Rupert’s war on truth

Veteran econoblogger John Quiggin is the blogosphere’s pitbull terrier. Once he gets his teeth into an issue he just won’t let go. One of JQ’s current worthy obsessions is the utter untrustworthiness of Murdoch’s flagship newspaper The Australian (see here, here and here):

As can be expected with the Oz, the headline is the exact opposite of the truth. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it often runs relatively accurate AP and Reuters material, and weather forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology (while denouncing the Bureau in its opinion pages), the Oz would be a reliable paper – we could just assume the opposite of whatever it reports.

I thought I’d draw JQ’s attention to another and equally egregious Oz misinformation campaign, namely to mischaracterise the report of the recent ALP review team of Wise Old Owls Carr, Bracks and Faulkner as recommending entrenching and enhancing trade union power. It’s a theme running through several recent Oz stories, including this one by Ben Packham and James Massola:

TRADE unions would have their role in the ALP bolstered under a blueprint to reform the party, receiving a guaranteed role in party preselections for the first time.

In fact trade unions have long had a guaranteed role in party preselections at both state and federal level by virtue of the provisions of every single State and Territory branch constitution. Each constitution differs significantly, but typically they give affiliated trade unions 50% of the votes for the State administrative committee or state executive i.e. about 50% of members of state executives are trade union representatives, and the state executive in turn typically gets half the votes on all preselection committees/electoral colleges. Thus typically the unions get about 25% of the votes on all preselections, and this is “entrenched” because it is provided in the respective State branch constitutions. In some States it’s more than that e.g. in South Australia the unions effectively get 50% of the votes on preselections while in Western Australia it’s 30%.

Accordingly the Carr/Bracks/Faulkner recommendations are actually for a reduction in trade union influence on preselections varying between modest and significant depending on the State. In other words the truth is pretty much the opposite of the Oz propaganda angle.((Update – News Ltd online is currently reporting Julia Gillard’s announcement about a carbon price under the headline “Gillard’s carbon price a betrayal – Abbott“. The story reports Gillard’s announcement, but only after first reproducing Abbott’s predictable response to it as if it was (a) fact; and (b) news. This is not news reporting, it is blatant and grossly biased propaganda. Tim Dunlop publishes a piece on ABC The Drum today where he moderates to an extent some previous criticisms of professional journalists. I have no idea why. Given that so many journalists (some perhaps reluctantly) accommodate and contribute to the deplorable ethical and quality standards of the Murdoch group which dominates Australian print media, how can they reasonably expect any informed audience to regard them with respect? In fairness, many don’t have much choice given the extreme concentration of ownership of Australian print media. But maybe it’s time for some to consider a career change. Troubled journalists can always contact me to discuss studying law online at CDU. Most decent journalists would potentially also make good lawyers. Of course, much of the public will still hold you in low esteem but if you choose wisely you’ll at least be able to console yourself that their contempt is unjustified. You certainly can’t honestly do that if you work for Murdoch.  Qualification – The ABC website now also has Abbott’s “betrayal”  response as its headline on the substantive story.  Apparently the standard MSM approach in the continuous news cycle of the online era is to headline the latest response to a story as the “news” rather than the substance of the story itself .  It’s bizarre and seriously misleading, but it appears it’s a weird and misleading convention rather than a manifestation of bias in itself.~ KP))

What the report actually does is:

  1. Increase local branch members’ say in preselections to 60%;
  2. Reduce the trade union say to 20%;
  3. Introduce a US-style system of registered party supporters having a 20% say in preselections by means of US-style primaries.

The Oz story mentions 1 and 3 lower down in the body of the text, but the angle given most prominence (and the only one most readers will remember) is the gross misrepresentation of the recommendation concerning trade unions.

In fairness, Labor propaganda about the reform recommendations is also a tad on the glib side. These reform recommendations are exceedingly modest in scope. No doubt the Wise Old Owls are well aware of the limits on the Art of the Possible within the ALP. The preselection reform proposals would only apply to seats not currently held by Labor, and AFAIK there’s no suggestion for removing the current National Executive power to override any preselection where it judges there is a sufficient political imperative to ride roughshod over local decisions.

