Monthly Archives: January 2013

Expert political judgement

Yesterday the Prime Minister decided to release the date of the election in order to provide certainty to the Australian community.

Whether this is a wise decision or not will be the topic of hot debate over the coming fortnight or so. I happen to think it wasn’t a wise political decision for many reasons which I have gone over at length in previous posts. That however is my opinion based upon what I intuitively know and we shall see how it plays out over the coming months.

What we will see a lot of this year are political predictions from the “experts.” The problem is most of them will simply be opinions. There will be no understanding of the nuance or what’s really happening. It will all be “She said, He said” or merely coverage of the surface fanfare and silliness that consumes a lot of political campaigning and reporting.

Philip Tetlock in his brilliant book “Expert Political Judgement” did a 20 year study of 284 experts such as journalists, government officials and university professors in the USA who made over 28,000 predictions and found that most were only slightly better than chance. Most basic computer algorithms by contrast managed to make far more accurate predictions than the so called experts.

Tetlock’s 20 year study also split the experts into two personality types which were based on an essay by Isaiah Berlin. The first type were labelled hedgehogs who jump to a one conclusion and stick to it regardless of the evidence. The second type were labelled foxes who tend to keep an open mind and have multiple methods that are incorporated into how they make predictions. The study showed the foxes made far more accurate predictions than the hedgehogs and it’s understandable when you watch recycled media coverage of various so called expert columnists who make their living structuring their opinions to suit a particular audience who craves psychological validation.

Reading the book makes one question the ability of the media to influence political events because most of it is simply talk which is ignored by those who count who have far better and more important things to do with their lives.

It’s worth keeping this in mind when you hear much of the loud noise that will crowd out what’s really going on in the national debate. If someone is using a computer algorithm to back up their opinion, they are far more likely to predict accurately into the future than someone who has a partisan opinion and sticks to it regardless of the data. Nate Silver and others like him proved this fact during the US election.

Judging by the reaction yesterday, I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and drink a glass of milk. Events will play out the way they’re meant to play out. All we can do is go on about our lives and watch what happens.

Real Solutions, subtle provocations

Fox Symes and Associates … I beg your pardon, the Liberal Party of Australia held a mini campaign launch yesterday to kick off the election year. Their theme is based around the slogan “Real Solutions.”

It seems pretty boring and harmless at first. That is until you realise that “Real Solutions” has absolutely nothing to do with policy and what’s worse is the Liberal Party knows it. Reading the document makes that point very clear.

What this is all about is their new vector which is designed to distribute the message “Labor is damaged!” at every possible opportunity.

The difference now is they are no longer saying “Labor is damaged!” directly which is the way they’ve said it for the last two years. It’s now done in the guise of “constructive policy”, big smiles, peace, love and happiness. It’s quite “left wing” when you really think about it.

In effect, they’re trying to frame Labor as negative. They have little care about how they’re seen because they’re the opposition. Their goal is to make everything about Labor.

Yesterday was about being as provocative as possible to the ALP. They want to be attacked because it’s their way of controlling the frame of the national conversation. Make comments, announce policy with zero detail that has tiny emotional trigger points, get attacked by the ALP and other progressives, then exploit the vulnerabilities their attacks expose.

Consider the video below:

From what I’ve seen, there are two elements contained within this clip that have triggered an emotional response from people on one level or another, be it engaged or disengaged. The first is Abbott holding up his book of motherhood statements to the camera while speaking on the telephone. The second is Joe Hockey’s demeanor and body language.

Contrary to what appears to be the popular opinion, it seems to me that these two elements contained within the clip have been deliberately planned.

Holding up the book communicates on an auditory, visual and kinesthetic level. You can hear what he’s saying and see what he’s holding. This subtlety works on people at an unconscious level whether they’re aware of it or not.

Many seem to think Joe Hockey looks bored by what Abbott is saying. I’d be very cautious of jumping to that conclusion because this kind of video is usually done by professional people. My guess is that the reason he looks bored is because it gets talked about and the more it gets talked about, the more coverage it will get. The political relationship between Abbott and Hockey is irrelevant to the content contained in this clip. This all about winning 50% +1 of the votes in every piece of communication they produce, getting their message to people by any means necessary and making it very clear that they’re in control of the frame of the national debate.

If they wanted Hockey to look mesmerised by Abbott’s words and they thought he looked bored and disinterested, they would have simply reshot the video until they got that kind of reaction. If he was uncooperative or simply too stupid to follow their instructions, they’d have left him out of the clip and got someone more sycophantic like Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton or Julie Bishop.

