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Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?

Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 10, 2008

By Ad astra

While most readers will have their own ideas about the meaning of ‘adversarial politics’, so that we’re all on the same page, let’s use the following definitions: “Adversarial politics exists when the proposals put forward by government are routinely criticised by opposition parties. Any stance taken by government is automatically opposed, whatever its merits.” and “Adversarial politics takes place when one party (usually not in Government) takes the opposite (or at least a different) opinion to that of the other (usually the Government) even when they may personally agree with what the Government is trying to do.” It is a characteristic of the Westminster system, and if one can judge from its most flagrant manifestation, Question Time, most parliamentarians seem to revel in it. They enjoy the contest, which at times takes on gladiatorial proportions.

Because it provides a rich source of sensational copy, the media thrive on adversarial politics, and contribute powerfully to it through the press, TV and radio. Without it, life for journalists would be less lively and the preparation of material that might interest the public more demanding.

But to some who closely follow events in the political arena, it is a source of irritation because inherently it involves dishonesty and at times downright deceit. The main game seems to be winning or scoring political points even if that requires taking an opposing position that is inconsistent with previous positions or policy, and in the process demeaning or humiliating the other person or party. All observers of the political process applaud informed and vigorous debate that teases out the issues and ensures sound decisions are made. But is an adversarial approach required to achieve this? Some might argue that it is, but most would disagree. The purpose of this piece is to offer illustrative examples, make a case for a less adversarial approach, and suggest what ordinary citizens might do to effect change.

Because adversarial positions inherently are more often taken by parties in opposition, many of the illustrations offered in this piece are derived from Opposition comments and positions. However, the Government is not immune, as some examples demonstrate.

Adversarial politics in Parliament

A recent instance is the contrary position on an emissions trading scheme taken by the Federal Opposition in Question Time, casting doubts about whether petrol should be included, whereas in Government they said it should. Although the Opposition’s position was confused and has since changed, it was clearly different from the one it held previously. Although this change of position has been ‘justified’ by Malcolm Turnbull on the grounds that “things have changed” since being in Government, it looked like an attempt to wedge the Government for political advantage.

The Government too uses Question Time to score political points, via ‘Dorothy Dixers’. As backbenchers read, often in a stumbling manner, a question written elsewhere and designed to give the responder an opening to attack the Opposition, the object is transparently clear.

The NT intervention initially had bipartisan support. But by springing on Brendan Nelson during the Apology an announcement of a bipartisan ‘war cabinet’, Kevin Rudd quietly wedged him, and when Nelson nominated Mal Brough to that group, and Rudd rejected that nomination, a pattern of adversarial conflict over this important initiative began, which may destroy what promised to be unique and valuable bipartisanship.

Adversarial press conferences and doorstops

It’s not just Question Time that provides an opportunity for adversarial politics. The day after the Federal Parliament rose, it was announced that head of Treasury Ken Henry was taking five weeks leave during which he intended to spend time in a Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat sanctuary in Queensland. In a press conference Wayne Swan said that Henry had worked day and night since the election, right through the Christmas period, and that anyone working at such intensity, with a busy schedule ahead, needed a restorative break. Did Brendan Nelson, who had roundly criticized Rudd for placing the public service under work pressure, commend him for granting Henry leave? No. Determined to score a political point he queried the wisdom of granting leave at what he considered to be a busy time, and using a clever quip continued: “I’m concerned about who is going to look after the ‘muddle-headed’ Treasurer.” And he wasn’t joking. Malcolm Turnbull did likewise. This exhibition of ‘adversarial-speak’ is another example why many despair of our political system. Always being contrary, consistently taking the opposite position no matter what, brings politicians into disrepute. Voters are smart enough to see the hypocrisy of this sort of behaviour, yet politicians persist with it as if they somehow live in a bubble into which ordinary folk cannot critically gaze.

No wonder the electorate has become so cynical.

