31 July 2013

The news you missed while reading the news

1. This:

a) It's taken years and years, but superjourno Katharine Murphy has finally worked out that Tony Abbott is a bullshit artist. Better late than never - but my goodness we've had to put up with more than our share of press-gallery-consensus bollocks from her while she tried to have us believe that Abbott was infinitely to be preferred over that nasty Gillard woman.

b) The Coalition are offering a five year contract on their tent city deal. Five years! So much for "stop the boats". If asylum-seeker numbers did drop they might need fewer tents, and where is the commercial supplier who could tolerate such uncertainty?

c) Look at it from Toll's point of view. They want to tender for a mass government purchase of tent services: Nauru or Manus, Liberal or Labor, it doesn't matter to them. They'd never get any of their own people over there due to security restrictions, and it would backfire on the government if one tenderer was able to gather information that wasn't available to all. Solution: send eager-to-please Scotty over there, get him to take some notes, and they can use that information regardless of who wins the election. Any bad publicity will be caught by Morrison and the Coalition before it would blow back on Toll.

d) The Morrison-Toll thing is the latest example of a wider generational phenomenon where the Coalition does a deal with business, it takes on the risk and the business walks off with the profit.

Left cynics claim it was ever thus, but Liberal leaders of yesteryear had a perspective on business that their successors lack. The Collins Street business community in Menzies' day were chaps he knew personally through Melbourne private schools, Melbourne University and the Melbourne bar. Menzies would want quid pro quo from rentseekers, which frightened away most of them. Fraser was cut from much the same cloth. Howard knew the Collins Street crowd never did him any favours (which Ron Walker tried to ameliorate) but by his time the action had moved far from cosy Yarraside.

Contemporary Liberals are content with a small donation to party coffers in place of a contribution towards wider policy aims. The Greiner government in NSW was the first Liberal government to accommodate business to this extent, with toll roads that never met the need identified for them nor seemed to meet the profit projections of the companies that built them. A fat lot of good it did them politically but at least those companies hired Liberals after the government staff jobs evaporated. Others have followed its pattern of outsourcing services and then running government relations for the outsourcers.

The Liberals did not give rise to the 'political class' of professional political operatives trained since university for the campaign that never ends. They did pioneer the career path post-politics (or for some, instead of elected office) whereby being elected to represent a broad, diverse set of interests in an electorate was a prelude to representing narrow, focused interests as a lobbyist. Elected representatives are at a disadvantage at representing broader interests in such an environment.

e) Morrison took News Ltd to Nauru because they wouldn't cover any slip-ups he made, and because the way they frame their stories is the way he frames his. This is a prelude of how an Abbott government will relate to the media, and it's why non-News media that seek to be 'balanced' and accommodate Abbott are mugs. Julia Gillard 's even-handed disdain for the entire press gallery will prove to be fairer and better than Abbott, Morrison et al playing favourites.

f) Well done Jonathan Swan from Fairfax for picking up this story.

2. Nicholas Stuart clearly dearly wanted to write a poignant account that a) represented the Diggers as the truest essence of Australia, and b) pointed out that ooh, the political contest is a bit close isn't it. This, however, isn't it.

Julia Gillard moved pretty damn fast, but the broadcast media slowed her down to Abbott's pace.
The military's often thought of as a conservative institution, but that doesn't mean everyone in it votes Liberal.
That is one of the stupidest straw-man positions I've ever seen. Nobody said the entire Australian Defence Force votes Liberal. It is fair to say that military, security and intelligence personnel vote conservative more than any other occupational group.

It's also fair to say that the Gillard government, in its push for a budget surplus, cut funding to troops in the field. Roman history is replete with examples showing how politically reckless that is.
Labor appointed Rudd Mark II because it believed he might be able to swing enough of these people to prevent a wipe-out. Rudd believes with more time he can convince enough of them to switch back to win. At this point, of course, it's tempting to insert the line, "we're not dealing with reality here". That's because it appears as if Labor's deficit is so great it's not going to be able to catch up. Doing this would be a massive mistake.
Appears to whom? Look at the imaginary deficit Howard pulled back to win in 2001.

My favourite part of Stuart's effort was this:
Polling by Galaxy over the weekend demonstrates the enormous degree of volatility in the electorate. Forget those 50:50 polls; in fact, ignore them all. The polls are accurate because they tell us exactly what is going on, and this is that we don't know what's happening. So, if we ignore the irrelevant predictions about "who would you vote for if an election was called today", what can we determine about the political scene.
I almost cheered when I read that, until I read that Stuart was a freelancer and not the replacement political editor. In an earlier paragraph he used the term "reality" to refer to poll results, so maybe he's seeking to liberate himself from polls before he's ready. Yes, forget them all, but realise that the entire current business model of political journalism (see below) rests on four things: polls, leadership, polls and leadership.
What do the images that stick in our memory say?
Whose memory would be?
Abbott needs to turn positive and fight fire with fire; otherwise he'll get burned.
He can't "turn positive" because he's done no policy work on which such a fight can be mounted. This is the same basic error made by Paula Matthewson here, knowing as she surely must that there is no switch to throw:
... Abbott has thrown the switch to Statesman ... The look is more polished, the language more considered, and the message has evolved from one-dimensional chants about stopping the boats and scrapping the tax to incorporate a positive element with pledges of hope, reward and opportunity.
Really? Tony Abbott?

Your derisive laughter is not helping. Back to Stuart again.
The swinging voters want an upbeat reason to get behind one side or the other.
'Swinging'? 'Upbeat'? Hey-hey, daddy-o. The fact is that this country has a great future provided the government is well run. Abbott is promising whatever Labor is promising but much less, so much less. He's not presenting a positive alternative for the simple reason that he can't. Stuart was right to trash the polls but wrong to portray an oncoming train wreck as the light at the end of the tunnel. There is no future for a journalist trying to fit in with the big media companies.

3. When we talk about the limitations of press gallery journalism, we must talk about one of its exemplars:
Malcolm Turnbull has no prospect of leading the Liberal Party to the election, despite a recent surge in media speculation and public interest.
To be fair to Hartcher, there is a role for MSM organisations not to try to be first with the latest, but instead take a more considered and verified approach. This is why it would be unseemly to point out that he is two weeks behind this piece. But let the man have his say:
The reason is a simple one: there is no venue for a party meeting to even consider a change of leaders.

The Rudd government has decided that it will call an election before the date that Parliament was due to return, according to authoritative sources.

In the absence of the scheduled return on August 20, the parliamentary Liberal Party will not be gathered in one place before polling day.
Oh come on, if it came to that Turnbull could afford to pay airfares and accommodation for every Liberal Parliamentarian to assemble and dispatch Abbott, if only he had both numbers and inclination. It's the "authoritative sources" tripe that signals his article is about to go downhill fast:
Mr Rudd is expected to call an election for September and two dates are in play - the 7th and 21st.
Oh no - election date prediction, what poll-leadership wankers write about in the six months leading up to an election. Any date but the 14th, eh? Like a true wanker he cites some bloke who monitors the media and then confuses that with what real humans are thinking.

