26 May 2014

Budgetary assumptions

It never used to be that bad
But neither was it great
Somewhere in the middle then
Content and much too safe
Oh tell me please
Why it takes so long
To realise when there's something wrong

- Crowded House Now we're getting somewhere
The past fortnight or so has seen a fundamental failure of judgment on the part of the politico-media complex. The government, and the press gallery that facilitated it, assumed that the country would sullenly accept the budget-crisis assumption, with only protesting students and bellyaching pensioners offering token resistance before the inevitable capitulation. What happened since the Budget was delivered has taken the entire political class by surprise.

The government thought it had made the case that the budget was in terrible shape, having insisted in opposition that the whole economy was a disaster. The sheer force of the reaction to the budget meant that the case had yet to be made, and having to make the basic case while also selling the details built upon that assumption, any selling job would be doomed. Where the sellers don't even operate on the same assumptions as their market, the seller is doomed and so is the product (in this case, the budget).

Any government always has to trust its Treasurer and Prime Minister to handle not only the economics, but also the politics of the Budget. Tony Abbott has led the Liberal Party to the last two elections, each of which saw the Liberal vote increase dramatically. This government is made up largely of people who wouldn't even be in Canberra without Tony Abbott, and who bought into the whole Labor-bad-Liberal-good message as the ticket to the ride into office. They have no right to be surprised at how badly the selling job was done. Now that it seems clear that Tony and Joe aren't that great at either the politics or the economics, points made by disgruntled smart-alecs like me but safely ignored by the supposedly savvy until now.

Rather than rethink the pretences and flawed assumptions that made this government possible, traditional-media pinheads like this or that can only resort to leadership speculation, as though the incompetence of this government were a new and unexpected development that could not have been foreseen by long-serving and experienced observers. Had they done their homework on policy to the extent that they did on worthless polls, this government may not have made it into office until it had lifted its game.

In this environment, all Bill Shorten had to do was deliver a competent speech that fingered the government, and that's basically what he did. Here is a man playing a long game. Before the election there was a lot of talk about how Abbott was running a marathon rather than a sprint, but contrast his behaviour in opposition with that of Shorten now (or even his behaviour in government now) and know that assertion was always rubbish. Conventional wisdom in the press gallery, shared by pretty much everyone - but rubbish all the same.

Labor's winter of discontent under Rudd and Gillard has not become glorious summer under Shorten. He has not yet begun to address the party's structural difficulties. His party's membership has not taken much initiative, but nor has it rallied to a call that Shorten has barely begun to make. Only when the windows of Jamie Clements' office crash outwards and he hurtles to the pavement Imre NagyJan Masaryk-style - then will I start to be convinced the ALP is serious about internal reform.

Shorten has started to take a strong stance on Medicare but should also be starting to develop clear positions on fracking and the Barrier Reef, on education and yes on the revenue side of the budget - and to do so in a consultative way that contrasts with Abbott's preference for springing surprise announcements as his way of controlling the agenda.

Again, the conventional wisdom is that Shorten can't win the next election and that Abbott can't lose it. We've seen how inept the smarties have been with a mere budget, and at questioning an aspiring government in its fitness for office; they should simply not be heard on what may or may not happen at the 2016 election.

Because the ALP and the Liberals are as hollow as one another, filling their aching voids with spivs and their lolly, each looks set to shrink without disappearing entirely in the foreseeable future. Though there is much focus on Clive Palmer, he does not have what it take to become a third party on par with the other two, overtaking the Greens. He is not credible as the long-lost saviour of moderate liberalism and nor is he the convincing champion of the blue-collar conservative who was never comfortable among the stuck-up white-collar professionals who run the Liberals. He has gotten as far as he has through free advertising: puff-pieces on the ABC and condemnation by the Murdoch press serve the same end.

While Palmer will be a force; the real action in politics is with local independents like Cathy McGowan or Tony Windsor, and it will be necessary for a future government to deal with each one by one, issue by issue.

