10 February 2016

A potential breach of standards

I find it hard to believe that:

  •  Stuart Robert visited China with a major Liberal donor without the imprimatur of Peta Credlin and other control freaks in the office of then-PM Abbott (including Abbott himself); and
  • Robert met with government officials in China without the knowledge, and at least the tacit approval, of then and current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop; and
  • the press gallery and the Opposition remain focused on Robert himself and "ministerial standards" without looking to those further up the line from him; and
  • Prime Minister Turnbull would, with everything else he has on his plate, divert the head of his department to a minor administrative matter; and
  • Robert is probably the most promising ministerial-quality MP the Queensland LNP sends to Canberra; and
  • almost inevitably, the press gallery and the Opposition will accept a behind-closed-doors assessment from a bureaucrat as the last word on this matter, and go galumphing off after some other non-story.

08 February 2016

Taxing debates

There is one matter on which Labor and the Coalition, Turnbull and Abbott, and every media organisation represented in the press gallery are absolutely agreed: you can have a public debate about a matter of national importance, but only if you know the result in advance. If you don't, it's all a bit shambolic. Only if the result is managed in advance can the 'debate' be managed in an orderly way. The broadcast media can praise the sheer orderliness of it all, so that when the conclusion comes everyone can say how inevitable it all was and thank everyone for having a go. The only losers are those who thought they might influence the outcome when it was all stitched up well ahead of time.

This is what happened with the latest manifestation of the tax debate.

Press gallery journalists record issues being talked up/down, but even though they have seen several rounds of these debates they cannot evaluate the options, and cannot describe what might happen if those options got up. Mouthing notions of 'respect the audience', their only comment on tax is to churn out another "here we go again!" piece on tax reform that could easily be done by an algorithm. The role of broadcast media in complex public debates is not that valuable when they lack the knowledge and wit to participate. Do they think it's cute, bringing plastic splayds to knife-fights? Are they cleaving to some ancient journo tradition, from days when the population was less educated and expected less from government (e.g. when BEER, CIGS UP sufficed as tax/budget commentary)? You have to fossick for glints on economists' blogs to piece together some idea about taxing and debt repayments, spending and investing. The traditional broadcast media simply are not helpful and have no idea, they have no idea why anyone would want to do that, and have neither the desire nor the wit to get one.

I wish Laura Tingle was not the only journalist capable of examining tax reform from an economic standpoint, and of drawing on a record of proposals over recent years (one that goes beyond "here we go again!"). I wish Jessica Irvine was not the only journalist who remembers Turnbull's tax-policy spam of 2005. I wish Dan Tehan hadn't embarrassed himself on two fronts: not only floating a sixth-rate imitation of Turnbull's raft of ideas, but resorting to two of the press gallery's biggest clowns in foisting the proposals at the public.

This dude thinks he's engaging in a tax debate ands a refugee debate at the same time. He's doing neither. He can't decide whether wages in his magic zone should be low or high. All the bad things facing asylum seekers in detention - abuse, neglect, bad/no healthcare, accommodation, education, or jobs - are present in spades in remote Top End communities. A magic tax zone that demands lots of social services? It's called "Western Australia" and the Treasurer there is an IPA dude who spends every working day having his nose rubbed in his life's works and beliefs. Thanks anyway though!

It's true, as Peter Martin points out, that Turnbull has run out of time to hold and conclude a full debate. I had known Joe Hockey when we were Young Liberals in the early 1990s and he seemed to fizz with ideas; I realise now that he liked the idea of having ideas, which explained his contempt for people who campaigned for ideas to go through to execution. He should at least have left a Green Paper (an outline of the "all options on the table"). Turnbull should still be able to have ideas about tax reform that needn't be cut and dried - a second-term agenda, if you will - rather than "hose down" or "distance himself from" or "refuse to rule out", etc.

