29 July 2012

JG and the Premiers: the more things change

In 1968 the Prime Minister was John Gorton. He denied conservative Premiers in Queensland, NSW and Victoria access to "growth taxes" and thwarted the Queensland government's attempts to mine the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2012 the Prime Minister is Julia Gillard, the issue the NDIS. She didn't have to pick a fight with conservative Premiers, but if they were silly enough to play Abbott's "never give Labor an even break" game, they were bound to be played just as Abbott is being played.

The Productivity Commission said that the NDIS should be funded 100% by the Commonwealth, mainly because they have access to all those growth taxes (thanks to the Gorton government). The states do a lot of the service delivery work in disability services, and such services as disabled people and their carers do get from government tends to come from states/territories.

O'Farrell and Baillieu have grown-up, serious governing work to do, unlike Abbott. No Liberal State MP would go out meeting-and-greeting with Abbott. They realise Abbott is doing them no favours, so why should they go out of their way for him?

They were both quick and right to realise that the NDIS was one of the few issues in Australian public life where (even though it's still a theory and hasn't yet been tested) the very idea is so valuable that anyone who mucks about with it is politically dead. This sort of issue flies in the face of conventional political wisdom, where Australians are so materialistic that they'll keen for something that is taken from them but won't miss something that is promised but not delivered.

Rudd was finished after measures to deal with "the greatest moral challenge of our time" were promised but not delivered. Keating was finished after his "L-A-W" tax cuts were promised but not delivered. Political commentators get in such a flap when this happens, because they tend to be idiots. This sort of thing is not mentioned by polls.

In the late 1980s/early '90s both Nick Greiner and Jeff Kennett worked with Hawke and Keating on national reforms. Neither went too far out of their way for John Howard (though Kennett worked with Howard on his biggest reform, gun laws). This was as it should be.

I have no idea why the Hunter (NSW) or the Geelong-Barwon area (Vic) are those states' chosen venues for the NDIS. Do those areas have high numbers of disabled people and carers? I know that those areas tend to have lower incomes than those in the capital, but this again is a failure of political journalism. It's possible the press gallery was given that information at a press conference or in a briefing document, but they are too lazy to review their notes and it's just easier to talk about polls or whatever.

The Premier of Queensland offhandedly nominated Gympie as his preferred location for the NDIS trial. Has the Queensland government done a cost-benefit analysis on Gympie vs other places in Queensland? Again, he demonstrated no real reason why it should be preferred over anywhere else. Gympie and surrounding areas is one of the lowest-income areas in the country, but as to its disability stats ... then it struck me. After its penny-ante culture-war targeting of Aborigines, litterateurs and gays/lesbians for budget cuts, after e-mail gaffes about feminism, it's entirely possible that the Queensland Government nominated that town because it is a homophone for an insult often applied to disable people: gimpy. A Gimpy Scheme for Gimpy Town. Yes, it's awful; but make the case that the Queensland Government is above that.

Abbott and Newman said that they are supporters of the NDIS but given that neither man has committed to funding it, what does this "support" mean? Naturally, Michelle Grattan takes Abbott at his word but she should be questioning what he means. Neither she nor the ABC's Marius Benson questioned the Federal Opposition what they meant when their spokesperson said stuff like this:
The National Disability Insurance Scheme, I think, is far too important to be mired in day to day partisan politics, which is why Tony Abbott wrote to Julia Gillard offering to establish a joint parliamentary committee to oversight the implementation of an NDIS to be chaired by the front benchers in the disability portfolio of both sides of politics.
Hmm, oversight by a parliamentary committee where one side can checkmate the other. That's the way to get things done.
MITCH FIFIELD: Joe Hockey is a big supporter of the NDIS, as is Tony Abbott, as am I. But Joe Hockey has been making the pretty self-evident point that the Government has only allocated $1 billion towards an NDIS over the forward estimates. The Productivity Commission over that timeframe said that there should be $4 billion. So the Government haven’t fully committed to an NDIS and they haven’t indicated where the bulk of the funds will come from. And they need to.
Any my goodness, can't you just take those guys at their word. Michelle Grattan does. Joe Hockey will demonstrate his commitment to the NDIS when he puts that $4b figure in his own forward estimates - and not before. That goes for Mitch (who worked under Barry O'Farrell in Bruce Baird's office).
The difficulty that we have at the moment is that the Commonwealth, the current Labor Government, haven’t sat down with the states and territories to talk about funding sources and funding shares.
Well Mitch, they did; and the states proposed $0, and apparently the Prime Minister wasn't being "bipartisan enough" by just accepting that's how it has to be.
No government can know what their funding share will be unless they actually sit down with the state jurisdictions and have those discussions.
What they need to do, Mitch, is have a trial and see how it all works, not just engage in your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine bluff and counter-bluff. Things are working out as they should.

That, Marius and Michelle, is how you do journalism - not just stick a microphone in front of someone and transcribe what they say.

Both of these supposedly experienced journalists relied heavily upon their shared fantasy that the Coalition will inevitably win the next election, which it won't and can't. The government has done a lot of work on the NDIS, consulting with interest groups to get the set-up right; the Coalition at state and federal level appear to have done no work at all. The NDIS is based on rights and responsibilities rather than charity and gratitude.

The Coalition would give us a cut-down, half-arsed version of an NDIS, as an act of charity rather than a manifestation of rights to those Australians who need more help than most. In this sense it would be like their not-the-NBN proposal or kind-of Medicare; a half-baked shambles deemed "good enough for the likes of you" by a bunch of Canberra shinybums. Only a federal election loss will knock this mentality out of them.

Maybe even that won't do it. In 1939 Robert Menzies claimed that he wanted to introduce a national insurance scheme, and resigned from the Lyons government because it rejected the proposal. 27 years later Menzies retired as the country's longest-serving Prime Minister and the insurance scheme proposal was no closer to realisation. Imagine if we'd had something like an NDIS in place for decades.

The idea of a levy to fund the NDIS comes from this mindset that throwing a few bucks to the disabled is an act of charity that you can turn off and on as pleases you. It was also a political trick; whether it's school reform or transport infrastructure the states don't care where Canberra get the money from, so long as they pay up.

The government should have sweetened an NDIS deal by offering to fund state/territory disability services without any loss in revenue transfers to the states, for early adopters. Barry O'Farrell is as concerned about vertical fiscal imbalance in 2012 as his predecessor Bob Askin was in 1968; ditto Baillieu for Bolte, Giddings for Reece, etc. They could have demonstrated the multiplier effect in delivering more services for less that the NDIS is supposed to provide. But, if the states are just going to say no then bugger 'em.

I'm glad that we'll have an NDIS. I'm glad that the Premiers of NSW and Victoria have come to recognise disabled people and their carers as a political force; unseen but substantial, like the icebergs that sunk the Titanic. I wish the Prime Minister would start mentioning it when asked what her government is doing to ease pressure on families.

19 July 2012

The trick for journalism courses

This article lifted the lid on how journalism graduates are educated. I have a strong interest in quality journalism and have a professional background in IT training, but this article failed to answer (despite promising to do so) some of the big questions of What Journalism Is or How You Tell Quality Journalism From Crap.
In Aaron Sorkin's new drama The Newsroom, idealistic twentysomethings rush about with BlackBerrys plastered to their ears, creating a groundbreaking quality TV news show, pausing only long enough to give set speeches about how to make quality journalism.

For those running journalism degrees, like me, it's manna from heaven. No doubt when it's aired it will do for journalism degrees what the Indiana Jones films did for archaeology degrees.

There's just one problem: there are hardly any journalists in it. Aside from the crusty anchor Will McAvoy and his executive producer, MacKenzie MacHale, the newsroom is made up of producers, bookers, researchers and a blogger. They're adept at reading a news wire, but no one seems to have any ability to produce original journalism.
Really? The above pretty much describes the outward appearance of activity from the ABC's Mark Colvin, who is widely regarded as one of the nation's leading journalists. His Twitter feed @colvinius shows him devouring The Guardian and The New York Times and then - having consumed all the journalism and passed it on, cementing his reputation as Mr Journalism - he then produces a radio show where he interviews journalists and asks them to summarise the press conference they attended/other original journalism they did.

