21 September 2013

My Prime Minister, your Prime Minister

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

- Walt Whitman Song of myself

There remains a desire in this country to hold the government to account. Some people want the government to do what it was elected to do, others want it to do something else. Traditionally the media also held governments to account, but these days they only do polls.

What do people mean when they say "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister"? What do others who hear that think it means?

When Liberal voters hear "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister", they hear sad people in denial about the country from whose government they have been removed. In politics, as in sport, it is not enough to win; others must fail, and people upset that Tony Abbott is doing what he always said he'd do must have failed.

Despite the fact that Coalition supporters treated Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard with contempt, and despite their often appalling behaviour extended to non-members of the last government like Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, and Tim Mathieson, they seriously believe that the nation should just shut up and let the Abbott government do whatever it feels like doing. Even though every government gets criticised for what it does and doesn't do, they sincerely believe this government should be heard in the respectful silence that Coalition functions extend to visiting Abbott government ministers.

When those who opposed the government, or who oppose particular policies, say "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister", they mean that they think the country is better than Abbott and the policies that he brings with him - 7 September notwithstanding. They take the ability to criticise the government - any government - pretty much as given. Dissent need not be impolite, let alone as insolent as Coalition fans think it is. When a government is dismissive of the authority that comes with experience and learning, and appears to be in the grip of the Dunning-Kruger effect, it can make civil discourse that much more difficult (while also overestimating their ability to prevail when things turn ugly).

Tony Abbott isn't "my" Prime Minister, or yours, because you and I aren't Rupert Murdoch. All of Abbott's life has been consumed with snuggling up to authority and then gradually assuming it, without having to justify that authority or answer to it in any meaningful way. As Health Minister, he was rarely interviewed by journalists who specialise in health policy; when he was interviewed by political journalists they would ask him about anything but his portfolio, which they never really understood, not even when Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek introduced measures to compensate for Abbott's inaction or maladministration.

In only a few days in office the Abbott government has attracted a lot of criticism over two issues: having few women ministers, and cutting environmental programs. In both areas, its post-election behaviour is pretty much the same as its pre-election behaviour. While it is always possible to hope for more and better, it is silly to be disappointed at eminently foreseeable events like the dismissal of Tim Flannery and the dissolution of the Climate Change Commission. Take this letter in The Age yesterday (Courtesy @davidadonaldson):

Oh yes you did, Ms Paton. You ignored the warnings and believed all the blandishments. Yet, there will be more like you than those who go the other way.

Does this mean Tony Abbott is my Prime Minister? No. Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of my country. I take responsibility for the vote I cast, and while I wish more of my fellow voted in a similar way to what I did, I recognise the reality of what happened. Australia has one of the most open and fairest electoral systems in the world, and I do not believe the Coalition subverted it by force, graft, or other illegality such that would invalidate the result. I do not believe our political system is the kind of choice-of-two-evils facing the people of Egypt, the non-choice of evil in Zimbabwe, or the non-choice of many evils besetting Syria.

If you're an Australian then Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of your country, as Sarah Burnside points out:
There is nothing inherently wrong with political conflict and there is, certainly, a great deal in Abbott’s mean-spirited platform about which to be angry – for instance, deep cuts to foreign aid and to the Aboriginal Legal Service (which Warren Mundine now suggests may be reversed) ...
This will be an interesting test for Mundine. Having left the ALP, where he had been National President, to take up with the Abbott government, Mundine had better be right about statements like that. If he keeps insisting that we look on the sunny side of the Abbott government, and were such optimism were to go unsupported by what the government actually does, Mundine's credibility might suffer; how strange that would be where the Prime Minister was so committed to Indigenous issues.

Burnside rightly points out:
The desire to parade one's despair and anger with our new government is civic engagement of a rather narrow kind. The sphere of the political seems to shrink; instead of a concern with the wider world and the clashing ideologies and the power relations that shape our society, politics is a matter of individual performance. The personal is political, the political personal, and the snake devours its tail until nothing is left.
That's true about despair in general. It might also be fair to say that about those who insist that "Abbott's policies on [whatever] are truly scary". Oh, please. What we have here is a series of rallying cries for those who are out but not down. Tony Abbott gave no quarter or respect to the last government and is owed none in return. Burnside seems to be arguing against the sort of quietism that overcomes football fans once their team drops out of finals contention, unless she is arguing for it as Liberals are; it is unclear what she is arguing for, how those who oppose the government wholly or in part should go about the business of securing outcomes they perceive as better.

