26 December 2012

Coalition road split leadership shock

If this article had been written by a Murdoch journalist for a Murdoch outlet, and the Murdoch outlets were as down on the Coalition as they are on Labor at the moment, it would read like this:

HAPLESS, HOPELESS AND HELPLESS TONY ABBOTT has been undermined yet again, this time by his transport spokesman, over his promise that Coalition funding of $4 billion for big projects will put cranes over Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane within a year of its election.

Mr Abbott said that he wanted to be a prime minister "who revels in seeing cranes over our cities, who revels in seeing bulldozers at work" and has pledged that three big projects, including the WestConnex road in Sydney and the east-west road link in Melbourne, would be "under way within 12 months of a change of government". Today, Mr Abbott is not so much revelling as reeling after an interview with the Coalition transport spokesman, Warren Truss, conceded a start date for the projects could be further away - if at all.

"The project in Melbourne ... will require considerable time associated with planning and various approvals to get under way - the Sydney one as well. It is part of a bigger project now, and so there will be time ... I think it will take at least a couple of years and maybe longer for those two to start construction," said Mr Truss.

This latest twist comes after a sequence of poor polls for Mr Abbott, where more Australian women would rather play footsie with a blue-ringed octopus than have him as Prime Minister. Given his inability to lay a glove on the Prime Minister during the AWU fizzer, and after serious doubts over his recent campaigns against Peter Slipper, Craig Thomson and the carbon tax, the last thing Tony Abbott needed was to have his flimsy policy platform white-anted.

Truss' off-hand references to "the project in Melbourne" and "the Sydney one" are telling. Holding a relatively safe seat in southeastern Queensland, Truss can afford to be insouciant about these projects. Like fellow banana-bender Barnaby Joyce, Truss has a folksy disdain for policy detail and hopes this will translate into the kind of popular support enjoyed by the state's Newman government last March.

Mr Abbott had promised $1.5 billion to the WestConnex motorway, $1.5 billion to the east-west link and $1 billion to the Gateway extension road in Brisbane.

The O'Farrell government has committed $1.8 billion to the WestConnex road, expected to cost $10 billion to $15 billion.

But it is uncertain where the rest of the funding will be found, even if a large proportion comes from tolls on the motorway, a 33-kilometre road between Auburn in Sydney's west that will connect to the airport and the M5 motorway in the south west. The government has set up a project office to come up with a detailed case for WestConnex by the middle of next year. It had said construction would start before the state election in March 2015.

Given Australia's fairly poor record in toll road modelling and the fact that the companies behind projects such as the cross-city and Lane Cove tunnels in Sydney and the Clem7 tunnel in Brisbane have ended up in administration, Mr Truss said the Coalition was looking for innovative ways a Coalition government could attract private investment for the projects.

"I've been approached with lots of ideas about how the government could share the investment risk on these projects," he said.

"I am not attracted to proposals where the government takes all the risk and the private sector gets all the profit. But risk sharing is something I am prepared to look at". Many of the people who approach people like Mr Truss with ideas such as these as constituents of Mr Abbott (for a waspish sneer at such people, see Miranda Albrechtsen on p. 19).

"We will have to find ways to leverage private-sector funding - particularly the Sydney and Melbourne projects are likely to require a mix of Commonwealth, state and private funding", said Mr Truss. This overlooks the fact that Mr Abbott has already committed to funding, and that journalists reported this on the assumption that the sums had already been done.

Now Mr Truss - who would be Deputy Prime Minister in an Abbott government - is casting doubt over the very idea of careful planning for major capital expenditures on infrastructure projects. "This is further proof that the Coalition is in turmoil", said a senior Canberra observer. "If the Coalition does not succeed, it runs the risk of failure".

"Investors say since toll finance projects haven't gone so well recently, they want an arrangement where the government takes some risk if toll revenue turns out to be less ...

Once a patronage estimate has been established there might be a formula under which a certain percentage of risk and profit is shared with the government, with the percentage getting bigger or smaller depending on the size of the divergence ... I haven't said yes or no to that yet but I am looking at it," Mr Truss said.

Neither Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey nor Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb could be contacted for comment.

This overlooks the fact that the last Labor government in NSW spent a decade bending over forwards to make unprofitable toll road projects happen. Truss was federal transport minister during this period, and during the Clem7 debacle. It is clear that nothing has been learned from this expensive experience, and that there is no hope for a better future for infrastructure projects as a result.

Under pressure on the leadership front, Mr Abbott needs these comments from Mr Truss like a hole in the head. Coalition hopes of winning support in Sydney and Melbourne must be in doubt thanks to Mr Truss' airy comments. The Coalition needs to fix this perception of division and uncertainty - and if Mr Abbott won't, someone else will do it for him.

21 December 2012

Just doing your job

The Howard Government's policy on deterring and discouraging asylum seekers from coming to Australia by boat was widely regarded as both cruel and effective. The Labor government tried to dismantle it but this was deemed not to have "worked", if you assume that a) deterring asylum-seekers is what we want for the country, and b) every time an asylum-seeker boat arrives, it irritates you personally.

The government set up the Houston commission, framing their terms of reference to assume deterrence and discouragement as policy objectives. The commission reported, with part of its recommendations that the entire report be implemented as a comprehensive package.

The Houston commission recommended that detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island be reopened. This is basically in line with Coalition policy, which is itself an exercise in nostalgia: there was, by coincidence, a decline in the number of refugees worldwide in 2005, and for Coalition supporters that coincidence validates their policy and makes it the benchmark against which all immigration policy is judged.

Coalition policy is expensive: it costs billions of dollars to intercept boats in international waters, and then transfer them to those places and accommodate them there until their refugee status is determined. There was more money available to the government in 2005 than there is now, for two reasons. First, in 2005 every country in the world except Zimbabwe enjoyed economic growth; today many countries are struggling with economic stagnation or decline, which in some cases puts strain on the political system. Second, the Howard government was (believe it or not) a much higher-taxing government than the Gillard government.

The Coalition has won a political battle in having the government basically adopt its policy (all but for TPVs, of which more later). They know it's expensive, they know it's inhumane, and that people will go crazy with the heat and the indefinite waiting; and that the catering company from which Scott Morrison gets his costings will do little to alleviate either.

The government should not tolerate any criticism by the Coalition about asylum-seeker detention. They should point out that this is the policy they wanted, and that deterrence means that good people will continue to suffer while bad people will get away with murder. They should point out that this is the policy that the Coalition will continue if elected, only more so because Morrison will crack down on media visiting those places.

This is what passes for a principle for such people as Scott Morrison; the impact that such people have when they take their place in the real Australian community is less important than their impact on the imaginary and nebulous "24 hour news cycle".

The government should not merely explain, but assert and rebut narratives to the contrary, that they are merely carrying out the Houston committee's report (first step, though, is to actually do so, in full). This is what mandatory detention and deterrence looks like, people. Labor should position itself as the party that is open to new ways of doing things, while the Coalition and the Greens are pretty much stuck.

Bob Carr is right to use foreign policy as a means of securing co-operation over asylum-seekers. He was, however, wrong to start with a jaunt to Sri Lanka. It's not clear that decades of bloody civil war have settled down into a peace of mutual respect and the sort of competition/co-operation on which social and economic prosperity depends. There aren't too many genuine alternatives presented to Sri Lankans who want to migrate here by means other than people-smuggling, and the Australian High Commission in Colombo employs too few Australians and too many locals to do its immigration assessments.

That said, Carr is owning the policy - and given that his opposite number is the nebulous Julie Bishop, he can be forgiven for not taking the fight to opponents who have pretty much vacated his field.

The Coalition knew mandatory detention is absurdly expensive, and that it would blow out the budget. Again, the government should call them on their pretense of suddenly giving a damn about foreign aid, and that the Coalition would cut foreign aid still further because of its budget-surplus fetish.

What's also expensive is forbidding asylum-seekers from working and putting them on welfare. This is a result of lobbying from unions representing poorly-paid, low-skilled workers, many of whom are migrants anyway. It's stupid policy and the Coalition would be right to attack it, were it not for their laziness over Temporary Protection Visas (it was never clear who was being protected, from what or whom). The unexamined government is not worth electing.

The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, apparently gets along well with Morrison. What is needed is an Immigration Minister who will take Morrison on for his dishonesty that the Coalition would run asylum-seeker policy differently, better and cheaper. A minister who would rip out Morrison's heart, dump in it, and then have it run against Morrison in his electorate and preference against him is a minister that can make this issue work against the Coalition. Accepting the Howard government's detention and deterrence policy as some ideal of perfection is stupid and unsustainable.

The same goes for the Coalition's criticisms of the government over corruption within Customs. The relevant minister, Jason Clare, is supposedly a rising star in the NSW ALP, but he was a wet fish against the Coalition's Michael Keenan. Firstly, it never occurred to the Howard government to investigate corruption in Customs, and secondly the Coalition have a budget-surplus fetish that militates against more and better resources for that agency. There are the two sticks with which you beat Keenan, and the rest of the Coalition, away from partisan criticism of a story where the government did its job. The government has no excuse for being caught out, the Fairfax-ABC investigations did not precede law-enforcement examinations, they occurred in parallel, with the minister and the AFP Commissioner across the detail.

I wish other areas of policy received as much in-depth coverage in the mainstream media as asylum-seeker policy; even so, it isn't enough. It is not too late to rebuild Fairfax around producers of high-value journalism like Nick McKenzie, and away from the false idols of journalism that are Grattan or Paul Sheehan or Peter Hartcher.

Bowen's record as a minister is dutiful but uninspired, in a key policy area where the price of failure is too politically high. Dumping him would not only encourager les autres (as Napoleon Voltaire said of the British practice of executing admirals) but it would send a clear message to the underperforming NSW ALP to either replace him with Clare, or someone outside NSW and the Labor Right entirely.

