12 September 2014

Good analysis requires perspective

Solid, intelligent analysis of how we are governed is possible. It is just not possible from within the press gallery.

This is what proper analysis looks like. Read it all, see you when you get back.
Westacott says that "never before has the public sector faced a more complex set of challenges". It's as if she's not heard of the "challenges" of: setting up the Federation, World War I and its long, severe, economic aftermath in Australia; the 1930s Depression; World War II and postwar reconstruction; the existential threats of the Cold War; the seemingly intractable difficulties of "stagflation" in the 1970s; and so on. Beside these "challenges", those of the present, for all their difficulty, are not nearly so complex.

It's not just that Westacott is talking historical nonsense. She has based her recipes on a false premise and she neglects the history and current circumstances of the Australian Public Service as well as the fundamental differences between the public and private sectors.
That's a takedown: it's about something other than attacking the person directly, but about the national context that the target here (BCA CEO Jennifer Westacott) sought and failed to address. It isn't ad hominem (e.g. Keating at his most caustic), and unlike most parliamentary insults it doesn't come from some stale catalogue of cliches (e.g. "depriving some village of its idiot"). This is why people despise parliamentary banter: it isn't half as well-considered as this.
So what is her game?
That simple question elevates this above most political commentary. When you're an experienced observer of politics you can look beyond what is said to the longer game of what the speaker is hoping to achieve. Again, the press gallery took Abbott on face value, and failed to ask what his real game was: had they done so the current shambles would have been more apparent when we went to vote last September.
Of course, these are not so much "insights" as modern management aphorisms; they're about as useful as such things usually are. Their consideration is not helped by the number of blunders Westacott makes in elaborating them.
Again, the intolerance for nonsense that obviates the ad hominem attack, followed with a point-by-point rebuttal.
The point Westacott overlooks is that the boundaries of innovation and risk for public servants should be defined by their ministers. There's no point in urging an "innovation mindset" on officials if that's not what their political masters want.
This is what it means to have the real understanding of politics which the press gallery, and those who employ them, insist they have but do not.

If the utterings and witterings of Tony Abbott and his frontbench had been subjected to that level of scrutiny there would not be a Coalition government now. If the last Labor government had been subject to that quality of scrutiny it would have lifted its game. By defying the instruction to not write crap and adopt and adolescent pose of sneering scepticism, the press gallery ensured that the Gillard and Rudd governments merely survived and that excellent policy was tossed out with a great deal of policy bathwater - not that the press gallery could tell the difference.

Let's contrast the above piece of analysis with the sort of thing you get from the press gallery - and not just from some poor newbie, or your bog-standard drone, but from someone who (by press gallery standards) produces reflective, thinky-thoughty pieces. Over to you, Katharine Murphy:
As a rule of thumb, politics would prefer to deliver voters steadiness and certainty, but increasingly this [sic] is a commodity in short supply.

So if you can’t deliver certainty, then uncertainty will have to do. And uncertainty has its own potent rhetorical currency.
It was the press gallery, of which Murphy was then (and strangely, remains) a senior member, who heard and reported Abbott promising to deliver certainty, without really questioning whether he had the capacity or even the inclination to do so.
The current uncertainty frame in national affairs isn’t actually a construction, or a complete invention delivered to us by a manifestly cynical political class.
Well, largely they are.

The current government, when in opposition, declared that the government had a debt crisis. It doesn't, but people like Murphy either simply reported that it did, or pretended there were two valid sides to such a question. They assumed, but did not check, that there was a real strategy for reducing debt rather than the same hopin' and wishin' that we saw from the previous government. They did not bother to do some basic checking on what Liberals do in government; namely, that when they do pay down debt it's a historical accident.