Soon enough, Colvin is to deliver this year's Andrew Olle address, which will follow this formula:
  • He'll tell us all what journalism is (basically, it's what he learned as a copyboy; he'd never have made it beyond that rank had he believed otherwise. Insert nostalgic yarns about media in the 1960s/70s here, none of your e-Internet back then!);
  • How journalism is under threat by various forces the journalist has scarcely bothered to investigate in depth (is Murdoch a help or hindrance to Australian journalism? Pussyfoot around this question without resolving it, and make sure to cauterise the local operation from the UK despite all evidence to the contrary. This will make your address 'daring' and 'controversial', etc.);
  • But for all that, insist journalism will survive, oh yes;
  • Declare that all journalism is High Quality Journalism (in the same way that driving a bus is Precision Circuit Driving Of An Unwieldy Public Service On Which The Australian Public Relies), and any diminution of which is A Threat To Our Democracy; sonorously serious, a jarring departure from the waggish tales of a Working Journo that led up to this;
  • Take a swipe at those bogans on commercial radio/television (oh, except you Laurie), whose output is not at all like the waggish hi-jinks of the speech-maker's younger days; then
  • Shake a defiant fist and weep a few tears, pay due credit to what a top bloke and excellent journalist Olle was, and see you next year for more of the same.
Where is the journalism student who doesn't want to emulate Mark Colvin, and what's wrong with them?
Perhaps, with Fairfax and News recently announcing huge staff cuts, a newsroom without journalists is a sign of things to come. Where, then, does that leave journalism degrees?
Where does that leave Fairfax and News? They can't do just-the-facts reporting, because there is so much stuff coming out that each gobbet of mere reporting might please purists but it is just another drop in the tsunami. Besides, you can get just-the-facts reporting from plenty of other sources, including viewing the very press release that gave rise to a particular story.

But where does this leave journalism degrees? Sitting pretty, it would seem:
Journalism continues to be one of the most popular courses in universities and many attract the brightest students.
Sounds like you don't need that Indiana Jones boost, then.
The rise of journalism courses may seem counter-intuitive, given the state of the media business, but it's not as paradoxical as it sounds. The same forces that are disrupting the news business are also driving the popularity of journalism courses.

The development of freely available web publishing systems, free and low-cost video hosting platforms as well as social media - read "audience building tools" - have stripped traditional media companies of their monopoly on the production and distribution of content.
They have also meant that MSM companies can no longer provide comprehensive journalism training in-house, because they don't take the time to get across new systems and tools, they don't have the resources to use them if they did, and stories like this just frighten them. These organisations gained a lot of credibility within and beyond journalism for the provision of comprehensive journo-training. Old-timers who regard journalism as a trade rather than a profession, to be learned on the job and not in an ivory tower, have to face realities such as technologies (and other social changes, e.g. the pub is less of a happy-hunting-ground for stories than it might have been).

Will Sorkin's characters be using Blackberrys next season?
In many cases, the content on these sites is awful.
In many cases, MSM content isn't much chop either. To what extent are journalism courses responsible for this? To what extent do they, or can they, make things better?
But for more skilled and savvy producers, these platforms offer new opportunities to communicate directly with audiences.

Most medium-sized and large organisations now have dedicated media production teams. The university where I work produces its own content, including interviews with academics, short documentaries and opinion articles. In the past they would have distributed a press release and tried to get newspapers or TV stations interested in running the story; now they publish themselves.
This is all very well across multi-platforms, but there is not a lot of two-way engagement going on here. That's the main 2.0 difference that old-timey journalists can't and won't get, and it is doing a disservice to teach budding journos that communication is a one-way process.
Some will claim this is public relations, not journalism. In most cases, that's true. But the skills of a journalist and a PR professional are largely the same. If you doubt that, look at the revolving door between journalists turning PR professionals and, in some cases, back again.
Scanlon might be right here, but this isn't sustainable. Journalism used to be just about finding things out in an environment where information was scarce. We're in a different environment now. We need trusted advisors to help us through the information available, and show us what's bullshit, what's the good stuff.
In other cases, though, the content is journalism - or at least a form of journalism. It's simply storytelling about new developments. Most science reporting falls into this category, as do most human-interest stories. These are not insidious forms of PR that seek to manipulate people; it's just sharing stuff that people want to know. That's what most journalism is.
How do you know what people want to know? In PR you might know what people might need to say, which is why most PR reads like talking at an audience rather than to or with it. This perpetuates the old Voice From Nowhere style of journalism, where you can't tell whether or not the journalists/editors have an interest in the material presented in the story, and you can't engage with them anyway (particularly if the material is both fabricated and ethereal like the stuff Twitter users refer to as #leadershit). PR stops stories from happening in many cases; if journalists are taught how to get around PR to get their story (if there is a story to get), then they are educated well.
Does that mean everything is hunky dory? Not exactly. On a recent episode of Media Watch, Jonathan Holmes lamented the AFL setting up its own news service. Holmes doubted that AFL "journalists" would - or could - provide truly independent coverage of their employer. I share his doubts.
Sure, so long as neither Holmes nor Scanlon actually look at patterns of behaviour in sports journalism.

The number of journalists covering AFL is four times greater than there are covering federal politics. In many cases, they slavishly report whatever Andrew Demetriou says. In many cases, they bag the guy equally consistently. In many cases, they play favourites in overlooking outrages here and excoriating minor issues there. There is not a lot of fearless, investigative journalism going on into any aspect of AFL; everyone who covers it is a fan with their own loves and hates about particular facets of it. To get a clear picture of what is going on in AFL you have to wade through a great deal of crap and hype.

Scanlon and Holmes are wrong to imply that the quality of journalism in AFL will necessarily decline as a result of AFL bringing its media in-house. Having observed them up close the AFL has clearly decided that it can't be too hard to do what the MSM does. There might be some 1984-style alarmism over the control of information coming from an organisation about which there is a great deal of public interest, and it will be interesting to see whether or not this info-control freakery will damage the game as a whole. There is no reason why AFL is obliged to have big media companies siphon money from their product, as happened to rugby league at the hands of News Ltd.

What would Scanlon advise a student of his who went to work for AFL Media? That student would appear on the right side of graduate-employment stats that would flatter Scanlon and his employer, so what's the problem?
There are also real concerns about what happens to a democracy when large metropolitan newspapers cease to function in the manner to which we have become accustomed. The gaps they leave are not going to be filled by niche news services, no matter how well-intentioned.
Far more urgent are the concerns about what happens to a democracy when large metropolitan newspapers (and other media outlets) continue to function in the manner to which we have become accustomed. They ignore great swathes of facts about how we are governed, are too lazy to do analysis or even develop the skills to do so, and overstate the effect of corridor tittle-tattle on the ways we are governed and that our public services are delivered. The idea that they award one another prizes and engage in mutual reinforcement through poor education and circle-jerk events like the Andrew Olle, the Midwinter Ball, the Walkleys or [is there an awards ceremony for AFL journos? I bet there is. Insert it here] is revolting. Scanlon needs to investigate his role, and those of his colleagues, in perpetuating this toxic occupational environment.

If Scanlon was seriously concerned about threats to our democracy he should have made it more important in the story, and more evident in other aspects of his work. It's the act of a dilettante to go on about Indiana Jones and cool new technologies, and then casually drop threats to our democracy as a by-the-way down the end of his article.
The gaps they leave are not going to be filled by niche news services, no matter how well-intentioned.
They're a sign that Traditional Media ain't cutting it, Scanlon. You should be learning from those organisations, not treating them/us like a disease to which you have the cure.
The trick for journalism courses will be to work with news organisations to keep a robust ethos of news reporting alive, so that we will continue to have journalism in all its forms.
The trick for journalism courses (insofar as it is a "trick", rather than a challenge or a responsibility) is to be clearer about what the value proposition is for journalism for those who consume it, not just for those who produce it. Surely there is some university by-law where a student who writes as badly as Michelle Grattan should have to show cause why they should not be expelled. This will make for better PR too, as graduates would be better prepared to push back against poor strategy and accept the consequences of doing so, rather than just taking all those info-turds and rolling them in PR-glitter on the basis of what people like Christopher Scanlon have taught them.

