Thursday, September 27, 2012

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.

Aaron Sorkin wrote the words. Michael Douglas delivered them in "The American President". Years later, Anthony Albanese unwittingly "borrowed" them.

"We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President's girlfriend and you scream about patriotism."
These words are part of a monologue from a 17 year old movie about a fictional American President. They are also an accurate summation of conservative politics in Australia in 2012. It's all about fear and blame.

Anthony Albanese wasn’t just borrowing some beautiful language when he unknowingly quoted Sorkin earlier this year. He was delivering truth.

Tony Abbott has redefined the meaning of Opposition with his campaign to make us afraid of the Carbon Tax and blame Prime Minister for the national cataclysm her actions will cause.

"Climate change is absolute crap." – 2009

“This is a redistribution pretending to be compensation, it's a tax increase pretending to be an environmental policy. It's socialism masquerading as environmentalism.” – July 2011
Eeeek! Socialism? Not the bloody commies! Wasn’t JuLIAR a socialist when she was at university? And didn’t she have a dodgy boyfriend way back in the past? You have to admit, Mr Abbott and friends are very good indeed at following the script.

And if you hadn’t yet figured out that this bastard Carbon Tax rort is something to be afraid of, here’s the Leader of the Opposition, promising a Gillard-generated July 1st Armageddon for Australia’s industrial centres:

“Whyalla will be wiped off the map by Julia Gillard’s carbon tax. Whyalla risks becoming a ghost town, an economic wasteland, if this carbon tax goes ahead and that’s true not just of Whyalla, it’s also true of Port Pirie, it’s true of Gladstone, it’s true of communities in the Hunter Valley and the Illawarra in New South Wales, it’s true of Kwinana in Western Australia, it’s true of the La Trobe Valley, Portland, places like that in Victoria. There’s not a state and there’s hardly a region in this country that wouldn’t have major communities devastated by a carbon tax if this goes ahead...” – April 2011

  Afraid? Absolutely. With the assistance of Bigmouth in Chief Alan Jones, Mr Abbott had whipped about two thirds of the country into a pulsating clomp of ignorance and panic. Busloads of conservatives joined with hundreds of big rigs and headed for Canberra for the Convoy of No Confidence – better known now by it’s Twitter name, the Convoy of No Consequence. It was an appalling day in which the Very Very Afraid chose to voice their displeasure via placards calling our Prime Minister a Bitch, a Witch and other insults which may or may not rhyme with itch.

On the first day of the brave new Carbon Taxed Australia, Mr Jones headed a rally in Melbourne, attended by an impressive crowd of less than one hundred damp pensioners, but he made them afraid. He also told them who to blame for it. That, of course, would be his old sparring partner and our Prime Minister, “JuLIAR Gillard”. The Age reported:
Mr Jones said some businesses would collapse as they found themselves unable to remain competitive after passing the tax on. He said Prime Minister Julia Gillard had shattered the public's faith in politics by backflipping on her pre-election pledge not to introduce the tax.
"What this one person has done ... is to diminish the image of parliament and politics in the eyes of the public," he said.

"The notion of global warming is a hoax, this is witchcraft.”
The Carbon Tax Terror peaked just days after it was introduced, and has been sliding ever since. Come next week, we’ll have had three months of life with a Carbon Tax, and the promised apocalypse has not happened. Recent polling figures from July, August and September indicate that the fear is diminishing, and along with it, some of Mr Abbott’s support.

Oh dear. Mr Abbott will have to find something else that we can fear. How convenient that we have an ongoing problem with asylum seekers, a budget deficit, a female prime minister, the prospect of same-sex marriage, rioting Muslims and Kevin Rudd. Pick your fear, people, or suggest a new one.

Sorkin’s words are not restricted to federal politics, though. Campbell Newman is Master and Commander of the Good Ship Scare-the-Shit-Outta-Them. Without having spent a single moment as a state parliamentarian, he walked into the state’s top job and told us that he would save us from our true enemies: gays, single people, the Public Service, artsy-fartsies like writers and student musicians, the debt, the deficit, the budget, the economy, the balance sheet, the ALP, the Greens, intellectuals, lefties, the federal government and just about everything else.

Predictably, the LNP Government is blaming everything on the previous Labor Government. Prior to the election, voters feared another term of Labor would cripple Queensland, so we voted for the LNP and here we are, more afraid now than at any time since the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

The scariest prospect so far is the idea that Premier Campbell might just be the curtain-raiser for Tony Abbott. Look at Queensland, then look at Australia. Look at Campbell Newman, then at Tony Abbott. This is the way conservative politics win; they don’t inspire anything but fear. Premier Newman made you afraid of life under Labor, and Mr Abbott has been successful in doing the same thing.

As we’re seeing now in Queensland, there are other, far more terrifying things to be afraid of, and the spectre of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister heads that list.

You can fight fire with fire (if you have a functional fire service left, that is), but fighting fear with fear doesn’t work. Sooner or later, one side has to offer an alternative to scaring the pants off you. Federal Labor has a couple of choices now: they can try to defuse the Coalition Scare-bomb Campaign which hasn’t been very successful under Mr Abbott, or they can offer a positive point of difference. In 2008, Barack Obama offered Hope.