If the Liberal Party is going to use coming preselection battles to define its future, let's have the combatants weigh in on tax policy. If Craig Kelly can't even cope with climate change, let's hear from Kent Johns or Angus Taylor or whomever else. All that North Sydney butthurt showed was what happens when those become accustomed to unearned privilege and then have it taken away from them:
  • Charlie Lynn taught Jai Rowell everything he knew about politics (because Rowell is a slow learner, it took longer than ten minutes), and Rowell went after Lynn like Dr Frankenstein's monster.
  • Ross Cameron would have been an Abbott government minister had he not tripped over his own dick. He makes Mark Latham look like a Renaissance man, he embodies what smarm would look like if it could congeal, and has ended up even more of a pointless mediocrity than his father. If I was eking out a living on welfare, and getting abused by muppets like these, I would simply point to Ross Cameron and eventually the debate about contributing to the society that sustains you would subside.
  • When sensible people wonder why Bronwyn Bishop won't just go from public life, you point to people like Jokus Ludicrous as the sort of person who keeps her there regardless.
  • You can see why they're all staunch monarchists: they love a bit of unearned privilege, but they all lack the taste, good grace, and personal security to just smile and wave.
Those three stooges hold a candle for the return of Tony Abbott to the Prime Ministership - with their skills and wit, they may as well hold out for Harold Holt. You can see why Turnbull is pretty safe. When I started writing this blog in 2006 the big press gallery beat-up was that Peter Costello was stalking John Howard for the Liberal leadership, and Abbott's pussyfooting around today is even sillier than Costello's was then. The producer of that piece, Xanthe Kleinig, is the daughter of Jan Kleinig, a moderate Liberal warrior so fierce that in 2004 she "risked expulsion from the Liberal Party" to fight for Peter King against a rightwing insurgency in Wentworth from Malcolm Turnbull.

Abbott is no closer to returning to the Prime Ministership than Peter Costello was a decade ago; any press gallery journalist who insists otherwise can wait for me in the Parliament House carpark (I'm not being belligerent - they really have nothing better to do than hang around and wait for someone who's too busy to meet with them).

Labor have one or two ideas, but they haven't undertaken a broad debate either; they have just thrown together a slightly extended press release based on the democratic processes of a vast national organisation some focus groups and a staffer having to knock something up for an announceable. You might argue that Labor may have a broad-ranging debate if they get into office, but Shorten and Bowen aren't capable even of anything so vacuous as this.

The major parties have bemoaned their inability to attract a broad base of members. It's easy to see this as a problem for them, but it becomes a problem for all of us once that party becomes the government. Jamies Briggs and Clements are symptoms of the same disease, similar pustules on different buttocks. A party organisation so small that it can be wheeled about by clueless control-freaks like John McTernan or Peta Credlin might be hell to work within, but when public debate is fed into such organisation a range of nuanced options quickly becomes burnt offerings and raw deals.

They rely utterly upon the media to have the credibility and suasion with the public parties have lacked for years. Media analysis of tax policy, as with any sort of policy, is all about the horse-race - and horse-race journalism is nobbled once a debate becomes bipartisan. Let us be in no doubt that the structural deficit of the budget is wholly bipartisan, and that neither major party can provide the leadership to guide us out of it.

When politicians and journalists sink together in credibility, politicians and public alike need engagement strategies that the press gallery can't and won't provide. This is not to abandon the importance of good journalism, but it is to abandon the unimportant, bad journalism that the press gallery insists is good enough for the likes of us.

28 January 2016

Flogging a Trojan horse

Press gallery journalists continue to assert that their years of experience are valuable, and that they draw on it to the benefit of readers. It should be valuable - but the actual value of press gallery experience is one of those PolSci101 nostrums that vanishes upon closer inspection. There is simply no evidence to support it. The press gallery regularly finds itself in positions where they don't understand what is going on with people and events they have supposedly been observing closely, and blame others for their confusion. Now is one such time.

There are a number of issues here - the supposed resurgence of the Liberal right, etc., - normally I would deal with all those issues in a book-length blog post. I'll deal with that stuff as time permits over the next few days. Let's start with Turnbull and the republic.

Consistency is turmoil

On the evening of Saturday 6 November 1999 it became clear: the referendum for a republic held earlier that day was heading for defeat. Malcolm Turnbull, the former head of the Australian Republican Movement, declared the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

When he ran for Liberal preselection in 2003-04, Liberals were concerned Turnbull would revisit the republic again. He reiterated that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

When he became Opposition Leader in 2008, Turnbull said that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died.

In January 2016, he said once again that the question of a republic was over for a generation - possibly not to be revisited until after Queen Elizabeth II had died. The Daily Telegraph was so desperate for a front page (no I won't link to it) that it presented a story almost two decades old as some hot new please-please-buy-the-paper development.

There was no intervening moment over that period where Turnbull lapsed back into revving up the republic. It looks uncannily like a consistent position on Turnbull's part.

