27 July 2014

Capability, decency ... and the Abbott government

And for one crowded hour, you were the only one in the room
And I sailed around all those bumps in the night to your beacon in the gloom
I thought I had found my golden September in the middle of that purple June
But one crowded hour would lead to my wreck and ruin

- Augie March One crowded hour
Traditional media reviews the performance of a new government at the hundred-day mark, and at the first anniversary of its taking office. The hundred-day reviews of the Abbott government catalogued how petty and nasty it was, overlooking the inconvenient truth of the gap between what it said it would do and what it actually is doing. It's too early for the anniversary, but bugger it, let's have the review anyway in light of current circumstances.

The Abbott government was elected in order to:
  • Can the carbon pricing mechanism as its first order of business
  • Can the mining tax too
  • Stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat
  • Run everything else pretty much as the Gillard and Rudd governments said they were going to, but with a bit of political stability

Since last September the Abbott government has:
  • Finally abolished the carbon pricing mechanism, but with a lot of palaver and no credit for having done so
  • The mining tax still in place (consider this: the persuasive skills of this government are so bad that they can't even persuade a mining billionaire, who campaigned against the mining tax, to abolish it. It's supposedly a massive impost on our economy, yet ten months later its abolition simply fell off the legislative agenda)
  • Still dealing with asylum-seekers coming to Australia by boat, and there's no commentary about on-water matters until there is, and while Morrison is a minister in disarray the press gallery yearn to hear from him
  • Botched everything else - education funding, interference in the national broadcasters, welfare, health, has been trashed to the point where you're entitled to believe everything this government says is bullshit; and last but not least
  • Suddenly become destabilised. Unlike under the Gillard government, the press gallery is not implying that leadership tensions within the government are at fever pitch and that any moment now, the PM is going to be rolled. This means the government is stable, right? According to Madonna King, the leadership tensions of December 2009 have not been fully resolved, with Hockey, Turnbull and Abbott at weapons drawn like the warehouse scene from Reservoir Dogs. The press gallery had a) no idea about this LIBERAL SPLIT SHOCK or b) covered it up, before King embarrassed them for the higher cause of telling the truth about how we are governed plugging her book.
Given all that, and the feigned surprise of the press gallery about how we've all been had (how could they possibly have known?), the crash of MH17 ten days ago and the Abbott government's initial reaction to it was something of a surprise.

Since the fall of the Fraser government, the Coalition has stuffed its foreign policy with warmed-over US Republican suspicion of the United Nations. Certainly this government's disdain for UN refugee protocols, and its contempt for Rudd's quest for a Security Council seat, is a matter of record. Yet, the government was right to recognise MH17 as a problem requiring concerted international action through established forums; it dispatched Julie Bishop to New York without stating up front exactly what she was supposed to achieve by going there, a breach of its standard practice. This meant anything she did achieve was a bonus.

Bishop got all the credit for that motion before the Security Council from pretty much all of the press gallery. Little credit was given to Australia's permanent legation at the UN, and you had to go to foreign news sites to see the significant input from Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. One day the whole, nuanced tale might come to light, but for the moment it is jarring when the Dutch and others make the big decisions that flow from what, apparently, was an Aussie diplomatic triumph. So much for the first draft of history.

The press gallery has been deaf to the shifting global power relations evident in responses to this incident. Do the press gallery, and the traditional media outlets that employ them (for the moment) not realise that Australians can access foreign news sources?

Bishop couldn't even credit Rudd, Gillard, and Bob Carr for having put Australia onto the Security Council, and apparently she is denying a DFAT briefing to the Opposition (how she howled when she was in the post Plibersek occupies today). The woman who ran down the clock on people dying from asbestos-related diseases is now bending over backwards for victims of a much more abrupt act of negligence. For all her flaws, this could well be her finest moment.

Putin has been a world leader for as long as Abbott and Bishop have been frontbenchers in Australian politics - there are no examples where Putin has caved to world opinion, and Abbott won't and can't change that. People like Campbell Newman or Joe Hockey insisting that Putin might not be welcome at the G20 in Brisbane later this year has the potential to more than negate Bishop's diplomatic achievement.

