22 July 2016

Yesterday's social media today

So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


I'm grateful to Katharine Murphy for drawing this to my attention, I suppose; but it is rather more your standard press gallery output and less an exemplar of what it might be, which is what I had hoped and suspect she might have hoped, too. Let's not dismiss it out of hand. Bear with me as I pop the bonnet and take it apart, then consider what sort of reporting an event like this might give rise to, from journalists and media companies that knew what they were about and had some conception of customer value.
The Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen has threatened to vote against Coalition superannuation changes, immediately threatening one of the Turnbull government’s key policies two days after his ministry was formed.

Christensen took to his Facebook page to state categorically: “I hate it when government fiddles with super” and described it as “Labor-style policy”.

“It’s not the government’s money, it’s YOUR money,” Christensen writes. “We in government need to remember that. If the government’s superannuation policy does not change, I will be crossing the floor and voting against these measures.”
OK, I read Christensen's Facebook page in the original, and it says a lot about him as a politician. Basically, George has stamped his foot and delivered an ultimatum, which was probably meant to sound like strong and principled leadership. Canberra deal-makers hate ultimatums and the drama queens who deliver them. Coalition MPs returned by the barest of margins will not thank one of his party's whips for rocking an overloaded boat in this fashion.

That said, there are four issues here.

First, superannuation. It's important, and the details have ramifications that go far beyond Canberra, far beyond this term of Parliament, and we really should pay attention to the details. Any details about what this carry-on might mean, Katharine?
The Coalition policy places a $500,000 lifetime cap on after-tax superannuation contributions backdated to 2007, increases the concessional tax rate on asset earnings from 0% to 15% for people aged 56-65 in the “transition to retirement” and taxes accounts over $1.6m at 15%.
Pretty thin, that. What's really needed here is some context as to what that means. This is not a new debate, and by now specialist writers should have opinions about what might happen if the relevant regulations are changed, versus what might happen if the government's policies are enacted. But for two years a decade ago, every government since 1980 has had to bargain its policies through a Senate it did not control (and in 2010-13, a House with a majority of non-government members too); it is probably more useful to talk about the likelihood of some sort of compromise being enacted, and what that may or may not mean.

Christensen has concocted a sob-story whereby I as a taxpayer will have to subsidise (that is, with MY money) a couple sitting on more than $3m of super. It isn't as convincing as either of them might hope. Just because a politician says he is the defender of the people's money it doesn't mean that he can be taken at his word. Just because a journalist has a quote it doesn't mean they have a story.

Has superannuation policy really reached a state of perfection that is worth bringing down a government to preserve? Is this or any other policy at the mercy of his emotions ("I hate it")? If you couch Christensen's antics position in terms of policy, and leave others to do the horserace crap, you potentially bring an angle that informs debate within Canberra and beyond. You also run the very grave risk of establishing a value proposition for media consumers that is described by Ezra Klein in, uh, this piece.

You could make a case that here's a generalist journo trying to make a fist of a complex issue, but that might have been good enough way back when a quick summary was good enough for the likes of you. These days, there are plenty of superannuation wonks. Some of them can write and not all are hopelessly conflicted. Those people have more credibility than workaday hacks trying to be all things to everyone, and the only traditional media outlets with a future will be those who can tap into real expertise when required.

Second, there's the issue of the budget. Superannuation is taxed lightly in comparison to other reservoirs of money, and any government committed to balancing the budget had to revisit this issue. It makes no sense to complain long and loud about BUDGET BLACK HOLE EMERGENCY DEFICIT SHOCK (as Christensen did) and then complain about specific action to that end (as Christensen did).

Again, this is part of the policy context in which this government operates, and which therefore Murphy and her press gallery colleagues must also operate, and report on. Nowhere in that piece is there anything about that. No questions to Christensen about the relatively light tax treatment of super over many years - including when Labor was in government - and no questions about what he suggests might be taxed instead.

Third, Christensen isn't a conservative in any real sense. Before the last election he was endorsing far-right groups who would shun Muslims, who were ambivalent at best about anti-Muslim violence. Real conservatives have nothing to do with that garbage, as Ted Cruz demonstrated. Hanson didn't run a candidate against Christensen at the last election: she didn't need to. Now Christensen and Hanson are as one on superannuation too:
... senator-elect Pauline Hanson has indicated she believes superannuation should be “left alone” ...
... and Christensen's Facebook page is full of endorsements of whatever she might say about anything. Why doesn't he stop pretending he's a legitimate member of the Coalition and piss off to the PHONies? Is he playing a longer game like Bernardi, waiting to drop off the Coalition once he has sucked it dry?

The novelist Evelyn Waugh once wrote of one of his contemporaries: "To see Stephen Spender fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee". There's a certain element of that in knowing George Christensen, and many others no better than him, holds your retirement income and mine and the fate of the government in his hands. Murphy's fascination is understandable, but misplaced. There less drama than you might imagine in a man who talks big but tends not to follow through.

Lastly, there's the angle that Murphy takes on all this - the same angle every other press gallery herd animal took - on the horserace. The barely returned Turnbull government and the potential disruption to its agenda, etc. I suspect this is the bit that's meant to take my interest.


Um, probably. It's just beside the point. Politicians make deals and break them and carry on - mostly over nothing of enduring significance - all the time. Despite press gallery lore, that's not really where the most interesting story is. The herd are all over that horserace stuff. The story is in what those deals are over, and how the outcomes affect us in ways we may or may not expect.

Christensen isn't going to turn government over to Bill Shorten, not over superannuation or anything else. He's seen how conservatives treat Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, or the Job of Sippy Downs, Peter Slipper; neither Christensen nor anyone in this government wants that sort of calumny for the rest of his days and yea unto the seventh generation. The idea that conservatives cross the floor without penalty is palpably false. It's a historical artefact that was binned by John Howard. If your twenty years of observing politics up close has taught you anything, that's one of the lessons you should have learned.

If it were no big deal that conservative MPs cross the floor, why even write a story about it?

Cory Bernardi has been threatening to leave the Liberal Party for a decade. Like most people (and many dogs, and even some bits of furniture), Bernardi is much smarter than Christensen. If the SA Liberals punted Bernardi he has a much more solid political base to survive and almost certainly get re-elected to form an enduring presence in Australian politics - but still he waits, and waits, and knows any time he wants to stir the pot the entire press gallery as one will run around with their hair on fire. If the LNPQ punted Christensen he'd be finished, flat out making it onto Mackay Council.

Christensen has his Facebook page: if Murphy thinks the best use of her traditional media platform is to make more from a gobbet of social media than it can possibly bear, then she is selling that platform short. She's not alone in this belief, and strangely many journalists take comfort from following this trend: whether it's an overpaid presenter on live TV cutting to a smartphone, or radio personalities taking to podcasts to complain about Twitter, nothing diminishes traditional media faster than the impression that they are nothing but relays for where the action really is, on social media. If the traditional media becomes yesterday's social media today, it's finished.

This government is less precarious than the one of 2010-13, which Murphy and most of the press gallery reported from up close. The idea that the government might collapse at any minute got very damn boring after months and years where plenty else was happening. It crowded out reporting of actual policy developments every bit as significant as the superannuation reforms under discussion here, developments that could make useful stories today or tomorrow given the right writers. Clearly, the lessons of the abysmal reporting from that time have not been learned.

A focus on policy removes perceptions of journalistic bias: can a policy opposed by the Labor party really be a "Labor-style policy" (even if a politician declares it so)? Leaving policy out of your coverage puts it at the mercy of a bunch of personalities that are far less compelling than beleaguered media outlets might hope.