Is there anyone in the Labor camp who can inspire us?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Newmania: Hostile Territory

The Courier Mail, Brisbane’s only newspaper and for so many years the defender of the conservative political cause in Queensland must be feeling a change in mood. This morning, the Courier Mail ran with one of the many recent media offerings designed by PR hacks and image-makers. The objective is to soften King Campbell’s image as an axe-wielding job-murderer.

Twelve months ago, even six months ago, the Comments page on a story about King Campbell's insomnia would have been full of confident, boastful, and poorly punctuated statements, crowing about how King Campbell would clean up the mess created Anna Bligh (complete with accusatory spelling like “Blie” and “Blier” that even predated Alan Jones “Juliar” attack).

King Campbell was the Can-Do Man. The LNP was going to win the election because the time had come for change. It was King Campbell’s CanDo-ness that secured the LNP a record-breaking majority.

Now, just seven months into a three year term, even the Courier Mail readers have turned on King Campbell, with a barrage of eye-scorching negativity and poor spelling. The reason, of course, is the horror-movie brutality of his cuts to the Public Service, and his uncaring, tactless attitude. Of the first 65 comments, only 12% were supportive of King Campbell. The other 88% included former public servants who had been sacked, and current public servants who have been living under the Sword of Damocles for the past six months. Their pain shows.


With the exception of a handful of LNP supporters, the mood of the Comments pages ranged from disillusioned to furious to defeated. Obviously comments on a news website have little credibility as a measure of the public mood. In this case though, regular readers will have seen a complete change in alignment, from anti-ALP to anti-LNP, although there's no trace of pro-ALP sentiment either. I can’t believe the readership has changed that much, so it’s the allegiance of the readers that has moved.

In a delicious twist, it was just this weekend when the Courier Mail’s own state political correspondent Steve Wardill suggested that King Campbell needed to back away from the carnage and show his humanity. It’s a good point, Steve, and most first-year communications undergraduates would offer the same advice.
But, as the cuts crusade draws to a close, Newman needs to show another side beyond his other persona, spruiking three-worded election rhetoric such as "back on track" and "four-pillar economy".

Showing compassion for the wider community is a big part of being a premier. It's what sets the job apart from the rates-and-rubbish politics of local government and the big-picture federal arena.

Mr Wardill is wrong. Playing the compassionate leader and crying woe-is-me in this atmosphere is so incongruous in light of his actions as Premier that it’s not credible. The public has become more cynical, but also more knowledgeable about the world of politics. Spin is spin.
We have political wonks – a relatively new word to describe the growing number of people who immerse themselves in the world of politics and politicians as others might follow Morris dancing or cockroach racing. It’s intense and potentially antisocial in many circles, and just a little...weird? (Did you know that “wonk” is the word “know”, but backwards?)

We also have social media, where groups informally coalesce like bubbles in a lava lamp, tweeted opinions spread exponentially, emotions are a dime a dozen, and political wonks congregate and hatch plans for "Wonk Drinks" (yes, it's a thing), boycotts, petitions, protests, campaigns to Destroy the Joint, and events like SlutWalk.

My advice to King Campbell would be to forget about the photo ops with babies and cute furry animals, and stop talking to the media about anything that isn’t policy-related. His personal popularity right now is such that few would if he never sleeps again. He should continue to be this cold, emotionally detached sub-human wrecking ball with a mandate…but do it quietly, and do it until the job is done. Then, rebuild, and let his actions speak as eloquently as they have since Election Day in March.

The problem now for King Campbell is that he doesn't have that kind of time. The hatred is strong. King Campbell has much more to do, and if he continues to act with such little regard for people, he will lose.

Is it possible that just seven months since his election, he's set himself and the LNP on a road back into Opposition? Is this a one-term government?

Honestly, I doubt it, if for no other reason than because the election left the ALP shattered and as such, there is no opposition. Literally. The sporting commentator's favourite cliche, the "rebuilding phase", was custom-made for the ALP in Newmania in 2012.

King Campbell would have learned in the army that it’s wise to make yourself a smaller target, as small as possible, invisible...especially when people are shooting at you. Right now, he’s making himself a bigger mark, and millions of Newmanians are shooting in his direction.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

And now, Here's the News.

The problem with being a news junkie is that digesting the news becomes such a part of your life, that you stop thinking about it. The addiction to news becomes more of who you are and less about what you do. Without even realising it, you expect everyone around you to have the same level of interest in the news, and a similar understanding of the events in the world around them.

I’ve always been that way – I think it comes from growing up in the 70s in a home with up to four generations. Every single night of the week pivoted around the ABC-TV Television News with James Dibble. Dinner was eaten before the news; the entertainment portion of the evening was after the news. During the news, we watched the news. If we’d been eating in the lounge room, the ABC news was often preceded by local news, a state news bulletin from one of the commercial network. Some nights we feasted on This Day Tonight with Bill Peach.

I learned a lot. I learned that Mr Dibble was better-spoken than all of the other newsreaders. I learned that Bill Peach was not infallible – he occasionally blushed and stammered and tripped over his script. Mostly, I learned to love the news. During those incredible years, I learned to spell and do long division during the day, but between 7 and 7:30pm, I learned about the moon landing, the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks, Shane Gould, Nixon and Watergate, the Vietnam War, and Whitlam’s dismissal.

When I started my degree in Communication at Mitchell CAE – now Charles Sturt University – we were all subjected to a weekly ten-question current affairs quiz each Monday. My addiction to news was a godsend, yet I was mystified that some people who wanted to be journalists didn’t share this love of news. How could people who wanted to work in news, not love news? More importantly, how could people studying journalism not have broad general knowledge, fuelled by their curiosity?

Thirty years later, the standard has deteriorated to the point of ludicrousness.

Last weekend, a Daily Telegraph – Galaxy Poll asked the following question:

      Thinking about the leaders of the parties: To the best of your knowledge, what is the name of the Premier of New South Wales?

The answers are damning for the New South Wales Premier, the New South Wales media, and the New South Wales education department. 38% of people in New South Wales don’t know who their state premier is.

The answers, while startling, didn’t get a lot of media time outside of New South Wales, as the poll was released the same week as Newpoll and Nielsen released their national opinion poll results, which saw Labor looking capable of challenging the Coalition for the first time in over a year.

What does that say about the man who is Premier, Barry O’Farrell? He’s not camera shy, and has a far higher national profile than most state leaders. Would we find the similar results if we asked the same question in other states? Would Victorians be able to name their Premier? Would Queenslanders be able to name ours?

The answer might well lie in the sentiment of those who know who Barry O’Farrell is. The survey asked participants to rate Premier O’Farrell as (a) a CanDo Premier, (b) a Slow But Steady Premier, (c) A Do Nothing Premier, or (d) Uncommitted. A whopping 23% were uncommitted, and twice as many people rated him as a Do Nothing Premier, as rated him as a CanDo Premier. The largest group was the Slow but Steady Premier, but at 38%, it’s mediocre. The “top box” scores, which adds the CanDo and Steady scores together is a slightly less depressing, at 51%.

So is this really a case of Barry O’Farrell being the Mystery Man the Daily Telegraph suggests, or is the fault not with Premier O’Farrell, but somewhere else. Is a third of our population so disengaged that they don’t know the basics about their world? Despite the extraordinary dumbing down of our news services, we can’t blame them for the fact that one in three people have yawning gaps where their rudimentary general knowledge should be.

The growth of new media, alternate media, social media and gadgetry must be a factor here. Just a generation or so ago, more people watched television and listened to radio. Even if you were listening to Triple J, you’d hear the news every hour. You couldn’t escape it. And even if you avoided the television news bulletins, you’d still catch the two minute highlights packages between shows. It used to be much harder to avoid the news.

Now, we hang with our friends on social media, and if your friends aren’t newsy people, you might avoid hearing about everything except your special areas of interest, be it Twilight romances or V8 Supercars. Instead of listening to the radio, you listen to music or podcasts on your phone or ipod, and again, miss the news completely. When you sit down to watch tellie – if you do – you might watch something you’d recorded earlier, or pop in a DVD, or watch something you’ve downloaded.

How do we get news back to a place where it’s as ubiquitous as it was 20 years ago? It’s tempting to just shrug and say “okay – their problem”, but not in Australia. We live in a country where voting is compulsory, yet we accept that 38% of the voters don’t know who won their last state election.

Something isn't right about that.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Crystal Balls

Today, many many political brains with far more wisdom than mine are staring at sets of polling data with all the intensity of a gypsy reading her crystal ball. The ALP folk are vacillating between private exaltation and disbelief, while the Coalition team are clinging to statistics of the past two years, discrediting the wavy images in the glass and looking to the left for someone to blame. Psephologists are trying to decipher two sets of polling data released in the dead of night and find something meaningful in it.

The answers is seems,are the same. Labor is gaining momentum, the Coalition is losing ground, but if an election was held last weekend, Tony Abbot would be Prime Minister…and many Australian voters would be unhappy about that.

The Polls – Newspoll and Nielsen – are shockers for Mr Abbott. According to Nielsen, Ms Gillard is starting to edge away in the Preferred PM stakes, as well as having a higher approval score and lower disapproval score. The Better PM measure, according to Newpoll, has Gillard jumping 7 points and Abbott falling 6 points in the last month.

But does it mean anything?

Previous Newspolls are showing a 2PP trend, with the ALP showing a slow, consistent climb. In the two years since the last election, the numbers have been bouncing around a fair bit, but the Coalition has been ahead for most of that time. I’m comfortable calling this steady climb a trend.

Bear in mind that there is still a deep dissatisfaction with both federal leaders, and close to one quarter of voters would shun the two major parties, according to Nielsen…which begs the question of whether a 2PP measure is even relevant anymore.

The psephologists are also stirring the leadership pots by predicting how the results might look if Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister, opposing Tony Abbott – and Labor would win, although Mr Rudd isn’t as popular as he used to be. Then switcheroo Malcolm Turnbull for Tony Abbott, and the pendulum swings back the other way.

But according to Newspoll, and assuming that Nielsen keeps trending the way it is, in another few months, we’ll be in the same place we were in August 2010, when we last tried to elect a federal government. A lot of polling distance has been covered in that time, but just how much has changed?

Move the statistics to one side, and rather a lot has been achieved:

Australia now has a Carbon Tax, and a Mining Tax, a new health system with a 50% increase to hospital funding, a new dental health scheme, a single national school curriculum, the National Broadband Network is rolling out, an increase in trades training, and in training places, and we almost have an National Disability Insurance Scheme. Oh, and Australia survived the Global Financial Crisis better than any other developed economy.

Our Government has also made an absolute hash of our approach to asylum seekers, has ignored one of our own citizens, Julian Assange, has failed to broker an acceptable deal to preserve the Murray Basin and has failed to act on Same Sex Marriage and Poker Machine Reform. It’s endured the Peter Slipper and Craig Thompson fiascos, and maintained the support of Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Adam Bandt and occasionally, Andrew Wilkie.

