Saturday, March 28, 2009

Perception and reality

So last night I write a long piece about how the Liberal Party are trying to appeal to people's basest instincts by banging on about China. Was I being too critical? Was I seeing strategy where there was nothing but coincidence?


This morning in The Australian, the chief Liberal Party barracker from the Canberra Press Gallery, Dennis Shanahan, writes an opinion piece titled:

Labor suffers from China syndrome

Here's how it starts:
THE Rudd Government knows it's got a real perception problem with China, thanks to the ill-timed bumbling of and carelessness of Joel Fitzgibbon.

The Defence Minister's undeclared trips to China come as China is doing everything it can to take a huge stake in Australia's natural resources; after Kevin Rudd's "secret meeting" with China's propaganda chief has made a bad impression; as the Prime Minister's longstanding Sinophilia makes people suspicious; and as Australia is championing Chinese efforts for a greater say within the IMF.

Note the words used: the Government "knows" - oh really Dennis? "perception problem" - ie not a real problem, but well you know politics is perception. Notice how he uses "secret meeting" in inverted commas, because it wasn't really secret - Shanahan is just using them to show that how it is perceived as being. He also states that the PM's long standing Sinophilia (surely there are medications to treat that?) "makes people suspicious". Really Dennis - any proof? Any data? No of course not.

The rest of the short article provides no evidence that Rudd or anyone in the Government is doing anything wrong with respect to China. He can't even point to a poor decision made about China. So what does he end with?

The Government's got a perception problem, Fitzgibbon's made it worse but there still isn't a Manchurian candidate. Dealing with China is part of the new world.

You see it's all about "perception". Perception is one of Shanahan's favourite words. In 2007, before the election he would write how Rudd must overcome perceptions that the ALP are poor economic managers, the perception that the ALP is controlled by unions, the perception that Rudd is "me too", the perception that Rudd is "all style". The day after the election he just changed the perceptions:

While making it clear yesterday he had been careful not to promise what he couldn't deliver there is a clear perception that he cares about and can address rising grocery prices, housing affordability, childcare costs and inflation.

With a continuing mining boom, which isn't about to end soon despite Rudd's warnings, and a Christmas shopping boom, inflation and, hence, interest rates are likely to continue rising.

Workers are also likely to expect wage rises after Howard's industrial relations laws are repealed, which is another problem with expectations.

You've got to love the brilliant economic forecast of the second sentence (elsewhere in the article he wrote: "Using a prosperous economy, a China-led mining boom that will persist for years... - but look I shouldn't be too harsh, no one predicted the end of the boom - but Shanahan should perhaps remember his own words sometimes).

But look at the perception and expectations "problems" that Dennis tries to create on Day 1 of the Government! Last year he kept it up:

The real difficulty for Rudd is not so much a 14-point shift in relative satisfaction and dissatisfaction in just two weeks, nor even his worst position against Nelson as preferred prime minister; it’s the perception he made a promise he hasn’t delivered. The Prime Minister’s obsession since the election has been to deliver on all his election promises, to keep faith with the electorate and to distance himself from the technique of John Howard, who made a promise on interest rates in 2004 he couldn’t and didn’t keep.

Instead, Rudd’s been caught on exactly the same sticky paper of creating an impression he could keep petrol prices lower while explicitly salting the election campaign with refusals to guarantee a result.

He was so successful in creating the impression he would do something about lowering grocery, petrol and mortgage levels, people believed he’d promised to do it.

And I wonder who fed those perceptions? Why Dennis Shanahan of course - as we have seen he started doing it on Day 1 of the Government.

Shanahan's reporting on this is similar to the line by Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister about a tactic for criticising a report is to say "its conclusions have been questioned". Jim Hacker then asks, what if they haven't been questioned? Sir Humphrey replies - "Then question them! - Then they have".

The fact is perception is to critics of the Government like potential is to parents of kids who are good at sport. Often you will hear parents bang on about "her coach thinks she has the potential to play for Australia", or "the coach thinks he has the potential to make the Olympics in 2016".

As my Dad used to say, every kid has got the potential; doesn't make it true.

And as with Governments - every Government can have "perceived" problems - all you have to do is say them and they are now perceptions. Doesn't make them true.

In fact lets look at the "perception" that Joe Hockey talked about with all these ALP trips to China. The Sydney Morning Herald today revealed:

ALMOST one in four federal MPs have accepted free overseas travel worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from foreign governments, private companies and lobby groups in just 16 months since the last election.

An investigation by the Herald has found politicians from all parties have taken 109 trips abroad, often business or first class, and which frequently include all expenses.
China is the main destination with 19 visits, followed closely by Israel (15) and Taiwan and the US (both 14).

A Queensland Liberal MP, Michael Johnson, has enjoyed 13 trips to destinations such as Bali, Phuket, Egypt, Beijing, Vienna, Tibet and India, and he is due to travel again this weekend to Shanghai. Other frequent travellers were the former ministers Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile. Mr Vaile now works as a consultant for the company that paid for three of his trips.

Now that is the truth. Journalists would be good to remind Hockey of it, should he raise the perception issue again.

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