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!

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


2007 Federal Election, Trade Unions


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.

Journos are idiots – I’m outraged Journos aren’t covering “the big political cover-up involving our opponents”

The big political story of the moment revolves around the case against former Speaker Peter Slipper being thrown out of court and the possible conspiracy designed to bring down the federal government involving the staffer who took Slipper to court James Ashby, LNP candidate for the electorate of Fisher Mal Brough and journalist for The Daily Telegraph Steve Lewis who broke the story.

The political event is still in progress. That’s not what this post is about.

There is an attitude these days, mostly among progressives that journalists are for lack of a better word, idiots. This attitude includes an “us vs them” mindset which is quite hostile. It mainly comes from the view that journalists either have no backbone, buy the conservative line of argument, have commercial interests that are better served by conservative governments which leads to them writing columns and news pieces that are framed around conservative language which influences opinion polling, focus groups, “the narrative” and so on.

I’m not sure this mindset does progressives any good.

In the first post I wrote on this blog, I mentioned how little I paid attention to the media during the 2007 election campaign before I took an active interest in politics. I also wrote that the main reason I got addicted to media was because I thought it had some sort of exotic ability to persuade the public when in reality, it didn’t.

For a long time, I bought this line that journalists are idiots. It took me awhile to figure out they’re just normal people doing a job and they have the same flaws and the same inadequacies as everyone else.

Today Malcolm Farr from News Limited and Phil Coorey from the Australian Financial Review have published separate recounts of the same story involving Mal Brough losing his temper during a social cricket match between the politicians and the press gallery in 2001. They’ve clearly been waiting to release this story for years and now they’ve finally got their opportunity.

In short, journalism is a relationship game. There’s the mindset that you can slap journalists for not writing your sides press releases word for word and blaming them for the results of opinion polling and there’s the mindset that you can cut them some slack and recognise they’re in the same boat as everybody else and inspire them by showing how it’s worth their while (hint: many journalists dream of being like the two main characters in this movie).

I think it’s inconsistent for progressives to get angry at “the media preferring to cover the sideshow rather than policy issues” and then complain that this Ashby story isn’t being covered in the media when the interview is focused on the shadow minister’s policy portfolio. The anger usually stems from the perception Labor MP’s are not treated the same way. Leaving aside whether or not that’s the case, shouting in anger at what you want in my view would be the most reactive and least successful method of achieving some sort of balance.

Does this mean it’s okay for The Australian and The Daily Telegraph to get away with clear bias and inaccurate reporting? In my view they’re going to be biased regardless of what happens and paying attention to them only gives them a form of power they don’t really have with the public. It would be preferable if they weren’t so biased but I can cite poll after poll that shows trust in the media and talking heads is extremely low and getting lower. Not to mention the fact that their business models are becoming antiquated due to the democratisation of information and The Long Tail.

If I ever read these papers (nowadays, rarely), I only read the headlines as the rest is like watching a soap opera: you can’t read them for a minute without laughing at their ridiculousness and self delusion.

If there is a conspiracy involving the LNP in relation to this case regarding James Ashby, it will come out sooner or later and there will be negative consequences for the guilty parties regardless of how long it takes, how it’s spun and the predictable obfuscation from The Australian and The Daily Telegraph. It’s going to take time to investigate what has happened and while questions are being asked and journalists are doing their jobs, it’s counterproductive to mouth off at them.

People Justify Their Identity, What They Value and Their Emotional Judgements Rationally

There are a lot of smart policy people who understand and are able debate issues at a high level of sophistication. They have spent years getting an education in fields like economics, science, law, education, health, foreign policy, international relations and many other areas of expertise in order to create a career and a difference.

I have a confession to make: I am not one of these people.

Sure, I can get the gist of a policy debate, I can read a graph filled with statistical information, I can differentiate the ideas behind certain policies and I can even use software like SPSS for certain purposes (provided you give me a couple of hours) but for the most part if you asked me to tell you the timeline for the National Broadband Network rollout or exact numbers and details from the last budget or details of a policy like the Murray Darling Basin plan, I will struggle very badly.

What I do know a thing or two about is marketing.

One of the situations that always gets under my skin is when I see intelligent, educated people getting upset when their field gets misrepresented for political purposes. Usually there’s an accompanying rant directed at the uneducated and the unskilled.

