03 October 2012

Picked and stuck

One of the central problems of being a conservative is that you can't tell the difference between a passing fad and a permanent shift. A seismic rumble prompts the same reaction as a particularly loud fart. Abbott relies on being able to play to the media but the media landscape is changing to the point where he is finding it harder to play it.
"I am not going to ignore an audience of half a million people in Sydney"

- Tony Abbott, on Alan Jones' radio audience
Abbott overestimated Jones' daily audience by a factor of three. Julia Gillard's appearance on Q and A attracted as many people in under an hour than those who listen to Jones in a week and a half.

Jones was at his peak in the mid-1990s. Leading up to the NSW election of 1995 he was furious at then-Liberal Premier John Fahey for being respectful but not fawning; he got his own back by having then-Opposition Leader Bob Carr on to engage in mutual schmoozing. At about the same time John Howard became Federal Opposition Leader: Howard was in whatever-it-takes mode, and after Carr's victory he began to schmooze Jones too. Liberals engaged in a lot of post hoc reasoning that flattered Jones, and soon realised they had created a monster (they have done something similar with Mark Textor, too).

You could say that Carr engaged in a Faustian bargain with Jones and conservatives on The Daily Telegraph in order to secure government for Labor in NSW, but then you'd be one of those pet-shop galahs that the latter-day Carr rails at. There is nothing so in keeping with Labor tradition than being accused of selling out Labor tradition.

By 2007 Jones' audience had been in decline for years. John Howard kept schmoozing Jones, and lost his seat. In 2007 Tony Abbott was so obtuse he didn't notice that Jones was past his best, and he hardly performed to expectations in that campaign himself. Jones requires a lot of sucking up and there are those who think there is a payoff for doing that. There isn't, and hasn't been for years.

Abbott still hasn't learned the lessons of 2007. A party will not win an election until it learns those lessons:
  • Labor lost office in 1975 and was thrashed at the next two elections because all it had to offer was: "We was robbed!". When it realised that economic illiteracy was a non-starter, no matter how vaingloriously asserted, they began their return to office.
  • The Coalition pretty much realised why Fraser lost office within a month after the 1983 election. They then made every other mistake a party can make over the next dozen years before John Howard slapped them all into shape.
  • Kim Beazley couldn't bear to face the problems of the Hawke-Keating governments. Crean and Latham insisted on making their own mistakes. When Rudd embraced reform without Keating's pitbull snarl, he was in.
  • Tony Abbott has 16 members of Howard's ministry on his frontbench. If he starts disowning Howard it will be all over - like Rudd disowning "the greatest moral challenge of our time", nobody will know who he is or what he stands for. The whole idea why the Liberals elected Abbott was only because Howard himself wasn't available. Howard would always kill the fatted calf for Tony, and Abbott brooks no dissent against Howard even now. Liberals think the 2007 election was some sort of tally error (and the idea that the 2010 election wasn't a lost election but a "near victory" is another example of denial). Liberals can only learn the lessons of 2007 once they get rid of Abbott.
One of the lessons of 2007 is that sucking up to Alan Jones is not worth it, in terms of the political payoff with his listeners. Barry O'Farrell demonstrated this a few days ago; the Premier left Jones' studio diminished by the clownish ranting of his "host". He is a fool if he goes back for more of that treatment from such a man.

What is interesting about the changing media landscape is just not that old stagers like Jones are fading away. Other conservatives in the media are coming up and through; the quest for false balance (where one side puts something up and another pisses on it, treating both the putting-up and the pissing as equally valid) is an attempt to assert a stability to political debate that it doesn't really have. It isn't left-wingers over there and right-wingers over there and us honest toilers in the media in the middle. This model allows those who have nothing to say to take up time and space that should be occupied by those who can bring the power of government brought to bear on real issues.

In this, Peter van Onselen was incensed at what Jones had done, and batted away Michael Kroger's attempts to make the kerfuffle about Jones' whole life and person rather than his manifestly broken moral compass. Michael Kroger's political peak passed at about the time Jones hit his, and for Jones to be discredited would put Kroger himself in the dinosaur class too. Kroger mightn't be able to cope with his own irrelevance but he can cope with people who dislike Alan Jones, and when he can't fight on that front he snarls at van Onselen to get in line.

To be truly outraged at what Jones did, as van Onselen clearly is, you have to accept two premises: a) that Jones did something reprehensible and didn't do enough to be forgiven for it, and b) that the insult to the Prime Minister and her family goes beyond the normal rough-and-tumble of politics and injures the civil discourse (the preservation of which is a core value of conservatism). Kroger accepts neither: Jones can do no wrong that negates his great legacy in support of the conservative cause, and to hell with Gillard anyway. Kroger didn't get where he is (was?) with all that Decency and Fair Play and Family Values crap; those who do and did believe in those things are so much roadkill in the path of the Kroger juggernaut.

