26 September 2011

Bet against Mark Arbib

Mark Arbib could have made sure that the revolt by leading sports administrators over pokies never happened. A politician of his supposed calibre should have foreseen the political danger with Andrew Wilkie's demand, and should have been working on it every day for the past year.

Someone like Arbib would have heard Wilkie's high-minded position on pokies during last year's negotiations on government and known immediately that it was a dagger at the heart of two of Labor's major sources of funding: pubs and clubs. Aside from unions and property developers, NSW Labor's major funding sources are the alcohol industry and the outlets that sell it. NSW Labor have been extraordinarily generous in handing out pokie licenses to pubs and clubs, which have in turn donated millions of dollars to NSW Labor, and so on. The overlap between members of licensed clubs and those who vote Labor is significant, to say the least.

In the absence of a Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Imposing Limits on Poker Machine Gambling, someone like Arbib should have done the groundwork with pubs and clubs and the gambling treatment lobby, proving himself to be the sort of deft politician that he and others imagine him to be. He couldabeen someone who solves problems rather than someone who runs away from them shrieking "it wasn't me!". He couldabeen indispensable, the sort of power-behind-the-throne that Graham Richardson was after the 1990 election. All gone, and too late now.

Who else could have seen this policy through? All the other factional wide boys were busy with actual policy, in communications or financial planning or whatever. Arbib is the Minister for Sport, for goodness sake: what else does he have to do? The Minister for Sport doesn't re-engineer the economy or comfort the stricken. The Minister for Sport doles out cash to popular sports in the hope that the popularity of that sport might rub off onto the Minister and his party. It isn't like he was organising some nationwide effort to curb obesity or get people engaged in mutual community activities or something.

Arbib's political antennae should have been twitching overtime at an issue like this - if he had any.

Because Arbib has botched it - and he has - the government is bogged down yet again, in an issue that shouldn't be such a big deal. Yet again Arbib can project his political failure onto the leader silly enough to accept his backing. Just as he advised Rudd to drop the ETS, then blamed him for dropping the ETS. Now he can blame Gillard for botching the relationship with sporting clubs and take action against her because clubs are so important to NSW Labor, and mate you can't have a leader who goes against NSW Labor, come on.

It is an understatement to say that AFL identities like Eddie McGuire and Jeff Kennett are highly political. It is also true, both in the fact itself and the understatement, to say that of their counterparts in the NRL. Arbib is the first Federal Sports Minister these guys have openly and blatantly shirtfronted. He must be the first minister in that role to be so blatantly disrespected in living memory. He's finished.

Those sports take millions of dollars from the Federal government, and what does the government get for it? Gillard and Swan, as if they don't have enough to do, are going to have to sweet-talk and bribe a bunch of overstuffed sports administrators because Mark bloody Arbib couldn't execute the little responsibility with which he was entrusted.

Nobody blames the clubs administrators for trying it on, but club members know that's what they're doing: trying it on. Club culture, if you can call it that, is strongest in NSW and Queensland, where Eddie McGuire is just that guy on telly who hypes up an otherwise dull quiz show. In Victoria he has a far more all-pervasive presence, but north of the Murray he is seen as a grifter and if the government stands up to him then respect for the government can only increase.
And the man who helped install Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, former national ALP secretary Karl Bitar is now helping to coordinate the campaign in his new job as a Crown Casino lobbyist.

Up to 25 Labor MPs are also threatening to vote against the plan in Caucus.
Every last one of those 25 are morons. The clubs pump their propaganda into people's homes but only the truly gullible members really believe it. You have nothing to lose, you people: if ever you were ever a bit frustrated with Karl and Mark, this is your chance to grow some spine and save both yourselves and a Labor government (with nothing to lose but, well, Karl and Mark).

Club members tend to be older people, claiming a public space in their club after being slowly squeezed out of workplaces (through retirement, forced or otherwise) and shops (low income earners don't have much to spend, retail is geared toward younger people). The club nearest my place is dominated by Anglo-Saxon people in a way that the surrounding suburb was but is no longer. They look the other way when confronted with the idea that their club, and all its works, is subsidised by those with serious problems. If Mr Wilkie and the government step in with their loss-limit devices, these people will respect them for doing so.

While Kennett displayed rare gutlessness in allowing tobacco advertising for the Grand Prix, the politicians who banned tobacco sponsorship of sport ran rings around a lazy arseclown like Mark Arbib.

The fruits of Mark Arbib's career can be seen in Macquarie Street. State Labor Opposition Leader John Robertson has a smaller caucus than William Holman before World War I, and Holman left that. It's doubtful that anyone in State Parliament who was also a member of the ALP would buy Arbib a cup of coffee. Those who would stoop and build up NSW Labor with worn-out tools have nothing to thank Mark Arbib for, nothing. A bit like the thousands of members of the Green Jobs Corps, really.

People complain about NSW Labor, but if the Keating-Richardson era NSW Right were still running things Arbib would already be on his way to some remote embassy, a cold-eyed killer would be slotted into the Sport portfolio to rearrange things and warn anyone that one stray word about a policy not directly related to sport might be very, very costly in all sorts of ways, and a chastened non-entity would humbly assume the role of NSW Senator.

So-called savvy Canberra watchers didn't blame Gillard for inviting so few new names into the ministry after the last election, and there is an assumption that all Labor backbenchers are dills like John Murphy. Here are seven Labor federal backbenchers for whom I have no particular brief, but of whom each would be a better than Mark Arbib:
  • Laurie Ferguson (in this list from sheer pity, admittedly, but still a superior candidate)
  • Ed Husic
  • Kirsten Livermore
  • Senator Gavin Marshall
  • Deb O'Neill
  • Julie Owens
  • Senator Glenn Sterle
Each one of those people would be a perfectly capable Minister for Sport (and as for Aboriginal Employment, and the grab-bag of other areas Arbib is mismanaging, don't get me started).

Journalists fail to realise that there is less likely to be a story in a politician who is shooting his mouth off than there is in one who's being very, very quiet. Mark Arbib is being very, very quiet. Journalists are leaving him alone because they are stupid, and they think that when a politician says 'no comment' then all possible avenues for a story are utterly closed, and oh look is that Chris Pyne turning cartwheels in order to draw attention to, um, himself? There was a time when one could simply say 'that's journalism'; but now the sheer slackness of the press gallery is nothing so much as an argument why at least 90% of them should be boiled in their own piss.

Mark Arbib has failed as a minister. He's had four years, longer than Morris Iemma got as Premier. His powers of quiet suasion no longer exist, if they ever did. He is a power vacuum and should be removed before others are sucked in and wedged fast. He should be removed and replaced with ... well, anyone really. The fact that he can't recognise that his own time is up is all the testament you need to the sheer political failure of Mark Arbib.

25 September 2011

Blogger does journalist's work (or, why Paul Daley is a wanker)

Paul Daley is a wanker because he allowed this article to go out under his name.
A STRANGE thing happened last week. A federal shadow minister actually came up with something that seemed kind of almost a bit like a policy.

Remember policies? Oppositions used to have to come up with them if they wanted to become governments. It was all about creating a genuine point of intellectual and ideological contrast between the incumbent government and the administration-in-waiting so voters might actually weigh up differences on an issue-by-issue basis, thereby enabling them to make a reasoned decision about who they wanted to govern this place. It involved an element of creativity and risk taking. Novel, I know.
It isn't novel because it actually happened. Daley here is implying that he has some respect for policy, policymaking and intellectual points of difference. Firstly, if he did then the case he cites, Senator David Johnston's interview, isn't worth the fuss. Secondly, Daley doesn't assess what Johnston says in policy terms.

Daley doesn't appreciate the policy, he wants to play the same game that created the zero-sum politics that we all despise, and that he wants to pretend he too shares our opinion. That's why he's a wanker.
The shadow defence minister, senator David Johnston, cogently outlined in an interview with The Australian critical elements of the Coalition's supposed plans in a portfolio that is as notorious for wasting billions of taxpayer dollars as it is for ending the careers of ministers who oversee it.

Defence policy, strategy and funding is a minefield for both ministers and their opposites. Oppositions usually approach it with cautious bipartisanship; they like to own the successes but quickly deny any responsibility for the failures.

Spending overruns in defence often go into the billions, rather than millions, of dollars.
You can really only judge waste when you have a clear idea of what your priorities are, and it isn't clear what Johnston's priorities are. He proposes a grab-bag of cost savings. Johnston does not offer a cogent view of what it means to defend Australia in a meaningful and practical sense in the world we live in, and the world that is foreseeable.

What Johnston is proposing isn't a policy, it's a shopping list. It's an indictment of Daley that he can't pick the difference. It's an insult to the rest of us that he, and his editor, thinks his ignorance is good enough for us.

First, let's look at what Johnston said in the Brendan Nicholson article, and assess that against the country's defence needs. Second, let's look at Daley's respect for and treatment of policy and see whether he's right to wonder why there isn't more of it.
The changes outlined by Johnston include considering cutting by half the planned purchase of 100 Joint Strike Fighters for the RAAF ...
Why half? Is this purely a cost-saving measure? Given that the JSF is such a crock, why not cut it by 100% and buy the best fighter plane on the market: the Sukhoi S-37. For Australia to buy that aircraft would nullify the threat posed by other air forces buying it.

Mind you, all that assumes some consideration of the role of fighter aircraft in the 21st century. It is significant that no Australian fighter aircraft are deployed in the operational theatres in which we have been involved over the past ten years: Solomon Islands, Afghanistan and Iraq. The aircraft used in East Timor were transport aircraft, helicopters - and the old faithful "pigs" (F111), which date from the 1960s. No evidence such thought is in evidence from Johnston's own site, which offers a shallow critique of the current government's actions rather than real in-depth thought into how you defend Australia.

It isn't necessary to spell out detailed alternative policies, pace Ross Cameron - but it is necessary to show some breadth and depth of thought that shows evidence of capacity. The Defence Ministers who've foundered in that role have lacked that breadth and depth. Any fool can quibble over receipts, and that is all that Johnston is doing. We can have no confidence that this guy will make a blind bit of difference in Defence.
... and urgently reassessing plans to build 12 big conventional submarines in Australia. A Coalition government would consider buying smaller and cheaper models off the shelf overseas instead.
They'd consider it. Imagine if Gillard announced that she was considering but not committing to something costing billions of dollars and with massive potential impact to the nation, and how The Australian would jump all over it.

