election, then off-the-record briefings could a useful mechanism for subverting those power structures so a more viable candidate has a chance.

Yet this strategy is highly susceptible to being used as a vehicle for ambition for its own sake. The media’s inherent interest in leaked information means that a leader can be constantly destabilised, steadily eroding their authority and reducing their capacity to control the political agenda. Furthermore, leaked stories necessarily obfuscate relevant facts from public view. The public is only being invited to make an assessment of the subject of a leak – the politician who leaked the story and their motivations for doing so, are kept out of the public eye.

Michael Gawenda, the former editor of The Age offers an illuminating example of how this can distort public debate by recalling the actions of one particular leaker to the paper;

“Here’s the thing: not only did he leak only when guaranteed anonymity, but he would then insist that the reporter quote him on the record saying he knew nothing, about any of this leaked information and at times, for instance, he would go as far as saying the rumours – his anonymous rumours – were ridiculous and untrue.”

There can be little doubt, based on recent events in the British and Australian Labour parties, that the strategy of constant and destabilising leaks is a highly effective method of bringing about leadership change. Yet the question of whether the leadership change can bring around a strong electoral boost for the party itself – which is surely the ultimate aim of a leadership change – is an open question. Gillard’s strong personal approval figures dropped in the months after she replaced Rudd, and Rudd’s personal lead over Tony Abbott dropped dramatically when he regained the leadership from Gillard. Yet, in contrast, both Rudd and Labor improved strongly following Rudd’s undermining and overthrow of Kim Beazley in 2006.

Why are some leadership changes more popular than others? The difference in the public reaction could come down to whether it is perceived as a change for the sake of personal ambition, or a change brought about by a challenger’s desire to deliver a new set of policies and ideas.

For example, In 2006, Rudd did not simply take the leadership from Beazley, he also introduced popular new policies such as the ‘Education Revolution’ and the National Broadband Network. Regardless of one’s opinion of the merit of these policies, they were widely regarded as giving Labor a stronger and more modern image.

In contrast, Gillard did not have any comparably major policies to announce in 2010, and Rudd’s 2013 announcements of the re-opening of Manus Island and a 33 percent cut in the Northern Territory company tax rate, were not seen as particularly visionary. In the context of this policy vacuum, it was easier for the public to ascertain that personal ambition was the primary motivation for leadership change and punish accordingly.

The British Labour MPs currently leaking against Miliband should take note of this, and if one of them feels they could challenge Miliband based on his poor personal approval ratings, then they should make sure they have some exciting and innovative policies prepared in their top drawer that can re-define the political debate and allow Labour to set the agenda.

If the argument for leadership change continues to be expressed solely in the language of opinion polls and political messaging, however, the British public will likely see the change as representing nothing more than the irrelevant and self interested actions of an out-of-touch elite.

Happy Hottest 100 day

At your Hottest 100 party today, you may feel like bringing up what has become the quintessential music debate in Australia – is Triple J homogenising Australian music or is this suspicion a function of the listeners’ subjective bias?

This argument, while always bubbling under the surface, has been particularly prevalent in the lead up to this year’s hottest 100.

This is largely due to a recent article in The Age which interviewed a number of Australian artists who were frustrated at the feeling that there is a specific style or sound that an artist must adhere to in order to get national airplay. This article was followed up by a series of searing op-eds at prominent Australian music blogs, found here and here.

In response, Helen Razer has come to Triple J’s defence, critiquing the “institutional bias” argument by pointing out that the perceived inadequacies of the Triple J playlist – which have been argued about repetitively for decades – are largely a function of the listener’s subjective bias. When Triple J was playing Soundgarden, Silverchair and Rage Against the Machine, Razer points out, the editorials were criticising Triple J for not being “indie” enough (ie. not playing more Pavement and REM) – fast forward to 2014, the names change but the general theme remains the same.

I’ve also written an anti-‘Triple J sound’ article, in the lead up to last year’s count, but with a caveat that I think pre-empts Razer’s main argument. I agree with Razer that the ‘Triple J sound’ isn’t a function of institutional bias or due to the dictatorial hand of Richard Kingsmill, but I disagree with her belief that means that there is no bias whatsoever.

Triple J’s bias is not culture-driven but it is a consequence of the fundamental fact that, as I argue, “a single radio station can’t possibly cater for Australia’s highly fragmented and diverse music scene and that attempting to do so simply leads to an unfair system”.

