"controversial" flood levy almost immediately as it was announced? Given a controversial issue is normally defined as a public matter in which there are strongly entrenched opposing opinions, the instant nature of this controversy raises suspicion.
A clue was given in in the AFR this weekend, where Geoff Kitney quoted a senior government minister as saying the initial "partisan noise" over the levy did not reflect true public opinion. Kitney noted a surprisingly hostile initial reaction, as measured by calls to talkback radio and "conversation on the internet".
Anecdotally, there was also evidence of orchestrated blowback over the announcement. A work colleague, not known for being politically engaged, complained of a deluge of Facebook posts from "friends" calling for organised opposition to the levy.
Why this issue should raise such instant passion is not entirely clear, particularly given the modest nature of the imposition, the public sympathy for the flood victims and the previous government's frequent recourse to levies to deal with large and sudden calls on the budget (Timor, guns, Ansett etc;).
There was a rational argument against the levy from some economists, who said the resulting squeeze on household budgets might not be what the economy needs with consumers already struggling with increased energy bills, rising education and mortgage costs and soaring fresh food prices. However, at $1.8 billion (about 0.2 percent of GDP), and imposed progressively (with low income earners absolved from paying it), this is hardly the most onerous tax ever applied.
The better argument is that the government should just junk its promise to return the budget to surplus within three years. The bond market frankly does not care and no rational economist thinks this makes any sense given the minuscule nature of our public liabilities. It is purely a political millstone the government have chosen to sling around their own necks to make an unnecessary point about their fiscal rectitude - when the numbers being talked about are not significant.
But these arguments are not those being cited by the shrill opponents on talkback radio. There, we are hearing boilerplate accusations against the Gillard government of not being worthy of the people's trust in spending the funds raised or, more incredulously, using the dead hand of the nanny state to asphyxiate the free market-driven spirit of Aussie mateship.
One is forced to conclude that the impetus for this "controversy" is an alliance of convenience between the Liberal Party noise machine - staffed by the frantically facebooking and twittering haters of the Young Liberal fraternity - and popular talkback radio. The demi-gods of that medium, with their audiences of angry oldies who have never voted Labor in their lives, live for moments like this - an excuse to paint the progressive side of politics as social engineers and wasters; in other words, to continue the narrative of 2010 - the lazy narrative of pink batts, school halls etc;
Indeed, the speed with which the "bitter" opposition to the flood levy appeared - and the amost immediate and aggressive media response - has all the hallmarks of "astro-turfing" - the US-derived propaganda method in which minority groups (sometimes funded by corporate interests) use digital technology to create the illusion for gullible media people and politicians that they are a broad-based grassroots movement.
Essentially, what is happening is that the noise of the partisan few, channeled through the echo chamber of talkback radio and current affairs TV, is feeding back on itself. The government suddenly finds itself referred to in ABC headlines as being "forced to defend" the levy (there goes that passive voice thing again). The prime minister has the "fight of her political life", we are told, purely because that self-aggrandising over-paid self-appointed pooh-bah of Melbourne talkback Neil Mitchell says so.A few questions arise out of all this. Firstly, why do Gillard and Swan and other key ministers bother granting interviews to Neil Mitchell or Alan Jones or any of the other shock jocks? The audiences of these people are overwhelmingly Liberal voters - perennially angry, asset rich and over-funded old people who have lived their lives on the public tit - particularly under Howard - and who now hypocritically rant about public waste. There is nothing to be gained by talking to these people; they'll never vote for you anyway. This was Howard's constituency - people who spend their lives hiding behind the hydrangeas with their fridge magnets.
Secondly, why does the government continue to make such a fetish out of the surplus? We know they fear they will be trashed in the media as economic vandals if they dump the promise. But exactly what do they think is happening now? It seems they are damned if they do, damned if they don't. My advice would be 'do what's right; do what's sensible and damn the media reaction'.
Thirdly, stop buying into manufactured controversies. What happens over and over again is that this government assumes the validity of a talking point generated by the opposition and its agents in the early days of an issue being aired and before the vast majority of people have had a chance to absorb it. It thus steers the issue straight into the direction the oppose-everything opposition wants to take it.
Piping Shrike, in his post today, nails what's going on here: "The problem is that Labor continually understands that problem of authority in whatever terms Abbott and the Coalition choose to describe it. So if Abbott and The Australian say that there is “furore” or “backlash” over the schools program or the flood levy, Labor power brokers will immediately go out and poll western Sydney to find it."
Instead of jumping at media shadows, the government should speak less, say more. Get the facts out there early. Ignore the noise. Tell people they are getting on with the business of governing and are not interested in playing word games or filling newspapers with material to keep the ads apart or to stroke the egos of steam radio dinosaurs. Simply don't engage with the opposition or their opportunistic media mouthpieces. Stand fast and get on with the job.
Oh, and sack your media advisers. They're hopeless.
(Postscript: Gillard's chief of staff Amanda Lampe has quit).
- Dry, But Not High - Andrew Elder
- Talkback at its Most Pathetic - Grog's Gamut
- Voters Will Save the Hysteria for the Next New Tax - Glenn Milne
- Financial Markets Applaud Floods Package - Christopher Joye