This is a reference to the half-dozen or so German submarines often raised by people who think one submarine is as good as another.

Submarines are important to Australia's ability to protect shipping going through southeast Asian waters; Australian trade stops or becomes vastly more uneconomical with restrictions on that shipping. Submarines are hard to staff, being labour-intensive and more demanding of time and effort than most Australian workplaces.

This is not to say that one submarine is as good as another. The German submarines are designed for the cold, deep waters of the North Sea. They would be ideal if the main threat for which submarines were the most effective response came from Antarctica. They are far from ideal for moving through the warmer, more shallow waters to our country's north.

No evidence that Johnston has considered our country's need for submarines, or that "professional journalists" like Nicholson and Daley judge Johnston against what's right for the country.
Johnston promises a comprehensive review of progress of the plan to re-equip the ADF if the Coalition wins government.
Complete with shock-horror stories of budget blowouts, and no elucidation of what the country needs from Johnston, Nicholson or Daley.
Johnston says the multi-role and stealthy JSFJSF. Because of concerns that the JSF would arrive late, the Howard government ordered 24 Super Hornets, which are in the final stages of delivery.

Early this year The Australian revealed that because of further delays with the JSF it was likely the Gillard government would have to buy an additional 18 Super Hornets on top of the initial 24 to plug a looming capability gap.

That was vehemently denied the next day by the RAAF, which badly wants the JSF, but then confirmed weeks later by Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who said he was concerned about delays and that buying more Super Hornets was an option.
And Johnston's position on Super Hornets is ...?

Someone like Paul Daley might be fascinated by Johnston going back on what the Howard government did, but the broader question is what the country needs, followed by an assessment of how effectively Labor and the Coalition are meeting those needs. Nothing: Nicholson takes Johnston on faith and Daley is concerned only with clich├ęs of COST BLOWOUT SHOCK.

Johnston quotes from a number of papers by experts in the field, and some cranky responses from incumbent minister Smith, but it's hard to tell what sides of the debates Johnston and the Liberals are taking. Finally, Nicholson admits:
Johnston has not so far suggested that the changes he wants are based on a different view of Australia's strategic future than that reached under Labor.
Well, what a waste of time that was. Johnston's going to quibble a bit with the accounting at the project level.

Daley says:
It was gratifying, then, to see Senator Johnston seemingly take such a strong stand. He was quoted as saying a Coalition government would: quickly "redo" the government's 2009 defence strategic and spending plan (or white paper)
The last white paper was delivered in 2009, with a revision due in five years (i.e. the next one is due in 2014). The next election is due in 2013. Whoever wins that election will have to "quickly redo" the white paper. This isn't newsworthy if you've been paying attention. Johnston is trying to present normal service as some big new development.
All are reasonable positions to argue ... So bring it on. Let's have the debate now.
Yes, let's. Let's have some information on defence priorities and spending to conduct that debate, Paul. We might need some journalism. Where might we get that, Paul?
... there are serious economic and diplomatic costs associated with undoing or dramatically altering defence programs and purchases.

Scrap or radically alter the local program and you create unemployment, not least in South Australia, where at least 2000 jobs could hang on the submarine project. Ditto with such a massive US-based program as the Joint Strike Fighter.
What unemployment would be created in South Australia if the JSF were canned? Is unemployment the biggest consideration with a defence program? Might employment be taken up by other projects, and if so what might they be? Nope, me neither.
Johnston has been shadow minister for three years now. He has seen off two Labor defence ministers in Joel Fitzgibbon and John Faulkner and he has effectively niggled a third, Stephen Smith, who is now experiencing the same frustration with his department on paralysing cost overruns and delays as his two immediate predecessors.
What a silly piece of writing that is. Johnston's contribution to the downfall of Fitzgibbon is zero. Faulkner announced that he was a placeholder on day one, despite and not because of the eagle-eye of David Johnston bearing down on him. Smith has been entirely self-motivated in reviewing Defence programs, and has been so transparent that Johnston has followed rather than led ministerial scrutiny of those programs.

Johnston has nothing to say in this article on asymmetrical warfare, or the sexism in the armed forces that leads to regular eruptions of sordid behaviour that puts the lie to regular assurances that the matter is a) a one-off and b) always the fault of junior parties, usually females. Also nothing about asylum-seekers as a Defence issue gets the shortest of shrift, rightly so and praise be.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott publicly reassured us he would "never make savings at the expense of the operational capabilities of our defence force … No one has said that we would tear up the defence white paper".

Not surprisingly, Defence Minister Smith highlighted these apparent differences.

"We've seen the shadow minister for defence tearing up the white paper, the Leader of the Opposition saying that won't happen and the manager of opposition business [Christopher Pyne] saying these were all musings," he said.
Having skated over substantive issues (Daley's summary might be summarised as: ooh, it's all so controversial, isn't it), he then goes to the stunning discovery that different politicians have different views. The Situation has refused to be pinned down on policy but insisted on his credibility as Prime Minister nonetheless (and not challenged by the media), and who gives a damn was Chris Pyne says? Fancy doing any sort of work - certainly not three years' worth, let alone the giant-killer reputation Daley falsely ascribes to him - only to have Pyne sprinkle it with piss.

Is this not further proof that the Liberals are unfit for government? The wannabe PM interprets questioning of cost overruns as cutting operational capacity. Three years in a position and you get slapped down by Pyne and Abbott. If Johnston had any dignity he'd quit; if Abbott had any sense he'd put someone else in the role.

Daley would confuse movement with progress in terms of policy development, but that's Paul Daley for you: starting off with the impression of policy but really focused on the very kind of Canberra insider goings-on that makes policy development impossible. Wake up to yourself Daley, and your own role in the impoverishment of our political debate, and stop being the sort of wanker who alienates us from our politics.

22 September 2011

Shanahan counter-spun

Let's take this article by Dennis Shanahan, keep the facts the same but spin them a little differently.

Tony Abbott desperate to crush Julia Gillard

TONY Abbott is so desperate for a Labor leadership change he can taste it.

The Opposition Leader and his colleagues are doing everything they can to turn the longest, worst period of polling for any modern federal government into the end of Julia Gillard.

There are two reasons for Abbott's intensity: first, he wants to focus people's frustrations onto Gillard rather than himself; and, second, he fears Kevin Rudd.

As a result of the latest Newspoll - Labor's primary vote was a record low 26 per cent and has been under 30 per cent for three months, the same period that Abbott has been preferred prime minister - Liberals and some Labor MPs believe Gillard's leadership is terminal.

Abbott's attitude is to knock over an opponent whenever possible, but the fact that Gillard is still standing is an indictment of his supposedly ferocious political skills, and makes her look strong. His main aim is to spark an election he would be certain to win on the current polling, but none of the independents can bear the man.

There is an added reason for Abbott's wish to act as soon as possible against Gillard, which includes the short-term opportunism of assisting the snuffing-out of offshore processing of asylum-seekers.

Abbott, like many Liberal MPs and more than the handful of Labor MPs who are die-hard Rudd supporters, believes Rudd is the only logical choice to replace Gillard, and the only one who can save once-safe Labor seats.

Logic would suggest that Abbott would want to keep Gillard in the Prime Ministership for as long as possible. Yet, the longer Julia Gillard stays where she is, the worse it is for Abbott. Questions must be asked about Abbott's inability in blocking any Labor legislation, in knocking off any ministers (or even Craig Thomson), or persuading Labor to cauterise a supposedly unpopular Prime Minister.

Legendary rugby league commentator Rex Mossop once complained that a player was so ineffective that he "couldn't knock a sick girl off a toilet": a description so harsh it becomes weird, but one which Abbott's late constituent might apply to the current Liberal leader.

Rudd's continuing popularity, his previous preference as prime minister over Abbott, his Queensland connections and a sympathy vote all worry the Liberal leader. Rudd had it all over Abbott 18 months ago, and for all his flaws Rudd is considerably more assiduous in policy development than the supposedly tough Abbott.

But Abbott's biggest fear about Rudd is that the former prime minister will be held back as a last-minute change and go to an election before a second honeymoon wears off.

If Abbott has to face Rudd, he wants time to remind voters why they were turning off the former prime minister before he was dumped by his colleagues. In turn, Rudd would have little trouble pointing out to voters why they have never really warmed to Abbott.

21 September 2011

Tough but necessary

Ross Cameron has returned to the only role in which he was ever truly successful: Tony Abbott's piss-boy. He set out to write a defence of Abbott's unrelenting negativity but has only proved that no such defence exists.
[Abbott's] signature policy at the last election was a generous paid maternity leave scheme.
Yes it was: and nobody believed him. Nobody believed that Tony Abbott wouldn't yank that promise away while shedding crocodile tears about the budget. Nobody believed that he wouldn't make work so insecure that a maternity leave scheme would be a bitter joke.

Besides: in my day, Liberals were suspicious about politicians who were "generous" with taxpayers' money.

