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Can you beat a stacked deck?

Or: If you can’t beat the House, why keep playing the game?

By Steve Laing

Disclaimer: I am not, nor have ever been a member of any political party in significant part because I am skeptical of the true motives of many “party politicians”, but I do consider myself a progressive. The article is in large part focused on Labor because at this point in time, they represent the progressive party most likely to win the next general election, however the sentiments are equally applicable to other parties. And I apologise in advance for its length…

OK, I have to admit it; I’m a gamer. From a very early age, games have captured my imagination (and far too much of my time), particularly those that involve other people and aren’t purely down to luck. To the many who aren’t interested, games seem an almighty waste of time, and indeed I have often reflected on what compels me to devote time to such endeavours. But at its best, playing games can be an excellent way to exercise those problem-solving skills, as well as sometimes prompting interesting insights through considering situations from a variety of perspectives.

All very interesting you say, but what in Jebus’ name are you telling me this on an independent news site? Because the most important part of any game if you want to win, is to know the rules and then build strategies that utilize them to your advantage. If you can get the rules to work in your favor, then whilst you might not win every time, you can significantly improve your odds of doing so.

Have you ever wondered why right wing parties in democracies around the world, despite very rarely passing legislation that actually benefits the majority, continue not only to get elected, but then also usually stay in power longer? To a gamer/problem solver like me, the answer is pretty obvious. The “rules”, and thus the strategies that can be built from them, are stacked very much in their favour. And having few morals and little empathy they generally play the game without mercy. For them winning is the goal, not governing, because if you don’t win, guess what…

So, lying and cheating? Not an issue, the rules don’t disallow it. Abusing office funding allowances to pour money into party coffers? Why not, the rules don’t say you can’t. Doing deals with other “parties”, then either reneging or finding a way to pull a dirty trick? All in a day’s work. Publishing your opponents’ confidential cabinet documents? Pork barreling? Using the AFP like a private enforcer? Undertaking Royal Commission to try and undermine your political opponents? When the game is all about getting into power, and then wing it once you’ve got there, the Coalition are really rather good players. Because the rules are porous, and winning is winning. Right?

So what do Labor do? Well, they carry on playing the game, hoping that by following the rules as they appear to be written, they will be successful, publishing policies, considering the greater good, behaving ethically. And indeed in part they have to, because one thing is certain, if they step out of line, the media will be all over them like a rash.

Blind Freddy can see that the commercial MSM act in the interests of their owners, and thus the politicians most likely to look after them. The fact that they are now almost completely embedded in our public media institutions has taken longer to achieve, but has again been undertaken to almost complete the stranglehold on contrary views.

Politics in Australia is much like politics in the UK. The rules and traditions are stacked in favor of the conservative incumbent, and the “House” has significant powers outside of parliament (particularly the media, but also large wealthy benefactors, donors, businesses and their various lobbies, and the financial clout that sits behind them). This means that the coalition can still play within the rules, but in a manner that works to their strengths, as well as to the weaknesses of their opposition. (It also reveals their concern about organizations such as GetUp who have found a way to do what they consider only their entitlement – namely to use money to achieve political goals).

So time and time again, opposition parties fall into their traps. Sure, Labor occasionally manage a win, but the policy gains from those wins are often short-lived as the right wing have absolutely no qualms about unwinding them as soon as the opportunity next comes about. And generally (and unfortunately) you don’t have to wait too long for such to occur.

The main election strategies of the right are easy. Here are some of the most obvious ones, but I know there are many more.

Firstly, if possible make it a personality contest, not a policy one. The Coalition framed the last election as Turnbull versus Shorten. The one before that Abbott vs Gillard (the “greatest opposition leader ever” versus the “liar”). Sure, the last election actually ended up a much closer run thing than Turnbull clearly expected, but the right still won despite having no policies and only a few dodgy slogans repeated ad infinitum and since largely forgotten about – just where is Jobson Grothe these days?

Whilst Shorten is clearly a fairly capable negotiator and party leader, he is not what one might call charismatic and he has “baggage” in the eyes of significant parts of the electorate, in no small part due to the mud slinging from a Royal Commission built to do just that – smear the opposition. Dirty, cheaty, effective. The rest of the Cabinet were never to be seen – Turnbull was considered the drawcard, whose personal popularity would all but guarantee the win. And close though it was, it did. However it is clear from his election night hissy fit, Malcolm was not happy that the people didn’t show him the love which he clearly thinks he is due for being all round Mr Positive and Lovely. This term will be our punishment for not fawning enough to his brilliance – how very dare we. But I digress.

Secondly, keep attacking a well-defined target. It’s hard to miss that every, and I mean every, statement that a minister from the government makes, there has to be a knock to Labor somewhere in it. Without fail. The current Centrelink debacle where claimants are being told to pay back “debts” due to some spurious mechanism where a claimants yearly ATO record is often incorrectly converted into weekly payments, which are then compared to weekly benefits received, and then flagged as benefit fraud is currently in full swing. Happy Holidays! But even when Porter was questioned about what was going on, he managed to get in an attack on the last Labor government and why they hadn’t addressed this when they were in government. (The fact that Howard hadn’t either is conveniently ignored – it’s the narrative that counts, not the facts). This repetitive mantra is entirely designed to undermine your opponents on a subliminal level, and after a while people will ignore the facts and buy into the message. Who are the best party to manage the economy? Well that depends if you make your decision based on evidence, or constantly repeated hearsay; and a lot of people just don’t do evidence.

Thirdly, whenever you get the chance, split the enemy. This is a particularly easy one given that Labor seem to love to attack the Greens, and vice versa. The truly dull fights about “who preferenced whom” when in fact these are merely suggestions that most ignore reveal a pettiness, but also a lack of confidence in the ability of ones own candidates. This is of course a problem with political parties, rather than political movements. Parties, and their supporters, behave much in the same way as football teams. Blind loyalty, even though the values, policies and agenda (much like a team’s players) change over time, often becoming a very different beast than previously. Again, this suits the right, rather than the left, because the poor (Labor’s traditional base) are easier to attack, middle class aspirationals are easier to bribe, and Murdoch readers are easily led.

Fourthly, promote the adversarial/party system. The party system is great news for the Coalition as it allows them to use every debating trick under the sun to show up their opponents. Any difference in opinion amongst party members equals disunity (approach to refugees). A change in position reveals lack of conviction (eg same sex marriage). If you don’t support the policies on Manus and Nauru, you must believe in open borders AND want deaths at sea (the good old false dichotomy). As George Carlin said, “Never argue with an idiot, they will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience”. There is no debate in our parliament. Question Time is the Coalition’s favorite pantomime, and they have no qualms in abusing the soapbox it provides them. The party system creates easy targets for those prepared to go for the jugular. But it is also why the Coalition hate independents – far too much work to undermine them all, and too hard a target to pin down. Mind you, so does Labor for much the same reason.

Now as an aside, don’t get sucked in by the Liberal/Conservative split rumour. However much this is talked up, I believe it is highly unlikely to happen. It is, in my opinion, a very handy ruse to put those on the left off their guard, smugly expecting the disintegration of their opponents. On the contrary it is designed purely to try to win back One Nation voters back to the Coalition by suggesting that there are people within the Coalition who will look after them and their warped worldview, so they should feel comfortable that they can come back into the fold (as well as put more pressure on Turnbull to keep following the now populist as well as neoliberal agenda) – there is always a place for xenophobic racists in the Coalition, doncha know? Outside the Coalition Bernardi, Christensen and their ilk would be powerless, and they know it (and it’s not like they aren’t getting their own way within the party at present, are they!). But the promise of a new Conservative party is but the perpetual lie from the cheating husband to the mistress who is waiting for him to leave his wife, but who has absolutely no intention of giving up that comfortable life. It also explains why Malcolm does not appear in the least bit worried about this ruse, but Tony, now being on the outer (and a bit thick), isn’t aware that this is naught but a cynical political stunt to win back the “populist” voters. My bet is that before the election those conservative warriors will be right back happily in the arms of the party, totally “unified”.

Fifthly, only worry about the marginals. Votes don’t win elections, seats do. So don’t waste your time or energy on safe seats, pour your resources into the ones that count. Again this ties back to the divide and rule strategy – no point wasting government money and resources on people who won’t vote for you.

Six, forget facts, use emotions. Be policy light, because the media won’t be able to go after you (and won’t), but play on people’s fears if the vote for the other side. Refugees, Muslims, drugs, intergenerational debt etc. Only the Right are tough enough to deal with these issues. Protect yourself! Bypass the higher brain, and tap straight into the lizard brain – use advertising and slogans, keep it simple and repeat.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t change the bloody rules! Now this one area where Malcolm (but perhaps also Bill) very stupidly made a big mistake last year, largely because Malcolm’s ego made him believe he was more popular than he actually was. It was part of his triumvirate of tricks that would allow him a Double Dissolution and bring him the mandate he believed he was due. Poor, deluded, spineless fool.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of 2

Steve LaingSteve Laing – Steve is unaligned to any particular party, but cognizant of the reality that people are our biggest asset, so it makes sense to look after them. Uncomfortable with the ineptitude that permeates our current government, and yet sees such as the prevailing condition in our political system. Over the years Steve has worked for a number of different businesses, both corporate and small, and has experienced good and bad “policy” development and decision making, and seen the outcomes of such. Steve also has his own blog: www.makeourvoiceheard.com.


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  1. Richard Bull

    Yes, if you read Ken Wilber you will see that the conservatives are lower on the evolutionary hierarchy than the progressives, and fall into the tribal/traditional modes of thinking. They are thus ‘followers of rules’, and they tend to be more reactionary and controlling, and more fearful of losing the status quo – they seek only power and control, and maintenance of that power and control.
    At the moment the politics of fear seems to be increasing, as the right in Australia turns to thuggery to get what it wants – for example, taking back strangely calculated ‘overpayments’ from vulnerable welfare recipients. They seem to think that they have some sort of ‘divine right’ to rule, forgetting that they are actually in parliament to serve the public and the public interest, and are not there to serve themselves and their wealthy corporate juggernaut friends.
    I fear that we are seeing a loss of democracy, at least in the West, at the moment, and that it may get worse before it gets better!

  2. Michael

    Great piece Steve – you have described what is missing in our democracy work in progress – all of what you describe happens in the 1459 days before and after voting day by our proportionally chosen, mostly party anointed robots not chosen for their thinking – systemic solutions require representatives standing for systemic solutions based on fairness and justice for all – if the system is fair and just then the answer is more than likely to be fair and just – for all egalitarians.

    BTW, 1459 = (4 x 365)-1

  3. townsvilleblog

    Steve, As a former member of the ALP I can certainly tell you that from my perspective the party is not as progressive as they could be, but are a progressive party none the less. In my humble opinion democratizing the party and making it a people’s party is the only way to bring back the votes that the party has been progressively losing for at least the past 15 years. The right wing AWU/SDA bosses who actually run the party are yesterday’s people with yesterday’s thoughts. As far as parliamentarians are concerned we need someone with the appearance of a 40 y.o. and the brains of a 50 y.o. who is ‘fair dinkum’ and wants to genuinely lift the living standards of ordinary Australian families.

    When I say ordinary people I mean those families who live on the most common wage of $43,000 p.a. when one of the partners is unable to work obviously a lot of families are double income and so, they manage fairly well, but those who aren’t, how do they save for a home of their own? Progressive political parties would make their housing policy much clearer than I’ve ever heard the ALP policy, in fact I may search ALP policies to discover what their policies are but really the onus is on them to publicize their policies, given that at any moment an LNP MP may pass away thus bringing the government down.

  4. nurses1968

    voters have the memory of a goldfish.All will be forgotten come election time and the LNP and Murdoch press will set the agenda

  5. w ch

    A very good article indeed. However when I took time to visit the blog website, it had an ad for some sex site down the side. Whats with that? Its supposed to be a serious blog, but has a sleazy ad on the page. Not good for credibility.

  6. jim

    The media has assisted the Liberals for far too long IMO. As for the Lnp as the “best economic managers” it’s total crap. Here’s why. 2012/13.

    According to the International Monetary Fund, the Howard/Costello government was the most profligate in Australia for the last 50 years. Indeed, while the mining boom was gathering pace they cut taxes so far and so fast that they forced the Reserve Bank of Australia to rapidly increase interest rates.

    While countries like Norway took the benefits of resource price booms and banked them in their sovereign wealth fund, Peter Costello chose to cut taxes for the wealthy instead. He knew at the time that his populist generosity to the highest income earners would force future treasurers to choose between budget deficits or cutting spending on the sick, the poor and elderly. No prizes for guessing which our former treasurer prefers.

    The only thing Costello hates more than budget deficits is collecting the revenue needed to fix them. Just as his government did nothing about the long-term challenge of climate change, his government did nothing to set up Australia’s long-term public finances.

    On Tuesday, Costello wrote an op-ed in which he bells the cat on who he thinks should pay less tax. His idea of a fairer tax system means “lowering the reach or rate of top marginal income tax rates”.

