20 April 2016

Mummies and daddies

It's long been a cliche of US politics that Republicans are the daddy party while Democrats are the mommy party: Republicans believe (ostensibly) in punishment for wrongdoing and rewards for doing the right thing, while Democrats just want to make sure everyone's healthy and doing well at school. Australian politics seems to be moving along similar lines, with the major parties selecting candidates that reinforce those images in their very bodies.

We all want security in an uncertain world. Members of the Coalition believe the security they can offer Australians in government is with a sound economy, stable and dynamic at the same time, to ensure today's jobs and growth going forward. Increasingly, police and military and others involved in security are challenging the domination of businessmen. Government as security provider is a paternalistic view of government and its role. It resonated in 2013 amidst media narratives of Labor chaos, and their ridiculous overestimation of Tony Abbott's ability to provide stable and secure leadership.

The NSW Coalition has three women in the winnable positions on its Senate ticket: sitting Senators Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Fiona Nash, then Hollie Hughes. The Victorian Liberals had planned to do the same, the common wisdom elevating Jane Hume from number two on their ticket and choosing another female Liberal to fill that place, with Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie making up the three winnable spots (assuming a half-Senate election with six Senators to be elected). Senator Michael Ronaldson brought forward his retirement and spoiled that plan, with IPA office boy James Paterson taking Ronaldson's position atop the Liberal Senate ticket.

Since then every Liberal preselection has been won by a man. Departing female Liberal MPs Sharman Stone and Bronwyn Bishop have not been replaced by women, but by men. Apparently men are more credible in talking about the economy than women; we shall see how well that goes for them.

The Victorian Liberals used to produce formidable matriarchs like Dame Ivy Wedgwood, who never won (or sought) preselection but made sure women's issues achieved a prominence they would not otherwise have received from an all-male parliamentary party. Today, Louise Asher and Mary Wooldridge may already be past the peak of their influence. Inga Peulich, like Bronwyn Bishop in NSW, has no interest in advancing women candidates. Every other Liberal woman is flat out securing her own spot rather than building a base to help others. The opinionated Janet Albrechtsen is happy to be a consort rather than test the reach, validity, and influence of her theories.

Much was made of Georgina Downer running for Liberal preselection in Goldstein, and losing.

The Victorian Liberals used to be big on scions and breeding as a consideration for candidates; even Robert Menzies relied early in his career on being the son of an MLC. Downer's political inheritance was both a blessing and a curse. The IPA domination of the party's ways of looking at government and itself meant the prospect of a fourth-generation politician was to be resisted. The political DNA from her great-grandfather (a former Premier of South Australia), her grandfather (former Changi internee and Immigration Minister), and her father (former Party leader and Foreign Minister) seemed less important than the XX-chromosome.

When it became clear Downer was losing the Goldstein preselection to Tim Wilson, she allowed her supporters to play the homophobia card. I have no idea whether she descended to this herself and it's not one of the things that matter. At the risk of getting all intersectional here, it was important that Downer did not win on the basis of homophobia and hopefully she's learnt a hard lesson well; if she hasn't, stuff her. Sir Alec's granddaughter ought never have stooped to that.

Discuss: it's more important to have fewer homophobes in Parliament than more women - and as this is Australian politics, no it isn't big enough for both.

Labor have pretty much given up on the job security thing, happy for unions to wage the odd battle here or there for entitlements but accepting that the war for permanent, secure employment for all is pretty much a thing of the past. Look at that typical male worker profiled in the Harvester judgment in 1907, detailed down to his three kids and allowance for tobacco; he is as remote from workers today as those who built the Pyramids. Providing state-sponsored health and education seems to be their way of offering security in an insecure world. You could call it a maternalistic approach.

Not every Labor candidate endorsed for the current election are women, but many of them are; more than have been endorsed in the past. Health and education have been increasingly important The framing of this is interesting, and of course the Daily Telegraph is too dopey to question it. Note that:
  • it isn't the party leader, Bill Shorten, who is demanding more women candidates and being vindicated;
  • it isn't the party's deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek - a woman and from Labor's Left - who is calling for more women candidates and succeeding;
  • it isn't prominent Labor women like Penny Wong or Anastacia Palaszczuk who get the credit for years of activism to this end;
  • it isn't the party's rank-and-file, often invoked but rarely consulted, who rose as one to insist more women be given a go; but instead
  • the State Secretary gets the credit for delivering a full complement of viable, appealing female candidates.
The position of NSW Secretary of the ALP has been imbued with mystical powers of control over Australian politics, impressions cultivated by those who held the office like Graham Richardson and Mark Arbib, and burnished by no-hopers like Eric Roozendaal or Jamie Clements. The current occupant, Kalia Murnane, is using the legendary powers of her office to promote Labor women, and by doing so reinforce her own position. This manoeuvring meant that a woman Labor State Deputy Leader from the Left was replaced by a man from the Right, but hey:
Declaring the line-up as “unprecedented”, Labor’s new female boss Kaila Murnain said the party had more than met its 40 per cent quota.

“Many of these women are in winnable seats, which will mean our representation of women in parliament is set to increase,” she said.
Is it unprecedented, or just "unprecedented"? This is easily checkable and would have demonstrated a brain engaged with this subject matter, rather than just more transcription journalism. How many of those women are in winnable seats? Have women been put into safe Coalition seats for the sake of the quota? It isn't clear from that article and there is no list on the NSW Labor website at time of writing. Let's do the maths:
  • There are 21 women identified in that article;
  • There are seven women Labor MHRs from NSW, including Plibersek. Of those, all but Jill Hall will definitely nominate again, or have been preselected;
  • There are two women NSW Labor Senators, both likely to renominate;
  • According to the article, "Of the nine most winnable seats, five will be contested by female candidates"; this leaves us with
  • Eight Labor candidates (seven if Hall is re-endorsed in the face of the Conroy-Fitzgibbon stoush over Hunter) who are pretty much making up the numbers in safe Coalition seats.
Again, note the frequency in that article with which Murnane is referred to as "Labor boss". You might wheel in Shorten to lay on some verbal tinsel, but the point of this article is to underline Murnane's power and the purposes for which she is using it:
Mr Shorten said it was a major achievement for Labor to have so many women standing.