It also looks consistent with polling - and press gallery journalists love polling. Polls in 1999 showed the referendum was bound for defeat; regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that I voted for it. Polling since then has not shown dramatic spikes in support for a republic, not even after last year's knighthood for Prince Phillip.

Experienced press gallery journalists regard Turnbull's position on the republic as a backflip, evidence of turmoil within the government. No, me neither.

Under traditional understandings of what journalism is, you'd expect journalists to report Turnbull's position as no change. Even excitable outlets like The Daily Telegraph would normally regard this sort of thing as a non-story: on par with the sun rising in the east, the Pope attending Roman Catholic Mass, bears defecating in the woods, EXCLUSIVE NUDE PIX: RANDY RUPE'S NEW BLONDE etc.

What the Australian Republican Movement learned from Turnbull and 1999

Nothing. Skip to the next subheading if you like.

The current practice of the Australian Republican Movement confirms the wisdom of Turnbull's position. They have a passionate advocate in Peter FitzSimons, who is all over the broadcast media like a hospice blanket (fewer and fewer readers, listeners, and viewers tap into the broadcast media despite the population growing and ageing since 1999).

They are courting celebrity endorsements, which count for very little. After half a century of advertising politics as another commodity, we can see that celebrity endorsements on national issues do nothing for either the endorser or the endorsee. Until a few weeks ago, you could imagine the ARM striving to secure endorsement from clean-cut and highly regarded players of popular sports: like, say, Jobe Watson or Mitchell Pearce.

They argue that a minimalist position on a republic would both change the country very little, yet also change it a lot; this places it alongside other suspicion-inducing, self-defeating political promises.

They present a republic as utterly disconnected from national issues like:
  • structural reform of different levels of government, and
  • Indigenous land issues that arose from the High Court's judgments on Mabo and Wik and have not, despite Tim Fischer's buckets, been extinguished; and
  • Half-hearted/baked alternative flags.
These are important issues (the latter one less so - until a great design changes everything, as with Canada in 1967) and can't be wished away. Clearly, they can't work with republic to produce the kind of coherent reform vision hankered for by commentators beyond the press gallery.

When state and territory leaders endorsed a republic recently it was very much not a triumph for the ARM, nor for a republic. It demonstrated that supposedly practical politicians had taken their eyes off the ball, and they better get back to work soon if they know what's good for them.

A politician that can tackle those issues as part of a coherent role is the sort of leader who can bring about a republic. Placing the republic first and insisting other reforms must work around it is arse-about. Turnbull is right to recognise that (insofar as he does).

The Australian Republican Movement today is repeating most of its mistakes from the late 1990s, even with (bipartsan! Lovely policy-goodness bipartisan!) political leadership both more potentially supportive and less wily than John Howard. I set a low bar for the ARM and FitzSimons has limboed under it. You can hope for a republic but reject the ARM in the same way people believe in God while rejecting institutional religiosity.

Turnbull would be a fool to throw in his lot with such people - which may explain why he hasn't.

The real story

Journalists, and Turnbull's enemies within the Liberal Party, insist that his consistent position on a republic is some sort of ruse. They insist their fevered imaginings of Turnbull's republican fifth column are "the real story". Turnbull's Prime Ministership definitely isn't a Trojan horse of republicanism, but neither is it a dead horse. Good journalism should allow for complexity; but then good journalism could not be more absent from the press gallery if it were illegal.

Where imaginings become "the real story" and demonstrable fact is ignored, both politics and journalism suffers.

You might say that politics is a realm where black becomes white, and yes I've read Hunter S. Thompson too. If you are representing black as white then either you don't understand what black or white are, or you're covering up for those with an interest in the difference remaining obscured - or both. Either way, you're so much less of the experienced and capable press gallery journalist you might assume yourself to be.

02 January 2016

Not ready

Not ready for a ministry

For years, Little Jimmy Briggs was touted as a rising star in the Liberal Party - particularly by journalists who've been around the press gallery long enough to know better. Just because the Liberal Party holds someone in high regard it doesn't mean they're much good: Ross Cameron, Tony Abbott, and Peter Shack, among others, got the Rising Star treatment. They, and we, are all poorer for it.

The press gallery must have known what he was like on the grog - the fractured leg and now the sexual harassment allegations couldn't be hushed up or buried on some inside page.

Firstly, there are no inside pages to hide in any more: it's all surface with mastheads these days.