    For the record, here are five of Costello’s most “profligate” and inequitable decisions, which created the structural deficit inherited by his successors:

    1. Permanent income tax cuts during the boom. Worth $37.6bn or $26.4bn if you exclude bracket creep in 2011-12

    During the first phase of the mining boom the federal government’s coffers were being filled with a temporary windfall gain. Costello made the decision to use this temporary windfall gain to cut income tax, mainly to high income earners. From 2005 to 2012 these tax cuts cost the budget bottom line $170bn. In 2012 they were costing the budget $37.6bn per year. Even accounting for bracket creep, the tax cuts would cost the budget $26.4bn in 2011-12. They would be worth more today. 42% of these cuts flowed to the top 10% of income earners while 80% of income earners got only 38%.

    2. Capital gains tax discount. Worth $5.8bn in 2014-15

    In 1999 Costello introduced the capital gains tax discount. Capital gains tax applies when someone sells an asset for more than they bought it for. This includes things like shares or investment housing. The capital gains tax discount means that for assets owned for more than 12 months only half the capital gain will be taxed. According to the Treasury this is worth $5.8bn per year.

    3. Got rid of fuel excise indexation. Worth $5.5bn in 2013-14

    In 2001 Costello removed the fuel excise indexation. Fuel excise indexation meant that the tax rate on petroleum fuel kept up with inflation. Its removal from the budget is estimated to be costing the budget $5.5bn in 2013-14.

    4. Superannuation tax cuts. Worth $2.5bn in 2009-10

    In 2007 Costello reduced taxation on income earned from superannuation to zero for Australians over the age of 60. At the same time he removed the superannuation surcharge.

    The superannuation surcharge acknowledged that the benefit of superannuation tax concessions flowed mainly to high income earners. It meant that those on high incomes paid a higher concessional tax rate on their super contributions and earnings. Costello abolished it in 2005 which meant that high income earners paid a flat 15% tax rate on all superannuation contributions and earnings.

    At the time these super changes were estimated to cost the budget $2.6bn per year by 2009-10. With the rapid growth in superannuation tax concessions (they are currently growing at about 12%) they would be worth much more today.

    5. The decision to convert “franking credits” into cash refunds for shareholders

    When companies pay dividends to Australian shareholders out of after-tax profit, shareholders also receive franking credits which are a credit against their own tax obligation and based on the tax paid by the company. This system, known as “dividend imputation” is unusual and only four other countries in the world use it.

    However, in 2000, Costello made the system even more generous to shareholders by allowing them to get a cash refund if they receive more in franking credits than they actually owe in tax. Because income from superannuation is tax free for people over 60, high income retirees can use franking credits to get a cash gift of over 40 cents for every dollar they receive in dividends.

    The ATO estimates that Costello’s decision to allow “excess” franking credits to be refunded as cash cost $4.6bn in 2012-13.

    These five changes are worth $56bn per annum. This is likely to be a very conservative estimate since some of these costs were for earlier years. The total is likely to be much more.

    Putting this into context, the budget deficit last year was $40.4bn. The budget conversation would have been very different if these irresponsible and inequitable changes had not been put through by Costello.

    The reason we have a budget deficit today is in no small part due to the efforts of Costello. It is interesting that he is now calling on the government to cut spending to pay for the irresponsible tax cuts that he made that mostly benefited the rich.

    A growing number of organisations including The Australia Institute are making suggestions on how the government might repair the budget by making changes that would allow more revenue to be raised. Of course, Costello dismisses these suggestions and describes them as coming from “lefties”. Presumably he thinks the IMF is a front for global socialism as well…

    The government would have had an additional $38 billion for last year’s federal government budget and would have collected an extra $169 billion over the past seven years had it not been for unsustainable income tax cuts that were made in the lead up to the GFC. Had the income tax cuts not been made, the current budget would not be in deficit and we would be having a very different discussion about funding priorities.

    Budget difficulties are not something high income earners are likely to have been concerned with over the past seven years as they were the biggest beneficiaries of these tax cuts. Of the $169 billion in tax cuts, 42 per cent of them or $71 billion went to the top 10 per cent of income earners. The top 10 per cent got more in tax cuts than the bottom 80 per cent.

    This sheds an entirely new light on the current debate about whether we can afford things like the NDIS or Gonski reforms. If the budget is in deficit because of income tax cuts that primarily benefited the highest income earners and that is being used as a reason not to give more money or support to the poor and disadvantaged, then political debate in Australia has reached a new low.. Thanks for a great post and thanks for some real FACTS.

