30 June 2013

Since Wednesday night

Setting aside the familiar travesty at Lang Park, what happened on Wednesday night was that Labor MPs stampeded against two big issues that they had feared and avoided until then. They had feared the power of right-wing union bosses over their preselections, and they had feared having Rudd return to re-impose his micromanaging/dithering style of governance. What also happened was that they caved before the media embargo against Gillard (of which more in another article yet to be published) in the hope that Rudd might enable some coverage of actual government policy, and with it a case for re-election that was denied to them under the anti-Gillard embargo.

Over the period 2007-10, Kevin Rudd irritated a lot of people in caucus through backflips and backdowns publicly, and in private snubbing and bawling-out and other forms of rudeness. People in caucus complained but ultimately did nothing. Only when this behaviour came to alarm a few union leaders was action taken against Rudd: they phoned members of caucus over the evening of 23 June 2010 and told them that they were to vote for Gillard, which they did. The lesson in sheer power terms was clear: powerful people step up and act while powerless people sit around and whinge.

In the first week of the election campaign, Tony Abbott's campaign to become Prime Minister stalled over his inability to sound convincing when talking about workplace relations (a mistake he has compounded this year, with his no-mark workplace relations policy that Eric Abetz all but disowned in a debate with Shorten at the National Press Club). Rudd leaked to Laurie Oakes and Labor people haven't forgiven him for that. In the period since, Rudd knew that the union leaders hadn't shifted: that's why he was belted last March and dodged the challenge earlier this year. It was still fair to regard those guys as the drivers of caucus.

The unions haven't rolled out a supportive campaign for the ALP like they did in 2007; this doesn't mean the ALP needs to trash the unions but they are entitled to wonder what they are getting in return for being lorded over. Now that the ALP's preselections for the coming election have all been settled, and there is nothing to lose, why not ignore the small number of union leaders who won't help you and can't touch you? After the election you can rebuild those fences if you need to.

As to Rudd's micromanaging/dithering style, its persistence is unclear from this angle (and do you reckon journos will pick it up this time? Fool me once, etc.). If this style has changed, it will be a value-add brought by latecomers to Team Rudd like Crean, Wong, and Shorten, rather than thick-and-thin loyalists like Chris Bowen or Bruce Hawker insisting that Rudd has "changed" in some undefinable way. If they don't win the election it doesn't matter; if they do, they had better work out some arrangement whereby Rudd's staff is imposed upon him or something, but then if they had done that after 2007 they would be in a different position today.

The idea that the micromanaging/dithering style is fixed in place is fascinating only to those who give Tony Abbott the benefit of the doubt. On and since Wednesday night we learned, again, that Abbott can't deal with foreseeable events. He was caught out when Gillard replaced Rudd in 2010. He was caught out when Gillard thrashed Rudd in March 2012. The Coalition look like the little pigs from the fable who built their houses from straw and sticks, unaware that the wolf could even do the huff-and-puff until the wreckage literally and undeniably lay strewn around them.

Abbott claims to have learned the lessons from Hewson's time in 1990-93, but I don't think he has: when Labor replaced Hawke with Keating in 1991 the Coalition's game changed, but their tactics never accommodated the new and fiercer opponent. Only last week the Coalition said that Rudd had been "assassinated" in 2010, a stupid line for a country where the practice is almost unknown. Rudd seems to have been de-assassinated in a way that simply isn't possible for John Newman or Donald Mackay.

Eventually, the Coalition will come up with a line of attack against Rudd. It will almost certainly involve a lot of crocodile tears about poor Julia Gillard. If Abbott really was "the best Opposition Leader ever", or even a good one, he would have shifted seamlessly to counter Rudd so that Labor appeared to flounder no matter who led them. Rudd has, as David Jackmanson points out as AusVotes2013, anticipated the Coalition attack and pretty much blunted it already.

Since Wednesday the Liberals held a US-style rally starring the prissy Bruce Billson and the repellent Sophie Mirabella (prediction: neither will be re-elected). They introduced John Howard, who became cranky in referring to Rudd - 2007 all over again. If you believe Howard embodied, or even led, an era in which Australia was comfortable and relaxed, then you should only wheel him out in public when he's feeling that way. Mr Comfortable and Relaxed was never convincing as an attack dog. The two Labor leaders who beat him (Hawke and Rudd) knew that a serene leaderlike pose was the best way to counter his attacks. Howard saw off three Labor leaders (Keating, Crean, and Latham) who made him look calm and avuncular by contrast, and another (Beazley) who was not so much calm as complacent. Cranky Howard is worse for the Liberals than no Howard at all. Cranky Howard looks like he is driving Abbott behind the scenes, as though Abbott isn't his own man - however true that is, it's a perception for which the Liberals can't afford to offer more support.

Since Wednesday night we learned that the consensus of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery is not only meaningless, but actually works against telling us how we are governed. At the start of this month people like Barrie Cassidy confidently asserted that the Rudd challenge was really on, drawing on the full depth and breadth of their experience and credibility to make the Big Call. They simply assumed that their credibility had remained intact after three years of log-rolling and jabbering on this subject. Then they said that the steam was coming off any (imagined) Rudd challenge - at the very point when caucus members like Penny Wong and Bob Carr were actually telling Prime Minister Gillard that they would not be voting for her. This was worse than the usual dreary beat-up. What the press gallery reported was the direct opposite of what was happening.

There is quite the debate in journo circles about how far you go to protect your sources, and almost all journalists agree that it is better to tell your audience less than the full truth in order to protect your sources. In this case, however, we already know who the press gallery use as their pro-Rudd sources: any MP who quit or was sacked over the past three years (or overlooked, in the case of Doug "mind mah tea" Cameron). We know now that their sources have led to press gallery journalists reporting the opposite of the truth - insisting that there was a challenge when there wasn't, and vice versa - to the point where the press gallery consensus simply can no longer be trusted as a source of information about federal politics.

