30 August 2013

Meanwhile in the Senate

My piece on the 13 marginal seats you won't hear about in the slow media is here, where the mighty King's Tribune look after it so well and place it in such good company.

29 August 2013

A vote against the media

Tony Abbott's appeal has always been a mystery to me, having first met the guy twenty years ago. Now, finally, I get it: you've seen in the media how the Labor government is treated like a circus, so vote Coalition and that will stop. There will only ever be steady-as-she-goes reporting of modest incremental contributions to the common weal, delivered by prudent and sensible ministers who are quoted verbatim and given the benefit of the doubt.

Bollocks to that.

Tony Abbott is neither prudent nor sensible. It's a myth that the Howard government was. Abbott's sense of entitlement is ferocious, more so than a thousand welfare queens or a brace of miners, kept in check only by fear of letting so many powerful people down if Labor get back in through his indiscipline. Unlike Hawke with his alcoholism, Abbott can't face the fact that his default personality - all of it, pretty much - is the problem. The Abbott family (diddly dum, click-click) is foisting him on us because otherwise he'll mope around the house with them, asking hard and weird questions about their virginity. Should he attain the trappings of office he would be, as Hillary Clinton said of her husband, a hard dog to keep on the porch.

Then there'd be the usual pantomime about The Budget Is Worse Than We Thought, which will do for all but a few of the policies that Abbott has announced over the past month. The slow media is yet to discover Christopher Pyne's dalliance with James Ashby while Mal Brough gets screwed, not to mention Arthur Sinodinos' with the Obeid family; they think they'll cover this All In Good Time, underestimating the extent to which time is against them. The Coalition doesn't have the deep reserves that enables a third of the Cabinet to fall away and keep up with the competition. The press gallery are wrong to assume they do, or that it needn't come to that.

The slow media have no right to be bored with the pantomime, it is being put on for their benefit. The latest to fall into this trap is Mark Kenny. Just because Katharine Murphy has moved on from Fairfax, there is no need for someone to act all disdainful as though they are somehow above it: I hear you, they cry, and we're sick of it too; but like some ridiculous addict he just can't leave the junk alone. They can't go off and do something else, get some perspective because, dear reader, they're not above it all really. After all those years reporting politics they can't tell which bits are false any more.
One wonders what he would he make of the current dry argument over Australia's future?
Not to mention the decline in language (and keep in mind I am posting this almost a whole day after that was posted. You can bet Fairfax have had plenty of feedback on that and other howlers, and they've ignored the lot.
But then, this is not really about Australia's future, is it?
Yes Mark, every election is about Australia's future. You might not want to report it that way, but it is. That's why, when making decisions about who to vote for, it is necessary to ignore journalists or to wade through vast volumes of bilge in order to winnow out what was said, what was done, and what little from all that might work its way through to our lives.
Unable to see forward, voters are thus left ...
Unable to see? Does he really believe, in spite of all the evidence, that press gallery journalists are indispensible to finding out how we are and shall be governed? What illumination does anyone imagine Kenny and his ilk are offering?
Mention 2010 and pungent memories flood back such as the leaks that stopped Gillard's campaign dead in its tracks in week two and lumbered us with the hung Parliament. Abbott's wooden stake through the heart of WorkChoices, via his melodramatic, "dead, buried, cremated" mantra was another big talking point.

And who can forget the bizarre "Real Julia" declaration - a more abject piece of repositioning has rarely been attempted. Of course, voters never forgot Gillard's "no carbon tax under the government I lead" pledge.

The current election campaign, however, has failed to live up to even these tawdry standards.
Note the examples Kenny gives, of campaign talking points crafted for clowns like him rather than for digestion by actual humans. As a senior journalist he had a responsibility to insist that he would never sink to such depths, but he's shirked that and blames others for his weakness.
Rubbishy unsourced yarns have blown up like summer storms.
When you've covered politics for as long as I have, you'll realise that press gallery journalists like Mark Kenny have lived on 'rubbishy unsourced yarns' for three years. He was the one who flogged Gillard-AWU long after even Abbott started looking sheepish about it. It's got to the point where you automatically assume that any report from Mark Kenny is a rubbishy unsourced yarn. This is why you smack him down when he comes over all lofty.
There was the claim that Rudd had berated a make-up artist, until it emerged that he'd done nothing of the sort. Another alleged that he'd postponed a national security committee meeting on the Syria crisis to film a celebrity TV cooking slot, until it turned out he hadn't.
If I was a journalist I'd investigate whether the Liberal Party was putting those claims about, rather than passively noting them as though they came out of thin air.
The parties themselves can hardly complain. Constrained by Labor's blood-strewn path to the poll, its recycled leader has struggled to reconcile his role as the last PM's assassin against an ill-defined promise of "a new way". Labor still has not explained what this "new way" actually entails.
Fair point, but if he did how would you know? Can you explain how the current education funding model works, and how the proposals from each of Labor and the Coalition will change the status quo? What do you mean, no? What do you even do on the bus all day Mark, play Uno with Kieran Gilbert or swap rubbishy unsourced yarns (RUYs) with cousin Chris?
On Tuesday, Rudd held a Sydney harbourside press conference to explain the plan to relocate the Garden Island naval base to Brisbane. It was already going off the rails, but running into a fuming NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, made it a train wreck.
Quite the mixed metaphor for a shipyard. And "running into" O'Farrell? Oh, please. Do you even know how these things work? O'Farrell does, ask him.
Labor's troubled campaign has allowed Abbott to sail through with minimal pressure.
No, a dumb and lazy press gallery has done that. Fearful editors afraid that Labor will not intervene to stop new technologies that undermine their business model have given Abbott a rails run for three long years.
His gold-plated paid parental leave scheme not only makes a mockery of the claim of fiscal prudence, it reverses the precept of the modern liberal democratic state where tax rates reflect people's capacity to pay, and where the least well-off are given assistance on the basis of need.
That's all true of course. It was true three years ago too, when he first proposed it without consulting his front bench. And now he's done it again, to them and to the press gallery. Ask Mark Kenny if he can explain the PPL and why it's different to the Gillard government's scheme. Ask him why the model presumes a model of fulltime employment that is vanishing before our eyes, particularly for women - hell, ask Tony Abbott that, because Mark Kenny won't and neither will the morons who follow Abbott around and confuse themselves with journalists.

