21 December 2014

A slight change of emphasis

The reshuffle is interesting for how this government sees itself.

First, it's limited in scope, which reinforces Abbott's idea that there isn't much wrong with the government that a bit of spin can't fix. It also reinforces the idea that shifting some of the government's alternative leaders - Bishop, Turnbull,  and yes even Hockey - would be career-limiting for Abbott.

The only governments that have far-reaching changes to their ministerial line-ups are those in real trouble, like the two reshuffles Labor had in 2013. This government may well have a reshuffle or two on that scale, but not yet.

Abbott has not promoted any big thinkers because he does not want any profound transformations in the way policy is conducted. He does not want to have to defend any controversial ideas on matters about which he knows little and cares less.

Andrews in Defence We're sending our forces into Iraq at a time when warfare, like all other facets of human activity, requires fundamental reexamination of a number of basic assumptions. Australia's strategic environment is shifting fast. Kevin Andrews is not the man to handle that.

If you accept those limitations, then what is needed in that role is a program manager par excellence - someone who will ensure Australian warfighters go into mortal danger relying on kit from the cheapest bidder. He's not that, either.

Andrews holds the fate of a large chunk of the South Australian economy in his hands. He'll give them more than the bugger-all currently on the table now, but not much more. He won't be able to wrest any political credit for that away from the state's Labor Premier, Jay Weatherill, and will be deaf to the screams of SA Liberals on why that matters to them.

Defence is the death-seat of federal politics. Apart from genuine policy nerds like David Johnston and Kim Beazley, every minister for the past 40 years was appointed to that role in full knowledge that their career was over (apart from Joel Fitzgibbon, which demonstrated Rudd didn't get the role Defence plays in foreign policy). Andrews is being managed out of politics.

The mad scheme for Credlin to take his seat remains in place. Only Canberra insiders blithely assume the Victorian Libs will meekly comply with an order issued from Abbott's office. It also means that the constituency of paternalistic religious conservatives will have to be represented by someone else, which will mean someone like Bruce Billson, Tony Smith and/or Michael Ronaldson will come under threat, blood will beget blood, etc.

Morrison to Social Services This assumes Morrison has attained a reputation as a competent administrator, with some sort of magical touch to get things through the Senate. This portfolio covers 20% of the Budget and the fun ain't done in that portfolio. The people most impressed by his tough-guy antics against refugees are older people with few skills, who fret most about refugees taking their jobs, and who are also most affected by changes to pensions or unemployment.

It also assumes Senator Marise Payne, who has basically been responsible for executing policy in this area (and helping outmaneuver Andrews brainfarts like denying young unemployed people support for six months) hasn't done enough to warrant a promotion. Keep this in mind when you cheer Abbott's doubling of female representation in Cabinet (more below).

Dutton to Immigration This assumes the case for our current immigration policy has been made. It hasn't.

Conservatives confuse doltish obstinacy with firm consistency of purpose, which is why they rate Dutton more highly than his talents and record suggest. He was a political passenger, offering nothing against Nicola Roxon or Tanya Plibersek as ministers for health. As minister and now shadow, Catherine King ran rings around him. If Richard Marles takes the kid gloves off in dealing with the new boy, it could be the making of him.

Support for the current immigration regime seems strong but individual incidents puncture it. Polling does not capture this. Morrison starved journalists of detail and derided them for writing rubbish, but they love being put in that bind because they love Strong Narrative over anything else. Morrison, like Howard, had the ability to look plaintive while being inflexible - a tactic that fools journalists - but Dutton can't do that.

Dutton has only two political talents. He picked the Liberal leadership changes since Howard with great accuracy and extracted great deals for himself. He comes from a state that is crucial politically but which doesn't send talented people to Canberra.

Dutton will overreach the wide-ranging powers Morrison won for him. At exactly the wrong moment, Dutton will make a dumb and callous statement that leads to a policy rethink greater than he can handle.

He can plug, plug, plug a message regardless of facts or changing circumstances, a quality prized highly among those who regard politics as a sub-type of public relations. It won't be enough.