The two things the ALP seem to misunderstand in relation to responding to this kind of communication is how they’re viewed by the community and the subtle emotional components the Liberal Party use which are designed to trigger them.

It baffles me how often I’ve seen the ALP respond to this type of communication, thinking they’re making Abbott the issue when in reality what they’re doing says more about them as a government than what it says about the Liberal Party or their leader.

Whenever you see phrasing like “once again, Abbott rewrites history” something doesn’t feel right. It’s the ALP who should be rewriting history. They’re the government. The Liberal Party are merely the opposition.

On top of all this is the fact most of the response is all based around the content of what they say. Facts are important but what’s missing are the emotions and the context! The idea that Abbott might be breaking the social contract with the Australian people and that they feel a lot of contempt towards him tends to get missed in the detail. Worse, if there is an understanding, the response is all guns blazing which goes back to the previous point of how the community views the ALP.

I expect yesterday will only be the beginning of this type of shallow, immature, university style politics to be played throughout the year. It’s yet another part of what has disengaged the public from their politics which has allowed the Liberal Party to gain control of how policy issues are framed and defined in Australia.

Your opponents aren’t stupid

If there’s one thing that I see often that frustrates me beyond belief, its supporters of the progressive side of politics believing the conservatives are, for lack of a better word, stupid. The reason is because it’s one of the ways conservatives in Australia have gone about exploiting progressives vulnerabilities since 1995.

One of the reasons John Howard was able to beat the ALP at four federal elections was because the ALP considered him beneath them. In 1996, he simply played the small target, photocopied, hedgehog game against a government that had been in office for 13 years.

The public were ready to boot him out of office in 1998, 2001 and 2004 but every time the ALP thought he was stupid and had him beaten, he managed to paint the ALP as erratic and not reassuring to the public and he did it by any means necessary. In other words, he used his perceived stupidity as his biggest asset to put the focus back on the ALP … and it worked for 11 years!

Tony Abbott right now is adopting the exact same tactics in opposition as John Howard did in government. The ALP think he’s the stupidest politician who’s ever lead a political party in Australian history, yet he’s been leader of the Liberal Party since the end of 2009. It’s been three years and he’s still in the job! Sure, people have very entrenched negative views about him that aren’t going to change without the entire country being exposed to some sort of nuclear fallout, but he’s still there!

I’m not sure about you, but I think he might have figured out something that might be a little subtle and counter intuitive.

What I think the Liberal Party understand is how to provoke, keep things simple and deliberately play dumb. They know that politics is about people and whenever the ALP attack them for what they consider to be stupidity or their provocative political behaviour which goes oh so near crossing the line, they open up opportunities for painting them as out of touch with middle Australia and begin to frame everything around their beliefs and values systems.

I also think the Liberal Party understand that Tony Abbott is a polarising figure and the more the ALP get into the mode of thinking that goes along the lines of “he’s not clever enough to do that” they know they’re in control of what’s happening in the national debate.

The point is that you always have to assume your political opponents are smart and they have some sort of strategy even when you’re grinding their noses into the dirt. Believing your political opponents are and will always be stupid leaves you wide open to your message, your platform and your policies being undermined and defeated.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the government or the opposition, this applies!

Does this mean the Liberal Party are complete political geniuses and one of the smartest oppositions of all time? Of course not. In my view they’ve left himself wide open to a nuanced and sophisticated policy attack based around real ideas and what people value. The ALP however are so focused on destroying Abbott at a personal level, partly because they think it will work, partly to compensate for their own self inflicted identity crisis, that they’ve missed the incredible vulnerability he has with the middle ground in regards to actual policy and real issues.

Of course, if you say something like this, you’ll predictably get the response from ALP supporters that the ALP are focusing on policy and real issues and Abbott’s the one who is being superficial. If that’s true then why am I constantly seeing repeated attacks on Abbott’s chief of staff for pretty much no other reason than the fact that she’s Abbott’s chief of staff and social media gimmicks like #AshbyInquiryNow which are more to do with attempting to damage Abbott politically than anything to do with the actual issue?

This is before we get to the constant aggressiveness towards journalists for not mentioning specific issues and events in interviews with shadow ministers where they think they’re vulnerable which have absolutely nothing to do with their portfolio, contradicting the view that they want a real policy debate.

“If we don’t attack, we’re giving him a free pass” is often the cry. This sort of black/white, good/bad thinking is precisely what allows someone like Abbott to be in control of the terms of the national debate.

