Monday, December 14, 2009

The Box Office Squeeze

This weekend in America, with the new Disney animated flick, The Princess and the Frog, going Number 1 at the box office, a record was broken. This year there have now been 43 different Number 1 films in America, beating the record of 42 set in 2003. Given that Avatar comes out this week, the record is sure to be increased (and Sherlock Holmes comes out the weekend after so there’s a chance the number might get to 45).

What this means is that each Number 1 on average only stayed at the top for around 8 days, before a new king comes in. This is a big change in the industry over the course of the last 20-25 years. In 1982, for example, there were only 17 different Number 1 films – which meant each one could count on average 21 days at the top of the box office before being relegated by a new leader.

The graph below shows the steady progression of the numbers of Number 1 films since 1982:


The inescapable fact is that the number has been growing, and will most likely keep growing closer to 52.

So what does this mean? Obviously this is nothing new for those in the film industry – in fact this fact is the bane of their existence, because what it means is that the window for getting your film into the cinema and making some money before the next blockbuster comes along is shrinking smaller and smaller with every passing year.

It means more and more emphasis is placed on the opening weekend.

You want to build word of mouth? Fughedaboudit. Unless you're Slumdog Millionaire and you’re going to win Best Picture, you’re stuffed, and even then, you better have made your film for nothing.

You have one weekend to make some money – in fact so well attuned in is the industry that by Friday afternoon (ie the opening afternoon) distributors will have a fair idea of how much money their film will make on that day, and thus they can extrapolate out for the whole weekend and then for the whole run of the film. They know before its opening night whether or not a film is going to be a hit, break even or be a dud.

Just look at the schedule of films that were Number 1 this year at the US box office in May to the end of July:

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Angels and Demons, Night at the Museum 2, Up, The Hangover (stayed there for 2 weeks), The Proposal, Transformers 2 (another that survived for 2 weeks), Bruno, Harry Potter 6, G-Force, Funny People.

That’s 14 weeks during the US summer and 12 different Number 1s! When a huge film like Harry Potter 6 can only stay at Number 1 for a week, you know the industry is cut throat.

Here’s a list of the films that hold the records for the most consecutive weeks in the US at Number 1:

2Beverly Hills Cop131984
4Home Alone121990
5Crocodile Dundee91986
6Good Morning, Vietnam91987
7Back to the Future81985
8Fatal Attraction81987
11On Golden Pond71981

What sticks out (apart from the realisation that Crocodile Dundee was bloody popular!) is that all of these save the phenomenal Titanic were made before 1990. So not even the super successful films are staying Number 1 for long.

The Dark Knight, with $533.3m at the US Box office, is Number two all-time box office earner in the US behind Titanic (not accounting for inflation). It was the biggest hit you could ever hope for if you ran a studio. In 1997, Titanic was Number 1 for 15 weeks. The Dark Knight? It was Number 1 at the box office for only 4 weeks. To put that in some perspective, in 1982 Porky’s was Number 1 in the US for 8 weeks. In 1984 the following films were Number 1 for 4 weeks or more: Beverly Hills Cop, Tightrope, Ghostbusters, Police Academy and Terms of Endearment. I can honestly say I have never even heard of Tightrope!

What we’re dealing with is a completely different ball game.

Here’s a list of the Number 1 films that accounted for the most of the box office of the top 12 films that weekend (ie we’re looking at the big sharks that ate all the pie)

RankFilm% of Top 12Year
1Spider-Man 383.30%2007
3Shrek the Third70.10%2007
4Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith68.80%2005
5Lethal Weapon 368.40%1992
6The Mummy Returns68.30%2001
8Shrek 266.10%2004
9The Lost World: Jurassic Park65.50%1997
10Iron Man65.50%2008

Here we see a reverse – almost all are from 2000 onwards. And to find a film from the 1980s we’d have to go all the way down the number 33 on the list, and Beverly Hills Cop II, which in its opening weekend in 1987 accounted for 56.4% of the top 12.

Imagine being a film that opened the same week at Spider-man 3. Lucky You – starring Eric Bana and Drew Barrymore did. It came 6th and made only $2.7m. The second biggest film that weekend was Disturbia (no I don’t remember it either), it had been Number 1 the week before; but in this weekend it made a mere $5.4m, a whole $145 million less than Spider-man 3.

So if the big guys are struggling to hold the audience, what hope the “little guys”? Well here’s the list of the 20 films that took the longest time to get to Number 1 (ie the ones that slowly built an audience through word of mouth):

1A Fish Called Wanda101988
2Absence of Malice91981
3On Golden Pond81981
5There's Something About Mary81998
8Driving Miss Daisy71989
9An Officer and a Gentleman61982
10Mr. Mom61983
11The Color Purple61985
12Four Weddings and a Funeral61994
14Gran Torino52008
15Paranormal Activity52009
16Sharky's Machine41981
17Jagged Edge41985
18Out of Africa41985
19Stand by Me41986
20Good Morning, Vietnam41987

Again, aside from Gran Torino and Paranormal Activity, nothing comes from the last ten years, and 15 of the films come form the 1980s. And the two from the 2000s? Well Clint Eastwood is a guy who has a built in audience and it made number in early January – typically a lull time for blockbusters.And Paranormal Activity was made for next to bugger all and used a very snazzy web based campaign, which was based around people going onto the website and demanding it be shown in their city. If enough people in an areas did this, it got shown. This was very successful and built up a huge buzz for when it finally did go large. The number of theatres it showed in went from 12 in the first week to 33 then 160 then 760. In its 5th week, when it hit Number 1, it was showing in 1945 theatres. That strategy won’t work for many other films (it was a very geeky fanboy type flick), and it also means in reality they got to Number 1 more like in their 2nd or 3rd week.

So “smaller” films have less room to grow – and yet there is little decline in the number of films struggling to break through. Here’s a graph of the number of films each year that open in the US in at least 600 theatres (known as a wide release):


While there’s been a slight decline in the last couple years due to the GFC and the threatened actors strike, the upward trend in unmistakeable.

