Why has the left turned on Rudd more than the right did on Howard?

Tim Dunlop kindly exempts me from his argument that the right’s commentators generally gave the Howard government a soft time, while the left’s commentators have turned on Rudd.

Some theories:

* Right-wingers typically have low expectations of what politics can achieve, and so were not so disappointed with the Howard government. Left-wingers have high expectations – higher than is realistic – so are inevitably disappointed. There was a huge expectations and popularity bubble around Rudd that in my view was always absurdly out of line with the fundamentals. It had to burst and it has.

* Labor governments try to do more than Liberal governments, and given the inherent limitations of state action are therefore more likely to stuff things up. The national broadband network looks like the next big Rudd fiasco, if he survives the 2010 election. Blunders put both left and right commentators on the attack.

* The views of right-wing commentators were closer to those of Howard than the views of the broad left were to Rudd. Most wouldn’t regard the examples Dunlop gives of failed Howard policies – Iraq, WorkChoices – as failed policies.

Dunlop also complains that:

… there is a structural (attitudinal?) bias against strong, unabashed leftwing voices on mainstream commentary pages. What’s more, the democratic tendency of left-leaning commentators to criticise their own side actually plays to this bias.

He’s right that the tabloid press particularly tends towards right-of-centre commentators, though there are exceptions like Jill Singer at the Herald-Sun and Maralyn Parker at the Daily Telegraph (though I haven’t read much of Parker except for her attacks on private schools). But both are minor figures compared to say Andrew Bolt.

The structural/commercial reason for the tabloid right bias may reflect the different paths right and left have taken over the last 20 years. One of the most important changes on the conservative right has been the development of a strong populist edge, which gives them a natural affinity with tabloid audiences. On the other hand while the left will still support the material interests of the tabloid-reading masses, culturally the left has very little in common with them. Any concerns working class people might have about immigration or refugees are dismissed as racism. Their patriotic feelings are disparaged and challenged with ‘black armband’ history. Newspapers are reluctant to offend their readers, and so the tabloids don’t publish too much of this stuff.

By contrast there is plenty of it in The Age in particular, which lacks a weekly right-wing columnist, though Chris Berg appears in The Sunday Age every couple of weeks. This again presumably reflects a commercial judgment on what the readers want to see in their paper.

One factor that is hard to assess is the distribution of talent. Lefties with opinions have far more opportunities to find work in unions, NGOs, and universities than right-wingers. Perhaps this diverts left talent away from the media, while right-wingers with fewer alternatives head into the media commentariat.

44 thoughts on “Why has the left turned on Rudd more than the right did on Howard?

  1. I really have to sigh whenever I read/hear people go-on about the “Left” in Australia. There are about 837 of them still alive, and all of them spend 24/7 on the Net, or bitching about the agenda items the NTEU just emailed them for next month’s suggestion box.


  2. I don’t accept the Tim’s argument that the left are under-represented in the papers. Comparing people to Bolt is silly – he has made an effort an built up his reputation by running a media blog. But there are a whole bunch of left-wing media types that Tim has neglected. I’m sure I’ll miss some out too. Tim Dunlop himself was at News Corp. Michelle Grattan, Ross Gittins, George M., Mike Steketee, Catherine Deveny, Laura Tingle, Lenore Taylor, Brian Toohey, all whole bunch at the ABC, and SMH – whom I don’t really know. That’s before we get to the regular columnists who are not on staff at the media. The Andrew Leigh’s, John Quiggin’s, Nick Gruen’s of the world. I’m sure I have left out heaps of people – sorry to them.


  3. It is also more than idiotic to dismiss Bolt as “right-wing;” easily replaced by a supposedly “left-wing” equal, should some change or other take place.

    This is nonsense.

    Whether Bolt is “right” wing or otherwise is irrelevant. He is simply Australia’s best newspaper opinion columnist.

    There is not a “left” winger within coo-ee to fill Andrew’s shoes, should he take the Paris option.


  4. Sinc – Though many of those people are centrist from a left perspective. I agree that left-of-centre people are well represented in the Fairfax papers, so confined my comments to the tabloids.


  5. I don’t think anybody is dismissing Bolt. He is very good at what he does, which is why he upsets the left so much.


  6. Your third proposal is probably most correct. Howard was closer to much of the Australian Right than Rudd is to the Left.

