20 November 2016

Trumped part I: America's gimp

Australian foreign policy has changed profoundly in the past few weeks, more so than at any time since 1942 - but with the important difference that the current Commonwealth government seems at a loss for how to deal with it.

Our information about what was important to US voters, and how they might use that information to choose their President and Congress, was poor. The government has sources of information that go beyond the traditional media, such as an Ambassador who was a recent member of the Cabinet, and a golf course designer who has done business with the President-Elect. The rest of us, however, are left with this sinking feeling that we've all been had in assuming US voters would head off Trump, and this will get worse as media both deny any culpability and assert an exclusive and indefinite right to misinform us under the guise of reliable, factual, and relevant information.

First, let's go around the media and work out how Australia's relationship with the US and other countries is likely to be changed. Then, let's aim squarely at those Australian media dipsticks trying to crawl from the wreckage of their credibility, and remind them of the conditions under which they are to go forward, if at all. Finally, I want to explore the media's obsession with this idea of the "alt-right", while at the same time failing to examine the idea in any depth.

---

Since US troops were first committed to the battlefields of World War I in 1918, Australians have fought beside them. In World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and other operations besides, Australia has joined US combat aims and suffered losses of blood and treasure. This relationship has shaped the foreign policy behaviour of both countries.

In Australia, it has bred a political monoculture across the governing parties that the US is the guarantor of Australia's political and economic success (and that of other countries, such as Japan or the Philippines) in the Asia-Pacific region. This is supported by a range of institutions, such as the Australia-America Leadership Dialogue or Fulbright Scholarships, which reinforce this relationship. Australians seeking a career in foreign policy, whether partisan (by becoming a member of a political party) or not (by eschewing party politics and following a career in academia or diplomacy), looked to US foreign policy as the star by which all vessels steered.

There is no way of regarding Australia's relationship with the US as anything other than closely intertwined with the broader aims of US foreign policy: outlooks and proposals that might have seen Australia break with the US altogether, or diminished the relationship (e.g. by closing Pine Gap or banning nuclear warship visits) were cast to the fringes of Australian politics and not entertained by serious careerist pragmatic people.

In the US, we have seen a bifurcation between official rhetoric warmly praising our alliance and a sub rosa commentary taking Australian support for granted, verging on contempt. "We think you're an easy lay", recalled Jack Waterford in outlining occasional Australian disagreements within a generally close relationship.

Yesterday we saw the Prime Minister admit that he tried and failed to secure a meeting with Trump, along the lines of Trump's meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. One missed meeting need not have much long-term significance - but it hints at something more foreboding for the relationship, certainly as far as Australia's political monoculture is concerned.

Donald Trump's method of campaigning collapsed the difference between official high-sounding rhetoric and sub rosa contempt in almost every area of policy. While other conservatives were happy to mouth platitudes about freedom and equality while courting bigots through 'dog whistling', Trump was openly racist, sexist, and dismissive of people with disabilities - including veterans. Let's not pretend Trump is different to what he is. Let's have no truck with the fatuous media make-work scheme that is 'the walkback', and apply this pattern - seen throughout this campaign and beforehand - to US-Australian relations into the foreseeable future.

Trump will be openly dismissive of the Turnbull government and of Australia. Trump will openly state that Australia needs the US more than the reverse, and will make demands not even the most craven Washington-phile Australian could support, or even entertain. He and his Administration will be dismissive of the women who are Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence in this government, and of their shadows. Political opponents of the current government will titter at this new scope of failure, but the sheer effrontery will transcend partisanship and go to the regard in which our nation is held.

Nothing transforms a relationship (any sort of relationship) like stripping back the honeyed words and seeing it for what it is. It will be a massive break from the norms of the Australia-US alliance.

US Presidents have hung Australian PMs out to dry from time to time, as collateral damage for broader geostrategic reasons. In 1956, President Eisenhower refused PM Menzies' request to intervene in the Suez Canal crisis because of the US's wider interests in western Asia at the time. In 1972, PM McMahon condemned his political opponent Gough Whitlam for visiting and recognising the People's Republic of China - unaware President Nixon was about to do so, again playing a wider game.

Trump will wrongfoot Turnbull. He will do the same to any other putative Australian PM you might name. This is how the man does deals.

The best way to catch Trump out will be to catch him when he's distracted, as we've seen from his hasty and inadequate settlement of Trump University lawsuits. The current government may well be canny enough to do this - or not.

In his address to the Australian parliament in 2011, President Obama said that the US would be less inclined to unilaterally enforce international rules and norms and called upon allies in the region to do more to support shared aims, and expected allies to step up and share more of the burden. Australia is building warships at a rate never seen before because the US has indicated that it's in our best interest to do so.

Some commentators noted Trump's remarks along similar lines of making allies shoulder more of the military burden that had fallen to the US, and compared his approach to mafia shakedowns - but he was, in his crude way, aligning with bipartisan US policy. None of the Republican candidates Trump defeated in the primaries, certainly not Hillary Clinton and still less Bernie Sanders, were arguing for a Pax Americana where a rules-based global system is set up and enforced by the US military commanded by its President.

Criticism of Trump's rhetoric on this issue is just hype, snobbery, and bullshit: the central flaws of all his opponents' unsuccessful campaigns.

This isn't to normalise Trump. It's to do what the Australian media should have done, but failed to do: take his record and project it forward onto how a Trump administration might treat Australia within its view of the world. Australian journalists observing US politics, whether from Australia or on assignment in the US, tend to avoid original sources of information: they read The New York Times and The Washington Post and other established media outlets, not realising the audience in Australia for US politics can and does access those same sites - and more.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation covered the US election by sending reporters to Washington and having them relay banalities from CNN and Politico, which they could have done from Ultimo or Canberra. Shipping those people all that way gave no additional insight at all (except that ABC News thinks their audience are mugs, and should stop gibbering about resource constraints).

Most of the reasons why this deeply weird man was elected have nothing to do with us. The political class in Australia will hunker down and wait for him to pass, assuming the Democrats can and will come up with a candidate in 2020 that can beat Trump. The hunkering down will mean Australia both misses real opportunities in Trump-led US, and underestimates benefits awaiting us after he goes. They will underestimate the extent to which Trump has and will change the landscape, rendering "back to normal" impossible: there is no normal, there is no back.

