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Confidence -- Abbott and Gillard · 26 October 2010

The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, last week very strongly supported the military efforts in Afghanistan.

A good summary article is here:

Whether or not you agree with the military actions in Afghanistan, it is difficult to argue that either Gillard or Abbott know much about – or are even interested in—that part of the world that does not speak English.

Here is Gillard’s entry in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Gillard

Here is Abbott’s entry in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Abbott

While both have recently made quick visits Afghanistan, their activities were confined to meeting Australian soldiers and a few meetings with officials with a set story to push.

There is no public (ie political) clamor for Australia to be part of the war in Afghanistan. So – given their relative lack of knowledge and experience—where does the confidence of Gillard and Abbott come from?

In part, it comes from already being generally “successful” in politics. Louis de Bourreinne who was Napoleon’s friend and first secretary, wrote that “intoxication which is occasioned by success … produces in the heads of the ambitious a sort of cerebral congestion”.

As a result, such “leaders” can all too easily begin to think like Mussolini, who in 1935 told a lieutenant: “Too much ratiocination! We should rather concentrate on instinct! My instinct tells me that … And that’s enough!”

But instincts can easily be influenced by personal emotions. Emotions play a big part in all such decisions – and the more complex the issue, the greater the role of emotion.

Indeed, the role of emotion is so important that even the best experts can succumb to it – at least for a while!

I came across a striking example of this in an intense debate about business taxation reform which took place in Australia between late-1999 and mid-2002. The debate was about whether to move to a new system of taxing business income within a period by measuring the change in asset values (including cash in bank) between the beginning and end of the period. In theory, the new system – eventually branded as the Tax Value Method or TVM—would have given the same result as the present method of directly measuring income/revenue flows and cost flows (including deductions such as depreciation) during a period.

One of the strongest proponents of TVM was a well-known Australian business taxation lawyer AND poet of considerable note. This unusual combination of very high level skills led to some compartmentalization of thinking at times – but also provided some useful insights into human thought processes.

The lawyer/poet was very emotional when condemning the complexity of the existing business taxation system, and was desperate to see changes – and he quickly supported TVM.

In September 2000 I organized and hosted a debate between some of the main proponents and opponents of TVM. The lawyer/poet was still in favour of radical change and spoke for TVM. Yet, he recognized that there was significant opposition and was quoted in the media as saying:

“Eighty per cent of tax practitioners are opponents, and more than 80% of business leaders are supporters. Tax experts believe that Treasury (the originator of the concept) has done a snow job in convincing big business that TVM is the way forward. Business leaders reject this claim and believe the experts may be manufacturing a crisis where there is none. Behind the schemes, claim is following counter-claim.”

About a year later the lawyer/poet changed his view and wrote a very detailed analysis that was extremely critical of the draft legislation for TVM.

I regarded the report as a brilliant example of taking a logical approach to a disputed issue. The lawyer/poet’s change of view was a turning point in the debate, and TVM thereafter died a slow death.

This lawyer/poet is the best example I have personally come across of someone allowing their powerful emotions (ie the poet side) to very significantly cloud their professional (tax lawyer) logic over a prolonged period of time. But over time—once the logic had reasserted itself – there was a complete change their view.

One of the most prominent “businessman” supporters of TVM privately described the lawyer/poet’s critical analysis as “turgid”. But as the lawyer/poet’s quote above indicates, in the main it was NOT the tax “experts” who supported TVM; rather it was the non-experts looking for a silver-bullet to solve complex problems which, in the main, they understood little. The views of the non-experts were being led by their emotions.

If the views of most independent experts are any guide, that both Gillard and Abbott have such “non-expert” confidence—and that it is very possible that their “expert” advisers (military and non-military) may be allowing their emotional thinking to over-whelm their logical thinking.

I cannot more precisely demonstrate this in relation to Gillard (and do not know enough about the people who give her advice), but Abbott recently made a very revealing “emotional” comment about the recent election which led to Gillard becoming prime minister with the support of some “independent” members of parliament.

Abbott was quoted as saying: ‘’One of the things that so disappoints me about the election result is that I am the standard bearer for values and ideals which matter and which are important and … as the leader of the Coalition, millions and millions of people invest their hopes in me and it’s very important that I don’t let them down. When I am unfairly attacked, I’ve got to respond and I’ve got to respond in a tough way.’’

Abbott’s comment is striking in its certainty. Abbott – in his own view—is the “standard bearer” of the ONLY “values and ideals which matter and which are important”. In his view, the “values and ideals” of other people are not important.

In Abbott’s mind, there is little room for compromise. Abbott is a man who deals in certainties. He is more of an emotional “poet” than a logical “tax lawyer”. Whether Abbott is right or not in supporting the military effort in Afghanistan, it should be clear what the basis of his support is – it is undoubtedly “emotion”.

As for Gillard, we will learn more about her over time!

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