30 May 2011

Leading the Liberal Party

You can lead the Liberals to government but you can't make them think.

The Liberal Party is a party of government. Its reason for being is to be in government. Internal party debate has been increasingly restricted because of the belief that any sort of disagreement constitutes "disunity", and therefore "death" (i.e. being out of government). This in turn has led to the belief that it is better for the Liberal Party to be united around a policy that is silly (e.g. "direct action" on climate change, or whatever the spot position on Liberal economic policy is right now), or to agree-to-disagree on policy for the sake of avoiding the appearance of disunity (e.g. industrial relations) than to have a debate and agree to a position that a) stakeholders can live with and b) might attract voters who have been voting Labor in recent elections.

The context through which the Liberal Party is to be led matters too. A Labor Government which is not necessarily disunited, but still can't convince people about its major initiatives or even why it should continue in government. An international climate of great uncertainty, where old friends in Europe, the US and Japan are in longterm economic and political trouble (decline? Discuss, etc.) while more recently-established in China, Malaysia, India and Indonesia don't necessarily have the same depth for this country's foreign policy, trade and defence establishment.

An issue with which the Liberal Party has trifled, the environment, has shifted to centre stage and become fused with economic policy. It is simply not possible to have a credible economic policy that doesn't address environmental issues - particularly carbon emissions, but also including such issues as the water supply in the Murray-Darling basin - or which treats those issues as some sort of bolt-on that can be discarded later.

The Liberal Party is being led through uncertain times, conditions which its background provides few clues if any as to how to proceed with confidence. Despite the Gorton government establishing the first federal public service response to environmental issues (and, at the same time, proposing nuclear power and weapons development), and Malcolm Fraser making some landmark decisions (such as protecting Fraser Island and the Barrier Reef, but also backing the Gordon-below-Franklin dam) the Liberals have largely left the environment to the left. The Liberal Party will always prefer clearly rejecting an issue to being a pale imitation of Labor or other parties by agreeing, which is why bipartisanship is not an appeal to rally Liberal members.

I disagree with The Piping Shrike when he/she/it says that the Liberal Party - and Labor, and presumably the Greens also - is in longterm decline because of a lack of popular support. Think of any other oligopoly squatting on the Australian landscape - Coles/Woolies, Rugby League/AFL, Rio/BHP, TV, the big banks - and ask yourself honestly whether or not lack of popular enthusiasm really imperils perpetuation of that oligopoly or the interests of those who participate in/benefit from it.

The question is who is best placed to lead the Liberal Party through such a future. There is the incumbent, but I have already commented on him. The two other contenders are Malcolm Turbull and Joe Hockey.

Turnbull need not demonstrate any further that he's a clever man of considerable accomplishment who reads widely. People who loathe the man admit those qualities freely, along with those who effuse about them and him. Turnbull needs to understand and accommodate those whose learning isn't what his is, and bring them along with him. It took Menzies the better part of a decade and a World War in order to do this, and Turnbull needs to do it within the next year if at all. It's alienating enough being part of a modern political party - your opinions are decided for you, largely by morons - and it does not do to have a leader who has already anticipated what you might say and dispensed an answer accordingly, regardless of how you might feel or what, if anything, you might think about it.

It's both a strength and a weakness in politics to stand by an agreement. Everyone criticises politicians for being slippery but Turnbull has been crucified twice on the national stage for being a man of his word. First, he was boxed in to an unsellable compromise on the republic by the strategic genius of John Howard, which he proceeded to sell in the face of predictable opposition. No amount of pushing could get him over the line, whereupon he abdicated in favour of the hapless Greg Barns. Then there was the deal with Rudd over the ETS - a man of his word, he was done over by Tony Abbott. Abbott still thinks he's a genius of political strategy on par with Howard, the poor lamb.

Turnbull might consider the Australian public at large as his clients, he might be mindful of his obligations under any deal he may cut - but the Liberal Party is not just some vehicle that gets you into power. It is an organisation that has interests and fears and with which the leader must have a close and ongoing relationship. When we was leader it was often said that Turnbull could afford to fund the Liberal Party's campaign out of his own pocket, but it's important to cultivate a broad base and be big enough to let them feel they've contributed.

Being touchy-feely has its limits, particularly in the Liberal Party. It was Eric Abetz who is to blame for Godwin Grech. If Turnbull was the Florentine Renaissance man Niki Savva would have him be, then he would enter the Liberal Parliamentary party room with Abetz's severed head, toss it onto the floor with a crunch and a squelch, and calmly call for nominations for Leader in the Senate. This Friday the Liberals are losing six Senators (including the only Liberal who knows anything about foreign affairs) and gaining two (including a retread from Adelaide who's back to top up his super): another one down would be no great loss.

As a political strategist Christopher Joye makes a great economist. Joye refers to an issue "encapsulated in a recent assassination by the AFR's highly regarded Laura Tingle" - it's hardly an assassination if Hockey is not only breathing but occupying his former role. Mind you, Joye has clearly been set up:
... when chatting with The Australian's Greg Sheridan afterwards outlined my own thesis. Greg said he liked it, so I thought I would reproduce it here. Let me say upfront that I have not spoken to Malcolm or anyone else about this. But here are my thoughts in any event.

Sheridan must have laughed all the way back to Surry Hills. The guy has lint for brains but I don't begrudge him so much as a titter at Joye's expense.
He is extremely wealthy, and can opt out of politics and pursue a life of leisure at his choosing. He has already served as a Cabinet-level Minister in one Government, and as the leader of the party in opposition. And he has previously had to endure as much political turmoil as one could wish on any enemy. Importantly, [he] also knows that he has almost no partyroom support. There is a lot of residual bad blood over what has transpired since he left the leadership.

The same could have been said about John Howard in 1992. The difference was that Howard was clearly giving the job everything, everything was subordinated to achieving high office in politics, everything. He was pilloried as a try-hard, but only by people who don't respect dedication and commitment. It's hard for anyone to give their all for a leader who might just up and piss off to Antibes at any moment, leaving you high and dry.

The great example is Jason Wood, the Victorian marginal seat MP who, at the very least, got on well with Turnbull. Wood could have won his outer-Melbourne seat of La Trobe but the Victorian Liberals had no incentive to help Turnbull or Abbott for that matter, so the strategic genius Mitch Fifield was dispatched to La Trobe to place the dying pillow over the face of Wood's career. Never mind MPs who might b a bit dirty on Malcolm; those who aren't there at all are the real worry, and they'll never get there so long as Abbott is leader. Who'd run for preselection and get photographed with that arsehole?
It is too late for him to stealthily build support with the backbench. Most are now a lost cause.

Great, you'll win a lot of support with an attitude like that. It's part of the problem I identified earlier. Read Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Chris, and be amazed at the old boy's perspicacity; send a copy to Malcolm and suggest he learn from it.
Malcolm's most powerful solution is to go into Kamikaze mode and compel a 'survivalist' partyroom response. This is a risky strategy, but then Malcolm has what is known in financial markets as a "call-option-like" payoff function. He has a helluva lot of upside if he can pull it off.

The very heart of this article, and it's a bit of financial markets screen-jockey wank. He's done Turnbull no favours in making him look like a dilettante.
He attacks Abbott principally on the basis of his climate change policies, creating as much public confusion as possible, and undermining, in the electorate's eyes, the credibility of Abbott's alternative. Malcolm also knows that a carbon tax will be legislated well before the next election, and must be hoping that Abbott's narrative loses resonance, just as the anti-GST story did.

Nothing to disagree with there. From the day he announced he was running for Wentworth, Turnbull was playing the long game and he plays it still.
Malcolm can de-legitimise Joe by subtly (yet relentlessly) assaulting his purportedly 'soft' economic and intellectual credentials, which seems to be low-hanging fruit in superficial media land.

Why would anyone want to assault fruit? A mixed metaphor is always a sign that the writer isn't thinking about what they are trying to say.
This may have begun with the internal ructions around Joe's banking war late last year (with The Oz's army enlisted to mount offensive raids from Malcolm's bunker)

A more feeble army is hard to imagine. Again, there is the idea that Turnbull is going to have to work with Hockey: how do you imagine that's going to work, Chris? Do you imagine that at all? If you admire Hockey so much, if Hockey is so underestimated, surely Turnbull's effort to delegitimise him is doomed?
The most important strategic point here is this: if Malcolm can eliminate the credible leadership candidates, and position himself as the party's best hope of winning the next election, he knows that the partyroom will fall into line. That is, he knows that when push comes to shove, the partyroom will vote with its self-interest front of mind. So Malcolm has to establish what I would call a "self-preservation catalyst" for the partyroom by knocking over both Abbott and Hockey.

One mistake some in the party seem to make is dismissing his public appeal. You often hear the rejoinder that Malcolm is only popular with Labor and Green voters. I don't get this: aren't these precisely the target markets you need to secure in order to win an election?

Here Joye redeems himself, he's spot on. His recommendations on how Turnbull gets there are pretty dire, to say the least.
John Howard died and rose again.

