21 December 2014

A slight change of emphasis

The reshuffle is interesting for how this government sees itself.

First, it's limited in scope, which reinforces Abbott's idea that there isn't much wrong with the government that a bit of spin can't fix. It also reinforces the idea that shifting some of the government's alternative leaders - Bishop, Turnbull,  and yes even Hockey - would be career-limiting for Abbott.

The only governments that have far-reaching changes to their ministerial line-ups are those in real trouble, like the two reshuffles Labor had in 2013. This government may well have a reshuffle or two on that scale, but not yet.

Abbott has not promoted any big thinkers because he does not want any profound transformations in the way policy is conducted. He does not want to have to defend any controversial ideas on matters about which he knows little and cares less.

Andrews in Defence We're sending our forces into Iraq at a time when warfare, like all other facets of human activity, requires fundamental reexamination of a number of basic assumptions. Australia's strategic environment is shifting fast. Kevin Andrews is not the man to handle that.

If you accept those limitations, then what is needed in that role is a program manager par excellence - someone who will ensure Australian warfighters go into mortal danger relying on kit from the cheapest bidder. He's not that, either.

Andrews holds the fate of a large chunk of the South Australian economy in his hands. He'll give them more than the bugger-all currently on the table now, but not much more. He won't be able to wrest any political credit for that away from the state's Labor Premier, Jay Weatherill, and will be deaf to the screams of SA Liberals on why that matters to them.

Defence is the death-seat of federal politics. Apart from genuine policy nerds like David Johnston and Kim Beazley, every minister for the past 40 years was appointed to that role in full knowledge that their career was over (apart from Joel Fitzgibbon, which demonstrated Rudd didn't get the role Defence plays in foreign policy). Andrews is being managed out of politics.

The mad scheme for Credlin to take his seat remains in place. Only Canberra insiders blithely assume the Victorian Libs will meekly comply with an order issued from Abbott's office. It also means that the constituency of paternalistic religious conservatives will have to be represented by someone else, which will mean someone like Bruce Billson, Tony Smith and/or Michael Ronaldson will come under threat, blood will beget blood, etc.

Morrison to Social Services This assumes Morrison has attained a reputation as a competent administrator, with some sort of magical touch to get things through the Senate. This portfolio covers 20% of the Budget and the fun ain't done in that portfolio. The people most impressed by his tough-guy antics against refugees are older people with few skills, who fret most about refugees taking their jobs, and who are also most affected by changes to pensions or unemployment.

It also assumes Senator Marise Payne, who has basically been responsible for executing policy in this area (and helping outmaneuver Andrews brainfarts like denying young unemployed people support for six months) hasn't done enough to warrant a promotion. Keep this in mind when you cheer Abbott's doubling of female representation in Cabinet (more below).

Dutton to Immigration This assumes the case for our current immigration policy has been made. It hasn't.

Conservatives confuse doltish obstinacy with firm consistency of purpose, which is why they rate Dutton more highly than his talents and record suggest. He was a political passenger, offering nothing against Nicola Roxon or Tanya Plibersek as ministers for health. As minister and now shadow, Catherine King ran rings around him. If Richard Marles takes the kid gloves off in dealing with the new boy, it could be the making of him.

Support for the current immigration regime seems strong but individual incidents puncture it. Polling does not capture this. Morrison starved journalists of detail and derided them for writing rubbish, but they love being put in that bind because they love Strong Narrative over anything else. Morrison, like Howard, had the ability to look plaintive while being inflexible - a tactic that fools journalists - but Dutton can't do that.

Dutton has only two political talents. He picked the Liberal leadership changes since Howard with great accuracy and extracted great deals for himself. He comes from a state that is crucial politically but which doesn't send talented people to Canberra.

Dutton will overreach the wide-ranging powers Morrison won for him. At exactly the wrong moment, Dutton will make a dumb and callous statement that leads to a policy rethink greater than he can handle.

He can plug, plug, plug a message regardless of facts or changing circumstances, a quality prized highly among those who regard politics as a sub-type of public relations. It won't be enough.

Ley in Health Of all the Coalition MPs not initially appointed to Abbott's cabinet, Ley had the strongest case for inclusion. Her appointment is less a what-if than a why-not. She is across the detail and can plug a line as well as anyone while also having a mind of her own. In short, she makes a stronger case for inclusion than almost anyone there now. If anyone is going to come up with a workable arrangement on state funding or NDIS she will do it. She will also counter some of King's work on regional health initiatives.

Ley's appointment is a tacit admission that Dutton failed in Health, and that his failure is politically costly. Peta Credlin had assured female Coalition MPs that there would be more opportunities for them but now we see what that means as far as Abbott is concerned: women tidy up after men.

Frydenberg as Assistant Treasurer This is reward for service to Abbott.

The Assistant Treasurer is basically Minister for Tax. The Budget has a revenue problem and this government will shy away from far-reaching tax reform. Therefore, the battle will be joined at the level of detail: the government will want to close lurks and loopholes while the lobbyists who pushed for them will want them kept open. The Assistant Treasurer will need an eagle eye for detail and a firm commitment to what's right for the country: the 2006 version of Arthur Sinodinos would have been perfect.

Unfortunately, we've got Josh, who has glided through life with a superficial charm designed to disguise his boredom with detail. He's an errand boy. Nobody wants this guy in the trenches when it gets tough, and this is one tough job. He doesn't complement Hockey's weaknesses, he compounds them.

He was in charge of not one but two of Abbott's so-called bonfires of red tape. Rather than do the hard work of identifying and costing (politically as well as economically) counterproductive regulations, Frydenberg slapped together a whole lot of straw men that impressed nobody but press gallery journalists. It was lazy stuff and this blog has had it in for him before he was first elected.

Others who might have done this job better - Little Jimmy Briggs, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christian Porter or even Steve Ciobo - are right to feel passed over for a lesser person. Briggs and Ciobo should be wangling invitations to Mal and Julie's supper club.

The Parly Secs
- Christian Porter (replacing the ousted Johnston from WA) rose fast and far with little competition in his native state, and it will be interesting to see what errands Abbott sends him on.
- Kelly O'Dwyer's investigation into foreign investment in Australian real estate looked like an audition for a higher role (along with hundreds of media appearances where she unblushingly recited the daily inanities), and so it has proven. She risks treading a narrow path with her Treasury background but nobody is obliged to pass up a promotion.
- Karen Andrews is a former Hockey staffer who has taken to the busywork of committees and generally kept her head down while other newbie MPs aare still coming to terms with how the joint works.

Abbott is sending the signal to ambitious MPs that Howard did: knuckle down and do the busywork and I'll call on you in my own good time. Howard regularly broke that rule, with Abbott and Mark Vaile and Petro Georgiou to name a few, but hey.

Abbott deserves all the meagre rewards that come from having taken meagre risks. You, my dear readers, deserve all the best that the festive season and 2015 can offer, so we'll see what happens then.

14 December 2014

The end of Peta Credlin

Peta Credlin was one of the few Coalition staffers willing or able to stick around after the downfall of the Howard government. She hadn't landed a top-flight lobbying job or a seat in Parliament or simply buggered off to that old shack in the hills/sand dunes. Nor had she embarrassed herself like some did who couldn't really believe that, after 11 years, it really was all over.

From Brendan Nelson's office she would have seen how Labor's ministers configured the government differently; how they made decisions that Howard's ministers never dared/couldn't be bothered, and the pratfalls of their rookie errors. She would have liaised with Prime Minister Rudd's office on those matters requiring bipartisan consultation, and seen the same dithering and tantrums that his ministers apparently saw. She would have seen what happens when nobody in government can scratch themselves without PMO approval.

Yet, she went ahead anyway and made this government in that image.

By the time it became clear Nelson could not stop Turnbull, Credlin had become a symbol of Liberal continuity. They feared Turnbull was such an outsized personality that he would remake the Coalition in his own image, and imposed on him a Praetorian Guard ever ready to remind him that he was mortal. Credlin, Chris Kenny and a handful of others gave nervous Liberals a sense of continuity that otherwise eluded them, with an insanely popular Labor government and its renewable broadbands and what have you.

She was privy to the great debates of our age, and worked out ways to shirk them.

Then Turnbull began to stumble, and fair-weather sailors like Kenny departed, it would have been fair for Liberals to wonder about their leader's office. They lacked the capacity to judge it, having only Howard's remote office as benchmark. By the time Turnbull's gutless front bench quit one by one, at the behest of Minchin, Credlin began to scramble despite assurances that she'd be looked after. She was still polishing her CV when the Hockey-Turnbull-Abbott fiasco of December 2009 ended with the latter on top.

