28 November 2013

The teachable moment

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?

- George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four
Events come and go, and all newly-elected governments have teething problems. It's tempting to confuse (or, in wishful terms, conflate) teething problems with crippling deficiencies that will ultimately do for this government. Yet, there are deficiencies among the Coalition that were detectable before they entered government. They are well and truly on display right now. There is no evidence of bureaucratic envelopment or wise counsel or other measures that might help this government grow the brains and capabilities that it so copiously lacks, and has always lacked.

Apart from Abbott himself, nobody in the Cabinet is more media-savvy than Scott Morrison. Morrison underestimated his skill in being all over the media before the election, and then engaging in blocking tactics afterwards (e.g. refusing to confirm his own statements, refusing to confirm that he talks to the PM, using a staff officer to lend him the authority that he lacks). The dissonance in Morrison being present yet absent for the media, and the fact that the Indonesian government (and the Indonesian media) is being as sensitive to Australia's internal politics as Abbott (and the Australian media) was to its, all makes for something of a gap between the responsible adult government we were promised and the shambles we were delivered.

That promise came not only from the Coalition, but from the press gallery. The press gallery cannot credibly maintain its hastily-constructed claim that this government's shortcomings have come about suddenly (and thus unforeseeably).

Soon after he became Treasurer, Peter Costello went to Washington and had a private conversation with then-Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. Costello breached protocol and related Greenspan's words to the waiting media, and US stock markets and exchange rates juddered and lurched as a result. Costello learnt his lesson, but it is unclear what lessons Julie Bishop is learning about statecraft. If she is learning anything, she's doing it the hard way and expensively - but hey, maybe that's just Julie's style.

Having brought on rebukes from both Indonesia and China should be enough to get anyone sacked from the position she occupies, surely; a loyal deputy for six years under three leaders, she is letting the side down. She is certainly no Percy Spender, who put in place the entire architecture of postwar foreign policy in 19 months. She even offers less than the cross-continental dithering we saw in the last government from Smith, Rudd, and Carr. She has no excuse for being so unprepared.

There is no hinterland of considered thought, writing and speaking on which to build a hope for more and better in this vital area of federal government policy: only the partisans, with faces painted and screeching encouragement, can truly believe this pivotal moment in our foreign relations is best handled by someone so out of her depth even with basic political and diplomatic niceties.

It's possible that the last of the foreign policy wonks will take in hand these wayward ministers and lead them through to the fallow but safe-seeming ground of foreign policy conventional wisdom (much of which remains from Spender's time early in the Cold War). Being involved in this country's political class pretty much precludes long periods overseas during adult life, learning languages and other ways of operating; it's the one area of policy that smart-arse politicos seem happy to leave to the professionals, where gimps with focus-groups and standard deviations on internal polling simply have no impact. They airily claim that WesternSydneyTM has no interest in foreign policy, but in an interconnected world (and given the ethnic diversity of that area) how sustainable do you reckon that is?

An adult government need not come to office with a complete manifesto; Menzies didn't in 1949 and neither did Hawke to any real extent in 1983. It needs to hit the ground running though, or at the very least emerge from post-swearing-in hibernation looking co-ordinated. The whole promise of "no surprises", of government run entirely from the PM's office, leaves no excuses for the disjointed effort we've seen from this government in its establishment phase. The sheer absence of a clue means that someone like Mark Textor, wrongly regarded highly for his tactical acumen, screams and postures in the backrooms about Strategy but can only fluff and bumble when the limelight falls on him.

The floundering of Chris Pyne in education, however, shows just how far the rot in this government descends.

Like Morrison, Pyne is one of the government's more savvy operators. He is not some junior woodchuck acting above his pay grade, he has been in parliament for twenty years and was a minister in the last Coalition government. He cannot be said to be good at anything if not at managing the media: for many years he kept up the narrative that Peter Costello was thiiiiis close to knocking off John Howard, the model for Rudd's more successful guerrilla sulk, and has been a "senior Liberal source" ever since. Many members of the press gallery know Pyne more closely than do members of his family. His witterings about media misunderstandings are laughable.