The current government, when in opposition, declared that it had a plan to deliver economic growth and jobs, and that key to this was the abolition of taxes paid by only a few big companies. The taxes went in their own good time but the jobs growth (and economic growth more broadly) hasn't materialised. This was foreseeable by anyone not so gullible as to take Tony Abbott at his word - someone like Katharine Murphy.
Reasons to feel bloody terrified are many. In no particular order, there’s Russian aggression, there’s Chinese regional ambition, there’s the consequences of the decline of American exceptionalism and the perceived vacuum of leadership in the White House, and there’s that sectarian violence in the Middle East and its deeply unpleasant consequences for all western liberal democracies.
Knocks "stop the boats" into a cocked hat, doesn't it? Doesn't it? What do you mean, simply reporting those words was all that was necessary? This geopolitical gibbering context is the sort of thing you develop from too much exposure to Peter Hartcher.

See the quote above on other points in history which had their own challenges, and see Murphy's global impressions for the shallow affair it is.
There’s concern about the direction of the economy, about job security and cost of living pressures. It doesn’t matter, apparently, if the data tells us we are travelling well enough and certainly a great deal better than elsewhere – the concern persists and wafts.
The data doesn't tell us that.

The data tells us everything is slowing down, and that there is no countervailing narrative that (or how) things will get better and that here are ways of joining the upward trajectory. As Paddy Gourley points out, sources of future growth from research and innovation are being cut back, not boosted. It's not that we're innumerate - we read things all too well, better than those in close proximity to the decision-makers who feel it's their job to make allowances and excuses.
Tony Abbott made a really big promise before the last election – he promised to end the chaotic cycle of the 43rd parliament and put the adults back in charge. He held out a chimera of certainty. Then he manifestly failed to deliver it.
He was never in a position to deliver it. This isn't being wise after the event it was starkly evident long before September '13 to anyone without a vested interest in the outcome. Everyone who reported to the contrary was wrong to do so, and has committed the most terrible fraud upon this country.

The press gallery put all of its credibility in Abbott's basket, and it has blown the lot.
This parliament has opened much like the last one, only it’s actually more lacking in a basic organising principle.
Yep. this was obvious just after the last parliament was elected, when you consider what might have happened if Windsor, Oakeshott et al had made a different decision. The idea that Abbott had to be taken at his word, and that the only way to assess an Abbott government was to have one, was both the unanimous press gallery position and deeply, deeply stupid and wrong.
Surprises emerge from back pockets.
Only if you're not paying attention, and if you have learned nothing.
The Coalition has been unable to communicate clearly what it stands for.
This has been the case since 2007, when Howard lost office. It was clear since Abbott became leader. He was clear about nothing other than the last Labor government was 'bad', which was all Murphy and the press gallery wanted to hear, all they reported. Murphy's failure to identify her own agency, and those of her colleagues, impedes any credibility she may bring to analysis of our politics.

That, and her childlike unquestioning belief in Mark Textor:
Textor noted soft perceptions about the economy. After years of economic growth in Australia “there is now a distinct possibility that easy prosperity may not continue”.
Again, the failure of agency here. This isn't a matter of disclosure, it's a matter of Murphy's ability to perceive what's going on and report on it accurately.

Mark Textor is largely to blame for making the silk purse of a Prime Minister out of the sow's ear that is Tony Abbott. Textor gamed Murphy and her colleagues for years and years, and they never picked it. He's still doing it. It was always the case that the Coalition did not have the answers for this country; Textor helped frame Abbott so that Murphy and her equally ovine colleagues didn't bother asking the questions that might damage the chances of Textor's client. Textor plays the press gallery for mugs and they love him for it.
I’d rate Textor’s assessment of our collective state of being bang on the money.
You would, wouldn't you.
Tony Abbott has moved into a discussion about national security and the steps the government is taking to keep us all safe. In so doing, the prime minister has defined an enemy which is both abstract and “other” and ephemeral – and very real.
Yes, yes but the idea of journalists covering politicians is not merely to quote, or even summarise, what they said. It is to check those words against other objective sources of reality, and to evaluate questions of how well we are governed, whether the priorities of the government are those of the nation, and so on.