My hottest 100 article, first published for Lip Magazine, is pasted below:

I used to think that the Triple J Hottest 100, like Western liberal democracy, was the true embodiment of pure democratic will. The best band had won, the people had spoken. Over time, however, as I began to see how in a Western democracy, a candidate’s chance in an election was contingent on a myriad of factors other than their meritocratic ability ­– such as whether they had an endorsement from a major political party or whether they were able to gain electoral funding – I also began to see how the Hottest 100, and the Triple J playlist in general, is contingent on factors beyond that go beyond an Australian artist’s meritocratic ability, and instead rest in the institutional nature of Triple J.

The fundamental truth that slowly extinguished my belief in the Hottest 100 was the realisation that a song is only going to do well if it has been heavily promoted and played on Triple J. This puts a significant amount of decision-making power in the hands of Triple J’s playlist producers who have the power to make or break an artist. This is a problem, because Triple J is increasingly projecting an impression of the Australian music scene which is falsely homogenous and based principally around three-minute pop single variations of folk, Aussie hip hop and indie rock, with other genres consigned to midnight airplay.

Triple J has a lot of influence in the Australian music scene and the promotion and support they can give bands can be crucial in determining whether a band “makes it” or not. The problem is that for every Australian band they promote that does make it, there are others with large underground followings, critical acclaim, and breakout potential that lack the same level of support. One gets the impression that, despite Triple J’s claims to be reflecting meritocracy and potential popular appeal, their producers cannot help but subjectively favor certain tastes over others.

Triple J producers usually raise two main counter-arguments to these sorts of critiques; one, that the concept of a “Triple J sound” is anillusion formed due to the subjective bias of critics who interpret every Triple J song they dislike as validation of their belief that Triple J is getting objectively worse; and two, that Triple J simply reflects the popular will of their broader listener base which is greater in numbers than the critics. It is hard to deny that a subjective bias exists among many critics of Triple J, and that for some, music is always getting perpetually worse, but the idea of there being a “Triple J sound” has been validated by industry figures.

The publicist Stephen Green, for example, has lamented to Rolling Stone that ‘the problem of Triple J being so dominant is that it skews what bands are coming out with’, and, in the same feature, the drummer from the Unearthed Brisbane band Millions described how his band got together to specifically ‘[go] towards that Triple J sort of sound’, which quite evidently resulted in Triple J success. The second counter-argument, that popular will dictates Triple J’s playlists, ignores Triple J’s public ownership and responsibility as a promoter of all Australian music, as opposed to a chaser of commercial ratings. It also ignores the increasingly growing success of independent radio stations such as FBi in Sydney, and RRR in Melbourne, which give greater prominence to a wider range of Australian music, providing an alternative to listeners who don’t feel catered for by Triple J.

The solution to this problem is not to fire “the King” Richard Kingsmill and hire someone with “better” tastes, as some critics seem to imply, because Triple J are justified in pointing out that there will always be critics regardless of what musical direction they take. But they should also recognise the fundamental fact that a single radio station can’t possibly cater for Australia’s highly fragmented and diverse music scene and that attempting to do so simply leads to an unfair system were some artists receive recognition and exposure while other artists miss out.

The solution is to restructure Triple J so that it reflects the diversity of the music scene. This means breaking Triple J up into several channels that specifically cater to the genres that are currently left to languish on weekly midnight airplay. If Triple J also restructured the Hottest 100 so that it combined the listener base and votes of all the different Triple J stations, then it would surely be a huge improvement on the current measure of determining the country’s favourite alternative song, and it would give artists from non-folk or indie rock backgrounds a better chance of having their true popularity reflected in the national exposure that comes with Hottest 100 success.

Until we see a change in the structure of Triple J, the Hottest 100 will remain on par with shammed democracies, where only a select number of candidates even have the opportunity to win.

On a slightly different subject, here are my:


1. Lorde – Royals (not only is she a worldwide star who released her album at the strategically advantageous (for Hottest 100) of the Sep/Oct period, but her Oceanic origins bequeath her a massive fan base among likely Hot 100 voters)

2. Daft Punk – Get Lucky (Get Lucky is a massive pop/alternative crossover hit in the vein of Outkast’s Hey Ya, although it’s undoubtedly huge, it’s doubtful as to whether it’s sufficiently huge among likely hottest 100 voters)

3. Vance Joy – Riptide (This song will be carrying the banner for the folk scene and as there haven’t been too many big folk songs this year, this song’s pop-crossover status should see it cultivate a large voter base.)