Here is Pyne's political calculus: the largesse given to private schools will reinforce private school communities to strongly support the government, while public school communities are weak and will not rally against the government. That's it, really.

It seemed to be effective under Howard, although he had the advantage of Labor leaders who were ineffectual (Beazley, Crean) or unbalanced (Latham). Shorten appears to be neither of those things, but like Bill Hayden be could end up as nothing else either. Coalition state governments have not trashed the public school system to the extent necessary for Pyne's calculus to take hold.

With the fading of the resources boom, and the passing of the idea of almost effortless upward mobility that Howard sought to cultivate, people came to realise that education was all we could count on as a reasonable prospect for the future. That's why Gillard pinned everything on education. That's also why Pyne and Abbott pledged a "unity ticket", which they've since torn up; it was the difference between what they have now and much, much less, if not oblivion.

When Pyne mouthed off against Gonski earlier this year, Barry O'Farrell hauled him up to Sydney to show him what actual government and its needs are really like. The fact that neither man spoke about their encounter after the fact indicates that O'Farrell tried to knock some sense into Pyne, which he has clearly since lost. Nobody in NSW would choose Abbott over O'Farrell. Nobody in the Liberal Party wants the two to come to blows, but if they have to sacrifice the twerp from Adelaide to make peace do not doubt that he shall be sacrificed. Abbott is in the stronger position constitutionally but O'Farrell is the superior politician; if he has to run against Canberra then that's what he'll do, he will play grassroots populism better than Abbott will or can.

Education has retained both a depth of community feeling and of community organisation that the political parties have lost (they even used to be the same people in a more community-minded, less busy-busy age). Your average Parents and Citizens/Friends will have far greater tactical nous and organisational ability than your local branch of any political party. Any backroom operator, any Cabinet minister or inner circle denizen, who thinks the Abbott government is going to embrace that third rail and survive is kidding him/her/itself. Nobody who remembers the popular revolts in NSW against the Greiner government's education policy in the late 1980s/early '90s will ever forget it. O'Farrell doesn't. The sheer force of it propels Greiner's wife Kathryn onto the Gonski committee more than two decades later. Those who forget the lessons of history, at the very least, have no business mucking about with the curriculum.

If not Gonski, what? Under an adult government there should be an orderly transition to another funding model, not some dusted-off effort that led to longterm decline in school performance, and which was wrongly romanticised by Liberals (if Textor's advice was worth anything, he should have advised the Coalition to cut the nostalgia act as it impressed nobody who wasn't rusted on). Under an adult government the Education Minister would not be flinching and mincing at his own discomfort, but instead offering clear guidelines within which professionals can conduct careful planning. Bronwyn Hinz and I were completely wrong in April to assume that Pyne was doing any education policy work worth the name. At least he's had the good sense not to wheel out culture warrior Kevin Donnelly, when no other Coalition government is having anything to do with him.

There are a number of newly-elected Coalition MPs who won't make it past the next election because Pyne blundered into a political minefield. Pyne himself, having taken a safe seat to a margin under 5%, might well join them. He's sticking to his guns, but they're badly calibrated and pointing the wrong bloody way, and guess which fool placed them there? When constituents come to them and say that Marginal Vale Primary is losing this, or St Preference's is losing that, how will Pyne help them? He'll brush it off, and in doing that a lot of the respect that he earned by decades of hard slog that seemed to have paid off (for him at least) will be brushed off too.

Joe Hockey cut his political teeth under Greiner too, and has no excuse for gibbering about infrastructure in the hope that it will lift this government above the fray (let me guess: another second Sydney airport study), with all that crap about taking "tough decisions" instead of smart ones.

Much of the big important stuff that defines any government happens early in its term. Well, here we are early in the Abbott government's term. What's to show for it? No going to war as part of the new United Nations, no floating of the dollar, no gun buyback - no responding to Events in an adult-government way at all.