16 July 2012

Sounding the Tom-Tom

This piece by Tom Switzer shows what happens when rightwing trolls get impressive-sounding titles but don't develop any social skills or any understanding of the field in which they purport to work. The title of this post is a bad pun but so are all those "Malcolm in the middle" references; a tom-tom is an empty vessel and while it can make a great sound, it is silent and inert until other forces act upon it. It is important not to regard Switzer as any kind of mover-and-shaker in himself but as a vessel for others.

That article shows the Liberal right are rattled. Tony Abbott is a barrier to the prospect of a Coalition government next year, but he is the most consistent rightwinger (if Abbott fell under a bus they would have to swing behind Kevin Andrews, and nobody wants that). If Abbott were not leader, the Coalition could plan for government more securely than it can at the moment, and present a mature and confident agenda to the people at the next election. As it stands, all Coalition resources are consumed with organising the next stunt, which might be all very well for an episode of dirtgirlworld but not for an alternative government. The Coalition under Abbott treat policy as an afterthought, so that Coalition frontbenchers and even senior business leaders sound like dills when they have nothing with which to press their advantage but half-baked talking points. That's why Liberal polling is not "a consistent pattern" but a mirage.

Stunts are all very well, but there must be an agenda behind them or they will have no lasting effect in terms of voting intentions. This is the lesson that Howard taught in 1995-96, but which Abbott has not learned; Howard could pull a stunt as well as anyone but he knew they were nothing without a consistent and substantial idea of what the Coalition would do in office.

The right were happy to keep the Coalition out of office indefinitely for the sake of purity. The fact that Abbott did well at the 2010 election surprised them as much as anyone else. The main reason for this is because Labor - and Kevin Rudd in particular - frittered away the goodwill their public gave them in 2007. The Liberals only do well when, and because, two things happen:
The proof of this is when Gillard gets up on her hind legs and dishes back to the Coalition what they dish out - they cannot cope and suffer a kind of political reflux when the government refuses to accept their narrative. Compare that to the calm progression of Barry O'Farrell in response to the meaningless activity of Kristina Keneally in NSW; Keneally was and is what dead-in-the-water looks like - Gillard isn't. O'Farrell had a long time to contemplate what it meant to govern New South Wales, and where he's struck trouble are in areas that he assumed were covered by others (in contrast to Rudd, whose control-freakery led to policy and political failure). O'Farrell has a political ballast that Abbott lacks. This is why he beat Abbott for the job of NSW State Director of the Liberal Party in 1994, and twenty years on it will explain why O'Farrell will feature in speculation about post-Abbott futures for the Federal Liberals.

Those moments of political reflux that cripple Abbott (and which have been happening increasingly frequently) cannot be explained by sad sacks like this or that who insist that Labor is bound for inevitable decline because people don't join unions or whatever. Australia can't be sustained on what little Abbott offers up, and Abbott's evanescent polling success cannot be seriously interpreted as though it can or will or must.

As for the Liberal right, their position is interesting: they got where they are by being rightwing but they can go no further by continuing on the same path:
  • If Abbott had been just a little open to the NBN and the possibility of even considering some sort of limited emissions trading scheme (say, based on soil carbon for farmers or CCS boondoggles), he'd be Prime Minister now.
  • The independents who stand between Abbott (and hangers-on like Switzer) and government - all conservative blokes - are just as determined to keep Tony Abbott out of office as any rusted-on rank-and-file trade unionist.
This is a political and tactical failure on Abbott's part, and on the part of those who run the Liberal right (Minchin, Abetz) it is a strategic, structural failure. All that no, no, no is Abbott being pure, the most purely rightwing leader in his party's history. In the neighbourhood where I live, dogs that are chained up bark and snarl much more than dogs that have the run of their yard; when you understand that, Abbott makes more sense than he might otherwise, and those who hate or fear The Situation might come to pity him eventually.

Now that we have dealt with the big issues, let us listen as with fresh ears to the echoes of the Tom-Tom. He doesn't start at all well:
What is it about Malcolm Turnbull that enraptures so many people?

At swanky dinner parties across town, you can be sure eyes will light up at the mere mention of the climate enthusiast, gay marriage advocate and former republican activist ...
"Climate enthusiast"! How on earth do you expect the guy to do any sensible analysis when he starts with silly descriptors like that? Does Switzer's penchant for turning conditioned air into poison gas make him an "oxygen enthusiast"? As for "gay marriage advocate", this is simply wrong. Like any good conservative, Switzer is puzzled by the future and bewildered by the present, but only the past is certain enough for him to get a grip on.
Take last week's Q & A ...
Oh, please - this pointy-headed academic seriously believes that a taxpayer-funded television program is a window into the soul of the nation.
... a panellist held up a placard which proclaimed "MALCOLM for PM" and implored her fellow guest to challenge Tony Abbott. With that, the studio audience burst into wild applause.
You'll notice that Q & A guests such as Sophie Mirabella or Christopher Pyne don't inspire the same reaction. Considered advice from Tom-Tom helped put Brendan Nelson where he is today, and at the time even committed Liberals couldn't quite come at "BRENDAN for PM" signs in public; so let's have a good look at history as Tom-Tom would have us do.
But an account of Turnbull's record as opposition leader three years ago helps explain why ordinary Australians shrug their shoulders with a profound lack of interest. All that he displayed as leader was an ignorance of his party's core beliefs, a detachment from a clear majority of the electorate, and his own arrogance and inexperience.
In 1992, the same indictment could have been was levelled at John Howard. Thank goodness we've go some of that historical perspective goodness, eh Tom-Tom?
Go back to those dark days of 2009 ... The Liberals lost their credentials as economic managers. And the leader's personal disapproval rating skyrocketed.
Leaving aside the polldust, the Liberals have not - in three years, and despite losing an election in the meantime - recovered economic credibility. Turnbull's disapproval as leader is about where Howard's was in the 1980s ad it's where Abbott's is now. Live by the polls, die by them - but conservatism is all about timeless truths, right? That, and light-entertainment shows on commercial television:
And yet Turnbull looked like one of those doctors in Grey's Anatomy who had observed the ailment but misdiagnosed it.
Grey's Anatomy has the same name as a medical textbook, which is why Tom-Tom has assumed that the show has the same authority as the textbook. Easy mistake to make, but no less a mistake for that.

Turnbull's most significant misdiagnosis was to stand against the economic policies of Rudd and Swan that pumped public money into the Australian economy as the global financial crisis was sucking money from it. He assumed that cost overruns on a school hall here or something else there was too trivial to worry about, whereas gruntback radio and Tony Abbott thought this kind of stuff was the main game. When Tom-Tom says:
Turnbull had failed to grasp that the key to successful opposition is to make and win arguments.
Sweating the small stuff and overlooking the forest/trees distinction is the key to staying in opposition, as Abbott is showing, not the key to moving from opposition to government. Tom-Tom makes this mistake in his key attack on Turnbull's legacy:
He insisted that failure to support Labor's emissions trading scheme would destroy the Coalition.

Journalists admired him for his courage and conviction in trying to stare down the party's sceptics. But it was a foolish and dangerous tactic, one that would be his undoing, and reveal his lack of political nous once and for all.
If Turnbull had survived as leader and Rudd had dropped the ETS, Turnbull would have gained the reputation for political nous that happened to fall on Abbott. The issue of government imposing an economic disincentive to carbon emissions can't be politicked away, and Tom-Tom is merely being sentimental in refusing to admit defeat.

Turnbull's position on climate change within the Liberal Party today is similar to that of Winston Churchill in British politics during the 1930s. The left of politics, from the mildest social democrat to the most radical communist, was opposed to Hitler. The right of politics was ambivalent at best, resenting the prospect of another costly war and its various appalling costs; the far right at the time included people who actually admired Hitler, crediting him for economic management and overlooking his human rights abuses. Churchill's economic management reputation wasn't great either, having been Chancellor of the Exchequer before and during the Great Depression. It was a lonely place to be, but Churchill stuck to his guns and won Conservatives over once the evidence in favour of his position could no longer be brushed aside.

