Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Sideshow zooms over the press gallery’s heads.

Yesterday I bought a copy of Lindsay Tanner’s book, Sideshow: Dumbing Down of Democracy (it only gets released officially next week, but for some reason Dymocks in Canberra already had copies of it).

The book is not a memoir, it is in fact much closer to George Megalogenis’ Quarterly Essay Trivial Pursuit, than it is some tell-all political autobiography. The book’s central thesis is that the media and politicians are locked into a dumbed-down, trivial, vicious circle, that is for the most part instigated by dumb, lazy journalism, and dumb media organisation that encourage such journalism and coverage of politics. So well argued and accurate is Tanner’s thesis that I think this may actually be the first time a book’s thesis has been completely proven correct before the book has even been officially launched.scan0028

The book is a very complex and intelligent discussion of politics and the media. It is free of the back biting shite that usually dominates ex-politicians’ books. There’s no “Rudd was this”, “Gillard was that”, and “I would have done it all better if I had been PM”. In fact Tanner often refers to times when he was as guilty of dumbing down things for the media as he was victim of bad reporting. His book is not aiming for an audience who want gossip.

As such it is something completely outside the dumbed-down vicious cycle.

But why do I suggest he has been proven correct? Well here is Tanner on page 22:

Deliberate Distortions

Mere trivia by itself, though, is not sufficient to make political content entertaining. A rather bewildering variety of devices is used by journalists and editors to spice up what would otherwise be relatively bland content. In the process, the content is often so distorted that it bears little resemblance to the substance which notionally gave birth to it.

So let’s test that thesis. Let’s see how Tanner’s book has been covered by the media (mostly by papers last Sunday by Samantha Maiden):

Maiden: Minutes will define Prime MinisterFormer finance minister Lindsay Tanner savages leaders, media in new book Tanner sitting on ticking time bombInsider lets rip on Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd governments, labelled 'dumb democracy' Ex-minister unloads on Rudd govtFormer federal minister slams govt Labor slogan set 'new records for banality': Tanner Tanner dumps on PM

Now from a look at those headlines, you’d think Sideshow was Mark Latham Diaries Part III. Now Sam Maiden in Crikey on Thursday took issue with the suggestion her reporting of the book was lousy by asserting his publishers should be happy because of all the free publicity she gave them,which I guess means that the corollary of any publicity is good publicity, is that any journalism is good journalism.

But let’s have a look at some of the reporting:

LINDSAY Tanner could drop a bomb on the Labor Party this week by revealing once and for all whether Julia Gillard secretly pushed for an emissions trading scheme to be dumped.

Well yeah, he “could”, except he doesn’t in the book – and in fact states that he won’t in the introduction! So given that is the lead of the piece, it is rather in dire need of a point.

How about this brilliant bit from the Sunday Telegraph editorial:

…A former member of inner-Cabinet's "gang of four", Lindsay Tanner, has pole-axed Ms Gillard….

He takes veiled digs at ex-colleagues, in the guise of a critique of "shallow" media coverage: Julia Gillard dyes her hair red,

This suggestion was also included in much of Maiden’s copy:

Attacking Julia Gillard's Moving Forward election slogan and suggesting she has helped build her brand as a "ranga" by dyeing her hair…

Well now, “pole-axed”, “attacking”. Geez. Tanner must be really on the warpath. How about we let the facts (i.e. the actual book) do their work. Here is the only part in the book where Tanner refers to Gillard dying her hair:

One might think it strange that for a number of years, Julia Gillard has died her hair red. In fact, it’s perfectly sensible: it makes her more noticeable. When an ordinary voter makes disparaging references to the ‘ranga’, that’s a good thing. She has registered as an individual personality in the sideshow. The voter knows she exists.

So Tanner describing Gillard as doing something perfectly sensible within the context of how modern politics is covered by the media is now him “pole-axing” or “attacking” or “letting rip on” her?


In the desperate desire to find a story to make a splash, the Telegraph (and other papers) and Maiden proved Tanner’s point completely – they spiced it up and distorted it to the point where it bears little resemblance to the original substance.

Nice work. Such a tactic works great for New Idea and NW, but you’d hope when it comes to the pretty important issue of Australian politics and how it is covered by the media that there might be just a little bit more intelligence used.

But why would Maiden and the Telegraph get the coverage so wrong? Well a big clue lies in this fact:

The Sunday Telegraph did not obtain an embargoed copy of the book, released this week, but was briefed on key extracts,

So eager to be in first with the scoop on what would be in the book, Maiden didn’t trouble herself with actually reading it!  But that doesn’t stop her doing some in depth analysis:

The central thesis of Tanner's book is, however, that the media are to blame for modern politics' problems. By retreating from their traditional role of reporting serious political issues and replacing it with infotainment, he argues the coverage "focuses more and more on trivia, gimmicks, and personalities, politicians' behaviour".

Hang on, how does she know the central thesis if she hasn’t read the book?

"The flood of spin, 'announceables', slogans, and stunts that characterises modern politics is a direct result of these changing media dynamics," claims the promotional blurb on his book's website. "In effect, the media are turning political reporting into a sideshow driven by entertainment imperatives because of threats from intensifying competition and technological change."

Yep, she read the blurb, some extracts, and the book’s website. Outstanding work. Great reporting.

She then gives us this:

Tanner raises some legitimate points. And it's rare for such a political insider to write an account of his life in politics so soon after he departed the political stage. In my book, that is to be applauded for the insight it provides. But the weakness of his thesis is an attempt to blame the media almost entirely for the malaise. If the system is broken in Tanner's eyes, like all dysfunctional relationships all the players bear some responsibility.

