Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Malcolm Election: an A-Z

I have many thoughts about this election. Here are 26 of them.

A is for aspirational. The politician who seeks to connect with the desires and hopes of a heterogeneous Australian electorate while assuming we all still think middle class white men are the only credible figures of authority, legitimacy and leadership. See also: #FakeTradie

B is for bullshit. Sorry, but politicians lie. It is an enduring but false trope that the Australian electorate has an indefatigable bullshit detector. No, we do not. If we did, Tony Abbott would never have been Prime Minister. As a chronicler of context and truth it is my reluctant duty to remind you that yes Tony Abbott was, in fact, for two long years, the Prime Minister of Australia.

C is for cynicism. Every time I write about politics, somebody says oh why so cynical. No, I am not. I have reached an evidence-based position. I am qualified to do so. On my analysis, the Liberals are terrible economic managers. Turnbull is lying. Dutton is racist. I hold degrees in economics, politics and law; have ten years experience in cultural studies and semiotics research. Qualified conclusions are not cynicism.

D is for double dissolution. Which is ABCC AND DD (hur hur hur) because this election was called on an important principle, that principle being that Malcolm Turnbull be allowed to set a new low for abuse of constitutional process in order to attempt his hand and fate at re-election.

E is for election, the one that was due in September but has been brought forward by our default anyone-but-Abbot Prime Minister for the simple reason that the Liberal Party are, to quote a favourite of theirs, in disarray.

F is for fantastical, which is the correct adjective for the sad and stubborn headspace of those who maintain that Turnbull is statesmanlike; or that the Liberals are any kind of economic managers, in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

G is for government. The proper role of government. The extent to which the governing authority has control over the lives of the governed. The citizens. A legitimate question.

H is for housing. Homelessness. Housing security. That for which the Liberal Party do not give a fig. The Liberals will, however, waste resources on defending a policy that transfers wealth from the PAYE taxpayer to the investment-property-owning class. Resources that could be used for, oh, I don’t know, public housing.

I is for inequality. The first rule the FIRST rule is that all are equal before the law. That we are all born equal in dignity and rights. We should get cracking on that. Make it happen. Right now it is just words.

J is for justice. Social justice. Gender justice. Race justice. Our jails are full of poor people. Illiterate people. Survivors of child sexual assault. Yet it is fraud that costs the community more than any other crime. Our justice system is not, at present, distributing justice.

K is for killers. Men who kill women. Men who kill gays. Men who have access to guns and the structural power of patriarchy and use it to kill fellow human beings. Yes, it is political.

L is for liberalism. The actual values of liberalism, not this corrupted garbage passed off to us as free speech to hate on First Peoples and whoever else it is today.  Liberalism is autonomy of individuals over decisions and actions without harming others. Someone should tell members and representatives of the Liberal Party about that.

M is for moderates. Of which there are none left in the Liberal Party. Such that Turnbull looks like a moderate next to a religious extremist like Bernardi.

N is for Nauru. Because who is talking about Nauru this campaign? Bipartisanship is death. Literally. If the majors have decided not to contest each other on an appalling policy, we shall hear no more about it.

O is for opinion. And opinionistas. And opinion makers, and seekers, and jealous gatekeepers. Whether to a desperate shill like Devine or a dogged tortoise like Henderson, the fragmentation of audiences is scary as because we the people – in a democracy – are  *gasp* choosing to whom we want to listen, all by our own selves, like grownups.

P is for parties, and the ragged party system. So flawed, yet so entrenched. And every decision-maker who could see it improved is deeply vested in its current structure. Plus ca change etc

Q is for the Queen, and not just because our current Prime Minister tried and failed back in 1999 to rid us of her as our head of state. Her man Cosgrove, appointed by Abbott, signed off on Turnbull’s garbage excuse for a double dissolution, as convention requires. Unlike Kerr, she is at least cognisant of convention.

R is for refugees, And the Refugee Convention. And for – or more specifically, against – refoulement. As per our obligations under Article 31. The ones we regularly breach, using Art 33 on national security grounds as an excuse.

