Of truth and lies and all shades between

Uh oh. Della’s lunch has raised big questions about whether truth exists and, if it does, is anyone telling it? Craig D thinks he’s got it:

“The Della Bosca blunder is truly a study in the truth. Della Bosca told the truth and self imploded. Beazley says Della Bosca was lying when he told the truth. Della Bosca says he was lying when he told the truth. Beazley must also say he was lying when he truthfully(?) supported a GST some years ago. Della Bosca must have been telling the truth about the GST – a lie could never attract so much attention in Canberra.”

Tim Dunlop pretended he was asking an innocent question:

“Hope you can bear with me while I try to explain this. Actually, explain is the wrong word – while I think out loud.

“I wonder if there isn’t a parallel to be drawn between your comment on the Della Bosca ‘blurt’ and the way you introduced the idea of this Canberra Inside Out forum? Discussing Della Bosca, you wrote: ‘Maxine McKew’s report of her lunch with Della is a must read because the man talked for real. His pathetic excuse that he thought he was off the record only emphasises the dishonesty of public political discourse and imagery.’

“In a similar vein in your introductory column you wrote: ‘I’m allowed to say what I think whenever I like …’

“Now when I read your intro I thought that, um, wait a minute, isn’t that what journalists are meant to do anyway – say what they think? I know sometimes they are meant to just ‘report’ but columnists like you are always meant to say what they think, aren’t they?

“So why is this Inside Out column any different? And does that mean that the stuff you (and others) write elsewhere is not what you really think or what you really want to say?

“In other words, if, as you say, part of the attraction of the Della Bosca blurt is the fact that ‘the man talked for real’ and that we should ‘as journalists and citizens … applaud his honesty’ and that it ‘only emphasises the dishonesty of public political discourse and imagery’, doesn’t your comment about the Inside Out forum beg the same response?

“If part of the attraction of this forum is that you get to say ‘what [you] think’ and that, by implication, this is something to be applauded as out of the ordinary, then wouldn’t we, as citizens, be right to think that it ‘only emphasises the dishonesty of public political discourse and imagery’?

“Don’t get me wrong – I’m not having a big go at you personally, being a fan of long-standing (you and Mike Seccombe often make my day) but I wonder if you haven’t hit on something more central in the state of our relations with our democratic institutions?”


The Herald editor, Paul McGeough, read my diary a couple of days ago and he too was disturbed by the “I can write what I like” line. He, too, said it implied that I couldn’t do the same in the paper.

I am not censored in my paper and certainly didn’t mean to imply such a thing. What I was getting at is that space is limited in a newspaper. Sometimes what I write doesn’t get into the paper because of that or what I write is cut to fit the available space. In the diary, it is self-discipline alone that determines volume.

Also, I often cannot write what I like in a stylistic sense and this is a big attraction of the Net for me. I’ve felt for a while that the current formulae of newspapers are stale and sometimes arid. There’s news style, feature style, opinion style, colour style etc etc. One’s work either fits or it doesn’t make the paper. With limited space, it’s usually impossible to experiment with style.

Since covering Pauline Hanson, I’ve also realised how disconnected we’ve become from readers and how often our opinion pieces are judgmental and closed to alternative perspectives. It’s the same with news – we’ve come to rely on peak bodies to tell us what people feel and think, instead of being on the ground finding out first hand. So this diary is an experiment in attempting to connect and interact with readers in a less formal way while obeying core values of journalism – accuracy and ethics.

As for the unusual case of political honesty via Della, this is one of the most difficult areas for journalists. We must get access to powerful people in order to get the news to our readers. But often they insist that chats be on “background” (for use as information, not for quotation). If you see the journalist as the interface between the people and the powerful, asking questions on behalf of the people and bringing the people’s concerns to the attention of the powerful, then you must admit that their postion is delicate, even compromised. You can easily be co-opted and used and often you can’t tell all of the “truth” because you’ve promised not to in order to get part of it.

But after taking all that into account, your point still stands. One of the problems of political journalism is that we get obsessed with the game, the spin, and forget about “the truth” behind it. Consumers of news, I think, are well aware they’re being spun at and are becoming more interested in the story behind the spin and how “news” is constructed. Newspapers need to tackle that challenge too and I think part of confronting it is to admit the subjectivity of the journalist so the consumer sees the angle from which the reporter is coming and takes account of that when reading his or her work. This does not mean that I am unprofessional – ie that I do not use my best efforts to get the story and to report it accurately. I think it just means that I am being honest with readers. Anyway, Tim, that’s my response, just thinking aloud.


MC Pye of Pyrmont writes: “Margo – do we see the future here in your diary? Is it the death of the apostrophe?