Kenny can't imagine why election campaigns can or should be different to this, but he remains convinced this kind of RUY reporting is all that you deserve. Fairfax's traditions of great journalism should be enough to force him out, but the contrast is not obvious because the organisation clearly has no pride in those traditions. People tell broadcast media vox-pops that they are tuning out from the media and making their own minds up. They tell pollsters it's pretty much 50-50 and they're disengaged, but with 3% margin of error you can textor that to a firm 52-48 without necessarily lying. There is no reason why the polls should be better than the journalism, but there is every reason why the journalism should be better than it is. All we need are different journalists.

People are voting against the media because they are not providing the information that people need to make a decision. In a democracy it is people who make the decision, not pollsters or journalists or other dingbats like them. The metrics that slow media uses to measure consumption - clickthroughs and guesstimate multiples of how many see a bought newspaper or see/hear messages pumped through the air - are deliberately shallow, treating all content as equally worthy. Politicians selling different messages have no hope with a media that takes them all at face value, striving for a mean centre which doesn't exist and hasn't for years.

If you think Stephen Conroy was mean to the media, what with Convergence and Finkelstein and his slapdash attempts to beef up the Press Council, imagine what will happen once politicians realise the media have stopped being a conduit for information and have become a bottleneck. Neil Chenoweth might be ready for Col Allan to turn, but he doesn't realise that Allan has nowhere to turn - not even to Murdoch, who will be inevitably disappointed by Allan's bullshit. Neither does Mark Kenny, nor Katharine Murphy, nor any of them really. The late Slim Dusty was wrong: there's nothing so lonesome, morbid or drear, than a pack of obtuse and banal journalists to whom even avid consumers of political content have stopped listening.

22 August 2013

All in good time

... "Sir! you have disappointed us!
We had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is! ... My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!"

- Hillaire Belloc Lord Lundy
Why is the Coalition level-pegging with Labor? Why aren't they streets ahead by now? By this point they should be cruising to victory, not bluffing and winging it and hoping that the press don't notice like they have every day since Howard lost office.

The very idea that Abbott should be level-pegging with a visibly tired Rudd, after almost four years of politico-media busywork and the full support of the Murdoch press (which drags the centre-seeking ABC and Fairfax into a lukewarm pro-Abbott position) is a pathetic outcome for the Coalition. It's been a long time since even the most cliche-ridden journo has hailed Abbott as "the greatest opposition leader ever". He doesn't have cut-through, not even after three-and-a-bit years of uncritical media every day.

Labor has not been smashed like Whitlam was in 1975, nor Keating in '96. Mind you, it hasn't come roaring back like an institutionalised version of Rudd's own Will To Power - but that's nothing to do with Abbott.

There had been a long flat buzz for Abbott, and only then because stories about him were the only positive stories coming out of Canberra for a long time. There had been a short buzz for Rudd because he delivered them from being ignored by Gillard, and it lasted until Murdoch jerked them back into line. Insofar as either had been tangible, both are now gone. The strong polls for Abbott have always been very, very soft, and those of us who said so were pooh-poohed by people who take polls seriously.

Abbott has infuriated Labor voters with his sleazy antics in western Sydney, and whimpering at Rudd to shut up. This is dog-whistling to his silly base, the only kind of politicking he knows how to do, rather than winning over the unconvinced. Nobody who voted Labor or independent in 2010 will vote Coalition on the basis of Abbott's carry-on. The fact that it does not even occur to Liberal strategists that this is a problem shows how heavily they rely upon the largely inapplicable American model, where the uncommitted and disengaged do not vote.

No politician in Australian history has enjoyed such uncritically positive coverage. None has so little to show for it. Shut up? Only those with nothing to say should say nothing.

The whole idea of paid parental leave is to stuff the mouths of women who are unsure about Abbott with cash. People who've had children, and who paid attention (unlike Abbott, who shot through as soon as the hard work needed to be done on that front) know that birth and soon afterwards isn't the period when kids are expensive. If you're serious about supporting families you have to vote against a badly thought out policy imposed on the Coalition not once but twice. It was a dud policy the first time, it is a dud policy now, it deals with a non-problem politically and in the community, and it is not an authentic product of the Coalition parties' own processes.

