12 July 2017

Submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism

The Senate established a select committee to investigate the future of public interest journalism. Its terms of reference are here. I was concerned that it would cleave too closely to the Federal Government's proposed regulatory changes to help prop up traditional media, and the recurring bludge identified most recently on Media Watch that Google and Facebook have some sort of responsibility to maintain journalists and their managers in the style to which they've become accustomed.

Here's my submission to the committee (the subheadings refer to the committee's terms of reference):

(a) the current state of public interest journalism in Australia


What is public interest journalism?

A pithy and useful definition is supplied here (http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/training-resources/journalism-basics/360-applying-the-public-interest-test-to-journalism):
The public interest is in having a safe, healthy and fully-functioning society. In a democracy, journalism plays a central role in that. It gives people the information they need to take part in the democratic process.
I’ll use this definition when I refer to ‘public interest journalism’ in this submission.

Why public interest journalism goes beyond the products offered by media companies represented in the press gallery

The media organisations represented in the federal parliamentary press gallery have employed journalists to report on the activities of politicians in federal parliament – mostly the activities of the government of the day in executing policy, but also the activities of the opposition (as a potential alternative government), and politicians outside both the government and official opposition (in shaping policy and legislative outcomes and contributing to longer-term debates).

There is more to the public interest than what traditional media organisations deign to cover. The public interest transcends the reach, the abilities, and the wit of particular management teams of traditional media organisations. Press gallery journalists cannot offer the breadth of coverage required for public interest journalism. There are a number of reasons for this.

The weaknesses of the fourth estate

Romantic notions of “the fourth estate” aside, the press gallery is not accountable to the public as are members of parliament. The public has no role in appointing or removing members of the press gallery. Remonstrations with them have no discernible or consistent impact. The geographic and demographic composition of the press gallery is unrepresentative of the broader Australian public. Any idea that “public interest journalism” begins and ends with the press gallery is nonsense.

Most news output from the press gallery concerns government announcements – activities of government and interpretations thereof that responsible ministers are more than happy to announce, and which the press gallery transcribes and broadcasts in terms broadly similar to those announced.

There is a public interest in activities of government that are not announced, which go to questions of maladministration, incompetence, or even corruption. It can be tempting to see these non-announcements as a game one plays with journalists, rather than misinformation to the public at large; this is a mistake, one that public interest journalism should work to redress.

Media organisations represented in the press gallery rarely do the investigation necessary to bring these activities to light for the public, and almost never from within the press gallery. They sometimes did when they were better resourced than they are today.
There is no real link between any increase in funding those organisations may experience and any increase in the frequency, breadth, or complexity of investigative journalism they may deign to undertake. Investigative journalism resources required for properly effective public interest journalism does, and will continue to come from beyond traditional media organisations. Laws and policy outcomes should recognise and accommodate this.

The need for such journalism does not ebb and flow with fads or commercial decisions of traditional media organisations. The public has a right to know what its government is doing, and what the options are politically; this public interest exists independently of media operational strategy.

Are you a smart-alec?

As an engaged citizen and media consumer, I want to see, hear, and read what’s going on: preferably from those who understand what’s going on rather than merely physically present at a staged announcement, and who are simply relaying information supplied to them.
Apparently it is not reasonable to expect traditional media organisations to engage a variety of policy experts on an expanding range of topics. It is certainly not reasonable to expect that a press gallery journalist can adequately cover any and all of the complex policy issues covered by Australia’s federal government.

While the quality of online content can vary considerably, I have learned through wide and careful reading that there is no such thing as a dull subject, only dull writing and unappealing presentation of important facts. Throughout the community, there are people with deep and broad experience in many complex and important issues; it is important that we hear from them directly rather than awaiting the traditional media spotlight to fall on them.

One important example is the rise of science journalism. Fairfax, NewsCorp and the ABC recently had small numbers of specialist journalists with scientific training and the ability to explain complex, cutting-edge concepts to mainstream audiences. In recent years those organisations have downsized or abolished science reporting teams, despite the urgency in public debates for greater scientific understanding by decisions-makers and the community as a whole. Public interest journalists who focus on science provide a vital service, and raise questions about traditional media avowals of quality journalism.

The value of “insider knowledge” on complex, far-reaching public issues is often vastly overrated by politicians and traditional media. It is lazy and inadequate, as so often happens, to present a policy debate as “argy-bargy” within a party or across parties. It is irresponsible to abandon an important issue with the cop-out “the devil is in the detail”. Public interest journalism opens the possibility that complex policy issues might be engaged with and explained by knowledgeable, experienced people, who may help us all (including politicians and press gallery journalists) better understand and engage with the issues in public debate.

Statistical knowledge – not just the data and the presentation of it, but the understanding of how data may be manipulated – has never been more important in public debate. From their earliest days, newspapers carried voluminous data on shipping movements, racing form guides, and stock market movements. Popular television coverage of sporting events includes voluminous statistical information. So do popular weather reports, financial advice, and opinion poll coverage. Public interest journalists are more likely to gather and present in-depth statistical information than traditional press gallery journalists, who feel pushed for time and unable to digest official reports with rich statistical information that might inform key current debates.

The Australian community is better educated than it was. “Beer, cigs up” is not sufficient commentary on the budget. The Treasurer is scrutinised more than any other minister is because of the plethora of economics and business journalists who cover his portfolio, not all of whom are fulltime, salaried employees. Public interest journalism promises to apply similar scrutiny across all portfolios of government, far more than is possible from press gallery journalists limited to manoeuvering.

The contraction of traditional news resources goes against a growing need for more and better knowledge about how we are (and might be) governed. Salaried journalists in traditional media organisations might insist on exclusive rights and privileges over access to and dissemination of official information, and the structure of the press gallery institutionalises that view. This paradox will most likely be resolved against the interests of traditional media, as independently-operating public interest journalists will come to offer greater breadth and credibility of coverage than enfeebled traditional media. Allowance must be made for such people to come and go from places where public interest information is available, and that they may not be fulltime employees of a few large organisations.

The only way of ensuring viable, independent and diverse services would be to provide high-quality information to as many people as might want it, given appropriate safeguards for privacy and other forms of justice. Commercial organisations may worry about demand; the real question for regulators is and should be the supply of accurate and relevant information.

(b) Laws, market powers and practices


Do you really want diversity? The proposals put forward by the Minister for Communications seem to call for mergers and other anti-competitive measures in aid of traditional media organisations. Which is it: viability through competition and diversification, or by minimising them?

Consumer law and practice have little impact on media output on public issues. One regular media practice that defeats regulation of ownership is press gallery herding around One Big Story, told from much the same angle with almost identical inputs, at any given time. This practice defeats media diversity and inhibits the amount of information broadcast to voters and taxpayers about how we are (and might be) governed. I don’t know how you regulate that out of existence: a combination of public ridicule and corporate downsizing might work.

Public interest journalists know that the story is probably wherever they aren’t. They are more likely to fan out and find it, rather than timidly follow the herd. Competition and consumer laws seem somewhat beside the point. Instead, here are some laws that might be changed to foster more and better public interest journalism:

Parliamentary standing orders

There is no good reason why members of the public viewing the operations of the House and the Senate should be denied the ability to take recording devices such as notepads or cameras into the press gallery.

Public interest journalists should be able to take notes and pictures as freely as the press gallery can. Press gallery journalists are allowed into areas of the Parliament from which members of the public are denied access. There are predictable objections which may be dealt with as follows:


Objection
Response
Media organisations have commercial interests that are protected by removing recording devices from members of the public
Would these be the same media organisations who recently sacked their photographers? Why are public resources protecting private interests?
Media organisations comply with rules about parliamentary decorum
Do they? Would they be rules that help, or hinder, public understanding of how we are governed?
Random members of the public might create security risks
Parliament represents members of the public, and public access to parliamentary proceedings are an essential part of the parliament’s operations. Security issues are for security professionals.


Parliament has its own very sophisticated systems for recording official proceedings. The idea that public interest journalism might interfere with them is absurd. Standing orders that inhibit members of the public to take recording devices into the public galleries should be amended as soon as possible, as a sign of commitment to public interest journalism.

