26 November 2014

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

Social media sites do listicles, and while this article defends them they are only useful if they are any good.

This listicle on Australian politics is no good at all. It is published in Fairfax, a company whose record with social media is to produce low quality, at great cost, unfashionably late. There are no grounds to be impressed with the form of this listicle, so let's go to the substance.

It suggests ways that the Abbott government might improve its performance. None of them are possible. You may as well write '10 ways the Model T Ford can win Bathurst next year': it's one thing to be cheery, but there's no point being a damn fool about it.

The video at the top of the article is mislabelled. "Liberal Senator Scott Ryan joins Chris Hammer in the studio to discuss the political news of the day" makes it sound spontaneous, even promising. Ryan has been pumped full of Liberal talking points and Hammer is working his way through a prepared list to winkle them out. Standard political reporting I know, but the very kind of formulaic shit that is killing traditional journalism in this country.
Tony Abbott has told nervous Coalition MPs he plans to knock "one or two barnacles off the ship" before Christmas ... some Liberals and Nationals MPs believe changes must be made to clear the decks and start 2015 with a clean slate.
Mixed metaphors are a sign you're not really focused on what you're trying to get across. If you have barnacles on your deck it's too late for the boat anyway. And as for the slate - c'mon.
1) Act on climate change
Nope. Never mind the G20 and next year's targets, this is not a new thing.

Tony Abbott is only leader of the Liberal Party because he found a way of not acting on climate change while also winning over the press gallery. If you thought Julia Gillard lost credibility over carbon pricing, wait until Abbott starts 're-examining' the issue. In the same way that John Howard did not nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange in the name of the proletariat, so too Tony Abbott won't act in any sort of credible way on climate change. I'm sorry, but people who say things like that should not diminish their battered employers further by opining such ignorant nonsense.

It isn't my fault that you don't understand politics. I'm just pointing it out.
2) Restore renewable energy policy
You can't be serious.

This government got where it is with the support of non-renewables, even gibbering in unguarded moments about nuclear power. It stands against renewable energy sources and cares not at all about the jobs lost in what should be a rapidly growing, labour-intensive sector of the economy. It can't just reverse that. Nobody would believe them.
The government should agree to a sensible compromise on renewable energy, having failed in its efforts to dramatically wind back the target after appointing known climate sceptic Dick Warburton to review it.
If you can deny overwhelming evidence from across the world about climate science, then you can (as this government does) deny the RET is sensible, deny efforts to wind it back have failed, deny that DickWarb is a denialist, etc.
The government could agree to a modest winding back of the target to a figure that is achievable for the industry and does not destroy it.
The RET is achievable. The absence of bipartisan support is the government's fault, and it's up to them to get over themselves. Any 'modest winding back' would be contingent and unsustainable.
3) Have a cabinet reshuffle
This government got where it is through stability. Members of the shadow ministry who didn't make it into government are still moaning about it. Reshuffles make winners quietly pleased while the losers become noisily disgruntled. Abbott knows this.
Promote some high achievers, demote under-performers ...
Easy to say - but who, exactly, are this government's "high achievers"? You see the problem here. You'd basically have to chuck the entire Cabinet and start again, which Labor did twice in 2013 and look where that got them.
... and, above all, address the appalling lack of women on the frontbench ...
It isn't as though half the members of the Coalition party room are female. Who would you promote, Lisa and Fergus? Karen McNamara, just in time to appear at ICAC? Kelly O'Dwyer, whose facility with talking points doesn't necessarily translate into policy depth? Michaelia Cash? The women who happily participated in that Mal Brough fundraiser? If you think the surface of the Liberal Party's problem with women is appalling, wait until you get down into the details.
4) Allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage
Oh, please. See denialism above. Nobody believed Julia Gillard, a leftie lawyer, when she insisted on the current heterosexual definition of marriage. It is one of the few things you can define Abbott on, and you'll have to force him out in order to get it.
5) Abandon the deregulation of university fees
It's been trying to do that for 20 years, and will hammer away for the next 20 as well. Again, your lack of attention is not my fault. Time for you to catch up. Next.
6) Dump the paid parental leave scheme

Mr Abbott's flagship scheme continues to face an uncertain future.
No it doesn't. If Abbott was going to do it, he would have done it by now. Have a look at what the Whitlam government achieved in its first month in office, then realise Abbott has been in office 14 months now and can't even pass a budget. Public servants face going into Christmas without being paid, and you're worried about women who haven't even conceived yet?
A lack of support in the parliament, among the public and even inside the PM's own party have led to it being watered down and temporarily shelved.
No, it's been defeated. The rhetoric of defeat was splashed around pretty thick about the previous government, but with this government it's all wrung hands and euphemisms. Why is that? Do you reckon a listicle can expose the gutlessness and stupidity of the traditional media's approach to politics? Give it a crack. You have nothing better to do.
7) Revise the government's communications strategy
This government's communications strategy smashed the last government and got a bunch of no-hopers onto the commanding heights of the way this country is run. Again, see the denialism above. This government got where it is because the press gallery confused Coalition bluster with 'straight talk'.
8) Ditch the $7 GP co-payment
Done. Next. If you vote for this lot again you can't be sure that won't return.
9) Review the proposed welfare overhaul
It's not about the bottom line, it's about the culture war, which is all this government has ever been about. The real story here is that the government has reversed almost everything it has proposed in this area, offering a nanny-state solution while also insisting that people should be freer to make their own choices and not consider themselves entitled. Too long for a listicle I admit, but all I ever wanted was a nice bit of journalism on, y'know, public policy and stuff. The kind of thing Katharine Murphy has claimed for years that she'd love to do, but never quite gets around to because oooh, have you seen Julie's shoes today?
10) Reconsider budget cuts to the ABC and SBS
Again: culture wars, denialism, as above.

The way we are governed is important. If you get paid to write, you have an obligation to think about what you write. If it's bullshit, best not to write at all, and your editor can shove both his deadline and his mistaken belief he's doing anything positive by dabbling with listicles.

It's a bit like offering advice to an obtuse government, or to obtuse journalists - what even is the point?

24 November 2014

Leadership as distraction

I don't care how many prima donnas there are so long as I am prima donna assoluta.

- Gough Whitlam (1916-2014)
The press gallery bristles at any idea that it is biased for or against either Labor or the Coalition. The bristling becomes positively furious when you back it up with solid examples. Journalists lash out at social media with the same accusations others level at them: lazy, formulaic, ill-informed, stupid, biased etc.

This coming week, you will see the proof of their sheer utter lack of bias. This week, no matter what the government announces - in defence, health, sport, you name it - press gallery journalists will try and frame it through leadership manoeuvring. There will be talk of 'the Bishop camp' here or 'an unnamed Abbott supporter' there. Talk of Bishop looking fresh and energetic will be contrasted against the current Prime Minister being described as 'beleaguered'.
This is not to suggest that a leadership change is afoot.
Oh, poppycock Peter Hartcher, and what would you know anyway?
  • Hartcher, like the rest of the press gallery, failed to pick the transition from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard in 2010.
  • Every week for the following three years, Hartcher predicted that Rudd would return to lead the ALP. The fact that he was proven right eventually should be balanced against the idea that a stopped clock shows the right time once every twelve hours, or thousands of times in a three-year period.
  • To be fair to Hartcher, he correctly identified the second change to Labor's leadership in 2013. This was because Rudd vacated the leadership by means beyond an EXCLUSIVE interview with Peter Hartcher, and the ALP openly publicised the fact that Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese were running for the leadership over an extended period.
Imagine the shrieking from the press gallery if Malcolm Turnbull had changed the way he dressed and lined up slavering puff-pieces like Bishop has. Contrast Bishop's free pass with the savaging Joe Hockey received over Madonna King's biography.
Bishop emphatically resists any suggestion she wants the leadership, or even the treasurership.
She would say that, wouldn't she. Full support for Abbott too, no doubt.
She's found her meter [sic], and she's loving it, she says.
Word to Fairfax subs: you left a key letter out of 'metier', and if the word is new to you look it up; assume that every word Hartcher writes contains 'I'.

If you look at Bishop's Twitter feed it is the Twitter feed you see from inoffensive but ubiquitous celebrities, put on for show, but without the gnawing insecurity that comes from someone who puts their heart and soul on the line each day: this is someone secure in the fact that they are never going to be seriously questioned. Prime example:

One wonders by what means the tweet was sent if the iPhone had actually been wrested away from her, if the Foreign Minister does not have some secret stash of device(s) to tweet beyond the control of advisors. This and other recent tweets are both playful and nerdy, like Kevin Rudd's were. She's all about the work - but she doesn't worry too much about looking cool, oh good heavens no.