That van Onselen believes he can take on Jones and still have a future as a Liberal camp-follower is telling. He took on Julie Bishop in 2008 when she submitted a chapter for a book he edited that she didn't write herself, but that has been smoothed over. There have been other niggles where van Onselen has departed from the conservative line over time, but clearly not to the point where The Australian has Made Furious Propaganda Against Running-Dog Apostate, and nor has Abbott's office declared that Coalition MPs are not to deal with him.

David Penberthy has come to the same conclusion: you can attack Alan Jones and still be a conservative. This is not the hand-wringing work of someone who had to rethink everything he ever believed. This is the work of someone who's had enough of someone who is more trouble than he's worth, and that person is to be left in the dust and spoken of no more until it comes time to bury him.
It has now dawned on politicians of the centre and the left that they should no longer worry about their Jones strategy. It has taken a long time for this penny to drop. The reality has always been that Jones' audience does not comprise many swinging voters. He is preaching to the angry and the converted, many of whom keep listening to 2GB because they are too frail to get off the sofa to change the dial.
It would be rude to point out that Jones' listeners are almost certainly avid readers of the Daily Telegraph, and were when Penberthy was editing it and targeting it to the very sorts of people he now portrays as ridiculous and pathetic.
Jones, who is fond of talking of himself in the third person, lashed out at the Twitter campaign for an advertising boycott, and talked about how horrible it was (and it is) that some have wished his cancer to return.

"This is the best way to neutralise and silence Alan Jones. They use this as an excuse to silence Alan Jones," he said.

It's almost as bad as saying a woman's father died of shame over their daughter. This is karma writ large. Alan Jones is getting everything he deserves.
Quite so.

The quote from Jones shows his self-importance, the idea that he is so invulnerable that he stands firm against a multitude; the sharing of that opinion is the price of admission to his inner circle, a price Kroger and others pay happily. It fails to register what Penberthy and van Onselen make clear - that Jones is so vulnerable that his own words can undo him. If those words are as appalling as Jones' were then it can both undo his commercial standing (on which his political reputation depends) and damage the Liberal Party on the way through, damage that they don't need and which compounds pre-existing doubts over their suitability for office.

Surely the Coalition's suitability for government ought not be in doubt by now, given the manifest failure of the incumbents and the self-evident superiority of the Coalition? People like Kroger are annoyed that the question should even be open, and questioning whether or not Alan Jones is viable is not even helpful to the buttoned-down, no-questions-asked, united-front perceptions needed to secure political victory.

This is why Chris Kenny, Janet Albrechtsen and Miranda Devine (no links, News Ltd; hope you understand) can't believe the Jones phenomenon is over: once more unto the breach and The Old Order shall be restored. Nothing will or can persuade them otherwise as conservatives often conflate obtuseness with strength. These are people who will defend Alan Jones until told not to, and they haven't yet been told. They will imagine a post-Jones future when it is provided to them, and will ignore van Onselen and Penberthy in the meantime. There will be none of this dangerous chart-your-own-path, call-it-as-you-see-it as van Onselen and Penberthy have taken upon themselves.

Frank Devine probably didn't die of shame and would probably be proud of his daughter Miranda. This not only shows the understandable blind spot of a father toward his daughter - if you read his output you'd realise that Frank's career as a journalist contained little achievement to leaven the blemishes, and that he was as stupid and as nasty as she is. It takes mean people to begrudge the families of the recently departed John Gillard and Jill Meagher broad and genuine support in their grief, and all the more because few have or will do the same for this branch of the Devines.

The Liberal MPs who defended Jones most strongly by lobbing a few grenades at Labor and culture-war opponents were Greg Hunt and Chris Pyne - neither of them come from Jones' home market of Sydney, neither attended the function where Jones spoke. Alex Hawke, whom Jones called a cancer on the Liberal Party, paid money to go and hear Jones speak and (eventually, mildly) condemned his remarks. Turnbull condemned Jones. Hockey praised Jones' record in general terms as though his recent remarks (and his failure to apologise) were not worth mentioning. Sydney Liberals have been very, very quiet on a matter where you'd expect them to swarm like angry wasps.

This whole story has been a failure of the mainstream media too. Jones said something dreadful, almost unforgivable, and then called a press conference which contained the word "apology". Professional journalists reported Jones had apologised to Gillard. Traditionally, this would have been a two-day wonder for journalists: a man failed, then he made amends, move on.

On social media there were enough people who saw Jones couch his apology in an insulting context (Gillard is emotional, maybe she's not tough enough; so here's a sop to someone who's emotional). He then qualified his apology to the point of meaninglessness, all the while wallowing in the attention and the sound of his own voice. Throughout the past couple of days the MSM have run articles claiming that Jones apologised, and social media - not the Journalists' Code of Practice - called them on it. The public record shows that Jones said something appalling about the Prime Minister and that he did not really apologise for it, and apart from Media Watch the MSM have let us down again.

