28 January 2015

Tom Switzer's blues

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song


- Gimbel/Fox Killing me softly

When I first read this article I thought Switzer was pitching for Peta Credlin's job.

When I read it again it looked as though Switzer was explaining and covering for his mate Abbott, who (like him or not) occupies a job for which he is not suited and not capable. Switzer is hoping to set a high bar for any who might be in a position to displace, or even replace Abbott. He is, however unwittingly, highlighting Abbott's inadequacies: killing him softly while appearing to defend him. Deft work, that.
Sometimes a little straight talking among mates is a good idea. That's especially true when your mate runs the country.
You'll note that this advice is printed in the newspaper - and in the non-Murdoch press at that - rather than being communicated directly mate to mate. If Switzer had wanted to talk to Abbott directly, neither Murdoch nor Fairfax correspondents in the press gallery would ever have found out about it.
Even Bob Hawke says he's a "not a bad bloke".
Is that the same Bob Hawke who said, during the election campaign, that Abbott was a nutcase? Who gave him an earful at Whitlam's funeral?

The following paragraphs are basically Switzer reinforcing his credentials as a friend of Abbott. In times of stress people are quick to see a public statement like this as piling-on - et tu, Switzer? - so he has to do a bit of tip-toeing here around delicate sensibilities and load on the praise with a trowel:
As Prime Minister, Abbott has been courageous and right to advance his belief in border protection. He spoke for Middle Australia in doing so - including many ethnic minorities who support a tough stance against boat people to help boost public confidence in an orderly, large-scale legal immigration policy that serves the national interest.
When you refuse to process applications and return people to certain persecution and death, you can't claim that as orderly. Many people have come to this country from places where demagogues blame foreigners for more problems than they cause, and they are accommodating rather than validating a badly-run and self-defeating policy.

Still, Switzer got where he is by getting along. Abbott and his increasingly skittish supporters are the audience for this tosh. It is not intended to be useful information on how you are governed, dear reader.
Virtually every Liberal and conservative I know agrees that Abbott is in political trouble and that he needs to get back on the policy offensive.
But it is the policies themselves that are offensive, and the ideological monoculture of the party can neither conceive of a new direction nor concede fault with the current trajectory. Switzer's very praise for his mate and his policies limits his scope of action. All that stuff about gradual, incremental change (see below) seems to go out the window once the arse falls out of the polls.

This is a delicate moment for the government and its supporters such as Switzer. They risk falling victim to the old syllogism:
  • We must do something!
  • This is something!
  • Let's do this!
Every Liberal and conservative is in the same boat. New ideas and directions are urgently needed, but to suggest any implies criticism and dissatisfaction and - look, why don't you just go and join the ALP or the Greens if you're going to go to water when things get a little tough, you wimp!
... like guests at the last party on the Titanic, his office seems oblivious to imminent disaster.
They're not oblivious. They are demonstrating their loyalty in the same way they always have, batting away any and all criticism and getting on with it.

Any member of the PM's staff who started developing and expressing bright ideas would be excoriated for grandstanding and disloyalty - by people like Tom Switzer, who would also be responsible for preventing Abbott from strangling the miscreant(s) with his bare hands:
  • When Abbott worked for John Hewson, he briefed against his leader.
  • When Downer stumbled as leader in 1994-95, journos transformed Abbott (a junior backbencher) into a "senior Liberal source" who briefed against his leader.
  • When Costello started getting uppity about Howard, Abbott briefed against him. When Costello accuses Abbott of being an "economic illiterate", this is really what he's upset about: Abbott could have played the decisive role in easing out Howard, like Graham Richardson had with Hawke.
  • Abbott briefed against Nelson and Turnbull.
Abbott knows how the backroom briefing game is played. The idea that he'd suffer anyone else playing it against him is crazy.

If Abbott's staff were ordered to put an extra charge on medical visits, they'd do that. If Abbott's staff were ordered to bury the Great Barrier Reef beneath mine tailings, they'd do that. If Abbott's staff were ordered to turn up to a drinks party aboard a cruise ship (Perfectly safe! Largest ever!) and make light conversation, they'd do that. Any staffer looking out a porthole and pointing at the looming iceberg, or eyeing the path to the lifeboats, would have someone like Switzer or Credlin sidle up behind them and hiss: "it's not your job to do that!". The idea that such people are letting Abbott down is bullshit.

I've had my say about Peta Credlin and so have others, but three things have to be said about getting rid of her. First, as Bernard Keane pointed out, Abbott can't get rid of her without looking (even more) like Murdoch's puppet.