Secondly, the strict demarcation between "official duties" and "personal activities" maintained by the press gallery was always bullshit. The personal always, for good or ill, intrudes into the official. To go back into history (but within the direct personal experience of some members of the press gallery), John Gorton's performance as Prime Minister is inseparable from from his personal predilections toward women and alcohol.

The onus is on the gallery to defend this pointless and destructive demarcation. We're all flawed in various ways, but where is the philanderer, the pisshead, the fraud, the broken person who is nonetheless particularly good in the execution of public duties (I don't mean someone who can hold it together so long as the media goes easy on them; I mean someone who can beat all comers from all other parties in a public contest where voters are aware of the facts).

More than a month elapsed between the incident in Hong Kong and Briggs' resignation. Canberra must have been abuzz with rumours, yet the press gallery either a) missed them, or b) knew all about it and hid it from us. How many media cycles are there in a month? There are more than two hundred "journalists" in the press gallery' every one of them has been derelict in their duties, and now that Christmas is behind us all now should show cause why they should not be dismissed.

When a scandal erupts it isn't good enough for the press gallery to say: we knew he was like that. Whenever there is any discrepancy between insider knowledge and the general awareness of the public, journalism has failed. You have to tell us, show us what they're like - and none of this Annabel Crabb confected shit either. We can handle the truth, the press gallery's job is to tell it.

This means journalists can't reasonably spend fifty years steadfast hung aloft in the press gallery, but that's OK because longevity there is drastically overrated. They still fall over surprised at things that should be foreseeable. The press gallery is not some politico-media protection racket, and it is not the media's job to protect politicians against the populace they serve.

It is not, as Terry Barnes seems to imply, the role of the public service to cover up for inadequate representatives like Briggs:
... the public servant should not have been placed in that situation, not only by Briggs and his chief of staff, but by her own managers and supervisors. From Briggs's explanation, it appears that she was a locally-based officer: her bosses should have ensured that she was not put into a position that risked compromising her. They failed her.
Note the passive voice ("she was not put into a position"), and the way Barnes relies on Briggs' word. Jennifer Wilson's piece on Briggs is particularly good at calling out excuse-makers and smoothing-over incidents like this.

Turnbull could have stood up for ol' mate Briggsy, and for the next one, and the one after that, as Abbott would have done. To squander his political capital in this way would not enable Turnbull to solve the Liberal Party's short-term problems with women voters, let alone its long-term problems in being able not only to represent women, but to be comprised of and embodied by them. Turnbull seems genuine about seeking to address structural disadvantages faced by women within the Liberal Party, and he is certainly better placed to do so than any other leader in its history.

When boofheads like Cormann, and Ewen Jones, and this blog's favourite Josh Frydenberg, start insisting that Briggs will be back, they do him no favours. They did this for (to?) Sophie Mirabella in 2013; all that insistence, plus numerous petty snubs to Cathy McGowan since, have only strengthened McGowan and weakened Mirabella's case for re-election in Indi. Rebekha Sharkie has a strong story to tell about why she can do a better job than Briggs. If voters in Mayo are as receptive to change as those in Indi were before the last election, Briggs is finished.

Why should Briggs not be finished? The last politician caught doing something similar, Andrew Bartlett, certainly was.

Are we obliged, as Crabb insists, to maintain the political class in the manner to which it has become accustomed? Could the people of Mayo not do better if they tried, and were better informed than they have been? Will Briggs spend his future on The Drum or lolling about Adelaide in some consultant/ lobbyist/ slashie role - opening and closing his mouth without saying anything, like a fish out of water?

Is the press gallery entitled to be believed when it insists that only chaos can ensue when people elect politicians from beyond the major parties? Will the SA Liberals sandbag Mayo at the expense of marginal seats in Adelaide (including that of Chris Pyne), as the Victorian Libs did for Mirabella?

Not ready for the future

The reason why we are unlikely to have an early election is not because of Briggs - nor even because of the press gallery, which brays for an early election when it cannot handle policy. The reason is because the Nationals are broken.

Tony Windsor points out what the press gallery never could - that two old men (Warren Truss and Bruce Scott) are prolonging their political careers to block Barnaby Joyce, who will inevitably be elected Nationals leader - and hence Deputy Prime Minister - if Truss retires over coming weeks.

