Bring back core and non-core promises

The election is no longer “on the horizon.” It’s close enough to smell the sausages. Everyone involved in politics is working hard, trying to get us to listen, trying to get us to believe, trying to get us to vote.

Most of what they are saying is lies. Or to be a little kinder, false predictions about what they will do in the future.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 9.56.44 PM.png
Labor’s policy list

Labor has set out 100 positive policies on its website.They’re really quite interesting and I recommend having a look.

But will it do them all? No way.

Take its plan to cut capital gains tax and negative gearing. These are very bold reforms any party would struggle to get  through the Senate.

And – despite recent reforms – the coming Senate is going to be a particularly mixed one.

Psephologist Anthony Green predicts eight Greens, three Nick Xenophon Teamers, either Glenn Lazarus or Pauline Hanson, Jacqui Lambie and an associated senator, plus probably one other odd-bod from Tasmania.

It’s a volatile mix that would wreak havoc on the most carefully-planned legislative agenda and laugh heartily at the very idea of a mandate.

And there is no guarantee of a mandate, for anyone. A hung parliament is quite possible, with independents and Greens set to make good runs in a range of lower-house seats. Nick Xenophon Team is a huge factor because it is competitive in some classic Coalition seats in SA. One expert tips six cross-benchers.

The odds of a hung parliament are 4:1 against and the closer the two major parties get, the better the chance a couple of independents (Yes Tony Windsor, I’m thinking about you) could have the parliament in the palm of their hands.

What all this means is that words spoken before the election – however earnestly meant  – cannot all come true.

Why don’t politicians admit that?

Instead of having broken promises littering the field of battle, creating the impression  “they’re all liars”, why not explicitly admit some outcomes are state-contingent?

They could make promises contingent on election outcomes:

“If we win a Senate majority we will pass all our policies. If not we will make health and education our top priorities.”

Promises contingent on Budget outcomes.

“If company tax revenue rises above $100 billion, we will fund a new hospital in Launceston.”

Or promises contingent on other promises.

“If we can get our negative gearing reform bill through, we will fund the building of submarines in South Australia.”

Politicians demur on hypotheticals for a reason – adherents of the more cynical schools of political communication will insist the complexity is too high for voters. And I’m sure the first few weeks after adopting this approach would be full of mocking.

The Leader of the Opposition is a maybe man, a possibly politician, an if-then individual,” the PM would jeer. “He’s built an escape route into every promise!”

Perhaps most politicians would wilt immediately under such ripostes – and the bad press that would follow. Gallery journalists – whose expertise in reading the tea leaves might be slightly less valuable in such a scenario – might be unwilling to give the approach a decent chance.

But maybe, just maybe, a  contrast would eventually become apparent between one side explaining their priorities and the risks and contingencies while the other side baldly claims things that can’t all come true will all come true. It just takes one politician floundering when asked, “But what will you do if you don’t control the Senate?” for that to become the favourite question of press-packs everywhere.

If so, the pressure for truth-telling would ultimately fall on the party that over-simplifies their plan. If that party won an election and then failed to keep their promises the consequences would likely be harsher, given the good example set in advance.

There would still be plenty of opportunity for broken promises. Sometimes politicians simply do the opposite of what they say they will, as Tony Abbott demonstrated after the last election.

But without the cover of all those things promised that were only really deliverable under very particular circumstances, the flat-out lies would be much easier to see.

 

How Malcolm Turnbull could be just what Labor needs

This post is a quick, simple game theory explanation of Australian politics. It’s not comprehensive. It cuts out a lot of detail. It simplifies radically. In doing so, it aims to shine a light on one interesting dynamic.

Please don’t get the impression I’m unaware other dynamics are running at the same time. This is just one strand in Australia’s politics – but an interesting one.

Tony Abbott learned a lot from John Howard. What he learned most apparently, was the lesson of the 2001 election – that an environment of negativity and fear and a focus on national security benefit the incumbent.

Abbott ran hard on national security. We have planes in the air over Syria because of those lessons – learned when Abbott was 43 and had been in parliament for seven years. Not to mention our new paramilitary Border Force. Even his elevation of the anti-methamphetamine campaign to a national level seemed to be part of a campaign to whip up fear.

Was he fundamentally wrong?

I say no. The reason Abbott couldn’t get an edge on national security was Bill Shorten stuck to him like sticky stuff to a blanket. Suffocatingly bipartisan on every issue, Shorten appeared to know that the slightest bit of space between him and the PM would be blown out of proportion.