To those writing Shorten off, I ask you: does Shorten have the negotiation skill to outflank Abbott, like Julia Gillard did in 2010? If so, you can't dismiss Shorten's prospects of becoming Prime Minister, nor lazily assume Abbott will pull something out of his hat. Let's take the backgrounds of personalities of the individual leaders away and the principle still holds: in a hung parliament dominated by independents (imagine one-third each of Labor, Liberal, and independents), would you back Hockey/Turnbull/Morrison or would you back Plibersek/Albanese/Bowen? Labor are historically superior at negotiating minority government, and given the protracted and systemic failure of each major party, minority government will be the only government on offer.

This is the case in other democracies, and it was the case before liberals and conservatives fused to form the two-party system in 1909. This country will be governed by a post-election beauty parade among what now seem to be minor parties.

Journalists accustomed to major-party government, which includes "message discipline" and gotcha games at its absence, will not be able to cope even if their employers remain solvent and retain them in their current roles. Only journalists who can understand what is at stake with each deal will be valuable sources of political information; the stenographers and gotcha-vultures of today's press gallery will hang around and embarrass themselves, or even fade away rather than adapt. They hated Labor and Labor hated them back; they found the Coalition hated them every bit as much, knowing the day would come when their shortcomings came to light and powerless to manage the framing of that.

Liberals were always wrong to believe Abbott could do anything but win the election. As a party of government they had a duty to build an agenda for government, but they shirked it and outsourced it to the BCA and IPA. For a political party to shirk that responsibility is to lose everything, and to realise the sheer vacuity of the money in its 'war chest', or of the number of seats in their majority (for what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, etc.).

Labor was wrong to cower before a budget surplus and 'economic responsibility', and to avoid fighting its own corner. This was a party that slunk into defeat, resurrecting a leader it did not believe in and not fully convinced of "the greatest moral issue of our time" (the environment? Education? NDIS?), while not completely unconvincing on any of those issues.

As to the emerging political forces that are neither Liberal nor Labor, they arise from a susurration that cannot be heard in noisy debates and sometimes you have to go listen to hear them. This is hard and can be hit-and-miss; but it is more profitable than watching those who glossed over Abbott's policy laziness realise now that it is the only game in town.

Given that all media organisations are facing tight budget, they must sooner or later start to look at the considerable bloat encrusting the press gallery and wonder what those people actually do. Anyone could do what the press gallery were doing last year (and the year before, and the year before that): quote what Labor says (boo!) then quote what the Coalition said (yay, and give them the final word).

The assumptions that the press gallery worked under, the idea of what it is to be politically savvy and to report on what's going on - all those have been invalidated, and shown to be invalidated, over the past fortnight. There is no hope that the press gallery will grow a collective brain and start, y;know, engaging in journalism. The press gallery have observed this government closely over many years, and they have no idea what's going on and can't describe the sheer depth of their failure.

The pantomime that the Abbott government has suddenly lost its gloss is getting boring: it never had any, but it played the press gallery like so many trout. The idea that governments come and go but the press gallery stick around is another dead idea that's not helping traditional media in the vital task of getting over themselves. When the time comes to toss this government, the press gallery will have to go too. There is no way around it, no way of turning such journalistic dross into journalistic gold.

A government in trouble might just be tempted to bring these privileges to an end, and in doing so show up the one big lie holding that institution in place: that democracy might continue regardless, that the press gallery is not necessary and definitely not sufficient as a check upon despotism.

We are living in an information age. Traditional media are information providers, and they should be up there with our biggest and fastest-growing companies. As befits a tragedy it is both sad and silly that they can't get over themselves enough both to ensure their corporate futures and to act as bulwarks of democracy.


  1. Thanks again Andrew. You are on fire laddie.
    I wonder what some of our big-name journalists think when they sit down with a chilled Pinot Grigio to watch Sarah Ferguson of an evening.

    I wonder if they shift restlessly when they observe her forensic questioning, her command of detail, her ability to ask follow up questions. I wonder if they recognize that Sarah is a journalist with the self-confidence which comes from nurturing her high intelligence with diligent preparation for her interviews. It should be self-evident to all that she is a person who takes pride in her craft and honours it by taking its responsibilities seriously.

    How different she is from the giggling gerties who think politics is a comedy show, the interviewers who think entrapping a politician to trip over a small detail thereby producing a gotcha moment for Youtube is a journalistic triumph and most of all from the supine, craven lot who have been writing the same turgid columns in support of Tony for years.