Tom-Tom mocks Turnbull in his political loneliness and his out-of-step beliefs in similar childish terms to the mocking of Churchill by 1930s UK Conservatives. It's a classic dilemma of party politics that a successful party (that is, a party that can win elections and hold government, not just one that can bang away from opposition and attract journalists to its stunts) must be able both to hold its base and appeal to those beyond its base. I am aware of recent evidence from the United States which says that the base is more important than "the sensible centre", but for a range of reasons (about which, more later) that evidence does not translate to the Australian experience as well as those to blame for Tom-Tom might hope.
Such a strategy might resonate with global warmists who, in any case, won't vote for the party of Menzies.
The party of Menzies is nowhere in evidence:
  • Menzies put Australian immigration officials in strife-torn areas and facilitated the migration of hundreds of thousands of people by passenger liner and aeroplane to Australia.
  • Menzies recognised that the bounty from mining was to be invested in tertiary education and skills training.
  • Menzies knew that plutocrats were to be kept at a distance and were not to be seen to be influencing, let alone directing, policy outcomes to the extent that Rinehart and Palmer do.
  • Menzies was not a scientist, but he would have interrogated someone like Monckton to the point where his vaudeville act would have been a national laughing-stock.
  • Robert Menzies would never have been caught dead in a pair of sluggos.
Turnbull is more in tune with the party of Menzies than Abbott. This is why people who would never vote for an Abbott-led Liberal Party might vote for much the same party were it led by Turnbull. Had Turnbull held to the ETS and had the Liberal Party held to Turnbull, who knows what might have happened?
But it is self-evidently not in tune with middle Australia, where the centre of political gravity is decidedly to the right of your typical Q&A audience on a cold winter's night. To slam Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt might appeal to trendies in Glebe and Newtown, but it alienates your own people in the suburbs.
This bundle of begged questions and straw men is at the very heart of Tom-Tom's argument:
  • Bolt and Jones aren't middle Australia. Nobody who voted Coalition up to 2004, but who has voted Labor since 2007, buys what those characters are selling.
  • Glebe and Newtown aren't happy hunting grounds for the Liberals either. Nobody pretends they are. It's stupid even pretending that the Liberal Party led by Malcolm Turnbull would want to devote time and effort seeking votes there.
  • Depends what you mean by "slam[ming] Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt". Telling them that making the Clarence River flow westward rather than east is silly? Telling them that their jihad against any measures to abate climate change are against the national interest? Telling them that Aborigines can't define who Aborigines are? Telling them that it isn't "illegal" for people fleeing persecution to seek asylum here? Telling them that what attracts people to their business, and what's in the national interest - is that "slamming" them, let's have more of it. People need good government more than they need gibberers on the radio or TV.
  • Depends also what you mean by "your own people". If you have to put a few noses out of joint in safe seats on Sydney's North Shore to secure the extra votes that will win a seat in Melbourne, are you prepared to do it? Not if you're Tony Abbott or Tom-Tom, you don't. This is another reason why the polling numbers need not be so scary - I predict Abbott will make Liberal seats safer and will alienate Liberal voters in marginal seats, so that Labor picks up a few seats to win majority government.
Doesn't look so impressive once you unpack it. More like a defensive rant, the sort of thing on which Howard or David Clarke built formidable power-bases within the Liberal Party, but which leave everyone else outside the Liberal Party - including previously enthusiastic Liberal voters - cold.
Turnbull ran to the left of his party, even publicly denouncing his colleagues. Liberal Party members had been upset for months, angered by what they saw as their leader falling over himself to accommodate Labor at every turn. But discontent had also spread into the federal parliamentary party. A rebellion on his front and backbenches presaged his downfall.
Turnbull stayed where he had been as John Howard's Environment Minister. Howard took an ETS to the 2007 election. He didn't run anywhere, it was Minchin and Abbott and gutless little hangers-on like Tom-Tom or Tony Smith who ran to the media and began backgrounding them. If the right wing wanted to trash the Howard legacy in order to save it, that was up to them; let's not be confused about who did the running.
By making the case against Kevin Rudd's ETS, and then Julia Gillard's carbon tax, Liberals have won back key segments of working and lower-middle class families who are mortgaged to the hilt. These pragmatic and patriotic voters, based in Sydney's outer west and Queensland's sun-belt seats, are primarily motivated by hip-pocket issues.

For these folks ...
Kevin Rudd referred to them as "folks" and talked about them, then delivered bugger-all for them. They voted against a government that flinched; they did not vote for a restoration of a government that was "dead, buried, cremated" as Tom-Tom and his pals would have you imagine. Abbott is offering no to this and no to that and bugger-all of everything else, which is why his polling numbers can't hold up: not in outer Sydney, not in Queensland, not anywhere but the already safe Liberal seats.

Abbott is like one of those CEOs who pumps up the share price and makes off with the loot at a time of his choosing; only now is it becoming clear to everyone but Tom-Tom that he does not set the timing, and that there is no payoff for any shareholder other than himself.
Labor's policy to increase energy prices when our trade competitors refuse to decarbonise their economies is not in the national interest.
If you regard the United States as Australia's only "trade competitor", an understandable bit of tunnel-vision from an academic at the US Studies Centre, this is a valid point. If not, then it isn't. I guess that's slamming Tom-Tom - but reality isn't my fault, I am just pointing it out.
Nor is it a vote winner, especially during a global financial crisis.
Tom-Tom was offered one of the safest Liberal seats in the country on a platter, and squibbed declined it. The fate of Brendan Nelson - and yes, his defeat by Turnbull and Tom-Tom's erstwhile colleague Peta Credlin - show that Tom-Tom is not yer go-to man on questions of what does or doesn't win votes.
Turnbull demonstrated precious little evidence of competence. Recall the Godwin Grech scandal: here he was calling for the treasurer and prime minister to resign on the basis of what turned out to be a concocted email produced by an eccentric bureaucrat.
I recall that: Grech wasn't some lifelong friend of Turnbull's, it was Eric Abetz who set up his leader with that particular tar-baby impeccable source. This, along with the treatment of Mr Grech since he went from Treasury official to national fall-guy, is what Abetz (and, by extension, Tom-Tom) calls "loyalty".
If Abbott had shown such appalling judgment, the press gallery would have written him off.
James Ashby and Kathy Jackson put the lie to that.
In the eyes of the media, however, Turnbull is the Teflon politician who is virtually immune to criticism.
Refer again to the Peatling article, or anything written in the tech press. The media coverage that Turnbull gets now is about the same that Abbott got when he excreted Battlelines. One of the key lessons in politics that Tom-Tom and his owners fail to learn is the need for compliance with the What's Sauce For The Goose Is Sauce For The Gander Act, a law far more binding than any bill that might pass a fractious parliament.
In fairness to Turnbull ...
Tom-Tom thinks that faint praise constitutes "fairness", a failing common to his compadres. It's just sad that Turnbull's breadth of knowledge can be understood by Tom-Tom only as digression.
The cold, hard reality, though, is that since he replaced Turnbull in late 2009, the conservative vote has dramatically increased.
It went as far as it can go a couple of years ago, and no further: not far enough to get into government.
Moreover, since Gillard's controversial backflip 16 months ago, the Coalition has convincingly led Labor in the polls. The carbon tax continues to rile a lot of Australians.
Polls count for nothing; governing is all and the fixed carbon price (soon to be replaced with an ETS) is on its way to becoming a non-issue. Abbott is not going to undo it, because it would be too expensive and there's more to governing this country than paying "compensation" to big companies. Besides, the guy is a piker and quite the backflipper himself.
It is also the main point of difference between Abbott and Turnbull.
Turnbull voted against the government's carbon price, Tom-Tom - surely loyalty counts for something?
Abbott might be a boo-word in polite society, a shorthand for extremism, negativity and John Howard on steroids.
Or, he might be the kind of thing that gets stuck to your shoe when you're walking down the street: not just unpleasant but unnecessary.
For any politician, the big danger is vanity and a belief in his own publicity.
Oh, that's rich: take away Abbott's vanity and his publicity and there isn't much there, Tom-Tom. Not for those of us who aren't Tony Abbott.
... Turnbull's sense of entitlement to the Liberal leadership. But the obsessions of metropolitan sophisticates are of little interest in the parliamentary party and most parts of the nation.
Whistling past the graveyard, my little friend.

What we have here is attack-as-defence. It would not be necessary to denounce Turnbull unless Abbott - and all that he stands for, the Dream of Howard Restoration - were under threat. The rightwing might be able to bunker down and wait for ever but the Liberal Party is a governing machine; a good win under Turnbull would beat another close-but-no-cigar result under Abbott. As it stands, Abbott's consistence favours nobody so well as Labor: he looks like the hinge upon which the loose and banging gate of this government will eventually pivot and click back into place.

