We will be a no surprises, no excuses government because you are sick of nasty surprises.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.
- Tony Abbott, August 2013
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.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.
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.
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.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.
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 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.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.
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.
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
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.Three things arise from this profound piece of insight:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.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.
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.