What this means is more films fighting for a smaller, more intense bite of the pie.

So expect more marketing campaigns aimed at getting you in the door that first weekend, which means more big blockbusters, which means more sequels, more comic book films with built in fan bases. To be perfectly blunt it means more shite. (And remember as well most big blockbusters wouldn’t spit on a release of only 600 theatres - New Moon opened in 4,024).

So does this have any impact on Australia?

Well yes and no. Yes, because we live on Hollywood fodder, so we get what they make. But Australians are a bit more loyal to their Number 1 films than are Americans. Here’s the number of different Number 1s in Australia since 2004 (I don’t have any earlier figures):


Australia, like a lot of non-US places, are more likely to keep a film at Number 1 if it has a big star or a strong brand. We, for example, love Pixar films. In the US Wall-e and Up made it to Number 1 for only one week; in Australia Wall-e was there for 3 weeks, and this year Up was Number 1 for 5 straight weeks (it kept Mao’s Last Dancer out of the top spot). We also like quirky British fare more than the Yanks – Mr Bean’s Holiday only made it to Number 4 in the US, here it was Number 1 for 2 weeks; Death at a Funeral only got to Number 17 in the US, here it was Number 1 for three weeks.

So well done Australians for not being so fickle and desirous of seeing the latest new thing; sure it might be due to the fact we don’t have a big enough population to warrant similarly huge marketing campaign to the US, but hey, let’s give ourselves some credit – in Australia a good movie can stay fresh for longer than a week And for those who feel the need to see that big film in the first week or be considered socially inept? Relax: in Australia you’ve got a whole 11 days before it’s no longer the king of the hill.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Beaten by a Big, Fat Russian

LIfnfateTuesday night, 10:55pm. I take off my glasses, let out a sigh and admit defeat. I put my copy of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman on my bedside table with the bookmark (a note my wife wrote me a couple years ago when I went to a conference) placed between pages 482 and 483. I know I won’t pick it up again. I still have 372 pages to go, but I cannot.

The book has been wonderful to read – I have enjoyed much of it. Grossman writes beautiful prose, and one chapter, written in the form of a letter from a Jewish woman to her son on the night before she will knowingly be taken out to a pit with the others from the ghetto and be shot, will stay with me forever.

I love big, fat Russian novels:  War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The First Circle, Doctor Zhivago were all glorious to read, perhaps because they were so big and fat. They offer a challenge to the reader by their very size. The reward of finishing is not merely that of enjoyment of the writing, but the Everest-like accomplishment. In many way I read War and Peace because it was there. 

I think you can break novelists into two types (of course you can’t, but bugger it, for the sake of an argument let’s say we can) those like Austen who work with so fine a brush on a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory – though this ivory could be something as desolate as that encountered in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The point is these novels feature a small number of characters in a small setting. It may be a family, it may be a crime setting, it may be a war – but if so it will focus on one group.

The other kind of author goes big – Tolstoy, Dickens (in some novels), Thackery (Joyce of course did both in Ulysses). By their very nature these authors write novels that must be long. They scream “I am a big novel that is for a big purpose”! Within me, they cry, is the world.

There’s something about settling into a big novel, especially one with Russian characters, for you know there’s a good chance there’ll be a list of characters at the front, and lots of … ovichs and …anovas to remember. You know you’re going to be friends with this novel and those within it for a long while. Good luck though if the translator has decided to keep the use of the patronymic. Throw in some “Mityas” and “Pashas” and you’ll be flooded with Russian incomprehensibility. I used to joke to my wife that it wasn’t a real Russian novel unless one of the characters was called Alexandra Ivanova, and wondered occasionally whether that would be a good name for our daughter.  It was decided it was not.

WarLife and Fate has all of these things (though no Ivanova). It is set during the siege of Stalingrad in WWII. I had not heard of the novel till last year some time, when I read a review comparing to War and Peace. I found a copy in a local Dymocks and grasped it to my chest, knowing this was a book I must have. I was given it for my birthday this year by my wife who knows an unsubtle hint when it is being hit over her head.

I took a while to start reading it as at the time I was mid-way through re-reading of David Copperfield, but when I finally began the big Russian, the signs were good. It is obvious from the outset that Grossman is writing on a big canvas, and I was in the mood to see it filled. But by page 100 or so, I noticed that I was spending a lot of time flicking to the list of characters at the back to work out who was whom and what was their relationship to others. War and Peace may have 500 odd “speaking parts”, but really, the 1400 pages are about three people – Pierre, Natalia and Prince Andrei, and so while others characters will enter and exit the stage, you are not too lost in the mire of Russian names and plots.

Life and Fate however has around 160 “main characters”. While notionally the lead character is Viktor Shtrum, it says something of how much time he is given on the page that I had to look at the list of characters to discover what was his last name. In fact after reading 483 pages I can’t actually name any other character. I know there is one plot line revolving around a tank company and another about a fighter squadron, but I couldn’t tell you who is who, or which commander is having an affair with which woman, and how any of them are connected to Viktor. Added to this are plots involving Russian soldiers in a German concentration camp, some Jews on the way to the gas chamber, some prisoners in a Gulag, soldiers in Stalingrad, some people in the Stalingrad power station, some guards at a Russian prison, some people in “Kuibyshev (wherever that is) and on and on. All of them come and go throughout the novel with little rhyme or reason.termsof One chapter will end and another plot will being in the next chapter, and again I have to flick to the end of the novel to find just who the hell is who.

I tried. Admittedly there were some lengthy gaps in my reading, but when I was in Sydney on a conference I was able to read a good 150 pages in a couple days. And while they were pleasurable to read, neither the plot many of the characters gripped me. The one character whom I did have some affection for dies around page 300, so that did put a bit of a downer on the enterprise. I can read novels only for the beauty of the language within, but there are limits – mine seems to be around 480 pages.

