Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Abbott watch - what motivates the hate rallies?

Crikey has a piece today by Bernard Keane, pondering the question, "What motivates the Parl house rallies?"

I've proffered my two bob's worth:

"Abbott and his conga line of media cronies are continuing the thinly camouflaged campaign to win government by trashing the Government’s record and its attempt to put a price on carbon. The science on climate change is routinely questioned and vilified by skilled dog whistlers and commentators compromised by their links to vested interests opposed to carbon pricing. A largely ill-informed electorate swallow the sound bites and media grabs of this shoddy bunch and are conned into believing their life-styles are under threat.

Abbott pretends to care about the little people while doing the bidding of the mining and power companies. He is a fear monger-er of the worst sort. We have seen his type of politician down through the ages. They set up straw men to knock down and claim the credit for ‘saving’ the people from some imaginary onslaught. He pitches a different message to different audiences, depending on their relative levels of literacy - in the case of the recent rally outside Parliament three word slogans were more than enough. Demagogues always operate like this - it is in their DNA to tailor the message to suit the crowd and they are gifted at pressing the right fear buttons with confected outrage and anger.

Another plank of the strategy is to demonize the Labor leadership, much in the way the Tea Party is demonizing Obama’s leadership in America. They paint a picture of disunity, betrayal of the body politic, a ‘stab in the back’ for decent citizens by a government beholden to ‘special interests’ and unspecified ‘elites’. More coded dog whistling to convince the electorate that their government is weak and incapable of protecting the country from outside threats and the export of jobs. Our PM is branded a liar, wooden, childless and weak. A nasty legend has been woven by misogynistic spin meisters who want their boy in power, and they will do anything (within the law presumably) to achieve it.

The Coalition has gained rich pickings from fear-mongering, as evidenced by the Queensland vote at the last general election. The ‘tea party’ rump of the One Nation party has drifted back to the LNP, in thrall to simple minded messages on debt & deficit, the carbon & mining taxes and good ole migrant & refugee bashing.

In much of the media and shock-jock land narrow sectional interests get a helpful leg up in most areas of debate on public policy. We get a diet of reactionary, simple minded drivel on issues such as immigration & asylum seekers and important areas of public policy are ‘spun’ through the lens of media celebrities who survive on a dumbed-down strategy of sound-bites, ‘gotcha’ moments and limpid sensationalism. Political analysis has been reduced to talk-show patter and infotainment for a presumed audience with the concentration span of a distracted gnat.

Misinformation and outright disinformation have become the currency of many mainstream commentators. The template for this was set up with the formation of a minority government. Many in the print, radio and television media did not like this result. They did not anticipate it, they have no control over it, and they want it gone. A political shock-jock like Abbott thrives in this landscape.

He has replaced the biking lycra with reflective lime industrial tops & roams bloke dominated small businesses and mining enterprises, filleting fish, carrying cartons of stuff, digging up stuff, butchering meat, rolling in oats and wheat, etc etc etc, pretending to care about working people and announcing the end of civilization as we know it. A true ‘man of the people’ with an eye to the big end of town (nudge, wink) …Howard battlers should be checking their back pockets because they’re being conned again."

I've said it all before but nothing has changed so I'll say it again....

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Our ABC - apparently obtuse, rude interviews are someone's notion of playing 'devil's advocate'

I recently made the following complaint to ABC concerning a RN interview between Sabra Lane and Treasurer Swan:

"As with an earlier interview on RN Lane has conducted a rude, simple-minded interview completely lacking in balance and cogent reasoning. It came across as a Coalition inspired attack on the most important structural change to our economy in well over a decade.

An excellent deconstruction of Lane's earlier interview with Swan can be found at http://www.thepoliticalsword.com/

Every step of the way ABC reporters are out digging for negative reactions to the package, whipping up more fear in place of reasoned analysis of the package as a whole. Why isn't the focus on the reactions of people who actually know a thing or two about the implications of the package. I did'nt hear any question from Lane on today's survey of the reaction of economists to climate change policies.

This type of journalism is execrable and doing our country a great disservice. Many people are sick of the editorialising virus that is sweeping the ABC, seeking to shift opinion on the major issues of the day. In your quest for so-called 'balance' some dreadful 'pamphleteers' get a regular airing, such as those from thoroughly compromised think tanks such as the IPA.

No wonder the PM's polling is going south on matters of national importance such as carbon pricing. Our ABC is out there doing the reactionary's job for them. Journalists like Lane need to go back to journalism school. Poor fella my country..."

