30 October 2011

Assange and Bolt, false and unsound

Julian Assange wrote an article about free speech which was wrong on a few key assumptions, particularly this:
Opinions must be shared in "a free and open encounter" because it is the competition between ideas that produces the truth. As Fredrick Siebert explained: "The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other."
The idea that Aborigines are an inferior people, unfit for or incapable of participating fully in Australian society, puts the lie to Siebert's wish. This is one of the most prevalent ideas in Australia. It is also false and unsound. No amount of patient engagement and disproving, nor frequent and exuberant demonstration of excellence by Aborigines, can eradicate this lantana-like idea.

I'm a liberal too, but confrontation with this reality made me change my mind. First you've got to go with the fact and work the principle around it. I might have to lose the 'liberal' tag, but that's OK, it isn't all about me. Doing the reverse, like Assange does, simply does not work.
Hate speech laws in Australia are a form of censorship, backed by sanction and justified by the perceived need to protect historically persecuted minorities and maintain racial harmony.
Persecuted minorities don't need to be protected, they need to participate in Australian society. For that to happen you need to stop excluding them from it. Lazy bullshit that implies racial classifications trump common humanity excludes Aborigines from Australian society. A few paragraphs later Assange tries to assert that free speech is more of a unifying force than measures such as these, but the proof exists only in theory.
In the US, the First Amendment guarantees the right of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis to march through the streets. The law sanctions speech only if it incites violence. Rather than flourishing, the Klan and neo-Nazis have been withered by the robust criticism that such protections afford their critics.
For the first hundred years or so, the Klan and the Nazis had a pretty clear run, and the First Amendment was in effect the whole time. Giving effect to their core beliefs involve excluding people from society and killing them. They underwent robust criticism to be sure, but a lot of people died in order that they might speak freely, and only when legal sanctions and force were applied against them did their positions become unsustainable.
People get squeamish when arguing against censorship laws that protect historically persecuted groups.
People get squeamish all the time. The question is, why do they get squeamish, what are the consequences of that squeamishness and do people have a right to go around making other people squeamish in order to boost their media profile?

The basis of the whole Bolt case is that some people from a historically and systematically persecuted minority have been able to embrace their identity, now that the legal aspects of social inclusion have been uninstalled, and that some jobs have been created which are only open to people of that minority. Along comes Andrew Bolt, claiming that the historically persecuted minority are actually privileged (and that the disadvantages that come from historic persecution are over, hooray and forget it ever happened). Bolt believed that his classification as to who was Aboriginal and who wasn't, based on a bit of Googling, was superior to the classification applied to and by Aborigines themselves.

The law which Bolt transgressed acknowledges both the prevalence and the falsehood of racial profiling in Australia. From my understanding it says that if you're going to comment on people's race you have to be careful. The judge found that Bolt hadn't been careful, and I note that no appeal has been lodged. Assange, and Bolt, believe that Bolt's right to toss off a comment trumps the slow but considerable efforts the historically persecuted minority are making to overcome historical persecution and participate freely and fully in Australian society.
Censorship is fine, they think, as long as it is designed to protect gays and indigenous people.
The law under which Andrew Bolt was convicted protects us all. It enables Siebert's wish that sloppy ideas go down to become reality.
In much of Europe and Australia, it is unlawful to deny that the Holocaust took place - this is "acceptable" censorship.
Quite so. It makes it easier to stop that sort of thing having the catastrophic effect it did on individuals and society. It forces people to face up to reality, which is no bad thing.
But in Turkey it is a crime to assert that the Armenians were subjected to genocide. Imagine if Australia introduced a law prohibiting use of the word "genocide" in respect of the treatment of indigenous Australians?
Can't see it happening myself, no point in protecting anyone against non-threats. A bit like Andrew Bolt complaining that he's barred from applying for some $25k part-time short-term dead-end job which is only open to Aborigines.

There are threats to the balance between our liberties and our social cohesion all the time. What won't and can't help protect us from imbalance and injustice are lazy postulations, including that hidey-hole of the intellectual poser who hasn't thought carefully about whatever they claim to be particularly concerned about: the "slippery slope". Assange loves a slippery slope.
Many debate whether the term should be used or not but it would cause outrage if our government stymied that debate by making it unlawful.
It isn't just a bit of chat, it's a debate of real significance. Have the debate, but face up to the facts and do your research like Bolt didn't. The idea that the Australian government would follow Turkey in that regard is just sloppy, straw man work.
So what subjects are off limits? What societal "goods" are worthy of protection through censorship?

Science says climate change is happening ... United Nations Security Council ... Why don't we just introduce a climate change-denial law prohibiting Barnaby Joyce from rubbishing climate change ... may sound ridiculous ... parliamentary privilege ... but therein lies the danger of allowing the state to regulate what political speech is acceptable.
More "slippery slope" work, showing how an extreme example obscures rather than illustrates the point at hand. Barnaby Joyce isn't a threat to anything and you can participate fully in Australian society - including the shaping of climate change policy - regardless of your attitude toward climate change.
The law, whether civil or criminal, is a serious business. At its end is the deployment of armed police to imprison people or seize their assets by force. It should never be used to regulate disfavoured views.
It is always used to regulate disfavoured views. People who assert a right to commit armed robbery are not only expressing a disfavoured view, they are limiting the abilities of others to participate fully in society.
Free speech must protect all speech, however offensive. Debates that offend the "ordinary" or "typical" Australian are precisely the debates we need. It is precisely when the majority shares a view that it needs to be challenged, because if it is wrong, then we are all imperiled.
If you're going to have a debate on issues that entrench disadvantage against those who are historically and systematically persecuted, you'd better be careful to have your facts together. This improves debate all round, rather than just being some sort of lotus-eating talkshop which makes no difference other than selling newspapers. Racist conjecture is not a debate and nor is it a challenge. It's oral spam and makes it harder rather than easier to take ideas of free speech seriously.

I'm appalled at the idea that Andrew Bolt might redefine who my father was or arbitrarily make my job more difficult (if not impossible) based on his lack of skill at using a search engine. Mind you, I'm appalled at the idea that Josh Frydenberg didn't cop the sort of treatment currently being meted out to Bradley Manning for passing information to Andrew Bolt that was accurate and important, but which Bolt toyed with rather than expose as Assange did. Bolt vilified a truth-teller and made his job impossible, and he had no right to do so. I keep waiting for the Great Boomerang to whack him and his mate Frydenberg on their silly scones for that one.

Now Assange wants to stand up for Bolt's right to misrepresent people and keep them at a disadvantage. If the bastard hasn't got his facts right then he can shut his cakehole. That is both ridgey as well as didge, dinky and di at the same time; not only that but it elevates the debate to a level where historical and systematic (dis)advantages play a less of a role than they otherwise might. Rather than being imperiled, it's a challenge to lift your contribution to debate to a level where racism and other dead ideas can't compete.

Bolt is an experienced communicator and has participated in public debate for decades. His claims about being 'silenced' buzzed around the Australian media like so many blowflies in a public toilet, until they lost all meaning and credibility. To agree with Bolt that he is being silenced - and to agree with his fatuous extension that others are being silenced too, and denied some asserted right to tag and bag Aborigines - is not to be a truth-teller but a willing accomplice in a deception.

29 October 2011

Barking at nothing, part 2

Why is there a parliamentary press gallery? What is it for? It is an institution that has outlived its usefulness, and it is a symptom of mainstream media failure that they continue to focus on it as much as they do.

We need to know how we are governed. We need to know what services the government is giving us, what laws the government is imposing upon us, what it is doing with all that tax. We turned to the mainstream media to act as the trusted (well, only) intermediary between the government and the governed.

For most of this country's history, the only way to find that out was through the media, and specifically from press gallery reporters. Government took place behind closed doors and was largely impenetrable. It only broke into clear sight when it was debated in Parliament, or in Cabinet, or came from a minister's office: journalists there had the ability to explain what it was that came from these bills and other instruments, and the interplay between personalities that we call politics, and how said personalities and interplay shaped the outcomes of government. When the first colonial parliament commenced in Sydney in 1856, it had a press gallery from day one. All subsequent parliaments in Australia were also set up with one.

Today, it is no longer true that the press gallery is the only place you can find out how we are governed. You can get that information in government reports, press releases and other information to a device wherever you are. You can get information directly from government departments, opposition parties, interest groups and some of your better blogs. Politicians hold media stunts using different parts of the country as a backdrop. You don't need to be in the press gallery in order to find out what's going on in government and politics.

In the US, media outlets don't just have a "Washington correspondent". They have a correspondent at the White House, a few at the Congress, one at the Pentagon and another at the State Department, and still others at different agencies of government (such as the Supreme Court).

Australian media organisations are lazy and stupid taking up space in a press gallery and assuming they've got politics covered.

It would be great if there was a High Court correspondent with legal knowledge, who could explain goings-on there in plain language, rather than journo cliches. It would be great if there were more defence policy specialists, following not only the ADF and the Minister and Shadow, but also the contractors and lobbyists. There should be foreign policy specialists.

Hell, all politics/government reporters should focus on policy first, and then assess politicians on how relevant they are to the debate. We might never hear of Christopher Pyne or Mark Arbib ever again.

If you want to know what's going on in government and politics, we are getting to a stage where it's actually better for journalists not to rely on politicians to tell them what's going on. Just because a politician says something, it doesn't mean that will happen.

People who are shocked by the extent to which the people of NSW abandoned Labor should consider the announcement of the Parramatta-Epping railway. Parramatta and Epping are two Sydney suburbs which each have a railway station, but those stations are not connected directly. In the late 1990s the Minister for Transport announced (actually re-announced a commitment from the previous Liberal government) that a line would be built to connect the two, and the press gallery trooped out to record the minister announcing that it would be completed by 2010. Then, after a while, it was re-announced again, and again, and again and again and again. A third of the track has been completed at twice the budgeted cost.

