28 August 2007

Closing the window of opportunity

Christian Kerr has noted (you'll need to be a Crikey subscriber) that there has been no improvement in the polls for the government following the Budget.

There has been an expectation for some time that there would be a bounce. After the first few weeks of Kevin Rudd's leadership, when people found out what a stuffed shirt he is. Then, after Anzac day. Then after the Sunrise/Long Tan debacle. Then the Budget. Now, the strip club thing. Yep, any day now ...

Sounds like typical Liberal thinking to me. I can still see the NSW election campaign of 1999, all those guys leaning back in their chairs with their fingers interlaced behind their fat heads explaining how Kerry Chikarovski was cruising to victory over Carr and Labor, just cruising! All those guys who helped put the Fraser government where it is today, and who go around the country in state election time bestowing the same favours on hapless leaders who don't realise they've been dudded until this same Clown Squad have convinced them it's all the locals' fault.

There comes a time when you have to stop listening to these clowns. When you start regarding the as jokes things become so much clearer. Christian Kerr is the insider that people like Matt Price or Annabel Crabb pretend to be, but sometimes being too much of an insider can lose you perspective.

There are two reasons why there was no budget bounce for the government. Let's call them Peter and John.

Peter used to have credibility, he has been front-and-centre in election campaigns past as A Steady Hand On The Wheel, but no more. Since he stood on The Water's Edge too scared to take the plunge his credibility is shot. He has the same perception of gutlessness as Kim Beazley, another political dauphin who never made it to the big time.

John also used to have credibility. In trying to demonstrate boundless energy while becoming a sixtysomething grandfather, he has dispelled any warm-and-fuzzy nostalgic notions (remember Keating's sneer about Morphy Richards toasters? What's wrong with them?). Instead, he's cultivating that image of oldies frittering away our inheritance for their own enjoyment, splashing around money like it's, ah, water. This sense of unease is compounded by the fact that he has pointed to Peter's hanging, twisting corpse and paid tribute to its vigorous activity.

In this speech, it's interesting to note that such economic experience as the government has rests in John personally with the standard token acknowledgment of Peter utterly absent. Why should John get stuck with such a loser at a difficult time? Why should you?

The economic credibility of the Howard government is shot. You know things are bad when even Jase can see it - a distillation of stale the consensus around the press gallery perhaps, but better than insisting that the turnaround is just around the corner (when you're going down the gurgler, you're always turning the corner).

Cast your mind back to 1997 - or even 1987, when I first met Christian Kerr as Chris Pyne's right hand - and imagine John Howard losing an election for being too wasteful and centralist. Let the wailings begin about lost opportunities, closing the window of opportunity etc.

Just so you know: there will be no bounce in the election campaign either. Nothing bounces against a closed window: all that happens is that the window shatters.

24 August 2007

Keating! the statesman

In this interview, Keating trumpeted himself as the great pioneer of APEC - then admitted that tensions in northern Asia have gotten worse, not better, during its watch. He had no suggestions of how APEC could work better.

He keened that his opinion was not sought by the Howard government. Howard and his senior ministers still bear the imprint of Keating's Italian loafers on their faces. Keating has done nothing to soften the sharp edges, the snappy lines that delighted his supporters and made him the most reviled figure in Australian politics since Billy Hughes. Howard has sought Keating's counsel about as often as Keating sought Fraser's.

He trotted out the 'security in/from Asia' line, ignoring the fact that it failed miserably in 1995-96 and reassessments like this.

It's all very well to say that you can wade into the simmering China-Korea-Japan tensions, with the Americans geostrategically moribund and nobody else thinking that there is more good than harm in such daring recklessness. "At least I tried" might be good enough for Bush in Iraq, but any Australian leader trying this on is courting humiliation, if not disaster - especially after a decade-and-a-half of APEC skirting and shirking this issue.

Where is the vision for the region - post-Suharto Indonesia, Timor Lorosae, PNG, the Solomons, Fiji? Have they been forgotten in all the big-ticket hoopla?

Like his mentor Jack Lang, he is going to be a bitter old man who blasts people for avoiding his pet causes which can't and don't work. Does he want to be colour-and-movement or does he want to be the wise old sage? This is Paul Keating's mid-life crisis. All such 'crises' can be funny so long as you're not directly involved, so long as you don't take the perpetrator/victim seriously - but that's part of the problem.

21 August 2007

Why Bush isn't really President

This article shows why George W. Bush is not really President of the United States.