Fair use as a defence under copyright, freedom of information, and defamation laws

Public interest journalism should not be inhibited by restrictions arising from copyright. The Public Interest Journalism Foundation has called for ‘fair use’ provisions to cover public interest journalists, similar to those covering other researchers; you should look into this.

Freedom of information laws should only apply where there are violations of personal privacy, national security, or to police operations and judicial proceedings.

Public interest journalism should be a defence against defamation, similar to the principles in the High Court’s Lange case.

Open Government and Government 2.0 initiatives

The Australian government should be an impartial provider of high-quality, relevant data. That data should be readily available online, with appropriate safeguards for privacy, justice, and national security. The Australian Bureau of Statistics should be a leader in collecting and providing this data openly but securely (including in ways that resist spoofing), so that users can be sure Australian government data can be trusted.

Government agencies, politicians, and private providers (including the media and public interest journalists) may create value from that data by presenting it as information or even commercially-appealing content. It should not be the role of politicians to second-guess how certain data may or may not be used, and to restrict access according to short-term and half-baked tactical calculations.
I wish that the principles set out in the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan were applied, so that we could see fair and appropriate use of government data applied to public benefit. The Australian government’s commitment to the themes ii. Open data and digital transformation and iii. Access to government information should be a matter for close and ongoing scrutiny, for public interest journalists and parliamentarians alike.

Whatever resources government is committing to public data provision initiatives, it isn’t enough. The fate of the 2016 census (and, perhaps, the quality of ongoing government decisions based on that data) shows it cannot be done on the cheap. Readily available data enables creation of quality public interest journalism, and enables checking of news as to whether or not it might be fake.

The Public Interest Journalism Foundation

I support calls by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation to promote a culture of philanthropy to support public interest journalism, and to review legal restrictions (such as those described above) that inhibit it.

Calls to ensure diversity through reviews, legislation or public funds are problematic. In recent years we have seen cuts to legal aid and public broadcasting, and expansions of police powers over freedoms of the public in the name of security; the very idea that scope might be opened to public interest journalism against a trend of diminishing these important and related issues is questionable.

The terms of reference specifically refer to competition and consumer law, thank you very much. Your suggestions are outside our terms of reference

Are you serious about public interest journalism or not? You could work to reform those laws if you wanted.

(c) and (e) Fake news, propaganda, search engines


“Fake news” and propaganda are not new. Two persistent examples of fake news arose from Russia:
  • 19th century Tsarist secret police fabricated a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to provide documentary proof of a global Jewish conspiracy. Even though it has been extensively discredited, the book was a key text in Nazi Germany and is still disseminated among far-right groups today; and
  • In 1945 Soviet troops discovered that Hitler had died. Stalin had his skull brought to Moscow. Yet, Soviet propaganda held that US and British forces had allowed Hitler to escape war-torn Berlin, and that he was living in South America, plotting his return.
This is not to say that Russia is somehow prone to “fake news” and propaganda, or that information from there is unreliable. Note that both of those examples pre-date the internet. It should surprise nobody, in government or outside it, that those who place a premium on information being fast and conveniently available run the risk of that information being untrue and unreliable.

For media organisations, the pressure on journalists to produce “content” to tight and shifting deadlines exposes them to the risk of unreliable information. By broadcasting it they risk damaging their credibility as their financial position worsens – but that’s their choice, not yours. I agree with New York University academic Jay Rosen when he urges media organisations to create value by focusing on truth and reliability over the traditional media imperative to be “first with the latest”, a battle that cannot be won against free internet-based providers.

Given that most press gallery coverage of politics simply involves relaying announcements and splicing together press releases, little of value is lost when online aggregators take these stories and promulgate them with no return to the media organisations originating that coverage. Media outlets who would have writers work for little or no reward get “a taste of their own medicine” when that work in turn is freely aggregated and distributed.

(d) Public interest journalism in underserviced markets: regional areas, culturally and linguistically diverse markets


Public interest journalism has a role in extrapolating high-level activities of government (e.g. millions of dollars spent in a particular area) and exploring how they affect a particular community, whether or not a particular affect has been included in a formal announcement. Whether or not traditional media organisations regard these communities as commercially appealing markets is beside the point of public interest journalism.

The more people there are engaged in public interest journalism, the higher the chances that local communities will be better informed on matters that affect them. Communities need not be geographically defined, but by language or other specialist interest.

“All politics is local”: this is a truism known to politicians, journalists, and to members of the public. While politics might operate on that level, the practice of Australian political journalism largely doesn’t.

The weakness of centralised traditional media is evident during and after election campaigns. In NSW and Australian elections, we see facile coverage of western Sydney that is resented by those who live there, and uninformative to those who don’t. Something similar is happening in the US after last year’s election, where centralised media descends on communities in Appalachia and the Midwest that have few media resources of their own, and which are poorly served by centralised national media. By creating room for public interest journalism, you relieve pressure of traditional media that simply isn’t coping with the demands placed upon it.

Again, there are two main ways that the Australian government can boost public interest journalism to these communities:
  • The provision of reliable and relevant data online as an exemplar of, and expression of faith in, high quantity and high quality public information to inform public debate; and
  • The removal of petty and self-defeating rules restricting access to quality data and information, and the privileging of other concerns less important than public interest journalism ahead of it.
I question whether public broadcasters should maintain correspondents in media-saturated locations like the UK and the US. In theory, an Australian voice from those places provides a uniquely different perspective on events from those places. In practice it is hard to see what that difference is, and whether resources might be diverted to improve reporting in the public interest.

I hope that members of those communities will rise to these and other related challenges of the information age.

10 July 2017

Distressed assets, part 2

Following on from yesterday on Bernardi's political bottom-feeding:

What becomes of the broken-hearted


Bernardi has some capacity to make inroads into the Coalition, particularly the Liberal Party, but only after the Turnbull government has gone. Nobody, not even George Christensen, wants to do to the extant government what Jack Beasley or Vince Gair did to Labor back in the day. Bernardi may be able to lord it over the churchmice who run Family First, but there are limits to his political reach and skill.

In South Australia, losses at state and federal level will see out the Liberals. Pyne and Marshall are not strong enough to hold out for long against a concerted movement by both Bernardi and Xenophon, not even if Pyne shakes down defence contractors for campaign funds. Say what you will about Xenophon, but he's tougher, smarter, and more deft at both policy and tactics than Pyne. Every step Pyne took to the right to maintain his place under Abbott and survive all that sniping from Minchin is erased by Bernardi.

The Liberals in WA (the most right-wing division of the party) are in disarray, discredited after so long in state government and little to show for the boom but debt. WA's normally strident business community is weakened and cannot afford to antagonise the new state Labor government, nor discount the prospect of a federal one. Once Cormann is gone, and Dame Rachel Cleland dies, who will block Liberal ears to the siren call of AusCons?

Michael Kroger has almost succeeded in his life's work of ridding the Victorian Liberals of Hamerite moderates. Liberal preselections are beset by such dire candidates they make Sophie's Choice look straighforward. Whatever doubts Daniel Andrews may have are surely allayed by the unshakeable commitment by Kroger, Matthew Guy and Inga Peulich to douse their party in voter repellent. Once they lose three or four federal seats and get belted on Spring Street, they will embrace Bernardi like the old VFL used to snaffle Magarey Medallists - especially if Bernardi gets Bolt on board.

The ACT Liberals are pretty much Bernardi people anyway. Zed is one good lunch away from throwing in his lot with Bernardi, or he'll lose to the Greens and the party structure will switch to AusCons bag and baggage. The NT's CLP might take a detour via Hanson but they will end up in his camp sooner or later.

All of the above scenarios, and the ones in the preceding post, show the one thing required for Bernardi to succeed politically: a vacuum.

In Tasmania, Abetz and Lambie will see off Bernardi. As the Hodgman government fades, a conservative may appear who doesn't like Abetz and won't play second-fiddle to Lambie, and may turn to Bernardi: there are too many variables for that to even postulate now.

