26 December 2012

Coalition road split leadership shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 December 2012

Just doing your job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 December 2012

You can't handle an Abbott government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 December 2012

Full of sound and fury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 December 2012

Reframe or die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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