The polls might be close to our starting point two years ago, but Australia is looking very different.

I’m sure that right now, the ALP strategists (formerly faceless) are thanking Campbell Newman, Barry O’Farrell and Ted Bailleau for being so united in their mission to annihilate the Public Sectors in their respective states. There’s been talk of the Newman factor, but the three Eastern premiers together are far more effective at demonstrating current Coalition/LNP policy.

The fact that Whyalla has not fallen victim to a Carbon Tax Armageddon might also be a factor in lightening the ALP burden. Tony Abbott’s current problems with his past, and his dreadful performance on 7:30 a couple of weeks ago will be boosting the ALP’s stocks as well.

I can see the next six months’ worth of polling continuing to close the gap, although it won’t always be steady. After that, it’s anyone’s game. Mr Rudd will probably become less of a factor while Mr Turnbull, who has been biding his time, raises the roof.

Bring it on.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Political Motivation

Why would someone want to be a politician? No, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s a genuine question. What is it that drives some people to want to run for – and win – public office? Even more baffling: what is it, that after less than one term in office, makes you decide to run again?

A  politician's hours are incredibly long; the days can be simultaneously busy and tedious, the pay is okay, but a long way below what a top executive would make…and there’s the inevitable intrusion into your personal life, little personal time, no privacy, regular travelling (and the only people who think that business travel is glamorous are those who don’t do it often) and a never-ending round of baby-kissing, ribbon-cutting, prize-presenting, sausage-sizzling, speechifying events to ensure that you never loose touch with The People.

There must be other drivers that attract people to the life of a politician. Al Gore’s former speechwriter Daniel Pink has some great ideas on what motivates people, and it knocks the old carrot-and-stick approach out of the picture. It’s a good thing that salary isn’t a great motivator, because smart, motivated people can earn a lot more in the private sector. 

Daniel Pink has identified mastery as a key motivator, and explains that people want to do well. We want to be good at things. But we also need to have automony, and we need to have a purpose.  These three facets of motivation could all be responsible for why people choose to be involved in politics. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research has produced a working paper which disagrees, finding that there is a correlation between pay and performance, but that doesn't address why people would want to do it. 
"Our main findings show that higher wages increases political competition and improves the quality of legislators, as measured by education, type of previous profession, and political experience in office. In addition to this positive selection, we find that wages also affect politicians’ performance, which is consistent with a behavioural response to a higher value of holding office." 

It's a surprising result, and probably more relevant in the USA, given the financial status of some of our current politicians. 

Malcolm Turnbull is worth a little under $200m, and Kevin Rudd is worth over $50m, primarily due to the business success of his wife, Therese Rein. Obviously, most politicians don't have that kind of money, and aren’t motivated my money…or at least, aren’t motivated by money alone. So what are the payoffs? What do politicians get from being elected?

  • Fame/Celebrity/Notoriety
  • They are “True Believers” with a cause
  • Ambition/Ego/Power
  • Instant Social and Professional Status; Respectability
  • A desire to serve
  • The belief that they can do better

For some, the political life starts early. Campbell Newman's parents were both federal politicians. Lunatic MP Bob Katter's father was a pollie, and now his son Robbie has joined the business, being elected to the Queensland Parliament in March. Simon Crean's father was Labor Minister Frank Crean in the Whitlam Government. For these members, politicking is the family business. 
For others, political life started at university. 

Many of our current leaders were cutting their political teeth in the late 70s and early-mid 80s. Midnight Oil sang about The Power and the Passion and Australian Crawl sang about B'you Tefal Peebull. It was a time of political characters: Margaret Thatcher, Bob Hawke and Ronald Reagan in the last years of the Cold War and the first years of environmental politics. 

Australia's political leaders were already building careers by the 80s. Tony Abbott's early adventures in politics, religion and thuggery at Sydney University are the subject of accusations and speculation this week, thanks to David Marr's Quarterly Essay. Julia Gillard was active in the Australian Union of Students. Joe Hockey was President of the Students Representative Council at Sydney University. Penny Wong lead the Adelaide University Labor Club, while Christopher Pyne lead the Liberal Club. Anna Bligh was Women's Vice President (there was a Women's Vice President?) at University of Queensland. Chris Evans was President of the University Labor Club at the University of Western Australia.

Traditionally, a large slab of the Labor Party comes from the Union movement, while Coalition members are often drawn from banking, finance and agriculture. But we still don't know what makes bankers, unionists, lawyers, farmers and business owners make the leap to public life. 

Pauline Hanson is an example that mystifies many. Her platform in federal politics was pure mono-culturalism, anti-immigration, and yet she had been a local councillor, where matters of national identity are irrelevant. When she won her seat in federal Parliament, it was as a Liberal Party candidate who had been disendorsed prior to the election. Her maiden speech set the tone for what was to come.

After the demise of One Nation, Ms Hanson stood for election again in 2001 for the Senate, and in 2003 she moved to New South Wales and stood for the Upper House in the state election. She lost both, and retired from politics, only to return the next year to stand unsuccessfully as an Independent in the 2004 federal election and as a head of Pauline's United Australia Party in 2007. Next, she stood unsuccessfully for the Queensland seat of Beaudesert in 2009. Most recently, she's been hoping for an invitation back to the Liberal Party, but with five failed campaigns behind her, it seems unlikely.