In 1981, Robert Trimbole left Australia despite the highest level of police border alerts by changing his date of birth on his departure card. 32 years later, Khaled Sharrouf also slipped travel restrictions by using his brother's passport. Journalists should be alert to the idea that calls for greater powers are distractions from the ineffective use, rather than inadequacy, of existing powers. Instead, journalists like Murphy take Abbott at his word by accepting his word that he's "keep[ing] us all safe".
To put the current public posture at its simplest, Abbott is countering an abstract uncertainty with the imperative of moral crusade.
That's what he always did. The case against Gillard and Rudd was pretty abstract, but Abbott made up in fervour what he lacked in detail. Murphy and the press gallery fell for it then and here they fall for it again.
Prime ministers do what is right and what is necessary. Listen to him. He’s saying that every time he’s in front of a microphone. He wants to assure us that the adults, or in his case, the adult, has finally turned up.
Murphy and her colleagues quote him unquestioningly, giving him the benefit of the doubt, reinforcing him and Textor and the rest of them in the positions in which they are most comfortable.
The basic, reductionist, construction suits. So this is a key transition for him. If he can achieve the balance, Abbott has a good prospect of not only facing and dealing with a bunch of practical threats and problems but of stabilising his government and rebooting its political fortunes.
Murphy and her colleagues do reductionism really well, so they'll do their best to help Abbott. Were they to focus on subtleties and nuances and other points of view, they would serve their readers better but set Abbott adrift.
Shorten is also working himself up into a nationalistic lather about the intrinsic sacredness of Australian jobs and about defending “our industries” ... (in this case high tech Japanese submarine manufacturers, apparently creeping covertly around the Adelaide shipyards) who would make products more cheaply overseas and send them back here.
The Japanese submarines are designed for short-range operations, over a couple of hundred kilometres at most. Australian submarines need to operate over thousands of kilometres. Murphy could have found that (and other issues) out with a bit of basic journalism. Instead, operational issues like that are sneeringly referred to as "Australian conditions" or wedged into a half-baked narrative, and dismissed.
...understand that we are now locked in a process where we essentially hold mirrors up to each other.
We've always understood that, and journalists and politicians have both suffered as a result. The idea that Textor and others accurately capture our thinking about politics and what we want/need from it is risible.

Only when you understand the press gallery as a mirror in which Abbott loves to gaze, rather than as a 'fourth estate' for evaluating and checking state power, does this aimless wittering make any sense.
... it’s this abundance of reflective surfaces that exacerbates the disconcerting feeling that nothing in national affairs is ever quite real – and nothing ever quite penetrates.
And do you think Murphy will get off her backside and question any of the images crafted for her benefit? Never. Does this diminish Murphy and her press gallery colleagues? Yes. Abbott has hocked the credibility of his party and that of the press gallery; he demands still more credit, and Murphy and the gang will give it freely until he and they inevitably run out. They'll be all surprised at that, too.

Nobody should be surprised at the sheer obsequiousness from this blog's very own bunny, Mark Kenny:
Abbott has been using this neat bit of self deprecation for years now, trotting it out on those occasions when prime ministers are required, by tradition and format, to be funny.

It got a solid laugh from an audience of journalists, lobbyists, and corporates, at the National Press Club's 50th anniversary dinner in Canberra on Wednesday night - even if many had heard the punch-line before.
Jokes rely on their power for being unexpected. What Kenny heard there was a roar of appreciation for a politician who has always made a point of making journalists feel important, and feel competent by reinforcing their predictive power.

When Abbott promised a government of no surprises, it was a promise made to journalists. He promised that they would not have to deal with nuance and subtlety and different points of view. They love him for that. Having to run around and gather different opinions is hard work! Because press gallery journalists are morons, they failed to realise that differing opinions is normal for politics, and that any promise of 'slowing down the news cycle' was always nonsense.