4. Lorde – Tennis Courts (Lorde’s had one of those years where you expect two entries in the top 10. Tennis Courts is a strong candidate because it received heavy airplay for months during the period (June-October) when she was transitioning to full-flung stardom)

5. Disclosure – White Noise (feat AlunaGeorge) (the UK garage revival has had mainstream success via the output of Disclosure and Alunageorge in recent times, so a collab between the two will be doubly popular, one would imagine)

6. Haim – Falling (Haim are the big-time heavyweight newcomer of the year, and while they haven’t had any particular single that would force its way to no.1 in of itself, their brand and musical consistency should see at least one of their songs creep into the top 10)

Between 7 – 10 – London Grammar/Rudimentals//Illy track (this year’s ‘unpredictable’ track is either going to be out of that rnb pop London scene eg. London Grammar/Rudimentals, or it will be the Aussie Hip Hop star of the moment which currently appears to be Illy (or Seth Sentry).

8. Flume – umm (I don’t know much Flume but his ARIA success indicates that he has hardcore momentum behind him and that one of the album tracks from his Holdin On album, or a more recent collar, should make it into the top 10.)

9. Arctic Monkeys – Do I wanna know (this’ll be their biggest Hottest 100 year yet I think – they’ve reached the perfect balance between popular new album and established heavyweights to produce a high hottest 100 ranking)

10. Duke Dumont – Need you 100% (Although Duke Dumont is a relative unknown, the huge mainstream interest in UK Garage and the relative success of this single means it should poll strongly)

Is the ABC biased or persecuted?

finalblogpicABC Chairman James Spigelman’s announcement of an audit of “impartiality” will not protect the public broadcaster from its opponents in the right wing press nor from the likelihood of budget cuts in 2014. This is partly a result of the fact that impartiality cannot be objectively proven or conveyed to the public via a single report, but it is mainly due to fact that the Right’s hatred of the ABC stems from an ideological conviction that public broadcasters unfairly impact commercial media entities, in particular, the News Ltd press.

On November 18 2013, the ABC, in collaboration with The Guardian, published documents leaked by Edward Snowden relating to the Australian intelligence service spying on Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. This caused a major diplomatic falling out and resulted in an embarrassing few weeks for the Abbott Government as Indonesia withdrew all intelligence sharing support and snubbed Australian attempts at reconciliation.

Anger towards the ABC

The Murdoch press, furious that the Abbott Government’s opportunity for a post-election honeymoon period had been dashed, turned their anger on the ABC. Notorious culture warrior, Daily Telegraph journalist, Miranda Devine remarked that “the timing of [The Guardian’s] joint story with the ABC on Monday could not be more damaging. It came at a crucial point in Australian-Indonesian relations,” and went on to accuse the ABC and The Guardian of timing the leak specifically to damage the Abbott Government. The message she was promoting – that the ABC should not publish things that are contrary to the national interest – was also shared by Liberal politicians such as Malcolm Turnbull, who publicly criticised ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, and Tony Abbott himself, who said that the ABC was “guilty of poor judgment in broadcasting that material which was obviously difficult for Australia’s national security and long-term best interests”.

The outrage about the ABC publishing information damaging to Australian interests seems a bit odd, however, when one considers how different it is to News Ltd’s previous positions on whether the government has a right to dictate to the press what is deemed to be publishable in the national interest and what is not. It was only in 2009 that Cameron Stewart, a journalist for The Australian, received a tip of an impending police raid on suspected terrorists and, despite the pleas of then Victorian Police Commisioner Simon Overland to hold off on the reporting, The Australian published the story anyway so that they would not lose the exclusive scoop to rivals.

And it was only last year that the News Ltd journalists were thundering against the Finkelstein inquiry’s recommendation that an independent regulator investigate press standards. News Ltd CEO Kim Williams thundered “this [Gillard] government will go down in history as the first Australian government outside of wartime to attack freedom of speech by seeking to introduce a regime which effectively institutes government sanctioned journalism,” and, for typically subtle emphasis, The Daily Telegraph stuck a picture of former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s head on Joseph Stalin’s body.

ImageOne can only conclude that by expressing outrage about the “damaging timing” of ABC’s leaks, Miranda Devine is falling for the brand of “government sanctioned journalism” that her boss has railed so scornfully against. Yet I suppose we won’t see Miranda Devine’s head super-imposed on Stalin anytime soon.

The ABC’s response

Despite the hypocrisy, and predictability, of the Right’s outrage towards the ABC, its chairman James Spigelman nevertheless felt obliged to respond to the accusations of bias. A few weeks after the spying story, Spigelman gave a speech that, on the whole, defended the ABC. He argued that he did not believe there was “systemic” bias at the ABC, and that its reporting of the spying scandal was “within the reasonable grounds of professional journalism”. However, crucially, he also said that he believed that bias “sometimes” occurs, and that, to assuage public concern, he would announce a series of editorial audits assessing the impartiality of reporting.

