Is political cynicism poison for the left?

I offered this comment in a LinkedIn discussion, and thought I might ‘put it out there’ as my daughter says. In the process I edited and played around with it a little.

One of the things that the last few years have shown I think is that rank cynicism plays much worse for the left than the right of centre. Cynicism isn’t such a problem for a right of centre government because one of the reasons you’d vote for one is that you think the world is a pretty average kind of place and that any grand ambitions to make it better are naive or – well an even higher form of cynicism dressed up as altruism, or perhaps a bit of both. Just writing it down makes it rather compelling actually ;)

In any event, when Howard wheels out a carbon pricing system having said he wouldn’t, when he ‘clears the decks’ of potential policy losers before an election, gets rid of petrol excise indexing for instance, it works for him. I remember thinking that ‘clearing the decks’ of an easily exploited policy promise – to price carbon – may not have been good policy, but it was probably good politics. How wrong I was. Julia has made one mistake after another of that kind. The way she shafted Wilkie was simply shabby and seen to be so.

Hawke would have done the same, but would have telegraphed a whole narrative for some time beforehand about how he was wrestling with the moral issue of whether to pursue quixotic policy or shaft Wilkie, and how hard it all was but . . . “Well thanks for your question Alan/Kerry/Maxine/Leigh. It’s been a tough time for me. On the one hand I had an obligation to Alan and I’m not the only person in this country who admires his courage and integrity, and on the other, I realised that it couldn’t be got through the Parliament. So I had to make a tough call. Some people will disagree with me. I don’t blame Andrew for being mad at me. If I were him I’d be mad too, but as PM I have higher responsibilities etc etc”.

Julia’s basic message was “Andrew had outlived his usefulness and so you can find his body somewhere over there.” Likewise the ‘carbon tax’ which is actually more or less what was on the table, even if it came with a community assembly first – carbon pricing with an introductory period of fixed price permits. When challenged about her breaking a promise Julia showed a remarkably ill judged mix of candour and dissembling. She needn’t have admitted it was a carbon tax, but she did need to say that the policy had changed and she needed to justify it in all the circumstances. She did the opposite.

She came out and told us how honest she was being and admitted it was a carbon tax (when neither she nor Rudd, IIRC, had admitted the previous temporary permit system was a carbon tax) and then when she was challenged on breaking her promise not to introduce one said aggressively “look at all the words I used”. Well Julia you’re responsible for all of them and you’ve broken a promise. You had good reason to, so admit it and explain it. Alas that happened weeks later when her minders explained that she’d never actually put the case for breaking the promise, and eventually she did so – when it was way too late.

She did the same over grabbing the leadership. She’d managed to be a loyal deputy and then grabbed the job – which I thought at the time was the right thing to do in all senses. But all she could say was via a cagey euphemism “the government had lost its way”. She failed to challenge the obvious narrative of ambition and treachery. Yet it would have been easy to do – Hawkie or Peter Beattie would have lapped it up. See my proposed words for Hawkie above and remix as appropriate.

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94 Responses to Is political cynicism poison for the left?

  1. john walker says:

    Actually what does ‘left’/ ‘right’ mean (if it means anything much ) these days?

  2. murph the surf. says:

    Is the cynicism of the political process bigger than the influence of the individual these days?
    I wasn’t around in the Hawke,Keating,Howard eras but were they leading the party to a greater extent than currently occurs?

  3. john walker says:


    All three were powerful alpha type personalities the answer to your question is yes.

  4. Alan says:

    I suspect people can accept policy changes, even drastic policy changes, if they can believe a leader is trying to act in the public interest. That does not seem to be what people can believe of the present prime minister. There is also, I think, some hint of a growing feeling of a leader who, in the immortal words of Francis Urquhart, likes to ‘put a bit of stick about’.

  5. Patrick says:

    In short, Gillard’s a shit communicator and there isn’t anyone with any profile in the current labor party who can communicate to save themselves.

    The real point being that when the media pulls the friendly rug it wove under Rudd out from under them, they all come tumbling down.

  6. john walker says:

    Suggest that the problem is more like : “they just do things”, “they just get everything arse about”.

  7. Glen says:

    Very good post Nick. I laughed very loudly at Julia’s basic message was “Andrew had outlived his usefulness and so you can find his body somewhere over there.”

    What’s not clear to me is whether it’s actually harder for the left to be cynical or whether this government just hasn’t sold it well. As you say, Hawke or Beattie could probably sell it so it wouldn’t look like rank cynicism. I think you could probably say the same of Bob Carr as well, and since he now has a seat at the table, probably worth listening to.

    But there is a higher bar for the left. I’m of the politicans are highly constrained and usually have to make the best of a bunch of bad choices school of thought, but even this stuff with Slipper and Thomson exceeds my tolerance. I don’t think there was a person in the land who believed Slipper and Thomson were jettisoned because they’d finally had a think about it and decided it was a bit grubby. You might get away with it if it wasn’t a whiplash inducing change of direction.

  8. john walker says:

    This government has a history of doing things without enough thought, going Opps and then hastily doing something without enough thought an…..

    Last year Malcolm Frazer said that whilst this government is not corrupt , it was in his opinion ” the most incompetent government Australia has ever had”.

    Personally I think of them as a Epimethius sort of government. He was married Cassandra …the only thing left in the governments box is hope.