To take a rightwing trope and fashion it as an Aussie boomerang, Switzer is one of those pointy-headed academics with no idea how the real world works, shuffling between Sydney Uni and Canberra with little care or thought for the rest of the country that he and his nanny-state compadres cannot believe they have been denied the right to govern, and govern in their own way. The irony is that Turnbull is big enough to overlook this bagatelle and offer Switzer a job, whereas Switzer has been sent out to do a dirty job on a man much better than he by people who are even less than this.

Tom Switzer does not understand Malcolm Turnbull either, and he is someone he has known and worked with for many years. After reading this, you have to wonder: what does Tom-Tom know? People who follow his advice come a-gutser, so why would you listen to him - unless it is to hear the growing drumbeat of rightwingers fearing that their ride is over, that after Ciobo and Coonan the Liberal right have moved from insurgency to decadence without any intervening period of achievement.

08 July 2012

Labor and the Greens

There were two pieces today on recent chafing within the Greens-Labor relationship worth noting. The better-written one was the amateur blog, the second was a tendentious smear of bullshit wiped across a paper fit for no better purpose.

First, Drag0nista's long thin streak of conventional wisdom, where she shows the weakness of her case by being most insistent.

When one of the major parties is strong it draws votes from left and right, from its major-party opponent and from fringe parties. When a party is weak it loses votes left and right.

When Hawke and Keating were in office the Coalition lost votes to Labor and to far-right anti-immigration, anti-economic-rationalist parties. Under Howard, Labor lost votes not only to the Libs but also to the Greens. It's not an either/or proposition for Labor to win votes from the Libs and Greens; they must win votes from both.

The tensions between the Greens and Labor display the uneasy relationship within all parties between machine operatives responsible for fundraising and preference allocation, and the parliamentarians who have to cut deals. The Labor-Green machine operatives must work against one another but their parliamentary representatives need to do a better job of working together, because the alternative is that both lodge only symbolic objections to policies they cannot block.

The by-election for the Victorian state seat of Melbourne is one aspect of the trial run for the ALP’s Victorian campaign, not the Federal campaign. Victorian Labor was blindsided by the Libs last time and they have a chance to show what they have learned, if anything.
The ALP isn’t trying to win progressive votes from the Greens, they’re trying to win the middle class, middle income voters who are parked with the Libs but are uneasy about Abbott. They’re also trying to win progressive voters parked with the other/independent category who find the Greens too extreme.
These people sound exactly like the sort of people who had voted for Howard up to 2007. The idea that they could simply vote for middle-class welfare, then vote for an apology for Aborigines/measures against carbon pollution/[insert your progressive Kevin07 idea here] was appealing and - if Gillard offers something similar, but with the credibility that Rudd came to lack - it sounds like the best of all possible worlds for a Labor victory in 2013 (with the Greens continuing to hold balance of power in the Senate).

The idea that Greens-Labor are at one another's throats falls down on Drag0nista's home turf: the ACT. There are two House of Reps seats there (both held by Labor) and two Senate seats (one held by Labor, one by a Liberal). The Greens have a chance of picking up a seat in the ACT - but which Labor MP is most vulnerable? None of them - the Liberal Senator, Gary Humphries, is most vulnerable, because he goes to his constituents with the politically difficult message that a vote for him is a vote for at least 20,000 job losses in the capital.

Since the last federal election, votes take no path. They are cast, counted, some candidates become members of parliament while others do not, and then at some point another election is called and votes are cast, etc. To place too much credence in polls is to make the political equivalent of the mistake counselled against by Kenny Rogers: "You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table/ There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done".

Polls cannot and do not measure the twists and turns of politics. Nobody who has followed Australian politics for any more than a single term of Parliament has any excuse for getting carried away with polls, or with the occasional spat at moments of tension.

Then there's this half-witted effort in the Daily Telegraph, written by someone with no persuasive skills and no respect for those who read what he puts out.
Labor must turn on the Greens and destroy them
Backroom boys can turn on one another like so many snakes in a sack, but for the Prime Minister her deal with the Greens is what keeps her in power (and by extension, what keeps Howes on government boards and other lurks). The very headline contains the essence of the failure of judgment that undermines the credibility of the whole article, if not the credibility of Howes himself.
If the Greens had their way, I doubt NSW would ever win the State of Origin.

There probably wouldn't even be a State of Origin - we'd just sit around with Queenslanders and play pass the parcel.
If you ever wondered what Howes does at AWU executive meetings with Bill Ludwig, there's your answer. The State of Origin contest in rugby league began in 1980, when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister. Is Howes going to credit the Coalition for one of Australia's great sporting contests, or are we done with this silly attempt to link sport to politics?
They are able to use their political leverage to pursue extremist agendas, and to implement policies that are both socially and economically damaging.
Lots of lobby groups do that. Another example is that pig-nosed dill who wants to tie workers to non-jobs making stuff in factories that nobody wants to invest in, so that Australian manufacturing gets this reputation as some sort of sheltered workshop rather than taking the chance of a small, high-quality industry where people are open to joining the union but puzzled as to what it might offer them.
The Greens are most successful, and therefore the most dangerous of the fringe parties - the left-wing version of what Pauline Hanson's One Nation party did to the Nationals' vote. They have carefully built a political brand based on social conscience and concern for the environment. The benign, smiling face of Bob Brown convinced many that the Greens and Labor could co-exist as two sides of a harmonious progressive political movement.
This is wrong on so many levels.

First of all, Hanson came and went within the lifespan of the Howard government. The Greens came out of Tasmania, once (with NSW) the strongest state for Labor, and all the flatulent outrage we have seen from Howes has been done. Brown spent most of his career being demonised - he's only "benign" because successive generations of politician (many of them smarter than Howes, and with more substantial records of public service) looked stupid for doing so.

Why didn't Howes look at the failure of successive generations of Tasmanian politicians in taking on the Greens, and avoid the same lazy positions that led them to failure? Does he really think he's so special that he can ignore the lessons of history, simply because he wasn't part of it?
But beneath the marketing spin, the Greens are run by hardliners who believe they know better than anyone else.
... just like the scions of NSW Labor.
Political campaigning will become the domain of wealthy individuals. Naturally, this suits the Liberals. Surprisingly, it also suits the Greens.
NSW Labor spent a decade-and-a-half taking Joe Tripodi's mates out of Centrelink offices and seeing them through to significant property portfolios, done in such an overbearing and clumsy way that the Greens gained that indispensable quality for any political movement - a point. Surely Labor did that so they could call on them in their hour of need, no? And if not, how is this anyone else's problem?

Then he tries into invoke Labor history: I wish he'd learned some first.
The ALP has been down this path before. We dealt with Billy Hughes ...
No you didn't. Hughes became the longest-serving Federal MP and was the longest-serving PM when he died, spending most of his career outside the ALP.
We dealt with the divisive Jack Lang ...
No you didn't. Lang remained a force into the 1940s and Paul Keating brought him back into the Labor fold. Howes' dreams of Australian manufacturing as a series of sheltered workshops full of people unthinkingly renting their jobs from the AWU could not be more Langite.
We dealt with Joe Lyons and the United Australia Party in the 1930s ...
Wrong way around: Lyons and the UAP thrashed a one-term Labor government such that Curtin and Chifley lost their seats, and they stayed in office for the rest of Lyons' life.
And then we eventually saw off Bob Santamaria and the DLP in the 1950s.
Not in the 1950s, not in the '60s, and he was still a force in the 1970s; when Santamaria died he was given a state funeral by John Howard.

Thank goodness Howes and the others who run what's left of NSW Labor are such good haters - they're not that great at the actual politics.
The Greens do not support working people. They would rather we all squat in share houses in Newtown than work in real jobs that actually make things.
Make what? Coffees for Paul Howes and Sam Dastyari when they waddle up Sussex Street in search of a clue?