Second, getting rid of her will be more important to this government than reshuffling its ministers. Very few of them will be able to develop, implement and defend their own policies in the absence of Credlin, let alone do so in any coherent way.

Third, Abbott's defence against misogyny accusations rest pretty much entirely on his relationship with her. His accommodation of her reproductive issues, his ability to defer to and mix it with a strong, intelligent and capable woman, rest on her central role in his professional life. Rudd, Howard, Keating, Hawke, Fraser, and Whitlam did this by bringing their warm and clever wives to the forefront (well, Jeanette Howard made John look warm by contrast, and that was the main thing).

Margie Abbott's relationship with her husband is stilted and awkward, a throwback to the beard that was Sonia McMahon or the resentful Bettina Gorton. Tony Abbott tries so hard to present as the 'daggy Dad', the self-assured but unthreatening man, that Tim Mathieson was. If Abbott dumps Credlin when the going gets tough and appoints some bloke like Switzer or Murdoch castoff Chris Kenny, he'll be a schmuck.

Abbott's staff are loyal to a fault: Switzer's slur notwithstanding, that's the way he likes it. You can understand why the government is keen to legislate so that all managers and employers have compliant, even docile, staff like them.
Still, one fundamental question must be asked: and it is not simply about whether Abbott will survive as Liberal leader and Prime Minister. It is whether there is any politician of standing in our country who understands what has to be done to govern us in our poll-driven political culture and noisy 24/7 media and internet era; and if so, whether he or she will have the ability to do so as the economy shows serious signs of contraction.
All that stuff about polls and internet is not just reactionary revulsion to modern technology, but to democracy itself.

The idea that you not only have to see things as they are and develop policy responses, and convince people to come with you, and keep on doing that, is Switzer's real issue. Abbott's core problem - his refusal to believe that you have to explain yourself, fully and honestly and continuously, to citizens who vote and pay taxes - is not one Switzer can help fix. It's why he has refused Liberal preselection in safe seats: sooner or later Switzer will just roll his eyes and declare "that's just how it is!" and start ad hominem jeering at those who want more and better than he and his mates can offer.

Remind you of anyone? The idea that Tony Abbott has any mates, and that Switzer is one, should be less of a surprise by now.

Switzer is also seeking to imply that anyone who would replace Abbott - from within the Liberal Party or beyond it - must prove themselves, as Abbott never did with the widely-held but groundless assumption he'd be better than Rudd or Gillard.
There is complacency in the community, a widespread assumption that, because Australia has not suffered a recession in nearly a quarter century, the good times will roll automatically. But as any seasoned economist will tell you, we are living beyond our means.
Look at the satisfaction levels under Howard, after about 2003 but before Workchoices. Look at the satisfaction levels under Rudd before the GFC slapped everyone out of it. That's what "complacency in the community" looks like. Tony Abbott never had those levels of satisfaction complacency and never will. Neither would Bishop or Turnbull.
The economy faces serious challenges, such as weak productivity, falling terms of trade and an ageing population, which will threaten living standards. And if the economy does not undergo a new wave of reform to help insulate ourselves against the next bout of market contagion, we are storing up big trouble down the road.
Seasoned economists are flat out defining labour productivity across the economy, so nobody would expect someone like Henry Ergas to do so. All agree labour productivity beats capital productivity. Labour productivity is the joint responsibility of employees and managers, while capital productivity is the province of managers alone; quibbling about penalty rates starts looking somewhat petty.

In terms of falling terms of trade - all that busywork around 'free trade agreements' seems wasted, unless keeping Andrew Robb out of the country is somehow productive. Maybe we're just selling the wrong things, and policy settings propping up low-value exports over higher ones does us fewer favours than the incrementalists might hope.
To his credit, Abbott appears to recognise this reality. His government's first budget sought to address fiscal repair and growth reforms. But the measures were poorly explained and amounted to broken promises.
Abbott put in place the wrong measures. Nobody in Australian politics has more experience in dealing with the media, and in writing and delivering speeches, than Tony Abbott: if he couldn't explain those measures and why they were necessary, perhaps it just can't be done.