In an arranged doorstop we saw Greg Hunt fabricate a scary scenario from insubstantial data and suspect assumptions about the effect on petrol prices of a Rudd Government emissions trading scheme. He insisted prices could rise by 10, 20, even 30 cents a litre. Having concocted this tragic scene, he then demanded the Government ‘guarantee’ that compensation would ensure that no one would be worse off with such a scheme. The fact that this adversarial line was based on a flimsy proposition that was not in accord with the facts was of no importance. Its purpose was to provide a launching pad for an adversarial attack. It llustrated the time-honoured axiom of political life that truth is irrelevant, perception is all that counts.

Adversarial probing

Journalists at doorstops and press conferences, and particularly radio talkback hosts and TV interviewers have become patently combative and at times downright aggressive and rude in interviewing politicians. While we all want probing interviewers, with the courage to challenge politicians, their stated policies and their utterances, why do journalists persist ad nauseam in asking questions that no prudent politician would or should answer. Recently Fairfax Media’s Neil Mitchell tried to push the PM into answering what petrol would cost after the introduction of an emissions trading scheme despite being told by Rudd that until the Garnaut report was public and the Government’s green paper on the subject published, no details could or would be given. General comments by Rudd about making the scheme as wide as possible were not sufficient for Mitchell. He aggressively insisted the PM answer his unrealistic question. Adversarial politics – talkback style.

Perhaps as a reaction to adversarial probing, there are two words that are seldom used by politicians: ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Peter Costello managed to avoid using them for years, instead preferring “let me make this point”. Frustrated interviewers yearn for those blessed, unequivocal words, yet seldom hear them. Instead they so often get a long and convoluted response that doesn’t answer the question, and when it occasionally does, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would have saved everyone a lot of time and irritation. Less adversarial probing might evoke a more forthcoming response.

ABC’s 774 radio host Jon Faine, and ABC TV’s Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones are devotees of the ‘will you guarantee’ or ‘will you rule out’ syndromes, hoping for a ‘Gotcha’ moment. Sometimes it’s justified, but at times it’s sheer harassment in an effort to get a scoop. While this approach may appeal to viewers when a politician of their ‘non-preferred party’ is being besieged, it is still adversarial politics media-style, does our political discourse no favours, and unnecessarily belittles our politicians; that they put up with such verbal assaults is to their enduring credit.

Adversarial journalism

News bulletins can subtly engage in adversarial journalism with the words they choose. A recent instance followed ABC’s Lateline on 27 June where Rod Cameron said that given the current popularity of Kevin Rudd and his high level of public support, he had about a year to promote his vision of an emissions trading scheme, after which it would be much more difficult. It was reported the next day on ABC 774 morning news as “Time is running out for PM Rudd to introduce an emissions trading scheme.” This impression of urgency is not what Cameron portrayed. A news-writer’s inaccurate take on the Lateline piece cast Cameron’s comment in a different and erroneous light. Is this just careless reporting, or does it reflect adversarial journalism? Countless examples of this type of reporting occur every day.

For an illustration of the difference between adversarial journalism and abalanced orientation to writing, glimpse at four articles from The Weekend Australian of June 28-29. For balanced un-emotive pieces that eschew pejorative comments, see Paul Kelly’s The Rudd Alliance“, Lenore Taylor’s Taxpayers mugged through their children“, and Mike Steketee’s They will be missed.“Contrast these articles, free of adversarial language, with Dennis Shanahan’s page one piece Climate change splinters Kevin Rudd cabinet“. You don’t have to go beyond the headlines and the first two paragraphs to see phrases like “Split on carbon costs”, “…deepest divisions over policy and politics since the election of the Rudd Government.”, “Concerns are being aired…”. There may be some truth in these adversarial statements, but little supporting evidence is offered; readers just have to take Dennis at his word.

The language of adversarial politics

Language fashions and changes perceptions. In adversarial politics exaggerated language is used to embarrass, put down, demean or diminish. It is designed to give the user a ‘win’ or an advantage over the other. There are many examples: ‘Back-flip’ and its colourful variants, ‘back flip with double pike’, ‘back-down’, ‘about-face’, or the more benign ‘about turn’ or ‘U-turn’ are terms used to indicate a change of mind or a different approach. Politicians are entitled to change their minds in the face of new evidence, different thinking or changed circumstances; the opposite, sticking stubbornly to an outdated or untenable position, is foolish. So why not use terms such as ‘change of mind’ or ‘different approach’, or ‘new tactic’ or ‘changed attitude’ or ‘revised position’? I expect journalists would see that as too wimpy.

