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 Baird assumes a group of people who are no longer active in Liberal Party politics, or who are but no longer moderate in any meaningful sense, might be lazily lasso'd with this phrase "moderate types".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.


  1. "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."

    'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished...

  2. As usual, a sober assessment. After spending the last several years in a state of 'you're kidding me' at the lack of journalistic incisiveness I've all but given up on mainstream press.

    It might be self-denial, but I've had enough of the rubbish and refuse to pay for it. Whilst there is rubbish online too - there are enough good minds operating online to take the time to look for it.

    As to the pollies ... I truly despair that a man like Abbott, with his demeanour and outlook, can even be in such a position that he might be our next PM. To me, it defies rational thought, and it makes me wonder how long this "creep to the right" has been going on unobserved? Or has the lack of media professionalism allowed the slow perversion to be accomplished.

    My big worry is the apathy of progressives in not speaking out long enough and loud enough to make a difference in the debate that must come soon.

    Media types assure us that ultimately, the electorate will do the 'right thing'. But the mindless channelling of outright nonsense, allowing falsehoods to be transmitted without even a rudimentary challenge, MUST have a toll upon those who aren't paying close attention.

    I suppose the next few months will show us whether the media, and indeed the electorate, rises to the occasion or simply succumbs to the 'dumbing down' of debate.

    Thanks - I always find your contributions manage to crystalise points that need to be aired.


  3. Fuck off indeed.
    The only remotely comforting thing about the prospect of an Abbott government is that he will reap what he has sown. Because of course all the rabid dogs let off the leash in the last few years of total vitriol will tuck themselves neatly back into their kennels and play nice again - NOT.
    Cold comfort though.

  4. Another cracking article Andrew. I for one am entirely sick of the lack of depth in today's media, as you have again amply shown in the above.

    All we get these days is the merry-go-round of polls and leadership speculation, the talk of which is now infesting some well-known political blogs. What the commenters and public fail to realise is that this is what the MSM wants: distract the followers and frustrate the non-interested so that the real politics - the things that make differences to our lives - don't get a showing.

  5. I just about dropped my laptop when I read your quote from Maley:
    "'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"

    This exculpation of Abbott is beyond bizarre.

    Your discussion of the feeble state of the contemporary MSM is spot on. I seem to recall a time when one could rely on the Age to respond to the release of an important Government proposal, even the preliminary phase of a White paper, with some serious analysis, consideration of alternatives, some independent experts' comments etc. How different might the contemporary political process have played out if the Henry Taxation Report, the NBN the NDIS, Gonski, were subject to this sort of treatment. Instead we have slogans, one-liners, which aren't even informed by a skip read, let alone an understanding of complex proposals. Then Abbott has the effrontery to talk about the need for the adults to be in charge.
    I hope that you completely recovery from the flu asap. I think of you in the same way as one of his fellow POWs described Weary Dunlop: A lighthouse of sanity in a world gone mad.

  6. Another great post as usual, Andrew.

    Like PJF, I can remember when a policy release was subject to columns of serious analysis, with actual experts, not hacks like Sloan, to discuss the pros & cons.

    You got the sense that the journos enjoyed and were proud of, their work as opposed to the sloppy jaded parroting of what Rupert's intermediary has told them to publish these days.

    I wonder if they were released from the prison they seem to currently inhabit, whether we would have a return to good, unbiased meaty journalism instead of the pap being served up now.

    Most of the time I think not. The infection is too entrenched and the patient is on its last legs.

  7. Andrew, I have read and appreciated your comments as always. A considered response will have to wait - I'm too much into clutching head mode at the moment - but thank you for your incisive analysis.

  8. One of the other things that I love about you, Mr Elder, is that you know the difference between its and it's.

    1. Heh! Fair cop. I was cranky and ill and went after a few tweeps until I realised I was barking up the wrong tree.

  9. Another great post, and welcome back, Andrew. You have seized on the very centre of Tea Party aggression: that anything goes in discrediting your opponent, while civility and reason are to be scorned.

    Perhaps the greatest shame of the media, aside from wasting the last two years talking about a nonexistent Rudd revival, has been as demonstrated in that Maley quote, to pretend that the incivility has been practised by BOTH sides, It is a dishonest assertion.