It became a joke, but that didn't stop journalists reporting it with a straight face. It didn't stop editors and news directors sending journalists out to cover those announcements, as though they were really news. The fact that a minister makes an announcement isn't news. The sun rose in the east this morning too, bears do poo in the woods, the Pope really is a Mass-going Catholic, and politicians make announcements: none of these things are news.

If mining activity is going gangbusters then surely this must cast some sort of light upon political rhetoric that taxes targeted at that industry will ruin it. A journalist cooped up in Parliament House, subject to phone calls from idle people and the appalling dramaturgy of "parliamentary theatre" cannot be said to know anything at all, regardless of how well or badly they report politics as a horse race or as Hollywood.

The fact that Tony Abbott contradicts himself and says things which simply aren't true is starting to be seen by journalists as an anomaly, rather than as fascinating or some sort of post-modern oddity which journalists observe but over which they have no control. It took a bunch of comics to give him the grilling that professional journalists couldn't bring themselves to do. It simply isn't worth drawing any sort of link between what he says and what might actually happen to our taxes, our society. After two years and an election he still has no policy consisting of more than dot points. He is a gibberer and even if he does get in he's just going to shrug his shoulders and say I lied, and a disconcertingly large number of press gallery will just accept it.

Politics and politicians have an impact upon government services as delivered, but a journalist need not be in the press gallery to report that. Being in the press gallery or having spent time there has an absurd amount of cachet among journalists, and when you consider how badly they fail at conveying any sort of meaning from the experience it should be something that falls off the resume.

If a bunch of journalists go into a location where they're outnumbered by PR people, they are probably in the wrong location. That's what happens in Parliament. Journalists are beset by gibberers. However much the journalists love it there is increasingly little link between what they write/say and what really happens, or even matters, which is why journalists can spend their entire careers on stuff like the imaginary challenge from Kevin Rudd/Stephen Smith against the Prime Minister.

The idea that the media can be managed is a lie. There are increasing resources devoted to preserving and extending this lie. The idea that it is worth managing the media at a time of media decline is also a lie, and silly. No politician should expect to have their words reported verbatim and everyone, everyone promising such is a charlatan. Journalists should have nothing to do with people who pretend to manage them.

Politicians tailor their output to catch the eye of journalists, who are looking for cliches. Parliament is designed to be the venue of great national debates, but great national debates occur far from the Parliament. Apart from each year's budget, the last truly unmissable parliamentary speech of national importance was Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generation on 13 February 2008. When the ALP rolled Rudd, everyone at the US Embassy or the AWU knew before even the better-connected members of the Press Gallery. All that connection-building, all that skulking in corridors and drinking in Kingston bars was wasted in the face of such a big story going begging. If the press gallery didn't pick up on that story, what did they know about anything? The press gallery is a waste of time.

Part of the reason why the press gallery is a waste of time is because politicians increasingly are. Party leaders notice that journalists don't interview colourless public servants, even though they know what's going on better than politicians, so they preselected party hacks who can't deliver a speech and who read the speeches written badly for them. The idea that these banal people might do something innovative and interesting is about as likely that they will do anything catastrophic, but neither are of sufficient consequence or interest to warrant the investment that goes into the press gallery.

Part of the reason why press gallery journalists report non-stories is the disconnect between journalists and their audience. Journalists disdain education, which means they're looking for cliches to dish up to "punters". People who are interested in politics and government are asking questions that simply don't occur to any but a handful of journalists, such as:
  • Is there anything else that can be done about intractable problems, other than the feeble and self-defeating pantomime before us?
  • How might money, time and resources be better spent? (a good Opposition will suggest alternatives, but I can't remember the last good Opposition we had);
  • How do the policies of political parties affect people who work in, or are otherwise affected by, those policies? The odd colour piece at election time isn't good enough;
  • What is it that parties do, anyway?
Bloggers answer those questions, not journalists. When confronted with economic policy most journalists do things like "beer, cigs up", or televise that groaning from the floor of parliament that has viewers lunging for the channel-changer. A few bloggers will paint the sort of complete picture that newspapers aim to achieve with special supplements, or that ABC Radio aims to achieve with AM and PM. Journalists can't handle policy and they can't get it across well, regardless of the medium, and they never will so long as they are confined to the parliamentary press gallery.

Smart journalists should fan out away from the press gallery because if you want to tell us what's going on you need to know what's going on, and you're unlikely to ever find that out in Parliament. We need to know how we are governed, and politicians can't tell us that because they just don't know, they've lost the words to describe it and bring people along with them. For journalists, it's time to strike out to the territories, find out what's going on and present it well. We will be grateful, but there are less grounds for gratitude for the sorts of journalism that comes out of the press galleries than you might imagine. The press galleries are broken and cannot be fixed. Abolishing the press gallery need not mean some sort of catastrophe for democracy, and maybe we might have to wait until Laurie Oakes or Michelle Grattan have died - it could be the very thing that breaks the politico-media complex and makes both politics and journalism better off.

26 October 2011

Barking at nothing, part 1

It started with a bit of typical journo blindness to their own profession, and then moved through some slightly more insightful pieces, before I started wondering what it was all about.

Amanda Meade told readers of The Australian all about the Twitters:
But my pet peeve on Twitter is the way people congratulate each other in a very public way -- a kind of air kissing via tweet.
This made me laugh until I realised that Meade probably doesn't read her own paper. The worst offenders at blowing smoke up one another on Twitter are News Ltd employees. The following exchange ensued:

She's under no obligation to work with jerks, either. I started pitying journalists, and read the recent pieces by Laurie Oakes and, yes, Annabel Crabb and even Bernard Keane.

The Andrew Olle Lecture always starts out being mawkish and climaxes with a circle-jerk about how great journalism is and how great journalists are. Good on Laurie Oakes for resisting the urge to intone "I think journalists do a great job" (based on what, I hear you cry). Oakes misrepresented Tanner's argument with a bit of journo self-pity, which I bet went down a treat among his half-cut audience.
We like to think of ourselves as watchdogs
Watchdogs bark to scare off intruders and to warn their masters of danger. Dogs that yap, yap, yap all the time, particularly at things which aren't there at all are just bloody annoying. It ought to surprise nobody that you switch off constant yapping about nothing at all; what's surprising is the, er, dogged insistence on being called a "watchdog"when you're just needy and insecure.
Many of those bemoaning the media's performance seem to think the nation is crying out for more high quality news and analysis and heavier current affairs programs.

They're dreaming. If that was the case, Four Corners would outrate Masterchef. And I'd still be doing interviews on the Sunday program and writing for The Bulletin magazine.

And George Negus might still be on air.
That's right: there was only ever one definition of quality journalism, it's never ever coming back in any form, so just jump into the sewer and surf the swill. Don't bother with any rethinking about ways of presenting information, just admit it's all too hard and can we get Stephen Smith for next week?
Ask any of the political party back room operators why Labor and coalition election campaign commercials rarely feature detailed explanations of policy, and-if they're honest-they'll answer: "Because no-one would watch."
That's the whole idea: they are trying to bore people into disengagement so that they can do whatever the hell they like. They've done it to their own members, why wouldn't they do it to the public at large?

The main theme of Oakes' talk is that journalists churn through stories and are vulnerable to spin. Poor journalists. The question is, though, where is the value in that?

Who is it that's determining a faster and faster cycle of news, and a focus on trivia? I'm not. It's timid news directors who think that treading water at great speed is how they keep their jobs.

Whether it does or doesn't save the news directors' jobs isn't the point. Journalists will only lose credibility by churning out scatty, shallow and pointless stories. The output has no value, and over time those who produce no-value products themselves become devalued. Oakes foresees clearly the demise of his profession, and has no answer for it.

What Meade and Oakes fail to realise is that social media provide streams of links to information that make journos redundant. If I've clicked on a link in my tweetstream about recent events in Libya, why the hell would I want to read what Amanda Meade thinks about it? Why would I pay to do that? Why would I get up from Twitter and watch Laurie Oakes seek the views of the Shadow Foreign Minister, who won't have read the article or much else on events in that country?

Crabb does get the idea of the journalist-as-intermediary is now dead. She lets her cover slip by nominating Grog's Gamut as a good example of an up-to-the-minute blog, when its esteemed writer has been co-opted by the same outfit for which she works.

More importantly, Crabb lets herself down by underestimating how good writing makes a difference.
If you are a foreign policy wonk, you might well complain that your area of interest doesn't warrant enough serious column space in various of the daily newspapers in Australia. But can you really argue that you have less to read now than you did 10 years ago?
I've got a whole separate article in the works about foreign policy, but here we can answer Crabb by saying that quality writing and presentation will attract readers and better inform debates.

It isn't sufficient to say that one bit of journalism is as good as another, or that if one journo has deigned to wade into some difficult area of policy then that should be good enough for you, dear reader, and one less article Crabb doesn't have to research and write. A stressed and ill-informed journo will be trounced by a subject-matter expert who can write a bit and/or talk fluently every time.

By focusing on niche areas and regarding them, as fragmentations of the fewer and bigger media outlets most of us have known, Crabb misses the point about the fluidity of new media. Niche markets have always been lucrative for the mainstream media. The magazine Wheels is infinitely more profitable than the section of the newspaper which deals with cars. So too with Rugby League Week versus the couple of pieces on that game in the nightly news.

klieg light swung at him (yes, him), whereupon he would churn out some gravitas as befitted a dedicated, veteran journalist. Neither of these tried-and-died solutions are superior to what happens now, and the nostalgia acts can boil their heads.