My Dad is a recently retired Teacher. When the education reforms of the current government began to be implemented such as NAPLAN testing and the MySchool website, he was furious at the way Teachers were being misrepresented in the interests of political gain. Whenever I brought up the fact that Labor government’s always look after education, he’d get very angry and tell me I had no idea what I was talking about. He’d constantly tell me the story of how he asked a very basic question on the government’s education policy to the local federal Labor MP when she visited the school he taught at and she had no idea how to respond. I have been lead to believe this isn’t an isolated incident and many Teachers feel the exact same way.

There is a live debate in the economics community (as far as I know) in regards to raising the GST and reforming the tax system in order to make it more sustainable and fix revenue problems likely to appear in future budgets. Yet economists constantly rage at the political system and political leaders for not having the courage to take on the task without considering or taking into account the obstacles and electoral dangers for the politicians.

The Mining Tax is another example. Ken Henry, a brilliant man, designed an excellent policy to make sure Australia got advantage out of the mining boom but underestimated the political environment which gutted a lot of the impact of the policy and he’s left in a state of despondency, questioning whether the big reforms he’s spent his life pursuing in order to make a positive difference are still possible in this day and age.

Scientists, who for the most part don’t subscribe to ideological positions, are now beginning to see their fields misrepresented and their reputations twisted into mouthpieces for the so called intelligent left.

In federal politics, you’ll see many on the Labor side complain that the Coalition doesn’t have any policies or participate in any civil debate (I addressed what they do after getting that point off their chest in a previous post). It’s one of those inconsistencies that emotionally triggers many progressives. Labor advocating for rational policies while the Coalition playing with the politics of smear and apparently getting away with it.

Kim Beazley Senior summed it up perfectly when he said “The public expect the others (The Coalition) to not be up to much. They expect us (Labor) to be better …”

“We have better numbers and statistics than the Howard government on the economy, yet we don’t get rewarded electorally for them while the Coalition get away with no policies and telling lies on taxes and interest rates! It’s not fair! … Bloody Press Gallery who report events as they see them and don’t copy and paste our press releases!!!”

Interest rates and the issue of the budget surplus are classic examples of many so called political experts not getting it. There’s a common view that low interest rates and a budget in surplus will equate to a positive political outcome for the current federal government when in fact both are exacerbating uncertainty and insecurity in the public. Ipsos Mackay director and social researcher Rebecca Huntley sums it up perfectly in this article in BRW magazine.

It’s very easy to get upset by all of this if you’re one of these smart, educated people.

The fact is most people don’t make judgements rationally. They justify their identity, what they value and their emotional judgements through an internally rational process.

This is the reason it’s important to learn about subjects like marketing, psychology and persuasion. So people like Ken Henry or David Gonski or anyone else who comes up with what are considered to be sensible and rational policy proposals are able to cut through the political noise and get their policies implemented for the benefit of the public. These subjects are far more complex than most people are aware of and what looks simple has a lot going on beneath the surface.

I understand what many of these people who understand policy are going through when they see their fields getting misrepresented in the political process. i get very frustrated when I see people making superficial comments about what good marketing, public relations, advertising is without having a clue of what’s really going on. It’s just the way these things go!

“But people should accept what I say because I’m right! Here’s a list of facts that back me up!” It doesn’t matter how right you are if you can’t persuade people and they don’t listen to you at an emotional level.

It’s possible to get good things done. But when people’s attitudes towards the way normal people behave are ones of disdain and ridicule it shuts off people’s ability to listen and they feel there’s no choice but to go with what’s easy.

Why it’s stupid to blame the media for your side’s political problems

I spent over a year staying up until midnight looking at what was in the newspapers because I foolishly thought it was what shaped the electorate’s political views.

In hindsight I should have reflected on my own experience.

In 2007 when I was a TAFE student who was uninterested in politics and didn’t know the difference between The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, I made a sarcastic comment before the federal election that I’d vote for John Howard just to piss off someone who was annoying me.

In hindsight, I was completely clueless about who I should vote for (this was before I learned about and got inspired by the achievements of the 1983-1996 ALP federal government).

It was my first time voting and although I loathed Howard, I felt insecure about voting for the ALP due to the Liberal Party’s repeated authoritative messages that they were a danger to the economy (this was before I learned some history, some basic economics and the difference between centralised wage fixing, enterprise bargaining and WorkChoices).

After I made that sarcastic joke about intending to vote for Howard (shame on me), my lecturer, who was eavesdropping, looked my way and said in a very authoritative tone “you better not!” and gave me a very serious look which let me know he wasn’t messing around. It was at that moment I knew consciously I’d be voting ALP at the 2007 election.

