19 August 2014

Don't blame Amanda Vanstone

Amanda Vanstone tried to defend Joe Hockey in his attempts to implement the policies of the Audit Commission, of which Vanstone was part. She only demonstrated her own intellectual poverty and that of the politico-media environment which sustained her career.
Sometimes the banal aspects of life are just too much to ignore.
What a great opening! Dear reader, this column will be banal: aren't you glad you buy the paper?
When the gods conspire to load them up into a short time frame and throw them at you, it can seem overwhelming. I feel that way now about so much of our media coverage of politics.
The first two sentences could apply to anyone, anywhere. Stop someone in a supermarket or waiting for an elevator and they would probably say something like that to make polite conversation.

As to the last sentence - why now? Did this not happen regularly during her time in politics, or even before that?
There can't be a crisis next week, my schedule is already full.
- Henry Kissinger
The next four paragraphs of her article were a pathetic attempt to say that, well, a Liberal smoked a cigar but then a Labor person smoked a cigar too. This is the sort of childish tu quoque that denigrates politics and democracy as a whole, and then people like Amanda Vanstone then write articles saying what a pity it is that politicians are held in such low esteem.

Here's the significance of the cigar: it denotes a man who is out of touch with most others, and who does not care. For a retiree, the symbolism is less significant than for someone in a position to know better. Hockey has brought down a budget that shows him (and the government that approved it) to be out of touch with ordinary people, and who maintain entitlements for those who are already wealthy and powerful. Vanstone has tried Dr Freud's line that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" and it just makes her look like she doesn't get it.
If you think I am kidding myself, consider a reversal of the stereotyping on others. How about users of illegal drugs as an example. If someone were to stereotype them all as useless losers who sponge off society on welfare, break into our homes and steal from us, there would be an outcry. You see, apparently it is OK to engage in stereotyping of a senior conservative politician, but not of others.
I still think she's kidding herself. On one hand, we have a guy who has 20 years' experience dealing with the media, and who employs people who deal with the media on his behalf. On the other we have people so deluded they think drugs and other criminal activities are what their life is all about - people who can't defend themselves from themselves, let alone others.

Mind you, the actions of drug addicts is only illegal because of the way our laws are drafted.

If Vanstone has a point I can't tell what it is, and she can't either.
There’s a free kick on offer, and plenty of the lazy journalists take it. Hollow infotainment tries to get away with looking like sensible media comment. Stereotyping and ridicule pass as substitutes for informed debate. It adds nothing to the substantive political discourse.
Valid points in some general sense, but it doesn't fit the situation here. Keep in mind Vanstone has been both victim and beneficiary of such laziness. Hockey did not get where is with media engaged in constant Socratic dialogue; nobody does, not even the media themselves.
Another example is the media reaction to Joe’s recent comment to the effect that people with lower incomes don’t drive as far and thus would not be affected as much by a small increase in the fuel excise. In many cases, in an absolute sense, that would be true, although there would of course be exceptions. It would be equally true to say that, in some cases, lower-income earners would be affected more in a relative sense. Yet again, amid all the information we could be looking at, one remark is brought to the surface and has a spotlight trained on it.

In the discussion on this from so many journalists we see little about the overall merit or otherwise of raising the excise on fuel. Do we want fuel to get relatively cheaper and cheaper so the so-called rich, who in absolute terms may well consume more petrol, get a bigger benefit? Even that is not the question.
Clearly, if you want a serious discussion of issues, you're wasting your time dealing with the press gallery. Vanstone is not the first to make this complaint, and it's not even the first time she has made it. Over the last half-century at least, the political parties that govern us have come to rely more and more upon the press gallery to maintain their relationship with voters. By using a demonstrably inadequate means of connecting with people they compromise their position. Either find a way of going around the press gallery, or stop bellyaching, and no there is no third option.
The real issue we face is: Can we keep going as as we are? Can we keep spending at current rates and have a sustainable economy? Do we just hope things will pick up, or do we start to put our house in order? If we don’t want to collect more money one way, how would we like to collect it?
There are several questions there. I'd add questions of spending versus investment, too, among others, but then I've not seen a lot of evidence that Amanda Vanstone is open to engagement with new ideas, or that a newspaper column is the forum for such a debate. Like most major party politicians, Vanstone's idea of a debate is to talk past an idea rather than engage with it or modify behaviour in any way.
Much of the difficulties Joe faces are a consequence of the Senate with which he has to deal.
(I would have said "many" rather than "much"; in any case multiple things can't be "a consequence". This, from an expensively-educated person whose entire professional life has been about communication, in a newspaper that is supposedly authoritative on such matters. Anyway.)