By this time Credlin was well practiced at lemonade-making.

Abbott had been a spokesperson all his life. Now he was her spokesperson, and she was in a position to impose terms. Say what I tell you, do what I tell you, wear what I tell you: now lycra, now sluggos, now a blue tie. Say "this government is a bad government". The press gallery share that sentiment, and all the old lions who might challenge you for the sake of being arsey are long gone (or in Oakes' case, de-fanged). The press gallery can't tell the difference between activity and progress, and neither can conservatives; they are united in their hatred of Rudd and Gillard.

Sometimes it just all comes together.

Credlin came up with the Coalition's two-track policy strategy: meeting donors in private to work out what they want and how they want it, while at the same time giving the media no indication of what their thought processes were. The press gallery loved it: praising Abbott as 'so disciplined' was their bright-side thinking about being kept in the dark and fed bullshit. Even now, clowns like Peter Hartcher try to keep the magic going. Some still can't work out what went wrong, and never will.

If Laurie Oakes can recall Ainslie Gotto and her parallels with Peta Credlin, he should have been smart enough to examine what an Abbott government might look like in comparison with other highly centralised PMOs, like Gorton's or Rudd's. If you're going to have experience as a political journalist, that's what you use it for: analysis, before the event rather than after. Leave the raconteurism to Mike "Abbott will grow into the job" Carlton.

After Abbott was elected his team went into a defensive crouch for weeks: what the hell do we do now? In his choice of ministry, Abbott slapped down those who had always supported him (more conservative elements of the Liberal Party) while rewarding those who had never supported him (centrists who actually won the votes from Labor). I pointed this out at the time and am still amazed that the entire press gallery couldn't see it coming. This is a vulnerable position to put any politician, particularly at their moment of triumph: Credlin couldn't see what the problem was.

Here's the thing about Credlin: she's not some political super-genius, she's the hired help. Candidates for public office cop a lot of stick but they put their very faces and names and reputations out there in the community; people like Credlin are known only to wonks like you and me, dear reader. It's easy to craft a message and get others to sell it when the message is well received (or given the benefit of the doubt, as the Coalition's was way back in 2013). It's harder when the message is less well received.

Consider Joe Hockey, who had to sell WorkChoices in 2007 and now the 2014 budget: some policies just can't be sold, and no amount of brickbats or bouquets from Credlin will change that.

Credlin was happy to use her fertility issues to try and deflect bad news from Abbott, and all that's done is two things. First, it reinforces the idea that only women who already have a deep pre-existing relationship with Tony Abbott get anything from this government. Second, there is no lasting policy legacy surrounding fertility treatments: would you pay five or seven bucks to subsidise someone's fertility treatment? All that power, and no legacy. The government angrily denies that paid parental leave is Abbott's gift to Credlin. It's another of those policies where those who stand to benefit keep quiet and watch helplessly as the government botches the execution - and now the process of reforming it. Abbott wants to ask for help but has no goodwill to draw upon, and fears losing control of the narrative. Credlin has never done public advocacy in her life.

In this article is the strengths and weaknesses of the press gallery: Samantha Maiden has the access to get the story, but she's either so compromised or so thick that she can't see it for what it is.

The Whip is an office that has existed in parliamentary practice for centuries. The job involves getting out the vote in the short term, but over the longer term maintaining a relationship with the backbench for the leader to use as a sounding board.

Howard, with direct experience of not only being elected but also dumped by the Coalition backbench, used his Whips assiduously. He visited marginal electorates and insisted on impromptu meet-and-greets; if people met him with warmth he knew he was travelling OK, tight politeness or hostility meant trouble. Abbott and Credlin just don't do impromptu, and are poorer for it; they rely more heavily on wankers like Textor than Howard ever did, and Textor treats people who rely on him too heavily with contempt (e.g. the press gallery).

This is why Maiden is stupid not to recognise the importance of Entsch speaking out. Cut out all that cassowary-wrasslin' shit at the top of her piece, and that photo makes him look like one of Eleanor Robertson's Old Farts. Entsch was Whip in Opposition; Ruddock is Whip now. The fact that a Whip is speaking out means the backbench are deeply, structurally unhappy. Fear of being unemployed in 2016 can't be allayed with a cup of tea and a smile, or even another clenched-teeth threat. Nobody wants to be part of a government that rings down through the ages as a political punchline. These people are going to be asked by grandchildren yet unborn, "why didn't you just tell Peta Credlin to fuck off?".

A government can survive without this or that person as PM's Chief of Staff, but no government can survive without a backbench. It's a pity that Maiden missed that, or couldn't face it. Bill Shorten's relationship with his backbench is why he's leader and not Albanese. Rudd had a great relationship with his backbench, until he didn't. Howard knew what that's like. Abbott has done what he's been told all his life, and expects others to do the same - as does Credlin. That's why they're at sea with autonomous individuals in the Senate (and elsewhere, like the White House). They expect to crack the whip, not the other way around.
Some suggest that Kevin Andrews for example would make a delightful ambassador to the Holy See.
Are you crazy? The defeat of the Napthine government has discredited moderate, Hamerite liberalism in Victoria, and Kevin Andrews' homeboys have been vindicated. The man is practically skiting about how he's going to micromanage the lives of the fallen until they reach the sunlit uplands of God's mercy.

Look at how Andrews dispatched Conrad Xanthos. Look at how Andrews kyboshed the Northern Territory's euthanasia law as a backbencher. Credlin would have no chance against Andrews, and the political limitations of 104 Exhibition would be brutally exposed if she took him on. Voters in the electorate of Menzies are the most conservative in Victoria. As if they are going to vote for a woman who dresses like a Gold Coast property developer's second ex-wife.
Has anyone else noticed that Malcolm Turnbull is ­awfully quiet lately?
Has anyone noticed that Maiden referenced Ruddock in her story and didn't follow through with him? Reading over that story again I'd suggest Ruddock is more of a key figure than Turnbull at the moment. Have you got Ruddock's number, Samantha? He has yours.

Turnbull is keeping his head down because of the unpopularity of his cuts to public broadcasters, that leave us at the mercy of the sorts of people who think Samantha Maiden understands politics. If Turnbull lashed out at Credlin now it would look like sour grapes. If Samantha Maiden rang him to break his silence, he'd laugh at her. There will come a time when Turnbull goes Credlin, and he will choose phrasing of Aesculapian skill I'm sure - but now's not the time.

People are looking to Julie Bishop as the key figure in what happens next with Credlin and Abbott, but she's a showpony. The one to watch is Chris Pyne. Pyne has served six Liberal leaders and been disloyal to them all. He (and Entsch) will be the difference between whether the backbench gets behind Abbott or deserts him. Pyne is who and what he is and doesn't care what others think of him - if asbestos had a personality it would be his. Samantha Maiden, bless her, has missed that too.

When you're stuck between the hard place of public hostility and the rock that is the Prime Minister's current Chief of Staff (as Coalition MPs are), you're in the wrong place. Where do you turn? East Germans or Zimbabweans might turn on the people, but we still have a vestige of democratic sentiment in this country. Abbott alone, not one member of the Coalition parliamentary representation owes their position to Credlin - and even he'd survive without her. He was best man at Peter Slipper's wedding. Tony Abbott didn't get where he is by being sentimental.

The first Liberal who is confronted with their metadata by Credlin and Abbott from the intelligence services, and accused of 'treason' for leaking to journalists, will be in an interesting position.

Every misjudgment of this government, down to and including their Senate negotiating strategy ("There is only one plan! This is the plan! What do you mean, no?"), is Credlin's. The successes (give me a minute) have been squirreled away by others. Credlin is not suddenly going to develop a whole new policy response. She's going to keep screeching at people until they shut up - or don't.

Everyone's happy to go along with a winning strategy but few will stick by those who are out of options, ideas, and time. If the Peta Credlin of five years ago was working for today's Peta Credlin, she would be polishing her resume and calling up long-neglected contacts. Credlin isn't stupid, she knows it's over. All that remains (in no particular order) is to set the stage, wrong-foot the press gallery, and break it to Tony.

06 December 2014

With a muffled whimper

... For mine own good,
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.


- William Shakespeare Macbeth Act III Scene IV
What we saw at Abbott's press conference on Monday was his last stand.