    It is bad enough that our Prime Minister is portrayed as some sort of scheming, devious, liar when she is as near the opposite to that as a politician can be. That she has been able to achieve some major reforming legislation and policies while confronted with obstructionism, stunts and fake scandals. That Abbott and his lackeys have got away with calling it an incompetent government at the very time it has won international praise for its economic management, and that our reporters have blithely ignored it or condoned it, is to insult our senses.

    I still hope, as you do, that sanity will prevail. But it is a situation like Woodfull encountered during the Bodyline series which led to him confronting Jardine with, "There are two sides out there, but only one is playing cricket!"

  10. Thank Andrew I do look forward to your writings you certainly leave the likes of Grattan and others to rot on the vine with their insipid political writings.
    These so called professional journalists should hold their heads in shame for the crap they produce.

  11. Let's face it, gorgeous dunny, the LNP would lose the debate resoundingly if they resorted to those tactics of civility and reason. They ponly way they can win is make the lie a big one, and get enough of their mates hollering in the background at anyone who questions them. My fear is for the sort of Australia that will produce. The LNP seem to be riding into power on the basis of almost zero policy. This has produced a laziness and absence of rigour in their thinking that, even if they do have free rein to manage Australia, will ensure they fail. I have no problem with them failing; I just don't want them to drasg the rest of us with them.

  12. Like the Howard as bully in the pulpit metaphor.read one that when one of the dissidents finally got a meeting with him (I think it was Bruce Baird) over asylum seekers, he was suprised to find there were no spare chairs in Howard's office. They had been removed to to troublemaker had to stand, like a naughty schoolboy in front of the principal. Broad church? You gotta be joking.

    1. But Gillard is crueller, are you stupid?

    2. Whaaaaat?????

  13. I do not agree, I think Baird made some good points and it was welcome relief from leadership articles and polls. Many voters still have no idea how Liberals have changed their stripes over the years. So if we had more press like her article it could only help.

  14. Gillard's only problem as far as I can see is when she does try something dodgy or hold a dodgy view (Nova Perris, the media legislation, marriage equality) it looks so blatantly hollow and false, we can all see she's lying. On the nation-building things, however, she's always been right on the money. And sincere.

  15. Abbott has hoisted himself up wearing the crown of thorns, and whether or not he become PM I look forward to crucifying him all the way to his political grave.

  16. Thank for an excellent article. I have waited in vain for journalists to start being journalists who report and analyse important issues, rather than being effectively shorthand/typists who record whatever the vile forces of Abbott say without any evaluation or attempt to counter falsehoods with the truth.

  17. A damn good piece of writing, Andrew. Well said.

  18. surly the public are not that silly that they don't understand what rudd is up to, should the pm come out and spell it out to the people, it makes my head hurt thinking about whats happening to our country and where we will all end up re abbott, Is it time for her to say the media are not telling the public about policies and abbott has none,ect

    Andrew I just find all this so scary I feel I live in another time another place , was it like this in 1933

    I wish I could tweet the above but would be to scared to
    if abbott and media succeed we are finished god help aust
    the dark days are upon us
    recession depression for the country and the people
    I don't feel any lib has the knowledge to run the country
    like mr swan and treasury

  19. dear Andrew I have an automune problem it was suggested I take magnesium supplement plus flu shot
    so far so good this year

  20. Who needs concepts like "debate" and "policy ideas" when all you have to do is hold up a glossy brochure and say Gillard baaaaaaaad.

  21. And there are few moderates left in the ALP either as they are harsher on the poor and kids in refugee prisons than even Ruddock and Howard were.

    How can you just ignore the fact that when it comes to these votes on these issues only one MP from each major party routinely abstain or vote against them while the rest of them follow Gillard off the racist cliff like frigging lemmings.

  22. I recently read this piece by Caroline Overington in The Women's Weekly:


    Near the end of the article, I found this:

    (The reasons for (electoral ruin) are multitude (including)) 'the kamikaze decision to try to take on News Ltd in an election year'

    Does anyone else find this statement extraordinary, not to mention adversarial (especially considering it is a fluff piece in a lifestyle mag)? Is this an actual admission that the media is less than fair to the PM because she had the temerity to 'take them on'???