Then, when he has finished reassuring us about realpolitik, he offers us this attempt at a think-piece, based on a straw man:
Australia is supposed to be the land of the tall poppy syndrome, where the successful are cut down to the same size as everyone else, quick smart. You're not supposed to stand out for intelligence, achievement or, worst of all, wealth.
Since when? Do you know any Australian history at all, Peter?
Less prettily, tall poppy syndrome is "an Australasian modernism for envy, jealousy and covetousness that has been labelled a notable anti-talent", according to a pair of academics ...
Who? From where? Note the passive and rickety "has been labelled" construction. Hartcher would've had an intern Google that: who says journalism is dead.
The Fairfax pollster, Nielsen's John Stirton, says: "It's fair to say that Turnbull has been the preferred Liberal leader since he lost the leadership", which was more than three years ago.
He was the most popular leader before then too, in terms of general popularity with the community as a whole. The challenge for the Liberals is to get a majority of the population voting for them, while led by a man who has only ever been popular with rusted-on Liberals.
What's going on here? Is the tall poppy syndrome a relic of a bygone Australia? Or is there some other factor at work?

"It's fascinating and, on the face of it, it implies that Australians have grown up a bit," suggests Rebecca Huntley, who studies public opinion for Ipsos Research in focus groups she convenes every seven weeks.

She offers two reasons why this might be so. One is economic. "People understand that we are at a crucial point about what sort of economy we evolve into, and about where education fits in. This is something people talk about.

"They want a contest of ideas, a proper, serious discussion between two alternatives."
Prime Minister Gillard placed education and the changing nature of the economy at the centre of what she was offering, what she was about, and Abbott was afraid to debate her too. Yet, Hartcher is are happy to quote the warmed-over opinions of someone like Huntley to the same effect. Gillard would have swung it around like a gate and only Hartcher's co-dependence with Rudd prevents him seeing it.

Huntley actually owns and runs Ipsos-Mackay Research, but in Hartcher's reporting she comes across as just some sort of functionary/spokesperson. Huntley is telling Hartcher how he should be doing his job, but he just quotes her verbatim and moves on. Like all fundamentally facile people he can quote somebody else calling for ideas but doesn't actually promote any, struggling to get out from under his own cliches and those of his 'profession'.
But both [Abbott and Gillard] speak to the public in scripted "talking points" and use heavy-handed repetition in such an obvious way they demean people's intelligence.
That's how they talk to journalists. People find each of them clever, warm, and caring. The fact that politicians have to restrict themselves to talking points when speaking to journalists shows the limitations of the broadcast media as the conduit between politicians and voters.
Towards the end of his prime ministership, John Howard told me that in an earlier Australia, a young man watching someone drive past in an expensive car might have felt resentful. But today, said Howard, he was more likely to think "that could be me one day".
I heard Howard mention that at a Liberal function in the late '90s. I wondered: was Howard referring to himself there? Hartcher never wondered that. He's got a column to bang out and any nuance goes against his "talking points".
If these analysts are right, leadership, integrity, even obvious intelligence are in demand as valued commodities for our leaders.
Those qualities reflect the best of this country, leaving aside the question as to what extent Rudd and Turnbull have them; and dealing with the big questions requires them in spades.
Who said you never read any good news in the newspapers?
What started with a straw-man ends with another. Who said newspapers offer leadership, integrity, even obvious intelligence?


Murphy is starting to wake up all too slowly and may yet slip back into journalistic slumber. Hartcher is presented with real stories but can't fit them into his frame of reference. Stuart wants to assemble a series of cliches only to be mugged by the polls on which his profession (and those who commissioned him) rely so heavily. They get mugged by reality but carry on as though nothing has happened. If these people are going to miss big, real stories and dish up pap, then what hope does the broadcast media, or Fairfax in particular, really have?

28 July 2013

Go on

Every night in my dreams
I see you, I feel you
That is how I know you go on

Far across the distance
And spaces between us
You have come to show you go on ...

- Celine Dion My heart will go on
Fairfax journalists apparently loved this, which is a shame. It is another exercise in self-delusion that has seen the company diminish both the quantity and quality of its actual journalism and disappear up itself, a process that those who really love both the company and the ideals they project upon it would condemn in the strongest terms, and should work to reverse if they can.
The greatest compliment a fiercely independent media organisation can receive is condemnation from those who fear free speech and unfailing scrutiny of the rich and powerful.
It's almost a pity that the appearance of James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch in, and at the launch of, Killing Fairfax by Pamela Williams wasn't about that. Packer and Murdoch weren't fearful of Fairfax. They may have been at earlier points in their careers, but it is clear that they had come to be contemptuous of it. It has been a long time since either man underwent any serious scrutiny in Fairfax beyond petty spats surrounding their respective homes in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

Fairfax lacked the ability and the wit to monitor Packer's transformation into a casino mogul using the media wealth he inherited from his father. One minute he was blowing the family dough on OneTel and Scientology, the next he became a global presence in the casino industry. Having read Fairfax closely over many years it is unclear how this transformation took place. From this, one need not necessarily conclude that Packer is a genius or even that he has learned some lessons along the way; this isn't about him, it's about Fairfax.

A fiercely independent media organisation: wouldn't that be a great idea.

Fairfax has failed at its basic task of explaining big, complex issues like the global casino industry and where Packer fits into it. Being able to explain big, complex issues is why people had loyally bought newspapers, and they have turned away from newspapers that fail consistently in that task. Note the name newspapers, not adpapers: the news was always the appeal. To imagine The Sydney Morning Herald as The Trading Post with Column 8 and David Astle's crosswords tacked onto it is to misremember its past and to misunderstand what a newspaper is.

Classified ads were undoubtedly important - but the bins outside newsagencies on Saturday mornings always contained more of the classified-supported sections than those focusing on news and sport. People who bought newspapers daily and weekly did and do so for the sake of news. Nobody buys cars or moves houses or changes jobs on a daily basis (and those who do rarely regard the Herald as the indispensible source of information on such matters). People do those things occasionally, but not every day. Regular readers aren't there for the ads. The news is to ads what the Trojan horse was to the armies of the Greeks, a means of getting inside the ramparts. How the ad sales boys could bluff supposedly fearless and opinionated journos in the running of media companies is a matter for the historians now.
... we do not accept [Packer's and Murdoch's] false premises that the company which has funded the Herald's quality journalism for so long is dying, nor that this pair of moguls' sons can claim credit for any problems Fairfax has faced.
Most of Fairfax's wounds were self-inflicted: Fred Hilmer, the business school chief, swatting away opportunities that might have sustained his company; John B. Fairfax, a son-of-a-mogul if ever there was one and no better than his half-brother Warwick as custodian of his inheritance; but we know all that. It's a pity that this editorial can't bring itself to face the curate's egg of its recent past, and why Packer and Murdoch have such solid grounds to regard it as a mish-mash.
Rather, we see the premature exaltation of Packer and Murdoch as proof certain that the Herald and its stablemates are doing just as they always have. And that is fulfilling a crucial democratic duty, without fear or favour, without regard to commercial self-interest.
Whoa, fancy; putting the qualifier after that which has been qualified ("proof certain"). What a clumsy way to break up a run-on sentence that is, starting a sentence with a conjoining word.

