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Black Swans and Narratives

Black Swan

Photo: Fairfax media

We’re natural story making machines. We like to give our universe a sense of order and reason, so when something happens, we like to create a plausible narrative on this. Of course, sometimes the narrative is just plain wrong, but if enough people repeat it, it seems to make sense.

For example, many people have talked about “that handshake” as being the defining moment in the 2004 election. Mark Latham’s aggressive handshake with John Howard made the electorate think of him as a bully and not controlled enough to be PM. Of course, this completely overlooks the fact that the handshake probably had little effect on the vast majority of the electorate. If a mistake by Howard or one of his front bench had led to a Latham victory, then commentators would be suggesting that the handshake was the moment where Latham defined himself as a younger, more appealing candidate and made Howard look old and past it.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “The Black Swan” talks about the dangers of retrospective analysis. He argues “almost all consequential events in history come from the unexpected—yet humans later convince themselves that these events are explainable in hindsight.” That we, for example, respond as though the events leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union were obvious and Reagan’s decisions were part of a brilliant strategy.

Apple’s resurgence under Steve Jobs is well documented. With Jobs’ death, Apple may continue to thrive or may be overtaken by a more creative company. Whatever, the narrative may have Jobs as the guru who was irreplaceable, as someone who imposed such a strong culture that Apple continues to thrive or even as someone whose importance was exaggerated. With hindsight, one of those will be an obvious narrative, but which will it be? That’s the interesting question.

And so with Labor’s leadership change. Will the media begin to speculate about a Turnbull challenge if the polls are poor?

A few people have suggested that Shorten has done himself no favours. Of course, that may well be the case. In five years time – if anyone cares – we may be writing that Shorten destroyed his chances of ever being PM when he publicly backed Rudd. But there are many potential narratives. If Rudd goes close or wins (amazing!), then Shorten will be able to paint his “difficult decision” as what saved the ALP from an electoral wipeout. Rather than be the pariah, he can be the “hero” of the narrative. His ambition is obvious, but whether his decision to back Rudd hinders or helps that decision only time will tell.

At the moment, there is a lot of anger from Gillard supporters. Some feel that Rudd’s negativity and treachery shouldn’t be rewarded. I’ve heard more than one person declare that they’ll never vote Labor again. But when it comes to election day, how many will actually preference the Abbott led Liberals above the ALP? Abbott’s negativity or Rudd’s undermining? Mm, if the Greens don’t get a boost, they may as well give up politics and create a real “Direct Action” plan for the environment.

Rudd may not be the messiah. (“He’s just a naughty boy!”) Last night, Michael Kroger was saying that he was the “worst Prime Minister we’d ever had”! (Where have I heard that before?) He also said that Labor all hated each other. No-one asked him if he’d had lunch with Costello lately, or whether he’d like to provide a reference for Jeff Kennett to take over at Melbourne.

But apart from Kroger, the Liberal’s narrative is now looking more inconsistent than ever. “Rudd was replaced by the ‘faceless men’ – outrageous!” becomes “Rudd was restored by the ‘faceless men’ – outrageous!” Except that in recent ballot it was the actual party that voted for Rudd – no suggestion of external union interference. If anything, the unions backed Gillard.

Similarly, the ad that the Liberals have ready, using quotes from Gillard, Latham, Garrett, Emerson and others, doesn’t quite make sense. Aren’t these the people who the Liberals have told us aren’t worth listening to? But how can they work together? Aren’t these people leaving Parliament? 

Even the idea that Julia lied about the Carbon tax and needs to be punished is being blunted by the media. Headlines like “Rudd’s Revenge” may actually help Labor. I know that they’re not intended to. But for some, it’ll be Rudd who got rid of “that woman”, after Abbott was too ineffectual to do it.

How it actually pans out is guesswork. I’m sure that some of the comments will tell me that they know that Labor are still heading for oblivion and that others will tell me that it’s all ok, now Kevin’s back in charge. And some people will be right, but beware the retrospective narrative. Beware the “Of course, Shorten had to do what he did – he saved them!” or “If only they’d stuck with Julia – it’d have be ok!” Some people have announced with certainty that Labor would be thrown out on September 14th and the Liberals had a countdown clock – neither, whichever way it goes, will be true. (Unless Rudd does hold it on September 14th, and loses badly!).

Gillard has done an extraordinary job, under impossible circumstances; history should be kinder to her than the media criticism over the past few years would suggest. But then no-one ever points out that Whitlam left almost no Government debt. Or that “Blue Poles” is now worth many, many more times what we paid for it.

History, someone once said, is written by the winners. Actually, it’s written by the writers. Let’s make sure that the “official” version is not the only voice being heard.

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