The idea that sometimes what he does speaks for himself never occurs to anyone. As someone with a marketing background, I can tell you that there’s such a thing as negative marketing. In other words, the intent of your communication can and often does backfire and end up achieving the exact opposite of your intended outcome.

Abbott frequently puts himself in a straight jacket and the ALP seem intent on getting him out of it at pretty much every opportunity because they don’t see the nuance or the intelligence in anything that he or the Liberal Party do politically. It’s all “Evil Tony” washed, rinsed and repeated! It’s extremely one dimensional and the Liberal Party know exactly how to counter it.

Many progressives watch someone like Paul Keating and think the reason for his political success in 1993 was entirely due to his flicking the switch to vaudeville and aggression and they attempt to imitate it because he seems to have a strong sense of self and know what he’s talking about. They never pay any attention to the way he uses language, the nuance, the guile, the underlying narrative of what his government was about that provided the base for his attacks on the Coalition, his big picture, his systemic view of how things tied together in terms of politics and policy, how that way of thinking beat the Liberal Party, let alone his intuitive sensitivity which people often confused for cold-hearted arrogance. They try to imitate what he does and to use one of his classic lines, it ends up being “all tip and no iceberg.”

By thinking Abbott and the Liberal Party are stupid, many progressives and ALP supporters have blinded themselves to the reality that he’s taking advantage of their thinking. John Howard did it for 11 years in government! If there’s one thing you can rely on it’s that Abbott who is Howard’s number one fan, and the professional people advising him know this type of game from top to bottom. They know from first hand experience that you can ride stupidity all the way into office!

If you ask me, underestimating it and not learning the lessons of history is real stupidity!

Who cares?

For those familiar Mad Men: in this clip Don Draper represents the media, Pete Campbell represents a political tragic on either side of the partisan divide complaining about how the media is biased, unfair and criminal and Bert Cooper represents a disengaged, normal person going about their life.

The entire dynamic in this clip (watch it closely to the end) happens frequently.

What is it to value?

“We’re not commenting on sports here, we’re commenting on people’s lives, so therefore we don’t go clapping for the highest paid person at Goldman Sachs, we don’t go clapping for the highest paid person at UBS or someone else … there’s got to be, I think, a cultural change … years ago, when people talked about society they talked about people who had moment and gravity and who added to society. Now, any sort of pumped up rock star, model, journo, high earning person is a celebrity and in the financial business this has been a big problem and I think we have to do something to shred this sort of celebrity thing … we’ve got to be looking for value from these people and not commenting on them because they’re at the top of the bonus pool this year and they’ve made so much money, I mean it’s obscene and squalid” – Paul Keating, Sydney Writers Festival, 2009

The passage above has a lot of points that speak to what value is to people.

Given this is an election year, you’re going to hear a lot of values talk from both “sides” of politics.

What will get lost in the noise is the larger context of why values are important and the deeper question that no one asks which is “what is it to value anyway?”

You’ll often hear the ALP talk about “Labor values” in order to reaffirm some sort of identity they think they’ve lost and you’ll often hear the conservatives talk about “family values” and “Australian values” which generally goes along the lines of God, country, apple pie, respecting the flag and all of that other stuff which ties into their belief systems around reciprocity and social license.

The question “what is it to value?” leads in to what both parties are really meant to be all about. For example, would a family value an industrial relations policy that took away things like holidays, sick leave, workers compensation and paid overtime?

What would a disabled person or a carer of a disabled person value in the National Disability Insurance Scheme?

What would parents of a child about to start primary school value in an education policy?

What is the value of the superannuation system to average working people?

Would someone who subscribes to a “socially progressive” worldview value opposing a large real estate development even if it meant that such a development would supply jobs and living accommodations while lifting people on low incomes out of their situations?

Would a “conservative” who subscribes to the idea of society evolving through organic change value the role of unions and the union movement?

Would someone who subscribes to the ideology of “neoliberalism” value a policy towards asylum seekers that was aimed at keeping them out of the country?

Of course these questions are based on textbook definitions of different political philosophies which don’t really exist when you deal with policy challenges in the real world and most people have no idea what these kinds of philosophies are, let alone have any knowledge that they exist, but in terms of the values debate underlying the contest of ideas which is meant to be our national conversation, these kind of questions are pretty important.

Instead of a real values debate based on what’s valuable to someone in society, what you’ll probably get is simplistic slogans from both parties such as “fairness” and “freedom” when both parties (and minor parties for that matter) violate these values systems frequently and without a second thought.

I think one of the problems with the national conversation is that many politicians and insiders understand values only as a one dimensional marketing tool rather than speaking to and implementing policies based on what people in the community really value and it’s part of what’s disconnected the public from our national debate.

