29 March 2006

Suckerpunching the Liberals in State politics

Most of yer mainstream media notes Howard's dominance at Federal level and puzzles how this success doesn't translate to state level. Once you get over Howard (not possible if you're a Federal Press Gallery journalist) the reason for this becomes clearer. The political cycle in the Australian states has operated since the late 1970s/early '80s in seven phases, like so:

1) Labor government squeaks into office with a slim majority, helped by one of Brucey's Big Ones, makes conservative and prudent if minor changes.

The Liberals retain their losing leader who not only says that his policies were basically right but weren't marketed properly, but believes it. Makes no effort to plug the actual holes through which Labor drove its successful message. Gets stressed when spot-fires of dissent break out against his leadership.

2) Labor wins in a landslide. Liberal leader finally bows out, leaving divided party room in which talentless morons become "players".

3) Labor given a couple of terms by voters in the absence of a compelling reason to toss them out, seeing as they're so keen on all that politics crap.

Liberals melt down, change leaders and leak ever-less interesting and relevant information. When they feel really cocky they might throw up the occasional vapid and credibility-free offering on Laura Norder and Economics.

4) Labor buggers the economy, basic services (schools, hospitals, roads) fall apart. Liberals stop squabbling for long enough to entertain the possibility they may be in with a chance. Labor government cops a few body blows.

5) Liberals win in a landslide, promising to "clean up the mess". Labor elect a new leader who plugs the actual holes through which the Liberals drove their successful message. Labor dissenters are quickly removed and replaced with fresh faces.

6) The Liberal government almost loses office at its first or second attempt at re-election (Labor can win at least three consecutive terms in the modern era at a canter), the Liberal Premier looks like a goose and gets nervy about far-reaching change, spot-fires of dissent etc. Labor leader looks like a political genius, has momentum, lands a few blows on Liberals who are so risk-averse that they do nothing at all, hence there is no reason to re-elect them. In some cases the Liberal moderates are let out for a run.

7) Go to 1) and start again. The Liberal moderates are disgraced by the election loss, but they stick around hoping for another brief phase-6 moment and will cop the sh!t that comes through the other phases, during which they end up losing preselection.

Phase 1 usually lasts for a single term (2.5 - 4 years), phases 2 - 4 can last a decade or more, 5 - 7 usually go for two terms tops. At posting time, South Australia and Tasmania are in phase 2 (with Bacon, Tasmania was in 3). WA is moving into phase 3, where Victoria, Queensland and the Territories are. NSW is somewhere between 3 and 4 (Brogden was heading for phase 5. Debnam, with Iemma's help, has pulled it back from a post-Brogden 3).

Like dogs returning to their vomit the Liberals are neither smart nor strong enough to break this pattern.

The ALP is full of people who are actually interested in health, education and other community services (though transport remains a mystery to all parties), so they'll continue to dominate the tight matches and keep the trophy, leaving the Liberals to mind the shop for a coupla terms when Labor gets too ill to maintain its birthright.

Breaking this pattern might cut the Gordian knot of federal-state politics in Australia, which is that there are some services best run from the centre and some from the states, and that those responsible for raising the taxes are different to those responsible for spending them.

If I were the world's oldest promising young grant-fed writer, I'd lunge for profundity with something like: and so it goes.

28 March 2006

The ABC: it could be worse

The ABC: it's under attack again, and if you're particularly stupid you might think this is proof of its political independence and all round superiority. I'll get to this later, but those who love the ABC as it is can take comfort from the fact that their opponents have little room to move.

It's easy to sneer at Howard for kyboshing ad revenue for the ABC to protect the revenue base of Packer and the other commercial channels. An ABC with ads should, however, be the least of our worries.

If ads were allowed on the ABC, the next step would inevitably be some form of public funding for commercial channels, similar to the electoral funding that goes to political parties or education funding for non-government schools. Which Australian media outlet (apart, perhaps, from Crikey) would attack increased revenue for embattled media outlets? Re-tooling for the digital age is expensive you know, and imagine all of those community service announcements which could be channelled to the community in a more cost-effective way. Wonderful for incumbent governments without a serious Opposition.

The culture of the ABC can get a bit monotonous if you a) listen to it a lot and b) take everything that comes from it as gospel: very few (i.e. a politically insignificant number) do both. However, think about what would happen if you wanted to undertake root-and-branch reform.

