Groupthink in the Press & Political Class

lockstep IINever have so few done so little for so many. That more or less sums up our political class in this country, and our media class.  At least that is the case if you are, like me, a small government, Hobbesian, right-of-centre guy (sorry, did I say ‘guy’, Mr. – oops – Australian of the Year? Forgive me, please). Let us leave aside all the incestuous connections within the Labor party, and within the ABC, and, indeed, between the two of them. Instead, let us just look at the Liberal Party and what I think is the best newspaper in the country, The Australian.  Now that we have had to live through the last ten months since the defenestration of Mr. Abbott and the rise and precipitous decline of Mr. Turnbull, I think we can say a few things about group think in the media and political class on the right.

First off, not enough of the politicians on the right seem to put principle above personal political success.  They come across as happy to go along to get along. Repealing 18C is proving a tad hard?  Ditch the effort!  Or worse, maybe the Liberals preselected someone who didn’t care about free speech at all in the first place. Remember, not a single cabinet member resigned in protest over the ditching of the attempt to repeal most of 18C, not a single one.  And there was barely a murmur amongst the backbenchers. Indeed, I had two separate conversations with two different Liberal then-MPs (back when Mr. Abbott had not yet abandoned free speech in favour of ‘Team Australia’) and neither  was in favour of the attempt to repeal 18C. Based on our conversations, neither had a clue about the value of free speech.  These are the people the Liberals are preselecting. Do they ever interact with ordinary Liberal voters?

Look at how many of them get into university politics, then go and work as dogsbodies for MPs or think tank, then use those connections to get preselected. These are people who spend their lives hanging around other politicos. They don’t put principle ahead of advancement because they have never had to do that – not in any real-world job, that’s for sure.  When you are an advisor to an MP, it seems you never quit on a point of principle. And they overwhelmingly seem to focus their attention and care on what’s said on Q&A, or what is trending on social media, or what the columnists are saying in The Australian.

So consider Brexit.  At least 70% of MPs in the UK Parliament were for ‘Remain’, and that includes a majority of Tories.  The Conservative Party’s broad membership was over two-thirds for ‘Leave’. Same goes for the media class, which was massively for staying – and that includes a legion of Tory commentators like The Spectator‘s Matthew Parris, who welcomed the chance for the Conservative Party to clean out the loser disgruntled ‘Outs’ once he got his expected ‘Remain’ result.

The point is that there was a massive disconnect between the party base and the people supposedly representing them in Parliament, and talking to them in the papers.  Brexit, possibly the best voting outcome in my life, may well be the start of the push-back against the anti-democratic aspects of so much of the institutional structures now in place in the West, including much of international law, much of over-powerful judges spouting their subjective views on what is rights-respecting, and basically all of the EU’s internal structures. The vote in Brexit exposed that disconnect between voters and the political and media class plainly for all to observe.

Well, I see an enervated version of that here now in Australia on the right side of politics. I refer to the assassination of Abbott and coronation of Turnbull. Would the paid-up party members have voted for this change? To ask is to know the answer.  Were the 54 MPs thinking of anything other than their own personal electoral prospects (and they even got that wrong)?  Seriously, how do you explain people who had just lived through the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd fiasco, saw what Australian voters do to those who defenestrate first-term PMs, and then went right out and did exactly the same thing themselves?  Do they understand long-term consequences, or is everything short-term and immediate in their world?

Well, in part it’s no doubt because they don’t get out enough, by which I mean they take their information from the same sources. Alas, that does not widen the gene pool much.  Here’s what I mean.  There were two top columnists on The Australian with close connections to high-ranking Liberal Party movers-and-shakers, and I mean ‘close’ in every sense of the word.  Was this announced on the top of each column these people wrote?  If it were, the readers might be able to judge the comment articles in that light. The political caste’s insiders know all about these domestic arrangements, but most readers would not.  In law, the test is never ‘real bias’ (as no one can know this); rather, the test is always ‘the appearance of bias’. And one way to remove that is to declare your interest or connection up front, so that others can judge accordingly.