Russia does not have the ability to project power beyond its borders that the Soviet Union did. In Georgia and Ingushetia we have seen that Putin relies on bands of thugs, with Kalashnikovs in one hand and vodka bottles in the other, roaming around making the territory ungovernable but in some vague way 'loyal' to Moscow. This is how Russia denied an intact Yugoslavia to the West, by arming marauding Serbs and reducing other players in the Balkans to their level. This is what he's doing in eastern Ukraine: given what we know now the shooting down of MH17 makes no sense geopolitically, but only as a horrible error. The audio evidence from intercepted communications, and the sheepishness by the Russian government, point to that conclusion. Abbott was dumb to paint Putin into a corner, this piece was a little too cute in ignoring Abbott, and The Daily Telegraph dumber still for making it appear that Abbott forced concessions from Putin.

All that said, the idea of Tony Abbott being competent and dignified is pretty surprising, and without seeking to verbal him Tim Dunlop takes a similar position.

Imagine there was a vicious dog living in your street, and that pretty much every time you and your neighbours went past it the dog reared up and barked menacingly. Imagine your entreaties to the owners were met with abuse, or jeers at your powerlessness. Now imagine walking by that house and, instead of barking, the dog began singing Donna e mobile pitch-perfect and enunciated beautifully - this is what it's like watching random acts of competence from the Abbott government.

Commentators are expected to have a response to every situation, but sometimes slack-jawed mute amazement is most eloquent.

After the amazement comes one of two reactions: either embracing the new situation, or a retreat into denial. However much I disagree with the findings of so-called "9-11 truthers", I have some sympathy with their inability to credit disaffected Arabs with such an event and their insistence on bigger targets like the Rothschilds or the CIA. However, as I said earlier, Abbott killed his golden moment with overreach.

The idea of sending armed federal police into a conflict zone was dumb, though understandable given the Dutch army's role in Srebrenica. It should have snapped the press gallery out of its "universally agreed" praise and support for Abbott, and reminded even its most consistently worthwhile correspondent that it too can be guilty of overreach:
Death and tragedy reset the national political conversation.
Tingle refers to the all-too-brief lull following the death of John Gillard and the low "died of shame" attacks from Alan Jones, Joe Hockey, and Tony Abbott against his daughter. Does this mean Australian politics - and the reporting thereof - will sink to a new low over coming days?
There is a restraint in what issues journalists ask questions about. A sudden observance of appropriateness rules.
Not really. Tingle's press gallery colleagues speculate whether MH17 (and the unqualified press gallery praise for Abbott's response) will give Abbott a "poll bounce", even while the dead passengers remain unburied. This is ghoulishly indecent and reflects poorly on all members of the gallery, and their editors, lowering their behaviour to that of the Murdoch journalist who rifled through passenger luggage spread across the steppes because they just can't help it. It negates whatever propriety Abbott and Bishop showed in the hours after the incident.
So whatever else is said about MH17, it stopped the noise generated by the Senate and Clive Palmer in its tracks.
It just did the same thing in a different form. The "noise generated by the Senate and Clive Palmer" was all about applying pressure to implement the government's agenda, to save an already failing government from itself. By contrast, the unstinting praise surrounding Abbott's initial response to MH17 was all about applying pressure to implement the government's agenda, to save an already failing government from itself.
Context is also playing a grotesque game with the portrait of Joe Hockey painted in Madonna King’s new book Hockey: Not Your Average Joe.
See above - the idea that this government, for all its shortcomings, presents a unified front is no longer true, and given the effect that polls have in Canberra the centripetal pressures on this government will only increase. Abbott, Hockey, and Turnbull are each diminished. None has any real incentive to pull together for any cause wider than themselves. Ten months after it was elected to supposedly address a budget emergency, no budget has been passed, and even the crisis has evaporated.

Tingle goes on to describe a critique of health policy by the AMA, but such criticisms were eminently foreseeable after years of policy dereliction from Peter Dutton (now Health Minister, Dutton had been Health spokesman for most of the Coalition's time in opposition; he has apparently done no policy work to speak of, despite its significance to the national budget and political sensitivities, leaving himself and the government open to criticism long before Owler's speech. You want context? That's context).

It seems 'context' is the press gallery's way of asserting that its interpretation of events is the only possible interpretation, a point echoed feebly by Annabel Crabb and Murdoch pissboy and propagandist Simon Benson:
What Abbott has exposed this week more than anything is the complete vacuum of leadership Australia had been living under in the six years of Labor government.
Rudd, Gillard, Combet - and yes, Shorten - any of them would have done what Abbott did, without the overreach and without having to fend off frantic attention-seeking behaviour from Tony Abbott (and Simon Benson). The rest of Benson's piece, and his body of work more generally, might fairly be described as crap.