    The journalists who have taken it upon themselves to 'explain' Tony for us are the absolute worst. 'It is Tony being Tony'. 'Ah Tony is having a baby boomer Dad moment'. 'He is pragmatic'.

    This is NOT all about Tony. It is about Our Country to use Tony!s current attempt to bond us. Stop making excuses for him, stop puzzling over his current difficulties and recognize that you helped create those, stop trying to dig him out of the hole he is in.

    In my opinion there is no coming back from the Budget disaster. Abbott has been exposed despite the efforts of his supporters in the media to shield him, explain him blah blah. People forget that the Budget is not one hurdle to overcome and that we can all move on. Next year hockey will have to produce another one. It is lurking like Jack-in-the-box.

    Ms Yossarian

  2. And further to above ....
    If I were Bill Shorten I would plug myself into the national mood, in a positive way.
    It seems to be the strategy of the government and their media supporters to chastise the country and particular groups for being lotus eaters, short-sighted and selfish.
    Well! My goodness me.
    I for one feel quite heartened that people are repelled by the inequity of this budget and it's crude attempt to lay down the concrete slab upon which to build a US style Oz. All piecemeal of course. Bit of this. Bit of that.
    If I were Bill I would recognize the refusal of most of us to be reshaped by people we do not trust and start talking about the things which bind us. In a coherent, nation- building kinda way.

    Ms Yossarian

  3. Another astute analysis, thanks Andrew, but who is Jamie Clements?

    1. This: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-09/alp-secretary-rejects-calls-for-party-reform/5378622

  4. What I don't get is why the Press Gallery has such a herd mentality. Surely it is more beneficial career-wise in the ling run to make your own mark instead of sticking with the pack? In any case, they have shown that they are nothing more than transcribers these days, and any form of trying to set the "narrative" is no longer working.

    1. I think this is worthy of further analysis myself.

  5. Interesting you single out fraccing as an issue for Labor to take a firm view on. From a populist view it would be easy to just ban it but the advice it would have received while in Gov't is that it's not as bad as it's portrayed to be. Sure, there needs to be more confidence around the science related to groundwater impacts but the reality is, coal seam methane extraction and fraccing in Australia isn't a big environmental risk. The biggest issue is dealing with the make water once it's on the surface, not with the underground impacts. Even Tony Windsor acknowledges this.

    As for the issue of media missreading this, there are two points: For all their reading of the Poll tea leaves, you'd have thought that the MSM would have picked up the vibe that Hockey and Abbott's deriding of Labor's legacy wasn't being reflected by poor numbers for the ALP, instead, their numbers were rising. Even if you don't believe polling data, it is a reasonable metric for the 'feel' of the people towards a party and the demonising of Labor and Debt hadn't adversely affected Labor's polling.

    The second issue is that I just don't think the LNP understand 'fairness'. Aussies understand what a 'fair go' is and have an innate sense of fairness. Howeverever, when the LNP use the work fair, it doesn't gel with what the average Aussie understands to be fair - the same happened with WorkChoices. Howard's fairness test simply wasn't for most Australians. The same is happening with this budget, particularly in regards to the unemployment benefits changes. People might not like dole bludgers but they don't think what is proposed is fair either and most people know it's not as easy as simply doing some study? And why aren't the Nat's up in arms about this - this will destroy country towns who are already doing it tough - particularly going into an El Nino ...

    1. The federal Liberals have been gloating for a while now that they have, basically, completely overruled the federal Nationals on the back of Abbott's margin.. For this parliament the Nats are just passengers on the right wing Liberal express. Can just hear cabinet now...unemployed regional youth...argh...we Libs knew somewhere out there those rural types were just not pulling their weight...!

  6. I note the credentials of Mr Elder include his ‘libertarian-punk’ diploma but there is no mention of any financial whiz-bangery. Perhaps we should leave comment on the illth of our nation to Parliamentary Budget Officer Phil Bowen who has expressed the need to start the painful process of repairing our national economy. Mr Bowen wisely avoided the word ‘assumption’ in his dry assessment.


    1. Your first sentence is an ad hominem, the tactic of those unable to enunciate a cogent counter-argument so they attack the person, not their reasoning.