Packer and Murdoch ran companies that were commercial competitors of Fairfax, and Fairfax ran stories that needled those competitors to some extent. This is hardly as bold as the editorialist would hope.
With respect, what an affront it surely is to all Australians for Packer and Murdoch to rejoice over threats to quality journalism.
With respect, what an affront to have one's commercial interest confused with that of the nation. Fairfax noted this when James Packer hid his commercial interest in the proposed Barangaroo casino behind those of Sydney and Australia more broadly. How distasteful it is to have a sniffy put-down couched with the phrase "with respect".
And it will survive, funded by a new, sustainable business model to replace what were once, indeed, rivers of gold.
Click those ruby-red slippers together and believe, believe, believe. And no, don't tell me such cynicism is unwarranted. More than two decades of false starts have made those who follow the commercial self-interest of Fairfax more closely than I sceptical to say the least that this time - for sure! - that when it comes to 21st century media this, finally, is the mounting wave that will roll them shoreward soon.
Technological advances in the past two decades have forced Fairfax and other newspaper companies to change as those lucrative classified advertising revenues slowed sharply and shifted to online outfits.

Packer and Murdoch rode by chance with some of them, gambling that they could cash in and wreak delicious revenge against Fairfax for daring to expose their families' power and behaviour to unwanted scrutiny.
Packer runs the ruler over investments more carefully than he did, and you have to admit that Seek was a beauty. Lachlan Murdoch was more clever than lucky with his online RealEstate investment. Fairfax could've been sustained by both those 'outfits'. They close to leave them to others, who can hardly be blamed for not only being pleased with their investment but with denying it to hapless and badly led Fairfax.
The people who killed Fairfax were the people who were running it. That's where the blame really belongs.

- Ita Buttrose, who worked for both James Packer's and Lachlan Murdoch's fathers.
Quite so. But back to the editorialist:
"You'd have to say they've got thin skins," was the conclusion of Killing Fairfax author Pam Williams - tellingly, a Fairfax employee.
It's telling that the editorialist thinks this is telling. She has something snide to say about people who compete with her employer. Do you think she would've got interviews with those men by revealing that sort of attitude?
With glasses raised in toast this week, Packer said: "Fairfax didn't see any of this coming. They thought it was all beneath them. They thought we were idiots. You know, I think we killed Fairfax." Murdoch responded: "I think so".

For the sake of those who value democracy and a proudly Australian voice, let's hope not.
A couple of paragraphs ago the editorialist had unshakeable faith that Fairfax was as healthy as Australian democracy itself and has a robust future. Packer and Murdoch talk about having killed Fairfax - in the past tense - and the editorialist can only whimper, "I hope not". Don't you know whether or not your own employer is alive or dead? If not, do you know anything at all, and can you be trusted with the basic functions of a newspaper?
With respect, Packer left the media because the power his family sought through it was evaporating and money mattered too much.
With respect, the phrase "with respect" is out of place here. Packer could have turned Channel 9 into Australia's HBO, but at every step Fairfax would have painted him as a pale imitation of his father (just as John B. Fairfax and Warwick Fairfax Jr were). Packer has built a company with global reach in a tough industry over the past decade, something no other Australian organisation has.

By contrast, Murdoch's investments in DMG Australia and Channel 10 has been as imperfect as Fairfax admits its own record to have been.
With respect, the Murdoch empire has relied on global film revenue to fund its news media, will rely on TV revenue in future and has used phone-hacking to seek a commercial advantage.
With respect, you speak too soon on phone-hacking. With respect, Murdoch's own business model in unsustainable, as Fairfax has often pointed out, so if vast film-industry and TV profits can't sustain news media, then what hope does Fairfax's model stand?
By contrast Fairfax is developing a business model that can ensure the Herald serves the Australian public with independent journalism for another 182 years.
"... that can ensure ..." ... that might ensure ... that hopefully ensures ... oh timid certainty, thy name is Fairfax.

Of what is Fairfax journalism "independent"? It is not independent of journo-groupthink, where media organisations report the same things in the same manner while resisting the urge to explore different issues from different perspectives. Like other media outlets, The Australian loves the idea of EXCLUSIVEs but I love how it tires of them and wonders why Fairfax and the ABC seem so happy to let them have them - a day or say later, Fairfax will meekly run the story.

Fairfax employees in the parliamentary press gallery followed and upheld the narratives set by News Ltd, and I have set out the symbiotic relationship between Peter Hartcher and Kevin Rudd here. Add to that the proportion of Fairfax stories that are simply rewrites of press releases written by press secretaries and other publicists, and the statement that Fairfax journalism is independent journalism is exposed for the bullshit that it is.
That Williams can write a book which exposes her employer to cheap shots from rivals says a lot about editorial independence.
It sure does: fishing for backhanded compliments, using Pam Williams as bait.
Contrast this to the Murdoch empire's rejection of internal dissent and insistence on groupthink ...
That explains why it brought Stutchbury back from News Ltd to run a peace-love-and-mung-beans management style at The Australian Financial Review.
... to Kerry Packer's intolerance of criticism and his son's "hatred, hatred, hatred, hatred" outburst in describing his motivations against Fairfax.
Kerry Packer was about as tolerant of criticism as Fred Hilmer, Brian McCarthy, or Greg Hywood. I'd hate Fairfax too if it treated me in the way that Fairfax treated James Packer.
Contrast it to the Herald's ability to give credit where it is due and play every issue on its merits.
I remember how the Herald treated Prime Minister Gillard, and then pivoted to insist that history would treat her government more kindly than its own groupthink-fucked employees did - including the editorialist, it must be said. I remember how the Herald gained a reputation for beautiful writing on cricket by publishing Peter Roebuck, and then ran a shower of squalid pieces on him soon after his death, making me wonder what sort of person would even want to work at a place like that. I could go on about this fantasy of "play every issue on its merits"; nothing wrong with building castles in the air, you just can't live in them or pretend that you do.
To the chagrin of Packer and Murdoch, the Herald's team of fearless journalists remains a thorn in the side ...
A thorn in the side of whom? Since this blog was founded in 2006 it has scrutinised the Leader of the Federal Opposition, for example, far more closely than almost all Fairfax journalists put together and cubed.
... a check and balance on the extremes of power ...
In theory, this is what journalists do, and to be fair there are some historical examples where this has happened.
... a challenge to the cosy status quo ...
Fairfax are the cosy status quo in the Australian media, pale imitations of News Ltd. The only difference is that the status quo in Australia's news media isn't cosy, it's frightened.
Kate McClymont, Adele Ferguson, Linton Besser, Peter Hartcher and so many more - let no businessman or politician say their work and that of countless other Fairfax journalists has not made this country a better and more civilised place.
I am a businessman, I suppose, but it's not in that capacity that I blog here - and God knows I am no politician - so let me state freely: the work of contemporary Fairfax employees has done all too little to make this or any other country better or more civilised. Kate McClymont runs colour pieces on notable but relatively economically and politically powerless people like Michael McGurk or Craig Thomson. Hartcher is Kevin Rudd's press secretary on the Fairfax payroll.