JosephAnd so it goes back on the shelf. Perhaps I shall try to finish it one day in the future, but I doubt it will be soon. And what is worse, now I am tasked with finding a good novel to read as I get ready for my Christmas holidays.

When on holidays I love more than ever a big, fat book – over the past few Christmases I have read A Fine Balance, Moby Dick, Buddenbrooks, and Bleak House. This year I am tempted to finally get around to reading my copy of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. I bought it in 1995, so I figure it has waited long enough on the shelf watching other Penguin Classics get preferment.

Part of me though wants to go back to the tome by the great Thomas Mann with which I have long struggled. His gloriously big and fat novel, Joseph and his Brothers has long been on my shelf, and each time I have tried, it has defeated me (due to various reason – none of which has to do with lack of enjoyment, or absence of quality of the prose). And yet I want to try again, because it’s one thing to be beat by a big, fat Russian, but a big, fat German? Geez I can’t have that!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tony Abbott Gets it Wrong in so Many Ways

Tony Abbott shoots his mouth off. Let’s be honest about it. He has done this his entire political career. He has especially been doing it since the ALP won the last election, and for the most part it hardly got a mention on the news. Occasionally back last year when he was going over the top with his love for Peter Costello it was a destabilising influence for Brendan Nelson, but really he was just the drunk cousin at the wedding, standing next to the silly uncle of Wilson Tuckey.

But when you’re the leader every utterance matters. Every misspoken statement suddenly become “a gaffe”; every thought bubble suddenly is potential policy. When you’re a shadow Minister, dopey statements can be used in Question Time to undermine the leader; when you’re the leader, dopey statements undermine your own leadership and the party itself.

The more I look at Tony Abbott and his front bench, the more I believe Rudd won’t go to an election until at least July because they will want to let Abbott and his shadow Ministers hang themselves by their own words.

Take Tony Abbott during his press conference announcing his Shadow Ministry. I was watching it streaming live on the ABC website. He said the following:

“The Government was very vulnerable on economic management. With three interest rate rises in just three months, people think that the good times have gone”.

While watching this, I had a check of the ABC news page. The top story at the very moment he was saying the good time have gone was this one:

Business confidence highest in 7 years

Business confidence has reached its highest level since May 2002, causing a leading bank to raise its growth and lower its unemployment forecasts.

This was just the start, however.

Yesterday, Abbott tried to make some mileage out of the leaked draft communiqué from the Copenhagen agreement. Now firstly this was a draft which makes it meaningless because there are a fair few of these things going around, and the important thing is the final communiqué. Saying a draft means something is akin to saying your first bid on a house is the maximum price you’re willing to spend. Next they’ll be saying you have to judge a novel on its first draft… But anyway, politics is politics so someone will always try to take advantage of a leak. Abbott fixed on the fact that draft suggested Australia would be asked to lower its emissions by 25 percent.

Now firstly this 25 percent figure is one that the Liberal Party is also committed to. Abbott confirmed this just last week! Both the ALP and Liberal Party agree that if the major emitters commit, then Australia will at best commit to reducing emissions by 25 percent by 2020. But let’s just forget that, because Abbott is in full scare mode. How did he react to the suggestion of a 25% cut?:

"Just to get a five per cent reduction in emissions, Mr Rudd wants to whack a $120 billion tax on us. To get a 15 per cent or 25 per cent reduction in emissions on Mr Rudd's logic, it's going to be an even bigger tax - perhaps a $300 or $400 billion tax”.

Err right. So Abbott pretty much multiplied the $120b figure (which is complete bollocks at any rate) by three and a bit to get to a figure of $300b to $400b. $400b sounded good so he kept running with it.

Unfortunately the Government came out and said he was a little bit out – only just, you know the odd $250 billion or so… But never mind, Abbott kept running with the $400b figure. Today on Steve Price he said this:

Now someone sent me a little message that there was a slight miscalculation, $250 billion concerning the ETS. What happened there, was that somebody else?

No, no, the thing is Mr Rudd reckons that he’s got to whack on a $120 billion tax to reduce our emissions by five per cent. Now he’s talking about possibly reducing them by 15 per cent or 25 per cent. Now I said if it costs $120 billion it might be three or $400 billion to reduce it by 15 or 25 per cent just on a simple extrapolation. Now we’ve got the Government saying, no, it would only be $156 billion, only $156 billion in tax to reduce it by 15 per cent. Now Kevin Rudd has never produced the Treasury modelling and if there is Treasury modelling which says that you can get a 15 per cent reduction for $156 billion let’s see it. Let’s subject it to scrutiny. Let’s find out exactly how much prices are going to have to go up in order to produce this 15 per cent cut in emissions.

The only problem being he was wrong not just on the figure, but also on the fact of the economic modelling not having been released… (gee wrong in two ways in one statement – that’s some good work there! Climate Change economist, Frank Jotzo from ANU, helpfully gave Abbott some pointers on this whole thing:

"There's a very extensive Treasury modelling report that was released at around about the same time as the Government's White Paper. [Mr Abbott's calculations are] clearly wrong - wrong on the Government's, on the Treasury's numbers and wrong also on applying simple logic to it. That betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what's going on here because the reduction is not from zero, right? The reduction is from what emissions would otherwise have been the case if we didn't do anything about it.”

Here’s a phrase you don’t want associated with you economic statements when you are Leader of the Opposition: “Fundamental misunderstanding”. Ouch.

And to make matters worse, today the unemployment figures came out: unem emp

Unemployment went down to 5.7%, economists were “surprised”, and pretty much all came out and made statements about how it had “peaked”. How’s this for some news for the Government:

Full-time employment increased 30,800 to 7,627,400 and part-time employment increased slightly, up 300, to 3,240,700.