The competence and decorum shown by the Abbott government was shown to be an aberration, reverting as it is to incompetent policy and indecorous politics. Those of us who (generally) aren't impressed by this government can draw no vindication as there is no safe, capable, real alternative. The adults boxed Abbott in to accepting things like UN Security Council resolutions, and there is some hope that may yet be replicated in health policy.

This government can only be rendered competent when its other sneaky, half-baked alternatives are firmly closed off. The press gallery are not yet awake to this, and may never be - they are waiting pointlessly but earnestly for a "poll bounce", a return to their 'golden September' of last year. The polls are, as ever, beside the point. All we should reasonably foresee from recent developments is "the tenderness of patient minds/ And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds".


  1. Yep, we have the world press gallery on the planet, we need a Helen Thomas even though La Grattan thought that was her.

    Excellent summation as usual Andrew and the poll crap and Simone Benson are excellent.

  2. Thanks again Andrew. I do enjoy reading your blog.
    I am in an ungenerous frame of mind regarding TA's reaction to the Ukraine horror. As far as I am concerned his natural belligerence was activated. Strong words, marginally indirect accusations before facts are known. Then in his rush to win at all costs he attempts to send in armed personnel into an extremely untidy war zone. I thought that was very reckless. Meanwhile, as we know, the media have placed Abbott at centre stage when he is barely mentioned in the English and US papers.

    I am not sure about your comment about Joe Hockey saying Putin will not be welcome in Brisbane. Unless he has changed his mind he said clearly that he believed Putin should come to the G20.

    If that happens TA is going to look pretty uncomfortable.

    1. Hockey was pretty equivocal in the comments I heard, he may have modified his comments since. I suggest G20 will get away from Abbott.

    2. "If that happens TA is going to look pretty uncomfortable."
      No, he will have moved on with so many new lies, hollow promises and provocations that he will have forgotten that particular verbal fart by then; he will suck up and kiss arse like with Japanese PM Abe. With so many high-profile bums to kiss, there will be plenty of Abbott quotes to puzzle over and sycophantic behaviour for us all to cringe at in the view of world media.

    3. Yes Anon, you may be right. Our PM has backpedalled so far from the early heated words tossed at Putin that today Australia will not be supporting increased sanctions against Russia.

      I am dizzy.

      Anon 7.46 am

  3. Once again so well written Andrew, thank you.

    This current government is on the nose with the general public - even with a friendly media - and they have nowhere to go. They have failed by the standards they promised and the standards they kept during the last parliament. Any sort of "bounce" from this disaster will turn out to be of the dead cat variety.

  4. Have you heard Augie March are back together Andrew? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qrwkM-wT_g

  5. Hillbilly Skeleton28/7/14 2:34 pm

    No Galactic poll bounce today. Hmm. In fact, it seems as though those pesky voters are able to discriminate between a man being as competent as they would expect the Prime Minister of our nation to be under the circumstances of a national tragedy and the policies of the government, as exemplified by their Budget. Also their opinion of the government being informed by the entrails that have been laid bare by books and articles written by those in the MSM and the blogosphere with no need to look over their shoulder at being cut off the drip from the government media phalanx of flunkies.

    Honest commentators such as your good self, Andrew, and Madonna King, plus the growing number of worthies at Morrie Schwartz' publications. Might I also add John Menadue's blog, which is quickly getting up a head of steam. Not to mention all the other good reads that we know are out there, including Fairfax even finding remnants of their backbone in order to criticise the Abbott government, on the odd occasion.

    Which is all grist to the mill and good for keeping the government honest, even if they don't like it and do everything in their power and with the levers of power at their disposal, plus the combined efforts, gratis, of the Murdoch Australian media Borg to roll their turds in glitter, in order to evade that scrutiny. It means they find it harder to turn around negative perceptions of them, which is only right and proper, really. Also what the internet and social media were supposed to be for, wasn't it? Increased scrutiny and the ability, at last, for US to hold THEM to account more fully.

    Long may they continue to be afraid of the electoral backlash that would surely follow any attempt at internet censorship.

    Also, I thought I read that Tanya Plibersek was receiving regular briefings on MH17 & the Ukraine situation from DFAT. Probably the minimum 'Heather' Bishop can get away with, on the other hand.

  6. Andrew thanks again for sharing your thoughts.
    298 deaths causing a "poll bounce" is a bit like a offside goal in the world cup , which ever way the "piss boys" put it, it just doesn't count.
    "anthem of youth" nice touch , .