As a political correspondent, Murphy should know Christensen isn't much of a superannuation wonk, and isn't much of a politician either; she would serve her readers better by saying so and pointing out why. In terms of this event and where the news value is, the fate of the nation's retirement incomes far outweighs the outbursts of another mediocre Jack-in-office. Journalistic inertia in only being able to cover complex stories in tiresome ways that obscure their lasting significance is to be pitied (to be fair, Murphy's piece was one of the better examples of a doomed genre). We still need more and better information on how we are governed than the press gallery can provide.

07 July 2016

Taking the cake

In 2013 I was so convinced that Tony Abbott would screw up so badly that he wouldn't become Prime Minister at all. How I laughed at the polls. How I jeered at the press gallery groupthink that sought to convert that pig's ear of a man into a silk purse of a PM. I still remember how it felt, to be proven so wrong, so irrefutably, so publicly.

That's why I have some sympathy for political journalists who did in 2016 what I'd done in 2013: ignored the polls, ignored people with less exposure to traditional and social media than me (that is, pretty much everyone) who actually engaged with political issues and personalities from first principles, and insisted on having access to some secret cache of political knowledge inaccessible to mere mortals.

Some, but not much - most political journalists are simply reeling forward, claiming that a campaign which had them fooled and gibbering with excitement had somehow become 'lacklustre', assuming that their credibility remains intact. These people might think they're getting on with it, but they are trashing their credibility and that of their employers.

It was strange to see, of all people, Matthew Knott start to realise that he and his compadres had done the country a disservice simply by doing what they'd always done:
Those political reporters not too hubristic to engage in self doubt are asking: did we get it wrong? Did we, as a collective, miss the story?
Yes, you did. That subclause "as a collective" is the operative one here, because that stampede always leads the press gallery into bad and dumb stories, and always convinces them that if they all do it then it must somehow be less wrong.

Pretty much all political journalists in 2016 were covering the parliament of 2010-13. They should have told us what we could expect from such a parliament, which is the kind of parliament we are heading into now.

In 2010-13, the then government was spending so much time with crossbenchers in both houses that it didn't have time to coddle journalists, to drop self-serving little tidbits in their laps; they had a lot to do and focused on the doing, assuming (wrongly) that tough and clever journalists could work it out for themselves. It turns out that journalism doesn't cope well with nuance and compromise; most jobs involving nuance and compromise take place well away from journalists. The then opposition spent no time with crossbenchers but spent all the time coddling journalists, to the point where the journalists all said the government was hopeless while the opposition was the Best Opposition Evah.

Again, the "as a collective" was the problem. Nobody considered the well-flagged possibility that Tony Abbott might be a bull in the china shop of government, and not in a good way. He got fairer media headwinds before coming to government than John Howard had in 1995-96, and he still blew it. The press gallery were of one mind that Gillard and Rudd could do nothing right, and that Abbott could do nothing wrong. When Abbott screwed up the press gallery played it down, or made things up for 'balance', but the reality was irreconcilable with their Best Opposition Evah narrative. Today, the actual result of the election is irreconcilable with a tangle of narratives: that Turnbull is cruising to victory while Shorten is battling to hold his job, that everybody's home and hosed in Canberra under the second term of the Turnbull government and it's your shout mate.
The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes.
Why even ask them? Does journalism exist for its own sake?
Some insist they got it spot on.
Fuck all of those people. All of them. Any responsible organisation confronted with egregious professional failure by their staff would make them show cause why they should not be dismissed.

Imagine if AFL journalists insisted at this stage of the season that Carlton, Collingwood, and Essendon were the teams to beat this year because they had been back in the day, and the journos couldn't imagine how things might change. Imagine the currency traders who went long on sterling before Brexit. This is the degree of professional failure involved with dickheads who misreported the national mood a week before an election, and who insisted their failure not be called out. Something beyond mere dismissal is warranted here: chucking them into the most algae-infested bit of Lake Burley Griffin, for a start.
But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred.
Or not occurred, as the case may be.
And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.
Every time a journalist lapses into the passive voice they are up to no good, and here's yet another example. 'They' (journalists who cover politics) concede that 'the way the media covered the campaign' was somehow affected by their herd mentality and how it differed from the clear pattern indicating the election could go either way. This might be someone's idea of a big concession: it isn't mine.
This election campaign rained polls. Week after week, media outlets published national polls showing a 50-50 tie or at best a 51-49 Coalition lead.

The results barely shifted from week one to eight. Yet, as the campaign progressed, a view solidified that the Coalition was on track for a relatively comfortable victory.
So "a view solidified", "on track", "relatively comfortable victory" - what weasel words, what worthless piffle that all is. The solidification of pure wind was bad enough - but the fact that it was so all-pervasive is just so stupid, and unforgivably so among people their defenders still insist are competitive, diverse, and intelligent people. The numbing collective aspect is what's so stupid, and Knott is trying to use it to hide what's wrong with political reporting and build a future for it.

Go back to that quote from Knott above - a quote that is not intended to make him look foolish, but which would have succeeded had that intention been there. Let's take out that indictment of a last sentence and run the sentence before it into the one that followed:
The results barely shifted from week one to eight ... Yet the Coalition suffered a sizeable swing against it on election night and is struggling to hit the 76 seats needed to govern in its own right.
It follows that consistent polls indicated a hung parliament, and this is exactly the result that was foretold. That "yet" is jarring - it shows that the jibber-jabber of campaign commentary had absolutely no effect on the result at all. It shows that the media would have been better served simply by printing poll results and filling pages/airwaves with almost anything but the hectares of blather chuntered forth by Knott and his disgraced colleagues.
"The commentariat fell into a bubble and were reflecting what each other thought.

"A narrative caught hold and everyone started reporting it."

With hindsight, there's much to support this.
There was much to support that conclusion at the time, but the only support available to journalists was in delusion, and in reporting the wrong stories. Knott was too haughty to realise it, too wrapped up in his and others' bullshit and lacking the tools and wit to snap out of a collective delusion that impeded understanding.

Knott began his career covering inside-media gossip for Crikey. A young fogey, Knott disdained social media (despite Crikey being more like a blog than established traditional media) and Fairfax decided that personalities and gossip provided the necessary depth of skills to cover federal politics in all its complexities. Despite being one of over two hundred press gallery journalists, there was no way Knott had any sort of ability to work things out from first principles and chart his own course through the nation's public life. Those who wrangle journos for a living from the major parties were dead right in assuming Knott could be stuffed with junk food and shuffled off to picfacs and would love every minute of it, offering nary a challenge to the desired narrative nor any departure from the collective.
Several ideas took hold quickly in the gallery's collective brain. That Australians don't kick out a first term government (despite this happening recently at a state level). And that Malcolm Turnbull's personal popularity was a decisive advantage against the less prime ministerial Shorten.

During the campaign, several events became seen as "turning points" for the Coalition despite the polls never really budging. Labor's admission it would increase the budget deficit over the next four years was one. So was the UK's departure from the European Union.
It's one thing for some to hold to conventional wisdom. But for all of them, without exception, to stick to an opinion that could be trumpeted but not justified can barely be believed, let alone respected.
Many had picked up a "vibe" in the community that voters were disappointed in Turnbull, but not sufficiently angry to remove him. There was also the confidence exuded by Turnbull and his advisers.

Many of us even convinced ourselves that the low-energy, small-target campaign was a clever way of "boring" voters into backing the Coalition.

"You got the impression they were confident and confident for a reason," former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes says of the coverage. "There was very little scepticism of what was behind that".
Very little scepticism by whom - hardbitten, can't-fool-me journalists, trusted experts in the hall of mirrors that is politics.