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I don’t think they’re particularly incompetent at government. They are doing that quite well. And Julia is very good at a number of aspects of it. Like negotiating deals.

    But they are politically ‘pragmatic’ to the point of being politically incompetent. To paraphrase Willy Nelson, they don’t seem to have the slightest idea of when to ‘holdem, and when to ‘foldem’.

  10. Alan says:

    Nicholas, if you governance from politics in that way you need to think about the future of the carbon price. The media is awash with commenters muttering ‘excellent policy, lousy politics’. They are broadly right. Sadly Gillard’s record of opposing a carbon price and then supporting it has destroyed the significant popular support a carbon price once enjoyed.

    The carbon price will be repealed by a Coalition government within weeks of tis election. The current electoral standings would give the Coalition a majority in both houses. The main deal a prime minister must do is with the electorate and Gillard has not come anywhere near closing that one.

  11. Patrick says:

    I think the price part of the Carbon Price was to blame for it’s unpopularity, not the communication.

    Although I wouldn’t want to understate the impact of Rudd’s Copenhagen clusterfuck in making the ’till-then comfortably gullible electorate realise that we really were going out on a bit of a limb with this. I actually think that until then most people broadly swallowed the Rudd/media consensus that the whole world really cared (in a ready to pay for it sense) about this, and not just a quite narrow elite.

  12. Alan says:


    I don’t want to earn the ire of this blog’s hosts by relaunching a climate change thread. Without getting into the whole climate change is a myth or conspiracy argument it is is easy to establish that claims that we are going out on a limb are simply untrue.

    The Stockholm Environment Institute, in research commissioned for Oxfam, found:

    The emission reductions of China, India, South Africa and Brazil – the BASIC countries – could be slightly greater than the combined efforts of the 7 biggest developed countries – the US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia by 2020.

    As Garnaut comments in Chapter 4 of his review, if we don’t want to build a carbon-free economy the Chinese will be happy to build it for us, at a price,

    The out ahead of the world argument was untrue at Copenhagen. It is even less true now. Really, it is no more than a poor little rich country talking point.

  13. Ken Parish says:

    “To paraphrase Willy Nelson, they don’t seem to have the slightest idea of when to ‘holdem, and when to ‘foldem’.””

    I think it was actually Kenny Rogers …

  14. Dan says:

    If I can propose that there’s a more meta level to this, it is (and I am paraphrasing a half-remembered article by a former Republican staffer) that the left have a dual task – first of all, to enact their policy agenda, and secondly to propagate the state-as-agent political model; whereas the right, if they are not in a position to win on a given policy front, can just throw turds all over the political process and they win by default. A disengaged electorate is a victory for the right in general and neoliberalism in particular.

    (The article was more elegant and succint, IIRC.)

  15. JB Cairns says:

    Yes Ken and both as bad as each other.

    It is amusing to hear that we have an incompetent Government.
    Do we have a wage break-out? Is Spending out of control? ( This government actualy cut spending in real terms one budget back and will do it again next financial year. Howard never ever did that! Well then perhaps we endured a recession then?
    I could go on but you get the picture.

    In fact it is a pretty good government . It just lacks anyone with political smarts at all.

    I think this is typified by the ETS. Badly advised to say it was a carbon tax when it clearly isn’t and then unable to even show people how in the hell can an
    ETS which will pull in less than five times the revenue of a GST have a greater effect on the economy than the GST.

    We need to wait until July to see how people react to this before making any forecasts on future politics.

  16. Tel says:

    Alan on May 7, 2012 at 4:41 pm: as it turns out, you happen to be exactly on-topic. This thread is about political cynicism after all.

    You might have to ask the Indians for details, but it require an awful lot of Iranian oil to reduce emissions so effectively.

    Cynical? Meh?

  17. john walker says:

    ‘excellent policy, lousy politics’. = incompetent. Government is about politics and the achievable. Policy is one thing, making it move is another.
    For example
    If they had asked just a few tradesmen they would have known about roof spaces in older houses( and fuses made of fencing wire) if they had thought about they would have realised that a requirement for Co-contributions for the pinkbatts would have discouraged rorting.

    And if they had thought about it, helping to undermine Turnbull when you needed him to get the carbon scheme through was dumb…. incompetent.

  18. JB Cairns says:

    John is another who has never read the Hawke report.
    I find a lot of people who claim incompetency make unsubstantiated claims and then faced with the truth deny it.

    Maybe it will be the same with the ETS?

  19. john walker says:

    Actually I did but skim the report .
    As far as deaths go what happened was roughly this-
    prior to the scheme there was (from memory) a rate of about 5-6 non industrial electrocution deaths per anum in Australia, most in Queensland and in areas with a lot of older houses, these deaths were mostly of home DIY types in ceilings and on roofs.
    The scheme transferred these deaths from DIY housholders to employed people.
    The two tradies that we have employed on and off for years would never get in a unknown roof without turning off all the power first- The fencing wire fuse is a true story.

    Competency is about the details not the policy.

  20. Ken Parish says:


    A man with your deplorable taste in puns is in no position to cast aspersions on country and western singers.

  21. john walker says:

    In the area that I know best; the commercial, Indie, visual arts, this governments policy’s have been a disaster especially for indigenous art . It will take years to recover , and much is gone for good.
    I do not believe that this was the governments intention- hence “incompetent” rather than “malicious” – the problem was that they failed to consult with people who knew anything about what reality was like.
    I am unusual for an artist – I am lower case, liberal conservative by nature- virtually all of my colleagues are very Labor by nature , virtually all of them have written this government off as a incomprehensible joke .