      Secondly, the debate isn't about whether the budget needs structural reform, but the way to achieve. The Lib's method of kicking the guts out of the poor, the infirm and the disadvantaged, or addressing the many issues with our tax system that favour the well-off (and ABS stats put me firmly in that latter camp): negative gearing, concessional CGT, superannuation taxation and access, and the fact that superannuation policy and pension policy are in conflict. And don't feed me the hysteria about negative gearing and rents: many rental properties are neutrally or positively geared, which means negatively geared landlords cannot react to the loss of negative gearing by raising rents, aside from the fact that what tenants can and will pay sets rents. And then we could talk about the taxation of trusts...

      In addition to the Coalition's attacking the poor and letting the wealthy keep their massive welfare, they've seen fit to introduce a ridiculously expensive and discriminatory PPL at massive tsxpayrr expense, plus massively ramp up Defence spending. Complete hypocrisy and inconsistent with their 'budget emergency' narrative.

      This media have abrogated their responsibility as impartial commentators, and are suffering hugely for it. I know it's bad because even relatives who are politically disengaged are staying that they don't take notice of any of the main papers because they feel that they're pushing an agenda. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

  7. The updates are coming thick and fast from Andrew Elder following the budget. Some might think you are even enjoying this press gallery schadenfreude.

  8. By the way, it was Jan Masaryk (Czech Foreign Minister in 1948) not the Hungarian Imre Nagy who was chucked out the window; Nagy was executed by hanging. But either method would do.

  9. There is a divide that I see amongst our social circles with wealthy second and third generation children of migrants and those Australian born of Anglo parents

    They favour the Greens amongst the University educated grandchildren.

    They've seen their grandparents work hard and be discriminated by the
    conservatives back in the good old
    White Australia policy days

    They dislike Mr Abbott immensely. (Female demographic)

    The political class have never known what to do with this demographic abd how they think.

    They're a complex group of very
    successful people.

    Budget aside , you've lost them altogether dear establishment.

    The m.s.m don't know what to do either.

  10. Shirking to think tank guys and then using that Human Rights role as outsourcing for x.y.z....

    Bloody ridiculous to think it works in the real world

    When you piss of the Jewish lobby, , it's political suicide for that individual

    You are not GOD...

    The polity has spoken.

  11. Hi Andrew,

    I think it is really interesting(from the quoted Mumble piece as an example) the way sections of the media continue to claim that THE overriding concern of voters is "debt and deficit", and that this concern trumps every other concern. They especially like to say that this was the defining message of the last election. Even if we buy into this(which I don't, for reasons I'll explain below) is it really the case now, some 8 months from the last election, that this is the main concern in voters minds?

    Clearly it isn't. If Mumble had shared the rest of the Essential poll(or even Newspoll or Nielsen....funny how he skipped those) we would see that the main concern of voters now is a scarily deep erosion in their's(and others) economic position, brought about by grossly unfair government policy changes.

    It is one thing to champion 'fiscal responsibility' when the economy is putting along nicely, but when our economic position is eroding? That is very different. I put it to writers like Mumble that voters had the LUXURY of decrying our faux budget crisis in September last year, but now that the cake is shrinking and their economic position is in jeopardy, the mood is very different.

    It is why this government has cocked it up so badly. They had ONE chance to craft a fair and reasonable response to the structural budget hole. Instead they have attacked everyone but those who can afford to pay the most. I could not believe that they went ahead with the petrol excise increase AFTER the leaks about the miners rebate! Who are these people? And why are they so stupid?

    I very much doubt the miners would be able to mount a successful campaign this time around(if it even was successful the first time around seeing as how we now know Rudd's polling was still above 50% and the factional bosses had it out for him in any case for months previously)
    Buying into their bullshit the first time around was only possible with a successful economy and and ever growing economic cake. Now that that cake is shrinking, and many are about to go without? Very different conditions, and I imagine close to ZERO empathy for cashed up foreign owned multi-nationals. The gas boom will play out very differently, you can be sure of that.

    Its also hilarious how Mumble and others seem to think that the NEXT election will be fought on the issues of the LAST election. When has that ever happened? Yes, elections are always about the economy, but what will economic conditions be like in three years time? The way the economy is deflating I doubt people will be talking about 'debt and deficit' in three years time.