The other two named write enjoyable and informative pieces to be sure, but there are thousands of Australians working as teachers, nurses, hairdressers, bus drivers, arc welders, bar staff, bookkeepers, database administrators, etc who do every bit as much to make this country a better and more civilised place. This is where Fairfax, and journalists generally, need to get over themselves and reach out to the audience they supposedly serve, but who seem so reluctant to appreciate the service they are supposedly being rendered on the same basis as those who render it.
The Herald believes Australians will always value quality journalism and keep supporting a business that has a long record of delivering it. While you can now access the Herald's journalism in many ways, the core promise has not changed.
The promise may not have changed but the delivery has. Fairfax's record is an indictment of its anaemic present.
And you still have a choice about what sort of country Australia should be.
I've always had that choice, and so have you. It isn't Fairfax's place to grant or deny it.
It can be one where the commercial interests of Packer and Murdoch prevail, self-satisfied and free of scrutiny.
And it will be if the editor of The Australian Financial Review gets his way, given his switch to a kinder, gentler, PR-friendly approach to business and his Murdoch-style demonisation and misrepresentation of those whose interests are different to those of people like Murdoch and Packer.
The other is one where, as the first Herald editorial said in 1831, editorial management of newspapers is conducted upon principles of candour, honesty and honour. Where respect and deference are paid to all classes.
Oh, please.
Freedom of thinking. No wish to mislead.
Fairfax reporting of the Gillard government was misleading and not at all free, of press gallery groupthink and a desire to deliver Fairfax's audience to different political interests rather than serve them. This is yet another example where the lofty rhetoric of this editorialist crashes to earth in a cloud of bulldust.
No interests to gratify.
Again, look no further than Peter Hartcher's coverage of Kevin Rudd to belie this. He only hopped into Abbott when Rudd was in office, and when Gillard was PM he more than gratified Coalition delusions of adequacy. There are others that might serve to return Fairfax to the humility this piece has lost.
Dissent with respect, to establish a principle.
Wouldn't that be lovely.
By these sentiments we shall be guided, and, whether friends or foes, by these we shall judge others; we have a right, therefore, to expect that by these we shall be judged.
This assumes that Fairfax is capable of living up to the aspirations of this editorialist, which it isn't. It's already proven that. This similarly vacuous editorial of The Age on 22 June this year is both the standard by which Fairfax lives, and dies. Who thinks The Age has become more (or less) policy-focused since Labor's federal caucus apparently acceded to its demands? The same people, well-meaning perhaps but counterproductive definitely, who cheered the Herald's blustery editorial yesterday.

I want to be livid that Fairfax is seeking to treat "quality journalism" or "Australian democracy" as properties of its the commercial self-interest of Fairfax, but I just can't do it; when you see how badly the company has been at pursuing its commercial interests, through acts of commission and omission over many years, it's just wryly amusing.

It's too late and too feeble to castigate The Age's editorialist for hypocrisy and backsliding: you may as well rail at the hopeless addict who has pledged yet again to give away the poison that is killing them, and yet again you find them intoxicated again and you wonder why you bother, only to realise it isn't about you. It isn't even about these windbag editorialists that Fairfax employs to small-h herald their decline. These editorialists should just pull their heads in for their own sakes, not just for the commercial self-interest of their employer pro tem.

Fairfax has consciously and consistently chosen to play a smaller and smaller role in a widening news media environment full of participants hungry for news that is both interesting and trustworthy. That's their choice; but regardless of the outlet Fairfax chooses to excrete this stuff, it should spare us this crap that their past is their future and that Australian democracy is its gift to us. These delusions must die before Fairfax can play any sort of valuable role in this country's future. To sustain those delusions is to kill Fairfax by its own hand.

25 July 2013

National service

Shou'd foreign foe e'er sight our coast,
Or dare a foot to land,
We'll rouse to arms like sires of yore
To guard our native strand;
Britannia then shall surely know,
Beyond wide ocean's roll,
Her sons in fair Australia's land
Still keep a British soul.
In joyful strains then let us sing
"Advance Australia fair!"

- Peter Dodds McCormick Advance Australia Fair (the rarely-sung fifth verse)
In the 1950s and '60s young men in Australia were required to undergo 'national service', which usually involved a cut-down version of army recruit training. There they apparently learned in a few weeks what they had not learned from their families, teachers or other responsible adults:
  • how to be both self-reliant and to work in a team;
  • how to shut up and do what you're bloody well told, when you're bloody well told to do it; and
  • how to polish leather and brass and to make a bed with hospital corners, and to do other pointless but time-consuming tasks appreciated by nobody apart from those who set the tasks in the first place.
The army hated having to do this work. It received precious little extra to take in thousands who did not share their commitment to a military life. Crusty old drill sergeants who had seen off everything that the Wehrmacht and/or the In Min Gun threw at them had their careers ended abruptly at the hands of teenaged compatriots with those fateful words: "Look Sarge, my rifle's stuck ...".

The experience was so traumatic for the Australian Army. When it needed thousands of troops for Vietnam in the 1960s the crusty drill sergeants had faded away, and the 'nashos' had not yet come to look back on their experience so fondly that they would spend the late 1960s leopard-crawling under coils of barbed wire while wearing giggle-hats.

The navy's turn to suffer similar levels of disgrace at the hands of its own citizens came when boatloads of Vietnamese refugees headed to Australia in the 1970s. The then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, had built up more substantial relationships with regional governments than anyone attaining that office before or since (Fraser had been Army Minister 1966-68 and Defence Minister 1968-71, during the Vietnam War; as Education Minister 1971-72 oversaw the real Colombo Plan). Fraser worked with governments in the region to take on a shared responsibility for refugees, which held until the implosion of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Navy personnel resented having to take civilians on board and ferry them to Darwin or to Asian camps. At the time, refugees who made it to Darwin were hidden from the authorities in private homes - unimaginable today.

The numbers of boat-borne refugees were less because they had fled one conflict - the Vietnam war - that had pretty much ended by the mid-1970s. Today, weak and duplicitous 'governments' give rise to conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with ethnic targeting in Sri Lanka and eastern Burma, pressures on refugee outflows are enormous. Like many things that were cobbled together in 1951 the UN Refugee Convention has come under considerable strain.

Regional solutions offer the best hope for legitimate, sustainable outcomes for refugees and refuge-providers. Tub-thumping populism within individual countries works for nobody, and looking wistfully to one international agreement while disdaining others is ridiculous.

