Does plagiarism by politicians matter?

Someone in Malcolm Turnbull’s office has had a very bad day. It seems that material he or she gave to Julie Bishop, the new Shadow Treasurer, was lifted from The Wall Street Journal. Bishop was subsequently accused of plagiarism.

In some cases plagiarism is clearly a problem. But it is hard to get worked up about it when committed by a politician.

If the sin in plagiarism is passing off other people’s work as your own, then for senior politician it is a sin that they commit just about every day. They rely heavily on advisers (and for those in government, bureaucrats) to prepare speeches, media releases, position papers and correspondence. Their staff are trying to second-guess the politician – to say what he or she would say, if he or she had the time – but nevertheless the words are not the politician’s. Using other people’s words is an occupational necessity; there would be massive efficiency loses if we pedantically insisted on personal authorship.

In this case, the words were copied from someone who was not employed by a politician. But the words were just a news report of information that was widely available in any case, on how the proposed US financial sector rescue package would work. There is no ethical issue here in giving credit to the intellectual or creative work of others, as there is in some plagiarism cases.

Politicians and their staff should paraphrase to spare us these tiresome controversies. But the fact that the Bishop/WSJ borrowing was reported at all reflects the application of norms of original work that properly apply to creative endeavours or when testing student knowledge, but which have little relevance to politics.

What we did not agree to at 2020

As Joshua Gans notes, the final report of the 2020 Summit is out.

The authors of the productivity stream report certainly have an interesting definition of the word ‘agree’, as in ‘the stream agreed to the following’. What this means is that the ideas that follow were not, in the limited time available, subject to sufficiently vigorous dissent to knock them out of consideration. But given those time constraints, most people were more concerned with getting their own pet ideas in than keeping other people’s pet ideas out.

Given the lack of a proper decision making procedure, the productivity stream as a whole agreed to none of the ideas presented.

There are many bad ideas in this document, but two in particular amused me:

* [ensure] that policies and programs are informed by evidence and rigorous evaluation

This from a group that rarely gave policy suggestions more than a few minutes of explanation or discussion.

* develop measures to improve work-life balance

From a group sacrificing its weekend, led by a man who shows less regard for work-life balance than just about any other major employer.

24/7 not enough

Today I received a letter from the Prime Minister thanking me for my less-than-enthusiastic participation in the 2020 summit.

The most interesting part of the letter was the date. It says ‘April 2008′, with a hand-written ’30’ in front of it. If this is when the letter was actually prepared, it has taken Rudd’s office the best part of a month just to post a letter.

As I was saying, a 30% cut in Ministerial staff cannot be done without consequences.

The imaginary ghost of Menzies

The ghost of Robert Menzies has yet again been sent to haunt to the modern Liberal Party, this time by Canberra Times economics editor Peter Martin. The target is usually John Howard, but this time it is Peter Costello. In response to the Treasurer’s efforts this last week to heavy the banks into not raising interest rates, Martin writes:

John Howard’s hero, the founder of the Liberal Party and Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies fought the Labor Party’s attempt to nationalise Australia’s private banks with every fibre of his being….

The man who would like to become the next leader of the Liberal Party, Australia’s Treasurer Peter Costello is acting as if Menzies had never won…

The fact is the banks can move their rates wherever they like (so long as they don’t collude). Menzies made sure of it.

Like others who have taken up the Menzies-is-more liberal-than-Howard meme, Martin has his history wrong. As economist blogger Stephen Kirchner explained to me:

Continue reading “The imaginary ghost of Menzies”

Proxy analysis

On complex issues, people often resort to proxy measures to make judgments. At think-tanks, we get it all the time. People often seem more interested in who the funders are than the time-consuming process of working out whether our arguments make sense or not.

So the authors of this week’s Australia@Work report can hardly have been surprised when Joe Hockey focused on the report’s union links. Particularly as it turns out that Hockey made his original comments afer being called by a journalist for comment on a report which he had not seen. The summary the journalist gave probably focused only on negative comments about the government, which generated the predictable response.

The actual report, however, would not immediately give any cause for confidence that it was not just pushing the union line. After all, if as its cover says it is ‘sponsored by Unions NSW’ the conclusion that its content would be favourable to Unions NSW is not exactly counter-intuitive.

In this morning’s Australian, the paper digs up a speech by Australia@Work author John Buchanan, in which he declares himself to be a socialist. Can a socialist view WorkChoices objectively?

Buchanan and his co-authors were also trying to invoke a proxy measure of the report’s worth, citing the Australian Research Council in addition to Unions NSW as a ‘sponsor’ of the research. According to The Age:

Continue reading “Proxy analysis”

To whom does the mud stick?

Did any of the Brian Burke mud stick to Kevin Rudd? This morning’s polls suggest that the voters don’t entirely buy Rudd’s version of events. According to the SMH, reporting this morning’s ACNielsen poll:

53 per cent thinking he had been “partly truthful” in explaining himself, and 10 per cent feeling he had been “completely untruthful”. Twenty-four per cent thought he had been “completely truthful”. …

But the poll found 83 per cent of voters said their view of Mr Rudd was unaffected by the Burke affair.

Rudd’s approval rating was up 2 percentage points on the last ACNielsen poll a month ago, while his disapproval rating was up 4 percentage points. So perhaps the attack helped sway more of the previously uncommitted toward a negative view of the Opposition Leader. But did it hurt the PM even more? His approval rating was down 3 percentage points, and his disapproval rating up 5 percentage points. There is precedent for the mud sticking more to the person throwing it than the target. As I argued last November, NSW Opposition Leader Peter Debnam’s unsubstantiated attacks on Bob Debus pretty clearly backfired on Debnam.