S is for soul and searching. Do that. I am. As I hold my nose and vote for Labor or maybe the Greens while deciding whether to put the Liberals last or some other violent racist sexist homophobe. What a pity our choices are so limited. I wonder who could do something about that. Yes wonder I do.

T is for transfer of power. Not from Liberal to Labor or back again, or from the House to the Senate. I mean real, institutional, structural change. Guaranteed positional power for First Peoples. Seats. Vetos. Sovereignty. Enforceable rights. It can be done.

U is for umbrage. Because saying things like oh I think constitutionally guaranteed seats in parliament and sovereign recognition of Aboriginal rights and interests in land … give rise to umbrage. Someone who gets to exercise their rights, more than they need and certainly more than they deserve, will take umbrage at that.

V is for the vote, and the voters. No, we are not responsible for the dismal state of the polity: that would be politicians. It is politicians who are in a position to change the quality of debate, policy, what we get and what we came for. It is politicians who decide that rich people can pay for access, and democracy be damned. But on that one day in three years, on 2 July 2016, we do have our vote.

W is for Wentworth. May it change hands. The incumbent is terrible, and he looks like he may not last into next week.

X is for X-factor. The known unknowns and the unknown knowns. How many are there of both. Blessed be the Australian polity.

Y is for YOU. In two weeks you get to choose which cis white heteronormative neurotypical private school educated sandstone university married man led party you want to choose a candidate for such that it will form government. Choose carefully, or the parliament might be overrun by all those radical communist ecologist black power feminist disability gay rights activists that you saw on your ballot paper.

Z is for Ziggy. Because where would we be without a demonstrably incompetent overpaid executive who knowingly breaches caretaker conventions running a third rate broadband network that was once going to be a national equaliser on digital access and opportunity.

I ask ya


Media and imbalance in the Conservative tradition

One of the many benefits of incumbency is that traditional media models and journalism methods favour the current government over the opposition.

This style of reporting is justified by citing the public interest. The claim is that the incumbent government position is more newsworthy. It is the government that is in a position to make decisions that directly affect citizens, and therefore it is the government pronouncements that should be foregrounded in the news bulletins.

(Of course it is governments, and not oppositions, that are in a position to directly affect media interests too; and these do not always coincide with the public interest.)

Structural advantages and self-interest

Foregrounding is particularly significant in election campaigns. It looks like this: the dominant message of the day is reported ‘above the fold’ – it is presented more prominently, in more detail, and more often.  It is more likely to headline and appear in off-the-hour updates; and be repeated as we ‘recap our top story’.

The inherent benefits are that the top ranking story is 1) more likely to be heard/read than other stories; and 2) more likely to be perceived by audiences as more important or more credible than an alternative position.

This is the prominence privilege dynamic. It favours the incumbent government. It is not in the public interest, but it is said to be.

At some point during an election campaign, traditional media decide whether to shift away from giving more prominence to the incumbent. Any shift depends on whether the opposition has become more likely to form the next government.

This is not a simple yes or no question, because so many interests are at stake. Suppose the Labor Party is now more likely to win, but it is not the preferred winner of heavyweight media interests. The shift may be put on hold. Some reasons are in the shadows: the influence of proprietors and pollsters; the desire of press gallery members to be participants in, as well as observers of, the political process.

Other reasons are more overt. Like voters, the media, its proprietors and employees are vested in electoral outcomes. Like voters, the media must source political information somewhere.

The obvious sources are face-to-face meetings with politicians, and political reporters. Some hardy voters attend town hall meetings or similar, and plenty of media monitor other outlets. Nevertheless, the vast majority of voters rely on political reporters; and the majority of political reporters are more likely to speak directly to politicians – at press conferences, interviews, debates, or for leaks, backgrounding and off-the-record quotes.

Prominence privilege and inherent conservative biases 

Leaving aside rumblings like Abbott’s agitating or who has been mothballed this week (is it Dutton? Ley? I can’t keep up) the core point of election campaigns is to choose between the parties. The parties have policies, which are units of ideology. Every policy is an articulation of social circumstances and how the next government will neglect or shape, subsidise or curtail, those circumstances. The parties design and sell their policy – legalise marriage equality, build more roads – in line with an ideology, such as neoliberalism or social democracy.