Polls a symptom not the illness


Never mind the polls. That's like taking someone's pulse to diagnose cancer. There never was any substance, any plan, any grounds to believe Abbott could capably run a capable government. Everyone who thought otherwise - the press gallery, the Coalition and all who vote for them - were wrong. Everyone who thought otherwise and who isn't big enough to admit they were wrong is participating in a pantomime about what a surprise it is that Abbott is no good, that he's somehow come over poorly all of a sudden.

Abbott was rotten from the start. Only bloggers could see this. Journalists who think they have, and should maintain, some sort of lock on political coverage underestimate how crap they are at the job they get paid to do.

The reason why political parties used to release policy position papers before elections was to give some idea of their thinking about their general approach to policy in government. They wanted to get their policies out there without media slant. It wasn't to provide a list of gotcha opportunities, which is what the traditional media think they are.

This is why political parties stopped issuing policy papers. They demonstrate their thinking about policy approaches at speeches to party fundraisers. Journalists are excluded from these events and are too lazy to get that information regardless. This government slid into office with almost no challenge from the press gallery; claiming surprise and befuddlement won't salvage lost credibility and confidence.

Political parties still complain - even with the internet - that they're somehow constrained in getting their message out. The Coalition in Victoria is doing this now, even though the state press gallery and the outlets that employ its members agreed that the Coalition should be returned.

Politicians and journalists both expect people to take them on trust when they won't engage their thinking on issues.


The beginning of the end


Abbott can't back down; his pride and his backers won't let him. He can't go forward; he has, as Lenore Taylor points out, and as I pointed out last week, snookered himself. Think of Tony Abbott as Australia's next ex-Prime Minister.

The whole barnacles thing shows that Abbott underestimated the degree to which the government of this country has to change. A metaphor has to help illustrate the thing to which it refers, or demonstrate familiarity on the part of the speaker. If Abbott had been some sort of master mariner before entering politics nobody would doubt his expertise in dealing with barnacles. When done badly, as this was, it's a lampoon - like Monty Python's Norwegian Blue parrot "resting" and "pining for the fjords".

Nobody has any confidence that Abbott can distinguish between barnacle and ship. From the engine room to all classes of passenger and everyone outside the bridge, it's clear he has done such a crap job at running the vessel.

He can't just slip away. The traditional model of politics holds that problems are brushed under the carpet, and/or managed in the back rooms. Labor tried to dispose of Rudd quietly on that June evening in 2010, scheduling their crisis meetings after the press gallery had finished up in the mid-afternoon, inventing a one-liner excuse and running with that. This was never convincing. It was never going to be. Big-time political operators looked like clowns when they fell for, executed, and defended that approach.

One does not dispose of elected Prime Ministers* without a clear reason for doing so. One should not appoint someone to the Prime Ministership without some appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses, and one's own abilities to burnish the former and play down the latter. The idea that the Liberal Party did not realise he'd be rubbish as Prime Minister, or that it worked with the media to sandbag his shortcomings far longer than was dignified for either of them, is the kind of synchronised shallow thinking that is killing both major media companies and major political parties.

Acting-ere-scanning is not charming and it neither sells newspapers/airtime, nor shifts votes. It's professional failure, not success, and the fact that you can't tell the difference means you're all stuffed.


What you cover when you cover a press conference


The press gallery was negligent in its reporting of Abbott's press conference on Monday.

Keep in mind (which they don't) that press conferences are staged events put on for their benefit. They are not naturalistic, random chats.

Some reported that Abbott had apologised, which was false. He wasn't even apologetic in tone. He basically reiterated what he'd always said, a bit more slowly and a bit less boldly.

He talked about the week being 'ragged', as though feeling sorry for him was the only valid response. Look at the analysis from those who agree with him uncritically, there are your press gallery muppets practically begging for unemployment.

Keep in mind that Tony Abbott did not get where he is by holding regular press conferences. Wondering why a man who rarely puts on press conferences suddenly does one is not cynical, and it's not up to journalists to decide this is too hard for their audiences to understand. It's part of the analysis that seasoned and savvy observers of politics should do as a matter of course.

It shows the less-stupid members of the press gallery that Abbott can hold press conferences when he wants to, and that you should stop being so soft on him (and never, ever, simperingly thank him for gracing his presence as Leigh Sales did on Thursday).

It is nebulous to say that press conference "changed the tone". The tone of this government was nasty and brutish, and Grattan can't bear to admit that it follows the life left in this government is short.


Stabbed in the back

I will tomorrow —
And betimes I will — to the weird sisters.
More shall they speak, for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst.
The closest I've come to feeling sorry for Tony Abbott, an insouciantly privileged man both callous and selfish, is when the Murdoch press have turned on him.

The fact that the Murdoch press have turned on Abbott is significant. Their advice to Abbott is to do what he's always done, but more so; that's what he's doing, and it isn't working for him. This sort of cod analysis is what stops NewsCorp translating its dominant market share into real clout with its audience. We saw this at work when the nation's largest selling newspaper** The Herald Sun recommended that its readers return the Napthine government.

The first member of the government to decry NewsCorp for abandoning them when the going got tough would suffer a bit, but such a person would be the rock upon which the Coalition might build a post-Abbott future.

It would have been the perfect excuse for Malcolm Turnbull to renege on cuts to the public broadcasters: if you're going to turn on us then we won't do your dirty work on the ABC. Turnbull is more committed to those cuts and to Murdoch than many erstwhile supporters dare admit. Cultured, handwringing Malcolm is not the authentic Turnbull; the mogul's facilitator is.

Watch for Peta Credlin to start polishing her resume: the press gallery won't. Her departure will of course be perfectly amicable, as Arthur Sinodinos' was from John Howard's office in early 2007, and as with his hers will both signify the end and bring it closer. The whispering campaign against Credlin has begun because to hold a position like hers, you have to be absolutely right about everything all the time. I'm a Credlin sceptic too but this government will get worse, not better, once she goes.

-o0o-

But this is not Turnbull's last stand, it's Abbott's.

Nobody liked him. The press gallery didn't just cover him in opposition, they covered for him; unemployment is just desserts for professional gutlessness. Nobody is grateful for his few, poor, and essentially negative achievements: terrorising asylum-seekers and slowing our transition to 21st century power and communications. He had no right to get this far; the press gallery gave him a free pass, declining to ask the hard questions about suitability that they put to Mark Latham a decade ago.

Now the economy is turning down, and nobody but press gallery sucks have any confidence this lot can turn it around. Howard would have freaked out had the Budget not been passed by MYEFO, having seen the Whitlam government sacked for such a failure early in his career. What his fans insist is calm resolve is nothing but cluelessness and carelessness, and all but the most hard-bitten among them see it shining plain.

Abbott went to a long press conference looking apologetic but not being apologetic, and the press gallery was grateful for that old magic. The press gallery are doing their 2014 In Review pieces and goodness me, it does appear that the whole year (rather than just the week) has been rubbish.

It's almost charming that such people should regard the eminently foreseeable failure of the Abbott government as such a surprise.

Why have they only just realised this, having observed Abbott up close for so long? What is wrong with these people? Why are they still getting the pay and privileges attached to their positions? Why has this Walkley-winning journalist produced the kind of formulaic takedown you'd expect from a blogger, and why wasn't she awake to this two years ago? After Abbott has gone (!) these are the questions that remain.

Tony Abbott's government was never going to end with a bang, despite him and those close to him being the most bloody-minded Götterdämmerung types. It is ending with a whimper of self-pity, as it was always going to - muffled by those who should be listening for it, who should be amplifying it, so that we far from Canberra might know how we are governed.


* Fine, I'll cop your lecture on Westminster government and how 'Prime Minister' is nowhere defined in the Constitution, if you'll accept that the political parties that govern this country design their entire offerings each election around the persona of their leader, and that replacing the leader post-election means a different offering to that put to supposedly sovereign voters beforehand.

** Which are the more reliable stats: media circulation/ratings figures, media-commissioned polls, or neither? Vote now.

30 November 2014

Does Victoria matter?

Short answer

Yes! Very much. Some of my best friends, etc. I will be Christmassing there. God bless you all.

Yesterday saw one of the few election results where my prediction was the same as what ended up happening, so I'm quite pleased about that.


No, I meant politically. You know, the big picture. Napthine's loss as a harbinger for Abbott

Oh no, of course not. Well, not necessarily.