    Here's an anecdote: O.S friends of mine recently travelled up the NSW coast to Brisbane, hoping to find jobs in Queensland's capital for a few months, before continuing up to Cairns. They couldn't find any work. None. Zip.

    After applying for close to thirty jobs EACH, the only replies they had heard back was from two employers explaining to them that because Brisbane had such high unemployment they were no longer hiring back-packers because they were spoiled for choice with locals( longer term, no visa issues) This is Brisbane, not some one horse coasty town. This is why when you look at the poll numbers for the LNP in Queensland they are so dire. Sections of Queensland are probably already in recession, which will only get worse as the mining boom really does wind up.(we ain't seen nothin' yet)

    Another anecdote pertains to my partner, who works in the mining industry. People in the know are talking about the mothballing of MASSIVE sections of the coal and iron ore industry....not because of climate change but because many of the mines invested in during the boom are simply not profitable at current prices....prices that are expected to continue to fall.

    There are a great many town's in Qld and WA that will be in a world of pain this time next year.

    1. The 48/52 numbers are the same as what they were before the budget. What's changed is a stiffening of resolve that these guys have to go, and that there are alternatives other than Labor.

      Interesting about the mining industry. Once both the Coalition and Labor start wondering "why are we sticking our necks out for these guys?", things will be different.

    2. No, that is just the figure for Essential. One poll, and one that is deemed to lag quite slowly behind the others. Even that figure hides the reality of at least 7 seats falling from the LNP. 7 in 8 months! Just in Queensland. That voter sentiment could reverse so quickly is testament to the un appealing nature of the government. There is absolutely so wide ranging appetite for "reform" the way the LNP envisages it . They gave misinteptreted the election as a mandate to enact sweeping changes on the social fabric of the nation. I'm shocked that there are still enough folks that actually 'believe' in things left in the LNP to support such a reform agenda, although we shall see how that pans out!

  12. Hillbilly Skeleton28/5/14 11:06 pm

    I always find it amusing to recollect that it was John Hartigan, former CEO of News Corp Australia, who made the, at the time, 'radical' suggestion that the Press Gallery was unnecessary in Canberra and it should be devolved to Holt Street. Well, that went down like a lead zeppelin with the Murdoch media 'doyennes' in Parliament House and it turned out that 'Harto' went and they didn't!

    Also, I'm working on Jamie but I am told that he doesn't want to dismantle the edifice that supports him. Or at least, not completely. Who knows, his own path to further achievements may be thwarted by a candidate chosen by less arcane means!

  13. When I see Abbott and Andrews in full cry I think of that Hollywood epic Hawaii which starred sweet Julie Andrews who married a zealous Christian and went off to the Pacific to save souls.

    I can see them there hectoring the poor natives about hell and damnation, making them wear scratchy serge suits and blue ties and corsets for the ladies which, of course gave them the vapors.

    I can

  14. Part 2 (text seizure)
    I can hear their reedy falsettos. Ye will all be saved if you follow The Book.

    Self-denial. Hard work. Self-reliance. mortification of the flesh is required.

    Otherwise ....

    The scorching flames of Hades will torment you for eternity.

    Oh dear. What a turn around. No wonder people are resentful and suspicious.

    The govt abbott was part of encouraged us all to leave live life high on the hog, to aspire, to spend. Get those registers ringing. Ka-Ching. Ka-Ching. Spend for the nation. Here is some cash. Loosen those purse strings.

    Gillard tried to claw back a bit of middle class welfare and Abbott's mob yelled class Warfare. He was going to fix up everything. No price to be paid by anyone. Magic wand stuff.

    Some clearly believed him. And our leader and others have boxed their ears soundly for being so stupid as to believe him.

    Now that is the strangest part of all.

    Comrades is it any wonder people do not trust Abbott.

  15. Mr Abbott's faceless men in the I.P.A are getting some decent and interesting press especially in The Saturday Paper.

    A nasty bunch of people who have some extreme ideological arguments that they care to inflict upon an ignorant polity

    These people are dangerous and shallow greedy brats..

    It's a scary article