Dog days and political leadership

The recent tweets about Indonesia by Liberal pollster, Mark Textor, say quite a lot about the current internal culture of political parties and highlight much of interest about public policy in Ross Garnaut’s new book Dog Days: Australia After the Boom.

For those few who may not have seen it Textor tweeted “Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970s Pilipino (sic) porn star and has ethics to match.” Textor also threw in some comments about Fairfax media being involved in ‘appeasement’ consistent with the News Corp and Liberal belief that the problem is not the spying but the fact that the media disclosed it.

The politics, however, are interesting. First, it highlights the reality of the way insiders in both political parties actually think and converse. Another indication was the incident with the Abbott Opposition adviser, Mark Roberts (see the blog Telling the Truth 28/2/2013), which was ‘resolved’ in a similar way to that of Textor with a sort of apology and a general commitment to ‘moving on’. The problem is that the aggression and lack of civility which is typical is not just confected but an intrinsic part of pollies’, and their advisers’, day to day approach. This is not only directed towards opponents in other parties or the community but to opponents within their own party. Second, it demonstrates the double standards of many in the game. The more aggressive some are the more thin-skinned and eager to take offense they seem to be. Generally in politics and the media the rule has been that if you hand it out you should be able to take it. John Howard was exemplary in this regard as he apparently never took action for defamation in his career – despite having many reasons to do so. Nevertheless, some politicians and advisers (Jeffrey Archer and Mark Textor for example) have been prepared to sue when they thought they had been defamed. In Textor’s case it was an action against former Eden-Monaro MHR, Mike Kelly. Lawyers can argue about whether the Textor tweet is actionable or not. The blog is fascinated however by what research methods Textor used to establish that his Indonesian target looked like a porn star with ethics to match. The blog is certain that Textor is not, nor would ever be, a consumer of porn so the depth, breadth and creativity of his firm’s research methods must be astonishing.

The bigger issue though is the one flagged in Garnaut’s book. The book is divided into three sections: the first describes the current economic problem facing Australia and how it came upon us; the second describes what we could do about it; and, the third “analyses the deterioration in our political culture so far this century, which makes the job of a government seeking to manage in the public interest much harder.” Everything in any section provides a stark contrast to the recent puerile banalities of the Abbott Government’s official business adviser, Maurice Newman. Incidentally, the three page summary of the past 250 years of economic history which Garnaut provides at the start of the first section is probably one of the best brief summaries students or non-economists could have. But the third section is the one which interests the blog. Garnaut describes how the professionalization of politics militates against good policy and recounts the attitude of the Hawke-Keating Government pollster to the economic reforms pursued by the government at the time. No more economic reform was the advice, albeit later tempered by further deeper research. He also discusses the current media culture and the media’s problems and how they interact with the professionalization of politics. In passing he laments the 1987 Keating decision to wave through the Murdoch takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times group giving News control of 60% of Australian newspapers. “This introduced monopoly in media ownership to an unprecedented extent among the substantial democracies. Such single control of print media would generally be problematic in a democracy even without the major shareholder being a citizen of a foreign country and having a well-earned reputation for opinionated political activism.” Garnaut mentioned in discussing his book at a forum the blog attended that he was not expecting much favourable coverage from News Corp. He also discusses the Abbott Government’s advantages in having “personal links with News Corp personnel (that) provide him with a reliable praetorian guard, ready to disembowel critics, right or wrong.” It should be said that while Garnaut talks about the print media quite a lot he also discusses the impact of media channel diversification at a time when print media are in deep trouble. He doesn’t discuss, although he perhaps could have, that News Corp publications are pretty thin-skinned themselves and, in between handing it out devote an enormous amount of print and ink to dealing with their critics.

Lastly Garnaut discusses the changing impact of interest group policies and campaigns and the preparedness of vested interests to undertake expensive campaigns to undermine policies they don’t like. He gives some wise advice about why governments can and should hold their nerve although is clear-sighted about how most individuals and interest groups are convinced that any sacrifices should always fall on others and their demands that compensation is essential even for taking away bad policy choices which provide benefits to them (eg the car leasing arrangements). And, as to be expected he also has some interesting things to say about climate change politics and policies.

All in all Garnaut’s book is excellent in both diagnosis and prescription. The likelihood of any of it being accepted by the current government is probably almost zero but one can’t help thinking they might be better off listening to him than to either Mark Textor or Maurice Newman.