Let's give Abbott his due. He did well to lead the Liberal Party from defeat in 2007 to a single-digit deficit in 2010. Mind you, the same can be said for H V Evatt in 1951, Billy Snedden in 1974 and Kim Beazley in 1998. There was a time to slap Abbott on the back and say well done for this achievement, but if you are going to lift your game you need to do much better. Athletes know that you have to put in 50% more effort to get a 1% lift, but Abbott is searching vainly for a payoff where input and outputs are reversed.
Australians have curiously found Abbott to the left of Labor in his unwillingness to cast off asylum seekers, including children, to Malaysia.
Then he spoils it by going on about Nauru and the iniquity of TPVs.
Abbott has resisted admonitions to reopen the industrial relations debate from the right of his party.
He's frightened. Business is not speaking with one voice in terms of what's wrong with the Fair Work Act and how it might be fixed. The Coalition lost the last two elections on that issue, and the President of the ACTU announced publicly that they're going to whack them again. Only Liberals think Abbott looks strong in refusing to talk about this issue. It's an obvious weak point, made all the more vulnerable by the fact that no work is being done to address that weakness (distraction from it is not the same as, or better than, addressing the weakness).
His views on climate change turn out to be much closer to those of middle Australia - willing to give it the benefit of the doubt but no interest in splendid global isolation.
'Splendid isolation' is exactly the description of Liberal environment policy. At a time when Europe and China are ramping up renewables, Abbott is gibbering on about soil sequestration and huge tax-funded boondoggles that cost twice as much as Labor's market-based plans. Australians supported climate change remediation with a 70% majority, and they shall again when they can be sure real policies won't just be tinkered with and then abandoned by dilettantes like Abbott. I wish he'd just say that it's crap and wear the consequences.
When Labor adopted John Della Bosca's solid plan for national disability insurance, Abbott embraced it immediately, arguing only that it should start sooner.
That's stupid. Rushed policies like pink batts and school halls show what happens without careful forethought. I'd bet that Abbott pikes when it comes to standing on the same side of the House to vote on this legislation, just as he has with offshore refugee processing.
... the one card Labor has left is "negative".
While I wish I could wave a magic wand and command the lion to lay down with the lamb, I regret to inform my dear readers (both of you) that the swords of Australian politics are not about to be melted into ploughshares. I understand the impulse of those who wish for a more "constructive, collaborative and inspiring" debate, but they are not about to get it ...
This is a standard thing of Ross', as well as that of his brother-from-another-mother The Situation. When you criticise something for being dumb, Ross hears that as 'soft'. There's a lot of faux sympathy for your softness ("magic wand ... dear readers ... lion/lamb ... swords/ploughshares" etc) which is dispelled by what he regards as the hard crunch of reality. He thinks you have to be a tough-guy to make it in this world, and that tough-guy behaviour doesn't involve careful thought and determination but lots of big talk and that funny kind of waddle Tony Abbott has.

It's true that people are uninspired, if not repulsed and revolted, by Australian politics today. It's true that the incumbents cop the blame for that. It's not true, however, that anyone looks to the Liberals to set a more lofty tone from which clear and measured solutions might arise. If the Liberal Party were about clear and measured solutions, it would have no place for Ross and Tony Abbott. This is the central logical flaw in the argument where someone like John Forrest will insist on Respect For The Prime Minister in a sitcom but then screech like a chimpanzee at the real PM on the floor of Our Nation's Parliament. I expected Joe Hockey to lift the tone a bit; but sadly, no.

So, is Abbott the person to lift us from the miasma? Hell no, he's in it up to his eyeballs like a pig in shit. And it's not even his fault, apparently:
... frankly, Abbott is not to blame. Look instead to the relentless, unyielding laws of Westminster democracy.

Under our system of government, it's a winner-take-all arrangement. The opposition does not get to test and prove its arguments in a parallel universe - it gets one shot at the title every three years.
Oh yes, Westminster democracy. Abbott and Cameron wouldn't last five minutes in Westminster's Question Time, with its to-the-point efficiency and ruthless realisation that parliamentary theatre is utterly repellent to voters. The comparison was and the comparison is invidious. He talks a lot about Tradition and Our British Inheritance, but if you don't understand the gulf between what they say and what they do you'll never understand worms like Ross and Tony. If you want to scuttle Abbott utterly, nail him to the cross of Westminster traditions.

There's also the assumption that Abbott's interests are paramount, and that those of us who think he does a disservice to the nation are missing the main game set by Abbott. Well, fuck that.
Unlike the US, we have no term limits. A government could, conceivably, continue forever.
Only if it keeps being re-elected, Ross.
My father spent 17 years of his life in the NSW Parliament - 14 of them in soul-destroying opposition. The titles, ministerial salaries, uplift in retirement benefits, views, white cars, staff and the status - all the butter is on one side of the bread. Much more importantly, so is the power to do the good things that motivated every MP to join a political party and run for office in the first place.
By the time I met Jim Cameron his soul was a ragged thing indeed, held together by sheer pomposity, rage and baubles. He had spent 16 years in the NSW Legislative Assembly (1968-84) of which half that time - 1976-84, eight years not 14 - saw the Liberals in Opposition. He then spent almost a year in the Legislative Council as part of Fred Nile's Christian Jihad. He was a nasty old man and Ross is trying to make up in smarm what the old man had in bombast. Jim wouldn't have been close to Ross; he took up politics so that the old man would talk to him occasionally. This explains why the boy is so smitten with Abbott. Young Cameron is only writing for the SMH because John B. Fairfax felt sorry for him, and because Miranda Devine took her audience back to News Ltd (or as it's known now, Niche Australia) where it belongs.

Read Cameron's paragraph above again and smell the overweening entitlement coming off it. There is none of that butter/bread thing when Ross gets his chance at government, oh no, because when Libs are in government they get it all to themselves while Labor has to share, apparently.

Having proven himself mawkish in his lust for the trappings of office, Ross proves himself foolish as a tactician:
... in the movie Zulu ... Sergeant Frank Bourne gives a repeated command - "Hold ... hold ... hold ..." - to ensure the limited available shot, in laborious single-load rifles, is not wasted by firing too early.

An opposition leader faces a similar challenge. If he releases good, detailed policy too early, a government will copy it and assume credit for it. If it has defects or can be misrepresented, it will be subject to a sustained campaign of smear with all the resources of the state. 
One may say: "Surely it's in the national interest if a bad government adopts your good policy." The opposition leader will reply: "Yes, but even better if I can use my good policy a year from now to help replace the bad government with a better one."
Nobody outside the Canberra press gallery or the Liberal Party believes Tony Abbott to be capable of good policy. He is more likely to have a lovely singing voice or a keen eye for ikebana than any ability to discern good policy from rubbish. If he came out with good policy it would change the game so completely that no other player could hope to compete. Imagine some old homeless guy picking his nose and pulling out lumps of solid gold: that's how shocking, how utterly discombobulating, an Abbott policy would be. All he has is a policy for what isn't, not one for what is and what might be.

That lack of trust comes from trashing Westminster traditions. You can't deny people the right to attend funerals or the birth of their children, and then claim that your core beliefs include family, fair working conditions, and Westminster traditions. Gillard doesn't have to beat the better angels of her nature, she just has to beat Tony Abbott: and, all too slowly, she is doing just that.
I don't fully understand how or why this government lost the Hawke/Keating legacy of competent program execution, but Abbott is right not to deflect attention from that underlying reality.
Once Gillard came up with a carbon tax price thing that was likely to pass, once the BER was shown to be 97% effective, once Defence programs were wrestled under control like they hadn't been since Sir Arthur Tange was running the Department - then Abbott started to panic. The screechy behaviour by the Coalition in Parliament is the opposite of the sort of quiet confidence that Howard radiated in 1995 and Rudd in 2007. While the Austrians and Russians were embarrassing themselves at Austerlitz, you can be sure that Napoleon was not running around gibbering in a pair of sluggos.

It's the sense of frustrated entitlement that usually comes from within government: NSW Labor had the same hysterical edge in its last term in state government, flicking all the old switches that were no longer connected to anything and waiting for the next IED to go off. It is seen most clearly, not only in Abbott himself and Cameron, but in Joe Hockey's churlish response to Wayne Swan's Euromoney award. Ross would be one of the few people who could act as go-between if Tony and Joe really fell out (but Ross would always side with Tony in the end).

Hockey faces Swan in public but his job is where it is most important to have some sort of coherent policy. A party can say what it likes on immigration or health or saving some spotted frog, but a party that lacks a coherent economic policy is a rabble. Hockey's attempts at developing policy are undone by Abbott's insistence on loosey-goosey flexibility and disdain for detail. If Swan's award had any sort of corporeal form it is hard to imagine Hockey could have resisted the temptation to vault the table and wrest it from Swan's grasp, in order to have something to show for the sheer invidiousness of his position.
This is not an excuse for mindless contrariness or boorish behaviour and does not justify cat-calling or juvenile stunts, but it does mean conflict and scorching critique is an essential element of our system.
Oh but it is. Ross loves the stink. Mindless contrariness and boorish behaviour got him where he is today. "Scorching critique" does not mean any sort of extensive research or drawing deep from centuries of accumulated knowledge, but a quick shiv in the ribs and I-bet-your-mother-does when the mic is out of range. He admires Abbott for getting away with this.
In order to deserve to govern, the Abbott-led Coalition will need to produce a detailed suite of credible policy prescriptions for Australia's circumstances in August 2013. They will.
Ah yes, the old flick-the-switch-to-PM thing. Ross doesn't have such a switch but he only assumes Abbott has one because that's the received wisdom. Waiting for Abbott to become Prime Ministerial increasingly reminds me of that footage of September 11 in New York: you keep willing the plane to bank away from the building but there comes that sickening moment when you realise it won't and can't. Cameron does a good line in utter groundless certainty, but a quick tap of his assertions shows them to be hollow.
If you want to understand Abbott's policy direction now, read his book, Battlelines
It won't help.

There is no coincidence at all between what's in that book and what Liberal policy is now, or at any time since Abbott became leader. Environment, tax, education - you name it, the Coalition is offering nothing at all like what is in that book. You may as well cite On Liberty by John Stuart Mill or The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon as prescriptions for 21st century Australia ahead of that book. Abbott has left it all behind in the name of maximum flexibility, and press gallery stenographers who call themselves reporters love him for it.
Tony Abbott's only real job is to get his team a credible shot at the Treasury benches.
Credibility: that would be a great idea.

Successful Opposition Leaders - i.e. those that become Prime Ministers - bring the country with them. The idea is to make people feel that voting for them makes the country better off, so that in all that cheering on election night their victory is somehow, in small part, our victory. Howard did that, and Rudd did too. It's why election-winning leaders promise to govern for all. Keating killed his chances of re-election in 1993 when he basically insisted that anyone but rusted-on Labor voters could piss off. Abbott's boorishness is likewise ensuring that only rusted-on Liberals can truly appreciate what he's trying to do, and that if any good thing comes from gainsaying Labor it will be the most unintended of coincidences.