Ley in Health Of all the Coalition MPs not initially appointed to Abbott's cabinet, Ley had the strongest case for inclusion. Her appointment is less a what-if than a why-not. She is across the detail and can plug a line as well as anyone while also having a mind of her own. In short, she makes a stronger case for inclusion than almost anyone there now. If anyone is going to come up with a workable arrangement on state funding or NDIS she will do it. She will also counter some of King's work on regional health initiatives.

Ley's appointment is a tacit admission that Dutton failed in Health, and that his failure is politically costly. Peta Credlin had assured female Coalition MPs that there would be more opportunities for them but now we see what that means as far as Abbott is concerned: women tidy up after men.

Frydenberg as Assistant Treasurer This is reward for service to Abbott.

The Assistant Treasurer is basically Minister for Tax. The Budget has a revenue problem and this government will shy away from far-reaching tax reform. Therefore, the battle will be joined at the level of detail: the government will want to close lurks and loopholes while the lobbyists who pushed for them will want them kept open. The Assistant Treasurer will need an eagle eye for detail and a firm commitment to what's right for the country: the 2006 version of Arthur Sinodinos would have been perfect.

Unfortunately, we've got Josh, who has glided through life with a superficial charm designed to disguise his boredom with detail. He's an errand boy. Nobody wants this guy in the trenches when it gets tough, and this is one tough job. He doesn't complement Hockey's weaknesses, he compounds them.

He was in charge of not one but two of Abbott's so-called bonfires of red tape. Rather than do the hard work of identifying and costing (politically as well as economically) counterproductive regulations, Frydenberg slapped together a whole lot of straw men that impressed nobody but press gallery journalists. It was lazy stuff and this blog has had it in for him before he was first elected.

Others who might have done this job better - Little Jimmy Briggs, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christian Porter or even Steve Ciobo - are right to feel passed over for a lesser person. Briggs and Ciobo should be wangling invitations to Mal and Julie's supper club.

The Parly Secs
- Christian Porter (replacing the ousted Johnston from WA) rose fast and far with little competition in his native state, and it will be interesting to see what errands Abbott sends him on.
- Kelly O'Dwyer's investigation into foreign investment in Australian real estate looked like an audition for a higher role (along with hundreds of media appearances where she unblushingly recited the daily inanities), and so it has proven. She risks treading a narrow path with her Treasury background but nobody is obliged to pass up a promotion.
- Karen Andrews is a former Hockey staffer who has taken to the busywork of committees and generally kept her head down while other newbie MPs aare still coming to terms with how the joint works.

Abbott is sending the signal to ambitious MPs that Howard did: knuckle down and do the busywork and I'll call on you in my own good time. Howard regularly broke that rule, with Abbott and Mark Vaile and Petro Georgiou to name a few, but hey.

Abbott deserves all the meagre rewards that come from having taken meagre risks. You, my dear readers, deserve all the best that the festive season and 2015 can offer, so we'll see what happens then.

14 December 2014

The end of Peta Credlin

Peta Credlin was one of the few Coalition staffers willing or able to stick around after the downfall of the Howard government. She hadn't landed a top-flight lobbying job or a seat in Parliament or simply buggered off to that old shack in the hills/sand dunes. Nor had she embarrassed herself like some did who couldn't really believe that, after 11 years, it really was all over.

From Brendan Nelson's office she would have seen how Labor's ministers configured the government differently; how they made decisions that Howard's ministers never dared/couldn't be bothered, and the pratfalls of their rookie errors. She would have liaised with Prime Minister Rudd's office on those matters requiring bipartisan consultation, and seen the same dithering and tantrums that his ministers apparently saw. She would have seen what happens when nobody in government can scratch themselves without PMO approval.

Yet, she went ahead anyway and made this government in that image.

By the time it became clear Nelson could not stop Turnbull, Credlin had become a symbol of Liberal continuity. They feared Turnbull was such an outsized personality that he would remake the Coalition in his own image, and imposed on him a Praetorian Guard ever ready to remind him that he was mortal. Credlin, Chris Kenny and a handful of others gave nervous Liberals a sense of continuity that otherwise eluded them, with an insanely popular Labor government and its renewable broadbands and what have you.

She was privy to the great debates of our age, and worked out ways to shirk them.