“I like your style – enjoy/think about your thoughts but do you have a trustworthy someone who could intelligently run a spelling checker or an eye over it for those little details? Or is it part of the ‘spontaneous’ on-line SMH style? (Lovely pun tho’: ‘Wither the Labor Party’ rather than ‘whither’)”

The apostrophe absence was not an expeiment in style but the failure of the CyberNews system we work on to pick them up when the story was transferred from Microsoft Word. The on-line operation is small, frenetic and frantically busy at the moment so you get the product pretty raw. We will improve.


MC Pye also wonders how she can answer yes or no to polls.

“They tend not to have the alternative I want to answer. Maybe (as originally trained in science) I’m just a qualified-answer sort of person. But wouldn’t a lot of people be? Most of life – well, the stuff that’s worth thinking about/discussing – isn’t Yes/No.”

Agreed. But with my poll, you can do Yes/No depending on your mood, AND send an e-mail to explain your answer. Speaking of which, David Eastwood, of Sydney, suggests the first poll question and states the case for a yes vote:

“Are we a banana republic?

“Our leaders make a large play of deferring to the tradition of a now distanced colonial power and weren’t they looking chuffed at the pomp and circumstance?

“Our Government flies in the face of current wisdom and attempts to regulate the internet – like they do in many third world countries.

“Our Government gives incumbent media heavyweights protected access to a new media channel at the expense of competition – perhaps to continue to curry their favour and maintain a managable oligopoly. This one’s been a popular play in a number of non-democracies near here for a while now.

“Our Prime Minister pointedly avoids big moral questions like apologies and republicanism by mechanisms cleverly setting the rules and other devious and not so devious means, like they do in many African countries.

“I wonder if it would be possible to synthesise a list of criteria that define a banana republic and test our current status?”



Herald bureau chief Michelle Grattan reminds me that just because I’m on-line doesn’t mean I can be inaccurate. I said in yesterday’s Della Bosca rave that Labor planned to fight its third GST election in a row. Wrong. The first two were in 1993 and 1998. 1996 was Howard’s “never-ever a GST” triumph.

What you had to say about the diary

What I really want for this diary is an ”outside in” button, so people can post their comments to the public, not just me through email.

I’m told that’s possible, but everyone at the Herald is frantic getting ready for our Olympics coverage, so I’ll have to wait till the post-Olympics blues for that.


Till then, I’ll record some emails as part of the diary.

I don’t know if it’s just that Herald readers and listeners to Late Night Live are wonderful people, or whether only wonderful people are reading my diary, but I’ve got only nice emails so far. If I get a really nasty one, I’ll publish a nice one with it, for balance.

So here’s the response to yesterday’s diary:

Cathy: Hi. I just wanted to comment on something else that might effect the three-month review of the GST.

We hear that the government is going to receive over double what it expected in GST revenue, and that the windfall might be even more than that.

So, where is all the money going to come from? They don’t seriously expect us to believe that the cash economy was quite that big….


To put this in perspective, my husband was a medical research assistant in New Zealand when their GST was introduced.

That 12.5% GST was sufficient to fund a tax cut for his supervisor (and everyone else in his tax bracket) which was greater than my husband’s entire salary.

The tax cuts granted to Australians of all salary levels are unbelievably meagre in comparison. Now, I’m not arguing that the higher salary brackets should have got greater tax cuts, I’m just pointing out that if there is greater revenue drawn, someone must be paying a heck of a lot more tax.

Howard even uses tax cuts for the rich as a justification for the GST in his little letter to us all.

He cites a problem with the old tax system being that people were not motivated to earn more because so much of the higher salaries goes in tax.

As I read it, this translates to: The rich should be taxed less, so that people have more motivation to earn more.

Now apart from being straight bullshit (I don’t think people notice their level of taxation until it changes), this demonstrates a very punitive morality – punish the poor, because it will motivate them to become rich.

As if being poor wasn’t motivation enough..

It sounds awfully like John Howard’s “incentivation” (anyone remember that?). Here’s another prediction. If it remains in office, the government would use the windfall to give progressive tax cuts which would increasingly favour the rich. Just a guess.


Andrea: I think your point about political reporting has been waiting to be made for a long, long time … because when it comes down to it, as a reader, worker, citizen, most people are really only academically interested in the manoeuvring, the Machiavellian moves and the posturing.


I know I really want to know what government is doing, how this benefits most people or least, and whether it is living up to its pre-election advertising. (It’s a pity that political parties aren’t covered by fair trading laws).

In the absence of that sort of reporting, I want to know if the bureaucracy is doing its job and if it is being allowed to do its job.

I want to know if political parties are moving ahead or just moving in on themselves. I want to know why it is politically feasible to suggest free trade but the logical accompaniment of free (not defamatory or licensed or regulated) expression is totally out of the question.

I would really love to see more journalists stepping out of the PR and source machine and following up the questions that most people want answers to – or at least more information on.