Shorten refused to break his national security lock-step with Abbott even if it cost him. When “Border Farce” was announced Shorten was all for it. Shorten also supported boat turnbacks even though his party was very suspect of it.

National Security bipartisanship was not a rule of thumb for Labor under Shorten. It was iron law.

All this meant Abbott’s chosen strategy got no lift-off, and as he pushed it harder and harder (e.g. by begging the US to ask us to bomb Syria, and repeating the phrase Death Cult reflexively), he looked somewhat mad.

In essence, Shorten played the game of chess correctly, from a political perspective. Abbott’s fear and negativity strategy was absorbed perfectly and seen off.

Now the government is trying something different. Positivity. Malcolm Turnbull keeps repeating that it has never been a more exciting time to be Australian, and talking about opportunities. No more Death Cult.

I love it. This is the political discourse I crave.

But the person craving it even more might be Bill Shorten.

He’s been a strangled and ineffective communicator for the last two years. But that could be the result of being forced to play “small target” and match Abbott on the fear side.

Now the game is about offering competing positive visions? That’s Labor turf. They invented NDIS. They can offer a vision of Australia where we have not just wealth, but wealth with a bit of meaning and compassion.

Today even, Bill Shorten has been out announcing a policy. Labor will reverse the Government’s higher education cuts and offer tertiary education places to disadvantaged people.

People love to write Bill Shorten off. But if you look past the zingers to the chess game being played beneath the surface, you can understand why the Labor Party chose him.

The curious case of poll-driven political reporting.

The Guardian published a report yesterday about Bill Shorten. The author set out to repent for calling  Bill Shorten a “tired accountant”. The impetus for the story was the turn around in the polls.

“Shorten is still leading the Labor party in the wake of this latest credibility disaster for the Coalition, after last week’s credibility disaster (blocking a free vote on marriage equality) and the preceding week’s credibility disaster (chopper-friendly Bronwyn Bishop). He’s now sitting atop polls from both Ipsos and Morgan that have the Coalition facing a loss of between 36 and 44 seats.

Is it time for a rethink?”

I’ve seen this kind of thing before, and I don’t like it.

Interpreting what a political leader does through the polls is intellectually vacuous. It’s easy to write. There is no need to have a view on tough questions about policy effectiveness or priorities, the merits of intriguing questions about whether the head of the AWU should be matey with big business, or the management and composition of their front bench.

The author of yesterday’s piece is not especially guilty. She has written about policy more than polls. But overall, allowing poll numbers to drive judgment of politicians’ merits is now commonplace. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9].

The rise of this sort of reporting means a swing in the polls does double business.

Not only does a poll bump get the leader kudos in their party, but it changes the tone of reporting about them. The new, glowing stories therefore amplify swings in popularity. That may be responsible for the increasingly binary popularity positions we see among our political leaders (They’re often wildly popular like Baird or old Abbott, or wildly unpopular, like Gillard and new Abbott).

This kind of reporting validates the paradigm that political hacks of the most cynical kind push inside their parties: We can do good once we’re in power. For now let’s focus on winning. It sidelines those inside a political party who think they should focus on making the country better, not just making the polls better.

Here’s a choice example of the kind of reporting I’m talking about.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers not policy ideas to choose their leader. Is he right?
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher thinks parties should use poll numbers to choose their leader. Is he right?

I can only imagine the cognitive dissonance some reporters must experience when they write articles demanding more policy substance and less poll-driven rubbish.

Of course, we do need some political reporting. It’s helpful to peek behind the curtain from time to time and see the way the magician performs his tricks. You feel like an insider.

But it can’t be all we have, most of what we have, or even a substantial minority of it. It’s a sometimes food.

Our meat and veg must be stories about policy.

Two crazy ideas for the asylum seeker problem

Asylum seeker boat arrivals – fairly inconsequential in real terms – are a major political problem.

Last night on QandA a Labor minister indicated that the “journey” would not be “re-opened” for asylum seekers, indicating a maniacal desire to “stop the boats” is a bipartisan ambition.Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 11.13.20 am

The racist pandering to Western Sydney inherent in “stopping the boats” was always called out as the bullshit it was. Until the video of the drownings of asylum seekers on the coast of Christmas Island in 2010. Suddenly it was possible to say preventing asylum seekers from arriving in Australia by boat was a moral imperative.