Then Turnbull began to stumble, and fair-weather sailors like Kenny departed, it would have been fair for Liberals to wonder about their leader's office. They lacked the capacity to judge it, having only Howard's remote office as benchmark. By the time Turnbull's gutless front bench quit one by one, at the behest of Minchin, Credlin began to scramble despite assurances that she'd be looked after. She was still polishing her CV when the Hockey-Turnbull-Abbott fiasco of December 2009 ended with the latter on top.

By this time Credlin was well practiced at lemonade-making.

Abbott had been a spokesperson all his life. Now he was her spokesperson, and she was in a position to impose terms. Say what I tell you, do what I tell you, wear what I tell you: now lycra, now sluggos, now a blue tie. Say "this government is a bad government". The press gallery share that sentiment, and all the old lions who might challenge you for the sake of being arsey are long gone (or in Oakes' case, de-fanged). The press gallery can't tell the difference between activity and progress, and neither can conservatives; they are united in their hatred of Rudd and Gillard.

Sometimes it just all comes together.

Credlin came up with the Coalition's two-track policy strategy: meeting donors in private to work out what they want and how they want it, while at the same time giving the media no indication of what their thought processes were. The press gallery loved it: praising Abbott as 'so disciplined' was their bright-side thinking about being kept in the dark and fed bullshit. Even now, clowns like Peter Hartcher try to keep the magic going. Some still can't work out what went wrong, and never will.

If Laurie Oakes can recall Ainslie Gotto and her parallels with Peta Credlin, he should have been smart enough to examine what an Abbott government might look like in comparison with other highly centralised PMOs, like Gorton's or Rudd's. If you're going to have experience as a political journalist, that's what you use it for: analysis, before the event rather than after. Leave the raconteurism to Mike "Abbott will grow into the job" Carlton.

After Abbott was elected his team went into a defensive crouch for weeks: what the hell do we do now? In his choice of ministry, Abbott slapped down those who had always supported him (more conservative elements of the Liberal Party) while rewarding those who had never supported him (centrists who actually won the votes from Labor). I pointed this out at the time and am still amazed that the entire press gallery couldn't see it coming. This is a vulnerable position to put any politician, particularly at their moment of triumph: Credlin couldn't see what the problem was.

Here's the thing about Credlin: she's not some political super-genius, she's the hired help. Candidates for public office cop a lot of stick but they put their very faces and names and reputations out there in the community; people like Credlin are known only to wonks like you and me, dear reader. It's easy to craft a message and get others to sell it when the message is well received (or given the benefit of the doubt, as the Coalition's was way back in 2013). It's harder when the message is less well received.

Consider Joe Hockey, who had to sell WorkChoices in 2007 and now the 2014 budget: some policies just can't be sold, and no amount of brickbats or bouquets from Credlin will change that.

Credlin was happy to use her fertility issues to try and deflect bad news from Abbott, and all that's done is two things. First, it reinforces the idea that only women who already have a deep pre-existing relationship with Tony Abbott get anything from this government. Second, there is no lasting policy legacy surrounding fertility treatments: would you pay five or seven bucks to subsidise someone's fertility treatment? All that power, and no legacy. The government angrily denies that paid parental leave is Abbott's gift to Credlin. It's another of those policies where those who stand to benefit keep quiet and watch helplessly as the government botches the execution - and now the process of reforming it. Abbott wants to ask for help but has no goodwill to draw upon, and fears losing control of the narrative. Credlin has never done public advocacy in her life.

In this article is the strengths and weaknesses of the press gallery: Samantha Maiden has the access to get the story, but she's either so compromised or so thick that she can't see it for what it is.

The Whip is an office that has existed in parliamentary practice for centuries. The job involves getting out the vote in the short term, but over the longer term maintaining a relationship with the backbench for the leader to use as a sounding board.

Howard, with direct experience of not only being elected but also dumped by the Coalition backbench, used his Whips assiduously. He visited marginal electorates and insisted on impromptu meet-and-greets; if people met him with warmth he knew he was travelling OK, tight politeness or hostility meant trouble. Abbott and Credlin just don't do impromptu, and are poorer for it; they rely more heavily on wankers like Textor than Howard ever did, and Textor treats people who rely on him too heavily with contempt (e.g. the press gallery).