A realistic assessment of the proposal for a role for registered party supporters is that it’s unlikely to enhance grassroots participation to any significant extent. It’s not obvious that there are large numbers of Australians champing at the bit to take part in ALP preselection ballots. Almost certainly the great majority of people who will register will be ones “encouraged” to do so by the existing unions and factions i.e. supporter-stacking will be added to branch-stacking in the arcane armoury of ALP apparatchik skills.

These changes won’t result in any greater degree of grassroots influence on preselections in any meaningful sense. You don’t need to have 50% of the votes to have effective control of any ballot where you have a tightly disciplined vote and most of the other votes are not so disciplined. Corporations law recognises that practical reality e.g. in requiring a full takeover bid where any public company shareholder achieves 20% of the total shareholding.

If these recommendations are unlikely to give the grassroots any greater say in practice, are they really likely to result in stimulating growth in Party membership? Rob Burgess at Crikey’s Business Spectator (hat-tip Kim from LP) quotes possibly the Wise Old Owls’ most centrally relevant observation on the causes of declining membership:

Labor’s decline in membership reflects social changes at work in other mature democracies. In some European states the once impregnable social democratic base has been devoured by Green or left-leaning parties on the one hand and right-wing populist parties with a largely anti-immigrant agenda, on the other.

Underlying this has been a statistically measured decline in employment in the manufacturing, mining and transport sectors … In other words the problems faced by Australian Labor are not unique. They are common to most traditional political parties in western societies in the post- industrial era.

As Burgess observes, there’s nothing in the recommendations so far released that addresses these central problems in any meaningful way. Moreover, it’s not immediately obvious how they could sensibly be addressed. Bob Brown and Tony Abbott have already moved to occupy the left and right extremes of Australian politics respectively. It doesn’t seem sensible electorally to deliberately move away from the pragmatic centre in any event, despite Rudd’s and now Gillard’s evident difficulties in occupying the middle ground in a way that keeps core supporters on board and convinces enough voters that they can govern in an effective, pragmatic manner while still having identifiable core values that allow people to know what the party actually stands for (apart from doing whatever it takes to get re-elected).

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
10 years ago

Most decent journalists would potentially also make good lawyers.

The difference is that lawyers can get sued for making shit up on the job.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
10 years ago

On a completely unrelated note, the source code for the Business Spectator page you linked to gives me the heebie-jeebies. It seems to be generated out of Lotus Notes, including embedding content in javascript. Ye gods.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

They can apply for jobs at the AFR. I understand that there about 3 journalists in other papers that the AFR would be interested in hiring… :)

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
10 years ago

To say that low membership is a world-wide phenomenon does not explain anything and the relative decline in manufacturing is probably more than countered by the absolute population increase. Labor and Liberal do not WANT a large membership. Members are a nuisance and a campaign to increase membership is posturing in the confident knowledge that it will fail.

I think the two majors now have about 40K members each whereas in the late 1940s they had something like a quarter of a million each (and Australia’s population was eight million). Back then members were needed for their subscriptions and as volunteers to distribute advertising material. The parties have freed themselves of these dependencies.

Conversely, ordinary people do not want to join because there is no point: ordinary members are not welcome, have no say, and do not feel useful. The only reason a person would join a major party is in order to become a politician. For that it is a necessary step since these tight little parties have an iron grip on political power.

Oz
Oz
10 years ago

When the National Review recommended that members of affiliated unions will make up the 20% of the electoral college, my interpretation was that it wasn’t for the bloc vote of delegates as how it currently operates in many states.

My reading of the recommendation was that instead it would be similar to the UK where rank-and-file members of affiliated unions get to vote on the UK Labour leadership

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Well, I don’t read fairfax because every time I do the sheer alternate bloodymindedness and preciousness of the journalism and the ideological slant always got the better (or worst) of me.

And I hardly ever read the Australian, but I do admire their coverage of, amongst others, rugby union and the plight of indigenous Australians. Today I happened to read it and chanced upon Christopher Pearson’s column.

So can someone who actually reads all these journalists explain to me why Quiggin and KP aren’t just protesting on behalf of the pot?

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

Patrick – the Oz has the best sports coverage in the country, though only for those sports where Rupert doesn’t have a controlling interest.

I suppose you could say the same of the political coverage …