The same applies to a lot of issues. The big news organisations just aren't that nimble. By the time the journo from Big Media has wheezed into place, the story is already out without the need to maintain a huge infrastructure or claim back money from expenses. It means that news is no longer best covered by journos, and that they're not trusted intermediaries any more.

That said, I don't want to end up like some techno-hippy like Bernard Keane:
The community-generating power of the internet is in direct contrast to the atomising power of television. The internet connects where television isolates.
What got me thinking about political reporting in particular were two quotes, one from Crabb and one from Keane:

... I think we should be very careful indeed about assuming that there is only one correct way to learn about politics, and that is to sit down with a cup of coffee, a madeleine and the Australian Financial Review.
Ah yes, madeleines, prompters of reveries in Proust ... but then I thought, Annabel Crabb could learn a lot from politics coverage in the AFR.

Then, this from Keane:
But neither [Oakes nor Crabb], for mine, really got to grips with the central problems confronting the media and politicians.
Neither does Bernard, by the way, but more tomorrow.

25 October 2011

Still doubting that Gillard can win?

Read this:
As recently as two years ago, Mrs. Kirchner had seemed a long shot to win a second four-year term. Her combative style, highlighted by a heated dispute over [commodity] export taxes, sent her approval ratings below 30 percent.
Now, take out the rampant inflation and cronyism, as well as the lack of foreign investment. For goodness sake, leave aside her personal arrangements. Substitute mining for agriculture in commodity terms (and look at the special tax on an insanely profitable industry that facilitates tax cuts across the board). Most importantly look at an opposition that doesn't really know what it believes in - and tell me if there aren't recognisable patterns here:
The economy emerged as the central issue on voters’ minds. By many measures [the country] is booming: the economy is expected to grow ... employment has reached record levels; and the poverty rate has been cut by more than half since 2007, the government said. The country continues to benefit from heavy government spending, high commodity prices and strong demand from China for its ... products.
Can't happen here?

23 October 2011

Flick the switch

Tony Abbott fans freely admit that their boy is a bit of a boofhead (but isn't it having some fantastic results!), and that one day he'll just flick the switch to Prime Ministerial - and when the time comes there'll be none of this talk that the Coalition polls are just some protest against the incumbents, oh no, they'll be finished. When the appropriate time comes, when all the ducks are in a row and the sun is shining and the wind is at his back and everything's just perfect, then the idea of Prime Minister Abbott will be an inevitability.

Here at the Politically Homeless Institute, we've always regarded "Prime Minister Abbott" as a punchline in search of a joke. He's always lived by the idea that he can pull something off at the last minute, and it's always been bullshit. Nonetheless, we have more respect than you might imagine for the contrary view. Let's say there is a switch there, and that Abbott can flick it (unlike John Hewson, who insisted that Keating had a "glass jaw" but could never land the blow that sent him sprawling to the mat).

Abbott has until Easter to prove he's a real potential Prime Minister. If he's not coming across as the mature, thoughtful and stable soul his fans claim him to be, capable of bringing about the mature, thoughtful and stable Australia that has apparently eluded us so far, then he's pretty much finished in '12.

After Easter comes the Budget. The Treasurer will have a lot of money to play with, what with the carbon price mechanism and the mining tax. While (if he's still in the job) Swan will err on the side of caution, the Budget and the reality of the new economic environment brought about by these taxes will shift the whole debate about the Australian economy and what it means to participate in and run it. Journalists will be trapped in their "beer, cigs up" clichés and will miss the sheer breadth and depth of the changes (and what might have been) in a way that their forebears in the 1980s didn't. Economist bloggers will get it and eventually journos will have to follow their lead, grudgingly and without attribution.

True, nobody will, as Shaun Carney helpfully points out, join hands and dance around in a circle when the carbon compensation comes in. Nobody did this when equivalent measures were introduced for the GST in 2000, either. Anyone who expected otherwise might be a valuable inside source for journalists, but they have little else going for them. The fact that the government will have shifted the whole economic debate will be the main issue.

Federal taxes in Australia have fallen heavily upon individuals and companies. A shift of the burden to miners and carbon polluters doesn't mean that we get a free government but it does alter our relationship to government and it to us. Having introduced all those taxes, Labor is in a position to show that they form part of some sort of coherent whole, a way forward. Yes, they'll do it in a cack-handed way and we're all getting used to that - but since when were Australians moved by silver-tongued oratory?

There is no Liberal response to that. The idea that they are going to cut $25b of carbon compensation and $70b or so from the new tax forms - together about a third of the Federal budget - has no credibility at all. It will have less credibility once the status quo shifts to the point where it simply will not do to insist that the new paradigm can be reversed.

The Liberals tried this with Medicare, which was introduced in 1985. They kept insisting that Medicare was a terrible burden on the nation which could be unwound; both notions were rubbish and they lost election after election trying to maintain otherwise. After a decade or so they made their peace with it. Howard gave the impression that he'd learned some lessons along the way rather than just waiting for his turn. When that happened voters started taking them seriously as a government.

Try Tony Abbott on what he's learned in opposition: nothing. He and his think the election of 2007, never mind 2010, was lost on technicalities and bullshit.

You could argue that the European meltdown might hit Australia, and that if/when that happens people will abandon what little support they have for the incumbents and flock to the Coalition. Again, this is bullshit. The Coalition have almost forfeited the once impregnable perception that they were sound economic managers. That perception is central to Liberal self-identity: an economically illiterate Liberal Party is a house that cannot stand, a sign that self-doubt has become panic, as John Howard learned when he saw his party riven by self-doubt on this very front during the 1980s and '90s.

Tony Abbott, stunt man and wrecker, is an economic illiterate: yes, he is. Nobody turns to an economic illiterate when there's economic trouble: that's when people end their dalliance with the alternative and go for The Devil You Know. Carping that the government has stuffed up didn't work for his brother-from-another-mother Latham, it didn't work for Beazley or Hewson or Peacock or Hayden or Snedden - especially when he has (like they had) no answers other than cuts. Nobody who isn't already rusted-on Liberal will want such a person to run anything. To believe that people will eventually love the carbon tax is no less silly than the idea that wacky, say-anything Tony Abbott is the man to lend gravitas and an even temperament to issues that are obviously too complex for him.

John Roskam's article in Friday's AFR about democracy was deeply silly. There is no future for the Liberal Party in mocking business, and people like Hockey and Bishop (J, not B) know it. Gillard and Rudd were getting similar messages about their party led by Latham in 2004, and like them back then, there's bugger-all they can or will do about it until time boxes them into a corner in the Death Zone (see below).

By Easter it will be clear that none of the independents will come across. If Abbott is to "flick the switch" to being the post-reno occupant of The Lodge, it is the six independent MHRs who will have to bear witness to it. If they all continue to think he's a dickhead, and they work with him, Abbott has no chance of convincing the rest of us that he's much chop.

After mid-year come the adjustment stories: and not just those in the media, or even online, but in people's lived experiences. Sure, there'll be stories about people genuinely disadvantaged by the new regime, and there'll be as much sympathy for that as there is for any other form of entrenched disadvantage really. Mostly, there will be a lot of grinning and bearing it through the adjustments and ingenuity in cutting emissions. Again, nobody is fooled by images of happy workers eating crap and loving it, but when everyone is getting on with it and making do, people will switch off endless carping; nobody will believe it can all be wished away. Rollback is rubbish.

Soon after that comes the vortex of September through which no politics permeates. Politicians would have to get shot to be noticed. Jeff Kennett thought he was terribly clever going to the polls just after before AFL Grand Final Day 1999 [thank you Linda], turns out he wasn't so clever after all. After September (i.e. a year from now), the Opposition Leader heads into the Death Zone.

The Death Zone culminates in the December of the year before the election is due. In the last four Parliaments, the Opposition Party has dumped their leader in the Death Zone. I reckon the Libs will dump Abbott because he won't magically convince any constituency that he's PM material while he will disappoint swathes of those who are today of that opinion. That said, even those with the most roseate view of Abbott would agree that the Death Zone is too late to persuade people if there's any doubt about your standing.

Abbott hasn't got a year to go before hitting the Death Zone, and it's less true to say that he's got months. To hit the pre-Budget period in Easter with any momentum he has to start turfing events organisers and press release wranglers now, and get on board the kind of serious staff that Howard assembled in 1995. This is not to say that shunting Arthur Sinodinos into the Senate is going to work for anyone. However much Howard indulged Abbott, Sinodinos spent a decade hosing down Abbott's ill-considered musings, ditherings and clangers on economics. He might have done so deftly enough, to the point where he and Abbott are clearly on better than speaking terms. The fact is that Sinodinos will spend the next year or so covering his eyes at Abbott's beef-witted forays into serious, nation-defining economic policy, like the Julie Andrews character in The Princess Bride Diaries.

Abbott, as I've said elsewhere, needs a serious staff and he needs it now. Trouble is, no such staff is available to Abbott. For any Liberal to swap state government (or the prospect thereof in Queensland) for a stint with Abbott would reflect political acumen so callow they could not possibly contribute anything toward the Coalition cause. He has to get rid of the stunt organisers and soundbitesmiths now, they've done their job; the next phase requires different skills. Like Richard III screaming for a horse, like that moment in Power Without Glory where John Wren realises he's surrounded by dills, Abbott faces the prospect of entering the Death Zone surrounded by grinning loyalists waiting by eerily quiet phones: the equivalent symptom in politics to the tide rushing out preceding a tsunami.

Now is the time for Abbott to drop the stunts: they've worked about as well as they are going to: polling numbers don't get any better than they are now, and as I've said Abbott himself is a prophylactic on the chances of a Coalition government. He'll also have to reconfigure his staff. That said, I say he will stick with the stunts as they've worked so far (if it ain't broke, remember). His fans will (increasingly stridently, but hoping to hide a growing sense of dread that they might be ignored) start urging Abbott to flick that switch to PM-material: Dennis Shanahan will be convinced that it's already happened, and will try to convince his readers likewise.