The key point is that value isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. You value. You don’t subscribe to a “value.” If you understand this, you’re ahead of the game.

In over our heads – complex demands and another angle to the unhinging

Around the middle of last year, Possum Comitatus aka Scott Steel in The Kings Tribune revisited his post on “The Great Unhinging” by going into some of the things he’d picked up in qualitative and quantitative research and economic statistics which allowed him to predict how politics would be played during the current term of parliament.

The three threads underlying the unhinging which have been present in the Australian electorate since 2006 are:

1. A significant expectations gap between standards of living and consumption patterns a household expected to purchase and what their income actually provided for them to purchase in practice leading to feelings of resentment and entitlement in the community

2. A growing aversion to complexity

3. A sharp rise in perceived uncertainty

It’s a superb piece of writing. It’s one of three on Australian politics I recommend reading in order to get a bit of a grip on where things are at currently in the national conversation. The shoutiness might have died down a lot in relation to issues such as the carbon tax and the mining tax, but the actual dynamic is still firmly in place regardless of who’s in government, who’s in opposition, what’s in the media and so on.

What I want to do with this post is attempt to explain why that might be the case and make the unhinging a little more three-dimensional.

In previous posts, I’ve gone over a couple of models that show how moral worldviews develop, how they relate to values systems and how they’re communicated in the national conversation. In this post, I’m going to go a step or two deeper and focus on cognitive development at mostly a personal level and how it relates to the unhinging dynamic and Australian politics.

The most profound book I’ve ever read is “In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life” by Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan which shows how the cognitive requirements and developmental stages/levels/orders of mind required for someone to function as a mature adult in the current age often exceed where most people are at developmentally. He shows how this occurs at and in adolescence, work, family, relationships, the education system, psychotherapy and many more areas of everyday life.

It’s an extremely dry book that uses a level of complex language and contextual framing that would leave most people scratching their head in a state of extreme confusion, but it’s extremely rewarding when you begin to understand what his ideas mean and how they relate to the world in which we live.

Before I go any further, I’ll show a summary of Robert Kegan’s model of adult development which he outlined in his first book “The Evolving Self” as it provides context for the rest of the post. At each order of mind there is both a subjective structure and an objective structure. The subjective structure is what you as an individual concretely identify with and the objective structure is what you see as something that is not you or is third person or is simply outside of your subjective identity/experience. In short: we are subject, we have object.


What I love about the picture above is how it gives a visual representation that shows the complexity of the meaning structure and the apertures/windows/filters these orders of mind use in order to function. In other words, it shows the complexity of the order of mind and how it subjectively sees the world.

Einstein’s famous quote “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” takes on an entirely new meaning when you’re able to comprehend a developmental model such as the one above.

When you’re at the third order of mind, you don’t just see the world through your relationships, you subjectively “are” your relationships. Your whole way of operating in the world is based on what you identify with. You can’t see beyond it. If you’re at the third order and I show you the model above, you’ll use third order language and the way you subjectively interpret it will be through the cognitive apparatus and mental hardware of the third order of mind.

To get to the fourth order of mind requires a developmental process that takes a whole range of components such as experience, education, contemplation, reflexive reflection and a mode of thinking that simply can’t be achieved overnight or over a week long seminar. This process of adult development occurs over a lifetime.

On top of all of that, when an order of mind becomes an object to you, you don’t lose it, it’s merely incorporated into the next order of mind. In other words, the more cognitively developed you become, the more complex the apparatus your using to subjectively interpret the world around you. The bad news is the more you develop, the more things can go wrong because you’re incorporating the previous orders of mind into the order of mind you’re currently at and all the pathologies that come with it.

You don’t solve the problems you’re currently experiencing, you simply develop new and more complex problems to solve which develops your order of mind.

I could go on for a very long time on this topic, but I’ll land the plane and attempt to tie it back to the unhinging dynamic.

As the complexity in society increases, the cognitive demands and extrinsic intrusion on people’s everyday lives also increases. In other words, the job you used to do is getting more complicated and demanding every day. In order to maintain a decent standard of living, you have to be constantly increasing and upgrading your level of ability, professionalism as well as your network and sources of information. The relationships you’re in, be they family, romantic or friendship, have more demands placed on them than ever before. What you’re required to know in order to remain current is increasing at an exponential rate.

What I think is happening is the cognitive demands and extrinsic intrusions on the public to operate in a society like Australia have risen, yet the most of the public’s cognitive apparatus and mental hardware remain at an order of mind that is insufficient to deal with the demands of modern life.