I received the following reply from Kieran Doyle of ABC's Audience and Consumer Affairs Dept:

"Thank you for your email regarding the interview with the federal Treasurer on The World Today.

Your concerns have been investigated by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of program making areas within the ABC. We have reviewed the broadcast, assessed it against the ABC’s editorial standards and sought and considered material provided by ABC News.

The adversarial or ‘devil’s advocate’ style of interviewing, employed at times by Sabra Lane, can generate a strong and mixed reaction from the public. Part of the technique of the ‘devil’s advocate’ approach is to take major points of criticism from various sources, including opposing politicians, and put them to the interviewee. This can sometimes give the audience the impression that these are the personal views of the interviewer. This is not the case.

When she is doing a one-on-one interview she has a duty to conduct a testing interview that does not allow the interviewee to use the occasion as a political platform. It is her duty to put other points of view to the interviewee and her responsibility to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the questions are answered.

Having reviewed the interview with the Treasurer against the impartiality provisions of the ABC Editorial Policies, Audience and Consumer Affairs is satisfied that the interview is in keeping with those standards. The questions posed to Mr Swan were relevant and based strictly on their news value. He was afforded ample opportunity to clearly state his views in response. We are satisfied that the interview was suitably respectful and courteous. Audience and Consumer Affairs has concluded that the interview is in keeping with sections 4.1, 4.2, 4.4 and 4.5 of the ABC Editorial Policies.

Sabra Lane conducted an equally rigorous interview with the Leader of the Opposition on AM that same week. ABC Radio current affairs programs AM, The World Today and PM have provided a vast and diverse range of principal relevant perspectives on the government’s carbon package and related issues, and no one perspective has been unduly favoured over another."

I replied:

"Oh sure, the trouble is the questions are obtuse, poorly researched and delivered with all the charm of a rampaging buffalo..."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Seeking asylum in Australia - Public policy struggles to match public opinion

The looming spectre of the Manus Island detention facility re-opening signals a monumental failure of public policy. I was prepared to give the Gillard Govt the benefit of the doubt on the Malaysia swap arrangement but re-visiting the Pacific Solution is a disaster.

Yesterday's poll in the Age suggests public opinion remains wedded to mandatory detention but a clear majority want asylum seekers processed in Australia. Poll Bludger has a good post on the poll this morning as follows:

"Nielsen struck a blow for transparency yesterday by releasing comprehensive data for their polling on asylum seekers, featuring detail on the questions and how they were asked, breakdowns by state, location, gender, age and voting intention, and no fewer than eight tables cross-tabulating various results for the eight questions asked. They even went so far as to include the raw numbers they reached after weighting the responses for age, gender and location, not that this particularly tells us much.

The poll also deserves credit for posing thoughtfully crafted questions on a complex and contentious subject. No doubt taking inspiration from Murray Goot and Ian Watson’s recent paper on public opinion and asylum seekers, which noted that results had been heavily influenced by “the way questions are framed, the kinds of questions that precede these questions (and) the range of possible responses the questions allow”, the Nielsen report offered the following:

It is important to note that the results of opinion polls on this issue are more sensitive to the wording of the questions asked than for many other topics. This is because the issues are often emotional for some and complicated for all. Respondent knowledge on this subject is never complete. The task of adequately condensing complex options into fair but meaningful questions is also a difficult one.

The questions in this poll were stripped of their political context as much as possible. For example the ‘sent to another country to be assessed’ option was not offered in the context of deterrence, nor was any human or financial cost alluded to. It was not offered as Labor or Coalition policy (e.g. by calling it the ‘Malaysian solution’ or the ‘Pacific solution’).

The Fairfax papers asserted that the poll showed voters “at odds with both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott and the perception that attitudes have hardened against asylum seekers”, and certainly the figures point to a more liberal attitude than the tenor of political debate would suggest. However, The Age gilded the lily a little with a graphic showing 60 per cent believed those assessed as genuine refugees should be allowed to stay in Australia permanently. It takes a bit of digging to appreciate that this excludes the 15 per cent who didn’t believe the asylum seekers should be assessed at all, having preferred that they be “sent out to sea”. The number supporting settlement in Australia was nonetheless a very solid 49 per cent, although there remained a combined 44 per cent in favour of the less liberal options of temporary protection visas (29 per cent support) and sending boats back out to sea (15 per cent). The same issue occurs with The Age’s figures for whether boat arrivals should be held in detention (64 per cent) or allowed into the community (32 per cent): putting the aforementioned 15 per cent back in (together with the 4 per cent “other/don’t know“), the results come down to 52 per cent and 26 per cent.

