Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Fact-Checking The Fact-Checkers, Part 2

There's a popular saying in the poultry industry (and elsewhere): "don't count your chickens before they're hatched". Andrew Robb, shadow Finance spokesman, and PolitiFact didn't follow that advice, with the inevitable result: egg all over their counting fingers.

PolitiFact bravely asserts: Government revenues are "up 7 per cent" despite the budget deficit. This refers to an email newsletter sent by Robb on 7th May 2013, a week before the Budget. The figures in the email were based on the data contained in the 2012-13 Budget Papers, specifically Statement 10: Historical Australian Government Data (Table 2).

This stated that taxation receipts were estimated to be $309.7 billion in 2011-12 and $343.1 billion in 2012-13, in other words an increase of 10.8%. (Or "around 11%", according to their decimal-place-hating calculator.) PolitiFact then adjusted the latter figure downward by $12 billion to take into account the then-current guesstimate of the revenue shortfall.

So they got a revised figure $331.1 billion, which represents a 6.9% increase. (Near enough to 7%, I guess. What's 0.1% here or there? About $300 million in this context, but hey - it's not real money!)

The problem was that as of 7th May 2013, the date of Robb's newsletter, he was working with old figures: the estimates from the 2012-13 Budget delivered on 8th May 2012. And some plucked-from-whichever-orifice guess at how much the revenue shortfall had been in the meantime.

So... fast-forward a week to yer actual 2013-14 Budget delivered last night, 14th May 2013. This year's model of Statement 10: Historical Australian Government Data (Table 2) is presented. It shows that actual taxation receipts in 2011-12 were $309.9 billion, and they were estimated to be $326.3 billion in 2012-13.

That's a 5.3% increase - and a shortfall of $16.8 billion compared to the 2012-13 Budget estimate. In other words, 40% more than the $12 billion pick-a-number-any-number.

When you're a week out from the Budget, why not just wait until the actual numbers are right in front of you? It saves cleaning up all that messy yolk afterwards.

5.3/7.0 = 75.7%, so I rate PolitiFact's article "75.7% true".

Monday, May 13, 2013

Who Fact-Checks The Fact-Checkers?

So now there is an Australian version of the PolitiFact website. Unfortunately they seem to have gotten off to a shaky start.

Here's their first article. It questions a claim made on a page on the Labor Party's website that
Labor has delivered strong protections for conditions like overtime and penalty rates that can’t be stripped away.

The claim that those conditions "can't be stripped away" is false. Laws can and do get created, modified and repealed all the time. It's what Parliaments do for a living. So, for stating a bald fact at least, PolitiFact gets one point.

That was the first of three links on PolitiFact's page. The second links to a media release from August 2011 by Senator Chris Evans, the then-Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations. From it, they quote the following:
The Labor Government introduced National Employment Standards and modern awards that can’t be stripped away, including penalty rates for working weekends, late nights, public holidays and overtime pay.
So far, so good. Now we know where the "can't be stripped away" claim comes from. However, in the next paragraph Evans says:
Tony Abbott has a simple choice: he must either immediately rule out any changes to National Employment Standards and modern awards or admit that the Coalition’s policy is in fact to allow basic entitlements like penalty rates to be cut.
That paragraph contradicts the preceding one. It implies that the entitlements can be stripped away by, for example, a suitably villainous conservative government.

So which is worse: Evans' contradiction, or PolitiFact quoting him out of context by omitting the second paragraph? Weighing up the former against the latter, I'm awarding them half a point.

Then it gets worse. The third and last link is to a speech made by Dave Oliver to the National Press Club on 6th February 2013. PolitiFact reports him as saying:
The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Dave Oliver, declared weekend penalty rates were locked in "forever".
Err, nooo, he didn't say that at all. What he said was:
That’s why we’ll be asking the government to enshrine penalty rates for weekend work - in legislation, to protect it forever.
That is flat-out misrepresentation. Deliberate or accidental, I don't know - but it was either ignored or missed by whatever internal fact-checking system PolitiFact have in place.

Giving them the benefit of a doubt and assuming it wasn't intentional, I'll deduct just half a point. With a bonus stern wag of the finger and an admonishment for not checking, well, their facts.

So, with a final score of 1/3 I'm awarding them a 'Whooops!'.