The Politics    Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Getting Tony Abbott’s attention

By Sean Kelly

Two columnists the prime minister should listen to: Miranda Devine and Janet Albrechtsen

First, and I apologise for boring regular readers, a theme I keep returning to is how difficult it is to keep abreast of the significant twists in federal politics by reading only one newspaper, say, or watching one television news broadcast a day. That’s not a criticism of those who do – God knows I envy people who have better things to do with their time – just an acknowledgment of how inevitably limited single news sources are.

A related problem is the tendency, even for those who read more broadly, to consume news and opinion you tend already to agree with. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein (of Nudge fame) warned of this growing trend back in 2001, when the internet first made serious “narrowcasting” possible: delivering very specific content to very specific audiences.

But even Sunstein would have been amazed by just how prevalent that has become, in these days when clicking on a story on Facebook makes it more likely that in the future Facebook will serve up similar stories to you, which then makes it more likely etc etc and so on, in an endless spiral of eternal sameness.

There are many problems with this, whatever your political stripe. The first is that it makes exposure to opinions we don’t agree with more and more rare. That inevitably limits our ability to engage with arguments across the ideological spectrum, and even to change our minds. And that is bad for education, for public debate, and for democracy.

The reason I mention it today is because I know that many people on the left tend not to read “right-wing” columnists, and that many people on the right do the converse (except, in both cases, for “hate reading”). In politics that means you can miss important trends.

In the past few weeks, discussion of Tony Abbott’s leadership – whether it will last – has become louder. When enough senior journalists start to write about the topic, it becomes hard to ignore. I add, yet again, that nothing is happening yet, nor is there any immediate sign that it is about to. Still, it’s important to keep your eye on the tealeaves.

That’s the Canberra press gallery. But there are many commentators outside of Canberra, too, who are worth reading precisely because of their different view. So let me point you today to two columns by commentators I doubt have ever been accused of being Labor stooges.

Janet Albrechtsen has a very sharp column today on the performance of the Abbott government. She has a sharp warning for right-wing warriors who might reproach her, too: “Those who demand blind partisan loyalty will stop reading about now. But remember it did Gillard no favours when the left-wing commentariat became blinkered barrackers for her flailing leadership.”

She says cabinet is old, fusty, and too dominated by men. She criticises Abbott’s performance, his recent habit of waiting too long to address significant problems, and the ability of his government to persuade.

It’s not at all the first time Albrechtsen has criticised the government, but her critique today is forensic and sustained.

Miranda Devine’s column is much kinder to Abbott, praising his political skills and focusing on Labor’s links to unions and the argument Dyson Heydon is being unfairly targeted. But then she writes this:

Heydon, frankly, is a victim of the weakness of the Abbott government.

The PM talks about loyalty — to Treasurer Joe Hockey, to chief of staff Peta Credlin and the utterly graceless former Speaker. But his greater loyalty should be to the Australian people and those, like Heydon, he has called to serve.

Passivity and inaction are no longer tolerable. Abbott can’t keep being the dope on the ropes, turning the other cheek over and over, waiting for the killer blow that will finally finish him off.

Devine’s advice is to call a double dissolution election on the issue of industrial relations.

The precise nature of the advice offered isn’t the point here. The fact that columnists Abbott would probably count (rightly or wrongly) as his ideological comrades are delivering frank and unflattering assessments of his performance is significant.

It is easy, in the prime minister’s office, to get trapped in a bubble. It is a daily battle to remind yourself of what matters, of the need to step outside the momentum of tiny events. When things are bad it can become easy to dismiss critics as “biased” or suffering from “groupthink”. I’ve seen it happen, and I’m sure I’ve done it myself on occasion. Of course, sometimes, “bias” and “groupthink” are real – but it’s important to avoid that type of denial as much as possible.

If Abbott’s staff are still telling themselves that the Canberra press gallery has it wrong, that things are better than they seem and recovery will come in its own due course, Albrechtsen and Devine should catch their attention.


Today’s links

  • Latika Bourke has more revelations about Dyson Heydon: he slammed the Rudd and Gillard governments in a 2013 speech. Labor has flagged new tactics to remove Heydon. The ACTU will push on with an application to the Commissioner to remove himself.
  • Liberal talking points leaked. Eric Abetz says leakers are gutless.
  • Yesterday I wrote about test-setting in relation to the Canning by-election. Dennis Shanahan’s article today is worth reading for his very different view (from mine) on what that test should be. Michelle Grattan gets into the same issue in detail.
  • Former Health Services Union boss Kathy Jackson has been ordered to repay her old union $1.4 million in compensation for funds she misappropriated.
  • Tony Abbott may be moving to heal divisions over the way forward on Indigenous constitutional recognition.
  • Labor senator Jenny McAllister on why women in retirement are often poor: “Virginia Woolf famously wrote: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own.’ She recognised that economic independence is essential for women’s full participation in society. It is incumbent on us to find a way to allow women this dignity when they retire.”
  • Paul Daley has this excellent piece on his own experiences as a man who looks after his kids – it’s about the challenges all parents face, and especially those faced by women of older generations.
  • Dom Knight on Mark Latham.
  • Bill Shorten tells the new Australian Huffington Post that he won’t be a small-target leader.
  • Ross Gittins with an old argument made interesting: why you can’t separate the economy from the environment. Adam Morton explains why it’s fair to say Australia’s climate change targets are pretty pathetic. Reports that Philip Ruddock argued against the PM’s plan to stop environmental groups challenging major mining projects in court. The government might not succeed anyway.
  • I forgot this yesterday: Malcolm Turnbull’s Oxford report card.
  • UK news: George Monbiot says Labour will lose the next UK election – but not because of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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