Spigelman is trying to achieve two things with his audit announcement; he is trying to give objective credibility to his assertion that the ABC really isn’t systemically biased, and he is seeking to establish a political buffer so that if the Abbott Government tries to cut ABC funding in 2014, they cannot do so on the pretext that it is biased and not serving all Australians.

I think the impartiality audit will fail to deliver on both counts; the audit will not sway minds one way or another due to the essentially unprovable nature of impartiality, and it will not deter the Abbott Government from cutting the ABC’s funding on the pretext of budget saving measures, because their antipathy towards the ABC is based in ideology.

Impartiality is unproveable

Sometimes it can be easy for people to point out and collectively agree on what constitutes bias. The Daily Telegraph’s “Finally You Have A Chance To Throw This Mob Out” headline the day after the announcement of the 2013 election, for example, gave a clear indication of which party the newspaper preferred.

When the suspected bias is more subtle and encompassing than the above example, however, it can be much harder to agree on how to prove that bias, and what methods might be used.

A precedent for this audit is the last audit into the ABC’s impartiality that occurred following the 2003 Iraq War when the Howard-era Communications Minister Richard Alston strongly suspected the ABC of biased reporting on the issue. The method the 2003 audit decided on was a content analysis approach based on counting, for example, the number of times that a particular viewpoint or aspect of the conflict was reported. This can be useful in terms of comparing how often, for example, the ABC referred to the threat of terrorism relative to the threat of a high civilian death toll, but it does not give an indication of the quality of the airtime. As media and linguistic academic Annabelle Lukin points out: “What is the relative value of, say, appearing once for a lengthy interview, versus appearing briefly but frequently… over what span of news item is it reasonable to expect balance? Do all views deserve equal time?” (Emphasis mine).

Lukin’s last point is particularly important because the ABC’s attempts to give equal, or at least similar, amounts of time to differing views under the mantra of ‘journalistic balance’ often end up giving a skewed perception of the legitimacy of the different ‘sides’ of a debate. A notable example of this was the ABC’s tendency – right up until the end of the 2000s  –  to pit a climate ‘skeptic’ against a climate scientist to debate the veracity of climate change on Lateline or 7.30 Report. The flaw in this approach is that it conveyed the impression that skepticism and acceptance of climate change were split roughly 50/50 in the scientific community, when consensus about the veracity of human-induced climate change was well over 90%.

Ultimately, this shows that there is no obvious method for the ABC to prove impartiality and that when trying to adopt measures aimed at increasing objectivity, such as the doctrine of journalistic balance, it can often end up distorting, rather than illuminating, an issue.

Miranda Devine, was unsurprisingly dismissive of Spigelman’s audit announcement, calling it a “sop” on the basis that it was run by an ex-BBC staffer. The real reason the Right establishment hate the ABC runs deeper than misgivings about the objectivity of the audit.

Why the Right hate the ABC

Part of the reason is commercial self interest; Rupert Murdoch has long resented what he believes to be the encroachment of public broadcasters on his commercial turf. The fact that the ABC offers free content – especially with new innovations such as iView – hinders his capacity to sign up people on subscription services to News Ltd content (although this is disputed). A similar argument was recently used in Britain against the BBC and the subsequent tendency positions of journalists at Murdoch papers  – both in UK and Australia – to share Murdoch’s antipathy towards public broadcasters is probably not a coincidence, but part of a strategy to increase Murdoch’s commercial dominance.

Beneath this commercial self interest however, is a broader ideological conviction that a free market necessarily results in a freer press. This assumption clearly underpins Devine’s argument that the best way to make the ABC impartial would be to “split it into competing state organisations”. As I have argued in a previous post, free markets don’t necessarily lead to freer reporting, but in fact may actually encourage media companies to abuse the privileges of the fourth estate and distort reporting in order to maximise commercial gain.

The audit as a political tool

Spigelman is likely to be well aware that the ABC’s opponents will not be placated by an editorial audit, and is instead using the audit as a means of gaining public trust and support, and also to indicate to the Abbott Government that, through admitting “some” bias and announcing an audit, he doesn’t want to engage in an open conflict with the government and risk major funding cuts.

It’s not at all clear that the ABC needs to be out regaining the trust of the public though. Essential Polling have consistently found that the ABC is the most trusted media institution in the country  with bipartisan 75% public support. And considering the huge groundswell of public support simply on the basis of rumours of cuts at the ABC, Spigelman might find he has more public support and therefore political capital than he currently imagines.