Our leaders will not, however, do the hard but necessary work of rethinking the Australia-US relationship from first principles. The information isn't available; the very act of doing so is way outside our Overton Window.

Foreign policy wonks have said for a long time that we are moving from a world where the US calls the shots to a multipolar world, where other powers (e.g. Russia, China, India - maybe the EU if they can hold it together) play an important but not final role, along with the US playing a similar, diminished role. The trick, as they saw it, was to manage the transition peacefully. Part of this managerial assumption was that the people of the US would go along peaceably with their country's diminished role, diminished expectations thing. What else are they wrong about?

Australia will have to operate across a much broader front than they have; there will be fewer (expected, positive) options from Washington and more options from Beijing, Jakarta, Delhi, Lima, Nairobi, Berlin, etc. Politicians can't do this. Big corporates can't do this. "Pragmatic people" will blame everyone but themselves. There will be opportunities through sport or other means that are not directly linked to politics or trade, but which will open opportunities in those areas, which Australian politicians and corporates will miss and whinge about when their passing becomes clear. You won't need an app to disrupt foreign policy. Australians are heading into a time of missed opportunities. Coal and hobbled broadband will hold us back. Traditional media will barely notice.

For all its longueurs and ponderousness, foreign policy moves quickly when needs must. In 1910 Britain was indisputably the world's mightiest power: ten years later it was a whimpering basket-case of debt and pain, and Australian foreign policy (such as it was) didn't cope well then either. In 1941 John Curtin reached out to the USSR as the pre-eminent military power of the time; ten years later Australia's postwar consensus had hardened against the Soviets and the government sought to ban the Communist Party. We are again in such a moment of transition.

Nobody has any grounds for believing that our current ministers or their shadows have what it takes to set the nation on a new course in terms of foreign policy, defence, trade, or anything else involving the US; only hacks will pretend, only fools will believe them.

14 November 2016

The dogs' breakfast

Look, I have a long and winding draft on the US election that I'm still trying to work through, ok? What follows here is a diversion into the politics (and coverage thereof) of my native state of New South Wales, which is ready to go out now. I beg the indulgence of regular readers.

The NSW government committed itself to a significant building program of both public infrastructure and private housing. The departure of Troy Grant as Deputy Premier puts all that in doubt, and the coverage of this misses the point entirely.

In order to pull off an agenda like that, a government needs a nice-guy leader, personable but firm, with an offsider who is a bastard and an enforcer of the steely will the leader never fully shows the public. Everywhere that has successfully pulled off a vast rebuilding program - Haussmann's Paris, Robert Moses' New York, Max Brauer's Hamburg, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, Zhu Rongji's Shanghai - saw a charismatic leader with one or more arm-twisting bastard enforcers to get things done.

Grant was Mike Baird's bastard. A police officer for 22 years, he joined the Nationals and won the seat of Dubbo in 2011 from independent Dawn Fardell. He was a backbencher until Barry O'Farrell resigned in April 2014. Nationals leader Andrew Stoner had bought into the development ethos that had consumed the Liberals, insisting that some of the largesse from electricity sales also go to regional NSW; when Stoner stood down six months after O'Farrell, there was no succession plan. Grant had the numbers to become Nationals leader and Deputy Premier.

Being new to politics did not stop Grant taking advantage. He became Minister for Police, leapfrogging his old colleagues who had avoided being posted to Dubbo. He became Minister for Justice as well, breaching the old protocols where the minister for one could not be minister for the other; he outranked the Attorney General, Gabrielle Upton, whose namby-pamby concerns about due process were swept aside by a copper's pragmatism. He combined this with the ministry of Gaming and Racing, putting him in charge of real power with liquor and pokie licencing - as well as Arts, because hey why not and who else in the government wants to do that? Grant aggregated all this power at a time when the Coalition had a vast backbench, full of apparently talented and hard-working potential ministers.

When Baird wanted to curtail liquor trading hours in the inner city, Grant backed him. Police and health workers cheered the move, but the denizens of the city's bars and clubs hated it - and seemed to have no recourse, not to nice-guy Baird, not to the bastard enforcer Grant.

When Baird resolved to ban greyhound racing in 2015, it was to please the same skittish urban base that had embraced Julia Gillard's ban of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011. A once working-class past-time had been forced from the inner city to the urban fringes and to rural areas that aren't desert, or pricey prime land, or subject to fracking, or too far from traditional greyhound racing centres in Gosford, Dapto, and Wentworth Park. It was never a big industry and had no champions who were big donors with access to the political class. No migrant group embraced it, it attracted few young people, and with a cut to its subsidies and a bit of compensation it might well have been dispatched into history with its ageing adherents. Grant backed him, and developed the legal and policy mechanisms to make it happen.

As with urban planning or electricity sales, the consultation was broad, but firm; the government isn't backing down on this, but by all means let's talk and money will be available. The legislation passed, and the machinery whirred into action.

If greyhound racing didn't matter, it didn't matter if the ban was overturned. Nobody was asking Baird to go back on something big and important, like WestConnex. By championing greyhound racing, Alan Jones emboldened conservatives who needed votes from lower-income earners and helped them to an easy, low-consequence win over the powers-that-be grinding through the big projects. Jones gives most governments free rein but he expects them to kowtow when he jerks the chain, seemingly at random, whether the issue is large or small. Baird saved his government with the backflip, even if he lost the sky-high ratings a Sydney politician needs to brush off Alan Jones.

Baird didn't want to look like either the bad guy or a backflipper; Grant, who had put the anti-greyhound mechanisms in place, had to undo broad and careful planning and write off the compensation. Labor embraced the greyhound cause for the same cynical reasons Barry O'Farrell used against electricity privatisation in 2008, ending the career of then-Premier Morris Iemma and sending the Labor government into a death spiral. The Orange byelection, brought on when state MP Andrew Gee went to Canberra, came when Grant was exposed and vulnerable.

The trouble with sweeping aside protocols and niceties to make big things happen is that you have to bring people with you. Grant had successively alienated long-standing members of the Nationals such as Katrina Hodgkinson and serial boofhead Andrew Fraser. The Orange byelection is an excuse for getting rid of Grant, not the hill he chose to die on. Grant did not have Baird's residual nice-guy image, nor the depth of experience within the Nationals to smooth ruffled feathers. Hodgkinson and Kevin Humphries had been dumped as ministers, in a party not exactly replete with talent and which needs to have its best members tackling the Liberals, Independents and other forces threatening the party's very existence. Grant's country copper instincts, to start with a chat but end with a boot up the arse if needed, had gone so far but no further.

Grant rose like a rocket and fell like a stick, at which I neither mourn nor revel. I never imagined we'd have a Deputy Premier named Troy; I just assumed it was unconstitutional or otherwise unfeasible. It will be interesting to see what happens now:
  • Apparently the new Nationals leader will be John Barilaro, who like Baird comes across as a nice guy and not at all an arse-kicker like Grant.
  • As Vocational Education minister, Barilaro had his run-ins with Education Minister Adrian Piccoli; we'll see how things change when the difference in seniority between these two men is reversed.
  • Interesting to see who becomes the new Police Minister, a source of real power vastly underestimated in state politics. Will the Liberals bring back Mike Gallacher, or is it too soon? Is he content to join the Liberal Right's factional silly-buggers over preselections, angling for a Federal role?
  • Will the Attorney-General be able to reassert due process over the new minister(s) for police and justice?
  • What of the regulation of liquor, pokies - or greyhounds, for that matter?
  • Will the momentum of big road, rail and other "once in a lifetime" infrastructure projects stall?
  • Will arts funding (increasingly important to the sector since federal cuts) stay close to the city's elite, or be dispersed by a new minister from far beyond?
  • In Dubbo, Grant had learned to speak Wiradjuri. No other NSW government minister, apart from Linda Burney and some 19th-century Renaissance men, learned an Aboriginal language.
  • Imagine Andrew Gee regarding his old seat, in the heart of his federal electorate, that has registered a 30% swing against the Nationals. Gee had entered state parliament in 2011 as Grant had, but never became a minister. He has joined a government less popular than Baird's, with a Nationals leader more cunning but less capable than Grant. No federal MP is safe from a 30% swing.
  • Speaking of people considering their future - Grant has been forced out of the Deputy Premiership and faces the undoing of two years of work. Why should he stick around until the next election (in 2019)? His seat of Dubbo adjoins that of Orange, with similar demographics and issues ...
Apart from the prospect of a byelection in Dubbo and a bit of soft-soap work on Barilaro, NSW political journalists haven't started on any of the above issues. NSW politics has been reshaped almost as profoundly as New Zealand's South Island. Grant was significant enough, in less than five years, to leave a vacuum in his wake. State political rounds should be across all of those issues and plenty more, yet they've just clustered around the same set of talking points which make no difference to anyone but the journalists themselves.

03 November 2016

When zombies attack, again

You hear the door slam and realise there's nowhere left to run
You feel the cold hand and wonder if you'll ever see the sun
You close your eyes and hope that this is just imagination
But all the while you hear the creature creepin' up behind
You're out of time ...


- Michael Jackson Thriller
It was appropriate that Tony Abbott should lunge for public attention at Halloween, when the dead make their presence felt without offering the wisdom of their experience, when children extort for lollies.

By contrast, Sean Kelly wrote a rather good piece on why putting Abbott back into Cabinet might not be a good idea from a political point of view. It's hard to disagree with any of that, but let's look at how the media covers this sort of thing, and how useful they are at showing us how we are governed.

Abbott and Indigenous Affairs

Abbott thought that he'd like to be Indigenous Affairs Minister. He didn't say why; he didn't say what he could do that the incumbent Minister, Senator Scullion, couldn't do or hasn't yet done.

We live in a time when a large and diverse number of Aboriginal Australians can and do mix it with political and other leaders in articulating the wishes and needs of their people. Previous generations of Indigenous leaders, from Bennelong to Geoff Clark, could articulate the problems Indigenous people faces but could not deal with the complexities of Anglo-Australian government sufficiently to secure the lasting outcomes that they wanted.

When Abbott was Prime Minister he seemed to acknowledge only Warren Mundine and/or Noel Pearson as Indigenous leaders. He had only platitudes to offer on violence, incarceration, lack of economic opportunities, early death rates, and other issues articulated by Indigenous people themselves. Consider Tom Calma's denigration of both Scullion and Abbott on Indigenous policy, and how such a knowledgeable and nuanced examination will have no impact whatsoever on the reporting of Indigenous issues by the non-Indigenous press gallery. Yet, the press gallery as one remains convinced that Abbott has a passion for Indigenous issues - and being stupid people, no actual evidence from beyond the press gallery poses any danger of changing their minds. They are stuck on the idea that Abbott has a genuine passion for Indigenous issues.

(c) The Australian

Consider what is going on in this cartoon. What sort of people don't acknowledge their own children? How can such people exercise sovereignty over land, or deny others access to economic resources in it? How can such people even act in their own interests, let alone those of others or the land itself? When ill Leak and his supporters insist this cartoon is 'true', they are arguing for defeatism in good-faith dealings with Indigenous people, and a continuation of a situation where it is best for non-Indigenous people to act in the best interests of such broken people.

Tony Abbott has been more critical of his own sister than of any output of the Murdoch press. Abbott's support base in the Liberal Party are those who want to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, of which the above cartoon is probably in breach for its sheer absence of good faith. Abbott cannot claim to have any sort of commitment toward Indigenous people so long as he has no opinion on the bad faith of Leak and his supporters.

This isn't a matter of culture war garbage that places Leak and his supporters at the centre of their own melodrama. This goes to the issue of Abbott's good faith in dealing with issues raised by Indigenous people, which matter to them. It goes to the reliability of the press gallery notion that Abbott has a real and deep commitment to Indigenous issues - and that the sheer force of this belief has real political consequences in terms of policy outcomes, if not the shape of the government itself.

It is genuinely pathetic that The Sydney Morning Herald can only represent this story as a spat between Tony and Nige. At least the threat to Scullion's job, however feeble, piqued his interest. Conflict in politics is a given and does nothing to attract readers. Framing this story to such a degree of dumbness so the journalist understands it does not make for a popular, well-read article capable of supporting ad revenue.

Abbott and Defence

A week before the election, Abbott pulled a similar trick - this time with the Defence Minister, Senator Payne, using the same extortionate lines about healing the rift and loyalty. Again, there was no wider discussion about Australian defence policy more broadly, nor any specifics about what Payne might have done badly or well; so much for coverage of government by an experienced press gallery.

Nobody in the press gallery has linked Abbott's latest shot (at Scullion) with his prior one on Payne. Nobody seems awake to the idea that Abbott might try and pick off the Cabinet one by one in a similar manner, or that such behaviour (a week before an election!) makes nonsense of any claims Abbott may have to being a stable, team player.

Presumably because he was interviewed by an experienced military officer, Abbott declined to repeat the Defence thing at Halloween or explain why he abandoned such an ambition.

A waste of talent

Oh, please.

Abbott was an indifferent minister, and shirked any notion of responsibility between what he said before the 2013 election and what he did afterwards. His pronouncements on foreign policy should be viewed in light of his stated aim of a Jakarta-centred foreign policy, scuppered by having to leave a meeting with the actual President of Indonesia in order to console his chief of staff, freaking out at the sheer extent to which she and he were out of their depth. To play up the importance of Abbott pronouncements means you have to forget what he was like - to set aside the very experience press gallery claim is valuable in covering politics.

When former prime minister Malcolm Fraser commented on issues like Australia's relationship to the United States, or treatment of asylum-seekers, nobody was more dismissive than Tony Abbott. When Paul Keating criticised the foreign policy of the Howard government it was Abbott, with no foreign policy experience, who was trotted out to provide a countervailing quote for journalists.

One of the funniest aspects of press gallery journalism in recent times was to see Peter van Onselen carry the flag for disgruntled Liberals who leaked to him. Every six months or so in the first half of this decade, van Onselen rehashed the same article that the government would be so much better off with the promotion of his pals Kelly O'Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg, or Christian Porter. Well, all of those people are in Cabinet now, and the government and nation are scarcely better off.

To see the proper treatment of former prime minister Abbott, let's look to the former prime minister he most resembles: Billy McMahon. McMahon hung around for ten years after his defeat as Prime Minister. He made the odd pronouncement which was of no value to anyone, including the press gallery at the time and even himself. Fraser awarded him and Gorton the sparkly bauble of Knight of the Grand Cross of St Michael and St George; Gorton took the hint and retired, McMahon did not. His electorate became a festering sump of right-wing Liberals; when he finally retired they lost the byelection.

Liberals in Warringah (Abbott's electorate) tend to be a rabble, led by the kind of disruptive right-wingers who look up to someone like Abbott. In 1998 I was a preselector for the state seat of Manly; the Liberals who lived outside the area were more serious about winning the seat for the party than those who lived there, which is why a) they didn't and b) I gave up on them. If Turnbull wanted to reform the Liberal Party, rather than just being its frontman, he would cultivate a potential candidate who would work the fiercely parochial electorate and its branches, with a view to challenging and beating Abbott at preselection. Instead, he abandons local branches to clowns who will come to repel local voters at a time when the Liberals will need all the votes they can get.

Wyatt Roy is more likely to become a Liberal cabinet minister than Abbott is to return.

When zombies attack!

Next time Abbott resurfaces, realise that his cry for "Brains! Brains!" identifies what he lacks, rather than what he has to offer. If press gallery experience means anything, its denizens should have their wooden stakes and garlic ready; better than being just another credulous screamer.

Next time political-class tragic Cate McGregor offers an opinion on defence policy, or cricket, or anything really - recall her piece on Abbott and Indigenous affairs (no I won't link to it) and wonder what her judgment is worth.

Never mind the pantomime, just tell us what is going on. If nothing much is going on, say so; stop pretending bullshit is a big deal, otherwise people won't believe you when you do have something worth saying.

01 November 2016

Proof of life

I got legs I can walk
All the way down the dirt track
I fell down, I got up
I turned around then I walked back

I walked to the sea
I stood there and looked for a sign
It took time but it came
I added up and took what was mine


- The Cruel Sea Better get a lawyer
The fantasy that Malcolm Turnbull is a moderate liberal and a wise and effective leader is held dear by many in the press gallery, despite an absence of evidence. While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the fact is that skill in business is not the same as the political skill of being able to move large numbers of people with you. Recent events have put the government in a position where Turnbull must demonstrate his reaching-out skills to a group of people who have good reason to be ticked off with him and his government, but who are not implacably opposed like, say, building workers.

Now is the time for Turnbull to demonstrate the common touch his supporters insists he has in spades.

The Attorney-General, George Brandis, has clearly failed. Every announcement by the government must be questioned for its legality and its vulnerability to judicial challenge, which makes confidence in government impossible and hampers the ability to work with/around it. Respected lawyers such as Gillian Triggs or Justin Gleeson can't work with him, the sniggering from the nation's lawyers that greeted his appointment has hardened into contempt, and the nation is both less secure and less free due to his tweaks to the law. It's too early even for a blogger to comment on Senator Day, who knew what when and did or did not act, etc.

Insidery insider journalism intimates that Turnbull is displeased with Brandis, but so what? The difference between that and him not being displeased is not readily apparent, or even explicable by those who draw salaries on the assumption that they understand politics and government well enough to explain it to the rest of us.

Paddy Manning described those of us who couldn't see how his skillset translated to politics as 'haters'. If you have some idea about politics, and have seen a number of occupants of the Prime Minister's office come and go, it doesn't mean that you hate Turnbull to say that he isn't up to the job and probably never was. It means that you have some respect for the office and its role in the country's governance, and that you measure occupants and aspirants against that - and that you are right to insist that coverage of politics apply similar measures.

If you believe in Moderate Malcolm, an effective operator who contrasts sharply with the ditherer and bumbler before us, it's time for proof. Let us see in objective reality how moderate and effective Turnbull can be.

It might be too much to ask to expect Turnbull to tackle vast wicked problems that have beset Australia for decades, if not fundamental flaws: the place of Indigenous people in modern Australia, say, or the tax system, or housing. If it's bare competence we're testing here, something intrinsic to Turnbull, then let's see how he reaches out to people he should know and be comfortable with.

Malcolm Turnbull was a barrister in the 1980s. As a businessman he engaged the nation's leading commercial lawyers. As leader of the Australian Republican Movement he sought far-reaching change to the Constitution. He should be able to relate to lawyers. Many of them are his constituents. They are, if you pardon the lapse into sociological theory, members of his socio-economic class. If he can't reach out to the legal community what reaching-out and problem-solving skill do you imagine he might have?

Turnbull needs to reach out to leading lawyers and assure them they need not fear their careers or important legal principles being subject to the whims and caprices of George Brandis (or George Christensen, for that matter). He needs to secure the confidence of well-respected, capable lawyers to take key legal roles, and shield them from political interference - which is traditionally the role of the Attorney-General, more breached than observed by the incumbent and in no way honoured. Personally, I'm not confident Turnbull can do this; but I've been wrong before.

George Brandis used to be besties with Senator Brett Mason, another Queensland Liberal lawyer but regarded more highly than Brandis. When the two fell out it was Mason who was shunted off to an embassy in Europe. Perhaps Mason can be prevailed upon to return. It shouldn't be hard to get the LNPQ to endorse him again, and he can do some politico-legal heavy lifting while Brandis does something harmless but within his competence, like cocktails with Geert Wilders.

If Malcolm Turnbull can reach out to the legal community and get them to work with him on reforms he and they see as important, it augurs well for the country's legal system and its ability to operate independently of the party in power at any given time. It shows that Turnbull boosters were right, to however limited an extent, to judge him as a wise and capable leader with the better interests of the nation at heart, with a vision that extends beyond the media cycle.

If Turnbull cannot reach out to the legal community, if their distance and discomfort harden into suspicion and even hostility, if their leading members continue to become chew toys for politicians not good enough to be ministers, then those who thought Malcolm Turnbull might be an effective Prime Minister have a lot of answering to do - particularly if they and their employers continue to assert the soundness and experience of their political judgment and reportage.

25 October 2016

Politics beyond Canberra

The reason why the press gallery sucks so hard at reporting on politics isn't just because they largely shirk the detail of legislative and policy changes that affect us all (and that their editors can't be bothered hiring articulate specialists). It's because they think they can just sit in Canberra and all the politics comes to them; and that if it doesn't come to them, it isn't really politics.

They look at things like young people being unable to afford houses or legally questionable detention, or anything beyond Canberra really, and wait for it to be raised in a committee or on the floor of one of the houses, whereupon it becomes a Political Issue and can thus be Framed and Reported On by the press gallery using one of its few allowable tropes, and quickly dropped once they all agree on what the next story is, and how to Frame and Report On that.

Let's look at two political issues that emanated far beyond Parliament House, which bounced around inside that building and were frankly misreported - not by rookies, but by two Political Editors, no less. Their insistence that political issues are only political when they happen inside Parliament, and that they own them once they do, actually inhibits their understanding and their ability to report on those issues - including to people with more direct experience than they.

Mark Kenny and same-sex marriage

In this piece, Mark Kenny decided that he owned same-sex marriage as a political issue.

Kenny didn't put the issue of delaying same-sex marriage to the skilled lobbyists and other tacticians who forestalled the proposed plebiscite on the issue. A quote from someone leading the campaign, a quote from a disgruntled person who might have to wait years to marry their partner in Australia, and it could have demonstrated both basic courtesy and journalistic skill on Kenny's part toward those whose stake in this issue is much more direct than his.

It is a journalistic imperative to want this issue "off the table" so that journalists can apply their ignorant and facile takes to other issues. Conservatives in the government who do not wish to change the status quo are playing to this imperative when they insist that throwing out the bathwater of the plebiscite inevitably means discarding the baby of same-sex marriage.
What's more, this correspondent was advancing the arguments for marriage equality back when it was routinely brushed off by the major parties as a boutique concern of the inner-city latte set – something even Abbott stopped arguing last year.

And this advocacy came, by the way, well before the Labor party, unlikely hero of the latest pyrrhic victory, finally showed the gumption to campaign against an unconscionable legal discrimination.
The campaign for same-sex marriage has been a slow and patient one, an exercise in how to bring about substantive change in a democracy. The campaign has focused on the grass roots: letter-writing campaigns, peaceful demonstrations, meetings with MPs in their electorates, things Mark Kenny would not know about because they took place far from Parliament. It appears to have been modelled on the 1951 campaign against banning the Communist Party, where a tiny minority had their basic rights vindicated in the face of a massive scare campaign. It also draws from the LGBTIQ community's slow and patient campaigns to decriminalise male-to-male sex, to recognise HIV-AIDS as a real and important public health issue.

To find out what's going on, listen to and read first-person accounts by frustrated same-sex couples. They seem more concerned that same-sex marriage be enacted properly, by procedural means and legislative end, rather than the quick-and-dirty political solutions that Mark Kenny and the gallery pass lightly over and then consign to the fishwrappers, or the hue and cry of a plebiscite that might give back to the bigots the privilege of equal time that the workings of a polite and evolving society has denied them.

But to recognise all that, Kenny would have to acknowledge political activity emanating from outside Canberra, and that the activity within parliament follows rather than leads the wider community. He just couldn't do it. On his Twitter feed and in a subsequent article, Kenny continues to assert a non-existent right to be free of criticism, batting away calm and reasonable explanations and representing any/all such criticism as intemperate and misplaced.

He's even failed as a reporter:
Despite its obviously self-serving nature – denied publicly but acknowledged privately by senior Labor figures ...
Name them, go on. If they're so self-serving, if you're so committed to this issue, you'll call them out and let them take their chances with public debate ... no? What, you're going to privilege your insider status instead? Yeah, that'd be right.

Not only is Kenny boneheaded in thinking that his turf is the be-all-and-end-all of Australian politics, he's not even right about the Liberal Party. He seems to regard the statements of the government as fixed for all time, and that the stated position now is going to be the position next week and next year and into the next term of parliament and yea verily unto the end of time. That isn't how politics works. It isn't even how this government works. Mark Kenny, Politics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, has no idea how politics works.

Sabre-rattling is all very well - but sooner or later you have to put it to the test.

Conservatives are going to have to roll (and be seen to have rolled) Malcolm Turnbull on a particular issue to show their clout is real and not just hot air. This is what's happened in NSW, where popular Mike Baird was brought down a peg on greyhound racing.

Moderates are going to have to roll (and be seen to have rolled) conservatives on some issue in order to demonstrate their value - that of providing the winning edge that keeps the Coalition in government (see the next section for further discussion on this). Same-sex marriage is as good a battlefield as any - it is infinitely closer to being realised than, say, neutering section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Politicians shift position on the basis of polls, or unforeseen events (e.g. the Port Arthur massacre that led Howard to ban semi-automatic weapons, or the refugee vessel that foundered at Christmas Island in 2012 and led Labor to reintroduce mandatory detention of asylum-seekers) which support one narrative over another. Someone in Mark Kenny's position should know this.

There are two types of people who confuse politicians' declamatory statements with fixed positions: partisans and dills. Mark Kenny is no partisan. He is, however, the official bunny of this blog.

Kenny's assumption that the government's position on this issue is fixed for all time is ridiculous. If John Howard could change his mind on a GST, if he could accept the relative moderation necessary to pass the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and then reverse it with WorkChoices, then the sheer silliness of assuming the government's position on this issue is fixed becomes apparent. I needn't take you through the backflips and evasions of this government since 2013 - indeed, I could do so solely by reference to Mark Kenny articles, where he dutifully quotes Abbott or some other member of the government saying one thing and then dutifully reports outcomes opposite to what was said, with no reflection on the value of those direct quotes.

We live in times of great uncertainty, where old certainties no longer hold and where we are implored to be agile and innovative in order to survive. If you can't cope with the idea that same-sex marriages codify actual relationships, and that they can be as valid as any secular marriage, then your credentials on reform and open-mindedness and agility and so on more broadly are tarnished. To be fair to Kenny, he does recognise same-sex marriage as valid; and insofar as it matters he came around to that position well before I did.

What Kenny has not done is tie notions of open-mindedness, pragmatic reality, and flexibility on this social issue (same-sex marriage) to the government's rhetoric on agility and flexibility in other issues (e.g. tax and other economic reforms). Whitlam and Keating were the only Prime Ministers in recent history to insist that flexibility and reform should apply to economic and non-economic issues, and that artistic and economic creativity would flourish as a result; there was some hope that Turnbull might have similar vision but that hope was misplaced.

Mark Kenny trails dolefully around Canberra behind his wife, a doyenne of Canberra's cultural scene (stop laughing, it does so have one), from flower show to film screening like some dimwitted vice-regal consort. He seems not to have learned the necessity to link the open-mindedness that comes from same-sex marriage with artistic and economic activity or with reform and flexibility more broadly, and to judge politicians' words and deeds against such a standard. Why argue with a dimwit, same-sex marriage advocates? Like conservatives, Mark Kenny thinks same-sex marriage is all about him, and his understanding of politics isn't that great anyway.

Katharine Murphy and NSW Liberal 'chaos'

Kenny's counterpart at Guardian Australia, Katharine Murphy, clutched her pearls in this belated observation that factional tensions in the NSW Liberals spill over into Parliament.
In 20 years of political reporting, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Oh, please.

If you like the feel of fine wool and/or the taste of juicy steak then it behoves you - at least once in your life - to go to the saleyard, the shearing shed, and the abattoir so you can see and hear and smell those dumb dirty beasts sweat and shit and piss and fuck, knowing at some fundamental level that they're doomed. You just don't understand politics if you regard it as a performance put on in Australia's best-subsidised performance spaces for your entertainment and review. You can't report on it properly from that vantage point: what do they know of Canberra who only Canberra know?

To understand politics and politicians, you need to go to their political bases, and see how they work them; part of that includes the use of parliament in order to further political agendas beyond parliament, something that fries the tiny minds of the press gallery. Bronwyn Bishop regularly denounced real and imagined opponents within the Liberal Party in Hansard, but the press gallery ignored her because they didn't understand the factional issues. Just as they do with policy nuances that escape them, they write off factional tussles as just more "argy-bargy", a framing designed to avoid engagement with issues and to treat the conflict as somehow exciting or unusual when it is neither.
Abbott v Turnbull is not just politicians being politicians – two testosterone-fuelled bulls stomping in a paddock – this is an identity struggle, and a multi-pronged one. Even as the Turnbull government exhibits signs of getting its act together organisationally, and practically – it remains riven by factional differences and philosophical ones.
Right, and those differences don't come from within Canberra. They come from within the NSW Liberals. The ebb and flow of factional power is pretty standard; I was an active member between 1986 and 2000 and those sorts of spats used to happen fairly often during that time, and it need surprise no-one that they continue. Every Liberal MHR and Senator - people known to Katharine Murphy and Mark Kenny - every one of them is there as the result of factional game-playing. Even the ones who disdain factionalism are there, directly or indirectly, because of some factional stitch-up or cock-up. As party membership has dropped, those who remain have doubled down in their commitment; and those who sit in Canberra are acutely aware they are there only because they have mastered the game at the local branch level, and within the State Division that sends them there.

Liberals in NSW are arguing over the very mechanism by which candidates are selected and sent to parliament. If you change the rules of the game, then those who had mastered the game are masters no longer. Those who might not have realised their parliamentary ambitions under the old system may appear under the press gallery's noses under the new, and vice versa. There are limits to which even churchy conservatives will apply biblical teachings to politics, and Matthew 20:16 is one of those.

It applies across the board: I have no experience in Labor politics but I understand that certain unions are stalwarts of particular factions and closer to some MPs than others. Greens internal politics is an absolute mystery, not least because the media is the last place you'd go to for information on that. With libertarians, any two of them (in or out of parliament) will represent at least five factions.

I understand these things because I don't believe, contra Murphy and Kenny and their mouth-breathing colleagues in the press gallery, that all politics happens in Canberra.

Murphy's insistence that NSW turmoil stay in NSW is absurd, and so is the (unflattering) comparison with Rudd-Gillard tensions. Isn't parliament designed to air and thrash out political issues? All those Pinteresque cold silences and unconvincing banalities of "getting on with the job", dumbly reported, created the perception that politicians and journalists aren't telling us the full story - which leads to votes and circulation heading south, which worries journalists and politicians so much that they dare not depart from the behaviours that got them into that predicament. What's with all this creeping about behind the Speaker's chair, all these unnamed sources and double negatives ("people not unsympathetic to Abbott")? How's that working for ya?

Michelle Grattan prizes neatness in politics, with one side over here and the other over there, with as much bipartisanship as possible and never mind what is actually being debated. There's more to our political differences than tidy parliamentary practice vs untidiness. It isn't so long ago that the press gallery found Abbott's untidiness thrilling ("best opposition leader ever"). What option does he have but to return to his folly, particularly when the press gallery has forgotten what his Prime Ministership was like and won't call him on his antics? Why not go to the country's biggest city and see how his adolescent behaviour plays among those who once applauded him at set-piece campaign events - people who know him and other pollies better than you do? Why act surprised at the very behaviour that brought him to your attention?

Murphy's taxonomy on 'conservatives' and 'moderates' is meaningless. We've seen how 'conservative' policy disrupted our social fabric, making both jobs and welfare and other assumptions by which Australian society works insecure and inoperable. We've seen how 'moderates' failed to moderate those excesses, or even address substantive issues about people's roles in society and Australia's place in the world. John Howard showed that conservatives could win and win again by being unabashedly conservative, and that the moderates could survive only as passengers with conservatives in both wheelhouse and engine-room; he reshaped the Liberal Party from the branches to the federal parliamentary leadership.

Don't give me any of your crap about 'moderate lobbyists' when you see who's on the payroll of Gina "She Who Must Be Obeyed" Rinehart, or those shadowy ecclesiastical cabals trying to thwart both same-sex marriage and the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse.

Turnbull thinks he can revert the party to its pre-Howard days (centrists get more attention to keep the party in power, conservatives get tossed a bit of raw meat occasionally) from the top, and he's wrong. That said, it was a masterstroke to align with Mike Baird in kicking the voting-rights issue down the road. There was no way the Liberal membership would have shirtfronted their state and federal leaders: had they done so, that would have been chaos. It would have put the Liberals into the predicament the UK Labour Party is in, where the moderates were discredited and those cleaving to nostalgia would repel swinging voters, further discrediting the moderates and strengthening the nostalgics, etc.

But to see these things, we need to see politics as something that happens beyond Canberra. If you live your life beyond Canberra then you can see how issues affect Canberra, and how decisions made in Canberra affect those of us beyond Canberra; press gallery can only perceive this stuff through polls and anecdotes, and then only dimly. Press gallery journalists pride themselves on bringing the context, but they don't understand politics or policy until it's spoon-fed to them by someone in that house on the hill. And when you call them out for their slanted reporting, they'll protest their source is impeccable and bristle at the very idea of having been played.

During elections the press gallery travels to set-piece events beyond Canberra, with politicians they see every day in Canberra. You might see them come to a school or shopping centre near you. You can puncture the fantasy that the press gallery reports to you simply by observing how they trample your friends and neighbours, and tell you to piss off from your own community when you laugh at their inane questions, or demonstrate their rugged diversity and competitiveness by agreeing the angle they'll report on is not what you've seen. The very idea that they might tell you about your marriage or assert a monopoly on political understanding that they simply lack, is risible and pathetic.

It isn't just politics. Art isn't engaging us either, and Jane Howard admits that art journalism is inadequate because it fails the public. The institutionalised nature of political journalism, and its focus on politicians rather than enduring effects of their actions, means that Murphy and Kenny dare not question it at the level that Jane Howard does - let alone come to the same conclusion. They would be relieved if Australian voters, taxpayers, and citizens did not want to engage with that conversation right now.

The press gallery are proud and dumb and insular, and draw more comfort from their herd than is wise. They are struck mute or babble at events that don't surprise anyone who has been paying attention. When (If?) you turn to political journalism to anticipate the developments that affect us in our lives, the press gallery can't really provide meaningful explanation or assistance. If they can't provide meaningful explanation or assistance, there is no reason to buy their employers' product (or that of their sources, for that matter). But you can't tell them: that would be broadcasting reflux. They tell you, remember? Why won't you just listen, listen to them? What's wrong with you?

21 October 2016

Under the gun

Tony Abbott is niggling at Malcolm Turnbull again, and much of the press gallery have reported this in terms of its impact on the Turnbull government's agenda. There are three things to consider here, and all of them go to the question of the very point of political reporting and a press gallery.

Firstly, the press gallery seems to value process over product. It likes calm, orderly passage of legislation through both houses, with banal and brief set-piece debates and preferably bipartisanship among the majors; if not, a minimum of mystifying horse-trading in the Senate might be tolerable. It would rather describe how legislation passes rather than what might be in it - even when legislation limits journalists in doing their jobs, it will be actual journalists far beyond the gallery who raise the alarums.

When you discuss policy, and potential changes to the law that affect real people's lives and work, you run the risk of engaging readers/ listeners/ viewers and having them engage in political debate, and maybe work with others to make changes to deals that have already been done in Canberra. Far better to just sit by and describe the passage of legislation in purely functional terms, the way you might sit beside the Molonglo and observe the trickling water, the bird calls, the wriggling and wafting of nature taking its inexorable course.

Note how the press gallery covered the Gillard government. There were more journalists in the press gallery than members of parliament, and yet every one of them agreed that the prevalence of horse-trading in both houses and relative absence of Bipartisanship was Chaotic and the very sort of thing that must not happen again. By contrast, the Abbott government passed very little legislation, but so orderly - when that government's budgets were stymied in the Senate, and passed in the barest terms only to avoid a repeat of 1975, the press gallery couldn't cope with the idea that concerns from outside parliament had somehow made their way in to affect votes in parliament. Instead, they cried chaos, disaster and hoped it would all go away.

Government is only either calm or argy-bargy, according to the press gallery, and in the latter state they overestimate their ability to both describe the situation accurately and engage their public. To give one example - when Katharine Murphy gets excited she loses herself in mixed metaphors, as you can see here (a game of chicken in Gethsemane?).

Secondly, no government has ever been good at managing internecine conflict. The chaos narrative of the Gillard government was fed by Rudd scowling at the backs of ministers speaking to legislation and answering Question Time questions, not how well or badly those ministers performed. There was no real equivalent to that in the Howard government, but there was in the latter half of 1991 when Paul Keating was a backbencher in the Hawke government, and apparently the last twelve months of Fraser, Whitlam, and McMahon were less than stellar.

Press gallery journalists should be able to draw on that history: is the government paralysed? Only Laura Tingle (no link, paywalled) appears to be making the case that it isn't, that in administrative terms (see above) it is starting to hit its straps. Can the government build an administrative exoskeleton to compensate for its obvious weaknesses with personnel and interpersonal issues (if Chris Pyne and Marise Payne are treading on each other's toes, this government truly is finished)? Tingle wisely avoids projection this far out from the likely next election, and my forecasting record speaks for itself.