Take the NBN. A policy of affordable, high speed national broadband for all, regardless of corporate or shareholder interests, is grounded in a progressive, social democratic ideology. In contrast, a policy of concentrating the benefits of high speed broadband in the hands of the comfortable and wealthy, while neglecting people who are, say, unemployed or house-bound, reflects a neoliberal ideology.

That is an ideological divide. But there is also an ideological bias in traditional reporting methods. So-called media balance, like the system itself, is inherently conservative. It vigorously resists change. And high-platform media voices who call the election outcome are usually also inherently conservative.

So while one NBN policy is clearly of greatest benefit to the greatest number of citizens, to economic integration and to growth, to equality of opportunity and to regional areas… the other is currently being implemented. Its currency is its currency: this is how the public interest justification works to provide incumbent governments with prominence privilege.

NBN policy also has differential impacts on mainstream media: audience fragmentation, ownership of broadcasting rights and other media power bases. And this too is a factor for editorial decision-makers when calculating which story to foreground – on the front pages, at the top of the hour. The call on when (or whether) to shift on who will benefit from prominence privilege is reserved to the most senior editorial voices.

It is obviously unwise for high-circulation media outlets to cross a likely victor who has a vengeful streak – and democracy be damned.

These observations do not require a conspiracy, or an especially cynical outlook. It is a description of the political-media landscape, of the long-standing relationship between the various public estates. The relationship reflects multiple vested interests doing the self-interested thing that neo/liberalism insists is human nature (despite the many non-Western cultural traditions that give the lie to this claim).

During an election campaign, the prominence privilege dynamic operates in two ways. First, for the public interest justification given above, the dominant coverage is allocated to the incumbent (the first audio grab or quote or footage, the most airtime, the biggest and most frequent headlines, and ‘top story’ billing).

Second, or later in the campaign, the privilege is bestowed on whichever party is perceived to be most likely to form the next government. This perception is formed and reinforced in a homeostatic feedback loop by editors and their respective pollsters, by the message-makers and gate-keepers, the opinion writers and political commentators and press gallery, who then shift editorial decisions accordingly.

It is this second stage that we are in now, and it is this second dynamic that makes a call from a high-platform voice like Chris Uhlmann significant. While it is tempting to ask who cares whether Chris Uhlmann has called the election for the Coalition? Isn’t Labor going for underdog status anyway?

But Uhlmann is the political editor at the national broadcaster. He makes electoral editorial decisions at the ABC. He matters, whether we know he is hopelessly compromised and partisan or not. This is why we should care about blatant manoeuvring and participation (rather than observation and reportage) from well-placed media figures. A call like Uhlmann’s is timed to when more voters, particularly the all-important undecided voters, start to engage.

Uhlmann’s call, and his decision to make it now, was not only a very clear call for the Coalition to win, but also a very clear call which favours the Coalition. It provides scaffolding for the feeble public interest justification to be used to continue foregrounding Coalition speakers, Coalition talking points.

I can not over-emphasise the significance of this. Like the political editors at Fairfax, and the Murdoch press, and the commercial radio and televisions networks, these high-platform decision-makers determine what to cover, how prominently, for how long, and how often. If traditional media were going to shift away from its more prominent showcasing of the incumbent government, it would start to happen about now.

The decision of whether to shift tends to coincide with who the media wants to form the next government. They know how prominence privilege works., and have their own interests to safeguard. And because media interests do not always coincide with the public interest, prominence decisions only seem coherent when the two do coincide. When these interests are at odds, and the call has preferred media over public interests, we hear engaged voters asking why Uhlmann (or whoever) is calling the election for the Coalition (or whoever).

The Conservative Line, then and now

There are additional structural advantages when the incumbent and the expected winner (as claimed by media heavyweights) are conservative. The prominence effect accumulates and compounds, like financial interests of the wealthy (not a coincidence).

These dynamics stem from two related propositions: 1) the system is historically, inherently conservative 2) incumbents abuse incumbent power to maintain prominence and credibility and thus power.