Crusty old sailors are belittled when their training and equipment is diverted by politicians to beat up hapless asylum-seekers as invading armies, as threats to our border security and our social security more broadly. The Royal Australian Navy is already finding it difficult to crew submarines and other ships. This task will become harder as the perception grows that being in today's Navy basically involves confronting hundreds of wretched people and being able to do very little for them.

Today's sailors - and soldiers, and airmen, and security agencies - face the prospect of a government that has no clue what they should be doing, how they should be doing it, and why they do it at all. This pamphlet basically aims to cleave each of those agencies in twain and give them separate command structures. Does a sailor have a Navy command when on exercises, then report to the separate command structure when engaging with a refugee boat, and then revert to naval command once the encounter is over?

Abbott's reference to some as-yet undefined person as "three star" is an Americanism that won't appeal to the people to whom it was targeted - marginal seat voters in Australia - and will be confused with the classification scheme for tourist accommodation. Unless wacky Jim Molam is the "three star" Abbott and Morrison have in mind, it is difficult to see how a serving officer would be prepared to tread on so many toes across so many agencies in the everyday execution of their duties.

Abbott has said that some aspects of the Rudd government's agreement with PNG will be abandoned while others will be embraced, but that he won't say which is which. His confusion is leavened by the comfort that no journalist will have the effrontery to ask him for policy clarification.

The whole idea behind the Liberal Party appointing Abbott as leader was to create clear distinctions with Labor policy. This shilly-shallying of a-little-bit-of-this and not-quite-all-of-that is the sort of thing that Malcolm Turnbull, the nearest thing the Liberal Party has to a moderate these days, used to do. Abbott gets lost when offering any sort of detail and his base hates it, which is why he does it so rarely. He cannot link it all back to the light-bright-and-trite themes he seeks to project.

This befuddlement was charming when US President Ronald Reagan did it; the old man would retreat from a political battlefield and let his attack dogs take over. In Abbott such befuddlement just looks worrying, and attack-muppets like Scott Morrison just look like they're out of their depth. The "three star" was meant to reinforce Morrison, not make him look like he needs propping up. It makes him look like he has no real clue about how government agencies - especially armed forces - actually work. A high-profile shadow minister who looks like he has no clue about government depresses his colleagues' chances of getting into government.

Operation Sovereign Borders takes one of the greatest prizes in politics - the benefit of the doubt - and denies it to Scott Morrison, to Tony Abbott, and to the Liberal/National/LNP/CLP candidate in your electorate. It gives the benefit of the doubt to Kevin Rudd. His PNG solution agreement thing was as hastily slapped-together as the Howard-Downer Nauru solution shower, and the Gillard-Bowen brainwaves over East Timor and Malaysia. It's appalling in its conception and no doubt ill-considered in its execution. But by comparison with OpSoB (thanks @m0nty!) it stands as a mighty rock before the riven agencies and flaky planning Abbott has dished up.

The whole idea behind the Liberal Party offering itself as an alternative government is that it had a leader who can confront issues that actually beset the nation and resolve them in a coherent manner. John Howard lost the ability to confront new challenges at all, let alone in a way that was coherent and consistent with his record. Julia Gillard could and did confront new challenges - big ones, heaps of them - and unlike Howard eventually achieved a coherence toward the end (people who had bagged Gillard relentlessly came to admit - some while she was still technically PM - that history would be kind to her). Abbott offers no resolutions, only positions.

Abbott is not coming together at the right time. He is coming apart at the wrong time. Those who think well of Abbott must now consider the idea that the four-year joke is approaching its punchline, and that they may feel unable to join in the laughter once the punchline is delivered.

When even 2GB gruntback starts referring to boat-borne asylum seekers as "poor devils", the gig is up. Scott Morrison has been one of Abbott's strongest performers, and he can't help his leader here - they have both stuffed up, big time, and I doubt they aren't done yet. The line that it doesn't matter what Rudd does, he'll stuff it up, is not one these jokers can pull off. Stick a fork in them, they're done.

Members of the armed forces and security services vote conservative more than any other occupational group. Even the amassed forces of the Neil James Institute are on his case. If you can strain the loyalties of your base without convincing the undecideds, then winning elections just isn't for you.

The good news for PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is that he has taken a substantial sum of money from the Australian government that his government would not otherwise have received. There is no other good news. He is about to learn that sometimes additional money, even in the quantities promised by Rudd, can be very expensive. O'Neill has sprung this solution on his country without warning or consultation. He does not have a coherent explanation about how all that extra money coming into the country will be a net gain for the citizenry, given all the extra people coming with it; the reason he has no explanation is because there is no actual strategy from which an explanation might be constructed. O'Neill has been Gillard-like in doing the deal but underestimating the politics that comes with it, and as with Gillard the former PM (Sir Michael Somare) will delight at pointing out these shortcomings: sovereign borders indeed.

Some take comfort in the idea that the expenditure of money from Australia to PNG is to be overseen by AusAID. Who's to say what, or whether, oversight will take place? The hoo-ha over pink batts and school halls shows that even the slightest lapse will get more focus than any successes.

We saw what happened when Rudd abandoned "the greatest moral challenge of our time" and when Gillard gave into a fixed-price carbon tax. Rudd's PNG deal cannot and will not be sustained, even though much appears to depend on it. In that deal is his best hope for re-election but also the seeds of his final political demise.

Like Nixon in 1972, Rudd will easily account for an opponent who's the darling of his base but who can't see or reach beyond it, even when it matters and everything's at stake. Like Nixon in and after 1972, Rudd will be busy over the next two years or so meeting with both triumph and disaster, and treating those impostors just the same. Those who follow Rudd and Abbott as leaders of their respective parties will come to distance themselves from them, but for now the contest between these two awful, complicated and inadequate men remains compelling.

21 July 2013

Jakarta-centred foreign policy

I thought "a Jakarta-centred foreign policy" was more hollow bullshit from Abbott, but after reading this I understand what it means: the Coalition would escalate hostilities with Indonesia to the point of diplomatic standoff, if not armed skirmish, and more importantly diminish our ability to engage with an increasingly important neighbour. Yes, dear reader; Tony Abbott would have a Jakarta-centred foreign policy in the same way that Churchill's first term as British PM had a Berlin-centred foreign policy. If you ramp up the pressure it is easy to underestimate what that would mean, so let us face it squarely.

The Indonesian economy is still smaller than that of Australia but it supports a population ten times bigger than ours. Indonesia's economy is set to grow by more than 6% this year, which gives it the possibility to become the seventh-largest national economy by 2030. Australia's trade with Indonesia is increasing exponentially and defence/security ties have increased in strength over the past two decades.

Even with cutbacks to the teaching of Indonesian at Australian universities, no other country devotes such resources to studying Indonesia than does Australia. Indonesian is one of the languages canvassed in the Australian Century White Paper as important for Australian schoolchildren to be taught. While much is made of Australians visiting Bali and making little contact with the local culture, this isn't the only type of cultural exchange; the sheer numbers of Australians visiting Indonesia means culture-to-culture contact is engaging a wider proportion of each country's population. A growing Indonesian economy will most likely see more Indonesians visiting Australia, deepening two-way engagement.