Well if she had actually read the book she would see that Tanner does write that politicians bear some responsibility. In fact he even admits that he played the game, and he is pretty cutting towards the way the last election played out. But unfortunately for Maiden, he doesn’t give what she really wants – a tell-all (you know the whole “drop a bomb on the Labor Party” bit).

This view is also reflected by a vast majority of the press gallery and was most loudly stated when Tanner gave interviews this week on the 7:30 Report with Leigh Sales, and on Sky News with David Speers.

Here was ABC journalist Hayden Cooper on Twitter responding to Tanner’s interview with Leigh Sales:

So Tanner complains no serious policy coverage. Then when asked serious policy questions, he says "no comment". #abc730

Sadly, the comment just reveals that Cooper obviously has no idea of what is a serious policy question. Here were the “policy” questions Sales asked:

LEIGH SALES: To try to give an example of what you talk about in terms of the superficiality overriding policy, I want to talk about one particular policy area around climate change. We know that Labor dumped the ETS when polling got a little bit rough. Was that the right decision in a policy sense for our nation?

LINDSAY TANNER: Oh, look, I'm not going to enter into a commentary about wider contemporary politics and whether things have been done right or wrong.

LEIGH SALES: But this is actually a very important policy issue that goes to the very heart of the sorts of issues that you're raising.

Sales is right, the ETS is a serious policy issue. But she is not asking about policy – she is asking about politics. She has tried to make it seem like she is asking about policy, but dumping the ETS was political, not policy. The actual construction of the ETS – the level the carbon prise was set, the level of compensation, the various drivers and triggers within the legislation – that is policy.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think that the carbon tax is good policy?

LINDSAY TANNER: I'm not going to comment on that. I'm now a private citizen. I've put out a book that talks about a particular issue. I'm certainly going to comment on that. But I'm not going to comment on contemporary issues of the day. I'm no longer an elected person, I'm not a Labor Party spokesperson.

Again, Sales has not actually asked a policy question. Policy is not “good or bad” – certainly not policy as complex as battling climate change. All her question is after is to get him to say yes (ie agree with the Govt – but sadly, no story there) or to say, no (big splash “Tanner slams Carbon Tax!”).

Cooper followed up his tweet with this:

Sure Tanner has a point. But why didn't he speak up about slogans/dumbing down etc a year ago? #abc730

Which is a bit odd given Tanner in his book makes clear he did talk to colleagues and party insiders about this. What he didn’t do was tell the media – which in the eyes of many in the press gallery means it didn’t happen. Tanner also in the interview with Sales points out that had he written this book when in Govt, firstly he wouldn’t have had the time, and secondly he would have been criticised (rightly, he agrees) for attacking the umpire in the middle of the game.

On Friday, Tanner gave an unintentionally hilarious interview with David Speers that showed that Speers as well is as blithely ignorant of what actually constitutes “policy questions”. Speers opens with a gambit that seems to be that the media has always been crap, so what’s the problem? (Gotta love a man who regards his own profession in such poor light).

SPEERS: You could go back a hundred years and find examples of gotcha journalism and media trivialisation…”

Well I guess it’s ok then…

But the interview really got dopey when Speers asked this:

SPEERS: What about the big issue, and I know you don’t want to talk about this either, but the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Kevin Rudd has already said that you were one of those who wanted to push ahead you didn’t want to shelve it at the end of 2009 and the start of 2010. I mean if you are serious about trying to have a more informed public debate this is a pretty big issue that still lingers over the Gillard Government, why can’t you help inform this debate by telling us what you did?

Now just for a second, ask yourself what Lindsay Tanner could tell us about the political decision to dump the ETS that would inform us about the actual policy of the ETS? Speers hasn’t asked one thing about the actual policy. All he cares is politics. We know this because he says “ a pretty big issue that still lingers over the Gillard Government”. In other words politically hangs over the Govt. The policy of the ETS has moved on, there are different players around the table, different issues being discussed, different outcomes and outputs being sought, but Speers – and most of the press gallery – are still stuck in the politics of 2010.

Hayden Cooper again was quick to get on Twitter:

As senior minister Tanner was part of that culture just as much as anyone else in gov. No good claiming now that it's not his fault.

Well sorry Cooper – go read the book before suggesting Tanner says any such thing. Tanner in fact often says he played the game and admits he was part of the culture. He admits it wore him down, and in the end he was quite glad to be gone.

Tanner responded to Speers’s question with a lovely, and polite slap:

TANNER: Well David, I think that, with all due respect, that question is a classic example of the problem, because the question is about “the game” of politics, it’s not about the merits of how we tackle climate change…. What your question goes to is who was arguing what, who was manoeuvring against whom, who was taking this position, who was taking that position.

Speers tried to justify himself:

SPEERS: But it goes to the conviction of Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister on this issue.

Again, a politics question. Someone can be convinced that something needs to be done, but can also be a realist that now (or back in 2010) is not the time to do it. That decision is a political judgment call. Unfortunately such a position would require journalists to take a shaded view of the world. And that doesn’t sit well when you you need to come up with a “Tanner Dumps on PM” story.

Speers then tries to put the blame on politicians – that they don;t give straight answers. Tanner responds:

TANNER: Well David, the problem with that is that… if politicians had any confidence that straight answers would be reported straight then maybe you might get some more of them…. Politicians do not have confidence that things they say will not be grotesquely distorted and misrepresented, almost from the minute they’ve said them. That happens on a daily basis. That is why you get spin. That is why you get defensive robotic politicians. 