There is a school of thought that says a government should get its bad news out early. The trouble with this government is that it can't be sure its run of bad news is over, or that they have the power to decide when it is. Pyne's troubles over education do not detract from Morrison's problems with Indonesia, they compound the sense that this government is a bunch of stumblebums. This failure should be sheeted home to Abbott, and to strategists like Credlin and Textor. There is no suite of well-thought-out policies ready to go to stabilise early jitters, and thus nothing to bear fruit into 2014-15 to be harvested at the next election. Their only options are knee-jerk stuff, and that's when you get dopey policy outcomes like the ones that the Coalition try to hang on the previous government.

The idea that the press gallery is surprised at this government performing under expectations shows only that they haven't been paying attention, and have therefore rendered themselves redundant well ahead of the inevitable decisions of their current employers.

A government that wastes time eradicating any trace of the previous government incurs two big opportunity costs. First, you can't blame a government for all your woes and constraints if nobody remembers them. Second, and more tellingly, a lot of the big scope for action gets frittered away as momentum and goodwill dissipate - as they do, and nobody in the backroom or at the top table knows how to stop it. Labor, the Greens and other parties aren't exactly cringing before the threat of a double dissolution election. Looks like blocking the carbon tax is all this lot really have; anything else they do will be an accident, for good or ill.

24 November 2013

Played off a break

Having played the press gallery when in opposition, the Abbott Government stopped talking to the press gallery while they adjusted to office. The press gallery acted all surprised and muttered darkly about accountability, as though they couldn't have seen that coming - but I dealt with that in two previous posts. The government has not made its members any more available than they have, retreating to a model of government not seen since the 1960s - with the addition of a stable of pseudo-spokespeople whom nobody elected (and who can't be gotten rid of), while affording easy deniability.

The opposition haven't filled the media vacuum for two reasons: as with the last Labor opposition, their frontbench is full of recent ministers who have followed Kim Beazley's lead in being too respectful of the demands of government to add to them with populist tubthumping. They also remember how the press gallery only wanted to talk about leadership and polls, and have been disinclined to cut the press gallery any favours in its hour of need. How long they can keep this up isn't clear - Shorten, like Abbott, is quietly going around his party shoring up his position and working out which aspects of the former government should be kept, and which should be ditched. Nobody wants to hear from the former government right now - especially as they are not providing the public spectacle of either melting down even further, or arrogantly asserting that they were robbed - but sooner or later Shorten is going to have to gainsay Abbott from a consistent position.

The government has filled the vacuum with a stable of Spokespeople You Have When Your Decision-Makers Go To Ground. People like Maurice Newman, Peter Reith, Amanda Vanstone, Alexander Downer, and even David Murray aren't just old hands with relevance-deprivation syndrome. They speak for the government when the government can't be bothered speaking for itself. When the government wants to create one impression for the public and another for its base, it does so with a mealy-mouthed official statement combined with a red-meat announcement from one of its retainers. This means the government has its cake and eats it, while the press gallery haven't worked this out or bothered to press for who really speaks for this government.

Maurice Newman is often billed as "the chairman of the Prime Minister's business advisory council". In 2007 Labor set up such a council, chaired by Sir Rod Eddington: Lindsay Tanner said later that he dreaded being asked who else was on that council, because it consisted only of Eddington. The correlation between what Eddington said and what the Rudd government did was not strong, but journalists duly reported Eddington's words as though they had weight with the then government. Abbott is playing the same trick with Newman and nobody of the press gallery, for all their experience and savvy, have woken up to this.

The people who advise the Prime Minister on business are those who run business. The idea that some retired stockbroker is across the scope of Australian business today is laughable. There is no evidence of an instance where Abbott and the government was of one opinion on business matters while Newman was of another, and Newman's opinion prevailed. There is no evidence of business calling for an outcome which the Coalition resisted, and Newman stepping in to smooth things over. Newman's talents might be usefully applied in persuading, say, Max Moore-Wilton to drop his opposition to a second Sydney airport, or some other process where Chap Shall Speak Unto Chap and Sort Things Out Quietly.

