12 September 2013

As good as it gets

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshine-y day

Jimmy Cliff I can see clearly now

Australia needs to be an open society, tolerant of personal differences among people and communities, and innovative in terms of the business practices of government and the economy more broadly.

The question before the last election was, can Tony Abbott deliver a government that meets the needs of the country?

I said no, repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, and voted accordingly. Mark Kenny disagrees. He believes that the election results invalidates any opposition and, in line with the editorial position of his employer, insists that Abbott must be taken at his word.

The first thing to be said about "Labor's case against Tony Abbott" is: well, they would say bad things about him, wouldn't they. His descriptions of them were reductive and exaggerating, and Kenny has no right to be surprised that he copped a little bit of his own medicine back.
The opposites of rash, aggressive, impulsive, and frenetic are probably things like calm, consultative, methodical and steady. Unsurprisingly, these latter words are the ones Tony Abbott wants you to attach to his new government. Abbott is building a public relations case for his administration against the negative backdrop of the "chaos" he replaced.
Well, he would, wouldn't he. Just as we need a thesaurus to work out synonyms and antonyms, so too we need journalism to decide whether or not that's valid. Journalists have to decide the extent to which they want to play along with the PR strategy of the government of the day, and the trade-offs in credibility they make in doing that.
Clearly, the Rudd and Gillard incarnations of Labor were notable not just for their poisonous divisions but for their desperate attempts to rev up the news cycle. In their adolescent plea for friendship, they were prepared to backflip on just about anything. Be just about anything.
This paragraph clearly isn't meant to be informative, the product of an experienced political journalist.

In getting through carbon pricing, restrictions on tobacco sales, reforms to education and disability services, and many other things besides, the Gillard government was required to be calm, consultative, methodical and steady. It lasted for the standard parliamentary term of three years on that basis.

I admit to underestimating how important the "poisonous divisions" were to people outside the ALP. The rest of that paragraph may fairly be regarded as bullshit, and an attempt by Kenny to curry favour with the new government. The Gillard government appeared to care very little for the 'news cycle' and indeed its disdain for it has a level of maturity that Abbott, with his stunts and inability to deliver nuanced messages to intelligent adults, now seems to aspire. It was the press gallery whose need for affection and respect was so great, and when it was not reciprocated they simply blackballed the government and insisted, with or without proof, that everything they did was hopeless.

Now that government, baby and bathwater, has been tossed. We have a new government now.
No surprises then that the idyll of an "adult government" was mentioned a few hundred times in the campaign - straight from the focus groups that one.
That maybe so, but the question is whether or not Abbott is capable of delivering on that. He's certainly capable of putting up a front, I don't really need a journalist to tell me that - what I need from a journalist is whether there's any substance behind that front, and no a simple assertion to that effect will not do. Maybe the focus groups should be reconstituted and sworn in instead of the recent shadow cabinet.

Tony Abbott seems to have put up a series of propositions which he cannot reasonably fulfil.

The petty partisan round of appointments and disappointments that follows every newly-elected government will disrupt the idea of "adult government". The first time a Coalition MP is chucked from Parliament for being rowdy, or a minister is dumped for some eminently human flaw or impropriety, that aspiration will be further diminished. The iron discipline that Abbott has imposed upon himself, and which Kenny takes as given, may well slip. Consider the Coalition's monkey-house antics in Parliament and its vacuous stunts beyond it, and wonder whether - if "adult government" is what you want - Tony Abbott is yer man to deliver it. Some of us considered that before the election - oh well.

Then, there's the speech on election night where Abbott actually affirmed the pie-in-the-sky propositions he had put during the campaign. He made promises about the budget that depend on both a hard-to-discern global economic outlook and a sheer absence of any action on his team's part to bring about outcomes on debt and surplus. He actually promised that the boats would be stopped, when the only way to do that is to both engineer a highly unlikely global environment where push factors are absent, and to make Australia every bit as bad as the societies from which people are fleeing. This highly partisan man even promised to reach out to those who never voted for him.

It's one thing to campaign on that stuff: but the more you reiterate it without having what it takes to back it up, the bigger the disappointment you are setting up for those who hoped for better from you. Kenny should be alert for differences between rhetoric and reality, and he isn't.
For Abbott to be successful, he needs to turn around a persistent view of him as a jaw-jutting political bovver boy ... So much for all the emergencies on the borders, in the budget, in the economy.
Yep. I always thought that rhetoric was bullshit, and it's a real shame no journalist was awake to that possibility.