No he didn't. He's not Christ, and he's not a Labor figure: Manning Clark and Graham Freudenberg clumsily apply Biblical imagery to Labor figures, it doesn't work with Liberals. Lazarus had help.
Malcolm Turnbull enjoys extraordinary support amongst media influencers

So what? Show me someone who drinks the media Kool-Aid about how influential they are and I'll show you someone who knows nothing whatsoever about Australian politics.
An objective analysis would conclude that there is risk that the polling does not get much better than this.

Abbott will blow strong polling and Labor will crawl out of the crypt. The problem is that the Liberal Party can't give up the idea of the Howard restoration, the idea that the public will join them in a conspiracy to wind the clock back to 2006. If you wonder why Abbott put Bronwyn Bishop, Phillip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews on his front bench, consider his core pitch and wonder no more. There was no NBN or GFC in 2006.

To vote for Malcolm Turnbull is to admit that dream is gone forever. People vote in favour of their dreams and against their own interests all the time, and only a fool or an economist would believe otherwise. Joye may be right about Turnbull, but if so it is for all the wrong reasons.

He's right about Hockey, though. Hockey is a more formidable politician than he's given credit for, and the Libs are crazy not to get him out and about in marginal seats (unless the incumbent is frightened of him). In parliamentary hurlyburly Hockey looks like - and often is - an oaf. Politicians often promise to clean up parliament but never do - if Hockey makes that promise, it will be because he realises how few favours "parliamentary theatre" does him.

Hockey's strong point is in prudential and corporate regulation, and he could damage Swan significantly if he left aside auditing quibbles and went after him on that. If he went after Bill Shorten it would be one of the epic clashes of contemporary politics. Because the Treasury field is so wide, and because Hockey flounders on macroeconomics, Swan sidesteps his attacks and waits to strike when Hockey has wedged himself into a corner, as he regularly does.

Hockey must know that the "deficits bad" line is stupid and wrong, but he hasn't worked out how to shift emphasis away from it - or to what that emphasis might profitably shift. Being outfoxed by Abbott is no recommendation, which is why Hockey is not striking fear into the hearts of Labor like Turnbull is. Hockey has a stronger background in the Liberal Party than Turnbull but he'll overlook people who aren't in his face all the time, he can't do what Howard did and give an ear to every pissant and whinger just so that it looks like he's listening. Hockey doesn't have much of a base outside NSW, and even within it if he brought down Abbott he may not be able to handle the backlash from the right as adroitly as Barry O'Farrell has handled them.

Hockey is different to Abbott because Hockey has scope for growth. Abbott is finished; those who say Abbott still has time or might rise to some new level of statesmanship are kidding themselves.

Neither Turnbull nor Hockey have what it takes to lead the Liberal Party, but if you had to bet it's easier for Turnbull to get over himself than it is for Hockey and Abbott to develop the sorts of substantial capabilities and vision that neither man has so far demonstrated.

27 May 2011

Tom Switzer's war

For every problem there is always a solution that is simple, obvious and wrong.

- Mark Twain

This is one of the clearest pieces on the war on Afghanistan that I've read in a long time. It is also dead, hopelessly wrong.

In it, you can see the febrile mind of Tom Switzer having to rely on pointy-headed academics to support him on his half-hearted jag through a real policy issue (as opposed to the culture-war bullshit in warmed-over pieces from The Weekly Standard on which Switzer's reputation is made). You can see his weak attempts to frame the Prime Minister under the Damned If She Does, Damned If She Doesn't Act, when you know that a) Gillard is following a policy set in place by Howard and b) jerks like Tom Switzer would cane her for departing from it. Talk about the need for balance on the ABC.
“We will be there seeing the mission through.” So said Julia Gillard in response to this week’s tragic news of the 24th Australian death in Afghanistan.

Yet why does the mission, for which 1,550 diggers are fighting, justify more Australian blood and treasure in a backward tribal nation of 25 million? There is, after all, no clear strategy or decent end in sight.

The same could have been said for Gallipoli, or Tobruk. It could also have been said for the postwar occupation of Japan in the 1940s. Basically, Western forces in Afghanistan have made it impossible for fake militant Islam to use the government of that country as a front for pursuing activities designed to maximise chaos throughout the world. They remain there to stabilise the country. As with Japan in 1946 and Korea in 1951, this is a backward country smashed by misgovernment and war, that most terrible of symptoms of political failure. Without postwar occupation, the sort of resentments that led to militarism in the 1930s would have reared their ugly heads again. The status quo in Afghanistan is only relevant insofar as it provides an indication of the future.

There is no clear strategy or decent end if you think the current government - of Australia, as well as Afghanistan - is incapable of clarity and decency. At that point you would have expected Switzer ritually to commend Australian troops for doing a fine job under terrible circumstances, but it would take a bigger man than he to lift his eyes above the partisan.
The Prime Minister says: “We're there to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists.” Yet even before the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this month, there was no substantial Al Qaeda presence in the country: according to CIA estimates a year ago, only 50 to 100 Al Qaeda fighters have been left there.

To the extent that the Al Qaeda network remains operational, it is far more likely to be based in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Pakistan. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer has pointed out, the original objective of the 2001 operation was to destroy Al Qaeda, not fight the Taliban. That aim has been accomplished.

The ongoing presence of Western forces in Afghanistan has cauterised fake militant Islam in Afghanistan's neighbours of Pakistan and Iran. Failing to prop up the existing Afghan government makes aggressive clandestine movements more fluid and less easy to monitor. The CIA would never have been able to get any sort of estimate about the strength of al-Qaeda on the ground in Afghanistan without a significant Western presence there: the CIA failed to anticipate the downfall of the Soviet Union and September 11 itself, so when it comes to intelligence gathering they need all the help they can get.

As former foreign minister Alexander Downer and Tom Switzer should know, World War II was provoked by the invasion of Poland and it ended with Poland still under foreign occupation. That's the problem with war, it rarely ends with its original aims in mind. War represents the failure of politics, that's why it is sound politics - and not lefty appeasement - to avoid war except where it is unavoidable.
Moreover, the Afghan Taliban does not yearn for global martyrdom; it merely wants to restore Pashtun rule in Afghanistan. That may not be ideal for the people of that war-torn country, but it hardly represents a serious threat to US and Australian interests.

Ah yes, the all-Taliban-are-Pashtun thing. This is the sign that Switzer is a dilettante when it comes to Afghanistan. Non-dilettante observers note that many Pashtun are Taliban but while the causes of race and ideology overlap they are not identical.

Now draw in Switzer's hysterical writings in the Oz (those under his own byline and those he commissioned) about refugees. Consider how many Pashtun Afghans have fled to Australia only to be demonised by arsewits like Tom Switzer. Now, finally, we can look these people in the face and recognise that they indeed "hardly [represent] a serious threat to US and Australian interests".
Gillard says she wants “democracy and a functioning government to take hold”. But after nearly 10 years it should be clear to anyone that democracy is not an export commodity to such a tribalised and xenophobic land. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest and most primitive societies.

Its infrastructure is poorly developed. Its terrain is more forbidding than even Iraq’s. Poppy fields are in bloom. Elections have been deeply flawed. The local army can’t stand up to the Taliban for long. Indeed, the corrupt Karzai government is negotiating with the Taliban...

In other words: with all other options cut off or exhausted, the Afghan government is negotiating. It's bringing people inside the tent. It's cutting deals and hammering out solutions. In other words, it is behaving like a normal government: any goon can lob a grenade into a makeshift hospital, but the slow patient grind of goverment is something usually imposed on Afghanistan rather than performed by its own people.

Owing to the secrecy surrounding this exercise, we can only see in retrospect the lesson that the US and other Western participants have been teaching Karzai and the Afghan elite political class: only when you start negotiating and building alliances will we back off and leave you to it. Only when you realise that fake militant Islam is a threat to you all will our work be done.

It was always too much to hope for the sort of profound cultural shifts that might have engendered recognisable democracy with an intolerance for corruption, or an end to the systematic ill-treatment of women and girls that comes from regarding them as second-class people.
... which makes sense given that the Taliban will still be there after western forces turn tail and run, as they will eventually will.

Could this be any more offensive? What a gutless worm this so-called Tom Switzer is. As explained, the fact that Karzai is talking to the Taliban is a sign of success.
It is true, as Gillard argues, that Australia’s commitment to the all-important US alliance means a special obligation to support what Robert Menzies called “our great and powerful friends”. It also explains why Canberra has supported all of Washington’s (and London’s) major wars in the past century.

The point, though, is that many leading political and diplomatic figures in Washington (and London) can’t wait to end what is the longest war in American, indeed Australian, history.

In the US, a growing number of congressmen on both sides of the political fence oppose the $10 billion monthly funding bill for the operation ...

Leading strategists and intellectuals – from Les Gelb (Democrat) to Richard Haass (Republican) – counsel significant drawing down of the US presence, lest the quagmire further damage American prestige and credibility. Nearly two thirds of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting.

That's exactly how people felt in 1945 (or about Vietnam in 1969), Tom - sick of all the carnage and waste, keen to wrap it up as soon as possible. The fact is, though, "as soon as possible" does not mean "RIGHT NOW!!!1!1!!" or before tomorrow's edition of The Australian is "put to sleep bed". The war is clearly winding down, and Australians in uniform and not are doing what they can to ensure there is something to show for the past ten years.
Meanwhile, the administration is considering direct talks with the Taliban even as it begins phasing out 5,000 US forces in July.