This is why Maiden is stupid not to recognise the importance of Entsch speaking out. Cut out all that cassowary-wrasslin' shit at the top of her piece, and that photo makes him look like one of Eleanor Robertson's Old Farts. Entsch was Whip in Opposition; Ruddock is Whip now. The fact that a Whip is speaking out means the backbench are deeply, structurally unhappy. Fear of being unemployed in 2016 can't be allayed with a cup of tea and a smile, or even another clenched-teeth threat. Nobody wants to be part of a government that rings down through the ages as a political punchline. These people are going to be asked by grandchildren yet unborn, "why didn't you just tell Peta Credlin to fuck off?".

A government can survive without this or that person as PM's Chief of Staff, but no government can survive without a backbench. It's a pity that Maiden missed that, or couldn't face it. Bill Shorten's relationship with his backbench is why he's leader and not Albanese. Rudd had a great relationship with his backbench, until he didn't. Howard knew what that's like. Abbott has done what he's been told all his life, and expects others to do the same - as does Credlin. That's why they're at sea with autonomous individuals in the Senate (and elsewhere, like the White House). They expect to crack the whip, not the other way around.
Some suggest that Kevin Andrews for example would make a delightful ambassador to the Holy See.
Are you crazy? The defeat of the Napthine government has discredited moderate, Hamerite liberalism in Victoria, and Kevin Andrews' homeboys have been vindicated. The man is practically skiting about how he's going to micromanage the lives of the fallen until they reach the sunlit uplands of God's mercy.

Look at how Andrews dispatched Conrad Xanthos. Look at how Andrews kyboshed the Northern Territory's euthanasia law as a backbencher. Credlin would have no chance against Andrews, and the political limitations of 104 Exhibition would be brutally exposed if she took him on. Voters in the electorate of Menzies are the most conservative in Victoria. As if they are going to vote for a woman who dresses like a Gold Coast property developer's second ex-wife.
Has anyone else noticed that Malcolm Turnbull is ­awfully quiet lately?
Has anyone noticed that Maiden referenced Ruddock in her story and didn't follow through with him? Reading over that story again I'd suggest Ruddock is more of a key figure than Turnbull at the moment. Have you got Ruddock's number, Samantha? He has yours.

Turnbull is keeping his head down because of the unpopularity of his cuts to public broadcasters, that leave us at the mercy of the sorts of people who think Samantha Maiden understands politics. If Turnbull lashed out at Credlin now it would look like sour grapes. If Samantha Maiden rang him to break his silence, he'd laugh at her. There will come a time when Turnbull goes Credlin, and he will choose phrasing of Aesculapian skill I'm sure - but now's not the time.

People are looking to Julie Bishop as the key figure in what happens next with Credlin and Abbott, but she's a showpony. The one to watch is Chris Pyne. Pyne has served six Liberal leaders and been disloyal to them all. He (and Entsch) will be the difference between whether the backbench gets behind Abbott or deserts him. Pyne is who and what he is and doesn't care what others think of him - if asbestos had a personality it would be his. Samantha Maiden, bless her, has missed that too.

When you're stuck between the hard place of public hostility and the rock that is the Prime Minister's current Chief of Staff (as Coalition MPs are), you're in the wrong place. Where do you turn? East Germans or Zimbabweans might turn on the people, but we still have a vestige of democratic sentiment in this country. Abbott alone, not one member of the Coalition parliamentary representation owes their position to Credlin - and even he'd survive without her. He was best man at Peter Slipper's wedding. Tony Abbott didn't get where he is by being sentimental.

The first Liberal who is confronted with their metadata by Credlin and Abbott from the intelligence services, and accused of 'treason' for leaking to journalists, will be in an interesting position.

Every misjudgment of this government, down to and including their Senate negotiating strategy ("There is only one plan! This is the plan! What do you mean, no?"), is Credlin's. The successes (give me a minute) have been squirreled away by others. Credlin is not suddenly going to develop a whole new policy response. She's going to keep screeching at people until they shut up - or don't.

Everyone's happy to go along with a winning strategy but few will stick by those who are out of options, ideas, and time. If the Peta Credlin of five years ago was working for today's Peta Credlin, she would be polishing her resume and calling up long-neglected contacts. Credlin isn't stupid, she knows it's over. All that remains (in no particular order) is to set the stage, wrong-foot the press gallery, and break it to Tony.