“We are streets ahead of the Liberal Party when it comes to increasing the number of women in parliament,” he said.
Labor is beating the Liberals in a fight they have abandoned. You may as well say Labor is streets ahead in selecting trade unionists.

Health and education are two sectors of the workforce definitely likely to grow into the foreseeable future; two areas of the workforce with high percentages of women at all levels of responsibility, two areas where (HSU shenanigans notwithstanding) union membership remains strong. Old-school Labor powerbrokers like Doug Cameron (from the Manufacturing Workers' Union) and other horny-handed sons of toil from male-dominated industries are less likely to retain their historic grip over Labor's future.

The concern here is that political coverage and debate degenerates even further where there is no common ground: he says more money for defence, she says more money for healthcare, no evaluation and off to the pub. With major parties cleaving in this way, the political emphasis turns to those outside the majors who will have to be able to discuss defence and healthcare, and allocate resources to both. It means the ballot every three or four years becomes a blunter instrument than it is already. It means the real stories lie far from the announceables.

At the very time Australian politics is becoming more interesting, the press gallery is gearing up for two months of cliche-milling, gathering mindlessly into formation like Orwell's cavalry horses. They will be unable to break out of he-said-she-said coverage, which will guarantee they miss the real stories: the information we need to make sound decisions over the government of the country, creating the value that might make traditional media's future more sound than it appears.

* Note: when I describe parties' offerings above, I am describing my understanding of those offerings, rather than propagandising for/against those parties. Label-slapping responses and tweets will have to be good to get published, let alone warrant a response.

05 April 2016

Some sort of difference

Yesterday gave several great examples of why the press gallery's insistence on a narrative - and cramming everything that may happen into it - produces such terrible journalism.

Kevin Andrews is not going to be Prime Minister. He's not even the next Liberal Opposition Leader. The framing of this is just such bullshit. It's designed to feed into a narrative that Turnbull is so "beleaguered" that a low-flier like Kevin Andrews might seriously fancy his chances.

Let's do instead what press gallery journalists can't, despite their much-vaunted experience and all that oak-vatted savvy from which they draw so deeply. Let's piece together real things that actually happened and see if they indicate a pattern.

When Turnbull was Opposition Leader in 2009, Kevin Andrews challenged him and did better than expected. This brought on the later challenge by Abbott and Hockey which succeeded in knocking Turnbull off.

He was no closer to becoming PM then than he is now. Andrews is trying to make out that he has a future, that he's a player, and that he deserves yet another term in Parliament.

Kevin Andrews has been in Parliament since 1991. His one big success came in the late 1990s when he built bridges between Coalition conservatives and Labor conservatives (led by the young Tony Burke) to vote down Northern Territory legislation allowing for euthanasia.

That vote put the lie to the idea - still dearly beloved by the press gallery - that anything on which Labor and the Coalition agree must be "centre ground", reasonable and moderate and all good things about Australian politics.

Since then he's been a dud:
  • He was the Immigration Minister who made a scapegoat of Dr Haneef, and didn't even get that right;
  • He was the Workplace Relations Minister who could neither sell WorkChoices nor dismantle it;
  • He was the Social Security Minister who couldn't curb his nanny-state impulses for the sake of the Budget; and
  • As Defence Minister he was nothing more than a seat-warmer. He failed to understand that warships are blunt instruments in combatting militant Islam, yet had the gall to insist (unchallenged, but for social-media sniggers) that his removal from the portfolio represented a threat to national security.
Some Liberal preselections have been held, while others will be decided within the next few weeks. Menzies is the safest Liberal seat in the greater Melbourne area. Other Liberals holding safe seats there (Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O'Dwyer) may argue they deserve a little longer yet, while Tim Wilson is yet to get his feet under the desk.

Ambitious Victorian Liberals must look upon Andrews and conclude reasonably that he's had a fair go. To give a now-obscure example, Conrad Xanthos is ten years less inexperienced than he was the last time he posed a preselection threat to Andrews.

When Andrews proclaims himself a real chance of keeping the Prime Minister on his toes, he is trying to frighten off would-be challengers. The chestnut hair dye, the grey air of calm reassurance sliced with the occasional lightning-flash of defiance, all reveal a determination that many (including experienced observers) have underestimated for too long. Mere months ago, the then Prime Minister allowed speculation Andrews might give way to said PM's chief-of-staff; with a snarl he put paid to that.

We've all seen what happened to Dennis Jensen - a spring chicken compared to Andrews. Nobody wants to go out like that. Jensen also believed his talents shouldn't have been wasted on the backbenches, but so what?

Andrews says he has more to offer. Not even the vast journalistic resources of the Manningham Leader (nor those of any other traditional media outlet, really) are sufficient to explore what that might be.

Conservative men like Andrews constantly complain that they are on the defensive, that they are underdog defenders of mainstream values, even when they occupy positions of power and implement policies not supported by anything like a majority of Australians.

Andrews was in word and deed the "Captain Catholic" Abbott only ever talked about. The greatest churchman of their generation, George Pell, is depleted of moral authority when his titular authority should be absolute. Abbott came and went with nothing to show conservatives what might be done with political power. Apart from maybe Burke or Bowen (and even they have disavowed Church tenets like heterosexual reproduction-only marriage), no other Australian politician can show conservatives what might be possible. Andrews is doing his yeoman best but it just isn't good enough.

Andrews' generation of conservatives have cried 'wolf' for so long and are being ignored. We all know what happens next in that story: even Kevin Andrews.

The prospect of same-sex marriage has been so long delayed it is a failure of democracy. That prospect looms before Christianists like Andrews, and terrifies them. It has such momentum that we face the diminution (but not quite the disappearance) of the moral suasion against homosexuality that has existed since the late nineteenth century. What is now called homophobia used to be an unspoken given; now the case against homosexual equality must be articulated publicly by its proponents, and from none of them is it convincing.

People like Andrews can't quite believe that battle against women in equal paid employment, or against legalised (and publicly funded!) abortion, are well and truly lost. Traditional dominion of men over their households has been weakened by increasing measures against domestic terrorism and funding women's refuges. Kevin Andrews' whole political career has been in fighting those sorts of measures without being seen to be hostile toward hardworking people. He still thinks he can be effective in some small way somewhere, against all evidence to the contrary.