In the absence of that - or perhaps as well - the government should acknowledge the fact that it is just doing its job. It should hold up a mirror to the country that supposedly wants to shun people and do it all on the fiscal and moral cheap. Any shifting of the asylum-seeker debate (in any direction other than, say, machine-gunning people at sea or a reintroduction of racial quotas) works to show Labor as the party open to ideas about the country's future. Sensible people do not fret about shifting the debate: only PR dollies, media-relations hysterics and dictators like their debates cliched and contained.

The government should be open to changing its mind after the election but committed to the Houston findings in the short term. It should brook no nonsense from the Coalition over this commitment and beat them with the surplus-fetish stick. That's how you not only deal with a suppurating wound but start a process of healing that is also a key responsibility of government - another responsibility that the Coalition insists it can shirk, and which a lazy mainstream media will let it shirk.

Part of the fallacy behind the politico-media complex is the idea that because the mainstream media isn't doing its job, the government can get away with not doing its. The Coalition has fallen for this and relies entirely on government errors and media sloppiness. A government that steps up and does its job gets re-elected. The government should own both the status quo and the future, on asylum-seekers and customs and the budget surplus and every other issue.

15 December 2012

You can't handle an Abbott government

JESSEP [played by Jack Nicholson]: You want answers?
KAFFEE [played by Tom Cruise]: I think I'm entitled to.
JESSEP: You want answers?
KAFFEE: I want the truth!
JESSEP: You can't handle the truth!

- from the screenplay to A Few Good Men, by Aaron Sorkin (1992)
The press gallery seeks to bring about an Abbott government by overreporting the failures of the Gillard government and ignoring narratives to the contrary (particularly if they emanate from the dreaded social media). The Gillard government does not court the press gallery like previous governments did, or like Abbott does in Opposition; the press gallery is keen to see the back of it, and keen to exercise what power it has left to secure that result. The press gallery should not seek to bring about an Abbott government because it could not handle an Abbott government.

The overreporting was shown this week with the dismissal of a sexual harassment case brought by James Ashby against the Commonwealth and the former Speaker, Peter Slipper. Allegations arising from the plaintiff's submissions received prominent and salacious coverage in the media, while the judge's findings did not.

The findings hinted at and set up basic facts that would have sent previous generations of journalists scurrying in pursuit of a big story: the idea that senior Coalition politicians conspired to bring about not only the downfall of a Speaker, but of the government, through the fabrication of a scandal. That story remains to be told, but no journalist employed by mainstream media outlet will or can tell it. No mainstream media outlet will devote resources toward that end; you will have to go to social media and spend time to piece together all those links and hints and allegations to piece together a story.

Let us have no more insistence from mainstream media outlets that Mal Brough must face the media. After the insipid efforts by the press gallery to nail the Prime Minister over the Wilson-Blewitt thing, after their simple acceptance of assertions by Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott that the Coalition has no case to answer on a conspiracy, the only thing worse than Brough not answering him questions would be him making the pretence of doing so. Imagine Brough waddling down his driveway, fielding a few badly-researched softball questions and pulled punches from the hacks there assembled, and then turning tail when he'd had enough.

News Ltd journalists set the agenda but not only running spurious stories but insisting that other outlets share the burden of running such stories, which they do. Here (do a Google search on the headline) is one of Australia's most experienced political journalists setting the scene for media coverage of Brough:
But the real political victim is now Brough, who stands accused of working with Ashby and co-worker Karen Doane in an underhanded political scheme based on disloyalty, political preferment, duplicity, and lies - all aimed at bringing down Slipper and promoting Brough.
The "real victim" is a perpetrator: when applied to other crimes this is the sort of thinking News Ltd outlets decry as namby-pamby attempts to frustrate due legal processes.
After sustaining months of allegations about the AWU slush fund scandal the Labor government is keen to hit back and threaten Brough and by extension Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne with an inquiry of their own into a political scandal.
This is sloppy writing: the allegations on Gillard-AWU have not been sustained. There is also the question of judgment by Abbott, Pyne and Brough: did they seriously expect that they could go at Labor without fear of reprisal?
Of course, the government does not come out of the judgment without its own questions to answer: the judge said there was evidence of sexual harassment but upheld Slipper's claims for an abuse of process, which the commonwealth spent $750,000 working on and then withdrawing after paying Ashby $50,000 in compensation.
There would have been evidence of sexual harassment were it not for the other facts of the case, Dennis. The government does have to spend money in defence of spurious legal actions otherwise everybody would just line up for their chop.
The judge describes the payout given when Attorney-General Nicola Roxon was trying to kill off all the legal cases against Slipper as more than Ashby could have expected even if he had succeeded against Slipper and the commonwealth.
Easy to say in hindsight. A journalist would have taken the trouble to be wise before the event rather than after it. Note also the non-reporting of the fact that Ashby's little windfall is far outweighed by the costs order against him.

Instead of an earnest desire to tell the story before them, the wish of journalists to appear "balanced" at the expense of the story remains. On one hand, we have the carefully weighed findings of a judge; on the other we have denials by Tony Abbott, a man who admits to lying to journalists on the rare occasions when they put him under pressure. Abbott will provide press gallery journalists with daily stunts while a judge can only offer one-off judgments.

That desire for false balance can be seen in mainstream media coverage of climate change, of immunisations, and - despite Proverbs 11:1 - the teaching of religion (and religious notions such as "intelligent design") in schools. It can also be seen here, where a "Political Editor" gleefully falls upon a dubious and ill-examined study that appears to prop up his biases.
TWITTER users lean to the political left and talkback radio callers to the right, but both form part of the mainstream of opinion, according to a study.
Those fateful words, "according to a study", preface great swathes of bad journalism. Wacky diets, black-is-white denials of corporate malfeasance, all manner of superstition and bullshit has the appearance of backup by spurious studies that are examined badly (or not at all) by supposedly sceptical truth-seeking journalists. Part of the decline of both the credibility and patronage of mainstream media is the rise of silly "according to a study" stories.
An analysis of political sentiment in Australia by an independent firm compared how views expressed on Twitter and talkback radio moved in comparison with the mainstream, as measured by a conventional national opinion poll, Newspoll.
"Independent" of whom? Newspoll isn't "independent", it is part of the organisation that employs Dennis Shanahan. The only polls with any integrity whatsoever are those produced a week or so before an actual election; with every finger-in-the-air prognostication Newspoll diminishes itself. Journalists like Hartcher diminish themselves by hanging stories on polls, telling us what we think rather than reporting on politics so that we might form opinions.

Polling can be assessed scientifically; the total number of electors is a known quantity, so assessments of a sample of voters and the questions they are asked, the methodology used etc., can be made and validated. Sentia cannot, however, make any sort of assessment of Twitter users with the same degree of confidence. Sentia's sampling can therefore be said to produce the result that would help Chambers' spruiking efforts. Imagine the poor bugger tryiung to sell a picture of social media like this:
There are rightwing ratbags on social media, like Larry Pickering and Mike Smith. There are leftwing ratbags too, and people with all sorts of opinions really.
Not even Peter Hartcher could conjure an article from such mealy-mouthed dross.
In the case of Twitter, it also confirmed what has long been remarked of social media: "It really is antisocial media," according to John Chalmers of Sentia Media.
John Chalmers is the guy who drums up media interest in Sentia and who fields enquiries from them: he would say that, he'd say anything to get publicity for his employer and its wares. Mainstream media people and other client representatives buy Chalmers coffee and lunch, while Twitter users don't; that's what Chalmers means by "anti-social".
Sentia is the author of the study, the owners of Media Monitors, and the first to make such a comparison.
Sentia is a corporation that used to be known as Media Monitors. The person or persons who might be more accurately described as "the author" is/are unnamed. This is like describing Fairfax Media as "the author" of The Sweet Spot.
While both avenues allowed anonymity, personal attacks on Twitter were harsher because comment was not moderated, Mr Chalmers said, while talkback callers were vetted by producers and presenters.
This is fine if you regard "producers and presenters" as voices of moderation and reason, and the vetting process as filtering out extreme positions and/or personal attacks. Anonymity is a straw man; I use my real name online but because Hartcher has never met me, he regards me as anonymous.

Talkback hosts are not anonymous, and outrageous attacks shapes and reinforces their reputation rather than diminishing it. They are no more or less vitriolic than anyone on Twitter. The difference between them and Twitter users is that talkback hosts attract advertising revenue with their outrageous attacks which more than compensates for any penalties (meagre fines or defamation payments) that they may suffer. Peter Hartcher has no excuse for not understanding the media business well enough to know this.
Twitter is also more volatile in the aggregate expression of political sentiment, and prone to be what Mr Chalmers described as "superficial".
I would love to see Chalmers' objective qualification of such loaded terms as 'volatile' and 'superficial'. I wish a journalist would have questioned this and reported their findings. Hartcher must have been so giddy at being vindicated by an actual study that it never occurred to his forensic investigative reporter brain to look that gift-horse in the mouth.
When Ms Gillard stumbled while walking on soft lawn in India, for instance, Twitter users reacted sharply against her, "in a way that probably doesn't represent voting intentions".
Assuming that quote came from Chalmers, it pretty much buggers his thesis that Twitter users are pro-Gillard. Whether this is the exception that proves the rule or scuppers it isn't clear: Hartcher should have called Chalmers on it and used questions like that to examine whether Sentia's "study" was strong enough to support a story like this.
In the US, the conventional wisdom is that media audiences are retreating from the broad community into increasingly narrow, closed, self-selecting political worlds.
That applied until last month's election, when rightwing US media led rightwing US voters to not merely hope but expect that their preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, would be elected President. The reality is that Romney lost the election, and that rightwing people felt let down by media that pandered to their beliefs rather than informing them. Perhaps an International Editor could examine this phenomenon; you won't get this from Hartcher, nor from his supposed competitor Greg Sheridan.
Sentia found Twitter and talkback "both reflect the same overall sentiment, to varying degrees", said Mr Chalmers. "Both are reasonably sound bellwethers of public sentiment, to a greater or lesser degree."
A breathtakingly weak ending to a weak article about a weak study.