06 December 2014

With a muffled whimper

... For mine own good,
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.

- William Shakespeare Macbeth Act III Scene IV
What we saw at Abbott's press conference on Monday was his last stand.

Polls a symptom not the illness

Never mind the polls. That's like taking someone's pulse to diagnose cancer. There never was any substance, any plan, any grounds to believe Abbott could capably run a capable government. Everyone who thought otherwise - the press gallery, the Coalition and all who vote for them - were wrong. Everyone who thought otherwise and who isn't big enough to admit they were wrong is participating in a pantomime about what a surprise it is that Abbott is no good, that he's somehow come over poorly all of a sudden.

Abbott was rotten from the start. Only bloggers could see this. Journalists who think they have, and should maintain, some sort of lock on political coverage underestimate how crap they are at the job they get paid to do.

The reason why political parties used to release policy position papers before elections was to give some idea of their thinking about their general approach to policy in government. They wanted to get their policies out there without media slant. It wasn't to provide a list of gotcha opportunities, which is what the traditional media think they are.

This is why political parties stopped issuing policy papers. They demonstrate their thinking about policy approaches at speeches to party fundraisers. Journalists are excluded from these events and are too lazy to get that information regardless. This government slid into office with almost no challenge from the press gallery; claiming surprise and befuddlement won't salvage lost credibility and confidence.

Political parties still complain - even with the internet - that they're somehow constrained in getting their message out. The Coalition in Victoria is doing this now, even though the state press gallery and the outlets that employ its members agreed that the Coalition should be returned.

Politicians and journalists both expect people to take them on trust when they won't engage their thinking on issues.

The beginning of the end

Abbott can't back down; his pride and his backers won't let him. He can't go forward; he has, as Lenore Taylor points out, and as I pointed out last week, snookered himself. Think of Tony Abbott as Australia's next ex-Prime Minister.

The whole barnacles thing shows that Abbott underestimated the degree to which the government of this country has to change. A metaphor has to help illustrate the thing to which it refers, or demonstrate familiarity on the part of the speaker. If Abbott had been some sort of master mariner before entering politics nobody would doubt his expertise in dealing with barnacles. When done badly, as this was, it's a lampoon - like Monty Python's Norwegian Blue parrot "resting" and "pining for the fjords".

Nobody has any confidence that Abbott can distinguish between barnacle and ship. From the engine room to all classes of passenger and everyone outside the bridge, it's clear he has done such a crap job at running the vessel.

He can't just slip away. The traditional model of politics holds that problems are brushed under the carpet, and/or managed in the back rooms. Labor tried to dispose of Rudd quietly on that June evening in 2010, scheduling their crisis meetings after the press gallery had finished up in the mid-afternoon, inventing a one-liner excuse and running with that. This was never convincing. It was never going to be. Big-time political operators looked like clowns when they fell for, executed, and defended that approach.

One does not dispose of elected Prime Ministers* without a clear reason for doing so. One should not appoint someone to the Prime Ministership without some appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses, and one's own abilities to burnish the former and play down the latter. The idea that the Liberal Party did not realise he'd be rubbish as Prime Minister, or that it worked with the media to sandbag his shortcomings far longer than was dignified for either of them, is the kind of synchronised shallow thinking that is killing both major media companies and major political parties.

Acting-ere-scanning is not charming and it neither sells newspapers/airtime, nor shifts votes. It's professional failure, not success, and the fact that you can't tell the difference means you're all stuffed.

What you cover when you cover a press conference

The press gallery was negligent in its reporting of Abbott's press conference on Monday.

Keep in mind (which they don't) that press conferences are staged events put on for their benefit. They are not naturalistic, random chats.

Some reported that Abbott had apologised, which was false. He wasn't even apologetic in tone. He basically reiterated what he'd always said, a bit more slowly and a bit less boldly.

He talked about the week being 'ragged', as though feeling sorry for him was the only valid response. Look at the analysis from those who agree with him uncritically, there are your press gallery muppets practically begging for unemployment.