Adversarial columnists enjoy describing ideas, proposals or political structures with which they disagree as being in ‘tatters’, in ‘disarray’, even ‘a shambles’, or in ‘chaos’. Dennis Shanahan often uses such terms to portray Rudd initiatives that he considers faulty or failures. These terms imply a disastrous turn of events, yet usually nothing catastrophic has occurred. So why not use less confronting terms? Parliamentarians making submissions to cabinet are sometimes unsuccessful – the proposal is declined or deferred. The individual is then described by journalists as having been ‘rolled’ or ‘humiliated’, or has ‘rolled over’, and painted as a loser.

The inelegant terms ‘me-too’ and ‘me-too-ism’, used throughout the 2007 campaign, have a pejorative nuance, implying a ‘copy-cat’ approach, the product of a paucity of original ideas. The words are applied by journalists when politicians indicate ‘this is our policy and so we agree’, or ‘we agree with that policy’ or ‘that sounds like a good idea, we’ll adopt it’. No one has exclusive access to good ideas. So why use uncomplimentary terms to describe those who adopt the good ideas of others? More ‘me-too-ism’ would be an agreeable antidote to unrelenting adversarial politics.

Slogans and mantras.

Slogans are part and parcel of the language of adversarial politics. ‘Stunts’, ‘gimmicks’, ‘symbolism’, ‘all style and no substance’, are frequently used. ‘Control freak’ is another that has been applied to Kevin Rudd. Julie Bishop used this slogan with gusto in trying to implicate Rudd in the so-called cover-up of the Belinda Neal affair. On the ABC’s Lateline on 27 June, John Hewson, who is no longer in politics and who usually gives a balanced commentary, mouthed ‘control freak’ time and again. The slogan had firmly stuck in his mind, and he worked it relentlessly. Yet what evidence has been proffered to support the ‘control freak’ mantra? It seems that all that can be gleaned so far is that written statements for distribution to the public are cleared through Rudd’s office.

Is that unreasonable, is it a serious restriction? Or is it a sensible approach to transmitting consistent messages to the public? Alternatives to ‘control freak’ could have been ‘having his finger on the pulse’, or ‘aware of everything that is going on’, or ‘directing traffic’, but they would not have had the desired affect that pejorative labelling achieves. Slogans and mantras are used because they work. Start a catchy slogan and soon many will be mindlessly repeating it. It doesn’t have to have much or even any substance, so long as it sounds believable. Look out for the latest Nelson quip: “Mr Rudd is all backswing, no follow through.”

Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?

Those who despise adversarial politics find it to be contemptible, a damaging affliction on our political system. They resent the stifling impediments it places on governing, on governments carrying out what they promised the electorate they would do. They see it as focused on ‘winning’, on gaining a political advantage, rather than telling or establishing the truth, or contributing usefully to the discourse. It sets the teeth of the electorate on edge, which ‘turns off’ in despair. Voters would prefer politicians to be open and upfront, more focussed on the good of the nation, less willing to corrupt the usually-worthy principles that brought them into politics in the first place. Adversarial politics may be an important reason the public has turned away from politics and has become cynical about the motivation and behaviour of politicians.

Is there an antidote?

One would hope there might be. In the new series on ABC TV, Q&A, opposing politicians have shown that free from their party’s line they can discuss all manner of topics sensibly and sensitively. Although they lapse occasionally into party slogans and indulge in point scoring, most of the time they show how productively they are able to work together. What a joy  it is to hear politicians of different persuasions agreeing with one another, or giving credit. We are told that this is often the case when they are off-camera in parliament in routine debate. Why could this not be the norm? Political discourse would be so much more productive and creative if deliberations were more collaborative, more mutually cooperative, more accommodating; if the good ideas from all sides were accepted, acknowledged and pooled.

