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.


  1. VoterBentleigh5/11/13 10:36 am

    Since the Coalition stood on a promise of bringing the budget back into the black, they should explain why it is necessary to raise borrowings. They cannot claim that it is the fault of ALP policies, since the Coalition is abolishing, or bringing in cheaper versions of, ALP policies. They are also planning to remove policies when they spend 2 sitting days repealing existing ALP legislation. While the Coalition may need to pay for programmes which are already operating until they begin legislation changes, they cannot justify raising the ceiling so high and cannot blame others for Coalition election policies. The debt ceiling is being raised to pay for the Coalition's agenda, so the Coalition should explain why they lied about being more frugal than the ALP.

    It sounds ridiculous for Laurie Oakes to call on Abbott to encourage Morrison to be more open when closing down interviews was the hallmark of Abbott as Opposition Leader.

    What is this nonsense from Amy Mullins about “ a hyper-critical 24/7 media cycle”? Most of the mainstream media did not the pass level 1 exam paper on critical analysis of the Abbott Opposition and many times the critical examination of the Government was reduced to discussing Opposition propaganda.

    Mullins also claims: “Transparency builds trust between a government and the public it serves and Australia has made great steps towards the principle of open government.” By denigrating those, like Gillard, who were accountable, and by failing to bring to book politicians like Abbott, who were not open, it is the mainstream media who have been complicit in shutting down transparency in government.

    There is a marked similarity between how Lou Reed treated reporters and how Scott Morrison treats them.

    1. Lou Reed is no more disdainful of the press than Abbott is. Mullins means well but basically she is asking the impossible of Abbott, and also Shorten as his alternative.

  2. It concerns me that Abbott has the media where he wants it: totally reliant.
    Supporters in the Murdoch press will continue to write approving commentary and interpret mishaps favourably. In return they will be fed exclusives. The Murdoch press is crammed with 'exclusives'. Those on the outer, the ABC and Fairfax will be largely ignored. Some will dig up genuine stories like the expenses scandal and others will try and ingratiate themselves by writing approving of the general information blackout as being a clever tactic.i cannot understand why Bill Shorten is not filling the vacuum. His voice is rarely heard. Is he a faceless man after all. What a disgrace those journalists are. They are extolling the fact that they are being kept in the dark. They should be ashamed. How I long for one of those reporters to tackle that pompous Morrison with follow up questions and demand that he answer. It would only take one person to do his or her job and the others may be shamed into action.

  3. Elizabeth Knight writes in Fairfax that Murdoch is having discussions in Canberra about buying Channel 10. Pay-back time. Fox TV anyone? The Govt will receive excellent coverage.

  4. I can see some of our media being used as a bad footnote in a prestigious journalism course around the world for horrible journalism

  5. I had a talk with Margo Kingston back in 2002 at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, I noted that most of our political news was coming from press releases without the PG or most other media asking questions that meant anything.

    Not one thing has changed except the PG and other media now want more pressers so they don't have to do any frigging work.

  6. I must add to the above that I have been delighted to read, this very day, that Laurie Oakes has spoken out about Tony Abbott's information clampdown. Finally a journalist has spoken out. Good on you Laurie. I hope your colleagues take note.

    1. The gall of that bloody man. The sheer hide.

    2. My immediate response as well Andrew, where the hell has he[Oakes] been for the last three years? Does he think we are stupid? Hmm, just answered my own question....

  7. Bless his cotton socks!! Pure class Laurie..the trolling comments are hideous to read on the website
    Nasty stuff

  8. Both leaders abuse their positions and have all these vendettas agsinst the public service...

    It's immature to watch and pathetic

    Look at Bolt's vendetta with his court case in Brandis overturning the legislation in the racial discrimination

    The old far right ugly Anglo crowd can't move on from White Australia Policy mode

    Asylum Seekers , case in point sadly

    Xenophobia rules amongst this group

    It's pathetic and sad really

    Cheers and thanks Andrew