That’s an extreme idea, requiring the sort of broad view of morality that would also support fencing off Australia’s surf beaches to prevent drownings. Most people would say imperative #1 is to not harm people with your actions.

One year ago I wrote about how powerless and ineffective I feel when faced with asylum seeker policy. What’s changed is that the extreme nature of the “solution” – including laws preventing reporting of child abuse – permits a broader range of alternatives that might previously also have been seen as “extreme.”

So is it possible to solve the boat arrivals “problem” without spending billions and becoming a police state? It must be. Lets think outside the box.

1. Make a queue

People are always fighting about queue jumpers, and whether there is a queue. What if we made an actual queue on the shores of Indonesia, where the boats are leaving from?

Asylum seekers get on a boat because that’s how they imagine they can get into Australia. What if we let them get into Australia without getting on a boat?

Could we rent some space from the Indonesians, bring it inside the migration exclusion zone and process refugee claims up there?

Budget impact score: 9/10. No more detention centres, less need to police the seas for boat arrivals, etc.

Political acceptability score: 5/10. Should diminish boat arrivals so long as the applications are processed swiftly.

Direct morality score: 8/10. Assuming they are able to live in the community in Indonesia, there need be no imprisonment.

Indirect morality score: 9/10. No more drownings between Indonesia and Christmas Island.

2. Open slather.

Embrace boat arrivals. Stop turnbacks, Close off-shore detention; close on-shore detention; visas to live in the community while refugee applications processed.

This is about stopping boat arrivals from being a political problem. If you wanted to change the narrative on boat arrivals, you’d have to own the arrival of each boat. Get a video crew, translators and a government minister onto each boat as it arrives, so we can see them shaking hands with the asylum seekers, chatting and smiling. Interview the people, find out their stories and their names. Publish lists of asylum seekers, their smiling photos, and key quotes from them. Humanise not dehumanise. Let’s hear about their desire to live in Australia, their interest in what they’ve heard about us, their qualifications and jobs in their home countries, what they’re fleeing, what skills they bring, etc. This would absolutely freak everyone out for a while but the rate of repetition and the volume of boat arrival footage might eventually make boat arrivals very very boring.

(I think this approach could be helped along by some sort of non-government work to try to humanise asylum seekers. Greenpeace made us care about whales by having little inflatable boats out there and video cameras showing what was happening. Can we do the same with Asylum seekers? Could Sea Shepherd open up a northern Australia branch, for caring about humans? )

Budget impact score: 10/10. This is cheap.

Political acceptability score: 2/10 in the short-term as boat arrivals will go up up up.

Direct morality score: 10/10 (No more taxpayer-funded imprisoning of innocent people)

Indirect morality score: 5/10. (Some drownings still likely).

I’d be very interested to hear any other crazy ideas people have. Please share them below!

The man to sell tax hikes to the Australian people … is John Howard.

Australia’s budget is in a spot of trouble. The ABS released its latest Government finance statistics this week and they show a slump in revenue. 

Budget update

 

This, to me, is not a crisis. It’s not good news, but just as you don’t judge a game of football on a 2 minute period, you don’t judge a fiscal situation on a quarter (or even a year, or even a group of years). You ned to judge the fiscal position in the long run.

I’m interested in this high-level measure, the tax-to-gdp ratio. And that’s an interesting thing, with a few moving parts.

Tax to GDP ratio

Treasury has relatively recently begun spruiking it. (This began in the Rudd era, I believe, when he wanted to seem fiscally prudent while spending a lot.) It can be affected by deliberate actions of government, or by shifts in GDP and prices of key exports.

That spike in the red line at the end is now at risk, due to factors beyond the government’s control. In the 2014 Budget, the government announced it would increase revenue as a percentage of GDP, from 23 per cent to 24.9 per cent.

Given the way everything economic and budgetary has come up turds since, the MYEFO is likely to replace this optimistic assumption when it comes out (soon).

A 1 per cent fall in the terms of trade is estimated to have a $2.6 billion impact on the budget, according to published sensitivty analysis. And this week’s national accounts show an 8.9 per cent fall in terms of trade over the last 12 months.

So we’re likely to get a budget deficit that is expanding and a tax to GDP ratio that is falling.

So what should the government do? In the short-run, it should keep spending to prop up growth. But in the medium to long run it needs to do more.