The system is inherently conservative because the system was designed by conservatives: propertied white men. Remember, these were men whose property included legal ownership of human beings under a legal system designed and constructed by themselves. They also built mechanisms for favouring conservatism into the structural norms and conventions of the Westminster system. They called these design features checks and balances and said the purpose was stability.

This is not to say that conservative conventions are not also abused by conservatives. They are. This is also inherent, to the ‘born to rule’ nature of conservatism. Born-to-rule, by the way, is not some made-up slur. It is a centuries-old tradition of the British system that they forcibly imposed here. The formal term is primogeniture. It denoted which offspring (the oldest son) would inherit all the property and a seat in government (the House of Lords) through no merit whatsoever, merely an accident of birth. 

The default tendency towards incumbency is founded in these various formal structures – our stabilisers, or checks and balances – and has been reproduced down the centuries.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the upshot is that apparently intelligent people say things like Malcolm Turnbull has gravitas, or the Liberal Party are the better economic managers. And the stubborn humanity and pride of some means that people will continue to make such nonsensical claims despite overwhelming counter-evidence.

Then there is the fact that conservatives will pull any lever, and use any tax-payer funded resource, to stay in power. After the lie of meritocracy, this is the next most crucial feature of conservatism, and it is enabled by inherent biases in traditional journalism methods.

The classic manoeuvre this time round was the way Turnbull, with the support of legal advice from his Attorney General, called a double dissolution despite no discernible democratic reason to do so. The double dissolution trigger was pulled for purely political reasons, specifically, to shore up the political power of our default, anyone-but-Abbott Prime Minister.

This was done because Turnbull has utterly squandered his political capital. In language even the dimmest Liberal apparatchik could understand: the high-risk strategy to invest in Turnbull’s popularity has delivered a negative return on investment. No dividend. And like most rich folks faced with this scenario, the party turned to lower-net worth individuals, the Australian taxpayer, to bail them out of a truly terrible venture capital decision.

This is not to hold Labor up as some kind of squeaky-clean golden role model (see: Eddie Obeid). But Labor are not in power, nor reaping the structural advantages of incumbency and prominence privilege in this election campaign. Quite the opposite.

So it is the conservatives who will, collectively, stop at nothing, no matter how extreme, unprincipled and in breach of conventions designed to ‘stabilise’ the system. After all, nice guys finish last, right? We may not want to believe that this continues, year in, year out, Parliament after Parliament. That we have progressed so little.

But progress is not linear. For every step towards equality and justice and rights for all, conservatives are on stand by to aggressively push back and reinstate their preferred – and rigidly unequal, unjust – status quo.

The events of 1975, unprecedented and unrepeated, are the prime example of this in Australia. The 1975 legacy includes even apparently progressive voices reproducing, to this day, the trope that Whitlam was reckless. This retrospective justification for conservatives breaching their own conventions is never balanced with an accurate observation as to how aggressively and unscrupulously the Coalition did everything in their power to bring down an opponent – and in so doing, destabilised the whole system.

Yet somehow, being conservative and destabilising the entire system, trashing the stabilisers designed by their own, is not as reckless or dangerous or destabilising as when progressives establish progressive policies for which they have a clear mandate from the electorate in a democracy. That is how it works.

And commandeering legacy, a very high priority for the conservative side of politics, works in other ways. Why stop at retrospective justification for deeply unprincipled actions? In a similar way, conservatives will commandeer any legacy they can not destroy. According to this narrative, the Hawke-Keating economic reforms were ‘bipartisan’, while attacks on Medicare and affordable tertiary education continue right now, in 2016.

So as we enter the final stage of this campaign, it is important to know the historical context, this deeply ingrained and vigorously prosecuted position that conservatives are supposedly the more credible governing body – which continues, as mentioned, in the face of overwhelming counter evidence, via abuse of incumbent power.

In this context, major media voices make both instinctive and calculated decisions about how and where to bestow prominence privilege. Where the call is that the conservative incumbent will win, it is not merely an observation or a punt or an informed prediction. Nor is it only a vested interest. It is a call that overtly favours the conservative incumbent. The call will vest in the conservative interest, for the remainder of the campaign.


Malcolm and women: More concern troll than feminist

Malcolm Turnbull says he would call himself a feminist, like it is some movement he can just join with no invitation, no credentials, and no effort. Much like the rest of his life really, except feminism is not as easy to join as lunch at a men-only club, or the Liberal Party. Some of us have standards.

The quote was immediately butchered to claim that Malcolm Turnbull is a feminist – which he demonstrably is not. We know this because at the same time he nervously joked about the ironing. Women who are feminists do not posture and perform for the cameras about who does the ironing when outing themselves as feminists. That is a thing that men who are not feminists do. Men like Tony Abbott.

Malcolm Turnbull says he would describe himself as a feminist – he just left off the end of the sentence: ‘to garner votes’. We know we can find this implied premise in the sentence because we know Turnbull would say anything to win votes. Saying things, after all, is a lot easier than devising actual policy, like wealth distribution that does not transfer wealth upwards, or standing up to the lunatic homophobic right, or even standing up to his own Treasurer, Scott ‘release the costings’ Morrison.

This is a man we pay $500,000 per annum to traipse around, looking like death warmed up, while telling us fibs. That is, when he is not making a dribbling fool of himself in an embarrassingly transparent attempt to connect with the 99% whose net worth comes in under $200 million.

I speak, of course, of the tasteless and mawkish daddy video. The one about which Turnbull clarified separation arrangements regarding the marital bed. I’m not making that up.

Some of us did engage with what Malcolm put on show, which is to say, his mummy issues. This is so predictable that it must have been at least partially the point. It is not a feminist point, nor a feminist thing to do. It is a trollish thing to do. He is trolling a dead woman, his own late mother, who gave him life on this earth.

If this seems a long bow, here is what Turnbull said when asked why he released the video:

It’s important to honour your parents, Mark. It’s important to honour your father.

See what he did there? It was probably not even deliberate. He is a man running for office and running on empty. What’s a bit of defensive erasure and misplaced anger at his late mother, on the national stage?

Turnbull has form in trolling women. His first announcement as Prime Minister was to restore one third of the $300 million that had been ripped out of services for women escaping violence. A third of that third was earmarked for ‘awareness-raising’. This is a Liberal Party favourite. It is code for fat cheques to donor mates who run or have interests in advertising companies. See ‘ideas boom’ for further evidence of this garbage substitute for policy.

Meanwhile, unlike feminist-run women’s refuges, ‘awareness-raising’ (profiteering from misery) is not a proven success at stopping men’s violence towards women and children. The ads are essentially designed for comfortable Liberal voters to tsk tsk at how terrible is domestic violence while nodding knowledgeably: isn’t it nice that nice Mr Turnbull (or that nice Mikey B in NSW) is ‘doing something’.

Something like spending taxpayers’ money on advertising campaigns designed to make conservative voters feel better about voting in a cabal of racist sexists who can not sell a policy in a seven week election campaign but they can keep a torture camp or ten up and running.

Similarly, in his first cabinet, Turnbull announced NSW Senator Marise Paine would become our first woman defence minister. He was swiftly reminded that Ros Kelly was a junior defence minister in the Keating government. Minor quibbles. What Turnbull wanted was the grandiose claim, the great man in history narrative, the ‘first’ status – using a woman or two to get there is of no moment to him.

Incidentally, how much have we heard from the Defence Minister when it comes to terror announcements, overseas fighter deaths and the like? Nothing? Has George Brandis taken over that role? How about threats to the nation state, non-existent as they are compared to most places in the world? Anything? Or do we see that role fall to Peter ‘BorderForce’ Dutton, when he is not tripping over his own shoe laces, or the rubbish falling out of his mouth?

Paine may be the first woman to be a fully fledged Australian Defence Minister, but that does not mean Turnbull was not merely trolling women while the men retain the bombs and terror and brassy uniforms stuff for themselves.