Much has been made of Australia's status as a "middle power"; in many ways Indonesia is our equal in different global spheres of influence. Indonesia is a major regional power, playing a leading role in ASEAN and other forums in Southeast Asia. Australia's increasing role in those forums depends heavily upon the goodwill and advocacy of Indonesia. Its long association with the Non-Aligned Movement (an association of post-colonial nations during the Cold War that sought to demonstrate their lack of affiliation to both the USA and the Soviet Union), as well as being the most populous Muslim nation, means that it has built strong links over decades with the sorts of countries toward which Australia gives little consideration - until we want something like a spot on the UN Security Council, or to host a big sporting event, or even a bagatelle like a reduction in refugee arrivals.

To picture the real damage that a stand-off with Indonesia could do to Australia's future, forget about a full-on shooting war. Tensions surrounding a refugee boat will not eclipse either close co-operation at the level of the two countries' armed services or international covenants designed expressly to avoid this sort of thing. What they will do, however, is make a mockery of both the promises that the Coalition has made to this country, and the promise that the country has in itself (provided that it resists the urge to vote in a deliberately bad government).

The first thing that will happen is that planeloads full of the very sort of blue-collar conservative voter that Abbott is targeting will be turned back from Bali, without compensation or apology. The actuality of one of Australia's favourite overseas destinations being closed to our nationals will override the spectre conjured up by tabloids and gruntback radio of asylum-seekers as threats. No amount of smarm or statesmanlike-veneer from a PM Abbott or a FM Bishop could or would counter that.

It will be seen as a real failure of foreign policy if Australians are booted out of Bali - and elsewhere, such as mining industry professionals and conservationists scattered throughout the archipelago, or builders and bankers from Jakarta. It will disengage this country from a fast-growing and promising neighbour. It will throw away decades of preparation for the reaping of dividends at exactly this moment and the foreseeable future, long years of maintaining the official relationship during and immediately after the difficult Suharto years in order that Australians might be there in spades once Indonesia got its act together.

The Coalition has promised a restoration of the beef trade to Indonesia, reversing the hurried ban on live exports by the Gillard government in 2011 following a Four Corners story (which was almost entirely outsourced to non-journalist animal rights activists). That will be off if the Indonesian government is sufficiently aggrieved and embarrassed, all for the sake of a few asylum-seekers.

The whole "foodbowl of Asia" thing, with billions of dollars for dams and what have you, depends entirely on Indonesian goodwill in order to return any dividends in the short or long term.

An enormous percentage of Australia's trade in goods is routed through sea lanes which pass through Indonesian waters. The advantage that mining companies in Africa and South America from cheap labour and less stringent working conditions, as well as "red tape" and "green tape", is pretty much negated by the shorter distances from Australia to markets in northern Asia. If Indonesia forced Australian exporters to go around its territorial waters, the competitiveness of Australian exporters would be compromised to a far greater extent than any other action of government (like, say, those that indirectly affect the exchange rate).

The idea that the Liberals will recklessly increase tensions with Indonesia in order to pursue domestic political advantage comes from two sources: the culture of the Liberal Party itself and the psychology of Abbott.

In the 1960s Australia was beginning to develop relationships with Asian countries, relationships that appreciated the subtleties between what was said for political consumption versus what was in the longterm interests of those countries. From those relationships came the idea that the White Australia Policy of restricting immigration from non-Caucasian people had to go; Australia's political elite had to overcome its populist instincts to make that happen. It took them years and many argue the job isn't done yet. Those who wanted to hold out against being "swamped by Asia" pointed to two factors that helped slow our embrace of our neighbouring countries: "Red" China and violent, unpredictable Indonesia.

The changes to China since the Cultural Revolution and the pragmatic policies of Deng Xiaoping and his successors have been well covered elsewhere. In the 1960s Indonesia was seemingly in meltdown: it was gripped by ethnic and political turmoil, brought to a head in 1964-65 with the replacement of Sukarno by Suharto and chronicled from an Australian perspective (in fictional terms) by Christopher Koch in The Year of Living Dangerously.

Indonesia outplaced its internal tensions with occasional armed skirmishes against Malaysian provinces in northern Kalimantan during the 1960s. This conflict is now known by the Bahasa word that both Indonesians and Malaysians applied to it: Konfrontasi. Rudd's use of that word to describe Abbott's approach was deliberate, the Liberal outrage in response was pathetic. They never used to behave like that when Gillard or Swan went after them. Their avoidance of policy development leaves them with few options when attacked on policy.

As far as the Indonesians are concerned, the Liberals have oscillated between three responses to announcements from the Indonesian government: wariness, ignoring them, and overfamiliarity and false chumminess (e.g. Julie Bishop's reference to the Indonesian Foreign Minister as "Marty". Dr Natalegawa has a PhD from ANU, and when you understand what it took to make that possible, and how dismissive the latter-day inheritors of the Coalition are of that legacy, you'll understand how hollow Coalition rhetoric on "a new Colombo Plan" is). None of these, nor all three, are adequate for building Australian foreign policy.

If Australia can't build a productive relationship with Indonesia it won't build a productive relationship with any other country in our region either.

At the time Konfrontasi was known in Australia, the UK and in other countries that sent troops to maintain the peace as the Malayan Emergency. The Liberal Party contains many people whose perspective on Indonesia was shaped by the Malayan Emergency and The Year of Living Dangerously. It contains few with any actual (let alone deep and extensive) experience with contemporary Indonesia. When the Howard government sent troops into East Timor the conflict was wildly popular within the Liberal Party. It vindication of both their suspicion of Indonesian malevolence toward Australia, as well as interpreting as weakness the fact that the Indonesian armed forces did not fully engage as they might have to an invasion elsewhere in their country. By disdaining the Indonesians Abbott is playing to his base, as though that's more important than engaging with the future.

This is how Abbott works - by ramping up tensions to the point where the dreaded subtleties are lost, and where difference of opinion becomes treason. The sort of nuanced policy on regional co-operation being pursued by the incumbents is not the result of deft diplomacy genius by Prime Minister Rudd, but rather a recognition that he has no other choice.

Nuance is not only anathema to Abbott, but way too hard; he strained to achieve it as a Howard government minister and it deserted him throughout 2007. By 2009 he rejected it entirely. In 2013 he needs to cultivate the appearance that he can handle complexities, like Howard did over 1995-96 and Rudd did in 2007; instead, he's retreating to the base by being ever more dogmatic.

Ramping up tensions is easy and, if vindicated by the electorate, to be preferred over an outcome requiring give-and-take. It shows Abbott's economic illiteracy that he would put the issues described above at risk; how the visceral issue of 'border protection' trumps almost all of the export-oriented economy.