Perpetuating those battles is the "sort of difference" Andrews is hoping to make. He wants to be the dog in the manger a little longer: a fluffy dog panting smilingly and wagging his tail, but stopping others from using it to their ends regardless. Note how he expresses his wish in the soft humble words that had worked so well to deflect hostility, as he went about the quiet busywork that made the lives of those he opposed slightly more difficult.

Latter-day braggarts like Cory Bernardi or Ted Cruz show conservatives today need to cast off the sheep's clothing to cut through. Andrews can't do that: he is ovine in his soul. Nor can he keep up the penny-ante obstructions in an age of disclosure and selfies. The Liberals of Menzies may keep him on, or they may not; had they opted for a bright young thing after 2007, as other safe Liberal electorates did, their future might be better assured. Of all the ambitious young conservatives out there in Melbourne, very few are putting themselves forward "in the Kevin Andrews tradition".

By contrast, Phillip Ruddock goes into retirement knowing his legacy is secure. Ruddock developed and promulgated an Australian conservatism that didn't rely so heavily on The Crown, The Anglosphere, And All Things English. He hands over to Julian Leeser and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells while Andrews has no political heir. You can't be The Champion of Families in a job that is actively hostile to family life, and someone like Andrews won't join with the lefty feminists who would make Parliament more family-friendly. What if he had to hand over to some sodomite like that Goldstein fellow? This is another reason why Andrews wants a little more time: nobody wants his life's work carted away in a skip.

This is why Gray Connolly is wrong to insist that conservatism somehow springs whole and pure from grubby encounters with reality. All political movements need exemplars. Those who would carry the torch forward need the ability to stand on the shoulders of giants while being able to see what the giants themselves could not. Conservatives rightly sneer at marxists who think their movement(s) has/have survived successive debacles: Budapest, the Hundred Flowers, building hipster apartments from the rubble of the Berlin Wall. We have seen Australian conservatives distance themselves from Menzies, from Fraser, from Askin and the Courts, from Kennett and Hamer, and now Abbott and even Turnbull - and a fat lot of good it does them.

Experienced press gallery journalists should have laughed at Andrews' feeble rearguard action. A political analyst who can't distinguish weakness from strength simply sucks at their job, regardless of any imperative to excrete 600 words/20 seconds of blather on command. Nobody will buy a single copy of a newspaper on the basis of Kevin Andrews keening for another go around: to quibble with that would diminish what little value there may be in experienced political journalism.

There are many stories to be told from Canberra. Media advisors and their own herd instincts ensure the press gallery will miss almost all of them. The piping roar of a frightened, toothless old lion from a non-marginal seat in the 'burbs should not have been relayed so far. It should not have been infused with any importance it never had.

26 March 2016

Heave away, haul away

Critics of privatisation and outsourcing often complain you can go too far, that by hiving off "non-essential" functions you end up compromising some part of the organisation that is essential to its survival. Despite what organisational theorists say, there often is no clear line between essential and non-essential functions, and plenty of smart and experienced people have gotten that wrong.

So have the South Australian Liberals. Liberals in that state will follow their Queensland counterparts into history.

The old one-two

Nick Xenophon evolved a constituency that neither the Liberals nor the Democrats fully recognised: people concerned about the increased availability of gambling in a state where it had never been prevalent. He expanded his appeal to cover the spaces left by the dying Democrats, and vacated by the Liberals as they moved right. Now that the Liberals want to move back to the centre, it's too late; Xenophon owns that space now.

Part of the Liberal Party's shift to the right meant that they lost the ability to rein in someone like Cory Bernardi. A precocious young student politician, Bernardi modelled not only his policy outlook but his organisational structure on US brimstone-and-sodomy conservatives. Nobody becomes a Liberal Senator without backing from a substantial portion of the party, having worked the branches and other party structures assiduously (Bernardi was a protege of Nick Minchin, the party's State Director who stacked an overwhelmingly moderate state organisation in favour of conservatives). What made Bernardi different was building networks of fundraising and patronage independent of the Liberal Party, tapping into funds and support that the SA Liberals didn't know about and weren't obliged to declare.

By the time Bernardi took top spot on the Liberal ticket in 2007 the threat was implicit: put me at the top of the ticket or I'll run against you. Nick Minchin retired soon afterwards, knowing Bernardi was building a political superstructure taking him beyond the reach of the party, and beyond the discipline of people like himself. His setting-up of a new conservative party has been a long, long time coming. Finally, he's judged that his hour is at hand, and that he is free to drop off the Liberal Party like a sated tick.

Bernardi hasn't done this before now because the SA Liberals were always a more viable vehicle than anything he might cobble together, alone or with useful idiots like Family First. No longer: the SA Liberals are done. But the relative strength of left and right isn't enough to explain the collapse of the SA Liberals. They assumed they would have a permanent place no matter how little they did, how little they delivered for South Australia.

The franchisee

Labor has become the default party of government in that state. They actually focus on health and education and transport and all those other properly state-based issues. While they don't get every call right and have been in too long, they seem to actually care about congested roads or bad schools or whatever - they aren't diffident about those issues like the Liberals. Labor fights ferociously for every election and the Liberals are diffident about those too; the Liberals win the protest vote but fail to translate that to winning a majority of lower house seats, which underlines their diffidence and lack of the necessary political passion necessary to govern. They talk about economic development but they can't do it, and everyone knows they can't do it.

The leader of the SA Liberals is a nice man - Simon or Stephen or something like that - who acts like the franchisee he has always been, in office but somehow not in charge. If John Martin's department store still existed he would be standing in the window modelling what a suit might look like if a man were wearing it. When the federal government comes to town (rather than flying past Adelaide) they drag along what's-his-name to stand and nod.

He might have disagreements with Jay Weatherill - but Weatherill has imposed himself on his own party so ruthlessly you get the sense if Stewart ever took him on, Weatherill would leap over the Dispatch Box and rip his liver out. Even his "home" electorate is named after Labor's greatest Premier. Weatherill gets bogged down in the intractable difficulties of funding a growing state with a stagnant economy because he doesn't have to play politics with an opposition that is simply no good at that game.