The trouble with the attack on Rudd was that it was the kind of manufactured scandal on which the press gallery thrives, but which must leave the punters scratching or even shaking their heads. There was no allegation of any real wrong-doing, just guilt by association. It looked like we were seeing a panicked government as much as an Opposition Leader with poor judgment. The whole thing collapsed into farce with Ian Campbell’s resignation and the tenuous (in the extreme) connections made between his successor David Johnston and Burke, via his shares in companies which had dealings with Burke.

This is not to say that mud-slinging never works. But unless the evidence is good, there is a real chance that it will harm the slinger as much or more than the target.


If you read this blog, you’ve known since November last year what Peter Costello told Parliament yesterday: that Kevin Rudd’s ‘Brutopia’ comes not from the late British conservative intellectual Michael Oakeshott, but from Donald Duck comics. In the Treasurer’s words:

When you ask where he [Rudd] draws his inspiration for his quack economic policy, you find that it comes from a Donald Duck magazine. …This is the evolutionary cycle of the Labor Party. We have moved from Mark Latham’s roosters to Kevin Rudd’s ducks.

The SMH took it one better, labelling Rudd’s views ‘quackonomics’ (in a play on Freakonomics), but they are still buying the Oakeshott line:

Labor’s spin doctors argued that the tactics showed the Government had failed to find any point of substance against Mr Rudd. Yet you can be sure this year he will resist the temptation to intellectualise his subject matter with clever terminology even if it was actually borrowed from British conservative Michael Oakeshott, rather than Donald Duck.

I’ll email the journalist today and ask him to get Labor to provide the exact source of this claimed Oakeshottian term.

Has Howard delivered on Hanson’s maiden speech goals?

So Pauline Hanson is planning another go at politics. This time the problem isn’t Aborigines or Asians, it’s Africans and Muslims:

“We’re bringing in people from South Africa at the moment, there’s a huge amount coming into Australia, who have diseases, they’ve got AIDS,” Ms Hanson told AAP…..

But Ms Hanson said politicians had gone too far in affording rights to minority groups and she was angered at the loss of Australian traditions because of Muslims. “Our governments have bent over backwards to look after them (Muslims) and their needs, and regardless of what the Australian people think,” she said.

“You can’t have schools not sing Christmas carols because it upsets others, you can’t close swimming baths because Muslim women want to swim in private, that’s not Australian.”

Ms Hanson is not the only person dipping into their bag of prejudices. Christopher Scanlon, a co-editor of the radical left Arena Magazine, is taking the argument that Howard is the respectable face of Hansonism for another trip around the Fitzroy block.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, just note that the party that disowned her has now delivered on every single one of the substantive policies proposed in Hanson’s maiden speech.

Unfortnately for Scanlon’s argument this is an exaggeration, and a big one, as anyone who bothered to check Hanson’s maiden speech would realise. If Hanson stood for anything, it was reducing Asian immigration:
Continue reading “Has Howard delivered on Hanson’s maiden speech goals?”

Some Whitlam nostalgia of my own

Though Whitlamite nostalgia can be a poor guide for contemporary public policy, it is at least understandable that Labor’s true believers remember those years fondly. But when they start indulging in Menzies nostalgia something very odd is going on. In his first speech to Parliament after becoming leader, Kevin Rudd said:

…this modern Liberal Party, is that it is not the Liberal Party of old. If you go back and read what Bob Menzies had to say about social responsibility and social justice, there is no way that Bob Menzies would fit into the world view that we are now being offered. You see, the member for Kooyong recently delivered a speech on Bob Menzies?? legacy within the Liberal Party on these questions of social responsibility. It is quite clear when you read that clearly that there has been an ocean of change between that Liberal Party and what it stood for, despite our criticisms of it and our disagreements with it at the time, and the market fundamentalism which has overtaken the current Liberal Party.

It’s another example of the strange meme that recontructs the conservative Robert Menzies as some kind of left-leaning social democrat. In a fiscal fact-checking exercise sadly lacking among those making this claim about Menzies, today I visited the economics library at Melbourne University to see just how the Menzies government’s spending levels compared with that of John Howard’s government.
Continue reading “Some Whitlam nostalgia of my own”

Do personal political attacks work #2?

A couple of weeks ago I thought that the polls showed some signs that the personal personal attacks, mainly directed at Victorian Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu, weren’t working – and that maybe Australian voters would resist the American trend of mud-slinging campaigns.

While the Victorian ALP was trying to damage Baillieu by talking about his shareholdings and his real estate firm, NSW Opposition Leader Peter Debnam stuck his hand into Bill Heffernan’s septic tank and chucked what he found at NSW Attorney-General Bob Debus.

Early this week, the two Sydney daily newspapers each released state political polls. We can say fairly confidently that this attack did not help Debnam’s cause. In the SMH/ACNielsen poll the two-party preferred was stable on ALP 51%, Coalition 49% since July, but Debnam’s disapproval rating had increased from 33% to 44%. In the Daily Telegraph/Galaxy poll the Liberal and National parties were down 8 percentage points on the two-party preferred since September, to ALP 52%, Coalition 48%. 57% of NSW voters – including a third of Labor voters – say that the ALP does not deserve to win the state election. But with even lower confidence in the Opposition, Labor will be returned.

In Victoria, satisfaction with Ted Baillieu as recorded by Newspoll was stable over the last two weeks of the campaign, up 1% since my last post to 46%. But his dissatisfaction rating was up 2% to 30%. Both results could be statistical noise. A Herald Sun/Galaxy poll directly asked its respondents about whether Labor attacks on Baillieu’s share portfolio made them more or less likely to vote Liberal. The vast majority, 70%, said it made no difference. 18% said it made them less likely to vote Liberal, and 10% more likely – perhaps to punish the ALP for running a dirt campaign?
Continue reading “Do personal political attacks work #2?”