The Queensland LNP was formed to secure state government, keeping control in gnarled rustic hands while presenting a civil face to the urban south-east. They only succeeded once. Once. What happens if they get smashed, not just by a Labor government but one led by women! Two of them! Re-establishing the Liberal Party's Qld division and the non-national Nationals won't be an option.

Queensland is a long way from South Australia, but Bernardi can speak slowly and it isn't like he's from Sydney or Melbourne. Some LNPers may drift to AusCons if the scenarios with Katter and Hanson come off, but again there are too many variables.

This leaves NSW.

There are two factors operating in NSW. First, the Coalition is running a functioning, popular government, that is getting stuff done and solving problems. There are some right-wingers, but not enough to destroy the government with dogmatic focus on issues that don't matter and neglect of those that do. Right-wingers like Dominic Perrottet and Anthony Roberts are on a sweet wicket, and nothing Bernardi says or does will entice them away from their current roles.

The second is the current federal member for Warringah. Abbott was never a factional leader, but he's had to become a figurehead because the Liberal right in NSW are such monkeys. He can't sit around Canberra or go jogging or do whatever else he does with any confidence that his homeboys are minding the shop.

Whenever you see the press gallery insisting that Abbott is lunging for his old job, know that he's flat out securing his own preselection. Preselection (the process by which a party endorses a candidate to run for a parliamentary seat) is basic political competence, one of those fundamental skills upon which higher-order operations depend. Even the newest, lowliest backbencher has won preselection.

Murdoch TV personality Ross Cameron was the little brother Abbott never had. He spent eight years as MP for Parramatta on Abbott, like those betas who trail around behind school bullies. Cameron should be one of Abbott's chief lieutenants within the NSW Liberals, but instead he has fallen foul of a basic rule that has seen him suspended from the party for five years. Quite why Murdoch TV regard him as some sort of sage is unclear to me. Another of Abbott's posse, Jokus Ludicrous, is facing similar disciplinary action because of similarly basic stupidity. Abbott's bestie, David Gillespie, is under threat of losing his seat over yet another basic act of dumbness.

Those guys should be supporting Abbott, not putting themselves in need of support. After 23 years in Parliament, he should have a tight-knit band of professionals who head off any threat to his political survival and keep the home fires burning. Abbott fans will tell you what a great guy he is, and how his staff love him, but if the guy can't keep preselection in Warringah then he's fundamentally weak and probably even more of a prick than I think he is. Canberra is brutal at exposing and homing in on political weakness, and no weakness is more fundamental than preselection: the result of building a team in your local branches that is both loyal and effective.

Here is where the idea that Turnbull is worse than Abbott falls down. For all his limitations, Turnbull can hold his preselection against all comers. He has a loyal and effective base within his local branches. Whatever travails he may have with Dutton or Shorten or Trump, his base is sufficiently solid so that he can act on the national stage.

The idea that the government are going to elect a leader who can't be sure his own branches are behind him is stupid, an idea advanced only by people who don't understand politics and have no business reporting on it. Abbott might feel more at home in a party that consisted only of conservatives - but it wouldn't be a governing party. He fancies his chances at winning a wider constituency, and to do that you need to be in an established party with a track record of being in government - like, say, the Liberal Party as it is currently constituted.

If Bernardi offered Abbott a role within AusCons it would be a comedown for both men. Bernardi can lord it over Gichuhi or Carling-Jenkins, but Abbott is a different beast. Would Abbott be a net gain to the AusCons?

If Turnbull and Berejiklian lost office then the right would be out for revenge - but they are so stupid they would fuck that up too, and activate the party's "let's not be hasty" mindset that saw them lose state government for 16 years. There might be a few individuals and even a few Liberal branches that might defect to AusCons, but so what? The defection of, say, Walter Villatora might not be the coup Bernardi's people might want the press gallery to believe.

Follow the money


Bernardi was unsuccessful in securing money from the US right, such as the Koch brothers (the real reason for his trip to New York last year, to the point where questions should be asked about his publicly-funded trip and its impact on Australia's representation at the UN). He might be more successful if the Republicans lose Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020, and those donors spread more of their funding internationally.

Bernardi won't be able to conduct fundraising and parliamentary business simultaneously, but who would he trust to raise the money? Where is his Santamaria? Where, apart from his wife is his sounding board?

Any liquidator will want to make sure his party's financial management is even tighter than his message discipline. Even the whiff of impropriety will repel potential and current members, and will invalidate any of the prospects described here for Bernardi's and AusCons' future. The Liberal Party will not take kindly to having its money switch with members to AusCons.

Why Bernardi can't win in the long term


When you're a liquidator/administrator, you don't have a long-term stake in the business you're taking over. The dream that inspired the business and motivated those within it is over: those people may weep as you take their security passes and send them home. You stop the bleeding and focus on the short-to-medium term interests of the stakeholders, who all have unequal importance when dividing what's left of the loot.

Bernardi's wish for an equal-but-opposite broad social base for conservatism is doomed:
  • Workers join unions to secure better wages and working conditions; there is no countervailing broad movement for less and worse, especially as the Reserve Bank and the Business Council realise the economic impacts of consumers withholding spending.
  • Progressive social movements seek to force change on politicians often unwilling to grant it; few will work as hard or as long to retain stasis.
  • Even conservative women bristle at being patronised, denied opportunities open to male counterparts, and/or subjected to violence. Countervailing forces to feminism are weak and yield when pushed or even exposed.
  • And while there is countervailing force to same-sex marriage, there appears to be no fallback option should it ever come to a vote and pass the parliament. It's hard enough to maintain one's own marriage let alone interfere in those of others.
Assuming you can't just outlaw GetUp! and the ACTU, what would happen with a broad-based activist left and a broad-based activist right? There are two possibilities:
  1. Centrist stasis, moderate liberals in ever more pointless set-piece quadrilles with Centre Unity Labor, achieving little of real import; or
  2. A hopelessly riven polity that talks past one another, as we see in the US; or
  3. There is no third option. Conservatives do black/white only. As Tony Abbott shows us, nuance is for sissies and losers.
Where is the left-wing Alan Jones? Probably arguing with the right-wing Van Badham. This kind of shit is where Bernardi's head is at. As a liquidator, and then as a politician, Bernardi's focus is short-to-medium, which is a problem for any conservative.

We live in an age of great upheaval, and conservatives are people looking for timeless continuities when everything seems nasty, brutish, and short. Bernardi says he's a conservative, and for all I know he may live a traditional life in Adelaide's more sylvan glades, but it isn't enough. As per the dot-points above, he doesn't have a long-term agenda. Where are the institutions that might buttress enduring human interests: the church? Government? Western Civ expressed through arts institutions?

Thanks to publicly-subsidised education at Sydney and Oxford, Tony Abbott can drop Western Civ references from Augustine to Zwingli - but he doesn't live those values. He can't show conservative voters how to do so, nor persuade non-conservatives why it's desirable (remember his proposal for hard-to-dissolve covenant marriages?). Bernardi can't just do old-school scolding, hoping tradition will back him up. If he gets Abbott in the tent, he cedes control, but without Abbott he runs a boutique operation beneath his ambition.

Once he assembles a ramshackle gang (with or without Abbott), Bernardi will have to keep them together and focused on some long-term goal that's bigger than all of them. There is no proof Bernardi has leadership skills. There is no proof he has a strong team outside parliament offering depth of perspective and a sounding board, as the major parties do with their executives. I've explained his lack of a long-term agenda. What he's doing is clearly working for some in the current, transitory environment; but to use a phrase much used by hippies, it's just not sustainable.

09 July 2017

Distressed assets, Part 1

Despite its both-sidesism, John Warhurst's piece on Senators Rhiannon and Bernardi is worth reading. I wish political commentary from the press gallery was half this good.

Warhurst makes some good points on Bernardi (and on Rhiannon too - balance!), and on Bernardi's wish for conservatism to become a movement that extends beyond parliament. I won't speculate on Rhiannon's wider game, but Bernardi's is interesting because it indicates a new development in Australian politics.