It isn't like he stands before a band of seething rivalries, either; the Franchisee is the best they have. Conservatives spent years hissing at Vickie Chapman until they realised there was nothing for them to worry about. The years of backroom drama with titanic figures like Joan Hall or Nick Minchin having at one another meant that Liberal candidates tended to be no-fuss, inoffensive, even insipid. Minchin realised early, and schooled John Howard in the idea, that the lack of Liberal governments at state level helped ensure a Liberal government at the federal level. He smoothed the dying pillow over the careers of several promising MPs who might get in the way of his wider vision.

Can't be fixed

Christopher Pyne was 26 when first elected to the very safe Liberal seat of Sturt in 1993. When John Hewson was replaced by Alexander Downer as Liberal leader soon afterwards, Pyne said to John Howard "why don't you retire?".

A decade after that, Howard was still Prime Minister and Pyne was still a backbencher. Pyne became chief source for breathless press gallery stories that any day now, any day, Peter Costello would challenge Howard. It was nonsense but it kept both Pyne and the gallery in work, and each was grateful to the other. Eventually, by sheer attrition, Pyne became the guy at the centre of it all, the fixer without whom nothing would get done. The press gallery applauded his childish parliamentary tactics, borrowed from the US Congressional Republicans. In the leadership turmoil following 2007 he switched his vote late, but decisively, ensuring his choice and the winner were the same, and that the winner was grateful to him.

Back in South Australia, the mining boom lulled South Australians into overconfidence about Olympic Dam and defence equipment and other big dreams to transition the economy away from the clearly failing vehicle industry. When the dream died with the mining boom, Labor went back to basics at the state level and lost the plot federally. The Liberals offered criticism but not an alternative. 2013 offered South Australians a change of federal government with one of their own, Christopher Maurice Pyne himself, where he had always wanted to be: at the centre of the action.

Pyne could have had the clout to kick the car industry along for a little while, but he didn't. He could have managed a vast transition from cars to military manufacturing (or something else), but he didn't. Goodness knows he's had time enough and resources to think of something. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero. Those of us who never believed in Pyne were vindicated at such a terrible cost; those who thought he deserved the benefit of the doubt are so far beyond mistaken, it's embarrassing all round.

As Education Minister, he might have found a way to channel more money to the state's creaking institutions - but all he did was propose $100k degrees (increasing the impetus for talented young South Australians to flee their state), and open gimcrack colleges that collapsed before students could complete their courses. South Australia backed Pyne for decades and had hoped for more from him than he could ever deliver. "We will support all Australian students to embrace the digital age" - yeah, right.

When the naval construction contracts went to Spain over Adelaide, the story made the news in Sydney but it did not carry the full anguish from South Australia. It went way beyond Port and the Crows bundled out of the footy finals. It was a realisation that their final hopes were dashed, despite doing everything they could within the system to get some sort of relief. He's blown it. All the consultants who claim they can help him un-blow it are just taking donors' money under questionable pretences.

Pyne has compromised and triangulated so much, like Hillary Clinton in this masterful examination of US politics, that it isn't clear who he is any more. Maybe it isn't even clear to him. He's Minister for Industry from a de-industrialising state, when the BCA and the IPA expect him to sell the unsellable and judge hm accordingly. The new Liberal candidate for Boothby would want to be a cracker because otherwise Adelaide will be an all-Labor city in Federal Parliament, like Canberra or Newcastle.

If there's a double dissolution, the top two Liberal Senate candidates will be Bernardi and David Fawcett, two right-wing goons (if the standard half-Senate election, just Fawcett). Next on their list is Senator Sean Edwards, former real estate agent and transactional pol who put together the painstaking case for frigates and submarines to be built in Adelaide. If Edwards loses (as well he might - your 3-3 half-Senate election results are less likely going forward) it will be another one in the eye for the standard politics of representing your constituency and having your voice heard in Canberra; it will be the government's own fault for failing to respect assiduous grass-roots politics.

The next state election is in 2018 and the Franchisee is unlikely to take things forward. Chris Pyne may well be a private citizen, and we'll see what his extensive experience is worth then. Xenophon's federal focus will see his party play a limited role. Bernardi will trash Safe Schools and abortion, but otherwise have little to offer education or health. People will still vote for those guys, though.


The seismic shift in SA politics places a heavy load on Labor's internal processes to keep the state government honest and vital, and stop them sending monkeys to Canberra. When Sam talks about 2036 he looks forward to a time when the children will indeed be the future but most of his party's current members will be dead. He may well be the last SA Liberal leader, or at least the last where the party is clearly the second-biggest party in the state's politics.

All centrists get accused of being neither one thing nor the other. Most centrists muddle through with a bit of both and something else besides. The SA Liberals have none of that, not any more, and they won't be getting any in. They've abandoned the centre and the dingoes on the right have abandoned them. The state is stagnating economically, so any donor money is going to have to flow in from outside. The Queensland Libs struggled along as the branch office of a national movement for so long, and then gave up on themselves just as conservatives came to realise they needed the suburban south-east more than a shiny new civic centre at Woop Woop.

Whyalla isn't falling back on small business grandees, but on renewable energy - no help from the Libs there. The drought will exacerbate water quality problems in the Murray River, but the Liberal MP who represents that area has spent half a million dollars renovating his office. The SA Libs don't have Nationals but that's the least of their problems. They don't have enough to fall back on, and conservatives need something to be nostalgic about. Playford, Hall, Tonkin, Brown, and Olsen aren't a heritage: they're answers in a pub quiz.

The only future the SA Libs have is to show the rest of their party what structural decline looks like, and that majoritarian arrogance (what US Congressional Republicans call "the nuclear option") is a non-starter. Maybe lack of background will benefit the SA Libs, as it did for Tonkin and Brown, but only briefly - and it's too late for Saul. There may be a reconciliation of left and/or right after Xenophon or Bernardi, but you can't bet on the SA Liberals being led by broad-coalition community-minded people who could pull that off.