This has major implications for politics.

For a start a big issue like dangerous climate change only becomes an issue when you become more aware of the complexity of what is happening in the world. For example, if you’re at the second order of mind, the issue simply doesn’t appear on your radar because you’re subjectively identifying with your needs, impulses and desires. Another big issue that Kegan covers extensively is education. The demands of the workforce on a student coming out of high school often exceed the mental apparatus they’ve developed through the process, content and context of what they’ve been taught. This is a major problem and one the current government is attempting to solve.

If you’re at the third order of consciousness (most of society is at this stage), there is so much demand on your time that it’s pretty much impossible to understand major issues in depth.

Most of the demands society places on people in this day and age are at the fourth order of mind. In other words society demands self authorship and autonomy. So if you’re at the third order, there’s a tendency to feel like things are going too fast, the level of demand is too great and if pathology occurs, you might simply shut down and regress.

A classic example of the demanded level complexity exceeding the capacity of a structure on a larger scale is in Europe right now. Europe has a very sophisticated democratic and political structure in the form of the European Union but the demands it has placed on their economic and sociocultural structures have simply been too great and it’s turned into a major mess. A lot of this is simply an attempt to solve world centric problems at an ethnocentric level of development. It’s very easy to understand why that doesn’t work when you understand that these problems are on different levels and scales of complexity let alone the order of thinking of the leaders who are attempting to solve these kinds of issues.

In Australia, when you hear political leaders on all sides try to empathise with people by showing that they understand how normal people live and the pressures placed on them everyday, all it does is to make people feel like objects. A subjective, interpersonal relationship is one where you actually live in someone’s order of mind and relate to them. For example, when you see The Greens involving themselves in stunts to show they could live on the unemployment benefit for a week, all it does is to make people at that order of mind feel as if there’s no way out.

The demands on political leadership have increased as the order of complexity in society has increased as well. For example, a political leader these days pretty much has to be all things to all people because the level of expectations have increased so dramatically. People at the third order of mind want to feel protected and comforted by their political leaders. Whenever something goes wrong, the judgement is immediate because the level of uncertainty surrounding one’s identity and psychological insecurity is so ridiculously high due to this dynamic.

Going back to the three main points that exemplify the unhinging dynamic: the high expectations gap in relation to our standard of living and what we can afford, our aversion to complexity and the rise in our perceived uncertainty in my view seem to be coming from the complex demands and extrinsic intrusions of society on people to become adaptive and interdependent authors of their own lives (Order 4) rather than getting subjectively absorbed in interpersonal relationships (Order 3) and their needs, wants and desires (Order 2). On top of that, the order of world problems in this day and age far exceeds our mental capacity to comprehend them which leads to people shutting down from what’s happening and refocusing on what they can control in order to maintain some sort of stable structure.

The reason Paul Keating wanted Australia to become a republic was because he understood what an order of mind and an individuals psychological makeup meant to people on an emotional level. The Republic was not simply proposed in order to culturally and economically integrate Australia into the Asian Pacific region by itself. It was to get the country to psychologically grow up and deal with the complex challenges of this age. It’s a great shame that political leaders on both sides have walked away from it. My view is the maturity of public debate will only return when important, big picture, national issues like this are put back on the table.

We live in a complex world. It might be comforting to imagine that everything could be returned to a time when things were simpler and easier but that tends to be a nostalgic perception of the past rather than the way things really were.

It’s not easy to deal with complexity, but in the end, it’s necessary in order to operate as a mature person in this society. Politicians who understand how to make that clear in a way that inspires people, slows down the time dynamic and make sure no one is left behind as well as getting the country to qualitatively transform psychologically and emotionally will be the politician’s who succeed in the future.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Pogo

Complex and intelligent people who are controlled by simple concepts

“There’s a difference between simple and deceptively simple” – Frasier Crane describing a painting of a big red dot

Here’s Tony Abbott’s entire game plan for how he’ll deal with the challenges of government and failing to deliver on all of the ridiculous and unrealistic promises he’s made if he wins the next federal election summed up in six simple words: “If I win, it’s Labor’s fault!”

That’s all.

No complex models. No sophisticated policy proposals. No thought about dealing with the big issues and problems of everyday Australians and their families. No concern for how he’ll deal with the bureaucracy in Canberra. Just six simple words: “If I win, it’s Labor’s fault!”