  7. VoterBentleigh28/7/14 8:05 pm

    If some people think you're a cynic on Abbott and MH17, they should bug our house and hear what we have to say! As a Santamaria fan, Mr Abbott's feeble attempts to put China and Russia in their places are done so he can have a dig at a communist or ex-communist nation.

    The Abbott Government is showing signs of the tin-pot regime:

    -install military/ex-military as head of state
    -bestow the head of state with a title to set him apart from the masses
    -increase defence spending exorbitantly while cutting government programmes to the populace
    -conduct previously civilian aspects of government as military operations and treat any questions as coming under the official secrets' act
    -act the tough, immovable leader, but generally only be interviewed by cronies
    -have an over-inflated sense of one's influence in the wider world
    -appoint all your cronies to positions of authority
    -reward all your supporters and propagandists with the trappings that come with power.

  8. Cronies...including young ones as well.

    Those guys should know better, , they're embarrassing to watch at times when they're so young and believe their own b.s.


    Where's the integrity from their families and friends in this matter with children being used as a political pawn on a boat or at some horrible detention centre.

    It's bloody disgusting!

  9. Andrew I look forward to reading your take on the news as presented by a sycophantic press gallery when so many of them are in relationships or are partners.
    I have long since gone from having any contact with Murdochs output why would you pay that motley lot to help keep them employed.

  10. I thought Tony Abbott and Ms Bishop have acted in a manner that would make Australians proud in this Ukraine situation. There's not much anyone can do but Ms Bishop has been a credit to her country.

  11. Off topic I know but the Daily Telegraph headline today 'G'day Nauru' turned my stomach.

    It is akin to aiming a sharp kick to the head of someone lying bloodied and winded, on the ground.

    What a charmless lot some of us are.

  12. Further to my comment above about the DT headline ....
    I should have provided context.
    It referred to the secret transference (apart from the exclusive given to the DT) of the 157 Tamil asylum seekers, 50 of whom are children, to Nauru.
    That came on the heels of revelations regarding the plight of children in detention.

  13. Thought would add the broader topic of our serious media limitations, and the events in Ukraine. Not only is our domestic political media myopic, but another problem is that we in west continually get a picture of Russia that is USA generated, we constantly consume their mainstream image of Putin and Russia. What do we know about them really? Have you seriously ever seen a positive news media piece about Russia in mainstream in last decade?

    Putin is clearly an autocrat, but Russia is an old country with long history. At end of cold war President Bush senior made pledge that US wouldn’t use NATO to encroach and surround a now much weakened post Soviet Union Russia. But in contrast for last decade US policy has been to use its unilateral power to advance its strategic interests against Russia’s.

    The US has meddled in Russian related affairs and strategic interests since Chechnya, into Kosovo, then Georgia and now Ukraine. To understand this you have to grasp that elements of US agencies have located, supported, financed and or armed hard core nationalists and or secessionists in all these locations in last decade. The Afghan fighters that appeared in the Chechen conflict certainly didn’t just get there alone, they needed handlers, transport and shipments of supplies, these were done through third party ‘charities’ or ‘fundraisers’, but they required serious state actors logistical support to happen. This is equally true of the Chechen militants now fighting in Syria, the are handled and organised by various agencies to get there, this time the key US ally Saudi Arabia is doing the heavy lifting. As an aside, Washington’s nationalist group of choice to run Kosovo, the KLA were and remain Europe’s largest heroin distributors and generally reprehensible criminals, infamous for their role in human organ trafficking.

    Russia is essentially defanged with a limited and only regional reach, but is still autonomous enough to brush up against US interests in way few others can, and their strategic interests are completely at odds. NATO has been steadily moving toward Russia for the last decade, removing Russian hegemony over the central eastern European sphere they have controlled or influenced on and off or a hundred years. For Russia whose history involves two massive and violent invasions by France and Germany, these are seen as natural buffer zones against those powerful western European states. But equally the NATO moves (the US built a vast armed forces base in Kosovo that is largest outside US since Vietnam and right on Russia’s doorstep) are seen as aggressive moves to isolate and secure very valuable oil resource assets in the Caspian Sea, which are traditionally Russian interests and areas. All of this is under reported in western mainstream media, it is in academia but not the daily news.

    Again whatever your opinion of him, what Putin sees is an aggressive series of moves by the US and NATO, with dominance of Europe to Russian borders as the endgame, that is picture we in west are not really privy to in our US dominated media stories about Russia.