23 March 2016

Ever-decreasing circles

We were full of beans
But we were dying like flies
And those big black birds, they were circling in the sky
And you know what they say, yeah, nobody deserves to die

- Hunters and Collectors Holy grail
It is one of the most interesting developments in modern Australian political journalism that the best interviews are not conducted by members of the press gallery. They are not conducted by "serious journalists" on Sky or the ABC.

They are conducted on breakfast television. Lisa Wilkinson, Karl Stefanovic, and David Koch put Tony Abbott through his paces far more than David Speers or Emma Alberici ever did. Breakfast presenters get out of bed when late-night presenters get into theirs, but even with a full day of research and preparation it's the early-birds who get the political worms. Samantha Armytage sold herself short when she said that she joined breakfast television because she'd given up on serious journalism.

It was Wilkinson, not Leigh Sales or Laurie Oakes, who got Turnbull to admit he consults only a very small circle of people when it comes to things like the Budget. Turnbull has been a small-circle guy all his life. He didn't get where he is by cultivating a heaving mass of people. The nearest he got to a mass movement was the republic, and even then he cultivated an inner core of celebrities rather than a broader constituency.

For much of 2015, Australia's savviest political insiders not only insisted that Joe Hockey should leave the Treasury and be replaced by Scott Morrison. Nobody in the press gallery questioned that Morrison, like John Kerin a generation earlier, would effortlessly make the transition to Treasurer (indeed, many of them had been in the gallery when Kerin was Treasurer). They should have known better.

None of them looked at the decisions Turnbull made, either. In his first Cabinet, Turnbull took the unprecedented step of bringing the Assistant Treasurer (basically Minister for Revenue) into Cabinet. Kelly O'Dwyer was on Costello's staff and has been the closest thing Australian politics gets To The Treasury Born; Christian Porter is similar: a second-generation politician who succeeded (if that's the word) Troy Buswell as WA Treasurer, but who got out ahead of the mess that's since been left to that ninny from the IPA. Both O'Dwyer and Porter are reserve Treasurers.

Turnbull could have chosen anyone as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet; he chose the former head of Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, who has spent his career putting Budgets together. If you fought your way through the Narrative, you'd hear some of the better press gallery journalists noting that Parkinson was playing a more prominent role in putting the Budget together than DPMC heads before him. As if Costello would have tolerated that from Max Moore-Wilton or Peter Shergold. As if Wayne Swan would have tolerated that from Rudd's office or Gillard's.

As if Scott Morrison has a choice. Morrison's life isn't about mass movements either, or even small circles. Morrison is about boiling complex issues down to snappy slogans. Keating could do snappy slogans too, but only after he had demonstrated to the press gallery that he was across the complex economics of the budget. Keating's slogans projected his understandings onto an issue; Morrison's slogans succeed when they deflect attention away from himself, which they rarely do because there is no understanding on which to project.

Morrison has spent his life sucking up to Howard and others with patronage. His preselection was secured after a head-office intervention against a well-organised rightwinger, and even now the Liberal factions in Cook could squash Morrison like a bug if they so chose. Turnbull doesn't need Morrison to suck up to him.

Turnbull doesn't have a political base in the Liberal Party, and Morrison hasn't got one to offer him. Morrison has inhabited that shadowy, ill-defined world in the Liberal Party which is neither moderate, nor economic-rationalist right (more a Vic thing than NSW), nor the brimstone-and-sodomy religious right. Like Labor's Centre-Left, this constituency shrinks when examined or tested in actual ballots. Morrison could have been their champion if he was any good, but he isn't. He's not much help to Turnbull, and if he turned on the Prime Minister Morrison would become a joke.

Perhaps Morrison could have impressed Turnbull sufficiently to have his head. He could have leapt into the role of Treasurer, rendering O'Dwyer and Porter or any other pretenders as irrelevant as Chris "Anthems" Whittaker was to the Wallabies under George Gregan. He could have quietly mastered his brief, like McMahon or Hayden or Howard or Ralph Willis or Swan. Too late for that now.

It's one thing to play that Canberra game of getting Turnbull to express confidence in Morrison, but fuck that shit. What is worse: for Turnbull to persist with the slander that Morrison really is the best Treasurer we could have, or to admit that the real fiscal and economic decisions are made by people other than the titular Treasurer? Turnbull might as well read out the Budget himself, Morrison is just the spokesperson.

When Morrison speaks of blockchain it isn't just that he's out of his depth: John Gorton might have had opinions on the Rolling Stones, but it doesn't matter what they were. Morrison is planting a tree under the shade of which he will never sit, with all the pathos that goes to that. He won't be Treasurer after this coming election. I doubt he'll be a candidate for the following one.

The Howard years narrowed the Liberal Party, leaving them nowhere to go after 2007. They lost the ability to forage for ideas, abilities Menzies and Howard developed in opposition when their fortunes were so dire nobody would come and talk to them. The small circles of the BCA and the IPA had ideas frozen, shrink-wrapped and ready to go, and the Liberals were only too ready to take them; they didn't heed the warnings that they were selling the unsellable, because there were no such warnings.

Journos didn't examine Liberal ideas to closely. Nobody pondered the implications of the Nats taking money from miners assuming there was no conflict with farming communities. All that experience watching governments come and go, a quarter century observing Abbott up close, counted for diddly-squat when it came time for them to help us decide our governments. The BCA and IPA played the Liberal Party; they got the windfalls and the credit if the Liberals somehow got the public to swallow their ideas, and if they didn't the ideas remained but the Liberals were trashed.

The Liberals faced no critics within or without, just inchoate whingers who were fobbed off with Abbott's sheep-clothing routine ("no cuts ..."). They became small circle jerks, both scornful and fearful of the public they yearn to reach, but who seem to shrink beyond their reach regardless of how well polled, monitored, or commented-upon we are.

After 2007 the Coalition needed to rethink. They needed those years where nobody would talk to them in order to forage for ideas. Turnbull hasn't used his time in the wilderness to good effect, buggering the NBN and leaving the commercial media without any hope from change in their regulatory environment (no matter how the regulatory environment changes, those who run commercial media will screw it up). He is like Churchill after the disasters of Crete and Dieppe, but without the stirring rhetoric or any hope for some D-Day master plan. Yet, plenty of press gallery still insist that if only they can somehow make it into those inner circles they can report what it's like. They can't admit to themselves there's no there there: not in terms of Turnbull, not in terms of press gallery journalism itself.

