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Own goals

April 23rd, 2004

The big Oz political news of the week was the flap over Mark Latham’s remarks on education, which echoed similar remarks by Bill Clinton and led to claims of plagiarism from the PM. Chris Sheil rightly describes this as a terrific beatup, but asserts that “the Coalition has won the day so far on this one”, while in the comments box, Sedgwick rates it a nil-all draw. I count it as a 2-0 win for Labor, with J. Howard doing all the scoring (own goals in both halves).

First own goal: Latham is shown on TV over and over, making commitments to education. He would never have got such publicity on the strength of the speech itself.

Second own goal: Rather than using one of his taggers, ideally a snarky journo or even a blogger, Howard went for the king-hit himself, thus casting himself in the classic negative role of the carping critic with no substantive policy to offer. Opposition leaders, by virtue of their position, find it hard to avoid this role – for a PM to take it on voluntarily is stupid.

As it happens, I can apply the taxi driver test to this one. I heard this on the radio going to the airport and the taxi driver (middle-aged and not obviously a lefty) said exactly what I thought “So What”.

An obvious logical objection, that doesn’t seem to have occurred to those debating this issue is that any politician who uses a speechwriter is automatically guilty of plagiarism. The implication, I think, is that the term has no real applicability in politics, except in cases where a speaker explicitly claims words as their own (the opposite of the situation in the academic world).

Update: There’s a bit more about this over at Catallaxy. Showing yet again that it’s possible to agree on particular points despite important disagreements on values, Andrew Norton agrees that the kind of plagiarism undertaken by Latham is a trivial offence if it’s an offence at all. On the other hand, writing in the comments thread, Geoff Honnor makes the point that Latham also scored an own goal by denying the obvious. I’ll restate the score as 2-1.

Further update In the comments thread, reader TJW suggests that the story began with Laurie Oakes, who certainly fits the billl as a snarky journo. If this is correct, Howard’s own goal looks even worse. He would have been sensible to leave it with Oakes, rather than to jump in and open himself up to the inevitable finding that he’d done just the same thing himself.

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  1. Mike Hunt
    April 23rd, 2004 at 14:14 | #1

    The great irony is that Mark Latham wants Australia to more independant yet he is copying Americans at every opportunity.

    Department of Homeland Security
    Coastguard
    Bill Clinton’s speech

    What next?

  2. Jim Birch
    April 23rd, 2004 at 14:53 | #2

    Most senior pollies don’t write their own speeches and at times merely scan them on the way to the venue. The obvious question to John Howard on this one is “So you write all your own speeches?”

    I can’t see that Howard didn’t expect to be caught out here. He appears to me to be pursuing a “He’s as bad as us” strategy at the moment. Which is obviously odd, but maybe he thinks it’ll work?

  3. Richard
    April 23rd, 2004 at 14:57 | #3

    John, couldn’t agree more about the two own- goals. The Govt also made a huge mistake in the first week of Parlt after Latham became leader by focusing attention on him, thus giving publicity and making the punters sit up and pay attention to what the new boy was saying.

    It has been very interesting to watch the way things have been running against the PM lately – I think there is both an element of panic in the Govt and a bit of journalistic interest in changing the political scenery. Howard has also had some bad luck combined with the bad judgement.

    Most people I talk to find it very hard to write him off because he’s proved such a determined and ruthless competitor for so long. I’m pretty convinced though that the tide has turned against him and that (to borrow from Kerry Packer) you only get one Tampa and 11 September just before an election in a lifetime. Time will tell…

  4. Homer Paxton
    April 23rd, 2004 at 16:10 | #4

    the OECD has been on this topic for the last 10 -15 years in trying to get Gov’ts to adopt some targets.

    Surely it must be obvious that targets for most developed counries would be similar.

    I am staggered that the Government hasn’t caught up with the OECD yet.

  5. April 23rd, 2004 at 16:45 | #5

    The idea of Howard as the master strategist is just another tired old Oz media beat up, the usual speculative bubble produced by a herd. Howard went with his instinct regarding Tampa. He had previously gone with his instinct on Asian Immigration, and with refusing to attack Pauline Hanson. He went with instinct on both of those matters and created nightmares for himself. Tampa turned out to do him a power of good, but its origins were in the same kind of conviction politics, not cynicism or good political judgement outside . His main assets are his mental toughness, and his ability to consistently deceive and disemble using the body language of candour. But master strategist – I’m afraid not.

  6. Kenneth Kaniff
    April 23rd, 2004 at 16:49 | #6

    Please John…..

    I am sure it was you not so long ago that was ranting about the dishonourable practise of plagiarism.

    I am disappointed to see that you failed to deal with this issue with the same vigour of your previous posts.

    Do you honestly believe that you are not holding yourself to a double standard when you completely turn 180 degrees on this issue?

    As a well-published academic, I would think that you would take this matter more seriously…… But I guess different rules apply when it is one of your own.

