Category Archives: Media

Demands and requirements of political leadership in this day and age

It is a very common theme among people who follow politics closely to reflect on the mainstream media and it’s relationship to substance in the national political conversation.

You’ll often see the critique that the media cycle has sped up to a ridiculous pace due to a demand for entertainment rather than substance or real issues and this dynamic is making it pretty much impossible to govern effectively.

Former government minister Lindsay Tanner wrote an entire book on this subject and it got a lot of coverage when it was released.

Right now, most of the federal government and their supporters appear to be in a perpetual battle with the media. The theme tends to be that the reason people are turning away from the ALP at the present moment is because the media are too focused on the political game and superficiality rather than issues of substance.

Last week, Prime Minister Gillard gave an interview with ABC Brisbane’s morning radio show where she told the interviewer that she felt misunderstood by the media and they had overreacted to certain political events such as two ministers resigning that played on a lot of these themes.

Yesterday we got this response from the Opposition Leader:

“If I do badly in an interview that’s not the interviewer’s fault, it’s my fault for not being able to argue my case well” – Tony Abbott, March 6th 2013

This is Abbott once again employing the tactic of emotionally baiting the ALP, progressives and their supporters in order to control the frame of the national political conversation.

In this case, the frame is Prime Minister Gillard is irresponsible and shifts the blame to someone else whenever she makes mistakes whereas Abbott takes responsibility for his mistakes and doesn’t attribute blame to anyone but himself. Whether that’s true or not (I believe it’s a falsehood in the extreme) is irrelevant. This is what’s being communicated and the Liberal Party have been exceptionally efficient at deploying this frame whenever possible during this term of parliament.

I have written about this dynamic of Abbott using certain lines to control the frame of the national political conversation a few times here and here. It’s one of his only tactics and he gets away with it far too often, mostly due to the ALP and progressives not understanding what he’s doing.

Having said all that, in this particular case, I happen to agree with Abbott’s point even though I severely doubt he’s being truthful.

The public’s expectations of leadership at a federal level in this day and age have increased to an almost unreasonable level.

For a start, any kind of blame or shifting of responsibility is immediately viewed unfavorably. I believe the reason for this is because the average voter isn’t allowed to do it in their daily lives and if they do, they can expect some sort of punishment. They get up, go to work, do the best they can, try to have a normal family life, pay their taxes, watch things happen without their consent or social license in the national political conversation, not to mention the petty bickering over trivial issues and think to themselves “if I was to do that in my life, I wouldn’t survive! I do my best! I don’t make excuses! I pay their salaries! They better do what I expect of them or face the consequences!”

What is happening in people’s lives is that society is demanding more and more out of them and if they don’t meet those demands they fall behind. The mental apparatus people require to function in this day and age often exceeds most people’s psychological levels of development. This is doubly true of political leadership.

I’ve written about this in relation to certain dynamics in the electorate in far more detail in a previous post located here.

In this day and age, if you’re the government, it is a requirement that you have your game together at an extremely high level otherwise the electorate immediately switches off and looks for an alternative. The judgement is harsh and swift and once it’s formed it takes an incredible amount of work to overcome.

What this means is that in order to be an effective politician in this day and age you need to be a great communicator (extremely rare given everything it entails), you need to have the policies that address people’s demands that are approved of by the electorate and delivered effectively, you need to have mastered basic political skills, you need to be able to persuade your opponents to see the world your way and act accordingly and if you make mistakes, you must admit to making them and take responsibility immediately because any whiff of a cover up or lack of transparency is immediately treated with anger, resentment and contempt.

This also means no blaming the media, no blaming your political opponents, no blaming the public or any other dynamics in the external environment for your problems. It’s all your responsibility!

You’re now required to lead by example and take the public with you. If you don’t, the noise rises to the surface of the national political conversation by default and you get left with the trivial nonsense that we all complain about.

Aren’t those expectations unreasonably difficult? Sure it is. But we aren’t talking about a normal situation here. This is the leadership of the country and public life we’re talking about.