  22. JB Cairns says:


    A person is put to death for saying country and western is music!!

    what next Abba, Neil Diamond?

    John ,
    There was an extensive program put in place following the NZ evidence.

    That is why safety dramatically rose compared to what happened in the industry previously.

    At least one death occurred under the auspices of a qualified electrician others ignored safety guidelines.

  23. john walker says:

    Ps Jacques the Link embeding code is not working all that well.

  24. JB Cairns says:

    I am glad you mentioned school halls.

    The BER casts it in a pretty good light. with so many buildings one was bound to get a few ones not up to standard.

    It happens in the private sector too you know.

    Both episodes show up how this Government cannot sell a beer on a hot day.

    you know you even have people believing we could have avoided a recession without spending any money at all!

  25. john walker says:


    Of course .
    Its (as always) a timing ‘way of moving’ issue .

    Most of the stuff was provably up to standard -thought it takes time for some problems to surface, the wrong mesh would have caused the slab to eventually fail.

    At a relatively local level a lot of it looked like this : paying 50K to install a commercial kitchen in a school that has little need for a commercial kitchen hard to understand. s\Spending nearly 1 million on about 6 Ks of bicycle path looks extravagant. And accidentally paying 90% of the purchase price of a run down weatherboard “arts” center (under a program that required significant community co- contributions) for use by a very small group of elderly persons -persons who literally do not know what they want to do with it- , 18 months after that program ended looks careless.

  26. john walker says:


    Do not question that Australia has come through the past few years in pretty good shape…… I think having a reserve bank that is truly independent might have more to do with it than our pollies would like to admit.

  27. JB Cairns says:


    Perhaps you need the BER task-force report.

    Believing monetary policy helped to overcome the GFC when it was all about credit markets freezed up is very much in line with what this article is about.

  28. m0nty says:

    I am disappointed in this post, Nicholas. You seem to have fallen into the same trap as John Quiggin, in that you are letting petty political machinations sway your judgement when in your role as an economist of some influence, your job is to look at the legislative and fiscal achievements of the government. We come to you as an expert on the latter, and the latter only. You and Quiggin should be focusing on the things that the government is actually doing to the economy and wider society, as opposed to the gossip that fills the papers.

    If you’re looking for a narrative, it is that the government is quietly racking up a list of achievements that will last long after it is voted out of office. The obvious analogy is Whitlam, very few of whose reforms Fraser repealed. Abbott shows every sign of following the Howard era blueprint of shelving any meaningful policy, feeding the chooks with middle-class welfare, and reaping the rewards of previous Labor reforms. That’s the sort of cynicism that works against Labor as a party, but for its agenda.

  29. Dan says:

    I worked on the Stimulus Achievement chapter of that report. The BER was fine macroeconomic policy, regardless of what else might be said about it (and really the volume of complaints was pretty insignificant).

  30. john walker says:

    I understood that The root causes of GFC had something to do with monetary policy in the US and EU between about 1996 and 2007 am I wrong ??

    As for reports /policy the voter on the street sees concrete things (and mostly does not complain… whats the point) . When we complained they, the next day ,simply retrospectively altered the spreadsheet. And suggested a FOI approach.

  31. Dan says:

    John – the root causes of the GFC were a confluence of factors. If I had to sheet it home to one thing, I’d say massive and uncorrected trade imbalances over almost 40 years. But there are a myriad of other variables that fed into it.

  32. john walker says:


    Whitlam knocked up the Australia Council in a few months . It is one of the longest lasting and worse achievements of that government. People have been trying to fix the mess ever since but even Keating was defeated by it.

  33. john walker says:

    Dan so the idea that the repeated bail outs of successive bubbles :dot com, enron and so on under Bush underlies the CFC is not true?

  34. john walker says:

    “massive and uncorrected trade imbalances over almost 40 years.” could you elaborate?

  35. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Loose monetary policy was one reason for the boom, but given that this explanation is often pedalled by free market types it’s important to realise that in a well functioning market, monetary policy could be too lose for a good while, and rational decision makers wouldn’t turn it into an unsustainable boom. This is one flaw in the ‘Austrian’ explanation for, and proposal of remedies for a boom and bust. After all, these economic decision makers are supposed to be expecting rates to return to normal, so they wouldn’t base their view of the world on the idea that the boom will go on and on.

    The idea that cheap money fosters a race to increase yield by taking on more risk is OK too, except that that’s supposed to be a rational tradeoff, not a throwing of the switch to the spiv brigade. Alas our money managers are not made of such stern stuff. In the meantime decent prudential supervision is important – along with macro-prudential stabilisation measures which have become a bit of a flavour of the month – even though some of us were arguing for them all along!

  36. john walker says:

    Nicholas Thanks
    ‘Austrian’ explanation’ ?
    Have you read ‘this time its different’?
    Personally , the idea that humans are even vaguely reasonable about free money is irrational … just go to any pokie parlor.

    Wasn’t much of it in both the Us and EU what Galbraith once called the “bezzle” .

  37. Nicholas Gruen says:

    John – google Austrian on Krugman’s website and you’ll get an explanation. Or “Austrian theories of the Business Cycle”.