Regarding the treatment of asylum seekers on arrival, the results can be broken down thus:

22% – Allowed to live in the Australian community
12% – Detained in Australia, excluding children
17% – Detained in Australia, including children
4% – Sent to another country, allowed to live in community there
23% – Sent to another country and detained there
4% – Assessed for refugee status, no opinion on detention
15% – No assessment for refugee status: sent back out to sea
4% – Other/don’t know

And on their treatment after being assessed for refugee status:

49% – Settled in Australia
29% – Granted temporary protection visas
2% – Returned to country of origin
15% – No assessment for refugee status: sent back out to sea
5% – Other/don’t know

To those who are ready to junk the orthodox view on this subject, I would offer a few notes of caution. Certainly there was no majority in favour of assessing refugee status in Australia at the time of the Tampa episode, when Nielsen and Morgan polls had between 68 per cent and 77 per cent in favour of turning boats away. It is hardly plausible that so many of these respondents have had changes of heart that only 15 per cent now remain. What it likely shows is how the finer point of public opinion on this issue are shaped by the terms of the debate at the time. The symbolism in August/September 2001 involved boats being either allowed to land or held at bay by the military – only as the Howard government scrambled to effect its “Pacific solution” was the public alerted to the fact that the latter course only constituted half a policy. This may have led to a change in questions posed and answers given in opinion polls, but it doesn’t follow that there was a shift in underlying attitudes.

This leads to a point that occurs to me about the wording of Nielsen’s “sent to another country to be assessed” option: for many respondents, Nauru might not register as “another country” in the sense that Malaysia does, as it is perceived either as a dependency of Australia or too insigificant to qualify as a “country”. This option may accordingly have been interpreted by some as an invitation to sign on for the Malaysia solution. If Nielsen had at least added enough political context to allow for the restoration of the Pacific solution as a response option, the poll may have told a somewhat different story."

In June I wrote:

"Labor is scurrying to find a regional approach that stops boats but does'nt breach the UN convention on treatment of refugees. It will not adopt the full Pacific Solution, but in the eyes of human rights advocates it is failing to meet its progressive charter in this area. The mandatory detention regime opened a Pandora's box of opportunities for low rent political agendas, which politicians like Howard and Abbott have exploited ruthlessly. Labor is continually playing catch up, rather than biting the bullet by re-examining the rationale for long-term mandatory detention and changing the tenor of the whole debate. Leadership requires courage to take the steps to change opinion through education and cogent debate...The unedifying sight of Labor politicians jumping on the xenophobia bandwagon has human rights advocates aghast as they see defenceless people used as betting chips in a nasty bidding war. Unmitigated acts of bastardry continue unabated, leaving desperate people with little choice but to self-harm or cry out through extreme acts."

Earlier I wrote:

"I was involved in the aid component of the Pacific Solution and it was the most corrosive experience of my career. I recently commented on an article by Robert Manne, who has advocated Manus Island be revisited as an offshore detention facility, as follows:

" I was involved in the first wave of the Pacific Solution, which offered aid 'incentives' to GoPNG to re-activate the military base at Manus as a detention centre.

I visited said centre and was tasked to explore Manus Island for community based activities in health & education that AusAID could support as a way of oiling the wheels of the Provincial Govt. Aid to these areas had not been considered until the centre opened. The whole approach was under the table and pretty tacky. I was far from comfortable with the strategy.

There were other sleights of hand in terms of expenditures kept off the books of costs that were facility-related. The aging facility is by the water, with a respectable mess for support staff and visitors, with conditions for the asylum seekers marginal at best in an extremely hot & humid place.

Manus is a relatively poor province of PNG, with high levels of youth unemployment. Doubtless the centre will be refurbished and substantial resources will be applied to its operation. This in itself can cause problems with surrounding peoples who are somewhat disadvantaged."

The Manus component of the Pacific Solution was marginally better than Nauru because the PNG Government is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, but the same issues that saw East Timor reject the concept of housing a regional detention facility also apply to Manus. The detainees will be housed in tiny 'dongas' and fed in open mess facilities. The place is hot, humid and malaria prone. It is a debilitating situation behind wire - why do we insist on treating people with claims to refugee status like prisoners of war?"

The more things change the more they stay the same. The lack of bi-partisanship on asylum seeker policy will ensure a bleak landscape for those of us concerned over Australia's failure to meet her human rights obligations.