This article by Justin Shaw is absolutely right on the failure of the Australia media to actually report on what Kevin Rudd actually discussed with Indonesia President Yudhuyono earlier this month. Because such meetings are tightly controlled, contemporary accounts of such meetings necessarily rely heavily upon official communiques, but the travelling press gallery couldn't even get that right. There is no grounds for believing that an extensive network of foreign correspondents would improve coverage of official visits either, with apologies to any journostalgists. This article by Michael Bachelard provides a bit of context and goes beyond setting up some silly pointscoring (as though President Yudhuyono were just another Canberra player), but is hardly sufficient. The effects of such visits can often be discussed only in retrospect - and there's no evidence of any follow-up, not even now.

When Bob Carr became Foreign Minister I thought he'd be the first to hold that role who would rarely venture further than half-a-day's flight from Canberra. I thought he would bring the electoral politics of western Sydney to bear on regional negotiations - my mistake. Instead, he's revelled in the UN role and the deputy-chair-of-a-subcommittee busywork arising from that, and when Australia's term on the Security Council expires in 2015 so too will Carr's federal political career.

As with his term as NSW Premier, it is doubtful Carr will have much to show for having been Foreign Minister in terms of shaping Australia's approach to the world in the 21st century: a dilettante, but a determined, focused and diligent one. As with his term as NSW Premier, whom he kept out of office will be as significant as what he did in it.

Indonesia has never taken any crap from Australia - not even in the late '90s, when they were waking up from a dictatorship and relying on Australian largesse to help them out of the Asian financial crisis. Abbott is all about resurrecting Howard, and if lording it over the Indonesians is part of that he's kidding himself and damaging an important relationship. A growing, stable Indonesia will be increasingly confident and assertive in foreign affairs, including in its dealings with Australia. Those who would govern Australia in coming years have no excuse not to realise that: the evidence is there and so are trusted advisers who make that case. Would-be governments must not only adjust their written policy pamphlets, but their daily behaviour across a range of issues, accordingly.

Australia needs a government that will build a strong and broad relationship with Indonesia. We will not get that from an Abbott-led Coalition, nor one where Julie Bishop plays a leading role. We might get it in fits and starts if Rudd is returned and someone other than Carr becomes Foreign Minister. Neither party - and no, not the Greens or any of the minors within electable range either - have any real idea how to build such a relationship.

We should have reporters who understand that relationship and can evaluate the actions of politicians and others against that relationship.

We are developing a population that can make their own assessments and share them, few of whom are within the politico-media complex as we know it today. The Australia-Indonesia relationship is far from doomed, but both the command-and-control fantasies of politicians/minders/lobbyists and the only-we-know-politics fantasies of the press gallery are.

17 July 2013

16 July 2013

Sweetening the base

How is the Coalition responding to Labor's switch from Gillard to Rudd? They could be reaching out to voters who were upset or unsure about that change, in the way that Labor's changes to the Premiership of NSW in 2008 saw voters dump the party to a far greater extent than they did the leader. Instead, they have gone back to shoring up their base at the very time that Rudd is reaching out to uncommitted voters.

It's one thing for Abbott to dismiss Labor's approach to carbon pricing: he would do that, wouldn't he. His comments about carbon being invisible and not delivered to anyone were immediately condemned by the sorts of people who were never open to persuasion from him. Far more telling is the doubt they cast over the whole idea that carbon abatement by whatever means is a priority, or that carbon pollution causes global warming.

This article from Ben Cubby is very good at explaining why Abbott's comments appeal to his base. It does not explain, however, why Abbott is shoring up his base at this point. Even though it's their job to do so, Cubby's colleagues in the press gallery can't explain it either.

Abbott has sacrificed even the pretense that climate change is a real issue. Liberals who defend Abbott's sincerity about environmental and climate issues have now been abandoned by their own leader, another example of the futility of moderation in Abbott's Liberal Party.

The Coalition's Direct Action policy is now a joke. Today is Greg Hunt's last chance to quit in order to save some dignity and credibility for what remains of his career. It would be more honest for Abbott to disown it and contest the election from a denialist perspective, making the election a referendum on anthropogenic global warming and Australia's role in causing and abating it.

The current position isn't conservative hedging or even moderation, it's indecision and wanting to have it both ways. Abbott stands more of a chance as an unapologetic denialist than with the half-hearted, half-witted position he's in now.

Scott Morrison was a creature of the party machine, imposed upon his electorate. He has always known that his political career depends upon building a broad popular base as well as cultivating the powerful. The fastest way for a politician to build a popular base is to be populist, and Morrison has certainly done that.

Morrison bit off more than he could chew by wading into foreign policy. Before the Gillard government started sending asylum-seekers to Nauru he avoided anything more than urging the then PM to phone that country's President. After Malaysia, after meeting the Sri Lankan dictator and promising to return escaping dissidents to him, he now turns on the Indonesians and insists they do not mean what they say. You never look like a prospective government when you pick fights with foreign leaders, a lesson Mark Latham learned the hard way.

Morrison's insistence on abandoning desperate people at sea achieves the effect Labor had hoped: theirs looks like the middle-ground position while Morrison and Abbott look like they've gone too far. Even Morrison's imagery is wrong: what the hell is wrong with "sugar on the table"?

That image is one of sweet domesticity, and the conviviality of sharing a cuppa. It goes perfectly with Rudd's dull, reassuring public-servant image, with his own-blend tea and Iced Vo-Vos. It also reinforces the contradictions of a former head of Tourism Australia trying to discourage people from coming here.

If Morrison has a sugar bowl at his place it's probably only there for the cameras. Look at that image again: imagine Abbott's white-knuckled fist crashing into that bowl. Not hard to imagine, is it? Sugar only makes you fat anyway.

Politicians only retreat to their base when they're in trouble. Labor's switch from Gillard to Rudd made life difficult for Abbott and the Coalition, but by no means impossible; their own recent comments are the clearest sign we have that Rudd has rattled Abbott and the Coalition. Rather than reminding people why he leads a prospective government better than anything Labor could offer, Abbott & Co. instead make sure their base will stay with them, sitting on the furniture they are trying to save rather than labelling it for the Ministerial Wing removalists.

14 July 2013

Turnbull holds forth on holding back

Some people might say my life is in a rut,
But I'm quite happy with what I got
People might say that I should strive for more,
But I'm so happy I can't see the point ...

- The Jam Going underground
This might seem like Malcolm Turnbull is playing the sorts of mindgames with Abbott that Kevin Rudd played with Julia Gillard, undermining her leadership and positioning the former leader to challenge the incumbent. Turnbull makes the odd jab now and then and retreats into teamwork; Rudd did the reverse, with his occasional exhibitions of teamwork a contrast to his white-anting. Rudd put his party on notice that it will have to change; Turnbull doesn't need to.
... What you see is what you get
You've made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust ...
Malcolm Turnbull led the Liberal Party in 2008-09 when it was still basically John Howard's party. Howard had substantially remade the party organisation in 1995-96, drawing on a lifetime's experience within the organisation but also having learned the hard way how it can get in the leader's way if left to its own devices. By 2008 the Party had accepted the reality of the 2007 defeat and warily trusted Turnbull to show what a post-Howard future might look like.