But we were talking about Turnbull and his relationship with his parents, who both died last century. If the outbreak of amateur reverse-Oedipus analysis was not predicted, Turnbull and his team are even more embarrassingly incompetent than even I thought possible, and I have zero regard for the man or his team. I see no skill in policy or politics. Simple abuse of incumbent power, explored at length here, is all I see.

In short, the single dad schtick is a narrative for which I have zero empathy in this context. Here is why. I am a sole parent. I have actual parenting to do. Turnbull is 61 years old, his father has been dead for 30 years, he holds the most powerful job in the country.

What does he want from us? This whiny, needy, multimillionaire thinks the best way to woo my time is with a tacky pitch to the dudebro vote with a posthumous poverty narrative wrapped in meritocracy mythology. Nuh-uh. No.

My take is the infamous Turnbull judgement (again). Like the decision to talk about the ironing, a line which, to a sizable portion of voters, immediately recalls his predecessor. Or his decision to feign outrage that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten dared to state a known fact: that women take by far the most responsibility for childcare.

Remember the GST increase thought bubble and tax-based federation revolution that lasted mere days? Here, too, Turnbull has form.  As a backbencher in 2005, Turnbull spent months undermining then-Treasurer Peter Costello on tax policy, and released his proposals with apparently no insight into the toes on which he trod – judgement, judgement – or the opprobrium he would incite. His proposals sank without a trace – because Turnbull could not read the political landscape.

Yet on ascension to the prime ministership, Turnbull exhumed the dead tax cat and threw it on the table. Only to discover that the Australian electorate was no more interested in his sweeping gestures than was Costello. Funny, that.

Then there is the constant sloganeering – also reminiscent of Abbott. In fact, except for the unsubstantiated hypothesis that Turnbull is better suited to Prime Ministering than opposition leadering (he has proven to be terrible at both), it is Abbott who comes up rosier in any comparison with respect to sloganeering. This is because Abbott was not exposed as a serial plagiariser as well as a predictably repetitive liar.

The United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, District of Columbia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
Jobs & Growth banners, The United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, District of Columbia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Yet here is Turnbull blathering jobs and growth until he is grey in the face, drearily invoking the least successful Liberal Prime Minister since at least McMahon. No wonder the team decided a circuit breaker was in order. What a pity they did not hit on telling the truth about policy as an alternative approach.

Unlike those who are remunerated to assemble actual insights into the Prime Ministerial performance, I see no point hashing over marriage equality, the republic, and climate change. We all know Turnbull has blown these policies; and that such abject failure has ‘disappointed’ those who were sure he was up to the Prime Ministerial job.

In a kind of creepy-daddy-karma twist, a poll in his seat of Wentworth published this week, men over 55 who are most ‘disappointed’ in Turnbull’s performance. I can just see their silver heads bobbing sadly as they tell pollsters in a sorrowful tone. No, we are not angry with him, just disappointed.

Which brings us full circle to the emotional immaturity Turnbull unwisely put on display to the Australian electorate. As one mate remarked, it is almost as though this is a therapy session. To which I replied that the whole tawdry exercise seems like the electorate has been press-ganged into providing group therapy – for a man who wants for absolutely nothing – and I for one resent it.

I am a feminist. I have actual parenting to do. Not half a century ago. Right now. Whether the Prime Minister is feeling nostalgic has no bearing on current housing costs, or the state of public education, the casualisation of the work force, the fact that coal and CSG mining are trashing country for generations to come.

As better minds than mine have noted, he did not even have the grace, or brains, or antennae, to link the video thing to restoring sole parent supports removed by Gillard. That would at least have played the feminist card more effectively. Cynically, but even cynical-yet-effective would be a step up from vacuous attention-seeking.

Malcolm wants me to divert my attention to him – and thus away from my income-insecure job, and my children, and parenting responsibilities, and family and friends and writing and actual policy and promises. Really? For a purported position on feminism and a tear-jerker bro clip that erases his dead mother and exploits his dead father?

This poorly-judged attempt to humanise a sitting prime minister who is also a multimillionaire – a man who wants for nothing, nothing …  is little more than a transparent plea to the Australian electorate that we gratify his seemingly bottomless hunger for power and insatiable desire for approval.