Keep in mind that Tony Abbott did not get where he is by holding regular press conferences. Wondering why a man who rarely puts on press conferences suddenly does one is not cynical, and it's not up to journalists to decide this is too hard for their audiences to understand. It's part of the analysis that seasoned and savvy observers of politics should do as a matter of course.

It shows the less-stupid members of the press gallery that Abbott can hold press conferences when he wants to, and that you should stop being so soft on him (and never, ever, simperingly thank him for gracing his presence as Leigh Sales did on Thursday).

It is nebulous to say that press conference "changed the tone". The tone of this government was nasty and brutish, and Grattan can't bear to admit that it follows the life left in this government is short.

Stabbed in the back

I will tomorrow —
And betimes I will — to the weird sisters.
More shall they speak, for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst.
The closest I've come to feeling sorry for Tony Abbott, an insouciantly privileged man both callous and selfish, is when the Murdoch press have turned on him.

The fact that the Murdoch press have turned on Abbott is significant. Their advice to Abbott is to do what he's always done, but more so; that's what he's doing, and it isn't working for him. This sort of cod analysis is what stops NewsCorp translating its dominant market share into real clout with its audience. We saw this at work when the nation's largest selling newspaper** The Herald Sun recommended that its readers return the Napthine government.

The first member of the government to decry NewsCorp for abandoning them when the going got tough would suffer a bit, but such a person would be the rock upon which the Coalition might build a post-Abbott future.

It would have been the perfect excuse for Malcolm Turnbull to renege on cuts to the public broadcasters: if you're going to turn on us then we won't do your dirty work on the ABC. Turnbull is more committed to those cuts and to Murdoch than many erstwhile supporters dare admit. Cultured, handwringing Malcolm is not the authentic Turnbull; the mogul's facilitator is.

Watch for Peta Credlin to start polishing her resume: the press gallery won't. Her departure will of course be perfectly amicable, as Arthur Sinodinos' was from John Howard's office in early 2007, and as with his hers will both signify the end and bring it closer. The whispering campaign against Credlin has begun because to hold a position like hers, you have to be absolutely right about everything all the time. I'm a Credlin sceptic too but this government will get worse, not better, once she goes.


But this is not Turnbull's last stand, it's Abbott's.

Nobody liked him. The press gallery didn't just cover him in opposition, they covered for him; unemployment is just desserts for professional gutlessness. Nobody is grateful for his few, poor, and essentially negative achievements: terrorising asylum-seekers and slowing our transition to 21st century power and communications. He had no right to get this far; the press gallery gave him a free pass, declining to ask the hard questions about suitability that they put to Mark Latham a decade ago.

Now the economy is turning down, and nobody but press gallery sucks have any confidence this lot can turn it around. Howard would have freaked out had the Budget not been passed by MYEFO, having seen the Whitlam government sacked for such a failure early in his career. What his fans insist is calm resolve is nothing but cluelessness and carelessness, and all but the most hard-bitten among them see it shining plain.

Abbott went to a long press conference looking apologetic but not being apologetic, and the press gallery was grateful for that old magic. The press gallery are doing their 2014 In Review pieces and goodness me, it does appear that the whole year (rather than just the week) has been rubbish.

It's almost charming that such people should regard the eminently foreseeable failure of the Abbott government as such a surprise.

Why have they only just realised this, having observed Abbott up close for so long? What is wrong with these people? Why are they still getting the pay and privileges attached to their positions? Why has this Walkley-winning journalist produced the kind of formulaic takedown you'd expect from a blogger, and why wasn't she awake to this two years ago? After Abbott has gone (!) these are the questions that remain.

Tony Abbott's government was never going to end with a bang, despite him and those close to him being the most bloody-minded Götterdämmerung types. It is ending with a whimper of self-pity, as it was always going to - muffled by those who should be listening for it, who should be amplifying it, so that we far from Canberra might know how we are governed.

* Fine, I'll cop your lecture on Westminster government and how 'Prime Minister' is nowhere defined in the Constitution, if you'll accept that the political parties that govern this country design their entire offerings each election around the persona of their leader, and that replacing the leader post-election means a different offering to that put to supposedly sovereign voters beforehand.

** Which are the more reliable stats: media circulation/ratings figures, media-commissioned polls, or neither? Vote now.