On one level it is understandable that the Coalition would avoid policy commitments. Labor had two policy wonks in leadership positions, Gillard and Swan; one too many in the top two roles, but two more than the entire Coalition frontbench. Then again, you can't claim that the incumbents are the worst government ever while offering less in every area:
  • Whatever the shortcomings of the Rudd-Gillard governments in healthcare, Abbott's sole differentiating policy - hospital boards - will do nothing to help;
  • If you believe our telecommunications system needs more and better wireless, how will steel cabinets in every street and an unsustainable reliance on copper help? Offering less than "the worst government in Australia's history" makes no sense; and
  • In immigration the government has pretty much negated the Coalition's push, leaving Morrison appealing only to trigger-happy weirdos in a doomed quest for differentiation. You've been wedged, and you can't even tell.
What flexibility you gain by fobbing off calls for scrutiny, you lose in making the case for solid constancy of purpose. When you're fundamentally unserious people, like Abbott and Hockey are, you need all the solidity and constancy of purpose you can get. "All in good time" promises only complacency at a time when we must be alert to opportunities and threats. They can't afford to leave things to the last minute, which is what they've done - again.

In this contest the hare has ground to a halt and winking to his supporters, mistaking their urgings-on with cheers, while the dull tortoise plods on. An uninspiring government faces re-election because its opponent has offered such a weak challenge.

17 August 2013

Full of promise

Life is great in the Sunshine State
Every Queensland heart sings a song
To its tablelands and its golden sands
We are proud to say we belong

And our faith is great in the Sunshine State
For our Queensland future is grand
From the northern cane to the western plain
It's a full of promise land

All the while every mile, there's a sunlit smile
And a welcome handshake too
For friendship's great in the Sunshine State
May its sunshine keep smiling for you

- Official state song of Queensland
When the Coalition engaged in a development plan for northern Australia, it was a sign of their intellectual bankruptcy. Their policies mainly benefit large landholders and larger mining companies, proposing more infrastructure built from the public treasury while also promising that those who stand to benefit most from their policies should also be given tax breaks. They are vague and frankly untrustworthy about measures to help ordinary people (e.g. encouraging people to move to urban centres like Karratha or Townsville, skills development), measures that might've had more credibility in the 1950s than they do today.

That policy was largely written by the IPA. No longer independent of those who pay them, the IPA have a pseudo-policy development capacity that the Coalition no longer has, generating dull and senseless prose and meaningless picto-stats on demand to plea for government lolly. Any document with a Liberal/National logo on it longer than a press release has been outsourced, and probably not read by the shadow minister nominally responsible for it. It will certainly not be read by candidates, who are all being treated by Liberal Campaign HQ as though they are as stupid as Jaeiuymz Diaz.

At first it was surprising that the ALP would even try to match such policies, but a quick look at the electoral position in that area explains why:
  • Coalition-held seats in far north Queensland like Dawson, Herbert, Hinkler, and Cook Leichhardt are up for grabs;
  • Durack in northern WA, as with Capricornia in Qld, is open to a credible appeal from a candidate who would champion communities in those area as distinct from FIFO destinations; skyrocketing house prices are useful only if you want to move out of those communities. Labor, Katter, or a reformed conservative (e.g. Windsor, Wilkie, Oakeshott) independent would be well placed to make such a case - Rinehart's LNP or Clive Palmer's outfit, much less so;
  • Wide Bay, the nation's poorest electorate (see tables with supporting data linked from here), is represented by the docile, experienced and relatively moderate Warren Truss. Rightwing parties like the CEC are represented all too well in his electorate and, because the right are morons, it is likely they will try to knock Truss off or replace him when he retires. Any LNP candidate who replaced Truss would be weaker, and probably more than flirt with far-right ideas, putting Labor, Katter or a solid independent in a solid position to take the seat by default; and
  • Solomon, which takes in metropolitan Darwin, is currently represented by Natasha Griggs. The local Coalition franchise, CLP, holds the Territory government and has blown its goodwill in the sort of credibility-bonfire to be expected from rightwingers unprepared for office. People will be looking to send them a warning - and if that means Tony Abbott finds it harder to win, too bad for him. Griggs needs to learn that the reason why you stop to help people in accidents is because you never know when an accident might befall you.
The above list doesn't take into account expected ALP gains in the Gold/Sunshine Coasts or suburban Brisbane. There are as many, if not more, seats in play in the nation's north as/than there are in WesternSydney - and not just in Lab-Lib terms. The people there are subject to the same sort of half-witted stereotypes from those of us who don't live there as in WesternSydney. They also lack services, with the Queenslanders (being the majority of people in Australia's north) having voted against Anna Bligh for reasons other than her government's service provision, and not having realised that Brisbane would be no better disposed to the region under Newman than it had been under Bligh, or Beattie, or anyone else really.

This makes Labor's half-hearted me-tooism understandable.