In any event, there’s little reason to think Spigelman’s audit will have any tangible effect on the potential decision by the Abbott government to cut funding to the ABC, when one considers the ideological and highly aggressive manner in which the Abbott government has promoted and sacked old friends and enemies. Whether or not Spigelman wants open conflict with the government seems increasingly irrelevant, as it is being thrust on him by a Liberal government intent on aggressively pursuing its ideological interests.

Ultimately, the impartiality audit is just a proxy for a broader battle between those who believe the public broadcaster is a fundamental cornerstone of our media landscape, and those who see it as an unjustifiable government imposition on a commercial environment.

3 Reasons why Tony Abbott is an opportunity, not a tragedy, for the Left



There can be little doubt that Tony Abbott’s victory in last week’s Federal Election has sparked a wave of consternation and depression among Australia’s Left. By the middle of the following day, my Facebook news feed was filled with messages of regret, or of intentions to escape. Indeed, one of the stories on Triple J’s Hack program on the Monday afternoon was about people who were leaving the country as a result of the Abbott government.

It’s perfectly normal for progressives to go into mourning when a conservative government is elected. However, what makes Abbott’s election victory so jarring is the combination of his pugnacious political persona and his notoriously strong socially conservative views on subjects such as abortion and gay rights. Despite his recent attempts to appear more woman-friendly, his period as Opposition Leader has only served to heighten the view that he is, at best, a bully, and, at worst, a misogynist, among significant parts of the Left. A third layer of outrage about Abbott stems from the incredibly favourable coverage he received from the Murdoch press throughout his period in Opposition, and the sense that this allowed him to avoid having to properly articulate how he would solve many of the public policy challenges he berated Labor for failing to solve.

These are all perfectly good reasons to take Abbott’s victory particularly personally. However, I think it is  for these very same reasons that the Left should not treat Abbott’s accession as a tragedy, but rather, as an opportunity.

There are three reasons why:

Reason 1Abbott cannot deliver on his promise  of a stable “no surprises” government

The political narrative that Abbott constructed so successfully during Opposition was that the minority government was “chaotic”, that parliament was “unworkable” and that he, by contrast, could deliver “strong, stable government”. It was a cunning pitch, which played on the sense of voters that the government was scandal-prone and unstable, and that this was impacting on the quality of governance they were receiving. Regardless of the fact that, as many on the Left are quick to point out, government actually ran quite smoothly and a record amount of legislation was passed, Abbott was able to create the impression, simply by rejecting every initiative put forward by the government, that they were unable to function properly.

Now that he has won, however, every piece of economic data that used to be a political opportunity for him, will now become a fact of reality that Abbott himself will be held accountable for. He will have to develop policies to deal with the after effects of the mining boom, the deteriorating infrastructure in major cities, and the heavily campaigned on “cost of living pressures”.

Making things even more difficult for Abbott is the fact that he will not have control of both houses of parliament. Until the middle of next year, Abbott will have to negotiate with a Greens-Labor held senate, and, after July 1 2014, will have negotiate with, arguably, an even harder diversity of minor party senators to pass legislation. Considering the fact that these new senators have not professed any interest in political issues outside of the advocacy of more sport, more cars and a relaxation of gun laws, and, indeed, and are regarded as being somewhat illegitimate by the Australian public due to the few votes and advantageous preference deals that elevated them, the mere act of Abbott having to negotiate and rely on their votes will harm his claim to be delivering a strong majority government.

As well as contending with the priorities of the likes of the Sports Party, Abbott will likely be forced to clash against the priorities of his own party room. Many within the Liberal Party will be keen to exploit the period in government to push a right wing agenda, including ideas such as privatising the ABC, a new workplace relations system and a reduction in welfare spending. This clashes directly with Abbott’s desire to come across as a “no surprises” government, and his fear that such a move will add weight to Labor’s campaign that he is actually a radical right winger in sheeps clothing.

Indeed, it is hard to see how Abbott can sufficiently placate the new minor party senators, and the ideological desires of his own party room in a way that does not seriously hamper his own personal ratings, especially if Labor decide to be just as intransigent and pugnacious in opposition as Abbott was to them.

Reason 2The Left has a change to re-organise itself, in order to dominate the late 2010s and 2020s.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, a return to opposition might be just what the Left needs in order to re-organise and re-develop a sense of mission and resolve.