Speers’ response?

SPEERS: Well I guess if the answer is straight forward it’s pretty hard to distort it.

Geez. I don’t know to think whether Speers is just idiotically naive, or just totally ignorant of how his own profession works. 

Back during the last election the funniest question for me came from some journalist at the end of a long press conference with Julia Gillard. The press conference occurred a couple of days after the big spat between journalists and readers on Twitter about the lack of policy in the campaign. The journalist (I never found out who she was), asked this:

JOURNALIST:  On policy, did you talk to Kevin Rudd today about how he will campaign in support, or if not, for your position on asylum seekers, and also climate change?

Yep. A question of policy was about campaigning. We would laugh if it wasn’t so bloody serious – because this person is someone who provides coverage of policy to the public.

At the time I just thought the journalist in question was just inexperienced, but now I think that sadly, most journalists (but not all) in the press gallery have absolutely no idea what is policy.

Most think policy is the reaction of polls. They think policy is someone from the AWU saying Whyalla will be wiped off the map. They think policy is a disagreement in cabinet over a policy. They think policy is one line in an Auditor General’s Report. They think policy is someone talking tough on asylum seekers. They think policy is whether or not a website gets a lot of hits. They think policy is total number of fires, but not the proportion. They think policy is a few school principals complaining about poor quality workmanship, but not a report that finds 97 per cent are happy. They think policy is Joe Hockey saying the Govt is full of waste and mismanagement. They think policy is an ad campaign. They think policy is today, and not next year.

I don’t completely blame these journalists who struggle with writing about policy, or asking actual policy questions, because here’s a little bit of a tip on writing well about policy – it is bloody hard. It takes time to research that many in the press gallery don’t have, and it requires knowledge of issues that most completely lack.

When the issue of health comes up, I stay well clear of writing about policy, because health policy is incredibly complex and I am pretty ignorant of how the health system works. And so I rely on those who know what they are talking about – like Sue Dunlevy in The Oz, or Melissa Sweet at “Croaky” (Sweet by the way gets praise from Tanner in Sideshow as an example of bloggers who broaden the quality of commentary). I know a bit about telecommunications policy, but I always fear that an article by Bernard Keane (a bloke, I’d argue, who knows more about such policy than the press gallery combined) will show me up as an amateur.

Policy is hard, so too is analysing a book – you actually have to read it – just reading excerpts or the blurb ain’t going to cut it – not at least if you want to be taken seriously.

Lindsay Tanner has written a thought provoking book that does have faults – I agree he goes softer on politicians than would I were I the one writing the book. But to focus on that is to ignore that his criticism of the media is bloody well spot on. How do we know this? Well take this part from the introduction of his book:

Given the sideshow syndrome, I know that most political journalists will quickly scan this book, looking for shock revelations about the inner working of the Rudd Government . … The relatively small number of journalists who read this book will search for someone to blame for the problems it reports. Somehow or other they will be looking to create a headline that begin with “Tanner attacks…”

Well I guess he was wrong – they went with “Tanner savages…”.


Read the book. It doesn’t offer as many solutions as I would like, but it raises the issues clearly and well. It should be read by all who take politics and policy seriously (and I hope that includes most of the press gallery).

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Obama Feeds the Trolls

There is a well know saying among those who participate in online discussions – Don’t feed the trolls. The trolls are those areshats who go on blogs and twitter etc and sprout bullsh*t just to get those who hold the opposite view to bite. They hate being ignored, and engaging with them never leads anywhere because logic and intelligent discussion is not their game, nor within their ability.

Obama today however decided to feed the trolls and released his “long form birth certificate” r758072_6347120in an attempt to put to be claims he is not American born.

Now when trolls get rebuffed on one set of facts (such as the fact that Obama is actually an American born citizen) they just move to another line of idiocy. Thus did it happen today. Here were some of the comments on the Fox News website:

rebelwuf · So this proves that Obama had dual citizenship at birth, right? His dad was Kenyan, and in 1961 Kenya was still part of the British empire, and children born to male British citizens were automatically British citizens as well. Then he automatically became a Kenyan citizen in 1963, when Kenya became independent. So the (multi) dual citizenship issue should make him ineligible.

Errr. Yeah. I’ll have to try that next time I want to fly to England – Visa? What need I that, I am a British citizen don’t ya know!

deborah2 · Please people enlarge this thing & look at all the x's & numbers hand written on it. What's that all about? Do any of you have anything hand written on your birth cert?

Yes. It’s called a signature.

catwmn79 · A quote from a close associate: "it gets even better. someone just posted (and i just verified on my Adobe Illustrator) that whoever did the layers left graphics on the clipboard that they were cutting and pasting. this was not some automatic layering by software. this was a cut & paste edit."

Yep, he forged it, meaning the Hawaiian Government is also in on the scam...

Now this would all be rather funny, except the trolls are not just people on blogs (ahem) and Twitter, they are in the media.

This idiotic birther story has been around since 2008, but despite Obama releasing what is a perfectly legal birth extract, but the birthers (trolls that they be) moved the goal posts and said the “long form” was the only one that was real proof, and thus demanded he release it.