Sadly, Newman's recent speech to CEDA is, to be charitable, a mixed bag. It includes matters that are absolutely congruent with official statements of the government, such as infrastructure. It includes matters that are absolutely congruent with the general direction of the government and the wishes of its supporters, but at odds with official statements, such as his rubbishing of climate change or calls for workplace relations reform. Newman fills up media space vacated by actual decision-makers in government.

There have been lots of earnest discussions that take Newman on face value and link it to the government, such as this, but to link Newman or the other spokespeople named above to the government is to wrestle with smoke. Any press sec can kill a story by simply stating that Newman (or Reith, etc.) do not speak for the government and have no official capacity, and that's that. There is no link between what these people say and what comes out of the government.

So too, there have been a lot of earnest disquisitions about what exactly is the problem that the Indonesian government has with the Abbott government, and how the latter might resolve it (including just sitting tight and waiting). Regular readers of this blog were across this issue in July, but again the press gallery acted all surprised (not least to those who insisted his jaunt through Asia according bestie status to all he met was a 'triumph'). The intervention by a Filipino porn aficionado was considered to be proof of his great savvy, as though he were spokesperson for bogans. Even experienced observers so lack confidence in their own judgment and the audience to whom they report that they have to agree with him.

There are two problems with Textor's position. First, loudmouths calling for the government to stick it to foreign powers rarely stick by that government when times get tough. Those for whom Textor spoke are the very first to kick out a clumsy, beleaguered-looking government, without working through the complexities. Defence Force recruiters at youth festivals target yobs decked in the flag and/or with Southern Cross tatts: when offered the chance of a secure and venerable but dangerous career, said patriots tend to pike it. So it is with Mark Textor, king of pikers: when Malcolm Fraser called on the Liberals to sack Textor, he too is wrestling with smoke. Textor holds no office, his status as an 'advisor' is as nebulous as Newman's; he is not accountable, and both he and the government like it that way.

Second, Textor and a small number of others had the seemingly impossible task, similar to the Hollywood movie Wag the Dog, of presenting Tony Abbott as a statesman. Rather than polish that turd, Textor dipped him in lacquer and asked the press gallery to back off lest Labor be re-elected, which they did. While Abbott mouthed the phrases fed to him by experienced Jakarta hands, Textor offered a counterpoint designed to rally Liberal loyalists against namby-pamby subtleties (the idea that the Liberal Party is the party of business dies in instances like this: whatever the Coalition's motives for antagonising the Indonesians, good business practice has nothing to do with it). Are the ethics of a porn star of whatever nationality significantly different to that of what Textor does - doing the sort of things that people do every day in private, but getting paid for it and having the results recorded and broadcast?

Again, Textor can be easily distanced from the government ("the bubble" of which he complains is the very membrane and substance of his business model), and exactly what this government is about becomes hard to assess - particularly if you're just reporting one thing, then reporting another, and not really making the connection or helping your audience do so. The government thinks it's being clever in playing a double game like this, except the Indonesian government is awake up to it to a far greater extent than the Australian media.

In her recent Boyer Lecture, the Governor-General made comments about same-sex marriage and an Australian republic that are at odds with positions taken by the Abbott government. Opposition Leader Abbott would have bagged her for such comments and implied that this accomplished and tough-minded woman was somehow under the sway of her son-in-law. Prime Minister Abbott, who has to work with the Governor-General, said some mealy-mouthed stuff about how she's entitled to her opinion, gracious etc. It's down to a Liberal State MP and former monarchist media strategist who doesn't have to work with her to voice the government's true position on this matter.

The Liberal Party in NSW has set up a committee to investigate preselections and other internal matters. Judging by its personnel the purpose of this committee is to quash any reform proposals and to assert that the way things are is the way things are meant to be. Conservatives calling for reform are wasting their time and have no way of taking on this committee without looking desperately self-defeating. Nobody else with ideas for the Liberals to change their ways should be under any illusions. Again, plenty of political journalists will 'cover' this but I doubt many will do so with much understanding.

When political journalists are confronted with political issues, they tend to be concerned with how an issue plays rather than how it works. The contrast between the official statements and those of unofficial bobbleheads like those indicated above is part of the play of how this government works. Press gallery journalists are having their schedules stuffed with pabulum from quasi-official camp-followers rather than accountability from actual decision-makers. This is the point where political savvy departs from fourth-estate accountability; this is where the press gallery lose the plot and the justification for their assistance. In that gap a lot of dumb, if not bad, government is taking place.