    The fact that the public takes this issue with such a nonchalant attitude says a lot for the progression towards liberty in Australia. Recently you commented on the fact that the world would be so much better if we could all get along. Doesn’t this start with being honest to each other? If only indeed!

    Both Mark Latham and John Howard should be ashamed of themselves on this issue. There is really no excuse for what either one of them did and some meaningless tally of political points should not brush this aside. What example do these pillars of the Australian Community set if they get away with this relatively easily?

  7. John Quiggin
    April 23rd, 2004 at 17:04 | #7

    “I am sure it was you not so long ago that was ranting about the dishonourable practise of plagiarism.”

    I don’t think so. Do a site search and you’ll find that I’ve repeatedly made the point that the concept of “plagiarism” is relevant only in certain specific academic contexts I made exactly the same point in today’s post.

    In particular, I observe here that

    “More importantly, it’s bizarre that Australian universities still propound this kind of 19th century notion of honour (important note: I’m using “19th century” as a compliment here) when their managers, with a few exceptions, have abandoned all academic values in favour of market-driven competition. The vice-chancellor now driving public policy, Alan Gilbert of Melbourne, is on record as saying that 19th century texts like Newman’s Idea of a University are totally inappropriate in the modern competitive world. As Heath Gibson points out, in the world outside the university, newspapers and others recycle and plagiarise to their heart’s content, limited only by the possibility that large-scale theft will lead to action under the law of copyright. University managers have done their best to suppress the assumptions of free exchange of information in which notions like ‘plagiarism’ make sense. In the brave new world of ‘intellectual property’, you nail down what you can of your own ideas and appropriate anything from the common pool that hasn’t already been grabbed. The former vice-chancellor of Monash seemed entirely suited to the new world, and it was hypocritical to sack him.”

  8. PK
    April 23rd, 2004 at 17:27 | #8

    “not obviously a lefty”

    What does an obvious lefty look like? An aging hippy maybe? Actually that’s a tautology.

  9. John Quiggin
    April 23rd, 2004 at 17:33 | #9

    PK, I wasn’t referrring to his appearance, but to the discussion we were having at the time the news story came on, not explicitly political, but including discussion of some private schools.

  10. Tom N.
    April 23rd, 2004 at 21:35 | #10

    CONTRACTING OUT SPEECHWRITING IS NOT PLAGIARISM

    Just an quick response from a mercenary word-smith to John’s comment that “An obvious logical objection, that doesn’t seem to have occurred to those debating this issue, is that any politician who uses a speechwriter is automatically guilty of plagiarism.”

    I was Graeme Samuel’s speechwriter when he was President of the NCC, and it certainly did not occur to me that Graeme was plagarising my work. My dictionary’s definition of “plagiarise” is “[to] take without referencing from someone else’s writing or speech; of intellectual property”.* Was Graeme doing this? No.

    At the NCC, I was effectively contracted to provide a service – the preparation of (draft) speeches – to Graeme, and part of the (implied) terms of the contract was that the speech would become Graeme’s property, not mine. Thus, he was not taking “someone else’s” writing or intellectual property; he was using his own – his ownerhsip having been determined by the terms of the contract.

    Thus, it seems to me, John’s suggestion that politicans (and, by implication, others who contract out the preparation of speeches) are plagiarists relies on an excessively broad interpretation of the term “plagiarism” … or insufficient respect for contracts and the property rights they entail!

    * Source: WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University

  11. John Quiggin
    April 23rd, 2004 at 21:50 | #11

    Tom, you don’t seem to have read on to the following sentence, which derives the implication that the use of the term, in this context is a category mistake. The academic concept of plagiarism is not appropriate in politics.

    To see the point, consider a student who hires someone else to write their essays (or, if you like, the first drafts), pretty much your relationship with Samuel. The defence that they had legitimately purchased the IP in the essay wouldn’t help them in a plagiarism case – the fact that money had changed hands would only make things worse.

    To restate, what constitutes plagiarism in the academic world may be perfectly legitimate in other contexts.

  12. TJW
    April 23rd, 2004 at 22:25 | #12

    Im pretty sure it was Laurie Oakes that started this whole thing. On the channel 9 6pm news he did the comparison and it wasnt until the following morning that Government ministers actually made any comments.

  13. Jill Rush
    April 23rd, 2004 at 23:42 | #13

    The point of the article still holds true.

    The alleged offence appears minor when compared to the politician who plagiarises words and ideas that are lies. I hate lies more than I dislike plagiarism.

    Most believe that a good idea is worth trying even if the Americans thought of it first. Bill Clinton might not have been perfect but he was a real leader.