Joyce does not get along as well with Turnbull as he did with Abbott, and he is not a capable minister. His agriculture white paper failed to address national quality branding strategies, failed to link meaningfully with recent big free trade deals, and failed to address anything but drought handouts for family farms. It is a welfare policy, not a strategic, big-thinking, ambitious long-term strategy at all.

Where is the regional electorate not held by the Coalition that the Nats might win if Joyce were leading them? Where is the Nationals-held electorate on a knife-edge margin that they will retain if Joyce were leader? The NSW election last March showed the Nationals are the only Coalition partner at risk of losing seats to the Greens. Joyce has a profile all right, and the press gallery love him - but so what?

Barnaby Joyce is already a dead loss to the parliament and government of our country, but the press gallery can't imagine their "jobs" without him.

The decline of all media organs in regional Australia bar the ABC means that every National MP could well be on the skids, and nobody in the press gallery would even know. Look at how bad the reporting out of Indi was over 2010-13; it hasn't gotten any better. Imagine if an ABC reporter detected a shift against a sitting Nationals MP, and reported on it: Senator Canavan would bellyache as only a Nat can, but neither he nor anyone in his party would have the wit to shore up the vote or get a better candidate. Maybe they have no better candidates.

Joyce is the architect of his party's funding strategy, whereby mining companies fund the Nationals. This was fine so long as farming and mining were separate - but the Shenhua mine on the Liverpool Plains within Joyce's electorate shows how the boomerang can smack you in the back of the head. Small miners (the ones with ex-MPs on their boards) have less cash to splash about these days, while drought-stricken farmers have less still.

It's understandable that Joyce faces so much resistance within the Nationals, but that resistance is so feeble - Truss and Scott are too old to credibly present much of an alternate future, and if they could have crushed Joyce they would have done so by now. The next generation of Nationals, like Darren Chester or Bridget McKenzie, are not ready for the Deputy Prime Ministership or even the future of agriculture.

The Nationals are not ready for the future of their own party. The idea that, in a few weeks, they might be ready to present a vision of the future to voters at an early election is not merely inaccurate, but crazy. Add to that:
  • the disarray within the Victorian Liberals;
  • the outright chaos within the CLP in the Northern Territory (one HoR seat and one Senate seat, but still);
  • the existential crisis within Queensland's LNP;
  • the factional wars exacerbating decay in Tasmania and WA; and
  • the fact that Tony Nutt, while a formidable campaigner, has only just gotten his feet under the desk as National Director of the Liberal Party.
Now consider all of that against the oeuvre of the press gallery journos' press gallery journo, Phillip Hudson:
  • Is the government doing well in the polls? There must be an early election.
  • Is the government not doing well in the polls? Early election.
  • How should we respond in Syria? Early election.
  • How do we balance the budget? Early election.
  • Will an early election make Australia more innovative? Whatever, early election.
  • What's your prediction for 2016? Early election.
  • Was that your prediction for 2015? Yes.
  • Is there any problem that can't be solved with an early election? No, or make one up.

Not ready for prognostication

There is something about a new year that leads one to forecast what is foreseeable but unknown, and to set aside a record of failure in doing this very thing.

This blog has often detected the decline of the Nationals, and prefers to be regarded as premature rather than flatly wrong after successive rebuttals at the hands of political reality. However, intelligence from the obviously self-interested Windsor, and the usual obtuse reporting from the press gallery, seem to indicate that this time (for sure!) the politics of the bush are in for their biggest upheaval since the Country Party was founded in 1919.

Can Labor take advantage of this chaos in Coalition ranks? Not really. Shorten has done an impressive job in stabilising his party and even tentatively generating some centrist ideas. The fact that he has gone from parity with Abbott to roadkill under Turnbull shows Shorten is not yet the master of his own fate and has not used the media to convey a strong sense of what he is about, as one expects of prospective Prime Ministers. Shorten will not be Prime Minister after the election later this year.

Maybe he was always set on a two-term strategy. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect him to win after one term - but even factoring out partisan bias, Abbott was always going to stuff up the Prime Ministership and the Libs were always going to be reluctant to blast him out.

Second-term governments often lose seats. The press gallery must know this, yet later this year it will engage in pantomime surprise that the public are rejecting Turnbull (with a disbelief that such a result endorses Shorten). It will be helpless before right-whinge Liberal claims that Abbott might have done better. Voters' rejection of the Nationals would not necessarily be a rebuttal to Turnbull, but the Liberal Party is not equipped to do anything but wring their hands at the Nationals' foreseeable shortcomings.

