Saturday, October 09, 2004

Losing the media war

If by some miracle I cared enough about the Labor party to offer them some free advice, and by some even larger miracle Labor cared enough about me to listen to me, I would point out that suffering a sufficient number of tactical defeats is evidence that there's something wrong with your core strategy.

What has been the Labor party's core strategy for the past, oh, three elections? To try to outscramble the Liberal party in making the biggest lurch to the right. Labor relies on appeasing its left-wing support with lip service while it scrabbles for populist messages it hopes will carve away some of the Liberal support from the center and right. The result has been that Labor has put out a wounderous series of mixed and incoherent messages. One example is the asylum seeker controversy last year, where Labor simultaneously attacked the Coalition for its shoddy treatment of people who made it to our shores, and lambasted them for not doing enough on border protection to prevent them from arriving in the first place.

Clearly Labor can make one or the other criticism, but not both. And this is just one example of a general malaise infecting Labor's approach. Starved of sufficient left-wing support to be a truly left party, Labor constantly embraces the straddle -- only to find that they end up coming off as a cheap watercolor imitation of the Liberal party.

Why is this happening? Is it the will of the people? Are Australians just, by their character, inherently conservative such that the left-leaning party will never win? Does the future herald twenty years of the Coalition colluding with a vitalized Family First to instigate supreme theocratic control over the land?

Well, no. The answer is as simple as looking at the media. Notice how the media has been rather right wing lately?

There's an absolute onslaught of right-wing press. Nobody could claim the Murdoch media gave balanced coverage of the recent election. Although we haven't quite gone down the US path of having overtly partisan media such as Murdoch's "Fox News Channel", the right wing orthodoxy is no less relentless here for being largely unstated and uncommented on.

Look what's happening. The right frames the debate on every issue. Just one example: when Premier Carr introduced his new stamp duty increase, Nine News that day referred to it as Carr's multimillion dollar "tax grab." Think about that word, "grab". What are synonyms for "grab"? Snatch, shanghai, commandeer, expropriate.... Sounds almost like stealing!

This language is far from objective, fair and balanced. Yet the commercial media gets a free pass on its bias while the government funded ABC, even at its very worst only blandly liberal and usually fastidiously centrist, has the fine toothcomb pulled over it. The right has been remarkably successful, not only in skewing the coverage of day to day issues, but of revising the very language stories are covered in, so that the use of loaded terms like "Tax Grab" and "Tax Relief" forces the correct conclusion long before the story is even written or the issues debated.

This observation is hardly original to me. Orwell understood it. George Lakoff has been writing about it in the US. But progressives appear to have fallen asleep while the right has been mobilizing. Progressives are, quite simply, losing the media war. And that means we are losing the culture war. What need to happen from here?

America shows us the way. Their culture war is already far more advanced than here. Their small-l liberals have learned to fight back with their own partisan media and think-tanks. MediaMatters.org combs coverage for anti-liberal bias, and Moveon.Org fights a proxy advertising war on behalf of the Democrats. George Soros bankrolls progressive institutions, and the partisan press like "The Nation" and "The Prospect" articulate progressive positions.

Progressives aren't supposed to like partisanship. We're supposed to like pluralism and balance and objectivity and intellectual honesty, and not demean ourselves to the level of the Ann Coulters and Michael Moores, who we deride equally as ideological partisans.

We're the Sensible Liberal of Tom Tomorrow cartoon fame. We politely articulate our Sensible, Nuanced, Concilitary positions, given due weight and deference to both sides. But we don't notice that one side is politely playing by Queensbury rules while the other side is wailing into the opposition with iron bars and fence palings they've brought out from out the bottom of the ring.

To rise above the fray in this situation is to embrace unilateral disarmament.

Does that mean, to counter the bias of the right, we have to act like Ann Coulter? Perish the thought. We can still keep our core values and provide honest reporting and commentary. But what we do need to do is wear our values on our sleeves, and not suppress and hide them in a forlorn attempt to appear "objective" or "netural."

We are entering the age of partisanship. And we should be prepared to fight on this new ground. In this new world, "objective" reporting will still exist. But, orbiting around it, will be the watchdogs of left and right partisan commentators, calling the media on its missteps and fighting it out with each other to frame the debate.