Pampered journos such as those in the press gallery go to industry events where they are regaled with tales of danger by other journalists who dodge writs from Sydney property developers, bullets from Mexican drug gangs or rocket-propelled grenades from Western Asian fundamentalists. They think they have something in common with those people, but they don't. Look at the English-language news outlets from North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Iran - note the skirting of major political issues within those jurisdictions, the simple recitation of government announcements and quotes without verification or context, lots of passive voice, and the assumption that the official PR-heavy activities of the great and good are all there is to 'politics'. That's the type of journalism with which Australian press gallery journalism is most closely aligned - not the derring-do, truth-at-all-costs work that attracts gullible people to fundraising dinners.

On Wednesday night Bob Carr claimed that a number of asylum-seekers who come to Australia by boat are "economic migrants" (like my Scottish forebears in the 1830s, presumably). It's clear that detention is an idea that has to be tried and failed before it will be abandoned. I don't know how many more people will have to be drowned at sea or banged up in the various detention centres before that will happen, in the same way that it wasn't clear that 43 is the number of Australian servicemen who had to die in Afghanistan (and may there be no more).

Mandatory offshore detention will work for Labor at this election because it is the middle ground between the do-nothing/laissez-faire option, and the creepy cruelty offered by Scott Morrison and the Coalition. Beyond that, it is a policy that can't work either to reduce the flow of asylum-seekers to Australia, or to process asylum claims in a more systematic way. Despite having failed, it cannot be abandoned straight away but abandoned it will be eventually; along with the high-minded criticism that it is cruel and inhumane and in breach of our international obligations, this policy will come to attract the contempt that is due to all impractical, pointless, expensive, window-dressing policy measures.

I miss Julia Gillard and I still think she could have turned it around and beaten Abbott, and could would should might have been a better Prime Minister than she had been. The polls do not disprove this. I suppose nothing will prove or disprove it, but this is my blog and that is what I reckon.

We haven't seen a policy wonk like her in the Prime Ministership since Deakin. Australian Labor is still playing catch-up since it failed to rethink its purpose to the extent that other social-democrat governments did in the 1930s and '40s, but Julia Gillard has brought them almost up to date. I'm fairly unsentimental when it comes to Labor as a delivery mechanism for policy outcomes, but I stand in awe of the sheer love in this piece, and with it the notion that progress is meant to be made, set back, reassessed and moved forward again, whether at the general political and policy level or at the lives of particular little girls and their family.

The appalling sexism that was piled onto Gillard particularly (but not only) toward the end of her Prime Ministership has brought sexism and gender issues into the centre of public debate like nothing else had, or perhaps ever could have. The scrutiny of the Gillard government's cuts to welfare payments for single parents is almost unprecedented for its breadth, prevalence and quality across both traditional and social media. The debate over sexism in the military is no longer a litany of isolated incidents as it was under previous governments, but a systematic one demanding to be addressed at the highest level. Serious analysis from a gender perspective has arrived at the centre of how we understand the national debate rather than being a perennial but fringe issue. Rudd's promise to increase the number of female ministers will only increase the applicability of gender analysis on government; expect more feminist breakdowns of the budget and other issues on which gender perspectives had touched only in passing.

Since Wednesday night much has changed, but much abides. The press gallery has failed the nation, its employers, and the politicians who sustain them; it has no future in its current form. The Coalition is left with, as the masterful Piping Shrike observes, "an unpopular leader ... with policies that the electorate doesn’t especially like", and too late to change either much. Labor wants to be both reformist and risk-averse: good luck with that, but then that seems to be what the country wants too. We are a have-your-cake-and-eat-it kind of people.

23 June 2013

Civility and its absence

Two recent articles show both how the Liberal Party isn't ready for government, and how the media don't even understand how the Liberal Party works.

First, this:
West Australian Liberal MP Judi Moylan gave a clarion call to moderate types on her exit from Parliament this week.
That's the sort of stale, cliche-ridden prose Baird was taught to use at The Sydney Morning Herald. You could be excused for switching off right there, but she does have things to say so long as you don't look too closely at her assumptions.

What even is a "clarion call"? A clarion was a trumpet used in the Middle Ages with a shrill, piercing sound. Moylan's voice is hardly shrill and piercing.

What/Whom does she mean by "moderate types"? Does she mean someone like me, an active Liberal for 14 years until 2000 until it just became too embarrassing for all concerned? Does she mean someone like Scott Morrison, who fended off a preselection candidate further to the right of him but who stands against everything Moylan stood for? Does she mean a hollow shell like George Brandis?

To be a moderate in the Liberal Party, you have to believe that it is about more than the legacy of John Howard. The Liberal Party is not about anything more than the legacy of John Howard. Judi Moylan joined the Liberal Party before it became the vessel of Howard's legacy, and so did many of the "moderate types" of Baird's imagining. Seventeen years of membership dues (since 1996) make you wonder what you are achieving as "moderate types" in a party that was barely tolerant of them/us by the time I left, and increasingly hostile since. Baird assumes a group of people who are no longer active in Liberal Party politics, or who are but no longer moderate in any meaningful sense, might be lazily lasso'd with this phrase "moderate types".
In her valedictory speech, [Moylan] spoke of her intense, abiding concern about the 600,000 children living in poverty in Australia: "Why have we not been able to do better?" ... [She] also talked about her "strident opposition" to indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers - and especially of children. ... We don't hear much of this kind of talk from the Coalition these days, do we?
No, and people who work against poverty and mandatory detention have nobody to talk to in the Liberal Party. Branches don't want to hear from you and engage with your ideas, there are no policy mechanisms to speak of, Federal backbenchers will only get yelled at by Peta Credlin or Joe Hockey for proffering ideas. People who work against poverty and mandatory detention, and people who work for the election of an Abbott government, are not the same people. They talk past one another and operate at cross-purposes. And yet, Julia Baird assumes "moderate types" should be in there facilitating interaction.
Moylan told ABC Radio's Alexandra Kirk that there has been somewhat of an exodus of moderate members from Parliament, "and a few more will be departing this Parliament. So it is a bit of a concern. John Howard always said the Liberal Party's a broad church, and I think we need to have those differing voices within the party to give it balance. And, indeed, to reflect the community that we are elected to serve."
Twenty years ago it might have been "a bit of a concern". Now it's just idle and obtuse to be staring at the cold bones of people you always thought of as full of life. Howard only used the broad-church thing after he gained an unshakable grip on that bully pulpit.
The drift of the Liberal Party to the right has been often discussed over the past decade. The lack of civility in Federal Parliament has been often discussed over the past month.
Those timeframes are way, way too short, the mark of a dilettante. The treatment of Liberal moderates in the 1990s has been every bit as vicious as the treatment of senior figures in the Gillard government today. A commitment to civility in debate is a commitment to breadth of participation and inclusiveness; a departure from civility creates the conditions whereby good and sensible people will depart the field, and that only oafs and opportunists like Abbott and whoever will replace Moylan will scoop such prizes as there are in an increasingly dirty pool.
The current rash of vitriol, negativity and slogans crowds out decent debate. The sheer hatred of political leaders - both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard - trumpeted on social media is palpable and distracting.
I am sick to death of bloody journalists who can't and won't address the failure of their own 'profession'.