Tom, you're an Australian writing for an Australian audience. It does not do to refer to the Obama Administration as just "the administration", as though our government is that of the United States. This is a case where sloppy writing has resulted from sloppy thinking (it also shows that Jonathan Green's paeans to Fairfax subediting doesn't apply to his own work at The Drum).
The US and NATO have flagged their complete combat withdrawals by 2014. (Two thirds of the 140,000 coalition troops are American.)

In Britain, prime minister David Cameron has called for a withdrawal of British troops within the next two years. The Dutch have quit Afghanistan for good. The Canadians are in the process of pulling out all their troops.

You'd hope, wouldn't you, that Switzer would have applied this knowledge to the silly rhetorical questions at the start of his piece. He's shown his whole argument to be vacuous hype
And yet, even as the deteriorating position of the US-led coalition becomes increasingly evident, Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott keep insisting we must complete the mission. Last October, the Prime Minister even warned that Australian soldiers would be in Afghanistan for another decade.

What they're doing there, Tom, is telling the Afghans not to lapse back into the Hobbesian milieu to which they are accustomed. The 2014 endgame is in place for our benefit, not for the benefit of the bad guys looking to regroup: the threat to stay another ten years is a warning that no backsliding will be tolerated.
But the logic that suggests that because Australia and the Coalition have stayed so long, we may as well finish the job, is based on a false premise that assumes a defined endgame exists and is achievable. But no endgame exists, let alone is achievable.

It's not a false premise, and a defined endgame does in fact exist. You said so yourself, and then you ignored it: this, not some partisanship, leads one to conclude that you are a fool. The endgame is in sight, it would be foolish to slacken and run the risk that a decade's work and sacrifice might be lost. Retreats are the most dangerous aspects of any battle.
This is no way to conduct a war. We’ve been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, and like America and Britain today, we are out of patience, political rationale and public support.

What did you have in mind - a reprise of George W Bush's premature ejaculation over "Mission Accomplished"? There is a significant amount of Australian goodwill toward the troops and to successive governments that sent them there, and to withdraw now would be to blow that.

This is typically lazy stuff from Switzer. Everything he describes - except the endgame announced by President Obama and other leaders - was in place in 2007, yet there was none of this ennui from people like Switzer. Howard's spending on Defence and refusal to put it under much scrutiny warranted closer examination in a time of war. An Abbott government elected in 2013 would be credited with all the adulation that is due to those who are holding the line now; a Gillard government re-elected would get it anyway. Thus, Switzer condemning the incumbents for a bipartisan policy.
A political settlement with the Taliban is the best way to produce a speedy withdrawal of Australian and Coalition troops. It is time to scale down our ambitions and reduce our commitments.

No, it is not. What you're seeking there, Tom, is the sort of figleaf that the US achieved in "negotiations" with the Viet Cong in Paris during the early 1970s. Why have fake victory now when you can - with just a bit more commitment, Tom - have the real thing in a matter of months? But that would mean credit for your political opponents, and a culture warrior in search of preselection and some sort of direction in an otherwise pointless life could never rise to that.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

- Rudyard Kipling Tommy Atkins

Switzer really is a latter-day Tony Abbott. Abbott fell into journalism when sport, law and the Catholic Church failed to sustain him, before lolling about in non-profit organisations (The Bulletin, Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy)waiting for preselection which finally came in 1994. Switzer headed for Washington to see the rise of Gingrichism without learning anything from it, and returning to Australia to act as some sort of culture-warrior.

Now that the US right-wing model has collapsed into the Tea Party, now that Glenn Beck is too embarrassing even for Murdoch, now that Thatcherism has imploded to deliver warmed-over Majorism of David Cameron, and now that Malcolm Turnbull is pointing out that peak Abbott is behind us rather than ahead - Tommy boy is wanting things resolved sooner rather than later. He can't hang around with academics all his life, and going back to journalism looks like going backwards. He is not the man to save a dying industry.

Tom Switzer is trying to engage with the big issues in an area from which Australian politics has really retreated a long way (defence and foreign policy), he's doing all the right things to secure Liberal preselection for a seat in Federal Parliament. Time is running out and opportunities are few, and there are limits to the extent to which his rightwing mates can deliver:

  • Switzer lost preselection in Bradfield to someone roughly the same age as him;

  • In terms of safe Liberal seats in Sydney: Mitchell, Cook and North Sydney are also held by people of similar age to him;

  • Wentworth wouldn't have him even if Turnbull quit; and if he becomes the next leader, forget it;

  • Warringah is held by Tony Abbott, and their taste for another shallow-thinking boofhead might not be as strong as Switzer would hope;

  • That leaves Berowra (Ruddock) and Mackellar (B. Bishop) as longer term prospects, but Switzer can only keep up the profile for a little longer and the right can't guarantee anyone anything since they drove John Brogden over the edge;

  • Senator Switzer? Someone has to replace Coonan but it probably won't be our Tom. Payne and Fierravanti-Wells have long-established constituencies and Heffernan will be replaced by another rustic.

Switzer's article is a metaphor for its writer: a man who is watching all he believed in crumble before his eyes, while the opportunities he assumed were within reach are also slipping away. His position isn't quite as dire as that of the Taliban, but you can see why he's hoping for some tail-turning in Australian politics sooner rather than later.

24 May 2011

Hubris is one word for it

Here Niki Savva goes around like some cattle-dog, yapping and snarling in the hope that Liberals will fall into some sort of line that she doesn't set, but which she considers herself responsible for enforcing. Savva would have you believe that the current Federal situation is unique, but it isn't.

A Labor government with a slim margin that generates little apart from press releases - and a Liberal Party still smarting from being turfed from office, confident that its return is imminent with a bit of pushing. NSW 1995-9 was similar to Canberra today (and I'm not talking about the Territory Legislature). Same Labor government too timid to change much, but with a killer media strategy that the Libs tried to copy but couldn't quite.

In Canberra today the Liberal media strategy is about the same but better than Labor's: Abbott is nothing but a media tart, helped enormously by a Murdoch press that will happily apply more scrutiny to a minority party in the Senate than any of his poorly considered media stunts, which was solidly behind Carr and NSW Labor. We (as "we" were then) were beset by all manner of clowns insisting that we all had to be united behind whatever stupid notion had popped into the leader's head in time for some evanescent media announcement.
Senior Liberals are worried about how to contain an emotion as corrosive as Labor's despair, and driven by the same raw assessment of the political landscape: the government is finished, Julia Gillard has planked and the election, whenever it is held, is essentially a foregone conclusion.

The government would have been finished were it not for a workmanlike budget: not so flash that it would have aroused suspicion, not so dull that it proved Labor could no longer be bothered. It would be finished if the Opposition were not led by one of the few political leaders less popular than Julia Gillard. It would be finished if clowns like Mark Arbib, Paul Howes or those no-marks from Victoria's Labor Right started to raise their profiles.
The smarter operators in the Coalition are acutely aware of the threat hubris poses, first from younger, ambitious MPs who fret that victory will shunt them even further back so they have to try harder to get attention, and second from older MPs (who should know better) who think it's OK to act up, and worry even more than their younger colleagues that time will pass them by.

Seriously, this is bullshit.

Abbott, both Bishops, Kevin Andrews, are all about a Howard Restoration: the idea that they can and will take the country back to 2006 and keep it there. Lose the next election and that dead crust gets scraped off the Liberal Party. As to the "younger ones", some may not know what to do without adult supervision - things may get a bit Lord Of The Flies if Tony Smith, Sophie Mirabella and Mitch Fifield start calling the shots, but they're all from the wrong state. None of them have the stomach for patricide nor the alternative vision that post-Fraser Liberals had.

Maybe the Liberal Party chose the wrong future for itself. They thought they were so clever in bumping up Howard government staffers to the frontline in order to perpetuate the Howard government mindset. Instead, they face the prospect of being represented by a lost generation of drones.

Then of course there are those reprehensible "older MPs" like Mal Washer who stands for greater restrictions on tobacco advertising, which is more than his so-called leader stands for.
Hubris had already manifested in a variety of less troublesome ways, whether it was people jostling for seats or people hanging on to them just so no one else could have them, like Alby Schultz, who boasted to The Canberra Times that his recent heart operation had extended his life span by another 15 to 20 years and that he had no intention of retiring. Take that, evil contenders.

Worse, there is nobody with the leverage to push Schultz out. There is ample scope for a Labor person or an independent to beaver away over the next two to three years and take a very nice seat in Federal Parliament. A Liberal or National could knock him off now, if one could be found with a bit of drive and who could manage the sensitivities of paying due respect to a sick old man with no record other than getting re-elected - good luck in finding someone to fit that bill. Where are you, Bob Cotton?
Meanwhile Cory Bernardi still thinks it's OK to blog whatever pops into his head, including criticising the first bloke Tim Mathieson, in defiance of the usual practice that spouses and partners of other MPs are off limits.