Every decision that Cheney wanted - the war on Iraq, the tax cuts - have all come through, with funding and resources in spades. The whole abstract democracy thing, the nearest thing Bush has to an idea of his own, hasn't come through and has not been resourced.
"Policy is not what the president says in speeches," the bureaucrat replied. "Policy is what emerges from interagency meetings."

In that statement is the truth that what is done is more important than what is said. Those who claim that Bush is not just de jure but de facto head of the American government, that he's a clever man in his own right and can survive the departure of Karl Rove, is just PR puffery and wishful thinking. Compounding this is an inept foreign policy chief, whose qualifications in Soviet policy ill equip her to deal with Putin, let alone other international leaders and predicaments.

The American media has played little role in explaining to the people of that country why Bush is such a poor leader (rather than the weak construction that he is poorly perceived), and why the gap between what he says and what he does creates opportunities for enemies and competitors. The meek acceptance and presentation of Bush's framing as a strong leader has got to stop, it's not helping anyone - not even Bush. The media place a high premium on interviews and direct quotes, but Bush's all-talk performance shows that a weak leader can be a distraction, and ultimately more trouble than he's worth.

In a parliamentary democracy, Bush would have been rolled by now. Australians who favour a republic should help us avoid this eighteenth-century despot model, as I've said before.

All his life, Bush has had people clean up after him and the next President will be no different. If they use the same decision-making processes to choose their next President as they did with this one, they'll end up with another dud and will only seal American decline.

16 August 2007


With the election months, if not weeks away, there is one thing that the decision-makers in political parties will be focusing on other than fundraising.

Preferences. Who gets preferences from whom. Who needs preferences from whom. The results of several seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate depend on how preferences are to be exchanged.

Current polls suggest that there will be a clear majority of Labor MPs in the House of Representatives. This has been the case all year, and both the MSM and many bloggers can't get past labouring the idea that Rudd may replace Howard as Prime Minister. The polls contain other data that is important to those who report on political life in this country, but the press gallery ignore it.

The whole idea of a press gallery is to ignore the stunts and to uncover what's happening behind the distractions and the hype. There's nothing more useless than a journalist who thinks the distractions are the story. Old hands have a role in providing a bit of foresight, not pumping out the hype as though to say: ooh, what an unexpected development!

The minor parties - those other than the ALP or the Liberal-National-CLP Coalition - play an important role in deciding not only the composition of the Parliament but they also shape the legislation that goes through it. Polls show how much support they can expect. Combined with a bit of investigative journalism, we voters may yet see what consequences our voting has, and may bear this in mind when we go to vote next time.

After almost ten years, the time has come to ask: what did Meg Lees get for her vote in favour of the GST legislation - and for those of us who aren't Meg Lees, has it been worth it? There are other such questions to ask of the minor parties' records: it is astonishing that Bob Brown is still taken at face value after all this time.

As I said about Costello, the press gallery will round on those it considers beneath its dignity, or it will ignore them. This article bemoans the lack of attention paid to minor parties, but it also highlights their lack of follow-through. Bartlett wasn't alone nor was he the first in raising issues like refugees and population growth in southeastern Queensland, but it's fair to say he's let events overtake him. Even more so with Lyn Allison: her work on RU486 helped to scupper Tony Abbott's personal ambitions and the kind of rightwing Christianity that has eaten the US Republican Party. "Will Senator Stott Despoja will be known simply as an attractive young woman who wore Doc Martins in parliament?". Only because that's the kind of publicity she courted in differentiating herself from Meg Lees.
Shouldn't the Federal Greens Party say where the preferences will be allocated? Sure, there's merit in localism but it can also be interpreted that the Greens are simply a collective of state-based factions.

They get wobbly when the hydra of clashing internal ideologies and parochialism raises its head(s).

All the more reason to give them a probe, to expose them to the kind of light that would might kill delicate flora/fauna on the floor of a rainforest. If attention they want, give it to them good and hard. When Christine Milne appears on TV she always looks as though she's got a migraine: make her think about what she says and does, call her to account, confront her with the consequences.

The worst thing about the reporting of minor-party interventions in the wider political system is that it's presented as a series of surprises, rather than analysed as eminently foreseeable developments. Government announcements are followed by a grab from the opposition and that's it, as though they were the only players. No experienced member of the press gallery has any excuse for keeping up this pantomime of the lazy. Giving candidate X second preference rather than third not only determines whether or not Candidate X goes on to one of those offices in the same building in the Parliamentary Press gallery, it determines the shape of legislation that will bind us all.