Who are they who govern us? What are they about? The press gallery can't and won't see it, let alone explain it to us.

06 November 2013

Swine without pearls

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

- Matthew 7:6 (KJV)

It seems another age if not another country now, but we had a government that held together a seemingly fragile majority and had to argue every point it made, all the time. It released mountains of information under the assumption that everybody was as policy-wonky as they were, or if not that they would be impressed with all that forethought and detail and careful planning. In every policy there was something you could hate, something to love or at least grudgingly appreciate; something to talk about anyway.

The bloke who'd gone before (and who came again after) demanded heaps of information and turned them into press releases - and often less than that.

The bloke who'd come after him sneered at all that hard work and promised to sack thousands of public servants who had made that possible. The press gallery joined with that bloke and ignored all the detail, asking about polls or clothing or sex or anything, really, other than the policy at hand. If journalists were forced to address policy at all, in the short interludes between polls, all they'd ask is how it would play rather than how it might work.

On 30 January this year - this year - then-PM Julia Gillard gave a speech at the National Press Club. True, it won't ring down the ages but it was chock-full of policy and political goodness. At the time, Laurie Oakes and his pals at the SMH reported on only two aspects of it: the fact that Gillard announced an election date, and that she wore glasses. Later that, year, at the Sydney Writers' Festival, Annabel Crabb called this process "bringing the intelligence" (i.e. there is no intelligence in a laboriously crafted speech across the gamut of government policy, but top-of-the-head blather about polls is apparently where the intelligence is).

The press gallery now have the gall to complain that the government isn't what they hoped. Far from providing the infinite jest of pie-eating and bicycle-riding, this government has cut off the supply of information. For weeks they told us how shrewd this was, revelling in being treated like absolute mugs and patsies; now they're getting bored.

Why is The Sydney Morning Herald quoting Laurie Oakes? It has a Political and International Editor and a Chief Political Correspondent, both of whom are hopelessly compromised by years of inability to report on how we are governed. Both advocated for a lightweight opposition to relieve them of an imperfect government that dealt with them in a cursory manner. Both talked up Tony Abbott's humiliating traipse around our neighbourhood as though it were a triumph, on the assumption that their feeble opinions counted for anything. Oakes is as guilty as they are of letting scrutiny of the Coalition slip by, and now that they have nothing to do but scrutinise them they have nothing to go on.

They can't compare the brochure-ware of the Coalition's "plan" to actual outcomes, because there are no outcomes - and if they were, neither Oakes nor Hartcher nor Kenny would be able to tell in the absence of a press release. Their investigative journalism skills have withered to the point where no information on this government is available unless it comes from a minister's mouth, and even then ...

The Oakes comments was meant to be a shot across the bows, but the man once dubbed The Sphere of Influence has no firepower behind him at all. His main employer is broke and relies utterly on this government's good favour to save being wound up by the creditors who own it.
"You can’t thumb your nose at the voters’ right to know and you can’t arrogantly say ‘we’ll let the voters be misinformed and we won’t help journalists get it right'. That’s just a disgusting attitude."
You'd have to be a mug not to see it coming, whether you've been in Canberra 50 years or 50 minutes. They faked it to the media until they made it.
He highlighted Assistant Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs and NSW Labor MP Ed Husic as potential leaders of their respective parties.
Husic spent three years lying to journalists about Kevin Rudd's strength of support, who in turn spent three years lying about his effectiveness at leading a government. Little Jimmy Briggs lies to journalists about social cohesion in Inverbrackie and university research; and given he is up against Max Moore-Wilton he is either lying about this, or he is writing cheques that his political clout can't cash. Both men are watching Abbott stonewalling the media and learning this lesson: they actually think it's clever when you start blocking information flow. After a while they start to wake up but there's nothing they can or will do about it.

The Coalition went through two years of distress and disorientation at the prospect of charting a post-Howard course through the uncertainties of the twenty-first century. For the past four years they decided to have a Howard Restoration anyway, and have not been seriously challenged on the inadequacy of their policy offerings since Abbott became leader. This is why Bianca Hall is wrong to state this:
But two months since the election, it's increasingly becoming apparent that a "no-surprises" government is coming at the cost of open government.
Two months be damned. This was obvious for four years at least. Abbott lulled gullible journalists into thinking that "no surprises" meant "plenty of warts-and-all information", and that a government led by a former press secretary was all about open government. When he needed journos to be on-side he gave them little information, and now that he doesn't what do they expect? Hall and Oakes have nothing to declare but their own gullibility. Why are we listening to these people? What fools are employing them?
Since winning office, Abbott has fronted the nation's media just eight times. Calls to his office, and to his ministers, frequently go unanswered or unreturned.
Given the inane questions that come from "the nation's media", Abbott could have fronted them eighty-eight times and we'd scarcely be better informed. Hall's assumption that scrutiny can only come from journalists asking questions is not just naive, it is nowhere supported by actual behaviour and practice.
... Morrison has also moved the weekly asylum seeker briefings to Sydney, his home city, making it harder for the Canberra press gallery, which is responsible for covering federal politics, to attend. As a consequence, the number of journalists attending has dwindled - as has the information provided.
There are plenty of people in Sydney who understand asylum-seeker issues very well, and who would go to these sessions if only the media organisations were smart enough to engage them. Truculent press gallery journalists who insist that they dare not leave Canberra incase some politics breaks out clearly do not know what their jobs are. Those who manage them lack the wit and force to make them go where the political news actually is. If you can send journalists all over the country to do picfacs a school here or a building site there, all to be brushed off with answers more inane than their questions, then it beggars belief that a trip to Sydney to watch a media poppet come over all stern is beyond their job description.

Reading Hall is like listening to someone insisting that babies are brought by storks long after the facts of human reproduction have been patiently explained to them, and becoming increasingly hysterical that only the storks can relieve our fertility crisis. It's stupid and pathetic, but it's a systemic problem that Hall is too well trained to see or get past: the entire credibility of those media organisations represented in the press gallery depends upon the Abbott government being nothing less than a shining exemplar of good and wise and fair government, not just slightly better than Gillard-Rudd but one for the ages. Anything less - petty rorts, banal scandals and simple fuck-ups will mean the end of the press gallery as a credible source of information on how this country is governed.

If Laurie Oakes' only story is how he can't get a story, and to complain about his own ineptitude to his employer's rival, then where does that leave any member of the press gallery, or any journalist for that matter?

This was a particularly good article from an uneven writer enjoying a recent purple patch. Ignore her attempt to seek support in Hall's article when the reverse is more the case, and pretend that silly third-last paragraph isn't there - the wider point that "we" need political news more than ever is dead right.

People who are employed to do a job can't claim that it's clever that they can't do their jobs. Everyone enjoys a bit of a respite from work now and then, but if you spend too long with too little to do you can start to get antsy - particularly if your employer is not faring well financially. There's a word for people who can't seem to be able to do their jobs: redundant.

The other thing about the control over information is that you never know what people will like. John Howard's supreme achievement as Prime Minister was being able to mobilise the population toward a gun control more strict than the US, but which didn't strangle sporting shooters or farmers - a policy that was never part of pre-election policy, one that had no business plan, but which showed infinitely more political leadership than the bombast of "we will decide who comes to this country" and all that expensive Textor claptrap. Rudd, like all Canberra smarties (including Abbott) thought he could dump climate change without realising that reversing lukewarm support doesn't mean lukewarm opposition, but oblivion. Gillard's payrise for aged care workers was negated by withdrawing welfare from single parents. Hundreds of Coalition politicians, and thousands of staffers, lobbyists and party members, are placing their hopes and futures in the hands of a small number of people focused on matters other than their own best interests: any gloating from such people belies their sheer terror at their vulnerability.