For a start, Katter is preferencing Labor on the strength of that 'commitment'. Katter is preferencing Labor because his politics are all about a sentimental attachment to Queensland Labor policy of a century ago: protectionist and mercantilist, welcoming-handshake inclined, not necessarily racist but none of your southern celebrating-difference bullshit either. Katter's conservatism comes from Labor having moved away from that. Rudd can talk from that heritage but he can't necessarily live it; Wayne Swan was part of that generation that excised that legacy from Queensland Labor's brand, whereas someone like Gillard didn't even know where to start with that stuff.

Rudd can also do things like disendorse the Labor candidate for Kennedy so that Katter has a freer run. This is a bit of political sophistry for which the press gallery exists in order to report on, but which in this instance they failed to even detect: lumping Kennedy in with a slice of suburban Melbourne is irrelevant, point-missing journalism.

Labor's northern development policy, such as it is, is not limited to viewing local communities as life-support systems for mining companies. The reference to the NBN holds out more promise to the future of communities like Mackay and Karratha than a few jobs at some increasingly mechanised mines or non-jobs in agriculture. If only a car company would build a factory at Port Hedland. Seriously though, the policy should have gone into greater detail, but to do so would require answers from infrastructure-deficient communities elsewhere in the country.

Part of the infrastructure problem for the north involves protecting it from extremes of weather, which will only get more extreme over time. These can no longer be regarded as freaky occasions that incur acts of charity from the rest of the country, but as part of the costs of living and doing business in that part of the country. There was none of that in Labor's policy, nor the Coalition's: but few political commitments are so bipartisan as those involved in avoiding issues that are real, large, and uncertain in resolution.

The NT has long sought to diversify its agricultural sector beyond beef cattle. Such success as it is starting to have is coming at the expense of northern Queensland, offering a similar climate for produce that requires it but with less risk of the cyclonic wipeouts that afflict that region. Producers in the region can offer Asian markets neither the mass production volumes nor niche specialisations such as pesticide/fertiliser-free certified-organic niches. From a national perspective, depleting established agricultural communities in northern Queensland to boost those in the Territory is a zero-sum game, yet any post-facto justification of a northern development policy will tout NT agriculture as part of the "good news story" to pitch to gullible journalists.

The biggest thing that the Federal government could do to boost communities in northern Australia is to station more ADF personnel there. ADF personnel are skilled and disciplined and get paid a fraction of what equivalent workers get in the mines - and in times of low unemployment the ADF can barely meet recruitment levels while maintaining standards.

The Great Barrier Reef is a greater economic resource than almost any other use to which that area can be put, including oil exploration. Yet, any credible economic (and hence population) plan for northern Queensland will include creating shipping channels to ports such as Gladstone and Mackay, which will end up segmenting the Reef and leaving each segment worse off environmentally. The reefs and other environmentally-sensitive areas of coastal northern WA are under still greater pressure from ports and offshore developments. Again, neither the Coalition nor Labor address those issues (except in the Coalition's fatuous and self-defeating term "green tape"), which reveals the limits on their commitment to making northern development happen. And before you talk about the Greens saying no to dredging and whatever else - it also reveals their lack of commitment to northern development, too.

Labor, the Coalition, and the Greens don't have much to say about engaging Aboriginal communities in the area with regard to economic or community development in the region, or on any other issue really.

Northern development plans have a wider purpose, however, than what's in them and whether or not it adds up. They're about respect for people who are few and marginalised. They're not stupid: they know that decades of northern development plans have been floated and died, and these most recent ones will almost certainly go the same way. In that sense, northern development is a bit like gay marriage - a small minority of the population is even affected, and a fair subset of those are don't appreciate what's on offer, but they seek the gesture nonetheless in the name of equality and respect. As with gay marriage, most Australians are well disposed to the idea of northern development, and only a stingy, nasty few are actively hostile.

In a political environment of programmatic specificity and rigid adherence to talking points, northern Australia provides the impression of blue-sky, limitless vision. You can look at tablelands and golden sands and see anything you want, I suppose. You can see Rudd or Abbott as Prime Minister. Whatever else might happen, in northern Australia as elsewhere, is in the eye of the beholder.

11 August 2013

Tony Abbott's full support

... and if
I tread upon your feet you just say so
'cause you're The Captain, I am no-one,
I tend to feel as though I owe one to you

- Kasey Chambers The Captain
Labor have had their share of "captain's picks": Julia Gillard nominated Nova Peris to fill a Senate seat that the incumbent hasn't realised was being vacated, and Kevin Rudd picked Jason Li and Peter Beattie ahead of preselected Labor candidates in Bennelong and Forde respectively. His actions against Labor-endorsed candidates in Hotham and Kennedy are works in progress. The wisdom of each and the capacity for a parliamentary leader to do this under party rules is a matter for "W(h)ither Labor?" commentary elsewhere. What's interesting is the contrast with Abbott in working internal party processes in terms of fundamental political competence.

Before it was dissolved for the election there were 226 members of federal parliament. Most came up through pre-existing political parties: doing their time at branch functions, working the networks of their parties in order to secure preselection, and then contest election to join the select few in Federal Parliament. Independents have to build their own machinery but the principle is similar. Every MHR and Senator regards having and maintaining a political support network as crucial to securing a seat in parliament, and the absence of same is a personal political failure at the most basic level. Those who lose preselection may incur sympathy for a short while but they are essentially dead politicians walking.