The reason why playing dirty in sport is frowned upon is because when you lose, you lose utterly and when you win, you haven't gained much. Cameron is asking us to judge Abbott solely on whether or not he wins - and if he wins, to forgive him everything. Fuck that: Abbott's political eye-gouges and squirrel-grips aren't impressing anyone except bored press gallery stenos and stink-lovin' Ross Cameron.

Ross Cameron should be read as fanboy fiction for Tony Abbott, the big brother he never had. This is why all the pollsters can go boil their heads: the Liberals under Abbott are a shambles, a-quiver with frustration at being so close to office and yet so far. The frustration will eat them up and increase the number and rate of unforced errors. They cannot and will not beat the slow grind of Gillard and Swan. Cameron thinks it's his job to make light of objections to Abbott and highlight virtues real and imagined: those who disdain this aim are wrong to regard his gibberings as worthless. The value in Ross Cameron's pieces on contemporary politics are to show the mechanisms of thought that are otherwise utterly opaque to those outside the Liberal Party. They show how they have come to stand atop the rickety tower of hubris and proclaim the scope and range of their view, and where good people might go to bring him and his mate undone.

People are demeaned not when someone like Tony Abbott plays us for suckers, but when someone like Ross Cameron convinces you that this is the only way you deserve to be treated. Cameron can deal with not being pretty, but he insists you recognise him as pragmatic. Refuse to do so on the basis that his assertions have no real basis and the braggart becomes what he fears most: being lost in the crowd, a nobody. He cannot demand of others "Don't you know who I am?", and cannot answer the question when alone with himself. This emptiness lies at the heart of Abbott also; Abbott is a more complete man than Cameron but still the void is there, beckoning some and repelling others. A bit of tap-tap-tapping from the journosphere will make this clearer than it is, once journos realise that the best way to keep their jobs is to do their jobs.

19 September 2011

Big and soft

The polling lead that the Coalition has over Labor is big, but it's soft. Amanda Vanstone is right when she points out that Abbott needs help in getting the Coalition into government. She is, however, so wrong in the assumptions she makes that it pretty much invalidates her message.

Let's look at some of the people she names. They all work hard but have achieved very little, which means that each of them needs a long hard look at the way they do (and the Coalition does) things:

Arthur Sinodinos was the guy who made sure that Howard's policy pronouncements made sense. He entered Howard's office in 1995 and played an important role - more important than Howard's press secretary at the time - in ensuring that what Howard said was a coherent criticism of the then Labor government and offered an equally coherent and appealing alternative.

Tony Abbott didn't get where he is today by being coherent. He doesn't respect policy costings and cost-benefit analyses, or even the long and painstaking work that others must do in order to make thought bubbles real. Peter Costello's book details numerous occasions where Abbott would come up with expensive policy proposals that weren't well thought out, which he would take responsibility for preventing; no doubt Sinodinos has done similar work to that end. Have the NSW Libs put Sinodinos in to reinforce what they know to be a structural weakness in Abbott?

The Liberal Party loves Arthur Sinodinos, but he doesn't necessarily love it back. This is the guy who spent his time dampening the enthusiasm of those who felt they'd been elected to do stuff. He spent very little time as a party member and his first run for elected office was unopposed elevation to State President. Even people who loathed John Howard couldn't deny that he'd paid his dues in politics; a lesser case can be made for Abbott but no such case can be made for Sinodinos. This isn't to say that his real and extensive policy experience isn't important - it is very much so - but Abbott will be tempted to discount it against the practical business of winning elections. In recent public appearances (and how can we judge The Situation except by public appearances?) that temptation has become overwhelming for Abbott.

Sinodinos will have to play a naysaying role with Abbott, without the authority of Howard to back him up. Sinodinos put up with a great deal of bullshit in Howard's office, and when the sheer weight of bullshit ceased to be the ballast of the Howard government and started causing it to sink in 2007, Sinodinos bailed out. It will be fascinating to see how (or if) Sinodinos gets Abbott to take policy seriously.

Joe Hockey will appreciate Sinodinos' help in getting some policy work done, but Abbott didn't get where he is by listening to Joe Hockey.

Barnaby Joyce is a gibberer like Abbott. He attacks Labor good and hard but because his attacks have no substance, or are misguided, it doesn't have the impact his fans might hope and makes a struggling government look authoritative. Joyce reinforces the idea that the Coalition aren't ready for government. Abbott didn't get where he is by listening to Barnaby Joyce.

Scott Morrison proves that the Coalition aren't ready for government. Their 'solution' was voted out of office four years ago and was kyboshed by the High Court. No amount of insistence to the contrary will or can change that, and simply insisting that any departure from the policy developed in haste in 2001 is "bad" only patronises people doing real work (and looking for real leadership) in that area. Morrison isn't doing what is necessary to think about immigration policy, all of the votes that are going to be attracted with his stance are there already, now he has to act like a minister. That's asking too much.

Christopher Pyne is annoying except to Canberra insiders and says exactly nothing on his shadow ministry, education, a policy area ripe for re-examination across a number of fronts. Always be wary of a man who constantly has to prove how tough he is; that goes for Pyne too.

Malcolm Turnbull is selling a silly policy (a hotch-potch of technologies that will deliver less than what the NBN promises) and hasn't really thought about what this country needs from its telecommunications systems; an extraordinary position for someone who should be without peer in both breadth of conception and depth of understanding of communications issues, given his work with Packer, UK intelligence interceptions and Ozemail. Abbott didn't get where he is by listening to Malcolm Turnbull.

About George Brandis, the less said the better, Neither a champion of our jealously-won rights and freedoms under the Anglo-Australian legal tradition, nor a skilful prosecutor. Abbott didn't get where he is by listening to George Brandis, and nobody else did either.

Nobody knows more about environmental policy than Greg Hunt, but so what? He's been given a silly policy to sell and until he rethinks it Greg Combet and Tony Burke will continue writing him off.

To be fair to Hunt, he probably can't change Coalition policy in this area. Being equally fair, he should resign and work to show what sensible policy looks like from the backbench, until the Liberal Party wakes up to itself. Because the whole direction of Liberal thinking on the environment needs fundamental re-examination any work Hunt does in flogging the impossible is wasted. Vanstone's implication that Hunt isn't working hard enough is misplaced, and besides Tony Abbott, etc., etc., Greg Hunt.

Let's include Andrew Robb, even though Vanstone doesn't. Robb's inland irrigation policy might have been considered visionary if only it had been announced in, say, 1946. The idea of spending billions on a dam to service a handful of already prosperous landholdings over infrastructure badly needed by millions is stupid. It makes nonsense of notions of fiscal responsibility.
If Labor changes leader, things will change. Frankly, voters seem to be over the Tony and Julia show, so who can say where their relief at her departure would go in the polling?
By 1995 the Howard and Keating Show had gotten very bloody tedious.

Of the two major-party leaders today, Gillard is the only one with the capacity to change. The Situation is not a politician of great subtlety and both his strengths and his weaknesses are locked in by sky-high polls. If Gillard outflanks Abbott with onshore processing he is pretty much stuffed, and the hard rain of electoral defeat will fall equally upon those in the Coalition who have "worked hard" and those who have not.
For Coalition MPs to have the best chance of winning, they need to ... have confidence that the opposition will do better than the incumbents. Right now, voters see a lot of Abbott and a few key players. How can they judge the rest of the team if they never hear from or about them?
This argument is sheer bullshit. Since I started following politics in the 1980s I can't remember a single change of government, anywhere on state or federal level in Australia, where the opposition was better known across all or even most portfolios than the incumbents. This includes the change of government with which Vanstone will be most familiar, the Coalition's federal election victory in 1996.

Part of the work that the Coalition need to do is work out:
  • Why the people rejected them in 2007;
  • Why the people didn't elect them in 2010 (yeah, they did well - but the last thing Coalition supporters would want is another "did well" next time); and
  • Whether a win in 2013 simply means turning the clock back to 2007 and continuing on as before.
Hard work that, and necessary. Nobody in the Coalition - not Abbott, not Sinodinos or Hockey or anyone else - is doing it.
From the outside it is not obvious that everyone on the Coalition team is working anywhere near as hard as Abbott and a few others. That's why the arrival of Sinodinis [sic] is an absolute gift for Abbott. It creates the need for a reshuffle. Perhaps over the Christmas break.

Reshuffle talk is always unsettling.
And demotivating, Amanda. You can't insist that somebody pours their heart and soul into a job that will be taken from them in three months. You experienced this in Howard's first period as Opposition Leader, where he regularly reshuffled his frontbench out of sheer boredom and ended up getting reshuffled out of the job himself.

Reshuffling isn't the answer to what the Liberal Party needs right now. It needs to rethink how it goes about the day-to-day business of politics and drop those things that piss people off - including the much-derided independents. You cannot claim that Abbott is the depth of Craig Thomson's credit card away from becoming PM when Windsor and Oakeshott can't abide the guy. If you really think the current government is inadequate you need to think about how it might be better, not just revert back to 2006 and start again.
Julia Gillard's problems go beyond all the policy disasters. Abbott faces a Labor leader, the parliamentary leader of the union movement, who apparently cannot stand up and tell the workers of Australia that she will defend their right to have their union dues spent on union business. She apparently has no great interest in union dues from low-paid workers being used to fund prostitutes and heaven-knows-what-else for union bosses.
Fair point. I would be surprised if the SDA, for all its failings, would have similar patterns of expenditure. Doesn't really explain why Abbott pleads with Liberals to stop speaking about workplace relations issues though. If this issue was such a winner issue Abbott would be calling for all unions to be audited within an inch of their increasingly feeble lives. Perhaps he's just being lazy. Perhaps he just isn't as smart as Amanda Vanstone.
More of the heavy lifting on attack work will need to be done by his team. Again he will need capable fighters. Frankly, not enough of them have shown they have the capacity or energy to lay a glove on Labor.
But how can that be? They're all so tough: just ask them. Just ask any member of the press gallery.