The easy option for the government would be to stack it out with Liberal Students and former staffers to the Federal Government. At best, this would produce a kind of Pravda that might please goons like of Senator Santoro but which would have no credibility in the wider community. Besides, Stan Zemanek, Alan Jones, Brian Wiltshire et al. could fairly claim that taxpayers' funds were being used to corner their market and diminish their ad revenue, the state impinging on commerce etc. How would a blatantly pro-government broadcaster compete against friendly commercial interests? It wouldn't.

The harder option is to sweep away second-rate hacks like Ramona Koval or Richard Adey and replace them with broadcasters of talent, skill and originality, whomever and wherever they may be. This would require a massive increase in funding, far above the current allocation, as people like that don't come cheap. Where is the Federal politician - in the Federal Parliament, never mind the government or Cabinet - who'd fight for that?

Who but inner-city lefties are going to work for wages far below industry standard, unless they can live in hope that they may get involived in, say, a doco on the life of the Reverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon? In the ABC you find proof of the cliche politicians love to trot out at payrise time: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. The more you screw down income at the ABC, the more likely you are to get people who are susceptible to anti-capitalism dogma about being screwed down.

Nobody wants a government that the ABC would support. Australia could have the option I described earlier, where the ABC is run and operated by Liberal hacks. Or, worse still, run by people whose views are exactly in line with the ABC left-style line.

Imagine a Cabinet comprising, say, Phillip Adams, Kerry O'Brien, Carmen Lawrence, Moira Rayner or Clive Hamilton. Let's get Tom Uren, Whitlam, Latham or even the Reverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon out of retirement - hey, let's dig up Manning Clark and Jim Cairns for good measure. This would be an ABC News & Current Affairs wet dream, but they'd be a nightmare government. The economy would tank and good resources would be thrown relentlessly after bad to prop up corrosive and destructive policies that some minister thinks, against all evidence, might be worthy.

News and Current Affairs is the thorn in the side of the ABC. This section aside, who would argue that the ABC is excellent? The way to diminish the power of what media insiders call NewsCAff is to produce more content about science, rural issues, gardening, children - anything but news. It's these areas of the ABC that cause people to take to the barricades when the ABC is genuinely under threat. If resources were diverted from NewsCAff and documentaries to drama and comedy, nobody would complain. Defenders of the existing ABC culture would be checkmated: those with an interest in the arts would receive a shot in the arm and they'd take it, without gratitude to the government perhaps, but certainly without any wish to give anything back to the journos. Audiences would be delighted, hence so would politicians. This could be a real win-win situation. If there were any losers from such a manoever, who would stand up for them?

If the ABC starts praising the government, be afraid, be very afraid. I wish ABC TV would stop showing old British movies overnight and open the vault of Australian short films/docos - but everyone's a critic.

17 March 2006

Does not work and play well with others

Nick Minchin fancies himself as a hard man of the Liberal rightwing. This persona implies that any kind of balls-up wouldn't happen if he was on the job, no sir, because balls-ups [sic] only happen because super-competent and tough guys like Minchin aren't on the job. This gives Minchin a reputation for competence he does not deserve.

He only held one job of substance before going into the Senate, and that wasas SA State Director of the Liberal Party. His performance in that post was unexemplary in terms of actually winning seats for the Liberal Party, but exemplary in terms of helping keep the Bannon Labor government in office while playing factional silly-buggers.

True, Kevin Andrews is doing an appalling job at selling the Federal Government's workplace relations changes. This is because they are needlessly provocative, no incentive either to being "relaxed and comfortable" nor to being more productive, and vulnerable to the slightest puff of legal challenge; a rush job despite being planned decades in advance. If the coal industry can have a hand in regulating greenhouse emissions, why didn't the H R Nicholls crowd have a go at knocking up WR legislation? It could scarcely be worse than the current shower, it would be honest about its intentions and might even povoke a coherent policy response from the ALP. They need a win, and old Nick is used to sitting by dithering while Labor pulls in public support.

But cheer up, it could be worse: if Minchin was Workplace Relations Minister there'd be open revolt from all quarters, not least from those who support the thrust of this legislation. Minchin has no ability to empathise with other people, nor even the ability (essential for a politician, you'd think) to pretend that he empathises. He'd be crap at selling the WR changes, he'd suck in Health or Education or Family Services or any area without the bottom-line bricks-and-mortar clarity that comes from impersonal matters. Howard has been smart to not let the man who could well be Australia's first autistic politician anywhere near any policy areas where votes could be lost in spades because, as stated earlier, this senior politician has no idea about winning votes. Why Howard has him along for the ride at all is unclear: surely he's not that hard up for support in Cabinet? Minchin should recognise his own limitations and shut up about people doing a difficult job under difficult circumstances, particularly when those people are his colleagues, voters and others responsible for maintaining the fiction that he is a tough, smart, effective politician.