Or how could it be that just about every single columnist on The Australian thought the coup against Abbott was a good thing that would help the Liberals?  Okay, Maurice Newman was the exception.  But talk about groupthink!  Go back and look at the post-coup predictions by Niki Savva, by Peter van Onselen, by Janet Albrechtsen, by Paul Kelly, and even by the Labor-leaning columnists on the newspaper.  All their prognostications have proven laughable.  And yet today, post-election, most are still at it, still puffing up a man who looks to me to be wholly disconnected from the party base and who seems to think that the election fiasco was due to a Mediscare campaign that was prompted by – wait for it – not him but Tony Abbott.  This after one of the most disgraceful election night speeches I have seen ever, and I’ve seen a lot, not just here but in Canada, New Zealand, the US and Britain.

Look, I will put my cards on the table and admit that I am a dyed-in-the-wool DelCon.  From the day of the coup against Abbott I have said, in print, that it was a mistake, that it would end badly and, further, that I would never vote for white-anting, backstabbing coup ringleader Malcolm Turnbull.  (And I said that as someone who had strongly criticised Abbott over his disgraceful capitulation on free speech and on his incomprehensible attachment to a Big Government paid-parental-leave scheme. Such criticisms in no way indicated my desire for a Gillard-like coup — or worse, the installing of the most left-wing leader ever.) What amazes me is that the Libs and Australian op-ed columnists seem not to think there were many people like me out there.

What was it that genius Mark  Textor said about core Liberal party voters on the right?  Oh yes, “The qualitative evidence is they don’t matter.  The sum of a more centrist approach outweighs any alleged marginal loss of so-called based voters.” Leave aside the usual incoherence behind ‘qualitative evidence’ and marvel at the astounding condescension of such a comment.  Why, it reminds me of the way David Cameron ran the ‘Remain’ campaign by  insulting core voters and calling them stupid. “Loonies and fruitcakes’ were the words of the soon-to-be former British PM.

So here is the thing: If Turnbull remains the leader of the party, I will not vote for it, come what may. Turnbull could bring back Tony, I don’t care.  He could have Tony run seminars around the country urging Libs to come back home, I don’t care.  He could have a cabinet weighted towards conservatives. Well I don’t care! The thing is, for the long-term benefit of the Liberal Party, its MPs need to see what happens to those who defenestrate a first-term PM – and especially to those who white-ant and undermine and snidely deride that same former PM.  They have to see that their own party base will not stand for it, because in the long-term the party will be the better for it. Listening to some of the main plotters in the Abbott assassination now ask for loyalty, and preach about the foolhardiness of removing a PM, is vomit inducing.  Do Brandis and McGrath and Ryan and others not see the massive hypocrisy involved in such pleas?

By all means let’s see a rule or convention that the party won’t stab a PM in the first few years of his or her leadership.. But let us not bother bringing it in till Turnbull is gone. This, I am quite confident, is a widespread feeling amongst Liberal voters (almost none of whom were swayed to vote Labor because they are stupid fools who didn’t know the Labor line on Medicare was a scare campaign).  If the Liberal political class cannot see this, if it really cannot appreciate the need for change, well then let’s get on with the next election so that we can have a big Labor win and change can come that way.

Meantime, why is it that the vast preponderance of the columnists on The Australian can’t see that Turnbull needs to go?  Why do they still paint him as a potentially great PM, a saviour (albeit a tad chastened)? The whitewashing goes on and on? I don’t know. But in my opinion the political and media class in this country – and I refer now to those two classes on the right side of politics – need to widen their gene pools.

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline

34 thoughts on “Groupthink in the Press & Political Class

  • Lo says:

    Oh boy, do I agree with every word sir, absolutely. As to why, have we become so shallow they are suckers for a pretty face? They would never have elected Churchill.

  • colroe says:

    Thank you Professor. Lets hope the Liberal politicians do not make light of your words but I do believe they are still in pixie land. The disgust I, and my friends and acquaintances feel for these so called ‘leaders’ is difficult to enunciate, however personally I will not vote for the LNP (yes, both of them) again whilst Turnbull is involved. Also, the sheer arrogance of the man when he stated Hanson would not be welcomed in Parliament, what gall! Does he or those of his ilk have a right to say this? To Turnbull, get out of parliament now, the people say YOU are not welcome.