Look at the final term of governments that have lost office and you'll see a steady departure of ministers. Some of them rush the exits, some are carried out feet first; but there's enough of a pattern there to show evidence of decay. The reason why the Coalition hasn't laid a glove on Labor is less the frontbench than the leadership. They really think that going on and on about how incompetent Swan is will take the focus off low unemployment. They really think that berating Glenn Stevens with inanities matters more than reconsidering what it means to manage the Australian economy today and into the foreseeable future (and testing Stevens' effectiveness in dealing with that).

You can work as hard as you like on finding out some detailed, hard-to-understand aspect of policy that will bring down a minister - but if there's an orchestrated campaign in getting kicked out of Question Time in order to get early flights home, why bother?
Anyone in the Coalition who thinks they can just work hard when government arrives is dreaming. It's a bit like refusing to start serious training until you're sure you're in the grand final.
That's absolutely true.

What's equally true is: that's hubris for ya. The Coalition so believe that they have the coming election in the bag that anything looking like hard work just smacks of desperation.

It's a political cliche that both government and opposition will claim to be underdogs in order to attract public sympathy. When you look at the Coalition today, however, you can see why they do it. Howard always claimed to be the underdog because his comfort in office was tempered by years of experience of bitter defeat. It would be a joke for Abbott to claim to be the underdog. Gillard has been beaten so hard and so often it is a wonder that she gets out of bed every morning. Everything Abbott says and does conveys the idea that he is in no way an underdog. It also conveys the idea of pride going before a fall.

Abbott leers at the world which, on the pollsters' paper at least, lets him get away with anything. He has been confirmed for so long in the idea that whatever he dishes up is good enough for the likes of you. No amount of lecturing from Vanstone, or anyone else really, can turn that around. Abbott's leadership is not a given and Vanstone should stop pretending that it is.

When the leader is such a clown (and this is not compensated for by the leadership group, including people like Pyne, Abetz and Julie Bishop) then no amount of busywork by the troops can compensate, let alone add to the attack. The idea that the Coalition might make a case for governing us better than Labor does would be nice, but either Vanstone doesn't care about that or she thinks it's too much to ask of today's Coalition.

16 September 2011

Consolidate or disintegrate

It won't be easy
You'll think it strange
When I try to explain how I feel
That I still need your love
After all that I've done
You won't believe me
All you will see
Is a girl you once knew
Although she's dressed up to the nines
At sixes and sevens with you

I had to let it happen
I had to change
Couldn't stay all my life down at heel
Looking out of the window
Staying out of the sun
So I chose freedom
Running around trying everything new
But nothing impressed me at all
I never expected it to

Don't cry for me Argentina
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise
Don't keep your distance

And as for fortune and as for fame
I never invited them in
Though it seemed to the world
They were all I desired
They are illusions
They're not the solutions
They promise to be
The answer was here all the time
I love you and hope you love me ...


- Andrew Lloyd Webber Don't Cry For Me Argentina
The only word in those lyrics that doesn't apply to Julia Gillard is the foreign country. In this and that we see the Prime Minister has realised what all successful politicians come to realise: they get to a point where their base isn't coming with them, so they have to rally the base and only then can they truly move forward.

The last Labor government combined programs that helped working people (e.g. Medicare, superannuation) with those that didn't (e.g. euthanasing inefficient, labour-intensive industries), such that Labor people at least gave it the benefit of the doubt. Rudd and Gillard have done plenty that gets the rank-n-file going (e.g. apologising to Stolen Generation Aborigines, increasing the role of unions under FairWork as a make-work scheme for union staffers) and those that get them upset (e.g. perpetuating the Northern Territory Intervention, maintaining the ABCC), so that it's as irrelevant to them as it is to the non-committed whether or not this government survives.

Gillard has gotten too far out in front of her supporters. Labor people who complain about factional goings-on at the branch or conference level aren't impressed by someone who got where she is by a factional fix. People who volunteer their time and effort aren't impressed by someone who gets up early and drones on and on, full of ... jargon. Factional hacks that are imposed on Labor people do that sort of thing: why should the Prime Minister of Australia carry on like an indifferent union undersecretary or a forgettable candidate for state parliament? Gillard needed a change, and to her credit she is starting to make that change.

This speech is the start of Labor's consolidation, where Gillard rallies the disaffected in her own party. As I've said, the legislative battle over the Malaysian solution is another example where Gillard is setting herself up well. The media has (again) fallen for Abbott's pantomime of "will I or won't I ... umm, after careful consideration, no". The real story is that, for the first time, Gillard has a backup plan; one that engages Labor people.

When (not if, press gallery clowns) the Coalition knocks back the Malaysian solution, Gillard will announce onshore processing of refugee applications. In doing so, she will throw herself on the mercy of the ALP. There will be tears, there will be mea culpa and hugs and forgiveness, emotive politics of a kind we haven't seen since Bob Hawke at his peak.

The slight possibility that Kevin Rudd might return to lead the ALP will be closed by this outpouring of emotion. Factional heavies are always wary of groundswells that might sweep them out of office, but they put the PM where she is and if the punters love the PM then their positions are safe (so long as they dump ideas of bringing back someone they were never keen on: no big loss). Labor loves all that sentimental redemption stuff, and Gillard will dish it up to them.

This isn't to say Gillard will go all soppy, all Giving and Learning like some light Oprah. She needs to keep on snarling at those who will never vote for her. She did it once with Abbott's relentless negativity, and while it would be counterproductive to do it too often she needs to do it more often. She needs to go back on the Alan Jones show and put him in his box: Jones fans will be appalled at "that woman", but no more so than they are already. Next time someone calls her a liar to her face she should go them: not too hard, but enough to show who's boss, enough to show the mongrel that Labor people need to see in someone standing up for their interests.

The solutions themselves aren't much chop: US-style primaries, e-whatsits and the idea that collective wisdom isn't the only wisdom. It is actually quite surprising that it hasn't been dismissed out of hand by press gallery groupthink. Coming on top of a few rebarbative performances in parliament, and a lot of backgrounding that Labor's powers-that-be are locked in behind Gillard, the idea of Gillard is some sort of punchline is starting to fade.

By about mid 2012 Gillard will be absolutely adored by Labor people, however hesitant uncommitted voters might still be then. By that time Abbott's hubris will have run away with him. Abbott is utterly confirmed that everything he says and does is working. In his mind he can do no wrong. Anyone who says anything he doesn't want to hear, whether Peter Reith or one of the tougher-minded journalists, is wasting their time in the hope of changing Abbott's mind. The High-Speed Train to Hubris has left the Liberal station. As it recedes into the distance all people like Reith can do is shake their fists at it.

Abbott reckons he can simply avoid debates that don't suit him, or that he can smarm his way through them. Until recently, this was a fair assumption, but it just doesn't cut it any more. He's being outflanked by an opponent who's smarter than he is and who won't just sit there and cop it any more.

The media continue to cover Abbott and Gillard as though the structural changes haven't taken place, as though Gillard is on the knife-edge while Abbott is PM in waiting. Abbott won't survive the trip to hubris but it will be fascinating to see how the journosphere crawls out of that wreckage. Toot toot!
... Don't cry for me Argentina
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise
Don't keep your distance

Have I said too much?
There's nothing more I can think of to say to you
But all you have to do
Is look at me to know
That every word is true.

13 September 2011

Blank cheques

By the end of the year the government will have dealt with two big issues, refugees and the carbon tax. These aren't the two biggest issues facing people at the moment, regardless of how much they might occupy the MSM or what Robert Manne calls 'The Political Class'. However, they are significant in having the potential to disrupt the Coalition-inspired MSM theme that the Gillard government is a bumbling do-nothing government. The way the government deals with these issues may establish one way or another that if it can act in its own interests it may be able to act in the interests of the nation as a whole; but we'll see.

Quite rightly, there has been a lot of focus on the government during this time, having been humiliated by the High Court and with people wondering whether (rather than when) Gillard is going to turn things around. The incumbent government always deserves the scrutiny that comes with office, and if I had better data and more time I'd add to that scrutiny here.

The Opposition gets a lot of coverage, but not a lot of scrutiny, on the basis that while it isn't in government the polls show it is close to getting there. The Opposition is fairly weak when it comes to policy but with polls the way they are at the moment, so what?

The government doesn't have to beat the better angels of its nature, it just has to beat the alternative. Labor people do get all emotional about what a Labor Government might be and should be, but that's a relic from days when Labor Governments were wouldn't-it-be-luvverly aspirations, or few and far between, and you could hang anything you wanted on them and the idea would just float shimmering in mid-air. The least amount of sentimentality as to what a Labor Government is can be found in NSW, where Labor's been in power for 60 of the past 80 years.

The Coalition deserves more scrutiny. If they're going to become the government we need to know what they're likely to do - not just what they say. We need to know whether they are truly up to the job rather than (as I suspect they are) still screaming after being dragged from the lolly shop. Not many journalists do this, fewer than you'd imagine.

The dilemma facing the Coalition is one that faces all politicians with a lot of political capital. Any step they take in any direction will be a step down, but standing still won't help anyone either. This is a question of courage and leadership, and as such it's a challenge that The Situation cannot and will not rise to meet.

The clearest indicator of The Coalition's failure is here, a pro-Abbott article that damns him where it means to flatter. Gillard needs bipartisan support to get offshore processing up. If she doesn't get it she throws herself into the arms of Labor and the Greens and goes with onshore assessment of refugees. Either way she's a winner, and about time.

Surely by now even the biggest fool in either the Labor strategy team or the press gallery should realise that Abbott would squib a bipartisan solution. As was said of Yasser Arafat when negotiating with the Israelis: he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Mr Abbott said he wanted to see Labor's amendment's [sic] to the Migration Act before agreeing to support the government.

"I'm not going to pre-empt the government and I'm not going to give them a blank cheque," the Opposition Leader said.
This is hardly news. He does this every time - every time, for years now:
  • Day 1: the government extends the hand of bipartisanship to The Situation.
  • Day 2: ah, he says, I'll think about it, but no blank cheque.
  • Day 3: no, no, no, no - what a surprise!
Every time. It's not even news that he does this. You may as well report that he was wearing a tie.