Newtown and other inner-city suburbs used to have lots of manufacturing jobs. It wasn't the Greens who forced them out, the Green vote rose in those areas as those jobs retreated. Those areas are full of Labor Left people who preselect Labor Left MPs who do factional battle with clowns like Howes and Dastyari, and who engage in subtle strategies to maintain Labor representation ahead of the Greens, except where Sussex Street cannot resist sticking their oars in and guaranteeing Green success.
... NSW Labor General Secretary Sam Dastyari's proposal to adopt a policy of not automatically preferencing the Greens ...
What a fence-sitting, two-bit, namby-pamby proposal that is. After all Howes bluster about State of Origin, Jack Lang etc., I was expecting a lead-up to a firm, strong statement of principle (or the principle-veneer you get from NSW Labor). Instead, there's a bit of hand-wringing - not so much a step in any particular direction but an embarrassed shuffle on the spot.
Labor has an obligation to stop extremists who threaten our democracy.
They can turn on that arseclown Howes for a start. Labor could and should get rid of him tomorrow, all without the need for a byelection. Either he'll wake up to himself or he'll walk away, talk about a win-win solution.

Labor and the Greens have to work together. They need to let off steam from time to time, but they must do substantial work together. The Coalition won't work with anyone for the greater good, so stuff them until they wake up to themselves. They have adults in both ranks, and together they can lift the debate (on refugees and so many other issues) in ways that other parties can only follow.

05 July 2012


Once again, here, Michelle Grattan has drawn upon her years of experience to miss the story completely.

The story here is that Washer has been nobbled. He has been pushing for many years to end mandatory detention and to deal with refugees in ways other than punishment; as a backbencher in the Howard Government and now in Opposition, he has shown consistency in his contribution to successive debates and flare-ups of issues concerning refugees.

Grattan has reported that he's done pretty much a complete about-face on this issue. Anyone who still had their journalistic curiosity about them would wonder why, and given the anodyne nature of his statements would probably need to undertake investigation beyond merely taking Washer's words at face value.
LIBERAL moderate Mal Washer, one of the cross-party MPs trying to get a compromise on asylum seeker policy, last night wrote off the group as "buggered".
Washer has repudiated the position he stuck fast to throughout his career, and Grattan just takes it at face value. The term "buggered" is striking but hardly rich in policy nuance.

So much for Grattan's reputation in the journosphere as a fair and thorough journalist: only briefly toward the end of nowhere in (thanks bb!) this article does she quote any MP or other stakeholder who disagrees that cross-party discussions are "buggered", or that the Houston committee is "a waste of time". Nowhere does she do any analysis on why the Coalition might take that position, given their record of denying bipartisanship or any opportunity for the government to prove itself over the Coalition. She has a line and she's plugging it, which might be convenient but is also detrimental to a hard-won reputation for hard work and calling it as it is. Look at her recent articles and see if these criticisms do not apply to most of them. Even those who devour her every output must surely agree she's past her best, whenever that was.
Dr Washer, who last week said he would vote for legislation to allow the government's Malaysia solution if his vote could get it through, told The Age he now thought the government should "roll over" and accept the Coalition's position.

This is for processing on Nauru and the use of temporary protection visas. He said that course would put the acid on the Coalition if the policy did not work.
That's rubbish, and Grattan should call it out (or at least do some analysis and maybe even some of that Good Old Shoe-Leather Journalism of which she is, apparently, the doyenne).

Journalists like Michelle Grattan would write it up as a victory for the Coalition. At a time when they have been caught out playing silly-buggers over Ashby-Slipper and Thomson-Jackson, at a time when they have failed to block a carbon price that wasn't as apocalyptic as first thought, they are clearly in need of a win to maintain the MSM narrative (which Grattan plays a lead role in determining) that Abbott is inevitably cruising to government. The political solution would mean that journalists would simply stop investigating the issue, considering it settled. News on asylum-seekers would be downscaled in prominence, just like it was in the Howard government - or even more so now that people like Washer aren't speaking out any more.

Look at that phrase "roll over". It is used in plea-bargaining in criminal trials where the defendant accepts a lesser punishment than the initial charge to spare them the risk and ordeal of a full trial. The Coalition may think that they're the prosecutors and the government the defendants, but there is no reason why a journalist of many years standing should adjust their reporting to such spin.

If the Gillard government were to reinstate Nauru and TPVs, one of two things would happen:
  • If it succeeded, the Coalition would claim it as their triumph and an implicit acknowledgement of failure on the part of the government; and
  • If it failed, meaning that more people took to more boats and ran greater risk of dying at sea, the Gillard government would be blamed for mismanaging the policy - giving the Coalition grounds to claim that only it can manage immigration policy.
Either way, the Coalition is a winner if it convinces the government to cave in. The reputation that the Coalition has for strength and momentum against the government depends entirely on whether or not the government accepts the Coalition's assumptions. When the government gets up on its hind legs and refuses to play the Coalition's game, the Coalition looks pretty bereft (until the MSM lift them up again).

The link between Temporary Protection Visas and fewer asylum-seekers is to ignore basic logical rules about cause and effect. You may as well wear your lucky undies to a day at the races as draw a direct relationship between the two. With all her experience and contacts, Grattan has no excuse for leaving it out of the story.
He had "moved on" from believing in the cross-party group, of which he and fellow Liberal moderate Judi Moylan were foundation members.
Oh come on. A man does not just "move on" from a deeply-held conviction. Did Gough Whitlam "move on" from being sacked? Did Malcolm Turnbull just "move on" from the republic or human-induced global warming?
Dr Washer also said the reference group of parliamentarians being set up by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in conjunction with her expert panel headed by former Defence Force chief Angus Houston on asylum policy, was "a waste of time". "It all comes down to the politics in the Senate" and what could be got through there, he said.

Last week Dr Washer said that if the opposition declined to nominate representatives to this group, he would accept the PM's invitation for Coalition MPs to nominate themselves.
Well, yes it does - so why has he given up a decade-and-a-half of being part of such a process all of a sudden? That's where your story is, Michelle. Did Abbott's office convince him that a deal which did not officially involve the Coalition would scupper their chances at the next election? Was he threatened, offered inducements, to change his mind and his position?
Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne has dismissed crossbenchers' efforts to get a compromise as "faffing about". Mr Pyne, who is manager of opposition business in the House, replied sharply to an email sent this week from the office of Labor MP Steve Georganas on behalf of the group, inviting MPs to a meeting on July 24 to hear guest speakers on the asylum issue. The email referred to the "Cross Party Working Group on Refugees".

In his response sent to MPs, Mr Pyne wrote: "This is not a 'Cross Party Working Group on Refugees'. The Coalition is not formally involved in any way … All the sitting around talking is just faffing about, hand wringing and achieving nothing."
Apart from the 'hand wringing', Pyne coul be describing the Coalition's own position, waiting for the government to accept the Coalition fantasy that the policy that didn't work for anyone in 2002 has all the answers in 2012.

When he was a moderate Pyne would often be accused of 'hand wringing' by rightwing oafs like Cory Bernardi. Now he thinks he can just pass on this accusation to those who recognise that neither the past nor the present policies work, and who are working on something that might work for the future. Again, Grattan just takes Pyne at face value rather than evaluating whether or not the Houston committee really is just a talkfest.

Is Pyne really some sort of practical action-man? Is his armoury of twaddle at Question Time not just so much "faffing about"?
The opposition has not said whether it would nominate representatives to the committee Ms Gillard is setting up. A spokesman for Mr Abbott said the opposition would respond to Ms Gillard's invitation to nominate three MPs "in due course".
When you've been covering politics for as long as I have, you'll recognise this pantomime: the Coalition pretend to consider carefully requests that are put to them by the government in the name of bipartisanship, only to denounce them in the bratty terms Pyne uses above.

When you've been covering politics for as long as Michelle Grattan has you have no excuse, none, for this kind of po-faced transmission of bullshit. This is not "high-value journalism", and the veneration of this counts far more heavily against mainstream media than, say, their failure to embrace multi-digital platforms.

Given her efforts above, here is a not particularly extreme parody of Michelle Grattan covering the entire gamut of Watergate:
Reports indicate that White House operatives were involved in last week's break-in to Democrat headquarters in the Watergate. However, this has been denied by the White House.

The continued insistence by several leading Democrats that White House operatives were in fact involved, despite official denials, is mischief-making on the Democrats' part, seeking to cover up the fact that Senator McGovern is well behind President Nixon in the polls ...