A politician promising to slow down the news cycle is up to no good, doesn't know what they're talking about, or both. Nobody in the press gallery is awake to this.
Privately, Abbott has a wicked sense of humour and loves to laugh, but witty pre-written speech-making has never been his long suit.
Privately, Abbott's humour is petty, mean, and inane. Publicly, his speeches (particularly the ones he writes himself) are petty, mean, and inane.

Kenny dares not point this out. Kenny spent years chasing down the chimera that Julia Gillard had someone else pay for her bathroom and found nothing. Here he is applying his chimera-chasing skills again, seeking to achieve solidity from pure wind, with the idea that Tony Abbott is a good bloke who likes to laugh. There's nothing faux-reflective about Kenny, it isn't his fault he has an enlarged bullshit gland.
Yet, there is a sense about Abbott that despite his considerable intellectual power - foolishly overlooked by those who would want it to be otherwise - he is more at home in parliamentary attack mode, or at least when defending a serious position or argument.
The idea that there are great hordes who think Abbott is stupid is a straw man. However, the case that Kenny is an intellectual fizzer is strong. Abbott is good for a blast of bluster and not much good beyond that. Nobody who has observed Abbott up close for years and years, like Kenny has, should be puzzled by this. Kenny goes the straw man on a daily basis, a sure sign his analytical skills are non-existent.
That said, there is still something impressive about a prime minister who despite his time constraints and legions of staff, insists on crafting most of his own speeches. This is Abbott the writer and thinker.
Abbott is wasting time by ploughing away at something he's not good at, while other issues that need his time and attention go begging. This is something poor leaders do.

There's little impressive about the speeches themselves. School captains across the country blow the Prime Minister off the stage in terms of writing and giving speeches, which is why Abbott never goes to schools.
Even back in his day, Menzies had lamented the drift in political coverage of Canberra, criticising reporters for relying on mere pieces of paper provided to them by politicians – press releases – while the oratory and theatre, or "cut and thrust" of parliamentary contest went less reported.

Neither side of politics has shied from making similar criticisms since. Who can forget Julia Gillard's admirably economical plea to the Canberra gallery delivered from the same podium: "don't write crap".
Well you did, because you wrote nothing but. The coverage of parliamentary theatre has increased, without improving our understanding of how we are governed. This says a lot about the media, which neither Kenny nor Murphy are prepared to face (remember, Kenny and Murphy are both experienced members of the press gallery).
"The best contribution, if I may say so, the media could make right now is not to be more right wing, or more left wing, but to be more ready to give credit where it's due and to acknowledge the strengths as well as the weaknesses in our country and its people," [Abbott] said.
A government is evaluated against the strengths and weaknesses of the country. A government that simply trumpets the strengths of the country is being vacuous. A government that neglects or exacerbates the weaknesses of the country deserves criticism. Kenny, Murphy and the gang can't and won't do that.
In any event, Abbott's complaint suggests he believes he has not been given sufficient credit for his successes in ending deaths at sea from people smuggling, concluding free trade agreements and for his deftness on the world stage. This is not so.
Cute use of "deaths at sea" - a man shot in the head or who dies from a preventable condition in an internment camp is no less dead than those who drown.

Abbott hasn't "concluded" free trade deals. The Korean deal contains sovereignty-wrecking measures to invalidate our laws, and it is [$] not a high priority for the fractious KNA. He hasn't been deft at all in diplomacy. He's pre-empted the US and been oafish toward everyone else. Prime Ministers in trouble get their spinners to claim they're diplomatic geniuses, but Kenny is so "in tune" with Abbott that he overlooks actual practice in that regard.
Perhaps more substantively, Abbott also used the opportunity of the speech to remark on his own journey over some 30 years in public life and 20 in parliament, putting it up it as a model of how change can be embraced even against the necessary inertia of conservatism.

"I will admit to two significant policy areas where I am now different," he ventured, nominating multiculturalism, and paid parental leave. "In other words, there were good conservative reasons – liberal conservative reasons – for changing a traditional position."
The weakness of conservatism is that it can't distinguish between a passing fad and a permanent shift. Inertia, in itself, is not "necessary".