Just because this is the dull pantomime that politicians dish out, it does not mean that this is the dull pantomime that MSM consumers want or need to be presented with. Massola has no excuse to be unprepared for the sheer absence of anything but bluff in the Coalition response:
As Opposition Leader Tony Abbott refused to say whether the Coalition would back Labor's amendments to the Migration Act, Ms Bishop rejected Immigration Department advice given to the Coalition that Nauru could now be on shaky legal ground.

"I don't believe that we need amendments to the Migration Act for us to reopen the detention centre on Nauru and for it continue to work as it has in the past," she said.
Well, there's the small matter of legal advice, and if you won't accept the good stuff direct from the professionals then no amount of railing from a blogger will do any good.

Because journalists won't do it, let's look more closely at Nauru.

Nauru needs a lot of input from Australia in order to develop the bureaucratic apparatus necessary to sustain the UN Refugee Convention. It is unlikely that a Nauru Solution II would escape scrutiny as it did under Howard.

Kevin Rudd has spent a lot of time schmoozing UN stakeholders recently, and while the Coalition and some journos have sneered at the junket aspect of that they are underestimating Rudd both in policy terms and as a tactician. If Nauru's passage toward UN endorsement were to be held up it would make the Coalition look bad: not to mention the half-baked attempt at fudging a fairly clear direction from the High Court on what's legal and what isn't. One can respect Julie Bishop's legal training and experience while respecting even more those of six High Court judges put together.

The Coalition could have broken with two years of kneejerk reaction and backed the legislation. The question would then be one of how well it was executed: every time there was any sort of shortcoming in the Malaysian solution they could wring their hands and declare that they supported the government in good faith, pearls before swine, you can't trust these people, etc.

Until now, the Coalition got a good run from the MSM on refugee issues for three reasons:
  • Their position was clear: it was part of the Rollback pre-2007 thing that is at the core of The Situation's appeal, if not his very political being. Journos love their cliches, especially when those cliches buy them drinks.
  • No matter what the government did on refugees it looked like it was on the back foot. This was true when Howard was in government too but the then-Opposition and the press gallery never woke up to that: they still haven't.
  • Scott Morrison was always available to bag whatever the government did on asylum-seekers.
Today, the first option has been deep-sixed by the High Court, the second will be much less obvious, and the third will result in uncomfortable questions and thus the access will be cut back. Talk about a no-win situation.

There may still be people in the Coalition who think they can get the same good run by plugging the same line on this issue. All you can do is hope that those engaged on such a doomed mission have a fallback position, and bid them good luck into the future.

Scrape away all that rhetorical bluff and fudge (c'mon, journalists; this is meant to be your job) and it looks like the Coalition is covering up for four years of policy inaction, four years of denying that the voters rejected them for good reasons.

The Government has two perfectly serviceable options ready to go: what they're proposing with their legislation, and onshore if the legislation fails. The Opposition has no policy options on refugees, having forsaken all others to the point where any rethink would involve a humiliating climbdown and a loss of public clarity on what their position is: that sort of thing sees polling leads and donations evaporate, and leaders dumped. At last, this government is learning to play the strategically-limited Coalition off an even break.

Even more enjoyable is watching Niki Savva snookering herself:
... if Labor MPs stick with [Gillard], they are stuck with the carbon tax, which means the government is finished and a Coalition victory is assured.
The scare campaign only works so long as the tax is, like the stuff being taxed, in the ether. Niki Savva saw how quickly the anti-GST campaign collapsed when we actually started paying it, when some things went up and others down and otherwise life went on. I've said it before and like a good former staffer, I'll say it again and again: what value is there in a Niki Savva analysis?
Abbott's second-worst nightmare has to be Gillard striking a workable, humane policy on asylum-seekers which stops the boats, secures the support of Left and Right, and does it without his help. In all our dreams, most likely.
If we do have onshore processing, watch for harrowing tales from applicants followed by pictures of firm but humane processing, followed by happily resettled people warmly embraced by the community. Asylum-seekers will not be an issue at the next election: only the fringe-dwellers will dare go near that issue.
Given his office has (wrongly) taken backbenchers and frontbenchers to task for raising industrial relations reform, and Cory Bernardi had (rightly) been dragged into line for yet another transgression on Islamic issues, because the leadership did not want any distractions from the main game - in this case asylum-seekers - Abbott's threat [to deny Craig Thomson a pair to attend the birth of his child] was plain dumb.
In other words: when Gillard was at her lowest ebb, The Situation not only failed to deliver the killer blow but inflicted damage on himself. What a goose. Has he learned nothing?

The union movement have beaten the Coalition in the last two elections over WorkChoices. Recently the President of the ACTU, Ged Kearney, told the National Press Club that they were going to do the same thing again next time. Labor lost nine elections in a row last century because they couldn't shake the perception that they were too soft on communism. They later won four in a row because the Coalition couldn't shake the perception that they were too hard on Medicare. The Coalition is either too stupid, or too afraid of losing political capital, to rethink workplace relations policy from the ground up: until they do, The Spectre of WorkChoices is the gift that keeps on giving for Labor and the unions. No amount of shrieking from Peta Credlin can or will change that.

Going after Thomson is inextricably linked to Coalition policy on workplace relations. The sort of flexibility Thomson requires (and which Abbott is denying him) is the very sort of give-and-take a modern workplace policy needs (and which doesn't give you confidence in Abbott's ability to come through). As for the other allegations against Thomson, the fact that the police are onto it robs the allegations of any political force and brings to an end the Javert-like role of Senator Brandis. It drags out the timescale (Libs need a quick result, which is not possible when trawling through documents and interviewing different people with competing claims and agendas) and makes a result like this more likely.

Speaking of parasites, Cory Bernardi is undeniably of a piece with today's Liberal Party and its federal leadership. If you're going to attend rabble-rousing rallies in Canberra and receive people like Chris Monckton or David Clarke, on what arbitrary basis do you declare Geert Wilders beyond the pale? This is what happens when you lower standards to the point where The Situation is your choice for Prime Minister. People like Savva are treating Bernardi like he's from another planet, but he was Nick Minchin's protege and was SA President of the Liberal Party. If his roots in the Liberal Party ran less deep, like Pauline Hanson's in 1996, he'd be gone from the Liberal Party by now. The fact that he isn't is more significant than Savva can bear to contemplate.

Savva must feel all righteous in calling for Bernardi to be dumped, but if she's any sort of analyst she must confront the idea that The Situation won't dump him, and what happens then?
Despite Abbott's denial, Bernardi did offer to help divisive Dutch politician Geert Wilders with his proposed visit to Australia. Once again Bernardi embarrassed his leader, and infuriated his colleagues, who believe his behaviour threatens votes in western Sydney. This is not limiting free speech; it's about Bernardi not knowing or not caring that he has crossed a line.
Bernardi thinks that he's shaping debate, within the toxic environment created by the rhetoric around asylum-seekers, and the dog-whistling by his leader, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and other senior members of the Coalition. Bernardi's actions and beliefs are squarely within the Liberal mainstream today. The Liberal Party will indeed lose votes in western Sydney - and Melbourne, and you'd be surprised where else - because Bernardi is not the wacky outlier Savva tries to make him out to be.

That's why Abbott won't sack him - and if he did, like Howard's axing of Ian Campbell, the only effect it would have would be to lower morale (and, perhaps, give rise to Cory's Kampf).

Savva is right about Kevin Andrews but while I can say that, coming from her it's just mean. Is there really anyone left from Costello's office who hasn't yet been looked after? Besides, when ALP Vice President Joe de Bruyn wants the Liberals to do him a favour, who will he turn to once Andrews - the father of WorkChoices - goes?

A failing, defensive party will always indulge insiders rather than sacrifice in the hope of wider appeal from those not yet inside the party room. Howard in 1985 would have stood up for someone like Bernardi, but ten long and hard years later he would have thrown someone like that under a bus and appeared on TV the next day eating Turkish delight.
Abbott also has to take ownership of the economic debate. Rather than release detailed policies, he can talk about themes and propositions. What is his story about where the country should go? Which threads will he use to bind and distinguish his administration?
He won't do it convincingly, he can't do it convincingly. "Themes and propositions" didn't work for Andrew Peacock or Simon Crean and they won't work for The Situation. Niki Savva has no excuse for not knowing this. She has no excuse for not conveying to her readers her sheer inability to come to terms with this particular pig, let alone hold it still long enough to slap some lipstick on it - or why she feels compelled to do so.

The carbon tax - along with the mining tax - is a massive change to the way we fund our government. Once a tax is introduced it never gets abolished, it just means that other taxes are adjusted around it. Because of that it represents a change as to what we can expect from government. At one stage only people with property (i.e. people who paid taxes) were able to vote or be represented in Parliament, and so when the franchise was extended so too the nature of government changed, because those who were served by government underwent change.

The journosphere should look into the carbon tax more than it has: not into the horse-race impact of "who wins the daily media" but into the longterm shift of who pays for what. Savva's assumption that it is an automatic boost for the Coalition is stupid. Is there a competing vision from The Situation, and if so what is it? That's the kind of information we need to make voting decisions, actual value-add, rather than preparing us for a government in which Tony Abbott simply plays cat-and-mouse with every new idea put to him before killing it.

Let's descend from the high plains of Theory and Policy, though, and see that even if you stick to conventional horse-race political reporting, Tony Abbott is not "riding high in the polls". He's in diabolical trouble, and it looks like his whole business model will be on the rocks by Christmas.

Peter Brent makes some good and telling points about where Abbott's support is and isn't coming from but he does himself no favours with this:
People aren’t great at anticipating how they’d vote in a hypothetical situation.
All polling is a hypothetical situation. There will be no election this Saturday, and there wasn't one last Saturday either. There hasn't been a barrage of trite tat which I discard straight away, despite having paid for it with my taxes. There hasn't been the sort of Freudian slips or character-revealing lapses which are worth more than a thousand hours of staged bullshit. I remember polls where Kim Beazley and Mark Latham were "riding high in the polls", yet neither man became Prime Minister. Even if you fully enter the magic wardrobe and accept the premise of polls, they play the same role in modern politics that weighing oneself several times a day plays in the life of someone with an eating disorder.