The very organs that publish Julia Baird articles, and those that compete with them, are the very media outlets that have failed to use what comes from Canberra as the raw materials for public debate. They have focused exclusively on personalities: where that happens the emotion cannot be channelled into productive or educative ends. You need a commitment to facts and context, which broadcast media outlets kind of had in the past and certainly don't now.

The better social media outlets are picking up that slack. It is idle for Julia Baird to assume that social media can represent only chaos, and that broadcast media outlets such as those that have marooned her mid-career are even capable of bringing order and form to productive debate.
A new study published in the journal Psychological Science found some crucial, fascinating insights into how extremists can shift their positions to more moderate stances ... A shift in views would happen only if extremists were asked to explain the details and mechanics of policy.
With all due respect, no shit.

People who have made their way up through the ranks of a party recognise the structures of power and authority within that party. They do not recognise alternative power/authority structures. Liberals believe they can accord power and authority to, say, vaudeville act Lord Monckton, who reflects it back at them, while whatever structures of power/authority that enable a respected climate scientist to put their position is to be ignored, and if not shut down then negated. Journalists who produce he-said-she-said, teach-the-controversy output help obscure our understandings more than they help show us what is reliable and what is false. Journalists in broadcast media outlets do not help understand issues because simply presenting the controversy is all they can do.

I have seen extremist anti-abortionists confront pro-choicers and eventually agree to disagree on the issue, with mutual respect between the protagonists. Is that a "moderate" outcome, or a non-outcome?
The implications of this are huge.

First, when we do not force people - politicians, parties, pundits - to explain the mechanics and details upholding policies, poorly thought out views go unchecked.
Yep, and in the absence of same all you have to go on are Julia's glasses and Tony's lycra. Let's be clear: the tone of public debate is in large part set by the broadcast media outlets, and they have let slip a lot of nasty comments about the government being nasty, illegitimate, criminal, which have been returned in full measure complete with gutless complaints by those who dish it but can't cop it.

You'll notice that the reasons why journalists focus on, oh, anything other than the mechanics and details surrounding policy are not examined. Nor is the assumption that they are well-placed and capable of doing such a service. All we get is this one line.
Second, the role of the journalist is vital.
Vital, but absent. A lot of what Baird airily dismisses as 'vitriol' online is in fact keening for some proper journalism. There is no proof that broadcast media journalism has the analytical skill, or even the temerity, to pin down politicians and ask policy-related questions (and understand the answers).
Third, so is party cohesion.
Oh, fuck off.

Kevin Rudd is nowhere near getting the numbers to knock off Julia Gillard. This has been true every day for the last three years. Just because Rudd's supporters lack the sense and wit to stop crying wolf, it does not mean that broadcast media outlets privileged to take up space in the press gallery have a right to squeeze out other issues. Advocates trying to get stories up on defence procurement, climate change or any number of really important issues are fobbed off by the sort of people who commission Julia Baird articles - but those same people can't get enough Ruddmentum, running warmed-over stories from eighteen months ago.

I realise "fuck off" isn't a very civil response. What Baird was trying to do was defend the indefensible (clogging the arteries of public debate with crap, then complaining that public debate is crap, and then blaming ... social media?), and maintain her blindness toward the failings of her 'profession'. I'm entitled to be bored and frustrated and impatient with dilettantes who wade into a debate without having thought out what's really going on here. A debate over the politico-media complex involves the media as a matter of course, which includes people Baird considers colleagues.
Abbott said this week if there was a change of government in September, Parliament would be a "better place: There has been too much venom and too many baseless accusations of bad faith." While some argue his time - and team - in opposition has strongly contributed to this problem, most would agree.
In 2010 Abbott actually used George H W Bush's form of words about "a kinder, gentler polity", and he delivered anything but. Simply by passing on phrases like "this criminal government" the broadcast media has helped Abbott discourage the kind of civility against which he strains, and which he finds challenging. This is what Paul Keating meant when he described Abbott's modus operandi as "give me the job or I'll wreck the joint". He simply cannot be taken at his word; yet, Baird was trained to believe that a direct quote was a solid basis for a story.

Abbott would seek to insist upon niceness and respect for the simple reason that, while he can dish out spite and disrespect to others, he cannot cop it himself. He lacks the self-reflective qualities necessary to understand why what he has done unto others would be visited upon him. He would seek to recreate the kind of intellectually lazy defence shield that surrounded John Howard, where anyone who quibbled with anything he said or did however mildly - like Judi Moylan, for example - would have their concerns shouted down by being branded a "Howard Hater" by someone like Janet Albrechtsen, or Tony Abbott.