The world is a foreign place

Yep, the world is pretty complex all right.

At the start of his article, Greg Sheridan wants to go the biology-is-destiny thing but he knows that nobody writing after Auschwitz can get away with that tosh, not even if you're a theatre reviewer from Montreal. Does anybody believe projections 40+ years into the future? Where is the seer from the 1960s who predicted this world we live in now?
Our age, I suspect, is going to be characterised by three great strategic issues: the war on terror or, if you like, the fate of Islam; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the rise of India and China.

Each of these issues is immensely complex and each is more complicated because of the dynamic of globalisation. Moreover, it is the way these three issues interact with each other that is most difficult to understand and respond to.

Leaving aside the utter redundancy of the second clause in the first sentence quoted above, this is the essence of Sheridan's article. Maybe some day into the future we will see a combination of events and interpretation of which this forms a root. Today, though, it seems like the mutterings of a discombobulated old man who has woken after a slumber.

"Consider this potential chain of interaction", he says, setting up a crenellated tower of enteric substance worthy of Frederick Forsyth, which falls on top of him because there isn't enough reportage to support it, and nor is there the cracking novel the sketch would suggest.

His apology for underestimating the geostrategic importance of the Middle East (!) is important, but I hope this article wasn't a show-cause for why the Foreign Editor ought not be sacked.
Saudi Arabia continues to pump tens of millions of dollars into its longstanding attempt to Arabise, standardise and in a sense radicalise Asian Islam.

See Greg, this is the job of a foreign editor: when you say "Saudi Arabia" here, what do you mean? Do you mean some members of the extended royal family, or funds from the government treasury and the full deal? Wouldn't it be lazy to say that "America" provides both evangelical Christianity and porn in overwhelming quantities? Isn't that kind of learned and granular complexity the very job of a foreign editor?
In all of this we are hugely fortunate as a nation to have so intimate a connection with the most powerful nation in the world, the US, which for all its imperfections is by a vast distance the greatest source for good in the world today.

This is not reportage or analysis. It is the bleating of a man pathetically grateful for an invite.
Tonight the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, a unique and priceless initiative in private diplomacy and astoundingly frank strategic exchange, begins its annual meeting and will try to come to grips with many of these issues. It has a lot of work ahead of it.

What do you expect it to achieve, Greg? What comes of this "work", this coming to grips? When you understand that, and look for it in vain in your writings, you'll see why your writings are so disappointing, why it is necessary to go elsewhere to build your understanding.

Sheridan's work on the Bush-Howard relationship was dead as soon as it was released. If he has nothing to say, as is clear from this article, then he'd be better off saying nothing.

15 August 2007

The wreck of the Peter Costello

Finally, one of the most ridiculous non-stories of Australian politics is over.

Peter Costello will never, ever be Prime Minister. He will never challenge Howard. He will never beat Howard. He won't even win an open leadership contest where Howard is not a candidate. Peter Costello will no more become PM than Cheryl Kernot or John Hewson or Kim Beazley. He is politically dead. In the coming election nobody will listen to a single word he says about anything: this may even happen at APEC next month.

He could stand down. However, the new Treasurer will struggle to find his/her feet, and will involve moving ministers from areas of policy requiring extensive knowledge (the experience and trust thing, you see). Either way, the departure of Peter Costello will stuff the government - almost as much as the slow twisting of his carcass in the wind. The Howard government cannot come back from this.

How many hundreds of hours of airtime, how many hectares of newsprint, have been wasted on the idea that Costello is circling Howard like a shark and waiting to strike generational change into the heart of the Liberal Party? How many "insider" journalists have hyped this up as though it's imminent, as though the Hawke-Keating rivalry set some pattern that is bound to be repeated, only to identify no firm or building momentum for a spill?

It's possible that Howard promised Costello that he'd only stay as PM for a term and a half, or two and a bit. Even if he didn't, the passage of those "deadlines" must have given pause to those who regarded it as part of the Canberra landscape on which they were bound to report. Even the passage of the deadline Costello set in 2005 should have seen the three silly journalists who agreed to hush-up Costello's bragging come forth with the goods.

If he did, and I believe he did, what a masterstroke! Fancy stringing someone along for eleven years - there are people in prison who get treated better than that. John Howard can be a polarising character - some think he's brilliant, some think he's a shit; but this is one area where both will find plenty of sustenance for their views. Same with this going-over from a toothless old dingo.