Why did Tony Abbott make promises that were bound to be broken? Remember all that stuff about the trust deficit being more important than any economic metric? This goes to the judgment and responsibility of a man of whom Switzer thinks more highly than most.
Add to this the malaise within the political system, which a hostile Senate exacerbates ...
Again this revulsion for democracy, and the lack of wonder why Abbott is less successful in getting the agenda through than Gillard.
What to do? The Productivity Commission review into workplace relations could provide a circuit breaker for the government.
Or not. To reform the workplace relations system, we need a government that won't screw us over on other cost-of-living issues, and which distributes both upsides and downsides of sovereign risk more broadly than this lot.
Abbott is not a true believer in free markets. He is instead a traditional conservative, someone who likes to do things in settled and familiar ways.
That's nice. The challenge for the nation is not to adapt to Abbott. The challenge is for him to adapt to it. Between him becoming Liberal leader and the 2013 election Abbott's supporters, including Switzer, convinced us that Abbott had in fact made this adjustment. They lied.
As our mutual friend Christopher Pearson was fond of saying, Abbott, given the choice, prefers incremental and consensual change to the large and radical variety.
But he hasn't been given the choice. John Curtin was a pacifist who led the country through war. Bob Hawke was a union leader who saw union membership plummet. Christopher Pearson might have been given the choice to live as he pleased, but Tony Abbott was not.

The nation will not adapt to him, and nor will he adapt to the nation. One of them must go, and I nominate Abbott to go for the sake of the nation rather than the reverse.
But Abbott is also conscious that policy changes are justified when the circumstances change. And to prepare for a downturn, he must instinctively believe in a new wave of reform.

In that light, he should reduce burdens on the public purse, including jettisoning an overgenerous paid parental leave scheme. Stop subjecting employers to cumbersome regulations on penalty rates and unfair dismissal. Embrace individual-negotiated work contracts that were once a godsend for small business. What he has to do is convince the people that such plans are practical and that his government can deliver them.
Abbott has to convince people what should be delivered, and he can't do that: not one to one with individual Senators, not with voters at large, not with anyone.

Tom Switzer is a public servant, employed by a university and by the ABC. He has no real idea what it is to be in the private sector. If cumbersome regulations were so cumbersome, if work contracts were such a godsend, business would have fought harder for them. The absence of business from defending Workchoices in 2007 should have awoken the Liberal Party to the necessity of unsupported reform.

Why must Abbott fight for a policy he doesn't believe in, and that nobody will defend when it comes to the crunch? This is the question Switzer begs.
In his important book Triumph and Demise, Paul Kelly laments that a reforming PM cannot succeed in this country given the decisive shift in the system and malign culture against needed change.
Kelly has been doing that for 40 years, describing reforming PMs and then declaring what he has described to be impossible. What a funny old man he is! He also gave a job to the otherwise unemployable Tom Switzer at one point, too.

Having a joined-up policy agenda doesn't make you some sort of egghead. It just means that all your policies reinforce each other: you can be a bit looser with working conditions if you have health and welfare safety nets, if you make it easier for people to retrain and upskill, and if you don't drive up unemployment.

When you say one thing and do another it confuses people. They/We become hostile if you deny you're playing people when you are, when you so lack confidence in your policies that you have to lie about them.
But the low standing of the government and its prime minister in the polls is an advantage: there is nothing to lose by taking risks with public opinion when it comes to promising a radically different approach to the economy.
Gillard took the same approach until Labor decided to 'save the furniture' and turf her. If Abbott did what you propose he'd be gone by Easter, replaced by a smarmy do-nothing like Bishop or Turnbull who'd "restore the Liberal brand" with a cosmetic approach.
So the Liberals will be best served by keeping Abbott as leader until the next election.
Switzer hasn't made his case. Having failed to explain current policy, Abbott cannot be expected to take on more contentious policies. How do you expect it to explain, justify, and refine a whole new set of policies that proved too hard for John Howard?
They would do well to move irrevocably back towards their erstwhile commitment to a deregulated environment in which enterprise and prosperity will flourish.
Knocking off penalty rates is a disincentive, and a measure requiring a lot of work for little reform gain. Until you understand that, save your arguments and your fancy words like 'erstwhile' for the university common room.
But they must also construct a more substantial rhetoric than the social media gibberish that increasingly defines public discourse. In other words, take a leaf from John Howard's playbook, have a conversation with the Australian people and show the Coalition is better prepared than the clueless Labor opposition in dealing with the coming economic downturn.
Switzer really hasn't learned anything at all from 2007. I thought that the Liberals wouldn't return to government until they had learned those lessons, and though I was mistaken learning the lessons remains important.

Facebook and Twitter were in their infancy in 2007. It was easy for Howard to ignore them, and easy to imagine him having more trouble with social media than Abbott is having now. Switzer has no answers: why are we even listening to this guy?