Joe Hockey has been dealing with the Senate for two decades. During this period it has faced seven half-Senate elections and numerous turnovers on account of resignation etc. He is not the first Treasurer do deal with a difficult Senate. It's part of the job.
We elected some people who in their wildest dreams never expected to get elected. We didn’t expect it either. They had no coherent set of principles that would guide their decision making. These senators seem very much focused on simple political posturing and bargaining.
Amanda Vanstone was Education Minister in the Howard government. She once hired Chris Pyne on her staff. Today, Chris Pyne is Education Minister and trying similar 'reforms' to universities that Vanstone tried and failed to get through. What principles are at work there?

Amanda Vanstone was Immigration Minister in the Howard government. What principles guided her decisions? Keep quiet, do as you're told, don't rock the boat and we'll give you an embassy.

What are Joe Hockey's principles? I've known him for as long as Vanstone has, and unlike her I confess freely that I do not know.
Now Joe has to deal with [Senators] in order to get some common sense. Making sense of that isn’t easy.
Nobody said it would be. Malcolm Fraser said it wouldn't be, back when Joe was in short pants. I've found that if you want to get some common sense, you have to bring some: could that be the issue with the budget?
What do the independents and Palmer United Party members want for the long term in Australia? Do they think we should future-proof the economy against another global financial crisis, or not?
What does it mean to "future-proof the economy"? It used to mean protectionism and keeping out non-whites. I think it's a nonsense to say that the economy can be future-proofed, and a lie to say that the way this government is going about it is the only/best way to do it. Maybe we could've had some journalist ask the before the last election.
Just how did Clive Palmer achieve such prominence? He’s a rich man, but so what. There have been and still are rich people in Parliament. That alone is no claim to fame.
Every time a wealthy man has entered Parliament, they have attracted media attention. Every time. Never once has Mr Moneybags rolled into Parliament and rolled out without troubling the scorers. I can feel a straw man coming on ...
First, his party always had a prospect, even likelihood, of holding the balance of power in the Senate. That alone makes you of interest. Some in the media actively built his profile.
Imagine a dark and stormy night, with a black-clad old woman hunched over the horoscope of baby Clive. Her bony fingers reach into his cot and she feels the bumps on his skull. "This boy is destined to hold the balance of power in the Senate!", she cackles.

Nope, doesn't work for me either. Why, pray tell, was it so likely? Did you wager a yellow note on such an outcome Amanda? How did some LNP Queensland tiff lead to this scenario, or predicament? Perhaps it is a Queensland thing, given that in recent years Queenslanders such as Andrew Bartlett, Cheryl Kernot, Mal Colston, and Vince Gair have held the balance of power in the Senate.

I have no idea why a cruel electorate would taunt Joe so, and fail to elect as many Coalition Senators as possible.
Second, sadly there was precious little scrutiny of what he stood for.
Oh, that's rich. Joe Hockey and the rest of this government coasted into office on the back of this "precious little scrutiny". He is now under a great deal of scrutiny, as is Palmer, but one is handling it with more equanimity than the other.
Being a potential thorn in Tony Abbott’s side made him the darling of good portions of the media.
Julia Gillard was a thorn in Abbott's side and large portions of the media of varying quality treated her very badly. Nobody becomes a 'media darling' by criticising Abbott. Even his successor as Leader of the Opposition doesn't qualify for such a title. The idea that the media is out to get Tony Abbott reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the media that constitutes the press gallery. They've observed him up close for many years and they don't get him at all.
Third, Clive is a master at manipulating the media, at getting the spotlight – and like moths to the flame, they fly.
The same can be said for Tony Abbott, and it's a shame it can't be said for Hockey. They said lots of nice things about him when dull policy wonk Wayne Swan (another Queenslander! Was he a likely prospect too?) held the job he holds now. You'd think Hockey would have learned media manipulation skills after all this time.
All of this contributes to coverage of the froth and bubble of politics, not the substance of policy.