Menzies said that the Liberal Party was for all Australians, beholden to none. Under Abbott, this is less true than it has ever been. It is getting every bit as rancid as the UAP during World War II (but more on that later). The fact is that the Liberal Party can't handle government across all jurisdictions. Local councils drain cash from and are embarrassingly petty for state governments (territory governments can be counted as 'local government' for the purposes of the preceding statement). State governments set up alternate power bases for the feds.

John Howard hated Liberal state governments. He did nothing to ensure their re-election and actively helped euthanase a few of them. Abbott has learned the lesson but can't execute it.

Correlation is not causation. Napthine's gone and Abbott is stuffed, but as this blog has pointed out for years Abbott would always have been stuffed if Dennis Napthine - or Geoff Shaw - had never been born.


But surely, for committed Liberals like John Howard and Tony Abbott, you can't have too much Liberal government.

You weren't around in the late 1990s, were you?

In January 1995 Howard returned to the federal Liberal leadership. The Coalition had held together a minority government in NSW for four years until March that year, when Bob Carr cobbled together a majority with independents (see my previous blogpost - you'd think the Coalition would be awake to how to do this. Then again, you'd think Labor would, too).

When Howard became Prime Minister, he immediately came over all beleaguered. Carr worked quietly and constructively to shore up funding. This was a sharp contrast to the way his Liberal predecessor, John Fahey, had been wrong-footed by Keating in the COAG doh-si-doh. This made Carr look like a man who could Get Things Done.

By contrast, the Premier of Victoria was Jeff Kennett, a Liberal only in the broadest of broad-church terms. Kennett was not quiet. The extent to which he was constructive can still get you a smack in the mouth in certain Melbourne pubs. He was a man of firm ideas about how Victoria, and the country, should be governed, which pissed Howard off. Victorians with money preferred Kennett over Howard, and donated money to the state Libs rather than the feds, which pissed Howard off even more.

Howard was never a broad-church man, tolerating dissenting views through gritted teeth at the best of times. Once he got a taste of the view from the pulpit it was all over:
  • In South Australia, Nick Minchin nobbled one of the state's most popular Premiers, the Liberals' Dean Brown, and replaced him with a piece of furniture from a second-hand shop in Norwood. This is why the SA Libs will probably never govern their state until Minchin dies.
  • The Western Australian government proved to be self-nobbling; the current Premier was then its deputy and is applying his self-nobbling skills as we speak.
  • Something similar happened in Queensland: Labor seemed to like the health-and-education state government thing, and the Coalition weren't doing much with it, so they handed it over with a shrug that Beattie confused with convulsions of joy.
  • In Tasmania, Tony Rundle ran a moderate government in Coalition with the Greens. Eric Abetz helped ensure Rundle was starved of the funding to Get Things Done and was replaced by Labor.
  • Abetz also mentored the ACT Liberals, edging out winners like Kate Carnell and Gary Humphries and replacing them with knuckleheads who spray themselves daily with voter repellent.
  • The CLP lost the Northern Territory after a generation, replaced by a former ABC journalist who spoke in complete sentences and had probably never even opened a beer bottle with her eye socket.
I worked for the NSW Liberals in the 1999 election campaign and watched Mark Textor smooth the dying pillow over their even-money effort to knock Carr over. Carr won in a landslide. I left the Liberal Party soon after that but remain a Textor sceptic - which puts me at odds with the entire press gallery and other members of the political class, but hey.

With Labor in power at the state level, Howard learned that he could continue to play silly-buggers with the states over its functions and with tax, all care no responsibility because we're Liberals and they're Labor, politicians gotta politic.

High-minded rhetoric about reforming federation was framed as mealy-mouthed nonsense. This continued while Labor held all governments bigger than Brisbane City Council in 2007-08. It continues to this day, because ideas shared by both sides are the epitome of good government and political sophistication, while ideas opposed by both are freaky and flaky and otherwise undesirable. This will continue until the Labor-Coalition duopoly is broken.

But back to Victoria. When Steve Bracks, when Steve Bracks, beat Kennett in '99, beat Kennett in '99, Howard wasn't exactly distraught, wasn't exactly distraught. Bracks was quiet and constructive, quiet and constructive, and repeated his phrases when talking to commercial radio listeners. By contrast, Liberal Opposition Leader Dennis Napthine looked clumsy and shrill when he went after Bracks, and Howard gave him no assistance to speak of. Baillieu only won in 2010 when there was no risk of impeding the feds.


Abbott is in trouble, isn't he.

Yes, for reasons that have nothing to do with Napthine.

Rather than expect Abbott to use some sort of super-powers to save Napthine, then act all surprised when they prove non-existent, journos would be better off asking whether it is reasonable to expect Abbott to do anything. What is the nature of these superpowers that could save Napthine and the Victorian Coalition from itself? Why would Abbott be able to save Napthine's government but not his own? What made you think he'd be any better than Rudd or Gillard?

What is the political benefit for Abbott to save the Napthine government? What does he lose when Napthine loses?

Abbott needs all the help he can get. A re-elected Napthine government would have drained attention and resources away from his outfit.

The best people in the Napthine government (and they weren't all turkeys) are now either unemployed or staring into the foggy gloom of long-term opposition. Those who worked to get Abbott elected took staffer jobs and are looking to get some sweet lobbying roles in before the current government goes terminal. Abbott has the pick of the Napthine government's best brains, which is a nice arrangement for Abbott. And that, as far as he is concerned, is the main thing.


But, but ... Victoria is terribly important!

Oh, please.

From 1949 to 1969, the Victorian representation in the federal government was bigger than that of any state, and provided the leadership. Lightweights like Harold Holt and Peter Howson made it further than they should have through being Collins Street flaneurs, while non-Victorians like Paul Hasluck and Percy Spender were underutilised.

Never mind that during this period, the nation's centre of economic and cultural gravity shifted to Sydney. NSW had a state Labor government and a massive Labor redoubt, and the other states regarded voting Labor with communism.

After the 1969 election the representation from Victoria and NSW were roughly equal. Leadership tension between Gorton and McMahon can be seen in light of that. So too can the tension between Howard and Andrew Peacock.

Malcolm Fraser was Victorian to his bootstraps but he took pains to cultivate the party in NSW, particularly men of substance like Sir John Carrick and Bob Sir Robert Cotton. By the time Howard (mentored by Carrick and Cotton) won in 1996 he had rebuilt the NSW party from the ground up, which has never happened in Victoria.

Today, Victorians aren't the largest delegation to the federal government, nor the second - they are third, slightly ahead of WA. The current federal government, if you hadn't realised already, views things through its own prisms. We had a Prime Minister from Victoria until last year who was underappreciated by the rest of the country. Victorians have never taken to the current Prime Minister (see below). But, cheer up! The alternative Prime Minister is a Victorian - oh, don't be like that.


Look, everyone knows the Liberal Party regards Victoria as the Jewel in the Crown.

It's true that the Coalition held state government in Victoria for a long time, but two things need to be said about that.

First, people like Dick Hamer don't grow on trees (and anyway, with the fate of Leadbeater's possum in the balance, we've seen how Victorians care about trees). The Victorian Liberals of old would have quietly strangled Geoff Shaw rather than have him undermine a Baillieu. And the likes of Peter Reith, I mean I ask you. Costello might have burnished that jewel had he not been such a piker.

Second, the Labor Party in the period 1955-82 deliberately enfeebled itself, much the same as it did federally until last year and as it has in NSW for the past decade or so.

Victoria has 12 Senators. Four of them are Liberals, all numpties. There are local councils with more impressive representations (and more Liberals) than the Victorian Senate team. There is a National Senator too but, for this government, she's the wrong gender (read some of Margaret Fitzherbert's work on formidable Liberal women and wonder what might have been. Wonder what happened to Fitzherbert herself).

There are 37 Members of the House of Representatives from Victoria. Given that the state is such a Liberal jewel, and the Coalition hold federal government, and the party's federal director comes from there, you'd expect more than half - much more than half - would be held by the Coalition.

16 of Victoria's 37 HoR seats (i.e., a minority) are held by members of the Coalition. With the government on the nose, you'd expect the JitC to step up: who will bet me that Victoria's Coalition representation will increase in 2016?

The Liberal Party gives its Victorian branch all the respect and deference due to whiny laggards resting on faded laurels.


You know what the problem is? Tony Abbott needs strong Victorian representation on his front bench.

Andrew Bolt (no I won't link to his article) told his audience of mouth-breathing Victorians that the lack of a strong Victorian in his Cabinet is one of Abbott's major shortcomings.