When Tim Dunlop describes the Twitter evisceration of Mark Baker's spurious article, he is neither being rightwing or leftwing. Had Baker written a similarly tendentious article against Brough or Pyne or Abbott rather than Gillard, it would have suffered the same treatment from Twitter and not been examined at all on talkback. Hartcher's and Chalmer's left-right designations just don't work, they don't apply to what is actually happening or how it is covered - but hey, Chalmers got a run and Hartcher met a deadline, and if you think that's sufficient you are part of the media's problem (which Sentia can observe but not diagnose, and which people like Hartcher will only make worse).

Here we have seen the most senior press gallery journalists simply quote and fail to examine weak and dishonest assertions. Given that:
  • the Abbott-led Opposition makes weak and dishonest assertions (e.g. promising "inquiries" into issues that it can't address while opposing whatever the government does, or anything/everything it has said about Ashby-Brough-Slipper) that are not challenged by journalists; and
  • dismissing criticism ("hyperventilating") that is merely quoted and noted and not pursued by journalists; we can therefore assume that
  • the Australian mainstream media will not be able to cope with an Abbott government.
The mainstream media would not play any fourth-estate accountability role. In totalitarian regimes media acts as simply a repository of quotes from politicians, and this is what many see as the role of the press gallery. ABC Twitter stenographer Latika Bourke asserts that transcription is where her job begins and ends, and she is not the only press gallery denizen who feels this way. Journals of record that record unqualified bullshit are far less valuable than those employed by them can bear to accept.

An Abbott government would so discredit any remaining value proposition that the Australian media might have. If there's one thing worse than a government that (apparently) can't do anything right, it's one that (successfully!) insists on being reported at face value. An Abbott government might dismantle the NBN (but what if it doesn't? Can you guarantee that it, alone in the history of politics, will match its promises with action in full compliance - particularly when led by Tony Abbott?), and it might butter-up self-important press gallery grandees like Hartcher and Shanahan. It might not do much else. This is not enough to put to us as a worthwhile government, or even better than the incumbents.

Imagine if the Opposition had dismissed Gillard's misogyny speech as "hyperventilating". Hartcher and Shanahan would have agreed, and Chalmers' study would have supported them both - but so what?

The Australian media can't analyse itself and can't ask the hard questions of politicians. This means it is less valuable to citizens and consumers wishing to know how we are governed, who are then forced outside the mainstream media to get those answers - far beyond the reach of Hartcher, Shanahan et al, to the point where Johnny Chalmers might have to start not only buying his own lunch but eating his own dogfood. The idea that this is a bad thing, let alone a threat to our democracy, is laughable.

06 December 2012

Full of sound and fury

... And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

- Shakespeare Macbeth Act V, Scene V
When it comes to politics, Nick Dyrenfurth loves the stink. This is probably why he wrote this. Like Tony Abbott, he's one of those people who doesn't know who he is unless someone is kicking him in the head.
How is it possible to perceive a political environment hallmarked by "relentless negativity" and "sleaze and smear" in an even remotely positive light?
This is the wrong question to ask. The question that should be asked is illustrated in the second paragraph:
The tumult and shouting of Parliament masks a not-inconsiderable bipartisanship. Just last week, as political watcher Malcolm Farr notes, 11 bills requiring cross-party agreement passed through the House of Representatives.
It isn't only the bipartisanship that is "not inconsequential", but the issues covered in that legislation that costs millions of dollars and affects many, many Australians. Farr's employer, and Dyrenfurth's publisher, are to blame for focusing on the inconsequential stink rather than the issues at hand.

There is, from a Labor partisanship point of view, a story to be told about how great issues like school funding or disability support are dealt with in that legislation. The Liberal record in that area is also (to use Dyrenfurth's fusty construction, a sign of someone who's listened to way too many Bob Carr speeches) "not inconsequential". Journalists worried about balance need only people from both sides who know their stuff, and the strength and judgment to realise that a bit of staged stink is likely to be a distraction rather than the essence of politics.

Not so Dyrenfurth:
Instead of lamenting politics and its practitioners, we should celebrate parliamentary hostilities ... In any case, partisan brutalities have ever been thus. One of the more heated passages in Australian political history occurred [when] ... Deakin formed a new ministry in June 1909, but at the next election, in April 1910, Fisher became the first majority Labor prime minister in the world after a landslide victory. The nine-month period between "fusion" and the election was hallmarked by vitriolic debate and personality politics. Labor attacked and obstructed the governing fusionists at every opportunity.

Deakin was the target of unprecedented abuse.
During that ten-month period, Deakin began the process of equalising wages for similar work performed in different parts of the country. He secured the first Commonwealth-State funding agreement. Planning for the defence of Australia, including commissioning ships for the Royal Australian Navy (officially founded in 1911 under the Fisher Government), was instigated under Deakin's fusion government. Not bad for someone supposedly "all gab and no spine"; Deakin had used office for the benefit of the nation to a far greater extent than The Worker, or Dyrenfurth, could bear to give him credit.

Many of the achievements credited later to Fisher and Labor were measures they had failed to block. (When Labor people later joined with Fusionists, were they deserting the fold or returning to it? Answers on my desk by Friday).

All parliaments in Australia had been built with press galleries pre-installed, since the NSW Parliament opened for business in 1856. The difference between Deakin's time and ours is that the newspapers of the time reported on what was done by Parliament rather than the sound-and-fury of what was said. Not so with latter-day denizens like Farr and Akerman, who take the facile sizzle-rather-than-the-sausage approach, which also suits sound-and-fury enthusiasts like Dyrenfurth.

Fun facts about protagonists of that time quoted approvingly by Dyrenfurth:
  • Conservative leader Sir William Lyne was referred to by Deakin's biographer J A La Nauze thus: "Lyne continued to rage and roar; he was an angry man who knew no other methods of expressing his feelings."* Remind you of anyone?
  • At the time of his outburst about people leading double lives, Frank Anstey was a barely functioning alcoholic. Colourful racing identity John Wren enriched himself at the expense of Anstey's constituents; Anstey, for whatever reason, never felt the need to bring Wren's sly-grogging, backyard-abortion, gaming racket to the attention of authorities. A conspiracy theorist about international finance, and a vicious anti-Semite, Anstey left politics and made a fortune from financial speculation. You can see why Dyrenfurth would quote such a man about 'double lives'.
Rhetorical violence was routinely practised by both sides during the 20th century. Yet whether it was the titanic debates over military conscription during World War I, the trauma of the Great Depression or the heated emotions produced by the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government, our democracy has survived and prospered.

Partisanship is a sign that politics matters after all.
The difference is that the "rhetorical violence" in those debates was directed to the issues, rather than away from them. During the debates over military conscription during World War I, the issues were the rights of free men and the right of the state to commandeer their service (and their lives). They were not a smokescreen for, or subordinate to, the goings-on in the Labor Party, as they would be for latter-day reporters ("Mr Anstey has declared his full support for Mr Hughes, but senior Labor sources ...").
... my hunch is that the same folks who lament the supposed ideological convergence of the major parties are also the first to complain at the slightest whiff of partisanship.
No point in just excreting a hunch, Nick; that's what bloggers are for.

The irritation with latter-day partisanship comes not with the issues themselves.

The lobbying for more resources on mental health by Professors McGorry and Mendoza is both passionate and well-informed. Occasionally it is covered by journalists, on what they call "slow news days". The failure of those advocates to get their message across is not because they have been defeated in debates by countervailing arguments that are no less passionate or well-informed. It is because non-issues like Gillard-AWU or Thomson-HSU or Slipper-Ashby occupy the attention of Farr, Dyrenfurth and others, because of all the colour-and-movement that make more measured observers suspicious. This focus on colour-and-movement then means decision-makers must deal with non-issues rather than being able to focus on real issues.

Not being able to switch to real issues in Australian life, Dyrenfurth flicks the switch to high emotion:
Perhaps a little perspective might help. The current 18-month Syrian civil war, roughly coinciding with our domestic political rancour, has claimed the lives of an estimated 45,000 people, at least half of which were civilians slaughtered by their own government.
None of those people died because an old flame of Bashar al-Assad might have played fast and loose with other people's money, nor because he exchanged off-colour SMSs with his staff. The "little perspective" Dyrenfurth is offering is clearly not enough.

That war has displaced 700,000 people. If even one per cent of that number ends up seeking asylum in Australia, Scott Morrison will have conniptions. Nick Dyrenfurth will not be able to welcome those people, gainsaying Morrison in the name of partisanship, because Labor doesn't do that stuff any more.

It is a dreadful slander on our democratic traditions and on the very real needs of our social institutions today to say that the confected outrage of media campaigns is the same as, or a substitute for, policy debate in this country. MSM journos report on what they wanna report on and anyone who doesn't like it can just just suck it up. Because those who provide us with information are focused away from debates of substance and import, any contribution to those debates is dismissed by Dyrenfurth, Farr and others as "ill informed", and thus the poverty of public debates through the mainstream media is reinforced. If politics is your sport, an arena where you can just cheer and boo like an ape, the complexities of debate are only going to get in your way. But when you're just hungry for stink, admit it: that's the way you like it.

* J A La Nauze Alfred Deakin Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1979: p. 577. Forget Dyrenfurth's book, this one is better.