When he returned to the Prime Ministership in 2013 Kevin Rudd had the conversation, but nobody believed him - his credibility was shot. So it is with Abbott. No further reform is possible under Abbott, not going back nor going further. Whether fast or slow, whether far-reaching or incremental, whether you feel pleased or sad or angry, Abbott is out of reform momentum. He's out of credibility. He's out of time.

How do you convince a Coalition backbencher who's worked their way up to a marginal seat to commit career suicide? Just because Switzer has shirked that challenge it does not mean others must be as blithe as he is. In many cases (e.g. Indi, much of Queensland, places Tom Switzer can't imagine), Labor are the least of this government's problems.

Surely a true conservative would be better working to limit the scope of Labor initiatives than actually proposing and selling and defending changes generated in-house. Switzer has feelings about the country that few others, including his mate Tony, share. Switzer can't be bothered engaging with the mob because he knows there's nothing in his proposals for them/us - not even in the enterprise stuff that sounds really exciting to self-hating public servants.

Whether the flag is blue or white, Switzer doesn't really care so long as he can cock a leg at the base of the flagpole. Same applies to Abbott, it's why they're mates. He wants to help his mate but he can't. Switzer has put the best case possible for Abbott, but in doing so has made him less flexible, and shows his mate is hiding an agenda that is not only unpopular and harsh, but half-baked.

27 January 2015

Earning your pineapple

As I've said before, when Tony Abbott gets into trouble he will reach out to his base on the far right, and that's why he offered Prince Phillip the knighthood.

Only right-wingers can even discern what Prince Phillip's service to Australia has been.

When he married the then Princess Elizabeth in 1947 the State of Queensland presented 500 cans of pineapple to the happy couple. They must have assumed they were like other war-battered Poms, in need of food aid but reluctant to fork out £10 to come over and work for it. The medallions of the different levels in the Order of Australia look a bit like thin cross-sections of pineapple.

She has earned her pineapple, or at least been gracious about it - but has he? To ask such a question is to demand accountability, and since when has Tony Abbott been about accountability (oh, you thought because he asked all those questions in opposition ...)?

The award was designed to get lefties upset, as Adam Brereton notes, and only when lefties are upset do people like Tony Abbott know who they are and what they're about.

Abbott's natural base consists of reactionaries, people who define themselves by what they're against. They have no ability to distinguish between a passing fad and a substantial shift. They will hunt for evidence to support clean coal or wind turbine syndrome, but ignore that supporting climate change or vaccinations.

This is why Abbott is rubbish at the normal daily tasks of being Prime Minister, announcing this and opening that in the name of slow and steady progress. It's as though all these things happen in the normal course of government without intervention from people like him, taunting lefties and rewarding supporters.

Insofar as the Abbott government even does policy development, here's how it works:
  • Should we lock up asylum-seekers? There are plenty of conservative reasons not to do so, but does locking them up upset lefties? Therefore, asylum-seekers get locked up.
  • Should we protest Australian citizens being executed, or locked up without charge, under foreign judicial systems? There are plenty of conservative reasons to go through the correct channels of registering a protest (and maybe even securing a reprieve), but does this upset lefties? Therefore, Australian citizens get executed or detained without charge.
  • Should we increase taxes on those who benefit most from government decisions, in the same way that political parties extract donations from companies who benefit from those decisions? Again, what upsets lefties - placing the burden on working people, cutting penalty rates and pensions - so that's what happens.
  • Should we treat disabled Australians as full citizens, as envisaged under the NDIS? There are plenty of conservative reasons to do so (standing on one's own two feet, as it were, not to mention cost savings) - but I ask you, does abolishing support for disabled people upset lefties? Senator Fifield's assurances that the government is committed to the NDIS should be seen in that light.
  • Some people think Senator Eric Abetz is politically suicidal by seeking to alter the workplace relations system - but he sure is sticking it up those lefties!
Lefties propose and conservatives dispose. Now you have the thought patterns necessary to understand conservative government.

On the night before the 2013 election, he defined his program for government by negating his accusers, saying whatever needed to be said; the Lance Armstrong of Australian politics.

It happened before then, too. He didn't understand why Gillard could negotiate her way into government in 2010 and get legislation through a hung parliament. He couldn't, and still can't understand why Senators outside the major parties will neither bend to his will nor be won over by his smarm.

When Barack Obama made his historic speech to Parliament about the US pivot to Asia, Abbott did not rise to the occasion as a putative Prime Minister; but he did go the niggle on lying and carbon tax. Nobody had any right to expect better from him - nobody inside the Liberal Party, nobody in the press gallery, no swinging voter, nobody at all. The insiders all knew what he was like. They just underestimated their ability to cover up for them.