What can we ordinary citizens do? We might be able to bring about change if we, who pay our politicians’ wages via taxes, raise our voices against the use of exaggerated, depreciatory, derogatory and dishonest language by politicians, commentators and columnists. While the media might miss the theatre and the good copy adversarial politics provides, the public would applaud a more measured approach, free from the burden of adversarial behaviour – so wasteful, so unproductive, so distasteful. We could write to our parliamentarians individually. Or GetUp could get up a petition – it might attract strong support. Responders to this piece may have other suggestions. Sadly though, if history tells us anything, any change for the better is probably a vain hope.

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Awaiting the awakening-The Media and Kevin Rudd

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 23, 2008

By Ad astra

All of us see the world through the lenses of our own unique spectacles, finely honed over time by our background, beliefs and biases. How we view the world affects our judgements. Thus we should not be surprised that what journalists write reflects their unique biases. But could it be that it is not only the lenses through which they view the world that are giving them a biased reading, but also that their unfamiliarity with the new political order is distorting their view? In a piece dated 16 June: The rats’ problem with Rudd, The Piping Shrike says: “… it is pretty evident that the press does not understand what Rudd is about.” The article is well worth reading.

Most columnists have worked through the Howard era, some from the beginning. They witnessed a politician emerge from a political bloodbath to lead his party to four election victories. They saw him mature and gradually settle into a style of leadership and pattern of behaviour, which although not necessarily applauded, became the accepted paradigm. His actions became predictable, his style familiar, and his way of doing things accepted as the norm. Along comes Kevin Rudd. From his first day as leader he slipped into election mode. Conscious of the daily and weekly news cycles, already familiar with breakfast TV, and experienced in the workings of the public service, he set about fashioning messages for the media throughout its cycles. This was sustained throughout the official election campaign period and continues to this day. So much so that one journalist recently caustically commented that Kevin Rudd was still acting like the Leader of the Opposition, which sounds like code for ‘Kevin Rudd is still in election mode.’ John Howard, the norm by which journalists have been accustomed to judging events, would not be behaving like this. So Kevin Rudd must be ‘abnormal’. Could it be that Kevin Rudd’s media modus operandi is now the norm, and that this will continue to the next election? If so, columnists need to get used to it and adjust their perceptions and judgements to the new reality, instead of indulging in what The Piping Shrike terms ‘analysis-by-history’, or what Marshall McLuhan would have termed ‘driving while looking in the rear-view mirror’.

Many commentators have ridiculed what they see as Kevin Rudd’s focus on process, when after all, ‘it’s outcomes that count’. Educators and businessmen know that the outcomes they desire are the product of sound process. So they get the process right in order to achieve their outcomes. Political processes include enquiries, committee deliberations, reviews, assessments and such events as the 2020 Summit where opportunities to ‘think outside the square’ are provided, where new ideas provide the basis for debate. Could it be that for Rudd such processes ARE the message? Are journalists who criticize ‘process’ as familiar as they ought to be with the importance of sound process in rational decision making, and how it influences political outcomes, or are they still in Howard-era mode where there was less emphasis on process? The 10 billion water plan and the NT intervention were two initiatives characterized by minimal process – little consultation and short preparation time for what were major undertakings with far reaching effects. John Howard was lauded by some as ‘action man’. By way of contrast, examples of process-intensive initiatives of the Rudd Government are the Ken Henry review of the tax system and the Ross Garnaut report on climate change. These processes address complex issues that take time to digest. Columnists need to adjust to this level of complexity and the time frame needed for satisfactory completion of such projects instead of rashly applying to Rudd the pejorative slogan ‘all talk but no action’. Process IS action.