Solid doses of hoke and disingenuousness form the basis for Bishop's affinity with Rudd. It is hard to see what other basis there is in this for such a comparison:
  • Rudd is not some sort of titan in foreign affairs, like Metternich or Kissinger or even Percy Spender;
  • In a policy area that is fairly intangible, Rudd has few achievements in foreign policy and many other areas of government, owing to a dithery and chaotic administrative style that careened across other areas of policy. Bourke saw that at close quarters but chose not to mention it;
  • No mention is made of any foreign-policy basis on which Rudd or Bishop (or Plibersek, or anyone else) might be judged in the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs;
  • Rudd's friendship with Bishop is significant in the context of the last government - Kerry-Anne Walsh calls it out in her book The Stalking of Julia Gillard, but Bourke lets it slide;
  • The Labor government of 2007-13 had three Foreign Ministers: Stephen Smith, Kevin Rudd, and Bob Carr. None of those men are in Parliament now. Nobody in the Labor caucus has a strong foreign policy record. This means Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, whether Plibersek or anyone else, must necessarily be a foreign affairs neophyte. This doesn't occur to Bourke either; so
  • It isn't clear what Bishop and Bourke mean when they say Plibersek is no Kevin Rudd; other than in the simple sense that neither of them are Kevin Rudd, I'm definitely not Kevin Rudd and you almost certainly aren't either, dear reader.
An article that obscures understanding rather than facilitating it has failed as journalism. An article on how we are and might be governed that obscures understanding is undemocratic. Journalism is valuable when it seeks to go beyond set-piece events and manipulative one-on-ones, whereas someone like Bourke (and before her, Annabel Crabb) reckon the tinsel and bluster is not a distraction but the essence of government itself.
But Ms Bishop hit back at Ms Plibersek and said her opponent was only interested in playing politics with foreign policy rather than taking a bipartisan approach where appropriate.

"She doesn't seek briefings from me whereas I actually sought them from the foreign minister, both Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr," she said.

"I have invited her to a couple of briefings to hear from me and I've also suggested other briefings, security and intelligence briefings and the like," she said.

A spokesman for Ms Plibersek said she is "regularly briefed by the heads of our intelligence and security agencies directly".

It is understood Labor requests most briefings through the Prime Minister's office not the Foreign Minister's.
Think about that: why would the opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs subject herself to lectures from her political opponent? What exactly did Bishop get out of cosy chats briefings from Rudd and Carr? Rudd didn't seek much from Alexander Downer, and didn't need to. Plibersek would be derelict in not going to agency heads, observing all the protocols etc., rather than accepting morsels doled out by Bishop.

Usually, Latika Bourke is the leading example of a journalist who is fully replaceable with an algorithm:

Tony Abbott said today "[insert]*Coalition_press_release*[/insert]".
She really thinks her job begins and ends at press conferences, never doubting the utility of merely quoting a government that says one thing one day and something contradictory the next. Failure to replace her with an algorithm looks increasingly like negligence on the part of those who employ her. She is not an honest trier having a go, but the world's most expensive microphone stand.

This is typical of Bourke, and it's utter shit:
[Bishop] chats the entire jog and doesn't puff once while updating me about her week's three priorities – foreign fighters, UN peacekeeping and Ebola.
She's not chatting with you for the sake of chatting, she's a public figure communicating through a journalist to the public. The minister's priorities on policy, the three dot points, would be the story for a more capable journalist. Instead, Bourke goes the handbag story, the female equivalent of blokes talking sport as a way of bonding, and a desperate attempt to equate star power with foreign policy gravitas: some random barflies, and a Hollywood reporter who makes Bourke look like Bob Woodward.

Then again, it's a neat trick to brief a journalist under circumstances when she can't function as a microphone stand. That article shows Bishop playing Bourke like a trout. Quite why Fairfax needs to smooth the Liberals' leadership transition in this way, and diminish an expensive employee in the process, is unclear. When you buy the mastheads in which Bourke is printed, you encourage her and her employers in this drivel.

The structural weakness of conservatism is that they can't distinguish between an emerging trend and a passing fad. A party that thinks it is boxing clever on climate change will totally underestimate the growing impact of asbestos, and will overestimate its ability to spin Bishop's defence of Wittenoom against its victims.

Bishop demonstrated the sort of coldness that Liberals tried to foist onto Gillard with her empty fruitbowl and "deliberately barren"; they overestimate their ability to spin Bishop away from that stuff, too. Bishop will drop a clanger that reveals her lack of understanding about raising children and it will come to define her.

As a senior lawyer in Perth, Bishop learned how to schmooze: whom to suck up to, whom to elbow aside, dealing with larger-than-life characters such as Noel Crichton-Browne. She became Minister for Ageing in 2003, injecting a professional approach to the aged care sector missing under her two provider-focused predecessors, Bronwyn Bishop and Kevin Andrews. When Brendan Nelson left the Education portfolio for Defence in 2006 she replaced him, achieving little until losing office the following year.

She became Deputy Leader because she wasn't threatening. The Liberals had an unfortunate habit of putting the leader's most potent threat as deputy, who would use the office to undermine the leader. Costello wasn't strong enough to knock Howard off and win the victory Howard couldn't, but could not play loyal deputy indefinitely. Bishop had no ideas above her station and no clue how to protect the leaders under which she served.

Soon after she became Deputy Leader, Perth-based variety-show host Peter van Onselen asked Bishop to write a book chapter on Liberal philosophy. She got a staffer to write it. Why van Onselen sought her to do a task that was manifestly outside her capabilities is unclear. Van Onselen still keens for Bishop to become Prime Minister, which shows you her ability to put one over people like him and Latika Bourke.

The nearest thing the Coalition got to a coherent policy position when in opposition was the "new Colombo Plan", a hazy but promising scheme where students from Australia would work and study in Asian countries, and vice versa. It is hard to find any particular passion for such a policy in her output before 2007. It isn't as though she's imposing her will on government now to make it happen, like Keating did under the Hawke government.

Her mismanagement of this country's relationship with Indonesia is appalling. An irrelevance like Francois Hollande received better treatment than the newly elected Joko Widodo. Yet again, the distorted prism of refugee policy defines what should be a broad-ranging and increasingly deep relationship. There is no sign Labor are doing much better but it is doubtful they could be worse.

Her mismanagement of this country's relationship with the United States is weird. Truckling to Murdoch is one thing, but Bishop and others in the national and Queensland governments are pathetic. No Australian politician is regarded so highly as Obama is here, and one who declares - as though expecting to be taken seriously - that the Great Barrier Reef is fine only opens up the kind of dissonance that cracks open promising careers in politics.

This piece fails to account for the Coalition's close relationship with the US Democrat administrations of Kennedy and Johnson (and Nixon's dastardly treatment of Gorton and McMahon), but otherwise its point is well made - and it's on Bishop's head. She wouldn't improve much as leader, either.

There are 226 members of federal parliament: name one who could write a more thoughtful and well written critique of trade and foreign policy - including Julie Bishop (and her staff) - than this.

The qualities Bishop offers the Liberal leadership are essentially those Abbott had: physical stamina and a capacity to talk obvious, provable nonsense with a straight face. She brings little to fill the void Tim Dunlop describes; again, like Rudd in that regard. Bishop would be less overbearing and abrasive than Abbott - but really, so what?

The whole idea of leadership is to show us the way forward, to engage with the issues of the day and to have us engage too, to show what our future might look like if only we would trust in something bigger than ourselves.

Journalists describe the major issues of our time but they can't engage with them, because the people they cover don't engage with them. They have no ability to engage with big issues either, which is why their coverage is miniaturised and personalised (e.g. the ill person who can't get hospital treatment, the ADF personnel who are abused but not the culture of abuse, the farmer facing drought yet again) but not rendered powerful enough to compel resolution.

The press gallery brought Senator Lambie under what they thought was intense scrutiny. You'd think such scrutiny would have picked up her role in reversing financial planning regulation - but sadly, no. We're all supposed to gnash our teeth and wail when journalists get sacked, but hey.

People like Latika Bourke and Peter van Onselen regard leadership not as engagement with, but distractions from, the issues of the day - gaffes, handbags, Labor-blaming, pic-facs. Julie Bishop can do that stuff standing on her head. That's why a silly press gallery brings out silly politics, and vice versa, and the cycle can only be broken one way. We will always need politicians but we will not always need a press gallery.

Politicians will go around the press gallery to establish a relationship with the public when they are elected with a connection that does not depend on the press gallery. The utter absence of value in and from the press gallery will then be exposed. We can get distraction from anywhere these days; neither oligopoly politics nor oligopoly media are that appealing. Engagement with the challenges of our time is the thing, and again oligopoly politics and oligopoly media aren't cutting it there, either.

16 November 2014

Found out 2: When the Beijing smog clears

The press gallery went to the last election conveying the impression that Coalition policy, even though it existed in scant detail, was immeasurably better than Labor policy on all fronts.

Then, when the Coalition started going back on pre-election commitments, the press gallery just got confused. There was no howl of betrayal, as there was over Julia Gillard's casuistry on carbon pricing, just a kind of befuddlement or cheerily insisting that disappointment must somehow be exciting - or in any case, something we just have to put up with that its words and actions should be so divergent.