This is fair enough. Liberals squealed like stuck pigs whenever someone had a go at nasty old Hyacinth Bucket Jeanette Howard, and they'd do the same if anyone bothered to go after Margie Abbott (and why would you? She's the only socially useful member of that household). Turnbull and other Liberals looked sleazy and stupid when they went after Therese Rein, and as for Gillard her domestic and reproductive situation is so similar to that of Julie Bishop that you'd think they would lay off.
Then along came Malcolm Turnbull, who is in much the same place - emotionally and figuratively - as Kevin Rudd. Turnbull actually did everybody in the Coalition a favour by reminding them that just a little prick can burst a bubble.

"A little prick can burst a bubble" was a line that Peter Costello used to hiss at anyone who did anything he didn't like. What that misses is the idea that anyone can blow a bubble and create enough hot air to keep it afloat, and that however much blowing bubbles can impress the simple-minded it is not that much of an achievement in itself - you're simply not entitled to carry on when they burst. It's a nasty and meaningless line, befitting all who deploy it because it shows they don't think about what they say.

Having misdiagnosed Turnbull's behaviour, Savva proclaims herself savvy as to his emotional state. It's fair to suspect that her judgment may be off there too.
The weekend leaking ... Initially suspicion fell on Hockey ... Then blame settled on the few remaining Turnbull supporters ...

Oh, please. A senior journalist and a senior adviser reduced to both tittle and tattle. This person is not worth feeding, let alone reading.
If someone held a gun to your head to force you to choose which one of them was likelier to make a comeback, you would have to go for Rudd. Not because he is better than Turnbull but because Labor is in much much worse shape than the Coalition and the alternatives to Rudd-Gillard are weaker.

A silly statement needs some silly assumptions, and the gun-to-the-head thing is an example of the sort of silly Canberra bar talk you'd get from people like Savva and Lachlan Harris. Rudd doesn't have a deal with independent MPs that is holding his party in government: only Gillard has that. The Liberals will do anything to get back into office - if they think they can do so with Tony Abbott as leader he'll stay, but if Turnbull is the man then Turnbull it will be. It's simple as that. If bubbles have to be burst then they'll be burst, Niki.
Even so, feelings about Turnbull are not as visceral or as vicious as they are among Labor MPs towards Rudd.

Given the importance of the emotional in Savva's writings, she's just buggered her own thesis.
A few Liberals speak fondly of Turnbull, even though his dramatic weight loss (13kg thanks to a lemon detox diet) has left him looking a bit hang-dog, or perhaps that's just the internal reflected in the external.

If you can't make a bitchy comment about make-up, make a bitchy comment about weight and diet, rounded off with another pseudo-psychological imputation. Is there no end to this bitch highly respected doyenne of the Parliamentary press gallery?
Turnbull, intelligent and engaging, is a man born out of his time. He belongs in Renaissance Florence, rebuilding cities and states, commissioning great works of art, fostering literary and political talent, all according to his own whims and preferences.

The most common complaint by those who served under him is that Turnbull would not take advice and found it impossible to control his temper.

His arrogance and refusal to suffer fools - a prerequisite for any political leader has cost him dearly.

Which is it - is he intelligent and engaging or can he not suffer fools? Didn't Menzies have the same problem? Would you really bet on Turnbull being unable to modify himself against Abbott lifting his game? Really? They're valid points, but hardly insurmountable.
Plus his frequent need to remind everyone he is a man (probably the last one standing) of principle, as he did again on ABC1's Lateline on Wednesday night, infuriates them.

The fact that he can Turnbull's beliefs on the environment can be defended as a coherent whole more adequately than the Coalition's current policy is what's infuriating. If the current leader had the intellectual heft and coherence that Turnbull has, he'd just be a crank. Turnbull can't be patronised: bared teeth and snarling can betoken fear as much as hostility.
Gillard and the Greens, who if they believed in prayer would beg for Turnbull's resurrection ...

Resurrection is pretty strong power, even Turnbull's most ardent supporters don't think he's capable of that.

Seriously though, the public - outside Canberra and the bars that fill up on sitting weeks - want Rudd and Turnbull leading the major parties. Why would Gillard want the Liberals to be led by someone who's more popular than she is? It doesn't make sense, it's like the tobacco industry warning that consumption of their product going up would be a bad thing. It's why Niki Savva isn't much chop as a political analyst.
Most Labor voters would prefer to see Turnbull in the job, but when you ask them if this would induce them to vote for the Liberals, almost all of them say no.

As one Liberal observed: "Labor voters think if there has to be a Liberal Party and it has to have a leader, then it should be Malcolm."

Most Labor voters don't count - only some do, the ones who only vote Labor sometimes. They're called swinging voters, Niki. Have you met any of them? Swinging voters are the people who turn Labor governments into Liberal ones, or vice versa. Swinging voters would vote Liberal if Malcolm Turnbull were leader, which is why it's in the best interests of the Liberal Party for Turnbull to become leader - once he has learned to take advice, or create the appearance of doing so like Abbott does.
Turnbull cannot renounce his views. Nor should he. But he should have known his wanton disparaging of Abbott's climate-change policy would have repercussions.The fact he later appeared to have no appreciation of the damage he had caused to himself or the Coalition was revealing.

Some issues are more important than the current leader. John Howard used to shirtfront leaders other than himself all the time: his treatment of the leader who gave him his biggest break, Malcolm Fraser, was particularly brutal. As long as Turnbull can dress this up as a cause bigger than himself - just like Costello's bridgewalk for Aboriginal reconciliation - he'll be all right.

Besides, what damage? Abbott's solid, untouchable, the inevitable next PM, right Niki? Right?
He could have maintained the principled position that has won him respect in the community and still not put down his own party's policy.

How? How could he have avoided the thousand questions from journos wanting to write the same Walkley-worthy scoop LIBS SPLIT SHOCK? Come on, Media Strategist Extraordinare, how exactly would that have been possible?
If it was deliberate, it was plain dumb, and if it wasn't deliberate it was even dumber. Either way the poor judgment again exposes a potentially fatal flaw for a man who wants to lead a political party and be prime minister.

In the week before the 1993 election John Howard flatly contradicted his leader, John Hewson, on interest rates. At the next election, Howard was leader and was elected Prime Minister. No election is imminent, and Turnbull is at least as dumb as Howard (if "dumb" is the word to use here).
If Abbott falls before the election, which is unlikely, or if he is defeated at the election, which is always possible, then even those who had stayed loyal to Turnbull to the bitter end, and it was extremely bitter, are unlikely to back a leadership bid by him.

The same could have been said about Howard at any point 1989-95.
In fact the man now most likely to succeed Abbott, assuming the vacancy occurs later rather than sooner, is Turnbull's former very good friend, Scott Morrison.

Oh, piss off. A smarmy turd who wants to run with the racists and climate-deniers while disavowing them - seriously, Alexander Downer or Brendan Nelson or even Gillard are up there with Pericles against such a man as Scott bloody Morrison. Nobody would or should believe he wouldn't screw his best friend, if he had one, for momentary advantage. Canberra scuttlebutt just doesn't translate to the real world, and particularly marginal electorates.
They reckon public hostility to the carbon tax is so embedded it will continue all the way through the election. Even seasoned political operators have been taken aback by the intensity of feelings expressed by voters on the rising cost of living.

Voters believe the government won't help them because it lacks the resources or can't because it is so incompetent.

Niki, Niki, the GST. You were there, remember?

Niki Savva is hopeless as an analyst, but she has her uses in exposing the desperation from eighth-rate hacks who call themselves "strategists",who refuse to face up to real policy issues and tailor their responses to the real electorate/ economy/ society/ country before them. A scare campaign against the carbon tax and refugees is pretty much the entire Liberal offering. To preserve that precious offering, you need to nobble Turnbull before he has the chance to offer something more and leave said "strategists" out in the Canberra cold. Savva fears that Turnbull offers what the country would need at a time - like Florence during the Renaissance, for example - when so much is in flux, where opportunities and pitfalls abound, and where just being a prick is a necessary start to keep on top of it all. Read your Machiavelli, Niki - Turnbull has.

23 May 2011

Katter's vote of no confidence

Dennis Shanahan says here that Bob Katter's call for a new party is "a cry from the heart for many".
Barely 12 months into Julia Gillard's first term, the far north Queensland MP is talking of the need for a new party, not only because people are complaining about a lack of leadership but because he thinks the independents have failed to deliver and are doomed.

No word about Tony Abbott, who's providing about as much anti-leadership as anyone can handle. Abbott doesn't know where to start with people like Katter - Abbott has done nothing to consolidate LNP gains last August; Katter would only act as he has if he thought Abbott was going backwards. No word about Campbell Newman, who has taken Queensland's LNP from being sidelined by Anna Bligh's magisterial response to natural disasters to being ten points ahead in the polls. Given that Katter is a former Nats minister in the Bjelke-Petersen government, his first port of call should surely be the LNP?