And I haven't mentioned the years of naive policies, the legal battles, her time in prison, her near bankruptcy, her showbiz career on Dancing with the Stars, the faked underwear photos...Ms Hanson has been making consistently surprising headlines since her maiden speech in Canberra in 1996.

Could it be that Ms Hanson really believed that her purpose was to save Australia from evil multiculturalism? Or was it more self-serving than that?
Her one and only victory tapped a rich and shameful xenophobic vein in Australian society.  I suspect that back in the mid 90s, she saw politics as the express route to respectability, to fame, to power. Canberra and conservative suits is a long way from a deep fried fast food joint in Ipswich. Now, politics can only be a dirt track back to relevance.

In contrast, former Queensland State MP Steve Kilburn is working in the private sector for the first time in his life. After careers in the Navy and with the Queensland Fire Service, Steve was elected to serve Chatsworth, the most marginal seat in Queensland. His maiden speech is about service, not about fear, and this purpose has guided his professional life for 30 years.

Both Pauline Hanson and Steve Kilburn are Queensland-based one-term parliamentarians. Since losing her seat, Ms Hanson has fought a never-ending series of battles to stay in the spotlight. Mr Kilburn has slipped quietly into life outside politics, at least for now.

Then, there's Rob Oakeshott, a former Nationals MP who has learned the uncomfortable way about the importance of values. Mr Oakeshott has spent his entire career in and around politics, but has made his reputation as an Independent supporting a minority government. Purpose, autonomy and mastery converged at the 2010 federal election, where Mr Oakeshott's commitment to the Lyne electorate gave way to a larger purpose due to the hung parliament. His decision to support the minority ALP government disappointed many of his constituents, but satisfied his personal motivation.

Disregarding the issues and the constraints of being an elected official, it seems that most politicians get into the game because they believe in something. They have purpose. Their beliefs might coincide with those of a major party, or challenge the existing wisdom. Those beliefs might be in response to personal  prejudices, or the result of a personal priority, a need to serve. 

Choosing to enter politics is an enormous decision, and I choose to believe that most of our politicians make the decision to serve, and want to do it well. That's the drive for mastery. 
Autonomy is rare within the political party system; perhaps a less party-driven, more independent parliament would be more suitable for human behaviour. 

Australia's leaders were formed during the shoulder-padded 80s when "Greed was good" and nukes were bad. The 
sixties were about social change, the eighties demanded action from those looking for a cause. Fast forward just one decade: what were the political motivators of the 90s?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Newmania: You Bastards

One of my favourite tweeps was, until this morning, a Newmanian Public Servant with 20 years’ experience. @Dangerman_2 had been waiting for weeks to hear if he’d be one of the lucky ones, or if he’d get the dreaded phone call from one of King Campbell's minions. 

This morning was not a normal morning in his office, and I daresay that’s true across the Public Service. Frankly, when 60,000 people are sitting around, waiting for a phone call to confirm whether their career is over, it's not a money problem. It's a human problem.

Oh, let's be honest. It's a Change Management Clusterf*ck. 

The entire Public Service has been all rumours, exposed nerves and tear ducts since King Campbell started sacking people. I believe that was Day One of his Reign, March 25. The unease has escalated, plateauing temporarily on Black Friday, June 30, and the first major round of redundancies. Then last Friday, Prince of Health, Lawrence Of Borg, announced 2754 jobs in Queensland Health would cease to exist. Somehow, in less than a week, 2754 became 4,100. 

I have to ask, if this LNP mob can do Magical Maths like that, all based on a Sorcerer's Book of Myths written by the Wizardmaster Costello, why can't they just use their powers for good? Who benefits from pretending the state is heading for financial disaster? 

Meanwhile, 4pm ticked by, and it was still going on. Public Servants were still being told that if they haven’t already had their future confirmed one way or another, to wait by their emails. EMAIL?

It's a new low in human management. It's completely lacking in both compassion and respect. I thought it was bad when people were advised of redundancy by phone, as @Dangerman_2 was this morning. Can you imagine finding out via email that you've been sacked? As far as communication goes, it doesn't get worse than this.

Of course Twitter rumours have been bubbling for days: stories of ‘Safety Squads’ working through last night to remove sharp objects from desks and workstations in Government buildings sound entirely implausible. Other stories of entire frontline departments in tears while phones go unanswered sound more believable. Rumours of older public servants on stress leave; whispers of's impossible for me, in my semi-secure private sector rut, to comprehend. I've survived three "restructures" in the past year.

I don't know how many of the 14,000 are being given notice and how many have been paid out and terminated. I've heard that some people are being escorted from their workplaces by security guards. The average redundancy payout looks to be close to a year’s salary. I wonder if people are leaving with cheques shoved into pockets with the soggy tissues, or if there’s an extraordinary government pay run today for redundancy payments.

Treasurer Tim Nicholls believes that this budget will allow Queenslanders to have confidence. I doubt it. What's there to be confident about?

The Health Department has lost over 4,000 employees, and some of them are frontline staff. We already know that the Gold Coast Hospitals are losing medical staff from the Emergency and Surgery departments...I'm confident this is Queensland Health's worst case scenario.

As many times as we heard Treasurer Tim say "back on track and back in the black" today, it means about as much as when King Campbell reassured us that public sector jobs were safe. 