Abbott's supposed shift on 'multiculturalism' has to be assessed against his treatment of Muslim Australians regarding terrorism (compared with the treatment of other faiths with the terror of child abuse, for example), and the abandonment of his pledges to Aborigines. Abbott is not entitled to be taken at his word. No politician is. Kenny's insistence that he must, a Crabb-like bit of theatre review, shows that he fundamentally does not get what his job is.
In all, what we learned from Abbott's press club speech was that he remains firmly convinced of his own conservative position with minimal exceptions, and, that he thinks he gets a hard time from the media.
No Prime Minister in my lifetime (I've been an avid consumer of press gallery output since Fraser was PM) has gotten an easier ride from the press gallery than Abbott.
There was one final reason Abbott agreed to address the press club's black tie affair rather than its regular lunch-time series, and it was apparent in his final line: "I have to say, tonight, is my vision for the National Press Club – a speech with no questions afterwards."

Witty after all.
Abbott just wants to be taken at face value, and the press gallery has shown - and continues to show - that it is happy to oblige. Kenny can't distinguish wit from shit.

Penetrating but not personal analysis helps us think about what our leaders are doing, and how they might do it better. Paddy Gourley, who is not a member of the press gallery, is far more perceptive than senior press gallery members Katharine Murphy and Mark Kenny, who are heavily invested in this government and the way it relates to the traditional media.

We need better analysis of what our leaders are up to. We are never going to get it from the press gallery. It's one thing for Mark Textor and Tony Abbott to write their own pieces - but despite their limbo-dance under the low bar set for them we should expect more from those whose job it is to analyse them.

"Yeah, what he said" is not journalism.

Media consumers do not simply have to accept to accept their self-serving, badly constructed (but engaging! You had to be there!) framings. We need more than unquestioning agreement or minor, set-piece quibbles from those whose job it is to work out how we are governed. Good analysis requires perspective that the press gallery beats out of capable journalists.


  1. Andrew

    As you write above: ...the idea of journalists covering politicians is not merely to quote, or even summarise, what they said. It is to check those words against other objective sources of reality, and to evaluate questions of how well we are governed, whether the priorities of the government are those of the nation...

    Many people, no doubt yourself included, would know that for the last six years, or maybe more, there have been no serious journalists in the press gallery when it comes to LNP campaigning and issues. Stenographers yes, they merely take notes of what is said / dictated, type it and publish. No questions asked. That's what stenographers do.

    We now have the government we deserve, as practically no-one in the press gallery bothered to correctly perform their chosen profession. Having said that, Rupert Murdoch ultimately decided and dictated to the population the government he believed we Australians must have. Tony Abbott and his mates got a free and unquestioned ride into government and we the Australian sheeple are now paying the price.

    I hope in two years from now many Australian sheeple will treat journalists, the printed / electronic media with contempt they / it deserve and not get duped like we were in 2013. With the internet things are changing and it seems the established media has less influence than ever before. We can only hope.

  2. Whatever the Press Gallery writes, l believe the opposite.

  3. Thank you for linking to Gourley's article, which is, like your effort, excellent.
    Ahh, if only there was more like it, where would we be?


  4. Thanks again for your insightful work Andrew and for the Gourley links.
    Both passed my test. They will be printed out later on so I can read that densely-packed text with my finger under each word to aid comprehension.
    I never feel compelled to load up the printer with anything much written by the Big Names of The Galleria.
    I am often struck by the habit some of those journalists have acquired of parroting back Abbott's well-worn slogans. Maiden's work is peppered with them. If I could scroll back without losing what I have written I would plunder the extracts you have provided, for examples. There seems to be one of those Northern-named Syndromes going on. Some journalists use Abbott's own words but without quotation marks.
    And as for that Abbott joke Kenny found so amusing! Get some new material Tony. We have heard that one before. It does fascinate me though that reference to Abbott's seminary sabbatical is trotted out so often. I get the idea that it all seems so roman

  5. Continued ....
    Sorry the text froze (does that happen with other Elder regulars?)
    I was saying that some journalists seem to think that Abbott's consideration of the priesthood is somehow romantic. I think the whole tortured soul idea led many to misjudge the sort of person Abbott is.