Then again, he and his team have done so little policy work that they need to get on board that Clue Train, and leave the baggage on their party platform if need be (it's too late to do to all of them what was done to Sophie Mirabella, and rip up the ticket in their faces). Public servants have to do the work that the party membership can no longer do, in terms of setting a policy platform.

This would be reassuring if Abbott was slowly and methodically putting in place well-considered policy positions and personnel, but I don't think that's the case. Prove me wrong, Canberra insiders (don't just tell me I'm wrong, prove me wrong).

Playing down that 'emergency' rhetoric will make it hard for Abbott to rev it up again when he needs to get things moving. Denying funding to some worthy cause because of "budget/debt emergency" will start to look like a cop-out. If I was an experienced political journalist I'd know that, and would point it out to my readers.
He even wants politics off the front pages in favour of sport.
Yeah, so did Malcolm Fraser after 1975, so did Hawke and Howard; and if I was an experienced political journalist I'd know that and share it with readers. It's another way of saying: shut up and do what you're told, stop questioning us all the time. Mind you, what with drugs and sex scandals in AFL, and a palpable lack of success in a range of sports played against other countries, perhaps it is not quite the opiate of the masses that politicians might hope.
Abbott had actually been standing on the brake pedal before he won, such was his momentum towards office. The signs were there if you looked. Softening the rhetoric, toning down the outrage, winding back the expectations. Witness his surplus promise, which does not even match Labor's four-year path.
That fluff about the surplus actually looks like a dodge. Two years from now a journalist will accuse them of breaking a promise, and the word-games will begin (see "adult government" above). As for "The signs were there if you looked" - that's your job, Mark. You look and report on what you see.
The story of Abbott's stunning success is inseparable from his political maturation.
Abbott's stunning success is the result of an appearance of maturation (or perhaps 'maturity'? I thought only yoghurt underwent 'maturation'). Whether he really has matured is an open question.
Yet the case against him has been set in aspic. The political left's fascination at his surprising one-vote victory over Malcolm Turnbull in 2009, the oft-cited proof of his shaky internal mandate and his capacity to divide his own MPs.
Not necessarily. This is straw-man work on Kenny's part.

The one-vote thing was always a dead letter after the Coalition party-room changed so significantly after 2010. Abbott does divide his own MPs, but the slow media doesn't really report this. From the mid-1980s to the mid '90s, Liberal turmoil was a regular feature of political reporting, even though they were in Opposition at the time. Since Howard took over the curtain has come down on Liberal turmoil; there was a recurring non-story about Costello supposedly challenging for the leadership, but not to the point where he'd set out to upset anybody in any way. The Liberal leadership changed twice in a single term of parliament, just like the Labor Premiership of NSW - but according to the media this was never proof of turmoil, oh good heavens no.

One reason why disagreements with Abbott were never proof of 'turmoil' is because those who put Abbott into the leadership controlled preselection outcomes in party executives and at branch level across the country. Politicians are loath to criticise their leader because the ramifications for their careers in doing so are real. They tend to do so only if their political base is absolutely secure. When Peta Credlin went around dressing down those who even looked like shirtfronting Abbott, part of her arsenal is a direct or implied threat against her target's very political future - a vulnerability she, and other unelected staffers, lack.
Yet as George Brandis points out, Abbott's internal support is unrivalled. It is not that he won by a single vote that's important, it is that he turned that tiny edge into genuine authority, unifying his team to a greater degree than thought possible and forming a spearhead aimed right at Labor's belly.
The first six words in that paragraph cause a sinking feeling that only comes about when genuine authority is required, but is absent.

Kenny, and Brandis, confuse momentum and victory with authority. What Abbott had was momentum, and he kept Liberals in line by appealing to them not to disrupt that. As a result, they have indeed secured victory. Authority is more elusive, it won't come with being sworn in or with blue ties or suspensions of standing orders. Congratulations George and Mark for knocking down a straw man and confusing what words mean.
Those clinging to the view that the country's new prime minister is some kind of one-dimensional throwback to the 1950s simply haven't been paying attention.

Labor's case against Abbott suffered from this very misconception, which goes a long way to explaining why it has serially underestimated him.
I've been paying attention. Tony Abbott is a multi-dimensional throwback to the 1950s. Wanting sport on the front pages rather than politics is part of that. Now, where is that latter-day Frank Sedgeman?
It may be one of the larger ironies of Australian politics that on the socially divisive issue of marriage equality, for example, it is the Catholic conservative Abbott, rather than the atheist progressive Julia Gillard, who eventually delivers, by allowing an unfettered conscience vote among his MPs and, perhaps even, by dropping his previous objections.
I've read that paragraph over and over and I still can't make sense of it. Will Abbott introduce legislation to allow gays and lesbians to marry, or won't he? What's this "perhaps even" crap? Opponents of gay marriage have every right to expect Abbott will maintain his shared opposition, and they will be furious if he doesn't. There may even be division, if not turmoil.

