It never used to be that badThe 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.
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 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
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.