The media, for the most part ignored the story, because, well it was stupid. But when Troll in Chief, Donald Trump decided his ego wanted to run for President, he decided that the best way to pursue this aim was to go the birther line. Did the media dismiss him with contempt? Did they laugh at him? Hell no. They gave him oxygen – lots of it. So much oxygen in fact that CNN decided to run a segment disproving the whole birther story. The next day however, CNN journalist Ed Henry asked the White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, more questions about the birth certificate:

HENRY: Jay, my colleague, Gary Tuchman, just went to Hawaii and established again that there’s evidence suggesting that the President, in fact, was born in the United States. But as you know, Donald Trump persists, other critics, and last night Trump was on CNN saying that he’s been told the birth certificate is missing, that it’s either not there or has been taking out -- taken out somehow, and this is a problem for the President. When the White House hears this continued claim, what does it say?

Well I would have answered that it says that you, Ed Henry, are a complete tool. But then I probably wouldn’t get the job of White House Press Sec.

Today when releasing the certificate, Obama complained that the story was the main one during the week he released the US Budget. Fact checkers around the traps quickly did the maths and worked out it wasn’t. As ABC White House correspondent Jake Trapper says:

But the president was wrong.

According to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, that week the dominant news story was without question the economy.

The ridiculous claims about the president’s birth certificate actually was the No. 4 story for the week – receiving about one tenth of the coverage devoted to stories about the economy.

Trapper however makes no comment on the fact that a “ridiculous claim” was the No.4 story in America.

I actually don’t care that some journalists are “holding Trump to account”, or that CNN refuted the story. Some things are so stupid they don’t deserve refuting. They don’t deserve being challenged. They deserve being ignored. If some right wing fool in this country for example started saying that Julia Gillard had a child as a teenager, would that deserve being rebuked in the media? Would that deserve her refuting it? Hell no. It would deserved being ignored – as did all the idiotic bullsh*t stories about Sarah Palin’s pregnancy of her child Trig.

Just because someone says something – even if that person is Donald Trump – doesn’t mean it deserves being treated seriously.

The problem is so much journalism (in the US mostly, but here as well) has become “we report, you decide” bulldust that the most ludicrous claim you could just about come up with this side of NASA faked the moon landing, has been treated as though it is a legitimate story. It is the line of journalism that says – oh well we don’t take sides, we just report what is said.

Well now, how about instead you use your brains and realise that this story is complete bullshit, the claims are bullshit, and that Trump is using you?

This morning when it was released Annabel Crabb on Twitter wrote:

Now that Obama has released birth certificate, the new speculation is on why he didn't do it earlier

I’m not sure if Crabb is reporting on the speculating, or if she is speculating herself, but for mine the speculation that really needs to be addressed is why he needed to reveal it at all? Why was the media at all interested in the words of a troll running for President? How do we know Trump is a troll? Well because like the trolls on the Fox News website he doesn’t actually care about facts or proof. When confronted with the proof of the birth certificate, he just moves on:

“The word is, according to what I’ve read, that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental,” Trump said. “He then gets to Columbia; he then gets to Harvard. … How do you get into Harvard if you're not a good student? Now, maybe that’s right, or maybe it’s wrong. But I don’t know why he doesn’t release his records.”

Sigh. His grades? Give me strength. Obama was President of Harvard Law Review. That is about as hard a position to achieve as there is at Harvard, and they don’t give it out just for looks.

Any journalist who heard Trump say that should have laughed in his face, put away his or her notebook and said to their editor – the guy is a nut. Asking Trump questions – such as what about his previous claims that Obama’s birth certificate might reveal he was a Muslim – are pointless, they only feed the troll.

So why did Obama feed him? Surely he knew that the right-wing nutbags would claim the certificate was a forgery, or that because his Dad is a Kenyan means something blah blah. So why do it?

One theory, that I give some credence, is that the White House did this to keep the story going. Because the more time Trump gets oxygen the less time any “serious” Republican Presidential candidates get to build up a following. And worse (for the Republicans) the more likely those candidates will try to grab some of the airspace by putting forward an equally nutty theory. In effect Obama is using the media’s lust for idiocy to help his own cause.

Trump may play well on TV now, but I bet every night members of the Obama team kneel and pray that Trump will be the Republican Party nominee. Obama would win all 50 states if that were the case.

The second best case is that Trump destroys the Republican Party’s creditability by reducing their whole nomination process to a farce, or even better, he misses out as the candidate, and then runs as an independent. 

Whichever way, Trump in the race is good for Obama. And what better way to keep him in the race than keep the birther issue bubbling away? The proof makes Trump look like a fool, (that is, if you hold store in facts) but it gives him a sense of prominence (his ego is so big, that he takes it as a complement that he has been shown to be a fool).

The problem for all however (including, and especially for Obama) is that this strategy will only ensure that idiotic reporting of idiotic, ridiculous claims will continue, and intelligent advocacy of complex policy will be harder to pursue. That is unless you think the US media will ignore the trolls.

Yeah neither do I.

Obama, by feeding the trolls, has to now live with the consequences – both good, bad and idiotic.

Let Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert put it all in context:


The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
America Needs to See Obama's Report Cards
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

On a related issue – Malcolm Farnsworth today wrote a brilliant piece on The Drum on why he has given up on newspapers. He states my thoughts on the topic almost exactly:

On the whole, though, the Australian newspapers have lost me. They’re drab now. The quality is uneven. The journal of record days are gone. Even the practical reasons for buying a newspaper – finding a job, selling a car, buying a house, checking the TV guide, doing the crossword – have fallen away as the digital alternatives multiply. As sales numbers have fallen and advertising revenue has bled away, Fairfax broadsheets like The Age and the SMH have struggled to maintain a clear sense of identity. Every new re-design seems to produce bigger headings, more pictures, fewer words and more liftouts. By contrast, News Limited’s The Australian maintains a serious demeanour but is increasingly characterised by bizarre preoccupations that cast doubt on its news values.