In the same breath they disparage Rudd’s ‘lack of long term planning’. If the following are not long-term planning, what are they? The Henry tax review, the Garnaut report, the review of Federal and State health services, the so-called digital education revolution, Infrastructure Australia that met this month, the NT one year progress report just out, the push to tackle obesity as well as excessive drinking, and a response by year-end to the outcomes of the 2020 Summit, and so on the long list goes. So many in the media either don’t see this as long term planning, or chose deliberately to ignore it so as not to undermine their ‘no long term plan’ mantra. They seem unable to comprehend that a government can have a short term agenda to match the daily and weekly media cycles AND simultaneously have a comprehensive set of long terms plans that unfold over time. The media has habitually looked to the May Budget as the prime indicator of the Government’s agenda, but after the first Rudd/Swan budget they seemed to be left wondering. They need seriously to also look elsewhere.

Not satisfied with criticizing the Rudd focus on process, they also criticize what they see as a LACK of process. Greg Sheridan in his June 12 piece in The Australian titled The new Mad Hatter scathingly described Kevin Rudd’s recent foreign policy initiatives as “…utterly amorphous content on the run, half baked, with no detail and no credible prospect of success.” The tenor of the article was cringing, expressing as it did discomfort with a PM who is not afraid to state his views on the world stage, is willing to take the initiative as a middle power leader, is prepared to express his vision for international diplomacy, and has the courage of his convictions. Notwithstanding Sheridan’s predictions of failure, Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda said he was “deeply impressed” by Rudd’s remarks in his Kyoto speech about regional cooperation and security, and Indonesian President Yudhoyono expressed similar sentiments. Clearly Kevin Rudd has a different approach to foreign affairs than did John Howard. In initiatives where other nations are involved, he seemingly prefers to promote ideas rather than offer a detailed plan, and then seek a response, in this instance via an envoy, Richard Woolcott. If much detail had been woven around the proposal before it was promulgated, would columnists have then been writing condemnatory pieces accusing Rudd of pre-empting proper debate among the nation states affected?

Those who have sneeringly referred to Rudd’s foreign policy announcements as ‘thought bubbles’ need to realize that in international affairs Rudd’s focus is to initiate a process and await the outcomes. While it’s reasonable to critique Rudd’s approach, journalists should view it not against the Howard approach, but instead adjust to the reality of a new paradigm for foreign policy.

Rudd’s comment that the G8 nations should apply the blow torch to OPEC to produce more oil evoked ridicule from the media and the Opposition, but by so doing he successfully reinforced his internationalization of the oil crisis in the eyes of his domestic audience, and underscored the relative impotence of individual governments to do much about it. Most of the media seemed to miss this. Many journalists are critical of Rudd’s ‘failure’ to tell the public unequivocally that petrol prices will continue to rise, and accuse him in advance of cowardice and lack of resolve to bite the bullet on the cost to voters of emissions trading. They seem not to ask themselves why he would do that ahead of the receipt of the Garnaut report. To oblige journalists digging for a dramatic headline? One can imagine it: ‘Rudd admits petrol costs will skyrocket when his Government introduces emissions trading’. Any prudent politician would want to handle this potentially explosive issue thoughtfully, and prepare the public incrementally for the unpleasant news so that successful adaptation can occur. As an aside, George Megalogenus believes the public may be more aware of this than is acknowledged by many journalists; adaptation may be achieved more readily than imagined.

To sum up, this piece suggests that some, but not all of the media have failed to recognize the modus operandi of the Rudd Government, and even when they have, feel uncomfortable with it after almost 12 years of the Howard Government and are therefore unwilling to acknowledge or accept it. They live in a past age when everything was different and easier to understand. Moreover, they may resent Rudd calling the media tune when they have done that for so long. So we should not be surprised at the top-of-the-front-page story in The Weekend Australian on 21 June: Anger builds around Rudd as chaos reigns at the top, a story replicated in several other papers. Forget the content, which is insubstantial and in places confected, the real message is that a large and influential section of the Fourth Estate has targeted Kevin Rudd’s character, style and behaviour, painting it as deeply flawed. It is hard to see any motive for this other than to diminish him and thereby erode his popularity with the people. Expect more of this.