The pattern (from which Bernardi is departing)


The Liberal Party and the Nationals (including the Northern Territory's CLP and the LNP in Queensland) represent the enduring political institutions on the right of Australian politics. Right-wing parties operating beyond the Coalition tend to rise and fall with individuals and/or with short-term political predicaments that, when resolved, push the smaller party into oblivion.

Far-right white-supremacist parties tend to congeal around a leader: now Blair Cotrell, formerly Jim Saleam or Eric Butler or Francis de Groot. While this remains a virulent strain in Australian politics, it goes into remission without a disciplined leader, and relies heavily on the personal quirks of whomever has managed to herd those turkeys at any given time.

Slightly to the left of those guys, but mainly to the right of the Coalition, we have seen right-wing insurgencies from Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter, Brian Harradine, Fred Nile, David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day, Rob Brokenshire, Clive Palmer, and others who slip my mind at this hour. They have all built political vehicles that got them elected and re-elected, and achieved not much else (I'm not counting pissed-off Coalition MPs who lose preselection, flounce to the cross-benches, and get flushed out of the political system at the next election).

Most were flashes in the pan. Harradine served in the Senate for a generation. Fred Nile is NSW's longest-serving MP; when he was elected in 1981, the state's current Premier and Opposition Leader were in primary school. Hanson, briefly an MP in the late 1990s, has returned after a career on life support from dying commercial media - but for how much longer?

The exception that proves the rule


The one right-wing movement that endured outside the Coalition and had a real effect on the Labor-Liberal "main game" was the Democratic Labor Party. It was formed out of the Catholic Social Studies Movement, orchestrated but not led by Bartholomew Augustine (Bob) Santamaria. It sought to represent conservative working people in line with Catholic teaching on labour representation and other social policies, including anti-communism; this placed them outside the ALP, which was not communist but also not as anti-communist as the Coalition.

The DLP held the balance of power in the Senate between 1955 and 1974, mostly passing government bills put to them with few or no modifications. They won a NSW state seat from 1973-76 because a Liberal minister forgot to lodge his nomination forms. It was considered a spent force after then, except in campus elections at Victorian universities.

The party was resurrected around the turn of the century by Archbishop George Pell, who wanted a distinctively Catholic voice within Australian conservatism.

Pell ramped up the DLP, with representatives elected to the Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council. He involved the Church in the Institute of Public Affairs, which was integrated with the Liberal Party in Victoria (and which promptly dropped libertarian positions on issues like abortion or euthanasia). Chris Berg was paid to write a book extolling the virtues of Western Civilisation, and put the Church at the heart of it; but in his hands a compelling, vibrant and eventful story became a damp grey mist. Pell wrote articles for Quadrant and served on its board. Catholic schools received more government funding than at any time in Australian history.

In 2003, Peter Hollingworth resigned as Governor-General because he had mismanaged instances of child abuse within Anglican church organisations for which he had been responsible. Howard briefly considered holding a royal commission into child sexual abuse within church institutions; Pell told him he would recreate sectarian divisions by such a move. Howard's lifelong political project was to unite conservatives across sectarian lines within the Liberal Party, so (as Pell knew) his words cut deep.

The DLP won a seat in the Senate, but John Madigan left the party before losing the seat. It may not have retained its place in Victoria's upper house at the state's next election, even had Pell not himself been charged with sexual offences against children. A subsequent royal commission, called by an atheist woman PM, showed the Catholic Church could not be trusted to run aspects of its affairs and that the application of secular law to practices within the Church would prevail over internal processes. The imbroglio over government funding of schools reached a consensus that funding Catholic schools would be reduced, and that they would not spend public money contrary to government guidelines.

In short, all that Pell hoped to achieve in Australian politics from reviving the DLP lies in ruins. He has the right to remain silent - but in politics as in law, anything he does say may be taken down and used against him.

Enter Cory Bernardi (but not in That Way)


When Cory Bernardi left the Liberal Party he gave up his wish to unite broadly conservative forces within the Coalition, which had been his aim as recently as late last year. It was reasonable to assume that Bernardi would build up Australian Conservatives as just another vanity project, electing nobody but himself, and that it would die when either the voters of South Australia grew tired of him, or he of them.

Before entering parliament, Bernardi was an accountant specialising in insolvency. While standard Liberals talk about growth and opportunity, Bernardi's experience comes in once the go-getters have gotten and gone, following a very tightly regulated process. He has brought these skills to bear on distressed political assets on the right. Not since the Liberal Party was formed in 1944 has anybody bothered to do this in an ongoing, systematic way. Press gallery journalists look to shoehorn developments into clich├ęs and call it news, so it is disappointing but not surprising that they have missed this development.

Family First was the Protestants' attempt to match the DLP and get around Fred. They succeeded in electing Stephen Fielding and Bob Day to the Senate, but neither was capable of building the party beyond himself. Bernardi picked it up for a song. Having two Senators looks like momentum, like Chipp and Mason for the Democrats in 1977. It made up for his failure to secure funding from Gina Rinehart, and from the right-wing groups now reaping the billions they sowed into what is now the Trump Administration.

He did the same with the DLP, wiping both the Pell taint and the antediluvian irrelevance of Madigan. He gave Rachel Carling-Jenkins MLC with more options than a slow slide into irrelevance. He spread his wings beyond South Australia, which is more than small-l liberal Nick Xenophon could manage.

To pick Bernardi's next move, develop a nose for decay within what look like viable structures.

Bob Katter is 72 years old. Maybe he will want to keep travelling from balmy Charters Towers to chilly Canberra indefinitely, but maybe he won't; maybe the decision, one way or another, will be made for him.

Fred Nile is 83 this September. He has fought off successors within his own party, and the hacks and sycophants surrounding him now won't be able to run a chook raffle without him. If Bernardi comes calling they will hear him out at least.

Pauline Hanson won't hang around forever. For all the media opportunities created for her, she isn't exactly a media tart. She snarls at scrutiny and is awkward at stunts. These days her words are every bit as measured as the dullest major-party hack. In Parliament she does what the DLP did and basically votes with the government. One Nation's experience in WA showed she is clear about what she wants from her followers, but much less so about what she offers them in return. After all, the party is called Pauline Hanson's One Nation, not Your One Nation.

In the late 1990s she spent two-and-a-bit years as an MP. In 2004 the federal parliamentary pension scheme was closed to new entrants. Four-and-a-bit years from being elected to the Senate in 2016 she will hit the seven-year eligibility for that lucrative old-school parliamentary pension, which has always been her light-on-the-hill. On that day (in 2020/21) you won't see her for dust, gay Muslim Aboriginal wind-turbines or no. By then her boosters in commercial media will be even weaker than they are now - learning the lesson that if your product is crap, regulatory reform won't help you.

And yet, Hanson will still have a following. Bernardi will make them an offer they won't be able to refuse.

Either Danny Nalliah will give politics away, or he will sign on with Bernardi. He has no third option. Christians can't convincingly maintain the politics of turning away the stranger.

David Leyonhjelm would not give way to the slippery Helen D. His gunloser constituency in NSW overlaps with that of One Nation's Brian Burston. Either or both will give way to Bernardi when the time comes, or they will give over to Shooters & Fishers and leave Bernardi nothing to salvage.

Clive Palmer leaves no legacy, in business or politics. Jacqui Lambie was elected in her own right and works all sides of the political street, starving Hanson of oxygen in what should be a strong One Nation state. Lambie had guts and base enough to see Palmer off, and she can do the same to Bernardi.

Bernardi will be able to crystallise the supposedly large but disorganised movement of men upset with the Family Court, and against Rosie Batty's movement on domestic violence. Hanson has indicated her support for these, but as a divorced woman who had sought police protection from her exes, she is unconvincing. Were Mark Latham to throw in his lot with Bernardi (and face it, he has nowhere else to go either) it would be the biggest act of political self-abasement since Billys Hughes or Holman.

--

Tomorrow: will Bernardi cannibalise the Coalition? Does he have a long-term future?

04 July 2017

That old junkyard dog

I am not going anywhere.