Turnbull failed in that task, having alarmed old Howard-era stagers within the organisational and the parliamentary wings of the party to the point where Eric Abetz could pull the Grech trick on him and negate any sort of Turnbull legacy. By 2009 the Howard-era stagers could assert that the best option for the Liberal Party was to resurrect the Howard government as far as possible, an assertion impossible to rebut effectively, which explains the move to Abbott.

If Turnbull becomes leader before the election, he faces the hapless Julie Bishop as deputy and a front bench full of time-servers and time-wasters (I mean, no health or education policy? What the ...?), and most candidates pretty much in place. He would inherit a party generally that is geared up to maximise Abbott's strengths (making these up where necessary) and which tries to compensate for his weaknesses. Turnbull's strengths and weaknesses are different to those of Abbott. People whom Turnbull trusts to get the job done are different to the people Abbott trusts to get the job done, partly but not wholly because of different perceptions about the nature of the job to be done.

Turnbull can't be certain that he would beat Rudd, even if he had his ideal party structure and personnel in place. It is highly unlikely that Abbott people would vacate the field so comprehensively and with the party's interests uppermost as happened within Labor, as Gillard and her supporters did once Rudd had been re-elected. Abbott's people, the Liberal Right, are insurgents by nature; they used to sniping at moderates and calling for action, but when they have full scope to act as they wish they can't handle actual policy development.

All that changes after an election loss. Turnbull can remake the party in his own image, in terms of personnel and structure. Brian Loughnane and Peta Credlin would be the first out the door, and if they aren't safe who would be? Turnbull can learn how intransigence can work both for an against you as an opposition, something Abbott has not yet learned (and if he has, it's too late; there is no policy to fill the vacuum left by no, no, no). He can let Rudd burn himself out. He can build the policies that differentiate the Coalition from Labor in appealing ways. None of that is possible if he jumps too soon.

The general consensus on Turnbull in 2009 is that he wasn't a team player (the Liberal Right don't accept anyone as a team player unless they are part of their team). By being a loyal member of Team Abbott 2010-13, by denying the kingly crown, he negates that slur. He can talk about collegiate decision-making under Abbott because he has earned the right through exhibiting loyalty.

Standing by a half-witted compromise of a NBN policy might be an appalling betrayal to some outside the Liberal Party, but internally (where ICT people are few and powerless) it racks up brownie points. By cutting Abbott off from a possible election win, he reinforces that negative image - and if he fails against Rudd, he's finished. Better all round for Abbott to be finished.

Turnbull would want as much scope for action as possible as leader, more than he had in 2008-09; he would want to own that "top table" rather than merely sit at it (Turnbull's "top table" image is born of the private school/university college dining hall, and the boardroom; he needs better imagery if he's going to be more demotic. He needs an authentic version of Rudd's hokey Queenslandisms). If he thrusts himself forward before the election he is only borrowing the party of the Howard legacy, including the glowering Minchin.

After an election loss Minchin and his acolytes would be exposed and discredited, replaced by a phalanx of disgruntled former staffers who see a frontbench role (government or opposition) as the next step in their careers. Turnbull's challenge is to make himself the focus of their career aspirations, in such a way that isn't blatantly disloyal to Abbott.

The Minchin Right have been active in replacing Liberals with their own, which will make life harder for Turnbull and for any other Liberal who wants to present an image to the public other than that of drooling Tea Party imbeciles. Do you want to lead a party like that, watching your back for three years?

It's a neat idea that Turnbull and Rudd, the most popular choices as leader of their respective parties, will both take over by election time. Labor called time on Gillard because they thought she couldn't turn her unpopularity around. When it comes to Abbott's unpopularity, the Liberal attitude is: what unpopularity? Polls say Abbott is unpopular, but committed Liberals genuinely can't see why. Polls say Abbott is unpopular among women, but committed Liberals think Margie-and-the-girls have fixed all that. Polls say Abbott is arrogant, but committed Liberals say Rudd's arrogant too, and they know that so long as you can muddy the waters you can declare victory and move on.

For the popular Turnbull to replace the unpopular Abbott would require smarter Liberal strategy than they have available. It is important to keep in mind that Liberal strategists are morons:
  • After the 2010 election the Coalition left negotiations with independents to the last minute, and failed to win government. Labor's tortoise beat the Coalition hare and they still haven't worked out why, or how. Now apparently Liberal policies are being left to the last minute, and this is supposed to be politically deft and reassuring for Coalition supporters?
  • The Coalition went to the 2010 election, and negotiations with independents, promising big-ticket items (e.g. paid-parental leave and a $1b hospital for Hobart) that nobody believed. Now they're promising big-ticket items that nobody believes (e.g. paid-parental leave again, carbon abatement by burying it in soil), and this is going to put them on track for victory?
  • The Coalition crashed and burned in 2007 with flawed policies on workplace relations and telecommunications. They fell short of victory in 2010 with weak policies in those areas. Now they are offering weak policies again in those key areas, while hoping for a different result.
  • Look how long it took them to adjust to the eminently foreseeable ascent of Peter Slipper to the Speakership. Their tactics in smearing Slipper were not well thought out and may yet come back to bite them. They still haven't adjusted to the departure of Julia Gillard, and the fact that Rudd's strengths and weaknesses aren't hers. Effective strategists can and do turn on a dime and create the impression of control in the midst of chaos.
In 2007 John Howard warned those who had voted for him up to then that voting against the Coalition would put at risk everything the Howard government achieved. Mark Textor came up with the idea of defining Rudd as "Howard lite". Lite products are popular, creating the impression that you can have the good aspects of a product without the negative aspects. Even tobacco companies branded their products as "lite" until the government told them to stop, a move that their advisers at Crosby Textor neither anticipated nor countered.

With Rudd as "Howard lite" people felt free to vote for Rudd, negating Howard's stern alarums, and did so. This morning Textor and Andrew Bolt agreed that Rudd was now "Tony Abbott lite". Never mind that this doesn't make sense (how could anyone be more vacuous than Tony Abbott?), swinging voters who want to vote Labor out but who have reservations about Abbott should have no reservations in voting for Rudd and Labor.

If you were Malcolm Turnbull, would you want your destiny in the hands of clowns like them?

Textor's "lite" thing would have been a spectacular own-goal had we not seen it before. My first experience of Textor was in the 1999 NSW election, where his intervention turned the Liberals from being slightly behind in the polls to getting slaughtered. It puzzled me that the federal parliamentary press gallery rated him so highly, until you realise they have arse/elbow-differentiation issues too.
... We talk and talk until my head explodes
I turn on the news and my body froze
The braying sheep on my TV screen
Make this boy shout, make this boy scream!
Also not novel is the idea that Abbott is a chocolate soldier who will fail at election time, nor does this old fool deserve the credit for which he greedily pines - and no, simply excluding me from his "hundreds" of commentators will not suffice. Pick one of these, choke on it, then read through hundreds of similar posts on this blog alone. Instead of changing your wombat-headed ways you can castigate your editor who should know better than to let such sloppy wording go forward from his otherwise estimable site.