As time has gone on the press gallery have engaged in a kind of Dance of the Seven Veils as this government has shed layers of credibility. So its environmental policy is pretty ordinary, and there really is so vision for carbon abatement or even the Reef. All right, so its commitment to civil liberties is non-existent. Yeah, so there is no economic policy to speak of, and the government can't even get its budget through the Senate. It has no ability to negotiate with those outside its command-and-control.

It's interesting to note that former Coalition members Clive Palmer, Nick Xenophon, David Leyonhjelm, and Bob Day are not subject to the same 'traitor' rhetoric that beset former Nationals Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor (Peter Slipper had been elected to Parliament as a Coalition MP, while the others hadn't). Nobody in the press gallery seems to have picked that, practising the goldfish journalism of an eternal present.

Was it only a matter of days ago that the press gallery consensus had congealed around the idea that while the Coalition wasn't great at any sort of policy really but it had some sort of natural gift for foreign policy. Some conceded that Abbott had a few early glitches with the Indonesians and the Chinese (Mark Kenny and the Murdoch outlets refused to acknowledge even that, insisting that such a graceful swan could never be considered an ugly duckling), but they all agreed Abbott was some sort of natural diplomat.

(Note that the more concerted the opposition to an Abbott government policy, the worse Abbott looks. Even with the prospect of opposition, as with paid parental leave, does this tough guy look shaky. Labor gave him unstinting support on foreign policy, and only with that absence of opposition could he even appear capable.)

With all his experience in domestic and foreign politics, Peter Hartcher never picked that the US and China would do a deal on carbon emissions at the APEC meeting in Beijing. [$] Hamish Macdonald in The Saturday Paper didn't pick it. Nobody did. The English-language papers in China and the venerable US news outlets all missed it, too.

It isn't only hippies who think it isn't good enough for this country not to have a carbon abatement policy. It never was. The Canberra consenus that proponents had to wait until Abbott was good and ready to come around to the idea in his own time was wrong, too, but it was consensus and all the press gallery had to do was put quotation marks around it. Our entire political class has been wrongfooted, and the journosphere can't properly report on that because it too has been caught out.

They don't even have the good grace to admit they missed the biggest foreign policy story of the past 20 years. How a mixed metaphor became a dumb story is the sort of thing you get when you fail to clear out dead wood from 20th century journalism.
Only now are the political negatives from Tony Abbott's threat to Vladimir Putin blindingly obvious
It was always stupid. Always.

(This is what shirtfronting looks like)

As soon as it was uttered, all of the images that Abbott sought to shake off - the thoughtless thug - were reinforced. Even if he had literally shirtfronted Putin, it would have made our foreign relations worse rather than better. What use is the press gallery if they cannot anticipate?
The opportunity to rub shoulders with global leaders usually gives the prime minister of the day a boost.
No it doesn't:
  • When it was announced that the APEC meeting in 2007 would be held in Sydney, people like Cassidy hailed it as a triumph for Prime Minister Howard. By the time it was held Howard was on his way out.
  • In the lead-up to the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, the press gallery agreed that it would be a triumph for Prime Minister Rudd. It wasn't, and he too was gone within a few months.
  • When Barack Obama addressed federal parliament in 2011 the impact on Prime Minister Gillard was nil. She attended a royal wedding in London and secured a UN Security Council seat and did a CHOGM in Perth; zero political benefit.
It is time for that press gallery cliche to die. I know journos love it, but it has no basis in reality and hence is useless as a prop for reporting.

The opportunity to rub shoulders with global leaders does nothing for the prime minister of the day. Nothing at all.
The reporting, the photographs and especially the cartoons, have reduced serious diplomacy to high farce. For that Abbott has to take a large slice of the blame.
Abbott should take responsibility for his actions, the Murdoch press should take responsibility for theirs.
How Abbott would now like to erase history and start again, allowing himself to present as a mature leader nudging and cajoling the world's most powerful towards important global solutions.
Here Cassidy claims to have some sort of insight into Abbott's mind. He makes a number of assumptions that no member of the press gallery is entitlement to make about Abbott, namely that he has:
  • done the work in formulating solutions within a convincing wider vision, and
  • anticipated potential challenges to those solutions, and
  • that he has the political skill to negotiate with people who owe him nothing. Look at parliament - he can get Peta to bawl out his own backbenchers, but he can't get yokels like Lambie or Madigan even to pass his budget. Other G20 leaders deal with people like them much more convincingly than Abbott.
Cassidy has no right to hold to those assumptions, or to hide journo inadequacy behind them.
There is evidence that the shift from domestic to foreign policy, from the budget to national security, will not be the permanent game changer the government had hoped for.
Well, no shit - what made anyone think people could be deflected from Narwee and Nunawading to focus on Naypidaw? Was there any basis at all to assume that this was even possible, and that those betting the government on it were crazy?
If that won't do it, what will?
30 years in Canberra and you really don't know? So much for being an insider. Give it away.

There would be no greater signal to our political class about the impact of cuts to the public broadcaster if Insiders were to be axed.
The global challenges - and particularly the conflict in Iraq - should be a plus, especially with the opposition offering bipartisan support.
The reason why Labor offered bipartisan support was to maintain their poll lead over the government. Cassidy should realise that politics is a zero-sum game; that the government cannot be said to be doing well if it is polling behind the opposition.
At home, there is a growing realisation that the country does indeed have both a spending and a revenue problem, no matter what Coalition frontbenchers said in opposition.
If only we had experienced journalists at the time to point this out, anticipate what a Hockey budget might look like, and whether it would even pass a fractious Senate.
There are excuses. Commodity prices are falling ...
This was foreseeable before last September.
... and the Senate is preventing the government from reversing some of Labor's spending initiatives.
So was that.
But when a party speaks with such bravado and conviction in opposition, excuses don't offer much shelter in government. Reality is starting to bite.
Reality is not something that was invented this year. Politicians talking with bravado should be called out by journalists, rather than merely quoted.
Before mid next year the Abbott government has to commit to targets out to 2025. According to the Climate Institute, to match what the United States has done, Australia will have to reduce emissions not by 5 per cent, but 30 per cent. Even if that was their inclination, how would they do it? And at what cost? Abbott has already said that even if it becomes clear the 5 per cent target cannot be reached by 2020, he won't be allocating any more money.
Cassidy really can't cope with the idea that a) changing circumstances call for different measures, and b) sometimes often there's a difference between what Abbott says and what comes to pass.
On top of that, because of where China says it's heading, there is now a question mark over coal exports.
That and the fact India has banned them outright, and nowhere else is picking up the slack. This has been coming for a while, Barrie.
The one breakthrough over coming days will be the trade deal with China. But again trade deals are not created equal. There is give and take.
It will definitely be a breakthrough, unless it isn't a breakthrough at all. What a classic piece of insider wank. Sometimes you sit on the fence, sometimes the fence sits on you.

The Chinese have the advantage in this deal. Abbott has said that he's desperate to do a deal of any sort - arse-selling, remember? - and you know how negotiations go when the weaker party is under pressure. Surely that press gallery experience has to be worth something.
Until the details are released and digested, it's impossible to predict how the public will respond.
Oh come on, no it isn't.

In Australia, there is unlikely to be full-scale rioting. Nor is it likely that Coalition MPs will be greeted in their electorates as conquering heroes, with garlands of flowers and kisses from a grateful public just like western forces received in Iraq in 2003. Studied indifference will most likely be the reaction. The media will focus on beef cattle exports, as they always do with trade agreements under this government, and skate over who gets stiffed. A few companies that donate to the Liberals anyway will express delight but will be unable to make good on the promises of the agreement. Long-term impact, economically and politically, can be be anticipated as bugger-all.
Against that challenging background, Tony Abbott could have done with a hassle-free APEC and G20 to build on his status and credibility.
That was never an option. This is a stupid assessment. Hassle-free means no achievements, another empty and expensive talkfest.

The US-China climate deal is a massive achievement, one for which Abbott deserves absolutely no credit.

The journalists who have not scrutinised Abbott and who disparage those who have questioned him cannot protect their boy now. He put all his chips on foreign policy, which journalists don't understand and rely on official announcements to interpret for them. This announcement is clear, and all the spin in the world can't fix things (if you believe the Australian government did know about the US-China deal ahead of time, then you have to believe they couldn't be bothered lobbying on behalf of fossil fuel companies, when this has been its core business to date).

Because the political class has outsourced our foreign policy, and the journosphere accepts this is the way it has to be (with the occasional empty gesture), our country is exposed to initiatives taken elsewhere to a greater extent than would be the case were we to have our own foreign policy.

This government is run by control freaks. They bet the government on things they can't control, developments in Washington and Beijing and the other great capitals of the world. And now events have gotten away from them, and now even the dimmest bulb in the press gallery is obliged to note this.

Political parties can't develop such policies and the media can't critique them. Neither can adapt. Both institutions will have to be gotten around to develop a meaningful foreign policy for this country.

