17 December 2013

On a journey

I can't disguise the pounding of my heart
It beats so strong
It's in your eyes, what can I say
They turn me on

I don't care where we go
I don't care what we do
I don't care pretty baby
Just take me with U

- Prince Take me with U
At today's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, there was the usual smoke-and-light-show with figures based on changed frames and assumptions, about which you can read on other blogs. It was no different to any other economic statement really: the Need For Fiscal Prudence, Taxed Enough Already, etc. The bit about taking the entire country along was jarring. Joe Hockey said in passing that he wanted the Australian people to come with him and the government on a "journey" toward a weakening economy, less government expenditure, and possibly even a budget surplus. That's the moment when I knew this government has no hope whatsoever.

Hockey started off with a short personal anecdote. Liberal preselection speeches in the 1990s used to all start with this device, to invite you into the candidate's world, which was then followed by a tenuous attempt to link that to a wider theme. There you'd be, smiling away at some innocuous image from a 1950s/60s Aussie childhood, only for it segue into a diatribe on tax reform or crime/immigration like some jerry-built freeway on-ramp. So Joe Hockey went up Mount Kilimanjaro - without assistance or acknowledgment, it would seem - but why he did so was not clear. What would have been the consequences had Hockey not climbed Kilimanjaro? What stopped him ending up like Hemingway's dead leopard? This lack of clarity and urgency swept through his speech like one of his clunky and obviously scripted arm movements.

For years now, Tony Abbott has been trying to do two different but complementary things: rally people to popular causes, and to create an air of seriousness around those that are Unpopular But Necessary In The Long Term. He has failed at both. People voted against the particular model for a republic in 1999, not because the nation loves the Queen and unelected authority as much as Tony Abbott does. In 2007 people voted against a government that had been very popular, and a Prime Minister whom Tony Abbott quite admired; an election that actually resulted in that government, that Prime Minister, and his own good self, being flung into the political loserdom of opposition. He thought he could pick off The Nerd and That Woman, but could only do so once both had weakened one another.

His stunts, the personality patch-ups with Margie-and-the-girls and other props, have all failed to rally people behind anything positive. It's all stop this, and cut that - and even if it does all come off, what? It has no ability to rally the wider public, no ability apart from polling to sniff the political wind - governments that lose touch get marooned long before they are defeated. This government faces the real prospect of being marooned before it delivers its first budget.

No government ever gets to set the lights by which it is judged. Every one of the 26 Prime Ministers before Abbott had issues with the Senate, and as for an opposition voting against what they supported in government - nobody is listening because all governments have to cop that, and insert temperature-related vacation of the kitchen here. For once the press gallery was impatient with Hockey, and his complaining about situation normal in Canberra; Hockey had the discipline not to blurt out "but I thought we were buddies!", but only just.

Hockey spent three years claiming debt was a huge problem for Australia. Then in office he hosed this down, and political and economic commentators united in praising Hockey for ditching his central message. Today, he tried to hose debt back up (a clumsy image I know, but the politics is clumsier). That ploy cannot succeed, and I don't care if Peta says it will.

The idea that people will go along with cuts to areas they consider important in the name of the abstract and easily fudged budget surplus is sheer bullshit. Any old pol who's won and lost a few elections in the community where they live knows this.

Two years ago in London, Hockey made a speech in which he declared an end to the idea that government could buy people's loyalty through welfare transfers. That was a bigger call than Hockey realised, not least because nobody really called him on it. Even those who could see Hockey would be Treasurer after this year's election didn't seize on it for hints and signals as to what an Abbott government economic policy might look like. There are a number of reasons for this. First, political journalists are stupid and flock-oriented, and economic journalists are better at predicting what has happened rather than the less certain future. Second, if you did a serious critique of Hockey's economic policy then you'd have to evaluate it against that of the Labor government's policy; see the first point, but also if you compared the Coalition to Labor you run the risk of a 2004 repeat, where a flawed government found itself returned against an inferior opponent.

None of the commentators have referred to Hockey's End of Entitlements speech as the prequel for today's effort. This is because press gallery experience means diddly-squat. Can you imagine how insufferable Rudd would have been had he won the election in September? Nah, give Tony the green light.

If the MYEFO with all its bluster and hype is to mean anything, Parliament will be recalled next week and will bloody well sit until the cuts are made, or until the government has a quiver of double-dissolution triggers. That won't happen, so the bluster and hype emanating from MYEFO means nothing.

If Hockey's throwaway comment about the nation coming with the government on the journey through The Valley Of The Shadow meant anything, there would be six months of painstaking explanations between now and the budget. There would have to be a lot of preparation with key stakeholders. Do you reckon that preparation has taken place? Do you reckon they even know who their stakeholders are? Is there going to be a lot of knee-jerk bullshit and self-defeating statements from The Situation?