The last-minute thing didn't work in 2010 and it won't work next time either, people are awake to Abbott now. Politics is a messy business and the ducks never line up perfectly, especially for someone with attention-deficit issues. The idea that it is all moving to plan will not hold when the ground shifts underneath him, and will be trashed when the business community decides that it doesn't really want to go back to 2006 anyway. Abbott fans need to give their boy a nudge. He had his chance to protect us from the carbon thing, too late now. You can't expect him to be taken on trust any more.

Update: Drag0nista.

22 October 2011

Broken-down machines

This was my piece in The Drum, published by the ABC. I've had a couple of pieces posted there before but they have been copies of posts on this blog.

Basically, I said that the party machines are too busy working on perpetuating their own power to help anyone else get into or stay in government. This point is echoed by Bushfire Bill, who refers to the conventional wisdom thus:
... no matter how ridiculous, bizarre, uncosted, contradictory or outright unhinged an Abbott utterance may seem, wiser minds will take him quietly to one side after he is elected, and impress upon him the responsibilities of government by rational exercise of executive power
There are no "wiser heads". There used to be, but Abbott got rid of them. No "wiser heads" in Labor either, just factional chuckleheads. That's why egotistical leaders careen around unchecked (except by a bullet in the back of the neck from those close enough to deliver such a blow) and parties are reduced to uncritical fan clubs of said leader. That's basically the point of the article.

There were 103 comments. Most of them came from the horse-race calling perspective, whether/when Rudd was going to challenge Gillard or Turnbull Abbott. Such people missed the point entirely. I remonstrated gently with one such commenter and gave up thereafter.

Anyone want to comment on the issues I actually did raise?

18 October 2011

The shadow boxing champ

The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees
Now give me money
That's what I want
That's what I want, yeah
That's what I want

- The Beatles Money
There is no point in giving this parasite a column to justify his own existence unless you can call him on his more egregious bullshit. Mark Textor is on a very sweet arrangement thank you very much and you will not do anything to upset that arrangement.

The headline is wrong for a start - Mark Textor doesn't want to give the public a voice. He's never been in the public voice business, no money in it. P J O'Rourke said that the public might trample you to death but they will never buy you lunch. What Textor wants is for the public to shut up and not only listen, but give his words more credence than they often deserve.
political parties exist for only one simple and, yes, confronting reason: winning votes for candidates. Sound bad? It's not.
Classic bit of straw man work there. Nobody thinks political parties soliciting votes is "confronting". Nobody thinks it's "bad". He's trying to knock down an argument that nobody makes in the hope that nobody will put a telling argument to him, one that costs him in dollar and reputation terms.
And before folk scream "political parties are just negative"
What 'folk'? What screaming? Is it not possible to hold to such an opinion after careful consideration of facts, and speak it in a voice so quiet that Mark Textor and other mainstream media bloviators will just talk over it?

Let's put that back into context and have a good look at it:
[Political parties] can do this only by discussing what is personally relevant to voters, after carefully listening to their views and offering them a clear choice between parties. And before folk scream "political parties are just negative", two things: forget the bluster of Parliament, most candidate material is positive and these days most successful political advertising is positive. And, to the extent there is negative messaging, our adversarial system is based on keeping the others to account.
When you counter one dollop of bullshit with another, you aren't holding anyone or anything to account. And Textor's idea of "positive" isn't mine. At the last election I lived in a marginal Labor seat. Textor-inspired drivel rained down upon me and went into the recycling bin because he didn't and doesn't care what I think. The material was "positive" in that it presented the candidate in the best possible light in some highly general sense, but wasn't positive in the sense that it would explain how he gets things done. I participated in a forum recently where the now-MP answered every question with "That's a very interesting question!" - if Textor had explained this was the sort of muppet he was putting up it would have been a lot more positive.
Your lovin' gives me a thrill
But your lovin' don't pay my bills
Now give me money
That's what I want
That's what I want, yeah
That's what I want
Besides, political parties put people into Parliament and have more responsibility than Textor accords them in producing little more than "bluster".
If political parties are not funded adequately, I would suggest this would encourage corruption of our political system, not diminish corruption.
Well Mark, how much is "adequate"? In the absence of such a definition, people are probably going to cut corners. We needn't wait long before Mark offers a suggestion as to how much is enough:
Why? Share of voice.

If political parties cannot speak directly to voters - through direct mail, radio and TV advertisements, the internet and through resourced direct contact - then others have control of that otherwise open conversation.
How much is enough for a political party, in Mark Textor's terms? Enough to be the controlling, if not the only, voice across all media. That's all.

In 2007, the Howard government spent more than $50m of taxpayer money on advertising WorkChoices. Even so, there will still other voices in the community expressing different opinions. Under Textor's theory, the then government should have ramped up the spending so that if you wanted to know anything about WorkChoices, the only voice you'd hear would be that of the government.

WorkChoices wasn't an election campaign in itself but it is an example of how (not) to get a message across, and what it takes to do so.

"Share of voice" is a nebulous concept. I have a voice, and you do too, and so does Mark Textor. Textor doesn't want share of voice. He wants you to listen only to what he wants to tell you. That's share of attention, not share of voice - but he dare not convey that he doesn't want to share attention with anyone else.
A hundred or so folk in the Canberra press gallery decide what you should hear, not what a candidate wants to tell you based on their feedback from the community.
First of all, this overuse of "folk" grated when Kevin Rudd used it, and it's no better when used by someone who wants all the benefits of political power without the hat-wearing, glad-handing, pie-eating and income-disclosing that goes with running for public office.

Second, the press gallery runs free advertising for political parties. The Liberal Party are getting the best run you can get from a press gallery at the moment. Yes, they would be crazy to rely on them continuing to run their lines on face value and not considering basic questions like whether Abbott really would be a better PM than Gillard, and why - but this leads to my third point:

I read the tweet and tried to think of a single example in the history of Australian politics where a major political party spent absolutely nothing on advertising and relied entirely upon free media in the journosphere. There isn't one (let the monkeys who work for him support their boss' claim that there is). Textor's idea that poor political parties are being held back from advertising at all until they get into a position of "control" is, frankly, ridiculous.

Fourth, candidates decide nothing in election campaigns - people like Textor and his equivalent Bruce Hawker decide what the message is. Candidates' faces and names are used to endorse whatever message has been cooked up by the Textors of this world, and if the community doesn't like the message then the candidate wears it - and Mark Textor can't be blamed for low-quality candidates out there, can he?
So there goes the theory about a reduction in negativity if advertising is banned.
What theory? Whose theory? More straw-man bullshit. To reduce negativity in public debate you need a shift of focus by the media onto issues rather than on what Textor calls "bluster".
You could argue that, in Britain, the absence of electronic advertising has led to political editors deciding what gets discussed in the community, rather than the citizen, leading to too much power for some publications and the issue of press corruption, as witnessed recently.
You could, if you weren't paying attention. Textor thinks the answer is to give newspaper editors unlimited amounts of money, because only that will stop/prevent corruption.
Further, if political parties cannot speak to the people directly through a variety of, if expensive, mechanisms (still preferable to a 10-second grab on television), then others will advertise anyway, but on a narrower, less mainstream set of issues. The recent rise of US-style, advertising-led lobbying that targets government and opposition would dominate.
You say that like it's a bad thing, Mark. US-style advertising is one of CrosbyTextor's main offerings for its clients in a campaign. Why Textor is denouncing one of his key weapons is unclear.
The parties act as a clearing house to discuss more mainstream issues ...
No they don't. The parties pitch issues that make them look like potentially responsible and appealing governments. They don't 'discuss' because that suggests an openness to changing their minds which people like Textor have beaten out of them. They are not "a clearing house", they are part of the debate.
So how should the political parties be funded? To me the safest way is a mixed funding model. That is because there are major failings in relying on one source. An over-reliance on public funding would leave political parties vulnerable to the government of the day mandating the use of those funds ...
The key phrase in there is "to me". This is all about Mark Textor's income. It is not about "free speech", because Textor has never been about that. I left that phrase off the end of the quote because in this context it made me gag.

Textor isn't about free speech and the open exchange of ideas about how public policy might work best. No proof that he ever was or is. He';s about getting his message out and getting you to believe it, whether or not that message is what the country needs is a question for people he despises. What he really despises, though, is anyone who gets between him and a big pot of cash.
Money don't get everything it's true
What it don't get, I can't use
Now give me money
That's what I want
That's what I want, yeah
That's what I want
Textor knows full well Liberal fundraisers can't raise enough cash to keep him in the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed, thus the "mixed funding" thing. This is why Textor has very generously agreed to allow the taxpayer to top up his income through so-called "education" grants to parties, which go directly to people like Textor. Public funding will lessen that party's dwindling reliance on volunteer members repulsed by what he has turned the Liberal Party into, so everyone who matters to Mark Textor is a winner from that scenario, and that's the main thing.
In my experience, reliance on low-donor funding leads to the temptation to pursue "shrill" issues because the US experience has taught us small donations are best gathered by "mining" emotion based on reaction to political events. The "angry" on the left and right may dominate under this model.
All advertising aims to harness consideration of election campaigns to the power of the emotions. The US experience shows the opposite, where small donations outweighed the power that comes with a few large donors. Having lots of small donors also gives lots of people a voice, a prospect that appals Textor. President Obama's 2008 campaign wasn't a fringe campaign - and if it was, why would that be a bad thing - oh wait, fringe campaigns don't hire Mark Textor.

Another of Textor's campaign tools is the use of talkback radio, where randoms like the ones he describes have their "share of voice" at no cost (bar the phone call, and that doesn't go to Textor either) - you can see why it upsets him so.