He'll balls up again because what you've seen here is a glimpse of the real Minchin, not some inadvertent error which can be quickly and permanently reversed. He'll do it at an less convenient time and be gone within three years.

15 March 2006

A media policy for the '90s

The Federal Government's media ownership policy is designed to bring Australia into the 1990s, which would be fine if the '90s were ahead of us. It means that small media operations cannot compete in an environment requiring high capital outlay, and that politicians quite like being confined to a situation where they are beholden to small numbers of media proprietors who mediate their message to the public. The death of Kerry Packer (and the apparent disinterest of James Packer in "old media") provided a great opportunity to screw over Fairfax and the ABC by letting a hundred media flowers bloom. Next time you hear someone from the government (and I include both both the Sydney and Melbourne toads) complains they're not getting a fair go from the media, just laugh).

Big media will lose credibility over time and fringe meeja like Crikey will practice a kind of asymmetrical warfare against it. The whole notion of the "scoop" is quaint in an era where your competitors will post a story ten minutes after you do with no dimunition of their standing. The idea that a media organisation and a government will mutually reinforce each other with favourable reporting of government initiatives makes for dull media. Nothing can save dull media, not even cosy relationships with government.

Come friendly bombs and fall on Willoughby. I would wish for some foreign competitor to come and kick the shit out of the Australian media (how about this dribbly old shite, or Australia's Rush Limbaugh?) but it wouldn't make for better informed/entertained Australia.

12 March 2006

The future of the Labor Party (yes, of course it has one) part II

Like I said, Labor has a future as Australia's Whigs. It has no future as the political wing of trade unionism unless this aspect of its structure is gutted, stuffed and mounted like a dead pet. It will win Federal Government, just not while Beazley is leader (and while Howard is looking healthy and energetic: see earlier post below). It will lose a state/territory election one of these days too, but probably not this year.

Kim Beazley was never going to become Prime Minister, anyone who thought otherwise is/was a mug. It is understandable why Beazley is disgusted at the messy upheval within the Liberal Party from 1983 to about 1994, and why he'd block steps by his party down that track. The fact is that the Howard-Peacock rivalry had largely worked itself out after a decade; dead wood had been replaced by those capable of presenting as credible ministers. In the Labor Party, the messy meltdown has been avoided but so too has the prospect of change in ideas and tactics, ideas and tactics that might even appeal to a majority of voters. A federal Labor leader who acted as a "chairman of the board" to Labor Premiers/Chief Ministers would outflank Howard on the effective governance front, and stymie any Liberal revival at state level. With Carr, Bacon and Gallop gone, none of the state Premiers owe Beazley the time of day.

Beazley is Labor's Andrew Peacock. Oh sure, you have to replace the Gucci toothbrush with a bucket of KFC but the principle is the same. Party insiders hail him as Tomorrow's Man because he doesn't propose radical change or wiping anyone out, and ascends to leadership through patronage with neither dirt nor blood under his fingernails. Once there, he is so conditioned to being a minister that the job of opposition - getting people to think about the way they are governed in an entirely new way - is beyond him, which suits the incumbent government just fine. John Howard has no reason to be afraid that Beazley will take his job. The 1998 election was more amazing than scary for the Liberals.

None of the changes of government in 1949, 1972, 1983 or 1996 was achieved by "holding the government to account". Better to supplant the current government and lambast the survivors with outrageous and well-documented perfidy from the perspective of office. Beazley's high ratings always vanish when folk are confronted with an actual ballot paper.

Nobody joined the Labor Party in order to deregulate the economy yet that was by far the most important policy of the Hawke Government, Labor's longest-serving and most successful. People did join the Labor Party in order to ban uranium mining, but this didn't happen. Nobody joins the Labor Party, or any other party for that matter, to force change upon their parliamentary representatives, unless they wish to replace those representatives with themselves. People generally join a political party as a kind of supporters' club. Membership is an indication that you support what that party's leadership is doing in office.