If you actually look at Abbott's record he has never flourished in an environment of niceness, tolerance and mutual respect. Like taking performance-enhancing drugs away from Lance Armstrong, the guy starts to slip back into the pack really fast, and that is not the tragedy that Abbott boosters might imagine.
Leaders of all parties must tolerate climates in which party members can question them.
Why? Tony Abbott faces the prospect of becoming Prime Minister by doing the exact opposite of that. Judi Moylan questioned and questioned, and as she said herself much of what she cared about was left undone.
And by moderation, I mean a respect for the centre, for civility, for reason, for robust and free debate, and for opponents - and, in Australia today, a commitment to human rights.
Part of having an open debate involves the possibility that your opponent might beat you. However large it is, Tony Abbott's ego - and the collective ego of the Liberal right who put him there - cannot admit to any defeat, large or petty. Hence, the avoidance of debate - not asking questions of ministers who'd cream them in Question Time, refusing interviews from challenging interviewers - they concede nothing, yet expect their opponents to roll over at every opportunity.

As for "the centre", we now have a bipartisan commitment to conservatism that will mean it, and not centrism, will dominate national debates. Debates will be closed down rather than challenge the way things are done. Human rights concerns are fringe issues in Australian politics, not mainstream. This will be supported by the acquiescent media that applauds politicians who don't answer questions, and they in turn will be supported by Julia Baird.

Julia Baird should be supporting someone like Frances Jones, whose commitment to seeking out stories and presenting them well puts Baird and almost all of her broadcast-media colleagues to shame. Kevin Lee's description of his attempts to offer his services to the nation is well worth reading. His gentle, civil tone (even to Ray King) is lovely, in a way that few political screeds are.

On Twitter journo-school heads were calling for broadcast-media journalists to display Jones' level of initiative (with no ambition above seeking to replicate today's newsrooms, journo-schools are their own punchlines). God bless Phillip Ruddock; just when you write off the old bastard his warnings about Clarke and Opus Dei remind you of his civility-veneer, and that seams of it can run quite deep. Lee makes telling and true-ringing remarks about Abbott and Heffernan, among others.

Do I owe civility? Yes, I do.

I moderate this blog with a fair degree of civility, and as a well-weeded garden requires relatively light ongoing maintenance so too I have not been beset by industrial quantities of spambots or boofheads. In the past fortnight or so I have been cranky on Twitter, and offline I've been struggling with full-blown influenza now into its third (and hopefully last) week. I could and should be more civil than I have been, and the ability to work through issues like this rather than rail against a toxic political environment will help that.

That said, however, there are limits. It is important for any moderate to realise that the enemies of civility and moderation will only succumb when confronted with their opposites, of which they claim to be master but which masters them all too often. It is a hard lesson to learn, one that took me years, but has become well entrenched in a naturally sceptical and schismatic intellectual background.

I knew Tony Abbott slightly and have never thought highly of him, as a person or as the holder of high office. I am appalled at the prospect that he might become Prime Minister and am doing all I can to head off that prospect (and it is a prospect, if not an apparition; people who speak of it as "a reality" should give themselves an uppercut). If he gets that job I will treat him no better than the incumbent Prime Minister is treated. For seven years I have given Anthony John Abbott nothing but what he deserves, and this will not let up until his neglected gravestone reeks of stale urine and dead weeds.

11 June 2013

How to make a blogger laugh

Over the past week or so I've needed cheering up, and this morning a bit of sunny, patronising tosh brought forth the laughter that, for an influenza sufferer like me, brings on hacking coughs. After I'd finished coughing I still appreciated what I assumed was a joke.

One of the great lodes of comedy is the collision between high-minded idealism and everyday reality. Charlie Chaplin built a career on it and so have plenty of others. This article may not be intended to continue that tradition, but it does miss the important point that journalism is as journalism does.

Let's look at her 10 tips for getting yourself into a position where "you may [my emphasis] have a successful working relationship with someone in the newsroom.":

I've been reading newspapers since I was ten. I'm 44. Don't tell me what headlines are meant to do. Like anything a headline can let you down. A duff headline can mean the detail of the story won't be read and so the whole process of collaborating in one has been a waste of time.

Besides, who do you expect people to vent to? The journalist is the one person in the media organisation with whom you've struck up a relationship. A sub-editor is not going to take a call from anyone. They don't even like journalists and these days don't even work for the same organisation as the journalist, or even for the media outlet which put out the story.

Nature of advice: patronising, silly

Journalists are not the only ones in that position. Small business people, the target audience for the story, also face tight deadlines and pressure on matters other than the story under discussion.

Nature of advice: lacking in self-awareness - and awareness of others (a quality a journalist is expected to have in spades, hence etc.)

The journalist sells the interviewee on the idea that he/she is just telling the interviewee's story, and then gets all upset when the interviewee wants to say something different - particularly when the journalist is interviewing someone not accustomed to being interviewed.

If you think real journalism is fielding half a dozen calls each day from Joel Fitzgibbon, you can jam the above quote as far as it will go.

Nature of advice: lacking in self-awareness, lack of understanding of own job (someone buy Kate Jones a copy of The Journalist and the Murderer)

The journosphere only wants the compelling action shots like this:

Or fresh and arresting visual images like this:

So don't even bother with your brother-in-law who has all the you-beaut Canon gear and takes wildlife photos on weekends. Who does he think he is, Mike Bowers?

Nature of advice: lacking in self-awareness, pointless (admit it, there is no policy on what pics media outlets will or won't use, apart from pixel count or size. Journos love cliches in text and pics, they love readers who love cliches and shut up about it)

So when you've spent hours explaining something to a journalist, and they still don't get it, suck it up.

Nature of advice: lacking in self-awareness. The whole business of journalism involves seeking other people's opinions.

Journalists tend to work for organisations that are, for all their difficulties, multi-million-dollar organisations that employ hundreds of people. Small businesses, by their nature, aren't like that. Some small businesses might hire a PR person to field media enquiries, but most don't. A journalist who has spent time with a small business person, watching them get pulled in ten different directions in as many minutes, need not wonder why such a person has not returned their call as a matter of urgency.