The press gallery will cover this year's election closely, and badly. This year's election coverage will, yet again, make a mockery of the press gallery's belief that it is better at the sizzle of elections than at the sausages of governing.

27 December 2015

Dropping the penny

When Michael Gordon describes his Manus Island nightmare it is in one sense a nightmare for all of us, given that our laws and taxes create the position Gordon is describing. In another, Gordon is forced to confront - however unwittingly - a professional failure on his part, and of pretty much all Australian journalists who report on Australian politics.

Since 1992, Australian government policies on detention of asylum-seekers has been increasingly cruel and wasteful. Since then the Prime Ministership has changed six times and the political party in government has changed three times; the policy has continued, becoming crueller and more expensive. The idea that such policies have a deterrent effect is palpably false, believed by nobody except politicians and journalists.

Journalists cannot tell whether a policy is good or bad. They can tell who has announced it. They can tell whether or not both Labor and the Coalition support it. They cannot evaluate competing claims about its cost or efficacy or other qualities a policy may or may not have, merely describing them as noise toward the end of their articles (they may reinforce this with a pithy quote from a minister, named or unnamed, who describes this as "whinging").
There is a view that the situation on Manus, like that on Nauru, is unsustainable, and that eventually the penny will drop that the end does not justify the means, that punishing one group of people endlessly in order to deter others is immoral and that there is another way to achieve the same policy objective ... the images that trouble me are two sides of the same coin.
That view is not new and more widely held than someone in the Canberra bubble might dare admit. To be fair to Gordon, he's had a hell of a shock and has changed his mind about a big issue where it was easy just to go along. He was wrong to be so dismissive of the view he now holds just because it lacks "savvy".

Michael Gordon has dedicated his career to avoiding the drop of that 'penny'. It is the coin with which he is paid, his very currency as one of this country's leading political journalists. He has helped devalue that coin, and can't let it drop without losing something of himself - something no PNG thug can ever take from him. The press gallery unanimously agrees Michael Gordon is one of their finest and most experienced journos. Impressionable younger hacks look up to him, and in some cases he shapes their careers.

Political journalists have - and if you read back through his work, Gordon in particular has - a bias toward 'bipartisan' policies. Bipartisan policies are reported favourably by the press gallery. Policies which don't have the support of the opposition, where the government can only pass them through the Senate with the help of the Greens or Senators from other parties, are reported less favourably than bipartisan policies - regardless of their other merits.

Journalists are more interested in how a policy will play (i.e., what politicians and journalists will think of it) rather than how it will work (i.e., long after journalists have moved on to something else, we will still be bound by regulations and spending decisions that may not even address the issue).

Almost all bad policy is bipartisan:
  • The fact that the government spends more than it raises in taxes, and that it prefers to tax individuals over corporations;
  • The ongoing war in western Asia, which has neither success criteria nor an exit strategy;
  • Australia is committed to billions of dollars of expenditure on defence equipment that doesn't meet our needs;
  • The fact that we have reduced our civil liberties in the name of safety in the face of terrorism, yet we are no safer and less free while terrorists flourish;
  • The failure of our relations with Papua New Guinea and other states in the southwest Pacific;
  • The ducks-and-drakes over federal-state relations. Press gallery journalists like Gordon are fond of quoting one of Keating's less well-considered lines about Premiers and buckets of money, without realising their responsibilities to fund services from a low tax base; and
  • There are others. So, so many others.
Almost all of those policies have, if you go back through the archives of Gordon and his ilk counterparts, received strong support for the breadth and depth of their bipartisanness. Other considerations are marginalised; bipartisanship is all.

Michael Gordon had a glimpse into the consequences of bipartisanship, and in short, he was afraid. He grizzled a bit about it in his second-last paragraph, but I suspect it will take a better journalist and a stronger person than he to admit his mistakes and change the basic assumptions of his professional life. He could well end up like Katharine Murphy: someone with random flashes of insight into the sheer extent of journalistic failure in Australian politics, but who can't recognise it as such and won't ever do a damn thing about it.