Note: I offered the above to The Sydney Morning Herald to publish as a response to Dyrenfurth, which they declined.

02 December 2012

Reframe or die

The Canberra press gallery has a certain "frame" through which they view and report on politics. This week, politics moved outside the frame. The media can change the way they report or they can continue their slide to irrelevance, because there is no way they can keep their frame intact and offer reporting that is in any way valuable.

Anything outside the media's frame is invisible and doesn't get reported. In the days when the mainstream media was more powerful than it is, what didn't get reported went unnoticed by voters; which meant that political activity has increasingly been geared around what happens within the media frame.

The perfect example of the issue built by politicians for the media frame was the attack on Julia Gillard regarding the corporate entity set up for for Smokey and the Bandit. It has everything that's compelling to attention-deficient journalists: politics! Sex! Missing loot! Politics!

Michael Gordon described the irrelevance of his own profession perfectly:
THE question came from one of the federal Coalition's less experienced press secretaries when they gathered on Tuesday for an upbeat briefing from Liberal director Brian Loughnane on the state of play. Asked if they had any issues to raise before the meeting broke up, he innocently inquired: "How long are we going to go on with this AWU stuff?"

His point was that people outside the bubble on the hill that is Parliament House were heartily fed up with the Opposition's singular focus on the minute detail of something they have no, or very little, interest in - when there were real issues affecting them that don't even seem to be on the radar.

The question wasn't asked when Coalition MPs gathered for their party room meeting the same day, but the answer was clear. As the MPs sat mute, Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop explained that Julia Gillard's conduct as a lawyer at Slater and Gordon two decades ago went to fundamental questions of credibility and character.

The applause as Bishop sat down was effective endorsement of a political strategy that was about as subtle as an unexpected punch in the nose, but not nearly as clean or conclusive.
Three cheers to you, nameless junior staffer: talk about lions led by donkeys. I've asked questions like that to dickheads like Loughnane. If that had been me I'd be seeking Loughnane out on election night and throwing him from the top of whatever hotel the Liberals will be holding their wake. Then again, I'm not innocent or even "less experienced".

Michael Gordon is even less so. As an editor, he participates in daily meetings at The Age to decide what will or won't be published in that organ the following day. There was nothing stopping Gordon, or one of the other Editors, asking the same question. It would have been fascinating to hear what the answer would have been.
The Gillard repudiation was not, however, in the same league as the misogyny speech that became a global social media phenomenon. Not only did that speech trigger a jump in Gillard's approval ratings, it gave her the confidence that she has Abbott's measure. It smacked of authenticity.
So that's the benchmark, is it - anything less than a global phenomenon is a failure? How do we define this "smacked of authenticity" (more than, say, her speech in favour of the NDIS? Less than her acknowledgment of the retirement of Ricky Ponting? Is this the best we can do from a National Affairs Editor?
To many in the crowded public galleries, or who watched it on TV, this performance would have appeared shrill, even unbecoming. One person I spoke to likened it to witnessing a domestic argument; another saw unflattering parallels with student politics.
"To many"? "One person I spoke to"? Next time journos get all sanctimonious about protecting sources, remember that drivel.

Any journalism student who submitted that would get panned, it is totally unworthy of a National Affairs Editor. Was it Loughnane? Was it your mother? Grow a spine and own your opinions, Gordon. You mightn't be able to explain or justify them in any way, but your opinions are yours. Why is it that the response was the stuff of student politics, while the question somehow has a legitimacy of which the answer was unworthy?
Viewers of Today can be excused for being unaware that this week saw the government introduce legislation to launch the National Disability Insurance Scheme, reform school funding, recognise indigenous Australians, and deliver the Murray Darling Basin water plan - as well as passage of laws on pokie reform.
Readers of The Age are in the same position, thanks to the collusion of their National Affairs and Political Editors and all their other equally dopey editors. Each of those deserved the wall-to-wall coverage that was wasted on the bullshit identified here. While it is a legitimate journalistic exercise to report on debates in parliament, wall-to-wall coverage of inconclusive trivia is not the only other alternative to not reporting it at all.

How is the job of National Affairs Editor different from that of Political Editor (Grattan)? I don't know either, but I bet the answer could be part of Fairfax's cost-reduction strategy.

The mainstream media has two imperatives: first, the high noble fourth-estate duty to let us know what is going on with those who govern us, and second (for all organs outside the ABC and The Australian) to turn a dollar. The wall-to-wall coverage of the AWU scandal fails on both counts. It wasn't more important than overlooked issues such as Murray-Darling, or even Australia's response to Israel-Gaza, or NDIS. Nor was it a story over which readers slavered; people can sometimes profess to disdain smut and sleaze while avidly consuming media that carries it, but this is clearly not happening here.

When it comes to entertainment figures, an interest in their personal lives is an extension of fandom for their work: if you are a fan of someone's movies or music, you may take an interest in their personal lives and consume media that covers this. This doesn't apply to Julia Gillard, however; those who take the most avid interest in her life away from work are not rusted-on Labor types, or even people who admire her guts - but people who would never, ever vote for her.

The market for news about Gillard's personal life is not larger or more lucrative than the market for news about issues of substance such as those that largely passed the media by this past week, thanks to the collusion of people like the National Affairs Editor of The Age. Peter Hartcher, another Fairfax editor, differs about the relative importance of the Gillard-AWU story over other issues - and does so on the basis of 'democracy':
Several people, non-political types, remarked to me this week that it was embarrassing for Australia's political system to be in a frenzy over the long-past personal conduct of its Prime Minister.

But this is a standard part of any democracy. The searching public examination of a leader, exploring evidence and testing character, is routine.
Not to the point where it crowds out issues which are supposedly affected by leadership and character. The Murray-Darling solution affects a vast geographic and demographic swathe of the nation. The NDIS and changes to Medicare (including dental and mental health) affect a high proportion of the population. The issues in Israel-Gaza and Syria are substantial even though the conflicts take place outside Australia; the Gillard-AWU thing took place within Australia, under Australian law, but is much less substantial. The decision to lavish scarce and overextended journalistic resources on the latter was stupid and wrong.
Remember the outrage over John Howard's alleged conflict of interest when his government handed ethanol subsidies to his brother's firm, Manildra? Remember the parliamentary convulsions over Paul Keating's piggery? The accusations were tested in public; the leaders passed the tests.
Yeah, I remember. Howard's brother wasn't involved in Manildra, his was a manufacturing outfit called National Textiles which also received government subsidies.

People need information to engage with the issues of the day. Where a people is starved of the means to engage, politics becomes a passive process which you can observe but not influence (except by howls of inarticulate, uninformed rage from time to time, which mostly can be and is brushed off by decision-makers). If the mainstream media did a better job of bringing people into public debates through informing them us, mainstream media outlets would have a better reputation - and be better off economically - than they are.

As it happens, people can and do get information about the great debates of the day - you just have to go around the MSM to get it - to online sources or social media, or (according to Peter Hartcher) foreign media:
Sure, the delegation of visitors from China who witnessed the stinging public attacks on the Prime Minister in the house this week might have puzzled over how this can happen, but it is more a strength than a weakness of parliamentary democracy.

In China, it took a foreign newspaper, The New York Times, to disclose the accumulation of $2.7 billion in wealth by the family of the outgoing Premier, Wen Jiabao, during his tenure. Wen, after denouncing the American newspaper, has now asked for a formal investigation into himself and his family.
Hartcher seems to be saying that if you want information about impacts on pokie regulations or aquifers in the Barwon Basin, you're going to have to wait until The New York Times or The People's Daily are good and ready to cover it, because The Sydney Morning Herald is bored with covering actual political issues (other than those featuring sex! Stolen loot! etc).
There is also the perfectly reasonable argument that time spent on scrutinising the private affairs of a prime minister in Parliament carries an opportunity cost - time on this means less time to debate big problems of policy and national affairs.

And that's true. But this is how democratic nations test their leaders and purge their systems. Gillard has survived the test. The long-festering rumours have been put into the light of day and been scrutinised. The opposition has had a full opportunity to make its case and to hold her to account. In the absence of serious new evidence against her, the opposition should now move on to debate the big issues.
All political systems, democratic or not, test their leaders and purge their systems. Traditionally, this involved bloodshed. Recent cases of Bo Xilai in China or the imprisonment of the press advisor to the President of Iran by that country's Ayatollahs are examples of leader-testing within political systems very different to ours.

There is no reason why this country's political agenda, and that of its media, should depend so heavily on what the opposition may or may not decide (as Jonathan Green pointed out). The opposition's tactic of blocking or diverting from every positive piece of news must be taken as another feature of our political system deserving of scrutiny, rather than as a given which the press gallery and the voters have no choice but to put up with. Hartcher's assessment that the Prime Minister has merely "survived" her most recent test, rather than passing it, is telling; so too is the absence of even putting the opposition to any test worth the name, rather than a recognition that it failed.

Peter Hartcher has no right to assume, as he does in his final sentence, that the Coalition is even capable of debating big issues. They don't have it in them. Press gallery veterans must know this. Simply insisting that the Coalition must flick the switch to policy substance is a bit like lecturing a broken-down junkie that heroin is, like, really bad, and you should stop doing it, OK? Even if that incorrigible lot did make the switch, the press gallery wouldn't know. They need to pretend the Coalition is more than capable of matching the government to keep them in the frame. To accept reality is to reframe the issue.

It is true that the government employs lots of press secretaries to push its agenda. It is not true, despite Jack Waterford's assertion, that the failure of the nation's editors to distinguish shit from clay when it comes to political coverage can be sheeted home to government press secretaries. Large corporations employ plenty of marketing people, and they have not necessarily failed when you stroll past their products without making a purchase. The question here is the discernment of the customer - and the mainstream media seem to have made a wholesale investment in the opposition's media strategy that the rest of the country is not yet ready to make.