Jones portrayed Gillard as refusing to accept his apology because she made no effort to take his call or provide Jones with her number. The politico-media complex knows this is part of dealing with someone they can't avoid dealing with, and they factor it into dealing with him. Outside the journosphere, it looked absurd for Jones to phone the Lodge and expect to be put through to the Prime Minister: who does he think he is?

The next time Abbott ventures to Greenwich Pyrmont (thanks Elissa!) in order to vigorously agree with Jones, he should be prepared for a wounded soul who will go all the harder for being diminished - a bit like this story of a man who goes up a creek without a paddle to visit someone he had once admired. Some conservatives have sensed the Jones phenomenon is over, others believe it is stronger than ever. Abbott has found that fence-straddling satisfies nobody.

Even before Jones' latest outburst, Lenore Taylor observed that Abbott was faring badly in a media environment where he faced greater scrutiny over big issues. Taylor points to things like this:
But the normally disciplined Coalition leader is making more of these kinds of blunders, in part because his simple, slogan-style - and to date very successful - political messaging isn't as well suited to more nuanced debate.
There are two problems here. First, Abbott should have moved beyond simple slogans, and the fact that he hasn't/can't is a failure on his part. Second, where did this "nuanced debate" come from? Why hasn't it always been in place on serious issues affecting Australia and its people? Taylor can't say.

Abbott has to believe that Jones is the colossus of radio who brings working-class votes to the Liberals in Sydney - because if that isn't the case, where is the plan B? He has to hammer the simple slogans, because where are the nuanced policy positions that would enable Liberals to hold heir own in nuanced policy debates?

Time and again, Howard would try something on and if it didn't work, he always had a plan B to avoid failing and being seen to have failed (he largely lacked this quality before 1995 and it deserted him about ten years after that, but in between he was a deft politician). Abbott has no plan B. There is no switch to flick, no hidden depths to draw upon, no plan B.

Jones' failure reflects on Abbott; the younger man, the man of higher attainment than Jones, cannot brush him aside nor make light of him, and nor can he really rely on other conservative media to give his tattered dog-and-pony show back the momentum it once had. With the failure of Jones, and the independent thought of once stout defenders as van Onselen and Penberthy (not to mention increased scrutiny by people like Taylor), the cheerleading of Chris Kenny or Miranda Devine just won't be enough for the Coalition. Abbott is increasingly reliant on the kindness of strangers in the media at the very time when his critique of the government is starting to falter.


  1. Darryl Snow4/10/12 12:43 am

    I have a comment. And my comment is to read it again. The traditional players know not what to do.

  2. Andrew

    Great entry

    Gen y Libs and PVO think Allan J is crude

    Got a response from one that said they wouldnt go that far

    Its a generational change and their partners would be horrified to be part of that ilk of misogyny et al

    PVO is a smart young man but changes tunes when it suits him

    Krogers rant on the abc was hilarious and sad

    Poor libs that see their crazy uncles make fools of themselves aka stalwarts

    I think their advisors reprimand them behind close doors and tell them to just shut up

    If the next gen of libs are just as crazy and extreme to laugh at Allans jokes,,

    They need to see a prychiatrist or get told to get stuffed by the uk tories

    They think their weird any-way

    At uni some student politicos used to laugh at rape


    sad but true

  3. I'll get back to you after the election.
    And either admit you were right all along or tell you I was right in thinking that your phrase "Tony Abbott will never be Prime Minister of Australia" was patently ridiculous [sadly] - which is what I thought a year or so ago.
    But I'm not so sure now.
    Recent events, the change in the polls and this latest social media revolt against Jones and his running mates Abbott and the COALition just to name 2, have got me mildly [still just mildly] optimistic that your perception and analysis appears to be, at this stage, far more accurate than anyone else around the place and miles ahead of the media.
    Interesting times ahead.
    Meanwhile I'll continue to read this blog avidly.


  4. "Abbott overestimated Jones' daily audience by a factor of three. Julia Gillard's appearance on Q and A attracted as many people in under an hour than those who listen to Jones in a week and a half."

    Andrew, I know you're just putting things into perspective to make a point about numbers, but I think it's also worthwhile to mention that Gillard on Q&A reached 500,000 different people. A week and a half of Jones is just the same 150,000 angry people having their bitter views confirmed.

    Another great piece, thanks.

  5. You can add Paul Sheehan to the Kroger, Kenny et al. camp, based on his article today

  6. What an ugly, pathetic performance by Kroger. Self-destructive, too; the more he tried to deflect the conversation to something else, the more the viewer thought about Jones. Much like the 'apology', the failure to deal with the issue made a bad situation worse.