The most senior figure in Australian economics, Max Corden, strips the issues back to their essentials in the Conversation today.

“Given the deficit prospect, the government faces three choices: (1) Run a bigger deficit, (2) raise taxes, or (3) cut government spending… What the government should consider is raising taxes.”

Cutting spending is important where programs are ineffective, or where you’re trimming fat. That is crucial. But it won’t be enough. The Australian people want the government to do more, not less – we want important things like the NDIS and funding childcare and kindergarten.

I’d support raising taxes, slowly and in a clever way, to try to right the structural budget deficit.

This might seem like an impossible PR job for the government. But with the help of one man, it may not be.

John Howard, Prime Minister 1996-2007

The name John Howard is like a magic charm in contemporary politics.  A man who wins four elections  (96, 99, 2001, 2004) gets a lot of kudos in retrospect, even if he had a seriously easy incumbency, bountiful in threats to national security and bumps to government revenue.

Mr Howard presided over an era that saw the tax-to-GDP ratio rise over 24 per cent, even as he gave away income tax cuts as fast as he could. People remember that time fondly. The song that pleaded for us to not take a rose coloured glasses view of his legacy? That record broke.

The man is viewed (wrongly) as a fiscal genius.If I were Joe Hockey, and I was facing up to the fact I needed to to try to sell tax hikes, I’d stick his name on it.

“Reverting to a John Howard era tax-to-GDP ratio” sounds a lot more palatable than simply “hiking taxes.”

Could this be a better way to pay politicians?

Australia’s 824 politicians are paid well.

The lowest paid MPs are certain members of the ACT legislative assembly, who get $132,800.On the other side of Canberra, federal parliament is even more lucrative. The lowliest federal backbencher* makes $195,130. The highest paid is the Prime Minister, who makes $507,000.

State MPs seem to get about 70 per cent of the federal pay. The Premier of NSW gets $358,853 .

The following table is taken from a recent report in parliamentary salaries in Victoria. Since then, pay rates have been hiked for inflation once or twice.

MP pay

Politician pay is a fraught issue. The annual pay rises create a furore in the media, especially during times of budget stringency. It got me wondering if there might be a better way.

What if politician pay were anchored to something that we can all believe in? What if politician pay was somehow linked to how well the rest of us are going?

This could be an effective way to not only manage the PR aspect of politician pay rises, but to properly align their incentives with our own.

Here are some anchors we could use, for starters.

Average annual full time earnings (for the employed) is $78,821, GDP per capita is $67,218. The median wage is $60,112, and the minimum wage is $33,327.

Pay packets
Pay packets

There is a case to be made for paying politicians well, in order that they are not swayed in their duties by fat brown envelopes, or promises of lucrative employment after their retirement from public life. Generosity also prevents the other problem you get when you pay peanuts – you get the homo but not the sapiens.

So while it is tempting to say that politicians should be on the median wage, it may not be practicable.

Instead, a bundle of all of the above might make a sensible balance. If you add the four categories together, and multiply by 0.8, you get  $191,580 – a number that roughly approximates current politician pay.

You could easily argue, at this point, that this pay structure is entirely mis-focused and materialistic, and if we’re going to have performance pay for MPs it should be linked to a far broader basket of KPIs, including a rating of the health of the great barrier reef, carbon emissions per capita, spotted numbat populations, ambulance waiting times, NAPLAN testing results in western Sydney, etc, etc. I’d totally support all of that.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I really do not think any sort of MP pay reform is worthwhile without sorting out entitlements, which are absolutely arcane and create a culture where MPs are disproportionately focused on getting the public to pay for bookshelves and travel allowances.

Is this a good idea? What would you suggest putting in the mix to align politicians’ incentives with our own? Leave a comment below!

* Please feel free to use the comments section to nominate precisely who you believe is Australia’s lowliest federal backbencher.

Political narratives – have politicians learned anything from HBO?

Political commentators pay major lip-service to the importance of having and using a “narrative”.

The tricky knack of a political narrative (Bernard Keane)

In government, a mantra is not enough to control the narrative (Annabel Lukin)

Political Narrative (Michael Cooney)

Australian Politics: A lack of narrative (Michael Tons)

Talking about narrative goes deep into policy making circles:

“Narratives are stories, in whatever form they take – oral, written or visual. Conventional narratives in literature, the theatre or the cinema have a beginning, middle and end. Good ones provide drama, arising from a predicament that ensnares the principal character; they have plenty of action – the steps the character takes to escape the predicament – with unexpected plot twists and complications thrown in; and there is a resolution, culminating in the achievement of a visionary aspiration or objective. Economic narratives have some similarities.”