Textor-inspired ads for Tony Abbott's Liberals last year were all about fear rather than a careful consideration of Liberal policy (such as it was) and its applicability to the needs of the country. It held nothing and nobody to account.
A "free market" in large, corporate and union donations could (in the absence of the regulatory regime we have in Australia) lead to undue influence. Again, no funding means media interests dominate.
Who's talking about unpicking the existing regulatory regime, rendering it absent? Who's talking about "no funding"? Small donations are the antidote to big donations, aren't they?

I'm aware that there are specific proposals out there to limit campaign funding. If I were addressing them I'd identify which ones I was talking about and address those - but that's me. Textor refuses to acknowledge them - classic media strategy right there - which prevents the direct engagement that is necessary for an effective democracy and a civil society. I think debate is more important than media strategy. In fact, everything is more important than media strategy. Media strategy does the media no favours, I have no idea why editors shrug and accept it rather than waging war on it.

Anyway, back to Textor: on top of a series of hollow arguments he basically equate his business model with Australian democracy itself. That's where he moves from the merely parasitic to the despicable.
An appropriately regulated mix of annualised public, corporate and low-donor funding of political parties is the best model I've seen.
In other words: it's a system that I, Mark Textor, have learned how to game - and none of you punks are going to mess with my business model.

I could go on and quote the rest of the article but is dissolves into so much treacle: there is no noble principle being defended here, only a bit of shadow-boxing in defence of self-interest. Nothing wrong with self-interest either - I just wish Textor was up-front about it. In Britain, you could argue that four Poms from the 'sixties were up-front about what they were about:
Well now give me money
A lot of money
Wow, yeah, I wanna be free
Oh I want money
That's what I want
That's what I want, well
Now give me money
A lot of money
Wow, yeah, you need money
now, give me money
That's what I want, yeah
that's what I want

17 October 2011

Sweating blood

Tony Abbott's whole strategy has been based on toying with the government. Whenever Gillard has come to Abbott to cut a deal he has pretended to consider the idea, possibly with an amendment or two, before eventually declining to support. The idea behind this is to portray the incumbents as a do-nothing government so that by the next election it will offer no alternative to an Abbott government.

Last week that strategy failed. It failed publicly, and utterly. It will keep on failing as the government gets up off its hind legs and the measures proposed in the past week come into force, which reinforces the perception that this government is acting like a real government, which gives it more confidence (but hopefully not too much), etc.

Last week we saw three events that made the government look like a real government:
  • It consulted widely on tax reform;
  • It enacted a budget-sized raft of legislation to institute a carbon pricing mechanism, after years of talk and bluff; and
  • It settled, for better or worse, on a policy for dealing with asylum seekers.
In each case, the government broke from its standard practice of going cap-in-hand to the opposition and asking for their support. This had made the Coalition look like the determinant of what was legitimate and what wasn't, feeding the idea that the erratic and flaky Abbott could in fact lead a government committed to stability and security.

This is the lesson that the Liberals learned from the failed ETS deal in 2009. The Liberals engaged in a protracted negotiation process with Rudd, who was at the peak of his powers, and after stringing him along they eventually decided against a deal, which left him (as they say in Canberra) fucked and burnt. Naturally they are seeking to do the same again: all they need is a dumb Labor government that learns nothing.

A press gallery with the memory span of goldfish is also useful to Abbott, as Philip Coorey shows:
TONY ABBOTT has indicated he would have said no to a compromise asylum-seeker policy that included Nauru, vindicating Julia Gillard and others in the cabinet who argued against making such an offer.
Well, no kidding. If the government had proposed restoring the status quo of 2006 Abbott would have squealed that the government had stolen his policy, unfit to govern etc. When you've been involved with press gallery journalism for as long as I have you can pick patterns like that.

The government stopped whinging about Abbott, and got on with it. This is what it always should have done (and those of you who think I'm being wise after the event can go back through this site and see that my hitherto futile calls for same have been a recurring feature of the past two years or so).

Buried way down in this tendentious article is a real gobbet of news, with which your old-school newshound would have led their story:
Mr Abbott's approval fell 2 percentage points to 41 per cent and his disapproval rose 2 points to 54 per cent.

These are his worst ratings since becoming Opposition Leader on December 1, 2009, and are similar to numbers experienced by Mr Turnbull just before he was deposed.
And there you have it. Almost two years into the job, after hundreds of stunts and thousands of pointless words nobody is any more convinced that they ever were that they want this man to be Prime Minister. Why no ABBOTT LOSER CHALLENGE ANY DAY NOW SHOCK headlines?

Now you can see why Abbott went on with all that blood-oath stuff. Not because he's in a position of strength but because he's panicking. Over the weekend he sent out Greg Hunt to destroy what little credibility he had by swearing blind that the carbon mechanism was going to be repealed. It's highly likely that Opposition spokespeople responsible for the budget bottom line and productive relationships with business wouldn't have a bar of it (e.g. Hockey, Robb, Macfarlane) or have other issues on their plates right now (e.g. Mirabella). The Situation himself can only announce this and flit onto something else, trailing credulous journos in his wake.

Hunt is providing the textbook example of why you should resign rather than humilate yourself by selling a position that is so obviously bullshit. He's like the loyal soldier who gets sent by donkey superiors to charge the enemy machine-guns over open ground.
The poll finds 44 per cent of voters back Mr Turnbull as Coalition leader compared with 28 per cent for Mr Abbott and 23 per cent for Mr Hockey.

Mr Turnbull has much stronger support among Greens and Labor voters.
Depends what you mean by "Greens and Labor voters", really. If we're talking rusted-ons, those figures are pretty much irrelevant. If we're talking people who voted Labor in 2007 and '10 but might be persuaded to vote for a Liberal Party not led by Tony Abbott, that's significant.

There are few articles more ridiculous than Labor isn't getting its message out because the press gallery is in thrall to Abbott, and this is Labor's fault, because the herd mentality of the press gallery is never ever wrong.
But in Tony Abbott it is facing the most skilful retail politician in recent memory, a leader with a proven ability to slice up solid arguments with sound bites.
Only if you think a sound bite is sharper than a solid argument, or even real policy with actual results to show for it. This was all very well if you just treat leading politicians as duelling windbags, but in the past week we've seen real policies put in place with real costs and real outcomes. This would be the perfect opportunity for a journalist to ask some searching questions about what a rollback might look like - but then you'd have to ask someone other than Lenore Taylor:
But the Coalition leader has already skipped on ...
And who's more happy to let him skip than Lenore Taylor? She could examine the way that Australian politics has changed and how Abbott is adapting to the new environment we find ourselves in, but she'll just let Abbott skip, skip, skippety-skip.
The factional system, which always provided structure when Labor was in crisis, is broken. "They broke it themselves," says one senior Labor figure. The overthrow of Kevin Rudd, sprung on the caucus by factional bosses at a stage when it was almost a fait accompli, is a process that poisoned its own outcome. The party is now inherently wary of any organised leadership challenge.
That looks like the sort of solid journalism you can usually expect from Lenore Taylor - but then she falls straight off the wagon and spends the rest of her story insisting that something broken is not only functional but powerful enough to knock off a Prime Minister. It's one thing for pollies to contradict one another but when a journalist doubles back on her own story she is only making a spectacle of herself.
Often a "source close to" a politician is the bloke himself.
Thanks for the tip. Shame the journo thinks they're being clever in not just quoting "the bloke himself".

Then there's the thousand words in the Rudd-Gillard kiss last week that the News Ltd papers couldn't write: Rudd saw that Gillard got the carbon mechanism through, in a way that he couldn't. Didn't you see that as an act of contrition, if not capitulation?

Tony Abbott is doing what he's always done and this past week it stopped working. His fanclub just assume he can switch gears to becoming Prime Ministerial, but this just isn't possibler. There is no calm and measured authority, only jumping from one stunt to the next. His only way out is more maxxxtreme stunts that makes Lenore Taylor ooh and aah - and that's what we'll be seeing, until The Situation gets so pathetic that they yank him off stage.

In a week where the government did what it gets paid to do, nobody should expect a grateful populace to cheer from sheer gratitude. We're just doing our jobs, and now the government is too it would be nice if journalists and the Opposition would do theirs.

13 October 2011

No refuge II: pressure on

In 1930s Washington DC, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was apparently confronted by a group lobbying for a particular outcome. At length he said, "OK, you've convinced me. Now go out and put pressure on me".

I'm tempted to say that the Prime Minister has done something similar with this. There is scant evidence that she has been so wily in the past. Then again, she's learning on the job, in a job where the previous occupants tear up the manual as they go.

It isn't having it both ways to honour the deal with Malaysia. I still think that the regional dialogue I went on about here is important and it would have been impossible had the Malaysians disgraced themselves by agreeing to drop it. Also impossible would have been articles like this without the focus on refugees in Malaysia. This is the start of something big and important in regional engagement, hopefully not limited to refugees. If nothing else, it's a bit more proactive than sitting back and waiting for the next boat to come over the horizon.

So, we're going to have more people coming here. Where should they go?

Where they should not go is to be dumped into high-unemployment areas of capital cities, where they arouse resentment from bogans and apathy from the rest of the community, and have the apathetic come to confuse the voice of the resentful as the voice of Australia.

They should not go to mining areas because almost all of them are already areas of high unemployment, and because it is a myth that mining companies need vast numbers of proletarian workers who will just labour all day without complaint. No part of the economy that used to need workers in vast numbers - not industry, not construction, not retail or even the defence forces - now has such a need.

The best I could think of was to those rural communities which supposedly let foodstuffs rot because the fleeing or apathetic locals, backpackers and grey nomads who happen to be there at harvest time aren't sufficient in numbers or remuneration to get the job done. It also conflicts with Pacific Islander communities who could do such work on a fly-in-fly-out basis.