Depth is what we want from political coverage and you're not going to get it from Niki Savva or James Massola. If that sort of depth is too hard for today's journalists then we need new and different and better journalists.

06 September 2011

Issue of the week II: Julia Gillard death-watch

The media have decided that Prime Minister Gillard has pretty much had it over the decision to end offshore processing of refugee applications. However much of a consensus this might be among the press gallery, they've been caught in consensuses (consensi?) like that before which have ultimately proven fruitless. You'd think they'd learn, and ought to have no sympathy for them if they don't.

Many journalists have been employed to create low-value non-stories around leadership speculation, an unsustainable business model if ever there was one.

How many hectares of screen real-estate (or hectares of actual forest) were sacrificed to Howard-Costello speculation? It began in about 1997, when the novelty had worn off Prime Minister Howard and a few hacks had not quite adjusted to Life After Keating. It did not end for another dozen years: Costello never challenged Howard for the leadership, he didn't even challenge after Howard had lost his seat (when he would've had no opponents: some challenge) and was accused of plotting up to the very point that the exit doors in Parliament House hit his backside on the way out. Every bit of reportage on that issue was wasted.

Then, Kevin Rudd went from having the shine taken off him to being dead meat within a few weeks. The entire US State Department knew that Rudd had become hated by his party, and having read Machiavelli they knew what it meant for a leader to be hated. The Australian parliamentary press gallery had no idea until David Marr's catty Quarterly Essay (i.e. not a daily news outlet, like the one that actually employs him), and then most of the action took place over a single night. It was too late for the press gallery to be getting new insights at that point so they all wrote the same story, faceless men ooh-ah.

If you could sum up the political situation in a sentence, it would be: Labor people are concerned about their polling but nobody is scuttling around doing any numbers to depose Gillard. There. I've written the story so journos don't have to. Now, can we get some journalists in to dig around for some other stories using some actual journalism?

At some point Julia Gillard will cease to be Prime Minister. It may be that there will be real moves against her. Until then, it would be nice if the fearless sleuths of the press gallery found out what was going on at the same time as the US embassy.

As for this, Gillard needs to do three things:
  • Announce that refugees arriving here will be dealt with on shore, with full UNHCR input and access to those that want it;
  • Call Abbott out for proposing a course of action that's illegal and cruel. Conservatives can handle the accusation of cruelty, it was water off a duck's back with Tampa in 2001 and it still is today. The impracticality and illegality, though, that's how you hit conservatives where they live. They believe in following the rule of law and being practical, not airy-fairy, so for Liberal policy to be illegal and impractical will be devastating and demoralising; and
  • Say that she doesn't trust Abbott. Abbott says one thing and does another all the time, why should she negotiate with him? Call him a flake. Make that float-like-a-butterfly stuff count against him. Make herself out to be the responsible adult in this governing business, following the law and doing a difficult job under trying circumstances.
The Situation is not a given in Australian politics, he has to be cut down if the government is to be re-elected. If not, the government may not be re-elected. Now look at what the government offers, in its clumsy way, then look at what The Situation offers, and you tell me a) which is more important and b) why it's more important than education funding.

If, after all that, you're not as edified as billy-o, try one bogan from Adelaide picking on another, but without the beer and chunder. A man must have a hobby but I still think Hicks was stupid to alight on jihad; that said, for all his bluster, you know Kenny would snap like a twiglet after 48 hours in Gitmo. a) and b) above apply here too, in spades.

05 September 2011

The most important issue of the week, part one

The most important issue of last week was the release of the Gonski Report into school education funding.

Yes it was. Asylum-seekers are few in number: some of the nation's shock-jocks cannot claim an audience as high as the number of asylum-seekers we receive each year. Very few voters (and almost none in marginal seats) will change from supporting Labor over the issue to supporting the Coalition, or vice versa.

Education is one issue where many people will - and do - switch their votes. With millions of students in the Australian education system, and with everyone having an interest in a well-educated workforce, it is one of the most important issues facing the country.

Each time government has changed at the federal or state/territory level in this country, one of the key planks in the insurgent opposition's campaign has been to portray the government as incompetent in managing the education. A government that has an effective rebuttal/counterattack on education policy against the opposition has more than a fighting chance of being re-elected.

It is probably the only policy area that can consistently mobilise Australians to engage in public protests. Leaving aside the small cohort that protests at the drop of a hat (largely consisting of university students/staff and activists of unions such as the CFMEU), threats to diminish education funding or standards gets people who wouldn't otherwise participate in protest action to hit the streets. It isn't the only issue: the odd war or environmental issue can stir the passions but these are few and far between.

Two reasons why leftists and anarchists are wasting their time when they latch on to protests in the hope of being able to steer popular dissatisfaction to their ends: education is not deliverable in conditions of chaos and is aspirational (in both social and materialistic terms) in character.

David Gonski is a busy man. He's a much sought-after board member of corporate boards, he was executor of Kerry Packer's estate, he's Chancellor of UNSW. It is telling that such a man has taken time out to chair the committee conducting this review. The report is too in-depth to be some rich-man's folly and it puts to shame all those edifices and "causes" that are (I mean, fancy scrapping over becoming a director of an AFL club. Honestly).

It is fair to expect that the Australian media, with an eye to both real and big issues and to selling product that appeals to the market, would have been all over the Gonski Report. There is something in it for everyone. Journalists should have the skill and media organisations should have the range to cover the full range of public policy on this issue, from decisions at Federal Cabinet to delivery in classrooms, public and private, across the nation.

Once again, the media have obsessed over a few snippets which don't really matter, and ignored big and complex issues that matter a lot. The people who are running the mainstream media into the ground think it's clever to do that, they think it's clever to avoid the hard work of writing simply about complex issues. Their whole 'profession' is going down the toilet because they can't snap out of this, and they can't understand why people don't trust them:
  • This and that were the best value articles out there and should have been the start of a series of articles. Each of the dotpoints in the Milburn article warrant a 400-1000 word investigation, as does the chop-and-change approach to teachers' professional development in Zyngier's piece;
  • This does the ABC trick of starting out with the opposition response before you find out what is being criticised. Journos may love this but it makes for poor information: you shouldn't have to wrestle with a text just to find out what is being said;
  • This shows the limits of aggregated media. Why people in Wingham should care about what happens in Lansvale without a contrasting local angle isn't clear (but that would assume that readers' interests matter more than the fact that Fairfax has content to pump at them);
  • In this, Kevin Donnelly is apoplectic that someone, somewhere, disagrees with him about anything. The idea of all this outrage is for transactional politicians to give up and give poor old KD whatever he wants, anything to avoid a bit of fuss; which leads to
  • Crap like this, in which our correspondent is outraged that a government she didn't vote for might consult people she doesn't like, which almost adds up to a slander against Gonski and a disincentive to conducting public service in the way that he has;
  • You'd almost feel sorry for the writer of this, starting off as a straight piece of reporting but slowly and inexorably sucked into the party line toward the end.
Public policy should be examined all the way from the interest groups that raise issues, through the parliament and back to the community through frontline services. It's stupid and wrong to regard parliament as where the public policy action is - but that's a tradition of journalism apparently. The only thing that gets in the way of the traditions of journalism is the future of journalism, and as the latter dims you can only wonder at the sheer puffery that exists around the former.

If journalism is going to stuff up big and important issues like education funding, and beggar their own profession, you can't trust them to get anything right.

01 September 2011

No refuge

I supported the Malaysian solution. Go ahead, laugh. Not being a journalist or a politician I'm free to admit when I'm wrong.

To inform myself on the High Court's recent decision on this matter I read both kinds of mainstream media articles about it: gloaty pieces from those who dislike everything this government does balanced with gloaty pieces from those who disapprove of inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers in particular. Hooray and whoop-de-do for balanced reportage: at least I paid for them as much as they were worth.

I supported the Malaysian solution because I thought it would form the start of some sort of regional co-operation across southeast Asia on the matter of stateless and displaced people. Nauru and Manus Island were designed to hide the problem, not as a basis to work with others to solve it. Proposals for East Timor and, yes, bloody Manus Island again show what happens when you focus your policy-making energies on announceables rather than longterm solutions.

No country in the region can or should have to deal with thousands of refugees by themselves. Countries adjacent to states like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma or Vietnam from which asylum-seekers come have to sustain populations far in excess of Australia's on a fraction of our income: they can be cruel to asylum-seekers and refuse to recognise them legally because this is the only option they have to minimise the numbers of people they have to deal with.

Countries like Australia are attractive destinations for refuge-seekers, not just because of relative economic prosperity but also because we have a strong record of actually accepting those who seek asylum. For hundreds of years this country has been a place to which the wretched of the earth come to build a good life: it is true for Afghans and Somalis today, it was true of South Vietnamese and "Balts" and Greeks of previous generations, and my Scottish crofter ancestors in the 1830s. I can't believe that aspect of our history and our national character no longer applies.

Neighbouring countries resent being somehow responsible for those who use their territory as refuge from a dispute they have not provoked, or as a way-station for people en route to Australia. Rather than have countries feeling put-upon and resenting their neighbours for making their lives harder, we should co-operate so that we can all deal with asylum-seekers better than we do.

The good thing about the Malaysian solution, while it lasted (if such an apparition can be said to have 'lasted') was that there was more scrutiny over the last three months of the way Malaysia treats asylum-seekers than there ever was. I thought/hoped that a regional solution might lead to more of this sort of thing: watch it evaporate now.

With so many unemployed journalists in this country, with readily available media platforms and such cheap airfares to Asian countries, I'm surprised that more journalists aren't doing more freelance reporting from southeast Asia. Admired journalists like John Pilger cut their teeth by doing exactly that - but none of those who are Editors/News Directors today did, so young journalists demonstrating quality journalism under tough conditions would probably be lost on those people.