- Tony Abbott
The traditional media are making the same mistakes with Abbott that they made when he was Opposition Leader. Almost all members of the press gallery were there when he was Prime Minister. None of them learned the lesson that Abbott talks a lot but achieves very little. All of them just did what they did in 2011, and ran his slogans verbatim.

Abbott became Prime Minister in 2013 on a promise to end the interpersonal turmoil between Rudd and Gillard, and promising to change relatively little policy-wise. When he began reneging on promises to maintain education funding, and other matters scarcely covered by the press gallery for their beyond-Canberra impact, his polling sank and stayed low. The press gallery put Abbott's decline down to the 2014 budget, but only because they continued to give him the benefit of the doubt long after wiser observers had turned away. We had seen Abbott for what he was and is.

Even those who believed in this shower of platitudes must know that Abbott can't make good on it. He can sow confusion about carbon abatement measures, but he can't pretend it is a non-issue, and the idea that he might come up with a workable solution is long proven false. And that's the most credible of his pronouncements! All the rest of it - reintroducing the 20-shilling pound, reducing costs on WestConnex by importing English convicts under a new deal with the equally desperate and incompetent May government - if press gallery experience really was worth more than I prize it at, then they would have dismissed both messenger and message long before now.

Tony Abbott is not newsworthy simply as a former PM. When tax-and-spend social democracy faded in the late 1970s - after Whitlam, and with the uninspiring examples of Callaghan and Carter and Schmidt - Billy McMahon did not start monstering the Fraser government. He was treated as a irrelevance whenever he proffered the mildest suggestion. While Whitlam himself refrained from commenting on many of the Hawke-Keating reforms, Whitlam-era relics like Tom Uren or Stewart West spoke out and were received with bemusement. Abbott's contributions should be viewed in a similar light. His slogans are slightly reworded from half-a-dozen years ago, and were stale a century before that: he has learned nothing and forgotten everything, just like the press gallery.

Some believe Abbott returning to the Prime Ministership would further ensure a Labor win at the next election, a weak-tea version of the marxist notion of 'accelerationism'. All this would mean is that the next government would be so traumatised by the ratbaggery that preceded it, that the imperative for far-reaching reform would be weakened. Areas where the current government has clearly failed, such as school funding or reducing carbon emissions, would yield half-baked compromises to "get it off the table" rather than well-considered solutions.

Weak-tea accelerationism is idle. Either go all out with buckets of blood, like the Bolsheviks did, with the risk that the blood spilt might be your own; or start planning for both the victory and what might lie beyond it.

Abbott might be disrupting the Turnbull government from its stumbling, whatever-happens agenda, but he is weak on three levels that the press gallery don't really appreciate.

First, he's weak in the administration of government. There was no link between what he promised the public and what transpired in his government. He could not get legislation through parliament: bleating about fractious politics ignores the Gillard government's successes in getting legislation through both houses in which no party had a clear majority.

Second, he's weak politically. A leader in the ascendant has his people in key positions. Abbott's people are either out of the party (e.g. Ross Cameron, Cory Bernardi) or on their way out (Jokus Ludicrous). You can't lead a party with people who aren't sure whether or not they want to be there. In parliament, his supporters are burnt-out husks (Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews), accident-prone clowns (Michael Sukkar, Peter Dutton) or unimpressive nobodies (Craig Kelly), who don't help Abbott in his attempts to establish a new future for the party and the nation.

He's not a great judge of character. His closeness to George Pell is not the asset is was; a bit like his other friendship with Ian MacDonald from earlier in his career.

Abbott has made assertions about the Liberal Party's base, and the press gallery dumbly assumes he knows what he's talking about. They haven't twigged to the idea that he might be bluffing or lying. Take this for example:

(c) The Shovel

No similar picture exists of Abbott with, say, Trent Zimmerman, a fellow Liberal who holds an adjacent electorate to his. If you don't even like Liberals, you can't lead them.

Third, his timing is off. If he became leader now, or soon, his failure would be complete long before the 2018 budget. 2018 would see Labor dancing around a hapless Abbott, and backbenchers preparing for opposition and/or unemployment, watching those lobbying jobs recede before their eyes. Timing is crucial for a successful leader.

Timing, and loyalty. The ability of his most feared weapon, Peta Credlin, to enforce discipline would be weaker than it was in the first half of this decade. She and Abbott had commanded loyalty and discipline by demonstrating it, but that's gone now. Had Abbott been quiet and dutiful, busying himself with the quotidian concerns of Warringah, his outbursts might have more impact. They have shown the utility of disloyalty, and there would be pushback if they tried to reintroduce the permission-to-breathe environment they had established previously. I pity the first Liberal who tells Credlin to just fuck off, but life will be easier for those who follow.

No press gallery journalist is awake to the possibility that Abbott has been paid for his speeches, to 2GB and to the IPA and CIS. He has not declared any such speaking fees, but he is probably not too proud to seek them, outside of the Liberal Party's standard (and regulated) processes for accepting donations. C'mon press gallery, let's see some journalism from you.

Dickhead claims the Abbott-Turnbull disagreement is about policy, when clearly it isn't. The merest whiff of policyness is more than enough to overwhelm his argy-bargy detection skills. The gallery does not do policy, it cannot use policy to assess political disagreements. This is also why Bernard Keane (no I won't link to him) was so risible: if Abbott was ever going to be challenged on policy it would've happened long before now.

Where is the journalist challenging any minister in this government on policy? Scott Morrison made a long, dreary, focus-group-ridden speech about how we're all bored with politics. No mention of his own role in that, and no fingering the media whose crap reporting is largely responsible for creating that anomie either; little wonder the gallery loved it.

The press gallery added together and cubed has no more knowledge of policy, and no ability to call him on it, than Abbott does himself. His rise to the Prime Ministership the blind leading the blind: the gallery are still blind to policy, though in fairness there isn't much to see in their limited purview. Coorey and Keane and the rest of the gang are still hankering to be (mis)led and the sucking vacuum Abbott creates draws them on, helplessly.

The press gallery serves the nation badly when all policy discussion is "argy-bargy", and when statements about policy mask underlying tensions that have nothing to do with philosophy or policy.

To give but one example: when Senator Payne correctly points out that the Navy doesn't have the infrastructure to support nuclear submarines, journalists report it as a "slap down" of Abbott rather than a simple, indisputable statement of fact. Nuclear submarines and the infrastructure necessary to support them is relatively easy to research and describe in "good old fashioned journalism" terms. If the dwindling band of journos are so keen to invoke GOFJ, they should be keen to do it; and if they don't value GOFJ, who will?

No journalist has the courage to say to Abbott: come back when you have some policy chops, not just the meat but the motion too. He might, as Captain Oates said, be some time.

A decade ago, Peter Costello wanted to be Prime Minister but couldn't explain how he'd be better than, or even different to, the foundering Howard. One sharp live interview could have burst that bubble. The leading political journalists of that time are still fossicking for fool's gold with Abbott. Labor frontbenchers write whole books that may or may not survive contact with their respective policy areas. The policy landscape is changing: even the Business Council recognise that nihilism isn't an answer on carbon or energy policy, and the plebiscite on same-sex marriage is very much less brilliant than Christopher Pyne touted it as.

The last politician to defiantly declare themselves going nowhere was Abbott's self-described political mother, Bronwyn Bishop.

The reason why northern beaches Libs kept voting for Bishop was because they thought she was a heavyweight. The reporting from Canberra certainly described her in that light - they all knew how she loved a freebie, and how she'd monster public servants over relative trifles without anything like an overarching vision, but day after day they still put her in the thick of the action. All the tales came out after she'd lost preselection; sitting on them had been a mistake, in both journalistic and political terms. Had the press gallery done some GOFJ on Bronwyn Bishop, her embarrassed local branches would have dumped her years ago.

The more the press gallery pumps up Abbott as A Former Prime Minister, One Who Has Supped With Kings And Presidents And Deserves Hectares Of Media Space, the more prone they will be to give him another go. That doesn't mean press gallery should start sledging him - it just means that a simple application of GOFJ on things like his donations, and the fact that coal is subsidised to billy-o, and how his indiscipline is repellent to leadership rather than a guarantor of it. He doesn't have any answers on jobs. He doesn't have any answers on his own job, or the one he held less than two years ago, or on those of the journalists far beyond the press gallery.