Paul Keating would never have ceded the limelight to Peter Walsh. Peter Costello did joint appearances with Finance Ministers under sufferance, and always outshone them. When Wayne Swan did joint appearances with Penny Wong, there was a perception of warmth and unity to the government of which they were part. When Hockey shared the stage today with Matthias Cormann, however, he made Cormann look like the brains of the outfit. Cormann will soon be distracted by the coming implosion of the WA state government.

What's going to happen is that vague but menacing proposals for budget cuts are going to sit in the Aussie sun for the better part of a month. Christmas-/ Festivus-/ other-table arguments ring to the sounds of people arguing how awful a job Abbott is doing. After Graincorp and school-funding and other debacles, we know already that if an interest groups screams loudly enough, in chorus, for a few days then this government will cave. Even if it doesn't, it will stand firm on the wrong things:
  • It will claim education is important, but bellyaches about the schoolkids bonus and isn't measuring teacher performance in any real way;
  • It will commit to infrastructure, without realising that big projects suffer cost and time blowouts, that any project given to Tony Shepherd's company might be misconstrued (yet if his company is denied opportunities, there'll be hell to pay from business), and that nothing big will be ribbon-ready by 2016;
  • As soon as Abbott started talking about the lost cause of Olympic Dam to replace jobs lost at Holden, and then cut training programs, it was clear he had no clue and would have tens of thousands spiral into long-term unemployment. Talking points are meant to indicate vision, not disguise its absence; and
  • Nobody wants to trash the Barrier Reef. Nothing this government does on environmental matters can or will make up for that.
All of that will create inconsistencies to the point of weirdness, such that nobody will know what this government stands for. Hockey is the only one who could really have made a coherent case - not any more. He's going to cut just as people turn to government for services in a softening economy. Nanny-state lectures about how Austerity Is Good For You don't wash; they breed only resentment, and ours will be a sullen nation by mid-2014. Only Hockey had anything like a coherent narrative, given that his Cabinet colleagues can't even manage their own portfolios, and now he hasn't even got that. Hockey cannot sell austerity.

The whole idea of the welfare state was to get and maintain people's buy-in to the idea of the state for sustainable reasons. Previously the idea of the state was a collection of People Like Us - people who look like us, talk like us, pray like us. Enemies, real or imagined, were fought abroad and purged from within. Nation-states operated for hundreds of years on that basis, but a focus on Volk leads nation-states to a bad place. If you're going to wind back the welfare state at a time when the market and other institutions are failing to provide for general prosperity, surely talk about people expecting less from government is idle. Why would people even retain a government that thought and acted like that? Never mind ideas about recasting the form and purpose of government altogether.

The very idea that people will take to government service cuts with good grace, and will reward achievement of abstract targets, should have died with the Greiner government in NSW and the Kennett government in Victoria. They should have learned from Howard - 16 ex-ministers, and none of them worth a cracker. This government has forgotten nothing from those examples because they had learned nothing.

The IPA lost all credibility when it put out its Northern Australia thing, wondering how to both cut Mrs Reinhart's tax bill while also increasing the flow of government largesse directly and indirectly to her. The fact that Tim Wilson has taken up a government sinecure and Chris Berg a taxpayer-funded study of the public sector has diminished it still further. Its founder, CD Kemp, offered the IPA to Menzies as the Liberal Party's brains trust, but Menzies cultivated his own counsel (the UAP had failed because of shadowy links to opaque business-funded entities) and he kept Kemp at arm's length.

Kemp's sons became ministers in Howard's government and the IPA became the de facto brains trust for a hollowed-out Liberal Party in recent years. Today, it stands depleted at the very point where its prospects for victory are closest to hand. The political carrion-eaters who picked over the Democrats in recent years have their beady eyes on the IPA just as those who know it best are fleeing. It, and libertarianism more broadly, had been a useful intellectual scratching post - but now it's not even that.

When you realise that Hockey has thought more deeply about his portfolio than all other members of the government put together - including the Oxford-educated Prime Minister - and that his thinking is shallow and counterproductive, you can see what a joke this government is. It cannot succeed, and its sheer force of will (less than you might imagine, really) won't count. This government will drift, it will overvalue the unimportant and undervalue what's vital, and leave us all 20 years behind where a modern productive nation should be.

A press gallery that could not evaluate policy if it wanted to should have compared and contrasted Labor and the Coalition, but could not risk Labor re-elected. Yes, insofar as it even matters now, Gay Alcorn was completely and utterly wrong to see a better side of the occupation to which she devoted her life, and hasn't been big enough to admit it. The press gallery is pretending the government's ineptitude is a surprise, but in saying that they only draw attention to their own ineptitudes. The failures of their 'profession' arise not from technology, but from their abrogations of fourth-estate responsibilities.

This government cannot and will not stay the course to austerity and fiscal rectitude, and as a result you can expect a blizzard of culture-war crap like Peppa Pig hoping to distract from this essential failure. It will distract the press gallery, because they're stupid, and if the government turns off the drip-tap almost all of them have nowhere else to go.


On that note, this will be my last post for 2013 as family holidays demand a respite from this and other toils. I offer more goodwill to all than you might imagine, so ding dong merrily on high and see you back next year (especially you). This blog will see off the Abbott government, and probably the IP bloody A at the rate it's going. There shall be much more interference in traditional media from this platform in 2014, just you mark my words: the ambivalence some detected earlier this year in these pages has well and truly gone.

15 December 2013

No surprises

We will be a no surprises, no excuses government because you are sick of nasty surprises.

- Tony Abbott, August 2013
Everyone who took him at his word was a fool. And when I say 'everyone', I mean the entire press gallery, because they are busy pretending the poor performance of the government was only obvious after September rather than long, long before.

Lenore Taylor is usually one of the press gallery's most incisive observers, but here she is utterly blind to the role of the press gallery in all of this:
Despite its protestations, the Abbott government’s first 100 days have been anything but methodical and calm, and ... voters have noticed the confusion.
Voters should have been forewarned about the potential for that confusion, which was evident throughout the period while Abbott was Opposition Leader. The people who should have informed them of that was the press gallery.
They [i.e. the voters, people outside the press gallery] expected, for example, a government that would have a clear plan to deal with Holden’s decision about whether to leave the country – either to offer the assistance that might prevent it or to explain why the cost of prevention was not in the national interest. They certainly expected something a bit more decisive than a deflection of blame and internal divisions on public display when thousands of jobs are at stake.
Based on what? Lenore Taylor would have seen at close quarters the struggles that former Coalition Industry spokesperson Sophie Mirabella went through with the car industry - one moment promising more than Labor, the next much less. She should have used that to form the basis for an opinion as to what the Coalition might do in government, and then passed both the reporting and the opinion on to us for consideration.
The business community, which had such high expectations of the new conservative government, is also privately starting to express alarm.
A quick scan of the business pages in any newspaper indicates that sometimes business leaders try things that don't work as planned. This seems to have happened with the government. Maybe they didn't do their due diligence; business journalists come down heavy on business managers who risk their companies on the basis of inadequate information. It isn't good enough to just note that business leaders have changed their tune; a good journalist tries to find out why.
If the government had taken a clear decision that it was not going to provide more assistance to Holden, that Australians would be better off using the billions of dollars it gives the car industry for other purposes and importing cheaper cars, it could have made that argument.

But it hasn’t. For a long time the company has been clear about what it would need to continue Australian production and for just as long the Coalition has been unwilling to tackle its deep internal divisions on the issue and say whether it would be willing to pay. Before the election it papered over the divisions by saying it would refer the issue of long-term assistance to a Productivity Commission review.

After the election it set up the review with a reporting date well after the company insisted it needed an answer and then publicly called on Holden to hurry up and make up its mind before the inquiry had reported. Industry minister Ian Macfarlane is clearly struggling to win internal support for his plan to rearrange the existing Automotive Transformation Scheme money to develop a new car plan and keep the company in Australia.

Contrary to reports about his intended testimony, Holden Australia managing director Mike Devereaux insisted on Tuesday no decision had been made, but the company would need continuing subsidies. That really demands a more definitive response from the government than its public platitudes about the need to make the whole economy stronger.
This is passive-aggressive bullshit on the government's part. The press gallery had a duty to question the Coalition more closely and put it to voters as to whether we might want a car industry at all after the September election.

So, the Coalition had "deep internal divisions" on the question of car industry donations, eh? I thought so. Labor didn't seem to be divided at all on that question - it had been divided, mainly on personality-based issues, yet the divisions of which Taylor writes were not exposed in much the same way. It's bullshit to say that Labor was in government and the Coalition wasn't; an election campaign is about fitness for office after the election. A party that can't handle policy differences before an election won't get better at it under the pressure of government.
Instead of clear direction and leadership the government has said it wants a “national debate”.
Instead of incisive questioning and journalism, quoting a line like “national debate” might be Taylor's idea of journalism.
The absence of clear messages has made it difficult for the coalition to control the political conversation, and its early efforts to do so by keeping quiet and hoping politics would disappear from the headlines were always destined to fail.
Clear messages don't come from Peta Credlin shrieking at people, nor from Mark Textor's smarm and quasi-astrological calculations. They come from hard thinking and careful consideration about what the country requires. There is no evidence that the Coalition has devoted a moment to that at any point since Howard lost office. Their main critique of the Rudd-Gillard governments was that they weren't in office; the press gallery in the 1980s and '90s beat the Liberals out of that type of thinking by refusing to report such statements or deriding them when they did. The press gallery fell hard for Abbott when he took it up to a government they disliked, and it is a failure of judgment on their part when they realise there's nothing to this government.
But voters thought they had elected a government that – when faced with the possible demise of the Australian car industry and serious financial difficulties in the national airline – would have something a bit more decisive to say than “what do you guys think?” or “whoops”.
Voters were led to believe that by a press gallery that has no excuse for not knowing better. Whoops! She did itagain:
Like a Christmas cracker, or a New Year party popper, to use similes pertinent to the season, the trick used by new governments of blaming former governments for bad stuff they need to do only works once.

Bang! Shock! It’s all their fault, and regretfully we have to implement these nasty measures to clean up the mess we’ve inherited.
The vacuity of this government isn't seasonal, it's perennial. This government is about nothing more than revenging the 2007 election, and there was never any proof to the contrary.
The Coalition has also announced a royal commission into the first Rudd government’s home insulation program, which was a terrible failure ...
Worked pretty well at my place. Is this 'failure' some water-cooler meme at the press gallery, or are there any objective criteria to cast such a judgment?

So much for Taylor. So long as she's focused on the (real or imagined) deeds and misdeeds of others, she's fine.

What was a surprise came from Simon Benson:
An effective government must be in total command of the agenda and have control of the message.
Do you realise that developments in modern technology mean that no government will ever have that command-and-control, or will even be able to adequately define 'agenda' or 'the message' let alone control it? Talk about setting people up to fail.
... [Abbott] has refocused foreign affairs priorities.
Whenever they announce another round of redundancies at the Murdoch press, they talk about 'refocusing'. If you accept that as a synonym for 'buggering up', perhaps that is a fair if cack-handed way of putting it.

None of our government-to-government relationships are better under this government. I guess all those closed and cut-down missions abroad would save money.
... Abbott has been caught in a caravan of mostly unforeseen political disasters which has derailed his ability to maintain command of his agenda and control of the message, or media cycle.
And as I said, that's because there's no core of principle and consideration. Benson's line here is more revealing though: I suspect he loves the firm smack of discipline more than he lets on.
The government's broader message was always going to be fraught. On the one hand he promised to slow things down and stop the hysteria. He promised a stable and methodical approach to governance and an end to the daily press conference.

His Treasurer Joe Hockey, however, has been talking up the budget "emergency".

This by, by definition [sic], has instilled a sense of urgency for action which would appear inconsistent with its strategy of getting out of the headlines.
If you've spend long enough working for Murdoch, you must learn to couch criticism in weaselly terms as Benson has done here. You can bet that loyal Liberals pointed this out ahead of time, and were excoriated for it.
But if there is a sense of unease within the Coalition about any of this, it isn't showing. Largely because there is still three years to go.
Maybe they're just thick. When the NSW Labor government got rid of Morris Iemma it still had three years ahead of it. Whatever Ian Macdonald and Eddie Obeid did or didn't do at that time, they weren't worried about electorate cycles, news cycles, or polling.
For the Coalition, it is now hoping to bookmark the first spell before heading off on holidays by ripping Labor a new one with the release of the mid year economic and fiscal outlook. It will be a frightening document, no doubt.
Having learned nothing from recent weeks, the government is going to drop some bad news and then let it fester for weeks and weeks, hoping that the current opposition is happy to cop it sweet. Maybe it will work, but the sheer absence of a fallback position is negligent typical so obvious even Simon Benson has noticed surprising.

Benson's counterpart at The Courier-Mail, Dennis Atkins, is also easily surprised:
The other growing perception is the Government is review heavy. Consider the list: the auto industry Productivity Commission inquiry, another one on child care, a government activity audit, a tax review, a competition assessment, a lengthy probe into workplace law and a look at renewable energy.
In his speech to the National Press Club on 1 February 2012, Abbott announced inquiries into this and that as a substitute for taking any policy positions. Now those inquiries are coming to pass, and this is somehow a "growing perception"? Never mind Canberra, Dennis - next time it rains heavily in Brisbane, go and stand by the banks of the river without an umbrella and tell us all about your growing perception of wetness.
The Coalition consensus is that after Australia Day, it's game back on.

This is a sensible world view - recharging personal and political batteries and assessing the good, the bad and the ugly from these 100 days - but events always intervene.

These "events" are proving the problem.
Three things arise from this profound piece of insight:
  1. How long have you been a journalist? Do you not know that "events" happen all the time, to everyone, in or out of government? The whole idea of government is for them to deal with events so that we don't have to.
  2. Clearly, people like spinners and staffers and lobbyists and pollsters who claim they can foresee and manage events are bullshit, aren't they? You can include Abbott in that list too.
  3. As I said earlier, if the government drops a bad MYEFO and then goes and watches the cricket for a month or so, it could well return to find people deaf to its message.
Peter Hartcher has pretty much missed all of the big political stories of recent years, but this one's too big for even his obtuse capacities:
Like Keating's famous 1986 warning of Australia's economic decline, it can be a national shock, but also a jolt to national action ... Keating followed his warning with a controversial program of economic reform.
Now make the case that the Abbott government even has a program, controversial or otherwise, that goes beyond cutting this or repealing that and hoping there are no "events".
Rather than relying on Holden, Australia's economic future depends on Hockey. Is he up to it? We are about to find out.
You've had years to make that assessment. He doesn't deserve the blank cheque you are thrusting into his hands.

Then there's this pompous rubbish. What would motivate Abbott to act in such a way, Pascoe? Where is your evidence that he is even capable? The worst thing you can do is give a politician the benefit of the doubt. This is what The Sydney Morning Herald did on election day and, in the worst traditions of journalism, continues to blame others for problems its intellectual and moral laziness has caused. None of that was unforeseeable before 7 September, none of it.

The press gallery observed Abbott at close quarters over more than three years when he was Opposition Leader. They noted the tight control around his media appearances and didn't question it. They saw the trees of individual criticisms of the Gillard and Rudd governments, but they failed to notice the forest of incompetence that attended Abbott and his team.

Abbott said that his team brought experience from the Howard government. They have less excuse for the bumbling and dithering start to government than, say, Rudd or Howard did in their first few months. Just because a politician promises to do something that sounds good, it doesn't mean that they will do it, or even that they are capable of doing it. People who are experienced observers of politics - like press gallery journalists - should know that. They had no right to proclaim, as they did, that Tony Abbott can be believed when he says something. They have no claim to be surprised, as they do, that this government has no policy direction and makes knee-jerk responses to events (one of which involves denying information to journalists).

Those people I quoted above are not press gallery newbies. They are the people who set the tone for political reporting in this country. The idea that they're surprised by situations that bloggers foresaw years ahead of time speaks not only to their irrelevance, but to that of the very construct of the press gallery itself. Abbott is running a no-surprises agenda, and certainly Labor, the Greens and even Palmer aren't surprised by this government. The press gallery have been so close to the Coalition that they have lost all perspective, and if voters were ill-informed then they are more responsible than they would dare admit.

Update: showing how it's done is a non-gallery journalist, Renai le May:
Long-term readers of Delimiter will be aware that I have long tried to hold all sides of politics to account on an equal basis when it comes to technology policy and implementation. Whether it’s Labor, the Coalition or the Greens, I have tried sincerely to praise the merits of each, as well as criticising each where criticism is due. I have tried to seek truth and to be objective. This is standard journalistic practice and it was how I was trained.

This has, at times, led me into conflict with many readers. Many in Australia’s technology community have long believed that the Coalition has not sincerely had intentions of pursuing Labor’s National Broadband Project to fruition. When Malcolm Turnbull was first appointed as Shadow Communications Minister three years ago, back in 2010, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott reportedly ordered Turnbull to “demolish” the NBN, and many readers have long believed that has been the secret intention of the Coalition when it comes to this most high-profile of Labor projects.

In that past three years, I have attempted to treat all statements by all sides of politics on their merits. I have treated the Coalition’s statements on the NBN seriously, and I have treated Labor’s statements on the NBN seriously. I have treated the Greens’ statements on the NBN seriously.

Many readers have argued with me about this approach. They have pointed out that Turnbull, and others within the Coalition, have very often taken an inconsistent approach to the NBN, stating one thing and then doing another.
Not only does le May apologise for confusing Malcolm Turnbull with someone who has the nation's best interests at heart, he has the courage to look deep into his journalistic methods. This is a lesson for all journalists, inside the gallery and out, before that 'profession' disappears up itself.

08 December 2013

Disguise fair nature

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage ...

- Shakespeare Henry V
This past week has shown that a directionless government can easily lose what little focus it has. This past week showed that a party which is a 'flat track bully' when the polls go with them will go to water when polls are less than favourable. This past week has been all about ramping up for this government's one true test: the repeal of the carbon tax, the rod for this government's back.

After disasters on foreign policy, immigration, education, and other issues, the government needed a focus. The Murdoch press would have looked really silly if they had continued lionising this bunch of turkeys, so they dusted off their old campaign against public broadcasters. It was feeble, a fraction of the ferocity we saw in Howard's first term when gutting the ABC was a real prospect, complicated by Murdoch's grumbling about losing the Australia International TV gig and its phone-hacking corruption cases in the UK.

Despite being old enough to know better, Mike Carlton was taken in hook, line, and sinker:
Putting the ABC to fire and sword is unfinished business for the Tories ... They did their best, but it didn't work. Battered but unbowed, the ABC sailed on. But the Tories have long memories, and the Abbott lot are determined to succeed where Howard failed ... The idea is to goad the Tories into action, and so far it's working splendidly ... There is an eerie, Orwellian air to the Abbott government.
Oh, please. There are at least three reasons why Carlton is wrong.

First, Carlton should've disclosed that his wife works for the ABC. This is a basic bit of journalistic arse-covering which someone of Carlton's experience had no right to overlook.

Second, there is no proof that Abbott will succeed at anything which Howard failed. The braying of Bernardi is itself a signifier of irrelevance. The same people who put paid to Archer Daniels Midland taking over Graincorp are the people who put paid to Howard doing over the ABC, and the same people who will stop any meaningful action against the ABC by this government: if you're going to gabble on about political matters, look at where power actually lies.

If you wanted to wipe out the Nationals altogether, and such Liberals who currently represent regional electorates, you'd make the Coalition hack into the ABC. The ABC is a far greater national and community unifier than any political party, and Coalition MPs know that (even though this clueless press gallery journo doesn't, wittering on about Peppa Pig in the face of the ABC's ageing, dispersed demographic). The ABC is so hard-wired for 'balance' that it cannot take its own side in an argument, which means that Carlton's over-the-top effort defines the gullible but fails to rouse them.

Third, Carlton has lost the right to be taken on face value. In the 1980s Carlton was the second-most-popular host on Sydney morning radio. He was beaten by a genial man named Gary O'Callaghan, whose role in life was to give people a smile on their face and a spring in their step. Carlton went after O'Callaghan with snarling ferocity and eventually triumphed, and established from then on that to win at Sydney morning radio you have to be a prick. Alan Jones, Kyle Sandilands, all follow the Carlton template: Carlton himself attempted a kinder, gentler comeback years later and was rolled by his harder-edged successors. It's been a while since he was the journalist he claims to be; he is no more a journalist than I am.

Before the last election Carlton insisted that Abbott wouldn't be so bad as PM, that there is something ennobling that seeps off the walls of the Lodge as you sleep there and that Abbott would rise to the job. If that was going to happen, it would have happened by now. Carlton has joined the ranks of the duller press gallery hacks, acting all surprised that Abbott is every bit as bad as he said and proved he was going to be.

The stale bullshit flung by culture warriors within Team Murdoch and the Coalition was an attempt to rally the troops in preparation for next week's assault on the carbon tax. Abolishing that impost is the biggest test of this government's credibility - now that promises around debt, boats, and school funding have all been abandoned, this is pretty much the nearest this government has to any substance at all. Given the current configuration of the Senate, it cannot abandon this promise, but going through with it will be disruptive and have no benefit. Just as banks do not pass on savings from Reserve Bank interest rate cuts, so too power companies will not pass on any savings from an abolished carbon tax.

We all know it's a sad pantomime, but Coalition MPs can't be allowed to think that. They must hurl themselves at the Parliament with ferocity; the way to do that is to have the Murdoch press pump out the bile, and when it comes to the ABC there's plenty to go around. The fact that they can wind up an easy mark like Carlton on the way through is a bonus.

Mark Kenny embarrassed himself yet again with this. Everything in that policy imbroglio, Sophie Mirabella (remember her?) had been wrestling with for three years, with she and Abbott lambasting Labor for doing both too little and too much for our car industry - and now Kenny acts all surprised as though yet another Abbott government policy failure had been entirely unforeseeable.

Quite why Qantas wants to subject its fate to the geniuses who put Graincorp and Holden where they are today is unclear. The head of government relations at Qantas (Geoff Dixon's old job) is Andrew Parker, who used to be a high-profile lobbyist in Canberra a decade or so ago, and well-connected with the Coalition. I thought a campaign run by him would be more focused, more effective than this one has been.

The government conceded the failure of the Foreign Minister on the essential big-picture aspects of her job by sending her to the Philippines. There she did not apparently hobnob with her counterparts in government or profess our undying friendship/ trade/ cultural/ ties etc with that country, but instead went patronising victims of Cyclone Haiyan. Going around patronising people is what Margie-and-the-girls are for, not the Foreign Minister. If the Foreign Minister isn't up to Foreign Minister work, then we need a new Foreign Minister rather than for Julie Bishop to carry on as she is.

I want a stamp in my passport indicating that, if ever hospitalised in a foreign country, I am not to be visited by the Foreign Minister. It should be possible to do that without having my passport revoked altogether.

Given the treatment meted out to Nicole Feely as John Howard's chief of staff, and now Credlin - and of course the vile treatment of Julia Gillard that went well beyond the treatment meted out to an opponent - it's clear that the Coalition has a deep-seated unease with women in power. After the hoo-ha surrounding the Governor-General, we see that the Coalition is uneasy about women in figurehead positions.

Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker is no worse or better than she was as NSW State President of the Liberal Party in the 1980s, ignoring objections and conflating obstinacy with courage, observing traditions and niceties only when they suit her. When this government starts to look bad because Question Time is a monkey-house just like it was before the election, Bishop won't be able to improve things. When Sophie Mirabella was proposed as a suitable head of the ABC, it was again as a figurehead doing as she is bid rather than as an suitably effective manager of national traditions.

I've dealt with Credlin before on this blog and the whiny detractors quoted in the more recent Aston/Johnson piece remind me of nothing so much as the Fitzgibbon/ Husic/ Bowen briefings against Gillard. Gillard, at least, faced popular election and took public accountability seriously; Credlin didn't get where she is through accountability. The assumption that she is enforcing higher standards of governance and quality on this government in the selection of staff and dictation of government processes is, at best, questionable; this government only talks about higher standards and better government. Look at the parliamentary ranks: there is no deep reserve of Coalition talent ready to take key advisor roles.

When long-serving opposition staffers burn out in government's earliest days they need to be replaced by cooler heads, less enamoured of electioneering and even less personally loyal to particular politicians. Such people are most likely to be found in state parliaments, where Coalition governments have been at it for a while now. Who would move from a real job in a major city to work for, say, Peter Dutton or Chris Pyne? How many of those people have been impressing Peta Credlin from afar? Can she really resist the temptation to replace someone who's good at their job but not loyal to her with someone utterly loyal but second rate (and not only staffers, but ministers)?

Credlin is the internal lightning-rod for all dissent within this government. That will spare the leader, but only for a while. This isn't clever or novel politics - the Coalition has form.
It wiggles, it's shapely and its name is Ainsley Gotto.

- Dudley Erwin, explaining why he lost his ministry in the Gorton government, 1969
In 1968 Prime Minister John Gorton appointed his 22-year-old secretary, Ainslie Gotto, as his Principal Private Secretary and came to rely on her for political advice. She was the first modern staffer in Australian government, and the Coalition did not take well to her; she was blamed for isolating Gorton from the political forces that ended up driving him from office. In later years Gotto, like Credlin, worked on the staff of Senator Helen Coonan. If press gallery experience meant anything, older press gallery journalists would be drawing contrasts between Gotto, Feely, and Credlin in terms of what it says about the Coalition, Abbott, and women exercising power.

Abbott depends as heavily upon Credlin as Gorton did on Gotto. Any successes of this government will be attributed to Credlin by the media, while any failures will be worn by Abbott and his ministers. Nobody goes into politics in order to be a mouthpiece and/or a punching bag, yet that is the extent of Credlin's vision for them. There is no mechanism for calling Credlin to account apart from a frontal assault on Abbott; Credlin can see those coming anyway, and will be taking names.

When Cormann calls for Credlin's critics to capitulate, he wants the focus on the Labor-Green alliance determined to price carbon. He is also being chivalrous, as are all those people (including those not necessarily supportive of this government) who don't want a repeat of the vilification directed against a prominent woman in politics. Is quietism really the only alternative to vilification for women in public office?

If you want more nuanced, polite discussion, you need something to discuss. Not only do you need policies, but you also need respect for stakeholders and other interlocutors who might cause you to adopt a position different to that identified by focus-group wranglers. You need to abandon your idea that any change of position is a backflip, a backdown, a breach of faith, a weakness. And in that, you see the central shortcoming of the Abbott government right there. The question for Abbott and Credlin and all the other decision-makers (real and imagined) in this government is, what's to discuss?

06 December 2013

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013)

What Mandela taught me was the bankruptcy of political extremes and the need for a national leader to work in order to bring everyone around.

In the 1980s I was a Young Liberal, and bought into the whole notion that sanctions against South Africa were pointless. I bought into the idea that Mandela was a communist terrorist and that Mangosuthu Buthulezi was a good-enough replacement. I thought this only served to prove that the devil had the best tunes. Then I met more and more people emigrating from a country that was as good as it could have been, given the insistence on excluding most of its people from actual and potential opportunities, and given the sheer skill of their politicians at excuse-making.

What Mandela showed was the bankruptcy of class and sectional warfare in national governments. Yes he killed people, and he represented those who were killed on much the same basis. He spouted all that Trotsky/Maoist crap about armed struggle, which usually comes after you have ceased to represent working people and started to regard them as a sheeplike base which you own and punish. Unlike his contemporaries, he rose above it.

The apartheid state was formalised in South Africa in 1948. By the 1960s it was clear that it had failed. Kids born around and after 1948, who had known only apartheid, rioted at Sharpeville in 1960 and were neither cowed nor awed by the crackdown that followed. Mandela was arrested in 1964 and sent to an offshore detention facility, but not to the point where he was cauterised from his country's politics. Keeping him there was a smart move - the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, had been murdered by a parliamentary attendant in 1966, and it is highly possible that the seething politics of the ANC would not have similarly accounted for Mandela. His detention was a national insurance policy, and showed that the Broederbond who ran the politics of apartheid might have been stupid, but not crazy.

What, then, was the alternative to apartheid? At the time, communism was being imposed on people in Europe and China by regimes no better, and often far worse, than apartheid South Africa. Successful communist uprisings, such as those in Cuba and Vietnam, distanced themselves from the drones in Moscow. Those uprisings were largely free of race, gender, and other social cleavages not related to Marx-defined industrial classes; South Africa had no choice but to manage and accommodate myriad interests without the wittering about My Struggle Is More Important Than Yours, which renders the left a national joke almost everywhere else. South African communists were smart enough to realise that they were a support act to the ANC rather than the other way around. Joe Slovo or Ronnie Kasrils would have disappeared from history had they seriously regarded Mandela, Walter Sisulu, or Oliver Tambo as "useful idiots".

Australia began turning away from apartheid just as South Africa committed to it in the early 1960s. In early 1960s Australia you can see the earliest developments toward recognising Aborigines, which came with the 1967 referendum, the shift in emphasis on Colombo Plan toward encouraging students to stay here rather than just study and return, and the beginnings of the end of the White Australia Policy. It's funny how things turn out, really.

In the 1980s Australia underwent an economic revolution, predicated on the idea that the country was ready to deal with a global economy. For South Africa that didn't come until a decade later, and even then it was limited. Even so, South Africa under Mandela showed what can be achieved with real political leadership. The ANC made the country pretty much ungovernable in the 1980s, with small brushfires of dissent and violence, but threw the switch when it came their turn to govern. Trevor Manuel's economic stewardship came with a lot of goodwill, but didn't rely so heavily on pointless blame-the-predecessors to make positive cases for change.

South African voters in 1994 were as grateful for their franchise as voters in the former Eastern Bloc and USSR, which made Keating's "true believers" indulgence grate even more. Keating had a vision, but let himself down by refusing to rise to the occasion that leading a vision demands: if Labor limits its leaders in that way, then be that on its own head. Howard thought he could vault the lessons of history by being effusive, but the look of disgust on Mandela's face as he received an honorary Order of Australia from Howard showed the poverty of that tactic. Mandela was all about the repetition of simple, clear messages, but his lines looked like distilled wisdom rather than the focus-group muppetry of Australian politicians.

If you win government, then spend all your time blaming your predecessors until they become your successors, what have you won? Australian media organisations think they're clever by churning out pre-assembled content, but I doubt it's that insightful and reinforces their laziness rather than challenging it with topicality and reflections on a broad, tumultuous and often difficult life. Certainly, the Prime Minister shirked the opportunity to reflect on his example by consigning him, G W Bush-like, to "Africa".

Mandela knew the answer to that question, that you have a limited time in power and you have to take people with you. He didn't solve every problem, and it's silly to frame his legacy as a dichotomy between saint and sinner (though such a lame approach will get you top marks at journalism courses, because that's the house style at newspapers and magazines in the northeastern United States). Maybe it is unfair to judge Australian politicians against Nelson Mandela, but hey that's what greatness is. Churchill redefined the way his country should be governed and cast a shadow over those who followed, and so has Mandela in his country - preceded by that reverse-von-Papen F W de Klerk, and succeeded by the prissy and flaky Mbeki and the dodgy Zuma. Mandela is the Churchill of our time; that's what defines him, not the partisanship and political conveniences of a bygone era which he successfully transcended. Goodbye Mandela, and thank you.