A message for the ‘cheer squad media’ - Op Ed, Crikey


Crikey, 26 November 2018

When is it wrong to write 5.3 percent as “around 5 and a half percent”? Not when the Reserve Bank does it. According to Nick Cater and Judith Sloan, the answer seems to be “when the writer is a member of the Labor Party”.

Over recent weeks, the duo has mounted a bizarre attack on an opinion article that I had published online in the New York Times at the start of October. The critiques are as fatuous as they are false.

Apparently it was perfectly fine for Josh Frydenberg to write on the UK Spectator website in 2012 that Julia Gillard was ‘dumbing down... our foreign policy’ and ‘cheapens our parliament with a trumped up and false charge of misogyny’. But for me to discuss the challenges of the Australian economy on the New York Times website (with no direct critique of the current government) is tantamount to high treason.

Being fact-checked by Cater and Sloan is like getting a lecture on business ethics from Christopher Skase. Both angrily fault my 9 October article for its failure to use statistics released on 18 October. It’s not clear whether they are clumsy or deliberately trying to deceive their readers. Worse yet, perhaps they just don’t care about the truth - just whether they can score a partisan point.

It would be tedious to rebut such snark point-by-point. Two more examples will suffice. Sloan says of me “He claims that labour’s share of national income in Australia has fallen, which it has not.” She may wish to discuss this claim with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which wrote earlier this year: “the labour share of income has declined over the past two decades in Australia”.

Or there’s Cater’s attempt to revive the discredited idea that tax cuts like those implemented by Donald Trump “frequently lead to a rise in revenue”. According to the independent US Congressional Budget Office, the Republican tax cuts will increase that nation’s debt by $1.9 trillion between 2018 and 2028.

The problem with columnists like Cater and Sloan isn’t just that they deceive their readers with their hyperventilating hyperbole. By operating like Liberal Party stormtroopers, they become tiresomely predictable. Their goal isn’t to inform. Rather, they aim to mount a fierce defence of whatever the Morrison Government happens to be saying that day. Then, in case you didn’t hear it the first time, they’ll say it again tomorrow (which is why Sloan’s attack on me is basically indistinguishable from Cater’s a fortnight earlier).

In the big picture, Cater and Sloan are really just two bit players in a larger drama. From Breitbart to Fox, America is seeing the rise of ‘cheer squad media’, whose role is to amplify and repeat their own side’s talking points, and demonise their opponents. The traditional tasks of scrutinising policy and discussing the future are replaced by a daily battle to shield their friends and wound their enemies. It’s a humourless style that’s devoid of nuance and curiosity, in which the aim is to provoke anger rather than understanding.

Despite this, Bill Shorten and Labor have been focused on producing more positive policies than any opposition for a generation. Unlike the Abbott opposition, which defined itself by what it wasn’t, we will go to the next election seeking a clear mandate to clamp down on tax havens and extend preschool to three year-olds, to curtail negative gearing and create a national integrity commission, to restore penalty rates and deliver a vote on an Australian Republic, to act on live exports and curtail monopoly power, to fix the energy crisis and reduce carbon emissions.

It is only because Labor has eschewed ‘small target’ politics in favour of hard decisions that we are able to make a triple-pledge to Australian voters: larger personal income tax cuts for most Australians, more funding to fix our hospitals and public schools, and bigger budget surpluses than the Coalition. Perhaps that agenda evokes the hatred of the far-right. If so, then I welcome it.

But if a Shorten Government is fortunate enough to win a mandate at the next election, we won’t fight bile with bile. You won’t see a Shorten Government attempting to use race-baiting and fear-mongering to win cheap headlines. You won’t see us demonising union members and fellow citizens who are reliant on income support to feed their families. We’ll create a national integrity commission, and restore stability to government. We’ll work with business, and pursue the proposal of an Indigenous voice to parliament.

Australia faces too many challenges to spiral into negativity. We need to get real wages rising again, play a larger leadership role in the Asia Pacific region, and diversify our economy. It’s vital we reduce inequality, close the gaps, and reverse the decline in school test scores. None of this is possible without a stronger sense of purpose and national unity – a shared vision that Australia isn’t just a great nation, but can be greater still in the decades to come.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, and hosts ‘The Good Life’, a podcast in which he interviews people about living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.

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  • Samar Singh
    commented 2018-11-26 20:09:19 +1100
    “Bigger budget surpluses than the coalition”. Andrew Leigh, please look up the 3 sector financial identity. It’s simple algebra at best, and implies increasing household debt when the nation does not have an overall trade surplus, if we have government budget surpluses. Why do you want all the debt to be private debt, where defaults can occur? And surely you know that government debt in A$ can never be in default. Are you so brainwashed by your formal economics training? Very sad.

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