Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Story of a Story

Two stories that scrolled across my vision today got me thinking.

The first was this one, that was also on the cover of the Sun Herald I saw lying around the cafe this morning:
Full story at the SMH website
I'll put aside, for the moment, the merits of the suggestion, because what really interested me was the way the story came to light and the reaction to it.

Firstly, the story makes no appearance on the Daily Telegraph website until later this morning. I don't have a paper copy of today's Sun Herald, so I can't check if EXCLUSIVE was brandished across the cover, but I think we can safely assume that this story is based on information that only the writer (Jake Saulwick) had.

The paragraph makes the vague assertion that the government "is preparing for a trial", which could mean almost anything. Later on in the story we read:
Further down, there are detailed quotes in favour of the proposal from the Australian Trucking Association:
Still further down, there is an unnamed spokeswoman for the Roads Minister talking down the proposal:
The story does not make it clear where the information came from, but I think the lack of anything on the Daily Telegraph website means this must be information that was leaked directly to Saulwick.

Later this morning, this appeared on the SMH site (attributed to AAP):
Full story here
Interestingly, whilst the previous story included quotes only from a "spokeswoman", this story has a direct quote from the Roads Minister himself downplaying the story. The story also attributes that quote to a "statement on Sunday" which is clearly well after the original quote was provided by the "spokeswoman".

Additionally, this story has now appeared on the Daily Telegraph website:
Full story here
Obviously it is exactly the same copy, pulled off the AAP wire.

So, where did the initial story come from?

One possibility is that the story was leaked by Gay's office to "test the waters" - to gauge the media and public's reaction before deciding on whether the idea had legs or not.

That is a possibility - but in my view the negative reaction was practically inevitable. Why the information would need to be leaked to ascertain that is a little difficult to imagine.

I say this notwithstanding the comment on the initial story from the "spokeswoman" - it's likely that Saulwick had the story and (appropriately) sought comment from the Minister's office before it was published.

Another possibility is that the story was accidentally leaked by someone with a big mouth. It's possible, but also seems unlikely.

What's far more likely is that someone wanted the story leaked because they knew what a negative reaction it would garner, the theory being that it might help to push the minister into not allowing it to go ahead.

Exactly who that opponent may be is impossible to tell. The minister's office has no motivation to cast the plans in a negative light, the opposition is apparently in favour of the plans, and the quote from the Cate Faermann (Greens Upper House member) is buried in the final paragraph.

Moreover, the trucking industry is in favour of the plans.

So who gave Saulwick the story?

Right near the top of the original story we see this:
I don't know if that businesswoman has been consulted about the plans or got her hands on relevant material and passed it on. If so, I'm also not suggesting that she did anything illegal or wrong.

But if I've guessed right, it certainly is an interesting insight into the way that politically sensitive information like this can leak into the newspapers, and the way that debate can be shifted as a result.

We'll have to wait and see what the Minister does.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Robbo in Charge

Recently a read an excellent piece about how far back the preparations for Obama's 2012 campaign dated.

According to the piece (which, typically, I now cannot find), the campaign staff took off the day after election day 2008, no doubt to sleep off hangovers and general exhaustion. The very next day, they arrived, at the office, put up an Obama 2012 poster, and got to work.

Even if I have remembered the story correctly, it may be apocryphal. Either way, I love the idea that 4 years minus 1 day is the perfect time to start preparing for the next election.

That's not to say I tolerate politicians who feel the need to filter every decision through the "Will This Help Us Next Election" filter. Those are the worst kind of politician - they either have no personal sense of what is right or good, or ignore it in favour of the latest polling data.

What I mean is that it is thoroughly appropriate that a section of the party devote themselves to maintaining a long-term focus. That may mean expanding and encouraging party membership, or cementing loyalty from those that just voted for you for the first time, or encouraging voter registration (essential in the US, but important here too, especially if you work for the Left).

That does not mean, however, that it is appropriate or, for that matter, productive, to spend every minute in campaign mode. Tony Abbott's present predicament has demonstrated for us that, eventually, compulsive campaigning runs out of steam.

Rather, it is important to "play the long game". This is particularly so in a jurisdiction like NSW with fixed 4 year terms and no prospect of circumstances requiring an early election.

As of right now, it is 2 years and 3 months til the next election. That is too soon for Labour to begin campaigning, but this last year should have been spent positioning Labor for the next election.

Policies should have been formulated. Positions should have been taken. Labor should be shoring up those who voted for them last time and working out how to draw back others into the fold.

In 2007, NSW Labor won the election. It's hardly like there are not people out there willing to vote for them - Labor should be (at the very least implicitly) courting those and trying to bring back those who deserted them in 2011.