  38. john walker says:


  39. john walker says:

    Is this a ‘Austrian’ explanation?

    “In many ways the effect of the crash on embezzlement was more significant than on suicide. To the economist embezzlement is the most interesting of crimes. Alone among the various forms of larceny it has a time parameter. Weeks, months or years may elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery. (This is a period, incidentally, when the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly enough, feels no loss. There is a net increase in psychic wealth.) At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in – or more precisely not in – the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle. In good times people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But even though money is plentiful, there are always many people who need more. Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly. In depression all this is reversed. Money is watched with a narrow, suspicious eye. The man who handles it is assumed to be dishonest until he proves himself otherwise. Audits are penetrating and meticulous. Commercial morality is enormously improved. The bezzle shrinks.”

  40. Alan says:

    This may be the first occasion in the history of economic thought where Galbraith has been propsoed as an advocate of Austrian economics.

  41. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Well don’t laugh too soon. Galbraith got a lot of his basic apparatus of thought from Schumpeter who was in some senses part of the Austrian school (and an Austrian to boot).

    The great pity about Austrian economics is that appended to an interesting engine of thought which, as Hayek showed goes directly back to Adam Smith was a swingeing ideological bias. They were interested in little else than justifying the free market against it’s opposite. They did a good job of that but somehow got lost by converting that insight into the principle that in any pretty much any debate the market would work it all out better than collectives. Ain’t nothing in the basic insights of Austrian economics that demonstrates any such thing – as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations showed. There he argued for what must have been at least a doubling of the existing minuscule size of the public sector and was a firm favourite of the French revolutionaries.

  42. Pedro says:

    NG, Peter Beattie is the strong evidence against your claim. Surely one of the most cynical politicians in my experience. And have you read “No-one left to lie to”?

    My next quibble is that nothing done by the previous govts of my recollection matches the current dicks for bald-faced policy reversals. Hawke might have come closest with the means testing of pensions and some other early changes, but I’d have to check the time line. Howard nearly lost the govt putting the GST to an election. You can make an argument that work choices was a departure from expectations and he failed to survive it. His ETS policy was also put to an election.

    It doesn’t matter what you think of the policies they’ve put in place. I think it is true that the govt has managed some policy achievements (but I don’t like most of the policies). I think that was no great shakes because most of those policies were part of the deal that put them in govt. The Rudd policy “achievements” were easy ones like the apology, signing Kyoto and the FWA.

    As for whether they do cynical well, how more revoltingly cynical can you be than to keep expressing your confidence in the member for Dobell. I think they are now finding out that some achievements are not worth the price you pay trying to hold a turd by the clean end.

    Thompson should have been pushed out when the allegations first surfaced as it was pretty obvious that he is a really bad guy. Now they are going to have the Thompson story running right up to the election. I reckon that even Homer knows in his heart of hearts that the ALP leadership is not really surprised by the report and so I ask all ALP supporters, what do you think; should they have supported Thompson or dumped him ages ago?

    So, NG, I think you are wrong. It’s not that the left doesn’t do cynicism well, just that the current mobs are F-wits.

  43. Alan says:


    Smith was also a stern critic of usury, which could well trouble the sleep of quite a lot of those who pray to his icon each night before bed.

    The legal rate…ought not be much above the lowest market rate. If the legal rate of interest in Great Britain, for example, was fixed so high as eight or ten per cent, the greater part of the money which was to be lent would be lent to prodigals and projectors [promoters of fraudulent schemes], who alone would be willing to give this high interest….A great part of the capital of the country would thus be kept out of the hands which were most likely to make a profitable and advantageous use of it, and thrown into those which were most likely to waste and destroy it.

    When the legal rate of interest, on the contrary is fixed but a very little above the lowest market rate, sober people are universally preferred, as borrowers, to prodigals and projectors. The person who lends money gets nearly as much interest from the former as he dares to take from the latter, and his money is much safer in the hands of the one set of people than in those of the other. A great part of the capital of the country is thus thrown in the hands in which it is most likely to be employed with advantage.

  44. Dan says:

    [email protected]:01pm – no, please read my comment again. There were numerous causes, but my pick for the daddy was the US twin deficits. Bear in mind that deficits and surpluses really are zero-sum; and since 1972, with the dollar as global reserve currency, the US has felt no inclination to tighten its belt. $2bn of liquidity rushing to Wall St every day – what else would you expect other than financialisation and with it, risk?

    It’s what Paul Volcker described as ‘a controlled disintegration of the world economy’. That was in 1980. In 2007 the disintegration showed signs of reaching completion.

  45. Dan says:

    Nicholas at 4:54pm – the Austrian school is deeply pessimistic and in a sense I recognise them as kindred spirits (my own orientation is institutionalist, and Galbraith is my favourite economist). In a sense the Austrians said nothing really works a treat in the real world; the least worst option is to leave economic decisions with the market mechanism. Institutionalists on the other hand say, no, we can and must do better than that, but agree that basically the choice is between the unpalatable and the disastrous, to just-about-quote Galbraith.

    Neoliberalism, on the other hand, waved away the dismalism of the above heterodox schools by cheerfully asserting axiomatically that markets moved towards equilibrium. The glass-half-full take on the Austrian approach, and as history would have it, far more damaging.