The election of Kevin Rudd in 2007 had appeared to herald a new era of left wing dominance. However, the dropping of the CPRS and the introduction of punitive asylum seeker policies during Labor’s first and second terms bitterly divided Greens and Labor supporters and highlighted concerns about the divide between the “inner city” and “working class” aspects of the Left. A period in opposition gives the Left establishment the space needed to undertake structural party reform, the opportunity to establish a new coalition between the Labor and Greens voter base, and also the ability to direct anger and focus on a common enemy – a right wing government.

Ultimately, it is perhaps better for the Left to be in opposition now while global politics are still dominated by an obsession with economic austerity measures and a lack of concern about climate change. As the global economy improves towards the end of the decade and attention towards global issues such as climate change inevitably returns, it would be better for the Left to return to government in 2016 or 2019, when they can take advantage of the improving global conditions, and be part of a new climate treaty, rather than have won in 2013 and reach the latter half of the decade an utterly spent force, leaving the conservatives the opportunity to define Australia’s commitment to any future climate talks.

Reason 3The Left hate Abbott, but the Right don’t love Abbott

By far the biggest advantage of having Abbott in power, however, is that he is hated by progressives, but he is not loved by conservatives. The problem that the Left usually faces with right wing leaders is that their own personal popularity often sits independent of their party’s popularity. This effect was particularly strong with John Howard, who was able to resuscitate the fortunes of his party multiple times just through his ability to connect with the average voter and to mobilise his support base. Abbott lacks this personal appeal. He has been able to mobilise his party’s base but one does not get the sense that they were campaigning *for* Abbott as much as campaigning *against* Labor. Indeed, many of the Liberal party are suspicious of Abbott’s true Liberal credentials, with his Paid Parental Leave scheme taken as evidence that Abbott is not *really* free-market but rather a big-spending social conservative.

Despite not being embraced by the Right, Abbott manages to unite all of the Left in mutual hate. His mere presence as Prime Minister will maintain in progressives a strong sense of visceral outrage that will nourish a strong grassroots campaign against him almost regardless of whoever Labor nominate as an alternative Prime Minister.

In a sense, Abbott might be the best possible person to be in the Prime Ministership from the point of view of the Left. It would be much harder to unite progressives in collective outrage against a Malcolm Turnbull-led Coalition government due to his personal charisma and reputation for integrity, or against Joe Hockey because he does not carry the same political baggage as Abbott, especially among women. A Coalition Government, therefore, is perhaps most easily swept out of power under the reign of the relatively unpopular Tony Abbott.

It is important, however, that the pointing out of Abbott’s weaknesses is not misconstrued as an under-estimation of his talents. Abbott has been able to prosper, to a large extent, because of the constant assumption that one of his “sexist gaffes” will trip him up, or that he would let his guard down and let the public see the “true” Abbott. Abbott is ultimately far more likely to be pragmatic and populist rather than ideological and divisive, during his Prime Ministership. It is not the gaffes that will trip Abbott up, but rather the ultimate impossibility of the task he has set before him – that he can deliver stability, just by being a Liberal.

Successfully challenging Abbott on this will do more for progressives than an election victory by Kevin Rudd ever could have.

‘War on People Smugglers’ is the new War on Drugs

It is becoming uncanny how the way we talk about how to deter asylum seekers from Australia is becoming increasingly similar to the manner in which we talk about how to deter people from taking drugs.

In both the “War on People Smugglers” – expressed through the ‘PNG’ and ‘Nauru’ solutions – and the “War on Drugs” – expressed through punitive laws for illicit possession and dealing – we make certain assumptions about the mentality and psychology of the groups we are trying to ‘help’ and, as a result, fail to understand that the choices we present to these people are not as rational as we think they are.

A common factor in both wars, is a reliance on the legal concept of deterrence. Policies based on the concept of deterrence make two assumptions; first, that certain punishments can be used to deter people from continuing to commit specific crimes; and second, that the risk of punishment will deter others from committing the same crimes. The other key tenet of these respective policies is a reliance on the Rational Choice model of decision making, whereby the individual is assumed to rationally weigh up information about the costs and benefits of any particular decision, and then make the decision that most benefits their self interest.

These ideas are heavily utilised in anti-drug advertising. The majority of the advertisements linger on the risks to one’s health – in particular, the risk of suddenly dying at a nightclub, or losing one’s unblemished reputation by being busted outside a festival – and also on the possibility of being caught and being sent to jail.


Surely any rational individual would weigh up the relatively obscure potential benefits of taking drugs against the many negatives (death, imprisonment..) and conclude that the best policy is to ‘just say no’?

Likewise, with the PNG and Nauru solutions, Kevin Rudd announced a significant change in policy and spent $30 million propagating this advert:


The expectation is that any rational thinking asylum seeker will weigh up the marginal benefits of ending up in a country other than Australia, against the other very significant negative factors of being imprisoned in Indonesia, or drowning at sea, and decide that it’s just not worth it.