Experience should count for something. Mark Kenny is an experienced and senior political reporter. Yet, once again Mark Kenny shows himself to be a gibbering dupe with this:
It is telling that Tony Abbott believes the strongest argument for his continued leadership of the Liberal Party, the Coalition, and the country, is the dysfunction of his enemies, to wit, Labor's self-inflicted Rudd/Gillard debacle from 2010.

It is a further mark of Abbott's personal problem however, that even before the political contest has been fully joined for the year, he is having to field questions on his own longevity in the job, his grip on power.
It's the same mark, Mark.

Knighting Prince Phillip doesn't raise "fresh doubts". It shows that Abbott's detractors were right, and that his supporters - and those who believed them - were fools.

Abbott could only ever be defined against his enemies: more right-wing than Turnbull, more cocky and jocky than Rudd, more steady and traditional-family-oriented than Gillard. He could never be defined in any other, positive way. Attempts to project Prime Ministerial qualities on him were always doomed, saying more about those doing the projecting than about Abbott himself.

Abbott hasn't shrunk, he's being rightsized. Ignore those who think Abbott has time to get his act in order, like this or that, covering their embarrassment at talking him up in the first place.

Instead, go look up at the night sky and see the twinkle of a star that died years ago. Pull a fish out of water, and watch it try to push the reset button. Now compare those activities to the behaviour of the Abbott government, and pity those who are overly impressed by powerless raging against the dying of the light.

People like Abbott have been reactionaries since their university days: simply spitting the descriptor at them makes no difference. Instead, understand how:
  • weak reactionary behaviour is as a motivator; and
  • little can be done when such people occupy office; and
  • they fight tooth and nail to stay in a position where they dispose regardless of what might be proposed. To be in a position where they neither propose nor dispose underlines their irrelevance.
Can the press gallery help you understand that? Not really. They don't understand it themselves. Every instance of public policy bloody-mindedness is so jarring in contrast to their apparent personability one to one, which stymies effective reporting. This is the whole idea from the government's point of view, and press gallery journalists deserve all the respect due to willing tools.

The press gallery should evaluate how we are governed, and alternatives to how we might be governed. Members of the press gallery have a privileged role, like the members of parliament on whom they report. With privilege comes responsibility: to their loyalty is to their audience above maintaining their contacts or sucking up to their employers. Journalists like to point out how few primary votes Senator Muir received, but more people voted for him than voted in any member of the press gallery.

As an exercise in determining whether or not Tony Abbott and his Coalition team were a suitable government for this country, we can see that Kenny and all of his press gallery colleagues failed to do their jobs. This diminishes them and will, ultimately, diminish their privileged role inside parliament.

How much of a privilege is it to simply note this empty gesture or that? Is it even valuable work? Is all that busy-busy really important or does it distract you from what's really important - and if so, how would you know? I often give the rough end of the pineapple to the press gallery, but if you gave them anything more juicy or productive it would be a waste.

19 January 2015

Health and education

The consensus in political science and journalism for a generation has been that the major parties are converging in terms of policy and personnel-types. There's a lot to commend that theory, what with the political class and Large and Powerful Interests and so on.

The last hold-out, it seemed, was in workplace relations. Unions would not let go of the ALP, and Labor attempts to snap off the wrist of the unions look half-hearted. Yet, even that fundamental political difference has succumbed to policy inertia. Despite a ferocious pseudo-campaign over labour productivity and union corruption, the Abbott government has not proposed a single amendment to the Fair Work Act, let alone take their chances in the Senate.

This isn't to say that they won't; Eric Abetz could well throw something out there from sheer boredom as much as anything else, particularly if this government gets to a point where it knows it can't win.

It seems that the major parties do have a real cleavage on points of principle, ones that affect people day to day and which have real budgetary impacts. These differences go to big questions like what and whom is government for.

Health and education seem to be the big political cleavages that matter in Australia. Labor believes in public health; it will make changes around the edges of that, but basically can be trusted to maintain Medicare more than it can necessarily be trusted on other issues. The Coalition start from the a priori assumption that Medicare is too big and must be wound back, making healthcare confusing and expensive in some neo-Marxian attempt to make conditions so intolerable that people will overthrow the system.

It is generally agreed that the government backed down/backflipped on a decision to impose a $20 levy on GP visits, the first time the press gallery as a whole has openly accused the government in this way.