    Also Howard did not promise everyone everything as Rudd did when he came in.


  7. If Andrew Dunlop is in the midst of some cyber-group hug among fellow leftist bloggers and demi-journo types for tut-tutting KRudd, and broadcasting this as an emblem of his ilk’s virtues of democracy, self-reflexivity, and courage, he needs a Bex, and a good lie down.

    Hullo? Rudd and the ALP are NOT LEFT WING, and have not been since Hawke.

    When are these tragic Useful Idiots going to fess up that their electoral box-ticking makes them footsoldiers for the cadre of careerist yuppies who have stolen and pack-raped the ALP turning it into a soulless party of reaction with a neoliberal twist?


  8. Could it just be that the right didn’t turn on Howard as much as the left has on Rudd because the right are more tribal and keen to “defend their own”. E.g the left was always getting stuck into Howard, so that motivated right-wing commentators to defend him rather than adopt a more critical view of his various failures.


  9. Tim Dunlop kindly exempts me from his argument that the right’s commentators generally gave the Howard government a soft time, while the left’s commentators have turned on Rudd.

    The one major reason the right ought to be shitty with Howard is that he stayed on 2 two years too long and caused the defeat of the party. That’s really the only thing we could fault with Howard for the most part as he ran a pretty decent government in comparative terms.

    Rudd on the other hand should never have been PM as he seems mentally unqualified and is now responsible for the worst government in the modern era. It’s worse than Whitlam and Fraser’s.


  10. The right are at times very tribal but I seriously struggle with the notion that they are more tribal than the left.


  11. JC – If you don’t want to go into moderation with each comment, you will need to stop saying ‘s**t’. My civililty moderation is catching it.


  12. the major problem could well lbe in defining people.sinkers lines up a whole lot of centrists and labels them lefties. Well everyone except Genghis Khan is leftist to Sinkers.

    howard like Rudd ran a reasonably competent government but ran out of steam about 2001.

    no-one on the ‘right’ picked up many arguments with Howard because they simply have no idea about fiscal policy operates so for example they completely missed the large and growing structural deficit of the last three years of the Howard Government because they simply didn’t understand it like sinkers.

    to them there was either a Surplus or balanced budget and that is all that mattered.


  13. “Whether Bolt is “right” wing or otherwise is irrelevant. He is simply Australia’s best newspaper opinion columnist.”

    Only if you define opinion column writing as “the shrill repetition of incorrect information”.


  14. The left has turned on Rudd because he made promises, won the election and then couldn’t get half of them done.

    Howard made promises, got elected, broke them, unexpectedly got senate control and passed things he never mentioned.

    Fundamental difference is that Rudd (like Obama) has struggled to get the Senate to pass some of his key policy despite him having won the election. Instead he is getting blocked by senators who last faced the people at the last election and who never ran on the current issues.

    This does suggest that the current Senate setup is potentially flawed. Or maybe we shouldn’t vote based on specific policy, but based on general positions?


  15. M – Labor had 43% of the H or R primary vote and 40% of the Senate vote in 2007, so it is not clear to me that the Senate voting down Labor bills is any breach of democratic principles – aside from the good constitutional design in having checks on even governments with majorities.


  16. I don’t think this left-right dichotomy has any value in modern politics, including in explaining the reaction to Rudd.

    More relevant is peoples’ aversion to discovering they’ve been deceived, and I think that’s behind the developing hostility towards Rudd. Rudd’s actions show a blatant opportunist at work.

    There are several groups who could reasonably feel deceived. One was on display on the 7:30 Report a few nights ago. Kerry O’Brien seemed to be genuinely angry that the Labor vote had fallen to 33 percent. In that case, I there was a feeling that Rudd had squandered Labor’s victory and imperilled a second term.


  17. Sensational post!
    The proposition ‘has the left turned on the Ruddster more than the right on Howard’ is bang on. But there’s no big conspiracy to this. It’s the simple fact that Howard did a bloody good job. Sure he taxed a little too much, didn’t quite get the free market stuff exactly right, and went a trite yella on some economic reforms, but he will go down as one of Australia’s best prime ministers. The first leader in a long time to stand up to political correctness. Yep, the Ruddster aint fit to spit ‘n’ polish the shoes of the ‘Man of Steel’. Honestly, Rudd makes Joan Kirner look like a super star.

