Monday, 17 June 2013

"NBN or SBS?" What Barnaby Joyce said about himself

I happened to catch Barnaby Joyce flip the tables on Ellen Fanning by saying:
I'll start with one, do you believe the SBS is more important than the NBN?
An innocent & fair question? No, not nearly.
While it sounded wrong to me at the time, it's taken me two weeks to be able to articulate just what was so wrong...

Firstly, you have to love the way Joyce took control of the interview and the agenda. Masterful use of the naive, humble-bumbling-country-boy persona he's deliberately manufactured.

Secondly, not only is this a question based on a false premise, that there could be an either/or choice, it's a question underpinned by Accounting questions, Barnaby's field of professional expertise.

He's either believes what he's saying, in which case he's incompetent in Accounting, or he's dissembling and misleading and knows exactly the argument he's making. Nothing in-between.

I think we can presume because of his years running a successful practice, Mr Joyce is actually highly competent in Accounting and knows exactly the false premise and fallacies embodied in his question.

This was over-the-top disingenuity, even monumental hypocrisy.

Here are the three falsehoods in that "innocent" question, seemingly chosen at random:
  • The expenditures cannot be compared: one is recurrent (yearly) to run an enterprise, while the other (NBN) is a one-off project, building an asset.
    • In for-profit enterprises, SBS would appear in the Profit and Loss statement, and investment in the NBN project would appear in the Balance Sheet (and Cash Flow Statement as Investment activities, not operations, nor financing.)
  • The NBN is an investment, undertaken because it has a projected Return on Investment (of ~7%).
    • The NBN will, if things go to plan, more than pay for itself, the Government is running it as a for-profit business, not as "public good",
    • whereas SBS is not a business, thought it does raise some of its own operating income.
    • SBS (and the ABC) are funded by the Government solely because it's a good thing and its have a positive social value.
  • SBS is "on-book" and NBN Co is funded off-book, precisely because it's an investment that is expected to return its principal and at least 7% on top of that.
    • The money borrowed by the Government to fund NBN Co, around $30 billion - the rest will be Debt that NBN Co has to raise itself, will be paid back, and more. That's what investments do.
    • As much as we love and cherish SBS and the ABC, they aren't expected to pay their own way or make a return, just like pensions and welfare benefits, we as taxpayers and voters put money towards these activities because they are worthwhile social activities, not investments.
Barnaby knows all these arguments and their implications only too well. He blind-sided Ellen Fanning and left her floundering because these questions are arcane.

What we saw when Joyce very quietly & effectively took control of the interview from one of our best, most experienced journos was a tour de force by a very competent, coldly calculating politician. This display shows up both Warren Truss, current leader of the Nationals and Tony Abbott as the very mediocre performers they are in debates and interviews.

Barnaby, "the gift that keeps on giving" as he self-describes, is not some bumbling fool from the Bush, but a consummate politician and debater, showing himself to be more than a match for one of our elite journalists. Is he a latter-day Joh Bjelke-Petersen, smart-as-a-whip masquerading as a fool? Better to have people under-estimate you.

This question and line of conversation can't have been accidental - people with this high-level of debating trade-craft prepare, carefully and completely. We probably didn't get to see half-a-dozen other pre-prepared plays.

That Joyce repeated in a line he knows to be demonstrably false, the NBN will cost "$90 billion", not the reality "the 1 in million worst-case scenario is the NBN would cost $94 billion, if nothing were done by the project managers in response to project stressors".

Making this statement shows that Barnaby was deliberately disingenuous in his statements and monumentally hypocritical in his conflating of two completely different, incomparable types of expenditure.

I won't go near the assertion that "all government debt is bad" and that we've got massive debt that is ruinous... Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy have massive debt and consequential catastrophic unemployment rates and social problems. Japan has been stuck in stagflation or debt-deflation for two decades now - they've got real economic problems. The UK and the USA have economic problems that, to quote Letterman, "I wouldn't give to a monkey on a rock".

Turn on the TV and watch some international news to understand just how well off we are...

Finally, there is a real comparison question that would illustrate Barnaby's point, on the "Sophie's Choice" nature of politics:

Do you believe the SBS is more important than the AIS?

That is an Apples-and-Apples comparison and would illustrate to many people just how hard the multi-layered beast politics really is.

But Barnaby wouldn't go there, he couldn't make gratuitous attacks on the Government, nor "be on-message". The AIS, even with the recent failure of the swim team, just isn't news.

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