Monday, May 24, 2010

On the QT: People talking without speaking.

Today Question Time was not the only political game in town. This morning Senate Estimates began its two-week cavalcade of fun and delights for political nerds across the country. Over at the Environment, Communications and the Arts Committee, Senator Eric Abetz was getting stuck into the ABC over its use of Lego in the staff cafeteria, designed to boost creativity. So meticulous is Abetz in his questions that he was even demanding to know just how many pieces of Lego were in each box.

But he was just getting started, and he soon moved on to the ABC’s news blog, The Drum, demanding to know why climate change denier Bob Carter wasn’t allowed to have all his articles published on the website. Abetz then had a go at the Science editor of the ABC, Robyn Williams, attacking him for making statements against climate change flat-earthers. Abetz suggested that Williams did not display an “enquiring, scientific mind”. Of course Abetz knows all about enquiring minds, given he was completely duped by Godwin Grech last year in estimates…

Abetz then moved on to good ole’ political bias argument in the ABC by the likes of Tony Jones on Lateline. Abetz pointed out that in interviews with Joe Hockey, Jones spoke for 42% of the time, but in interviews with Wayne Swan he speaks only 26% of the time. Yes, this means that some fool in Abetz’s office has actually counted the words in the interviews and worked out the percentages. No doubt he wrote it all up in a file called, “Dumb things I did today”. But for Abetz, this was all part of the broader “systemic bias” of the ABC.  My Goodness! Systemic?! Better get someone scientific onto that, last thing we’d want is that to spread like happens with stupidity during an Estimates hearing…

To change the subject entirely, up next was Lib Senator Mathius Cormann. He took took things up a notch, wanting to know why the ABC news on twitter was commenting on Tony Abbott’s Budget in Reply speech using the hashtag “#budgies”. For those non-tweeting folk among you, hashtags are used on twitter to enable the tweets on certain subjects to be followed by anyone – even those who don’t follow particular users. So, for example, anyone tweeting on Master Chef will use “#masterchef”, anyone tweeting on a certain footy game may use a hashtag like “#aflpiescrows”. Thus you can click on the link “#aflpiescrows” and see every tweet being made on that subject.

These hashtags usually occur organically – no one can really decide them, they just seem to happen. In the case of #budgies, a tweeter, “Super Opinion” came up with the idea, and it took off like all good ideas do. The ABC in using the hashtag was just being part of the conversation – in effect ensuring it was being heard in the place with the most eyeballs. The discussion of #budgies in Estimates sparked off a bit of a debate on Twitter as well, until everyone quickly realised this was a discussion about a hashtag on twitter. Yep. A hashtag. On twitter. In the grand scheme of things it did not exactly scream importance, in fact I doubt there is little more ephemeral and pointless as discussing twitter hashtags. No doubt journalism students may discuss the merits of the ethics of a news organisation using a hashtag that is humorous, but for Senate Estimates? Please. The phrase, “Pointless waste of everyone’s time” springs to mind.

shackeldSpeaking of which: on to Question Time!

Question Time today could be subtitled “The Graduate”, because a good many of the questions were about a research paper cited yesterday by Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard titled “Do Multinationals or Domestic Firms Face Higher Effective Tax Rates?” The paper is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and is co-written by Prof Douglas Shackleford (on the right) who is the “Meade H. Willis Distinguished Professor of Taxation of Accounting” at the University of North Carolina, and who has a pretty extensive publication list and Kevin S. Markle, a PHD student. 

Swan and Gillard stated that the paper showed that multinational mining firms (eg BHP, Rio Tinto) paid a lower effective tax rate than domestic mining firms, and that that effective tax rate is quite a bit lower than many other countries in the OECD.