Abbott has made no "captain's picks" for the Coalition. Most of his front bench gets its credibility from having been Howard government ministers. Many of his backbenchers had been staffers to ministers in said government. What's remarkable about Abbott is that having the leader's support in a preselection is nothing like a guarantee of success, and that not having his support is no guarantee of failure:
Most Coalition MPs, and the Senators up for re-election this time, have secured their own preselection without any support or hindrance from their "leader". This is why the subtle and multi-faceted attempt by conservatives in Indi to knock off Sophie Mirabella is so fascinating.

On the face of it, Mirabella is unassailable. She is, and has been at every election since 2001, the preselected Liberal candidate for Indi. That electorate was held by a former Governor-General (Isaac Isaacs) and a former Prime Minister (John McEwen), both arch-protectionists. This may explain why she has ditched the small-government rhetoric of her student days, and instead sees her job as donating public money to badly-run industries like car manufacturing and food processing (though offering less support than Labor is, and while criticising Labor for not doing enough).

Mirabella and Tony Abbott developed a strong bond as monarchists in the lead-up to the 1999 referendum, and now she is a senior member of shadow cabinet - one of the few who was not a minister under Howard. Note that Abbott has not flatly contradicted her policy positions in the way that he has with those of, say, Joe Hockey or Eric Abetz.

The traditional methods that a party uses to get rid of dud candidates have failed. Nobody within the local Liberal branches has put up their hand as an alternative, nor is anybody stacking them to dilute Mirabella's grasp. She clearly has the numbers in local branches and any frontal assault on her would be heavily resisted by 104 Exhibition Street (the address of and synecdoche for Liberal headquarters in Melbourne). Instead, Cathy McGowan and Jennifer Podesta have decided to contest Indi using their own means rather than those of the Liberal Party (or persuading the Victorian Nationals to take the chance on them). McGowan has been endorsed by Tony Windsor, and seems to be offering a similarly pragmatic approach while being her own person.

What does this mean for Abbott? If he can't defend Mirabella, he can't defend anyone.

Mirabella is one of Abbott's longest and most ardent supporters. No Liberal leader other than Abbott has rated her as front bench material, and no future leader would foreseeably prefer her over others. She feels as though her service to the community, while necessary, is insufficient for her talents. Abbott's outlook on the Liberal Party, Australia and life in general are pretty much hers to a greater extent than is true for other Liberals. Even people who loathe Mirabella, but who can appreciate loyalty and why it's important, would have to agree Mirabella has been loyal to Abbott.

The contrast with Howard, supposedly Abbott's role model, is telling. Through sheer longevity John Howard would've had sufficient contacts in northeastern Victoria to gauge the depth and breadth of the problem confronting Indi conservatives. They clearly don't feel Mirabella is representing them. He would've had quiet words with the right people and either given Mirabella a final warning to lift her game or else thrown her to the wolves, rather than lose a seat the Coalition has held for eight decades - part of its 'furniture', if you will.

Abbott can't return Mirabella's loyalty and help secure her immediate political future because he's just not smart enough or strong enough to do so. Abbott has no connection, let alone suasion, with the sorts of people who are backing McGowan and/or Podesta. They have money and a local presence to match - more than match - the Liberal Party in that area. It's crazy that the Victorian Liberals have to divert resources away from La Trobe or Dunkley in order to sandbag Indi; it's political failure that it has come to this, and Abbott shares the blame for that.

When the Gillard government proposed a referendum to recognise local government in the Constitution, Abbott was initially supportive. It fits with his centralist agenda, particularly in health policy where he proposes individual boards for local hospitals. When a Labor government last proposed this measure, in 1988, Abbott was not only not a member of the Liberal Party but was flirting with the idea of joining Labor - and NSW Labor at that.

Those who were party members back then, and who still are, trot out the same arguments against the proposal as they did back then. Rudd has shelved the referendum for now but this does not mean it is off the agenda. What was interesting is that they did not flatly contradict Abbott; rather, they made their case as though he had not spoken, as though his was just another opinion rather than the decisive one on the Coalition side.

"When it comes to [DisabilityCare]", said Abbott, "I am Dr Yes". Coalition MPs continued to talk about it as though the policy was an optional extra, an act of charity rather than a reliably-funded rights-based system, which is a fundamental failure to understand the basis of that policy. As a result, the Coalition can fairly be regarded as having a weak commitment to DisabilityCare and its future is uncertain should they win this election. Abbott has allowed his party to put him into this weak position, and he can't get out of it.

Abbott was elected as leader of his party on the basis that climate change is crap. His Direct Action policy threatens havoc on economic credentials without doing a damn thing for his environmental credentials. The Liberals who elected Tony Abbott did not elect him to be this namby-pamby centrist, yet insofar as Abbott has any policy stance at all this is where he finds himself.

His last big stand was against same-sex marriage, but that will go ahead regardless of what Tony Abbott says or does.

Leaders make things happen. They have real victories in real fights, not choreographed spats with cream-puffs. Tony Abbott is a weak leader. When he says that he has a commitment to this or that policy, or that he will work for this or that group of people, you have to assess that against who and what he is prepared to die in a ditch for.