As of 4:30pm, the Queensland budget was still a nationally trending topic. Federal Treasurer and Acting PM Wayne Swan was not holding back when he found the time to tweet.

Memo to King Campbell: sacking "only" 14,000 jobs is not "saving" 6,000 jobs. It's not saving anything. It is still sacking 14,000 people. It's not limited to a column of numbers: it's 14,000 people with careers that just stopped, 14,000 people suffering a variety of psychological impacts, 14,000 more people competing for the available jobs in the private sector.

One of my closest friends left her job as a Project Manager last year to start a Bachelor of Medical Imaging degree course at QUT. This is traditionally a 4 year course, but QUT developed the condensed 3 year course, to correct a shortage in the industry.

The graduating class of 2011 had about 120 people. Of those 120 graduates, over 40% still don't have positions as medical imagers or radiographers...and the class of 2012 is terrified. My friend will be in the class of 2013, but this s her second degree and she has other skills and experience. Most of the class started their university course straight after high school, and don't have a Plan B. What's their future?

How long will it take to repair the damage to Newmania's economy? My guess is that the economy will be easier to fix than bruised psyches of a state with a broken heart.

This really sucks.

* Based on an FTE average annual cost of $80,000.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pants on Fire

It used to be that the news media included platoons of small, quiet mysterious people up the back of the newsroom or hiddeni in dusty offices full of reference books and magazines. These creatures were known as “fact-checkers”, and they would examine the detail of news stories to ensure an acceptable level of truth.

These days, most journalists are expected to check their own facts – it’s called “research”. Young reporters are taught to research as part of their role, and the research is now so much faster and easier with the internet, something not dreamed of when the role was first created, around a hundred years ago. There are still researchers within media organisations but rarely are there more than a handful, and smaller operations just can’t afford them.

Now, in the era when everyone outsources everything, some new companies are starting to spring to life. These companies offer a professional fact-checking service to anyone who wants to pay for it…and in recent weeks, plenty of people have been happy to pay experts to have facts checked.

In the age of the Internet and instant communication and open access, why is it necessary to have specialists check facts? Because it appears that people – particularly politicians, but also lobbyists and interest groups – may not always tell the truth, or may package the truth in order to obfuscate the meaning. That's before the news media has had a chance to add their spin. Not all do, but if you're not paying attention, it's hard to tell the difference between those who spin and those who report. For this reason, we need to check facts.

The perfect example in Australia was the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace’s provocative statements that suggested that smoking cigarettes was healthier than pursuing a gay lifestyle. He even cited studies and statistics to support his argument. Crikey’s own Get Fact has looked at Mr Wallace’s “facts”  in considerable depth, and here’s their conclusion:
  So, while the gay population does appear to experience a disproportionate prevalence of negative health effects brought on by others, the evidence that gays die earlier than straights is dubious at best. Accordingly, we rate Wallace’s claims as mostly rubbish.

In the USA, it’s Convention Season, and although the Democratic Convention is continuing, their speakers’ speeches are being thoroughly checked. The  Republicans held their conference a couple of weeks ago. Their candidate for Vice President Paul Ryan, has been roundly criticized for all sorts of crimes against reality. In addition to his embarrassing lie about his best marathon time, has identified several more inaccuracies in the speech during which he accepted the nomination to be Republican Candidate for Vice President under Mitt Romney.

TAMPA, Fla. — Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention contained several false claims and misleading statements. Delegates cheered as the vice presidential nominee:

• Accused President Obama’s health care law of funnelling money away from Medicare “at the expense of the elderly.” In fact, Medicare’s chief actuary says the law “substantially improves” the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings.

• Accused Obama of doing “exactly nothing” about recommendations of a bipartisan deficit commission — which Ryan himself helped scuttle.

• Claimed the American people were “cut out” of stimulus spending. Actually, more than a quarter of all stimulus dollars went for tax relief for workers.

• Faulted Obama for failing to deliver a 2008 campaign promise to keep a Wisconsin plant open. It closed less than a month before Obama took office.

• Blamed Obama for the loss of a AAA credit rating for the U.S. Actually, Standard & Poor’s blamed the downgrade on the uncompromising stands of both Republicans and Democrats.

• And when he wasn’t attacking Obama, Ryan was puffing up the record of his running mate, Mitt Romney, on taxes and unemployment. has also investigated Bill Clinton’s fact-laden speech from yesterday. Described by as a fact-checker’s nightmare due to the sheer number of statistical and historical claims, they have nevertheless assessed the speech, and summarised it like this:
"Republicans will find plenty of Clinton’s scorching opinions objectionable. But with few exceptions, we found his stats checked out."

In Australia, we’re checking facts too. Here in Queensland, the new LNP Government’s Independent Audit of Queensland’s finances has been reviewed by Professor Bob Walker of the University of Sydney Business School, and found to be inadequate. Professor Walker is not a junior media staffer; he is an expert in the field. Steve Austin interviewed the Professor this morning.

This review should be of concern to all Queenslanders, as this report is the Government’s justification for the “essential” programme of cost-cutting, as well as being their answer to most questions.  If this review is correct, the LNP Government will have a hard time justifying the cuts they’re making to the public service, particularly today, when over 2700 jobs are being taken out of the Health Department.