That is why Laurie Oakes can fuck off with this sorry shower of shit. When you dutifully report that the Opposition Leader has accused the Prime Minister or being a criminal, and press gallery journalists get to ask her whatever they like - and don't have the research or the guts to put the question - then your faith in the press gallery is misplaced. So too is the idea that the press gallery holds anyone or anything to account with its insider knowledge - maintaining that insider status causes press gallery journos to pull more punches than they throw.

Look at the questions people ask at Community Cabinet meetings. They're not all parish-pump local issues or silly conspiracy-theory questions. Many are better than the questions asked at press conference by Walkley-winning veterans. If you could ask the Prime Minister of Australia any question you like, almost nobody would ask about her relationship with Larry Loser way back when; yet, MSM throw millions of dollars at journos to do just that.

The Australian media frames political debates as though the government and opposition were equally valid and perfectly balanced, with the mainstream media holding the fulcrum and weighing the balance. The current political debate has disappeared from the frame because the Coalition isn't substantial enough to counterbalance the government. It overreached by accusing the Prime Minister of illegality. For a long time now it has had no effective response to the great issues of the day, which is why the MSM focus away from those issues suits them perfectly.

Together with Abbott's admission that he'll say anything under pressure, this means that the Coalition is losing credibility with everyone - except those who need to believe Labor and the Coalition are equally balanced and cancel one another out, and that the MSM judges who'd make the better government. The Coalition, led by Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, is fading as a credible alternative government - this is not despite the efforts of Hartcher, Gordon, and other cogs in the MSM, but because of them.

The MSM are fading in relevance because they shirk the big issues and the big debates facing our country. There are no dull topics, only dull journalists and dull editors with dull ways of presenting The News You Need. Peter Hartcher and Michael Gordon are confident of their ability to cover non-issues in Gillard-AWU but not of the much bigger issues raised in legislation this week, not the least of which was those surrounding school funding.

What should happen is that issues should go back into the frame. Let us tolerate no journo-wittering about constrained time or resources, as though that only happens to them (my time is limited too, that's why I need easily-accessible media to tell me what's going on, rather than hunt for it due to their increasing inadequacy). Let us instead look at how the MSM should use existing resources better, if only its editorial ranks consisted of fewer idiots with herd instincts.

There are many very good articles in the mainstream media about all of those important issues overlooked in the past week. Having covered those issues extensively and in depth, the journalists concerned should have been brought to Canberra to follow the legislation through the parliament. Their reports should have judged politicians according to the issues and how well/badly they react to those; the press gallery could cover the same issues from the insider point of view. That would be a better use of existing resources than demarcating issues reporting from politics.

The only alternative is that the MSM continue to cover bullshit non-issues, shun their audience, lose credibility with politicians, and spiral into oblivion.

In Britain the declining media and an unpopular government have gone into cahoots over media regulation - if the Cameron government loses office the Conservatives are stuffed and so is the media which supports them so cloyingly. The UK media have staked everything on the survival of the current government, which is unfortunate.

In Australia, the media is in decline and the government is unpopular. The government is not regulating to prop up papers but it is warming to a Levenson-style solution; it is bringing in an NBN that will force media companies to get innovative, fast (which will be more than their current leadership will bear). The current Opposition Leader grabbed an inaccurate story on Friday Thursday morning from what used to be a respected newspaper, and now faces libel action as a result of relying on it too heavily. Like Cameron, a former press sec who thought putting out releases was all there was to politics and governing, and as a result got way ahead of himself. Abbott still thinks there are votes against global warming, which means the Home Tories rightly regard him as a pissant.

If the current government retains office (as has always been maintained here at this superior organ of record), it will be proof that the newspapers have lost all influence. This time next year we will start to see the complacency of Gordon, Hartcher et al have real impacts on the companies that have indulged their whims and witterings for far too long. Suddenly discovering that a much-derided PM actually has some positive qualities, as Hartcher and Gordon have, won't cut it.

The MSM need to help us into those complex debates, and help us decide who's doing well or badly. This isn't the same as telling us and framing stories accordingly; the MSM need the respect of an audience that doesn't agree with them, which they don't have. This time next year it will be too late. There are lots of Summer Bumper Specials coming up where you can write intelligent discussions for intelligent readers about hitherto neglected issues; let's see all those dime-a-dozen editors earn their money. Let's see what, if anything, all that journo-experience is really worth.

29 November 2012

To break a dealmaker

This week we saw Julie Bishop go from being an effective deputy to an ineffective one. For the Liberal Party, this is far more significant than merely changing the leader. Those who reject my idea that Abbott is a dud who'll never make it will come to agree that throwing Julie Bishop under a bus was the moment from which the Liberals could not recover the 2013 election.

The Liberal Party is built around the leader. The leader hasn't got time to crunch deals and make them stick, and loses a bit of burnishment in the process. Not hungry for the limelight themselves, effective deputies make up for their lack of name recognition by shoring up the leader and making him (a matter of historic fact rather than a requirement going forward) look capable of running an outfit bigger than the ad-hoc numbers-gathering operation, or "camp", that got him (sorry) the job in the first place.

Eric Harrison (1944-56) and Harold Holt (1956-66) underpinned Menzies' longevity. Phillip Lynch (1972-82) could not save Snedden - no deputy can save an inadequate leader - but Fraser regarded him as so indispensable that, when he sacked Lynch as Treasurer in 1977, he kept him as deputy because of his deal-crunching abilities. Peter Costello managed the transition from Downer to Howard, and Bishop from Nelson to Turnbull to Abbott.

Ineffective deputies undermine their leaders, either through mendacity (e.g. William McMahon 1966-71, John Howard 1982-85, Andrew Peacock 1987-89) or incompetence (e.g. Michael Wooldridge 1993-94). Ineffective deputies create a sense among Liberal MPs that nothing is settled and nothing is possible, and that engaging in leadership speculation (which an effective deputy roots out at every opportunity, or else rides when it becomes overwhelming) and gossip is no more/less useful than anything else.

Bishop was a dealmaker. She kept in contact with stakeholders, understood what they wanted and didn't want, and cut deals that stuck. Liberal MPs who opposed Howard's treatment of asylum-seekers were prevented from crossing the floor, from embarrassing their leader for the sake of a policy that has since proven illusory, through a combination of honeyed words and threats from Bishop. She cut a deal among squabbling wheat farmers, putting her own skin in the game as a Western Australian (WA wheat farmers play a more significant role in that state's Liberal Party than is the case in other states), which may yet count against her now that she is weakened.

Abbott isn't a dealmaker. He'll say anything and will go back publicly on what he said privately if it suits him. He has no experience in law and/or business. He wasn't a factional leader and fears the perception of getting rolled. Nelson wasn't a dealmaker either, operating under the patronage of powerful backers both at the AMA (Bruce Shepherd) and in politics (Howard); a natural deputy, but no leader. Like Abbott he was unable to make the transition from protege to patronage-giver.

Turnbull, of course, was a dealmaker, given his legal and business experience; but in Sydney since the 1980s legal and business leaders aren't Liberals. They were when Howard was learning the ropes in the 1960s and '70s, but that is one ladder that has fallen down since Howard climbed it. Political dealmaking is a different matter altogether from dealmaking in the Sydney business community, as Turnbull has either learned too late or not at all. This division is probably true of Melbourne, though to a lesser extent, and there won't be any Liberal PMs from there any time soon anyway. Elsewhere in the country, such as in Perth, senior legal/business people are still also senior Liberals - so when Bishop became a trusted dealmaker in one sphere she could straddle them all.

Bishop had gained a perception of strength from having kept her position while two leaders lost theirs. Until last week, a weakened Abbott needed Bishop more than she needed him. Nobody in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party could do what she does in terms of dealmaking and smoothing ruffled feathers. Western Australian Liberals deferred to her as the nearest thing they've had to a Liberal PM. Bishop has lost the credibility and the status necessary to make deals stick, without anyone else having gained it.

People on Twitter who'd never vote Liberal mocked Bishop's mechanical approach to asking niggling, minor questions of the Prime Minister, yet again wasting the opportunities of Question Time to gather information about how a government is working. This is highly esteemed in the modern Liberal Party. Liberals respect plugging away at a doomed activity far more than taking a punt on an idea that might be costly and not work. Bishop should have come out of this week strengthened within her party, however much she was diminished publicly by flogging an issue that started small and only got smaller.

When Peter Slipper became Speaker, Christopher Pyne frantically nominated half the ALP caucus instead, all of whom declined; again, most people viewed this with mirth or incredulity but for Liberals, Pyne was being a loyal soldier in the face of enemy fire. His effete mannerisms and history of moderation will be forgiven if he's loyal. So it is with Bishop's personal vanity and being from a small but bumptious state. Malcolm Turnbull knows this too, which is why he won't challenge Abbott before the next election; he is wearing ashes-and-sackcloth by professing loyalty to a lesser man as leader and spouting much the same pathetically inadequate policy that the Coalition took to the last election.

The modern Liberal Party is not for people who take initiative - this is a matter for history and rhetoric only, from when the party was dominated by small businesspeople. The modern Liberal Party is for people who carry out the brief set for them and do not question it. This is why drones like Julie Bishop have thrived while more subtle minds have floundered.

Bishop's skittishness in the face of her meetings with shadowy figure surrounding the AWU has proven to be her undoing in the absence of a knock-out blow against Gillard. The phone dropped out, I only met him for coffee etc., these are the classic evasions of a politician in over their head. Peter Costello would have distanced himself from grubs such as Blewitt - but Bishop's from Perth, you'd never drink coffee in that town again if you limited yourself to only dealing with the true and the good.