15 November 2014

Found out

Two dozen other stupid reasons
Why we should suffer for this
Don't bother trying to explain them
Just hold my hand while I come to a decision on it

Sooner or later your legs give way, you hit the ground
Save it for later don't run away and let me down
Sooner or later you hit the deck, you get found out
Save it for later don't run away and let me down
You run away, run away, run away, run away, run away, run away and let me down

-The Beat Save it for later

One reason to read foreign newspapers online is because you can. I am old enough to remember when foreign newspapers were available only in the State Library, a few days old and often monopolised by some lonely expat who'd surreptitiously rip out a piece, denying you that article and whatever was on the other side of the paper.

Another is to find out how other countries run, what their priorities are. In looking for that you can often get some insight into how this country is run, what its - our? - priorities are.

This article is instructive about Australian politics - but not just for the passing mention of Adelaide's own Lynton Crosby, still junketing away on that Australia-UK Political Relic Exchange Program which gave us John McTernan.

This blog loudly and often bagged the Coalition in opposition for not engaging with policy, and with those affected by various government policies. This blog believed such engagement was essential for the Coalition to regain office, and it was wrong. This blog believed that a few more defeats would be necessary to get some focus, as had been the case in the 1980s and '90s; wrong again.

What I wasn't wrong about was that a policy agenda is necessary to build some respect to replace the inevitable disaffection, and carry a government through the ups and downs.

This government, like that of Gough Whitlam, has an economic policy crafted for another time. It is based on assumptions that no longer apply, such as continued growth in China (weaker than expected), greater engagement with India (might take a while, and looks like going backwards in certain respects, despite all that foreign policy happy-talk at the time). Because nowhere else is picking up the slack, our economy is going backwards, and economic austerity is exactly the wrong remedy for that.

Joe Hockey got more airtime than he deserved in denying the Global Financial Crisis because of a press gallery assumption (reinforced by in-house polls) that economic management was part of the Coalition DNA. In office, Hockey has given scant consideration to the revenue side of the budget, and to changing budgetary settings in the face of changing economic assumptions about growth, iron ore prices, and consumer confidence. He hasn't done the work.

Contrast Hockey with Paul Keating, who had been Shadow Treasurer for a month before taking the substantive role in government. Keating had a far better understanding of the economic landscape and the tools available to him than Hockey does.

The less said about Greg Hunt or Kevin Andrews, the better - but the Vics continue to wonder why they aren't driving the Liberal Party any more.

They thought they were being clever in presenting as little policy as possible to the public before last September. They were reinforced in that belief by a willing media, which must never be indulged in its lazy claim that it was even-handed in its approach to reporting and analysis.

The Coalition wasn't been lean and mean, just skinny and cranky. It wasn't lithe and disciplined, just anorexic and wasting muscles and organs. Its mind was not clear, just vacant.

The press gallery took this bunch of politicians at their word. This goes against the whole idea of journalism and the idea that it is valuable other than as a make-work scheme for journalists. Now that there are laws that would imprison journalists for doing journalism, and now that funding cuts will see journalists sacked and resources cut, this is why nobody rallies to what looks like self-interested pleading from people who've shed their credibility and appeal to get access to people who mislead them.

It isn't true that the Coalition deserves the benefit of the doubt, though that has been the animating principle of the press gallery - it can look like bias and journalists should understand this perspective and resist the urge to brush those accusations away. It isn't true that Labor does, either. Who deserves the benefit of the doubt? Australia. We deserve better, both in terms of government and coverage thereof.

The government hasn't done the work. The press gallery hasn't done the work, and refuses to do so. If the Labor opposition refuses to do the work (and gives up on the idea that the press gallery can even recognise work when it sees it), the task of replacing the political class member by member will be longer and more far-reaching than some might think it needs to be. Those who haven't done the work are being found out by changes to the economy, society and technology that slip away from lazy assumptions of those who govern and inform us.

09 November 2014

After the race is run

Horse-race journalism - the conviction that reporting on politics can and should be viewed only through the prism of who's winning, who's losing - is bullshit. It causes journalists to focus on the wrong things and to misinterpret events rather than report what's actually going on in front of them.

It skews all reporting and makes journalists incapable of explaining why and how things change. Given that change is a constant in politics, this is stupid and self-defeating behaviour on their part.

Fairfax failure on poll interpretation

In the past week Fairfax did a poll. There wasn't much in it - a year after a resounding win, nobody cares whether Abbott stays or goes. Nobody regards his as any better than the previous government. Yet, Fairfax's (male) senior political journalists fell onto it like gulls to a flung chip. All political coverage Fairfax does over the next few weeks will be traceable back to these articles, even where the evidence goes against or is irrelevant to this data.

What follows here is not a quibbling with the poll data, which I haven't seen, nor with statistical theories, in which I am no expert. This piece is all about the cod interpretation and the insufficiency of horse-race journalism itself.

Horse-race journalism articles should be viewed as arse-covering on the part of an organisation with no real clue about its role. Whether we're talking declining traditional media organisations, or political parties declining in popular participation and legitimacy, the increasing sophistication of market research should mean their understandings of what people want should be much, much better than they are.

Even the opening sentence of this piece is bullshit:
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's personal approval has surged with voters over the past three months, while the Coalition has also clawed back support but still narrowly trails Labor in the two-party preferred vote.
No, it hasn't. That isn't what the data says at all.

Note also the pictures used in this article: the picture Fairfax chose of Abbott shows him smiling and assertive, while Shorten is protesting and defensive. These pictures are meant to suggest positions that the subject matter can't sustain.
Overall, the poll ... shows the Coalition trails Labor 49 per cent to 51 per cent, meaning the government would probably have narrowly lost an election if one were held over the weekend.
Again, no it doesn't. Polls have a margin of error of about 3%. What this really means is that it's anyone's guess who would win the election. Massola and Aston are pretending certainty exists where it doesn't.

This government won a decisive election a bit over a year ago. What those results show is that people don't care whether it stays or goes.

Contrast this with a bit over a year after the 2010 election. The then government hadn't won decisively. It had introduced unpopular policies, such as carbon pricing. Its position in the polls was about where this government is now - yet everyone agreed the government then was terminal.
But the government will be buoyed by a surge in support since the last Fairfax Nielsen poll was conducted in July.

During that time, Mr Abbott has crafted a an uncompromising reputation on national security, taking a lead role in the outrage over the downing of Malaysian Airways flight MH17 and his now famous threat to "shirt front" Russian President Vladimir Putin.
These writers are looking for excuses to make the current government feel "buoyed".

All those examples are symbolic. He hasn't actually done anything about MH17 (nor MH370, let's not forget). He looked like an oaf over Putin, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Abbott will either overreach or back down when confronted with Putin himself, and the possibility of looking like a bad host.
The Coalition's two-party preferred vote has risen from 46 per cent to 49 per cent and its primary vote has risen from 39 per cent to 42 per cent ... Labor's two-party preferred vote has fallen three points, from 54 per cent to 51 per cent, while its primary vote has dropped from 40 per cent to 37 per cent.
These are all within the 3% margin of error; it is entirely possible the polls have gone nowhere at all, cementing impressions about the government while reaffirming the ambivalence in which the alternative is held. This renders the two paragraphs I omitted from the above quote entirely moot, typical of press gallery coverage.
Fairfax Ipsos pollster Jessica Elgood said Mr Abbott appeared to have benefited from, among other things, his government's strong national security focus.

"In terms of the Coalition figures, the increase reflects Mr Abbott's greater international profile and his strong position in deploying troops and taking on Vladimir Putin," Ms Elgood said.

"That has played strongly for him but time will tell if that's a longer-term trend."
It's hollow symbolism, it cannot possibly last. This is the point where simply quoting Ms Elgood becomes insufficient and the journalism should kick in.

In this case, the opposite has happened.
Mr Abbott and Mr Shorten are now tied as preferred Prime Minister on 41 per cent each, with no change recorded for Mr Abbott, and Mr Shorten seeing a 5 per cent drop in support since July as preferred prime minister.

And while Labor has seen its two-party preferred and primary votes fall away, opposition leader Bill Shorten's bipartisan approach to these international events appears to have paid dividends.

His approval rating has risen 2 percentage points since July to 43 per cent, while his disapproval rating has fallen 4 percentage points since July.
Remember what I said about the margin of error?

Right, so Shorten has:
  • adopted positions that are close to those of an unpopular government; and
  • his ratings and those of the ALP have declined; and
  • this is a good result for Shorten, and for the party he leads.
Even though that doesn't make sense, you can expect Fairfax's coverage of Shorten to be stuck in this elliptical reasoning.
The biggest loser in the October poll is the Palmer United Party. Its primary support almost halved to just three per cent as leader Clive Palmer struggled to keep a handle on volatile Senator Jacqui Lambie and sided with the government on a number of issues.
Again, let's see if I understand this:
  • Senator Lambie has made a number of inflammatory statements that go beyond, but not against, the government's agenda against asylum-seekers and a nuanced understanding of western Asian politics; and
  • Clive Palmer, like Bill Shorten, has voted with an unpopular government; and
  • The PUP vote has moved within the margin of error; and
  • This is bad news for Palmer, while a similar result for Shorten was good.
Nope, me neither.
Support for the Greens remains stronger than at the 2013 election at 12 per cent.
If you look back at Fairfax coverage of the Greens over the past month or so, they all agree that the Greens risk becoming irrelevant by opposing this government and everything it does. Again, a bit of recent history is instructive: Abbott opposed the previous government and everything it did, and is now Prime Minister. It's funny how things turn out, isn't it.
The government has just two weeks to pass its reforms through the Senate if the new system is to begin in 2016 but Mr Pyne said on Friday that he was willing to delay the start date to get the reforms through.