On a bit of house-keeping, tonight I remembered to check to see if any comments had been caught in the Spam filter. There were 22 stretching back a few weeks. I’m sorry to all those whose comments for whatever reason were caught up in the filter (I have no idea why some get caught - it’s not me – it is a “” thing). I’ll try to remember to check more regularly so that everyone’s comments get posted.

I don’t delete any comments unless they are potentially libellous, or really nasty abuse (a very rare occurrence).

Again apologies to all affected. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Inflating fashion; deflating toughness


So the big news today was obviously that fashion doyen Gai Waterhouse had criticised Julia Gillard for looking drab while touring the Japanese towns that had been utterly destroyed by the tsunami.

And I have to say, Gai is on the money. How dare the PM of this country not turn up at a scene of devastation without a beaut looking imagefascinator and a frock that would pass muster in the mounting yard on Cup day?

I do have to take issue with Ms Waterhouse though. When she decided to begin making comments outside of her usual orbit of horse racing, someone should have taken her aside and told her that criticising the fashion sense and general deportment of Julia Gillard is Niki Savva’s job, and she is more than capable of doing it without help from some upstart Sydney racing identity. 

Tony Abbott of course would never demean himself by making light of a woman’s looks – I mean the guy is the Opposition leader, and father of three daughters. So I guess we’ll just put it down to a “Gai moment” when in a pub on Christmas Island he

“… drank shots with fly-in, fly-out workers, played pool with the navy and got a loud cheer when he told a blonde perched at the bar that she was "better looking than Julia".

Yep, that is our alternate PM. 

Geez. This is politics, 2011.


imageActually the big news of the day was the release of the inflation figures which showed a bigger than expected increase in the last quarter CPI of 1.6 per cent (for an annual CPI of 3.3 per cent).

The reason? Well the cyclones and floods are the main ones. Food went up by 2.9 per cent (mostly due to fruit and vegetables – bananas increased 100 per cent and cauliflowers, broccoli, lettuce, pumpkin and potatoes also went up – though who cares about broccoli is beyond me…). Petrol went up by 8.8 per cent and pharmaceuticals increased by a whopping 12.5 per cent.

All in all a nice perfect storm of big hits.

The RBA does not worry too greatly about the headline figure, and instead looks at the “weighted mean” which came in at a bit nicer level of 0.8 per cent (a rise from the last quarter of 0.5 per cent). Oddly the annual weighted mean did not increase – it stayed flat at 2.2 per cent (because the quarter it replaced this time last year was also 0.8 per cent). So while that might look ok, the problem is in the intervening quarters the weighted mean was 0.5 per cent – which means unless the inflation rate falls to those levels the annual rate will keep going up.

And if that happens, so to, one may suppose, will interest rates.

Now before we get too panicky we should have a look at inflation and interest rates over the past decade:


As you can see we are bumping along quite nicely, and the recent interest rate rises seem to have had an impact – unlike the situation from February 2006 to August 2008 where interest rates and inflation both went up – not a nice place to be.

If we look at the old Misery Index of Unemployment + Inflation, we see things aren’t as low as they were at the tail end of the Howard years in September 07  – when unemployment was at 4.2 per cent and inflation at 2.6 per cent, but we’re still doing pretty well:


But the bond market has already factored in an interest rate rise for the end of the year (and of course the bond market is never ever wrong).

What the inflation rise does give Swan is another reason for delivering a “tough budget” – all in the name of reducing inflationary pressures. This is of course true, however inflationary pressures come not only from Government deficits – they can come from Governments who fall in love with budgets in surplus but who fail to address infrastructure and skills shortages (both of which require expenditure – just remember, not all Government expenditure is inflationary).


The other big news – which flowed over from yesterday – was that of asylum seekers. Remember those halcyon days back in February when Scott Morrison was being castigated for attacking Muslims and Chris Bowen was even being asked by the media to show more compassion? Oh what a bright shiny balloon of humanity that was.

Yeah forget that. That balloon has well and truly been pricked.

A sad orphan boy is one thing, but three blokes burning down buildings in Villawood Detention Centre and sitting on a roof?

Interview with Steve Price, MTR

Steve Price: The minister's on the line. Thanks for your time.

Chris Bowen: Pleasure Steve, good morning.

Price: Morning. Are there still protestors on the roof at Villawood?

Interview with James Carleton, ABC Radio National

James Carleton: Chris Bowen is the Minister for Immigration and he is with us now on Radio National Breakfast. Good morning minister.

Chris Bowen: Good morning James, nice to talk to you.

Carleton: First to Villawood. An update on the roof-top protestors please.

Sigh. And let me tell you they aren’t interested in compassion:

Price: I think the Australian people would like the minister – you – or the government that you work for, to get tougher. I think we're sick and tired – as you said at the beginning of this interview, minister – this is not the Australian way of doing things. We wouldn't put up with this if it were prisoners at Goulburn jail or at, in any other prison around the country.

Ah yes, let’s just put aside the fact that the three men are not actually in Goulbourn jail for crimes, and in fact are not “prisoners”, but hey, I guess  Steve Price speaks for the Australian people, so who am I to point out facts…

In response to the protestors in Villawood and Christmas Island, Bowen has decided to increase the penalties for “manufacture, possession, use or distribution of weapons by immigration detainees will increase from three to five years' imprisonment.”

Is this a thing that will be applauded by the right wing shock jocks?