    As for this media stuff, GIVE ME A BREAK! The left are soooo over represented in the media its not funny. Anyone with a right of centre view barely gets a guernsey, let alone systematic bias. Andrew Bolt , the great man himself, is not followed for being right-wing, but for beign a superb journalist who puts evidence before ideology. I would go so far to say that Bolty isn’t even right wing. He’s just common sense!

    Anyway, the turn-around in political dynamics is fantastic. C’mon Libbies, smack em good!


  18. To compare Andrew Bolt (an extremist right winger) with people like Gittins, Gruen and Leigh (sensible economists with a smattering of left views) is like comparing chalk with cheese.

    And will greenies (with their strong views on ETS, opposition to small government, resource rental tax etc) end up giving their preferences to Abbott? I suspect they might not – but who knows?


  19. “There was a huge expectations and popularity bubble around Rudd that in my view was always absurdly out of line with the fundamentals. It had to burst and it has.”

    Andrew, I think you deserve some kudos from your readers for getting this call from back in 2007 exactly right. Rudd has, to a large extent, brought the now-prevailing disappointment about his government on himself by promising so much before the last election.

    It will be interesting to see how Gillard manages the Labor Party faithfuls’ expectations around her performance if and when she takes over.


  20. One of the difficulties with this sort of analysis lies in the understanding and subsequent application of the “left’ and “right” terminology. It is more useful to understand the terms not as a dichotomy but as a continuum. The rather crude broad-brush displayed by Sinclair in characterizing a number of journos as a ‘bunch of left-wing media types’ illustrates this point. The real world is obviously far more nuanced than such a simplistic and foolish categorization suggests.
    However, despite some convergence, our political culture remains one of ‘hunting in packs’. The unfortunate consequence being that complex issues are not critically explored but consciously simplified to buttress the ’pack’. Given this situation, the recent growth in ‘populism’ and ‘anti-politics’ should come as no surprise.
    Strongly held partisan views tend to blind people from understanding the nature of politics in liberal democracies. Politics is a messy, inconclusive, tangled business – the passionate pursuit by partisans from the Left or Right of their agendas will always be doomed to disappointment.
    And, of course, with disappointment comes blame!
    Clearly managing the expectations of followers is a key responsibiliy of political leaders.


  21. I genuinely consider myself to be neutral in political debates. So its not bias when I say that this idea that Rudd is having difficulties because he over promised is bogus.
    Rajat, you are right he did over promise and he did build expectations. Yes, you are right that he has under delivered compared to expectations. But it is more than that. It’s that he has done nothing. No worse than that. He has made Australia go backwards. It would have been better if he just did nothing.
    As for Fred Argy ‘bargy’ – Gittens is a commo, Gruen can’t get out of the shadow of his forefathers and Leigh…well he’s just Leigh – say no more. Amongst that lot – Bolt is middle of the road. Speaks for the common man I would say.


  22. ” And will greenies (with their strong views on ETS, opposition to small government, resource rental tax etc) end up giving their preferences to Abbott? I suspect they might not – but who knows?”

    Few ‘greenies’ will. But clearly the Green vote and greenies are not the same thing. As the major minor party the Greens, like the Democrats did in the past, are picking up voters who are dissatisfied with the major parties but are not signing up to the Green ideological package.


  23. “The first leader in a long time to stand up to political correctness.” – actually Howard just articulated and conveyed a new form of conservative political correctness. And current debates still play out within the limits of that paradigm of political correctness.


  24. The left has the Greens, the right has no-one “mainstream” to the right of the Liberals, so they HAVE to back them.

    You saw the Liberal vote dive when One Nation first rose to prominence and “right” wing punters jumped to the ship they felt better represent them on issues like immigration.

    The fact is to a lot of people on the left climate change IS “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, I think the lack of a double dissolution, more than anything else, is what’s taken the wind out of the sails of Rudd’s status as a hero of the left. The green’s poll popularity has gone up for a reason.