A Liberal Party with initiative would have steered away from Gillard's personal life and used their accumulated trivia about the AWU to profess concern about union members, using that as cover (along with the HSU saga) to impose the governance on unions that would make it difficult for them to support and nurture the ALP. They could have neutralised their negative perceptions about industrial relations, the issue that stopped Abbott in 2010 and on which he (and Shadow Minister Abetz) has made zero progress since. Oh well, too late now.

Abbott doesn't look good for letting Bishop carry the Gillard-AWU issue (to use the label on Credlin's folder - photo courtesy of Fairfax):

Bishop's tragedy is the Liberal Party's tragedy, and it comes in two parts. First, Bishop did what she was told but it wasn't good enough. It has made her look stupid rather than strong - all the more so for lacking the initiative to demand someone else do the dirty work (such as Abetz, for example, in a house where Gillard would not monster him directly). The Liberal Party has a weakened leader and a weakened deputy, and for what?

The second is that Bishop, Credlin, and Abbott have underestimated Gillard. They don't have a plan B if she fights back - and the more effective she is when she fights back, the more likely the PM is to do it again and again, meaning the poverty of simply assuming she will simper or weakly stonewall when challenged is exposed. Effective deputies have a role in getting the measure of their opponent and standing up to a leader who makes the wrong call.

Had Abbott led the attack on Gillard-AWU he would almost certainly be finished. Bishop would support her fourth leader and the Liberal Party would go forward, with a fresh leader stealing Gillard's oxygen. Her ability to make and enforce deals within the Liberal Party and with major stakeholders outside it would be intact. Until this week, Bishop could have demanded the leadership herself after being such a loyal deputy, and she would have been put there had Abbott been felled by an explicitly sexist event.

Abbott has certainly removed Bishop as a threat to his own position, and has avoided being thrown under the bus himself. It was a feature of the Liberals in the 1980s-90s when leaders started to be regarded in insider-politics terms for the hits they scored against their own deputies. Treating a woman (who has supported him) in a shabby fashion will not help Abbott at all.

Bishop is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is not a policy area which shifts a lot of votes but taking it seriously is the difference between a credible alternative government and a bunch of bludgers who just want another crack at all the perks. Mark Latham thought he could afford to be a foreign policy lightweight in 2004, and he was wrong. If you're going to complain about defence spending, if you're going to talk about trade and jobs created through export, if you're going to talk about immigration, you need a foreign policy framework.

Julie Bishop has done nothing in this area. Her experience as Education Minister might have been useful in the debate over Asian languages. Her lawyerly ability to master a brief might have yielded a respectable if limited policy. It is now clear, however, she won't develop any ability to do so. No other current Liberal MP has or can, including (especially!) Josh Frydenberg.

Other candidates for Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party lack what she had before this week:
  • Joe Hockey comes from the same state as Abbott and will always be seen as a rival. HOCKEY DECLARES FULL SUPPORT will become one of those zombie stories that no mere fact can kill. He can cut a deal but needs to be detail-focused and disciplined to compensate for Abbott's shortcomings;
  • Peter Dutton comes from a state which should be represented in the leadership group, where the Coalition must hold all they have and advance if they are to win. However, Dutton has also been policy-lazy in a key area, and he doesn't compensate for Abbott's weaknesses - he's a wooden personality, not particularly fast off the mark, and would (like his home state's Deputy Premier) be more likely to crack down on dissent rather than manage it productively and subtly;
  • Chris Pyne. Stop laughing, he's a serious candidate. It would raise his profile in his seat, and he could devolve the attack-poodle persona to others. He could switch to the kinder, gentler face of Abbott much as Bishop did does; and
  • Insofar as Bishop attracted female support for the Liberal Party, there is no woman who could credibly step up as Abbott's deputy. Mirabella? Sussan Ley? Teresa Gambaro?
Bishop has been exposed as a lightweight before, with outsourcing work submitted under her name to a book by Peter van Onselen. She floundered as Shadow Treasurer. Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Trade Minister Craig Emerson are essentially setting their own pace because Bishop offers them no opposition to speak of. This time it matters. The failure of Gillard-AWU shows Bishop can't master a brief and execute it. She lacks the sense to avoid consorting with grubs while criticising the PM for doing exactly that. Now that it's becoming clear that Abbott can't beat Gillard, it's now starkly apparent Bishop has no clue either.

The Liberals will probably become a rabble over Christmas-New Year. Abbott will look weak and won't be able to rely upon anyone to charm/heavy the miscreants back into place. The wheat farmers of WA will attempt to meddle in Bishop's urban electorate. The Gonski reforms that start with today's legislation are designed to correct inaction on Bishop's part when she was Education Minister under Howard, and if Gillard ever has to dispense with bilateralism to get these reforms through then she will inject this into public debate good and hard.

Liberals are entitled to despair of their predicament, and if they can't take on their leader (who is protected by the National Right) then they will savage the deputy, even though the alternatives aren't great. Bishop could retreat and come back, like Howard; but she lacks Howard's commitment, patience and humility. She can't cut a deal any more, she's finished. Maybe she could go back to Perth and land some directorships, and if they become more attractive than the toxic environment of Canberra then she'll be off in a flash.

It's too late for the Liberals to develop a vision and from that a comprehensive suite of policies as an alternative to the incumbents. At the very least, however, they need a plan B for when attacks blow back on them. Bishop launched into an attack on Gillard without a plan B, and now it is Bishop, not Gillard, who has had the worst of it. Bishop's absence of a plan B does nothing to soothe jittery Liberals, but encourages Labor and gives them a momentum that can roll over zombie stories.

Liberals knew Abbott was imperfect, but with him and Bishop both on the ropes and no strong alternative that fits the Howard Restoration narrative, they are cruelly exposed. They could prise a feeble Labor government from office but not a strong one. They overestimated their own strength, and those of their leaders, while underestimating the growing strength of Gillard Labor. Having changed leaders so often, the Liberals have come to rely on their deputy more profoundly than on the leader pro tem. You can put up an umbrella when it starts to rain but when the levee breaks ...

25 November 2012

The story that killed the story

The idea that Prime Minister Gillard did something dodgy in relation to legal arrangements for some sub-factional entity within the AWU back in the day had been a big story. Nothing of substance has been newly revealed about this matter for months, yet it continues to chew up prime space on the nation's news - not for the story that it was, but for the story it might have become. As with Peter Slipper's texting and Craig Thomson's alleged rorting-'n'-rooting, this has been another non-story that has dragged on and on - putting the lie to the idea that anything might be considered "old news" or "not significant enough for a serious news outlet like ours".

Any questions that might have hovered over the PM have been put to rest by this (Thanks to @Tadlette for taking the screenshot and providing me with a copy). There is now no more story, no cause for whipping up insignificant events from almost two decades ago and pretending they form a basis for news. That story has killed the story.

Let's leave aside the fact that the headline refers to the Prime Minister by her given name, in the way they never did with Kevin or John or Paul or Bob. Back in the day there were occasional references to "Mal" as an attempt to familiarise an aloof character, and "Gough" and "Billy" were only referred to thus after they had left office.

Let's leave for others the questions over the integrity of those who accuse raise legitimate questions make mountains out of molehills. Let's go instead to the political tactics at the core of this sleaze campaign, of which who paid for Blewitt's flight is but a mere detail. I laughed at the photo montage insisting that Gillard was a "key player" when the story shows she isn't. The story has been changed since I first linked to it. News Ltd later altered the story to this, so that they could keep the story going.

Julie Bishop, the Shadow Foreign Minister, had carriage of this line of attack upon the Prime Minister. Bishop is an experienced lawyer; she's had cases die on her before today. When she acted for CSR against Wittenoom victims, her central and apparently sole tactical maneuver seemed to be to wait for plaintiffs to die. She's brought the same level of savvy to this high-stakes affair, going into a knife-fight armed with a plastic splayd.

She is up an environmentally-unfriendly creek without means of propulsion, and has nobody to blame but herself for not having spoken with Wilson drectly. Her predecessor as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Peter Costello, would never have allowed himself to be caught out to the extent that Bishop has. She is no use to her leader at all. She is never going to get Mal Washer to shut up about asylum-seekers now, never going to stitch together any sort of deal on wheat or any other important domestic issue, and will never be regarded in Jakarta or Geneva or anywhere else as anything more than a punchline. She's finished.

To understand the depth and breadth of her failure, let us compare-and-contrast her to another nasty, sand-groping, flamed-out Liberal.

Recently Wilson Tuckey made life difficult for Bishop over wheat - once again, getting involved without leading, and leaving no trace of or scope for a positive outcome for anyone. If he had really wanted to wig Bishop out, Tuckey should have pointed to his own silly face and said: look at me, Julie, I am your future.

In 1986 Wilson Tuckey seized on reports that the then Treasurer, Paul Keating, had been sued for breach of contract by a former fiancee. He had meant to use a schoolboy jeer, "Paul had a little girl called Christine", but in the heat of the moment he transposed the names and looked stupid. Paul Keating tore Tuckey several new ones, cementing his reputation as a tough guy and Tuckey's as a sleazebag. Keating then famously turned to Tuckey's then-leader, John Howard, and promised that Howard would wear his leadership like a crown of thorns; nailing both the attacker and the leader who had pretended to be above it all.

Tuckey sealed his reputation when he boasted on Four Corners of lying to Howard in 1989 while dumping him as Liberal leader. About a decade later, Tuckey called Kim Beazley "a fat so-and-so", and Beazley's popularity shot up. Tuckey never made it into Cabinet; the insult to Beazley had more impact than any policy measure he implemented as Minister for - um, whatever, trees I think. Tuckey spent thirty years in our parliament and achieved less for the public in nett terms than almost all current and former local councillors, schoolteachers, emergency service workers, cleaners, or shiny-bum clerks. Remember that when you hear that politics is the highest form of public service.