Interview with Nick McCallum and Justin Smith, 3AW Breakfast

Smith: I think – look, I think – that's fine, don't misjudge me, I'm not saying that you don't need it, but I'm picking up on Nick's point here, is that it's window-dressing. If you're just increasing it to five years, when is the last – I think it's an important question, when's the last time a person had a weapon, used a weapon, tried to sell a weapon in detention and received a three year penalty. What's the bloody point of putting it up to five years if we've never – nobody's ever been done for three years?

Bowen: Look, I agree with you that you do need to prosecute, and of course prosecutions under our system are handled separately from the government. The Director of Public Prosecutions handles that. But what government's do is send the signal to the courts and to people thinking of committing crimes is to how seriously we consider them by setting the appropriate sentence.

Smith: Couldn't you send the signal by actually somebody getting three years in the first place?


Yep, we should live in a society where the Government can decide how long each person gets sentenced. Who needs that pesky separation of powers – what has that ever done for us?

Bowen also announced he was getting tough on asylum seekers. We know this because here’s the title of his media release telling us:

Tougher character test to send clear message

The problem is the “clear message” being sent is this (via The Oz):

Temporary visas aimed at improving detainees' behaviour 'a return to Howard days'

and this (via The Age)

Ghost of Howard looms over asylum policy

You see part of the change in policy is that those refugees who fail the character test (which is being amended so that any crime committed while  in detention will cause you to fail it) will now instead of gaining a permanent visa will be granted “temporary visas”.

Now when I first heard that the ALP was proposing introducing Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) I thought, well that’s it. The ALP might as well disband, because TPVs are one of the few verifiable failures of Howard’s asylum seeker policy, and if the ALP was re-introducing them, well why bother with anything?

Thankfully they are not actually doing that – and don’t take my word for it, even The Oz’s own Editor at large, Paul Kelly, understands it:

Has Labor retreated to John Howard's policy? No, it hasn't. Howard applied the temporary protection visa across the board while Labor will apply it only in the small number of cases arising from convictions.

But Kelly also knows that this does not matter:

Have Abbott and shadow immigration minister, Scott Morrison, been given a useful propaganda weapon? Yes, they have. They will argue, in Abbott's words, this concession "is a damning admission of Labor's failure".

To whit – all the headlines talking about the Howard days, even though the Govt is not doing that (well not completely).

But surely Bowen should have seen this coming and chosen a different term? But no, here he is on Monday at a doorstop announcing the policy:

Journalist: Can a person who's genuinely facing persecution back in Afghanistan be sent home because he kicked down a door in Villawood?

Bowen: Let me make it very clear: we are not talking about breaching our international obligations. We will not be returning people who are genuine refugees to a country in which they are in danger. But there are a number of options open to the Government, the Government of the day, in response to any various events that can be applied. They include temporary visas existing under the Act. Those temporary visas can include a requirement to not engage in violent or disruptive behaviour; they can include steps to return them if the situation improves in the home country and they are no longer at danger; they include different rights to sponsor other people into Australia and to travel. Now I'm not pre-empting which visas may be issued to which individuals, but there are a range of temporary visas currently available under the Migration Act.

Gahh!!! “Temporary visas” were always going to be reported as TPVs, even if they are not the same. The visas Bowen is talking about are more akin to “probationary visas” (Heck, there’s a term! One that seems to make sense given they will only apply to those who have committed a crime and those are in effect on probation…). Yes that’s just spin, but geez, the Govt doesn’t need to give the media and the Libs a complete free kick – if they are different from TPVs then don’t call them that and then try and explain the difference. Given them a different name at least!

But still, in the end, what is the purpose? What is the desired outcome?

Well there is the policy outcome of hoping to stop asylum seekers from rioting. Will this do it? Well given the three men are protesting because they have been refused asylum and lost on appeal, they probably won’t care too much about being charged with a crime in Australia. To be honest I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the three men. They seem to have been given full access to the system – a system that as a rule sees most asylum seekers pass – so if they failed, and then lost on appeal, well, there comes a time when you say sorry, but you don’t get over the bar. (The important thing is that the bar is set right – and few people seem to be suggesting it is too high).

Will it stop prospective asylum seekers from rioting? There’s a good chance it will – though I would argue there would be a better chance of this happening if conditions were made better for them.

Then there is the obvious desired political outcome of the issue not being a problem for the ALP. This will never happen – the ALP will never be the most favoured party on asylum seekers. They never, ever will. Never. Ever.

They should just accept this and realise that it really doesn’t matter that much. Peter Brent in The Oz wrote today:

If elections were only, or even mostly, about ‘border protection’, the ALP would never win one again. But they are largely decided by incumbency and economic security.

I agree completely. Last year when Gillard was trying desperately to appear tough on asylum seekers I wrote:

On Sky News today while waiting for Julia Gillard’s speech to the Lowy Institute, it was breathlessly announced that asylum seekers would be "the most important issue at the next election".

Bollocks, says I.

The most important issue at the next election, like every single election, will be the economy.

And yet the ALP worries and worries and worries about the issue, and thus it gets “tough”. And so how does the Liberal Party respond?

"This idea that you should reward rioters with temporary protection visas is just wrong," the Opposition Leader said.”

Geez. This is politics in 2011.

What this chasing the tough image on asylum seekers does to the ALP however is reflected in the Essential Media Report poll results today:


Look at that bottom issue “Clear about what they stand for” – the Liberal Party scores 44%; the ALP only 28%. The only category in which the ALP scores worse is on “Keeps its promises” (though having 72% say it will do anything to win an election ain’t good either).

