Spinners spun – Canning, old hatreds and the media

Increasingly political PR people resemble James Jesus Angleton – the infamous CIA counter espionage head – who probably did more harm to the CIA than any other single individual.

Angleton disappeared into a vast conspiratorial web created by his obsession with what things really meant. If The Russians did one thing what were they really trying to signal? If I work out what they were trying to signal, he thought, then perhaps the hidden message was actually the real disinformation. In Angleton’s defence he spent much of his later career recovering from the shock that his good friend Kim Philby was a spy for the Russians – and Angleton didn’t even have the benefit of thinking, like Philby’s English colleagues, that “one of us” could be unsound.

The latest spin – and betting odds – on the Canning by election exemplify the problem. Initially the ALP candidate was at about $4 to the Liberals on $1.35. That came into about $2.35 to $1.73 and has now drifted out (and in) to $1.14 the Liberals winning and $3 the ALP candidate. Now the chances of the ALP winning were always slim but what is more significant is the way the spinners have spun the contest.

Bill Shorten said anything around a 2.5% swing would be good because that was the historical figure for when sitting members die. Abbott opponents within the Liberal Party framed the contest as to whether Abbott could survive as leader. Then Abbott said he would be happy to be judged on the Canning result. Now the most probable explanation of all that was that both sides thought the swing would be about 5 or 6% – possibly less and possibly more – but largely unknowable on the polls in the electorate which show high numbers of don’t knows and uncommitted.

Then Julie Bishop told the Cabinet that the ALP was running dead and within days some of the Abbott Liberal opponents were putting an even newer spin on the by-election by saying that the ALP was running dead because they wanted to ensure Abbott stayed on as Prime Minister until the election.

J.K.Galbraith answered a persistent reporter asking about an election outcome – I’ll tell you when all the votes are counted. In reality we really don’t know at present with Canning although the polls (one of which has the Liberals candidate on 47% primary) and the odds are suggesting the Liberals will retain the seat and there will be some sort of a swing against them. Equally we know little about what the spinners actually think the Canning result will actually be but lots about the way they are trying to frame the various possible results.

Of course, what all the various explanations – a test for Tony, Labor running dead etc etc – have in common is that they are only viable as spin because journalists report the unsourced comments and then seek to interpret them in a way which would make James Angleton look like the greatest logician since Spinoza.

This hall of mirrors effect reminded the blog of his time as a Press Secretary to Frank Wilkes, the former Victorian Labor leader who died recently, was given a State funeral (in a parish church not a cathedral) and who received generous tributes in condolence motions in Parliament led by Premier, Daniel Andrews. The blog hadn’t heard Andrews speak before and had to admit he currently has a very good speechwriter and that he is one of those politicians growing into the job at a rapid rate – unlike some we all know in Federal politics.

However, amidst all of this the first thing to spring into the blog’s mind was that during the various destabilisation campaigns and leadership challenges to Frank, the blog and the other media staff decided they would give journalists totally straight answers to any questions which got asked. Initially we thought this might help damp down speculation but within days we had discovered something significant – when you tell the truth in a media briefing most of the media don’t believe you and try to work out, just like Angleton, what you really meant.

The second was that ALP and/or some media or other hatreds – and media credulity – last a long time. Someone – the blog has a very short list of candidates in mind – apparently briefed The Saturday Paper’s Richard Ackland on Wilkes’ death. The blog won’t repeat what Ackland said beyond remarking that it didn’t meet the forensic standards Ackland was suggesting Dyson Heydon lacked and seemed to bear little connection to reality.

In contrast Daniel Andrews pointed out a few facts that Ackland overlooked (and probably didn’t know) although whoever briefed him would have. Frank won a 5.3% swing in the 1979 election, which as Andrews pointed out, was greater than the swings won by John Cain, Steve Bracks and Andrews himself to win government. It brought Labor out of the electoral wilderness and established the platform which enabled John Cain to be elected at his first attempt. Frank was (among other things) also the first Victorian MP to call for the decriminalisation of homosexuality; helped ensure Dick Hamer was able to eventually put this into law in the face of a revolt from some Liberals; introduced the first bill (a private member’s bill) to grant land rights to indigenous Victorians; and as a Minister introduced universal suffrage for local council elections. Andrews didn’t mention that Frank was also instrumental in the abolition of the Victorian Special Branch – this from the Opposition benches – but something of which Ackland would supposedly approve. Who was Richard’s source – the blog could guess fairly easily but how would the guess be spun?

Declaration of interest: Not only was the blog formerly Frank Wilkes’ press secretary but Frank subsequently became a client while a Minister and a Director of the blog’s company after he had retired.