This is part of the reason why, when John Robertson ascended to the leadership of the ALP after Kristina Keneally stepped down, I (and almost everyone else) thought it was a pretty dumb idea.
Photo from a News website
At the time I wrote a post about it. Rereading it now, it is a pretty awful piece of writing, so I'm not going to link to it. Suffice to say that my view at the time was that Robertson was, at best, a short term solution, and certainly not someone that Labor should be looking to to lead them out of the wilderness.

First, some history. Robertson started his career as an electrician. He soon became involved in the Union movement, ascending through the Electrical Trades Union and Labor Council of NSW to become Secretary of Unions NSW and Vice-President of the ACTU.

That's all good and well. The issue is that, in his time involved in the Union movement, Robertson cultivated a reputation as a "Union headkicker".

That's not to say that the work of the Union movement is illegitimate or somehow disrespectful. It's just that modern professional politics requires a certain subtlety, a sense for the mood of an electorate that can often be absent, whether one hails from the Right of the Left.

Robertson demonstrated as much when he spearheaded the union campaign against Morris Iemma's plan to privatise the power network. Such a political view was entirely valid, but the manner in which it was carried out led to the downfall of a Labor Premier and the beginning of the revolving door that characterised the Labor leadership up until the 2011 election.

As Labor tried to mop up the mess caused by the internal defeat of the power privatisation policy, Michael Costa (then Treasurer) resigned his cabinet spot as well as his seat in the Upper House, and Robertson was appointed to fill the seat in October 2008.

There he stayed until the 2011 election, when he ran for the Lower House seat of Blacktown. Despite some momentary excitement from some in the lead-up to the election that he might not win the seat, he eventually won with a margin of over 7%:
People had been suggesting that Robertson could take over as leader since Nathan Rees was Premier - and it seemed somewhat inevitable that he would be the one to take over when Keneally stood down.

Naturally, that was exactly what has happened, and he has been in charge ever since.

Remarkably, he has barely managed to make a dent in the O'Farrell government's lead in the polls since that time.

That is worth nothing - in that time, O'Farrell has done a great deal to infuriate the left. Whether it was draconian budget cuts, outrageous changes in the Criminal Justice system, or the fiddling with the plans for the North West Rail Link, he has given Robertson plenty material.

And yet, somewhat remarkably, Labor has made almost no progress at all.

How can that be? A few reasons spring to mind.

Firstly, as one Labor insider said to me recently, he is "entirely devoid of personality". It's a little hard to connect with an electorate and convince them of the merits of your argument if you cannot convince them that you are worth listening to.

More importantly, however, Robertson hasn't managed to tell the electorate what he about, or for that matter what he says the government is about.

Much as I abhor the word "branding", it is an essential part of professional politics today. The public needs to be able to easily understand what you are on about and how you are different to the opposition.

It doesn't need to be complicated. Federally, the Liberals have branded Gillard as a liar. Everything she does is now viewed, by many, through that prism.

By the same token, ever since Gillard's speech on the Peter Slipper affair, Labor has successfully cast Abbott as a misogynist.

Have any of the attacks on O'Farrell stuck? Does anyone really think less of him than they did before after his first 18 months in office?

I doubt it. And a big part of the reason for that is the failure of Robertson to connect with the electorate.

Think about Kevin Rudd in the lead-up to the 2007 Federal Election. He was young (or, at least, he looked young). He was forward thinking. He was economically responsible but still progressive. He was anti-WorkChoices. He has a name that fitted on a t-shirt and rhymed with the year. He had been on TV. People liked him.

Now try and imagine a positive message for Labor in the lead-up to an election. Sure, it would be easy to criticise O'Farrell and tell the public about the bad things he had done.

But what could Robertson say about himself, about Labor under his leadership?

Much as with Tony Abbott, an opposition cannot (in ordinary circumstances) be little more than "the other guys". There needs to be a positive message about why they are better. That message can sometimes be little more than "all the bad things they have done, we would do them this way" - but it needs to be something.

And if Robertson cannot find a way to start selling a positive message, then Labor's numbers are not going to improve.

Labor are already in a tough position as they plan for 2015. Unless they make some changes at the top, it's only going to get worse. And it will be up to the Labor caucus to have the courage to make a change.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

New Hope for Newcastle?

It's a little hard to immediately know what to make of O'Farrell's plans to remove from service part of the Newcastle train line.

On one hand, for a government that has made all sorts of commitments to build infrastructure and, in particular, train lines, the decision would seem an odd one. The government is planning to spend billions and billions building the North-West Rail link just so that people don't have to get buses any more.

So why on earth are they eliminating that part of the line? Have a look at this map:
Full size map here
You can see the rail line running along the Northern part of the CBD, just the other side of Hunter St.

The plan is to truncate the line at Wickham and have commuters hop on a bus to get into the CBD:
There has been a great deal of writing recently about Hunter St and the attempts to revitalise it. There is a great document here that speaks about the problems the street has at the moment and the plans to fix it.