Doing what people expect is actually a pretty crucial thing in politics. It is one of the reasons why Turnbull struggles a bit with his NBN attack. The perception is that he would prefer to be the guy in charge of rolling it out, rather than the one charged with destroying it. Ditto the view of Greg Hunt whenever he attacks putting a price on carbon.

The ALP when it is confronted with an issue like asylum seekers – an issue which no matter how “tough” it gets will never be seen as tougher than the LNP, and if it ever does do anything “tough” will find that its policies will be attributed to John Howard – perhaps should ask itself whether it is better to be seen to be “tough” to please people who will never vote Labor, or if it is better to think about what people expect a Labor Government to do on asylum seekers, and do that.

If you’re going to lose an election, better to do it for doing policies that at least you can stand by proudly, rather than ones for which no one gave you any credit, and for which helped confuse all voters about why you are in power in the first place.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sport is for losers

A couple weeks ago while watching my AFL team the Adelaide Crows being beaten by the Fremantle Dockers, I tweeted, “Crows getting smashed. Stupid game”. Given I often seem to be tweeting about a team I support losing, someone quickly tweeted to me: “Do any sporting teams you support ever actually win?”

Last week after watching the Adelaide Crows utterly capitulate against the Port Adelaide Power, I let fly a fair hurling of abuse towards them on Twitter. This same person then tweeted: “Don't tell me your support made another sporting team lose?”. (Good thing he’s a friend!)

This week while playing against Carlton the Crows were ahead be 11 points half way through the last quarter and upon giving up the lead I let fly even more abuse (this time at the TV rather than on Twitter). Three hard losses in a row. Three days of heartache. Three weeks of not wanting to watch footy wrap-up programs or reading about the season thus far.

Aside from highlighting that the Crows are having a bloody frustrating season, the tweets (and the losses) reinforced for me that to be a footy fan – in fact to be a fan of any sporting team – is to be someone who must confront losing. And not only confront it, must also accept it as unavoidable. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean you must like it, but perhaps we all should be a bit more mindful of the fact that losing is a part of sport.

In the Ken Burns documentary series, Baseball, columnist George Will, in his usual overly abundant sincere tone talked of baseball being “democratic” (and thus the perfect game for America) because the best teams lose a third of the games, the worst team win a third of the games, and it all comes down to the middle third. If winning is everything, then baseball, he said, is not the game for you.

In fact if winning is everything then no sport is the game for you, because you will last about one season before discovering that no matter how big and well-paid is the team you support, it won’t win them all.

In the NFL, the last team to win it all was the Miami Dolphins all the way back in 1972. But back then the season (including playoffs and Super-Bowl) lasted only 17 games. Now an NFL season takes 19 (or possibly 20) games. In 2007, the New England Patriots went 18 games undefeated, only to lose the Super Bowl (and they led 14-10 with 36 seconds left in the game).

No side has ever gone through an AFL season undefeated. Collingwood, in 1929, went through the minor round undefeated, but lost the second semi final (it got flogged by Richmond by 62 points).

In soccer, such a feat of being undefeated is less difficult, because of the draw. Arsenal went undefeated during the 2003-04 English Premier League, but it only won 26 of the 38 matches – 68 per cent. Thus pretty much the best you can hope for as a soccer fan is that two thirds of the time you will go home happy. Soccer fans know this, and thus they convince themselves that a draw can be as good as a win. But really? Nah. You play to win, and you want your side to win (ok, you’ll take a draw if that will get you through to the next round of the Cup, or will give you that one point you need to stay on top of the table).

Manchester United – that team which represents all things horrible (yes I am a Liverpool fan) – has had a great last ten years, but even they do not win enough to guarantee happiness:

Season Wins Games Played Win Percentage
2001-02 24 38 63.2
2002-03 25 38 65.8
2003-04 23 38 60.5
2004-05 22 38 57.9
2005-06 25 38 65.8
2006-07 28 38 73.7
2007-08 27 38 71.1
2008-09 28 38 73.7
2009-10 27 38 71.1
2010-11 21 34 61.8
Average 66.4

Now surely if you go back to the origin of this piece, you would suggest I merely choose a better team to follow. But the problem (aside from the fact that no true sports fan just changes support in the hope of getting more wins) is that even if you do support “winning” teams, you will still have to cope with failure. In fact you will have to cope with it much much more than you will winning.

The big reason football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey have such big followings is because each week (or almost every day in the case of baseball) your team has another chance to win. Sure the Crows have lost three in a row, but next week against St Kilda, I’ll be confident and cheering them on to a hoped for win.

But when you boil it all down, numbers of wins is not important, what is important is winning the whole thing – winning a premiership, a Super Bowl, a Stanley Cup, a World Series. If you think that is not the case, ask yourself who would you have preferred to support in 1998 – the Adelaide Crows who won 16 games and won the Grand Final, or North Melbourne, who won 18 games and lost the Grand Final? I know a few North fans who would gladly swap the Crows’ Premiership Cup for North’s 18 wins.

If however you are new to sport, and you want to follow a few sports, and you figure that your best chance of enjoying the joys of victory is to follow the biggest, richest and most well-supported teams around, then you might figure that you will likely have a fine old time as a supporter. And yes it may be true that if you decide to follow Manchester United, or the Yankees, or Real Madrid, or any of the other teams who stay on top through the spending of obscene amounts of money (full confession, I am a Yankees fan), you will see some good level of joy, but it will not be as often as you would like.