The problem however, is that since these policies were introduced and advertising campaigns were launched, asylum seekers still try to reach Australia by boat. And huge numbers of people still consume illicit drugs.

The reason why deterrence policies don’t seem to ‘cut through’ to all of the target audience is because of the limitations of the Rational Choice model for predicting behaviour. Put simply, not all people think the same. Not all people weigh, or assign value, to information the same way. Nor would everyone respect the authority disseminating it to the same extent and, indeed, even if everyone did respect the same authority, not all people could be expected to react rationally to it.

In the contemporary debate on drug laws, most commentators are slowly coming to agreement that punitive jail sentences for drug possession and dealing do not deter many people from partaking in the trade. This is particularly true in communities with greater levels of socio-economic disadvantage and where other, more legal, means of economic activity are either not available or not utilised. The imperative to get rich quickly through crime outweighs the ostensibly more rational policy of avoiding getting a criminal record and staying in school. It is an imperative that is instantly recognisable in the West and has been immortalised in pop culture.

It’s not a long stretch to apply this critique to asylum seekers. If one is legitimately fleeing one’s homeland out of fear of persecution (and over 90% of asylum seekers by boat to Australia turn out to be genuine) then is the threat of being put in a processing centre in PNG or Nauru really *that* much of a deterrence? What if they think that the Australian Government is bluffing by saying that they won’t be settled in Australia? What if they think that ending up in a PNG processing centre would still be preferable to living on the run in Malaysia or Indonesia? Or that *anything* is preferable to returning to increasingly war-torn homelands such as Syria and Afghanistan? The temptation for an asylum seeker to respond irrationally to the policy can be understood by referring to the famous Dylan lyric, “when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing left to lose”.

Ultimately, we can see that in both examples, there are plenty of reasons why the target audience would respond emotionally, rather than rationally, and this is why the “war on people smugglers” and the “war on drugs” can never be won. The policies idealise a possible world where if the punishments were tweaked high enough, and every drug dealer and people smuggler was arrested, people would just give up wanting.

Sunday Fever

On Sundays I post links to some of the best things I’ve read in the past week.

If there’s any blog I’d recommend for political junkees seeking quality daily content during election time, it would be Grogs Gamut. The writer, Greg Jericho, is a former public servant who became internet famous after his roasting of the Press Gallery’s coverage of the 2010 election coverage. Three years later, he’s a respected media commentator on economics, and manages to write a post daily during the campaign. He has perfected the art of witheringly-ridiculing-politicians-just-by-quoting-their-own-statements.

This is a great background piece on the inner workings of News Ltd over the past few weeks. It explains a great deal about why Daily Telegraph and co. have gone (even more) ferociously anti-Labor in the past several weeks. Written by James Chessell and Anne Hyland in the Australian Financial Review.

It’s a point of contention as to whether the shift in News Ltd’s coverage even has an effect on voters. Jeff Sparrow at Overland Journal, argues that the growth of internet media has rendered the opinions of old white men and their newspapers irrelevant.

But are the opinions of Daily Telegraph irrelevant to the swing voters who decide elections?

My favourite article of the bunch. Suketu Mehta is taken to a baile funk street party in one of the poorest favellas in Rio, with whole blocks cordoned off and turned into an open-air nightclub, with dozens of loudspeakers and teenagers walking around carrying AK-47s. Fascinating account of the changes taking place in Rio in the lead up to the World Cup and Olympics.

Michael Mazengarb writes about the shockingly low rate of electoral enrolment among young people. If you’ve been frustrated by all the recent advertising about checking that you’re enrolled to vote, you should keep in mind that if all the young people who were eligible to vote were enrolled, the Coalition would almost certainly remain in opposition.

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland writes a perfectly relevant call-to-arms for men to take greater initiative in identifying with feminism. Ultimately, issues such as the low rate of conviction for rape and the gender pay gap, can only be tackled when it stops being seen as a womens problem.

Incidentally, not to blow my own trumpet, I was Feminist of the Week for Lip Magazine the other week.

The ‘Secret Footballer’ is a current English Premier League player whose name you would recognise. He gained notoriety writing insider accounts for The Guardian (which would likely indicate he isn’t a hoax) about the inner culture of the English Premier League. Now he maintains a blog that is great to read if you want to know the behind-the-scenes meaning of the public display of media theatre regarding potential transfers etc. This article is about “the list” – the top five transfer targets of any major club – and the way they pursue them.