He described himself as a junkyard dog in 1994, and that's all he'll ever be. He doesn't have any teeth any more, but he still goes around gumming people who have better things to do. You can be humane about it, but it's time for those responsible to put him down, and for the rest of us to turn away.

If he wants his stuff run, make him buy ad space: he can go on junkets after he retires. Abbott has access to the money, and goodness knows traditional media could use it. They're not going anywhere either.

28 April 2017

Shootout at Manus

About once a month in her column at The Conversation, Michelle Grattan comes to the conclusion that Peter Dutton is not a team player and not fully honest when it comes to the complicated facts and issues of asylum-seekers. This doesn't deter her from quoting his (what by now must surely be) worthless assertions: thanks to the wonders of goldfish journalism, every Dutton stuff-up is a fresh surprise to someone who sets the standard for the press gallery.

When it came to ministerial responsibility, public accountability, and other key principles underpinning democracy, Peter Dutton never had a chance. He entered parliament in 2001, at the election following hysteria about September 11 and the refugees aboard the MV Tampa. He defeated Labor's Cheryl Kernot, learning the lesson that even high-profile opponents can be brought down with enough dirt. Being a politician in a marginal seat requires a warm personality and a genuine concern for the local community; Dutton learned that fundraising can get around such shortcomings, particularly where Labor largely seemed to direct its energies elsewhere.

By the time Dutton became Assistant Treasurer under Peter Costello, the Howard government had lost its policy reform momentum; Costello had become bitter and twisted at not becoming Prime Minister. Soon afterward the Howard government lost office: any opportunity to teach young Dutton the finer points of vision, negotiation, or any other aspect of policy development and implementation simply went by the board.

He could have learned these lessons from the two Health Ministers he shadowed, Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek. Both ran rings around him, policy-wise and in terms of having things to announce, but Dutton just sat quietly for six years; eventually their job simply fell into his lap. Healthcare professionals rated Dutton the worst Health Minister in a generation, but onward he went.

Like a child raised in poverty and dysfunction who ends up addicted and/or imprisoned, there was never any possibility Peter Dutton would or could have become an effective minister. Grattan and others in the gallery who chide him for falling short of standards impossible for him look like they don't understand the people and environment they've been covering for years.

From Trump and Abbott, Dutton learned that doubling down when wrong appeals to those who confuse obstinacy with fixity of purpose. The events of this week, where Dutton implied that asylum-seekers were pedophiles and shirked responsibility for yet another riot on Manus Island, should not have been as shocking as they apparently were.

Four things arising from this were surprising, however, and none received much coverage from the supposedly alert and diverse press gallery.

The first is that the Papua New Guinea police flatly contradicted an Australian government minister. Papua New Guinea had been an Australian colony from the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to independence in 1975, and since then the country depended heavily on Australia for aid. Previous PNG governments danced around open confrontation with Australia; any exceptions tended to be reported in the Australian media as personality defects of the PNG politician concerned, rather than the issue itself. Recently, however, PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has boosted relations with China, which has reciprocated in spades. PNG's trade and economic position relies less on Australia than it has for a century. Note the contrast with always-compliant Nauru, or too-quiet Christmas Island. We can expect more of this.

While Dutton has brushed off the accounts of local police about the Manus incident, it is clear the PNG government will not spare Australia from embarrassment, and that more information is yet to come out from Manus about conditions in the detention centre. Anzac Day pictures of smiling "fuzzy wuzzy angels" were designed to convey the idea that PNG will continue being compliant to Australian interests, but to rely too heavily on that would be a mistake.

Second, Turnbull didn't have to lend his name to Dutton's frolic. It has done him no good politically to embrace Dutton and feed his tough-guy fantasia. John Howard happily set off his pet ministers like Peter Reith or Tony Abbott on frolics of their own, not denouncing them but not standing in shot by them, prepared to step in to either claim credit or smooth over the damage, as appropriate. Turnbull should discipline Dutton for lying, and he needs to start casting around for an Immigration Minister with some credibility; he can't do either of those things. The Prime Minister has limited the scope he needs to manoeuver, which can't end well for him or the government more broadly.

Thirdly, the idea of cracking down on asylum-seekers as a vote-winner no longer applies. Nobody in the press gallery has twigged to this.

Fourth, Dutton as secret-intelligence bullshit artist hasn't learned the lessons from his fellow Queenslander, George Brandis. As soon as he became Attorney-General, Brandis began enthusiastically reducing our civil liberties on the basis of threats to which only he was privy. Over time Brandis' credibility has been diminished with all this wolf-crying, to the point where his every announcement is assumed to be a gaffe or a stuff-up. Demonstrations of competence, such as High Court appointments, are treated with relief. Brandis has spent decades trying to cultivate gravitas on the barren fields of his own abilities, and it hasn't worked; that's why it is time for him to go. Dutton is approaching the same point.

Peter Dutton's first job was as a police officer, a job requiring instant cultivation of gravitas and respect for kept secrets. Like Brandis, Dutton overestimates the extent to which "because I said so" is actually going to convince anyone. Never mind sincerity - conservatives have to be able to fake gravitas, or they're finished. This government is full of senior ministers who simply couldn't do gravitas if their lives depended on it - Dutton and Brandis, Pyne, Hunt, Cash, Joyce - they have to know on some level that their game is up.

As I've said before, Dutton has no powerbase. Queensland's LNP is disintegrating before our eyes, and he is neither a big enough player to ride out the storm nor small enough to survive and start again. No marginal-seat Liberal wants Dutton gladhanding in their electorate. The idea that he might become Prime Minister is a joke. He is a stalking horse for Abbott, just as the equally hapless former Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews was; just as the Abbott forces hoped Morrison might have been.

Dutton's attack on Mike Cannon-Brookes was reported by Mashable as just wacky political randomness, and the press gallery missed it entirely. Dutton was making a proxy attack on Turnbull. The Liberal Party isn't big on tech, and Turnbull's limited, long-ago experience of the sector (which informs his out-of-date preferences for the NBN) are virtually their only connection to a non-farm industry sector growing in size and importance. To attack somebody - anyone - in the tech sector is to attack Turnbull. Cannon-Brookes appeared not to realise this; government departments, the banks and other big companies import more IT workers (and employ more Australian IT workers) than Atlassian, yet you'll notice that Dutton didn't go after them. After all this is over, watch Abbott or Dutton sidle up to Cannon-Brookes and semi-apologise for using him as a political football.

For Turnbull, this is the thanks he gets for sticking his neck out for Dutton. It was genuinely amazing that the press gallery weren't all over this.

Queensland Labor needs to target Dickson with a seriousness that has largely been absent throughout Dutton's career. No more nice-but-dim local heroes. You don't want to give the LNP a run for their money, you want them to write Dickson off and scramble to foist Dutton elsewhere.

To be fair to the press gallery, while they remain deeply flawed we have seen this year some actual outbreaks of something approaching real journalism. Press gallery claim to be hunting for truth 24/7, but this is bullshit. In the first year of both the Turnbull and Rudd governments, the press gallery behaved as if the government could do no wrong. Throughout the entirety of the Gillard government, the government apparently could not do anything right. We are not in a position where the government is dead, where the opposition are wildly popular or where they have the gallery bluffed like Abbott did. Yet, the embarrassing gushing about Real Malcolm is behind us, and lately gallery reporting sometimes starts from a position of scepticism about what is being announced. It was genuinely shocking to see a carpet-stroller like Barrie Cassidy brave the choppy waters of ministerial authority - like Justin Bieber playing Macbeth, it's so incredible that it is even being contemplated that actual critique can't and doesn't take place. It can't last, and it's a product of an uncertain environment where gallery narratives simply aren't strong enough to sustain regular stories. Normal (dis)service will resume soon enough.