  46. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I think you read my comments against the grain and I didn’t hedge everything I said in caveats and contradictions. So yes there are plenty of examples of left leaning governments getting away with cynicism. But it turned out that just junking things that were politically unpopular (or threatened trouble at the next election) coincided with a collapse in support. I think that’s worth noting, and seems to me to disclose some kind of difference between the parties. But who knows. As you say there hasn’t been a shortage of cynical left leaning politicians. Perhaps the story is if they don’t raise expectations of anything better they do OK.

    I have no idea why Hawke introducing means tests is cynical. Struck me as principled, but there you go. On cynicism I always thought that there was a controlled experiment when you compare 1983 to 1996. In both cases the opposition leader knew that the numbers they were likely to inherit were dodgy.

    In Hawke’s case he said – on the Wed before the election – if the numbers were bad enough he’d have to break some of his promises. And they were and he did. In Howard’s case he was asked if the numbers were worse than he said would he keep his promises. He said yes. They but they were and he didn’t.

    Anyway just a straw in the breeze. I don’t know about Beattie having not lived up there. The little I saw of him he seemed to be a quite well intentioned schmoozer of the electorate. The Smart State wasn’t all hot air – seems to have had quite a big effect both on Queensland’s self image and on the reality. From what I saw there was a fair bit of money there. It would have been easier to spend it on bread and circuses I would have thought. Anyway, I’m no expert on PB. What were the bad things he did?

  47. Tel says:

    That’s probably as close to Cannon on ABCT as you are likely to get, but unfortunately a bit long winded to isolate a nice pithy quote. The Austrian theory is that interests rates, and prices in general serve a purpose to communicate intentions between buyers and sellers. If interest rates are driven by force to a significantly different value than the value that the market would naturally set, then this jams the signal and encourages malinvestment of capital (i.e. starting long-term high-commitment projects that are in fact not useful but seem to be useful at the time, based on incorrect information). This is made worse because the inflationary “free money” that washes into the system due to artificially low interest rates doesn’t wash evenly… it tends to flow to people who get themselves into the right place at the right time (if you know what I mean), thus Cantillon effects further encourage malinvestment.

    Nick’s argument above is that a “rational decision makers” should be able to circumvent the jammed signal and collect information in other ways, in order to correctly second-guess the situation. Let’s presume that a typical entrepreneurial, speculative long-term project is running up against a lot of unknowns anyhow, and probably the small team at the helm aren’t fully 100% rational (everyone makes mistakes) and don’t have 100% information available w.r.t. where interest rates are going (the Reserve Bank is not well known for telegraphing their interest rate moves). Beyond that, the business needs to know not only the direct effect of interest rate changes on their own financial situation, but also the indirect effect it will have on their customers, their suppliers, their workers, etc.

    “Would you still buy our product if the RBA increased rates by 1%?”

    Not the sort of question you see on a typical market survey. Most households wouldn’t answer accurately anyhow.

    Even if there are some CEOs out there who correctly understand exactly what will happen, might only be an incentive to pick the right time to pump, dump, and skedaddle then claim plausible deniability later.

  48. Pedro says:

    Nicholas, I understood you to mean pollies doing serious policy changes that they had not gotten a mandate for, which I think happened in first Hawke govt and which gained him a big fright in 1984. I’ve said before that the Hawke Keating govt has a great record. In 1996 I think the Libs were reacting to 1993 and they clearly were hiding a light under a bushell, it was the govt’s bushell.

    Beattie was pretty cynical about his apologies about various problems the govt allowed to fester to the point of near catastrophe, but perhaps I’m a curmudgeon as the main part of the electorate seemed to lap it up.

    I thought your thesis was that the current govt’s woes support the claim that the left can’t do cynicism and my view is that the only big cynicism of the Howard govt was work choices.

  49. JB Cairns says:

    Bad politicians can’t get away with cynicism.

    Bad politicians can’t even get their lines right like Gillard on the ETS.

    A little tale on 1996.

    In the December 1995 RBA bulletin the RBA estimated an underlying deficit for the budget. Yes it was a deficit and some naive people actually faxed it to Costello’s office to ensure he realised the true nature of the budget.

  50. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I’m not impressed with that bit of ‘gotcha’. Oppositions oppose. They learned about a century ago that they didn’t get rewarded by the electorate for being constructive. And they are generally not. On the other hand the art of government, the only art worth cultivating, is that of doing well by doing good. That’s where it matters.

    Alas political punditry so often gets down to applying the morality of a pantomime to the difficult and grubby art of politics. It’s not very edifying. Costello was entitled to campaign on the state of the budget as revealed in the government’s figures.

  51. Mike Pepperday says:

    American political scientist Thomas Sowell writes books saying that the essential difference between right and left is that the right believe human nature is bad while the left believe it good. I think many Americans see this as the essential right-left difference. In that case, Nicholas is right: cynicism must sit badly with the left.

    Another important factor, though, was her telling the world that “now you’ll see the real Julia” (and perhaps other things) which generated contempt. Contempt is incompatible with any leadership.

  52. Nicholas Gruen says:

    That was the theme of a fine memorial lecture (In honour of Curtin or Chiffley, I’m not sure which) given by Gough Whitlam at the Coombs Building at ANU in the constitutional crisis of 1975.

  53. JB Cairns says:

    Sorry Nicholas beg to differ,

    If John Laws was asking questions about the veracity of the budget figures then most people knew they were a crock.