The short-term plans include beauties like this:
Renew Newcastle as is brilliant new initiative:
But they are both short-term solutions.

One of the biggest problems in the Newcastle CBD, in short, is that there is a great big bloody rail line in the way.

True it is that Sydney copes with a great big massive train station in the middle of it. The difference is that in the main commercial section of Sydney the train lines are hidden underground - Central Station is actually a fair way outside the main commercial centre.  Town Hall and the other City Circle stations deliver most people to their jobs in the CBD.
CBD is under the "A", Central Station bottom middle, blue squares all underground stations except for Circular  Quay at the top.
Moreover, Sydney has more room to move - as the map shows, the Newcastle CBD is in what must now seem like a pretty dumb spot, hemmed in by water as it is.

The ideal solution would be to rebuild the line and the station underground - but I think it is safe to assume that the cost is well beyond what the government can possibly justify (or, for that matter, afford).

In recent years multiple developments have been stymied because developers claimed that the train line was in the way.

A few days ago the ABC reported these plans for the area:
Presumably the idea is that the new crossings will greatly assist the flow of cars and pedestrians around the city. It may be the case that developers will now be able to build closer to the train line, opening up new opportunities.

Naturally enough, Robertson has jumped all over the plan to rip up the line. Yesterday he caught a train from Maitland to Wickenham, and then a bus to Newcastle. Presumably his point was "How impossible is THIS?", the fact that he was quite easily accomplishing the task being an unimportant detail.
Full story from the ABC
What he may have forgotten (or not realised?) is that Labor once had a plan to tear up the line. It had the enthusiastic support of Michael Costa, then Minister for the Hunter and the Independent Mayor of Newcastle John Tate.

Unsurprisingly, the plan was shelved in 2006 by Morris Iemma after the predictable public outrage, notwithstanding independent reports that supported the change.

It's obvious why the locals in Newcastle may not like the idea. If they are travelling into the CBD for work, this will lengthen their trip.

I'll leave it for others to speculate as to whether it will actually have a positive effect on the Newcastle CBD itself. If it means that the area is opened up, traffic can move around more easily and new and exciting developments can go ahead, then it may be a good idea.

The fact that the Coalition will be expecting to still win easily in 2015 also means that the project will likely not be cancelled due to short-term fears of imminent defeat.

Whether they will be able to get the Novocastrians on board remains to be seen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Back Home

Parliament has broken up for the year, and all the politicians are on holiday.

Well, not really.

No doubt many of those representing rural electorates will have headed back home. Their constituents (and, very possibly, their families) don't get to see much of them during the year.

This time of year is also a valuable opportunity to attend to matters back at the electoral office and to meet with their branches.

Importantly, however, it t is a key time to try and build more of a connection in their local electorate.

Hailing from the North Shore of Sydney, their has long been a view that the local members (both at the State and Federal level) have taken their seats here for granted.

In many cases, that is a fair criticism. Being a state member can and should be a about far more than simply showing up at Macquarie street and voting the way your party leader tells you to.
Parliament House at night
This was something that occurred to me recently when the Federal Coalition "strongly discouraged" their members from tweeting in the lead-up to the Federal election some time next year. Many people made the point that, if they can't be trusted to tweet responsibly, then what on earth would make us think that they can be entrusted to lead the country properly?

My response was:
Is there much more to being a backbencher than voting the way you're told? It depends - but unless you have a very safe seat there certainly is a lot more to being elected as a local member.

Mumbletwits has done a great deal of work recently looking at the "personal vote" of many Federal politicians. In short, the personal vote is the extent by which the primary vote of a local members exceeds (or is exceeded by) the proportion giving that same party their vote on the upper house ticket.

Some of the differences are striking, to say the least.

There are many reasons why a member's "personal vote" might be strong - but I think an obvious and effective way to build it is to have a close connection to the community.

And this is the best time of year to make that happen.

It does, however, mean more than passing letters onto the responsible Minister or Shadow Minister, or having your staff draft meaningless responses to the letters you receive from your constituents.

It means showing up at schools' local fete. Giving the keynote address at the speech day. Addressing the local Rotary Club.

It may often seem like politics on a painfully small scale - but it doesn't cost a cent (as opposed to those mailouts that my local politicians seem to favor) and it sticks wtih people.

I still remember Brendan Nelson (then my local Federal member) speaking at some event at my school well over a decade ago. I don't remember what the event was or what he said, but I know that he took the time to come and speak to us. People remember that stuff, and when they get to the polling booth and only recognize one name, it pays off.

It has been instructive over the last few weeks to see which local members are (I can only assume) spending the break depleting their wine rack, and which are getting out into the community and actually being a local member.