Until recently the press gallery was confused whenever Abbott backed down/backflipped. Either they would simply report the new development without any context, or it would treat the idea that a politician may say one thing but do another as though it was bewildering, some aberration that would soon pass. It isn't possible to do that with the issue of healthcare. Nobody believes the issue can be fully understood as a revenue-saving measure, or as just another he-said-he-said political football.

Even Sydney's Murdoch tabloid The Daily Telegraph has noticed price signals in medicine matter. Yet, in this piece, Richard Chirgwin shows price signals are almost beside the point: why can't specialists issue scrips? There are plenty of other savings going begging in pursuit of cut, cut, cut.

For the Opposition, this isn't just an excuse to stick it to Abbott. The last Labor government had a strong record in the area, make it difficult to support the 'chaos' narrative. They seem to be embracing public health as core business, as a way of rebuilding themselves rather than just pulling the other guys down. It's one reason Labor health spokesperson Catherine King made it atop this list, and why Labor candidates in winnable Coalition seats will want her to visit as often as possible.

Peter Dutton was technically the Coalition's health spokesperson in opposition, but he was canny enough never to challenge Nicola Roxon or Tanya Plibersek on their grasp of policy. He did no policy work and could claim no mandate for anything he did. Sussan Ley's promise to 'consult' has been universally interpreted by the press gallery as a weakness on her part, but her career suggests she is not some patsy who will do whatever the PM's office says (unlike, say, George Christensen). The consultation process may well see Ley develop and own a solution rather than play for time and await instructions from Credlin. This would demonstrate a normal functioning of government, and the press gallery will almost certainly misreport it.

That said, this is excellent. It explains complex policy and politics clearly. Taylor's admission that the Abbott government's policy incompetence was foreseeable is a breath of fresh air against those who insist Abbott still deserves the benefit of the doubt, like this or that. Read Taylor's article once, to get across the policy issues.

In a social media world where people are hyper-alert for bias, read it again to get a feel for what good just-the-facts reporting looks like. Taylor is not trying to fence-sit, measuring out faint praise and muffled criticism to 'both sides'; she is playing the cards where they lay.

Read it a third time to wonder what the value of press gallery reporting is. Good, solid research - links to ACOSS and the Grattan Institute and a paper from the parliamentary library, even the generosity to link to a Murdoch piece. You don't need a press gallery pass to do any of that. No cosy quote from a politician, no pointed press-conference exchange, no press release as primary source. That article owes little, if anything, to inside-Canberra tattle of the sort necessary(?) for something like this.

When Lenore Taylor has written lesser articles than that this blog has gone her hard. She deserves the benefit of the doubt as one of Australia's better political commentators, and will be getting it without exempting her from any criticism at all.

The idea that Labor is good at health policy kept Jay Weatherall in office in South Australia, it helped Labor win government in Victoria rather than a nice-try-but-not-this-time, and in Queensland and NSW the perception of competence has brought the party back from the dead. It's one thing for Labor to corral nurses and ambos into grass-roots campaigning; when they start running more of them as candidates in winnable seats, it will be clear they recognise the centrality of health to their identity and future. Mind you, it will also likely mean that the party operates on the basis of shared assumptions and groupthink that non-healthcare people don't have.

As manufacturing declines, watch the nursing and allied health professionals step up. Watch the scourging of Jacksonville and see whatever rises in its place - that's where Labor's future could be.

Labor have overcome their historic reluctance to embrace education as a vehicle for class mobility. Neville Wran was right about working to get out of the working class. It is the one issue that they can reliably use to connect with the people who were once their base.

Labor can't commit to Gonski-style funding and to opposing Pyne's amendments to university funding because this would bring on questions about revenue for which Labor isn't ready, questions that have killed all but a few would-be Labor governments. It should, though, but this is easy to say from the sidelines:
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten should adopt a less negative stance and try to cut a deal with the Abbott government on higher education policy, according to former Labor MP Maxine McKew.
She would say that. In his attempt to simply quote what people say and never mind the context, Matthew Knott has overlooked the fact that Pyne's proposals stand to benefit bigger, more established universities like ... McKew's employer, the University of Melbourne. Long-term Labor MPs who've been in and out of government must be killing themselves laughing at being lectured on More Labor Than Thou by a oncer.

McKew might have a lot to say about what universities are and should be for, but perhaps Knott is not the person to explore that sort of big-picture stuff.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne backed Ms McKew's comments and said Labor had become a "laughing stock" on higher education policy.

"I have invited the Labor Party to enter into negotiations with the government regarding higher education; however, they have steadfastly refused, despite many of their members privately supporting our reforms," Mr Pyne said.
He, too, would say that.