Not everything that governments say or do are justified by a mandate. John Howard did not have a mandate to help East Timor secure its independence, nor for WorkChoices, yet both came to define his government. Paul Keating, definer and scourge of Balmain basket-weavers, was the last person you'd expect to deliver the Redfern speech. It is possible that those who urge Abbott to go against his base (and base instincts) may be doing him a bigger favour than his rusted-on muckers egging him on to do his worst.

Barrie Cassidy wrote:
Tony Abbott's immediate media strategy is to put the country to sleep, or at least lower the volume so that everybody can enjoy a little quiet reflection after a tumultuous few years.

That approach is eminently defensible and politically smart.
No it isn't. It might be different were the government basking in the sort of roseate glow of goodwill that lasts for a while after a new government takes office - that has all but gone in this case, and your crusty old journos who've seen governments come and go missed that entirely.

On what are they/we reflecting? Bad things about Abbott: his discomfort with women in positions where they might challenge him, and the fact that the challenges surrounding climate change will be squibbed altogether rather than tinkered with. His base might revel in that, but a clear majority is uncertain at least on both issues.

This, however, made me laugh:
... the media has to be alert to the danger that Abbott and his ministers wind back media engagements primarily to avoid scrutiny and accountability.
If you seriously still assume that the media are in the accountability business, take these two of so, so many examples where that is simply not the case.

On 20 June, Leigh Sales interviewed Dr Craig Emerson on ABC's 7.30. At the time, Emerson was Minister for Trade and Competitiveness; Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research; and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy. None of his portfolio responsibilities were covered by Sales - no executive actions, no expenditures of taxpayer money, across such a wide area. Sales put to him Canberra chatter about polls, polls, and polls:
LEIGH SALES: I'm not talking about polls.

CRAIG EMERSON: You are. You're talking about a pollster and talking about Julia Gillard standing in polls. There are polls out now - not every week, Leigh, but every day ...
In this case, it was the government minister who held the journalist chairthing presenter to account. So much for your Fourth Estate.

Consider the recent controversy over the gender make-up of the Abbott Cabinet, and consider that this exchange took place just three months ago:
LEIGH SALES: Speaking of Tony Abbott, in a speech last week the Prime Minister said that under an Abbott Government, women voices would be banished from political life. Why did she over-state and exaggerate her case like that?

CRAIG EMERSON: Well I think it's pretty clear that Tony Abbott, in the way he talks about women or certainly has talked about women in the past, has created anxiety amongst women as to whether they really would be part of the mainstream under an Abbott-led Government.

LEIGH SALES: How exactly would women's voices be banished?

CRAIG EMERSON: There's two women, for example, in the shadow Cabinet, just two.

LEIGH SALES: Well therefore that's not banished.

CRAIG EMERSON: It's a greatly diminished and this is the point the Prime Minister's making.

LEIGH SALES: I'm asking about the Prime Minister's credibility and her accuracy and why she exaggerated.
This week 7.30 had the good grace to note the paucity of women in the Abbott Cabinet, and to avoid having Sales lead that. She banished the issue to Heather Ewart, who cited only Liberal critics of the Prime Minister; clearly, non-Liberal critics of the Prime Minister are not to be considered on such a matter.

I haven't just picked on some junior journalist making a rookie error for an obscure outlet. Sales and Ewart are among the country's most experienced reporters on politics. Should they be banished when it comes to 'holding the government to account'? They certainly do a crap job of it and are unlikely to get any better.

One who should be banished from slow-media journalism if it is to rebuild any sort of credibility is Mark Baker. If Paddy Manning can be sacked for his measured piece for Crikey then Baker should have been for his silly, swingeing attack:
The Slater & Gordon complaint was vigorously rejected by The Age ...
Well they would, wouldn't they.
... and this finding [the Press Council adjudication] is flawed and illogical - like so much of the work of the Press Council.
Now if a blogger had written that, Baker would be the first to vault onto his high horse and declaim about journalistic standards and unfounded allegations. He has now shown us that he has no standards indistinguishable from the assertion of his ego. He was caught fabricating a story, and now he's blaming the ref for collaring him. Alan Austin has more credibility than Baker, as do we all. The idea that Baker is going to hold anyone to account (or help his subordinates to do so) is absurd, given his diatribe worthy of a drunken derelict arguing with a tree.