Michelle Grattan has done a quick pass over a story and got the wrong angle on it. She likes it when major parties unite behind their leader and dislikes members of the same party having different opinions about the same issue. What does the treatment of Washer by his own people say for the country under an Abbott government? Why did a seemingly tireless campaigner for rights and freedoms simply toss in the towel?

How do you tell when a once-revered journalist is past her use-by date? When was the last time a Michelle Grattan summary of a situation really showed the breadth and depth of her experience in summing up a complex situation simply (without being simplistic)? Can Fairfax bring forward her accumulated entitlements while still remaining solvent? I accept that many some a few might find the very asking of these questions impolite, but given the evidence they are hardly impertinent.

03 July 2012

A study in character

See this in its entirety: thirty minutes of your life you won't get back, but it's all about the context.

It is ironic that GetUp! achieved greater insight into the way our political system works through an accident than it has for many of its best-orchestrated campaigns.

When Simon Sheikh passed out on the set of the ABC's Q&A:
  • The host, Tony Jones, just sat there (some host!)
  • Lenore Taylor, a journalist, also just sat there
  • Greg Combet MP, a government minister, stepped up and helped Sheikh
  • Grahame Morris, a lobbyist, stood up at his desk and looked concerned; a man no longer accustomed to getting his hands dirty, Morris is used to having people scurry around at the sight of him doing something really dramatic like standing up at his desk looking concerned (or maybe he wanted to do to Sheikh what he advocated doing to the PM, and "kick [him] to death"), and
  • Sophie Mirabella MP, who was sitting next to Sheikh, regarded him with revulsion and then, realising that others were making her look bad and that there was nothing she could do about it, put her hand on his shoulder.
This was a test of character for all concerned. The idea that they all deserve a free pass because "hey, that's just live television baby!" is just bullshit.

Combet showed himself to be a leader in our community, which is what you'd hope for from someone in his position. Some Coalition MPs would have stood up and helped in such a situation, and not just those with medical qualifications. Mirabella, who aspires to the job currently occupied by Combet, showed only that she must not be put in a position of any responsibility whatsoever and must be removed from any such position she now holds. Simply calling for help would have showed the humanity that is needed in her position, but which she clearly lacks.

Lauren Rosewarne thinks Mirabella was criticised for "failing to emote". She was actually and fairly criticised for failing to render assistance where assistance was required. It is stupid to accuse Sheikh of 'crying wolf' as some sort of invalidation for medical treatment.

Medical emergencies always happen quickly (or, as Rosewarne put it, "Under. One. Minute."). It's part of your civic duty to find out how to help people who need help, and wait with them until the professionals arrive (or, as Rosewarne put it, "Florence Nightingale mode"). Medical emergencies transcend gender politics, and if her failure was not at the heart of this issue the very first person to assert this would be Sophie Mirabella.

Let's give the benefit of the doubt, if not congratulations, to off-camera staff at the ABC studios that night. Their actions, unseen by viewers outside the studio, may explain the (non-)actions of Taylor, Morris and Jones. The latter may think it's his role to keep his head while all about are losing theirs, but I still think there is more to it.

Sophie Mirabella failed the basic moral test of refusing to assist someone who needed it. Having wound herself up she couldn't get over herself in order to render basic assistance. Everyone on that panel is judged on the same basis, regardless of gender; most found wanting. Lenore Taylor hasn't done much emoting today over this matter, but so what? Practical assistance, and the need thereof as required, is much more important than irrelevant disquisitions on "emoting".

It's probably more important to be able to help people when they need it than it is to enrol to vote, but at the time of writing I am too pissed off to even think about that. This is partly because I have just reviewed the earbashing that Mirabella gave the nation once again. Along with Macquarie Street troll Peter Phelps, a piece of jetsam swept up in a king tide, Mirabella embodies that perverse strain of the worst, Pellite notion of conservatism: that you are entitled to deference by sheer assertion/gall and the occupation of titles, but that none dare expect any from you. That's why this doesn't work:
Lindy Chamberlain. Casey Anthony. Joanna Lees. Women who were each publicly vilified based on the weakest and yet most damning of evidence: the failure to appropriately – to femininely – emote.
Weak, yes, but hardly damning. Lees emoted like billy-o when it suited her and Chamberlain didn't just sit by and watch her baby being dragged to death. Whatever point Rosewarne might have is stranded by the sheer fatuity of her parallels and her simple inability to perceive the situation on which she commented (click the link at the top of the page, Lauren, and watch it). That, and the fact that Sophie Mirabella has spent what passes for her life sneering at "do-gooders" (of whatever gender, Lauren) who render aid to others completely flouting Randian teachings.

Mirabella did express emotion towards Sheikh: the emotion was disgust.

There isn't a question anyone could have asked that so clearly demonstrated who stands where, who can be relied upon and who can't. As a telling moment about those who would govern us it was up there with Joe Hockey's moment of weakness/moral failure on gay marriage with Penny Wong.

The civic-minded among us can get first aid training at a location near you from Australian Red Cross or St John's, or other organisations I'm sure. Get some. This blog will still be here when you get back - and yes, I have, and do - and stuff any "Florence Nightingale" bullshit. Some good thing has to come from this sorry and absurd episode.

02 July 2012

At an impasse

Impasse (n.) a situation in which no progress is possible, especially because of disagreement; a deadlock

- Oxford English Dictionary
There are two ways to analyse the absurd situation in which the Parliament has put itself. Firstly, against an ideal, and assessing who came close or fell well short; and secondly its opposite, to look squarely at politics at its most amoral, who comes out of this looking cool and calm and in control and who lost it in the face of a big challenge.

Firstly, the ideal.

We need a situation where people who are unable to live in their country can establish a claim for refugee status (as a substitute for the legal status of a citizen to live within his or her country) and be resettled in a place where they might live and work and be entitled to a future of the type denied to them in the country of their citizenship. Australia is such a country; since World War II many thousands of people have come here fleeing persecution, and I want an Australia where that keeps happening (taking persecution in other countries as a given, or at least beyond Australia's control, rather than something to be encouraged).

In the short term, Australian naval/border patrol/other policing assets need to focus on saving lives and bringing people here to be helped, assessed, and either accepted or else sent elsewhere as required. This would be a powerful humanitarian statement and would give us strong standing in the long term in working toward a regional solution for dealing with non-nationals seeking asylum.

There is also more to be done in consultation with the Indonesians that most Australians, lacking understanding of that large and complex country, can barely imagine let alone realise.

Malaysia and Nauru are insufficient in themselves, and by themselves. The government must go through the Bali Process to engage other nations in Southeast Asia to work toward a longterm solution with and among those countries.

The government responded best to the impasse by offering to change its policy. Had it acceded to Nauru and TPVs the only question would have been the tactical one (of why it hadn't done so sooner) rather than the practical one (of whether these measures work as well in 2012 as nostalgia would have it). It did the right thing in asking an expert committee for ideas; several parliamentary committees have looked into this issue over the past 10-20 years or so and their efforts appear to have been wasted.

The Greens insisted on human rights protections above all other considerations:

  • Human rights abuses in Australian detention centres count against our ability to insist on such protections from others. 
  • The assumptions behind the UN Convention on Refugees 1951 are those of Europe at the end of Word War II as the universal human experience on this matter, a question that could do with re-examination to say the least. 
  • The Malaysia proposal promised greater scrutiny of human rights in that country than had ever been the case, as I said at the time

Still, you've go to start somewhere, and where the Greens started was with legalistic quibbling rather than practical concerns as to where you start, and with what. Having more asylum-seekers settle here is one part of a longer-term solution but it is irrelevant to the immediate urgency brought on by matters of life and death.

Perhaps the government could have got them onside by bringing them in to a wider solution; perhaps not. The Greens were happy to have wider and longer-term solutions that were bound at the outset by high-level but stringent human rights protections. The government would have found it difficult to negotiate such an outcome with many southeast Asian countries, especially given our less-than-spotless record, but I can't agree that it was better to not try at all than to sell out a scintilla of any such protection.

Sunili Govinnage is right to say that the bill before Parliament overlooked the immediate need to save life at sea. The Greens should have insisted that it do so, and offered to pass it on condition that the government thus amend it. It is understandable that they rejected the bill - you can only vote on what's in front of you, though a bit of initiative would have been nice and might have forced the government's hand.