Four members of Abbott's 20-member Cabinet are Victorians, roughly commensurate with the proportion of Victorians to Australians as a whole. It isn't clear what more Bolt could want.

Even if you accept Bolt's comment (don't worry, dear reader, I won't tell anyone about that time you agreed with Andrew Bolt), the question is: whom? Which Victorian Liberal would you have Abbott slot into his Cabinet to set things right? Napthine? Mary Wooldridge? Bolt himself? What about Sophie Mirabella, a director of the Australian Canoe Corporation? You see the problem here.


Victoria has the country's best infrastructure!

Quite why Kennett, Brumby, and now Napthine had chosen to impale themselves on the altar of the East-West tunnel is unclear.


What do you think of the way the Victorian media covers Victorian politics?

When it is forced to cover actual stuff that state government does, it is quite good. Sophisticated political and policy analysis with a light but not clichéd touch: this is what journalism on how we are governed should be. Only South Australia's InDaily comes close.

When it comes to the coverage of elections, it is as cliché-ridden as any electoral coverage. Before the election, Josh Gordon from The Age insisted that he was "on the fence" about who would win the election, when his coverage was showing clearly that Labor was preparing for office while the Coalition was in a defensive crouch, protecting its vitals.

This phenomenon was identified by US journalist Michael Kinsley in the 1990s. Before the election, journalists insist the race will be tight (against evidence that it often won't be), and that even the lamest campaign cliché is imbued with great significance. After the election, journalists portray the result as the inevitable result of seismic historical factors against which all campaigning was pitifully feeble. Political operatives of similar kidney during the campaign are divided into wise seers and hopeless jokes on the basis of a result the journalist deemed "too close to call". Those considered 'hopeless jokes' can redeem themselves to journalists by dumping on their loser-party colleagues.

This deliberate misinformation is not done to inform the public, but to maintain the journalist's pose of 'balance' above all other considerations. Not one extra newspaper, not one second of airtime, is sold because of this pose. A journalist sitting on a fence is good for nothing but target practice. The position of The Age under a Labor government will be interesting:
  • Apparently The Age hacked into a Labor database. According to the journosphere, this was fair play and part of the perils of using job-killing computers.
  • Apparently the ALP found a recording device belonging to a journalist from The Age; they listened to it, found and disseminated Ted Baillieu bagging his Liberal colleagues. According to the journosphere, this was fair play an outrage against our very democracy.
The Murdoch press seemed strangely ambivalent as to whether the Napthine government lived or died. Napthine should be congratulated for not appearing in Murdoch ads like NSW's Mike Baird did. In the nature of oligopolies, you can't really expect the Murdoch press to step up:


Hunting for clichés at staged events and finding them is political journalism's equivalent of coprophilia, the sort of misjudgment that is killing their profession from the frontline journalist to the most senior executives. Bloggers who think they have to be fair to the Murdoch press cite Karvelas as proof that not everyone in that organisation is a clown. After her coverage of this state election I'm not so sure.


What will Dennis Napthine do now?

Napthine, a country vet, was for some reason often photographed with, and drawn by cartoonists riding, horses. This could well see the end of the 'man on horseback' metaphor of strong leadership.

His affection for horses is probably genuine and the horseracing industry probably represents his best chance to avoid Stockdale Syndrome, the situation where people are bundled out of politics too early in their working lives and struggle to find something constructive to do.

Napthine has been quoted as saying that Labor's proposed royal commission into domestic violence is a waste of money, but nowhere is he quoted directly: if true, this will go down in history like all those arguments a century ago against women's suffrage, and people will defend Napthine against criticism that he excused the inexcusable.

In the regular quiz at your local pub a little while into the future, one of the questions will be: "Who was Premier of Victoria from 2012 to 2014?". You will rack your brains and groan because you'll know the answer but won't be able to articulate it. When the quizmaster reads out the answer you will growl "Oh, that's right!", and nobody will be impressed because anyone can do that and get zero points for it.


What will happen to the Liberal Party in Victoria?

It will be taken over by conservatives, a process that started already (see the preselection for Kew, and the dithering over Shaw). Churchy obsessives mostly, with one or two IPA types; the sorts of people Malcolm Fraser left the party to get away from, the sorts of people trying it on in NSW. They will shriek for their pet projects, but anything else will be nanny-state bloat. Old-guard figures who are not enjoying retirement as much as they thought will pop back up and tell everyone to keep quiet, to stay away from the Facetweet and what have you, to no avail.

They will preselect voter-repellent candidates for the federal election in 2016 and repeat the dose state-wise after that, selecting people who make Geoff Shaw look like Cicero. The media will describe these people as "feisty" and "controversial" and imply that Andrews has a fight on his hands.

Maybe there will be good and sensible people who turn the party around, but this won't happen anytime soon. The long period of reinvention that I thought was necessary before the Coalition came back to government federally is actually starting now.


The Prime Minister of Australia cares deeply about Victoria. He described Melbourne as a second home.

Yeah, he's said a lot of things. Most of them bullshit.


You seem to be implying that Tony Abbott doesn't care whether the Coalition governs Victoria.

I state it without any risk that it can be refuted. Rebutted perhaps, even dismissed; but not refuted. Do not underestimate the sheer extent to which that man gives no damn.


But if the Prime Minister of Australia doesn't care about Victoria, it must mean we're insignificant.

Oh no. See the first paragraph above. As Australian states go, Victoria is right up there. We've just got the wrong Prime Minister. Easy problem to fix, and you can do your part Victoria.

Just leave those fence-sitting journalists where they are and stop buying their output. Fence-sitting can get boring, and the best press gallery operators know there's more to state politics than some sort of longeur between elections (which they suck at covering anyway). What Daniel Andrews said before the election might not be true afterwards, so keep on looking into what the government is up to.

You'll have to do your own journalism because of the addiction to clichés by those contingently employed to do so; they can't get over it.

27 November 2014

Media and politics today

All media organisations fancy themselves as political players. In 2013 the traditional media ganged up on the Rudd-Gillard government and levered it from office. Now, the traditional media don't really understand politics, can't report on it, and can't influence it. The ABC's response to politics takes this to a whole new level.

Stop me if you've heard this before


Traditional media organisations represented in the press gallery came to dislike the previous government. Big reforms that had not been extensively canvassed in the media created the impression that the government didn't need traditional media - an impression reinforced by its flirtation with social media.

Traditional media panicked responded in two ways. First, the sorts of grievances and disgruntlements that occur in all governments was misreported as extraordinary, and magnified in importance.

Second, the Coalition was given a free pass; coverage like no opposition had received before, its often inane and occasionally hypocritical criticisms given credence they didn't warrant. No consideration was given as to what an Abbott government might do in office. Coverage of the government was framed by the criticism from the Opposition.

No Opposition Leader before Abbott or since received such uncritical coverage, or so much of it. He got what all politicians want: to be taken at his word. He got the 'green light', in much the same way that dodgy NSW Police in the 1980s gave the 'green light' to career criminal Arthur 'Neddy' Smith. Abbott even looks a bit like Smith at the same age.

The traditional media were aiming to preserve the two-party system. Detailed and cogent criticism of the previous government from the Greens, or Andrew Wilkie, received much less coverage than white-noise like "Well this is a bad government" from the then Opposition. Minor parties and independents tended to be framed as freaks, an unstable rabble, a framing that extended to the ALP itself.

The two-party model cannot be maintained in reporting politics today. The errors made by the government have largely been unforced, their own inadequacies more important than pressure from the now Opposition.

The government has lost the political initiative. The Opposition does not have it. The political initiative is not coming from the major parties, but from minor parties and independents. Political journalists can pick that it's been a bad week for the government, but their usual frame is that must mean a good week for the opposition. They can't admit how few good weeks this government has had, or is capable of.

Having painted Labor as so hopeless, day after day for years, they cannot credibly claim they now have the answers. Nor can they claim, given the polls, that Labor are so hopeless that the shortcomings of the government should be overlooked. Because they don't understand politics today, they will eventually respond by giving Labor's leader (whether Shorten or someone else) the green light that they gave Abbott. That won't help the public decision-making process either, and nor will it help sell advertising space - depends on what you regard as the main game.

Traditional media is trapped with a set of templates on how to report politics that just don't relate to the reality before us. Regular readers will know I hate this more than I can describe, but describing is necessary as a first step to working out how to break it. A man has to have a hobby. In mid-life this beats the hell out of hair plugs and sports cars. It is cheaper, more engaging, and ultimately more constructive than trying to get a girlfriend half my age. And unlike many other hobbies, collateral damage is not worth worrying about.