Labor have been abandoned by spivs and rentseekers. They have used their time well, listening to pointyheads rather than dismissing them for being unable to compete with them in politics.

They probably won't make a convincing case this time, and their backroom operators are being defensive and silly with the Greens. Mind you, Turnbull isn't that convincing either. It's why 2010 is the new norm: major-party operators and press gallery journalists who don't like it can just lump it.
You know I, I been searching for an easy way
To escape this cold light of day
I been high and I been low
But I got nowhere else to go

There's nowhere else to go ...

19 March 2016

White coal

English food person Jamie Oliver believes that because his country is taxing sugar added into processed foods, Australia should as well. He put out a statement on his Facebook page, and Fairfax superjourno Latika Bourke thought she was doing some journalism by copying it and doing a quick Google search on sugar. Some people regard this as Excellent Journalism That Must Be Preserved but I disagree.

There was the expected backlash from big processed food producers, inevitably to be copied here but with added surprise even from journos with Google access; but that isn't the reason why a sugar tax won't work in Australia.

First of all - Australia is one of the last countries in the developed world that doesn't have a bill of rights, same-sex marriage, or a tax on carbon emissions. What makes anyone think we are ready for a sugar tax? The Treasurer is actively looking for ways to cut taxes rather than raise them, even with a supposedly massive and unsustainable debt.

Second, and more importantly, the reason why we won't have a sugar tax in Australia is because of the sugar seats.

Most famers vote Coalition and get taken for granted. Sugar farmers tend to be different, voting for parties that best represent their interests at a given election (i.e., swinging voters), as Tony Windsor would have all farmers do. Sugar cane is grown not in lush, rich soils, but on marginal lands where margins are thin and a break in government policy can mean the difference between surviving or going under. This has seen major parties offer subsidies and other largesse - sweeteners, if you will - to sugar farmers.

Australia has a significant domestic market for sugar, which arguably has peaked. Australian companies producing sugar (such as CSR, founded as the Colonial Sugar Refinery) have exited the market, beset by low and unpredictable profits and high transport costs. Sugar processors that were set up as farmers' co-operatives, like Tully Sugar or the early distillers of Bundaberg Rum, have sold out to foreign-owned conglomerates. There is a large and growing market in Asia for sugar; except for a heavily-subsidised sugar cane industry in the south-eastern US, most sugar-producing countries are developing countries that undercut Australian producers on price.

The free market is bracing for the sugar farmer. The (increasing) threat of cyclones hits them first and hardest in their communities, and they are among the last producers to recover when the debris is cleared away. Combined with wildly fluctuating profit margins, sugar farmers can find it difficult to get insurance or other support for long-term production - which is where the politicians come in.

Here is a map of where sugar is grown and processed in Australia. The federal electorates covering that area are:
  • Page (NSW)
  • Richmond (NSW)
  • Fairfax (Q)
  • Wide Bay (Q)
  • Hinkler (Q)
  • Capricornia (Q)
  • Dawson (Q)
  • Leichhardt (Q)
Flynn and Kennedy (Q) would be included were it not for their significant beef and mining hinterlands, which dilute the impact of the sugar-farming vote. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Those electorates have as much in common/are as diverse as the much-vaunted seats of western Sydney.

In that list of electorates above, all bar one (Richmond) was won by the Coalition in 2013. People with short political memories may be tempted to simply regard the rest as Coalition heartland, but all of those seats* had been held by the Labor Political Party when it was in government and it would be crazy not to have some overarching strategy for winning them back.

The Leader of the Nationals Political Party, who is also Minister for Agriculture, almost certainly has feelings for and on the sugar industry too. George Christensen, who holds a sugar seat, has been courting the dormant One Nation vote with his culture-war efforts; he would sooner have people pay zakat than a sugar tax. Any concerted effort for a sugar tax by an unlikely and unsustainable alliance of health policy wonks and small-government fetishists simply has no chance against major political parties backed by processed food industry donors/lobbyists. Besides, the small government fetishists have sold themselves out to the gigantic bludge that is their Northern Australia Dreaming.

This effect is felt at state level too. In 1998 Queenslanders sent 11 One Nation MPs to their state parliament: half were from sugar seats.

Media organisations other than the ABC are cutting back their coverage of regional areas. The 2016 election will see regional electorates play a more decisive role than any election since 1961. This is further proof that major media organisations are run and staffed by idiots. When you have to do your own political background on the events of the day, you realise just how grievously political journalism has failed, and how impertinent is the demand that those who have faile be maintained in the manner to which they've become accustomed.

The very idea that government might levy a tax on the sugar industry is frankly unbelievable. A reduction in their subsidies would have the same fiscal effect as a tax, but that won't happen either.

* Allowing for boundary changes etc over time

09 March 2016

The worst kind of political journalism

No political journalism can ever be good if it patronises the people to whom it reports.

Politicians regularly call press conferences for journalists to ask questions. Mostly, their questions are inane - rather than ask better questions, press gallery journalists simply petition the ABC (the network that most often carries live press conferences) to muffle the often silly and ill-considered questions they ask. They usually seek to reinforce a narrative which does not relate to the subject-matter at hand, which is why politicians get a perverse pride in not answering questions or reading slabs from the very press release which initiated the press conferences in the first place.

Politicians almost never convene people for the purposes of asking questions. Some state governments, and the Gillard government, held community Cabinet meetings where they often fielded better and more pertinent questions than the press gallery ever could.

This is patronising garbage. The journalist seriously believes that interrupting a press conference to talk to a politician is some sort of breach of etiquette, and that people should just sit back and consume whatever drivel the media pumps at them.

Here's what happened: the Prime Minister was in Whyalla and someone came up to talk to him. End of.