Margo Kingston, author of "Not Happy John", articulated her desire to create an Australian Moveon.org should Howard win the current election. Honestly, I don't think she has the ticker, connections or frankly the judgement to do that. But an Australian Moveon.org and and Australian MediaMatters.org have nonetheless got to be a number one priority. Hey, I'm just Some Guy With a Website, but hell, I'd volunteer to work with such an organisation.

Making a mockery of our democracy

Is Glenn Druery, who pioneered, in 1999, the practice of "preference harvesting" on the NSW legislative assembly paper.

His technique? According to the ABC, register endless numbers of "micro-parties", supposedly independent, but all mysteriously directing their preferences to help Glenn Druery. They clutter up the ballot and attract donkey and impulse votes.

So on the NSW ballot we have the "Outdoor Recreation Party", the "Fishing Party", "Ex-Service", "Liberals for Forests", "Aged", the "No Party Affiliation" party, "The Great Australians", the "Progressive Labor Party", the "Non-Custodial Parents" party, and the incredibly named "Lower Excise Fuel and Beer Party".

It's not clear if Glenn Druery is behind all of them, but he's clearly behind some of them.... and this shadowy figure seems to have done quite well for himself.

"Liberals for Forests", for example, has attracted 6,208 votes. Small but not insignificant in a tight election.

To think there's this number of idiots who are willing to vote for a party purely on the basis of a name... well, it beggars belief.

Glenn Druery, I think you're onto a good thing. No one ever went bust underestimating the intelligence of the Australian public.

The swing to the Liberals

Of 3.2 percent is almost exactly the amount by which One Nation is down now that it's a basket case (3.1 percent).

Is this pure coincidence? But those extra votes came from somewhere, and it didn't come from Labor (vote steady.)

One Nation and now the preference power of Family First. The redneck god-bothering vote sure makes this a fine country to live in.

Latham's concession speech

Worst... concesssion speech... ever.

He just doesn't have the ticker, does he?

I've gone from disliking to detesting Latham in just one hour.

If he sticks around I'll probably work my way up to disliking him again... but only because Costello will probably be in by then and the prospect of Costello as PM makes Latham look like Winston Churchill.

FUCK!

I can handle Labor losing the election -- I'm used to that -- but for the Coalition to come within a bee's dick of taking control of the Senate as well....

Unacceptable, Latham. Simply unacceptable.

I'm sure if Beazley came back I'd remember why it was that he was kicked out of the leadership in the first place... but the fat(ter) man is looking pretty good from this standpoint.

As far as I'm concerned the challenge of the next 3 years of Coalition power is about survival -- for the now extraordinarily fragile LaborGreenOcrat coalition in the Senate to harass and stall their agenda until certain processes kick in to wipe the Coalition government out once and for all. It seems even the character issue of a prime minister who lies his head off and a ministerial staff who've elevated profiteering and conflict-of-interest into a science isn't enough to turn off Australian voters when the economy is good.

So wait for the predicted economic downturn and then see how much shine remains of "honest John" Howard.

Pre-count lassitude

I'm hoping for the best and prepared for the worst in tonight's election count. Although what the worst result actually is is hard to say; Latham seems to be in a competition with Howard to appear to be the most conservative populist. Whoever gets in I expect a fairly right-wing flavor, which isn't, as you might gather, to my taste. Leavened, of course, with ample amounts of vote-buying pork. Witness my soon to be posted second part of "A demoralising election campaign".

Nonetheless, there are differences in the parties and the real consequences for Tasmania's old growth forests alone is enough to have me gunning for a Labor victory. But it's looking like an outside chance from here. While the latest newspoll has the race at exactly 50-50, the "Latham is sure of defeat" meme has already taken root and these things have a knack of being self-fufilling prophecies. And if the overall vote is locked, what really counts is the votes in the swing seats, and the internal whispers about Labor's polling in those are not exactly encouraging.

Nonetheless, nobody knows the future and I'll be watching the coverage, waiting for the conventional wisdom to be proved wrong. It never has yet, but there's always a first time.