The very idea that sad old clowns like Rod Cavalier might rally the Labor faithful to the aid of their party is ridiculous. Cavalier was a political staffer before entering (State) Parliament, where he obsessed about polls and press more than policy and was bundled out with a pension. The idea that someone from Labor's gamekeeping classes should have credibility as the poachers' spokesman shows how gullible journalists such as James Carleton and Alan Ramsey can be. There is no good reason why anyone should take time out to join the Labor Party. Your work, family life, recreation, or social activity which has real if long-term benefits is much more important than getting a card which says you're a member of the ALP. Everything else is more important than signing a membership book and ensuring dues are paid. Being a member of the ALP is a waste of time - except, perhaps, if you want to become a politician. Even so, you'd only do that as a stepping stone to a career of real substance in PR.

10 March 2006

The future of the Labor Party (yes, of course it has one) part I

Labor has a future as Australia's Whigs. It has no future as the political wing of trade unionism unless this aspect of its structure is gutted, stuffed and mounted like a dead pet. It will win Federal Government, just not while Beazley is leader (and while Howard is looking healthy and energetic: see earlier post below). It will lose a state/territory election one of these days too, but probably not this year.

There is no way of proving this but I reckon that a majority of members of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Union voted for the Coalition at the last federal election, and other unions would be in a similar situation. It is one thing for an employer to have a large and docile workforce, but when unions work toward a membership that is also large and docile, a century of trade unionism has lost its meaning. Why should this Trojan horse have a place in Labor's stables?

Why should Labor be the only political party to which money is donated? Scare campaigns against union domination will have more traction once it becomes more distant from people's lives, while any good they do just becomes part of the general do-gooder not-for-profit sector operating at the margins of society. a sector too little patronised by most Australians despite the range of growing and urgent needs.

With 17% of the private-sector workforce, the trade union movement can't be said to represent working Australians and there is no indication these numbers will turn around. Indeed, the very people who oversaw this decline are those Labor regards as its future. As in a bad marriage both parties will benefit from a separation.

Listening to Doug Cameron do some dog-whistling about "80c an hour in China" is a portent. Over the next few years one of the leading unions most threatened by cheap labour offshore (i.e. a victim of the success of the Australian trade union movement over the last century or so) will elect a leader in the mould of Pauline Hanson: someone who's not afraid to be here, be loud, be racist and be proud, and tap into the "White Australia" roots of the labour movement. Such a person would embarrass the ALP no end. The Australian will tut-tut about our regional neighbours/trading partners and their perceptions of Australia, and Kevin Rudd will go into a tizz that shows how little clout he has in the broader labour movement. For all that, the union leader(ship) will be beloved of their members, who will increase in number. Labor won't know where to look or know what to do. Neither, though, will the unionist: jobs will still go offshore regardless.

Political credibility is a combination of people and policies. Getting rid of dead wood is half the battle. Claims by wonks like John Roskam that policies matter more than people are also half right.

The wonk's dream is that any backslapping clown can go through all that pointless extrovert crap to get elected to Parliament, and soak up all the perks while the wonks get down to the real business of running the country. The fact is that poor parliamentary representatives are vulnerable to clever journalists and hungry political opponents, if any. Nobody believes policy prescriptions in toto: the minute one element of a program goes "on hold", "on the backburner" or "non-core", or is simply dumped in the face of sectional outrage, wonks lose the will to live.

Labor has as much talent at the federal level as is necessary to win office. Julia Gillard needs five years run-up to the Prime Ministership. It's about time Labor started doing things properly, and they should stick with her while she gets across the job. Howard has no idea how to handle her; he belled that cat Beazley a decade ago and has seen off two other "leaders". Any minute now, expect Tony Abbott to lose control in Parliament and make that one hard-hitting comment on Gillard that rebounds on him, that causes the women of Australia to rally behind her and never, never trust Abbott again no matter how much faux-penance he does.

Kevin Rudd is the only man in Australia who can make John Howard look warm and fuzzy, though he can master a brief. His sticking to the AWB scandal in the face of apathy is a credit to him; his attacks on tennis courts at Australian embassies is silly to the point of embarrassment. Stephen Conroy needs to mythologise himself like Graham Richardson did if he's to survive (same with Kim Carr). Smith and Swan should go into those big sprawling portfolios with plenty of scope for scandal, but which doesn't have political importance such that folk will change their votes over it (e.g. Defence).

Lindsay Tanner's recent appearance at CIS is further proof that he should be the next Labor Treasurer. He's not colourless and personality-free like Stephen Smith and nor would he be as scary as Latham. Tanner is potentially the ALP's best interface with business since John Button.