Why should I accept that Mark Baker and The Age are laws unto themselves? I don't accept that's the case about the Prime Minister.

Find me a countervailing example of holding the government to account by a slow-media journalist, go on.

The media didn't hold the last government to account and it will do less for this one. Because press gallery journalists' investigative skills have atrophied (or are substituted with fabrications in the case of The Age) the simple act of stopping press conferences will cause the press gallery to create more and more noise about less and less.

Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of my country, and yours if you're an Australian. That means you have to, if you haven't already, get an appreciation of what is and isn't in Australia's best interests; and then judge the policies and decisions of the Abbott government against that. Whether a decision is made on day one, day one hundred or day one thousand of a government's tenure, it is a decision that deserves examination and evaluation. Those who insist that this government must be the first in our history, and unique in the world, to operate without any examination or criticism whatsoever (as happens within the councils of the governing parties) are to be ignored.

You should acknowledge where (if?) the government does a good job, and where it does a bad one consider how it might do better. By doing so, you are helping the incumbents avoid the sort of overreach that saw them bundled out in 2007, and you give an alternative government a clear path forward. My country, and yours, needs this level of scrutiny if it is to live up to its potential. To hell with everyone whose sole contribution to public debate is to call for the deadness of a bit of shoosh.


  1. 'The media didn't hold he last government to account'

    Typo - he = the?

    Always a pleasure to read your pieces.

    -Melena Santorum

  2. One of the rare pollies of whom it could be said, "what you see is what you get", and yet people chose NOT to see that he could be relied on to deliver exactly what what he always promised, if he had the chance.
    So they gave him the chance.
    Pity EVERYONE has to wear it though.

  3. Good article. We musn't stop holding this lot accountable. They pretty much had a free ride in the last three years and we can't let that continue. I'm personally making a list of all the government decisions and changes etc. that come through my twitter feed, radio, and facebook, because there are so many things happening I can't remember them. I feel sure they are relying on others being as forgetful as I normally am.
    It's time the media themselves were held to account for failing in their duty to scrutinise all sides of politics. The ABC used to be something we could rely on to do this for us, but it no longer is. What happened to them? Have they been 'got at'? Or what? The Chaser does a better job than the journos and presenters!

    oh and another typo - avoid instead of 'ovoid' I think? :)

  4. "what is and isn't in Australia's best interest" Murdoch (American citizen).

  5. Well said, Andrew, but how are we to hold this government accountable? The OM are still bashing Labor and nothing will change. We've been over-run and out-played.

    1. Yes they are, and that's why you need to turn away from slow media to find out what's going on

  6. Day four and this type of discussion is taking place.

    Where is the honeymoon. Government already in defence mode.

  7. Thank you Andrew for another excellent article. To read your articles is to be educated not only about politics but your references to other items is enlightening.
    I am afraid we can no longer rely on the ABC to investigate policy or conduct interviews to inform the viewers and listeners I have stopped listening to Jon Faine and viewing Insiders or 7.30 because we learn nothing from them.
    Where have the decent journalists gone from the ABC.
    When we have knowledge of the connections within the journalists employed at the ABC we can see how they spread rumor and innuendo without investigative journalism to support the questions so are unable follow topics through to get answers from politicians.

  8. Hi Andrew. Thank you for this thoughtful response. I seem to have been unclear. I am most definitely not arguing for a bit of shoosh. I didn't mean we should sit back politely and let the next three (or six, or whatever) years wash over us without complaining.

    My contention is that we need to focus on, critique and scrutinise our government's policies for their real, practical impacts on people rather than focusing on our own disappointment. We need to hold the government to account and not just throw tantrums (I accept that relentless negativity and tantrums worked for the Coalition but I genuinely don't think they would work for Labor or the broader left). Rather than just 'I hate Abbott' we need to point out why what he is doing/will do is harmful. (Not sure how you'd fit that on a t-shirt, of course).