In a story that shimmers and fades like a mirage, this outburst by Costello was one of the few nuggets of fact that might have built a real, actual story - but they sat on it, for what? On what grounds are they peeved? What juicy insider tips did Costello hand-feed them to keep them sweet? Are you more likely to read The Bulletin or watch The 7.30 Report as a result of all those exclusive deals? Me neither. Those journalists might not be liars but their credibility is pretty much damaged, which is a shame as I had thought their pieces seemed well-considered.

Still, it could be worse - Jason Koutsoukis will need counselling and job retraining. Fortunately, the Australian government provides ...

Peter Costello did the best he could. So far as one can tell from this angle, he did not siphon government money, political donations or other largesse into his own pocket, nor those of his mates. He didn't engage in sordid sexual affairs. He did some good and he missed a few opportunities to do more with what he had, a bit like many of us really. Vale Peter Costello, and thank you.

Maybe there will be a Liberal Prime Minister from Victoria at some stage into the future. By then it will be the country's third most populous state and it will have some of the humility it lacked from its days as the party's engine room, days which are now long past. Sentimental Victorians made up much of Costello's base. So too did moderate liberals, who are now either going, gone or Chris Pyne: Costello was never a moderate, but he shared the same air of bemusement that moderates have, and that was enough when you're standing in line for the "showers".

Like his predecessor as Member for Higgins, John Gorton (except he became Prime Minister, ner ner!), Costello has lied to the press and been caught out. As with Gorton, this is the beginning of the end. While it's true that journalists and politicians lie to each other all the time, what's different here is that Costello is damaged goods. It's one thing to be lied to by someone powerful: if you call them on it, they could deny you the kind of juicy tidbits referred to earlier that seem to be the very essence of what the parliamentary press gallery does. Annabel Crabb is wrong again: all has changed, changed utterly. The press gallery rose as one in refusing to cop that sort of treatment from a loser.

Journalists will eat all sorts of shit - and pass it onto you, dear reader/ listener/ viewer/ citizen, under the GIGO principle - but not if you're on the way out.

08 August 2007

Better than realism

Once again, Federal politics falls short of the racy standards of Annabel Crabb.
"Members and senators commented on the issue of housing affordability," for instance, once translated from the Southcottese generally means "a full-scale riot ensued during which the Assistant Treasurer was unfortunately stabbed".

Rather than apply journalistic skill to create an interesting and important story from fact, she has to make shit up to fend off the dreaded boredom. Emma Tom did this ten times better ten years ago, and even she's getting tired. Why work a niche that isn't open?
One wonders why the Libs spend all that money on the pollster firm Crosby/Textor to tell them they're boring and out of touch when their own backbenchers can establish for free that there's no problem whatsoever.

The question here is, why bother with representative democracy when you can just outsource it to Crosby/Textor? I will never forget Mark Textor barking down the phone at a NSW State Liberal candidate in 1999 that he knew that electorate better than the candidate, a long-standing local councillor whose face and name was plastered across the community in which he (not Textor) had been born and raised. But that's sooooo much work and what time does the Holy Grail open?
You know you're in strange territory when actors are underpaying people.

You know you're a disappointed reader of the MSM when you're shortchanged by a journalist who's, like, wayyyyy to cool to hang off the every word of duffers like Andrew Southcott, but who does it anyway out of some misplaced notion that she's making a difference with the kind of byline-lint in this piece.

07 August 2007

Easily tricked

Once again a Jason Koutsoukis article yields no value in terms of actually letting you know what is going on in our political system. Here is Jase surprised by democracy:
"they" are middle Australia — the people who will decide the result on election day.

But in a time when 93 per cent of Australians think of themselves as being in the middle, getting to the right ones is not as easy as it used to be.

Professionals, tradespeople, wage and salary earners, those in small business — all are now lumped together in the amorphous middle.

Your job is not to do the lumping Jase, your job is to examine those who do the lumping and report back to the lumped on what you've found.
But look at the list of marginal seats Labor has to win — and the Coalition has to defend — and the swinging voters are still located in those same outer suburbs that have been the key to winning elections since Gough Whitlam's 1972 victory.