That is, these are not part-time or casual jobs being created, they are full time. So unemployment falling, employment growing, and Abbott not 3 days ago had pronounced that the “good times were over”. Interesting…

But then Abbott is not known for the accuracy of economic pronouncements. Here’s what he said back in March:


The 0.5 per cent economic contraction in the last quarter of 2008 marks the likely beginning of the Rudd recession. It’s an imported recession but the Rudd Government’s policies will almost certainly make it worse.

retail oct2009What Mr Rudd calls “decisive action” is nothing of the sort. It’s just spending money that the former government carefully accumulated. The $10 billion pre-Christmas cash splash might have boosted demand but it didn’t stave off an economic contraction and contributed nothing whatsoever to long-term structural improvements in the economy.

Ah the Rudd Recession, yep I remember that. It doesn't get much of run anymore. And about that $10b “cash splash” here’s what it did to demand.

I guess Abbott thinks all that money spent doesn’t create jobs, didn’t boost confidence. Confidence you ask? Let’s have a look at that:


Australian_Business_Economists_Annual_Forecasting_Conf_2009-10 So at November 2007, consumer confidence (on the left) was going down in line with the rest of the world. I wonder what the hell happened in October 2008 to cause it to move in an opposite direction? And what the hell has happened to have it now sky rocketing above the rest of the world? No doubt Abbott would say we’re so confident now because of things done by John Howard 2 years back…

Business confidence? Well as often happens when a change of government happens – especially to a Labor Government, business confidence was declining in November 2007 – in fact Australian businesses were bloody pessimistic.

Look where they are now! Again no doubt businesses are so confident only because of things done in 2006 under John Howard.

So there we are, unemployment peaking well below what anyone thought. And confidence booming. Is that important? Well here’s Joe Hockey (still Shadow Treasurer) back in March:

JOE HOCKEY: Kevin Rudd doesn't understand government doesn't create jobs, business creates jobs. And if you undermine business confidence, if you undermine consumer confidence, they're not going to continue to employ people.

Pretty much since he made that statement, business confidence has been zooming up.

With such a great track record of economic missteps, I can see Abbott and hockey being a perfect team, and Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner must be counting the days till parliament resumes.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

2010 Election – The Front Benches Go Head to Head

Yesterday was to be my last political post for the year, but today Tony Abbott announced his new Shadow Cabinet, and well hell, you can’t let such a joyous thing go past without comment. A quick glance at the list revealed three names – Kevin Andrews, Bronwyn Bishop and Philip Ruddock. All three have been strapped to the table, undergone 24 hours of Frankenstein-like electric shock therapy, and somehow got back to the vertical. That the three would be returned to the front bench says pretty much everything about Abbott. He thinks the Howard years were great, and he thinks everyone wants to do them all again. I eagerly await his asking Peter Reith to make a return to politics…

The best way to judge the front bench is to have look at them going head to head with their ALP counterparts.



abbottSo we have Kevin Rudd versus Tony Abbott. 

Now I’m not underestimating Abbott – he can run a scare campaign as good as anyone. But he is trapped in a bind of his own making. He made his name as a head kicker. He made his name saying he was the love child of Bronwyn Bishop and John Howard. He made his name saying “that’s bullshit” to Nicola Roxon in the last election campaign. The voters know him and have a good idea who he is. You either love him or well… you don’t.

The first Newspoll of his leadership reveals at the very least that people by and large don’t love him as much as they do Rudd. Rudd will be his usual methodical self, because doing that has kept his personal rating in the stratosphere. Abbott may like to think Rudd’s popularity is brittle, but the data doesn’t support that at all.

Rudd won’t slip up. Abbott will because he is Tony Abbott – he says what he thinks (prefaced by lots of “arrrrrs” as though he is almost physically trying to stop himself from saying what he wants to but knows he shouldn’t).

Abbott is the person the Liberal Party wheels out to the media for Lateline etc when the shit has hit the fan. That is his best role. The problem for him, though, is with the shadow cabinet he has selected, the fan will getting severe punishment, and it shouldn’t be the leader who has to front up every time.


2V5hockey1This one has been going for a few months already.

Ask yourself if you think Swan is in any danger of being replaced before the election?

Hockey has barely laid a glove on supposedly the weakest link in the Rudd Cabinet. The 2010 Budget is looking set to come in better than expected, and Swan learns the script and sticks to it  - he doesn’t always sell it all that great, he’s no orator, but at least he doesn’t come out with stupidities like Hockey did when he suggested higher unemployment was preferable to higher interest rates.

Hockey’s stocks have also been severely damaged by his woeful performance in the leadership spill. He went from being one who was seen (by some) as a potential leader, to a bit of a junior player, in need of a lot of time in the second grade before being elevated to the top job. And he is now no longer the main opposition economics person…




Oh geez. Where to begin. No I can’t. It’s too bloody easy.

Lindsay Tanner, the meanest, smartest, quickest wit on the ALP front bench, going up against the buffoon from the National Party.

Joyce will be savaged. He will say far too many stupid, stupid things. He is also a member of the National Party – the least financially prudent party going around – they exist to give their electorates ladles of pork. Now sure in 07, Swan went up against Costello, and many in the Liberal side thought it would be a slaughter. During the election campaign debate against Costello Swan however did well, and Costello did not sell in the people’s minds that Swan (nor Rudd) would be dangerous with the economy. But by then Costello’s heart wasn’t in it. He was tired from fighting and losing against Howard, and also he knew the election was lost.

Tanner is in no such state of mind. He will be absolutely brutal and he will keep going until Joyce is considered the biggest liability on the LNP front bench. The media will help him in this. On most economic issues, the media – seeking a good quote – will likely go to Joyce before going to Hockey. Joyce will give them a good quote, and an hour later the Tanner press release will destroy it.



2010 was not a great year for Julia. She performed well, but Pyne – with help from The Australian made her answer question after question about the schools’ stimulus program. The only problem for Pyne was that he relied too much on The Australian, and when their attacks were shown by and large to be over the top and only half of the story, he was made to look a bit silly. But Pyne is used to looking that way and so he kept going.

