Political publicity, posing as political opinion

Comment and analysis by Barry Tucker          January 27, 2013

Many people I follow on Twitter (@btckr) say The Age’s Michelle Grattan is biased against the federal Labor government. I would like to think that Michelle, a veteran of Canberra politics (as Editor of The Canberra Times and political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald before moving back to The Age), was a thoroughly professional, objective observer. It seems to me that sometimes she is and sometimes she isn’t. That’s hard to come to terms with; hard to comprehend and explain. Why have journalists abandoned objectivity and professionalism?

Here’s a stack of Google search entries on the matter. Interestingly, Menzies House (Liberal Party HQ)  once lumped her in with “The unabashed hypocrisy of leftist scribes …” http://bit.ly/X1k7sC

Michelle’s article in the National Times (online version of SMH/Age) today is clearly biased towards the Leader of the Liberal National Party Coalition, Tony Abbott. It was published on the same day that Mr Abbott launched his mini-campaign at the start of this election year. I am allowed to reproduce parts of published material for the purpose of illustration, demonstration, education and so on. However, I’ve reproduced ALL of the article below because almost every paragraph is deserving of critical comment. My comments and analysis appear in italics.

[Michelle announced her resignation from The Age today, Monday, February 4, 2013. She will take up an academic position at the University of Canberra, write for The Conversation and comment on politics on radio and tv.]

But seriously, get ready for Mr Positive

January 27, 2013  Category: Opinion        National Times (SMH/The Age)

MichelleGrattanMichelle Grattan
Political editor of The Age

Tony Abbott shows his softer side at a Brisbane childcare centre last week. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Tony Abbott shows his softer side at a Brisbane childcare centre last week. Photo: Glenn Hunt

The headline and the caption are usually written by a sub-editor or, in the case of National Times, an on-line editor or a sub/page make-up person. The headline is weird (But seriously, ?) and the caption makes me ask: “But Mr Abbott is a family man, no need to show “softer side”, except that he is still smarting from the Prime Minister’s slap-down for his perceived sexist attitudes.” Headline and caption favourable, not neutral.

Tony Abbott is likely to be residing in the prime minister’s office later this year. Even though the polls have tightened and things can change dramatically, on both sides of politics — as improbable as it might once have seemed — that’s the assumption.

No beating about the bush in the intro: “Mr Abbott is likely to be …” A WEEK is a long time in politics, Michelle, and the election’s several months away. That paragraph is a such a mess it makes me wonder about the state of Michelle’s mind. “Even though the polls have tightened … things can change dramatically … on both sides … improbable as it might once have seemed … that’s the assumption”. Michelle’s story is opinion, but readers should be able to expect some sort of justification for the opinions in the first paragraph. Nothing. I say it, so you have to believe it. That’s arrogant.

A second assumption is that a swag of NSW seats will help him get there. It’s no coincidence that Abbott is starting his mini-campaign on Sunday morning with a rally (invitation only) of the Liberal faithful in Lidcombe. The home territory of those ”Howard battlers” is fertile ground for Abbott.

So the campaign has barely begun and Labor has already lost NSW. That’s the “assumption” anyway. “Things can change dramatically”, but that’s the assumption. “It’s no coincidence …” I don’t get this bit at all. If there are seats to be had elsewhere I’d been starting with them, not bothering with safe home territory.

Labor has a total of seven seats in western Sydney and on the central coast sitting on margins of between 0.9 per cent and 5.1 per cent. It was extremely lucky with some of these last time; a double miracle is unlikely, though Labor will make a big effort.

Labor is holding some seats with a margin of 5.1%. I’d feel comfortable, but not complacent. Labor was lucky last time and another miracle is unlikely. No justification is provided for this remark and I can’t think back that far. Anyone reading that would just have to accept it as fact. Not good enough.

A government industry statement is coming, directed at manufacturing workers in such areas.

Mr Abbott has invested considerable time in photo opportunities in factories and workshops, trying to win votes in Labor’s heartland. The people he meets should ask what his plans for “increased productivity” mean to them.

This week’s Coalition campaigning — complete with TV advertising and a booklet detailing values, directions and those policies already in the marketplace — is all about seeking to persuade people that the Opposition Leader can be ”Mr Positive”. The key message is that the Coalition has a (positive) plan. It’s not the first time such an attempt has been rolled out, but this time it is more extensive and serious.