    And no neither howard nor Costello should have feigned surprise at the outcome.
    Every man and his dog knew the main reason the government didn’t ask Treasury about them was because they feared the consequences of the update.

  54. Nicholas Gruen says:

    These things are relative. Oppositions are always at a disadvantage to governments in these things and the bulk of the opprobrium should properly fall should properly fall on the government in a situation like that. And yes the Opposition was not lily white – so what? They’re politicians.

  55. JB Cairns says:

    Sorry I think I was poor in what I was driving at.

    Howard and Costello should have been criticized the government for not updating the figures. No-one believed the budget was in surplus and the RBA bulletin certainly showed that.

  56. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Why should they have done that? It wasn’t in their political interest to do so. If they did that that would have constrained what they could ‘responsibly’ promise. Now why would they want to do that going into an election? Their opponents were doing no such thing and had ruthlessly over-promised in the previous election. L.A.W tax cuts. Remember?

    So the Coalition weren’t being saints – surprise surprise. Ever since the Whitlam years ALP supporters have lived in a zone where they kind of expect others to go along with them – after all the ALP is a better bunch of people than the other side, sure they cut corners but shucks, it’s all for the best. And it’s mean if the other side play hard-ball.

    Here’s a situation where the ALP government is behaving in a way that is highly irresponsible as well as mendacious as hell, and you’re criticising their opponents.


  57. Pedro says:

    That’s Homer for you. ALP can do no wrong can they Homer?

    So Nicholas, how do you think the budget rates on the cynicism scale?

  58. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Well my first impression is that it’s a very uncynical budget. They’ve delivered on a hard task they set themselves, which is to deliver a surplus. They did this because they have swallowed whole the inferiority complex that their opponents and the zeitgeist handed to them – that left wing governments are economically irresponsible. They’ve then tried to make that as politically palatable as possible. Of course you can pick any number of details from the things they’ve done to sweeten the package and cry ‘cynic’ – which I expect you to do Pedro. But for me that’s just the background noise – we’re talking about politics here – not running a corporation. The basic architecture of the budget is not cynical at all. It is a faithful continuation of the most successful macro-economic strategy for handling the GFC in the Western world.

    They’ve kept outlays down as they said they would and continued to nibble away at middle class welfare. And will they get credit for it?

    Nope. Why? Because they haven’t the flair to set the agenda or the self-confidence to stare down their opponents.

  59. JB Cairns says:

    Nicholas, I really cannot see how criticising the ALP government in the correct way is a bad thing.

    It would have helped them overcome the cynicism later. Neither Howard nor Costello were very good politicians then.

    Pedro can you actually read at all?

    Outlays are cut 4.3% in real terms and tax receipts are lower than at any time in the Howard years and somehow it is a giveaway budget.

    It is detracting from the economy!

  60. Pedro says:

    Actually, I only call them cynical for the grubs they hang on to for office. Their selling problem is the result of that and their propensity to talk things up and then not deliver. Here’s a list:
    1 inflation boogie monster to be tamed by swingeing budget in 2008
    2 great moral challenge of our time inflated then squibbed
    3 no carbon tax under a govt I lead
    4 defence spending real increases ditched
    5 business tax reform ditched
    6 “tough” budget ends up full of hand outs.

    You might like their policies on the whole, but surely it is not surprising that the average person might be a bit cynical.

  61. m0nty says:

    Tim Colebatch suffered today the same disease as Nicholas and John Quiggin have, the politicisation of economic analysis. The headline was even “Politics has intervened”. Yes it has, Tim, you have allowed your political cynicism to intervene in your analysis. If we wanted to read about the political implications of the budget in the Age, we could read Coorey on the front page, or Grattan and Carney on the same opinion page. Colebatch is the economics editor, yet all he can talk about is politics. In particular, Colebatch’s line about a “fake surplus” was bollocks. It would be a legitimate criticism were it not for the fact that the government is forecasting a second surplus in a row – you can’t fake austerity twice in succession through accounting tricks. It was left to Ross Gittins to show us some actual knitting. He seems to be the only one sticking to it.

  62. JB Cairns says:


    1) yes it was however the GFC intervened
    2) agree
    3) It is an ETS not a carbon tax!
    4) Should have never been made and one could argue the situation has changed. Look at tax revenues
    5) Can’t do what cannot get passed
    6) It was a tough budget. It is detracting from the economy after-all

  63. john walker says:

    Do you think the income side of the budget is completely creditable? …. a lot of small and medium biz are not paying much tax at the moment . (not that it would bother me)

    BTW Mike the idea that we are born naturally innocent is a bit …. innocent.
    We are clever and destructive monkeys. The second of the 4 great vows is “Tho greed fear and ignorance rise endlessly in me I vow to cut them off completely”

  64. john walker says:

    Should have (not that a modest deficit would be wrong)

  65. Nicholas Gruen says:

    No, it’s not completely credible. Never is. Prediction is always difficult, especially predicting the future (an old Neils Bohr joke I think). In any event I’ll be surprised if the terms of trade fall as little as 5.5% or whatever the forecast is. But who knows.

    For someone who’s been arguing like me that we should be refurbishing the institutions of fiscal policy it’s infuriating that the whole debate takes place in terms of tokens – predictions of surplus or deficit – and the government goes further and further out on a limb promising surpluses as far as the eye can see. Bad policy, increasingly risky politics. And ultimately failing to play to their strengths.