That means school leavers will be forced to apply for courses without clarity on what the total cost of their degree or diploma will be.
No, that's not what it means at all.

The government's current proposals do not apply to current students, nor to those enrolling next year, but to those commencing their studies after 1 January 2016. If Pyne delays it by a year it will apply to those students who enrol after 1 January 2017.

There's a whole other question about the reliability of a Pyne statement, but we've overloaded the precious poppets with criticism already.
Deregulation of the sector is supposed to fund an expansion of government subsidies for diploma courses and bring student loans for private and TAFE students into line with the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS).
Is that what the polling data says? Is that what the budget papers say? In the context of a polling article, surely the unpopularity should be enough.
And while Tony Abbott may want a "mature debate" about reforming Australia's federation and tax system, just 41 per cent of voters would support an increase in the consumption tax even if their personal income tax was cut as well.
First, over more than two decades in public life, it is clear that Tony Abbott is not capable of a mature debate. He can tear down positive proposals (e.g. the republic), but he cannot advocate for them (e.g. his various proposals for health reform whenhe was Health Minister).

Second, you can't pre-empt a debate by presenting a result like that as a settled result. That's why polls are lagging not leading indicators.
Raising the rate of the GST is also more unpopular outside capital cities, in the National Party's political heartland, too.
Fracking is also unpopular outside capital cities, in the National Party's political heartland. Companies that frack donate to the Nationals. Dead communities pay no GST. The Nationals are embarked on a fascinating historic experiment on the extent to which money compensates for a lack of popular support.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's signature $5.5 billion paid parental leave scheme enjoys more than two-thirds support from voters under 40, but is still unpopular with voters overall.
We're moving into a gerontocracy, folks, where something resoundingly popular with voters under 40 is not the done deal it might have been in years gone by:
The scheme is due to commence operating from July 1, 2015. With just two more sitting weeks due in the parliamentary year, the expectation among Coalition MPs is that the legislation to establish the scheme will be introduced in early 2015.
Abbott doesn't trust people to discuss and get behind the scheme. He wants to spring it on Parliament at the last minute and wedge it through in a series of backroom deals.
It is politically unpopular in the Coalition party room too, with five of Mr Abbott's own senators flagging they may vote against the scheme when it is presented to the Parliament.
"Flagged", pfft. What even is "flagged"? This would not survive a hot blast of invective from Peta Credlin. Experienced journalists should know this, rather than pulling the drama-queen trick of pretending a non-existent division is somehow real.

Not content to leave this drivel to the backroom boys, two of Fairfax's most senor political reporters chewed over it. Peter Hartcher set up a few straw men:
Abbott's wrestling of the hydra-headed beast of threats to national security has won him a growing, grudging respect.

His activism, firmness and clarity have marked him as something better than the brawling thug that many voters had him pegged as.
Abbott has no experience in national security or diplomacy. Included in those measures are measures that get investigative journalists sent to prison, which will not affect Hartcher or the camp followers who report to him.

Abbott isn't so much an unconstrained thug as a poser. He poses here, he poses there, an achieves very little anywhere. This is what he's done with national security. Hartcher, as his employer's political and international editor, has missed the insubstantial nature of Abbott's record, and his shedding the advantages of incumbency.

His swipe at Shorten in the name of accruing praise to Abbott is also silly, especially when you consider how he gushed over Abbott as opposition leader so recently.

Michael Gordon also piled on, as part of his transition from a political commentator to a poll jockey.
Tony Abbott's national security-led recovery has put the Prime Minister back where he was before the wheels fell off with a first budget that most voters saw as unfair and a breach of trust.
A clumsy sentence is usually a sign of clumsy thinking, and so it is here. Gordon is hungry for an opportunity to recover some of that sunk credibility he, and the rest of the press gallery, poured into Abbott.
... in April, when voters were evenly split on the question of whether they preferred Abbott or Bill Shorten as prime minister.
Never mind the budget. The benchmark here is whether or not voters' faith in Abbott has been vindicated. It hasn't.
Clearly, several domestic policy successes have helped right the Coalition ship – the boats have stopped, the carbon and mining taxes are gone and legislation to implement Abbott's Direct Action policy has passed through the Senate.
Nobody knows whether or not refugee boats have stopped because this government treats them as national security emergencies rather than domestic policy matters. A regime where people die because of cut feet or random thug invasion is not a success in any sense. There is no proof the other issues made a blind bit of difference to the polling. Gordon is imposing his own feelings, biases, and guesses onto the data.
... these results indicate a 4.5 per cent swing against the government since the election of September 2013.
That should be the lede, replacing the clumsy effort he and his superiors ran with. The nine words I cut from that sentence were waffle.
The most immediate, and most sobering, implication is in the state breakdown, revealing the Coalition primary vote in Victoria at 38 per cent just four weeks out from the state election.
Did the poll measure federal voting intention or state? You know they're different, right?

Consider that Abbott has learned the lesson Howard learned: that the fewer state Coalition governments there are, the less compelling the reasons to throw out a federal Coalition government.
No wonder Denis Napthine looked so uncomfortable last week when Abbott offered a hug.
Again with the misinterpretation of what you see before you due to silly preconceptions. Abbott was giving Napthine pre-emptive consolation. He knew he was going to do him over, as he has with spiking the car manufacturing industry, spiking the state's education and healthcare sectors, and now the petrol excise.

Watch Abbott do the same thing to Mike Baird and Campbell Newman next year. Watch Michael Gordon affect surprise then, too, based on his years of experience as a political journalist.

Empty saddles

The best example of the sheer futility of horse-race journalism in explaining anything about how we are governed came fromn Michelle Grattan, when she joined The Conversation:
... I will of course be concerned with the “horse race” aspect of the contest. After all, the “horses” carry the policies – who is first past the post will determine the shape of the future.
Of course. The rationale is entirely wrong when it comes to this government - with half a dozen or so exceptions there is almost no correlation between policies and horse-race positioning.

This is why, less than a year later, the sheer bankruptcy of this position was on show when she surveyed the wreckage of the hopes and dreams invested in the Abbott government:
It is seriously difficult to understand how the government has come to be as bad as it is. Yes, it is hugely tribal, its ministers are convinced they know better than anyone else, and it has a faith in “spin” that has dramatically underestimated the public’s ability to judge for themselves.
As an analytic tool, as a standpoint for improving understanding, as a basis for a career - horse-race political journalism is totally, utterly useless.

The headache of cognitive dissonance

This brings us to Paula Matthewson, who has not so much lost what little perspective she had as a blogger as wantonly discarded it, buying into insiderdom and the horse race to an extent that can only be described as tragic.

The first thing to be said is that Matthewson does not take criticism well, or at all really. She cannot distinguish between principles and standards about how we are governed and how that is covered, and personal attacks. Had anyone else written this about Matthewson, it would be a swingeing ad-hominem attack rather than fair comment. It's a great illustration of the bankruptcy of insiderdom and the pointlessness of trying to interpret it to the very public it exists to defraud and disenfranchise.

Jacqui Lambie was a non-commissioned officer in the Army. Before joining the PUP and being elected to the Senate, she was politically motivated by a desire for better conditions for serving Defence personnel, and for veterans, and their families.

Neither the ALP nor the Liberal-National-LNP-CLP Coalition offers a strong or proud record in this area. These may not be priorities for you or me but they are perfectly legitimate motivations and focus areas for involvement in politics.

You might quibble with the way Lambie goes about her business, as Matthewson does (strangely calling her both a "problem child" and a "Queen"), but the issues that Senator Lambie raises are worth examining and may explain her position better than Matthewson seems capable.

Matthewson is consistently critical of MPs who speak out against their party, regardless of the reason. People are right to be critical of MPs who vote on legislation they know nothing about, other than the dot-points fed to them from ministers' offices by people not very different from Matthewson.

Most major party MPs have no principles that motivate them one way or another on policy, which is why it is reasonable to expect them to vote and speak as their leadership bids them do. If you assume that a backbencher holding a policy position they have developed themselves is illegitimate, and can only be motivated by self-aggrandisement rather than the position itself, then of course such a position is going to seem self-aggrandising.

This explains why she refers to the prospect of an MP being expelled from a political party - a regular event in our political history - as "ex-communication". One is excommunicated from a religion, not from a political party. She refers to both Lambie and Palmer as "dogs", a term used to denote contempt and disloyalty.