He’s like the kid who takes the test, avoids the questions he doesn’t know how to answer, gets full marks and beats all of the smart kids because he defined the rules. That’s sort of how life is in a way. If you stick to your circle of competence and let the chips fall where they may, all the intelligent people who are caught in the anxiety and complexity of issues get confused by the simplicity of what you’re doing and you’re able to beat them.

Here’s his plan for dealing with not being able to repeal the carbon tax: Devious and undemocratic Labor who were controlled by the Greens. MANDATE, MANDATE, MANDATE!

Here’s his plan for dealing with not being able to repeal the mining tax: Australian’s support it, Labor messed it up! (this type of communication resonates with something extremely irrational).

Here’s his plan for dealing with not being able to stop the boats: Who cares, we’re in government now. It’s no longer an issue.

Here’s his plan for dealing with failing to deliver a budget surplus: Labor broke their promise to get the budget back to surplus. Labor deceptively hid the true extent of how bad things were.

Here’s his plan for dealing with the moment when he’ll inevitably cave in to pressure from within the Liberal Party to reintroduce WorkChoices: Look how Labor treats unions and their own constituents who do the right thing.

And on and on and on. I could probably predict their entire manifesto but this type of stuff gets very tiring and tedious. In short, it’s all about Labor in the past tense.

There’s nothing ingenious about any of the above. The concept is that complex and seemingly intelligent people trip over themselves when they encounter something that ignores them and is simple. If all of this fails for some reason, he’ll simply fall back to two simple words painted in a negative hue: “Labor” and “Tax” (he’ll never say ALP).

This sort of one dimensional tactical game playing is entirely dependent on the ALP falling for it, getting drawn in by it and emotionally abandoning people in order to fight it. If the ALP attempt to use these tactics back at Abbott, they lose because he’s controlling the frame of the communication.

It’s so ridiculously simple that ALP supporters who are dealing with what’s happening in the real world react to it with extreme anger which gives him more and more openings to exploit. In his world, it’s all about stockpiling ammunition in order to return fire at his opponents.

If you’re someone who supports the ALP or progressive politics, this can seem very disheartening but it’s not really. When you objectify what he’s doing it loses most of its power and becomes irrelevant.

What people want besides competent government with sensible policies is an interpersonal relationship, peace of mind and emotional reassurance. These are also very simple concepts and they’re far more consistent with the views and values of the ALP than they are of the Liberal Party.

The electorate has bought the ALP’s social inclusion agenda since Mark Latham became leader of the party in 2004. On the balance, people agree with things like building social capital, improving the health and education systems, making sure people on lower incomes are included and aren’t left behind, the democratic right to collectively bargain at a workplace and investing in the greater good of humanity. The problems have always revolved around Labor scaring people away from what Australians desire which usually revolves around the values underneath economic prosperity, personal achievement and the various benefits that come with those things.

In the end “Tony Abbott” is a simple idea that emotionally triggers Labor who right now are so absorbed in the complexity, detail and process of issues that they can’t see the forest from the trees. When you realise this simple point, the idea the conservatives have put all of their faith in loses all of its power.

Polling – choose your own adventure or look at the aggregates and the detailed information

Yesterday, there was an opinion poll released by Essential Media Communications that showed the federal two party preferred vote at ALP 46 and the Coalition 54. The voting intentions were ALP 36, Coalition 48, The Greens 8 and the Others/Independents 8.

This morning, The Australian newspaper published the latest Newspoll which showed the federal two party preferred vote at ALP 49 and the Coalition 51. The voting intentions were ALP 38, Coalition 44, The Greens 9 and Others 9. This is a similar position to where things were at the last federal election albeit with The Greens slightly down and the Others slightly up.

This afternoon, a Roy Morgan face to face poll will probably be released that will probably show another result entirely, although their face to face polling isn’t considered as reliable for various reasons.

All of these polls show different results and in the end they’re only as good as their methodologies allow them to be.

Ronald Reagan’s pollster Dick Wirthlin in his book “The Greatest Communicator” wrote that one of the reasons Reagan was able to succeed in politics was because he understood that each number on every piece of polling information he viewed represented the face of a person who had their own unique personality and opinions as to what was happening in their national conversation. This allowed him as a leader to focus on what he thought was important: protecting and comforting the people who put him in the job in order to build a secure base for America’s future. Technology may have changed things, but I think this is more true now than it was back then.

You’ll often hear people on both sides of politics talk about “the trend being their friend” in relation to polling. I think that applies more to the horse race and the media cycle rather than what’s really happening in the electorate. This view treats people like numbers rather than people which is part of the reason why the public disengage from the national conversation. What’s in it for them? They’ve got their lives to live. They want to know how things are relevant for them. Not who’s trending a particular way in certain opinion polls!

