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.


  1. Watching the "doorstop grab" of Textor on the ABC. , one could see by his petulant arrogance that by going "public" he has reached his "Peter Principle" limit.
    Such people work well behind the scenes...and stay successful as long as they stay there...Textor has neither the personality, looks, nor the "think before you act" pause-button in his makeup to be anything but a "back-room boy".
    But then..isn't it always the way such fulsome operators end up, through deluded vanity, becoming such fools themselves ! ?

  2. They develop contempt for those who have to deal with the public and then overestimate their ability to do it themselves.

  3. Bushfire Bill24/11/13 2:04 pm

    The only person who needs to see the interplay between the government and its un-officials, is SBY.

    Apart from Textor and Newman, there are Ray Hadley and his colleagues at 2GB, the Daily Telegraph (oh, let's just say "Murdoch"), Alexander Downer, that creature who's on The Drum all the time (the one with the blonde hair and the unfortunate sneer, an editor of something or other), Akerman, Henderson, Sheehan, Stutchbury (especially after this morning's Insiders effort) and just about anyone from a cowed ABC (when will they learn that nothing can rehabilitate them in the eyes of true Liberals?).

    No matter how much "plausible deniability" there is surrounding them, the only person whose opinion counts is Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and he's clearly made up his mind.

    The more Abbott protests (usually too much) the more SBY will turn the screws.

    When live beef exports stop that MAY wake up a few in the Coalition that taking Indonesia on isn't as easy a gig as was first thought (and megaphoned ad nauseam).

    Abbott made the mistake of thinking Indonesia was a pushover - a few phoney, flattering words, the hairy handshake, some diplo-speak he'd been fed to recite, and rave reviews in the media, were all he thought he needed.

    His second mistake was to brag about how he'd present it all as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

    Bad move, Tony.

    If beef exports aren't enough, when they start executing the Bali 9, get ready for all hell to break loose. The only thing that will save these kids is a personal appeal from Abbott, mano-a-mano, and what chance does anyone contemplate of THAT succeeding?

    1. Latest on beef exports is that Indonesia isn't that important a market anyway - only under the previous govt was it industry-wrecking incompetence.

      I still say that realisation of the degree to which this govt has stuffed Aust-Indo relations will be when a plane full of Ordinary Hard Working Aussies is turned back from Denpasar without compensation. I agreed with this but it's patronising people to assume that the stick-it-up-em mentality will create loyal supporters.

      Then there's the larger existential question: if Jakarta is really at the centre of your foreign policy, what's the rest of it like?

    2. Andrew - I am cattle prod Anon and I have been delighted to read your commentary which is as vital as ever.

      Just a few things.

      Do you really think the Indonesians will send Australian tourists packing?

      Tony Abbott doesn't look particularly troubled by all of this. Could he be milking it as a Tampa moment?

      The ALP look like babes-in-the-wood compared to this lot. I do not feel hopeful that they can take up the fight.

      TA has released another important statement - on overturning the carbon tax - by video. Remember how he hired a former Channel 7 cameraman.

      It certainly cuts out annoying questions from journalists to deliver one's message all topped and tailed and tied up in blue.

      This country is in the grip of some very controlling people.

  4. Maybe Abbott has to keep the GG on side, in case he foes after that DD election.

    Not sure sugaring her up will work,.

    This woman, I believe is too canny for this to work. Suspect bullying will not work either.

    A GG according to the Constitution can say no, tell Abbott to go an cool his heels until July,

  5. The press gallery are uniformly having orgasims under the notion that Indonesia might "'send more boats"".

  6. Dr is a credential that should be respected...the informality that our p.m addresses to the Indonesian Minister is woeful.

    They can see f...wits a mile away and kudos to them.

  7. Josh Frydenbergs response is interesting....

    His Q and A appearance is going to be a great p.r.exercise.


  8. Bolt did bag her on his show today.
    GG has won much respect from the gay community on her statement.

    She has left a great legacy for future women leaders.

    Classy lady.

  9. Laura Tingle is frustrated shall we say people....

    Keep an eye on her columns...

    I would looooove to see some animosity beteeen Putin and our p.m pertaining to his stance on marriage equality.

    His sister would be an ideal target for that...

    # controversial

  10. Control freak eh??

    The yuppie "scum" excuse the derogatory word here dear readers but that's the only word befitting of the type of arrogance people will experience dealing with staffers

    Good luck !!!

    Stories of the self entitled are yet to be told...

  11. This generation remind me of the American middle classes of the late eighties...

    Selfish and Western arrogance mixed with a narcissistic creepiness.


  12. I am not sure that I agree that tourism will be greatly affected. Too many Indonesian livelihoods at stake. Look at Kuta, if the Indonesians can put up with the crowd that goes there, they can put up with anything.

    The real pressure on Abbott will come when the upper echelons of the Australian business community (especially those with ties to the broader Asian region) decide he is a liability. A few words in the right ears then it will be only a matter of time

  13. Yep..the elite business community. ..


    Spot on the puppet masters to control the mindset.

    Oh come on....they know he's a tosser.

    Putin snubbed him as well.

    Apology written by Ms Credlin and Co.


  14. I've been reading youfor ages, and stunned agin to learn yet more. The stuff about 'official' and 'unofficial' speakers for the LNP opened my eyes yet again. Great stuff Andrew. Really.

  15. Andrew - I second above.

    Do you think it was wise of Abbott to have his letter to SBY delivered by a retired general?

    I don't know what is really going on with this one.

  16. Hilarious to see Mark Kenny upset because Pyne has pointed out how gullible the press has been over Lib promises

  17. Peter Wicks does a colourful summary of the mess unfolding for this government

    Worse still, it was written before Pyne delivered his new education polies. This will probably condemn the government more than the litany of stuff-ups to now. After all, Abbott and his allies had made a career over the "she lied" slur against Gillard. And educational opportunity can be understood much more easily than the other things on froeign aid, debt and economics.

    While agreeing with the Wicks assessment, and how astutely it has confirmed your predictions ... The fact remains that the media must accept the major responsibility for foisting this unfit lot on us. The coalition have told their share of lies, but, contrary to what a lot of the media is now complaining about, a lot of their unfitness for office was clearly visible long before the election. Reporters chose to ignore that, and to ignore what reforms and economic strength the Gillard government brought to this country contrasted with the rest of the world.

    They deserve more condemnation than do Rudd and his cardinals. It was only by encouraging Rudd and ignoring the imbecilities of Abbott and his cohorts that a competent minority government became so unpopular.

    1. Yes, they must. They failed at the basic task of telling us about how we were governed by the government of that time, and how me would be governed by the alternative. Because they failed at that basic task it doesn't matter if they have succeeded at any other aspect of their job.