  6. Andrew I look forward to your commentary and analysis of a incompetent lot of political journalist. And in fact they should not be classified as political journalists because i do not see them produce critical review of the policies that are proposed or introduced.
    I do not spend my income on the purchase of the rubbish that they produce I have long since purchased any publication or contributed to any material coming out of the Murdoch stable the only reach he may have to me is his incursions onto the foolish idiots at the ABC.

  7. "School captains across the country blow the Prime Minister off the stage in terms of writing and giving speeches"

    They also ask Abbott tougher questions than the Press Gallery do

    1. Spot on...we can afford to go to a war but there's a budget emergency...

      I can't believe they have gotten away with that one!!

      Let's see some fridge magnets with this terror alert paradigm

  8. If I remember correctly, the day after Gillard announce the election date (very early), Abbott had a press conference where he made his "pledge" regarding Superannuation, which had an obvious get out in the phrase "no *unexpected* changes, then walked out without allowing questions (except Grattan's one about whether he would live in The Lodge, of course). This should have been a warning to the press about what we were going to get from then on but there was no analysis of (at least) those two matters that I can recall. I knew then that Murphy, Kenny, et al were going to hand Australia to Abbott on a silver platter

    1. Spot on. Some of the language used is so clumsy in its attempt to obscure but allow revisionists to point at and say the clues were always there.

      A favourite of Pyne at the moment.

      Look at the bruised response to questions about them raising the GST that this was a matter for the states. All of this before cutting funding in a bid to get the states begging for a change.

      Child like

  9. Seems we are putting a lot of faith in Defence Procurement, and our ability to modify a very complex machine to make it fit for task. Last time we tried to jam our own guts into someone else's machine it didn't go so well (Super Sea Sprite). Haven't seen a single churnalist mention this yet - but that affair might provide for some instructive comparison.

    1. It doesn't matter what defense procurement does - it will be a disaster and end up costing us hapless saps billions. So the world turns. From the price of a postage stamp to a joint strike fighter, everything in this country is a gouge.

      Forget Abbotts' joke - did you hear that dull what's-his-name from Labor soap-boxing to the imaginary audience of 1950s ship builders and fitters.

      he should have slipped in the one about the Japanese not being able to fly planes. Jesus we're poorly led.

    2. Agree Anon. I have given up.

  10. Michael Bachelard pretends to be a journalist but today again he is peddling the lie of people smugglers and is amazed that refugees are still fleeing their homes simply because he seems to believe that we have some legal right to actually close our gates to them.

    We don't it's a lie propagandist for government like Bachelard tell refugees in Indonesia.

  11. thank you Andrew.

    I have not seen one press person, note that Abbott put out a terror alert then says he off to the bush to live in tent with our first people , can some one please ask if the threat is so bad , why is he not in Canberra at his desk. i always get back to the same question if JG had acted like this imagine the write ups

  12. It is all going to get worser and worser as the walrus may have said, as specialty journalism disappears.

    The current commentary on our accelerating engagement in Iraq and beyond is truly pitiful when provided by the Gallery Names.

    Without singling anyone out, all I am reading are:
    . Statements of the bleeding obvious
    .regurgitation of Prime Ministerial slogans and platitudes, without attribution or analysis;
    . the paraphrasing of anything put out by officialdom for public consumption and
    . The incessant repetition of all of the above.

    What is missing is the provision of historical context and a genuine dissection of possible outcomes, both intended and untended.

    I do not believe it is possible for run-of-the-mill journalists to provide informative commentary and they should desist and interview people who can shed a light.

    Alas though, they would probably go to the partisan experts who provide the stuff which can then be regurgitated for easy consumption.