If Dutton has learned from Trump that you double down when the facts go against you, the US media is starting to learn the limits to which you can/should hang upon every word of a bullshit artist. The Australian media has never learned this: Abbott is not the media pariah his predecessor Billy McMahon was after 1972, and the media have embarrassed themselves by showering his handler Peta Credlin with the trinkets and baubles of their profession.

While it lasts, start thinking about government from first principles, and compare the tentative reporting of today with the gushing rubbish and ridiculous pile-ons from not very long ago. Then start thinking about how government can and should engage with the public. Playing the double game of hoping for more and better public information, while also lamenting the loss of redundant journo jobs, will only drive you crazy. Those wider questions of coverage and who does the covering has taken focus away from the daily whack-a-mole on which this blog has been built (and haven't I told you that lapsing into the passive voice means the writer/speaker is up to no good?). The work continues, with apologies to those hoping for more content more often.

21 March 2017

Laws of gravity

The press gallery seems agreed that there were no implications for the Federal Government in the recent WA election, at which Labor won an overwhelming majority. I disagree.

In Warner Bros’ much-loved Road Runner cartoons, there is a trope where Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff and, for a little while, continues moving forward. He stops. He looks down, and suddenly realises that he’s no longer supported. Only then does he begin plunging toward the floor of the canyon. Senator Cormann is similarly paused, seemingly in defiance of known laws of political gravity.

At the grassroots level, the WA Liberals used to be a constellation of local fiefdoms, loosely aligned. Matthias Cormann blew into town and began uniting conservatives with no talent beyond loyalty to him. Part of this loyalty involved preselecting second-rate candidates to state parliament – the sorts of people who looked up to Troy Buswell.

Colin Barnett was a hard-working, clever man who might have made it to the top of any organisation; the organisation he joined was the WA State Parliamentary Liberal Party. Barnett watched in horror as capable local-hero MPs were replaced by mouth-breathing Cormann loyalists. Barnett could only drag such dead weights so far, and Cormann didn’t want to go into state parliament.
From far Canberra, as the tide began turning against Barnett, Cormann had watched his conservative followers ebb away from the Liberal Party and toward One Nation (the same thing is happening to the LNP in Queensland, for much the same reasons). Despite being beyond the pettiness of state politics, and pragmatically recognising Barnett was past it, no politician will sit by and suffer the loss of his power base. Cormann had an incentive to help Barnett, and Barnett had no choice but to accept it.

As Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Cormann deals with Hanson regularly. He is used to organising right-wing dummies. By contrast, Queensland’s George Brandis disdains them, after a lifetime fighting and outmanoeuvering them within the LNP (you'd give the job of reforming s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to Brandis only if you wanted it to fail). Cormann doesn’t patronise Hanson like Brandis does. Hanson’s newfound supporter base in WA were people Cormann knew; despite wanting to extend her influence nationally, Hanson didn’t know or trust them. Cormann cut a deal with Hanson as though it was all upside: keeping conservatives in the Liberal fold through preferences, and currying favour with Hanson’s team (including a new WA Senator to replace Rod Culleton).

You show me a press gallery journalist who insists that WA is a conservative state, and I’ll show you one way too close to WA Liberal MPs. The Liberal Party in WA is more conservative than in other states: moderates usually stay outside the Liberal Party, contesting state elections as independents. Moderate independents help the Liberals win tight elections. When Barnett won government he reached out to long-serving Independent MP Liz Constable as his Education Minister, which surprised no long-time observers of WA politics but which appalled Cormannites working their way through the party.

There is a long history of independents like Constable (and protest groups like Liberals for Forests) aligning with Liberals in WA. The state tends to vote Labor during economic downturns, and who believes Liberal policies will soon pull WA back into the boomtimes? As the McGowan government begins to fade, history suggests moderate independents will come back into WA politics in ways that work against the Labor government. The WA Liberals-One Nation deal assumed those people didn’t exist, or would doggedly stay with the Liberals like the mouth-breathing Cormannites did.

Federal politics in Cormann’s turf: he can’t promise much to his followers, nor threaten them much should they waver. In last year’s federal election Labor ran Anne Aly in Cowan against Liberal MP Luke Simpkins; the Liberals ran a Hanson-like scare campaign against Aly’s Muslim faith, trying to turn her expertise in terrorism against her. For federal Liberal MPs who held on in 2016, like Ken Wyatt, Steve Irons, Ian Goodenough, Melissa Price, or Michael Keenan, nothing has happened to boost their anticipated vote at the next election. There is no sign Aly or other marginal Labor MPs in WA need fear a Liberal resurgence.

Cormann’s people had their go in WA politics, and those who missed out won’t get another go for a while. Many of them have left the Liberal Party, and the failure of WA One Nation left them all looking and feeling stupid. The Cowan experience should have shown that One Nation-style tactics are more trouble than they’re worth.

Charismatic churches have organised and motivated conservatives within the WA Liberals in ways Cormann can’t match, let alone beat.

Cormann himself is in his fourth year as Finance Minister, presiding over ballooning debt in a stagnating economy. It isn’t much of a policy legacy to build upon, and less grounds for pride. That long Perth-Canberra commute wears down even the most committed politicians, creating a sense of entitlement to public junkets which exposure breeds resentment.

I’m not betting Cormann will chuck it in, but all the signs seem there. He had a good run for a long time. A powerbroker whose power fades is broke indeed: Cormann will be keen to avoid that humiliation, a desire strong enough to negate pleas to stay. Having seen Stephen Conroy and other ex-powerbrokers go out on top, he can leave long-term public service to party scions like Christian Porter or Michaelia Cash.

Though his record as Finance Minister is poor, his departure would devastate the political class. It would make tangible the departure of this government, the death of myths like Moderate Malcolm or Liberal Economic Management. The press gallery, for all their close connections and fingers-on-the-pulse, will be taken completely by surprise. How they love his stone-wall interview style. No federal impact from the WA election? Pfft.

Like Wile E. Coyote, Matthias Cormann is not going forward, or down, at this stage. He is preparing for the budget in May. He still has to get legislation through the Senate, dealing with the humiliated Hansonites, as well as the isolated Bernardi, Leyonhjelm, and Hinch. His Mitteleuropa burr has given him the gravitas of Kissinger in 1970s Washington, a quality Christopher Pyne never had and which Turnbull and Morrison are losing fast. He would once have been in the thick of leadership manoeuvres: but whatever happens to Abbott, Dutton, and Turnbull, his own position is safe. That might be a good point to depart.

11 February 2017

King of the castle

Smiling as the shit comes down
You can tell a man from what he has to say
Everything gets turned around
And I will risk my neck again, again


- Crowded House Four seasons in one day
In theory, Parliament is the forum for the great debates on where the nation is headed. In practice, debates on where the nation is headed are had behind closed doors; what is put on show is bad drama badly acted, in Australia's best-subsidised and best-equipped theatre, where it is reviewed by the Australian media's last contingent of professional paid drama critics.

Legislation and policy lags public debate by its very nature, where deliberations about good ideas, measurements of political forces alive in the community beyond Canberra, and how new initiatives fit with wider strategies like the budget or the PR imperatives of the incumbent government. It's complex and best described by people far from Canberra who focus on one aspect of it. I am so being fair and broadly accurate when I say those who cover politics up close, day after year after parliamentary term, do an important job very, very badly.

Press gallery journalists know nothing about policy and governance - some of the more conscientious ones will do a quick Google search on the topic at hand, as though they don't realise we all have Google. What value is there in consuming traditional media once you've had to do your own googling? What time is there? Does anyone wonder why traditional media is going out of business? Have they really chosen the best journalists available to cover federal politics?

But let's not have your standard rant about the press gallery, and what buffoons they mostly are. Instead, let's go to source materials and work outward from there.

This brings us to Wednesday's wide-ranging debate in parliament, ostensibly a motion on Centrelink payments. The motion itself is on pages 59-60 of this transcript; Shorten's much-vaunted speech is at pp. 60-61, with Turnbull's response at 61-63.