Abbott should be taken at his word when he says he's against same-sex marriage. It might be sad if supporters refuse to do so, but it wouldn't be ironic.
The left's answer to the Abbott challenge so far has been to assume deceit.
Whenever he moderates his position to the point where his backers can't stomach it, this is a fair assumption.
To posit that Abbott remains every bit the right-wing ideologue but has hidden his real desire to fully deregulate the workplace ...
Let's see about that.

There was a Coalition workplace relations policy released in July that looked pretty moderate. Then-shadow workplace relations minister Eric Abetz refused to defend it in a debate with Bill Shorten at the National Press Club. Then, during the campaign, he and John Alexander disowned it. Amount of slow-media focus on this key issue, which was fairly decisive in the previous two elections: negligible.

This may not reflect Abbott's "real desire" (what does?), but it is evidence of the disunity that is supposedly always fatal. It does give rise to confusion as to what will actually happen and one's ability to plan for that over the longer term: decisions far more complex and difficult than what goes into tomorrow's paper. The paucity of media focus on this has been disappointing.
... wind back advances for women, re-oppress Aborigines and hand over the environment to big oil and big coal.
I don't think he'll have the guts to do any of those things to any real extent. Aborigines will end up mucked about rather than "re-oppressed" per se. In general terms it's doubtful that women or the environment will be better off at the end of an Abbott government than they are at the start of it.

This is more straw man work: even the smallest action, the tiniest trade-off for a major loss in those or other areas, will see Liberals shrieking that they get no credit from ingrates and why do they even bother. This is what happened under Howard and, again, Kenny should be awake to this pantomime.
The idea that the Abbott offered in 2013 was not the "real Tony" was not merely soft thinking, it informed various overreaches of the Labor case - from the working assumption that, in the end, Abbott was unelectable to the embarrassing claim in the penultimate week of the campaign that Abbott had enacted a $10 billion fraud on voters.
People who opposed the Coalition in 1996 always believed that John Howard would bring in workplace relations legislation similar to WorkChoices. The fact that such a scare campaign didn't work at that election, and was not vindicated for almost a decade, does not invalidate it. The signs were there if you looked.

Yes, Labor sure did lose the election last week. To what extent are "the left" and "Labor" interchangeable? Is Bill Shorten "left"? I'd ask whether such a tag applies to Bruce Hawker but he'd probably sue. Journalists need not worry about taxonomy to the extent that political science academics do, but given their reliance on words they should consider what they mean in the current context, if anything.
A tweet during the ABC's Q&A program on Monday summed up the confusion on the political left as people try to reconcile long-held views of Abbott as a hardliner with the reality they see before them.

Abbott, it was asserted, was economically dry and socially wet.

Business worries that the reverse is true, pointing to his taxpayer-funded direct action plan to replace Labor's market-based emissions trading scheme and his taxpayer-funded, gold-plated paid parental leave scheme.
It is scarcely surprising that different (unnamed) people should have different opinions.

This is where some of that consideration of who or what is politically "left" might be useful, if nothing else to stop silly pieces like this. We have little real idea what an Abbott government might or might not do. Poor political journalism is largely, if not entirely, to blame for this. Rather than admit this, Mark Kenny dribbles bullshit like this:
Neither could be described as "dry". Rather, they are entirely political, showing Abbott's propensity to shape-shift and go beyond his programming to hold the centre.
What twaddle that is. The sheer embarrassment in having to write that can only be outdone by that of being partly culpable for such a shameful phenomenon.

Having spent years observing Abbott up close, and claiming the ability to clearly perceive reality, Kenny is reduced to admitting the key player in Australian politics right now is hard to define even for an experienced political journalist who's kept a close eye on him for years. That, dear reader, is professional failure pure and simple.
The truth is, Abbott in government is likely to be populist, political and pragmatic, rather than right-wing, reactionary and regressive.
But then again, Abbott is this unknowable shape-shifter ...? It's too hard to follow your line of thinking Mark. Howard was the three Ps, and also the 3Rs, and he still lost. Hell, so was/did Rudd.