One of the things I don’t like about the political class is how you’ll often see people choose their own adventure based upon individual polls that reflect their partisan agenda. At the present moment, you’ll probably see this in the form of the ALP trying to talk about the Newspoll as much as possible and the Coalition countering by trying to talk about the Essential Media poll.

In a couple of weeks there will be new numbers that will probably show slightly different results. The results won’t change because the public have changed their opinion due to what’s happened in the national conversation over that period. They’ll most likely be small movements within the margin of error. In other words, not much will have changed in the next fortnight.

On many of these individual polls (I’m using the term “individual polls” to describe polls conducted over a period of time by one organisation rather than polls that merely reflect a particular data point at a single period in time), you’ll more likely than not see the movement from poll to poll go towards where the aggregate trend lines are. If they don’t and there’s a large difference between the individual poll and the trend line, it’s usually an outlier and the individual poll will tend to compensate back towards the trend line over a period of time. The media will often attribute these movements, up or down, to events in the national conversation without evidence or appreciating the fact that the polls are simply correcting themselves by organically going back towards, above or below the boring overall average. That they have to make things seem entertaining is an unfortunate reality of their business model and it leads to a lot of stupid things. This has happened a lot over the last year.

When I thought the media controlled public opinion, I thought these individual polls by themselves were everything. Now I understand that in order to see things clearly, you need to look at the aggregate polling because they tend to be using more information, bigger samples, multiple methodologies and better tools.

There are a number of very reliable sources online who go into far more detail on polling such as Possum Comitatus, Poliquant, Kevin Bonham, Mark the Ballot and William Bowe to name a few. They also tend to show a lot of the smaller things that affect public opinion in relation to information on demographics, the economy and so on which usually gets left out of the mainstream coverage of politics.

Due to the Nate Silver phenomenon in the United States and because this is an election year, there’s a very high likelihood that more of these types of sources will show up in Australia as the year progresses which will show a more complete picture based on a larger amount of relevant information rather than individual poll results by themselves which are often used to promote the horse race in order to sell newspapers.

The purpose for writing this post was mainly to suggest there’s a better way than getting caught up in the “choose your own adventure” thought process and paying constant attention to the horse race and the 24 hour news cycle which ultimately leads to partisan stupidity and light entertainment rather than being reasonably well informed.

Rationally justifying irrational decisions and post purchase behaviour

At the 2007 federal election, before I knew anything or took politics seriously, I put a (1) in the box for Nick Xenophon on the senate ballot paper.

Since paying more attention to politics, I deeply regret that decision.

Recently, I reflected on why I voted for him.

It wasn’t because I was passionate about getting rid of pokies. I might have thought they’re evil and destroy lives, but I was aware that it’s impractical to get rid of them in their entirety and there’s more than one way to address the issue of problem gambling.

In fact, that was the only policy issue I associated with him. I had no idea where he stood on issues such as the economy, climate change, education policy, health policy, industrial relations, national security or anything else.

It had nothing to do with what was written or said in the media about him because, at the time, I didn’t pay any attention to any of it whatsoever.

What pushed me over the edge to vote for him was very simple: two days before the election, I overheard a conversation between two people I didn’t like. They were talking about how he was a menace to South Australia, how he was only running for the senate in order to get both a state and federal superannuation package and how he wouldn’t win a quota.

My view at the time was, if people I didn’t like were talking negatively about him, then I guess he must be there for the right reasons and if they’re saying he’s not going to win, they must know more about politics than I do. I’ll show them!

I didn’t even know who Penny Wong was at the time which says a lot about how little I paid attention to politics and how important name recognition is for a politician on a community level let alone a state or national level.

There are two reasons I’m bringing this up. Firstly because I think it’s important to understand the process of how people who don’t pay attention (most normal people) make decisions. The second reason is a little more interesting.

Since 2007, I’ve not received one piece of communication or acknowledgment from Nick Xenophon. On top of that, everything I’ve seen him do has made me deeply regret my decision to vote for him. From silly publicity stunts, to invoking parliamentary privilege for cynical political purposes, to opposing the bill for the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2009, to appearing on an anti-Chinese investment advertisement with Barnaby Joyce, he has pretty much done everything possible to lose my vote.

The truth is that I learned some history, became more partisan, paid more attention to issues, experienced post purchase behaviour and so on. If I hadn’t become more engaged, I strongly suspect he still would have lost my vote for not validating or understanding my decision to vote for him in the first place.