If Tuckey had held his seat in 2010, Julie Bishop would now be in Cabinet and Julia Gillard would not.

Julie Bishop is as exposed as Tuckey was, except he had no reputation for niceness or diplomacy to lose as Bishop has. If the government went after Bishop there would be a bit of half-hearted chivalry from Abbott and Hockey, but it would be a deeper wound for the Liberals than yet another barrage against Abbott. Bishop, remember, is the Liberals' most substantive appeal to female voters. This time yesterday she was the nice one, the brains of the Coalition outfit. The day before, Abbott engaged in a, um, ah, piss-poor attempt at, um, insisting that the PM answer questions, ah, without, um, articulating what those questions might be. This attack has happened on Abbott's watch and Abbott must pay for its failure; but cutting his deputy out from under him would be the sort of gut-wound that neither Abbott nor his party could salve, let alone heal.

I would now expect The Australian (Financial Review) to set up a webcam at Cheviot Beach, just incase 104-year-old Harold Holt emerges from the surf and wants his old job back. This is every bit as valid a story as the Wilson-Blewitt AWU thing. Politically, Holt is a proven election-winner and wrote the book on being a loyal deputy - and his future is every bit as bright as that of Julie Bishop. Given that the Perth legal market has changed beyond recognition since Bishop left for Canberra in 1998, she could do worse than waddle up and down Cottesloe Beach getting Life After Failure tips from the Bond family.

23 November 2012

The unauthorised voice

I have a right to be heard and so do you. This is a democracy and you have the right to have your voice heard. Having your voice listened to is quite another matter. Political parties used to provide a vehicle for aggregating the voices of (reasonably) like-minded citizens. Paula Matthewson unwittingly identifies another reason for party membership to dry up in terms of numbers and ideas: the rise of a professional political class, of which she is a member, trumping genuine community activism and replacing it with synthetic polls and cynical astroturfing.

Even the most deeply felt, widely held and well-researched ideas on policy were quietly strangled by the likes of Grahame Morris and Bruce Hawker, with their half-baked soundings of talkback radio. Matthewson makes sweeping assertions about a technology where preferences are shaped by the user: she reveals a lot about her preferences and less about Twitter itself. Her "echo chamber" thing is pretty funny when you consider she blocked me for offering different views to hers.

Matthewson ignores the similarities between talkback and Twitter to the detriment of her argument. Outrage over introspection? Yep. Toward the end of her piece her argument runs away with itself, not unlike the very Twitter memes she criticises:
What did Twitter actually do to find Jill Meagher? The same as it did to stop Kony: not much other than generate a lot of clicks. It has subsequently done nothing to make the streets safer at night, and some elements of Twitter have even campaigned against expansion of the CCTV system that ultimately helped to locate the missing journalist.
This would invite satire ("Twitter killed my dog! Twitter ate my lunch! Twitter made my girlfriend drop me for another man!") were it not for the core fact someone has died, and that Matthewson dismissed the event in an attempt to get at social media.

Social media (of which Twitter is one aspect) ensured that Jill Meagher was not just another missing-person statistic. Her disappearance heightened awareness of violence in the area where she went missing, an area where such events were rife. Reported acts of violence have declined despite Matthewson's idle claims to the contrary. As to "some elements of Twitter" (by this she means "some individuals") disagreeing with others? Well, you never get that on rigidly moderated talkback radio, or in the so-called "message discipline" of the politico-media environment in which she operates, so imagine her surprise.
What did Twitter do to make Alan Jones stop being disrespectful to the Prime Minister and other women? Other than provide a rallying point for people to voice their displeasure and threaten consumer boycotts, Twitter did nothing to change Jones' chauvinism, or discredit it in the eyes of his audience.
What did you expect: develop an app that would clap a hand over his gob and say to him "I know what you're about to say, so don't cost yourself and your station millions of dollars and shut your trap"?

Social media didn't just threaten Jones, the warning shots went straight to his hip-pocket nerve: Matthewson either knows this or wasn't paying attention. She has, curiously, paid much greater attention to talkback radio than to Twitter, a sign of confusion among a political class with little feeling for those they purport to govern.
Admittedly, Twitter did rally to protect whistleblower Peter Fox from attempts to demolish his reputation.
Some "elements" did, the better ones.

She doesn't really believe that because it doesn't fit her overall argument. She did it because of this strong and clever piece of journalism, bringing together a range of known facts to make a case that challenges what we thought we knew. Matthewson's piece flinches before and slides around the points made by Smith, but the real audience for it is not you or me but the new editor of The Drum, Chip Rolley.

Rolley is not going to publish the work of an irregular contributor unless it is anodyne and does not ruffle the feathers of in-house ABC people to the point where it becomes difficult for him to hold his own at staff drinks functions, thanks very much. His current post is but another rung on a ladder of all-care-no-responsibility schmoozing roles, like Leo Schofield without taste or wit, and he won't have much truck with Unauthorised Voices - even if the future of his industry depended on it. He'll notice you when you walk through his "open door" and schmooze him, just as if he were editor of The Australian Women's Weekly or Quadrant or Today Tonight.

There have been calls for a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse for decades. Those calls are no less urgent for Matthewson and Rolley ignoring them, for the sheer affrontery of their being Unauthorised (those who protect the perpetrators don't want for Authority, as well as public and covert influence). History will discredit John Howard for not calling one in 2003 after the disgrace of Governor-General Hollingworth, no matter what Matthewson might say about "Howard Haters". Social media brought it forward and imposed the idea onto both a government and an opposition that had other priorities, and which were both disinclined to co-operate with the other. Neither talkback radio or GetUp can claim credit for that.

What is "the Twitter collective" of which she writes? Once you realise the very idea is bogus, and that her echo chamber (and Rolley's) must be yours too, her argument becomes so frail that it only works for those with no actual experience of Twitter or other forms of social media.

She could have at least had the good grace to point out that the founder of GetUp is moving on to old-school political activism of running for parliament. If the Greens do win a Senate seat in the ACT it will almost certainly be at the expense of Liberal Senator Gary Humphries, whose re-election is complicated by Abbott's promise to sack 12,000 to 20,000 public servants.
Effective campaigns deliver votes, change minds or influence behaviour. When Twitter starts producing these types of outcomes it will be making a real difference. And that's when we'll be able to tweet "Thanks Twitter!" without it being the ultimate act of self-parody.
Depends who you mean by "we", really, and to whom the votes are delivered. Twitter people are well-informed people, while old-school politico-media types tend to be about the fudge and the spin. Matthewson's piece reminds me of similar efforts from between the World Wars, where opinionistas mocked the early sputtering days of horseless carriages by comparison with the noble steed. The failure of imagination to the point of please-ambush-me vulnerability is hilarious, all the more so for being unintended.

Social media allows for the proliferation of Unauthorised Voices. Political professionals disdain social media but the smarter ones keep an eye on it. Once social media starts jamming the gears of some big wheels, the smarter ones like Matthewson will present themselves as having power over these media - Matthewson has a high Klout score, a blog and a strong Twitter presence. The mockery is appropriate to some fuddy-duddy who disdains what they do not know, but you can't be that engaged without knowing the disconnect between the front presented to Drum readers and the deft handling across various platforms in pursuit of issues important to her.

With pieces like this, Matthewson illustrates a let-them-eat-cake disconnect by the political class with those who pay taxes and are subject to the regulations for which she lobbies. Focus groups or polling can be more or less illustrative, but cannot really help advocates of narrow interests to appreciate more general, longer term interests.

19 November 2012

Liberals afraid of ideas

There was a time when people would join the Liberal Party as a way of making their concerns felt, and having a more direct, active and ongoing input into government decision-making than was the case merely by voting every few years. Under Tony Abbott, the party's policy-generation capacity has been exhausted. Liberals are actually afraid of ideas.

Earlier today Abbott announced a proposal for a Productivity Commission inquiry into childcare. This is not the same as announcing a policy on childcare. It is not the same as having a clear idea about what people need from childcare. Even if there was a bit of barrow-pushing from childcare providers, that would be a sign of life in policy terms.

Margie Abbott endorsed Abbott's statement but it was not clear what, in childcare policy terms or in actual outcomes, she was endorsing. It wasn't clear how her experience was being put to good use. Jeanette Howard or Therese Rein would have gleefully pointed out something that she had a hand in making happen, and then retreated back to the shadows; the expression on Margie Abbott's couldn't have been any more strained if she had a revolver jabbed between her shoulderblades.

I have two children aged under five: an announcement about childcare cuts through the static. In Abbott's announcement was, however, pretty much static. With "labour market flexibility", you need to be able to drop your kids off at childcare outside as and when required, rather than being locked in to a set number of days for a set number of weeks as per current policy. The childcare centre that Margie Abbott runs at St Ives opens no earlier than 8.30 am and closes at 3.30 pm - utterly useless for anyone who works full time. Even to speak of "labour market flexibility" would require Abbott to deal with workplace reform, the third rail of conservative politics. It's easier for him to hide behind the grey cardigan of the Productivity Commission than take such a stand.

At least Abbott's announcement knocked this into a cocked hat. As I said at the time - scroll down to the comments and search for my name - Josh and Alan are just another couple of Canberra elitist shinybums with no idea about childcare/early childhood education.