Did Andrew Robb try and destroy the argument with reason and logic? Of course not – instead he attacked the authors. Or should I say, author. He completely ignored Prof Shackleford, and focussed on Markle. On AM this morning, Robb described the paper as:

Well, I've seen the paper it's a working paper by a graduate student at North Carolina University. It's used, you know, data from all over the world. They've spent five pages of assumptions how they sought to correct that data. This is the shonkiest piece of work you've ever seen….

This, this Government's unravelling before our eyes, the desperation of this move, to go out there and get a kid's piece of work from the United States, a North Carolina University

Well having seen Robb’s supposed budget “cuts”, I’d have to suggest he would be the expert on shonky pieces of work.

Kevin_Markle_464_web2x3But let’s be honest, this type of pig-ignorant, knuckle-dragging mindset against academic work is the Liberal Party’s bread and butter. Remember back in 2007 when Joe Hockey attacked a study done by the academics at the University of Sydney into WorkChoices? Joe Hockey at the time said it was “the same old flawed research from the same old union academics”. When attacked by academic research, the Liberal Party does not counter with logic and reason, they attack the author.

By Question Time things were ramping up. Robb in one question referenced Markle as “a graduate”, then in another he was an “undergraduate”, then finally just “a student”, had question time gone on any longer the poor guy would have been struggling to get out of kindergarten. Now here’s a tip Andrew Robb, go into a room full of PhD students and call them “undergraduates” and see if you get out alive. And here’s another tip – ask any Professor if they put their name to just any old student paper? They don’t, believe me. And here’s one final tip Robb, have a look at Markle (on the left), and ask yourself if he looks like “a kid”.

Some people in the media for some reason keep saying Robb has credibility and good judgement. For mine, I have never seen any of this in evidence. To me he is a plodder, who when under pressure and when trying to make a point generally allows ignorance to come to the fore and intelligence to stay in the basement of his mind.

Interestingly by Question Time, a number of media outlets had gotten in touch with Prof. Shakleford. Here’s what he said:

"The paper is joint work between Mr Markle, who will soon graduate from the UNC [University of North Carolina] PhD program, and me. So, charges that it is just a graduate student's paper are erroneous."

Shakleford conceded that there were limitations to using the paper for formulating policy. And that’s fine – but Robb did not try and explain any of these limitations with any even handedness, he merely attacked Merkle (and not of course Shakleford). It was pathetic work, that was treated with the scorn it deserved in Question Time. Swan and Rudd swatted away Robb and Julie Bishop’s questions on the topic with ease. Rudd even came up with a snappy line at Bishop when she questioned the figures Swan and Gillard had cited, saying he welcomed “the Member for Curtin’s new found interest in accuracy”.

[UPDATE: Economist, Joshua Gans has also written about Robb’s line of attack:

Wow. This displays such an astounding level of ignorance that it is beyond belief. First, the paper is co-authored with a leader in the field and so is hardly some isolated bit of student work. Moreover, how does he know who did the work? That appears a baseless assertion. Second, as a result, the paper was put out as a working paper by the NBER. You don’t get to be an NBER associate easily. What is more, the NBER has, as part of its DNA, to place a dispassionate view of the facts without policy advocacy. I should know. I am visiting the NBER at the moment and this gets told to us at every opportunity for anything the NBER publishes. Third, that really means something. The NBER’s existence is to provide evidence to assist in policy-making. It has done it for many decades and is by far the most respected economic organisation in the world. And it is hardly made up of amateurs.]

The interesting thing about Question Time is always the line of attack by the opposition and who asks the questions. Today the attack was on the RSPT, but Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey each asked only one question. Abbott, perhaps wary of the Government being able to get up a running line on his 7:30 Report answer about not being able to trust what he says, kept a low profile. And Joe Hockey only asked one question about something on the ATO website that really did not cut to the heart of anything – in fact I pretty much tuned out half way through. It was interesting that it the week after the Budget and the Liberal’s response that the two supposed leaders of the economic side of the party kept quiet. (Ok, I’m being harsh – no one would ever suggest Abbott is an economic leader).

The Liberal’s tactics were not too poor today – at least they did keep to one topic – but it was badly done. Ian Macfarlane for example asked a question that seemed to attack the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax which was rather odd given that the Liberal Party did nothing to get rid of it in the eleven years they were in office. It merely served to gave Rudd a very easy line of attack.

On the Dorothy Dixer front, the ALP was hammering away on the RSPT, and Hockey and Robb’s budget “cuts” – Tanner had fun pointing out that in the 2 page document the Libs had the fine print line stating: “All previous commitments have been discontinued” which was a rather euphemistic way of saying they’d dumped a stack of policies. Chris Bowne came out later and pointed out they had dumped one policy that was only a month old!

There was also Marn Fersn talking about something to do with the mnng indstry and their grbby choreogarthy (or something) and the Gvmnt’s cmmtmnt to the mnng indstry and Chnese invstmnt. I think.

But the best Dorothy of the day goes to Nicola Roxon for producing a photo of the opening of a GP Super Clinic in Liberal MP, Bob Baldwin’s electorate. The photo showed Bob with his arm around Nicola and to rub it in, she had gotten the photo framed and presented it to him as a gift. She walked across to his spot on the opposition front bench and gave it to him, whereupon he gave her a friendly hug. It was a great moment, that had both sides laughing, and it was a pity that such bipartisan enjoyment had to be interrupted with more Robb idiocy.

It was only late in the day’s proceeding that Greg Hunt got up to ask Rudd about the insulation scheme and the fact that a group of insulation workers had come to Parliament House to protest the Government's scrapping of the scheme. Rudd’s answer was very rote-like – showing that this is one issue he is not comfortable with – no doubt the consequence of dumping it for political expediency rather than defending what had actually been a pretty successful program (if you look at the facts and not the media hysteria). 

The last opposition question was Chris Pyne, back on his old favourite of reading out whatever is written in The Australian on the Building the Education Revolution, and talking about costs per square metre. Julia chided him for plagiarism, saying he should have at least cited The Oz, and then showed some photos of her own of happy people at openings of buildings around the country – lamenting that one Liberal MP had instead sent a staffer – no doubt out of fear of getting the Bob Baldwin treatment.

For the Liberal Party, the only thing that gets them hotter under the collar than being photographed at a BER opening is to read an academic paper that doesn’t support their argument. So on that score, the Orgill Report is going to cause half the Liberal Front Bench to self-combust.


Mac Yourselfathome said...

God Abetz got me bothered and stabby today.
Never let a well worn presumption get in the way of a fact. This is Estimates for God's sake. He's on the tax payers clock here.

L said...

and then showed some photos of her own of happy people at openings of buildings around the country – lamenting that one Liberal MP had instead sent a staffer

Was it that guy who spent Robb's Press Club speech standing at the back and making cut-throat motions? If I was Robb I'd make sure he got sent to every building-opening event in the country for the next five years.

PAPASAN said...

from USA can't wait for your next blog. Does the Oz report anything along these lines????

Chris Owens said...

Id love to be able to watch question time and senate estimates but alas I have to work. So instead I get to watch the twitter stream and I think for the most part it conveys an accurate impression of the infantile behaviour of some of the participants. I cannot believe, well I can believe, but I am gobsmacked that this venerable institution should worry itself over lego and #budgies. Dear me. And Mathias Cormman showed his ignorance regarding twitter by suggesting the ABC had some control over the hashtag used. Even Mark Scott's suggestion that #budgies would have been chosen by some other journalist smacked of arrogance, but at least he had the good grace to admit later on twitter that he was wrong. But why it should even come up is a mystery to me.
I notice that Andrew Robb makes no mention of having done a Phd on his website, nor uses the term Dr., so I can only assume that he has not attained this educational achievement. Perhaps if he had he would have more respect for others who do.
However, the message that this was a uni student's work will probably filter through to some in the electorate, unfortunately.