    • john walker says:

      “infuriating that the whole debate takes place in terms of tokens ” Really agree .

      BTW about Austrian ‘explanations’ . Superficially , isn’t the idea that high levels of credit precede a crash, more of an observation than an explanation ?

  66. Mike Pepperday says:

    “BTW Mike the idea that we are born naturally innocent is a bit …. innocent.
    We are clever and destructive monkeys.”

    Political right and left are beliefs, in this case about human nature; whether we are born with them or not is another matter.

    Your second sentence, which you assert as a fact, is actually your belief. It ought to read “I believe we are clever and…” If that translates to “I believe human nature is bad” (which it seems to) then we have you pigeonholed.

  67. Tel says:

    “They’ve delivered on a hard task they set themselves, which is to deliver a surplus.”

    They haven’t actually delivered on anything, delivery will happen when the real money is measured up against the estimates. All they have done is formalised the hard task and outlined their approach.

  68. Patrick says:

    Ironically, Mike, it is the left which appears more inclined to see conspiracy under every corporation and profit. Maybe that goes more to Haidt’s research that leftwingers are very poor at understanding rightwingers but not vice versa?

    I think it was a pretty good budget overall, I wouldn’t, personally, have pushed for a surplus – I would have paid for some fundamental tax reform, probably, or just foregone the stupid carbon tax. A friend noted that it was a bit worrying that they could take $5bn out of defence and no-one dies, there must be a bit of bloody fat to cut!

    Andrew Leigh is pandering to his Canberra electorate by bleating about the Coalition cutting public service jobs – I’m pretty sure I’d be comfortable cutting a few. The (scrapped) standard deduction would have probably helped scrap a thousand or so ATO employees, at least, for example.

    On tax I was pretty surprised to see the effort go into reversing a couple of court decisions which, whilst they ‘cost’ the Government a lot on the day, are pretty marginal to future revenues (the related-party bad debts rule and the limited-recourse debt rule). The rules under which they lost those cases changed, fundamentally, 10 years ago!!

  69. Mike Pepperday says:

    Patrick, I think conspiracy is not quite the right word. The left sees the right as evil whereas the right sees the left as deluded. Evil because motivated by greed and privilege. Deluded because it is through incentive and authority that the world moves forward. The left’s word for “incentive” is “temptation,” which is a sin, and it is a mark of society’s rightward (free market) shift that the latter word can no longer be used.

    If human nature is fundamentally good and we are subject to temptation yet can no longer use the concept, it seems there can be no argument against “greed is good.” Officially, then, the only thing that counts is money, so economists rule the world and society – our civilisation – has become vacuous and pointless. The only interpretation of “the world moves forward” is: accumulate money.

    I will ponder the thesis that the right understands the left better than vice-versa. I am inclined to think that the right has no idea at all about temptation and sin (and the left lacks a vocabulary that could convey it) whereas the left understands utterly that the right has no depth or substance beyond temporal money and power.

  70. JB Cairns says:

    I see the latest Essential poll has the opposition easily leading the government in who could combat another GFC.
    Only a government without poitical smarts could do that. Their greatest achievement is not even recognised. now this is in part because of the trashing of Kevin Rudd.
    however this again happened because they lacked any sort of political smarts.

  71. john walker says:

    Mike “pigeon holed” really ? people who think in pigeon holes can be a bit tedious.
    As for clever and destructive monkeys , the teachings of the Buddha are obviously a belief system of sorts, they also coincide with the idea of “the future eaters” Is Flannery in the same pigeon hole?

  72. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Mike, Patrick,

    I’m reading Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind right now – fantastic book. Patrick may get his idea that the right understands the left better than vice versa from Haidt’s earlier work. Not that he goes back on it, but the new book is a big development from the previous one – The Happiness Hypothesis.

    The basic idea is that morality in all societies is built up from 5 (possibly 6) ‘moral taste buds’.

    1 Avoidance of harm.
    2 Fairness
    3 Loyalty
    4 Authority
    5 Sanctity

    Conservatives use all five, and (left) liberals only use the first two. In his latter book Haidt argues that the two sides think of fairness differently also. Anyway, Patrick’s idea as I read it is that conservatives, using all five can understand the concerns of the left, whereas (left) liberals think of appeals to 3-5 as bogus – as rationalisations of positions arrived at for ulterior motives.

  73. Julie Thomas says:


    Haight has some good stuff to say but I didn’t understand him to be saying that the left doesn’t understand the right.

    There are a number of reviews of his book “The Righteous Mind” on Amazon from all sides and a very interesting and civil discussion follows on. The first review is from a conservative; this is a quote:

    “All of us – left, right, center, and in between – often experience an instant visceral reaction of like or dislike when we hear certain political viewpoints. Haidt has cracked the code of the evolutionary psychological underpinnings of those reactions. With that understanding comes the realization that the views of the other side are not “crazy,” but are in fact based in something real and legitimate. Further, it might even help us to overcome some of our innate tendency to fight the other side just because it is the other side.”

  74. JB Cairns says:

    I agrre Nick you shouldn’t haidt anyone!!

  75. Julie Thomas says:

    Apologies Patrick Haight has done studies that show that the right do understand the left better. I must have missed that bit and thereby shown my innate tendencies to see what I wanted to see.