If you don’t have extremely high standards and you aren’t the best, you’re pretty much dead!

Too often I’ve seen critiques, usually from progressives blaming the media, Tony Abbott and everything in the external environment for the government’s political problems. This is a very convenient way of ignoring and avoiding these realities.

Former Secretary of the ACTU and hero to the Labor Party Bill Kelty hit the nail on the head during his address to their national congress last year:

Seems to me we have a mirror image of the 1980s. Hard decisions were made in the ’80s. Real pressures on living standards, high unemployment, but we never, ever lost a sense of hope and trust that government and unions would see it out and there would be a better future. Today we have better economic conditions but that hope and that trust has retreated.

I’ve got be frank. It’s too easy to blame the media, too easier to blame the playthings of politics. And there’s no purpose blaming the opposition for doing, what after all, you’d expect them to do and that’s to beat you.

In a sense I think we make politics just simply too hard.

The truth will normally do.

It would be truly great if more people on all sides of politics woke up and took those words to heart!

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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.

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.

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.

Attacking what you support

Today in the Sunday News Limited papers there’s a story by Samantha Maiden on Tony Abbott supporting his chief of staff Peta Credlin through IVF treatments.

The emotional triggers in the story are obvious given Tony Abbott made a big name for himself when he was the Health Minister in relation to his right to veto access to the abortion drug RU486 and his positions on various issues involving the right to life and what families value are seen to be heavily influenced by his Catholicism and the influence of Cardinal George Pell, B.A Santamaria and many others.

This post is not so much about this news story which I think is kind of meaningless. “Political leader supports chief of staff on issue where he’s caused controversy” … Newspapers need content in order to sell advertising. A journalist does their job by writing a story. A family spends time at a beach on a Sunday afternoon. The dog barks and the caravan moves on. So what?

What I find strange is the tendency from supporters on both “sides” of politics to attack people on the other “side” who do things or have positions on issues that they either support or don’t oppose.

If you’re a progressive, there’s a very strong likelihood you support women undergoing IVF treatment if they’re having difficulty conceiving. Many progressives get very angry when conservatives oppose it’s use and for very good reasons.

So when Abbott is alleged to have said something along the lines of ” I am not against IVF, I am passionate for IVF. Anything that helps families is a good thing, it’s not a bad thing”, you’d think many on the progressive “side” of politics wouldn’t have a problem with that.

Looking at the reaction to the piece however, it looks like the opposite was the case. It’s almost as if there are progressives who want Abbott to be opposed to women receiving IVF treatment just so they can attack him!

This has been one of the Liberal Party’s tactics since Abbott became leader and it has allowed them to control the frame of the national conversation. Support something progressives support, let progressives attack them for being inconsistent and then point out the hypocrisy of how progressives oppose something they support just because “Tony Abbott” supposedly supports it.

So we’re apparently all hypocrites (on Sunday, no less), but Abbott’s got control of the frame and that’s all he and his chief of staff care about. The ability for a story like this to influence public opinion is only dependent on progressives attacking Abbott and his chief of staff over it.

People aren’t going to see Abbott differently on women’s issues because of a piece in a newspaper or an interview with his chief of staff in Marie Clare magazine. Views on this topic are well and truly entrenched. All getting triggered by it and attacking it does is allow conservatives and Abbott a way out of the mess of their own making.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the partisan battle over personalities while losing track of what the issues are. I think the key to overcoming this kind of tactic is to know where you stand, know when to agree and know when to attack. Otherwise you get caught in the trap of repeatedly attacking what you support which is probably the least effective way to create the society you want to create.

Playing to Paul Kelly and “The New Australian Stress” is evil bunny stupid

In the summer issue of the The Monthly, BBC journalist Nick Bryant wrote a superb portrait (paywalled) of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Communications Director John McTernan.