Dumping people in communities with few options might not be clever, notwithstanding their potential to prop up infrastructure that might otherwise fall into disuse. You also fall into a trap of positing rural communities as The Real Australia, having people learn English by reading Adam Lindsay Gordon or whatever. Maybe they will just flock to the cities when there's nothing stopping them from doing so. Maybe they will have to in order to exploit training opportunities that are unavailable in the mighty Bush.

I'm trying, and it's heartening that the government too is trying to deal with a complex issue with other policy tools than press releases. One guy who's trying way too hard is The Situation, a man who has painted himself into a corner with his own blood. He's frantic, because he knows he has nothing to show for all that ferocity: it's only worth it if the slow and steady achievements of the past week or so never happened, and weren't seen to have happened. Yes, the government was forced into the position it has now taken - but there is nothing so becoming of a government than the ability to make lemonade when handed lemons. That was John Howard's real skill - his fans call it humility, but even his opponents agree it was a contrast from the approaches of his two Labor predecessors, which was more in the vein of "Oi! Who put these fucking lemons here?".

Abbott could get his photo taken squeezing lemons but you know he hates the taste and nobody wants to drink anything prepared by a smarmy git who despises them. The smarm has gone with all this blood-oath, eating-out-a-carcass stuff, and we're beginning to see them as they are. Abbott is redoubling his efforts, which only moves him from ferocious to frantic. Even his most loyal lags in the press gallery must now accept that Abbott is becoming a figure of ridicule, that the can't-do-anything-right tag that applied to the government a month or so ago now rightfully belongs on him.

What Abbott and his chroniclers can't bear to face is what all the great comics knew: that frantic is funny. Think about Harold Lloyd hanging off that clock, Harpo Marx's charades, John Cleese in "the right room for an argument", or Lucille Ball berating people Mirabella-style while being led into a surprise party. The more calm government we get, steering the nation through the storms and past the shoals, the crazier the Opposition we'll get too; it will get to a point where only journos will give a damn about the fraught but comparatively functional Gillard-Rudd relationship. How quickly things turn: but that's politics for ya.

Back to Washington, and it was Roosevelt's predecessor Abraham Lincoln who said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power”. After this week the government realises that it has the power, and that by standing up to Abbott it accrues power rather than losing it. It will be interesting to see how it rises to a challenge that Kevin Rudd has already failed, and which Abbott is watching slip away from him too.

12 October 2011

The passion of Sophie Mirabella

I met Sophie Panopoulos at a Liberal students' conference in the late 1980s and at the time, as I've tweeted earlier, thought she was a great sucking hole of need. If she was a bloke she'd have a chip on her shoulder, but let's not be sexist. We all wanted to be MPs at that age, but I underestimated how much sheer need would count toward that end.

Liberals of my generation were convinced of two things, apart from our own special brilliance. Firstly, that the Fraser government had failed so utterly that the Liberal Party could and should be recreated from scratch. People who revere John Howard and regard the Liberal Party as something he invented and shaped in his own image have a bad case of this. I remember one debate supporting pokies as "voluntary taxation", not just focusing on the revenue stream that would enable other taxes to be cut but also the very idea of non-compulsion in the collection thereof.

The second thing of which we were utterly convinced is that being a staffer offered an apprenticeship to modern politics that was quicker and more comprehensive than building a community profile over decades and then eventually convincing that community that you should represent it in the hallowed halls.

Panopolous was briefly a staffer in the NSW government, as was I; she ended up working in a cafe soon after moving from Melbourne to take up the role, as I was told by someone who enjoyed her change of employment more than I did. I went to that cafe and while she refused to take my order, she plonked down the coffee so that it splashed me. "Sorr-ee", she said, and it's the last time I saw her. Yes, it was years ago, but I still don't remember having done anything to her to deserve that. Those who did deserve an apology, members of the Stolen Generation, were denied one from Sophie when she boycotted the House on that memorable day in 2008 on utterly bogus grounds.

I noticed that she missed out on becoming a staffer when Howard came to office, and apparently she had never been a staffer in the Kennett government. It's one thing to admire her, as many conservatives did from a distance, but it's quite another to have her in one's office, berating the receptionist and patronising public servants. Her peers, like Tony Smith and Mitch Fifield, got those jobs. Even people who were freshers in Liberal student politics when she was la grande dame, like Josh Frydenberg and Kelly O'Dwyer, got those jobs.

It never occurred to me that Sophie Panopoulos would make it as a Liberal MP in Victoria. I assumed she would just be preference fodder for vacuous box-ticker candidates like Tony Smith, and then go on to be some sort of backroom player in that state. I should have known better: both Bronwyn Bishop and David Clarke in NSW offered nothing besides the talent to make other people confuse her sheer rage and inadequacy with energy and depth. I expected her to become a spokesperson - like Melinda Tankard Reist, the sort of person who'd start off with a good cause but whose lack of discipline in the face of a media whirlwind would see her branch out into the bat-shit apocalyptic, or even someone who started there like tobacco gobshites.

It's the "should have known better" that explains why moderate and other Liberals at the time let such a person slip through a selection process that should be more rigorous at vetting people. Not only that, but having beaten such a system makes perpetrators scorn it, in the same way that Groucho Marx jokingly didn't want to join a club that would have him as a member.

Anyway, make it she did and out came the attack-dog lines, hoping to give her opinions an intensity that they lacked in integrity: Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan as "terrorists", Gillard as Gaddafi, blah blah blah.

The only way you could have any sympathy for such a person is for her to be attacked by Belinda Neal, less an opposite than a mirror image on the House benches. The same slightly questionable use of personal relationships to get the mentoring that young men apparently get more readily. The same hatchet faces and repellent personalities, except to those who must be charmed: kiss the hand you cannot bite. As Labor politics might have given Neal a veneer of compassion for the downtrodden, so in conservative politics Panopoulos might have sought some appearance of status and class from defending the monarchy, the Bush Administration, the Howard government, etc.

I have no idea what the truth is in this or that. Those issues are yet to play out in court and other forums and none of what appears here should indicate any opinion one way or another on issues that have nothing to do with me really. I have noted the division between those who can help Sophie and those who can't; I note the arc by which one person started off as powerful and helpful to Sophie and who over time became less powerful and helpful to her.

Like US politician Newt Gingrich, Panopoulos/Mirabella spends so much time with mouth-breathers that she is regarded, and regards herself, as intelligent to the point of genius. I remember seeing the video from which this image was taken:

Never before or since have I seen her look so utterly calm and in control. That was the moment she truly arrived. I have no idea whether or not it was the happiest day of her life, but surely it must be close. Surrounded by nongs and imbeciles, she was beatific: I half-expected her to do that air-scooping wave that the Queen does.

Part of the problem with the intensity over-intellect approach is that you're going to lose it at the wrong moment. That's what happened when she got chucked out of the House at the most crucial juncture of her career. She's a member of shadow cabinet in a hung parliament; had the carbon price votes gone the other way she could well have become a Cabinet Minister with billions of taxpayer dollars at her disposal. Now, she got sent off at a point where her side was miles in front but her opponents were starting to catch up. In sport, players who do that become known as pikers and are spoken ill of for decades.

One of the 20-or-so bills passed as part of the carbon price was to transform the steel industry. The Leader of the Opposition made a point of touring steelworks as part of his campaign to drum up opposition to the whole carbon tax price thing. The person responsible for developing a coherent Coalition position on the steel industry, carbon thing or no, was the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science, Sophie Mirabella MP. Oh well.

The whole scope of Australian industry is pretty broad and even a committed person would struggle to identify how exactly the carbon mechanism will affect it. So, Mirabella falls short of lofty expectations - but is it really that lofty to expect the Shadow Minister to produce something more than press releases? You can criticise Abbott for saying no, no, no all the time - I certainly do - but in the absence of solid backup by someone with nothing better to do than provide it, the guy has to say something.

Let's go to a policy issue squarely within her scope and competence. When I knew Sophie Panopoulos she was big on voluntary student unionism (VSU). She was a MP in 2005 when the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005 was passed, and spoke glowingly of it. She might not have been a prime mover behind that legislation but she was entitled to be proud of it in a way that pollies do when one of their big causes gets enacted. When that was reversed she was suspended from Parliament - in a hung parliament, where her persuasive skills might have seen this achievement retained.

When she was chucked out Peter Slipper was in the chair. Slipper has never been the Coalition's poster-boy and is much, much less so now. It's one thing to disrespect such a man and to play to your pals who all disdain him too: but in an environment where so much is at stake, where the Liberal Party expects that every man and woman will do his/her duty, a senior frontbencher should have enough discipline to keep the focus on the main game. Note how Jamie Briggs was slapped down for expressing an opinion, and contrast it with Abbott's apparent indulgence of Mirabella dropping the ball on the try line.

Tony Abbott will not get rid of Mirabella. Others tear down wacky right-whingers; he builds them up and defends them no matter what. It is likely that the next leader of the Liberal Party will give her a spell in the back paddocks, but Abbott will stick by her to the death. If he really had to get rid of her, if her public image became so bad that it affected Lib polling and the backroom boys began to lobby him to get rid of her, it would be the sort of thing that would make Abbott wring his hands. This isn't because Mirabella commands some vast number of votes - she'd influence no vote in Canberra beyond her own. On the other hand, he'd have doubts it for the rest of his life - and this is a guy who just doesn't do self-doubt and examination.

Indi (Mirabella's electorate) is within the Murray-Darling basin. If Tony Burke and Craig Knowles aren't all over that electorate they have really lost their touch. This isn't to say that Labor can win Indi, though stranger things have happened. They do have a once-in-a-generation chance to mess with the heads of a political opponent who has given them so much grief, in that opponent's heartland, at a time of hung parliament - and if they pass it up Labor activists will be right to disown them.