Here, according to Ozpolitics, is the list of seats Labor needs to win to form government in 2007:

  • Hindmarsh SA

  • Kingston SA

  • Bonner Qld

  • Wakefield SA

  • Parramatta NSW (actually held by Labor already, but nominally Lib due to boundary change)

  • Makin SA

  • Braddon Tas

  • Hasluck WA

  • Stirling WA

  • Wentworth NSW

  • Bass Tas

  • Solomon NT

  • Moreton Qld

  • Lindsay NSW

  • Eden-Monaro NSW

Parramatta, Makin, Bass, Braddon and Solomon aren't outer suburban. Bass was a safe Labor seat in the 1970s, which is why the byelection on the departure of Lance Barnard was so traumatic for Labor. Wentworth couldn't be any more inner-city if it tried, covering the relentlessly urban centres of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst - it has never been held by Labor. Eden Monaro is mostly rural, according to local-yokel Dr Phelps. Anyone who can't accept that Australia has changed demographically in the past 35 years is a fool.
When Parliament is not sitting, [Rudd] will talk to anyone and everyone he can in a bid to sell Labor's message.

Fancy that, a politician who will talk to anyone. Such a contrast from John Howard, or any other politician really.
Rudd's new forgotten people have little to do with the forgotten people of Robert Menzies, who coined the phrase in the early 1940s. What Menzies was on about was that there were people at the top who could look after themselves, working class people who could organise themselves through their trade unions, but then there was this other group who felt they were left out of politics. This was a much narrower constituency and not really the sort of people Rudd is talking about now.

This is exactly the constituency Menzies was talking about, notwithstanding obvious differences about hat-wearing and the idea that those who were returned servicemen were also those in their thirties with families to support. In what way are they different, Jase? You need to do a bit of work before you airily dismiss a notion like that, just as you need to do some more research into someone like Ashley - when a radio station has more than 650,000 listeners, you shouldn't be surprised to encounter real life encounters, nor so patronising when you do.
Clive Hamilton says the art of politics today is being able to carve out a conception of middle Australia that is ordinary man.

Leaving aside the idea that not all people are men, how is this conception of politics different to that of Menzies' or Whitlam's day? It isn't really, is it Jase. Your job is not just to transcribe what is said to you, but to unpack and examine it against what's really there.
Housing affordability may be an issue for many people, but that's not a problem Howard can be fairly blamed for.

Really? Why not? And what about the notion that a preposition is something you shouldn't end a sentence with? Jase's presence is an indictment on The Age as a whole.

05 August 2007

The seven-minute itch

If I were running a mainstream news outlet I'd sack this journalist who sent this in.

It's the equivalent of putting your feet up on the desk, shouting "I'm booooooooored! Bored bored bored bored bored!", and throwing paper aeroplanes until your boss hauls you in for counselling.

Annabel's job involves hanging out with politicians in the faint hope that they might say something interesting (look how long Oakes andd Grattan have been at it and wonder if this is a worthwhile way to spend your life). If we're going to have this system whereby people outside the Parliamentary press gallery decide who's going to be the government, they'd better be scintillating enough to hold Annabel's attention.

So far, it seems, Kevin Rudd isn't cutting it. Now that John Howard, he's laugh-a-minute. And Simon Crean, always an interesting turn of phrase. And Kim Beazley, so dreamy.

If your criteria of an effective government is silver-tonged oratory and "exotic treats", then maybe you should develop an ability to analyse policy just to while away the hours. Instead of treating taxpayers seeking effective public services like children at Christmastime, why not consider what needs people have and how effectively the various parties address those needs. Give it a go - if it's late on Thursday and the editor is demanding a column, you could rattle off something you've been researching and mulling over for a while, rather than effete drivel about how bored you are and how awful it is to consider that covering politics involves more than just hanging around Canberra hoping that some tightly-controlled media statement may reveal something of interest to those who read newspapers (rather than just those who write for them).
Having paid once for the Mersey Hospital in Devonport through the orthodox states grants system, we can only imagine what the Treasurer must think of the PM's brilliant idea to pay for it all over again, this time directly.

Really? Can't you interview him, or something? Go on, you're obviously so bored that you may as well play journalist for a while.
Incidentally, the idea of running hospitals with funding plumbed directly from the Federal Government, but spent by a local community group, is not new.

It's exactly what the Australian Democrats proposed in April 2000, as the brainchild of the then leader Meg Lees, who formulated the plan after two gruelling years of policy research.

It's exactly what the Commonwealth used to do with Repat Hospitals, like Concord in Sydney and Greenslopes in Brisbane, before running hospitals got too hard and they shunted them off to the states. If research is too "gruelling" for you, try something else - press gallery journalism isn't your thing, clearly.

Update 14 Aug: Crabb Drivel Shock