07 August 2013

The gravity of The Situation

When he rolled Malcolm Turnbull for the Liberal leadership, Tony Abbott was less popular than the 'beleaguered' man he replaced. He is no more popular now than he was then, despite almost four years of please-like-me populism and unquestioning media coverage. He has released some policies but they don't really address the issues to which they relate, and people who are experts in particular policy areas are either indifferent to current Coalition policy or reject it outright.

Coalition strategists will claim that any day now, just you wait, Abbott will come out with something that decisively shifts the race in their favour - something unexpected but irrevocable, like the winged keel in the 1983 America's Cup, or the moment from Babe where a pig wins a sheepdog contest because there's no formal rule against it.

Part of that is Abbott's lunge for authority: have faith in The Leader, all will be well. He has brought you thus far and shall carry you further. Have the kind of faith in him that he has in himself. Liberals who grumbled that his no-better-than-Gillard approval would drag down the sky-high polls he "achieved" for his party were ignored. They will be ignored after they are vindicated too, because that's politics for ya.

The fact is that whenever Australia has changed governments, the opposition has gone into the campaign well ahead. This was the case in 2007 and 1996. In 1983, Malcolm Fraser called the election when Labor's policy-wonk leader was in place but damaged; Hayden was gone by the afternoon and Hawke lashed out at a journalist who implied he had "blood on his hands". Today, Labor has done its leadership change and the inexplicably popular leader can flick his fingers through his silver hair without leaving any trace of red. The mid-campaign pivot is a crock.

Ah, say the Abbott fans, what about 2010? In that election Abbott's momentum was gone after the first week, despite the leaks and The Real Julia, etc. All that momentum was negated by the groundswell of people who thought: if this keeps up Abbott is going to win! That's why the polls have evaporated for the Coalition now, and why Prime Minister Gillard would have been swinging it around like a gate had ... aargh, anyway.

The Coalition believed in the mid-campaign pivot last time, and the time before that too. Dennis Shanahan believed that the little master would pull it out of the bag one last time, right up until the removalist truck pulled up at Kirribilli House. Those who really believe the Coalition has a future as well as a past just have to snap out of that. There is no switch to flick, not now, not later.

To be fair to the Coalition, 50-50 or so is a pretty good place to be at this stage, and it's why they're not panicking. Then again Kim Beazley failed to step it up just that little bit extra in 1998 - and even he wouldn't have lacked the ticker to debate the incumbent anywhere, any time, for real.

Perhaps they should be more concerned than they are. Abbott's economic credentials will not see out the week. His policies on the environment, telecommunications and workplace relations are arrant garbage and nobody will change their vote on account of them. The education policy where Abbott promised to do bugger-all was actually more credible than his grudging admission that Gonski has a point. In every policy area, even in car donations - he is offering less, less, less, to a country with a promising future. What a fool.

Speaking of promising future, what was The Situation thinking?

Abbott doesn’t even know this woman. THE TIME FOR KEEPING CAL... on Twitpic
Copyright (c) Fairfax
In three words: hope, opportunity, reward. A milder version of what happened to Helen Wilson: the Liberals are fond of saying "a leopard can't change its spots", but that applies to their leader as much as Labor's. The reward is making it all about him rather than the complete scene, which could have been sweetly cliched if only Abbott could have tolerated others at the centre of it.

All that Margie-and-the-girls effort fails in the face of that. Four years of campaigning, and one unguarded moment says more than all of his words. Some have said that this particular piece of opportunism will do for Abbott what that crushing handshake did for Mark Latham nine years ago (!); I won't dispute it.

John Howard sculpted the wings that are slowly disintegrating from Abbott's back as he plummets to earth. Abbott was wrong to float along, leaving it all to the last minute. The Liberals were wrong to let him do so. Those who believed in them all have no excuse not to know better.

Journalists will take credit for that scrutiny but they won't take credit for its absence over the past four years, so stuff that, and them.

People with half a brain should be wondering when exactly the Abbott magic is going to kick in, and I expect the press gallery and the wider journosphere to be asking itself exactly that soon enough. People with a whole, functioning one know it never will, or can.

04 August 2013

The beam in your own eye

I really do not give a damn when the election will be held. I know there are constitutional measures to bring it about within a given timeframe. Having observed federal politics for decades now I accept the idea that the Prime Minister effectively schedules the election at a time most advantageous to his/her party, whether or not that judgment is borne out in the result. Pretty much all press gallery journalists have predicted when the election will be held and all have so far been proven wrong about that, too. In this piece, Paula "Drag0nista" Matthewson seems to agree that the election date is immaterial.

What follows here is an examination of Liberal received wisdom about what the nation wants and thus their best strategy to win the election. Matthewson passes it on, and is responsible for what she writes, but it is important to realise she is not responsible for shaping that strategic thinking.

How disappointing that Drag0nista used her piece to engage in one of those half-baked poll-entrails things that journalists do in an attempt to tailor their output to what they perceive their audience to be thinking. Matthewson knows that people who are taken seriously in election campaigns are those who root through the entrails of polls in the manner she does here, and in the manner that senior press gallery journos do in their attempts to form solidity from pure wind.

Maybe if you commission your own polls and pay top dollar for them to people who know how to do it properly, you'll get the real deal. The polls published in the newspapers are not the real deal. Hell, the political journalism published in the papers isn't even the real deal.

