Some whataboutery from Tim Nicholls

Among the tools used to defend the indefensible, the most widely used is “whataboutery”. When faced with a criticism you can’t answer, you point to something allegedly comparable done by someone supposed to be on the same side as your critic, and ask the critic “what about …”

A recent example (Hat Tip Bill Wallace). Presented on ABC TV with my observation that his election promises represent an arithmetic impossibility, Tim Nicholls resorted to whataboutery, suggesting that I had gone easy on Anna Palaszczuk in regards to the use of transfers of debt between the general government sector, GBEs and public service superannuation. Oddly enough, I’ll be covering this exact point in an article I’m now writing for The Guardian. The relevant para

Labor has been able to improve the accounting performance of the general government sector by requiring public enterprises to make bigger contributions to the budget and by making transfers from the funds hypothecated to pay for public service superannation. This doesn’t change the financial position of the public sector as a whole, but makes the budget sector look better. The relevant criteria is public sector net worth and net financial worth, which are unaffected by such manoeuvres. Fortunately, public sector net worth has never been a problem: the Queensland government had net worth of over $170 billion when the Costello Commission reported, a figure that is projected to exceed $200 billion by 2020.

Some broader responses:

* Whataboutery is a very weak defence in a clear-cut case like this. Even if I were an ALP hack (readers of this blog can judge for themselves), it wouldn’t invalidate the point I’m making

* I don’t think Palaszczuk is open to the specific criticism I’m making of Nicholls. She hasn’t promised to cut taxes or improve the budget balance, and her election spending promises look to be the kind of thing that can be managed within the normal budget process

* I’ve already been critical of both sides in this election campaign. My only published opinion piece was a criticism of Palaszczuk’s pro-Adani policy, which she has subsequently reversed (not claiming cause and effect here, of course). If Nicholls cares to put up an election platform that adds up and protects crucial services from cuts, I’ll be the first to congratulate him.

A few more points:

1. The implied assumption in whataboutery is that people shouldn’t comment on any issue unless they have a published position on every issue that might be remotely comparable. This obviously isn’t feasible for someone writing in spare team, without a team of staffers and researchers to do the hard work.

2. It may be that Nicholls was referring to my post objecting to his waiting until two days before the election to release his costings. As Stephen Wardill pointed out recently, Labor did this last time around. That slipped my notice (see Point 1), but I condemned it as soon as Wardill pointed it out. And of course, one piece of sharp practice doesn’t excuse its repetition. Otherwise we are condemned to ever declining standards

3. Finally, I’ve been less critical of the Greens than of the two major parties, for the obvious reason that I agree with them more often. But I haven’t hesitated to criticise them when they do the wrong thing.

10 thoughts on “Some whataboutery from Tim Nicholls

  1. I think most people don’t trust Nicholls and the LNP, but many won’t vote Labor (commies and unions) or Greens, hence the surge in support for One Nation. Given the train wreck that ON will certainly become (witness federal parliament today), I despair for the next 4 years.

  2. @bjb
    Poling suggests than while ON will take a fair wack of LNP votes, they are unlikely to actually win any seats given that they will have won’t have much in the way of preferences to rely on. Their most competitive seats are LNP held who they are unlikely to beat in a two way race with most preferences going to LNP. Winning a plurality is their best hope as anything less than 50% an they will be overhauled by the LNP with prefs. Even the Greens have a better preference flow in some seats and a more likely to pick up a seat despite a much smaller overall vote.

  3. Ad hominem isn’t a fallacy in the full sense. The motives if the person asserting a fact or inference are of course logically irrelevant to its truth. But to cut through the ocean of noise, we all need filters to decide where to invest our limited capacity for sustained attention. That’s why reputation matters, and so do attacks on it. Whataboutery is a reputational attack, and can be rhetorically effective. See Daniel Davies’ famous post on liars.

  4. Of the principals in this debate, it is very clear that Tim Nicholls is the hack. Poor old LNP if they can’t find a better leader than that. Their talent barrel must be empty. I’m not saying Anastasia is great but she gets a pass mark. She has basic competence and presents arguments well enough in basic terms. She has some people skills and does not come across as wooden and fake in the way Tim Nicholls does.

    I get tired of the sloganeering and cliches, often on all sides. It goes something like this.

    “Let’s Build a Better Queensland”
    “We’ll be working hard to implement the best policies.”
    “Which policies?”
    “Jobs, jobs, jobs. We will create x thousand jobs over the next y years.”
    “How will you do that?”
    “We will put in job friendly policies and cut our opponent’s red tape.”
    “Families, families, families. We will implement family-friendly policies.”

    And so it goes as Kurt V. would have said.

  5. @James Wimberley

    I agree that ad hominem isn’t a fallacy, as you say. But whataboutery is a particularly bad form of ad hominem because it involves an implicit concession that you have no answer to the opponent’s point.

    Examples of good ad hominem
    (a) the opponent is relying on supposed expertise to make a claim that can’t easily be checked. It’s valid to point out either that the opponent isn’t an expert or that they have an axe to grind
    (b) Opponent is acting as an advocate and has presented evidence selectively. Valid to present relevant evidence that has been ignored, and point out role of advocacy.

    Whataboutery doesn’t fit either of these cases: it’s a combination of ad hominem and tu quoque.

  6. Funny how muted media coverage of the Qld election has been this week or so. This is one of the few grown-ups articles on it also. Nicholls looks like a nightmare.

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