  7. Steve Laing - makeourvoiceheard.com

    Thanks for the comments so far folks – keep ’em coming! More fun to come in Part 2, but both parts are essentially a prologue to a much larger series of posts about how the system might work better if some tweaks were made to it.

    w ch – my site displays adverts because I subscribe to Google Ad-Sense (possibly now called the Display network or vice versa). Google displays adverts in this space largely depending on cookies that are on the computer of the visitor, not the owner of the website. For example if I go onto the site, I see adverts for universities because I’ve been looking up university stuff for my daughter. Therefore I’d suggest there may be a decent chance that someone who has used your computer may have been visiting websites of a less than wholesome character, or you’ve been infected inadvertently by a dodgy email or via a site that looks ok, but actually isn’t. For whatever reason – and there are many reasons why dodgy cookies get onto pc’s – your pc appears to have some on it. Try clearing your cookies via the options menu, and revisiting the site – if there are still dodgy ads, please, please, please let me know! I am more than happy to drop the Ad-Sense ads – its not like Google are actually giving me any money for hosting them – particularly if it is undermining the user experience.

  8. Michael

    If you use Firefox add-on uBlock Origin?

  9. Wayne Turner

    The MSM pick the government they want,cause our MSM is owned by too few,and they are the promotional wing of the LNP (Except the rare times Labor leaders cut a deal with Murdoch the MSM ie: Rudd the first time.).Of course this would NOT matter if we had an informed and politically educated electorate.Sadly we have an ignorant,gullible and majority an easily led electorate.

    The rare time the MSM loses,they then sook non-stop until they get their way eg: Hounding Gillard until she would have lost,or until her own party dumped her.(Which happened).

    Australian democracy died long ago….

    The Australian mediaocracy continues…..

  10. Kyran

    “Finally, and most importantly, don’t change the bloody rules!”
    There was an old adage that there will only ever be enough ‘laws’ to hold the ‘loopholes’ together. When the legislator’s, the ‘lawmakers’, are the greatest beneficiaries of the law’s they are making (whether it be on their behalf, or their benefactors), there is an inherent problem.
    The comment posted by jim, is a reminder.
    “3. Got rid of fuel excise indexation. Worth $5.5bn in 2013-14
    In 2001 Costello removed the fuel excise indexation. Fuel excise indexation meant that the tax rate on petroleum fuel kept up with inflation. Its removal from the budget is estimated to be costing the budget $5.5bn in 2013-14.”
    Having consulted with the ATO on behalf of an industry group prior to the introduction of the GST, the underlying premise was that you cannot have a tax on a tax. Hence the freezing of fuel excise indexation. Until recently. They have now increased the tax, upon a tax.
    They have not only changed the rules, they have reinforced the notion that the rules only apply to some.
    Can’t wait for Part 2.
    Thank you, Mr Laing. Take care

  11. Rossleigh

    As for the Liberals being good economic managers, they spend their first few years blaming Labor for any bad news while taking credit for anything good. They spend their last few years blaming Labor but by then everyone is sick of the excuses. As soon as Labor is elected, the first bit of bad news is ALL LABOR’S FAULT AND WE TOLD YOU SO!
    Labor, on the other hand, never seem to be able to point out that they shouldn’t be held responsible for anything that wasn’t actually their decision!

    Some economists actually point this out from time to time, but nobody reads what economists write! And anyway, if they don’t completely condemn Labor, the Liberals and the MSM write them off as having an agenda!

  12. Steve Laing - makeourvoiceheard.com

    Kyran -my pleasure.

    Rossleigh – the other one I always enjoy is “our role is to oppose” when in opposition, but when Labor is in opposition they are derided for not supporting the Coalition’s mandate! And Trump took the biscuit when before the election he decried that he wouldn’t trust the election results and wouldn’t endorse them, but on winning bagged any suggestion that their might have been any type of fraud or outside involvement, and that Democrats should stop whining. And of course, he too said that all Americans should get behind him after he won. The double standards are priceless, but as you say, the MSM never seem to be able to spot such.

  13. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    The obvious answer is that Labor, the Greens, other progressive voices in new micro parties and Independents should form The ALLiance which will provide a formidable, winning, equitable Opposition to the LNP Coalition Debacle, and which will win sustainable and effective government;

  14. Steve Laing - makeourvoiceheard.com

    JMS – as long as they are prepared to change the rules to make the system more democratic (which would naturally reduce the Coalitions various unfair advantages), I truly don’t care how they get into power 🙂

    But an improved system where legislation is built using more co-operative means, rather than this rather dull and frankly highly ineffective adversarial mechanism, has got to be the outcome we are looking for.

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