Of course, in the great conversation of life that is politics there is room for discussion about people, their personalities, attitudes and quirks. How we say things can matter as much as what we say; it can unintentionally cause offence and it can affect what people think about us and our ideas. That’s no doubt why Joe has apologised for any offence caused. We just need to remember that these things are about the game of politics but they are not the main game, not the substance of government.
It was the substance of government that is making life hard for poor people. It was the substance of government that doesn't know or care enough to find out about how they live, or leave them alone, or perhaps even help them a little bit.

One does not apologise for offence caused; one apologises for one's actions, and let the apology go the way of the action itself. There has been no change to that substance, which is more offensive than a thousand word-games of this type (see previous post). Or not apologise, as the case may be.
The Hockey budget seeks to put Australia’s house back in order. It seeks to do that in a measured way over quite a few years. Sure there are, as there always will be, some tough decisions. Personally, I am in favour of future-proofing us from the next GFC, and very much in favour of stopping the selfish "spend now, make our kids pay" policies.
It seems to have made the house more disorderly, not less so, even without having been passed. Hockey seems to want the same tenure that Swan had, but unlike Swan not promising a surplus at the end of it, nor making any innovation on the revenue side. Amanda Vanstone was a Cabinet Minister in the Howard government and she sure as hell did nothing to protect Australia from the global financial crisis of 2008 (the one Hockey denied we had).

I still don't know what it means to future-proof anything, let alone a national economy, and it would appear Hockey is making our kids pay with fewer opportunities in what should be a brighter future for our country.
Some will pillory Joe over his cigars or something he said. I think we should offer him some praise for recognising that we need to clean up Labor’s mess.
These are not the only two choices. He overstated "Labor's mess" and is doing too little to address it, and other important aspects of our future. At the first sign of the scrutiny he should have faced in last year's budget - if not earlier - he has resorted to self-pity and a mutually embarrassing intervention from Aunty Mandy.

Vanstone is understandably upset that someone she's known and liked for many years is being pilloried. She is wrong to expect better from the media, wrong to expect policy debate when she can't even ask the right questions, and wrong to assume that whatever the government is doing must be right. The idea that she's succeeded at anything when muddying the waters over the cigar imagery is just sad. Politics is changing around her in ways she doesn't understand, and all she offers is her befuddlement - which is what she offered when in office. Why Fairfax are strapping themselves to both her irrelevance and the things she rails at is unclear.


  1. "Stereotyping and ridicule pass as substitutes for informed debate. It adds nothing to the substantive political discourse."
    Sounds like Mandy's wireless programme.

  2. Another great column Andrew. This could be read as comedy if it weren't so totally tragic. Vanstone was a complete failure as a minister (hence her exile to Rome), and she now applies the same flawed reasoning which made her such political joke to her self-righteous commentary (if one can dignify her ramblings as "commentary".) God forbid that I ever have to stand adjacent to her in a checkout queue! Poor feller, my country indeed.

  3. Thanks again Andrew. Your analysis is acute, entertaining and devastating.
    What Vanstone cannot perceive is that all the jibes hurled at Joe for cigar smoking, foxtrotting with his wife in his office on Boodjit night and then topping all with his foolish and deceptive remarks about poor people's driving habits, are symbolic of real concern about this govt's intent to change this country in ways unpalatable to many.
    When a disgruntled and suspicious voter is presented with a Let-them-eat-cake moment it becomes a point of clarification.
    In my opinion Hockey's clear unease with his 'apology' indicated that he is feeling betrayed by his own party. One by one they trooped out the morning-after-the-grovel-through-clenched teeth and talked solemnly about 'Labor's Mess'. It was as if they had all spread themselves out on the front bench leaving Hockey hanging over the very edge.
    Apparently Himself is going to lead the sales pitch. I thought we would have heard more from him by now.
    What we sorely need is for the Opposition to start talking in a philosophical way about the ethos of this country, what has shaped us, our values, our deep-seated desire to be egalitarian and the threat posed to our national identity by aspects of this budget.
    Once upon a time we would have had political journalists who would have been interested enough to look beyond the cigar smoke to examine why the budget has caused such concern in the community.
    We have had harsh budgets before and there has been grumbling but people will swallow bitter pills if they are confident that it is in their and the national interest. This govt has not made that case and people suspect that a case cannot be made because the budget is unfair and signals unwelcome changes to the framework of our society.

  4. I don't read Vanstone or the other LNP apologists because they are not worth my time. Your piece confirms my judgement.

  5. Fairfax probably only keep Vanstone on the books so they can point at her presence when they get accused of being pro-ALP.