Defence personnel and veterans affairs policies are more than one MP's "pet projects", and deserve to be examined as such by reporters who cover politics. Matthewson and other horse-race aficionados can't do that. People with opinions about policy that are not handed down from official sources are self-indulgent, apparently. If you think about it, such a perspective - a bias - goes against what politics is about in a democracy.

Like it or not, everything is politics, she bleated in the face of earlier criticism which she failed to attribute to anything bigger than herself. That isn't true. Very little is politics, if your idea of 'politics' is limited to the daily sideshow from Canberra. The restriction of decision-making to an unelected, unaccountable cabal of staffers, and the idea of "message discipline" (i.e., that the whole country is no more perceptive than the dumbest member of the press gallery, and information is restricted and fluffed accordingly) means that perishingly little is politics. This is a point well made by Jonathan Green:
Like so many areas of Australian public life, the policy possibilities are well-canvassed, well-elaborated and thoroughly discussed. It's only when issues of substance sink into the pit of politics ... the most obvious current path to action ... that maturity departs and blind partisanship obscures what can often seem like common and consensual truths.

And this will bring a testing time for politics as we know it, for increasingly it is obvious, through the elaborate connectivity of our new age, that the solutions to many of the things that ail, limit or frustrate us are out there, graspable, well-formed and ready.

The gatekeepers of politics, the vested interests of big parties and formal power, no longer have a stranglehold over that information and maybe quite soon over the possible courses to action.

The fundamental disconnect of politics is here: that it substitutes something vindictive and obstinately childish for mature open-minded discussion, discussion most of us are more than capable of having.

It's not as if there were no models out there, versions of public discussion that might simultaneously inspire us and flatter our intelligence.
Matthewson even believes in something called the politics of Ebola. As with any vicious disease, this can be interpreted as follows:
  • Polls show that a majority of Australians are against vicious life-threatening illnesses; and
  • A minority of Australians have any given vicious life-threatening illnesses at any one time; therefore
  • Vote yourself well! The government can cut health funding knowing insiders like Matthewson will praise their savvy.
According to Matthewson, governments don't make political issues. Political issues only arise when people disagree with government. [$]Here and [$]there she articulates opposition to one of the worst budgets in recent times the only way she can: as toddlers' tantrums. She sees the budget only as an agenda item that is not to be seriously challenged, approved, and shunted off the agenda as quickly as possible. Never mind that it rivals New Zealand's 1958 "Black Budget" for sheer political and economic incompetence, or that its effects will be felt far beyond State Circuit for longer than she can imagine.

Apparently there is no reasonable opposition to this budget, or indeed the government; only petulance. Matthewson's idea of connecting with the governed is to sit in Canberra hunched over polling data, projecting her biases and fears and straw-man work like the old lags at Fairfax. Like them, any challenge or questioning can only be emotional and personal.

Before taking articles of faith entering the press gallery, Matthewson was a lobbyist for the motor industry. It is always hard to quantify the impact of a lobbyist, but as Manufacturing Minister Senator Kim Carr had a commitment to the motor industry that came from his political beliefs, with a detailed knowledge of the motor industry and strong support within the ALP from unions in that industry. Was Carr being petulant or childish in his defence of Australian car manufacturing? Was the Abbott government petulant or childish in bringing about its demise?

Why do editors bother commissioning such drivel? The editors who commission Matthewson are steeped in old-media thinking, sharing her assumption the passively observed horse-race is the essence of political reporting. Politics is something that happens in, and to, the nation as a whole. Clinging to the assumption that politics is confined to buildings in Canberra or Macquarie Street is the sort of thinking that has seen traditional media business models destroyed.

The nation sends elected representatives to Canberra. Some journalists take it upon themselves to do the reverse, to posit themselves as representatives of the political class to the rest of the country, explaining what happened and why in such a way that procludes discussion of how decisions might work (instead: how they "play", i.e. what other journalists might think of them), and how things might be different.

This is what Matthewson does, and she's found a circle of editors who will keep her in gin and cat food. What she hasn't done is used the perspective she gained from beyond State Circuit and the traditional media and brought it to bear on insiderdom. Those occasional glimpses were what made her writings valuable, not the did-I-tell-you-I-worked-for-John-Howard stuff. Bringing her in was the last hope the press gallery had to save itself from irrelevance, but by going-along-to-get-along she has reinforced them in their worst habits and stalest assumptions.

By default, Matthewson belongs in the bin of Too Silly To Read, to which many of this blog's press gallery chew-toys have been consigned. Their witterings and prognostications hold up scarcely better than discarded betting-slips. But as Lyndon Johnson once said after an unusually good speech from Nixon, sometimes chicken shit can become chicken salad; and in the same way, it is possible Matthewson will regain some perspective on what government is about, and what politics is for.

They shoot horses, don't they?

Insiders will tolerate set-piece debates only (where participants talk past one another on big ideas, and engage only over trivia), and then with gritted teeth. Wide-ranging debates are ignored or framed as chaos, as we saw under the previous government. They do not understand (let alone present) debates that seriously challenge or even overturn government decisions as democracy in action, but as some sort of political reflux to be resisted at all costs. Polls can measure disaffection but, overlaid with dopey assumptions and cack-witted agendas, they can't identify alternative ways forward. Only politics can do that.

Articulating alternatives falls to outsiders because insiders don't respect outsiders enough to explain, to draw them in, to assess impacts and consider different options. Insiders do horse-race reporting because everyone else does, because they can't snap out of it.

The horse race has held political reporting hostage for long enough.

All those named above could be replaced with one reporter (or even a piece of software), stumbling around Parliament scooping up press releases and gaffes, while greater scrutiny was brought to bear on how we are governed and what our options are.

21 October 2014

What sort of nation

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these life less things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

- Percy Bysshe Shelley Ozymandias
For much of human history, nation-states were organised on ethnic terms: here we are a people, and over there the dreaded foreigner does not speak as we speak, pray as we pray, eat or trade or whatever as we do. This often led to conflict.

By the 1930s, arseholes like Hitler or Franco could declare themselves to not only be the embodiments of their respective nations, but the very apogee of history: several millenia had led to those guys insisting on one right way of speaking, praying, eating or being, and on weeding out those who were doing/being wrong. Many people rejected this approach. Those who did so under those dictators ended up dead or in prison, while those with the freedom to do so re-examined what the nation-state was for. Plenty of big thought had gone into government and governance, but what with the rise of manhood suffrage and the fall of the economy during the Depression (two developments, alas, frequently linked at the time) things had changed.

The answers they came up with on what the nation-state was for had a common theme: the nation-state is where citizens get their services from. This was the philosophy behind Roosevelt's New Deal, the social policies of M J Savage in New Zealand, and in postwar Europe: the private sector runs the economy and pays taxes to government, which delivers services.

In Australia, the political system hadn't undergone that level of seismic shock. When the Depression hit the Labor Party fractured, experimenting with newfangled Keynesianism and other ideas but not getting anywhere. When you read the press accounts of this time (including Keith Murdoch's Herald) there are strong similarities with the 'chaos' narrative surrounding Rudd and Gillard. The 1930s was dominated by the risk-averse Lyons government, which wasn't as austere as the NZ government that preceded Savage but was less dithery (due to the lesser pressures upon it and a lack of curiosity about the outside world) than the Conservative British government of the time. Labor regained office in 1941 as the war was underway and adopted a pragmatic, anti-intellectual approach to governing in the face of the war. Its attempt at nationalising the banks in 1947 was half-hearted and badly considered, and helped kill adventurous policy for two decades.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme and the national copper-wire telephone network were about as far as big thinking went in this country: no national health scheme (except in fits and starts as with baby health programs), no national planning on the scale seen in postwar Europe or even in the US, often but not always initiated by left-of-centre parties and continued by right-of-centre parties.

The expansion of the university system and the CSIRO was proper nation-building stuff. It was undermined in effectiveness by patchy primary and secondary education and the strangled attempts at expanding access to education, owing to the prevalence of the myth that education is a gift rather than an essential service for a person to participate in the society of which they are a citizen. Ironically, those gushing thanks at Whitlam for giving them an education are reinforcing the idea of education-as-gift; the same mentality that has seen the Abbott government can the Gonski scheme.

For conservatives, dismantling the notion of Australia as an outpost of Empire and allowing for a multi-ethnic Australia was slow and patient work, like defusing a bomb. Unions had trouble organising non-English speaking workers who had been brought in specifically to do manual work, part of the complacency that would see them struggle to organise at all when the economy changed beyond their powers of recognition. It was parliamentary Labor under Whitlam who recognised that one could be Australian without having Anglo-Celtic heritage - or, under 'assimilation', putting up a front and keeping up appearances (e.g. changing hard-to-pronounce names). This is why Whitlam deserves credit for a multicultural Australia, but also why he stands on the shoulders of those who defused the potential for the sort of institutionalised racism and ethnic violence that has beset Britain.