Nature of advice: lacking in self-awareness. People are living the life that you write about. If you had cultivated a better relationship with the interviewee, prompt returning of calls might be part of it.

Come on, say something nice: I liked the idea of a hard-hitting balanced investigative piece on Mother's Day sales. People have gotten Walkleys for less.

Yeah, you never know when rumours about Kevin Rudd challenging Julia Gillard might pop up. It might be tomorrow, it might be the day after. Whatever journalists write about, that's news, and if they don't write about it then it isn't. Unless it is, in which case see 5 and 9 above. There aren't any hard-and-fast rules about news. Interviewees: don't get sucked in by journalists. Journalists: do a better job of managing expectations.

Nature of advice: lacking in self-awareness. If it's your job to have the news sense, why do you complain when others lack it? And if others have news sense and you don't, haven't you been found out?

Nature of advice: Fair enough.

Now where would anyone get a crazy idea like that?

Nature of advice: lacking in self-awareness, awareness of others. This person is focused on building their business. They may even be running the sort of business that competes with Justin Hemmes'. They wouldn't be talking to you at all unless it helped that end. And did you not promise coverage, exposure to a wide audience ...?

See 4. above.

Copyright for all images in this blogpost (c) The Sydney Morning Herald, the same publication that runs Kate Jones' story, and yes that is part of the point I'm making here. This is media advice for people who don't know what the media is, presumably commissioned and approved by an editor in a similar position. The story fails as a serious endeavour, but my goodness it could make a cat laugh.

07 June 2013

Ruling in, ruling out

'Cause the high heel he used to be has been ground down
And he listens for the footsteps that would follow him around ...

- Elvis Costello Man out of time
What is Kevin Rudd up to? He has realised the guerrilla-campaign of opposition-within-government is a lonely place to be (with only the likes of Joel Fitzgibbon for company, true loneliness would be the better option). Rudd has learned the lesson that Malcolm Turnbull learnt and applied within his party: that if you're a team player your shortcomings will be covered up, while your light can outshine lesser lights even when yours is dimmed and theirs is at full wattage. Over the past two days or so Rudd has done what nobody expected him to do: join the team, fight for the team, rule out taking over the team.

Prime Minister Gillard invested a lot in keeping the Australian-manufactured vehicle industry going, in terms of personal credibility and in terms of money: public money, billions of dollars of it, which was ringfenced against budget cuts. When Ford announced that they would cease manufacturing in this country Gillard made an appropriate but impersonal statement, and has committed to greater job retraining and placement services than other redundant workers get.

She reiterated in her calm, lawyerly way that the whole idea of throwing money at the vehicle industry was about the workers, and that they remained her focus after they had ceased to matter to Ford management. Visiting Geelong today, Rudd said it punchier and better. He's not trying to one-up the Prime Minister, he is compensating for what everyone agrees is one of her weaknesses (in areas other than education or disability care, it would seem): an ability to get to the point, stick to it and hammer it home, so that you don't forget who owns this issue and who you need to vote for if you think it's important too.

I think Kevin Rudd has had his go, and have been strongly critical of him over three years now. I remain unconvinced that his ability to manage people and information has improved one bit and nobody takes any word of oily old-school Ruddsters like Hawker to the contrary. Of course Rudd talks about great-power rivalry; all ex-PMs do that, but not even the most addled nostalgist is talking about SHOCK FRASER/KEATING LEADERSHIP TILT SHOCK. Now that Rudd's on the team, doing the right thing, it's incumbent upon critics to identify and support constructive behaviour: well done, Mr Rudd.

"Gillard-haters"* like Drag0nista and Leigh Sales are clearly upset. They'd be fine if Rudd was undermining Gillard; they'd be fine if Rudd went to ground, and rendered himself politically inert. Both fit the Abbott's-inevitable-Gillard's-doomed Narrative. Because he's done neither, they play word games with him: do you rule out ... are you leaving the door open for ... Rudd knew in 2007 that playing along with such bullshit is worth nothing in terms of votes. Abbott knows it now, and plays journos like trout on the rare occasions that a) they actually confront him and b) he doesn't walk away.

The only thing to do when confronted with that is to shirtfront the interviewer for asking pissant questions, which is what Rudd did this week and what the Prime Minister should do more often.

It doesn't matter if you trash a broadcast media interviewer, they'll still beg to have you back: they have no choice. Only those seeking to hustle their way out of obscurity believe otherwise, but the big guns know you don't cop that from a journo. The journo isn't eliciting information of value by the ruling in/ruling out thing. What they are doing is getting the jollies and the sensation of power that a child gets when offering food to a puppy and then jerking it away at the last minute, laughing, and then offering the morsel again. Old dogs know you can take a bit of skin off the cherub without being put down, and improve the relationship quite considerably over the long term.

Rudd is one politician who has certainly lost a lot of power, but the broadcasters/MSM have lost more power than he has. Nobody who doesn't know suck-up-spit-down Sales personally is going to feel for her after being outmanoeuvered by someone The Narrative regards as a political corpse.

Fitzgibbon looks like a prize fuckwit for courting publicity at his party's expense, and even those of us with no love for the ALP as an organisation see this clearly. To be fair, however, this is also true of the entire, almost entirely worthless Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery. Yet again the media turned their back on the market that will maintain or kill their jobs in order to pursue a nobody: the unspeakable in pursuit of the implausible.

God forbid that anything at all should hang upon sad-sacks Alan Griffin and Daryl Melham for tossing in the towel. Once again, Rudd has left his so-called supporters within caucus in the cold. He's done it before - pretty much every time he ran for the leadership, except 2006 and after '07 when he had enough largesse to distribute to friend and foe alike - but every time he ran and lost his supporters wondered why they bothered.

I remember when Daryl Melham's career ended, sometime in the '90s  after an interview with Kerry O'Brien. The Liberals have been targeting his seat for twenty years, one of the longest courtships in Australian politics. If they win no other seat, let Banks be the crown-of-thorns for Loughnane-Abbott. Griffin has gone from newbie to burnt-out husk without any intervening achievement, a bit like most careers in politics or political journalism really.