It had nothing to do with the media. It had nothing to do with the candidates (my local ALP candidate at that election was Nicole Cornes). It had nothing to do with the policies (which I was clueless about). It was entirely to do with the fact that someone I respected told me who to vote for in an authoritative way and metaphorically pushed me over the edge. He didn’t mention a policy position, an ideology or anything else. He didn’t even utter the words “John Howard” or “Kevin Rudd” or “Liberal Party” or “Labor Party” or anything else. All he said was three simple words in an authoritative tone: “you better not!” and my mind did the rest.

This person was far more influential on my decision on who to vote for than the media of whom I knew literally nothing about.

This Lateline panel of Gerard Henderson, Andrew Bolt and George Megalogenis was pretty much the only media I saw during the entire election campaign and I thought it was all ridiculous. Had I known about John Howard’s war on the ABC at the time (Howard was another who blamed the media for his problems) I would have associated that ridiculousness with him. This goes both ways i.e whenever the ALP blame The Daily Telegraph or News Limited for their problems instead of ignoring them, it looks trivial and ridiculous.

This brings me to my point: who cares what Dennis Shanahan or Michelle Grattan or any other pundit says! The voters who decide elections don’t know who they are let alone why they should trust them so why should you? Getting emotionally attached to a mouth piece is ultimately a self defeating cul-de-sac because it makes you feel powerless and it puts your focus in the wrong area.

Ask yourself, how many news, opinion, radio and television pieces on politics you remember in the last fortnight? Then try the last month. Then try the last year. Then try the last two years and so on. If you can’t remember them, I can guarantee you the average voter, who pays less attention than you do, remembers them either and even if they did, public trust in the media is so low that their ability to persuade a voter who hasn’t made up their mind to put a “1” in a box on a piece of paper on election day let alone legitimately putting a “1” in a particular box on a piece of paper given to them at a polling booth is ridiculously remote.

Try the same exercise with Question Time or a parliamentary sitting day. In the last year, I only remember two events from parliament off the top of my head: Tony Abbott running out of the chamber to avoid Craig Thomson’s tainted vote and Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech.

In a year, I’ll probably have forgotten both events as they’ll no longer be relevant to me or the average voter. And this is coming from someone who paid a lot of attention to these things. Thankfully, I gained some perspective and stopped the madness that was all in my mind.

Another exercise: Can you name the names of three journalists in the Canberra Press Gallery? If you can and you think they have influence over public opinion, you’re probably paying too much attention.

In the end, people make up their minds on who to vote for based reasons that would make most of social media have a heart attack.

Recently, I was listening to someone I know talk about some insurance issues he was having in regards to his house after it had been hit by a thunderbolt during a storm and his dealings with an idiot who was trying to fix his newly installed swimming pool. I’m not doing it justice because it’s a story that really should turn into an advertisement for an insurance company.

What does this have to do with politics or the media you ask? Absolutely nothing. All he cares about is solving two issues: doing his job and looking after himself. This is most people. They are not going to be influenced by a silly opinion piece in a newspaper or a blog they don’t want to read on a subject they’re not interested in when there’s simply better, more important and more entertaining things to do.

Am I suggesting avoiding the media entirely? No. All I am saying is the media’s not responsible for the political problems of the government or the opposition.

Sure, the media can be stupid, make inaccurate predictions, be biased, want to be involved in the insiders game and they should be held to a higher standard and so on, but in the end the media, journalists and pundits are outsiders to the political debate just like the rest of the public and they don’t control people’s ability to think for themselves, regardless of whether that’s their intention or not.

So instead of reading Andrew Bolt or Gerard Henderson or Michelle Grattan or Dennis Shanahan or anyone else who has a stupid opinion you disagree with or getting swept into the paranoia of a Bob Ellis inspired conspiracy surrounding a poll that merely reflects a data point, have a glass of milk, read a good book or listen to some good music instead. It will make you feel better and you’ll be better informed.

In the end, the media only has the power that is given to them by people like you. If you choose to believe the nonsense that they’re shaping public opinion, you’re giving them that power over you. No one else! When we blame the media, we evoke the media!

For myself, since I decided to stop the madness of blaming the media and paying attention to the repetitive news cycle, I have gained a decent quality of sleep and I’d also say my quality of life has improved a lot (especially my mental health).

I’ll end with this quote from the classic book 1950’s book on motivational research titled “The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard:

“The spokesman for the agency said that the undecided voter is not the thoughtful “independent” he is often pictured. The switch voter, he said, “switches for some snotty little reason such as not liking the candidates wife.””