Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Political Manipulation

From Julia Gillard's speech on the so-called gender wars through to the Federal Government's biased funding for the referendum on local government funding, the public has witnessed another week of political manipulation, writes Peter Reith.

When columnist Peter Hartcher of the SMH describes Julia Gillard as having made a "blatant effort to manipulate voters by dividing them" over gender then mere bloggers should take note. A bit of manipulation is nothing new. And gender is not the only topic for manipulation. But is some manipulation OK and some not?

The latest Fairfax Nielsen poll shows another disastrous fall in Labor's election prospects. Labor's primary vote has dropped to 29 per cent. Last week's manipulative speech about gender and the role of women by PM Gillard was badly received by men but a ringing testament to the popularity of blue ties.

I suspect that Gillard's attempt to divide men and women in the hope she would get many more women's votes (than she would lose men's votes) will go down as Gillard's signature miscalculation. I will certainly continue to wear my blue ties as a reminder of the futility and plain stupidity of the Gillard tactics.

The idea of gender wars is overdone; as my late father, a doctor in Sandringham for many years, used to say, you only have look at the large crowd at the MCG to realise they are all the result of not war, but close relations between the sexes.

The 7 per cent drop in the men's vote for Gillard following her speech strongly suggests that the 'gender war' is not well received. The whole incident will not only be an embarrassment for Gillard but also for Gillard supporters like the daughter of the Governor-General and wife of Minister Bill Shorten, Chloe Bryce, the president of Women for Gillard. But as for the word 'manipulative', the public have already had their say without putting a label on the speech.

But gender wars were not Gillard's only problem; both Gillard and Rudd have been manipulating Gonski for political advantage. At the end of the week, the Gonski claims by Gillard were allegedly being opposed not just by Abbott but also by Rudd. The Weekend Australian (Paul Kelly) reported: "The Rudd camp believes the Gonski school agenda is a saga of policy mismanagement where funds are pledged without prospects of better results. Rudd is worried about the fiscal cost. He can be expected to act decisively against the half completed Gonski agenda."

By Monday, in the same paper Gillard people were confirming Rudd's intentions and Rudd people were denying the first report. This skirmish is par for the course; it might be political suicide and it might be a case of manipulation but there is nothing wrong with it.

And then for good measure, up pops the issue that can't go away even if many are not interested i.e. the referendum. It is turning out to be another one of Gillard's attempts at the manipulation of public debate.

Speaking to the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) on Sunday night, the Prime Minister said, "I know you are putting together money to fight for a Yes vote. Tonight, I pledge that the Government will also assist with additional resources for your campaign."

On Monday morning also at the AGLA Conference, Minister Anthony Albanese announced that an additional $10m would go to the 'yes' case and $0.5m would be given to the 'no' case. That makes the total 'yes' case $10m from local government, $11.6 m already announced and the $10m announced by Albanese; a total of $31.6 versus $0.5m for the 'no' case. The last time a political party tried to manipulate a result (in 1988), Labor spent taxpayers money on the 'yes' case until the High Court stepped in to stop Labor from acting in breach of the law.

This time round, Labor repealed the law so as to allow the Gillard Government to bias their spending in favour of the 'yes' case. The repeal is for 12 months only - so it was a special deal to 'fix' the local government referendum campaign only. In addition Labor has reduced the brochures that go out to all voters so as to reduce the flow of information on the 'no' case. Of course, the brochure will start with voluminous pages of the 'yes' case before the 'no' case, obviously in the hope that voters will not read the 'no' case. This is a form of manipulation that breaks all the rules and undermines the legitimacy of the ballot outcome.

To me it looks like the Government is using the local government referendum to bolster their real objective and that is to try and stay in government. Their first hope is to swamp the media so as to curtail space for the Coalition's election campaign. But the main plan is to have the 'yes' advertising full of comments about how grateful everybody should be to the Labor government and especially Gillard for their support of local government. This is a naked attempt to buy votes - not for local government but for Labor. And of course the ALGA has fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

All of these above are examples of manipulation but in most cases the public can sort out the nonsense. The one really bad case in recent times was the treatment dished out to Mary Jo Fisher, formerly Senate for South Australia. She has suffered for many years with a mental health problem. And when you are in the fish bowl of Australian politics you are under more scrutiny than most experience in a lifetime. She left Parliament and is now back at work. The latest Weekend Australian told her story; a story of resilience and courage. Sadly, when she was in Parliament, too many people manipulated her circumstances to mount a defence of Craig Thomson. That was one form of manipulation I hope we never see again in the Federal Parliament.

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