Monday, November 3, 2008

Opinionated fact

There was an interesting opinion piece by Glenn Milne in today's The Australian. And by interesting, I mean interesting to see how a supposedly top journalist uses facts.

The premise of his article was that, based on the turnover of staff in the Ministerial offices, the Government was running its staff ragged, and the Government itself was off the rails.

The fact Milne cites is that "in the seven months from January to August, the Government lost 63 personal staff and 27 DLOs." (DLOs are Departmental Liaison Officers - public servants working in the Ministerial office for 12 months as a conduit between the advisers and the department.)

What Milne fails to mention is that this rate of turnover is more or less par for the course in the first year of a new government. Often public servants will take on a role of advisor to assist in the transition. I know personally of one public servant who was asked to act as an advisor for a Minister until a permanent one was appointed. From memory she held the job from just after the election till around February - meaning she would be one of the number Milne is using to establish burn out.

The same exists for DLOs. Usually when a government changes, the DLOs change. Sometimes this can take a while, and thus it would not have been unusual for the old DLO to stay on board until the new DLO takes up the position (which could have been as late as February). Some of course find the hours too much - when parliament is sitting, you can be expected to stick around till late - and thus will quit and go back to the Department and the standard public servant hours.

And yet Milne comes out with the following:

The Government will say that some of those DLO appointments were anyhow temporary secondments, but the unusually high number of public servants going through the revolving doors that are Rudd ministers' offices suggests that if you aren't a fierce Labor loyalist, there's not much to like about working for this Government.

Fierce Labor loyalist? Well for a start DLOs are public servants and thus are not there to do political advisory type roles - indeed they should be neutral (though of course often people will only agree to take the role if they have some sympathy for the Government's policy - but not necessarily). Secondly, the Minister's office does not revolve around the DLO, so I wouldn't be too concerned if they were being worked hard, there's always someone in the Department more than happy enough to take on the role (it looks pretty good on the CV).

Milne also focuses on Chiefs of Staff:

Since January, the administration has cast off five chiefs of staff, all from critically important portfolios. Those chiefs of staff worked for the following ministers: Prime Minister (David Epstein), Health Minister (Michael Reid), Defence Minister (Daniel Cotterill), Foreign Affairs Minister (Paul Grigson) and Climate Change Minister (David Fredericks).

Milne decides to point out some reality:

To be fair, Fredericks is now deputy chief of staff to the PM, and Grigson, a career Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer, never wanted the job of chief of staff to Stephen Smith.

But he neglects to mention Epstein took on the role of Rudd's CoS purely as a short term role, as reported when he resigned:

"Originally Kevin and I came up with a scam that I'd stay for literally a week after the poll, win, lose or draw," Mr Epstein told AAP. On the cusp of Labor's November 24 election win, Mr Epstein decided to stay on a little longer.

Instead Milne carries on:

Nevertheless, this does not detract from the bigger picture: five cabinet ministers have been disrupted by the departure of a chief of staff.

Well yes, but Milne himself established that 1 of the 5 has moved up to work with Rudd, 1 other was purely only a temp position anyway, and he has also ignored Epstein who was also a temp. So that brings it down to 2 Chiefs of Staff have left for unknown reasons. Hardly a flood...

But still never let Milne pause for logic to take hold; rather he prefers to throw in the following line:

Apart from the loss of valuable corporate memory, the thing about this killer pace is that it does not lead to good decision-making. Witness the bank deposits guarantee, which has run off the rails for want of thinking through the implications for other financial institutions.

Well for a start the bank deposits guarantee was a decision made by the Strategic and Budget Committee of Cabinet on the advice of Treasury, the RBA and APRA not "the bunch of 20-somethings who don't have families" (as Milne describes the remaining Ministerial staff); and second it has not gone off the rails. He fails to point out that half of the management funds froze their accounts BEFORE the Government guaranteed bank deposits. As reported in the SMH:

Of the 69 individual funds that have been frozen in some way, 36 closed up shop after the guarantee was introduced on October 12, affecting $15 billion of investor funds. All the big names have imposed restrictions on withdrawals, including Perpetual, AXA, Challenger, Australian Unity, AMP Capital and APN.

So 36 froze after, meaning 33 had already frozen when the Government acted on Oct 12. Hardly gives one the ability to suggest it's all the fault of the Government then - though of course Julie Bishop does, today she said:

If the Government had not put in place an unlimited guarantee in the first place this would never have occurred.

No word yet though whether she said the words or just read what someone else had written for her...

Then again Bishop has also come out today and said this of the Government's IR legislation:

"The Government should rethink its roll back of workplace relations reforms," she said.
"The Government should pull the unfair dismissal legislation that it is proposing to impose on small businesses across Australia. The laws that Labor are proposing are job destroying."

The opposition IR spokesman, Michael Keenan, must just love her saying that, especially as last Friday he said:

"When the electorate delivers you a verdict on a particular policy, you don't turn around and argue the toss with them," he said. "We therefore accept that the Government has a right to make changes to our workplace relations system in keeping with the policy announced prior to the last election."

After he said that I was worried how the ALP would be able to use IR as a political weapon - so thank you Julie Bishop for giving Julia Gillard a huge stick with which to beat the opposition all Question Time next week... (my tip - Bishop will be moved out of the Treasury position over the Christmas break - bold I know, but it's what I would do were I Turnbull).

But I digress. Back to Glenn Milne.

He ends with this anecdote:

I interviewed Rudd a few weeks back. It was a generally gregarious affair. But I could not help but take note of the number of times he referred details of questions I'd put to him to his staff for further checking with ministers.

It's not that I didn't appreciate the attention to detail and accuracy. But as I walked out of the PM's office at 8pm that day, it struck me how many staffers and ministers would be chasing up Rudd's requirements in order to get back to me when I would have been satisfied with broadly political answers.

So Milne is criticising Rudd for not giving him the standard guff, but actually being determined to give the journalist the accurate details. Bizarre - Milne in effect is saying Rudd should be more evasive. Inconceivable.

He then ends with this little opinion disguised as fact:

In Canberra, bureaucrats are amazed at the disconnect between Rudd's poll figures and what they see as a largely dysfunctional Government. The breakdown of staff turnover suggests it's the bureaucrats who have got it right.

Really? How many have you asked Glenn? What's your sample size?

This type of line is the same as the bull perpetuated last year when journos like Milne would say the Howard Government is doing a good job, and the polls didn't really make sense in those good economic times.

Thankfully the Government doesn't just have to satisfy Milne's public servant drinking buddies. Since Rudd has taken over the leadership of the ALP, the ALP has won every single poll. Since the financial crisis really broke his standing has improved and the ALP is certainly not losing any support.

Look, I don't think Rudd's work style is perfect. I certainly don't think his office is perfect - it does seem to be lacking a Leo McGarry - an old friend who is perhaps the only one around who can tell Rudd that an idea of his stinks. (But then one hopes Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan or Lindsay Tanner can do that). I do think there should be larger numbers in the office.

However, Milne's article is not analysis, and it's not good journalism. He has taken data and assumed it proves his own assumptions. I realise it was placed under the "opinion" banner in The Australian. Yet, no doubt his assumption in it will find its way into his articles written under the guise of "journalism", and presented as statistical fact. Journalists more and more want to be commentators when it pleases them, and assume the readers are aware of which hat they are wearing.

It's why I like Peter Martin's approach. He writes economic journalism for The Age, and has his own blog which will have opinion. He will often include his Age articles on the blog, but I have yet to see the opinions from his blog surface in The Age.

The mixing of opinion writer and journalist means that it gets to the point where The Australian's political affairs editor Dennis Shanahan can get described on Lateline as a "conservative commentator". For mine such a situation is worse than the cash for comment scandal of talk-back radio hosts; it's hard for readers to know when opinion ends and journalism starts - unlike the radio hosts, Milne and co aren't trying to flog off the latest range of Toyotas.

No comments: