I heard a rumour

There’s lots of fluttering in the media at the moment about whether or not Kim Beazley’s leadership of the ALP is safe. There are some posts on a few of the Australian political blogs that are fairly dismissive about the substance of the story. Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy says it is “purest waffle”. However, his next words are just as relevant – “Except for the fact that to even speculate is to potentially create momentum.” This is where political commentators can’t lose. By floating a bit of gossip about leadership rumblings, they get people talking about it – even if just to dismiss it – which of course is enough to create the gossip they were reporting on, this reinforcing their story.

It is no coincidence that other blogs which write about what a beat-up it is – such as Oz Politics and The Road to Surfdom, still go on to talk about whether or not Beazley really can win, whether a change is likely, etc etc. Larvatus Prodeo deals with it somewhat more fleetingly. Usually this sort of media rumourmill is harmless enough filler of no real consequence, but every now and then circumstances are such that it can develop a life of its own (often by being fed by people who either have their own agendas or else just get off on feeling like they are part of some sort of intrigue).

I sense many people seem to think this latest round of gossiping about Beazley is the mainstream media (and especially the Murdoch press) being unfair to Labor. I’m not convinced by this. There have been other pieces in the last couple of days, such as this one featuring some bitchy internal gossip from the Liberal Party and also this piece full of anonymous gossip about the Governor-General. Whilst there’s no doubt that there is some political bias against certain parties or people at times from some quarters, these sorts of speculative or soap opera style ‘lives of the rich and famous’ style stories will always be run about all sides of politics if there’s some public interest in the figures involved.
Much as it may irritate me, gossip style commentary is often more likely to be read or noticed by the general public than earnest pieces about policy. Fortunately for the writers, these pieces can also be based on totally anonymous sources, don’t need to verified and can rarely be proven false. It’s not much different to Who Weekly – people don’t really expect all the rumours to be true, they just like being able to read about them and talk about them.

I note that the piece I mentioned above about the Liberal Party rumours, dealing with the good old standard of reshuffle speculation, even presents itself nobly as “taking on the role of de facto Opposition to keep the Government under pressure.” Sadly, any time an Opposition MP speaks at the moment, the media will just ask them about the Beazley rumours, leaving no space for any other comments they may make pointing out flaws in government policy. Lucky for us, and for democracy, that we have the media there willing to be the Opposition for us.

The two purported targets for dumping from the Ministry are Senators Amanda Vanstone and Ian Campbell. The names of four current Parliamentary Secretaries are put forward as likely candidates for promotion. There is the slight problem that the two people purportedly at risk of being chopped are both in the Senate, and none of the four potential promotees are. This would reduce the already small number of Senators in the Ministry to a threadbare level of just six from a total of 30 Ministers. It could potentially be even worse, as the one Minister who has already all but offered to stand down is Senator Rod Kemp who is retiring at the next election, so it would be reasonable to remove him as well if a reshuffle were to happen.

The rumours and gossip about Vanstone being in for the chop have been around for well over a year, and get a run publicly from time to time. I guess if they’re repeated often enough, they’ll be right eventually. I have enough reasons to be critical of the policy approaches taken by both Amanda Vanstone and Ian Campbell, but they’re far from the worst two performing Ministers in the Senate – in fact in my view they’d both clearly be in the top half of the 8 Ministers there currently. There is some good talent on the Coalition backbench in the Senate, but I can’t see how it would make sense to drop some of the better performers to make way for them.

Still, as Clint Eastwood once said, “deserves got nothing to do with it” (which is another way of saying the Ministry is not exactly a meritocracy). In any case, I’ve got more than enough on my plate trying to get re-elected next year, so I’m not that interested in spending time on rumours and gossip about reshuffles, which don’t effect me anyway.

I just wish that, given all the major policy and democracy failures of both the major parties, the mainstream media didn’t spend so much time on them either. But I suppose they’re just giving the people what they want – perhaps I should try that myself sometime.

PS: This version of the Governor-General gossip story (or whispering campaign to use the terminology in the article) also has readers’ comments following on from it. It’s interesting to see most responses are fairly antagonistic to the story. Of course, that’s also part of the timeless attraction of gossip columns in newspapers – people also like to be able to tut-tut about how terrible they are.

UPDATE (28/11): The following Sunday saw another article in some of the News Ltd papers with more rumours about the Governor-General. This time he’s being criticised (anonymously) for something he hasn’t even done yet – allegedly lobbying SA Premier Mike Rann on behalf of a friend – despite the fact he’s the opportunity if he had wanted.

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  1. Andrew, I’d love to hear your honest opinion on Kim’s leadership. From where I stand (across the Tasman right now) he seems to be doing a terrible job, to the point where I don’t know anyone who really respects him anymore. Is it my imagination or did he lose his self-confidence (and possibly part of his intellect) sometime around the 2001 federal election?

  2. Mark,
    The whole point of the post was to state that speculating about this kind of stuff just feeds the beast, and then Andrew says he’s too busy campaigning to even think about, but you still ask him!

    Ask Andrew about what he thinks of Beazley’s policies, if you’re going to ask anything. I give way more of a shit about them than I do his self-confidence, or who ‘respects’ him.

  3. A lot of people think that Kim Beazley is too soft to run the country, but I think he’ll win the next election.

    I think Julia Gillard (sorry – not sure of spelling) will become the party leader eventually.

    Kim Beazley is going all out to win the votes of “middle Australia”. His recent National Press Club address was heavily punctuated with those words.

    None of the larger parties appear to be interested in women, children, the disabled or low income earners.

    I think John Howard and Kim Beazley will continue to fight over the votes of double-income earning parents with few or no children, since there is such a large number of them.

    I think John Howard’s last election win was largely a reflection of the increasing number of well-to-do people in our society.

    Throw in a pre-election bribe to appeal to both the poor and the greedy, and I guess you’ve got it made.

  4. Pardon me PatrickG, but the best policies in the world will be wasted without a respectable leader to champion them, and Beazley is no champion. I can hardly listen to the end of his sentences he offers so little, and what he does say is knee jerk reaction to anything perceived as a chink in the coalition’s armour. I ask the question because I’m seriously wondering why he doesn’t retire. Like many other people right now, I fear he is standing in the way of those who might re-invigorate the party with a purpose beyond bringing down the coalition.
    A leader’s personality and self-confidence is very relevant, because it will affect decisions made not only now, but in the future, where the issues may be completely different from today.

  5. Fair enough points by both Mark & Patrick. I’m not suggesting a leader’s ability to appeal to people is irrelevant – of course it’s important. But I am complaining about the focus on the ‘intrigue’, particularly when it is to the exclusion of policy issues.

    Having said that, I’d rather not provide a detailed opinion on Beazley’s public performance. I don’t see him through the same prism as most of the public do (i.e. television news) and I can’t really separate my views on his policy approaches from more general views on his ‘public performance’. In any case, my opinion when it comes to perceptions about his performance is no more valid than any one else in the electorate (nor is a media commentator’s, but that’s another issue).

    He seems like a sincere enough person and is very knowledgeable on some subjects, although he has occasionally surprised me with how apparently unknowledgeable he is about some things.

  6. Ironically Mark, I think we both think a lot of the same things, however I still believe it’s important to focus beyond a leader’s personality, onto their party’s policies above all else.

    The perception I have of Beazley is similar in many ways to yours, however, by focussing on his personality I would be perpetuating the overblown importance we ascribe to personality in politics – an importance I fear is exponentially growing.

    You say so yourself, when you argue that a leader’s personality is crucial to getting elected. I don’t disagree – but it shouldn’t be, not compared to things like a policy platform.

    Whenever I hear someone making judgments about a politician, or worse a party, based on personality – outside of policy (I think you can fit plenty of personality within that arena!) – I get very sad for democracy.

    I feel like it so often appeals to the most venal, one-dimensional aspects that we have as citizens and voters, asking us to judge a politician by the same standards we use for friends & family – or the fictional characters that movie stars and other celebrities become, as portrayed by much media.

    Sometimes this is appropriate, certainly, but mostly I don’t think it is. I have no doubt that if everyone was as fascinated by politicians’ policies, as they are by their ‘personalities’ (Surely, as Lou Cannon said of Reagan, unknown and unknowable in the end anyway?) that we would be living in a better society. At very least, it would be more democratic.

  7. Everyone:
    Rumours? These are only crude attempts at manipulating the opinions of dills and dullards; hardly worthy of the term “rumours”.
    If you want to hear real reputation-smashing rumours and inuendo, you would have to put your ear to the wall of an ex-service organization or a military mess; that’s where you’ll find the top experts on rumour-mongering..
    Andrew Bartlett said

    ….political commentators can’t lose. By floating a bit of gossip about leadership rumblings, they get people talking about it – even if just to dismiss it – which of course is enough to create the gossip they were reporting on, this reinforcing their story.


    Fortunately for the writers, these pieces can also be based on totally anonymous sources, don’t need to verified and can rarely be proven false.

    My oath!

  8. Journalists mostly dwell in the land of speculation when there is nothing in the news worth reporting.

    A charismatic leader can win an election.

    All he has to do once he has gained popularity with his supporters, is throw in a couple of pre-election bribes and a lot of false promises.

    This even works in a primary school when new School Captains are being elected – but schools often don’t get the right people.

  9. All sounding a bit elitist here..if only those dills and dullards would vote the same as me and Coral and what a wonderful world it would be…and we champion for democracy.

  10. Andrew, thanks for your response, in hindsight it is an unfair question to ask of you, but I’m sure you can understand why I might value your take on Kim’s abilities above the average commentator :)

  11. Ken:
    You missed the point completely.

    It is neither elitist nor egalitarians at all to call fools, fools – to call mugs, mugs – nor to call dullards, dullards. If somone is stupid enough to vote on the basis of manifestly false promises or obvious tricks or on wild rumours and unverifiable gossip then they are stupid, that’s all.

    No good purpose is served by anyone trying to make out that these dills are really bright and that their aspirations have merely been delayed by unfortunate, unforseen and unavoidable changes in circumstances. If they are gullible enough to believe whatever they are told then they are stupid.

    That does not mean we should not be sympathetic or do what we can to help them.

  12. Most would say not uncommon Graham :)

    Intersting, given the consistent views expressed by most regualr commentatros on this site, including its owner, then presumably the majority of Australians can only be stupid…hmm

    Guess thats the case.

  13. I wouldn’t agree that almost everyone is stupid.

    The poor can be desperate; but the greedy who have dollar signs in their eyes are sometimes unable to see the woods for the trees when it comes to false promises.

    Some people are over-optimist idealists hoping for something better, but going about it in the wrong way.

  14. Ken,
    No majority needed …. in any given electorate, it may take only a few hundred of the thick and the gullible and, as CORAL rightly points out, the desperate, the greedy and the idealistic too, to negate all the well-considered votes and so tip the balance.

  15. I notice both those anonymously sourced hatchet jobs on the Governor-General, as well as the one with anonymous stabs at Vanstone and Campbell were all written by Glenn Milne. He seems to do a lot of those stories full of anonymous vicious quotes from ‘sources close to’, ‘well placed sources’ ‘unnamed former staff’ and the like.

    Is he worse than most at this or it just a coincidence that you’ve picked out articles written by Glenn Milne?

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