Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On the QT: Can I get a Stereotype Reinforced Edition

Having had meeting most of the afternoon I wasn’t able to watch any Question Time today, and when I got home I found that despite having taped Question Time, someone had accidentally hit the mute button on my Foxtel remote, meaning I was treated to Rudd, Turnbull et al opening their mouths and saying nothing.

Now for some that would be the best way to view Question Time, but I have to say I found the experience rather lacking in excitement. Fortunately I was able to get a recap off the many journalists and assorted political tragics who follow Question Time on twitter. Their commentary was, I am sure, much more lively than was the reality.

No doubt had I watched I would have seen the Libs go on and on about asylum seekers, without ever suggesting they themselves have a policy; and I would have heard the ALP talk all about climate change and the ETS because they are sick of talking about asylum seekers.

Not much missed then I guess.

An interesting political issue cropped up this morning, when a leaked email from Lib Senator, Michael Ronaldson's, advisor Peter Phelps (no, not the brother of Kerryn Phelps) which suggested that:

“You don't get news stories by trying to change perceptions, you get them by reinforcing stereotypes.

Stories worth pursuing should cover: "Fat cat public servants not caring about taxpayers, pollies with snouts in the trough, special interest groups getting undeserved handouts from tax taken from hard-working Aussies, a favoured pro-Labor contractor who seems to be getting all the work for a particular job etc.

While policy discussions are nice, the simple fact is that in opposition, the majority of our successful news stories are going to be ones which are a little quirky and which draw the attention of journos."

Essentially it meant dig for dirt, and forget policy. As you would expect the Government had a field day with it in parliament. Albanese got asked a Dorothy Dixer on the importance of email communications in business – in which he said “I shudder when I hear the words ‘Malcolm’, ‘Turnbull’ and ‘email’ in the same sentence” and generally had great fun at the Liberal's expense.

The fact is Phelps’s advise is hardly earth shattering, but that doesn’t mean you want it to be shown, because (as he points out so correctly) successful news stories are ones “which draw the attention of journos” and which “reinforce stereotypes”. This email did both.

The accompanying article by Matthew Franklin however left a little to be desired. It contained the following line:

Since taking the opposition leadership more than a year ago, Mr Turnbull has built his push for power on his economic policy credentials and has avoided personal attacks…. Despite Mr Turnbull's aspiration to provide policy-based leadership, the email, written to media advisers on September 8, advocated a low-road approach

What the hell??? Where was Franklin during the Godwin Grech affair? I challenge Franklin to come up with one policy that Turnbull has put forward. All I can think of is his small business tax loss right off thing…. and that was hardly a major policy – more a rinky-dink accountancy idea.

Turnbull has been the complete opposite of the policy wonk leader. Ask yourself what will Turnbull do if PM? How will he change your life – what will he do on health, education, immigration, infrastructure, social security, housing, the environment? Heck anything?! If you can do so without first having a squiz at the Liberal Party website, then you’re a better political watcher than I.

The asylum seeker “issue” is a case in point. The Liberals say Rudd has stuffed up, but they have zero suggestions of what should be done other than to hold an independent inquiry. What a crock; I have no problems with them playing the stereotypical line, but please, at least offer an alternative.

The asylum seeker issue is also a fine example of the accuracy of Phelps’s email – stereotypes. The media loves them. In fact the asylum seeker issue is manna from heaven for lazy newspaper editors, radio talk back hosts and commercial TV “current affairs” editors. You don’t have to have watched any episodes of Frontline to know how lazy media will approach the topic. Facts? pah! Give me a half truth, a cherry picked piece of data and let’s run with it all week long. (tis a pity there aren’t more articles on the issue like this from Sky news)

It’s why I hate the issue – the opposition acts like it matters, the Government reacts like it matters, and the media reports it like it matters. Here’s a question – there has been this “flood” of asylum seekers since April. Tell me in one sentence how your life has been changed by it. …

Need more time to think?

Guess what – your life hasn’t been changed at all by it; and here’s another “guess what” – people don’t change their votes on things that don’t actually affect their lives. All such things will do is reinforce perceptions already held, and firm their votes. The Liberal Party don’t want the polls to firm, they need them to change.

But Phelps’s advice has been taken up quite well by others on the Liberal front bench. Scott Morrison has put forward some stereotypical action on interest rates. It should first be noted that last Thursday Morrison was among those on the Liberal Party front bench who thought it so hilarious that the national police force of Canada are still called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – “Mounties!” they cackled. Yes it always does Australia good for the world to see its politicians laughing at the names of foreign law enforcement agencies…). Today in The Australian, Morrison said:

… government spending would drive up interest rates faster than those in other nations and that if the pace continued it would put increasing pressure on home owners. Those particularly affected would be people who bought homes with small deposits in the months leading up to last year's global financial crisis. "These are the ones going through the delinquencies and arrears process now," Mr Morrison said yesterday. "They are the ones who are really going to get squeezed."

The headline “Stimulus to hit Battlers” could have been a Liberal Party press release, and it played to the standard “let’s not think about facts” line often seen in the media with interest rates. The perception is a rise in interest rates is bad, and good luck finding anyone noting that if interest rates had gone down from the 3% cash rate that would have meant the economy was in serious, serious trouble, and that them going up meant things were looking like getting better (which you would think is a good thing). Morrison continued with this pearl of wisdom:

Mr Morrison said the government's refusal to wind back its spending on infrastructure, particularly in schools, was putting pressure on inflation and risked leading to increasing interest rates at a time battlers could least afford it.

Which begs the question, if the economy is cruising along nicely and doesn’t need the stimulus, why then is this a time “battlers could least afford it”? And why can’t battlers “least afford interest rates” that are a good 1.5%-2% below the 30 year average rate? Now look, I am no fan of high interest rates, and they can cause people to lose their homes, but does the Liberal Party seriously think the Government should be changing macroeconomic policy on the basis of people who took out a home loan when the cash rate was 3%, but who won’t be able to afford repayments if the rate goes to 5%?

Please. And here I thought the Liberal Party was the party of personal responsibility.

The final little interesting bit of news from the Liberal Party today came from the party room meeting it had with party director Brian Loughnane. It is instructive to view the comments reported to the media through the lens of Phelps’s email:

Mr Loughnane was asked by MPs what the community view was on an emissions trading scheme and he said it was clear voters want action on climate change but when it came to an emissions trading scheme the view became murkier because they weren’t exactly sure what it was. However, Mr Loughnane refused to detail what the Coalition’s polling said on the issue when he was directly asked by leading climate change sceptic Cory Bernardi.

Why not detail the polling? Well because then it would be revealed in the media, and one does not reveal polling that suggests things counter to the message one is trying to get across. So you can take it as read the polling suggests the public want the Libs to pass the ETS.

A final bit from the meeting was this:

The Liberal strategist also suggested that voters believed Mr Rudd made “hasty” decisions and that a key message for voters should be the “risk” of second term Labor government.

To which I would suggest the ALP are tonight popping champagne bottles, because it looks like the Liberal Party are still trying to win the 2007 election.

“The risk of the second term”??? Here’s a tip Brian - people are not going to be worried about the risks of Rudd being PM – he already is the PM!! If after 2 years of being PM the public still give him record level satisfaction rating, I don’t think there is a perception out there of him being “risky”.

But here’s another tip Brian – there is a leader who the voters think made a “hasty” decision this year. He leads the Liberal Party.

And trying to tag Rudd with that label isn’t going to change that perception.

Guess it’s time to for the Libs to find another stereotype to push, or failing that try something really radical – come up with a policy. I won’t hold my breath.

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