Mark Scott, the ABC and 21st century politics

An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile - hoping it will eat him last.

- Winston Churchill
Mark Scott is giving 21st century politics a red-hot go, mainly because he's out of options. He's playing a longer game than the government, and even the Murdoch press.

Abbott, Turnbull and the gang thought that instead of letting media organisations play politics, they'd have politics play media. As with pretty much all this government's most cunning plans, it has failed irretrievably within hours of being announced.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser denounced the cuts to the ABC, and to SBS (which his government established). ABC broadcaster Mark Colvin recalled the Bland Report and jeered at what he called Fraser's "double standards". Yet, Colvin and his colleagues at ABC News and Current Affairs thought they were so clever in reporting on the Gillard government in the way the Coalition hoped they might, and for not being 'even-handed' in speculating what an Abbott government might be like. They gladly fed the (contemporary) Coalition crocodile.

Colvin still can't believe he or the ABC would ever be guilty of double standards himself. He can't imagine such an accusation even being made. Such high-handedness and selective blindness makes him the exemplar of not only what's right about the ABC (when he's on song) but also what's worst (when he's not). The extent to which the ABC relies so much upon so few makes the case for cuts stronger, not weaker.

Today, we have a government that disdains to provide journalists with any real information, and to be fair only very few actually bother seeking it out. Today we have a government that can send journalists to prison and spy on their sources. These is what happens when your first priority is maintaining journalists in their pose of balance, to the point where their actual research and story-telling skills wither from disuse. This is why merely reversing the cuts would restore nothing worth having, and increase scrutiny of government not one jot.

Spare us this 'Hunger Games' crap. Honestly. Everyone works in insecure environments these days. Get over yourselves and shut up.

It would be asinine to say that Scott is banking on Labor and the Greens to come through for him, as this shows. It's beyond wrong, it's beside the point. It's just so 20th century.

The two-party system has broken down because communities not considered 'marginal seats' felt neglected, and so are changing their politics to avoid the majors and become politically contestable, getting things done that wouldn't be done if you leave things to the 'professionals'. Denison had been a safe Liberal seat and then a safe Labor one; now it's held by an independent. Indi had been held by 'Black Jack' McEwen and by a putative minister in the current government; now it's held by an independent. Senior Labor MPs Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek face little threat from local Liberals, but are forced to maintain constant vigil against the Greens. Chris Pyne won the safest Liberal seat in South Australia in 1993; now they've stopped listening to him and will chuck him next time.

Community is a thing, keenly missed when it is absent, exulted in when present. Everybody wants their community to be a marginal seat, but it takes hard work and skills that not everyone has.

The ABC builds communities, and maintains them during emergencies. Mark Colvin is a community-builder. So too are Geraldine Doogue and Robin Williams, Tim Cox and Macka. Communities gather around Peppa Pig and The World Game and Australian Story and Q'n'A. Politicians don't represent those communities. They only make their presences felt when they try to knock them over.

Scott has targeted cuts to the ABC in regional Australia. This has flushed out silly Nationals and Liberal MPs in those areas, who have all responded with the much-derided tactic of the Open Letter. They all go something like this:
Dear Mr Scott,

When I voted for swingeing cuts to your organisation, it never occurred to me that you would cut services in my community, or that my constituents would complain so much. It's easy to outmanoeuvre me, and all I can do is squeal like a stuck pig because my persuasive abilities are more limited than you'd expect from someone in my current job. Peta never warned me about this; but to be fair, if she had I probably would have ignored her.

Please, please reverse those cuts, you bastard! You are so not coming to my Christmas drinks.

Yours etc.
In the old way of reporting, where bad news for the Coalition means good news for Labor, this would mean Labor's vote in regional Australia would skyrocket and ... look, it's all too silly. Restoration of ABC funding to rural Australia will not be achieved by the Coalition. It will not be achieved by Labor. It will be achieved by a critical mass of politicians who owe nothing to anyone but those who elect them.

An ABC journalist who has given long and loyal service to a remote community - and who is about to receive a big payout, right in the middle of the parliamentary term - is a potent, direct threat to even the most well-entrenched Coalition MP. The smarter ones know this all too well. ABC presenters are welcomed into homes, vehicles and workplaces far more than even the most affable politician. They cover the gamut of local and national issues, while the Coalition MP is hamstrung by talking points. If they don't run as actual candidates themselves, those people have greater appeal and credibility than those thrown up by parties.

Imagine you're living in a regional area, and you know more about climate change than all the nose-ringed baristas of Fitzroy and Enmore put together. Imagine you're concerned about fracking. Who are you going to vote for?
- a) the incumbent Coalition MP, and Tony Abbott.
- b) Labor, oh yeah.
- c) that ABC journo who did all those 30-minute specials on fracking, teasing out the subtleties of the issue and who stands to win or lose.
- d) a Green who couldn't win preselection for their local city electorate, but who comes with a big recommendation from Senator Lee Rhiannon (whoever the hell he is).

The late Peter Andren, a commercial TV journalist in rural NSW, kept Labor and the Coalition at bay throughout the 1990s. Tony Windsor regards Andren as a role model, and even after his death he has more to offer ambitious regional candidates than, say, Luke Hartsuyker or Joel Fitzgibbon.

The social base on which the major parties were founded is wasting away. The initiative is with community-organising movements, which must necessarily be small-scale. There may come a revival of mass politics later this century, but it is hard to discern from this angle. The smart money is on independents and minor parties, with diminishing majors negotiating terms to enjoy office.

If Scott had wanted to go after the current political class, he would have axed Insiders and smashed the other mirrors in which they regard themselves. But he is playing a longer game.

The majors look silly in their denials that they will (or that they have to) negotiate with minors. They get the legislative composition that the voters set for them, and their challenge is to make the best of that. Labor is better able to get over itself in order to strike a deal than the Coalition. Not only federally in 2010 but in every state over the past 20 years, Labor has won office through a deal with Greens and/or other independents.

This is the future, baby: thumping wins and inviolable mandates will be fewer and further between.

What Scott has done is to mess with the majors, and to ensure that while they might gang up against public broadcasting, they will have to work within a political environment where maintaining and extending the ABC is a given.

Labor underutilised public broadcasting in its pitch for the NBN, and if they do so again (they'd have to resist Murdoch, and the NSW Right in particular could never stay mad at Rupert) they should talk about public broadcasting - not allow the Coalition to witter about hi-def sport and movies. Labor has an advantage in talking public broadcasting, but not much. A future version of the Coalition could peg them back if they really tried, and wanted.

Social conservatives have shown the way, clogging Labor and Coalition parliamentary ranks with churchy freaks implacably opposed to same-sex marriage and to investigating sexual abuse in the churches and the military. This makes minority-held positions look bipartisan - and to be bipartisan is the best politics can be, right?

Issues like political donations, a federal ICAC, euthanasia, gaming reform and biodiversity look scattergun and untidy to those who can only imagine politics as a duopoly. They look like a laundry list of issues which clever manoeuvring and cosy deals can sideline effectively. The recurrence of those issues in public debate looks to such people like a failure of issues management, political reflux; not an authentic expression of democracy.

In the late 20th century, the issues that became crystallised as the Whitlam agenda were like that. Urban planning, no-fault divorce, acquiescence to communist governments in China and Vietnam - I mean, I ask you. Labor only took them up in the vacuum from being squeezed by Moscow and Rome. Labor can't be relied upon to truly embrace a laundry list of issues like that, but they are better prepared to entertain them.

Labor's fading branches, and those of the Coalition parties, aren't discussing those issues - and if they are, the wide boys in those parties ensure they don't get past Conference. The initiative is coming from independents and minors. Mark Scott has pitched the ABC as one of those issues that is always with us - not batted back and forth every time there's a change of government, and neglected in between.

26 November 2014

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

Social media sites do listicles, and while this article defends them they are only useful if they are any good.

This listicle on Australian politics is no good at all. It is published in Fairfax, a company whose record with social media is to produce low quality, at great cost, unfashionably late. There are no grounds to be impressed with the form of this listicle, so let's go to the substance.

It suggests ways that the Abbott government might improve its performance. None of them are possible. You may as well write '10 ways the Model T Ford can win Bathurst next year': it's one thing to be cheery, but there's no point being a damn fool about it.