Other "announcements" of this type include:
  • A Working Group to Grow Tasmania,comprised of people who have contributed nothing so far and offer little going forward, by contrast with specific and costed bandwagon-jumping measures for infrastructure in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne;
  • A Working Group on Red Tape, featuring career public servants, which ignores the prospect of software overcoming "pages and pages of documents";
  • On foreign language teaching, there is a bit of an imperative to "work urgently with the states to ensure", but nothing at the tertiary or primary levels;
  • Simultaneously welcoming and discouraging foreign investment in agriculture;
  • When it comes to marine park assessment, there is a lot of Canberra-shinybum activity; private member bills here and committees there, and referrals, as well as advice that is supposed to be "independent" (of what? of whom?), as though marine scientists grow on trees. As though an Abbott government would respect a scientific opinion he didn't like.
These committees have increased in number at the very time when doubts have been aired from within Coalition ranks as to the nature and quality of its leadership, and whether the incumbents are best placed to lead them to government. When you understand the imperative to create make-work schemes for restive Canberra shinybums, you understand how red tape grows and how hard it can be to cut it back. They aren't taking input from Liberal branches either.

Peter van Onselen decries formerly moderate Liberals for neither departing public life or making bigger targets for his employer. He starts with a bit of duff taxonomy:
The first barrier to moderate tendencies again securing a say within the Liberal Party is the rise of the non-ideological, marginal-seat MP. They are tribal warriors who know little about why they joined the Liberal Party, other than they dislike the ALP. Normally they are dissatisfied with the government of the day, or would not have been able to win preselection for the other side because they weren't in a trade union.
Really? Looking at this list of Liberal MPs, with the most marginal ones at the top of the list, few actually fit this bill. Most seem to have entered parliament when the Howard government was in office - so much for Labor dissatisfaction. Many newbie MPs on that list, such as Alan Tudge (Aston, V) or George Christensen (Dawson, Q), have long records of political activism that belie van Onselen's attempts to label them political blow-ins.
Perhaps having dabbled in small business, usually unsuccessfully (why else would they transition into politics)
Oh come on: Russell Broadbent (McMillan, V) ran a successful furniture business on Melbourne's outskirts. The three most marginal Coalition seats are held by former public servants. Liberal MPs with a background in small business have usually been successful for a long time and looking for a change in direction, not minding either the decline or steadiness of income. There are aberrations - the less said about Craig Kelly the better, and I disdain ex-staffers who go into lobbying as 'businesses' worth the name.

The Liberals have run out of new ideas. The central weakness of conservatism is that it cannot distinguish fads from lasting change. If the moribund party organisation is stuffed with lobbyists, whose agendas fill the space where local people's policy ideas used to be, then politicians will be less beholden to their communities than ever. Politics will become an apprenticeship for a career in lobbying, where representing general interests merely sharpens skills and builds contacts for representing small-scale interests. Nobody will be able to say "Thanks, Liberal Party!" for future policies with which they agree, because it has become a hollowed-out vehicle loaded by others rather than a political force in itself.

Now that the Gillard government looks less likely to lose by default, the Liberals will have to redouble their focus on state governments or else start the hard work of rebuilding for 2016. There are questions about the extent to which the straw men named by van Onselen can or will be part of that, as they all share the dread of repeating the ideological brawls of the 1980s and '90s.

Policies show that a party is listening and thinking, that it is comprised of people who are citizens before they are partisans. The Liberals sneered at Rudd in 2007 for promising to "hit the ground reviewing". Abbott is promising much the same except he isn't a kinder-gentler version of anything or anyone. At the 2013 election he is on track to hit the wall, not the ground. The Coalition won't be reviewing - they'll be recoiling and recriminating.

A political party that does not generate and stick by its own ideas will go the way of the Democrats, unelected and unmissed, because there are real issues that demand the focus that they lack.

11 November 2012

An economist at sea

Christopher Joye is an outstanding economic commentator. His pieces for The Australian Financial Review on economics reveal deep understanding and broad reading on economic matters, like this one; he's not afraid to irritate those who need to be irritated. His writing is generally courteous to the point of being old-fashioned. His pieces on matters other than economics are, unfortunately, not of the same standard - and worse, they are becoming increasingly frequent.

Take this piece for example. It's stupid. It looks sensational and got a lot of attention on Twitter, particularly from people who like Joye's economics stuff and who assume - wrongly - that he can turn his hand to reporting any old thing. A closer reading reveals Joye basically interviewed one superannuated rear-admiral and simply transcribed what he said, Latika Bourke-style, without really thinking about it but padding out the word-count.

Joye got this story, drilling into the inner reserve of substantive thought on the part of the Coalition, through his connections with the Coalition. His parents were mates with Malcolm Turnbull and Joye recently wrote a puff-piece on Hockey that make him seem safe to a bunch of people every bit as paranoid about the media as the government.

It would be stupid for the Royal Australian Navy to adopt nuclear submarines. It's not even a new idea. Joye has no excuse to take this crap on face value.

He's an economist. Building a nuclear enrichment and processing capability for military purposes would take vast amounts of money and considerable amounts of human resources at all levels of skill and training; more than are available at present to a short-staffed navy either as crew or on-shore maintenance.

He's a resident of Sydney's eastern suburbs. Not even the sort of government led by Abbott, careening between the inadequate and the insane, would install nuclear maintenance facilities at Garden Island (which is in the eastern suburbs) or at the submarine base at HMAS Platypus (which is just across the harbour from the eastern suburbs, in Hockey's electorate) Stirling, in Perth. There would have to be a new nuclear submarine facility set up somewhere far from Sydney Harbour or Perth - but not so far that it would be taken out by a first strike like northern Australian port cities were by the Japanese in 1942, or so unpleasant that nobody but pusser die-hards would want to work there.

He shouldn't have to wait for the Premier of South Australia, of all people, to put out a press release to examine the sorts of issues raised in this.

And so it falls to me, a blogger with meagre qualifications in history and IT, to do the economic analysis work on this proposal that Joye (a professional, highly-regarded economist with a PhD in economics) has neglected to do:
  • First, the next government is going to spend billions of dollars building and securing military nuclear facilities; and then
  • Secondly, they are going to recruit, train and equip a workforce to operate these bad boys; and
  • Thirdly, junk their whole cautious budget approach (fewer tax receipts and additional spending commitments notwithstanding), because the whole country will appreciate this bit of infrastructure just as much as some old rear-admiral does; and
  • The Treasurer who will do this will be the one whose constituents (and indeed whose family) live not far from the sub base; and finally
  • Only if we write off the enormous start-up costs and wildly underestimate operating costs will nuclear-powered submarines make any sort of economic sense.
Yeah, that will work. Put it out there Chris, the punters will love that. The very sort of thing to send AFR circulation and credibility skyrocketing. We can bash Gillard for failing to implement a not-very-good idea from fifty years ago, because that's how we make the Fin relevant in today's competitive market.

There are a whole lot of concerns about nuclear proliferation here too - but I don't care about those, Joye and the people he quotes don't either, and there is no evidence that the government or opposition do. Still, maybe there's a story in it, maybe not.

I can understand Joye being taken in by a retired rear-admiral, and lacking the skill to question him on military matters (in his time as a journalist, Turnbull would have done a bit of a swot and would have been less afraid to put tough questions to the old man). I cannot understand Joye suspending his economic judgment over whether such a proposal was even a good idea. This is how smart people make dumb decisions, not only Joye but his misled readers.
Privately, some defence ministers in Asia support Australia obtaining nuclear-powered submarines because of mounting tensions with China, which has territorial disputes with India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, sources said ...

“Australia would be much better served with nuclear rather than conventional submarines based on our strategic requirements and my experience commanding both,” [Rear-Admiral Clarke] said. “Provided the right questions are asked at the right level, I’d be very surprised if the US did not favourably consider this.”
In that case, they can fucking well pay for them.
Former submariner Rex Patrick, who trains the Australian, Malaysian and Singaporean navies in undersea warfare, says, “Australia’s annual submarine cost is approaching $1 billion. This has given us a pedestrian capability that usually delivers only two deployable boats. For $2 billion, we could build four Type 214s, which would supply navy with a dependable, high-end platform that meets 90 per cent of our requirements.”
The "Type 214s" refers to a German design that is designed for the cold, deep waters of the North Atlantic rather than the warmer and relatively shallower waters to Australia's north. That 10% requirements gap is a worry - to use a journo-cliche, the devil is in the details - and the doubling of expenditure is almost certainly not on.

To depart from Joye - why are submarines so labour-intensive? I accept that submarines are vital elements of Australia's defence, and an area where we - to use the dread phrase - punch above our weight. That said, it is stupid having so many personnel on board each one. Given that there is a dearth of personnel willing to work on submarines, why not turn this into an engineering challenge and have as few people as possible aboard them - or none. Drone submarines! Yes, the ten-year-old I once was smiles at the very idea. Pyow-pyow!

Times probably are tight at the AFR but this is the very point where resources must be put to best use, and no further trashing of the brand must be permitted. Christopher Joye is a fine economics commentator, and options for him to write sensible stories within his scope of competence should not be limited in a so-called financial review. He is the wrong person to allocate to idle non-stories like the submarine thing. Joye will survive as an economic commentator long after desperate and trivial ploys like this (or anything else Mike Stutchbury might do) have played out to nothing, and hopefully Joye will retain the wit and perspective to describe these days of hubris to us all.

Update 12 November: Reader, Joye has blocked me for the above.

He is squirting out articles on how wonderful nuclear submarines are by US academics, where they a) have different maritime priorities to ours and b) their Navy is regularly beaten by ours in tests of best use of submarine technology and c) the US has a mature nuclear power industry and we do not. Still, it exposes an important modus operandi of Joye's: cover up your lack of research by insinuating with People With Impressive Sounding Titles, rather than displaying any scrap of humility and good grace when caught napping.

Joye is out of his depth on journalism covering non-economic matters. He is seduced by all that journo crap of scoops, and of shrugging off/blocking criticism from readers - and even describing his output as a "yarn", giving no confidence as to accuracy. I could use another maritime analogy of rats deserting sinking ships, but Joye is demonstrating the reverse of this: sad, really.