    Also as an aside I’ll throttle anyone who says either party had a majority support in recent history. Neither party has had a majority vote cast for them since 1975 pre-Democrats. Since then there has been a plurality winner every election. So to speak of “majority mandate” when the winner is actually just the biggest loser is disingenuous.


  25. Yes Sinclair, poor Andrew Bolt is the only centrist those left wing media barons have allowed to slip through to counter the vast left wing conspiracy. The sooner they give you a regular column to bring some balance back the better. Eye of the beholder indeed.


  26. Andrew Bolt is hardly a centrist – a moderate with some populist views is how I’d describe him. 🙂


  27. Bolt obvious hurts the left and judging by the fact they even have full bloggers on to him going through his every word I’d say the pain is pretty deep.

    I’m with Sinclair, Bolt isn’t really very right wing from what i can tell. In fact I think he would support a Gillard Leadership.


  28. Well, Bolt doesn’t write too much about economics – so hard to tell where he stands there. But I think he’s certainly a social conservative, and whilst there are a few social conservatives on the left, being one generally puts you on the right of the political spectrum. I think climate change skepticism is also generally something that puts you on the right of the political spectrum (with some few exceptions).


  29. Only if you define opinion column writing as “the shrill repetition of incorrect information”.

    Actually no. All you need to do is define it as somebody who is hired to write newspaper columns on sharing their opinions on this or that issue.


  30. The left is spending all these resources checking every word that Bolt says???
    That would be right. They’re not interested in real work, just trying to show up someone’s words.


  31. Like Baz said, the main reason the “the right” never turned on John Howard is that John Howard was a good prime minister, and his stay in office was largely positive.

    It’s only a tiny minority of the leftist echo chamber who regard John Howard as some sort of monster, Australia’s own George W. Bush or something.

    The truth is the only thing Howard really did wrong in the eyes of most people was to stay on too long, until people eventually got sick of him. If he had have resigned before the last election, Rudd would never have been elected in the first place because let’s face it, he’s a moron.


  32. I agree with those that are basically saying the terms left and right are useless. I prefer to follow the philosophy of say classical liberal, modern liberal, conservative, neoconservative, etc.

    Again the trouble with that people who may identify as these things have no idea what these things mean (by definition) which became clear to me after Andrew Norton’s survey here where he asked people to describe people their own political positions.

    I understand the use of the terms left and right for simplicity sake though. Using these terms this is my take on the position of people Sinclair Davidson put forth

    Tim Dunlop – left
    Michelle Grattan – left
    Ross Gittins – centre
    George M. – centre
    Mike Steketee – centre to centre-right
    Catherine Deveny – waste of space
    Laura Tingle – right
    Lenore Taylor – centre
    Brian Toohey – right

    Leigh – centre-left
    Quiggin – left to centre-left
    Gruen – centre-right

    A few of the op-ed writers I haven’t read much of but others I have read more than enough. As for the academics/economists I’ve read a lot of all their work.

    So why have the initial Rudd supporters turned on him? 1. Senate Obstruction 2. He tries things and if they fail, tries something new like a good project manager does after so many failures 3. Brow beat by the media (has been exposed in some blogs of late – e.g. compare ACA today to the Hewson GST Birthday Cake interview) 4. Seemingly not of conviction hence the loss of support after the appearance of a 180 on the ETS. It may indeed be a backflip as you eventually come out facing the same way in a backflip, so that term may have been used correctly for once.

    5. The “left” are quite diverse, the “right” is not, so the “left” extremists get upset quickly and easily – see the Greens


  33. ” 5. The “left” are quite diverse, the “right” is not, so the “left” extremists get upset quickly and easily – see the Greens.”

    The broad left may be diverse, but one interesting aspect of my survey was that at least on the issues raised liberals had more diverse policy views than social democrats.

    Generally the left is thought to have more in common with the right. The left believe in more equality than we have now, even if they differ in how much equality and on how many dimensions. There is no common idea of the right except that they are against the left.


  34. With the respect Andrew, and as someone who has long admired your blog, this is a silly post. No doubt Andrew Bolt is very good at what he does. So is Catherine Deveney, which is why the right hate her so much. But just because someone is good at what they do doesn’t mean what they do is good for anybody.

    When left-wing forms of anti-science, historical denialism (as an aside: remember Bolta’s views on Pinochet?) and conspiracy theories are given as much space in the press as right wing forms, then you might have space to dismiss Tim’s complaints.