    1. VoterBentleigh22/9/13 8:24 am

      When the previous Government used reasoned and unemotional arguments these were treated as deceit and met with vitriolic disdain by not only members of the populace, but the media, while the nasty, vacuous statements of Tony Abbott were treated as intelligent truths. How do you expect people to respond as a result? Why attack the defeated? Vitriol helps no-one, but perhaps expressing anger is not always a bad thing.

    2. Yes Sarah, but assembling that real-world evidence needs some fire in the belly. First, there needs to be a critical mass of people who won't accept PR blandishments from Abbott. Second, how do you maintain momentum against a government that ignores expert advice? Only once you know there is support out there can you go forth and gather information, have it knocked back and gather some more, sharpen your message, etc.

    3. And third, you need an honest media willing to examine issues that may have been raised from a non media source. Fat chance in my book at least.

  9. The Forth Estate journalists in this country are trash..I do not use that word lightly..They are trash because as any skilled craftsman knows, in crafting a "product" you always have to ask yourself ; "what if a part of this product is faulty and fails?" and then you have to double-check your work to make sure it has the quality to measure up to its' expectations..that is a given to any craftsman.
    "Too little time" is no excuse..that is what all the schooling is for..that is what all the access to technology is for. The fact is the Forth Estate has got so indolent and sloppy, to the point of sycophantic, that they can now all be seen to be trash journalists...nothing more, nothing less....trash journalists.

  10. If MSM journalist wrote as eloquently,succinctly& proficiently as this presented piece our collective media would be the far better for it.Indeed once renowned journalists such as Leigh Sales & Barry Cassidy just to name 2 should be embarrassed by their singular contributions.
    Thank you Andrew

  11. Now that God is in his heaven, the Liberals are in power and all is right with the world the Liberals believe that all right minded people should be content.

    They hate criticism because they cannot see that they can be wrong given that they are superior people and the correct people to rule. They are the sensible book balancing people after all. Money is made flat to stack they say.

    We have entered the era of Freedom from Information. The public cannot critique if there is no information.

    1. Absolutism and the coalition go hand in hand...with complete absurdities and hilarity...their arrogance and genetic superiority ...ahem...will always make them say something silly and nonsensical...it's a given!!

      I wish i was a smart comedian as my career would be about to take off!!

      Tim Wilsons ..it's not my fault that women have children...just for starters!!

    2. They are a bunch of weird creeps...

      Many jokes there in the future!!

      Julie Bishop has paid tribute to Ms Gillards status as Australia's first female p.m.

      Lol...there you go..!!

  12. To hell with them indeed Andrew. Fancy Barrie Cassidy saying it was 'good politics' for Abbott to send us all off into a contented sleep. Good politics? My fat aunt as my grandma used to say. Try deceptive politics. Sly politics. Totalitarian politics. Govern-by-stealth politics. I am sick and tired of journalists talking about politics as a tactical sport. It is breathtakingly cynical. You are right Andrew to note that there is the absence of a rosy glow which usually accompanies the election of a new leader. Abbott has been too active scaring and disappointing people like the letter writer Helen Paton. What in heaven's name did people think they were voting for? I have been angered today by confirmation that the government plans to pull down the black out curtains on news of asylum seeker boats. This was foreshadowed by Scott Morrison in the election campaign and duly noted by myself. Others though have expressed surprise and disquiet in my hearing today. How come? Have people been asleep longer than we thought? I have never been more alert? At the very least I will be making regular calls to my Liberal MP. She will be getting an earful on Monday about the embargo on the boats and the absence of women from the cabinet apart from Ms Bishop. I am so cross about that old chestnut of positions being awarded on merit. It is a softer way of saying no woman in that govt was good enough to join Julie Bishop. Absolute lies.