The big problem for Pyne is that while he might be able to criticise the spending, he has no Education policy (or at least not one that I can recall). And with Abbott now as the leader, the ALP will be able to run hard on a scare that Abbott will slash funding to public schools and universities. That will not be fun for Pyne to defend.


julia abetz When Julia got the IR Bill through parliament, she probably thought her time working on IR would be much smaller. The Liberal Party were not stupid enough to bring up WorkChoices, and so the debate was mostly at the margins.

With Abbott in charge this has all changed. Gillard will run an all WorkChoices all the time line in Question Time.  She will be helped by having right wing Senator Abetz as the Shadow. Abetz, who came to prominence through the Godwin Grech affair, is your standard Senator – best confined to Estimates hearings and kept as far from the publics’ gaze as possible. He is not a good salesmen. He is not the guy you would go to to win over the hearts and minds of the voters on the one issue they most hated last time round.




Ian “Chainsaw” Macfarlane won a few supporters through the way he handled the ETS Bill negotiations for Turnbull. Unfortunately these supporters did not include Tony Abbott. Macfarlane will do well against Albo – he can at least ask decent questions.

But he’s actually been screwed here by Abbott. Because Albanese now has the gift of Barnaby Joyce as shadow Finance Minister, Albo will keep hammering away at anything Joyce says (or indeed has said) in Dorothy Dixer after Dorothy Dixer.

He’ll also have the benefit of the economic stimulus which is now primarily infrastructure spending, and he’ll have Tony Abbott saying it should all be stopped – including the biggest infrastructure project of them all – the National Broadband Network. It’ll be easy pickings for Albo, and hard, hard yards for Chainsaw.


smith julieb

Yep, she’s still there. She’s still Deputy Leader. And she is still the lightest of lightweights on the Liberal front bench.

Smith won’t have to do much, Bishop will do the work for him. 





roxon dutton

Roxon is not the ablest member of the Government. But no one whispers about her being replaced. Dutton is considered a brightest hope for the Liberal Party, and yet he has not put a dent in Roxon. Now admittedly this is because the Howard Government’s performance on Health was so woeful and so when attacked, Roxon falls back on the “look how things were under you guys” line. It’s a cheap, easy line. However here again things don’t look good for Dutton – because who was the last Health Minister under Howard? Yep, Tony Abbott, so the cheap, easy line is now one targeted directly at the opposition leader.

Health is usually a dead end for anyone’s career – mostly because you are never seen to “succeed” and you thus carry a lot of negative baggage. Abbott has that baggage, and I can’t see Health being a winner for the Liberals. Sure the ALP has come up short of their goals, but is there anyone who thinks the public health system got better under the Howard Government? Health is always an ALP issue. It will remain so. And given Dutton will likely lose his seat, he’ll be a tad preoccupied as well.


garret hunt

combet I like Greg Hunt, but for those who think Peter Garrett has sold his soul, they ain’t seen nothing yet. Greg Hunt, who did his Master’s thesis on environmental policy, will have to come up with a climate change policy that satisfies a party and leader who don’t really think climate change is real. He has to reverse his previous position that carbon needs a price, and instead say that it can all be done through encouraging environmentally responsible activity. Madness.

He’ll also have to deal with Nick Minchin who is the Shadow Resources Minister, and has publically stated that climate change is a left wing conspiracy. And on the ALP side he’ll have to deal with Greg Combet – who is my pick for star performer of 2010. Combet has greatly impressed since joining the front bench, and he is a methodical, ruthless bastard. He is tailor made for an election campaign.


There are of course others – but my time is limited, and these are really the faces you’ll be seeing a lot of in the election campaign. I can’t see a winner for the Libs anywhere. Any time the Liberal side might be seen to have a chance, they are handicapped by either Tony Abbott or Barnaby Joyce. They will also be handicapped by the return of the old fogies from the Howard era. There’s little new about the Liberal side, and there’s even less of a reason to vote for them unless you voted for them last time, and even then with no Howard, Costello or Downer, you feel like you’re just getting a pale imitation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Newspoll: ALP 56-LNP44 (or let’s see things that aren’t there)

The hard sell started early on this one.

Last night at midnight, via the Mumble website, I found that the Newspoll to be published in today’s Australian was to have a 2 Party Preferred result of 56-44, a change from the last one of 57-43. In effect this was “no change”, as a one percent shift is well within the margin of error.  I slept well, having been a bit worried that Abbott might give the Libs a boost – as often happens (Alexander Downer for example took the 2PP vote from 48% to 54%!).

And yet when I woke and was idly swallowing my Light and Tasty cereal, what did I hear on Sunrise? Apparently Tony Abbott had delivered a poll “bounce” to the Liberal Party and had caused “the Liberal Party vote to jump by one percent”.

I then got to work and had a look at The Australian's website. Here’s what its website front page looked like:

Abbott gamble pays off for Libs

Dennis Shanahan, Political editor LIBERAL Party support has bounced back and Tony Abbott has cut into Kevin Rudd's lead within a week of taking over as Liberal leader.

Wow! I do like some balanced reportage.

Here’s what Dennis Shanahan had to say:

LIBERAL Party support has bounced back and Tony Abbott has cut into Kevin Rudd's lead as preferred prime minister within a week of the newly elected Leader of the Opposition spectacularly reversing the Liberals' stand on climate change and rejecting Labor's ETS.

The Newspoll survey, conducted from Friday to Sunday, exclusively for The Australian, showed a rise of four percentage points in the Liberals' primary vote, taking the Coalition's support to 38 per cent compared with the government's unchanged 43 per cent.

He also wrote:

The Newspoll survey suggests that the Liberal Party members and voters who were moving away are now returning.

Sigh. Ok, let’s work this through. Yep the Liberal Party did see a rise of 4% from 30 to 34. The problem is the ALP didn’t change from 43%, which means Abbott didn’t take any votes from Labor. So where did they come from? Well the National vote dropped from 5% to 4% and “Others” (generally regarded as primarily right wing parties like One Nation and Family First) fell from 10% to 8%. So 3% of the 4% jump came from the right wing, which is why the 2PP only increased a trivial one percent. So well done Tony, you brought back votes to the Liberal Party that were already going to end up there (or is he worried that Family First will run candidates against them??!)

Now about that “bounce”. Possum over on Crikey brought the logic and reason back into the debate. He looked at the last seven opposition leaders (ignoring Nelson and Crean as they went backwards). He compared the first poll after their leadership began with the average of the previous six weeks (to get rid of any rogue polls, and also because generally when there is a leadership change it has occurred after a sustained run of bad polls). Here’s what he found:


As you can see, Abbott has had bugger all impact; certainly not anywhere near Rudd’s league, and in terms of impact on the Government, nothing at all like the affect Howard had on the ALP back in 1995.

It is also interesting to note how low the Liberal (Government) vote was prior to Rudd taking over from Beazley – 41%; the lowest at any such similar stage since 1994.

The other point to remember when you see Howard had the Liberals at a higher vote than what the ALP is currently, is to remember the ALP gets more preference votes than does the Liberal Party – mostly because the Greens primary is around 10-11% but the National Party’s is only 4-5%, which means to win an election the Liberal Party primary vote NEEDS to be above the ALP primary, and above it by a good 4-5%. 

betterpmdecPossum then looked at the preferred PM ratings of these opposition leaders:

What he found was that Rudd is still dopily popular (and more so than he was when Turnbull took over!), and also that only 17% of voters are undecided about Abbott. More voters have already made up their minds about Abbott than they had Turnbull, Rudd, Latham and even Howard. So there is very little room for growth in Abbott’s figures. He can’t count on winning too many undecided voters, because 15% of voters are always undecided (ie they don’t give a stuff!).

So all Abbott has to do is win over all those people who currently think Rudd is doing a good job (his satisfaction rating actually increased from 56% to 58%).

Now look, maybe he can do it. But the last two leaders to win an election off the incumbent were within 5% (Howard 95) and 3% (Rudd 06) of the PM when they took over – ie already within striking distance, especially when you consider the advantage the incumbent has in such a poll. Abbott is within 37% or Rudd!

For Abbott to get up to the 36% that Rudd was when he took over leadership of the ALP in 2006, Abbott would have to increase his appeal by over half – or 13% of the electorate need to change its mind. And even if all of those 13% came from Rudd, Rudd would still lead the preferred PM 47% to 36% – in other words Abbott would still trail by 13%!

So is Abbott’s task possible? Well yes I guess so, anything is possible. Has it ever happened before? Well… no.

So when The Australian (and the Liberal Party) wants to talk about Abbott making a move, and Rudd’s support crumbling, they might do better to take a deep breath, and repeat to themselves at 56-44 the ALP would win the election by on average 101 seats to 46.

That ain’t close. That’s actually annihilation.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The 2010 Election

Tony Abbott has a word for all those who voted for Labor in 2007. He knows you’re sorry. He knows you regret your decision. He knows you ring up the talk back radio stations and say “I voted Labor in 2007, but never again…”. He knows you really don’t like Kevin Rudd. In fact he knows Kevin Rudd is not very popular at all and the electorate has just been waiting for a reason to hate him.

That is the basis for Tony Abbott’s election strategy for 2010. Here’s Abbott talking to The Weekend Australian yesterday:

"Rudd's popularity is broad but not deep. Feelings towards Rudd are mildly positive but his support is brittle. When he is not being a simplistic scaremonger he deals in high falutin' gobbledygook. What people won't get from me are platitudes, bromides, phrases that mean nothing when analysed. I will be plain and comprehensible and people will understand."

Yep, Kevin Rudd since he took over leadership of the ALP three years ago has been as popular as Bart Cummins on Cup Day, but according to Abbott this is “brittle”. So if two years as PM with satisfaction ratings at unseen levels is “brittle”, I’d love to know Abbott’s definition of rock solid. The big problem with Abbott's view (apart from it being  supported by nothing) is that it is the same one he has had for three years. Here's Abbott back in April 2007 on Lateline:tony_abbott_narrowweb__300x440,0

TONY ABBOTT: Kevin Rudd's honeymoon is obviously far from over, and these [polls] indicate that the Australian people are giving the still relatively new Opposition Leader every chance to prove himself…. In the end, I think, they are going to expect him not just to engage in feel-good politics, but to actually tell them precisely what he is going to do to address the various things which he thinks are important. What's he going to do on climate change - not in 50 years' time but today and tomorrow? How is he going to keep our prosperity while abolishing Australian Workplace Agreements, and so on? How can he run a middle of the road government while bringing all these union bosses into the Parliament?

Gee, what is Kevin Rudd going to do on climate change Tony? What a damn good question…

Here’s Abbott this year in July talking again about Rudd’s popularity:

"I think the Prime Minister's popularity is basically being bought. He is still sending out cheques to millions of Australian households. He has spent the hundred billion or so that was built up by the former government, he is now borrowing money at the rate of more than a million dollars a week.  Sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost, and that's when Kevin Rudd's popularity is going to go down and Malcolm Turnbull's will go up."

Hmm, wonder how Malcolm’s popularity is going Tony? Here’s a couple other things Abbott said at the time:

"Malcolm is the best person to lead our party. I think he is the best person to lead us to the next election. He is better qualified than anyone – myself included – to take the economic fight to the government.”

You make a good point Tony!

Other Liberals have been obsessed about Rudd’s popularity. Here’s Peter Dutton last month:

PETER DUTTON: Well, look, my judgment is that people are fascinated with Kevin Rudd at the moment and in many ways in my mind it is a house of cards. … when people scratch the surface, when the Prime Minister has a few testy issues and he's perhaps on the page with one of those issues at the moment, then I think we'll start to see a different side to Kevin Rudd and I think that's when we'll to see a turnaround in the numbers.

This is known as the “hey voters, you’re dumb” argument. So after 3 years as leader of the ALP, 2 of them as PM we haven’t scratched the surface of Rudd? Pathetic – and this Dutton bloke is apparently a bright hope for the Liberal Party…

The whole “Rudd is not actually popular, just lucky” line of argument is behind the entire Abbott strategy for the 2010 election. Abbott thinks the voters made a mistake in 2007, and he thinks the voters think so as well. The Liberal Party has not understood the 2007 election at all – Abbott less than anyone. That is why the policies he will take to the 2010 election will be anti-climate change, a return of WorkChoices, a return of non-means tested handouts like the baby bonus, the killing of the National Broadband Network, and the winding back of any other infrastructure spending.

Essentially Abbott wants to pretend it is 2005 and things are going well, and the Liberal Party will be in power forever.

He will run a scare campaign on the ETS. It may be effective for a little while, the only problem, however, is that people already understand it will cost them, but a majority are happy because they know we need to start taking the environment into account in the economy. The difference with this and the GST in 1992 is that people didn’t feel like we needed a GST (broaden the taxation base? Why?). But people know we need to do something about climate change, so Abbott will have to come up with something on this issue. If all he has got is Wilson Tuckey’s plan for carbon sequestration and tidal power, then he’s stuffed, because it will be so easily trashed by Rudd and Tanner and Combet (the two attack dogs of 2010) as to make Abbott look like a fool.

Carbon sequestration is all fine and dandy, but it won’t be enough on it’s own and why would any farmers do it if there is no price on carbon? The answer, of course, is the Government (Abbott) will have to pay them to do it. So much for it being costless…

But look, Abbott’s scare campaign will get some traction – and it is why I believe the Government will not go to an early election. The ALP will want to put Abbott’s policies (and Abbott) under the microscope. Abbott is all about “the vibe”. He may be a Rhode’s Scholar, but his politics is every bit as much about spin as he says Rudd is – in fact more so, because no one would ever call Abbott a policy wonk.

So if there was an early election, then Abbott would be almost able to get by on sound bites – the stuff that plays well on talkback right wing radio. But the longer he has to sit in parliament and listen to Rudd, the more he is going to say thoughts out loud, the more he is going to have to square his policies with some actual costings; the more he is going to have to explain the consequences of what he is proposing. Sure, get rid of the Baby Bonus means testing Tony, but how will you pay for it? And as 2007 showed, the electorate has got very cynical about election bribes.

Abbott and the Liberal Party think they have a winner because they have a scare campaign on the ETS. But that is ONE scare. Here’s what the ALP already can use to scare the electorate from what Abbott has said in just the last week: an anti climate change extremist, a return of WorkChoices, the end of the schools stimulus funding (ie in YOUR son’s or daughter’s school), and internet at slow speeds (you know, Australia left behind…).

And that’s just from the first week. Throw in a bit of a nuclear power scare, scares about attacks to Medicare (that’s a no brainer for when attacking a Howard Government Health Minster), cuts to roads and rail infrastructure, cuts to child-care funding (mothers should be at home don’t you know…) etc etc etc. Pretty much the ALP can recycle most of the 2007 campaign. It’s astonishing that already Abbott is crafting his narrative as being a return to the past. After only 2 years, where interest rates are still low, unemployment hasn’t taken too great a hit, and infrastructure spending is kicking in around the country, people haven’t quite got to the point of thinking these are bad times, or being entirely nostalgic for John Howard.

But heck, give Abbott his due – for some reason he has been able to convince the media that he is a “conviction politician” despite in the past month having been adamantly for the ETS and adamantly against the ETS. The media might not be picking up all his inconsistencies, but you can bet the next election that the ALP has.

When I see ALP attack adverts for the next election, I see Tony Abbott and every contradictory statement he has made in the last 2-3 years. It will be all about making the voters think that Abbott will say anything, and that you really can’t trust him – sure he’s a good head kicker, but PM? Pass. The other ALP adverts will then show shot after shot after shot after shot of stimulus spending at schools, on highways, railways, broadband being laid, you’ll see Rudd at community cabinets and on and on and on.

The Liberals will talk about an ETS Tax, but have nothing credible in its place. They’ll talk about debt, but will have to explain why Australia not going into a recession is a black mark against the Govt (and also why the debt isn’t as much as they first thought it would be). They may even try to attack Rudd. I hope they do; it’ll guarantee an ALP win, in the same was as when the ALP targeted Howard they shot themselves in the foot.

kevin-ruddAbbott hates Rudd and keeps saying in just about every interview some snide remark about Rudd being boring, Rudd being a wordy nerd, Rudd being a public servant. What Abbott forgets is Australian people by and large prefer boring leaders, don’t care that he is a nerd (in fact it’s almost endearing – see his performance at the launch of ABC3), and as for public servants? They don’t mind them, provided they are not seen to be slacking off – and no one can ever say Rudd takes it too easy. All in all, Abbot’s argument is one that plays well to people who already hate Rudd, and who already were going to vote for the Liberal Party.

They’re going to have to do better if they want to win – especially when come election time it will be Abbott and Julie Bishop leading the charge. Last time Rudd beat Howard and Costello – who do you think is the tougher opponent?

So with the end of 2009 in sight, the 2010 election is already set up. I have to say I have no idea when it will be. I still think the ALP wants to go to a double dissolution after June 30, to avoid having a 2 years second term.

2009 has been a pretty enthralling year for political nerds – leadership spills, fake emails, the ETS…. Next year, as all election years are want to be, should prove just as enthralling.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Flick of the Week: “They doubt our ancestry, but they don't say the story isn't accurate”.

This week’s flick of the week takes us with Jason Robards from Once upon a Time in the West to his Academy Award winning role as editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, in the great All the President’s Men.

red hoffThe film of course recounts the work done by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they unravelled the Watergate Affair that brought down Richard Nixon. Robert Redford (who also produced) stars as Woodward, and Dustin Hoffmann played Bernstein. At the time the two were about as big a stars as there were going around; perhaps only Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were bigger. And the story they were telling was as big as it gets. In fact the story is so big that it almost overshadows the film – to discuss the film is almost to discuss Watergate; and to discuss the impact and quality of the film you have to try and divorce yourself from the impact of the events depicted.