People justify irrational, illogical and emotional decisions through a logical and rational process.

Those who understand this point are far more in control of their destiny than people who think decisions are made through a logical and rational process alone. Things are always far more complex than they appear on the surface.

Know your role

“It’s not our job to support (insert what the government is doing with a negative twist)” Tony Abbott

If there’s one line that’s caused more upset for the current ALP government than any other line the opposition leader’s used during this term of parliament, it’s the one above.

Firstly, it contains certain assumptions surrounding whose job it is to define the government’s agenda.

Secondly, it makes the opposition leader the issue for the government rather than the policy area being dealt with at the time.

Thirdly, it makes the playing field uneven. The ALP want the opposition leader to be judged by the public at the same standard they’re judged at as a government (this is a major mistake in my view).

If there is one major criticism I’ve had of the present ALP, it’s their confusion about the role of government, the role of opposition and everyone else in the political process. If you’re the government, by definition, you’re the one who has the power. Not the opposition, not the opposition leader, not the media, not some wealthy individual or outside organisations donating to your political opponents. If you’re the government, you’re in charge. You are the issue because governments are always the issue for the public! You define the roles! No one else. You are responsible.

So when the ALP attack the opposition leader over pretty much anything related to policy, the public see it as blame and if the government is blaming their problems on the opposition leader, who’s stewarding the nation? Who’s in control of the national debate?

Here’s a common news headline: “Abbott urged to release policies”

Who’s in control here? The people doing the urging or the person being urged? One might think such a headline is bad news for the opposition leader because he appears to be avoiding scrutiny when in reality, his people are in complete control of the power dynamic. This is not an even playing field and they know it and they know exactly how the government reacts to it.

Pretty much every poll available to the public that asks the question of approval of political leaders shows Tony Abbott to be one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in Australian history. People have very strong views about him and they’re mostly negative. The predisposition towards him from the electorate is “I don’t like him” or the more emotional “I hate him!” and the one I personally resonate with: “I’m tired of him.”

He never has been and never will be popular with the Australian public.

The ALP observe such polling and conduct focus groups that show the same thing and assume the solution to their problems is to emphasise just how unpopular he really is. The public who are disengaged and for the most part already understand what’s going on react to these tactics by saying “So what? We hate him. We know. We don’t care. You’re the government! What have you done for me lately?” and then the focus of attention shifts directly back to the ALP’s negative issues and behaviour.

By relentlessly focusing on Abbott’s unpopularity, the ALP unintentionally give him authority that he’s never had and in doing so they make themselves the issue. It’s a bit like one of those homing missiles that misses it’s target and begins to follow the person who fired it.

Yesterday, Abbott joined his local volunteer firefighting service to fight the bushfires engulfing New South Wales. If there is one thing he’s constantly made known about his private life throughout his time in federal politics, it’s the time he devotes to this cause. This is one of those situations where if you attack him, you will never nail him because he’s got pretty much all of his bases covered. It’s a minefield of positive emotional vectors for him and potentially negative emotional vectors for the ALP.

Instead of calmly letting it go, the Minister for Small Business Brendan O’Connor on twitter took the bait and warned his followers to standby for yet another Abbott publicity stunt. He immediately apologised for the remark after he experienced the reaction this sort of comment generates during this type of circumstance.

The misguided thinking and assumptions behind such an attack goes like this: “Abbott will get positive publicity for doing something good for his community and looking courageous in his fire gear, fighting real danger. This must be stopped by any means necessary. Let’s attack him by implying he’s inauthentically volunteering during a time of national emergency. How could that possibly go wrong? The conservatives would do the same thing if they were in our position so let’s follow their playbook. It’s in the media so it must demand an immediate aggressive reply, regardless of the consequences!” … and so on.

When you see this sort of thing happen in real-time, you have to double check that its actually a government minister making the comment. It speaks volumes about how the government sees it’s role and none of its good. Every time you see this sort of attack from the government, it communicates at a subtle level that “we don’t have our act together” and in the end, that’s what people really care about. It’s almost as if they’re trying to dig Abbott out of the holes he’s dug for himself.

If all you see is Tony Abbott and the media everywhere and you define your entire political strategy based upon what you anticipate Tony Abbott and the media are going to do and you consider Tony Abbott the greatest opposition leader you’ve ever seen and you’re unclear about what your role in the community is, you’re very likely missing an extremely large chunk of what’s happening in the real world. It’s like the awareness test below. If you’re only counting the passes the team in white makes, you’re probably missing the moonwalking bear.

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail” Abraham Masolw