The video at the top of the article is mislabelled. "Liberal Senator Scott Ryan joins Chris Hammer in the studio to discuss the political news of the day" makes it sound spontaneous, even promising. Ryan has been pumped full of Liberal talking points and Hammer is working his way through a prepared list to winkle them out. Standard political reporting I know, but the very kind of formulaic shit that is killing traditional journalism in this country.
Tony Abbott has told nervous Coalition MPs he plans to knock "one or two barnacles off the ship" before Christmas ... some Liberals and Nationals MPs believe changes must be made to clear the decks and start 2015 with a clean slate.
Mixed metaphors are a sign you're not really focused on what you're trying to get across. If you have barnacles on your deck it's too late for the boat anyway. And as for the slate - c'mon.
1) Act on climate change
Nope. Never mind the G20 and next year's targets, this is not a new thing.

Tony Abbott is only leader of the Liberal Party because he found a way of not acting on climate change while also winning over the press gallery. If you thought Julia Gillard lost credibility over carbon pricing, wait until Abbott starts 're-examining' the issue. In the same way that John Howard did not nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange in the name of the proletariat, so too Tony Abbott won't act in any sort of credible way on climate change. I'm sorry, but people who say things like that should not diminish their battered employers further by opining such ignorant nonsense.

It isn't my fault that you don't understand politics. I'm just pointing it out.
2) Restore renewable energy policy
You can't be serious.

This government got where it is with the support of non-renewables, even gibbering in unguarded moments about nuclear power. It stands against renewable energy sources and cares not at all about the jobs lost in what should be a rapidly growing, labour-intensive sector of the economy. It can't just reverse that. Nobody would believe them.
The government should agree to a sensible compromise on renewable energy, having failed in its efforts to dramatically wind back the target after appointing known climate sceptic Dick Warburton to review it.
If you can deny overwhelming evidence from across the world about climate science, then you can (as this government does) deny the RET is sensible, deny efforts to wind it back have failed, deny that DickWarb is a denialist, etc.
The government could agree to a modest winding back of the target to a figure that is achievable for the industry and does not destroy it.
The RET is achievable. The absence of bipartisan support is the government's fault, and it's up to them to get over themselves. Any 'modest winding back' would be contingent and unsustainable.
3) Have a cabinet reshuffle
This government got where it is through stability. Members of the shadow ministry who didn't make it into government are still moaning about it. Reshuffles make winners quietly pleased while the losers become noisily disgruntled. Abbott knows this.
Promote some high achievers, demote under-performers ...
Easy to say - but who, exactly, are this government's "high achievers"? You see the problem here. You'd basically have to chuck the entire Cabinet and start again, which Labor did twice in 2013 and look where that got them.
... and, above all, address the appalling lack of women on the frontbench ...
It isn't as though half the members of the Coalition party room are female. Who would you promote, Lisa and Fergus? Karen McNamara, just in time to appear at ICAC? Kelly O'Dwyer, whose facility with talking points doesn't necessarily translate into policy depth? Michaelia Cash? The women who happily participated in that Mal Brough fundraiser? If you think the surface of the Liberal Party's problem with women is appalling, wait until you get down into the details.
4) Allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage
Oh, please. See denialism above. Nobody believed Julia Gillard, a leftie lawyer, when she insisted on the current heterosexual definition of marriage. It is one of the few things you can define Abbott on, and you'll have to force him out in order to get it.
5) Abandon the deregulation of university fees
It's been trying to do that for 20 years, and will hammer away for the next 20 as well. Again, your lack of attention is not my fault. Time for you to catch up. Next.
6) Dump the paid parental leave scheme

Mr Abbott's flagship scheme continues to face an uncertain future.
No it doesn't. If Abbott was going to do it, he would have done it by now. Have a look at what the Whitlam government achieved in its first month in office, then realise Abbott has been in office 14 months now and can't even pass a budget. Public servants face going into Christmas without being paid, and you're worried about women who haven't even conceived yet?
A lack of support in the parliament, among the public and even inside the PM's own party have led to it being watered down and temporarily shelved.
No, it's been defeated. The rhetoric of defeat was splashed around pretty thick about the previous government, but with this government it's all wrung hands and euphemisms. Why is that? Do you reckon a listicle can expose the gutlessness and stupidity of the traditional media's approach to politics? Give it a crack. You have nothing better to do.
7) Revise the government's communications strategy
This government's communications strategy smashed the last government and got a bunch of no-hopers onto the commanding heights of the way this country is run. Again, see the denialism above. This government got where it is because the press gallery confused Coalition bluster with 'straight talk'.
8) Ditch the $7 GP co-payment
Done. Next. If you vote for this lot again you can't be sure that won't return.
9) Review the proposed welfare overhaul
It's not about the bottom line, it's about the culture war, which is all this government has ever been about. The real story here is that the government has reversed almost everything it has proposed in this area, offering a nanny-state solution while also insisting that people should be freer to make their own choices and not consider themselves entitled. Too long for a listicle I admit, but all I ever wanted was a nice bit of journalism on, y'know, public policy and stuff. The kind of thing Katharine Murphy has claimed for years that she'd love to do, but never quite gets around to because oooh, have you seen Julie's shoes today?
10) Reconsider budget cuts to the ABC and SBS
Again: culture wars, denialism, as above.

The way we are governed is important. If you get paid to write, you have an obligation to think about what you write. If it's bullshit, best not to write at all, and your editor can shove both his deadline and his mistaken belief he's doing anything positive by dabbling with listicles.

It's a bit like offering advice to an obtuse government, or to obtuse journalists - what even is the point?

24 November 2014

Leadership as distraction

I don't care how many prima donnas there are so long as I am prima donna assoluta.

- Gough Whitlam (1916-2014)
The press gallery bristles at any idea that it is biased for or against either Labor or the Coalition. The bristling becomes positively furious when you back it up with solid examples. Journalists lash out at social media with the same accusations others level at them: lazy, formulaic, ill-informed, stupid, biased etc.

This coming week, you will see the proof of their sheer utter lack of bias. This week, no matter what the government announces - in defence, health, sport, you name it - press gallery journalists will try and frame it through leadership manoeuvring. There will be talk of 'the Bishop camp' here or 'an unnamed Abbott supporter' there. Talk of Bishop looking fresh and energetic will be contrasted against the current Prime Minister being described as 'beleaguered'.
This is not to suggest that a leadership change is afoot.
Oh, poppycock Peter Hartcher, and what would you know anyway?
  • Hartcher, like the rest of the press gallery, failed to pick the transition from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard in 2010.
  • Every week for the following three years, Hartcher predicted that Rudd would return to lead the ALP. The fact that he was proven right eventually should be balanced against the idea that a stopped clock shows the right time once every twelve hours, or thousands of times in a three-year period.
  • To be fair to Hartcher, he correctly identified the second change to Labor's leadership in 2013. This was because Rudd vacated the leadership by means beyond an EXCLUSIVE interview with Peter Hartcher, and the ALP openly publicised the fact that Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese were running for the leadership over an extended period.
Imagine the shrieking from the press gallery if Malcolm Turnbull had changed the way he dressed and lined up slavering puff-pieces like Bishop has. Contrast Bishop's free pass with the savaging Joe Hockey received over Madonna King's biography.
Bishop emphatically resists any suggestion she wants the leadership, or even the treasurership.
She would say that, wouldn't she. Full support for Abbott too, no doubt.
She's found her meter [sic], and she's loving it, she says.
Word to Fairfax subs: you left a key letter out of 'metier', and if the word is new to you look it up; assume that every word Hartcher writes contains 'I'.

If you look at Bishop's Twitter feed it is the Twitter feed you see from inoffensive but ubiquitous celebrities, put on for show, but without the gnawing insecurity that comes from someone who puts their heart and soul on the line each day: this is someone secure in the fact that they are never going to be seriously questioned. Prime example:


One wonders by what means the tweet was sent if the iPhone had actually been wrested away from her, if the Foreign Minister does not have some secret stash of device(s) to tweet beyond the control of advisors. This and other recent tweets are both playful and nerdy, like Kevin Rudd's were. She's all about the work - but she doesn't worry too much about looking cool, oh good heavens no.