It’s about time Mr Abbott became Mr Positive. In fact, the Prime Minister has been telling him that for the past two years. I think voters are heartily sick of Mr Negative. People are being turned off by it (cf: the opinion polls), politicians generally, the parliament itself and the news media have all been damaged by it. My reading of that par, and the last word “serious”, is that Mr Abbott’s minders have finally given up the negative attack dog and have a lot of ground to make up in the area of “positive”.

Abbott is starting the year confident but not complacent. He knows from experience how narrow the gap can be between success and failure. In 2009 he obtained the leadership by chance (Joe Hockey almost had it in the bag) and by the narrowest of margins; in 2010 he failed by a whisker to get power.

Politicians tend to be “confident but not complacent”; at least, they always say that. It’s not appealing to give the impression the election’s in the bag (which could take us back to considering that intro again). Incidentally, my research shows me that from his university days Mr Abbott has a track record of getting what he wants on the second try. I don’t like the word “power”. Mr Abbott has power, Michelle, and he has used it very effectively to pin Labor back in the polls for the past two years. I worry about what he might do if he had the power of a Prime Minister.

No wonder he’s risk averse. He won’t contemplate a reshuffle – it just creates whingers. He minimises ”hard” interviews. His office has made an extraordinary effort to counter Labor’s claims that he is ”anti-woman”, with his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, willing to publicly talk about how he encouraged her to use his parliamentary fridge to store her fertility drugs.

Well, there’s a lot going on in that para. I agree with “risk averse”. It’s patently obvious that Mr Abbott is “risk averse”. In spite of his prized physical fitness and physical activities; he has knocked blokes out cold; he has a boxing Blue from Oxford; he extinguishes bushfires (after posing for pictures). He also refuses to answer some questions, runs away from embarrassing questions, runs out of the House to avoid an embarrassing vote, doesn’t read relevant stuff … Sorry Michelle, just filling in some of the gaps for you.

He won’t contemplate a reshuffle. Where did that come from? Did he “encourage” use of his office fridge, or “allow” it? Whenever Mr Abbott’s attitude towards women is discussed I am reminded of him standing on a stage in front of signs saying: “Ditch the Witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch”. Mr Abbott didn’t see those signs; perhaps the rest of us imagined them.

He is obsessed with discipline though seemingly unable to avoid periodic lapses. He knows he can be his own biggest risk.

I’m not sure whose discipline Michelle is talking about here. There have been incidents of “freelancing from the backbench” — banned; unauthorised Tweeting by adults — banned. Senator Bernardi messed up badly by making some kind of link between same sex marriage and beastiality, but after he was “spoken to” he was allowed to resign. A disciplinarian would have sacked him on the spot. Mr Abbott’s good at putting his foot in it, but tends to be clumsy and confusing when trying to get his foot clear of the muck. See for example his famous attempt to explain the difference between telling the truth and his “carefully considered, scripted remarks”. That gem was preceded by saying “misleading the ABC is not quite in the same category of political crime as misleading the parliament”. 

His deep personal unpopularity and his negative branding are problems to which he will apply his usual diligence. But can he change his image? And how much will it matter in the end?

If the news media in general continues with its policy of giving Mr Abbott a free pass, it won’t matter in the least. I hope he does change, because the thought of being represented by Mr Abbott as Prime Minister horrifies me. He is on record as saying “I believe that when you become leader, the slate is wiped clean” (cf: David Marr, on the occasion of Mr Abbott’s election, by one vote, to the position of Leader of the Parliamentary Liberal National Party, December 1, 2009).

The social researcher Hugh Mackay believes Abbott’s brand — being negative, destructive and dismissive — has been unchanged for so long that it has become ”indelible” and it’s hard to see him being able to break out of it.

Mr Abbott will be 56 on November 4 this year. Whether he can wipe the slate clean or not, I think most people would agree he’s probably set in his ways.

But one of Abbott’s senior colleagues argues: ”He’s strong on the tangibles. He’s an Alpha male. Alpha males are runners, jumpers. They build things.” He believes Mr Positive will be convincing.

A few of my Tweeting mates picked up this one. A senior colleague makes a supportive remark, but remains anonymous. That’s very suss Michelle. Shame on you.

If Abbott faced another Labor leader — notably Kevin Rudd — things might be different. But the chances of a change to Rudd have faded (and a switch would involve its own huge problems for Labor).

Okay. So that’s irrelevant. Why bother to drag Mr Rudd into it? That’s also suss Michelle. The old Rudd trick. Remind people of that affair, even if it’s irrelevant. It has a negative connotation — that’s why it’s included.