Fancy giving Pyne the last word in your article. Knott really thinks he's being 'balanced' by quoting one person who proposes supporting Pyne's proposals, and then quotes another who also supports that outcome. The case for those proposals is no further advanced by this article. It was not worth writing or publishing, let alone reading. There are people struggling on local papers who are infinitely better journalists than Knott, and they should be rotated through the press gallery until the folly of Fairfax's self-negating hiring policies become clear.

If you don't know anything but transcribing, you can't be an effective reporter. To say that the people who run traditional media companies disagree with that wholeheartedly is beside the point - I'm solvent and they aren't. I'm the audience they need but can never understand. Knott is an overpaid transcription service, and Fairfax readers are poorer for having to go around this sort of stuff in order to find out what is going on in public debate.

Media courses have attracted the best and brightest of a generation. As one of the last traditional media outlets, Fairfax could have the pick of that generation, curious active and well-informed, people who could yet save the company from going to the dogs. Who have they chosen? Obtuse clerks like Knott, Latika Bourke, and Earring Girl, who shows how bleak her employer's future is by simply quoting social media on delay. You can't set yourself above social media while trailing after it. If you think I'm being unfair, compare the pithy wit of this to Cox's entire clippings file. If people will tweet for free, how long can Fairfax keep paying these dupes?

Look, w(h)ither Labor? questions are properly matters for ALP members, and having lapsed back into media criticism I might just leave it there. You need to get across health and education policy if you're going to understand 21st century politics in this country. Merely critiquing politicians' messaging, like most of the press gallery do most of the time, is not healthy or educative. It is a non-job with no future.

08 January 2015

Everything wrong with political journalism

... is in this article on the coming Queensland election.
Election campaigns are great fun for political reporters. Long days, frenetic pace, constant pressure, travel, close companionship with politicians and journalistic colleagues.
Yeah, but not particularly enlightening as to how we are and might be governed. Set-piece events taken at face value, no real checking of words against deeds, same approach ('line') to reporting by every outlet because of groupthink. The whole idea of this is to limit access to information other than what the party wants you to present - it's a wonder why editors think this is in any way valuable.
Mystery bus rides and plane trips to destinations revealed at the last moment for reasons of state security.
It isn't 'state security', just PR bullshit by a political party. If you're such an experienced journalist you should be able to see through that.
But it seems like only yesterday I was on the campaign trail for the last Queensland election. In fact, it was two years and 10 months ago, but given the enormous palaver that election campaigns are, two years and 10 months is barely enough time to catch a breath.
There's more to state politics than elections: education, health, transport, policing, disability and ageing, state governments have a huge gamut of responsibility that should keep reporters busier than they are. Sport reporters have less than six months between seasons. Teachers have six weeks between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next.

Two years and ten months is plenty of time. My wife and I had two children in less an interval than that. Get over yourself.
It seems far too soon to be doing it all again. And I'm just a reporter. Imagine what it's like for people who actually matter in our state, the politicians who are supposed to be running the state and the business and social leaders whose work depends on a reliable and steady public framework?
Nobody - not in government, nor business, nor any other field - just gets on with it unchecked. Three years is plenty of time in between elections to get on with it and anticipate changes of direction. The supposedly soporific Menzies era had three-year elections.
The work they do on our behalf is interrupted every three years for a frantic rush around the electorate.

That's democratic and fine, but not conducive to smooth productivity.
I'm so glad you approve of democracy, especially as you enjoy election campaigns.

Did you even think about what ‘productivity’ might mean? Elections are not interruptions, they are the point. Are we on the right track? How might we do things better? These are questions that should be asked by productive people - and political reporters too - from time to time.

Why are they ‘frantic’, given that they are planned well in advance? If running a four-week campaign is ‘frantic’, surely these people are going to burn out after three whole years - what do you mean, you hadn’t thought about it?
… the interruption begins after about two years when the speculation starts about the timing of the next election.
Whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice, they are up to no good. They are covering for someone or something.

“The speculation starts” among journalists who are bored by the grind of government service provision, and who want polls to focus on them rather than boring old voters with their boring hospitals and boring prisons and boring roads and boring. When they can’t speculate about elections, they conjure up #leadershit or ministry reshuffles.
Longer terms are needed.
Why? By whom? You do realise that means more time covering policy, right?
Other states have four years.
Like NSW, where we spent three years with a dead government twisting in the wind? Over the past two four-year terms NSW had five Premiers, Victoria four. A political system built around feeding the media beast cannot handle the pace.