  • maryellenturbet@gmail.com says:

    I couldn’t agree more but sadly I think we will have Turnbull lording it over us mere mortals for years to come. Every fumble, every mistake, error of judgement and just plain stupid move will be blamed on everybody else even the mere voters. The man has no guts, no balls and no character and no integrity. He is all unjustified self belief.

  • Rob Ellison says:

    The drop in Liberal primary vote was 3.4% and Labor picked up 1.9%. So about 1.5 defected to protectionist, xenophobic or homophobic extremes who then distributed preferences to Labor. This is demonstrably – statistically – not where most of the country live despite your anecdotal delusions of representing a base.

    Leaders get put down and despite your manufactured umbrage – is that not the Hobbsian way? You seem to have a choice. Move on or move out.

    “However, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull 71% is clearly preferred to former PM Tony Abbott 25% as the Better Liberal Leader. Turnbull (60%) is also clearly preferred to Abbott (38%) by L-NP supporters.”

    With 73 seats, 2 more at least ready to fall and Bob Katter in the back pocket – it’s becoming hugely difficult to care how you vote.

    The job now is to form government and spend the term putting a more centrist brand on the party that will take it to through the rest of the century. Sound like a plan? But please – enough of the petulant drivel.

    • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

      Rob, what do you mean by ‘centrist’? What is the ‘centrist’ position between health and sickness? Or between poverty and prosperity? Or between right and wrong? Your last comment – enough of this petulant drivel – is just plain nasty and is what I would expect from somebody from GET UP, not what I expect from somebody who reads Quadrant where manners and reasoned debate is the norm and is encouraged.
      Your maths on votes distributed is selective and misleading. The Nationals [LNP in Qld] retained all their seats and gained one and INCREASED their vote share, not all went protectionist xenophobic homophobes. I must ask you, is anybody who disagrees with young girls having their clitoris cut off xenophobic? Or even worse ‘Islamophobic’? Is somebody like myself who disagrees with ‘same sex marriage’ automatically a homophobe? Even if he has homosexual friends many of whom also don’t want ‘marriage equality’? [or some other meaningless term]
      Your comments on preferred PM polls can be put in perspective when all the ‘polls’ said the UK should remain in the EU and that David Cameron couldn’t possibly win a majority. I vividly remember all the unfavourable polls that John Howard had, but he still went on to win numerous ‘unwinnable’ elections.

      • Rob Ellison says:

        Almost incomprehensible nonsense from you. I am not sure that I can reply to such eccentric interpretations of centrist politics as lying between health and sickness, rich or poor, right or wrong, up or down or right or left. My interpretation is quite pragmatic. It is being on the side of the majority of Australians in questions that don’t have any bearing on fundamental considerations of freedom. And really – drivel is relatively mild for an uninteresting and quite pointless reiteration of the Malcolm is the devil meme. And is the unrelenting character assassination of Turnbull – not just in this article – reasoned? It seems very much more the stamping of tiny little feet.

        I must say I know and admire many Nationals – salt of the Earth. I’m not prejudiced – some of my best friends are Nationals. But the math is simple and direct. A few right wing extremist desertions to extremist and quite unimportant minor parties. Too bad so sad. It is far from a disaster. It in fact clears the deck of debris.

        Same sex marriage raises questions of fundamental freedoms. There is freedom of religion and equality before the law. But freedom of religion is a two edged sword when it comes to Islam. So it looks like you are stuck with a losing proposition because most of Australia likes equality before the law. And all I can say about phobias is that ye shall know them by their fruitcakes.

        I confess that I don’t give a rats arse about Noexit in sight. Certainly not enough to dismiss such wide and immensely unrelated poll margins. Was it 5 elections – the 98 election seems closest to this one. But the 60/38 margin of Liberal voters preferring Turnbull to Abbott as party leader is the take away message.

        • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

          Clunk!!!! The sound of your dummy hitting the floor.

        • Rob Ellison says:

          I’m not the one stamping my feet, vowing to never ever vote for that dastardly Turncoat and flouncing off into the distance. You’re just taking too long about it.

          These interweb forums tend too devolve into echo chambers. Promise I’ll take it seriously if you say something new and interesting.

        • Jody says:

          Got to agree with your final paragraph!! And governing on the middle ground is the historical position with the Coalition; see John Howard (although too much middle class welfare, so an inclination actually more towards the Left?). Paul Keating knew that too. And important to remember that 1995 and 2007 were the only 2 elections where Labor was given a majority by the electorate. So, 21 years and 2 majorities; what does this tell us about Lefty politics and the need to govern from the centre? I’ll be more blunt: the people don’t trust Labor.

    • PT says:

      Rob, what is it about the man’s woeful performance you don’t get? He had the media on his side (they were continually against Abbott), and still did badly.

    • ianl says:

      > ” … spend the term putting a more centrist brand on the party that will take it to through the rest of the century. Sound like a plan? ”

      Nope – just more of your polemics.

      Hsrd, detailed, costed, accountable policies on major issues *before* an election, as a quid pro quo for voting. Now, that’s my polemic.

      • Rob Ellison says:

        Lower taxes and spending – free trade – productivity. You need to show how much better people will be with an economically rational plan that delivers maximum growth within inflation targets. And you need to play nice on health, education and welfare. Only really possible with internationally competitive production.

        Polemic doesn’t cover it. You need a long term plan and you need numbers.

  • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Great article thank you James. I could only add that MT is worshiped by the Inner City elites and ABC types because he is wealthy. But, MT was never a wealth creator. MT is a manipulator of wealth created by other people. That is why he can mockingly, but accurately, be termed the member for Goldman-Sachs. This election partly reflects what happened in the UK concerning BREXIT. We are now seeing political affiliation being aligned along the lines of the wealth producers versus wealth consumers/re-distributors. The Inner City ‘elites’ – dominated by bureaucrats, academics and media types are wealth consumers and wealth re-distributors – and they vote for ‘progressive’/socialist parties and are largely ‘reality phobic’ in that they pander to the something for nothing /magic pudding economic mentality. The wealth producing areas – especially rural areas and outer suburbs tend for vote more for conservatives.
    That is why in this election the Nationals did well and the LIBERALS did poorly. The same happened in the UK where the wealth consuming areas of Scotland and London and some of the bigger midland cities voted to remain in the EU and the wealth producing areas of England and Wales voted to leave. When the number of wealth consumers and manipulators substantially outnumber the wealth producers a country’s economy quickly degenerates into a Greece or a Venezuela.

  • Bwana Neusi says:

    I disagree that Abbott abandoned the 18c change, because in reality and pragmatically he knew he would never get any changes over the line, given the well demonstrated hostility in the Senate. Why waste effort in a futile attempt, just to get your nose rubbed in it.
    With PPL, the reality is that many public servants enjoy the PPL that he advocated. Do I think it is excessive – absolutely, but at no time was this argument put up, or the contrary argument that if his PPL was excessive, then it should be removed from the public service as well.
    Make no mistake, the MSM were going to criticise anything and everything that Abbott did (or does in the future) – How dare he eat an onion? Didn’t he nearly hit a brick wall thirty plus years before? How chauvinistic to wink? Do we really want a PM with true Christian ethics? How dare he work for charities, or cycle or wear “Budgie smugglers”?
    Tony’s biggest mistake was to shelve the “Attack dog” approach and behave in a statesman like manner, turning the other cheek in the vain hope that his detractors would behave decently.

    • Salome says:

      To have attempted the repeal of all or part of 18C would at least have shown the electorate which senators not to vote for next time.

      • nfw says:

        Exactly. Trying and showing your support base you tried is what’s important. As if not wasting time and money is important to either parliament or the Public Service. I have many horror stories of waste by both. The point is, he should have tried.

  • psstevo says:

    I am one of many who agree, almost word for word, with the article. Having seen the ascerbic comments written on ballot papers, MT and his followers, have not a clue yet as to what the problem is. It is simply that MT’s mirror does not reflect reality – if only he was capable of soul-searching! My current MP (may be the ex-MP yet!) was warned his pending demise was likely. I refuse to use the term ‘progressive’ because it is not possible to go ‘progressively’ forward while in moral reverse). If not now, then when do we actually bite the bullet and reclaim the heartland?

  • gcheyne@bigpond.net.au says:

    “the assassination of Abbott and coronation of Turnbull. Would the paid-up party members have voted for this change? ”
    The number of recent resignations from the Liberal Party gives the answer.
    It also reflects on “the genius of Mark Textor”

  • Peter OBrien says:

    I, too, am staggered by the ‘business as usual’ attitude of almost all the commentators. In particular Paul Kelly’s assertion that last Saturday’s result was only a serious setback for the government but not the whole catastrophe amazes me. Doyen of commentators he may be but that assertion reduces him to no more than the Press Club cheerleader barracking for Turnbull to win the grand final. It may only be a serious setback for Turnbull but it’s a disaster for the country which will now become ungovernable. I know, already said that.

  • Dallas Beaufort says:

    Similar to the Man made global warming models. Rubbish in rubbish out. No wonder the media are lost given the cooling cycle. I wonder how long it will take for this so called class to revert to honest reporting instead of thinking they are the primary engines of the economy and nation ?

  • iain says:

    Phew – i’m exhausted/inspired/which way to the barricades after reading this – thank you.

  • Joel OShea says:

    I agree with the refreshing and sensible article and it is probably mindful of the reason our Tony Abbott PM did not seek to close the deal on s 18c, without actually stating the Quadrant published reason.

    Tony Abbott did write to the effect in Quadrant April 2016 that he found it seemingly impossible to defend unfettered free speech (by repealing s 18c) while restricting hate preaching (by muftis and Facebook trolls I suggest). As much as I admire Tony and the suppression of hateful messages, the muftis aren’t bound to telling non-Muslims the truth on record, besides s 18c wouldn’t be upheld in Mosques and that’s where it might matter in terms of surpressing hate preaching. BTW Paul Kelly’s Brexit resposes in my daily newspaper, at a glance, are indigestible…At least whilst I celebrate the epic Brexit result.

  • dsh2@bigpond.com says:

    Good article, James, and thank you. Watching and listening to the likes of Scott Ryan and Craig Kelly defending the indefensible gave me an understanding of how difficult life must have been for Abbott as leader of the Party. These characters are a shocking illustration of the low life which manage to get themselves elected – as Liberals! If Turnbull stays then at least two more of us will leave the Liberal Party. Tolerance can only be stretched so far.

  • Warty says:

    A refreshing, penetrating article.
    I abandoned the Liberals several months ago, and joined the ALA (a party full of homophobes) after carefully studying the policies of all the conservative parties on offer. What attracted me to the ALA was largely the fact that they stood by our Judaeo Christian traditional values, without being a Christian party. The media perception is that they are ‘far right’, or on the fringe, when in truth, they hold most of the values, including the belief in small government, free speech and traditional marriage, that the Libs and Nats held many years ago.
    There are currently 17 members in our Regional Support Group, and of those, 13 ditched the Liberals specifically due to the assassination of Tony Abbot. As far as I can gather, 16 are ex Liberal, one is ex Shooters and Fishers Party and not one is ex Labor.

  • Meniscus says:

    A brilliant election summary here – a must read for all delcons:


  • Jim Campbell says:

    James – surely you jest. Expecting the political and media class to do anything other than protect their backsides and ensure they remain in business is a forlorn thought. Truth – what was that? Usually something that just gets you into trouble. Funny you should mention The Oz. I have noticed that over the past 6-9 months they have become very PC over one of my great concerns – Allah. A message must have been received and understood. Good that we still have a brave voice in Quadrant!

    • ianl says:

      > ” … Expecting the political and media class to do anything other than protect their backsides and ensure they remain in business is a forlorn thought”

      Worse than forlorn – absolutely deluded. We have the usual blather about “hearing the message and learning the lesson”, but not one politician or meeja man has actually asked a voter what the message is or what lesson has been learned. All that happens is that these people sneeringly put up straw men so they can prove how stupid the populace is.

      This is absolutely par for the course. It happens exactly this way after *every* election.

  • stuius says:

    Agree. With. Every. Word. I’ll preference Labor until Turnbull goes or we have a revolution, whichever comes first. One can see the makings of a revolution too, if our dim, posing, amoral, immoral “elite” keep condescending and forsaking their duty to represent their constituents.

Leave a Reply