There were a couple of major points in the piece that caught my attention and I think they explain a lot of the Labor Party’s problems right now:

  • He believes Tony Abbott is one of the greatest opposition leaders he’s ever seen
  • He believes Paul Kelly and Laurie Oakes are umpires in shaping the government’s “narrative”

I addressed issues regarding the Labor Party’s fixation with the opposition leader in a previous post. Missing from that post was the fact that the Labor Party seem to be making a conscious effort to use every campaign technique in the book to turn Tony Abbott into the evil bunny in this parody ad of Liberal Party fear campaigns that appeared online in 2007. It’s quite disturbing to watch.

Here’s a couple of examples of election campaign ads by the party in government using “evil bunny” tactics and the response ads from the opposition that show how easily they’re taken apart. The fact that I can find them and the responses to them on youtube should underline to you how one dimensional the tactic is:

2012 Queensland State Election, Campbell’s Web

Response

2007 Federal Election, Trade Unions

Response

With Abbott, the “throw the kitchen sink at him” tactics will look even weaker because his entire game plan is dependent on Labor making him the issue.

My view is the best way to attack Abbott has always been to split him from the Liberal Party on policy issues where they’re philosophically at odds (there’s an awful lot of them) while letting the proverbial Mad Monk run free but nuance, subtlety and guile aren’t words in the Labor Party’s vocabulary at the moment.

How Tony Abbott occurs to the Labor Party is one thing. It’s the second point which I find much more disturbing.

When I first took an interest in politics, it was around the time Paul Kelly’s book “The March of Patriots” was released. This was the big political book at the time and it got a lot of publicity. The theme of the book revolved around Paul Keating and John Howard being the last two “gladiators” of Australian politics and recounted the period from after Keating’s victory at the 1993 unwinnable election to John Howard’s defeat at 2007 election. It’s a pretty boring book but because Paul Kelly wrote it, it’s given high esteem due to his reputation.

If you read Paul Kelly’s columns in The Australian newspaper over a couple of months, his writing style becomes fairly predictable. You’ll constantly see phrases like “there are four underlying themes” or “in making this point, politician X has three saving graces” and so on. My personal favourite is the “falling domino” metaphor.

His columns, to borrow his phrasing, always seem to be based around one or a combination of seven underlying themes:

  1. Australian living standards are falling
  2. Productivity is declining due to the Fair Work Act
  3. Reform on Industrial Relations policy is urgently required
  4. Australian-US relations are vitally important to national security
  5. The world is on the verge of collapse
  6. The Catholic Church must be respected above all else
  7. Anything that contradicts the view of The Australian newspaper’s editorial position is wrong

You might even be lucky enough to catch him attempting to coin a term to describe this repetitive, paranoid and inconsistent message such as “The New Australian Stress” which usually is accompanied by some amateur hour reading of the latest Newspoll and “demographic analysis” by Bernard Salt.

The thing that bothers me is not Paul Kelly. He’s simply a columnist writing for a substandard newspaper. What bothers me is there are people in the Prime Minister’s office who view columnists such as Paul Kelly as opinion influencers and shapers of the government’s narrative and storyline.

If you asked someone in the street who Paul Kelly was, the image of a reasonably popular musician would come to mind. Not some grumpy old guy who writes columns on federal politics for an ordinary newspaper. If you asked them questions relating to “The New Australian Stress” they’d probably think you’re a fruitcake and immediately disengage.

Whenever the government talks about education policy or health policy or the economy or anything else and they assume “The New Australian Stress” is what’s driving things in the community, they’re not connecting with the Australian people. All they’re doing is getting caught chasing their tail inside the cycleway of Canberra instead of proactively controlling the frame of the national conversation.

The end of Nick Bryant’s piece was what really hit it home for me:

“If she (Gillard) loses, as he has told journalists, his professional reputation will survive intact because her position is seen as irretrievable.”

It says a lot that the person who is in charge of communications for the Prime Minister is so self centered that he could care less whether his boss wins the next federal election. Combine that with him giving weight to inconsequential mouthpieces in the external environment such as Tony Abbott and Paul Kelly and it becomes obvious why the government has a problem communicating with normal people.