Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right




The Australian, 3 February 2015


THE challenge of conquering Labor’s mountain of debt would have defeated a less tenacious prime minister by now. To do so weighed down by your predecessors’ other unwelcome legacy — a deficit of trust in the entire political class — requires strength of will rarely seen in modern politics.

It is not just Tony Abbott’s problem; everyone brave enough to lead a responsible government these days faces an atmosphere of suspicion, cynicism and disapprobation, as Campbell Newman will attest.

The Australian Electoral Survey at the 2010 and 2013 federal elections found voters took a dim view of both parties’ leaders.

Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were apparently the stupidest, silliest, most dislikable uninspiring and untrustworthy bunch of fools the electorate had encountered since 1993, when the survey starting tracking this stuff.

Could the respondents be right? Are the major parties really so hopeless that the only rational course is to vote for Clive Palmer or seek salvation in the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party?

Or is there another explanation? Perhaps the ugly, vicious, fratricidal politics of Labor’s last three years in office has triggered a mass outbreak of post-traumatic stress, the condition that sets in when you spend too long in a conflict zone.

Like a poor man’s Game of Thrones, the unedifying political saga of intrigue, betrayal and expediency that ran for 39 months was enough to shake anyone’s faith in politics. Labor, Liberal, National, LNP — what did it matter? The bond of trust had been broken, and it would be hard, if not impossible, to repair.

Seldom has a prime minister taken office burdened by such low expectations as those loaded on Abbott. Once this might have been regarded as an advantage, a chance to surprise the electorate on the upside, as indeed Abbott tried to do. Here are just a few of the Abbott government’s accomplishments, in no particular order:

• Electricity bills have fallen by 10 per cent, the biggest drop ever recorded.

• Jobs have been created four times faster than in the period before Abbott came to power and the economy is growing at 2.7 per cent.

• Peak debt has been sliced by $150 billion.

• People are still dying to come to Australia but no longer die on the way.

• The live cattle trade is running again and the price of cattle has gone through the roof; ditto sheep and dairy cows.

• The free trade agreement with Japan has cut the price of Mazdas, Subarus and Toyotas by up to $1000.

• Roads are being built and fuel, despite the return of petrol excise indexation, is cheaper in real terms that it has been since 1998.

One could go on, but the Abbott-haters have made up their minds; to them the bloke is un­electable, even though, self-evidently, he is electable.

How would psychologists explain this reaction to a leader who is barely 16 months into the job and displays the instincts of a genuine reformer?

Psychologists speak of confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret information to fit a preconceived view. A related phenomenon is the ostrich effect, the act of burying one’s head in the sand to avoid evidence that challenges a mind made up.

Abbott’s detractors also appear to be suffering from reactive devaluation, the tendency to dismiss a proposal because your adversary thought of it first: paid parental leave, for example.

In fact, Abbott could be forgiven for thinking that his hostile band of tweeting, Facebooking, column-writing critics are a pretty screwed-up bunch. Yet their influence is insidious. They run in a pack and tweet in flocks, creating what social psychologists describe as an availability cascade — a self-reinforcing process by which an idea gains plausibility through repetition.

The phenomenon was identified in the late 1970s by Hasher, Goldstein, and Toppino, who asked participants to assess a list of plausible but erroneous statements. The statements were presented again and again until subjects actually began to believe that the first air force base had been built in New Mexico and that basketball had been an Olympic sport since 1925.

Abbott has struggled to overcome the cognitive bias of his detractors, who are many, and who refuse to grant the Prime Minister the courtesy of an open mind. He has power, but he does not yet have authority.

In a perfect world, Abbott’s supporters — in and out of parliament — would be confidently refuting the furphies that are now presumed to be fact. They would be pointing out that half the savings in last year’s budget have passed the Senate and that the rest were delayed because of the opposition’s bloody-mindedness, not because they were bad policy.

They would cite evidence that life, for most Australians, has measurably improved under Abbott. They would cast a measured eye over the alternative government — an opposition in denial about the magnitude of its mistakes and consequently has failed to correct them.

Yet, incredibly, the militant, kamikaze Right has now fallen for the Left’s delusion that electing Abbott was a mistake. Like the Left it seizes on the slightest evidence that seems to back its hunch that the PM is really not up to it.

Imposing GST on imported mail-order fripperies is an insult to the memory of Milton Friedman, complain the armchair dries. Having persuaded Abbott to drop his paid parental leave proposal, they demand that he abandons his ideas about childcare too.

So there’s Abbott, stuck in the middle, a human figure with all his failings who took his party back into power and is doing his level best to lead a reforming government from the centre. His self-righteous, self-regarding critics would do well to reacquaint themselves with Gough Whitlam’s admonition of the Victorian Left in 1967 — “Certainly the impotent are pure.”

Or, if they would rather hear it from Bob Menzies, they could start with the 1954 speech Democracy and Management: “In seeking for perfection, we can, if we are not careful, waste much time and energy.”