It would be a real pity if Mark Kenny thought that he has seriously made the case in this article that Tony Abbott isn't, and won't be, right-wing, reactionary and regressive. Even so, it's touching that he still finds time in his busy schedule to look out for others:
And the longer the left takes to understand this, the longer it will take it to come to terms with its own failings.
Yeah, that left. It can only dream of ascending to a clear high plane where it has no failings. Mark Kenny and George Brandis live there, and so does Tony Abbott (except where he doesn't - he's such a shape-shifter!). It's a pity for all concerned that actually doing stuff in government can only be a comedown from that clear, high plane. It may even impact the polls, and as everyone knows that's where the real stories are.

We will all pay dearly for our refusal to take Tony Abbott at his word - mark Kenny's words.


  1. Glad to see that you are still sticking it to them Andrew with articles of this calibre. Indeed, if it not a journalists job to question and discover, then who's job is it?

    Anyone that thinks Abbott will miraculously change now that he is PM is seriously deluding themself. The man is 56 years old and got into power through thuggery, bad behaviour and mistruths. Why change that winning recipe now he has the keys to the Lodge. If he does try to adapt to the statesman he wants us all to believe he is, I can only see him failing miserably, as it is not his true character and the cracks will surely show. One night of decent questioning on Q&A should suffice, the likes that previous PMs have been asked, but what's the likelihood of that eh?

    I personally still cannot see Abbott as our PM - he does not speak for or represent me at all.

  2. Yep...

    I wait with eager anticipation for that night on Q and A...

    Hilarious to see Peta Credlin already getting him prepared for that gig..

    Primed and pumped like a boxer in a ring ready to fight the polity out there that is thy enemy.

    Boofhead 101#

  3. I agree Andrew, I want to be shown that Tony Abbott and his team have a real plan for this country not just a wish list, a scrappy NBN and a massively expensive maternal leave scheme. Yes I know it is a scheme for both parents. But really?

    Journalists and supporters and journalist-supporters keep telling us how much he has changed. How? Wishing and hoping rarely delivers reality. As far as I can see TA is a 56-year-old adolescent. He seems to be locked into promising boyhood, a young man guided and encouraged by older male mentors. Dad, the intellectual priest whose name I cannot recall, BA Santamaria, George Pell, John Howard. Who will he look to now? Maybe John Howard is still the guiding hand.

  4. Andrew, Thanks for articulating the intent my indignant, sputtering tweets and comments of the last 24 hours, since I read Kenny's article.

    Kenny is right about Abbott's populism and politicism; but pragmatism? I'm not so sure. Winning is his only cause and that makes him an empty vessel in Government: able to be filled with other "faceless" ideologues' policies and objectives (think IPA)

  5. your are on fire so to speak!

  6. Glad you mentioned this assertion about "adult government". I noticed that Vanstone had written an article with a title something like "the adults are back in charge" a few days back (although did not read it as I doubted it was worthwhile). Had some serious flashbacks to 13 years ago - exactly the same assertion was being made about George W. Bush and his new administration by right-wing commentators.

    1. In Abbott's case, it's not the adults who are back in charge, its the patriarchs.

  7. VoterBentleigh13/9/13 10:31 am

    The lack of quality analysis of Tony Abbott and all members of his front bench is staggering. It is also part of the propaganda to label all those who oppose Tony Abbott and the current Coalition agenda as social / political “progressives” and “left”.

    On the World Today (774 ABC Melbourne) on Thursday, September 12) there was an interview with a lawyer turned author, Roy Williams about Abbott and his Catholicism. It's available to listen to, but it is wasting time if one wants to get any understanding of either Roman Catholicism or Tony Abbott's brand of it.

    Here's just one line to give an example of the lack of insight from Williams:
    “He's [Abbott] simply not as radical as his critics on the secular left make out...the truth is somewhere in between...”

    Critics of Abbott rarely use the word “radical” to describe his stance; “reactionary” is the term most often used. Whether Abbott is radical in the sense of being extreme, or not the usual Catholic or Christian proponent, is open to debate. For instance, does he still hold, as he did while at Oxford, that the loss of the Latin Mass was a bad thing? This is not the “usual” position of the Roman Catholic Church (official or otherwise).
    Williams assumes that only the non-religious are critics of Abbott's theological views (where he has any of any substance).
    Williams also ignores those who are religious but are critics of Abbott because they believe strongly that government decisions should be secular.
    According to Williams' premises, if one is critical of Abbott, non-religious or favours secular government, then one is politically left.

    Your label: “right-wing intellectual failure” sums it up.

  8. And with the Indonesians rejecting the Coalition's foreign policy ideas, the Emperor already has no clothes and they are not even in government yet. Vote for me, we have fully costed policies ready to go...

    Did we hear of any warning this from the media pack beforehand? Of course not, they just took Abbott and Co. at their word. Regurgitating press releases and repeating sound-bites does not a journalist make, a high school student does more work for an essay.