Confident Labor - delusional. All journos agreed.

Confident Libs - confident for a reason. Again, all journos agreed (baa!).

Who's best place to judge why these people have failed? Why, the noddies themselves. They'd know. You can trust them - well, our hero does.
But if the media were wrong they were hardly alone. Two days before election day the bookmakers - often hailed as more accurate than pollsters ...
Often hailed by whom - hardbitten, can't-fool-me journalists, trusted etc ... you can see where this is going. First you fool people, then you snuggle down with those you've fooled so that you can be wrong together. The difference is that bookmakers incur real and direct penalties for getting their odds wrong - not so journalists.
So, as Insiders host Barrie Cassidy asked, were journalists shown to be "gullible"? Or were they being lied to?
False dichotomy there. Being lied to is a given in politics. If you're experienced and credible, you can pick your way through the lies and show us what's going on. If you're not, then you're no better than Knott and his arse-covering mates. Right toward the end, and doubtless under duress, Knott dove into social media:
In preparing this piece, I asked readers on Twitter and on Facebook for their views of the coverage.

Some dominant criticisms emerged ...
And excellent criticisms they were, too good for our protagonist it seems. Most journalists use social media to follow other journalists, and get all upset when randoms barge into their carefully curated circle-jerks; I imagine Knott's is no better, but he has blocked me. I have given deeper thought to political journalism than he has; Knott wakes up every day and does the same thing over and over, waiting for drops or chewing over press releases, assuming that he's vindicated by following the herd. Knott flinches before criticism and can't evaluate it, spluttering instead from the ill-considered perspective that only journalists can judge journalists:
Journalists may quibble with some points.
So?
If the campaign is light on policy, blame the politicians' and not us.
No. Politicians bear their own penalties from a disengaged electorate, penalties no journalist bears (not even those made redundant, and too few of those come from the press gallery/campaign trail). Political campaign staffers know what journos like: they like it lite, brite and trite. In my previous post I gave two solid examples of political journalism from the small beer and weak tea that was this campaign. Journos and editors are responsible for what journos write/say. If you'd been right, you'd want credit; you aren't, so cop this.
Others might argue that, despite what readers say they want to read, many more will click on a story about a "fake" tradie than a plan to save the Murray Darling Basin.
The declining fortunes of the media demonstrate that they have no clue what people do or don't want to read. That fatuous and ill-considered quote assumes erroneously that any piece on a substantive policy issue is as good as any other, and that a piece that is both badly written and badly received should discourage any attempt at better journalism.
Still, that doesn't mean those in the media shouldn't listen - and reflect.
It does, if you're simply going to dismiss some very good feedback out of hand, or cast those pearls before the swine of the campaign bus/press gallery.

Six years ago, Greg Jericho expressed frustration that he couldn't find any reporting on disability policy because the press gallery were busy making the very mistakes to which Knott referred and tried so feebly to dismiss. Journos at the time were less dismissive than Knott and some expressed a wish to do better. Millions of news cycles later we know that none did, of course. Knott could have studied that and become a better journalist. As Margaret Simons didn't say, but I will: Matthew Knott has much to be humble about, with no inclination or ability to lift his game.

James Jeffrey doesn't pretend to be anything but a writer of colour pieces. Unlike the more precious and dismissive Knott or Annabel Crabb, he doesn't claim his gentle vignettes have a serious journalistic purpose, and he gets upset when others think they should. This is fair enough (and this writer may well have taken easy shots in the past at pieces of this sort), but the bit where his piece doesn't quite work is the bit where his larky tone turns to snark:
For some, I suspect it stems from the disappointment that the paper isn’t, say, wall to wall Paul Kelly — an understandable disappointment. But Kelly isn’t stingy with his words and there’s plenty to go around.

Following my latest “And this passes for journalism?”, I’ll confess to feeling a bit fed up. I thanked my commenter for checking in, but suggested such a comment was a bit like going to a cake shop and getting grumpy because you can’t get a steak.
Kelly mightn't be stingy with words, but since about the mid-'90s he has sacrificed quality for quantity. And this leaves lighter pieces bearing more weight than they were designed for, like ivy straining to hold together a crumbling wall. Or, to return to Jeffrey's analogy, if someone's sold you disappointing steak after disappointing steak, they can never appreciate cakes for what they are.
I’m still in love with the idea of a newspaper being a banquet with plenty of courses. Hard news, breaking news, solid analysis — all of that is important. But it’s not the only reason readers turn up.
For a start, I only read that story because Jeffrey's employer placed it outside their firewall. Like a potplant outside a toilet block, it leavens the overall effect but does not make me any more likely to go in.

Jeffrey might be holding up his side of things with his personable arrangements of bons mots, but his assumptions about the heavier lifting done by others simply do not hold. If you're an urban denizen, as Jeffrey is, where are you most likely to find a delicious cake: in some hole-in-the-wall patisserie, or in some tacky run-down supermarket full of verbose but customer-unfriendly staff and a reputation for crap steak?

Knott's attempt to raise journalistic failure and then dismiss it without proper examination calls to mind the heartfelt but ultimately misdirected lamentations for journalism by Paul Barry earlier this year, and by Jonathan Holmes late last year in The Age. We live in an information age, and information providers should be making out like bandits. Limiting yourself to mere journalism seems to be its own reward. Yes, proper information costs money, but if you don't take a chance on it then you can never make money anyway. Those who are neither informative nor engaging while taking up space once occupied by those committed to being both waste everyone's time and resources. We needed to be told the truth about how we are being governed, and (at a time of election) what other options we have. At a time where the election was so boring that doing some policy-based research actually made the coverage less boring, rather than more so as Knott and his dull-witted herd did, the fortunes of our struggling media could have turned around. A bit of independent thought might have snapped Knott and some others out of the mass exercise of professional self-harm he and his colleagues perpetrated upon us all. It would have helped us form better judgments about how we are governed (and on what Knott and Jeffrey report), because that matters more than the combined delusions of journalists.

Update 8/7: Different/better takes on Knott from:

03 July 2016

Leaving us hanging

Before I start, let me apologise to regular readers for the long delay in posting at a time when you'd expect me to post often and much. I feel like I've said everything that needs to be said about the horrible vacuity of campaign-trail journalism, while the big media organisations keep pumping out the same old crap. Those who think I've said too much already can agree that I gave those drongoes trashing once-proud media outlets more than enough rope.

1972 was clearly a big year for campaign-trail journalism. Whitlam's launch of that year set the template for every campaign launch since: the upbeat speech, the balloons, the camera shots of young hopefuls and elder statesmen. Tony Wright and Dennis Shanahan [writes for NewsCorp, find it yourself] both wrote jaded gobbets about how lame it all was - but if those guys' decades of experience means anything, they had no right to expect any better. The US election of that year yielded The Boys on the Bus by Tim Crouse and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson, and every single word written or spoken by every campaign-trail journalist has been a warmed-over take-out from either/both of those seminal texts.

They spent three years wishing they were on the campaign trail, and now they're here they are bored and tired - and nobody cares that they're bored and tired, because politics rendered in a boring way isn't intended to arouse sympathy or any other sort of engagement:

(c) Guardian Australia

Campaign trail journalism had to reach a point of cultural exhaustion at some point, and here we are. All those photo-ops and proto-announcements counted for nothing. When you're engaged in non-work, you can't expect sympathy from those who get tired from working real jobs. The press gallery sat around for three years watching their drinking buddies mess about with policy proposals that had real-world impacts on the lives of their readers/ listeners/ viewers.