In fairness, Professor Walker’s report was commissioned by Queensland Council of Trade Unions, and the report’s conclusions support the position most beneficial to the Trade Unions. Some listeners to Steve Austin’s interview this morning feel that because the results benefit the group that commissioned the report, the entire report lacks credibility. I find this criticism troublesome, as the Audit Report that was being investigated was commissioned by an LNP Government, and prepared by a former Coalition treasurer: the original Interim Report says what Premier Newman and his team need it to say in order to justify their criticism of the previous government.

If Professor Walker’s report is biased, so is Mr Costello’s audit.

But back to the USA for a moment, where the professional and amateur fact checkers are breaking records to score President Obama’s Acceptance Speech. With such a focus on fact-checking, several organisations are worth watching. For the best look at how American politicians are shaping up during the two months between now and election day, keep an eye on PolitiFact for broad coverage of who said what and who lied.

In Australia, there's not enough fact checking for my liking. Leigh Sales' interview with Tony Abbott proved that! But keep an eye on Crikey for their healthy cynicism and separation of fact from spin.

In any case, don’t believe everything you read on the internet, or see on television, unless it’s a live, real-time, unedited broadcast, but keep reading, keep watching and keep questioning.

Update: 9:00pm. President Obama's speech has been fact checked, and there are no major lies, although a few points could have benefitted from more information, clarification or context.

Newmania: Flatly Wrong

This morning, we heard about a new review into Peter Costello's Interim Commission of Audit Report. The review was conducted by Professor Bob Walker  who was commissioned by the Queensland Council of Unions. The findings in the report are exactly what the unions would want to see: that the report is fatally flawed in a number of ways. Professor Walker's credentials seem to be perfect for conducting this sort of review, but please listen here to Steve Austin's interview with Professor Walker on 612ABC Brisbane this morning, or read my transcript below, and make up your own mind.

SA: A Sydney academic has blasted Peter Costello’s Interim Commission of Audit Report into this state’s finances, labelling it as shoddy, and intellectually dishonest. It’s the document the Government of Campbell Newman has used to justify its aggressive cost cutting programme. Professor Bob Walker, together with his wife who’s an economist from the University of Sydney was commissioned by Queensland Council of Unions to audit the Interim Commission of Audit, or review it. His report was released today. I spoke with Professor Walker this morning before coming on air and asked him to give me his own overview of the document first of all.

BW: I think it’s a rather shoddy piece of work, and it’s intellectually dishonest. It fudges the figures in two main respects. First, it refers to what it calls ‘debt of total government’, and I think 100% of readers would think that includes absolutely every government agency, the whole of government. In fact, there’s a definition on an un-numbered page just after the cover which explains that total government for the Costello report excludes what they call the ‘financial corporations sector’ which includes the agencies which hold $28b worth of investments. So when the Costello report talks about debt – or, has a funny definition of debt. It doesn’t set off those investments and the standard way of talking about government finances is to talk about net debt.

Turning now to the second way in which the report fudges the figures, it defines debt as ‘gross debt less investments’, particularly those held for investment purposes for superannuation. Now that leaves reason to think that $28b would’ve been deducted, but instead it’s not.

SA: So they’ve included things like the debt being carried by government owned corporations which have a means or ability to pay things back, and you think it’s unfair to include that.

BW: I think it’s fair to include that, as long as you have the whole picture, the whole of government, and not define ‘total government’ as something less than all government agencies.

SA: Right

BW: And secondly, or thirdly, I suppose, it makes a lot of projections about future levels of debt and capital expenditure and so forth, and doesn’t justify any of this with tables of data. It looks as though they’ve, eh, made little historical projections as past borrowings, including borrowings for agencies like QR National, which have since been sold, and all in all, I mean they’ve admitted that they didn’t undertake any modelling; it looks as though their projections are prepared by a graphic designer drawing a line on a graph.

SA: Given who prepared this, and how it’s being used, that’s a damning statement. You are saying that they are being deliberately or negligently misleading in the Interim Commission of Audit.

BW: I’d say that, and I’d further emphasise that’s surprising; we have standards for something called performance audits in Australia. They’re prepared by a Commonwealth Government agency, which used to report to Mr Costello. And they’ve issued standards for performance auditing; it’s just uncomplied with in this document.

SA: So this document doesn’t meet accepted Commonwealth auditing standards?

BW: Well those standards apply; they’re mandatory for corporations but the document says they provided guidance for other exercises of this type, and it’s strange that standards issued by an agency that used to report to Mr Costello are just totally ignored.

SA: So how can the ordinary Queenslander see this or approach this Interim Audit. It’s being used as the platform or the reason d’etre for significant job losses in Queensland in the Public Service. How should we regard it?

BW: I think you should be outraged, frankly, because it’s a totally political document, prepared without regard, I think, to the facts.

Prof Bob Walker

SA: My guest is Professor Bob Walker. He’s from the University of Sydney. He was commissioned by the Queensland Council of Unions to audit the Interim Commission of Audit prepared by Peter Costello, former conservative Liberal Treasurer, professor Sandra Harding, from the James Cook University, and Doug McTaggart, formerly head of the Queensland Treasury Corporation. My name’s Steve Austin.
Let me go through some key points then if I can, please Professor Walker? First of all, Tim Nicholls, the Treasurer, will be releasing his budget on Tuesday of next week, said the QTC, the Queensland Treasury Corporation advised him that the state’s level of debt was unsustainable and must be urgently addressed. Do you disagree?

