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.