Conservatives maintained the cultural high ground in Australia through superior education and the higher incomes that came with it, to patronise art forms they liked. Evatt aside, Labor's anti-intellectualism saw them disdain arts funding and policy as elitist. It was Whitlam who outflanked the conservatives in this regard, happily taking high art (like opera) and popular art (like film) from ambivalent conservatives. Whitlam was as well educated as Menzies, and a sharper and more polished intellect than the conservatives who succeeded Menzies. To pine for Menzies was to pine for someone as sharp and presentable as Whitlam, which was self-defeating for them and reinforced Whitlam when Labor would have otherwise been ambivalent towards him.

The Coalition government of 1949-72 achieved many good things, but they spread about four or five years' work over a 23-year period. When Whitlam came to office in 1972 he wasn't so much fizzing with new ideas as playing catch-up:
  • The Karmel report on education should have been completed when the baby boomers were toddlers, not when they were hitting adulthood.
  • The urban planning ideas should have been done and dusted in the 1950s; today, large-scale urban planning is a joke and big shiny visions like Melbourne 2030 are not so much plans as punchlines, fading weeks after launch and tweaked and relaunched to the point where ... more planning is warranted, and what happens bears no relation to what has been planned for. Albury-Wodonga, the Gold Coast and Monarto should have risen in parallel with Canberra, not as 1970s afterthoughts.
  • Had the Moomba-Sydney gas pipelines be completed earlier today's CSG debate would be very different, and this applies to other infrastructure as well.
  • The much-vaunted 25% cut to all tariffs is the economic equivalent of cutting your legs off to meet a weight-loss target. Winding back protectionism should have been completed by the mid-1960s at the latest, once it became clear that devastated Europe and Japan were not content to stay devastated and allow Australia less competition than it actually had by that time.
The recognition of Aboriginal land ownership and policies to conserve the environment arose from a recognition that there was more to Australia than cultivation of land and flogging the produce. As can be seen by the Fraser government, dominated by rural landholders, that notion had a way to go, but the development of those policies in Whitlam's time and his encouragement of them shows that he was not only playing catch-up, but looking forward too.

One clear error was his shoddy treatment of Vietnam veterans. McMahon withdrew all but a small number of Australian troops from Vietnam by the time Whitlam took office. Whitlam released the draft dodgers, but more powerful was releasing the youth of that time from conscription. There were, as the old song says at 0:32, no V-day heroes in 1973. Disparaging Vietnam vets had begun under the conservatives, blaming them for their policy failures. Whitlam should have been big enough to bring them back into the bosom of the working class and use the aegis of office to allow them their place as heirs to the Anzac legend. Politically, he would have outflanked the Jim Cairns-inspired freaks in his own party who portrayed returning service personnel as dupes and baby-killers.

The idea that the country should replace state and local governments with regions has been mugged by reality. We have jurisdictions about the size of Whitlam's regions - Tasmania, the ACT, the Gold Coast, all overgoverned and struggling endemically both to raise taxes and meet the service and regulatory needs of their populations. This is an idea Whitlam would probably have dropped given enough clear evidence. Support for the idea can only be described as sentimental nonsense.

Another was the economic embarrassment faced by all first-world governments in the 1970s, that easy growth and low unemployment would continue indefinitely. This was the start of the narrative that Labor can't manage the economy and the Coalition does it better. Part of that came from Whitlam's arrogance, but also Labor's negligence in not matching him with better candidates and assuming second-rate lags would grow into the job.

Chris Pyne's comments were both typical and silly, and grossly inappropriate for the very day of a man's passing. I remember when conservatives were stuffy, but had decorum when appropriate. The second-rate lags surrounding Whitlam all had it, even Freddie Daly. We really are being governed by boy-men who giggle through formal speeches and fart in church. Old-school stuffy conservatives accorded some dignity to that which they wished to conserve. This is why Pyne, Abbott and the gang sound so hollow when they claim to stand for things and preserve what's good about our country. Those who like Abbott claim he's clever, even erudite; but unlike Whitlam there is no evidence of it in his policy output. Consider Whitlam's first year as Prime Minister - and Hawke's, and Rudd's, and Gillard's, and compare them to Abbott, who flits from Newspoll to Newspoll, media cycle to media cycle.

The media loved Whitlam when he was Opposition Leader - read some of the biographies written by journalists at the time. They're embarrassingly gushy, full of you-had-to-be-there moments which they regard as punchlines. Once he got into the heavy policy agenda in 1973-74 the journos got bored. After Whitlam failed to achieve a strong majority in 1974 they began to seek out anonymous backbench natterings and talk up the tough-talking opposition. They loved him again once he was gone from politics, much as Julia Gillard is getting kinder press these days. Once the baby-boomer journalists who had boosted him in 1972 rose to the top of the Australian media, they set the narrative on the retired Whitlam, and that narrative has been kind.

Abraham Lincoln said that it took a good man to build a barn, but any old mule could kick it down. Whitlam built progressive institutions and put conservatives in the position where they had to destroy established custom and practice; a conservative who destroys established custom and practice undermines that which they might hope to preserve. Fraser came to realise this and stopped trying to dig his legacy out of its historical hole. Howard held office for three times longer than Whitlam and achieved slightly less. Abbott can't even get a budget through a hostile Senate, which Whitlam did twice (the third, in 1975, was passed by the Fraser government without amendment).

Whitlam was not just someone of his time, but for the ages. To consign him to some bygone age is silly, especially when this government is all about undoing the practical aspects of his legacy while a) pretending that it is the best friend of those things and b) trying to do so in a way that doesn't make them any more unpopular. Even the IPA, in urging Abbott on, could think of no higher praise for a reformer than to emulate Whitlam's boldness while undoing his actual legacy. Putting out a release like that is an act of misjudgment that colours all other judgments.

People fear that this government will undo Whitlam's legacy, but one thing is clear - they'll stuff that up, too.

All of history involves people deciding what aspects of our heritage are to be preserved, what set aside. Gough Whitlam knew this, he lived it in his work, and it is why he deserves to be regarded in a wide and long historical context. He deserves better than the born-in/educated-at/son-of stuff you see in the traditional media (and which they prepared years in advance, like supermarket frozen foods), or the rushed jobs from journalists who didn't even know who he was. He will get better treatment, and subsequent governments will advance the causes he promoted - but it will take time.

What sort of nation are we? What might we become? What is government for? If you look only at Abbott and recent history you might be entitled to despair. Whitlam at least enables you to start addressing those questions, whether or not you follow the path he had lighted - and which is still lit, if badly maintained.

12 October 2014

Another week in federal politics

For more than four hundred weeks this blog has read/ heard/ seen press gallery journalists try to sum up 'the week in politics', when what they really mean is the week in media.

Katharine Murphy is on the record as saying both how tired she is of the Canberra blah-blah, and how she loves to follow the herd; and that dichotomy is on show here.

Here's what happened this week in Canberra, in terms of how we are governed:
  • The Social Security Minister decided not to push the idea that unemployed people under 30 could go without benefits. There is no telling when he will revive this idea, or when the Liberal right will lament not having gone far enough down that track.
  • In the face of national security paranoia, budget cuts and a commitment to patchwork telecommunications infrastructure, three ministers announced a cloud policy.
  • The Prime Minister said at a book launch that government was obliged "to make considered, thoughtful and wise judgements about the use of force", when it is not clear that it has done so in this instance.
  • The Minister for Health announced headspace mental health centres for young people. The only one of the 15 centres in the nation's most populous city is to go to Castle Hill, a bastard of a place to get to by public or even private transport; perhaps he thought people who vote for Alex Hawke urgently need it. There are none in fast-growing northern NSW but three in the demographically-stagnant southern expanses of the state.
  • The Ministers for Employment and the Environment have declared Tasmania a gateway city [sic] to Antarctica, but otherwise basically re-announces a whole lot of same-old about Antarctic policy.
  • The Prime Minister visited a firm in western Sydney and trotted out his usual lines about cutting the carbon and mining taxes, even though neither of these was levied on Ace Gutters. How did our Very Fine Journalists In The Press Gallery respond to this? How did they call the PM and the government to account? "Prime Minister, I just wanted to get your view on Canberra being named the best city to live in the world?" - no wonder journos sneer at bloggers, only a pro can talk truth-to-power like that.
That, among other things, is what happened in Canberra this week.

Instead of being able to rely on journalists at the coalface to ask the big questions and get them answered, I had to do my own searches of government websites from here in my back room in Sydney, while supposedly professional and experienced journalists confuse pantomimes staged for their benefit with the main game.

Meanwhile, Katharine Murphy was demonstrating just how tired she is of the Canberra narrative by wallowing in it:
The attorney general, George Brandis, held a short, strange press conference in which he told assembled journalists that the retired judge conducting the government’s royal commission into various alleged nefarious conduct(s) by trade unions and officials had sought an extension of time to pursue criminality. A closer reading of the correspondence supplied by Brandis indicated the commissioner had been rather more ambiguous about this “request”, which was, according to the man making it, “neither an application to widen the terms of reference nor an application to extend the reporting date”.
Julia Gillard was written off as a liar for less than that. Given his record with bigots' rights, bookcases, and taxpayer-funded wedding jaunts, at what point do you simply write off Brandis as a credible source about anything?