BW: I think the debt is totally manageable. In fact, if you look at the net debt figures, Queensland’s got a net debt…it’s the standard measure used, of around $17b. New South Wales has got almost double that. So I think there’s a lot of scaremongering going on with this report.

SA: Well, I’ll keep going…the Treasurer also said to Queenslanders that because of what he described as “Labor’s Debt Binge”, that the debt was expected to blow out to $85b by 2014-2015, and this is putting pressure on the state’s credit rating. Do you disagree with that?

BW: Well, the credit ratings agencies sometimes don’t get it right, and the ways in which Queensland prepares its accounts is sometimes a bit confusing. But the projections of debt in the Costello report aren’t justified with details of capital commitments. As I said, they’re just figures seemed drawn out of the air.

SA: Now, I’ll go on. The statement issued by the Treasurer in June of this year said that Queensland’s current net financial liabilities compared to operating revenue was forecast to reach 123% by June next year. Do you think this is a misleading approach?

BW: I think it would be better to look at the statistics published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics which standardises all figures from around Australia. Also, look at the figures in the audited financial statements which the Costello Report does not refer to except in passing. It’s quite astonishing that claims have been made, for example, that Queensland had to borrow to support the budget when the audited statements of cash flows shows that Queensland Government has reported surpluses from its operating activities. Cash surpluses.

SA: That to me is quite shocking because we’ve had this debate here in Brisbane some time ago, that the Government says they are borrowing to pay wages, and they have been very definite on that. You’re telling me that that’s not the case.

BW: That is flatly wrong, and all you need to do is look at the audited statements of cash flows, which have been reviewed by the Queensland Auditor General to see that the operating activities of Queensland have produced cash surpluses. Money has been borrowed, but it’s been used to invest in infrastructure.

SA: So we were borrowing money, but it was used to invest in infrastructure, not being used – and you can tell this from the audit you’ve done, you can tell this absolutely, put your professional reputation on the line - that it was not being borrowed to pay public servants’ wages in Queensland.

BW: I rely on the audited financial statements which have been reviewed by the auditor general which showed that Queensland produced surpluses from operations. It also invested heavily in infrastructure. These statements show the results of operating, borrowing, er, financing and investing activities and they clearly show that the bulk of borrowings went into infrastructure. In fact, looking over a ten year period, about half of the investment in infrastructure was funded by cash surpluses from operations.

SA: Half? By cash surpluses?

BW: Roughly. I don’t have the figures with me, but roughly, yeah.

SA: You’ve made the point and referred repeatedly to Peter Costello. He’s not the only person on the commission of audit. Doug McTaggart, respected financial mind, generally regarded on the conservative side of the ledger, former head of the Queensland Treasury Corporation: He has signed the Interim Commission of Audit, as has Professor Sandra Harding of James Cook University in North Queensland, generally regarded as being sort-of centre-left if you like, ideologically. She has also signed off on these figures. Now they are not obviously political figures, but why would they be a party to something which you’re telling me is so obviously misleading?

BW: I don’t think…whatever their skills in other areas, I don’t think they have skills in financial analysis. In relation to their past academic roles, I would say that if I received this report in my role, as I often do, refereeing articles submitted to international research journals, I would treat it as not worthy of publication. Revise and resubmit.

SA: Can I get you to repeat that? Not worthy of publication?

BW: If I received it in that context, because so much money has been invested in it, you’re reluctant to trash it totally, but I’d invite the authors to revise and resubmit.

SA: My guest is Professor Bob Walker from the University of Sydney, commissioned by the Queensland Council of Unions to audit the Interim Commission of Audit that was prepared for the Queensland State Government.

BW: Can I add that this report is solely my own work. It’s prepared with my wife, Dr Betty Con Walker, who’s an economist, and formerly worked in New South Wales Treasury and is very familiar with budget papers.

SA: All right, thank you for that. So then, leading into the state budget which is an extraordinarily late state budget next Tuesday, how should Queensland taxpayers approach what they hear from the mouth of the Treasurer Tim Nicholls?

BW: I think with a great deal of…a grain of salt. We’ve already seen extravagant statements coming from Government Ministers, extrapolating from the Costello report that Queenslanders faced $100b debt now. That is flatly wrong, and I notice that a couple of parliamentarians have had to clarify their statements in parliament. There’s been gross exaggeration on the basis of this report. That’s a risk. We have a section in our report talking about the dangers of Commission of Audit reports. In the hands of inexperienced or not financially numerate politicians, some of the extravagant language in the report can be exaggerated and wrongly interpreted.

SA: The Treasurer did say in June of this year that feedback from financial markets indicated that the market considers the Queensland state fiscal position to be “unsustainable” and looking for the state government to deliver a credible strategy to address our state level of debt. Can I ask you to respond to that, that the financial markets from whom we, the state government, borrows money, say that the debt here in unsustainable, and they need to develop a strategy to pay down the debt.

BW: Well, I’m not sure. They’re probably relying on some of these credit rating agencies, whose performance leading up for the Global Financial Crisis is quite a lot, but in my own experience, the staff at credit ratings agencies aren’t quite on top of the figures. Some years ago I pointed out that when the state government in New South Wales was claiming to have a budget surplus; it was in fact only reporting about the results for the consolidated fund, not for what we now call the General Government Sector, and when that report was published, they put New South Wales on Credit Watch. (Laughs) So I’m fairly sceptical about some of the interpretations by ratings agencies.

SA: I really appreciate your time. Professor Bob Walker, thank you.