– Dr Ken Henry, former head of the Treasury, in a 2007 speech to the Curtin Policy forum. Surprised?

All this talk about narrative in politics has coincided with what many people agree is a golden age of story-telling in the ascendant medium of television (1, 2, 3, 4)

But I see no sign of politicians learning from it.

Our leaders scarcely ever admit to watching the box. They prefer to project an image of someone working tirelessly for their constituents.  Why have they spurned the chance to learn from TV?

Politicians fetishise staying on message. That – they believe – is the only way to get voters to hear the one thing you want them to hear. It is true only if you assume that people won’t be listening, and it is a catch-22.

Would you tune into a show where the main character just repeated the same lines, week-in and week-out?

What about a show where they never admitted they were wrong? Never grew as a person? Never got into trouble and squeaked back out?

Our political characters all claim to be good people from ordinary backgrounds, and play down their weirdness. It’s immensely boring.

They end up with a script that’s all issues, no characters. But (most) humans don’t care about issues in the abstract. We are drawn to characters.

In the HBO western Deadwood, the opening credits are all about a tough but fair sherriff called Bullock. But after a few episodes Bullock’s role fades and the writers turn saloon-owner Swearengen into the main focus.

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Al Swearengen (Source)

He’s a murderer, bully and brothel owner. But his motivations and relationships are complex. They make us love him in the end, and we forgive far more from him than we would from the rest.

Viewers don’t mind complexity. We can even feel for Sergeant Brody, the muslim terrorist at the centre of Homeland, because we get insight into his home life and terrible back-story.

We barrack for Walter White from Breaking Bad, who is a meth cook. We barrack for Omar in The Wire and the inmates in Orange is the New Black. All because we get to know them. We see not only their strengths but their weaknesses. We see them as humans, not message delivery machines.

Can politicians learn from this?

I’m not saying the front benches should start dealing drugs. Just that it doesn’t hurt to show a little of their real struggles. There should be plenty there. Difficult lives turn people to politics and politics is hard on humans.

A political career is a story written over the really long-term. It is not a movie. If it is to remain compelling, the main characters have to have depth. Depth means complexity and complexity requires ambiguity.

At the moment, political narratives strive to kill ambiguity. But this generates only the most superficial interaction with issues.

We might actually be a chance of engaging with university reform if we saw how Joe Hockey’s mother-in-law hates him for it, if we knew it kept him up at night, if we saw how his background and values explain why he balanced it off against other priorities.

As presented, there’s no meat to the political narratives. They are the kind of narrative you might get in a child’s story book. See Spot Run appears to have inspired See Joe Repair Budget. 

There is little to grasp on to in the Coalition’s story. Nothing to stop us from painting them as simple villains. Nothing to stop us rolling our eyes and changing the channel. Nothing to make us focus in the short run, empathise in the medium run and barrack in the long run.

Bill Shorten could learn a lot from Batman. We know more about how Batman begins than Bill begins. Why is that?

But it doesn’t just have to be about the leaders. The Avengers or Oceans Eleven may be an even better metaphor for a political party. A raggedy team with distinct flaws and skills have to fit together to get a job done. There’s alliances and fractures that keep us focused on them, and those alliances and fractures are strengths, not weaknesses, in the narrative. Political parties try to keep talk of factions down. But they can be a fascinating sub-plot.

There are some politicians that modern messaging experts can’t explain. They include Bob Katter, Clive Palmer, and Lee Rhiannon. These people understand something of how eye-catching, complex characters can take an outsize role in a narrative. But does the political world learn from them?

Politics is much like it was 20 years ago and the time is right for a change in the way it is practised. It is a cozy old duopoly using old school communications techniques that are increasingly out of favour with the youth. In TV terms, the major parties are the Simpsons and the Bold and the Beautiful. Popular once, they are now the same old thing over and over.

Who is authoring The Sopranos of politics, writing a script that looses the foundations and doesn’t care who it shocks?

Is it Clive Palmer? Or is he just some sort of free-form experiment, like a drama student let loose with a digital camera.

When will we get a real narrative made up of characters real Australians actually care about? I cannot wait for such a show to hit the air.