Shorten's speech was not the wonkish affair some on social media have pretended, as though Turnbull had mugged him on the way home from the library. It begins with the epithet "Mr Harbourside Mansion"; Shorten is trying to make the case Turnbull is out of touch, but he hasn't made the case adequately or directly and starting the speech with that phrase was arse-about - you build up to a notion like that, so the killer phrase becomes embedded and unshakeable rather than just another cliche. Just a personal attack, the sort of political news that washes off most people. It practically invited Turnbull to turn it around on Shorten which he (kind of - see below) did. Other gobbets like "this slippery fellow", the mock sympathy for Abbott, being baited by an unworthy interjector in Christian Porter, ensure that no journalist would claim this speech gives Shorten that most elusive quality of politics: Looking Prime Ministerial.

That speech, taken with his earlier one at the National Press Club, has this value: Shorten is clearly calibrating, testing, and recalibrating his message. What we learned on Wednesday is that he is getting under Turnbull's skin.

When Turnbull became Prime Minister in September 2015 he was miles ahead of Shorten in popularity, trustworthiness, and that vague but potent gallery-appointed quality of Looking Prime Ministerial. Turnbull assumed he could crush Shorten in an early election in July 2016, but didn't. It's 2017, and Shorten is still there, plugging away. He hasn't been consumed by some personal failing nor by the roiling tumult of the Labor Party. Abbott and Dutton might be irritants to Turnbull, but Shorten is a mockery.

Turnbull too started off on the wrong foot with the "sycophant" thing, which carries the tinny resonance of Pyne. Turnbull has supped with a few billionaires in his time and it would seem that's the sort of thing one has to do in order to become Prime Minister; it did not work as an opening salvo. It is unclear why Dick Pratt or other billionaires might cultivate someone who wages some sort of class war against them.

The repeated references to "sucking", the almost racist designation of "manual labour", is the only time Turnbull could be said to have failed to uphold the decorum of the Prime Ministership. Well, apart from his petulant speech in the early hours of the morning after the election - and it is unclear why anyone would regard that speech as a disaster while hailing Turnbull's 8 February effort as a triumph.
Some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, cleaners working at Cleanevent — he sold out their penalty rates. And what did they get? They got nothing. But what did the union get? Cash, money, payments.
Kathy Jackson apparently did something similar at the HSU and was lionised by Pyne and Abbott. Strange that the Heydon Royal Commission was unable to make the sort of case against Shorten that is underway against Jackson. It's funny how things turn out, really.

Energy policies are a cost of living expense, but far from the only one. This government lost that battle when the carbon price was axed with no benefit flowing through to households. Turnbull talking about Viridian or Portland Aluminium doesn't even address household power. Turnbull bagging the AWU - well, a Liberal leader would, and besides have you seen how few private-sector employees are even members of unions?

That final paragraph is how Turnbull should have begun a carefully targeted attack: the idea that Shorten is inconsistent and can't be trusted. It might be rich for Turnbull to make such a case but it didn't stop John Howard. The difference is, though, that Turnbull is not testing and recalibrating like Shorten. Turnbull has been confirmed, with backbenchers and press gallery falling over themselves to congratulate him, and we can expect to see more of this as a result.

Turnbull isn't really worried about the social climbing thing, he's aspirational himself. It does indicate a deeper vulnerability. Shorten is not aiming for wealth or for some echelon of social status, he is aiming to hold a single office: Prime Minister, the office currently occupied by Turnbull. It's a zero sum game: Shorten can only become Prime Minister if he displaces Turnbull, or whoever else might occupy the office. It might be useful for Labor publicly to denounce Turnbull as a snob, but far more useful tactically to know Shorten earnestly calibrating, testing, and recalibrating puts the wind up Turnbull.

This is why Latika Bourke's comparison of Shorten-Turnbull with Julia Gillard's 2012 misogyny speech against Abbott was particularly silly. Abbott wasn't trying to become a woman. People can become women without displacing Gillard from womanhood; gender is not a unique state, there are billions of them. In 2012 Abbott was trying to displace and replace Gillard as Prime Minister, and he was happy to use anything he could throw at her - the death of her father, various other niggles arising from Abbott's demonstrated belief that femininity is inimical to leadership. Gillard's response showed that she knew misogyny when she saw it, thought it had no legitimate role in politics, and called Abbott on it.

By contrast, you may or may not agree with Shorten's idea that Turnbull is out of touch, but the topic is within the bounds of legitimate debate in a way that anything-goes misogyny isn't. It's one thing that Bourke's judgment is so bad, but her assumption that her experience counts for more than it does is genuinely funny.

Turnbull's insecurity was on show the following day when he upbraided Adam Bandt, the sole Green MP:
As [UK PM] Theresa May said in the House of Commons, the honourable member [Bandt] is part of a protest movement. I am the leader of a nation.
This is the parliamentary equivalent of the schoolyard taunt, "I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal". May directed her remarks to the Leader of the Opposition rather than a minor party outlier. A Prime Minister should be above this. Malcolm Turnbull palpably isn't.

Turnbull's invective was surprising to the press gallery who had long been seduced by his charm. And yet, it only takes a quick review of all those profiles on him before he entered parliament to see that he really does snarl like this when he's cornered. He was snarly and superior in public when he was losing the republic referendum, blowing what seemed like a historic inevitability on his own shortcomings. It's stupid for any journalist to take someone on face value, particularly a politician; it belies the very idea of journalistic experience not to measure the man before you against the one known well by others.

What also belies the better ideas of journalism - relied upon by the press gallery for its 'fourth estate' malarkey, and the access privileges that go along with it - is the near unanimity of the theatre reviews giving the contest to Turnbull. It's one thing for some to give it to Shorten, others to Turnbull, and yet others to neither; this is what intelligent, reasonable and diverse people of goodwill and good sense would do. It would be what happened if the press gallery was as intelligent and diverse as its fans insist it is. This is what the debate on Twitter was like: broader than the press gallery and often equal or better in acuity.

Almost all of the press gallery used this event to give themselves license to write the sorts of uncritical, gushing, adverb-heavy praise they gave Turnbull in September 2015. Two exceptions were important:
  • Michelle Grattan applied her experience to place less importance on those speeches than, well, every other journalist. She talked about the government's "cost of living" message while overlooking two things: the welfare cuts that disadvantage low-income earners, and the games over electricity where cost of living (and supply reliability to South Australians) are collateral damage.
  • Katharine Murphy's theatre review recognised Turnbull came from a position of weakness rather than strength. Alone in the press gallery, Murphy recently seems to have taken to heart social media jeering at the press gallery herd and realises there's no future in passing on the same received wisdom from all outlets: mind you, this is the point where new year's resolutions tend to fall away, so we'll see if she can sustain this.
Both Grattan and Murphy do quick comparisons with Question Time players of yesteryear, but they seem to have drawn the wrong lessons. Let's look at previous governments in decline and compare them with the performance of this one:
  • 2013: Gillard and Rudd laid into Abbott, who grinned and winked at the press gallery.
  • 2007: Costello and Howard laid into Rudd, who calmly sat there taking notes.
  • 1995: Keating laid into Howard, who sat there calmly or laughed that odd mirthless laugh of his.
  • 1982: Fraser laid into Hayden and Hawke; the latter at one point fled the chamber in tears. If Shorten did that today he'd be finished.
Far from being a sign of strength, a Prime Minister laying into an Opposition Leader indicates that the government is on its way out. A secure government ignores the Leader of the Opposition. An insecure government treats that office and its holder as a mortal threat, with the focus and severity one would hope a government might bring against economic disadvantage or racist violence.

Malcolm Turnbull never wanted to be Prime Minister. Being PM involves leading an unruly party through tough and uncertain times. He wanted to be President, and only went for the Prime Ministership once that wasn't an option. Being President involves cutting ribbons, making polite and occasionally droll remarks that don't involve references to sucking or protesting, traveling around, and giving obligation-free advice to politicians. Turnbull has opted for a lesser role than he hoped, maybe even a role that is beneath him. You can see why what he offers us is less than we might have hoped, and why his policy offerings in every portfolio - and now, his parliamentary behaviour - are beneath us.