    If her main post-political career consisted of worthless columns like the one you have dissected here, I could live with it. But unfortunately she still gets to dictate policy by being involved in the Commission of Audit.

  6. Great piece once again Andrew.
    Why Fairfax thinks she is worth publishing I really don't know, and that she is published without sub-editing (yes, I know they're all in NZ aren't they) goes further to trash their brand as a journal of record. But then she's on the ABC too.

    I also agree with Anon@6:16 - there is a definite need for the opposition to step into the gaping hole in the debate and start talking about the kind of country we want to live in. They can't leave discussion of the economy to the LNP, and they can't talk about the economy without referring to the society it is part of. Andrew Leigh seems pretty good on this, but is he too clever for our news media?
    Otherwise all that will be remembered come polling day is 'fixing Labor's mess'.

  7. I read Amanda's article then called Fairfax on 136666, spoke to a nice lady in an offshore call centre about cancelling my subscription. There is nothing there for me any more. I like the letters page, the all to infrequent Walleed Ali or Ross Gittens piece and of course the odd Alan Moir cartoon. But really, I have to agree with the Australian, Fairfax digital is sparse with a splash of click-bait thrown in. There is more insightful commentary in buzzfeed.

  8. I'm not sure how many more "we told you so" articles I can read. The stupid and complicit pre-election media blame someone else, the newly elected incompetent LNP representatives blame someone else, and the general public apparently stand back and still don't get it. Australia is reaping what was sown. And yes, every blogosphere commentator told you so - Andrew here just a little more elegantly than some others.

  9. Of course 'future-proofing' could mean something entirely different. Making sure our economy stays the working oligopoly it is and benefiting the few rather than the many. But now I sound like a socialist.

  10. She's like a particularly persistent Blowfly...

  11. She's good at begging the question, is out Amanda.

  12. The 'let them eat cake' analogy from Anon above is very appropriate. I'm sure the press gallery in 18th century France were just as bad, stereotyping Marie Antoinette as a 'cake eater'. Why did they resort to reporting on the symbolism of 'eating cake' and not report on what was actually going on in the Revolution?

  13. She also has a program on ABC Radio National as a counter-weight to Phillip Adams for the same reason.

  14. Robespierre20/8/14 6:59 pm

    Marie Antoinette was clueless and privileged. If servants hadn't replenished the bread tray, one simply ate cake instead. She could not grasp the possibility of an absence of food.

  15. It's slightly amusing how many on the right of politics expect the media to be mere stenographers, reporting without context or analysis, and still get upset when they do just that.

    Yes, poor old Joe. It's the media's fault for repeating his exact words.

    And then there's the classic false-equivalence. I don't give a toss what an ex-prime minister does fifteen years into his retirement. I also don't care if Joe Hockey enjoys the occasional poopstick (if by "occasional" she actually means "daily," as some reports have suggested. The point is that they we sucking on their expensive, imported burning leaves when most of us would have expected them to be at work.

    Perhaps Amanda thinks Joe is "entitled" to sympathetic coverage.

  16. We have a serious problem with journalism in Australia today Jon Faine interviewed Tony Abbott on Abbotts terms that was to have a distraction from his role in governing Australia you see it is most favourable for the government to be speaking on events overseas rather than Jon Faine holding Abbott to account for how they are making such a mess of the financial position of Australia. At no time did Faine suggest ot him how many lies he told to achieve his aim of becoming Prime Minister of Australia you see Faine peed his pants when he was interviewing Julia Gillard and asked her about a program played on the ABC At Home with Julia.
    I will bet when Paul Kelly appears on Q&A no one will be allowed to pursue him on how he has destroyed his standing as a journalist to fit in with Murdoch to set the direction of political out comes in Australia.

  17. VoterBentleigh21/8/14 8:56 pm

    The example of Amanda Vanstone eptitomises a problem with the media, which is to have ex-politicians analysing political matters. The audience learn very little from such commentary and I now avoid reading it. One learns little from an article by Steve Bracks, Jeff Kennett or Peter Reith. It's the same reason I find Q&A a waste of time. Whatever questions are asked, one knows that the answer will not enlighten one any further about the subject under discussion. Recently, John Hewson had an article on the ABC's Online "The Drum" and I didn't bother reading it. At our place, whenever John Hewson popped up in the media, we would laugh and say that there was "Banquo" again, always appearing to haunt John Howard and the LNP.