I thought Queensland was special and different. Every time I go there, locals make a point of wondering aloud why anyone would want to live anywhere other than Queensland.
As a minimum it should be that Queensland elections can't be held before three years.
Why? What would you prefer, ten? Why? You haven’t thought about this at all.
Premier Campbell Newman is in favour of fixed or longer terms. So are and so have been political leaders on all sides. But all say it can't be done because bipartisan agreement isn't there.

Something is missing in that logic.
Ya reckon? Why not get a journalist to ask some questions?
Mr Newman is facing the quite remarkable prospect of an electoral backlash in this election - remarkable in light of his extraordinary success in 2012 when he led the LNP to 78 seats in the 89 seat parliament.

That was an enormous change in Queensland politics after years of Labor rule. But a lot more has changed in the two years and 10 months since then.

Suddenly a Government which overwhelmed the Parliament has found itself level pegging in some opinions polls with the nine-seat ALP opposition. And Campbell Newman himself is under some pressure to hold his inner Brisbane seat of Ashgrove.
Hmmm. What that tells me is all that boring non-election governing stuff is what changes people’s minds about elections. Only journalists think the elections should change people’s minds about the actual stuff of government.

Journos love being the focus of election campaigns - all those set-piece events put on for their benefit, arranged around their schedule - with the obligatory piece at the end wondering why people are so jaded and disengaged with election campaigns.
The reasons for the LNP's fall in the polls so soon after its 2012 triumph have been well documented: a concerted union backlash to public service cuts, some contentious law and order policies, environmental concerns, and so on.
Blithely skipping over the point of the campaign, the whole context, way down the article after all the hoo-ha about the empty thrills of campaigning and a vacuous push to alter an election system when you don’t even see the point of it?
All that must be tempered in fairness by an acknowledgement of the Newman Government's achievements in health and its determined efforts to streamline conditions for doing business in Queensland.
What are they, exactly? What sort of business? What has Labor done to draw level with a government of such achievements in so short a time?

Why does it fall to me, a blogger from NSW, to ask these questions? Don’t you have journalists in Queensland? I remember how the Fitzgerald Inquiry bagged the Queensland parliamentary press gallery - they haven’t got worse since then, surely.
But the point is change. The enormous shift in the political landscape in 2012 seems itself to be shifting again.
If you’d kept up with the issues since the election, it would seem as though the Newman government had a kind of - call it a ‘media strategy’, if you will - where they seemed to be doing something every day, so that journalists would have something to write about. If the ground has shifted on them, are they not victims of their own success?

Maybe the LNP cobbled something together that was never going to last. Maybe Newman was full of it from the beginning. Maybe journalists should have examined that possibility more closely than they did.
The pace and extent of change in politics, all around Australia and certainly in Queensland, is growing year by year.

Gone, seemingly, are the days of one party or the other settling down for several terms of steady government. So in that context, it's especially important that the Queensland body politic is not disrupted every two years.
Every Queensland government has undergone an election every 2-3 years. Every. One.

Even the ones that held office continuously for decades, they still held those pesky elections where they put it all on the line. They didn’t have very good coverage by the media, but then they never do.
If there is bipartisan support for fixed/longer terms, let it be so.
No, start asking questions. Who wants longer terms, Chris, and why? There’d be a story in that, if only you were a journalist.

Queensland is the state where ‘bipartisan support’ counts for less than in any other state. Kevin Rudd took Brisbane-style hokey, anti-establishment schtick all the way to the Lodge, twice, and you can't understand what Palmer and Katter are doing in Canberra until you look at the jurisdiction where they cut their political teeth.

You haven’t done a very good job of making the case for longer terms, Chris. If they are really in favour then they should be making the case, while you weigh the evidence and seek inputs from beyond the George St bubble - if you can imagine such a thing.

Maybe there is no case to be made. Maybe they’re not confident of their ability to win over people. Maybe it’s only in Queensland you can damn-with-faint-praise in declaring something “democratic and fine” but somehow also beside the point.
Chris O'Brien is the ABC’s state political reporter in Queensland.
I’m so sorry to see that.

At a time when we should be rallying behind freedom of the press (je suis Charlie, aussi), we should also expect more and better from them. In politics, journalists hold politicians to account - they are not there as the politicians’ unquestioning support crew, and nor is political journalism somehow valuable in itself.

Read The Boys on the Bus when you have time. You’ll enjoy it, like you enjoy election campaign coverage today, but hopefully you’ll also wonder why so little has changed since it was written in 1973. They have four-year Presidential terms in the US, but so what?

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.