The Murdoch journos can't believe the Labor leadership thing really is over. The basic facts of Australian politics are clearly different to what they told us, what they demanded we pay them to tell us: Julia Gillard was Prime Minister was Prime Minister in June 2010, she was Prime Minister was Prime Minister in June 2011, she was Prime Minister was Prime Minister in June 2012, she is Prime Minister was Prime Minister in June 2013, and no amount of increasingly strident Narrative is convincing that she won't be Prime Minister was Prime Minister in June 2014, or '15.

Having Rudd as leader in this election was essential to the Liberal psyche.

The Liberals who survived the 2007 election mostly accepted the people's decision, and began casting about for a post-Howard future. They thought Costello would lead them there and they were wrong. There was a hard core of people like Bronwyn Bishop who simply refused, Tea Party style, to accept that an actual majority of actual Australian voters elected a Labor government. They thought that Rudd had swindled them, and every time he backed down and watered down the positions with which he beat Howard he fed that perception. Nelson was their compromise candidate: nobody wanted Abbott after his performance at the election yet they were afraid Turnbull would rush them into some strange future of a republic, education, hi-tech and fine arts, of the sort that Keating had tried to foist onto Labor.

Turnbull got up when Nelson could go on no longer and he assuaged the most basic fears of the organised Liberal Right, directed from beyond Canberra. When Turnbull failed too they put Abbott in, as they wanted all along because they could control him as he presented a face to the press gallery that it found appealing (and the public will swallow whatever the press gallery feeds them, apparently).

Abbott needs to face Rudd and beat him. Only then can the Howard continuum be restored and maintained. That's why Abbott looked crestfallen when Gillard trounced Rudd last year, and why the Liberals didn't laugh when Rudd refused to challenge earlier this year (the key union bosses remained behind Gillard; had they shifted, they'd have told their people in caucus to vote for Rudd, and Rudd would now be PM. Rudd knew they hadn't shifted and wasn't obliged to commit political suicide).

The role of the press gallery and their broadcast media colleagues in leadership transitions over the past seven years is an anachronism, a homage to an image of the press and its role within Parliament that no longer applies. The parties' relationship to the media in leadership transitions used to be intimate: they would watch collaborators gather and disperse. They could point to evidence contradicting those who would "play down leadership tensions".

Now their position can be likened to [another analogy that compares grown journalists to children!] the schoolyard bullying tactic whereby taller children take the property of a smaller child and throw it back and forth above the owner's feebly grasping hands. The difference is, though, that the child whose property is being used as a plaything knows what's going on; after seven long years, no press gallery journalist - no newbie with fresh perspective, no old hand who's seen it all - none of them have twigged to the way leadership challenges actually happen.

Seven years. Six leadership changes in that time. Two elections, and another coming up. None of them have twigged to the way leadership challenges actually happen.

Now that you understand the difference between how leadership challenges actually work, and how they are reported by the press gallery and others in the broadcast media (or if you will, MSM), you can see the level of self-delusion from this tribune of the Conventional Wisdom:

That could have been written at any point in the last three years, and would have been no more valid then than it is now. It's not even informative, failing as journalism at every level other than the ovine everyone else is doing it. Looking to the caucus to find out what's going on with the leadership is like looking for Lasseter's Reef in the carpark of the Rooty Hill RSL: it just ain't there.

Leadership changes have been carefully managed affairs for the past seven years: in that time Labor has changed leaders twice, the Liberals three times, and in every case the fix has been in long before the press gallery even got wind of it. Even the Greens notified the MSM only after the Brown-Milne-WhishWilson deal was done.

That journalist is wasting her time running the same non-story she's run for three years, the same non-story the press gallery ran about Howard and Costello before that. You can be a veteran press gallery journalist in this country with a resume consisting of nothing but bullshit.

No amount of MSM wishin'-and-hopin'- that the realities of the past seven years might be different this time will make it so. Party leadership changes are just not decided in Canberra. Pollies will wring their hands over a dud leader but won't move without being told by people who put and keep them there - people who aren't in Canberra and who rarely talk to journos anyway. This is one of the many changes that affects the way that the broadcast media does its job which has nothing whatsoever to do with the dreaded Internet.

The ABC's Mark Colvin insisted at the Sydney Writers' Festival that journalists were the victim of an imaginary construct called "the 24 hour news cycle", and on Twitter this week he claimed that it explains this. It doesn't. Neither Morrison nor Fitzgibbon had anything new or interesting to say and only the most skittish and idiotic sheep would contend otherwise.

The press gallery in Canberra doesn't operate on anything like a "24 hour news cycle". The one exception to that was the night of 23-24 June 2010, a leadership transition brought on by people who cared nothing for the comfortable routines of traditional media.

The fact that Prime Minister Gillard is the first occupant of that office since McMahon who has not courted the media before securing it explains why she gets unrelentingly negative coverage, and why her policy-lite opponent is excused for not facing up to economic and social realities of the nation he would govern. The press gallery is denying us the information we need to make a decision other than that which would bring about a government that they - and their construction of 'we' - would want.

It is perfectly appropriate to laugh at the sheer effrontery of journalists caught off-guard when a press release is issued at 4.30pm on a Friday. Have you ever had something crop up at work when you thought a day was nearing its end? I have, so have most people, and journalists should keep that in mind when they chew up airtime/space with their bellyaching.

If a government is truly gone you don't need to get as shrieky as the broadcast media is (and some of the more gullible bloggers are) now. Look at the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger coverage of the doomed Howard federal government - or even the she's-quite-nice-really coverage of NSW's Kenneally government in 2011, a government that actually did die of shame. If you really do believe the polls and the backroom consultants who insist it's all over then the absence of such coverage about Gillard is suspicious.