As matters stand, Julia Gillard, while she has clawed back her ratings, is also fundamentally unpopular. Both leaders know that voters are thoroughly fed up with each of them and the hung Parliament. Perhaps that’s why the start of this election year has been rather slower than might have been expected. The less visible the leaders are, the happier the public. As Mackay says, this will be a contest in which there is no inspirational figure.

Of course Julia Gillard is unpopular. All that people have been hearing across the range of news media for the past two years is that the Prime Minister is unpopular. Because almost the entire news media is arrayed against her, people have not been hearing about the positive things her government has achieved. This is in spite of “the hung Parliament”. The hung Parliament has been no barrier to the unopposed passing of a record amount of legislation, some of it world-first stuff — like plain paper packaging. Michelle could have mentioned here that the Prime Minister’s popularity has been steadily rising for several months (apart from a hiccup in December) while Mr Abbott has been stuck at an historical low. I guess she forgot that bit.

The start of the election year has not been slow. Both leaders were off like a pair of startled rabbits. They have been busy attending to bushfire victims, flood victims, launching policies, choosing candidates. What was today all about Michelle? How far away is that bloody election? It’s going to be a nine- to ten-month campaign. Some slow start.

There’ll be an inspirational figure all right. It won’t be Ms Gillard because the news media is in too deep in its BS and can’t change now. It will be Mr Abbott, in his pristine fireman’s costume, with his three qualification badges that real firies don’t bother to sew on, smoke rag around his neck (which they remove when they can — they’re hot and they stink) and his helmet on his head — which they only put on at the last minute because they’re hot, heavy, give you a headache pretty quick and a stiff neck.

Honestly, journalists need to get out in the world and meet some real people occasionally.

This week’s Coalition campaign will be emphasising the team, including Julie Bishop, Warren Truss, Joe Hockey (slimmed down with the help of surgery for the battle ahead), Andrew Robb and Malcolm Turnbull. Many promised Abbott ministers are recycled from the Howard ministry, which Abbott sells as one of his positives.

Poor Joe has to have surgery to enable him to keep up. Experience, hindsight and all that is a good thing, but this bunch are a bit long in the tooth for a brand new government. And Julie Bishop should have had the decency to resign after her performance in the last week of Parliament which, for a lawyer and experienced politician, was the pits. Mr Abbott shot himself in the foot (again) in pretty much the same way. Michelle decided to leave those bits out.

The Coalition speaks enthusiastically about releasing major policies. Well, soon. Those hanging out for its industrial relations policy, probably its biggest policy test, won’t be getting it this week. It’s hard to think Abbott won’t throw out something in Thursday’s National Press Club speech, but the manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne, said last week: ”We are not planning on announcing new policy in the next week but we are planning on reminding people of what is already out there.”

It’s my guess that the National Press Club lunch mob will get policy headlines, not policy details. Opposition parties don’t release policy details until almost the last minute, and we all know that.

(1) How effectively Abbott sells Mr Positive in coming months could be less important to whether he wins or loses as to the size of his majority.

I don’t know what it means either. Please read on …

(2) A Coalition government with a modest margin and an unpopular PM would have no guarantee that fickle voters would be tolerant. Abbott almost overturned a first-term Labor government in 2010. A robust buffer is needed to withstand the danger of an electorate that can quickly sour.

(3) There is another reason Abbott needs to do more than just scrape in. A strong lower house vote helps the Senate vote and that could be very important for him. Unless the conservatives get a right-leaning Senate, Labor and Green opposition to Abbott’s promise to repeal the carbon tax might force him to meet his pledge to go to double dissolution. And that would be high-risk.

Did you have fun with the last three pars (my numbering)? These political journos. Who are they writing for? Who the hell knows what Michelle is rattling on about here? “A strong lower house vote helps the senate vote”. Michelle’s crystal ball is smokin’ hot. There’s a half-Senate vote due some time after March 29. Then a federal election, probably in the last quarter of 2013 … followed by a double-dissolution if Mr Abbott isn’t happy with the amount of “power” he has garnered. Are you kidding, Michelle? Three ruddy elections in the space of about 12 months. I don’t think so.

Last word on the above mess. I think Michelle has a kangaroo loose in the top paddock.


6 thoughts on “Political publicity, posing as political opinion

  1. I think age and the MSM change away from real reporting has wearied her. And that’s okay. It just has to be factored in when (or if) one reads her articles.

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