If the polls say anything useful at all, it is that Tony Abbott is no more convincing as "Howard 3.0" (was there a Howard 2.0? A Howard Vista?) that he is as C3PO. People are about as impressed with him than they were when he was challenging the supposedly mortally wounded Malcolm Turnbull in December 2009. The same people who always liked Abbott still do, the same people who hated him still do, and those who are indifferent to the man clearly sit on one of the comfiest and strongest fences in existence. Almost four years of frenetic campaigning, framing and reframing has impressed nobody other than Chris Kenny, and Drag0nista.
Whatever the election date, yesterday’s economic statement by the Rudd Government signified the hoisting of the goal posts onto Labor’s chosen playing field: Stadium Economy ... It’s quite a risky strategy on the part of Rudd and the Labor strategists.
The activity undertaken by the Rudd Government since it regained office is much the same as the activity undertaken by the new Gillard government in the lead-up to the 2010 election: that is, getting politically contentious matters off the table swiftly, if ultimately untidily.

In 2010 the issues were the mining tax, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, asylum seekers, and the idea that schemes alleviating the global financial crisis of 2008 (e.g. those building school halls and insulating roofs) had been rorted. In 2013 they are asylum seekers, and the changes to the economic assumptions brought about by slowing growth in China and other economies which are important trading partners to Australia. Back then, Gillard and Swan and other senior members of the ALP and the government worked to get resolutions that "took the issues off the table", i.e. which blunted predictable attacks from their opponents over the following weeks of the campaign rather than setting up long term, soundly-based policy solutions.

What Rudd, Bowen et al have done over the past few weeks is the same sort of thing - not determining the ground on which the campaign will be fought but denying it to the enemy. Matthewson allows for the possibility and its potential impact on Abbott but dismisses it, simply insisting that Abbott can and will lead us back to the milk-and-honey of the Howard years. Jonathan Green noted:
... dealing with asylum seekers itself is not a vote swinging issue. But it is a proxy for issues - like the economy, housing and employment security - that are.
Likewise, the statement by Bowen and Wong where they cut this and that and increased something else - not vote-swinging either, but a proxy for the idea of competent economic management. The Coalition may or may not have a "lead" in economic competence, but so what? They had one in 2007. The Howard government was dispatched to political history with its "lead" intact. Maybe it kept some people warm at night. Maybe Abbott is trying to hock it for one last go-around - this time for sure! - but it isn't the trump card Drag0nista assumes it to be, and would have you believe.
Part of the skill in election campaigning is to ensure your message cuts through to your potential supporters and is memorable when it does so ... Tony Abbott’s slogans, while annoying to those actually engaged in politics, have the cut-through and memorability necessary to stick in the minds of non-engaged voters. Often that’s all it takes to secure a vote on polling day.
The assumption there, not challenged in Drag0nista's piece but very much challenged here, is that once you've got the message across it's job done. Certainly from Matthewson's point of view, as a communications person, it is job-done I suppose. But this is where the problems of Tony Abbott (a former comms person who is seeking a more substantial role) really begin. Everyone knows Abbott is the guy who whinges about the government all the time. The case has not been made, despite all his and Matthewson's wishin' and hopin', that he has what it takes to make important things better than they are.

Matthewson and Abbott and others have described the mote in Rudd's eye in some detail. They have not, however, acknowledged the beam in their own, in terms of Abbott's gaping lack of credibility. Polls lag reality, and the reality is that Abbott has little to say on how he addresses the actual problems facing this country (and changing the government won't do when Abbott is mostly offering less than the incumbents in pretty much every policy area).

He has little to say because he is so rarely asked, and people who do ask are made to feel bad; as though they've hurt the feelings of people like Tony and Paula and all who sail with them, and as though their feelings matter more than other factors.

You can bury yourself in polls as much as you like. For an organisation and its leader four years of policy torpor at a time of far-reaching change makes you unfit for government, unfit for the rigours of a few weeks' campaigning let alone years and years in office. So much for flicking the switch.
In these days of digital communication and self-inflicted exposure to multiple sources of around-the-clock information, this task is made all the more difficult for political campaigners.
That quote reveals a lot, however unwittingly, about the limitations of those who would do the campaigning. It reveals a lot about how they regard those whose minds form the terrain on which the campaign is waged. The editor of AusVotes2013 would have a lot to teach the Coalition about that, if only its content wasn't generally so damned nuanced and multipartisan.

Here's the point where Matthewson's argument sheared off the rails:
Discerning political observers have undoubtedly noted there are vast differences between Abbott and Rudd’s positions on carbon pricing and Gonski (but not so much on asylum seekers).

That doesn’t matter out in voter-land. As far as the bulk of voters are concerned, and as evidenced by the shrinking trust gaps in the Essential Poll ...
"Voter-land"? This impertinence is the 2013 equivalent of referring to your fellow citizens as "the punters". The very use of this term means you don't understand that to which the term supposedly refers. Do you, dear reader, live in "voter-land"? Do I? Who does? I've counted thousands of ballot-papers as a party scrutineer and as a polling official, and I could never tell a "discerning political observer" vote from a "voter-land" one.