Forty years after the events of 11 November 1975, and after the three main protagonists have died, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston have concluded Kerr wasn't a very good choice for Governor-General. The reports at the time Kerr was appointed, however, led to the opposite conclusion and can be summarised as follows:
  • The son of a Balmain boilermaker, Kerr won pretty much every academic prize at the University of Sydney Law School;
  • Glittering career in the law, culminating in becoming Chief Justice of NSW; and
  • Whoa hey, so impressive
There was, of course, the undertow which journos would have known at the time: the vainglory, the alcohol, the pushy missus, his collegiate approach to the law (and thus his inability in a role requiring sole discretion, where counsel with legal peers like Barwick, Mason, or Ellicott was inappropriate), etc. In keeping with the mores of the time all that stuff was hushed up. There was no way journalists or editors could link what they saw as scuttlebutt with the way Kerr would execute his responsibilities in office. Kerr might have sued, and - worse! - the press gallery might have missed out on garden parties at Yarralumla.

Kelly won't be changing the way Murdoch journalists cover politics. Gordon won't institute much change at Fairfax either. I don't know why either of them bother.

Hunter S. Thompson used the death of Richard Nixon to underline the essential failure of press gallery journalism - not just in the US:
Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
Plenty of Australian politicians have similarly slithered into office, looking good on paper (remember how Tony Abbott was a Rhodes Scholar, of Jesuit education and social justice principles?). Paul Kelly and Michael Gordon and every other press gallery numbskull lauded all those unsuitable people into positions of power, and lauded one another at how savvy they were, without daring to show us what the consequences are of bad leadership (beyond, say, a blistering phone call from Peter Credlin).

Pure gonzo isn't the answer to what afflicts press gallery journalism. Thompson's holy fool routine requires the reader to indulge the journalist even more than the assumptions under which the current press gallery operates. Gordon's mistake with his revelation above is that he can go back to covering politics in the same way he has always covered it.

When the people are badly informed, it is the media's fault - especially when they coalesce around one side of a story. That's when you blame the media. They're not to blame for everything in our political system - but going after the press gallery for failing at their jobs isn't "shooting the messenger". We are right to insist on more and better from these people.

24 December 2015

Going in too hard

This exchange on Twitter shows how social media can apply good sense to political journalism where it would otherwise be miserably absent:

David Crowe from The Australian was, in line with his predilections and those of his employer, galumphing down the road of a shock-horror story of differences of opinion within the government until social media pulled him up. Naturally no consideration of the issue at hand, and its effect beyond Canberra, is forthcoming or even possible from such an experienced press gallery denizen. The post from Richard Cooke (not a press gallery journalist) above shows a perspective that Crowe lacks, but also reveals that Crowe is not even sure what politicians like Fierravanti-Wells are up to. What is the point of all those support services in the press gallery when people like Crowe - no blow-in, supposedly a senior operator there - disregards years of slow and patient policy in favour of cliched schlock? It was good of Fierravanti-Wells to put out her statement within Crowe's working hours.

So Fierravanti-Wells and Abbott are both conservative Libs from NSW. Crowe, like many experienced political journalists, can't draw on past events to explain what is going on now. He's probably right in assuming such audience as he has cannot even handle nuance, but a good journalist would make an effort nonetheless. Once you understand the Fierravanti-Wells/ Abbott relationship, Crowe's feebleness in lunging for the low-hanging fruit of division (and missing!) becomes apparent:
  • Fierravanti-Wells ran against Abbott for preselection in 1994.
  • When she later decided to run against Bronwyn Bishop in the adjacent electorate, under the assumption that the older woman had her go and Howard didn't like Bishop anyway, Abbott supported Bishop.
  • When Abbott became leader he made Fierravanti-Wells opposition spokesperson on seniors, while Bishop was opposition spokesperson on ageing; an inexplicable balls-up unless you see it as a means for fomenting clashes between two people whose relationship was already damaged.
  • Fierravanti-Wells is no dummy; but she didn't have the impressive pre-parliamentary career that Julie Bishop had, nor is she a serious policy wonk like Marise Payne, nor is she a factional death-star like Bronwyn Bishop, nor is she representing a marginal seat. Each of those qualities may have seen her advance beyond the uncomfortable position she appears to be in today.
  • When Abbott became Prime Minister, almost all of his opposition frontbench became ministers for the portfolios they had shadowed. Bishop became Speaker. Fierravanti-Wells was demoted.
  • Abbott and Fierravanti-Wells both used to believe that Muslims were a conservative constituency who should be courted by conservative politicians. Abbott chose to depart from that belief, and that departure led him to where he is today. Fierravanti-Wells stuck to her beliefs in light of the evidence before her.
After all that, Crowe could only run the stale and pointless SPLIT SHOCK narrative.