Friday, October 08, 2004

No two people ever sees the same debate

It's strange watching the American reaction to the second US presidential debate. If my reaction to the first debate tallied with the pundit bloggers (a decisive win to Kerry, acknowledged (albeit tacitly) even by National Review Online), my reaction to the second seems way off the curve. Rather than the CNN instant poll sample, who scored it 47 percent Kerry-45 percent Bush, my own reaction was that I had just witnessed Kerry absolutely massacre Bush.

Strangely, even the partisan liberal pundits don't score it that way. But for mine, the evidence of Bush losing it just lept out; Bush's absolutely bizarre shouting at the moderator, demanding to be allowed to respond when the moderator was, in fact, trying to offer Bush a chance to respond. Bush's painfully incoherent response on stem-cell research, declaring his conviction creating a stem cell means destroying a human life, and then immediately pointing to the fact that he's the first president ever to provide funding for stem-cell research. Bush could only ramble as the blatant inconsistency of these two talking points dawned on him. It took until the rebuttal before he remembered what the "nuanced", National Review approved straddling position actually was. When Bush can't even remember his own sophistry, it's a sign of a candidate in trouble.

The unwittingly revealing moment of the night was when Bush was asked who he'd nominate to the Supreme Court should a justice retire. His answer was that he wasn't telling, and didn't want to nominate someone because he wanted all the judges to vote for him. Was I the only one who found this painfully redolent of Bush versus Gore? And shocked by the vulgarity of this virtual admission that what Bush was after was a partisan judge of the type who could expect reward if only that judge "votes for him?"

His strangely chosen example of the Dredd Scott case only reinforced the point. Leaving aside the complexities of whether the Dred Scott decision truly was "judicial activism" (slavery was, after all, a practice specifically provided for by the US constitution at the time) the bench that delivered the Dredd Scott case was a partisan court controlled by southern Democrats! In fact, at that time, every single justice on the bench of the Supreme Court was a politically connected southerner, to a man devoted to preventing the legal foundation for slavery from being eroded. So the moral of Dred Scott must surely be "beware of ultraconservative political appointees to the bench."

Monday, October 04, 2004

Time for naked partisanship

Everyone knows that Australian newspapers are far from unbiased in their political coverage. But today's newspaper gabfest on Labor's forest policy has to set some kind of record for naked, unvarnished partisanship on free display....

Sydney Morning Herald

Labor will save the forests

Mark Latham will protect "the overwhelming majority" of Tasmania's old growth forests from logging if elected - and promises no one in the timber industry need lose their job.
Launching Labor's long-awaited forestry policy yesterday, the Opposition Leader said he would appoint a team of conservation experts to decide which forests should be safeguarded.
And as compensation to the forestry industry and the island, he promised $800million for jobs creation and improving skills - a sum that represents more than $100,000 for every Tasmanian timber job.

The Australian

Labor splits over saving trees

MARK Latham has made an election pledge to save Tasmania's iconic old-growth forests, but at the big cost of provoking an angry backlash from unions, the timber industry and senior Labor MPs who accuse him of selling out to the Greens.
In a last-ditch effort to lock in key support from the Greens, the Labor leader unveiled yesterday an $800million plan to protect most of the state's high conservation value old-growth forests, claiming he owed it "to future generations".

Daily Telegraph

Money grows on trees

MARK Latham yesterday added to Tasmania's remarkable record of political payoffs by offering an $800 million bribe to the island's timber workers.

The Australian's piece is amplified by a side article: Dennis Shanahan explains that the "ALP has fallen into the fatal zone." Why? Well, because the latest Newspoll has Labor down one point on its primary vote and the Coalition up 3. But "fatal zone" talk seems rather hard to credit when the two party preferred margin is still 48.5 to 51.5!

Unsurprisingly, it's the Murdoch papers beating up Labor and the SMH boosting it. You might say, thank God for the Herald. Or you might say, I'd give up all of the Herald's partisan Labor party boosterism if it could be exchanged for some actual balance from the Murdoch press.

Most demoralising election campaign ever

The Australian election campaign has been the kind of election campaign that turns people off and makes them cynical about politics. Both sides have embraced the wedge and the pork barrel and both sides are relying on relentlessly negative campaign tactics. But special credit must be given to the Coalition for setting much of the tone -- Howard offering few reasons to vote for him, but endless reasons not to vote for the other guy.