  76. Julie Thomas says:

    Personally I am sure I do understand the ‘right’; what I don’t understand is why they want to keep their emotional values. Reason is so much easier.

  77. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I think ‘Haidt’ is pronounced “Hite”, which reminds me of a joke in the 1970s when the Whitlams were asked for the secret of their sex life they replied “Shere Hite“.

  78. JB Cairns says:

    It was the late 70s and he wasn’t at the Haidt of his powers.

    He could run but could haidt

  79. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Hi JBC,

    I went to Essential Media but couldn’t find the relevant report. Can you point me to it?

  80. JB Cairns says:

    Nicholas ,
    I read it from a secondary source somewhere today.

    I will try and find it but I can give you no guarantees

  81. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks JBC. Btw, I tried to email you but your email on Troppo is now defunct – it’s a TPG domain

  82. JB Cairns says:

    Source found. Peter also kindly gives you the primary source as well.

  83. Mike Pepperday says:

    I just noticed that posts aren’t numbered in this new format.

    John Walker at 8.06 am

    Do not take offense. Pigeonholing on the basis of a single relational item is surely adventurous (you need two or three). My point was that human nature is a strong marker of left and right.

    Your point is that neither Buddha nor Flannery are right wing. Sure. Buddha is independent autonomous – drop him in the same pigeonhole as asceticism, existentialism, mysticism, and the stoics, gnostics and hermits. Flannery’s left position is indisputable – and it did cause some confusion when he said Aborigines had ruined Australia’s ecology.

    I don’t think either Buddha or Flannery said or believed that human nature is bad. If that is the case, we have no evidence to pigeonhole them on that basis.

    I think maybe YOU have inferred, from what they have to say, that human nature is ACTUALLY bad. That does not pigeonhole THEM.

  84. Mike Pepperday says:

    Nicholas – So Haidt lists:
    1 Avoidance of harm.
    2 Fairness
    3 Loyalty
    4 Authority
    5 Sanctity
    and says conservatives use all five, and (left) liberals only use the first two.

    I haven’t read it but have, like Julie, looked at Amazon. I disagree. I say everybody does everything.

    1. Left: do no harm to the material environment; Right: do no harm to social relations
    2. L: fair is equality of outcome; R: fair is equality of opportunity
    3. L: loyalty to group; R: loyalty to individual. (Surely, claiming the left don’t judge on the basis of loyalty is inexplicable: apostasy is the WORST crime of the left.)
    4. L: authority is bad; dry R: authority is bad. (wet R: experts and noblesse oblige require authority.)

    Sanctity? Sanctity of what? See No 1, do no harm. What about honesty, justice, ?
    5. L: honesty is sincerity (mean what you say); dry R: honesty is integrity (keep your word); (wet R: fidelity)
    6. L: justice is respect needs (outcome); dry R: justice is respect rights (process)

    Haidt will infer theory from reality. But he can only see reality through the filter of his own definitions and preferences. Theory is not to be inferred from reality. Reaity misleads.

  85. Dan says:

    Yeah, I think it’s a pretty unconvincing theory too. Quite frankly there are times when I thought I’d like to be a conservative – the certainty and sense of place certainly looks like a psychic boon – except the constellation of values to which conservatives hold is self-defeating (eg. you can’t sensibly be for free markets and small-town values at the same time – they’re enemies). Worse still, the world keeps changing and as it does so it demands change of us in response. That demands dynamism; ossification can’t work.

  86. john walker says:

    This ‘left/right’ stuff is reminding me of the New/Old paradox that swift satirized in the Battle of the Books .

    I would modestly suggest that kindness and generosity are more important in a leader , what made John Monash a great leader was not just that he was “imaginative unrelenting and ruthless” he was also kind.

  87. Pedro says:

    “Yeah, I think it’s a pretty unconvincing theory too. Quite frankly there are times when I thought I’d like to be a conservative – the certainty and sense of place certainly looks like a psychic boon”

    Actually being right about stuff doesn’t hurt either! ;-)

    “– except the constellation of values to which conservatives hold is self-defeating (eg. you can’t sensibly be for free markets and small-town values at the same time – they’re enemies).”
    Nonsense all value systems have compromises.

    “Worse still, the world keeps changing and as it does so it demands change of us in response. That demands dynamism; ossification can’t work.”
    Double rubbish. The conservative idea is that change should be measured, not abandoned, and that tested ideas should not be lightly abandoned for the latest theories and fads.

  88. john walker says:

    Where does the community minded , universal suffrage, pragmatic, free trade liberal sit in all this ?

  89. Dan says:

    [email protected]:34:

    Re: rubbish – there are compromises, and then there’s plain old cognitive dissonance.

    Re. double rubbish – in fact you’ve kind of proved my point here; of course, out here in the real world sometimes measured change won’t do – the system as it stands is iniquitous, or changing circumstances demand a radical response.

  90. Julie Thomas says:

    was it Auden who said something like “from the conservative dark to the ethical light”?
    I thought the idea of the elephant and it’s rider was a nice analogy – or is it a metaphor – for the unconscious and the conscious but I think we the riders can get more control of the elephant than conservatives believe.

  91. Dan says:

    I think that’s too simple a taxonomy. Don’t forget that (neo-)conservatives also believe in homo economicus and self-regulation in matters economic. (Yes, I’m confused by this pretzel-shaped approach to theories of human behaviour myself.)

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