The script, written by William Goldman, is a cracker. There was a lot of angst in the writing of the script – Goldman recounts it all in his absolutely fantastic book, Adventures in the Screentrade (a MUST read if you want to be a screenwriter, or want to know anything about film). The director, Alan J Pakula kept wanting rewrites, and when the final draft was done, suddenly Carl Bernstein and his partner Nora Ephron (she would go on to write When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle) turned up with a completely new script. Goldman finally read it (after getting a legal ok to do so) and he thought it absolute garbage. It was full of things that didn’t happen in real life and it also made Bernstein out to be quite a hit with the ladies. Luckily that version of the script was dumped save for one scene of Bernstein lying his way into the office of the Dade Country District Attorney (and that scene was made up).

Goldman’s script is ingenious because it ends with the two reporters stuffing up. They have implicated Nixon’s chief of staff, Hal Halderman, as being involved in the cover up, and it turns out the source they were relying on gave them bum information. A lesser screenwriter would have kept the story going till Nixon resigns. Goldman figured everyone knew that part of the story; he realised once it got to the point of Nixon being involved, the handing over of the tapes, the hearings, him going on TV and saying he is not a crook etc the audience would be able to fill in the gaps themselves, and in fact the journalists become less important. Goldman instead focussed on the events that led up to Nixon being involved – the less well known points, the how-it-happened moments, rather than the what happened as a result of them moments.

Redford and Hoffmann work brilliantly together – they bounce off each other, their dialogue overlapping, and they also convey the reality that Woodward and Bernstein were uneasy collaborators. Bizarrely neither was nominated for Best Actor. robardThe supporting cast of old character actors playing The Washington Post editorial team are just brilliant – Robards gets all the good lines, and he delivers them with relish; Jack Warden as local news editor Harry Rosenfeld is a pure joy. The scenes of the editors putting the paper together are great to watch and are wonderfully directed by Pakula.  Apparently the first draft of the script had to be reworked because these scenes were too funny and The Washington Post staff were worried they’d look like comedians. In fact Goldman had sat in on a few meetings and used lines verbatim from those meetings. 

The other key to the greatness of the film is the cinematography by Gordon Willis. Willis, who shot The Godfather movies, was the supreme artist at shooting in the dark – and his work shooting the scenes of Woodward and Deep Throat in the car park are legendary.

I first saw this film when I was in Year 8 or 9 and I knew I wanted to be a journalist (didn’t happen, but hey I also wanted to be a pilot after seeing Top Gun!). I wanted to be like these guys and bring down a Government. I know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and in some ways this film (and Watergate) have been the bane of journalists. There’s a tendency to see Watergates everywhere, to say after any slight revelation that, like Watergate, it’s not the crime but the cover-up that brings you undone. I get the feeling Malcolm Turnbull had watched this film once too often, and thought he could be Woodward and Bernstein and bring down Rudd over the Godwin Grech emails.  He of course forgot the big lesson from the film, that in bringing down a conspiracy you have to build from the outside; if you shoot too high and miss, everyone feels more secure…

The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards. It won four – Editing, Sound, Supporting Actor (Robards) and Screenplay. It lost Best Picture to Rocky. I doubt that would happen if there were a revote (though it would face stiff competition from Taxi Driver and Network). It is the great journalism film, the one by which all others are judged – its influence is seen in films as light as The Pelican Brief and the more serious State of Play. But perhaps because this depicts real events, this is the one that resonates the most, and is the one which in years to come will still do so.

Below are two scenes that are great for different reasons. The first shows Woodward being a journalist (the good thing about the film, it shows the work being done) and getting a scoop on a cheque found in the Watergate burglars’ bank account. The scene is brilliantly shot by Pakula – focusing on Woodward in a long uncut shot – and has great acting by Redford – not his face when Dahlberg says he really shouldn’t be telling him this. The second scene is the final meeting of Woodward and Deep Throat; it is so iconic it has been parodied by The Simpsons, and for that if no other reason I show it.


Favourite quote:

Ben Bradlee:  Once when I was reporting, Lyndon Johnson's top guy gave me the word they were looking for a successor to J. Edgar Hoover. I wrote it and the day it appeared Johnson called a press conference and appointed Hoover head of the FBI for life... And when he was done, he turned to his top guy and the President said, "Call Ben Bradlee and tell him fuck you." I took a lot of static for that--everyone said, "You did it, Bradlee, you screwed up--you stuck us with Hoover forever." They were right – I screwed up but I wasn't wrong. [He gives the pages with the story that John Mitchell knew of the cover-up to Bernstein]. Run that baby.

Previous Flicks of the Week:

Once Upon a Time in the West – Henry Fonda
Mister Roberts – Jack Lemmon
Some Like it Hot – Billy Wilder
Witness for the Prosecution – Marlene Dietrich
Touch of Evil – Orson Welles
The Third Man – Trevor Howard
Brief Encounter - David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia – Claude Reins
Casablanca – Humphrey Bogart
The Big Sleep – Howard Hawks
His Girl Friday – Cary Grant
Charade – John Williams
Schindler’s List – Liam Neeson
Love Actually – Emma Thompson
Sense and Sensibility – Ang Lee
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Michelle Yeoh
Tomorrow Never Dies – Pierce Brosnan
The Thomas Crown Affair – Renee Russo
In the Line of Fire – Clint Eastwood
Where Eagles Dare – Richard Burton
Zulu – Stanley Baker
The Guns of Navarone – Peter Yates
Breaking Away – Dennis Quaid
The Right Stuff – Ed Harris
The Rock – Sean Connery
The Longest Day – Richard Beymer
West Side Story – Ernest Lehmann
North By Northwest - The first one