They couldn't craft the words and images that could describe what was going on, and how it affects us; easier to comment on pretend-elections and gossip, and the dummies in the editorial suite had no better sense for news than theirs. Popular disengagement is political failure, and it's a failure of journalism too. Both have far-reaching impacts on politics and media which can't be imagined, let alone managed, by those who run either type of organisation. Now they wonder why there's disengagement, and you still can't tell them: the old traditions of campaigning have worn so thin, and campaign-trail journalism goes into the skip along with all the other how-to-votes and hopes and dreams.

What's clearly failed here isn't just campaign-trail journalism. It's the idea that you can only report on federal politics from Canberra, or by flying in clueless pinheads from Sydney like Simon Benson or Peter Hartcher, while cutting out local journalists. Everyone talks about Xenophon in South Australia, but once you get past Sydney/Melbourne condescension to that state the only actual Croweaters the press gallery talks to are other journalists, or Christopher Pyne and Penny Wong - and Xenophon seems to be a reaction to the problems those two caused or failed to solve. Rob Oakeshott explained how Fairfax's centralised ad-buying undermined local editorial in the Port Macquarie News. Sydney/Melbourne media could cover from the suburbs of those cities but not from regional Queensland, or hardscrabble Tasmania - even Windsor vs Joyce in New England was assumed to be a toss-up when it wasn't, because the desire to pose for 'balance' outweighed any genuine journalistic instinct to report the story.

Nobody votes on a national basis. It's why those who complained Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd were "elected Prime Minister" are talking nonsense. It's why journalists relying on "national polls" add nothing to anyone's understanding: if you can't explain which seats go this way or that and why, you can't explain the result; you can only suck air through clenched teeth and go "ooh, it's close!", and there's no future or value in that. Polls showing minor inflections may nonetheless be valuable for pollsters - but it is poor fare for journalists, and irrelevant pap for readers/ listeners/ viewers/ voters.

Let's remember clearly how the media reacted to developments in this campaign:
  • When Turnbull threatened a double dissolution election over workplace relations, the press gallery all agreed (thanks for the link @boozebum) it was a masterstroke in wedging Labor, unprepared and with a lacklustre leader.
  • Traditional media all agreed that 'Mediscare' was a scare campaign, but seemed to take recent Coalition campaigns against carbon pricing or the Budget deficit at face value.
  • In the last week of the campaign, traditional media were all agreed the Coalition would be returned with a slender majority. When Bill Shorten told Leigh Sales that he hadn't given up, Sales laughed in his face.
  • The same people who believed Turnbull ran a disciplined, on-message campaign now accuse him of being 'lacklustre', a term fed to them by Abbott and Credlin, and which shows they have no ability to assess or qualify lines they receive - so, what they pass on isn't valuable.
You've failed at journalism when you look at something up close for a long time and you can't tell us what's going on. When that thing is an election campaign, where we have to decide how our nation is to be governed and by whom, the stakes go far beyond newsroom japes.

A centralised campaign seeks only the information it wants, and its judgment about what it wants is rubbish. Traditional media insistence that its judgments match voter needs are demonstrably false. No appeal to their good sense or better nature is possible.

We've talked for a long time about the declining social bases of the major parties, and the fact that voters are increasingly rewarding people for trying to work out different options that the major parties dare not attempt. Only corporate donors expect whole-cloth solutions from political parties, which is why major parties pleading for first preferences in both houses sound like they're peddling an agenda other than that of the voters. Minor parties need not seek out traditional media to be electable (except for Pauline Hanson, that unflushable turd and wholly-owned subsidiary of Channel 7), and in return traditional media are constantly surprised by each new wave of minor-party politicians.

Major parties value those who'll toe the line over those who can think on their feet. The Liberal injunction "Stick to the plan" (when there was no plan to stick to) seemed targeted to party members rather than a democratic polity at large. Minors and independents get by on their wits, which the drones from the majors interpret as being all flash and no substance. Cathy McGowan danced around Sophie Mirabella, who couldn't get out of her own way again. Alex Bhatal, Jason Ball and Carl Katter ran rings around David Feeney and Kelly O'Dwyer, and it will be interesting to see what (if?) the latter two learn from the experience. Journalists can't cover three-way splits or post-electoral compromise. Journalism is reductive, and is better at explaining clear differences rather than the messy compromises at the heart of parliamentary democracy. We're going to have more hung parliaments (oh yes we are), so traditional press gallery journalism of facile thrills'n'spills simply won't be able to cope.

The traditional media have lost credibility as their news judgment has departed from what people seem to be seeking in politics. It was not this gaffe or that scare campaign that turned the election - such an analysis assumes the traditional media has more readers/ listeners/ viewers than they have, and that their coverage is taken more seriously than it is. Insiders showed a ten-minute montage of dreck footage, and none of the bastards who followed had the decency to apologise and/or resign. Those who don't understand the result can't explain it.

The fact that they can't explain them further devalues traditional media as trusted, experienced sources of political information. This in turn opens more scope for minor parties and devalues poor muppets like Josh Frydenberg, who would be nothing at all without major parties and traditional media, who then seem to spray themselves with voter-repellent when they breathlessly announce "stay tuned for our exclusive interview", and so it goes down the plughole. In this article Brigid Delaney mocks Liberals who actually believed what they read/ heard/ saw in the media, who relied on insider tips fed to them by Liberals, and who then had the journos eat their hors d'oeuvres, and so on in a self-referential loop that both journalists and politicians wrongly assume will keep them all busy.

I've talked about the death spiral of traditional media and major parties for a decade (apologies again for being so light-on over the past few weeks, I've been busy), but never has it been more obvious than in this campaign. By 2019 there will be fewer journalists employed by traditional media overall, though the press gallery may remain a bloated herd. It's amazing to think that editors and news directors will again send impressionable journalists out to do warmed-over Crouse/Thompson from a school in Cairns, a hospital in Perth, a highway easement in Westensinny, etc. ...

Surely not all political journalism in this campaign was crap?

Mostly it was. Only two exceptions of quality journalism applied to public policy come to mind from this election campaign:
Now that Lenore Taylor has moved to an editorial role, Tingle is the best and most consistently journalist in the press gallery by a very long way. Price is not even in the press gallery; she's a columnist and academic, and seemingly by accident she's done some journalism when all other alternatives were exhausted. Unlike 1972, campaign-trail journalists have the ability to research and knock up stories from buses or layovers or wherever else that are every bit as good as those two above.

If the press gallery and the campaign trail produced consistently good journalism, it might be worthwhile - but it doesn't, and it isn't. Journos often moan that I don't call out positive examples: but when I do it only emphasises what dreadful garbage they have flung at us over the past eight weeks, and for years and years before that.

30 May 2016

We could lose 95 percent of the journalists

Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.

It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.


- Greg Jericho, 30 July 2010
If there was ever going to be a blog post that had the same lasting impact as the very best journalism, that post was it. Personal without oversharing, precisely targeted in its anger and overly generous toward the media, it shamed the better journalists. The then Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, referenced Jericho's lament that he couldn't find out about disability policy from the media, and vowed to do better in reporting the news rather than second-guessing tactics.

Nothing came of it. Take Gillard's name from the above quote and you could run it today. "Campaign trail" journalism is bullshit journalism through and through, thoroughly debunked by Tim Crouse in 1972 and never bettered, or redeemed. Yet still this waste of resources persists. When parliament is sitting and actual government is underway, the press gallery wishes it was on the campaign trail, and now that they are they realise they are boring themselves and actually shunning readers/ viewers/ listeners with the sheer vacuity, the exhaustion of everything they find thrilling and compelling about their "work".

The abyss stares back at you

Australia's struggling television networks declined to show last night's "leaders' debate" between Turnbull and Shorten because they knew their standard fare was more compelling: cooking shows, the festering saga of media ethics failure that was 60 Minutes, etc.

They were right: the show was not a "debate" because there was no actual engagement with ideas. It was a joint press conference. The press gallery began by asking Turnbull about "the real Malcolm", a concoction they made up and homogenised after quiet chats with Turnbull before he became Prime Minister, to which they cling in the conviction they could never have been gulled or scammed. We saw with Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott how the press gallery develop a picture of a leader which prevails long after they have fallen short of it, and we see the same again with "the real Malcolm".

Surely it would be easier to report on what Turnbull says (and doesn't say) and does (and doesn't), and refer o that objective reality as "the real Malcolm". Instead, the press gallery persists with cod-psychology about "the real Malcolm" and how reality falls short of their cosy image, and how they can't cope when objective reality departs from their narrative.

Press gallery journalists asked press gallery questions and got press gallery responses. Traditional media outlets fear that information is boring, but the one thing people want is tangible information. They think hype and bullshit engages people, when the fate of traditional media shows that it shuns them. The whole exercise is just a make-work scheme for media insider types, shunned by real people who vote and consume and pay taxes. I can remember journalists insisting that Kim Beazley "won" his debates with John Howard; they were pointless exercises even then.

The "leaders' debates" are modelled on US presidential elections. Being President of the United States isn't like being Prime Minister of Australia. Prime Ministers succeed or fail on whether they get their policies through a parliament that is neither fully with them nor (unlike the current US Congress) fully against them. If you're going to have a Prime Ministerial debate, have a debate:
  • Have a debate: instead of Turnbull and Shorten talking past one another, have them engage with the same ideas and even pursue them to resolution for a change. Test what is said against objective reality (e.g. a Prime Minister with a commitment to science would boost the CSIRO rather than cut it).
  • People who will only ever have one shot at asking a question of the actual/potential Prime Minister ask better questions than those who question him every day. We see this with Community Cabinet meetings run by other governments, which have a far lower Bloody Stupid Question ratio than your average transcript of a doorstop/ press release/ other press gallery thing.
  • A debate needs to involve the non-government parties. OK, so the Greens or Family First don't govern, but they do skew what government does and the nature of that skew is one of the great deficits of political coverage. The way that a major party leader relates to them is going to tell us a lot about how they are going to govern. Telling us about how we are governed is the point of the exercise: if you can make it genuinely entertaining, then that would be a great departure from decades of failure.
  • Press conferences are boring. There is no reason to assume a joint press conference with added pomposity would be any less boring, or enlightening - no proof, no positive example to justify perpetuating this exhausted format. Make this "leaders' debate" the last. There is no point going on.

The election with no theme

People just want what people want. Different people want different things. It's possible for different people to see different things and want different things from the same event. We see this in elections: different people want different things from election campaigns, and politicians respond in different ways to those wants. It isn't true that an election campaign must have one overarching theme.

Waleed Aly disagrees. He's a commentator and an academic: he wants the overarching theme so that anyone who departs from it must be wrong. If you don't give a damn about (say) negative gearing, or whether Donald Trump would be a terrible US president, then that's a departure from the official narrative: you must be wrong.

What was the grand narrative of the 2013 election - that Everybody Hates Julia? What was it in 2010? What was the narrative of the 1993 election - a chocolate cake? Grand narratives aren't detectable at the time and they are even difficult in retrospect. Our politics is in transition. The support bases of our major parties have eroded (as Aly has examined in-depth elsewhere) and nothing has yet taken their places. It's silly to be impatient in wishing forward a time when that which is unsettled might become settled.

It's silly to assume status-quo responses like "leaders' debates" might do in the meantime. It's effete to assume genuine concerns about job security or affordability must be "manufactured"; bogus scare campaigns fail if they're not tethered to reality, but they can't fail if they're not bogus (or not tethered to something real).

Michael Lind writes well about his country's emerging political realignment; nobody on the press gallery today could do half as good a job on the similar forces at work on our own country's politics.

Turnbull was never a transformative figure, and everyone who thought he was - everyone, regardless of their experience in politics - was wrong. Shorten isn't a transformative figure either. What definitely does have to transform is the way we cover politics, from the set-piece "debates" to the daily doorstop.

Eye-watering

You know who desperately needs to save money? Fairfax. You know which media organisation desperately needs to connect with its audience, rather than cast shade on them/us? Fairfax.

Take this:
Malcolm Turnbull's media minders will plot a course through a supermarket right down to which aisle the Prime Minister will walk down. It rarely involves the fresh fruit and veg section.

Such is the fear that raw onions can strike in an Australian political leader in 2016.

The mastication of a single brown onion was one of the most bizarre moments of Tony Abbott's prime ministership, perhaps even less fathomable than the knighting of Prince Philip.

So Brisbane's wholesale fresh food markets was not without its dangers for Turnbull on day one of the campaign, with its pallets of onions.
There is no evidence that Turnbull, or any other political leader, is afraid of onions. There is no evidence that they might be tempted to eat one. Why would journalists choose to juxtapose a non-Abbott politician against pictures of onions? It makes no sense, except as the perpetuation of some self-pleasuring exercise on the part of the press gallery.

The press gallery had seen Tony Abbott up close for decades. They knew he was weird, but they pretended in 2010 and '13 that not only was he a regular guy but that he'd be a better Prime Minister than Rudd and Gillard put together. When he ate that onion, the gallery wrote it off as "Tony being Tony". Same with the knighting of Prince Philip. It was social media that pointed out how bizarre this was, and eventually even the press gallery fell into line. That realisation hasn't improved the quality of their reporting, though.

Let's indulge risible terms like "fear" and "danger" in this context: the journalist won't and can't admit it, but the press gallery would rather gibber on about onions than discuss policies and other government actions that might affect us in our lives. That's a self-realising fear: even if you avoid the onions, journalists will talk about them at the exclusion of anything else. Why connect with your audience and offer something of value, when you can be snide about an event to which you were invited, and whose point you seem to have missed (yes, the Brisbane produce market is in a marginal electorate. Is that all? Anything else? What do you mean, you weren't taking notice?). Dumb, easily distracted journalists are the "danger" - dangerous to politicians, dangerous to those they represent, dangerous to those who have no information other than rubbish from dumb, easily distracted journalists.

Let's not indulge journalists when they complain about the long campaign. The campaign never ends. When the parliament reconvenes and starts work, these same journalists will largely ignore what goes on in front of them and wish they were back on the bus, gaffe-hunting and giggling at memes.

Then there's this:
Convergence is the new black with more essential agreement on border protection, taxation, superannuation, and even health, than at any time in living memory.

Elections however require difference, real or claimed, so that's where all the attention will be. That, and personality.
Elections don't require anything of the sort. Elections require clear explanations of what each of the parties is likely to do, and not do. Sometimes it is sufficient to simply quote politicians, as most press gallery journalists do: sometimes it is not sufficient, as per this example.

A journalist who can't tell the difference between "real" or "claimed" is not worth their salt. They are not worth your time or mine in reading them, and their employers should have the sense to reassess their ongoing value.

At the last election - well within "living memory" - differences between the major parties in those areas were minor, but beaten up relentlessly by Kenny and other hype-merchants. Didn't do Fairfax any good. Didn't do the audience any good, in terms of telling us what our options were for government.

There is no value in describing convergence or divergence, and even less in fatuous terminology like "the new black". Spare us all the cod-psychology from easily impressed journalists (or, in Shorten's case, those who wrote him off for so long and who are now trying to avoid failing to get on the good side of a Shorten Government).

It shouldn't be my job to tell the Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald what his job is, but I've been doing it for years and the perceptions and analysis excreted by that poor silly bastard have not improved even slightly. He gives us a rundown of the clichés he is going to flog for the next two months, which should deter any sensible reader from bothering to consult him for the rest of this financial year. He can't even remember the last election. He has learned nothing. His perspective and experience add no value - not to readers, not to Fairfax, but seemingly only to this individual's salary and other perks.

There are other examples, so many others. There will be plenty more because Fairfax is a stupid organisation led badly. You know who should know better than to dump this crap on us under the misapprehension it is informing and/or entertaining? Fairfax.

Fairfax owns two media outlets, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which are the only media outlets represented in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery since its formation in 1901. You'd think they'd know a thing or two about this journalistic sub-discipline by now, but still they lace their copy with voter-repellent cliché and self-indulgence.

Fairfax has sacked about two and a half thousand journalists since 2011. They have sacked journalists from regional areas and suburban papers, even though those places are where this election will be decided: not the Brisbane produce market, or wherever today's picfac is.

They have sacked journalists with in-depth experience in policy areas who can do what almost nobody from the press gallery (5 percent of them at most) can do: explain complex policy in a straightforward and engaging way. Not a hype-ridden or clichéd way, but one that assumes the reader is as intelligent as the journalist, but who needs information rather than hype and bullshit. For Fairfax, this is the real tragedy: they have sacked the very journalists who might have added value for readers in this campaign, while retaining those who add no value and who ultimately have no future.

Under the Abbott government, there were two examples where journalists held the government to account to the point where a minister's job was on the line. In neither case did the press gallery lead the story:
  • Arthur Sinodinos was stood down from the ministry because of revelations from ICAC about his dual roles at Australian Water Holdings and the NSW Division of the Liberal Party. Press gallery followed this story, it did not lead it; terrible, clichéd reporting meant the press gallery initially couldn't believe Sinodinos could lose his job, and when he did the temptation to seen-it-all-before proved too great.
  • It was Amy Corderoy, specialist Health reporter, who noticed that the government had pulled a website rating processed foods. She pursued the story to the point where it threatened the careers of then Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash. Press gallery followed this story, it did not lead it; terrible, clichéd reporting (combined with fobbing-off from Abbott's office) meant the press gallery initially couldn't believe Nash could lose her job. When her chief of staff resigned instead it opened questions about the role of staffers in ministerial accountability; unable to think about this, let alone write in an engaging way, the gallery squibbed the story. Corderoy wasn't even nominated for a Walkley, and has since left journalism.
There are 250 members of the press gallery. It doesn't take 250 people to all fall upon the same (non-)story and all report it from pretty much the same angle. Mass departures and a realignment of political reporting might be eye-watering for some, but hardly unexpected.

The good news

The good news is that political staffers are actively working to render the press gallery redundant. Politicians need a relationship with voters: the media offered to provide the conduit, but it has let both politicians and public down rather badly. When Abbott hired his own photographer, press gallery photographers were all put out: didn't make a difference, and thanks to modern mobile phones anyone can take a picture. Even a press gallery journalist can notice Turnbull's staff doing what journalists used to do, but of course they get the diagnosis wrong: they aren't imitating you, they are replacing you. It doesn't matter that journalists are acting all upset, they should have seen it coming:
  • Did they really think the rolling transcontinental bludge that is campaign trail journalism would go on forever?
  • Who can make the better value proposition for having people photograph and question the leader: the leader's own office, or a failing media organisation?
  • If an editor can get content supplied to their office for free by politicians' offices and by social media users, why do they need to send one (or more, so many more) of their own expensive employees hither and yon?
  • If you can't foresee developments in your own field of work, how are you going to explain tax policy or coral bleaching or schools funding?
Greg Jericho was right in 2010: we could lose 95 percent of political coverage without any loss in understanding how we are governed, and how we might be governed. He's right now, and he'll keep being right until budget pressures force news organisations to put policy at the centre of election coverage. Without policy, election coverage makes no sense.

22 May 2016

What the dead cat tells us

I still think Turnbull is running this campaign as one long validated learning exercise. It might not do him any good, but if there is any method behind the madness I'd suggest that is it.

US campaigns run for more than a year; political consultants from there struggle with our relatively compressed campaigns, and with compulsory voting. The last election campaign pretty much ran from Gillard's announcement in January 2013 until September, and within weeks it was all invalidated as Abbott negated the no-cuts pronouncements that got him elected. The last short, sharp election campaign we had was in 2010, upon which nobody from the major parties will look back fondly.

Long campaigns could well become the norm in Australia, especially in an environment where so many long-accepted verities are biting the dust. There are three things we've learned, and no doubt many more we are yet to learn:

Can't count, don't count

Had Peter Dutton's comments about illiterate, innumerate refugees taking our jobs and welfare simultaneously been delivered in the final week of the campaign, with the government well behind in the polls, it would be easy to pile on with all the other commentary that the government is desperately panicking, or panicking desperately. It is quintessentially conservative to go back to what once worked for you regardless of prevailing circumstances now.

But we're not in the final week of the campaign, are we? Polls are fairly even. If it wasn't for social media it might be difficult to find anyone who cares much about this election. We're all in a position to have learned something from Dutton's statement - hardly new or groundbreaking, was it? Dutton isn't pleading with the uncommitted, he's not engaging with Labor policy, he hasn't exacerbated the already dreadful conditions asylum-seekers under our care suffer now. It isn't as though he has trashed his brand: it's exactly the sort of pig-ignorant, nasty stuff he has said throughout his career. There's none of the classical allusions from Enoch Powell, nor the smart-alec lines from Morrison.

We've often been told that I am, you are, we're all terrible racists who vote accordingly. Pauline Hanson was a one-term MP who only won her seat in parliament by accident 20 years ago and has lost every race she ran in since. Tampa was not that big a deal in the 2001 election, neither a spike nor a dip in a trajectory that took Kim Beazley from Tomorrow's Man to Yesterday's Man that year without him ever having his day. But if a week is a long time in politics, surely fifteen years is epochal?

Labor doesn't really offer much difference in policy terms from the Coalition. Only partisans regard Dutton or Morrison or Ruddock as more intrinsically evil than the Labor ministers who held the portfolio. Labor's current immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles, is exactly the sort of bloodless functionary who whimpers "I was just following orders" when it all finally catches up with them. Pre-polling won't open for another month (you there, stop weeping).

Dutton's remarks can be said to dogwhistle dumb racists - the Hildebrand constituency, if you will - but in another way they signalled to another constituency altogether. Those who instantly spotted the contradictions of what Dutton said (we all know fine people who fled murderous regimes and contributed greatly to this country, and how can anyone steal my job while being too lazy to work?) are the very people who will play down the significance of asylum-seekers or racism generally as real issues: red meat tossed at the excitable lower orders, talked down and away by all thinking people such as we.

Personally, the only animosity I've ever felt towards boat people is these guys; if the various vessels being built in South Australia can fend them off it will be money well spent.

There could not be a better time to let Dutton off the leash, with plenty of time to adjust based upon evidence. The nbn raid rather complicates things, but generally we can expect one of four outcomes:
  • Polls will go heavily (4%+) in the Coalition's way: Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue.
  • Polls don't change: asylum-seeker policy seen as a non-issue.
  • Polls go heavily for Labor: a) Asylum Seekers Took My Baby schlock reinforced as an issue, but Coalition won't know what to do with it and Labor won't believe their luck, and/or b) nbn raid really takes centre stage.
  • Polls don't change much (-/=3%) either way: signal to Coalition will be unclear, but there will be a tsunami of media hype out of all proportion to what the issue really means.
The follow-up polling with Hildebrands will be fascinating. Racists are always called upon to redirect their attention to social services or other class-based issues, and they almost always jeer at the call. Whatever happens, it will be a teachable moment about the reach and appeal of this kind of scare campaign.

Jeez, mate!

Here is yet another dreary piece whining about what evil genius/es CrosbyTextor are/is. Toward the end of the piece there is a mention of how the evil geniuses failed in the London mayoral election, which rather blunts the thrust of the piece. So too does CT's patchy record at state level: since the 1990s Labor has not allowed itself to be outflanked on being seen as "tough on crime", which is pretty much CT's entire gamut of advice at this level.

Read the quote from Johnson again: it is not the consultant, nor the party that is their client, who is to blame for getting their message across. They are doing their job. The 'dead cat' messaging strategy works because the journalists covering it are - despite their much-vaunted experience - not clever enough to anticipate the 'dead cat'. They lack the guts and the sense to call it for the distraction that it is, and to keep their focus on issues of greater currency and relevance.

With 250 members of the Canberra press gallery, supposedly intelligent, diverse, and competitive to a man/woman, you'd think the very essence of savvy would lie in their ability to recognise and resist a blatant and predictable digression.

The very idea that they are helpless (as kittens?) before a 'dead cat' tactic is an indictment of the media, of the value of their experience and nous, and of CrosbyTextor's brothers-and-sisters-from-other-mothers within Labor and other organisations. It is those people who aren't doing their jobs. Digressions and diversions are covered extensively by Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and other strategists who long predate Crosby, Textor, Johnson, and all those who whine about them.

No journalist has any excuse for not being awake to the 'dead cat' manoeuvre. No journalist has any excuse for being sucked in, or doing another piece on how brilliant it is (you don't have to be brilliant to play a press gallery journalists for mugs). Any journalist who thinks they've done their job by describing the dead cat and not looking for the distraction is a fool. Any editor who confuses the 'dead cat' with the story of the day should be boiled in their own piss and then deported. The shame of it is not in planning and executing the manoeuvre, but in the hapless, helpless, and hopeless others who don't know what to do when the inevitable happens.

The real leader of the Liberal Party

Here's what happened: Dutton made his remarks, then however much you may have expected of an earlier version of Malcolm Turnbull, the fact is he endorsed the remarks and Dutton himself. Then, after that, for some reason, Mark Textor came out and backed Dutton.

What would motivate Textor even to comment on an operational campaign matter? Is he wired up to the media through the campaign, like a V8 Supercar driver or a Twenty20 cricketer? He doesn't have a formal role in the Liberal campaign, like Federal Director Tony Nutt. What happened after he spoke, however, was that the debate over Dutton's comments ended. The endorsement of the Prime Minister, the elected leader of the Liberal Party, didn't have that effect. Once Textor had spoken, chatter about whether Dutton had gone too far/not far enough simply stopped. Dutton's remarks were no longer 'a gaffe', but an intrinsic part of the Coalition campaign: tangible and undeniable as a corflute.

Katharine Murphy noted the events but got the analysis the wrong way around:
Presumably my question [about the propriety of Dutton's remarks in the context of the campaign] was impossible to answer before the prime minister set the tone. Given Malcolm Turnbull has backed in Dutton, Textor will now express a view in public.
Turnbull didn't set the tone, he was just another voice among many and the debate continued around him. Textor had the final, closing word in that debate, as a leader does.

A consultant should never make themselves the story - except when they do, and they silence the debate to an extent that neither Dutton or Turnbull can, clearly there is something else going on which Murphy and others have missed.

Former press gallery journalist, Hewson adviser and now ANU academic Norman Abjorensen, notes that neither Abbott nor Turnbull have dominated the Liberal Party as Menzies or Howard had. Crosby and Textor play that core role in the Liberal Party. They determine its strategy, its priorities, and its policy positions in the ways that used to be reserved for party members and/or leaders.

In 2007, John Howard had been a Liberal for half a century, in Parliament for a third of century, and at or near national leadership roles for a quarter of a century - yet he still put his fate in the hands of Crosby and Textor.

Whenever other elements in the Coalition disagree with Crosby and/or Textor, the latter prevail - that wouldn't be the case if they were mere back-office hirelings. Leaders have come and gone in the party organisation and the parliamentary party over the past twenty years, but those guys prevailed amid all the turmoil. No matter who won at any particular time or jurisdiction, they all took advice from Crosby and Textor. They cannot be sacked or backstabbed or shafted or dumped; no politician is so invulnerable. That's power. Turnbull and Dutton and Morrison and the rest of them are in office, but Crosby and Textor are in power.

The Liberal Party has outsourced its core function, which is why it has no compunction doing so to government services.

14 May 2016

Ahead of time

Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.

- Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn
The reason why Malcolm Turnbull opted for such a long campaign is because he has to build his campaign team from scratch.

The team that took the Liberal Party from defeat in 2007 through coming close to winning in 2010 and then regaining office in 2013 has largely remained loyal to Abbott. Most of those who weren't personally loyal to Abbott are just old-school campaign junkies who confuse action with progress, people who get rewarded with staffer jobs but who suck at actual slow-and-steady government.

The Nationals have experienced less of a turnover, but their ranks are full of people who were perfectly happy with Warren Truss, less so with Joyce. Backroom boys and girls always have a tough time with those who see themselves as having the common touch, and who back their own judgments over those of the data-wranglers and those who've watched The West Wing a little too ardently.

Turnbull has always had clever people around him, but there are different kinds of cleverness - people who crunch data on social issues and/or can boil down a fat academic tome on cities or defence into a snappy precis, and engage on the issues just enough with his sharp and well-honed mind. Turnbull uses this to impress journalists and others just how clever he is, which is why the entire press gallery fell so hard for him:
Malcolm Turnbull's standing as the Coalition's great communicator has taken a second hit ...
Well, Michael Gordon, you will keep setting up these straw men. I can see why people thought Hawke was a great communicator, but Turnbull? Where is the proof? He failed at the republic and was unconvincing as both minister for Murray-Darling water and for the national telecommunications system. He's good at close quarters but can't work a crowd, because when has he ever gotten anything from a crowd?
Crowds are noisy, unreasonable and impatient. They can trample you easier than a single person can. And a crowd will never buy you lunch. 
- P.J. O'Rourke Parliament of Whores
Turnbull's people aren't scrappers. They haven't had to fight for much, and being uncouth has counted against them rather than been rewarding, as it was for the Abbotts or Rudds of this world. They aren't particularly loyal to the Liberal Party per se (which is why they are using that Turnbull Australia livery: it means more to their team, such as it is, than that not-quite-retro 1970s-stylised blue 'L'). They don't have any of that 'romance of the road' that enables people to tolerate substandard conditions and upheaval day after day, all those flights and buses and cars and hotels/motels and late nights/early mornings and now Adelaide, now Queensland, now Westensinnyyyyyyyyyyyy ...

That leaves the Liberal Party with Tony Nutt, former Liberal State Director in about four states. Nutt is tough and shrewd; very hard to put anything over him. Nutt is fascinated by marginal seats and targeted campaigning and all that jazz in the way that Turnbull isn't - Abbott wasn't either, but he knew he needed it so he outsourced it to Credlin and Loughnane. Nutt could've been a great minister or a very good CEO. What he can't do is run a national campaign on his lonesome. Nobody can. Turnbull's people are the sort who'd bring plastic cutlery to a knife fight; Nutt would bring a chainsaw, but he can only do so much.

He could commandeer people from the states:
  • There are some good people with impressive track records from NSW who aren't sulking with Abbott, but not many;
  • Victoria is pretty much full of deadshits. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village of idiots to overlook or cover up for someone like Damian Mantach. The IPA are no good at campaigning because their ideas fail on actual contact with humans. Most other operators have had a run-in with Kroger or one of the sub-sub-factional warriors to which he franchises out the hard and dirty work of on-the-ground campaigning, leaving that state run by numbskulls with good people ostracised or confined to the sidelines. Kroger will scream blue murder if a) the second-raters close to him are snaffled by the feds and cruelly exposed in the far provinces beyond Murray's northern bank, or b) those who have incurred his disfavour get opportunities from the feds that he would deny them.
  • Queensland. I mean, I ask you. Blowing the biggest electoral majority this side of Iran in three years really is apocalyptically stupid (even worse than Victoria above). None of those people have much to offer their local municipality, let alone the nation; the few exceptions are rusted onto Barnaby, even though he has racked off to NSW. That places more weight than is wise upon James McGrath, the man who went to London and ensured that Boris Johnson left no political legacy whatsoever - and who would do the same to Turnbull, vastly overestimating coded appeals to racism and other lame shit like that.
  • South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Territories? No, no, no, no, no. Everyone with ambition and capability has gotten the hell out of there.
Turnbull would have crashed with a traditional thirtysomething-day election campaign. It doesn't matter that he cancelled a street walk in Penrith, or lunched at a gentlemen's club in Melbourne, and no amount of traditional media hype can make it matter seven weeks from now.

Note what happened to Labor in 2010 after Rudd's 2007 campaign team fragmented. Some sat out the usurper (as Abbott's people are doing now), some took the mining industry's lolly; others couldn't quite believe it would be that bad for their side and never lifted beyond second gear, unprepared for Abbott's ferocity. A longer campaign gives the Turnbull government more time for a team to be assembled, and to gel in that mysterious way management theorists and sport coaches wax lyrical about but rarely deliver.

It is not so long that people lose focus. The second of July will be upon us all soon, regardless of our different involvement in this campaign, and the imperative will be on all to make the best of it. Turnbull is backing himself, and others will back him too - whether those people are those the Coalition needs is an open question. Shorten is backing himself, and momentum is as important within campaign teams as it is to the public beyond them.

Everyone's agile and innovative when they've got a rocket up them - or they flame out. Now you can see why the Liberals are like that with regard to workplace relations.

Peta Credlin was a member of Turnbull's staff in 2008, and it's fair to say that her efforts then and since have put Turnbull where he is today. If Nutt and Turnbull manage to build a team that comes together and fires at the right time, she will be both nasty and pathetic at the same time, like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz after being doused with water*. If not, she'll simply sigh at the Coalition's stumbles and diagnose every problem with "not enough Tony".

This is why "campaign trail journalism" is so lame and such bullshit:
  • Firstly, Tim Crouse belled that cat in 1972, and since then this sub-genre has never been bettered or redeemed.
  • Secondly, Australian journalists do not have the feel for local communities that older-style US journalists had. Regional and suburban journalism has been all but wiped out in Australia, and it was rarely a first step for national journalists as it was in the US or UK. Campaign-trail journalists waft in off the bus and make half-witted, shallow observations about communities, which discredits those media outlets for paying customers who live in them ("if they're wrong about our community, what else are they wrong about? Why are we watching this?"), to which news directors respond by making each successive campaign more and more vacuous.
  • Thirdly, who appointed the media the "on message" police? When Duncan Storrar or Melinda ask about educational and employment opportunities, they're not going "off message" - they're trying to relate life in Australia as they know it to life in Australia as politicians would describe it. Politicians need to relate to voters, and vice versa: the media are meant to be the conduit for this, not to get in the way or pretend the dialogue is about something else. Party hacks have an imperative to be "on message" - that's their job, not the journalists', and not members of the public who are the point of every election. To hell with "on message", and to hell with the fewer than a thousand people across the nation who overestimate its importance.
  • Fourth, cross-continental smirking while waiting for someone to gaffe is tiresome, and fatal to the engagement media organisations crave for survival and relevance. Journalists become mobile jukeboxes of cliches, idly wondering if there are enough such cliches to keep them going for two months. There aren't, of course. The reason why press gallery journalism sucks so hard is because they sit around Canberra for two-and-a-half years ignoring actual policy and governing and stuff, wishing they were on the campaign trail; and when on the campaign trail, they half-heartedly complain about the shallowness of it all, without admitting that they couldn't do policy if they tried. Their political cliches are exhausted before the writs have been issued. The engagement media organisations need for their very survival becomes swamped by the apathy they themselves have engendered.
  • Fifth, you can't explain why Shorten and Labor are competitive without reference to policy. Given that Shorten hasn't had a charisma transplant, vacuous non-policy theatre-review analysis simply can't and won't work. Coverage of policy is done better off the campaign trail than on it (wtf does "tapdance a little faster" really mean, and would anyone with more than 10 minutes' experience of politics honestly believe more hype and stunts would improve anything?).
  • Sixth, for media organisations looking to cut costs, two months of junkets to produce audience-repellent content is unsustainable. The 'romance of the road' leads to in-jokes and inability to communicate with those who weren't there at the time; which is everyone, and that defeats the very idea of journalism. Everything you had wanted, or will want, to say about the 'romance of the road' has been done in this song - thanks anyway. The major parties are increasingly creating their own content and are happy to provide it direct to the newsroom for free (no Alice, staffers are not playing journalist, they are working to replace you and you are helping them).
Turnbull needs a long campaign to build his team, which will by necessity be a different team to the one he (kind of) inherited from Abbott. If it works for Turnbull he'll have a new team for government, one that will carry on into 2019. If not, he can walk away knowing he did his best, leaving others to piece together what it means to be a Liberal in this century: a bit of Abbott rage and resentment here, a magazine cover of the royal family there, a tax cut - maybe something can be cobbled together from all those broken bits, who knows.

Shorten is a long-game player, a quality not seen since Howard or Rudd and not fully understood even by experienced journalists. Paul Kelly described Shorten as "sharper and crisper" than Turnbull, which would be great if the alternative Prime Minister was a white wine. This election can only be understood with regard to policy: Labor have more of it, and it is more consistent, than that of the government. This "out of the blocks faster" crap, or oenological metaphors, defeat the fundamental task of journalism: to explain what is going on, and why it matters. Traditional political journalism isn't good enough for this campaign. Everyone who thinks it might be is wrong, even if they've backed themselves like Turnbull and Shorten have.

Journalists could have a closer look at Labor policy, but that won't be done from the back of a hall in a marginal seat. They could have a closer look at government policy too, and Turnbull will try to work out a way to razzle-dazzle and bamboozle them as he has in the past. Having begun his working life at the feet of an old-school media mogul, he assumes vox media vox populi, which journalists of his vintage and journalism educators take as gospel. I don't think he is right about that, but when it comes to politics and the not-quite-dead press gallery I've been wrong before - or maybe just ahead of my time.

Update: credit to [$] Laura Tingle and Lenore Taylor, two of the better journalists in the press gallery, who have each come to question the ongoing value of campaign trail journalism.


* While it's true that women in public life ought not be regarded as witches as a general rule, Peta Credlin's systematically misogynistic (e.g. "ditch the witch") campaign against Julia Gillard puts her in breach of one of the iron laws of Australian politics: What's Sauce For The Goose Is Sauce For The Gander (as amended from time to time).

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.