On that note, I’ll add that I thought your work on Pauline Hanson was some of the best reporting and perspective I’ve seen in an Australian newspaper – keep it up. (Margo: Aren’t you unusual!)

Chris: An SMH journo with a email address that the public can see. Hope you don’t get inundated with too much crap.

The real sting in the tail of the New Tax System for the Libs is coming in October and more so in January. These are when the first two Business Activity Statements are due to be filed. The first will be hellish because it is the first one.

The second will be a disaster because small businesses especially in service sectors traditionally don’t have much actual revenue in January and February.

And they are going to have to come back from holiday earlier than usual to start work on the BAS. And they ain’t going to have the cash to pass on to the ATO … And what’s the ATO gonna do? Put 5,000, 10,000, x 000 of the Liberal’s core constituency out of business?


A lot of small business people are in business because they perceived that there were ways of er ahem minimising their tax, especially when it came to cash or contras.

It made the grief of running your own small business worthwhile. Now that benefit has gone.

Now I would venture that most people in this category are natural coalition voters – they will not be best pleased. And they are going to have to recover the lost “revenue” or reduce their standard of living.

In our case we have never had any cash income so they way we handle our customers won’t change. But what will change is all the record keeping (non productive, non-billable work) that we will have to do.

This overhead will increase, we estimate, to about 10% of our time. We like a lot a service businesses will have to increase our charges to our clients to cover this cost and the extra accountancy fees.

Presumably these extra charges will be passed on eventually to their customers. 7% inflation? – More like 11%.

And because some of our contractors can’t or won’t get ABNs we are getting more of our programming work done offshore. And we are not the Lone Rangers in this regard.

Bad for our CAD. (Incidentally I can’t understand why Crean and Beazer don’t make more of this considering how badly they were beaten about the head on this in ’96).

Joan M: I agree about the need for the media to restrain from reporting political rhetoric about who is in front. There should be more coverage about what the new system says about our attitudes towards each other..

Tax cuts really aren’t beneficial in the end. Because of a capitalistic culture, the money we get from the cuts, won’t be used for our own well being, as the tax was in the past. We won’t use the extra 50 bucks to go educate ourselves, to join a union, to get our flu injections, to go into rehab.

The balance is all wrong.

I am hoping Howard will be out next election. But Australians seem to respect someone who acts like a toughie.

Anyway, it’s always nice to peek in someone’s diary

Welcome to my diary … and now for the GST

Welcome to my Canberra diary. I’m allowed to say what I think whenever I like, and lucky you can interact if you like. The downside for this indulgence is that all the words stay forever so I can be judged for my sins.

If this weird idea survives, I’m going to lobby for the f2 techheads to add a program called “MPoll”, where I’ll ask a question and you can vote (and suggest your own). I’ll send the results to whoever is responsible for the question or the answer and publish their response, if any.

My biggest wish amid the GST blues is that the media not report any of the politicans’ spins, strategems and rhetoric and that we don’t use up valuable space pontificating about who’s on top, under pressure or on the line. Surely July 1 was the day the politicians handed over to the people and the media began reporting what consumers and small business think, how they cope and if they reckon they’re better off. Let the politicians bombast all they like and get their cheap thrills from pointscoring. Let the media report the people only until October 1. This is a time to collect the information, not let the politicians manipulate the ambience before the facts are known.

I can’t resist recording my best guess, though, before holding my peace. Poorer people will be worse off because their tax cuts are so frighteningly skinny they can’t survive even minor errors in price assumptions. That will hurt the Coalition big time in the bush, as the Nationals’ desperate campaign for caravan residents showed. The Australian Bureau of Statistics published “Social Trends 2000” today and noted that in 1999 “most people living in areas of low socio-economic status live in major urban centres, but such groups tend to be over-represented in smaller towns and geographically isolated locations”. The Liberals haven’t learned the Pauline Hanson/Jeff Kennett lesson and they’ll pay for it. Middle earners with reasonable net tax cuts won’t be happy either because that extra cash and more will go to private schooling (because public school standards and facilities have declined) and to private health insurance (because the Government won’t properly fund public hospitals and instead props up the private sector). Many upper income voters, if the recent Australian survey is to be believed, are starting to get rather uncomfortable with the ever growing gap between rich and poor, which will only be exacerbated by the tax reforms, which give them heaps more in the pocket even after the Democrats removed their cream.

Overall, I agree with National Party leader, John Anderson, who’s been saying since 1999 that people can now actually see that tax cuts are illusory. They mean simply that with your tax cut, you pay for things the Government used to provide well and for free. And that gets back to who we are as a society. I say the egalitarian streak survives and that unless John Howard can alter his tax reform to make gestures to that ideal, he’ll be out of office next year.