Over nine years of blogging I've dismantled Crowe's finest constructions numerous times, and I think I've established that he is a galoot. He stands at the dead intersection of both press gallery drones and Murdoch yes-people, the most unfortunate crossroads since Robert Johnson's in the 1930s. Unlike Johnson, Crowe is not developing any new licks; he is just assembling and reassembling political cliches from the journalistic tailings provided by his employers. I almost feel sorry for him. Perhaps it's Christmas sentimentality, or perhaps I'm just losing my touch.

On one level, I really want to believe that a) press gallery journalists work hard and b) are clever enough to get around political manipulation; but because the evidence points away from such a belief I just can't support it, and can barely even humour true believers. We need more and better information on how we are governed (and how we might be governed) than the press gallery are capable of providing: such a belief should be more widely shared, given the failure of the contrary assertions and the manifest inadequacy of the political choices proffered to us. People make dreadful decisions when they're misinformed, when at the ballot box, when making investment decisions, or at the Cabinet table.

Nobody in the press gallery, nor in the wider Australian broadcast media responsible for political news, is any closer to getting this than they were in 2006. They cannot bear their own culpability. They would prefer to blame things beyond their control (the internet, ad revenue), or even invent them ("24 hour news cycle"), rather than change their ways.

Nine years from now the thick crust at the top of the press gallery will probably still be there, and coverage of government won't be any better, and the media organisations probably won't have the good grace to shut down and stop wasting everyone's time and resources. In calling for more and better, over and over, perhaps I am repeating myself; but this is true of anyone with a cause unfulfilled that is too important to be abandoned, yet so bereft of measurable impact that it fails to attract the like-minded to put their shoulders to the wheel.

Yeah political coverage is broken, but what can you do? You won't change them. That's why I go in hard here: the failure of Australian political coverage matters, it has far-reaching consequences and the incumbents cannot be persuaded. When journalists are sacked I neither cheer nor weep but am amazed that the press gallery is spared, while proper journalists are dumped unpaid from a profession that needs the good ones more than ever.

It's so stupid that coverage of East Timor and West Papua, or the Rugby World Cup, is better than that of the federal government.

Should I take the time to show political journalists how they should be doing their jobs, per the dotpoints above, or do press gallery journalists work for billion-dollar corporations that can do their own fucking research to save their own worthless employers from further discrediting themselves? Isn't the whole point of them to provide information to those of us paying attention, but too busy to do so fulltime?

You don't have to do your own foraging to eat - so why should you have to do your own journalism to find out what's next, and what your options are? People talk about the future of journalism as though current employers of journalists have one. In an information age information providers should be making out like bandits. The fact that broadcast media aren't, that they are not only incapable of organising a booze-up at a brewery but are dying of thirst in such an environment, shows that they are stubbornly persisting at something other than providing necessary information. Rarely can you stop them lapsing back into their stock of cliches to try and describe situations that simply don't fit them.

Not being a press gallery journalist I knew Abbott would be a fuck-up as Prime Minister, and said so. Every day he held office defied political gravity. I thought he'd be such a fuck-up that he wouldn't get there in the first place, and I underestimated the extent to which Crowe and his silly mates covered for him and made such a clueless man look like he had all the answers.

Not being a press gallery journalist, I can amend a previous post where it is eclipsed by better information.

All the very best to you over Christmas and the New Year, dear reader, even if you are like Crowe and the still too many others who can only write the same stories about the same things in the same way that he does: it's called media diversity. I'm still considering doing formal in-depth study into the sheer depth and breadth of the failure of Australian political coverage 2006-2015. Summertime is good for reflections and suggestions, and as ever any suggestions on how this blog can be improved will be welcomed to the extent they are constructive.

20 December 2015

In defence of the NDIS

I think the NDIS is one of the great nation-building initiatives, and said so here in response to what I thought was an ill-considered attempt to talk it down.

I gave examples where tinkering scuppered policy outcomes, and have worked on public-sector projects where short-sighted, rapidly changing objectives increased costs and depressed outcomes (and depressed good people trying to make the bloody thing work). Yale Stephens at Red/Blue probably doesn't have that experience and was hypnotised by the figure of $24b, which admittedly is a biggie. Anyway, pop over to his blog and see what you reckon in what are apparently Contesting Assertions.