Finally, a 19 June article in The Possum Box by Changa’s Boots, Australian attack bloggers and the Overton Window , suggests a more sinister process may be at work, at least among journalists who take extreme positions. In the Overton Window, what might look like unintentional bias is a deliberate attempt to make less extreme positions seem ‘middle ground’ and therefore more acceptable – a cynical mind-game, undertaken for covert political purposes. If this is the tactic of Australia’s ‘extreme’ writers, we have in our midst a menacing, calculated process to influence public thinking, almost in the manner of mass indoctrination, George Orwell style. This would be much more damaging to democracy than uninformed or biased journalism, about which we protest so much.

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A Gambler’s Take on the US Election

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 19, 2008

By The Political Tipster

One of the benefits of living in the UK and commentating on the US Election is that I am actually able to back up my views with hard cash. In my case I have already made a decent return of 24% on my model portfolio since September and won over £1,000 (with £500 of that already hedged) on other accounts. Now, I’ll admit that most of that comes from buying McCain in early September when he was around 20/1 to win the Republican nomination. However, I believe that my take on the election is better than the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the punditry or the so-called ‘wisdom of crowds’ that the betting markets like to kid themselves that they have. Although my belief, expressed on my web-log ( immediately after ‘Wrightgate’ that Obama only had a 10% chance of winning this year’s election was probably too extreme, I believe that McCain has about a 70% chance of winning with the plausible outcomes, excluding some scandal or tragedy, ranging from a McCain landslide to a narrow Obama victory.

Now Obama does have several advantages. The American economy is in extremely poor shape while in the longer term the American education system is mediocre and America’s competitive advantage is being sapped by wasteful spending in some areas and underinvestment in others. Although the thirty year period of global economic re-adjustment that has led to stagnant wages, as an unfortunate by-product of lower inflation, may have reached its peak there is a sense that the idea of ‘drowning government in a bathtub’, as advocated by the tax activist Grover Norquist, is over. Indeed, the conservative journal National Review Online railed against what it termed as ‘no government anarchism’ after one Republican Presidential debate last year. Obama has youth, the groundbreaking nature of his candidacy and an active bottom up organisation on his side. In contrast McCain’s organisation is pathetic and his staff have neither strategy, vision or organisation. Indeed, McCain’s staff seem to be trying him to get him to act like the dog in James Thurber’s short story, afraid to attack Obama because of a perceived backlash, afraid to move to the centre because that would offend the ‘base’ and most importantly afraid of mentioning the war in Iraq, even though McCain actually leads on this issue in the polls. There is also Bush’s desperate unpopularity to contend with as well.

On the other hand you could argue that on any objective reading on the contest McCain is the better candidate. While Obama trundled around in Chicago and Illinois local politics, getting his hands dirty and achieving little, few would dispute that McCain has a record of achievement, both as a War Hero and as someone who has been involved with many huge events, such as his support for the war in Kosovo, campaign finance reform, the compromise on judges that enabled the Senate to function and most famously the ‘surge’ strategy in Iraq. He has a large following among independents and some conservative minded Democrats, as evidenced by the endorsement of Joe Lieberman last December. In contrast, not only is Obama inexperienced but he also seems to have a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the majority of Americans. His has made repeated number of gaffes such as; his assertion  that Iran does not post a threat, that people are ‘clinging to guns and religion’ and his longstanding association with characters such as William Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and others raise serious questions about the type of foreign policy an Obama administration would pursue.

In my mind this election could either go one of two ways; firstly it could be a repeat of 1972 where Richard Nixon won a landslide victory over George McGovern or it could be a repeat of 1976 where Gerald Ford managed to pull back from a thirty point deficit to nearly shock the nation by beating Jimmy Carter. At the moment the majority of the parallels seem to be with the Ford-Carter contest of ’76. However, when one factors in the idea that Bush isn’t quite as unpopular as Nixon (at least not yet), the fact that the experience of the Carter administration is still fresh in people’s minds and that McCain still has time to return to the centre on domestic issues, go on the offensive over Iraq, reorganise his campaign staff or to surprise everyone by picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate (available at a generous 20/1 from Ladbrokes), an outcome that is closer to the Nixon landslide is definitely possible. This makes a McCain victory a value bet.

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