I think what Matthewson is trying to do here is give some sort of credence to the insider/outsider, "New Class" argument that has animated right-wing politics since Richard Nixon, and particularly in this country since Howard; namely that you are either a "discerning political observer" (university educated, latte/ chardonnay sipping, etc.) or you're "voter-land" through-and-through (self-employed, bourbon-and-coke-imbibing, none of your wanky uni crap etc). You can only cross the divide by studying polling/focus-group data, and by so doing you ascend to a higher plane of knowledge and citizenship. Such study, or the bluff appearance thereof, will make you some sort of ambassador for "voter-land" among the "discerning political observers".

You might have fought your way up through a political party and sit in parliament. You might be an experienced journalist, you might have some other grounds for believing that you understand politics - but any opinion you might have can be swept aside by a "voter-land" ambassador eructing numbers and catchphrases, trying to achieve certainty and security in an essentially uncertain and insecure business. Such people are to politics what accountants are to business: people who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. This is the game Nick Cater and Paul Sheehan are playing at, and there is no reason to think Paula Matthewson can't play it too.
With the effluxion of time, Howard’s children overboard obfuscation, non-core promises and interest rate rises have faded in much of the collective memory. Now he stands for dorky tracksuits, political stability and economic prosperity.
Tell her she's dreamin', insofar as you can tell Paula Matthewson anything:
  • John Howard is a figure from history now. Howard was dispatched from office for a reason and the man who lead Labor to its final victory over him leads Labor today. While it is true that staffers in a Liberal government might wish to become staffers again, it is no more true that Australians want Howard back (in whatever form) than they/we want to bring back pounds, shillings, and pence to replace decimal currency: it's over, move on.
  • I don't know whose idea it was for Peter Reith to appear on political chat-shows trying to play down Abbott's inadequacies and create continuity between between Howard and Abbott, but Reith is Mr Children Overboard. You don't see Phillip Ruddock on every dog-and-pony show going, do you? That's because Ruddock knows the value of laying low in rehabilitating one's reputation.
  • Menzies stood for dull prosperity and competence in many voters' minds, and in the Liberal messaging of the time, but that wasn't enough to prevent Whitlam from being elected or re-elected. Tony Abbott has achieved a fragile stability of character that Billy Snedden eventually attained as leader, but like Snedden his credibility in promising a return to tried-and-true doesn't wash (Snedden had been a minister in Menzies' government, and had a number of Menzies' ministers on his front bench. But that didn't matter then either). The fact that the conservatives have made this mistake before and are determined to make it again - while expecting a different result - says little for latter-day conservative strategists. Their message and assumptions are not questioned by Matthewson but she is happy to pass them on in the hope that others (discerning political observers, voter-landers, you over there; anyone at all, really) might come to accept them.
Conservatives have always regarded the 2007 election as some sort of swindle, and the 2010 very much so. For them every election will be a re-election/vindication of Howard, until they wake up to themselves. Nobody regarded the 1974 election as re-electing McMahon. Nobody in 1984 was voting for the return of Fraser. In 1998, Labor wouldn't have got half the swing it did had people thought they were vindicating Keating. Howard eventually created an impression that he knew what he was doing, but the reason why he lost in 2007 was because that impression no longer held.

Abbott has never been able to create an impression of stability and competence in any area other than media strategy. Getting a gullible herd of journalists to swoon over you ("best Opposition Leader ever"!) isn't much of an achievement, and it won't keep you warm on election night.

Abbott's response to what Matthewson calls "me-tooism" is telling, and his problems aren't all Rudd's doing. By seeking to sharpen differences over asylum-seeker policy, Scott Morrison is making Coalition policy appear significantly more cruel than Labor's policy. By seeking to erase differences over school education funding, nobody believes yesterday's announcement that a Coalition government would spend a single cent on education more than the incumbents are spending now, and would probably spend quite a bit less. Attempts by Pyne and Abbott to pressure conservative state governments and private-school bodies into not supporting the Better Schools (Gonski) program bode poorly for federal-state relations.

This blog has gone after Matthewson before. She's easily wounded and can't pick the difference between a disagreement on objective phenomena and a swingeing personal attack; she goes from claws-out brashness to put-upon victim faster than Janet Albrechtsen did back in her day. I tweeted my dislike of the term "voter-land" and she tweeted this back:

I wonder who or what she was checking - I wonder if she even knows, or why she granted herself an exemption from her insistence on online civility. You can see what I mean about blurring the distinction between objective discussions and subjective attacks.

Why even bother with some inter-blog spat? As I said up front, my target here is not Matthewson/ Drag0nista but the assumptions which she fails to question (or does not do so publicly) the bill of goods received wholesale from Coalition strategists - namely, that at the election of 2013, Australian voters:
  • want both a return to the strengths and weaknesses of the Howard government, accepting that this government was as good as this country gets and was/is no better than we deserve;
  • want and trust Tony Abbott to secure such a return; and
  • believe and accept that the challenges facing Australia which Howard failed, squibbed, or never encountered are challenges that we as a nation are happy for our leaders to forgo.
Interestingly, the polling data examined by Matthewson does not appear to address any of those propositions directly. Must be "the vibe", or something that the beam in your own eye prevents you from seeing. If you're going to check anything, check that.