People who spend their lives standing up for human rights enjoy few rewards, but one of them can be a sense of righteousness that repulses more than it attracts. Observations of how asylum-seekers are treated in Malaysia have given rise to some talk about how Australia might guide Malaysia on human rights issues. This ignores the fact that relations between Australia and Malaysia have never been so fraught as when Australia decides to set itself up as an exemplar to Malaysia. There are 93,000 asylum-seekers in Malaysia and less than a tenth that number here: we aren't going to resolve anything or help anyone by putting ourselves in a position we can't sustain.

I thought that failing to conceive of a broader solution to the refugee issue was a weakness of Julian Burnside's piece, but you don't get to be a QC by being all pie-in-the-sky and taking your eye off real legal principles like we at the Politically Homeless Institute do. I agree with his criticism of the "Weird economics ... mandatory detention costs us about $1 billion a year", but I think here he is being disingenuous:
There is simply no merit in the idea of detaining people indefinitely just because they have arrived in Australia by boat. Asylum seekers also arrive by air: typically they arrive on short-term visas such as business, tourist or student visas.
Yes, but those who arrive by air have identity issues sorted. You don't get on an aeroplane unless you have a passport containing a visa. The issuing of both documents resolves the sorts of identity and background questions that are yet to be resolved for those who turn up with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
If Australia capped initial detention to just a month for health and security checks, overcrowding in detention would be solved instantly; the cost of operating the detention system would reduce dramatically; and the foreseeable mental harm which is caused by indefinite detention would stop.
It's not clear why a month would be sufficient to resolve security questions. Equally, it isn't clear why everybody should be held in detention in order to catch a few who might be doubtful. This, and the disturbing al-Kateb principle that Burnside cites, is one of the problems with extrapolating the general to the specific in public policy. Australia has a general right to exclude non-citizens from its territory and from many of its legal protections, but in exercising this right we impede the rights of human beings to whom we owe variously binding duties of care.

For all the wonders of the Australian legal system and its British heritage, &c., &c., the issue of national sovereignty versus universal principles is a serious design flaw. Again, it is a weakness of Burnside's piece that it does not examine that.

Speaking of assumptions that may prove unsustainable, it has been a mainstay of this blog that Annabel Crabb is a fool. This has come under considerable challenge with successive articles which appear to have come from beyond Parliament House: instead of wilting in such a strange environment she seems to have developed a sense of perspective, which we at the Politically Homeless Institute had long considered impossible for her to acquire convincingly or sustainably. This is still a dollop of conventional politico-media wisdom, but one of the better examples rather than among the worst. Some allowance, but not much, should be made for the fact that Crabb had to write this and post it within hours of a long and complex court case being decided.
Today's decision from the High Court is disastrous for the Government ... because the deterrent effect that was the redeeming feature of this harsh and - in terms of Labor's history in this policy area - hypocritical solution has now evaporated. Australia remains obliged to accept 4,000 new refugees from the Malaysian queues, and must now additionally expect a new influx of boat arrivals through the usual channels.
Burnside is sceptical of the deterrent effect and I am inclined to agree with him. In a world of push-factors for refugees, the pull factors have always been overstated by the Australian media (and by those wishing to pitch stories to the Australian media, such as the Coalition, which explains why the Coalition get such a good run from the media).

Crabb mentions push and pull factors briefly, but only from the government's perspective. She does not consider it from any position of whether or not it might be objectively valid in the case of the people concerned in seeking asylum. Yes, she had limited time, but raising the issue other than as a perception problem for government would prove some consideration of policy issues as they apply in the world beyond Canberra.
But the most egregious aspect of today's decision by the High Court is that it provides a new and crushing chapter in what has become a tale of rambling incompetence. Across both Rudd and Gillard governments, this policy area has played host to a most dispiriting display of opportunism, mendacity and half-arsedness. The Rudd government repealed some of the harshest elements of the Pacific Solution, but never acknowledged the plain-as-day reality that this decision would have some effects on the rate of boat arrivals. Busy denying the bleeding obvious, the Rudd government instead occupied itself with slogans about "tough and humane" policies while desperately casting about for regional assistance.
So: anything the government does - a program to build school facilities with a 97% success rate - is incompetent. Old-fashioned journalists used to chase stories: new-fashioned ones chase memes. I still think the search for a regional solution is more baby than bathwater but it looks like the media herd will trample it.
Do you recall the election campaign, in which the western Sydney MP David Bradbury materialised beside the PM on a patrol boat in Darwin Harbour, apparently monitoring the horizon for foreign wayfarers determined enough to invade his seat by means of the Parramatta River?
The Parramatta River trickles to a creek well before you get to the fabled electorate of Lindsay, but yes, I remember how both Gillard and Bradbury looked not like Defenders of the Commonwealth, but like a couple of dorks.
The confident assurance from the Immigration Minister just weeks ago that the High Court legal challenge had been anticipated and rigorously prepared-for was hit amidships early on by High Court Justice Hayne, who growled at the [Solicitor]-General that his submission was "half-baked". And now today's decision, in which the Government's Malaysia Solution is not crippled, not winged or crimped or slightly frustrated by our nation's highest court, but clean bowled.
Set aside the mixed metaphors and see that Chris Bowen has no credibility as Immigration Minister in pursuing or spruiking a policy that has been the polar opposite of what he has said and done for over a year. He should resign, and have sufficient faith in his political skills that his chances of becoming a minister again at some point are not yet gone.

For him to stay in his current office would put him in the same position as the ministers in the last unlamented Labor government in NSW. It would put him in the same position as the so-called moderates in the Liberal Party, whose clout is demonstrated by the utter lack of any moderate policies held or advanced by "their" Party (credit to @thewetmale for putting it so pithily).

Gillard needs a new Immigration Minister. Bowen may not warrant being removed from the ministry altogether so there may be scope to swap him. Possible alternative Immigration Ministers whose current portfolios could be entrusted to Chris Bowen:
  • Greg Combet;
  • Tanya Plibersek (nah, her activism for Palestine over Israel would make her unacceptable);
  • Brendan O'Connor (he's outside Cabinet; but Bowen can take one for the team and come back, just like Amanda Vanstone did);
  • Tony Burke (keeps the state and factional equilibrium; Immigration would make Burke or break him, while bushies would more easily relate to a minister who's been through tough times himself and who'd be more decisive than Burke).
Here we could play all sorts of games about reinvigorating the government, or rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic; either way the status quo is a non-option.
Nauru is the one reversal the Government has so far not permitted itself. Perhaps it will now. It hardly matters anymore; if anyone in the Government is still wondering why voters don't believe Julia Gillard when she says she has things under control, today should provide a devastating answer.
As the court has said nuh-uh to Nauru, there are two courses of action open to the government now. First and foremost is to process asylum applications in Australia. Plenty of people and even a few polls have called for this. People suspected of being dodgy or malicious should be dealt with in the standard manner: you have the right to remain silent ...

The second is to station more DIAC staff at embassies in countries from which asylum-seekers come. Phillip Ruddock recalled the Immigration official from the Australian embassy in Islamabad; this should be reversed. Embassies across the region should have staff capable of performing assessments and processing, and I'll bet the cost of doing so beats hands down the existing costs of detention.

The Coalition's preferred options of Nauru and Manus are shot every bit as much as the government's Malaysian solution. The idea that desperate people should form an orderly queue and not attempt to come here has no basis in fact, and should not be relied upon as the basis for policy.

And yet, imagine for a minute that the government were to take the first course in particular, when all other options have so clearly failed. The very process of going against a decade of practice in immigration policy, the sheer scope of destruction of all those hoary old themes and memes and half-baked assumptions, would be more than the press gallery could cope with, let alone communicate to the citizenry. It would take the sort of sell job that Paul Keating did during the 1980s across the gamut of economic reforms in order to effect such a transition. There is no way that the Australian media would or could adapt to the mental shift required in looking at refugees in such a new way.

The Coalition have their preferred options closed to them - with the exception of Temporary Protection Visas, and while they might appear as attractive as an ice-cream in a heatwave I would be fascinated if they lasted as long in the face of a High Court challenge. It can still complain about whatever the government does, with the expectation that the media will take its statements on face value. The Coalition does not, however, have any policy options to offer Australian voters:
  • Nauru and Manus Island are off the table. Any attempt to establish that human rights protections exist at those sites would look weaselly and be negated by the next example of Abbott flakiness;
  • The idea of a regional solution would not occur to anyone in the Coalition and they do not have the foreign-policy clout to pull it off;
  • Immigration spokesthing Scott Morrison lives from press release to press release and represents The Shire in federal parliament. In policy-development terms he is a sillyhead. If any politician is stuck in the tough-on-asylum-seekers theme, it's him.
  • The Situation would not survive any transition to a post-Howard immigration policy either. His job is to make people angry. Nauru and Manus have lost credibility, so a key aspect of his whole Howard Restoration theme is finished. It would be easy to simply agree with the government and have a moderate policy, perhaps with more of an emphasis on chasing the phantom of skilled migration; but Abbott is all about sharp and cutting differences with the government. Burying this policy difference would throw out his whole business model (if not his business case).
Asylum-seeker processing that was not only onshore but community-based would be the most radical departure Gillard ever did. Like Malcolm Fraser, her appetite for reform appears exhausted by the very means by which she ascended to the Prime Ministership. Yet, for all its political scope and risk, it is the only one with a clear advantage for the government.

Prime Ministers need to have gone through the wars a bit to get some respect, and Gillard has been there. Earlier this week she was starting to get on the front foot with News Ltd and even in Question Time. For her to keep trying to play the old game after the siren has sounded isn't committed or determined, it would be pathetic. A Prime Minister must never be pathetic: this is how the NSW Labor government ended up.

With its level of popular support, community processing with an increased offshore presence and cross-national co-operation is a winner. Well, in comparison to all the other loser policies it is. It has the capacity to rewrite the rules of the political game such that the Opposition as it is currently configured cannot compete. It would show that this is a government that does the right thing, however reluctantly; governments that do the right thing can be indulged in gaming the opposition. Those who don't demonstrably make that case look like they're just mucking about in sinking to the Opposition's level.

That said, I could be wrong about all this too.