Solid doses of hoke and disingenuousness form the basis for Bishop's affinity with Rudd. It is hard to see what other basis there is in this for such a comparison:
  • Rudd is not some sort of titan in foreign affairs, like Metternich or Kissinger or even Percy Spender;
  • In a policy area that is fairly intangible, Rudd has few achievements in foreign policy and many other areas of government, owing to a dithery and chaotic administrative style that careened across other areas of policy. Bourke saw that at close quarters but chose not to mention it;
  • No mention is made of any foreign-policy basis on which Rudd or Bishop (or Plibersek, or anyone else) might be judged in the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs;
  • Rudd's friendship with Bishop is significant in the context of the last government - Kerry-Anne Walsh calls it out in her book The Stalking of Julia Gillard, but Bourke lets it slide;
  • The Labor government of 2007-13 had three Foreign Ministers: Stephen Smith, Kevin Rudd, and Bob Carr. None of those men are in Parliament now. Nobody in the Labor caucus has a strong foreign policy record. This means Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, whether Plibersek or anyone else, must necessarily be a foreign affairs neophyte. This doesn't occur to Bourke either; so
  • It isn't clear what Bishop and Bourke mean when they say Plibersek is no Kevin Rudd; other than in the simple sense that neither of them are Kevin Rudd, I'm definitely not Kevin Rudd and you almost certainly aren't either, dear reader.
An article that obscures understanding rather than facilitating it has failed as journalism. An article on how we are and might be governed that obscures understanding is undemocratic. Journalism is valuable when it seeks to go beyond set-piece events and manipulative one-on-ones, whereas someone like Bourke (and before her, Annabel Crabb) reckon the tinsel and bluster is not a distraction but the essence of government itself.
But Ms Bishop hit back at Ms Plibersek and said her opponent was only interested in playing politics with foreign policy rather than taking a bipartisan approach where appropriate.

"She doesn't seek briefings from me whereas I actually sought them from the foreign minister, both Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr," she said.

"I have invited her to a couple of briefings to hear from me and I've also suggested other briefings, security and intelligence briefings and the like," she said.

A spokesman for Ms Plibersek said she is "regularly briefed by the heads of our intelligence and security agencies directly".

It is understood Labor requests most briefings through the Prime Minister's office not the Foreign Minister's.
Think about that: why would the opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs subject herself to lectures from her political opponent? What exactly did Bishop get out of cosy chats briefings from Rudd and Carr? Rudd didn't seek much from Alexander Downer, and didn't need to. Plibersek would be derelict in not going to agency heads, observing all the protocols etc., rather than accepting morsels doled out by Bishop.

Usually, Latika Bourke is the leading example of a journalist who is fully replaceable with an algorithm:
[start]
[insert]dinkus_lbourke[/insert]

Tony Abbott said today "[insert]*Coalition_press_release*[/insert]".
[end]
She really thinks her job begins and ends at press conferences, never doubting the utility of merely quoting a government that says one thing one day and something contradictory the next. Failure to replace her with an algorithm looks increasingly like negligence on the part of those who employ her. She is not an honest trier having a go, but the world's most expensive microphone stand.

This is typical of Bourke, and it's utter shit:
[Bishop] chats the entire jog and doesn't puff once while updating me about her week's three priorities – foreign fighters, UN peacekeeping and Ebola.
She's not chatting with you for the sake of chatting, she's a public figure communicating through a journalist to the public. The minister's priorities on policy, the three dot points, would be the story for a more capable journalist. Instead, Bourke goes the handbag story, the female equivalent of blokes talking sport as a way of bonding, and a desperate attempt to equate star power with foreign policy gravitas: some random barflies, and a Hollywood reporter who makes Bourke look like Bob Woodward.

Then again, it's a neat trick to brief a journalist under circumstances when she can't function as a microphone stand. That article shows Bishop playing Bourke like a trout. Quite why Fairfax needs to smooth the Liberals' leadership transition in this way, and diminish an expensive employee in the process, is unclear. When you buy the mastheads in which Bourke is printed, you encourage her and her employers in this drivel.

The structural weakness of conservatism is that they can't distinguish between an emerging trend and a passing fad. A party that thinks it is boxing clever on climate change will totally underestimate the growing impact of asbestos, and will overestimate its ability to spin Bishop's defence of Wittenoom against its victims.

Bishop demonstrated the sort of coldness that Liberals tried to foist onto Gillard with her empty fruitbowl and "deliberately barren"; they overestimate their ability to spin Bishop away from that stuff, too. Bishop will drop a clanger that reveals her lack of understanding about raising children and it will come to define her.

As a senior lawyer in Perth, Bishop learned how to schmooze: whom to suck up to, whom to elbow aside, dealing with larger-than-life characters such as Noel Crichton-Browne. She became Minister for Ageing in 2003, injecting a professional approach to the aged care sector missing under her two provider-focused predecessors, Bronwyn Bishop and Kevin Andrews. When Brendan Nelson left the Education portfolio for Defence in 2006 she replaced him, achieving little until losing office the following year.

She became Deputy Leader because she wasn't threatening. The Liberals had an unfortunate habit of putting the leader's most potent threat as deputy, who would use the office to undermine the leader. Costello wasn't strong enough to knock Howard off and win the victory Howard couldn't, but could not play loyal deputy indefinitely. Bishop had no ideas above her station and no clue how to protect the leaders under which she served.

Soon after she became Deputy Leader, Perth-based variety-show host Peter van Onselen asked Bishop to write a book chapter on Liberal philosophy. She got a staffer to write it. Why van Onselen sought her to do a task that was manifestly outside her capabilities is unclear. Van Onselen still keens for Bishop to become Prime Minister, which shows you her ability to put one over people like him and Latika Bourke.

The nearest thing the Coalition got to a coherent policy position when in opposition was the "new Colombo Plan", a hazy but promising scheme where students from Australia would work and study in Asian countries, and vice versa. It is hard to find any particular passion for such a policy in her output before 2007. It isn't as though she's imposing her will on government now to make it happen, like Keating did under the Hawke government.

Her mismanagement of this country's relationship with Indonesia is appalling. An irrelevance like Francois Hollande received better treatment than the newly elected Joko Widodo. Yet again, the distorted prism of refugee policy defines what should be a broad-ranging and increasingly deep relationship. There is no sign Labor are doing much better but it is doubtful they could be worse.

Her mismanagement of this country's relationship with the United States is weird. Truckling to Murdoch is one thing, but Bishop and others in the national and Queensland governments are pathetic. No Australian politician is regarded so highly as Obama is here, and one who declares - as though expecting to be taken seriously - that the Great Barrier Reef is fine only opens up the kind of dissonance that cracks open promising careers in politics.

This piece fails to account for the Coalition's close relationship with the US Democrat administrations of Kennedy and Johnson (and Nixon's dastardly treatment of Gorton and McMahon), but otherwise its point is well made - and it's on Bishop's head. She wouldn't improve much as leader, either.

There are 226 members of federal parliament: name one who could write a more thoughtful and well written critique of trade and foreign policy - including Julie Bishop (and her staff) - than this.

The qualities Bishop offers the Liberal leadership are essentially those Abbott had: physical stamina and a capacity to talk obvious, provable nonsense with a straight face. She brings little to fill the void Tim Dunlop describes; again, like Rudd in that regard. Bishop would be less overbearing and abrasive than Abbott - but really, so what?

The whole idea of leadership is to show us the way forward, to engage with the issues of the day and to have us engage too, to show what our future might look like if only we would trust in something bigger than ourselves.

Journalists describe the major issues of our time but they can't engage with them, because the people they cover don't engage with them. They have no ability to engage with big issues either, which is why their coverage is miniaturised and personalised (e.g. the ill person who can't get hospital treatment, the ADF personnel who are abused but not the culture of abuse, the farmer facing drought yet again) but not rendered powerful enough to compel resolution.

The press gallery brought Senator Lambie under what they thought was intense scrutiny. You'd think such scrutiny would have picked up her role in reversing financial planning regulation - but sadly, no. We're all supposed to gnash our teeth and wail when journalists get sacked, but hey.

People like Latika Bourke and Peter van Onselen regard leadership not as engagement with, but distractions from, the issues of the day - gaffes, handbags, Labor-blaming, pic-facs. Julie Bishop can do that stuff standing on her head. That's why a silly press gallery brings out silly politics, and vice versa, and the cycle can only be broken one way. We will always need politicians but we will not always need a press gallery.

Politicians will go around the press gallery to establish a relationship with the public when they are elected with a connection that does not depend on the press gallery. The utter absence of value in and from the press gallery will then be exposed. We can get distraction from anywhere these days; neither oligopoly politics nor oligopoly media are that appealing. Engagement with the challenges of our time is the thing, and again oligopoly politics and oligopoly media aren't cutting it there, either.