At what point do you write off Murphy?
Somebody, meanwhile, forgot to tell Joe Hockey, off in Washington, that expressions of bipartisanship on Iraq must trump his more immediate problem of making the columns in the budget papers add up. Hockey either didn’t get the talking points about how good Bill was being on Iraq, or he didn’t read them. Hockey was busy, after all, embarking on the task he spent much of opposition roundly bagging Wayne Swan for doing – moving the goal posts about budget forecasts that were proving about as wobbly as jelly. Poor old Joe. Rough going at the moment, it must be said.
That's not, actually, what Hockey was doing in Washington.

What Abbott was doing by seeming to favour Shorten over Hockey was to bring his friends close and his enemies closer. It's a pity that the experienced journalists on that story weren't awake to, and couldn't explain, the actual politics of the situation.

What Hockey was doing in Washington was making sure policy disagreements between the IMF and the US Congress don't rain on his parade at the G20 in Brisbane next month. He even made a speech kinda like this:
In Sydney, we thought carefully about initiatives that lift infrastructure investment, with an emphasis on fostering more private sector involvement.
That bit where the Cross-City Tunnel meets the Eastern Distributor is a showcase for what happens when infrastructure is designed by merchant bankers rather than engineers. I bet Hockey took the fleet of limos there so delegates could be inspired about what it's like at peak hour, and take in the world-class signage.
Some months later in Cairns, we agreed to a Global Infrastructure Initiative, which is about increasing quality infrastructure not just among the G20 membership but across the world.

The Initiative includes members' individual commitments to improve domestic investment climates, as well as collective actions to facilitate the development of infrastructure as an asset class, improve project planning and preparation, and reduce information asymmetries.

We committed to developing a database of infrastructure projects to help match potential investors with projects.
I wonder whether Melbourne's East-West Link will ever appear on that database. As Gay Alcorn points out, it was not mentioned at the last election and may become one of those Yarraside in-jokes by the one after next, but has been bustled through in the meantime with unseemly haste by the dying Napthine government. It is hard to believe that other G20 jurisdictions are not also dogged by projects where politicians have failed to take the public with them.

As a Sydneysider I want to believe in Westlink, but I just can't. Hockey and Abbott, another coupla Sydneysiders, just don't inspire confidence.

It is hard to believe that Hockey, or any other minister in this government (and many other G20 governments, it must be said) has any sort of commitment to "reduce information asymmetries". Will the Global Infrastructure Initiative database be publicly accessible?
In Brisbane next month, we hope to announce a mechanism that will help us deliver this important, multi year initiative: the Global Infrastructure Centre. This Centre can bring together in a single hub, governments, international organisations and the private sector, to facilitate a knowledge and information platform – for new infrastructure, or upgraded infrastructure, across developed and emerging economies. The Centre already has the strong support of the international business community, including the B20. In fact, the B20 estimates that establishing a global infrastructure hub could help facilitate tens of billions of dollars of annual infrastructure investment.
There are three such hubs for global engineering capabilities: London, Tokyo and Houston, which enable continuous work on big projects. It is unclear what a Global Hub would add to these centres, except as vectors for finance and regulation which are unclear at this stage (but, as the man says, hopefully thrashed out in Brisbane).

The word 'hopefully' has to be used here. A Treasurer who can't get a budget passed five months after delivery is not a bit of a duffer (Murphy's "Poor old Joe"). Bill Hayden's first and only budget was also held up by the Senate and ended up bringing down the government. Certainly, the government would not want to go to its much-vaunted double dissolution with that as its economic centrepiece. The political and policy ineptitude at this most basic task casts a shadow, if not a pall, over anything else Hockey and Abbott might say or do. Again, though, the press gallery give them the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, in chambers of substance, various things occurred. Bret Walker – an eminent lawyer who knows the odd thing about national security law, having studied the Australian regime as independent legislation monitor ...
Walker said at that hearing that the only legislation that he was formally called upon to review was the one abolishing his position. Murphy's set-up for Walker's comments was clumsy ("in chambers of substance, various things occurred" - how would she know?), and the silly final sentence in parentheses makes you wonder what trade she's talking about.
And of course, we went to war. Officially. Australian Super Hornets this week ended their period of flights without engagement, and went after an Islamic State target. Australia undertook the first sortie in what will be a long military campaign with highly uncertain domestic and international consequences.

Politics doesn’t get more substantial than that.
And more's the pity. Some media outlets in Australia and a few blogs provided the public debate that parliament couldn't bear to have. This should have caused a sentient press gallery to turn towards those who had thought about the issues involved and the best ways to address them, and away from the focus-group banalities offered by our current politicians.

Press gallery journalists complain that they can't turn away from what they are meant to cover (even if there is no debate to cover), but they jealously assert their right to apply 'context' to what is said and/or done in Parliament. Whenever people cling to two incompatible positions, it's appropriate to work to deny them both.
So what, then, of Faulkner’s point?
Faulkner is engaging in a w(h)ither Labor? debate, a debate conducted among and for members of that party. It has wider ramifications, sure, but it's an essentially partisan position that outsiders might note, but should only participate in if they share his assumptions about the ALP as the best vehicle for participating in politics.
One of the most perplexing trends in politics right now is its apparent appetite for working against its own long-term self-interest, in small things and in big things.
The same could be said for journalism, really. When it was revealed in 2008 that big banks were run by reckless fools it took many by surprise. Today, those running media operations - whether at the Deputy Political Editor level, the CEO level, and all points in between - remain convinced of their perspicacity and rectitude in the face of all evidence, and award one another bonuses (for executives) or prizes (for journalists) accordingly.
Faulkner didn’t term his diagnosis in this way, but his argument was essentially the cabal culture which now dominates in professional politics has reached such a nadir that major party powerbrokers don’t actually mind if they are on the Titanic as long as they have plush seats.
Faulkner doesn't give a monkey's about factionalism in the Liberal Party, and he doesn't talk up minor parties that seek to displace the majors. He's a Labor man. He thinks the ALP is more than those cabals. He thinks the people he supports are exempt from those sorts of descriptions; this isn't to say Faulkner is a hypocrite but people like Murphy should bring the nuance if their analysis is to have any value at all.
There was another poll this week ...
Great, more bloody Family Feud journalism.

Family Feud was a lame gameshow that has been revived by Channel Ten, further proof that Australia's media sector is run by dulled-witted people with no idea how to engage with people. It does surveys about particular topics and teams get rewarded for how closely their answers match the conventional responses. Katharine Murphy is an absolute sucker for Family Feud journalism, and mocks politicians who stray too far from "Survey says ...". Mark Textor is normally the Grant Denyer of Family Feud journalism, but in this case any survey will get them going. Survey says:
A poll of 1,200 voters now apparently rates the federal government behind state and local governments on trust. The prime minister ... made light of this rather grim milestone on Friday. “I think the surveys are lagging indicators if I may say so,” he said.
Again, the contrast with Gillard is telling: no 'loser' narrative, ..."and it's more bad news for the government, how long can this leadership go on?", etc.
Abbott’s broad diagnosis was firmly in the “ever thus” camp.
No, whether it's the press gallery or the public at large, Abbott's view is that he doesn't care what other people think. It was ever thus, if only journalists had been awake to that before last September.
Australians pride ourselves on our disdain for politics. Of course we tell polling companies we don’t trust politicians. “There are always going to be people who are disappointed with government because, let’s face it, we cannot do everything that everyone would like us to do immediately. We just can’t.”
We're a self-reliant people who don't depend as heavily on politicians as people in other countries seem to do. This is what makes Abbott's quote so cutting: he assumes we're all clamouring for a handout, like the lobbyists he sees every day. He has us all wrong, and yet he governs us while people like Murphy assume the show he puts on is the business of government itself.
Just get serious, full stop.
Just because press gallery journalists have been utterly discredited, it doesn't mean advice like that is complete garbage. They could use that themselves, but don't.
But if you can’t get serious, there is always another formulation to get you through the current press conference. Abbott: “We have repealed the carbon tax and the mining tax. We have more or less stopped the boats. We are working more effectively than the critics would concede to bring the budget back into balance and I think over time, if government is competent and trustworthy, the public will respond appropriately.” As is sometimes said in the classics, only time will tell.
Time has already told.

The evidence was in on the Coalition before it took office, but people like Murphy chose to give them the benefit of the doubt (and continue doing so): the gate is open and the horse has bolted, but with a weak ending like that the assumption is that the horse will bolt back in if the gate is left open. If you're left watching an empty gate with empty gestures then you are not where the action is, you have failed as a journalist and - worst of all - failed your audience. When an experienced journalist is viewing a stitch-up, surely their mind races to the real story that must surely be unfolding somewhere else - but alas, not if you're in the press gallery.

Poor old Katharine. Her journalism is no worse than others' from the press gallery, but most don't try to pretend they would or even could do better: but the proper response to someone who would have their cake and eat it is to expose their cake-management abilities. This week, and the next, will be like every other really. Just because press conferences are all about you it doesn't mean it's all that we need, and that it's all the government is up to.