Rudd is courting the same audience that he courted in 2006: the lumpen public (nobody you know, just those randoms 'in the field' of a poll); and the heads of the ALP's most powerful unions, whom he won over in '06 and lost in '10 and clearly hopes to win again. By neither sulking nor abasing himself, he is doing what they have told him is necessary and unavoidable: those who fight for Labor when their prospects seem darkest have a future, while those who simply jeer or walk away might not be welcomed back.

Maybe Rudd will feint again between now and September and glory in the title of the only Federal Labor MP north of Sussex Street. Maybe he'll turn on Gillard again when Abbott is having a dead-cat bounce. Drag0nista is right when she uses Rudd's words that a leopard never changes its spots - that may be so, but a leopard can be de-clawed and -fanged, and boxed into a small enclosure. I've seen it happen and so have most Australians, assuming their experiences of leopards is similar to mine.

The point here is that none of the Conventional Wisdom surfers and Narrative-mongers predicted Rudd would support the leader who replaced him. It might well be fleeting, and to some it's infuriating, but you can't deny it's happened or that it might recur. Having thus failed your analysis of what might happen in a new light is pretty much moot. You just can't trust the press gallery (like other essentially conservative people who exist in a matrix of cliches) to differentiate a passing fad from a structural shift, and report it to you.

Those yet-unreleased Liberal policies would want to be real doozies, instantly and firmly embraced by a grateful nation that truly believes Abbott and Hockey and their support acts really can and will deliver Australia from what ails it under Rudd and Gillard. Yep, click your ruby-red slippers together and believe, believe, believe.

* News Ltd columnist Miranda Devine used to claim that anyone who criticised the Howard government for any reason was a "Howard hater". In that sense, Drag0nista can be said to be a "Gillard hater". When I wrote that I thought I was being terribly wry. Oh well.

02 June 2013

The aroma of decay 2: starve the hungry

People are hungry for information about different aspects of public policy and what it means for the country. Three experienced journalists from three of the country's major news organisations freely admit that's all very well, but we're going to write about whatever distracts our tiny little minds and you can all go to hell.

According to 'Sweet' Barrie Cassidy:
Australia, it seems, is not having an election on September 14, but a handover. Never before has there been this level of expectation that a government is about to be thrown out
It does if you are trapped in the narrative. People are ambivalent about both the government and the alternative - by "people", I exclude current and past press gallery journalists.
Tony Abbott's near tearful tribute to the departing former government minister Martin Ferguson was properly, and widely, acclaimed for its generosity and bi-partisanship ... He was none too subtlety [sic] implying that Labor under Julia Gillard was no longer the party that "over the years, made a monumental contribution to this country… at its best, a nation building party".
Martin Ferguson helped dilute the mining tax to the point where it brought down one Prime Minister, became a laughing stock under the next one, and none of it blew back on Ferguson: clever politics that. Ferguson helped make Rudd an irritant long after his own talents and behaviours should have rendered him politically inert, which earned him the gratitude of the Liberals. He never really got stuck into the Liberals that much - other Labor people, and Greens, were more his targets - and they in turn spared him.

Abbott has made the same point with less subtlety in the past. Note that we've seen the Prime Minister weep twice in recent months - over her late father and for a scheme that would help disabled people and their families. We've seen Abbott tear up for a political opponent who helped him; it's always about him.
That same morning, the lead story in The Australian newspaper detailed how the Government is continuing to write green loans in defiance of the Coalition's call for the contracts to cease.

Imagine that. This lame duck soon-to-be-replaced government is blatantly defying Coalition policy!

Had they forgotten that the Coalition wrote to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation way back in February asking them not to write any more loans after July 1?
Clearly the 'lame duck' idea needs to be reworked, if you can bear to break from the press gallery herd. What Cassidy is describing here is an overreach of the part of the Coalition, not a bearing-out of the Abbott-inevitable-Gillard-doomed Narrative in which the broadcast media are stuck. This is what Cassidy means by "this level of expectation" and "atmospherics"; it's a media concoction, not a real thing (and before you start on about polls: they're media concoctions too).
This is not so much hubris on the Opposition's part ...
Oh yes it is. On their part, and on the broadcast media's too, Barrie.
So now Tony Abbott, without appearing to be too presumptuous of course, gets himself up to speed on national security issues and invites the cameras in as he discusses weighty issues with the 'incoming' Attorney General George Brandis.
He hasn't had a national security briefing in three years. Brandis has form in disclosing matters which ought not be disclosed publicly, and yet there Abbott is doing a theatrical consultation with him. It is clear why they would want the publicity; it is less clear why the cameras would bother turning up.
And the best Julia Gillard can do in the meantime is to adopt a persona of strained civility. That's what lame duck American presidents usually do.
Oh fuck off, and never mind US Presidents. The broadcast media treated Obama like he was a 'lame duck', until his opponent proved himself to be a worse option for that country. Obama won last year's election in the face of a more-in-sorrow-than-anger media expectation to the contrary, similar to those besetting our media now.

Gillard does best when she fights, when shows that she's passionate and why, when she backs her words with actions. Anyone who's been paying attention to Australian politics in recent years could and should have observed that.

Cassidy's attempt to link current Australian politics with the US system fails at one crucial point: the election hasn't actually been held yet. This is not a minor technicality. Anyone who's seen the ups and downs of Australian politics should be a bit more wary than Cassidy has been.

Jacqueline Maley goes on and on about a minor incident affecting the PM, and finds reassurance in her interpretation that we're all as shallow as she is:
The media are often criticised for focusing on trivialities, but judging by the reader traffic on the sandwich story on the Herald website, people were more interested in that, at least in a casual sense, than they were in the electoral funding story which was also running hot on Thursday.