  14. observa
    April 24th, 2004 at 00:50 | #14

    I don’t think the electorate treats political speeches in the same way as academics treat intellectual plagiarism. They are well aware that political parties, particularly in the Angloshere, will share some common ground.eg the Thatcher/Reagan years. Trolling or googling through speeches to elicit examples of academic plagiarism won’t cut much ice with the electorate. What did cut up the new ideas kid on the block was the quick TV grabs, juxtaposing Latham’s and Clinton’s main sentences. TV is much more relevant for the larger electorate. It did make Latham, who was presenting himself as the fresh, new ideas man, look a bit of a copycat visually. The longer Latham hangs around in opposition, the less fresh he appears and his personal popularity suffers accordingly. This is a natural decay process for the new challenger. However it doesn’t seem to nave dented the 2 party preferred voting intentions much, which is the important thing for Labor. The personal honeymoon for Latham, has certainly passed though.

  15. Tom N.
    April 24th, 2004 at 02:07 | #15

    Referring back I can see that I did take your point out of context, John; sorry for leaping without sufficient looking.

  16. Brian Bahnisch
    April 24th, 2004 at 09:43 | #16

    I agree with Jill Rush.

    What annoyed me most, though, was that the Government would attack Latham over something so trivial. This is not what we pay our politicians to spend their time on.

    Lest I be accused of plagiarism, Lindsay Tanner on Lateline and Rod Campbell, letter-writer to the Courier Mail, have made similar points.

    I can’t see why we can’t accept Mark Latham’s explanation at face value. Certainly we can’t accept as FACT that he lied about it. We have no evidence of any such thing. If targets are the go, as Homer suggests, then targets are going to be similar in this area. Also there are limited ways of expressing them if you want to do it with a bit of a rhetorical flourish.

    In a speech of this kind there is every reason to suppose that Latham worked on the text himself. And using speech writers is not plagiarism. The point is that Latham takes responsibility for the final text.

    Latham seemed pretty relaxed about the whole thing and had a joke on air about being able to say definitely that “I didn’t have sex with that woman!” To me this indicates he is more fit for leadership than those who work themselves up into a lather about nothing.

  17. stephen
    April 24th, 2004 at 12:15 | #17

    I’m as sure as John that this was a net plus for Labor – yes, the TV showed more clips from the speech, but the story headline/intro was not about education but about the alleged plagiarism. It is one of the standard spoiling techniques: 1)ignore the message entirely (as far as I can tell, none of the Minister who commented, in what appeared to be a disciplined and scripted attack, mentions education) and 2)raise something entirely different, even if trivial, to distract the journos attention. I suspect – just gut feeling, no polling to back this – that it would have been better for Labor if there had been only a quarter of the publicity, but all of that focused only on the education message. The government has a kitbag of spoilers: keep an eye out for them in the leadup to the election.

    Incidentally, I’d probably have been guilty of the same plagiarism sin if I’d written the speech; I tend to read the State of the Union addresses, and sometimes a phrase or an idea will stick around long after one forgets where it came from (especially after several years, as here); and besides, the basic thinking is not Clinton’s it predates him and has been around in both the US (and as others have noted OECD) research for ages – so in effect the speeches share common backgrounds. In fact it would be surprising if there were not material in common in speeches on a topic where the antecedents are the same.

  18. stephen
    April 24th, 2004 at 12:36 | #18

    whoops! – second word ommitted from my previous post: should have been “not”

  19. Brian Bahnisch
    April 24th, 2004 at 15:17 | #19

    Stephen, I tend to agree with you, given how the media handle these things. Laura Tingle in her AFR piece ‘Latham talks – but what is he saying?’ (subscription required) complains that Latham promises to come up with a new vision, but keeps on talking schlock.

    I have no opinion on this, not having read the speech yet. Laura tends to be a hard marker. But maybe if the media were telling us what is really happening they would say something like: “While the Leader of the Opposition keeps promising vision he has yet again come up with schlock. Meanwhile the Prime Minister and some of his senior ministers have reached new lows in triviality in attempting to attack said L of O.”

    Or something along those lines.

  20. April 24th, 2004 at 16:32 | #20

    “Rather than using one of his taggers, ideally a snarky journo or even a blogger …”

    What are you driving at, John?

  21. John Quiggin
    April 24th, 2004 at 18:03 | #21

    I think it’s pretty obvious, Tim.

    This is the kind of story that’s worth a snarky item on something like Media Watch (in this case, the Gerard Henderson rather than the ABC version, I suppose) or a ‘gotcha’ post in a suitably-inclined blog, but nothing more. Assuming someone in Howard’s office dug the story up, the sensible thing to do would have been to pass it on to someone else willing to use it, rather than to get Howard himself involved.

    However, if the comment from TJW is correct, the story began with Laurie Oakes. In this case, my comment is true in spades. Howard would have been sensible to leave it with Oakes, rather than to open himself up to the inevitable finding that he’d done just the same thing.

  22. April 25th, 2004 at 11:02 | #22

    Alan Ramsey sums the alleged thefts brilliantly…
    A tale of two thieves, in their own words

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