The flipside of absolute power is that you have to be absolutely right about everything all the time. If you're the "Queen of No" you might be farting through silk these days, but when it turns nobody will cut you any slack or forgive you your trespasses. If you accept that there are things you can't control then you start to realise how silly the insistence on absolute control is - but then if you're in this PM's office you don't realise that at all, and that's where the fun begins. That's where you stop the sad-sack act of Oakes and the reverse-Credlin of Bianca Hall, railing at those who don't return your calls for showing you up.

There are those who realise there are ways and means around this government; there's no sign of it now but it is technically possible such people might have stumbled into the press gallery by mistake. And once you realise that, the presence or absence of pearls in your press gallery sty won't be an issue - and the bacon that you save may well be your own.

04 November 2013

No time

This is no time to ignore warnings
This is no time to clear the plate
Let’s not be sorry after the fact
And let the past become out fate

- Lou Reed There is no time

The press gallery's insistence that the Abbott government is being smart by denying information to it is dumb. The government is being dumb by denying itself a base of early engagement that will enable it to withstand the inevitable - yes, inevitable - downturns. The opposition is being dumb in not making full use of all this dumbness, suggesting that it is adding to the dumbness rather than offering an alternative to it.

Barrie Cassidy showed what a hard-bitten old journo he is by sucking up to the new boys:
The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, demonstrated twice this week that the new Coalition Government has it all over the previous mob when it comes to strategy.

First, he insisted that the debt ceiling be raised way beyond expectations to $500 billion. That should take the politics out of the debt issue. What government wouldn't want that?

Hockey merely wants to ensure that Labor in opposition can't do to him what he did routinely to them when they were in government.
Bugger the politics: there's a fiscal issue here about how much debt we are in and why. We are being excluded from that conversation because Hockey and the media want to pretend this is just another political football. And when you see everything as a political football you can't get away with statements like this:
For now, the tactic probably has public support. The sound of silence is just what they need after the ceaseless crescendo of what has passed for debate for years now.

The electorate was surely sick to death of the daily churn.
Churn was all we got from the media under Rudd and Gillard. We kept bagging them online and off, and still they wouldn't stop. We* even voted out that government, and voted in the party they seemed to like, because they made them out to be adults. They're not adults, they were never adults, but the media got the government it wanted. Now, with its waning power having suddenly been arrested overnight, the media find themselves powerless - powerless to call on the government that it made, powerless to develop any investigative skills to make up for the shutting-off of the drip.

As with Mark Kenny, the more this government spits in Barrie Cassidy's face, the more he'd love it. Journalists who think this government is being clever are exhibiting, for all their pomposity and swagger, that they have no real confidence in their job and their capacity to do it. And if there's anything more ridiculous than defending the indefensible by supposedly iconoclastic, seen-it-all journos, it's feeble whimpering like this:
SOMETIMES when he fronts the fourth estate, Scott Morrison's arrogance ­can be little short of ­breathtaking.
All the time over the past five years, Morrison's arrogance was on display. He never missed a media opportunity and happily fielded inane and fanciful questions. He made no sense in policy terms, but no journalist called him on it because they couldn't believe that those who'll engage in scurrilous behaviour for you will also do it to you.

Nobody in the media has any excuse for failing to expect Scott Morrison to turn like a snake and invoke "national security" to shut down information and debate. The more experience you can call upon, the less excuse you have. Laurie Oakes has been in the press gallery since 1966. He's seen the Prime Ministership of this country change 13 times. At the next election he'll have been there fifty years. It's pathetic that such a man has no investigative journalism skills to call upon to replace a lean spell of press conferences.
Implementation of Abbott's "stop the boats" policy is being run as a military operation, with the grand title Operation ­Sovereign Borders ...
Oh gosh, who could have foreseen that - anyone in the press gallery, I suppose, who thought about opposition policy and what it might mean for the country. Anyone who'd been around long enough to remember official press briefings from the Vietnam War, and how this supposedly gave rise to a generation of hard-grilling, crap-cutting, iconoclastic journos.
Agencies that used to be part of the information flow - the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, for example, when asylum seeker boats got into trouble - have been ordered to put up the shutters.
And how do you expect a journalist to come up with a story without an official press release and a picfac, hmm?
When he marches out with the general to deal with the media, Morrison barely bothers to be polite.
Pass the tissues. The journalist once dubbed The Sphere of Influence is just another mug punter who's been had.