Folks just loved that salami sandwich yarn.
At least in a casual sense. You don't generate or maintain reader loyalty with shite like that. The Daily Telegraph is Sydney's most-read newspaper but it has been in decline by 9% year on year, thanks to the legacy of Col Allan out of which they cannot snap. When big stories happen readers abandon the Tele for more trusted sources, reducing the Tele still further to orchestrated stunts called "campaigns". Maley is adopting the shallow metrics of the Tele in justifying her position, if not her career, and frankly I can't see it doing her or her employer much good.
The white noise of constant reportage - video, tweets, short-n-sharp news stories online, not to mention the countless columns, like this one, that comment on all that stuff - becomes like chewing bubblegum after a while. You get a headache and you long for a square meal.
And if there is one thing you won't get from Jacqueline Maley, it's "square meal" journalism. Oh, but she has an excuse - you're it.
But the fractious media landscape just holds a mirror up to the public's lack of engagement with politics. While those inside the bubble of Parliament House are paying as much attention as ever, beyond the occasional chuckle at a sandwich story, most casual politics observers have had enough.
Both leaders are personally unpopular and there is even caution among some television producers about putting the Prime Minister on screen for any length of time. People are switching off.
Yes, because the only stories on offer are bubblegum journalism. If you go looking for "square meal" journalism, the broadcast media can't and won't help you. Maley knows that reporting of the sandwich thing is 'casual', but it's all she has to go on, so she 'reports' in detail a story that was covered in greater detail by others without adding anything new. This might be her idea of adding value, and it is clearly her editor's - but it adds no value at all to anyone who was looking for further insight, how a trivial incident might illustrate something of wider significance.
The only things that cut through the white noise are mini-scandals such as the sandwich ...
They don't "cut through". Stuff like that is white noise. Jacqueline Maley is white noise, not a trusted source of information about how we are and might be governed. She has latched onto an insubstantial story and tried to insist that it's indicative of something bigger, which it isn't. She's tried to absolve herself and the other press-gallery ovines, but she can't.

You can't just write crappy stories and then claim that because people are switching off your crappy stories, you're justified in writing crap. Insofar as Maley is saying anything at all, that's it, and once again she's got it wrong.
Labor had signed consent from Abbott on its legislation for extra taxpayer cash for the parties' "administration fees", but in the face of public anger and internal party disquiet, he reneged.

It was smart populist politics.

"The people have spoken," he told reporters of his decision. The about-turn might have made him look tricky, but it had the greater political benefit of putting him on the right side of the argument, in terms of public opinion.
Abbott has a reputation for shifty behaviour that he needs to shake if he is going to be elected - it would be "smart populist politics" if he acted to diminish that reputation rather than enhance it. If he's going to shaft people he works with every day, what makes you think we can trust what he says? Maley cannot tell what's smart and what isn't. She assumes that whatever Abbott does must be smart. This is a key reason why her employer is declining in market reach and influence.

The public is looking to Abbott to lead the nation away from a doubtful incumbent government. Maley can't help you when it comes to Abbott, and she sees the guy more often than most. It's her job to give us the facts that will help us make the decision, not tell us what the decision is; but she ain't in the fact-providing decision-supporting business and nor is anyone else in the press gallery really. She said that it isn't her job to ask dixers [i.e. easy questions that invite flattering answers], but when it comes to Abbott it clearly is.

What's special and different about the Canberra bubble is that they are the only people who actually take Tony Abbott at his word. He signed a deal, he's a man of his word. He broke a deal - he's a man of his word. He was rolled by his party, he's the leader our nation needs. Gillard has a salami sandwich tossed at her, she's a loser; Abbott has a shit sandwich served to him, he's a winner. Canberra insiders like Maley accept this and pass it on, can't see the problem. Maley genuinely can't see that her job is to find out and tell us what, if anything, Abbott won't renege on, and why Gillard keeps going in the face of ignominies and what she achieves in the process.

Keep tossing those sandwiches, boys. You're keeping Jacqueline Maley in a job, for the time being. There is no proof that she or most of her colleagues could write anything worthwhile about education funding (the real reason why the Prime Minister went to that school and what she achieved there - brought to you by an unpaid blogger, not a 'professional' like Maley), or about public funding of political parties (again, unpaid blogger 1, 'professional journalist' 0 in terms of reliable coverage of substantive issues).

Then we have a former newsreader who is so ill-equipped to evaluate competing policies, who regards politics itself as so distasteful that she can't even write about those who would govern us and how they would do so, that she seeks refuge in the distraction of colour-and-movement from the political fringes.

Assange has plenty to say, but a) he might not make it to sit in the Parliament and b) how would we be governed differently if he had a casting vote? Palmer has plenty to say too, but he probably won't make it either and his agenda is rendered no clearer for Kostakidis' examination. Both of them can be a bit flaky and change direction abruptly, yet they attract Kostakidis' attention because she's jaded and likes a bit of colour-and-movement.

Here's the bind in which journalists are caught: they won't investigate what they perceive to be the next government, because doing so might upset the ascent they regard as inevitable. They won't investigate the incumbents because they don't think it's worth their while. They're preparing us and making excuses for Abbott. Worse, they are so incompetent at communicating nuance and complex ideas that they think the very attempt at doing so is dull, and turns the audience off, so they don't even try. I agree with this, but the tragedy of most journos (including the three examined here) is that they seriously believe that's what they do as a matter of course.

Cassidy, Maley and Kostakidis are pretty much finished if the Abbott-successful-Gillard-doomed narrative fails, which is why all three and their generation of journalists are plugging it with all their might. It's a sorry sight to see, wherever vindication will sit on them no better than failure.

Maybe, if you're a colour-and-movement aficionado, politics today is just too hard for you. Maybe your idea of colour-and-movement is a tossed sandwich, which it is for Maley. Maybe it's a quick summary of the press gallery is thinking, as it is for Cassidy. If politics is for you, and you want to find out what's going on and why, none of those experienced journalists can or will help you. This is a real pity, for journalism in general and for the organisations that pay Cassidy, Maley and Kostakidis to slap up some journo-pablum from time to time. It's a particular problem for the outfit that put Kostakidis' piece up, being a new entrant to the Australian market promising higher standards but which may end up patronising us with an inferior offering that its home market would not tolerate.