  13. Thank you Andrew. Never miss your columns. How do you deal with ignorance? during the election campaign I heard comments like: Kevin Rudd gave us money at Xmas and Gillard stopped it (my response was - the government gave you a one off amount because it knew you would spend it and thus help stimulate the economy), Julia Gillard made elctricity prices go up (my response- no she didn't, you need to look at what your state government is taking in increased royalties from the power companies), Julia Gillard has made the cost of living go through the roof with that carbon tax (my response - no she didn't and it isn't a tax. You have been overcompensated for whatever increases there have been because of the price on carbon), Julia Gillard won't give us a raise in our pension (my response your age pension is almost double today compared with what it was under John Howard's government. And on it went.

  14. Are Cassidy and Sales doing impersonations of idiots? Is it in their interest to pretend to be so stupid or are they both in love with the sexually conflicted PM?

    1. There is no need for either of them to impersonate idiot.

      Most of our MSM are idiots, perhaps now they might remember they are supposed to be useful idiots and actually work for the public.

    2. Sexually conflicted P.M ?? Spot On!!

      Watching Kitchen Cabinet and his relationship with his daughters, it is very weird or to be polite "quirky" as Ms Vandstone describes Tony Abbott.

  15. VoterBentleigh21/9/13 7:24 pm

    The real surprises are the disbelief of the media at the new Prime Minister's announcements and the statements of not only the media, but ALP figures, Stephen Smith and Simon Crean, that Tony Abbott ran a disciplined campaign. No, he didn't - he didn't even run his campaign; Rupert Murdoch (in co-production with other media outlets) produced and directed most of it. Tony just did the stunts, not even getting his lines right at times and it has required all the skills of the continuity girls, the film editors and script writers, as well as most of the review critics to get him elected. Without all of that, he wouldn't have had a hope of stardom. He's just a ham, backed up by a cast of , well, other hams, and once he is a box-office flop, everyone will be asking for their money back.

    Abbott made it quite clear in “that” interview with Kerry O’Brien that one day he will say X and another day, he will not just say Y or Z, but “not X” and will attempt to wheedle his way out of any attempt to be accountable for the changes in his stance. But as he indicated that he was as two-faced as they come, nobody apparently believed him when he made it clear that he was!

  16. As Barry Jones pointed out last week, rarely if ever has a campaign been so bereft of policy debate, and I think he was exceedingly diplomatic in his language regarding the contributions of the media. His point about the lack of respect for science is well made, and has enormous implications for Australia, because by shrugging our shoulders and turning off politics, we are in danger of accepting the very mistaken impression that it's all a bit of a circus these days. Australia has always suffered when bad policy decisions have been allowed to persist, and by turning away from scientific method, we are in real danger of turning away from the best tools that test and tell us what works and what doesn't. I could almost tolerate Abbott's free flow of bullshit, hypocrisy and lies, except that his exceptional ignorance in areas of real importance risks cocking up so many aspects of our lives here, and clearly risks the actual lives of plenty of others.

    These things are bloody important! If ever the blissful ignorance of Cassidy and his ilk were ever pricked, the fact that there is a huge opportunity out there for the revival of gutsy journalism might prompt some action. Hard to imagine, though, with this bunch of myopic couch-dwelling onanists.

  17. Watching the A.P.A.C channel today and a n interesting lecture on why there is a large disengagement with young people and the major parties...

    Our political system is strong and steady and stable thats why there is a turn away from politics...

    If thats ever taken away we have problems.

    That will NEVER happen in this great country of ours...the polity must respect the office of p.m
    but not the individuals in it per se...

    Thats' my new mantra.

    Anon...A.B.C stars are already having private dinner parties with the next liberals as they are liberals in sheeps clothing..

    Private school fees prevail...they are only middle class wankers themselves to some degree.

    I was impressed with P.V.O on Sky News this week talking about the lack of women in cabinet.

    His panel of political hacks and their undergraduate humour talking over each other is a great example of where it's gone wrong.!!

    The Contrarians gives you a scary insight on how and why advisors have failed with policy outcomes in the A.L.P.

    Ego and shallow driven , self serving agendas.

    Take another bow with this entry sir.


  18. I note the record quick time for "Don't blame me, I didn't vote for Abbott" bumper sticker appearing after an election.

  19. I get the point: we have to be adult about the change of government. However, I am going sailing for three years anyway.

  20. Helen Paton fits into this category...

    The muddled class idiot

    (Mindless middle class)

    That letter is hilarious!!

    Privileged liberal women hear them roar!!