The Liberals of Indi took her on the basis that she was a go-getter and someone with a future. Having your local member in Cabinet is no small thing for any rural community. There must be some doubt as to whether they'll get there with the incumbent; I bet Panopoulos/Mirabella has burnt so many bridges with local Libs that she'd now be up for some sort of levy in that legislation passed today. Is there a Liberal preselection candidate in Indi (or moving there soon) who could knock her off? Will there be an exception to the Thou Shalt Not Knock Off A Sitting Member rule made for our Soph - and if so, is there a Wangaratta Windsor or a Benalla Katter who can win an election without having a party behind him/her? Do the Victorian Libs want to put another jewel-in-the-crown in play by hanging onto her?

Mirabella is, however, representative of a generation in the Victorian Libs who have been around long enough to appear on the public stage and make a few errors but not long enough to get the big jobs and make the big decisions: Tony Smith is bored bored bored but has not proven himself successful at anything since he learned how Peter Costello likes his coffee. Greg Hunt has put in so much work defending the indefensible that he will find it hard to rebuild any sort of credibility. Mitch Fifield is going the way of Chris Pyne or Michael Ronaldson, a politician of no achievement besides getting himself re-elected. These people were going to run the entire Liberal Party, and with it the country: now, they are just going to watch the demise of one of their own (oh yes) with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God helplessness.

The rise and fall of Sophie Panopoulos Mirabella MP involves more than just one person and those who care about her, who have watched her go από την ύβρη προς Νέμεσις in such a short time. It involves the death of several big ideas:
  • that you have to be accepted for the front you present to the world;
  • that you accrue class and status for yourself by defending those with class and status;
  • that you can reshape the Liberal Party and the country any damn way you please, and that anyone who doesn't like it can just piss off;
  • that intensity makes up where integrity falls short; and
  • that ferocity conquers all.
Like Andrew Bolt, she's still not sorry. She never will be, because she can't be. She'll think that her failure came because she wasn't intense or aggressive enough, and there will be enough of those who support her in that, to the point where the rest of us who point and jeer won't matter one bit.

When you're like her, as many Liberals are, you can't self-examine and apologise without unravelling. If you thought the unhinging was bad, just you wait for the unravelling.

07 October 2011

Where journalism fails

The whole idea of journalism is to go to people who have varying kinds of power and influence over our lives and tell us what they're up to, because we don't have the time to be everywhere at once like big news organisations can.

There are plenty of examples where mainstream media organisations execute this magnificently well. As with other fields of human activity, journalism is done very well very rarely, done well-to-average-to-somewhat-below-average most of the time, and done appallingly more often than is acceptable. Even more unacceptable, poor journalism refuses to lie still and be buried as with other types of human waste, but will go and wrap itself around lofty principles like Freedom Of Speech or Excellent Journalism in order that its sheer crapness might not perish from the earth.

Bolt's been done and he doesn't care anyway. Here are two examples from award-winning journalists who should know better, who don't know or care that you can't complain about journos having too little time or resources when you produce imaginary bullshit from real events.

Earlier today ABC journalist Helen Tzarimas used her Twitter account to advertise her role in a non-story:

It was just as bad as it looks. The Foreign Minister was overseas engaging in foreign policy, and instead of being asked what he is doing Helen and the gang report chew up time and resources with what he's not doing.

Kevin Rudd wasn't running for Prime Minister yesterday and he probably won't run tomorrow. You think the media would have learned from Peter Costello - he spent 19 years in parliament not running for Prime Minister. Whole careers in journalism have begun, lived and died in producing the thousands upon thousands of radio and TV and newspaper things about how not Prime Minister Peter Costello was. When Costello quit in 2009 the supposedly serious Australian media couldn't believe it was all over.

The comeback of Kevin Rudd is exactly that kind of non-story. What's worse is that, for all their "insider" pretensions, you can bet that the parliamentary press gallery will be the last to know if Rudd takes his former job back; the guy who weeds the gardens at the US embassy will have a much better idea than all of the doyen(ne)s and other rabbits who make up the Australian media.

When I called Tzarimas on this, she replied:

That's right: an experienced journalist seriously wanted me to believe that I can tell the Foreign Minister what to do from my phone. Was she trying to deflect criticism or did she just not get it? I want to know what the government is doing, not what it isn't doing. You can make up crap all day really:
  • Kevin Rudd refused to rule out a tilt at the Bathurst 1000 this weekend;
  • Helen Tzarimas refused to rule out something she never really mentioned;
  • etc.

When the news is full of bullshit like that you make it harder to defend good journalism and freedom of the press. All sorts of bullshit rumours floats and swirls around in the crevices between journalism and politics; very few of them get an airing so there's no excuse for this crap.

Crap leads us almost inevitably to Annabel Crabb. Ken Henry spends his life in the interface between government and the economy - you have to work hard to belittle such a man but Crabb succeeds. She does her usual trick of starting with a small anecdote in the hope that it might illustrate a wider point; she either chooses the wrong anecdote or draws the wrong conclusion from it, or both as she does here:
"I don't like change," he confided to the patient tillmaster.

At the time, I thought it fascinating that the man responsible for so much Australian money should harbour a personal distaste for having it in his pocket.
Henry's tax reforms are all about increased efficiency: more money collected requiring less work for the revenue-raisers and the effect on economic activity in the economy either unaffected much or enhanced in some way. If you can have a $2 coin in your pocket this is to be preferred to a dozen jangly silver coins - it doesn't mean you have less money, simply fewer coins. Efficiency: Henry lives it. It's a hallmark of genuine leadership that people in exalted positions live their values. Yet again, Crabb has a firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick.
This week, he was back again in Parliament House's Great Hall, once more rehearsing the arguments for the sorts of reforms he advocated in the review of tax that was commissioned at Parliament's last big think-in.
No, he wasn't rehearsing - you don't rehearse for an event that has passed. Henry was reiterating the case for a proposal to a different audience, after events had changed perspective on that proposal.

"It can't be very easy, being Ken Henry", she patronises, then compares a government revenue stream that adapts to the nation's future economic development to a piece of jewellery and a fancy car. She then gives a perfect demonstration of the pearls-before swine nature of journalists being present at important events and misreporting them:
"More important though is the general point that good policy outcomes are more likely where there has been high-quality debate. Good policy outcomes are much more difficult to secure where visionary ideas, big challenges and creative approaches are floated for the first time in the announcement of a policy decision."

Dr Henry's patience demonstrates why he is a hit with Northern hairy-nosed wombats.
If that was a parody nobody would believe it - what should have been a bracing slap in the face for every sorry excuse for a journalist was, for Crabb, just a pretext to talk about wildlife.

She then goes and blames on "politics" what is more properly the fault of the media. The following two paragraphs should have been collapsed into one.
"I mean, let's not forget, the GST in the first place was meant to be applied to food and services," Mr Briggs observed. "I think it has to be discussed ... if you're serious about having a tax forum."
If you're going to have a tax forum of indefinite duration and resources, yes; if you've got two days with a lot to talk about, you have to draw the line somewhere. As it was, the sheer breadth and depth of the debate made the heads of Crabb and Professor Judith Sloan spin. Every single Coalition MP (and Professor Sloan) said exactly the same thing about the Tax Forum, that because the Tax Forum just past covered only 99% of taxes levied in this country, it was some sort of sham - and to say so is "uncontroversial"?
Having authored this - under the circumstances - fairly uncontroversial remark, Mr Briggs spent the rest of the day being kicked about by Wayne Swan and disowned by his leader
No, this was the story of the day: those who dealt with 99% of the nation's taxes were drowned out in the media by part of the 1% that wasn't up for discussion. It was a joke. Briggs' leader has no right to disown any sort of specific proposal given his own vacuity, but once again the journosphere failed to call him on it.

Speaking of vacuity:
The Member for Bennelong, John Alexander, suffered a similar fate a few months ago when he expressed the opinion at an electorate function in August that weekend penalty rates could do with some fiddling ...
The whole idea that penalty rates are some crippling impost on Australian capitalism is an idea that was fairly feeble in the 1970s. You show me a business whose success or failure depends upon penalty rates and I'll show you a badly-run business.

Members of Parliament - even newbies like Alexander and Briggs - have vast resources at their disposal. They've had months to prepare for the Tax Forum. Both men claim they got into politics to make good things happen. And all they can come up with is GST on food and bloody penalty rates, neither of which are within the fairly broad remit of the event. God help us. I wondered why Crabb referred to the Tax Forum as a "think-in", until I realised that thinkers will be abandoning Parliament House to the likes of Briggs and Alexander in a matter of weeks.

Someone like Crabb should be calling out these dummies, as well as the media auction of fatuities that arose from their comments. Is she doing that, though? Is she hell:
When did we stop thinking it was a good idea for backbenchers to have opinions on things?
As Greg Jericho tweeted today, it depends who you mean by 'we'. Backbenchers go all boring and rehearsed so that you don't get Annabel Crabb and Helen Tzarimas making up crap about what you're not doing and ignoring what you are doing.
And as far as the GST goes, it's not as if there aren't reasonable arguments to be had about it - the thing's 10 years old, after all.

Perhaps if the tax summit had been allowed to discuss it, we'd have heard them.
And if those discussions had been "allowed", Annabel, you'd have ignored them, like you ignored and belittled everything else that went on.

Are you suggesting Briggs was "silenced"? Go on, you know you want to. Briggs is a Member of Parliament. He has no shortage of small-f forums* on which to address GST generally or GST on food. The idea that by circumscribing the Tax Forum from 100% to a mere 99% is a dagger at the heart of Jamie Briggs and that his chance even to speak has forever gone, is rubbish.