Press Freedom versus the Daily Telegraph


The News Ltd papers – The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, Courier Mail, and The Australian – have caused quite a stir in the opening week of the election campaign due to their rabidly partisan coverage. This has included photoshopping Kevin Rudd and Anthony Albanese’s heads onto Nazi characters from Hogans Heroes on Thursday, and delivering the now infamous headline “Finally you have a chance to kick this mob out” on the Monday after the election date was announced. News Ltd papers have been incredibly hostile to Labor for many years now, but the shift in tone in the past week has been very noticeable, and there has been some interesting commentary on why this has been the case.

Paul Sheehan, from the Sydney Morning Herald, revealed that a new senior executive from News Corp HQ in New York, Col Allan, had recently flown to Australia to coordinate News Ltd’s coverage of the election. The motivation for his appointment by Rupert Murdoch was apparently to ensure that the Coalition would win the election. Not only was this in Murdoch’s interests because of his right wing views, but it was also because the Coalition’s media and technology policies are far more accommodating to News Corp’s business interests. Jonathon Holmes, writing in The Age, articulates the frustration of many on the Left, to Murdoch’s self interest, with Holmes lamenting the fact that “this particular American billionaire has the wherewithal to influence the outcome of an Australian election – and a legion of eager minions willing to help him do it.”

Writers and advocates from News Ltd. have replied that it is not Murdoch who is trying to influence their editorial coverage, but rather it is the government and writers like Holmes who are seeking to influence the public by invoking the spectre of Rupert Murdoch. Papers such as the Daily Telegraph have the right to editorialise as they wish, and, if their readers are generally right leaning, then why can’t they reflect the views of that readership? The true test of their editorial integrity is not the opinion of a government regulator, but rather that of the public. And considering the fact that News Ltd enjoys 70% of the newspaper circulation in Australia, that surely shows that the public do not agree that the News Ltd coverage is insincere. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t buy it.

Within this defence, there is an underlying philosophical disagreement about what constitutes press freedom. From News Ltd’s point of view, ‘press freedom’ is the right to maximise profit for the media company that employs them. The marketplace is considered the true arbiter of truth and fairness and if News Ltd is providing its readership with content that they want, and making them want to keep buying News Ltd papers, then that is a greater validation of what Australian people want than what the government, or a regulator, might think.

This is a troubling view of freedom, because it conflates the concept of democracy with the notion of free market capitalism. We have seen in other areas of the economy  (eg. the banking sector, the mining sector and the big retail supermarkets) that what shareholders want is not the same as what customers want, and that the profit motive can often lead to less choice, rather than more. This is especially true in the media industry where the profit making ability of many media organisation depends on their ability to crush competitors. This shows, as former journalist Nick Denmore succinctly observes, that “the real issue is not freedom of the press, but the ability of profit-making enterprises to use the privileges of the Fourth Estate to continue to dominate markets (and dictate public policy).”

Indeed, the ability of News Ltd. to achieve 70% circulation in Australia owes more to the corporation’s ability to dominate markets, rather than their capacity to achieve 70% public approval. If the Australian public liked what the News Ltd papers were reporting, and consequently gave those papers enough money to sustain their business model, then News Ltd’s defence would carry more weight. However, what keeps these papers running is not their own newspaper sales, but rather the money they are allocated from other, more profitable, parts of Murdoch’s business empire. These include his Foxtel channel and exclusive sports rights (such as being the only telecaster of the English Premier League in Australia). Therefore, the wages of the right wing columnists who maintain the heavily partisan coverage are not being covered by people who purchase their articles, but rather by people who purchase PayTV footy, and have little interest in the editorial opinions of The Australian.

This is why News Ltd’s defence falls flat.

If we were to raise a hypothetical ‘left-wing’ counter-example, such as if Crikey had posted a headline on the eve of the 2007 election saying “FINALLY, YOU HAVE A CHANCE TO KICK HOWARD OUT”, we can raise the question as to whether its left-leaning readership would have cared as much as they do in the case of the Daily Telegraph in 2013. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that if the Crikey readership had responded negatively, it would have real financial consequences for the company. What we know with the Daily Telegraph, however, is that they are not as vulnerable to the reception of their readers because paper’s parent company would ultimately guarantee that its reporters are paid if their coverage has served the broader interest of the corporation.

Ultimately, Murdoch likes to maintain his Australian newspapers because, even though they are unprofitable, they lend crucial political capital and public policy influence to elements of his business empire that are profitable. What this ultimately shows is that News Ltd are just as unaccountable to their readership as they are to any notion of impartiality or objective reporting.