Any time I have to do my own editing and presentation of a story, the journalist has failed. It's not that the journalist has presented the story in a different-but-equally-valid way, or using some superior journalism imperceptible to those of us who've never lolled about in a newsroom: the wanker who wrote this seriously believes that only journalists may question politicians in public.
Despite the best of preparations and the fullest of precautions, every time a politician appears in public they take an enormous risk: encountering a real voter.
Oh, piss off. A "real risk" involves getting killed. Politicians deal with voters much better than journalists do, which is why the traditional media has no future as a conduit between politicians and voters.
So it was for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday, who was beset by the dog-walking Raylene Mullins following an announcement in South Australia.
What a dickhead: "beset" and "dog-walking" tell us nothing about this person or what they wanted. They belittle and de-legitimise this person ("where's your press pass?"). What a hopeless lead-in to a story. What a bad attitude this turkey has. Earlier headlines actually referred to Ms Mullins as "errant".

Wait until I find a press gallery journalist who walks their dog. Wait 'til Koziol does: it will rock his empty little world.
Proving that the township of Whyalla was never wiped off the map, Raylene confronted the PM about the government's free trade agenda and its impact on the local steelworks, her husband's employer.
Another silly lead-in: surely the presence of the Prime Minister proved Whyalla's ongoing existence? Why do we have to fight our way past Koziol's silly lead-ins to get at the story? A person spoke to the Prime Minister about his policies and their impact on the local community. You could write a good story about that, having sent a journalist all that way.
"The produce is being ruined and nothing will help Australia if there's another world war because we wouldn't be able to exist," she said.

"Now, why don't all the parliamentarians in the past and in the future think about that, because where are our grandchildren, their children and their children going to work? You can't just have office jobs and health jobs."

The steelworks, which employs about 10 per cent of the town's working population, has been slated for possible closure following financial difficulties. Owner Arrium, previously OneSteel, said the plant posted an operating loss of $43 million in the first half of this financial year due to cheaper Asian steel prices. A decision on its future is due in April.
See? You can so do proper journalism when you have no other choice.
Mr Turnbull was keen to avoid discussing the date of the upcoming budget, but Raylene's ambush proved harder to avoid.
Back to wanky sub-clauses, as though Canberra narrative was more important than actual economic policy. You have an announcement about $600m right here, what makes you think you can address an entire budget?

A non-journalist questioning a politician is not an "ambush", it is democracy in action. When they venture out in public, every Prime Minister gets asked questions by members of the public. It's part of the job. It's always been part of the job. It is not an ambush, and it's not extraordinary.
In response, the PM reiterated his earlier announcement that a major upgrade to 600 kilometres of South Australian rail infrastructure would be brought forward, enabling the steelworks to be more productive.
Not if April's announcement sees the steelworks closed down. We've scrapped the carbon tax, but the steelworks is still losing money: clearly the carbon tax wasn't the problem. Had this journalist dropped the wanky lead-ins they'd have more space to write about what was in front of them, and bring to bear all that knowledge and experience that makes professional journalism so very valuable.
Later, the 64-year-old Raylene told the cameras why she had decided to give the PM a piece of her mind.
Could this guy get any more condescending to "the 64-year-old Raylene"? Did he pat her on the head? She may as well have talked to the cameras - no point talking to the journalists.
"I was walking my dog at the Ada Ryan gardens, didn't know he was going to be here," she said.
Clear failure on the part of Whyalla media. If you don't know the Prime Minister's coming to town, what do you know? How does your market trust you? Is that why Ms Mullins had to ask the Prime Minister about an operational matter, because the local branches of national media are obviously such crap? He actually mentioned the dog-walking thing again, as though it was something people he knows simply don't do.
But the PM defended his government's pursuit of free trade agreements, telling Raylene that future prosperity was dependent upon Australia's access to the large markets of Asia. "We share a passion for Australia ... we have a slightly different view of free trade," he told reporters.
If you're going to splash around $600m to boost one company over others, you sure do have a different view of free trade, and its place in economic and trade policy. Again, instead of proving himself to be a dickhead across state borders, the reporter could have thought about whether that money could not have been better spent elsewhere: $600m on rail in suburban Melbourne would have yielded greater improvements to the economy and broader appeal to voters.

At the risk of appearing cynical, how much tax did Arrium pay last year? How much, if any, did it donate to the Coalition parties? Do you think our hot-shot reporter gave the press release any scrutiny whatsoever?

Whyalla is in the federal electorate of Grey, one of the largest electorates of any parliament in the world, which voted Liberal with a 13.5% margin at the last election. Rowan Ramsey, the local MP, has been there 20 years and (at this stage) is seeking re-election. $600m to shore him up? What does Ms Mullins think of Ramsey - any idea?

As a close and avid reader of political journalism over many years, that piece was utterly worthless.

Fairfax should be culling dickheads like Paul Sheehan and this fool Koziol. Instead, they are getting rid of reporters in regional areas. You can't patronise locals like Raylene Mullins when they're your neighbours and regular readers, but you can if you just jetted in from Sydney/Canberra.

Rowan Ramsey might be safe in two-party terms, but if there's a third party waiting to send Grey the way of New England or Indi our man on the spot wouldn't be able to tell you: he simply can't get past the idea that people walk their dogs in the park.

07 March 2016

2010 again

The 2010 election, and the parliamentary term that followed it, is seen as a freaky time in Australian politics. Minor scandals (e.g. Gillard's bathroom, Thomson's pants, Slipper's diary, Kelly's solvency) assumed seismic importance. Neither Labor nor the Coalition held a majority in their own right. Neither of them, nor the press gallery, were comfortable with this situation becoming the new normal. But it did for a while, and it will again.

Living on the edge

Every government facing re-election suffers a loss in seats. Sometimes that loss is so great it removes a government after a single term; this happened in Victoria in 2014 and in Queensland the following year, but that hasn't happened federally since 1931.

The Turnbull government might be defeated at this year's election, but it probably won't. Economist Stephen Koukoulas reckons the government will win 78 seats (in a 150-seat House, 76 is required for the barest of governing majorities). Given my record of prognostications, all I'll say is that guess is as good as any.

When the 2010 election returned neither a majority for the incumbent Labor government, nor one for the Coalition, the press gallery were pretty dirty on us voters. We had let them down by producing an ambiguous result (see the archives on this blog, or of the traditional media if they still have them up). Julia Gillard negotiated with independent MPs to cobble together a working majority for the incumbent government rather than hold another election.

The press gallery love election campaigns, and they love unambiguous mandates for major parties coming from them; stripped of the pre-fabricated narratives and cliches that traditional media needs to cover politics, they regarded Gillard's arrangement as illegitimate.