    Or am I just reading too much into it?

    Personally, I think it's this kind of reporting that is actually most damaging to the government, as it will be widely read by people who do not read news extensively and are therefore more likely to be manipulated into a false view of government policy in Australia.

  23. VoterBentleigh26/6/13 1:09 am

    While civility is better for debate, there are supporters from all sides who are uncivil and the Coalition loves bouts in the gutter, because it distracts any focus on the Coalition's agenda.

    It is notable that it was not until Tony Abbott, that an Opposition Leader deliberately stood directly in front of signs denigrating a Prime Minister.

    What is irksome about Julia Baird's comments is that we have had three years where the media have allowed the Opposition Leader to attack by denigration, exaggeration and falsehoods, like a pit bull terrier unleashed upon a neighbourhood. Now, suddenly, Baird and others are claiming that the other dogs in the neighbourhood need to be reined in because the latter (deserted by their “guardians” who have actually urged the pit bull on) have banded together and turned on the pit bull in retaliation.

    The pit bull is yelping that aggressive dog behaviour needs to be controlled and the so-called guardians (Baird, etc.) wag their fingers at the other dogs, quoting the pit bull. Even the biblical Pharisees do not beat the gall of Abbott and Baird. What the media and Abbott have taught their opponents is that it is not the meek who inherit the earth, but the thugs who wield power in the media.

    Abbott claims that his is not a Stalinist party, but given his absolute control over the media, where there is no critical examination of what he says and does or any detail of what his policies will entail, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

  24. "Kevin Rudd is nowhere near getting the numbers to knock off Julia Gillard."

    Quoted for posterity! :)

  25. All i want to say about our new p.m Mr Rudd

    Yikes for his staffers and i really look foward to your entry about this one Andrew!

    Crazy stuff to behold!!


  26. Andrew I hope you are over your flu and feeling well enough to post soon. I want to know if you think Rudd will bring your bannered prediction to fruition. Strange man Rudd. Abbott is looking knackered these days. He seems to be half the size. It must be tough having to saddle up again. No wonder he had to wheel out Howard. I don't think that was such a good move somehow. I am sorry Combet is joining the lengthening list of the departing.

  27. Anon @ 7.18 pm. I agree. I heard Overington on the ABC talking about The Pic and I was astonished at the spite. I thought then, well all hope is lost for JG when the Women's Weekly turns feral. Usually with puff pieces and pics of this nature the 'editorial' runs like this: see our first female PM as you have never seen her. We are thrilled with the result. Simply stunning blah blah. I haven't seen the WW but I heard enough from Overington to put two and two together. In short. How dare she pose for us like this. Knitting a toy for a Royal baby. She is a Republican. Well you can take the girl out of the newly rebadged News Corp International but you cannot take that mega media corp out of the girl

  28. Very nice but weird for Mr Frydenberg to defend Ed Husic against the nasty attacks about his Koran book at Government House

    Being Jewish he might be sympathetic towards him as an individual and his beliefs however the bromance is evident between this two out of self interest and entitlement

    Family ties aside ,this civility is rare and welcome in the next generation

    Good stuff!!


  29. Overington is palatable

    Judith Sloane is one nasty ,cranky old woman

    Q and A and those childish comments on child care workers was silly

    Need to move on there from The Australian please Ms Sloane

  30. I really think that the coalition have utter contempt for the demographic they attract,namely :


    Its reared its ugly head and will win them votes.

    David Speers looks very tired at Sky News these days.

    Tom Elliot at 3aw seems lost with his audience

    Hes too nice and smart.

    P.V.O engages in polite analysis with personality and nice looks.

    Weird media in this country.

    Wonderful that s.b.s shows the p.b.s newshour to restore sanity to the political discourse

    Shame its American

  31. Just saw Turnball on q and a and to see how embarassed he was about this solutions document...


    Poor man that has to adopt this stupid line for the election.

    He feels obligated to speak from the heart but his head says otherwise...

    A man of contradictions.

    The rabid right wing is looking tired...

    Credlin must be going in hard later after the election date is announced...