    "Second, where did this "nuanced debate" come from? Why hasn't it always been in place on serious issues affecting Australia and its people? Taylor can't say."

    A perfect summary of the failure of the mainstream media over the past couple of years.

  7. The real influence of jones today can be measured by his flacid anti-carbon tax campaign. He honestly seemed to think he was leading a revolt that would remove a government. It ended up with a couple of hundred white pensioners in front of parliament house. That must have really jarred with someone who sees himself as one of the most influential people in australia.

    1. And let's not forget that he blatantly lied about the reason for a poor turnout

    2. Yeah, but, if the Feds hadn't blocked those 15 million truckies from entering Canberra it would have been different!

      Of course, Joolliar won't let you know about that. Cause she doesn't have kids.

  8. Speaking of those who will defend Jones until programmed to do otherwise, could Karl Stefanovic pass a Turing Test?
    Laurie Oakes is not impressed.

  9. Correct

    Spot on there Anon!

  10. Peter Van Onselen is a cutie

    If we are to believe his interview with Kroger


    Nasty but so hot!!

    Adore PVO

  11. Spot on analysis as always,
    The Prime Minister has pretty much stated that she no longer feels the need to pander to Jones, and if she should win the next election it will pretty much prove that he is politically impotent. That's got to be a worrying prospect for a person whose (substantial) income is based on the premise that his benediction can potentially swing elections, one day the prime minister is available for a chat at your beck and call, the next day, you're filed among the tinfoil hat brigade.

  12. I met with a couple of young Libs recently, who expressed disgust at Alan Jones' behaviour. One of them compared him to Grandpa Simpson, and suggested he should be 'confined to a nursing home'. Neither of them likes the Prime Minister very much, but I get the feeling they have a sneaking admiration for her guts.
    I'm not enamoured of the PM's persona myself (though streets ahead of Tony Abbott's...) but I am so sick of hearing derogatory comments about everything but the actual work she does, not to mention the ongoing lie about carbon tax being a broken promise. Australia has a carbon PRICE, the market-based mechanism that she stated she might introduce IN THE SAME SENTENCE that she rules out the carbon tax. Oh well, not everyone studies economics, I guess...
    I recently came across the Anne Summers social justice lecture from 31 August, I thought some of it was a bit OTT, but found myself agreeing with many of her points. I've put the link below, but it's NSFW, so read it at home.

  13. Another beaut article andrew. And now that the wheels are really falling off abbott's wagon he is forced to get his missus to give him a public character reference.

    Mind you, the no-alition is couching this in the terms of:we had to do something to negate this vicious,evil nasty campaign against our dear leader. It would be hilarious if it weren't so bloody scary.

  14. Politically Homeless is one of the few political analysis site that get's it right.
    And I don't mean because I may be an anti-Abbott voter, but because the Canberra and local press galleries appear too close to the woods to see the trees.

    I've always thought Jones' influence had been on the wane for the past 10 years but the Penberthy piece was evidence that enough conservatives know his era is over. The Devines etc of the world are merely preaching to their own audience but that does not translate into influence.

    It is correct to call Abbott on his loyalty to Jones which is misplaced and a sign he is losing ground. Bullying and negativity was always due to fail for Abbott (as it was for Jones) and once these slides start, they accelerate.
    Clearly Turnbull is far more astute in this by being first cab off the rank to condemn Alan for his comments.

    Nor will the posturing and bullying claims that Jones will triumph because advertisers will return come true. Social media will ensure that such treachery will not be rewarded.
    Basically, Jones is a busted flush. Just as Laws is-once the king of radio now in the hinterland on some station no-one can find on the dial.

    My only beef with your story : the 2GB studio is near the Fish Markets, no longer at Greenwich!

  15. Wow, Andrew, how long did it take you to write this?

    Jones has behaved so offensively that it will be joy to watch it all come undone for him. As for Abbott, a shallow bully and coward who we must pray is also on the way out.

    There's lakes more conservative bile where those two come from, but the occasional lick of fresher water too, with young conservatives such as Peter Van Onselen, who not only posses a moral compass but even use it from time to time.

  16. Thanks for another insightful article Andrew.

    Although the question is rhetorical, one still wonders why it took a full week for News Ltd journalist Jonathan Marshall to publish the contents of the speech that he was privy to under non-Chattham House Rules.

    If a left leaning commentator has made similarly crass and vile remarks about a Torie, then I firmly believe that it would have been reported in the MSM on that same day.

  17. Oscar James,
      "Politically Homeless is one of the few political analysis
       site that get's it right. And I don't mean because I may
       be an anti-Abbott voter, but because the Canberra and
       local press galleries appear too close to the woods to see
       the trees."

    Very persuasive evidence emerged four days later. And it's a very dense forest.