If we pick the biggest, richest, most well-supported team in the English Premier League, the Spanish “La Liga”, the Italian “Serie A”, the German “Bundesliga”, the Major League Baseball, the NFL, the AFL, the NRL and the Ice Hockey NHL, you find that even taking the supposed easy route of supporting the biggest and most hated does not remove the pain of defeat – the pain of going all the way through the season only to finish minus the ultimate glory:

Sport / League Team Premierships in last 10 years Win Percentage
AFL Collingwood 1 10
EPL Manchester United 5 50
La Liga Real Madrid 4 40
Serie A AC Milan 1 10
Bundesliga Bayern Munchen 6 60
NBA LA Lakers 4 40
MLB NY Yankees 1 10
NFL Pittsburgh Steelers 2 20
NRL Brisbane Broncos 1 10
NHL Detroit Red Wings 2 20
  TOTAL 27 27

Now yes you could argue that perhaps there are other teams that are bigger – Juventus in Serie A perhaps, the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, maybe (but Pittsburgh has won the most Super Bowls – and the Cowboys have zero wins in the last 10 years, and I’m trying to find happiness!). Detroit in the NHL is a tricky one, but it is one of the “original six” of the NHL, and has won the most Stanley Cups of any team from the USA. The Broncos? Well I’d argue that they are the most hated (maybe Manly – either way it is still only 1 win in the last 10 years).

But as you can see, if (like me) you follow a lot of sport, and thus in effect cover your bets, you still are looking at only 27 per cent joy at the end of the year. Now maybe you are someone who only supports Manchester United and don’t care about any other sport, in which case well done you are getting 50 per cent joy. However, such a level is more a statistical quirk, and is based on only 10 Premierships. This list has 100 premierships and so does establish a bit more statistical reliability. Essentially, if you decide to follow the big elephants in your league – you’re looking at 27 per cent joy… on average.

But unfortunately sport never works out on average.

Now obviously if you are the type of unfortunate type who was born under a bad sign, or whose father was born under a bad sign, and you find yourself the supporter of some small, poor, never to win team – St Kilda, Baltimore, Cincinnati Bengals (my team) – you will not see any joy at all. You will live from week to week, taking joy in the small victories – perhaps the ones in front of a “finals type atmosphere”  - but Premiership joy? Ha! Good luck (of course this won’t matter, you will still keeping supporting, keep hoping, keep thinking, maybe this year…).

But it is surprising just how lacking in joy and overflowing with losing  are supporters of teams that you would think would not have to worry about such pain.

Take the English Premier League and Liverpool. Between 18 season from 1972-73 to 1989-90 Liverpool either won the First Division (11 times) or came runner-up (6 times) every season except one (but they won the European Cup that year, so don’t give them too much sympathy). In the rather wonderful film based on the Nick Hornby novel, Fever Pitch, the main character Paul Ashworth is an Arsenal fan who bemoans it has been 17 years since Arsenal won the Premiership. Arsenal beat Liverpool for the Premiership in 1988-89, then Liverpool won the next season.

And since then, nothing.

If at that point you had told anyone who watched football in England that Liverpool would not win the Premiership in the next 21 years, you would have been gently taken off to the nearest nuthouse. Equally if in 1991-92, you were to suggest Manchester United would dominate for the next 20 years, you would have been given a smirk of bemusement. When Manchester United won the EPL in 1992-93, they hadn’t won for 25 years. A quarter of a century. So if you are about to start supporting a side in the EPL, don’t think that picking Man U will guarantee anything. Every Man U fan would look at Liverpool and say, please, not us.

When I was growing up in South Australia, I used to watch quite religiously Wide World of Sports every Saturday afternoon. They used to show bits of the old NSW Rugby League comp, and the team to beat was Parramatta. They won in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1986.

And since then, nothing.

In the NFL during the same period of the 1980s the San Francisco 49ers were the team to beat. They had the great Quarterback (Joe Montana), the great wide receiver (Jerry Rise), then they got another great quarterback (Steve Young) and they won the Super Bowl in 1982, 1985, 1989, 1990 and 1995.

And since then nothing.

This story is repeated in every sport, in every league.

The LA Dodgers? They have won the World Series 6 times, and yet their last win was in 1988 and now they find their owner is broke and the MLB has to take them over.

Sport / League Team Premierships in last 10 years Last Flag Years
AFL Carlton 0 1995 16
EPL Liverpool 0 1990 21
La Liga Athletico Madrid 0 1996 15
Serie A Lazio 0 2000 11
Bundesliga Borussia Dortmund 0 1996 15
NBA Chicago Bulls 0 1998 13
MLB LA Dodgers 0 1988 23
NFL San Francisco 49ers 0 1995 16
NRL Parramatta 0 1986 25
NHL New York Rangers 0 1994 17
  AVERAGE 0 1994 17

Carlton in 1995 were one of the most dominant teams ever, and yet even with some fiddling of the salary cap, they still haven’t been able to win another flag. Essendon as well in 2000 seemed to be more dominant than any team ever had been. And yet since then? Zilch.

The Crows in 2006 looked to be the team to beat halfway through the season. They ended up not even making the Grand Final. That result was painful not just because of the loss, but because as any of the supporters of the above teams (and so many, many others) will tell you, you need to win the Premiership when you get the chance, because that chance may not come around for a while.

So you’re feeling down about your team losing? Don’t worry you are not alone. Keep the faith, and try not to think that even if things go really well, at best the next 10 years will only see you ending the season happy about 3 times…

But logic of course does not mater with sports: here, 30 Rock’s Alec Baldwin and The Office’s, John Krasinski indulge in a bit of Yankees v Red Sox trash talk

(the Yankees lost today 2-0, but no matter, this season they’re 12-7 – a winning percentage of 63.2. Life is good!)