When it comes to Abbott, though, calm and orderly government (or the appearance thereof) leads us to the third issue with recent coverage.

Have we forgotten what Abbott was like as Prime Minister? Look at that negotiation with Leyonhjelm (if you can hack through the tangled thickets of Murphy's mixed metaphors above, it's as good an account as any). For starters, Abbott was being sneaky, holding out a promise he had no intention of honouring. Then there's the issue of him implying a staffer in Michael Keenan's office acted independently of Abbott's office; the sheer degree of control exercised from the PM's Office by Peta Credlin should have made anyone with any recollection of the Abbott government (i.e. pretty much the entire press gallery) laugh that notion off the public record.

Abbott is overestimating how clever he is by dumping on a staffer, showing the gutlessness and dishonesty that made him unfit to ever be Prime Minister in the first place. The Liberal Party failed itself and the nation by electing such a manifestly unsuitable leader. His behaviour here is consistent with his performance as leader, and believe him when he says (however implicitly) that he will do that again if he were to be brought back up like a bad pizza.

Tony Abbott is not some sort of intelligent, reflective person who adapts his ideas of political leadership to prevailing circumstances. Churchill was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Depression hit in 1929, and saw the age-old economic law of tying the value of currency to gold crumble under him. He spent the 1930s studying Hitler and the Nazis in far more depth than his Daily Mail-reading conservative colleagues, or the pacifist left of the time. Franklin D. Roosevelt had spent the late 1920s in political furlough, considering what government was for and what it might be, before lunging for the Governorship of New York and the Presidency of the United States. Abbott might have some patter about having been humbled, but there is nothing to back it up - and any journalist who merely quotes him is a patsy.

If you're going to cover Abbott's niggles, don't simper like Leigh Sales did while Abbott talks over you Trump-like, lying and fudging without challenge. Sales, and every other journalist covering this, should have called him out on his inability to delegate and his blithe disregard for those trying to do the basic transactional work that makes complex government possible. Setting broad parameters for ministers, their staff, and other underlings is the essence of leadership. Its absence with Abbott as Prime Minister meant the country was misgoverned. If Abbott returns as Prime Minister, we will be misgoverned again.

Turnbull was right to call him out, wrong to imply such a sound and well-supported policy might be watered down. Shorten is right to finger the dissent within the government, wrong to imply Labor might be above making concessions to gunlosers in pursuit of regional votes. Merely quoting both argy and bargy (which is how the press gallery sees its role) is simply not good enough given the important broader issues of community safety far beyond locked-down Parliament House.

The press gallery is obliged to frame its reporting of Abbott in the sickly light of experience - not to lose themselves in slathering at the prospect of argy-bargy, or thinking that his actual record constitutes 'bias'. Start telling the truth, draw upon experience and apply it, and some of your credibility issues might recede. Hopping excitedly from argy to bargy and back again, projecting your own short attention span onto your your audience, can only confirm the decline of journalism from which notions like "24 hour news cycle" never fully detract - let alone fix.

We have a right not to be misgoverned, which is more important than any press gallery wish to return to a time and place where they felt more comfortable.

16 October 2016

The Game nobody wins

Politicians and political journalists in capital cities across the world have different versions of The Game. The Game involves the politicians feeding gobbets of content to the journalists, and the journalists excrete content that flatters the politicians who fed them, and thus two groups of lonely people prop up one another.

Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be elected President of the United States within weeks*. Many of the profiles of her, like this one, return to a common theme:
[Clinton] has been a presence in American public life for more than a third of a century, and yet for all her ubiquity she remains a curiously unknown quantity to many voters.
That, in its purest form, is journalistic failure. Journalists have been observing a person up close for years, hearing their words, challenging them on their positons and motivations, watching them smile and flinch and empathise and snarl, and yet after hectares of print and hours of blather, they concede the person has been hiding in plain sight all this time.

The same publication conceded the same about Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan, and yet it is regarded as the pre-eminent news source in the United States. Other organisations make the same admission: after all this time, we don't know who Hillary Clinton is, so what hope do voters/readers have to form an opinion about her suitability for the Presidency?

In the UK too, at a time of great upheaval (the kind of upheaval that will be felt for years, and whose full effects can't be known by deadline), Theresa May has ascended to the top of British politics while being - you guessed it - unknown. Her Chancellor of the Exchequer, who would be the architect of Britain's post-EU economy, is also regularly described as unknown.

In Australia, the current Prime Minister and his predecessor/stalker are both former working journalists. Both understand the need of journalists to have content several times each day to justify their existences and gum up their employers' output schedules. Both were better at The Game before they became Prime Minister, and each was hopeless afterward.

The Australian media was unable to explain how each of these well-known men would perform the duties of Prime Minister, an office established and occupied for more than a century and covered extensively by political journalists. The morsels that do come to them via The Game are so petty they actually discourage people from taking an interest in how we are governed, and this imperils the very media organisations that employ journalists. Merely by doing their jobs they way they've always done them, journalists are not shoring up their own positions or reaching out to the community they serve; they are committing professional suicide.

The doyen of the press gallery, Laurie Oakes, has known the current Prime Minister since he was an undergraduate. It is not at all difficult to dig up glowing profiles of Malcolm Turnbull as a potential Prime Minister. It ought not be a surprise, then, to find him in the office of Prime Minister but without a clear agenda as to what (or even how) he might put the powers of that office to best use.

In the past week we saw Kelly O'Dwyer accuse her Labor detractors of point-scoring, and then fail to accrue any sort of credit for doing so - other than column-inches and airtime minutes by press gallery journalists shunning the readers/ listeners/ viewers whose patronage keeps their employers in business. But this gets us back where we started.

We are at a point where The Game seems to work for no-one. We've been here for years. Part of the reason why I haven't blogged much this year is sheer disgust at this fact, and disgust makes for poor social media practice. This has changed, however, as evidenced by the fact this thread was three times longer than it is, and will almost certainly spill over into posts throughout the coming week.

It's more encouraging than many might like that I only need to apologise to regular readers when I don't post. This is better than having been your average press gallery oxygen-thief, who has helped piss away decades of goodwill accrued by their predecessors and employers by shitposting every single day. I've missed you too. Let us go forward together.


* Keep in mind how bad my predictions and prognostications have been