In her Earle Page College Lecture 2013 Michelle Grattan bristled at the sheer untidiness of the hung parliament:
The hung parliament is almost done. Surely we won’t see its return to the chambers.
As I explain below, she speaks too soon: results like 2010 will become the norm once the sort of parliament Grattan would like (“one where there’s a majority government with a margin that is workable but modest enough to keep arrogance in check. And with a Senate that respects clear government mandates on big issues but is an active watch dog”) is simply too much to ask of the major parties or of those who lead them.

All of those passive-voice descriptions of that parliament ("toxic") arose from media harangues, furious that they had to do investigative work for a change, have less impact already, given how comprehensively their boy Abbott has been discredited - and with him, those who did the haranguing from the press gallery.

Magickal thinking

The reason why the press gallery reported Abbott's vacuous talking points without examining them isn't because they were/are biased in favour of the Coalition (insofar as the Coalition is so consistent that it represents a fixed point for navigating the random seas of politics). It isn't even because they lacked (and still lack) policy analysis skills. It isn't simply because they're stupid and lazy.

The reason why they simply reported what Abbott said without examining it, or even considering whether he'd be a good Prime Minister, is because they wanted what he said to be true. When he said "this is a bad government", the press gallery hated the political predicament of a minority government (and no early election!), they hated Gillard's media wranglers, so they didn't question whether Abbott could do better.

They wanted to believe Abbott when he said he'd help Aborigines. They wanted to believe there was a budget emergency, and that Joe Hockey would fix it. They just wanted the ease that comes with standard coverage of a majority government, and they didn't believe Labor would deliver that.

They believed the Coalition could deliver it - but only if they overlooked decades of accumulated reality about Abbott and his would-be ministers. They pretended shit was chocolate. They were wrong to do that, and wrong to expect they deserve the benefit of the doubt going forward.

Fury road

Niki Savva has scurried around Canberra scooping up anecdotes about how awful and dysfunctional the Abbott government was.

If you're concerned about journalism for journalism's sake, or if you just want a laugh, then it's great how Senior Liberal Sources and other euphemisms now have names and faces they had lacked until this book was released.

This blog is concerned about the subject-matter of political journalism (the way we are governed). It is mystifying how experienced journalists who've seen governments come and go can look at a rabble like Abbott's inner circle and conclude that it is the only choice to govern our country. So many journalists on social media acting all shocked at events they themselves should have witnessed - it's all such bullshit.

If you believe that journalism is a real profession, then it is either negligent or fraudulent for these people to take a salary and occupy positions not open to the public, misrepresenting Abbott and co as somehow better than the rabble they replaced. It is bullshit for them to claim they could never have expected they would act completely in character, and do the limbo under any bar set for them.

It is bullshit to claim that the press gallery was obliged to keep in sweet with Abbott and Credlin, as though their career matters more than the information we need to govern our country. We must know whether particular candidates will govern us well or badly: no journalist, no editor, no media proprietor can or should claim that their interests are more important than that.

Savva's book is probably designed to cement her position as some sort of insider: it's actually an indictment against her, and every other silly press gallery journalist busy plugging her book for her, and indeed the journalistic swamp that is the press gallery.

Now consider that if Peter Costello had become Liberal leader and PM, Savva would have occupied a similar role to that Credlin occupied in the Abbott government. The petty vindictiveness, the focus on this afternoon's headlines and deadlines over the nation and its possibilities for our children and their children - it wouldn't have been that much different.

Credlin called Savva's book "scurrilous" - one of those empty, expired words that should have been interred with Dickens or Mark Twain. She should have called Savva out for being jealous. Savva was never an insider like Credlin was. This book is just the ashes in her mouth spat onto wood pulp (no I won't link to it). I'd hope Savva makes some money from it, except it seems everyone who might have bought has received a free copy.

Professional journalism and its discontents

I have no idea why you'd keen and wail about Paul Sheehan, and fail to call for his dismissal - but then just accept journalistic deception like this. Gender offers an important critique about journalism, but it is not the only valid one.

Does it matter whether Abbott and Credlin were lovers?

With every fibre of my being, I want to say: no. It does matter, on an issue that can't really be negotiated away, and will only go away when its opponents are defeated.

The whole case against same-sex marriage is that marriage, as it is currently configured, is somehow special and different and that same-sex couples can't possibly be granted admission. It is nonsense, intolerable nonsense, that the hollow facade of a heterosexual marriage is better than a genuine same-sex relationship that should be sealed with the recognition that comes with marriage.

Tony Abbott voted against same-sex marriage and he will do so again. Let us be clear that he does not do so from a position of principle, but from one of hypocrisy. Indeed, hypocrisy is his only constant: as long as he gets his, you can piss off. Any journalist - every journalist - who thought Abbott wasn't like that is a mug.

Savva is disingenuous to bell those cats and then airily claim it doesn't matter. What else is she being disingenuous about - everything?

But back to 2010

Oh yes. They were mugs then, too. Many of the same mugs involved.

In 2016 the Turnbull government will probably be re-elected with a slight majority. After the bullshit of 2013, where Abbott was ten foot tall and bulletproof, Australian politics will return to the state of 2010: neither Labor nor the Coalition embraced by a majority of the population. The media's credibility is shot. Alternatives will get more of a go than traditional media will provide - more than it is comfortable with.

Turnbull will have to develop the negotiation skills that the press gallery wrongly assumed was in his gift. Gillard and Swan had those skills to a much greater extent than Turnbull, or Abbott, or Credlin or Hockey; those skills weren't masterful but only dummies deny they existed, or cast them as dark arts. In our time the major parties can't count on much of a mandate and won't get one.

You can muck about with Senate voting rules to exclude the randoms, corralling votes into the major parties like cattle into pens. All that will do introduce US-style gridlock where the party that doesn't win government gets the Senate as a consolation prize, a check-and-balance, tit for tat.

The foreseeable future is not that some great leader will rise and save us all from petty dealmaking, leading us forward to a common destiny. The foreseeable future is that a national leader will have to be prepared to negotiate anything and everything with everyone, every day, until the office grinds them down.