No. Firstly, Katter is too used to calling the shots as head of his own movement, and won't defer to any upstarts from Brisbane or Sydney. Secondly, Katter is an economic moron who would do more harm than good to the Coalition. Thirdly, while Katter can't believed that old-school nostrums have failed, he's not a racist or a kook but even so he can't separate any movement he might lead from Hansonites, League of Rights, LaRoucheites, apocalyptic religious nuts and other wackos who form a disproportionately large section of the Queensland electorate - yet he'll take his chances with these people against Abbott, Newman & Co.

Bob Katter is calling bullshit on Tony Abbott. Oakeshott, Windsor, Crook and others from electorates far from and different to the place Katter calls Quinceland can take their chances. Katter backed Abbott after the last election but has clearly decided the Sydney boy is on a hiding to nothing. If a Coalition government was a real possibility he'd be taking a different tack. Katter would have known about the Coalition's cut to automotive industry assistance even though the press gallery didn't - Bob Brown gets more scrutiny than the alternative Prime Minister from the supposedly relentless media, it seems.

Shanahan can't bring himself to write a story against the Coalition. When the Coalition was tanking in 2007 he became a figure of mirth for insisting that Howard was coming around. Sometimes you've got to write off a dud journalist and go to the essence of what they've written, and let that tell its own story.

Katter might be an eccentric in his presentation and an economic duffer, but he's spent more time in politics than almost anyone. The Joh Nationals went after Howard in 1987 because he was a loser - they still had their misgivings a decade later but bowed to changed political realities. Katter can smell the loser-smell that Tony Abbott reeks of - even though press gallery generally, and the Murdoch press in particular, can't pick it.

22 May 2011

Fault lines

The more one of the most popular Prime Ministers in Australian history listened to Lachlan Harris, the less popular he became. This happened because Lachlan Harris' advice was rubbish. It's still rubbish, as you can see from this sorry shower of garbage (perhaps I shouldn't be so prejudicial in framing Harris' piece, but it's in a Murdoch rag so stuff it).
In politics cynicism isn't a pitfall, it's an aspiration. Politicians, journalists and staffers pride themselves on being an unsentimental lot.

That's why Labor people wheel out the Curtin-Chifley stuff, both when they make a public announcement and when they cry into their beer about why they wreck their personal lives in order to work for someone they often secretly despise. That's why Libs wax indignant about "the mums & dads" or gild the lily about Howard under the same conditions. Sentimentality takes the role that knowledge and empathy should play in underpinning the analysis, development and presentation of policy. It is a pitfall, Lachlan, and you're still falling.
The harsh reality is that in modern politics lasting popularity is a thing of the past. This reality doesn't just apply in Australia. It applies in almost every comparable democracy around the world.

Popular oppositions still exist, but there is no compelling evidence to suggest that this popularity can outlive a year or two in government.

The Howard government hit a peak in popularity in 2001, its fifth year in government. The Carr government in NSW was never so popular than in 1999 and 2003, its fourth and eighth years respectively in office. The Bracks government in Victoria was consistently popular throughout its seven years in office. In Britain, the Blair government was consistently popular from its election in 1997 until 2003 - its sixth year in government Lachlan.

There are more examples against your contention than for it, Lachlan. Like much of your work, your opinions only makes sense if you don't think about them too much.
There are a variety of reasons for the end of lasting popularity as a realistically attainable political goal. The timidity of modern politicians, and the complexity of the remaining national reform projects, can take some blame.

Timidity isn't restricted to the modern era: Cicero and Sallust blasted their lily-livered (but self-described "hard-headed") contemporaries for imperilling the Roman Republic, and they lived to see the downfall of not just a government but an entire political entity. John Curtin was a timid man and the Second World War was pretty damn complex. You should keep that sort of talk for when you're half cut at The Holy Grail, if taxpayers and voters hear you talk like that they'll think you a fool.
Another extremely important reason for the end of lasting popularity as a reasonably attainable goal is the rise of the opinion cycle.

The short version of the reasons for the rise of the opinion cycle is this; opinion is cheap to form, easy to broadcast and interesting to share.

There are two basic reasons why the opinion cycle makes lasting political popularity (not short term popularity blips) a near-structural impossibility.

Firstly in the news cycle basic straight down the line government-governing stories (like most of your typical budget yarns) are the filler that keeps the news cycle cycling between big events, big announcements and big stuff-ups.

This loses sight of the fact that "the opinion cycle" is a circle-jerk of which voters/media consumers give not a shit. Seriously, media loses circulation and politicians lose credibility when they descend into the opinion cycle.

What's in the budget is what's going to be done this year, and what's not there probably won't. It's not filler - the "opinion cycle" is the filler. If you're too dumb to make a good story out of improved mental health care, get Andrew Bolt wound up about whatever. Just because you don't understand what government is, doesn't mean it's filler.
My column on Tony Abbott last week was a clear example of this type of content. These opinion-based critiques are much more brutal than their fact-based predecessors.

They are critical, polarising, and usually impossible to disprove.

They're not polarising if you don't give a damn. Facts may be ignored by they are not redundant.

As to "impossible to disprove" - the idea that the BER was a failure (journosphere/"hard head" received wisdom) rather than a success (Orgill Report and thousands of school principals and P&Cs nationwide) is a great example of this. The idea that hard-heads construe a success as a failure is pretty soft-headed, and as Orgill demonstrated easy to disprove.
The news cycle just needs newness to keep on keeping on; the opinion cycle needs newness and new divisions in opinion as well.

Voters/Media consumers need only relevance - the circle-jerk in which you have been a long-term participant isn't polarising, it's just irrelevant.
Budget numbers rarely divide opinion, which is why community fault lines not budget bottom lines dominate so much budget coverage in a cycle that is now just as dependent on opinion as it is on fact.

There is no link between what goes on in the community and what goes on in the politico-media complex, Lachlan. It isn't the community that's at fault here, they/we are right to be bewildered and even annoyed that these circle-jerks intrude on public debates. Just because you're in thrall to something called an "opinion cycle" doesn't mean we all are.
The chance of convincing someone you are governing responsibly through a flow of information that is dependent on personal criticism and divided opinion is basically nil.

So, the circle-jerk won't help you get through to people. What is it for, then?
The Budget wasn't perfect and the federal government has made its fair share of mistakes.

Those mistakes have centred on non-delivery, and assuming that you can engage in "opinion cycling" as a substitute for having delivered sound policy as proper return for votes and taxpayer largesse.
Freak emotional events that are well handled can result in almost Jekyll and Hyde like conversions of negative coverage into positive coverage (think Bligh/Floods or Obama/Osama).

Firstly, Jekyll and Hyde was a story about a drug addict (fact, not opinion) rather than a responsible government. Secondly "freak events" fail because delivery in one area (to use your example: Bligh/floods) doesn't result in delivery in other areas (Bligh/education, Bligh/health, Bligh/transport, etc).
In the opinion cycle, assuming the vast majority of opinion-based political coverage will be nasty, narky and negative, is a good rule of thumb. Forget about hitting the panic button because the Budget, or the carbon tax, or the pokies reforms got hammered. Nasty, narky and negative coverage is the new black.

It just gets ignored, Lachlan. If you want to get announcements out, make them real and stand up for them.
Lasting popularity in politics is dead ...

No, it's just too hard for you as a child of the "opinion cycle". To quote from a book with which your old boss may be familiar: you sowed the wind, and you reaped the whirlwind.
... taking action based on ideals (even if unpopular) may be the only effective communication tool left.

Action based on ideals is not a tool; it is that which is communicated by tools such as Lachlan Harris. Action based on ideals may be good or bad, depending on circumstances and on those to be affected by such actions. It will not be at all dependent on the "opinion cycle", a make-work scheme for failed Labor staffers like Andrew Bolt and Lachlan Harris.

Elsewhere: the essential Mr Denmore on how Bob Brown sent the opinion cycle into a tizz. He was caught out by Chris Uhlmann but basically he showed how it's done: make the opinion cycle spin on its own axis while you pursue your ends by other means. A self-referential opinion cycle is, at the risk of mixing metaphors like Lachlan Harris, digging its own grave.

19 May 2011

Who decides what's news?

Further to the fallout in the journosphere over Lindsay Tanner's Sideshow, two recent articles show that the victims/perpetrators still don't understand the nature of their dysfunction, let alone how to address it. One blames money, the other blames the audience with which journalistic professionals have to work - both come from the same source but they reflect wider opinions held throughout the journosphere. Both light all fools in the journosphere the way to dusty professional death.

First, the poster-girl for Doesn't Get It, Annabel Crabb. Like Richard Wilkins a generation ago, Crabb is an older person's idea of a hip, with-it young person, rather than an authentic representative of a connected and intellectually omniverous generation who happens to be employed in journalism. She did not get where she is by traducing the "realities" of journalism but by absorbing and living them, such that she can create the appearance of identifying the trends that are eating her "profession" alive but not do anything, y'know, too radical.

Crabb talks about having to pay for journalism online. She gives a number of excellent examples and ignores the lesson they are teaching her. Basically, you have to pay for journalism up front, but you can't judge the quality and value of the information until after you have received it. There is no recourse when paying for information that was not of the quality that you might have come to expect: as Tim Dunlop points out (more on his piece later), journalism is one aspect of our consumer society where The Customer Is Always Wrong.