Mind you, the comment about Alexander and his tennis racket is fair comment. Alexander is more significant as an ex-tennis player than as a contributor to public debate. The man has clearly peaked at the age of [insert Alexander's age when he won that really big tournament].

Journalism fails in the insistence that what isn't there matters more than what is. Genuinely crappy journalism, the kind that props up dictatorships does this all the time. This week we saw a real shift to real news with real things to report and analyse - and two experienced journalists, Helen Tzarimas and Annabel Crabb, couldn't handle it. We look to the ABC for the real news but this week they were appalling. Feed us crap, they insisted, and if we don't get the crap we expect then we'll make some up. We are all impoverished by journalism like this and the editors who make it possible.

05 October 2011

Pearls before swine at the Tax Forum

Journalism on the Tax Forum has sucked really, really hard. It shows the limits of the Australian media in their basic job of telling us what's going on, and how we are being governed. It shows their limits for readers/consumers/citizens/taxpayers in showing us how things might be for this aspect of life in our country and what we can do in order to shape that future.

Nobody expected the Tax Forum to be some be-all-and-end-all session where some ideas would triumph and be legislated while others would be kyboshed, never to be heard of again. It isn't the Grand Final of Tax and it's sloppy reporting to express it that way (journos might claim that they're bringing in readers by hyping it, but they'd be wrong about that too). Equally, given both the breadth and depth of experience represented there and the possibilities in a hung parliament, it is not just a "gabfest" either (another journo cliche that fails to either heighten interest or elucidate the issues).

Let's look at the last major attempt at tax reform. The idea of a GST was first raised in the Asprey Report, commissioned by the Whitlam Government in 1975, after value-added taxes had been introduced in European countries and US states for some years. It was raised again in fits and starts over the years, including in a tax summit not dissimilar to this one in 1985, and in Fightback! in 1993. It was still a live issue at the following election, when John Howard denied that he'd introduce one, and at the following one where he said he would.

There was a scare campaign around the GST when it was proposed in the 1990s, which is amazing for something covered so comprehensively. The Democrats amended it at the last minute to exempt food, education and healthcare. After it was enacted there was a high degree of adjustment to and acceptance of the new system (which was accompanied by Business Activity Statements and other compliance issues that were not adequately explained). The degree of acceptance and adjustment is something that the media at the time played a very small part in bringing about, whereas it played a very large part in hyping up the scare campaign.

Not having learned anything from any wide-ranging previous efforts, Peter van Onselen complains that GST and mining tax were left out. You've got to draw a line somewhere, but oh no - it's censorship:
The agenda for the forum deliberately omitted the GST, the mining tax and superannuation reforms. Three of the most important areas for taxation policy debate aren't important enough for this government to open them up to specific sessions.
Oh, fuck off. The GST alone took a quarter century. As for superannuation, rather than the various experts coming to Canberra to get sneered at by ignorant clowns in the press gallery, the relevant minister (Bill Shorten) has been going to them - something similar is apparently happening with the mining tax.

As it is, the gamut of this event is so broad that it is likely that good ideas (such as reforms to funding of local government) will not get the chance to be fully considered. Or as van Onselen puts it:
... general sessions where they will be quickly moved on from very limited discussion. It's a joke.
You can't win with Peter van Onselen, but you have to do what you can.

The Henry Report was treated like a joke way back when it was released, last year. There was a lot of facile media coverage at the time about wombats and such, then that died away. Then the Rudd government said it would implement some things and not others without any sort of debate as to why (and no hope that they might change their minds). The alternative government did not respond to the report itself or the government's reaction in any meaningful way. There it sat, another artefact of public-policy archaeology, until Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor insisted that the Henry Review have the follow-up it deserved.

The Forum should have been part of a wider debate, linked to issues like housing prices and the two-speed economy and the ageing society - you know, irrelevant, dry-as-dust stuff like that. In such a process all of the scare campaigns could have been tried on and fizzled out before they started clogging up Hansard.
It's easy to have sympathy for the states not keeping their end of the bargain when GST revenues started flowing. Ever since the commonwealth assumed full income taxation powers during World War II, the states have struggled to find the funds to operate the many services for which they are responsible: schools, healthcare, roads and transport. But it's time something was done. Glory-seeking politicians gravitate towards the federal arena, but it is at state level the heavy lifting of government really goes on.
Explains why glory-seeking journalists will bypass a number of state capitals to fly across the continent to sneer at amateurs daring to venture considered opinions on matters in federal politics rather than cover complicated issues in healthcare, infrastructure, law-and-order or infrastructure provision.

It's a political decision, not just a tax-wonk decision, that a government that spends taxes should be responsible for raising them. It is perfectly understandable that, with so many participants and so little time, the Tax Forum concentrated on real issues it could address.

Ross Gittins snarled in agreement with van Onselen:
If you're detecting a touch of cynicism in my reaction to all this, you're not wrong. Economists, business people and professional lobbyists would happily meet in Parliament House once a month to preach to each other about the need for tax reform.

But if ever there was a country that runs a mile at the hint of tax reform, we're it. Most of the rest of the developed world introduced a GST in the 1960s and '70s, but we trembled on the brink for 25 years before taking the plunge in 2000.

The way tax reform works in Australia is that whenever governments are persuaded to introduce some major reform, the opposition automatically opposes it and starts a hugely successful scare campaign, urged on by every adversely affected interest group, the shock jocks and any other media outlets looking for cheap cheers ... And the polls say the man with the neanderthal views on tax reform will be swept into office at the first opportunity.

When it comes to tax reform, Australians are utterly lily-livered.
We can only act on the information we're given, Ross, and personally I think someone like the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald should play a greater role than he has:
  • Television and radio are no good for putting forward complex ideas about tax reform in Australia.
  • There are foreign news outlets that do this stuff but it's hard to extrapolate foreign experiences, costs and systems to what happens in Australia.
  • The Murdoch press aren't going to do it.
Our only hope for solid and well-presented information is the Fairfax press and perhaps the ABC's online offerings, as well as a few specialist econo-wonk blogs.

Instead, we get both kinds of reporting on the Tax Forum of which the Australian media is capable:
  • Straight who-said-what reporting, with everything equally valid and no qualification of what was said; and
  • OMFG, tax is, like, soooo boring, not at all as cool and exciting as, say, sitting through inane questions in parliamentary committees (and not realising they're inane), watching the Opposition Leader wave around a boning knife or getting bawled out by a DJ.
Both of them are fairly adolescent approaches to a subject that affects all adults, but which is inaccessible to most adults because of its specialist, jargon-ridden nature.

None of the ideas put forward at the Tax Forum were particularly new. Each one of them had been carefully thought out. Some of the proposals are actually in place in other jurisdictions - but whether or not we can see these taxes at work in the real world, the fact is there is an extensive literature about different taxes and their impacts on business investment, poverty, employment and other socio-economic factors. Journos, and their editors, have no excuse for not having done their homework and reporting/analysing the Tax Forum in a way that adds value. There are no boring topics, only boring writers - like Sid Maher:
THE Productivity Commission chairman, Gary Banks, has sounded a warning to the government against using the tax system to change community behaviour in areas such as gambling, road congestion and carbon pollution.
Really? Let's see:
... Mr Banks warned that raising taxes to change behaviour had to be done in "the right way to the right extent".

"That is very hard," Mr Banks told the forum. He argued that much of the detail on how to change behaviour with taxes was "unresolved" and risked authorities' ability to convince the community that the taxes were worthwhile.

On carbon pricing, Mr Banks said "the complexities are unbounded" ...
Sid, he didn't say not to do it - he said, be careful about the way you do it. This is basic journalism failure right there. If I thought I could do anything to avert further failure by reporting Sid Maher to some sort of disciplinary and remediation outfit, I'd do it - but there isn't, so know that if you want to know what's going on then Sid Maher can't help you.

George Megalogenis might, though, provided he's not in journalism-for-journalism-sake mode. Starts off with a high-minded denunciation of "the Australian political system" - all very lofty so far - then this:
As Ken Henry, former Treasury secretary and now special adviser to Julia Gillard, observed: "You could have written the script to this before coming in." Employers want a tax cut; the unions want to deny them.
The Tax Forum isn't a wage negotiation George, it's a discussion about the way the government raises its money, hopefully in such a way that doesn't get too much in the way of business and inequality and other laudable goals. But, in amongst all those people talking past one another you've actually found some people at loggerheads: one person says one thing, another says something else, TAX CONFLICT CLASH SHOCK and hold the front page!

Here, however - and again toward the end of his article (why does News Ltd bury the good stuff?) - Megalogenis is dead right:
Imagine if Swan had held a tax forum last year. The mining tax would be law by now, and a budget surplus locked in for 2012-13.
Anything that does come out of the Tax Forum will not be considered carefully by the media. There will be ignorant statements by people who weren't part of the process and these will be treated equally with the dry and detailed work of the tax experts - for the sake of balance.

I expected better of Megalogenis. I hoped for better from the media generally. I even hoped for better from Joe Hockey:

The Tax Forum reminded me a lot of your own derp-and-CLERP approach to corporate law reform under Howard, Joe. Some issues are too big to just pooh-pooh like that, as you used to know before you got ahead of yourself. You can lose the smuggled-in apostrophes too.

We need to know how we are taxed, and what our options are for being taxed going forward. It's dull stuff and arcane, so we need journalism that can explain it to us. They won't and can't, so we turn away from them - and we're the ones with the problem for not consuming enough "proper" journalism?

Update 7 Oct: Peter Martin's coverage is excellent. Of all people, Jack the Insider does the essential element of all successful change programs - create the burning platform - and in the first half of the article. Who needs journalists?