    To excuse the kind of hurt that Bolt has delivered to many indigenous people and communities, or the insults he has hurled at Australian scientists and bureaucrats, because he “annoys the left” is to engage in sophistry of the first order.

    I don’t mean to pick on Bolt. I’m sure he’s personally a nice guy, even moderate in many respects. But the reasons he annoys me, and many others, go beyond the political. His style is shrill and uncivil. We could do without him. And we certainly don’t need any more left-wing versions of him than we have.

    I could be upset by the emergence of this kind of tribalism on the Australia right because I am of the left, or because I fail to see the kind of structural differences you claim to locate in this post, but I doubt it. I think it’s far more likely that the problem Tim and I are talking about is real–and you should do more than look the other way.


  35. Robert – I think you need to read the post more carefully. I actually agreed with Tim’s basic analysis and tried to explain why it might the case, without offering a view on whether it is good or bad or anyone’s substantive views are good or bad. Bolt was a an example of a successful (ie people read him and talk about him) right-of-centre columnist.

    Many of my posts try to side-step culture wars issues because I know mentioning them will set off predictable tribal disagreements.


  36. Andrew–I don’t disagree that you try to explain why it might be the case. I think your explanations are a little bit self-serving. But I’ll make another point: if you agree with Tim for the large part, why ignore the thrust of his argument? If someone makes a case that a certain feature of the commentariat is dangerous, or uncivil or unpleasant, don’t you have an obligation to respond on the merits? Tim described the phenomenon as “bad…for democracy”. What are your views on his point? Do you think the kind of aggressiveness that is associated with Bolt is part of some cultural war which brings out the same evil on both sides of the ideological divide? This seems to be how you treat it. But I think we should resist this characterisation. With the exception of Deveney, I can’t think of any one in the leftwing media who throws bombs like the Bolts and the Blairs.

    You say you don’t want to be drawn into cultural warfare, but your comment trots out a couple of familiar rightwing cultural tropes. Insistence on remembering historical injustices committed against indigenous people isn’t “black-arm band”; and needn’t interfere with patriotism. But the tabloid media regularly acts as if it is. It is exactly this kind of attitude that alienates people from trying to intellectually engage with the right. This is to everyone’s detriment. I suspect you know this. So why ignore it?


  37. Robert – I think it is healthy that a variety of views are expressed, but I believe that this is already the case. There is a bias to the left in the Fairfax papers and the ABC, and to the right in the tabloids and talkback, but both give space to the other side.

    I don’t read Blair at all and Bolt only occasionally (since I took to catching up on blogs rather than reading the Herald-Sun over lunch), but I would categorise his style as forceful rather than aggressive. He is a class above someone like Deveny, who just had her political prejudices and produced rants. Bolt goes looking for information to support his case and writes very fluently. I’m sure it stings when you are on the receiving end (my spies tell me that Bolt once took a small swipe at me in a speech, which stung a little bit), but we can’t conduct politics on the assumption that everyone is psychologically fragile. It is not realistic about the passions people bring to politics.


  38. Catherine Deveney is good at what she does???
    This the same person who made the comments about Bindi Irwin? Who are you kidding Bob? Bolt and Deveny are chalk and cheese!


  39. Sennex alleged …

    Michelle Grattan is left????

    Good grief. On what basis? I always assumed that she was a right of centre journalistioc airhead. I’ve never actually heard her make a substantive political claim, but her predisposition on every occasion I’ve heaerd her comment on fran kelly’s Breakfast show has been to treat the latest coalition or Oz talking point as if it was sage commentary, typically prefaced by I do think.

    If she can be mistaken for a leftist, we leftists are in a lot of trouble. I might even take up declaring I’m a rightist simply to avoid the potential confusion with Grattan.


  40. She’s good at what she does because she annoys people like you Baz! There are a lot of lefties out there who love having her stroke their prejudices. It’s not a good thing, but she does it well.


  41. Michelle Grattan on Howard in the book on PM’s clearly critiqued Howard from a left/progressivist perspective.

    Bolt’s original background was right wing ALP, which strikes me as not that far from where his politics still is. To describe him as an “extreme right winger” just says one does not get out enough.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s