To be fair, the ABC sub-editors haven't done Crabb much of a favour with their headline: "Finding a coin for the journalistic juke box" in the era of Gnutella and iTunes is an irony, probably unintended.
... how can a market evolve to allow for this rather ornate variation; that 500 words from an antagonised correspondent will necessarily be more expensive than the same 500 words from a happy volunteer? Is it any wonder that readers are unwilling to pay for content, when the pricing structure is so random?

Clearly, not every lot of 500 words is equally valuable, regardless of journalistic pay scales. To presume otherwise and then focus on the emotional state of the writer, as Crabb does, is clearly a mistake.

She compounds it by a frankly silly assessment of what her value proposition is:
A journalist's main professional advantage over a blogger, increasingly, is that we have the luxury of being paid for what we do, and the privilege of some years' experience of this pleasant arrangement.

The latter is as much a curse as an advantage. Crabb is so stuck in a mental rut as to what news is or isn't that she regularly missed big developments in Australian politics so that she could indulge her interest in, say, Julia Gillard's earlobes, Chris Pyne's vocal timbre, or Bronwyn Bishop's hair. This meant that Crabb engaged in low-quality journalism; yet if you accept journalism's own rules (foremost among them: only journalists can judge other journalists), then Annabel Crabb is a very fine journalist indeed.

As to being paid for "what they do": plenty of people in modern Australia get paid to seek information from various sources and explain it in a coherent way. Pretty much everyone with a university degree who is employed in the sort of job where a degree is required does this. One such is Greg Jericho; he is not a journalist but an economist employed in the public service. He also runs the famous Grog's Gamut blog, where he demonstrates that ability as part of contributing to public debates.

Let's be clear: the idea that journalism practiced by journalists is a unique value proposition in itself is unsustainable. Greg Jericho is a better writer than Annabel Crabb. He explains important issues in an interesting way. Crabb is flippant about everything, great or petty, and has no ability to demonstrate that she understands what she writes about. In some Ayn Rand dystopia where nobody did anything for free, Jericho would be a wealthy writer and Crabb - well, let's hope she has a lovely singing voice. Because you have to pay for it up front but can only assess its value after you've read it, then Jericho at $0 is much better value than Crabb at $[insert Annabel Crabb's TEC+expenses here].

Media organisations would be better off hiring intellectually omnivorous and high-quality writers like Jericho and leaving flippant and shallow writers like Crabb to their own devices. If they won't do that then they can't complain when they have overestimated their value proposition, which is the central problem faced by media organisations across Australia and beyond.
The internet has corroded so many of the structural basics of the journalistic transaction. Our monopoly over basic source information is significantly undermined, seeing as anyone can now watch parliament, or press conferences, or go through company reports online or tinker around with the websites of government departments. Our monopoly over the dissemination of information is damaged too, seeing as anyone can now set up a cheap publishing platform.

The challenge remains to pull all of that information together into a story that is both compelling and relevant. That's the real value proposition of journalism, Annabel.

Part of that challenge, however, involves telling experienced editors and other people who control the careers of people like Annabel Crabb that they don't know their own jobs: that what they believe to be a story may not, in fact, be a story.

Compelling and relevant: that's the challenge. People who run news organisations don't think you can do both, and so will settle for compelling over relevance. Grog's Gamut and other blogs show that you can be both compelling and relevant. High-value journalism is both compelling and relevant. Alan Kohler does this with business and finance news, and most sport journalists know that most of their job consists of letting the game tell the story. That's the standard: clear it, or shut up shop.

Journalists are directed to go out and get compelling content, but what they provide (and what publishers publish) is hype. In the journosphere, the Federal Treasurer breaking a drinking glass is a huge story. To most people, it isn't. Because most people aren't editors, the broken glass is the story. There are plenty of things that the Treasurer did which just get ignored. What happens then is that politics becomes irrelevant to people, and lazy journalists don't think it's important to write about relevant issues in a compelling way: people like Annabel Crabb don't even try. She says:
But I'd love to hear what you think about all of this.

Nowhere in the comments that follow is there any engagement with what people think about her writing or the issue she raises. She should have been honest and said: "I don't care what you think, if you do think at all. Nothing you say will make a blind bit of difference to what I do or how I do it".

Marius Benson at least pays lip service to the idea that not all journalism is of the rolled-gold variety:
The media and politicians do have much to answer for. Their self-serving world of half truths, beat-ups, misrepresentation, slogans and fudge is a poor substitute for reality.

But much of the blame lies elsewhere. The real problem is not the media, not the politicians; it is you - you the voter. The level of knowledge that lies behind the average vote is distressingly slight.

We're informed by the media, Marius. It's not a substitute for reality, it's a misrepresentation of it. The first paragraph is the problem, it's not something you skate over on the way to somewhere else. I'm doing my bit by going around the media, and identifying poor examples of journalism on the way through. What are you doing - the same old same-old?
Carbon sequestration is a clumsy term, but the idea of storing carbon in the ground is a relatively simple one and it is often referred to in the carbon debate.

It's also bullshit, Marius. Just because you can explain it in a press release doesn't mean you can do it in practice. Nobody has said or demonstrated how it can be done, or whether doing it would cause more harm than good (what would be the impact on the water table?), so it's just an example of bullshit that you don't need to worry about because it won't make much difference anyway. It's another example of the difference between what fascinates journalists and what's relevant - and the difference is the journalists' fault.

The Rudd government promised $heaps toward a Carbon Capture Storage Institute, Marius, so seeing as you're interested in that sort of thing why don't you just toddle off and find out what happened to our money? You've clearly got nothing better to do.
Faced with this level of indifference and ignorance what are politicians meant to do beyond picking three slogans, repeating them endlessly and hoping something will get through to people who only hear them accidentally when they tune in too early for Master Chef and catch a political grab on the news headlines?

Fuck you, Marius Benson, and fuck everyone who made you like that - particularly clowns like you who decide what "the news headlines" are (which are in themselves "three word slogans").

Benson describes the recently departed NSW Labor government as:
a government that had long outstayed its welcome, that was caught up in frenzy of back-stabbing, maladministration and personal scandals and which provided the electorate with riveting images like ministers dancing on the parliamentary furniture in their underwear. Even the most inattentive voter took a clear view to the ballot box in NSW, and it was not uninformed.

To get there, a great deal of misinformation was necessary, and was provided in spades. Journalists like Marius Benson were impressed that Bob Carr had been a journalist but nobody else was or is: this is why journalists gave Carr and his attendant bullshit a better run than it should've enjoyed.

People not very different to Marius Benson attended over sixty announcements during the 1990s about the Parramatta to Chatswood rail line, taking the press release at face value and expecting that the rest of us did too. People realised much sooner than journalists that the line was hype and bullshit, and extended this opinion to the media outlets that promulgated it. There are other examples, and while journalists quailed at being threatened with loss of access to a bullshit government, people came to ignore the media and vote said government out of office. In its final days, in the interests of "balance", journalists continued to report Kristina Keneally's announcements as though they were valuable.
In the interests of balance a word in defence of the disengaged voters.

After regaling us with anecdotes of randoms he has apparently met to make a self-serving point (Marius Benson will keep doing what Marius Benson has always done and the rest of you can rack off), he makes up quotes from a non-existent person.
"Besides, a lot of the stuff is beyond knowing. A lifetime of study would not provide a definite answer to issues like global warming and what is the best way to deal with it - or how best to equip the country for the future of technology."

What's needed here are journalists who can explain these issues, rather than giving in to hype about broken glasses or carbon capture. What's needed are politicians who appear sufficiently sensible to be trusted to deal with this stuff. Marius Benson can't be trusted to help us out with either, so to hell with Marius Benson.

I agree with every word in Tim Dunlop's piece on "quality journalism":
Journalists need to get over themselves. Their industry is in decline and the people who care most about that are the very ones, over the last decade, they have gone out of their way to demonise and ridicule. To some extent their defensiveness is understandable (and sometimes even justified) but, as reaction to Lindsay Tanner’s book shows in spades, journalists are still too much inclined to dismiss legitimate criticism out of hand.

It is hard to think of an industry more entrapped by what it considers the untouchable verities of its craft, or one that thinks it can so blithely ignore complaints from its customers. In fact, there is a sense that journalists see criticism as an indication that they are doing something right, not something wrong, and it produces a bunker mentality that makes them all the more determined to continue on the same course.

Bravo! This piece started off cheering for Dunlop without adding much, so now Dunlop appears at the end without much added. You'd be better off reading his piece than wading through that shit from Crabb and Benson.

The good news is that I have a copy of Sideshow. The bad news is that I have not started reading it because my wife has taken to it. There shall be a review in due course.

Update 20 May: Mr Denmore's The Failed estate is highly commended to those interested in this stuff - particularly my Anonymous friend in the Comments.

18 May 2011

Gasping for breath

Today we saw the limitations of Tony Abbott and the Coalition in "holding the government ferociously to account", the neo-Maoist process by which they just oppose everything and the government collapses.

I believe that the science is settled on climate change, though many don't. One issue where it is most definitely settled is the link between tobacco consumption and such examples of life-endangering ill-health as cancer and emphysema. The Liberals attempted to box clever with restrictions on cigarette advertising, and failed.
After saying begrudgingly a year ago he supported plain cigarette packets with very graphic warnings, the Opposition Leader said yesterday he was unconvinced the changes would help reduce smoking.