It will be even more interesting to then see the size of the swings for or against those members come 2015.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Barry United

I was at the ground last time Manchester United played in Australia.

My family (or at least, my father, brother and I) were and still are United fans, so understandably we were pretty excited about the prospect of seeing in real life a team we had been watching on TV for years.

It was a great night. United got up over the Socceroos 1-0, we got to see some of our favourite players in the flesh, and everyone went home happy. I'll spare you all the photo of me in a ridiculous hat.

I don't know what the tickets cost (thanks Dad!) but I feel pretty safe in assuming that it turned a profit for a few investors.

Naturally, transporting a Premier League team out to Ausralia to play in one game costs a packet. I'm guessing 20 players, over a dozen staff, plus enormous amount of paraphenalia - and you know those players aren't flying economy.

Add to that the logistics of staging the event and you have an enormous cost. It's hardly unusual for governments to kick in for events like this.

Football teams like to tour other countries to provide a bump to their foreign fan base (and, inevitably, their foreign merchandise sales) - but it's hard to believe that the numbers add up for those teams.

And, when O'Farrell announced today that United would be playing a game against the "A-League All Stars" several people quite rightly asked how much we were kicking in.

The answer?
Full story in the SMH
The ever-present problem with these kinds of figures is that they are almost impossible to calculate. Who can possibly know with any certainty how much the local economy will benefit from people who travel here to watch the game? How about the benefit to tourism as United fans all over the world read about where their beloved team played on the weekend?

And the effect on Sydney's "brand"?

When it comes down to it, these numbers are only one small step away from "wholly imaginary" - they are almost impossible to assess and only fool would rely on them.

So why on earth is O'Farrell investing our money on that basis?

Well, a few reasons.

First of all, he gets to present a good-news story.  You know, making things happen, getting things done, Sydney is a world city etc.

Moreover, he gets to do it looking just a little lame in the United scarf and red tie, which I'm sure picture editors will make heavy use of tomorrow.
Full video on the ABC website
But, most of all, I think it taps into the Sydney parocialism that we are so famous for.

People who care about football (and even those who don't) will view this announcement with a smug satisfaction that we got the game and Melbourne didn't. What was it O'Farrell said again?
It doesn't matter if you have any intention of attending, or even if you will be inconvenienced by the fixture.

Sydneysiders like putting one up Melbourne, and they're going to like a politician who is responsible for that.

And if that ends up costing the government some money - I reckon most of Sydney (if not NSW) would be OK with that.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Success St

Sometimes politicians seem to have a strange perspective on the world.

We saw that recently with the US election. For your viewing pleasure, a collection of pundits talking about how Romney was going to win, and win BIG:

You would never see that in Australia, where for some reason it seems that you want to be the underdog. In the US, people want to back a winner.

It may be that those pundits were talking up the Republican's chances - I suppose another 4 years out of the White House was a little scarier than being made fun of by the LameStream Media in the weeks following the election.

In Australia, we seem to have been plagued recently by politicians talking about what "the man on the street" is telling them.

Joe Hockey has been especially guilty of this - suggesting that because 10 people in the street came up to him yesterday and complained about Gillard that the "people have had enough".

This may be because people who approach politicians in the street for a chat have vehement, poorly thought out views - easy to accept the crazies who agree with you, and easy to dismiss as crazy those who don't,

Maybe it's just a lazy argument that politicians make up when it's just to much effort to try and talk "facts".

In my view, it is symptomatic of politicians who don't seem to have any idea what the voters actually want.

This would explain the slavish devotion to short-term movements in polling numbers rather than a commitment to smart policy and good communication

The unpredictability of the media is partly to blame for that. One can just imagine politicians announcing a new policy quivering in their boots at the thought that a negative story on the front page of the Daily Terror could bury it in an instant.

But none of that is any excuse for this stupid announcement from Sam Dastyari, NSW Labor's General Secretary:
Full Story on SMH
True is it that "Sussex St" has come in for plenty of stick over the last decade. With the cloud cast by the Obeid ICAC inquiry hanging over NSW Labor, one can understand a willingness to look elsewhere for lodgings.

The problem that Dastyarti plainly fails to recognize is that no one could care less where NSW Labor has its headquarters.

As Heath Aston, another Herald journo, said not long after Nicolls tweeted his piece:
If you actually know where Sussex St is and who is holed up there, I think it is safe to assume that moving the headquarters is exactly the kind of BS that you are going to see right through.

Now, maybe Dastyari is trying to spin a positive story out the media's fascination with the Obeid Inquiry, much like we saw with the nauseating "Real Julia".

What I think is more likely is that people in Sussex St have heard so many barbs about the location of their headquarters that someone had the brilliant idea to move.

As Robin Williams said in Mrs Doubtfire: