Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;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.
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
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.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.
- Dudley Erwin, explaining why he lost his ministry in the Gorton government, 1969
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?