Speaking of iconoclasm, here's where I disagree with m'learned friend Greg Jericho about letting the government jack up its debt ceiling. The parties that are not members of this government should make the government wear its "debt crisis" crap like a crown of thorns. Labor should claim that it has "learned its lesson" about debt, and refused to add another cent until the government makes the case for increasing it. Shorten could beat this government by appearing so gosh-darned humble without in reality giving this government any more than it gave his party from opposition.

The government should level with people about why the debt is as it is, and why it is necessary to increase debt in the short term in order to lower it over the long. It hasn't done that because it can't. You have to learn to take people with you, a central lesson of representative government and democratic legitimacy that this government cannot and will never learn. The fact that it won't is the key to its own lack of depth, and its mirror-image in terms of the lack of deep support which this government is able to call upon.

That's the problem this government has, for all its supposed media-savviness: it is crap at making a positive case. It's great at making mountains out of molehills and even asserting that things are true when they're not. Yes, so the government will hit its current debt ceiling in December: have a double dissolution over that, go on. The government would cut and cut and blame it all on debt: let them try it. They can't explain themselves because - deep down, and vindicated by September 7 - they don't think they have to. They have no strong social base to work from, no real plan on which to follow through, no grounds for confidence in their own abilities. You also see this in the fill-yer-boots approach to parliamentary lurks.

They depend on the media to give them a good run, as punishment to non-compliant Labor. The fate of this government is outsourced to two factors beyond its control: the will and strength of the press gallery, and the feebleness of Labor.

They have disconcerted the media with their sudden reversal from being freely available to being unavailable (including many, many people who should know better - many of them unaccountably spared the axe while sacking better journalists than they). They have decided not to take the media with them from day one; that's fine so long as you have the ability to turn on the Churchillian/Obama-style rhetoric when it suits you, and then retreat into official secrecy. This government doesn't have that luxury. It has no political capital, no deep wells of affection and support in reserve, only the thin and fickle backing of the media. When things turn bad for this government, as they do for all governments, it will have no principle to stand on, only obduracy; no grounds for optimism, only shrieks to toe the line.

Whenever a government campaigns on 'trust', it does not mean transparency and testability but rather the opposite. Howard did that in 2004 and brought in a whole lot of under-the-radar stuff that eventually hastened his demise. This is what Amy Mullins has missed here in an otherwise perceptive, hopeful, and well-written piece. Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd got where they are today through a series of backroom deals - not by being candid and sharing information. Only when you get a Prime Minister who has gotten where they are by being open and transparent, and who can wrong-foot his/her opponents in doing so, will Mullins' desired state come about.

The legitimacy of the Australian media organisations that are represented in the press gallery (that will have to do to replace feared/derided shorthand terms like 'MSM' or 'legacy media') depends entirely upon the wise and steady leadership of the Abbott government. Should that government prove unwise and unsteady, the reporting and indeed the experience of Cassidy or Oakes or other old lags becomes utterly discredited. The government is indeed proving unwise and unsteady, and the only alternative is another bunch who also rely utterly on the media while also being disdainful of it. They don't have the language, the contacts, the investigative skill to describe the functions of government in the absence of a press release.

If politics isn't about preening, blathering politicians, what is it about? Laurie Oakes can't tell you. Barrie Cassidy and Mark Kenny can't tell you either. Amy Mullins is on the right track but she, like the others, needn't be so reliant on politicians and their media wranglers. Once you slip the surly bonds of the media wranglers and the notions behind set-piece appearances, things could become interesting in Canberra - and journalistic experience be damned, genuine information on how we are governed is more likely to come from someone who insists on openness than someone who whimpers about (or even exults in) government secrecy.

Lou Reed could've told you, but all there is to say about him is goodbye and thanks. Not all questions are equal; inane questions should be treated like this.

* Well, not me specifically, but you know what I mean.