She is, however, dead right when she says:
If, however, we, as a nation, genuinely want to stop asylum-seekers getting on to boats and risking their lives, we need to give them a viable option. A real "regional solution" is not about getting our neighbouring countries to process asylum-seekers so that we can get on with complaining about our First World Problems in peace. It means properly supporting the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to fulfil its resettlement mandate and encouraging other nations to do so do. It also means increasing our humanitarian intake.

But it is pretty clear nobody wants to touch any of that ...
Now that is grounds for weeping, of which more later. It will mean relatively fewer people coming here under a legal cloud, and more with every right to expect the promises of this country will apply to them, which might be more of a challenge than we seem prepared for.

The Oakeshott bill did not give members of Parliament the quick fix of immediate, practical action, nor the longterm satisfaction of capital works and a relatively secure policy over the years ahead. If the government was serious the Prime Minister would have moved this bill ad she would have worked with the Greens and gotten around the Coalition like she did in September 2010. As with the proposed gay marriage bill by Labor backbencher Stephen Jones, the independents will know the government's heart is in a policy when they take it on themselves.

The Coalition simply insisted that its policy be accepted in full as an exercise of raw power, combined with intellectual laziness in insisting that what worked in 2002 must and will work in 2012. It confused its position with a focus on human rights in Malaysia while ignoring those issues with Indonesia (and insisting on measures that the Indonesian government has flatly declared it will not accept) shows that it is not ready to govern this country.

Secondly, the politics.

Abbott's ploy all along has been to jam the workings of government and then assume control of them, to make the government look like it's doing nothing - or worse, stuffing up - while creating the impression that he can lead a government that will Set Things Right. This is what Tim Dunlop was getting at, and if he had written it at any point between about Easter 2010 and this Easter just gone it would have been another spot-on article from one of Australian politics' most perceptive commentators. Here, he's attributing more power to Abbott than the man himself is exhibiting.

Since Kevin Rudd was comprehensively defeated for the Labor leadership earlier this year, Abbott has been a diminished figure. Abbott was ready for a Rudd victory, or a Gillard victory by a slighter margin than she achieved; but not for Labor to unite so comprehensively behind a leader they knew was under pressure but whom they did not believe was finished. Since then he has cracked hardy by insisting that refugee boats can be sent back to Indonesia against their wishes, and at the same time that his government would teach their languages in schools (provided the budget ... but you've heard this before). He has moved away from his impetuous comments about proud Whyalla but in doing so he has not moved anywhere that people will follow.

When he stood at Geelong today watching a handful of fertiliser slip through his fingers it was as though the local candidate was trying to cheer him up, to give Abbott the support he was meant to be giving her. Abbott has lost his spark and there's a story there, journalists: go get it and tell us what it is.

Until recently, it was sufficient for Abbott to invoke nostalgia for the Howard government, talk down the incumbents, link himself to Howard and against the evidence and generally bluff his way past an adoring media. By digging his heels in he isn't looking strong, he's looking like a piker out of ideas (although he has somehow succeeded in getting the media to stop asking him about Thomson-Jackson and Slipper-Ashby).

In this article which you can read for free on Google News, Peter van Onselen offers this telling vignette:
One well-placed Liberal source told The Australian that Abbott would rather see Labor continue to bleed politically with ongoing boat arrivals. If that means deaths at sea continue, he said, so be it. Perhaps Abbott thinks such tragedies reflect more badly on Labor than his own side because the government appears responsible for the mess courtesy of changing John Howard's asylum-seekers policies in the first place.
If someone had said something like that about John Howard, he'd have denied it forcefully and acted all wounded. Behind closed doors he would have gone through the parliamentary party like a dose of salts until he tracked down whoever said that, and dealt with them with great vengeance and furious anger.

Abbott just lets it go. He has no power to do anything else - same with this. This time last year, or two years ago, no Liberal would have dared say such a thing because of the premium on sticking together with government so close. That quote shows confidence in Abbott is not as strong as it was within Liberal ranks, and mitigates against the idea that Abbott is a strong leader headed for inevitable victory.

The firebrand who almost took the Coalition to victory in August-September 2010 and who kept the pressure on the government has not been completely neutered - not yet - but he is less than he was. A second wind can only come from an appealing set of policies.

Yesterday's Insiders showed Michael Keenan, Joe Hockey and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young acting all emotional over refugees while voting for the status quo. Some of the nation's most experienced journalists wrongly declared they were "obviously sincere", despite such obvious facts as:
  • Keenan distributing material in his electorate inciting fear and uncertainty over "illegals" (it is not illegal to come to this country and seek asylum), the very people over whom he suggestively scratched his eye;
  • Hockey was a minister in the Howard government, when all that he would "never support" was done - and worse. Hockey might not send vulnerable people to Malaysia but like Crocodile Tears Keenan he would tow them to Indonesia, or as with Shayan Badriae, neglect them on our soil. Hockey was mentored in his career by Phillp Ruddock. He is a relic of the promising young man I knew and a mockery of the leader he could have been had he principles to stick to; and
  • Hanson-Young showed that she has not made the transition from activist to legislator by her set-up of the straw-man "Hussein" and refusing to do anything that she couldn't have done as a bullhorn-wielding outsider.
All of those people offered what was most personal to them - their emotions, and their reactions to matters of life and death - as human shields to monstrously inhuman policy positions. Each of those people had the standing within their party to force change, and show their leaders that you can be politically flexible without having to be a moral weather-vane. Their failure to get over themselves is failure indeed.

Speaking of Insiders, weren't they gutless over their mate Steve Lewis? People who've seen hordes of weasels come and go should be better at spinning, but Malcolm Farr and Fran Kelly were clearly caught napping. Here is a heresy that only a blogger can admit: Lewis is entitled to the same presumption of innocence that Craig Thomson is. Oh yes.

Abbott is right in saying the Houston committee shouldn't tell the Coalition what its policy is - Howard would have sounded more defensive had it been his place to say such a thing. Abbott is wrong to maintain, at a time of impasse, that his policy is the only policy. He risks being outflanked by nimble diplomacy, of which Gillard and Carr are increasingly capable, and of which Morrison and Bishop are not. Abbott has painted Gillard as a bullshit artist, and evidence for this is receding further into the past to the point where such an accusation is an occupational hazard for all politicians. Gillard was sensible to deny that Abbott would really abolish the carbon price, the sort of shirtfronting Abbott badly needs. Labor celebrations that Whyalla had not gone the way of Pompeii or Gomorrah are a small step in turning that attack back on its originator.

Abbott has promised a lot and delivered nothing, and his continued appeals to us to vote him out of his loserdom are growing increasingly plaintive. He told his Federal Executive that he staked his leadership on rolling back the carbon price, an indication the position really is in play. Kim Beazley said the same thing about the GST, and my wasn't that a winner (well, it pumped up his polling position, which isn't quite the same thing - experienced political journalists, please note). There are plenty of examples where a Prime Minister gains credit for doing the right thing without having to be popular, which is why Gillard's personal polling matters not a jot (again, any press gallery journalist with a track record has no excuse).

If Labor succeed at painting Abbott as the bullshit artist, he's finished: he is supposed to be the action-man, not the loser who gets stymied all the time, on every issue. He is the doer with an eye to the future: not the Field of Dreams guy who not only thinks the world before the Global Financial Crisis can be resurrected, but that he's the one to do it. His line that roads symbolise progress in the 21st century was nothing short of pathetic. Abbott is not going to be defeated in some do-or-die clash but he is being ground down, bogged down, his worst nightmare (because he and his party are powerless to turn it around).

Every party conference will feature a colourful piece of dissent as a show of democracy in action. Labor has the power to deal with pantomime from a Paul Howes or a Doug Cameron because ultimately the party has the clout to pull them into line if need be: the party is bigger than them, they need the party more than it needs them. The Liberals do not have the ability to discipline Palmer, he knows it and so does every member of the party.

For Abbott to lead his party to take the opportunities over the next year or so he will need to draw on both rolling successes and popular support that is non-existent and not in prospect. In a situation framed as an impasse, one in need of new answers, Abbott isn't filling the vacuum with his substance, because he has none to offer. Why he can't slake his thirst for service in some other capacity isn't clear, and is ultimately not our problem. The momentum is with the government and not with Abbott: the polls don't measure that so the journalists don't, which is why they aren't talking to us or with us in any meaningful way.