  9. Grattan and Kenny and all the rest just don't get it and don't think. Repeat after me: whatever the Libs say is OK. Astonishing that they constantly repeat what they "discern" is what the Libs are spinning, and then accept it as fact. Never entering their heads to actually question what pollies are doing/saying.

    Grattan http://theconversation.com/kevin-rudd-did-save-a-good-deal-of-furniture-17974 repeats the main lament they have had since 2010, that "Australia once again, to the great relief of most, has a majority federal government." Relief of most?? That is relief of most journalists who are incapable of thinking about "politics" (in their incredibly narrow view of the word) in any other way that majority versus minority and no other assembly makes any sense. That it worked escapes them, or rather, offends them. Thus the constant barrage about "instability"

    Abbott has been willing to say and do anything to get what he now has (as Tony Windsor pointed out a few short years ago. Now in the space of one evening he "maturity". Give us a break MSM

  10. Dunno. Won't Abbott just do what Howard did for so long - a whole lot of nothing with a slow erosion of welfare and education funding, and liberal doses of tough man rhetoric?

    He's charged with dismantling plenty (ETS, NBN etc) and constructing one thing (higher levels of paid parental leave). They can chuck this thing on autopilot until Labor again convinces people they're capable of actually delivering change - and given how Labor treated high office last time, that could be some time away.

  11. The Prime Mustelid will be anything that Kenny's boss wants him to be.

  12. Surely 'shape-shift' is actionable. And not true in this case. Unless, of course, it means shallow, boringly predictable and and inadequate. And not scam artist as I would have thought.

  13. Andrew
    Thank you for covering the pre-election period with such incisive commentary
    I have not purchased any printed media for quite some time now but do read online such as Independent Australia and The Conversation to see what trash Michelle Grattan has to say as you have covered modern journalism I am sure you would agree we have been let down by their lack of insight into the policy platforms that have been presented by the conservatives and the inability of journalists to analyse these policies and report on what might be the benefits or the disadvantage to who and what sections of the populace will be affected.

  14. Where Is our new leader anyway? Are we not in a state of emergency? Where is Tony?

  15. Richard, your offering of the title Prime Mustelid, has delighted me. Indeed Toad Hall has fallen again to the stoats and weasels. Are Shorten and Albanese our Moley and Ratty?

  16. Excellent article, Andrew. Marred only by the failure of Jimmy Cliff to shape-shift to Johnny Nash.

    1. As I understand it, Cliff wrote the song but Nash was the first to record it. Happy to be corrected.

    2. Johnny Nash 1972. Jimmy Cliff did a version in 1993.
      Refer en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Can_See_Clearly_Now

  17. Is that you Geoff Pearson?

  18. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/13/sophie-mirabella-hate#story


    What planet is Helen Razer on??

    Mirabella would hate Obama because he is Black??

    Would many of the Liberals have a friend like Obama at University...

    Hell no!!

    Bigoted wankers!!

    F... Off Mirabella.

    #controversial comment 101

  19. I can see clearly now, IS credited to Johnny Nash. However, it has been suggested that Bob Marley (who co-wrote some songs with Nash in the early 70's and who's band ,The Wailers ,backed Nash on the recording) had a hand in the writing. Jimmy Cliff covered the song much later.

  20. Simon Musgrave15/9/13 7:36 pm

    Kenny is really on a roll - he followed up with this:

    From the man whose pursuit of the AWU non-story became an embarrassment to his employers.....

  21. "The petty partisan round of appointments and disappointments that follows every newly-elected government will disrupt the idea of "adult government". The first time a Coalition MP is chucked from Parliament for being rowdy, or a minister is dumped for some eminently human flaw or impropriety, that aspiration will be further diminished. The iron discipline that Abbott has imposed upon himself, and which Kenny takes as given, may well slip."

    ABC website:

    "But Senator Ian Macdonald, who was the shadow parliamentary secretary for Northern Australia and the defence force, expressed in a Facebook post his disappointment at being dumped.
    "What should have been one of the proudest days of my life has turned into one of the worst," he said last night.
    "The ecstasy of a new government and success in the North has turned a little sad with a phone call from Tony Abbott saying he has no room for me in the new ministry.""

  22. An excellent, insightful piece as usual, Andrew. Thank you.

    In my 26 years in the Army, I observed, and learnt, a lot about leadership and authority. Abbott has neither.

  23. Well, Abbott's proven Kenny wrong on marriage equality in his first week (i.e. his reaction to the ACT legislature): Doesn't bode well for the rest of his groundless assertions about Abbott's transformation, does it?