Based on what? The science is strong, it is worth giving a go (not only for the intrinsic good of public health but because there are cost savings on not treating smokers for preventable ailments). On what basis will an Abbott government pursue or not pursue certain policies?
"My anxiety with this is that it may end up being counterproductive in practice."

And what would it take for this anxiety to be put to rest, petal? Does a statement like that not jar with the tough-guy persona that causes no-brainers like Niki Savva and Katharine Murphy to lunge for the boxing/rugby metaphors?
His position puts the Coalition at odds with the NSW and Victorian Liberal governments, which support plain packaging.

They have grown-up governing to do. We can't all stuff around with opposing for opposing's sake.

Politically, there are no votes in pro-tobacco measures. There is a definite constituency for anti-smoking measures, motivated to some extent by people who are not convinced that capitalism is the best way of organising society and the economy. On other issues, there is a countervailing constituency for reaction - monarchists against republicans, law-and-order versus civil libertarians - but not when it comes to smoking. Even committed two-pack-a-day smokers know their addiction is a blight on the community, and a generation of well-funded and clever campaigns by the tobacco industry have gone nowhere at all.

Abbott is stupid to cavil to tobacco. Nobody will stand up for tobacco branding. It is not part of some broader anti-political-correctness movement: even racism and torture are more legitimate in our political system than some inalienable right to smoke like a chimney. He just looks weak and his assertions about debranding cigarettes makes him look stupid when it comes to science and lacking in policy adventurousness.
As well as threatening legal action, big tobacco threatened yesterday to flood the market with cheap cigarettes, saying that the plain packaging would make it easier for contraband tobacco, or chop-chop, to increase its market share.

The alternative Prime Minister had no comment on this, did he? If there were any journalists present they may have asked a question about that. Smells like blackmail - is this the man to stand up to corporate blackmail, after his effort on the mining tax?
He said industry-funded research undertaken by the consultancy firm Deloitte showed illicit tobacco made up the equivalent of 16 per cent of the legal tobacco market, and its use would increase with plain packaging.

"At this point what we're trying to do is compete against independent gangs coming in from offshore. These are illegal gangs, Triads, the underworld … That's the real issue."

Did Deloitte really go on with that hysterical crap about triads, or was that the tobacco guy running off at the mouth? The question has to be asked, and it's a pity journalists won't ask it: to what extent does the alternative government jump at a campaign of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)? They run such campaigns - but even though you can't kid a kidder, it seems you can run a fear campaign against fear campaigners and they'll eat out of your hands.

At this point it's almost cruel to even refer to Joe Hockey's budget response. Certainly it's been done better elsewhere. Abbott can get, and has gotten, away with not addressing economic issues in the official parliamentary budget response. Hockey tried to bat away serious questions, and as they kept on coming I was waiting for the journosphere to take pity on him and lob him a few soft questions, as they would to his leader. The soft questions never came, but Hockey pressed ahead with the old lines: Libs are the party of lower taxes, journos who ask difficult questions are Labor stooges, and none of them worked.

The economy and health are major issues, and the Coalition simply do not have any answers. You don't need big visions in Australian politics but you do need to get the basics right, and look like you can be trusted to get them right. The Coalition don't have that. That's why they don't have inexhaustible resources to keep at the government, to duck and weave and attack from different angles - because frankly, if the government plug away at the economic fundamentals they can and will turn their fortunes around. Abbott and Hockey just can't keep up.

The Coalition should not be trying to defend last election's policies: an opposition only has a chance at government if it ditches the policies that lost them the last election (yes, yes, but they didn't win, did they - same thing). It's part of respecting the voters' verdict: you can pick through the wreckage and carry forward a few core beliefs, but keeping the whole lot looks like the sort of hoarding that breeds only vermin and mental illness.

The journosphere can be chided about "balance", but they can't pretend an opposition that can best be described as feeble in policy terms (particularly economic policy) is capable of forming government any day now. Any independent MP in talks with the Coalition looks like a prize fool today. The government will be increasingly able to bat away knee-jerk opposition and gainsaying, and with that might come a bit of confidence and daring. If momentum shifts the way today would suggest, let us have no more nonsense about "balance": let us see what policy comes from those who dare to develop them, and fight for them, whomever may be so motivated.

16 May 2011

Addressing the malaise

Australia and Malaysia have a strange co-dependent relationship that brings out the best and worst in both countries: the sort of relationship that usually only happens with countries that are much closer, geographically and socially, than these two.

It began with the Colombo Plan - designed as a means for Australia and other Western nations to "guide" emerging post-colonial nations by educating their future elites, it became a means by which smart-alec members of uppity minorities in Asian countries could be exiled effectively and without making the exiling government look bad. Malaysia largely sent ethnic-Chinese students to universities in Australia, where they began to settle in increasing numbers as opportunity increasingly permitted. A Malay-Chinese graduate who is filling teeth in Brisbane or preparing tax returns in Mildura is not protesting against the Malaysian government or taking up space in a prison; a win-win for both countries.

Australian troops tried to defend Malaya against the Japanese in the 1940s, and a generation later successfully participated (but to a limited extent) in the Konfrontasi with Indonesia that defined post-independence Malaysia. Thousands of Australians lie buried in Malaysia, including victims of the Sandakan death-march. The RAAF kept a base in Malaysia until the 1980s. Until East Timor, it was the Asian country which had the most significant and enduring relationship with Australia's military (South Vietnam had little-to-no relationship with Australia before the AATTV arrived in 1962; a decade later they were gone, and a large part of of South Vietnam followed).

Now we have this deal where we send Malaysia some unaccredited refugees, and they send us some accredited ones. It's part of the relationship between two countries that can't quite deal with racial issues. Australia has taken the enlightened path of multiculturalism but there is plenty of grounds for Malaysians and others to doubt our commitment to inclusiveness. Malaysia has maintained a racially exclusionary policy towards minorities and has largely eschewed international conventions on human rights (not just the UN one on refugees). Paul Barratt says:
Note that under this definition the state of being a refugee is intrinsic to the person concerned: they are a refugee the moment they take flight “owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted ...”, not because some government official in a far-off land taps them on the shoulder with his sword and says, “I dub thee a refugee. Arise, Sir Refugee”.

This means that the process of “processing” refugees is conceptually, and in any decent practice, not a matter of establishing which people are refugees, it is a matter of identifying any who are making a false claim and hence are not entitled to the benefits that refugee status confers as of right.

I think this means that a person who claims to be a refugee is one until proven otherwise. People who arrive by plane need their status and identity confirmed before they start their journey. That said, Ray Hadley's idea that terrorists arrive by boat is well beyond stupid and should only be admitted to public debate with a Contemptible visa.

This doesn't get around the argument that says that a person who turns up here and is a refugee is no less a refugee than someone identified as such somewhere far away, and whose claim to enter Australia under the refugee program is no less or more than that of the refugee in the far-off refugee camp. A person who comes here claiming to be a refugee, and who spends time in the community on that basis but is later found not to be one, has a claim to stay anyway that is denied to others with stronger claims. These were points that Philip Ruddock used to make, but then he also said that there was a "queue" for refugee applications, which there isn't; now that Ruddock is gone you can hold to the logic and realities of regional asylum-seeker issues while discarding the dross of scaremongering and neo-racism.

Tanveer Ahmed said:
After a recent column about the mental health of asylum seekers, I received a flurry of correspondence.

I thought he was going to say a "flood" of correspondence! Aren't deluge-related expressions most appropriate to this issue? I suppose I should be grateful for relief from cliché.
The prospect of a better standard of living is the primary motive for migration.

True enough, but it doesn't address the existential question that a person living in squalor in a refugee camp - here or abroad - is still living while those who stay and fight are not, and are not brought to the attention of human rights campaigners, refugee classifiers, media or anyone but those who mourn for them personally. Ahmed has ducked questions of mental health treatment in those places.

I'm sure that Malaysia's treatment of asylum-seekers is appalling. I'm also sure there has been more coverage of that in the past few weeks than there has been in years, and that increased scrutiny will over time improve the way these people are treated. Bringing the International Organisation for Migration and the UNHCR into Malaysia's asylum-seeker process is no small thing, and will have real impacts for those affected. One of the best things that we can do for asylum-seekers in Malaysia is not to offer some ritualistic, almost onanistic condemnation, but to offer some of them a place in Australian society. How else are you going to show Malaysia and its/our neighbours the value of UNHCR and other international campaigns for transparency, except by practical measures like this deal promises?

I respect the dedication to process and covenants by Barratt and many others, but I think it's less effective than the engagement that the government is proposing. Gifford and others say:
A regional dialogue would work towards a co-operative framework that emphasises border management, not border protection, and would strike a balance between security and humanitarian imperatives. It would work towards a decentralised, equitable and accessible system for accepting and assessing asylum claims in the countries where people are seeking asylum, including in Australia.

