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Mean, tricky, out of touch and not listening

By Graham Young - posted Sunday, 15 April 2001

There is nothing startling in the contents of Shane Stone’s memo to John Howard, leaked to Laurie Oakes at The Bulletin. They were notes of a meeting of all but two of the Queensland Liberal Party’s elected members and Senators that was held the day after the last Queensland State election. As the Prime Minister noted, the consensus of the meeting was pretty similar to the consensus that would have come from any focus group at the time.

According to the Stone memo, the Queensland politicians said that Howard’s government was seen as being mean, tricky, out of touch, and not listening. The issues that concerned them were largely tax related – the BAS form; GST on fuel, beer and caravan parks; the superannuation surcharge; and single-entity taxation. They felt that government ministers weren’t listening to them and that they were being actively undermined by National Party ministers. Howard, Costello and National Party Leader Anderson all got a pasting.

This was all of two months ago, and the government has since moved to fix most of the problems so why is the memo suddenly news? It is news because it was leaked, and because Peter Costello and his supporters reacted so poorly to it. It is the leaking and the reactions, rather than the memo itself, that reveal problems for the government.


First to the leak. This indicates a government in disarray. Leaks are part and parcel of the business of media management, but they only start targetting internal opponents when things are not going well. Who benefits? This is the parlour game obsessing most national political journalists, and it is predicated on the assumption that there are two camps in the government – the Howard camp and the Costello one. This presumption is right, but I have yet to hear a convincing reason for what anyone on either side might have thought to gain vis-à-vis the other.

What is certain is that the document had a very small circulation. Stone apparently typed it on his laptop, printed it off, handed it to the PM and then deleted it from his hard drive. Everyone accepts that he was not the source of the leak, which means that it had to come from someone connected with the Prime Minister’s office.

So why would someone connected with that office hand it over to Oakes? If it was to damage Costello they got their pitch badly wrong because his whole article takes the "Dear John" line putting the onus on Howard. Costello is mentioned, but he does not take the headlines. Some allege that there was no criticism of Costello in the meeting. Stone may have over-stated what criticism there was, but it is implausible to suggest there was none. After all, whose department oversees the GST, BAS, Superannuation…?

It is much more likely that if it was done with any rational motive it was to demonstrate that the Government was listening to the community, and without any thought it would cause the Costello/Howard tensions to surface. And those tensions only surfaced because of the way that Costello’s supporters reacted and because there is an apprehension that the government will lose later this year.

How should Costello’s supporters have dealt with it? Matter-of-factly, just like the Prime Minister. Electors are used to politicians covering up and slipping and sliding when they are met with criticism, especially when it is criticism that everyone accepts as true. Electors hate it so much, that they will reward politicians who make mistakes if they own up to them. Costello’s supporters apparently don’t understand this. Faced with the glaringly obvious they panicked and reached for the standard defence of the kid caught with its hand in the biscuit jar – blame the dobber.

Suddenly every journalist in the country had decided that it was an iron law of politics that you should never write down any criticism of your party leadership. The question wasn’t whether Stone’s notes were correct, but why he was so incompetent to have written them down? I have news for those journalists. Not only do political parties keep copious notes of internal meetings often containing criticisms, but, for example, any piece of qualitative research worth paying for not only contains critical comments, it comes in multiple bound copies. Surely it’s not a surprise to the denizens of print and electronic media that we don’t live in an oral culture anymore. We write things down so that we will be able to accurately recall them in the future. The more important the thing, the more likely it is to be recorded. Why did so many journalists unanimously come to this ridiculous position? Because a group of people was working the phones, feeding them the lines.


The second defence was to claim that this information should have been made public to Costello months ago. I’d be surprised if Costello didn’t know about it. After all, someone else in the meeting also purports to have taken notes which they have anonymously leaked to contradict Stone’s version, and therefore, by implication, they are a Costello supporter. The Queensland Liberal Party is actually the strongest seat of pro-Costello sentiment in the country and any one of a number of participants in the meeting would have been on the phone to Costello afterwards. Particularly as that meeting also discussed Federal Intervention in the Queensland Branch which, inasmuch as it leads to the demise of the Santoro/Carroll faction, potentially diminishes Costello’s support base. Costello is certainly aware in broad terms of his unpopularity. Not only is it present in the Liberal Party’s research, which he would certainly know about, but he is said to be undergoing media training in an attempt to change it.

The repercussions of all of this were that a public rift was opened up in the Government and Stone’s position was called into question at a time when the Government had other things to worry about – like the state of the Queensland Liberal Party and two by-elections – and just when it was starting to gather some momentum again. And all for nothing. Because, while there are two groups in the Liberal Party, Peter Costello is not challenging for the leadership this side of the next election. He doesn’t want it, and he wouldn’t get significant support for it, even if he did.

The entire issue seems to have been driven by the touchiness of the Costello side and this touchiness is a problem for the Liberal Party going into the next election because it is making the team dysfunctional. While Stone’s notes are useful, they are not particularly illuminating. They suffer from the standard limitations of focus groups. They are episodic, dealing with specific issues, but not really relating to any overarching themes – what George Bush Senior called "the vision thing". They tell you where the patient hurts, but not what is ailing them. The best politicians earn their living by changing the framework in which focus groups operate and so changing the perceptions of those groups.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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