Not being an economist myself, I'm well aware of my lack of qualifications to pontificate on the Coalition's interest rate scare campaign (although it's never stopped Some Guy With a Website throughout the ages.) But as a voter I'm being asked to make a judgement on the matter, and it's thus vital to analyse what's going on as best as I can from the perspective of a somewhat educated layman.

It seems the Coalition will never tire of citing the 17 percent interest rate peak under Labor in 1987. I must have heard this one in Parliament about 17 million times. Never mind that this is a peak, not a typical figure (Labor ruled, after all, for 13 years, and presided over an economic boom, a bust, and then a recovery.) It's also a measure of the absolute, not the real rate of interest, but let's not get into that.

Hence, this figure becomes the centerpiece in the Coalition campaign, which could be fairly described as the fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign. Howard evinces his faith that interest rates would always be higher under a Labor government. Note, he is not promising that Labor will raise interest rates and the Coalition won't -- since everyone believes that an interest rate rise will happen no matter who gets in, the RBA waiting only until after the election to make its move -- but rather, that at any given time, interest rates would be higher under a putative Labor government than under the Coalition.

We should note that this argument invokes counterfactuals and thus is unverifiable. But that also means that it's unfalsifiable. What matters the public perception, and so the Coalition has been hammering this point relentlessly, hoping to pound it into the skull of the electorate, becoming conventional wisdom by dint of sheer repetition. Thus, the soundbite: "Interest rates have passed 10 percent in every Labor government for the past 30 years!" Another ad cites appalling financial hardships such as 950 a month increases should interest rates rise "just five percent." The calculated impression is that, no sooner will Latham get in, will interest rates skyrocket to late-eighties levels simply due to bad Labor mojo.

Occasionally, Howard offers some actual intellectual justification for his stance that Latham would take the economy to interest rate wrack and ruin. Originally, he argued that Latham would go on an inflationary public spending spree, and argument somewhat neutered now that Howard's own re-election spending spree has vastly outmatched anything Labor has come up with. Now he's arguing that Labor's industrial relations policy is the achilles heel, which will lead to "inflationary wage rises."

These arguments have been rubbished by academic economists, as well as Bernie Fraser, the only RBA director to become a beloved pop cultural figure. The awful truth is that no government has any direct influence on interest rates, and every government inherits economic circumstances whose conditions have been layed down years, even decades beforehand. But no government wants to run on a platform being largely irrelevant to the short term prospects of the economy.

All this evinces a certain amount of chutzpah. After all the reason why there is so much public anxiety over the rather dry subject of interest rates is that everyone is leveraged up the whazoo thanks to an unprecedented housing rush that's inflated prices to extraordinary levels, accompanied by an unprecedented expansion in consumer and household debt. Howard presided over both of these; and while he's not to blame for originating these trends, he's certainly to blame for doing absolutely nothing to arrest them. So Howard's chutzpah is that, having done so much to bring working families to the precipice, he now scares them by telling them that Labor will be the one to push them over the edge.

The still-partially inflated housing bubble and the massive debt levels present in the economy (on all levels, from consumer to foreign) are what personally concerns me most about the economy and makes me believe the current relative prosperity is sitting on a throne of glass. But Labor has not run with this point. This is understandable. Telling the electorate that a somewhat severe economic downturn is inevitable no matter who gets in power is understandably a hard sell.

Kerry Cheats

What better way to break a blogger silence than with a Matt Drudge related post.

Only Drudge is brave enough to expose the latest cover-up by the Liberal media; that Kerry cheated to win that debate against George Bush on national security on Thursday.

Drudge's forensic video analysts reveal that John Kerry pulled a mysterious object from his coat shortly before taking the lectern, in clear contravention to agreed upon debate rules that the candidates may take nothing with them to the podium beforehand.

What did Kerry place on the podium? Drudge asks. What indeed? What else could explain George Bush's strangley sluggish performance but a secret ultrasonic hypno-ray device? Remember, you heard it hear first!

Ok, maybe it wasn't a hypno ray. Maybe Theresa just wrote him a crib sheet with all the names of the foreign leaders (alas, she forgot Poland!) Or perhaps it was even... a pen.

Either way this is exactly the kind of lawless debate-nobbling we expect from the ruthless Democrats. God I'm glad Drudge is on the case. To imagine, some say he isn't a real journalist, but a lame republican party hack!