Sharing responsibility would work towards ensuring that asylum seekers have their human rights protected while their claims are being assessed and this includes being able to live in the community without fear and with dignity. This would entail no detention centres, no transferring our irregular maritime arrivals to other countries and a timely, fair and humane regional system for meeting the needs of refugees, asylum seekers and other forced migrants.

A regional co-operative protection framework would also address the upstream causes of forced displacement with a view towards developing effective polices that address the root causes.

Oh, spare us. Regional dialogue would have to include those countries that are effectively exiling their own citizens, and would have to do so in a way that didn't ruffle feathers. Save "regional dialogues" for trade. Engaging with the refugee issue through non-government agencies - including various media platforms - will build a regional awareness of asylum-seeker issues far more comprehensively than "regional dialogues".

The Fairfax subs do themselves no favours with headlines like this:
Parliament set to condemn Malaysia deal

No it isn't. If you read the piece, you'll see Bandt secures support from the Coalition then promptly dumps on them:
"The coalition is the party of razor wire and children overboard so we don't look to them for more humane and compassionate treatment of asylum seekers and refugees."

Mr Morrison said the coalition would support Mr Bandt's motion.

"We might have different reasons for condemning this (Malaysia) deal but the deal is condemned."

In other words: opposition to this deal is fractious and confused. Bandt + Wilkie + the Coalition is 74 members of the House of Reps, two short of a majority: close, but still short, and squabbling among themselves. Which self-respecting independent wants to throw in with these arseclowns? The silence of the other four independents means they're holding out for pork, and they'll get it.

If the Senate condemns the Malaysia deal, then turns around and passes the Budget and the carbon tax, only the Murdoch papers will count it as a win for the Coalition. My guess is that the Malaysia deal will be shunted off to a committee and seasoned professionals in the press gallery will of course adhere to the highest - oh look, the Prime Minister's hair!

This is one area where the government should just get up on its hind legs and tell people to get stuffed:

  • Go to Inverbrackie and turn those fearful people back on the Liberals - tell them that if their local member, Jamie Briggs, votes against the Malaysia deal then there will be 10,000 Afghan rapists set loose in the district before the month is out.

  • Tell people in Fitzroy and Brunswick that the Malaysian deal means more scrutiny and openness in refugee rights rather than less.

  • Tell people in Hobart that any poker machines removed from Australia will be reinstalled in some wretched, cholera-infested camp on the Thai border, and that the Four Thousand will come here with a raging pokies addiction well advanced, unless Wilkie thinks again.

  • Go to the camps and dress people in teal, black and white and teach them to chant "go Sharkies!".

Then we'll see who's against what. Then we'll see a government that's boxing clever for a change, and which reminds us that compassion can be life-giving and enervating and can involve us all, rather than the stuff of dull legalism and obtuse spin.

It does not do to indulge a pampered people by engaging in a victim-fantasy that we're being swamped. This piece inadvertently links the Malaysia deal to the Budget that reduced some middle-class welfare: there is no placating some people when it comes to reform, you've got to go ahead and hope the polls will pick up rather than trying to massage the polls and hope you can find a policy idea that will survive tinkering and spinning.

What killed Labor in NSW was that voting for that party just came to be seen as a stupid choice. A politician standing foursquare and fighting for a policy will attract more votes than someone who tries to spin away opposition without really addressing it. If Bowen wants a future in politics he will die in a ditch for this one, and not squib it like his mate Burke has squibbed water reform.

We could use it as an opportunity to show Malaysia that it will never be a developed nation while it has such an institutional hang-up about race. This is a lesson we are learning and re-learning ourselves: clever, hardworking Malay-Chinese migrants have helped teach us that, in a way that no amount of finger-wagging from funny old Mahathir ever could. It is a lesson we helped teach South Africa a generation ago.

The Malaysia-Australia migration deal promises a practical and fruitful end to a co-dependent relationship of mutually reinforced racism, if only it had a chance. Tell your Malaysian friends to read this blog while you can!

14 May 2011


Communication always leaves me incomplete
The grass is greener, but it's grown beneath my feet
Love inspiration is a message on a wing
But I have left it in the words you'll never sing

Senator Stephen Conroy is, among other things, the Minister for Communication. One of the projects for which he's responsible is the shutdown of analog television, opening a digital transmission spectrum, and having both broadcasters and viewers shift from analogue to digital.

There are arguments for giving people set-top boxes:

  • The government has arbitrarily devalued people's analog-TV assets;

  • The boxes don't limit what sort of television set people can have;

  • There is a little light on the box that winks at you, and the sorts of dills who worked for the NSW ALP government think it will remind people to vote Labor;

By "people", I refer to the sorts of people for whom a television set is a significant asset, the sorts of people who regard a television set as a major conduit to the world. Some will have made their own arrangements regarding a digital television, while still others need not have a taxpayer-funded set-top box (not even if they earn a paltry $150k). Still, it's a nice thought.

It should be more than a nice thought, though. It should be an actual policy, fully costed and explained in more detailed terms than the dot-points above. It should exclude those who are perfectly capable of buying their own televisions. It should be opt-in rather than opt-out or no-opt, with information available for people who don't speak a lot of English or keep up with latest developments in public policy.
Communication let me down
But I'm left here
Communication let me down
But I'm left here, I'm left here

There should have been a blitz before the Budget explaining the digital switchover, and the compensation for people facing disenfranchisement from a key element of the public sphere. Conroy was the man to do such a thing: for someone brought up politically in the back alleys of Victorian ALP (not the funky, grafitti-covered alleyways of contemporary Melbourne, but those dark with something more than night in which person-to-person interaction is limited to a blade in the ribs), he has proven surprisingly deft in making a case and getting his message through.

The NBN remains a triumph, regardless of the odd little campaign by The Australian about who said what to whom at Alcatel in the '90s (surely no worse than the sort of stuff that goes on in News Ltd's Western European branch offices). Turnbull has dented that juggernaut but not completely defused it, and he has not allayed the suspicion that he'd tweak it a bit, get rid of Mike Kaiser and basically rebadge it as Liberal nation-building, similar to Menzies' opening of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Mike Kaiser: there's someone who's been heavily invested in by Labor for a relatively low yield. This is his time to step up, take some flak on the minister's behalf so that he can get on with issues like the digital switchover, or Victorian ALP preselections, or whatever.

Conroy may well have been spooked by Turnbull, but the more accurate answer is probably that he no longer cares. He has, as Neville Wran put it, been up to his eyeballs in blood and shit for so long that he'd rather go snowboarding in Vail with Kerry Stokes than go around foisting set-top boxes on unsuspecting punters.
Telex or tell me, but it's always second-hand
I'm incognito but no rendezvous's been planned
Dictate or relay, I could send it to your home
"Return to Sender" - I could sing it down the phone!

At the very time when the government could do with a tough and uncompromising presence in getting its message across, Conroy has botched what should have been a popular idea: ameliorating rapid technological change with social equity, part of Labor's historic mission etc. He's done it by neglect rather than any obvious or deliberate spite.

Conroy should have explained why set-top boxes are part of bringing everyone along into the twentyfirst century. Installing a set-top box is something so simple he could do it himself, with cameras rolling natch, into some poor old person's home in a marginal seat. A cup of tea, a dig at the Liberals, and it could've made for a substantial set-piece announcement; instead, it's slightly weird policy at best and an expensive boondoggle at worst, indefensible by anyone not fully across what passes for media policy in this country.

If Conroy is fed up, he should just go. If he's got any fight in him, he should fight for people staying in touch with the world around them when their options might be otherwise limited. Allowing Gerry Harvey to rag him over the cost of set-top boxes would have got the goat of old-school Labor, and even stirred up Conroy more than it apparently has. Should Conroy be moved to another portfolio? Does he need a fresh parly sec who can make their name by pushing such a barrow (and who, pray tell, are the bright sparks on Labor's back bench, as opposed to all those dull-eyed hacks just waiting their turn?)?
Communication let me down
But I'm left here
Communication let me down
But I'm left here, I'm left here, I, I, I ...

The digital switchover will look good in retrospect - a bit like the switch to metric measurements, which was similarly mishandled by the McMahon and Whitlam governments. Mishandling a key social equity facet of technological change and assuming that all such changes are going to be bungled is not what this country needs.

The Liberals cannot put up a convincing case that they will handle things better - or even that they understand technological change issues. Lumping it in with "waste" won't do, it shows the Liberals don't understand media or social dimensions of technological change. Conroy can't count on the Liberals continuing to fudge these issues, and to his credit he hasn't until recently.
I'm sitting here by the telephone,
Waiting for the bell to ring
Short change, fumble
Dial-a-heart trouble
And I ain't got time for searching through the rubble, oh no!
Well, I know ...

- Spandau Ballet Communication

The return of George Megalogenis to the national conversation was never more welcome than with this - read the whole article, but I particularly liked:
The Abbott formula is a form of 21st-century Fraserism. Shout your way to power, then do nothing with it because the only thing wrong with Australia, really, was the election of a Labor government.

On the issue of digital communications and the right party to manage the twentyfirst century in all its complexity, surely someone from the government can step up and make the case. This government is led by two backroom operators, and one of them will probably have to go by Christmas. What's Conroy's excuse?