We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and whenThe press gallery should have foreseen that a government led by Tony Abbott, comprised of jetsam from the fag end of the Howard government, would scarcely be better than the government they replaced. Why did they get this so wrong?
Although I wasn't there, he said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone, a long long time ago
- David Bowie The man who sold the world
On election nights - federal or state, including those for states I don't live in - you can find me watching the vote count coverage pretty closely. I've tried watching it with non-wonks but it just isn't the same.
My favourite point in election night coverage comes after the result is clear, and usually after winners have promised to govern for all and losers conceded gracefully. The representative of the winning party has usually buggered off to the official knees-up, while the loser-party representative sticks around for some home truths.
The need for message discipline has passed, but the individuals have enough self-composure not to lapse into furniture-tossing rage on camera. They lament the death of hopes of the party faithful. They hope that staffers and defeated MPs, people they have known and worked closely with, will find new jobs. They dread the trudge across the often harsh and barren ground of opposition. You see the flickering of ideas about recriminations and other own post-election plans, but they stop short of admitting them to the gently probing journalist. Stephen Smith played this role at the last federal election, and Mary Wooldridge at the Victorian.
It's a human moment in an often vast and impersonal process: good local members lose office defending decisions they had railed against in private, while smug clowns in safe seats stroll on and learn nothing. Statistical blather and played-strong-done-fine quotes fade to the background.
This is the point the press gallery has come to with the (impending) demise of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. They really believed that Abbott had changed from the crass brawler who spent 20 years buzzing around the press gallery like a blowfly in a toilet. They believed it, and they insisted that every hairnet-wearing, truck-driving stunt was a great statesman itching to get on with the job.
They ignored Labor claims that Abbott would want to cut health and education and the ABC, because hey look here's a quote where he denies it! Take that, partisans! And that's all the analysis you need to do when you've pumped up a politician and his party, where the popular mood matches that of the press gallery - and just for a moment, the public seems to hang off your every word. Just like the old days.
This piece also delves back into the 'good old days', and it's a real pity it hadn't come out before now. I suspect there'll be a few more of these. We could have stopped him, we should have; and all the press gallery had to do was tell us the truth.
The fantasy was never real
Oh no, not meDavid Marr said it best: Abbott could only ever be what he was, the crass brawler. The idea that he transcended it somehow was always rubbish. Everyone who believed otherwise was kidding themselves - and implicitly, those who pretended otherwise in the face of years of experience were engaged in a monstrous act of deception, of themselves and of their audience.
I never lost control
You're face to face
With The Man Who Sold The World
Even Marr could no longer pretend this simple political killing-machine was a more complex character than he appeared. In Political Animal Marr asserted that Abbott "abhor[red] racism". On 19 December, when the Lindt Cafe siege was underway in Sydney's Martin Place, Abbott honourably deflected calls to tie the event into wider themes of militant Islam. But hours after the siege had ended, and as recently as last Monday's National Press Club speech, there he was dogwhistling again: as though speaking in nuanced terms about cross-border Islamic politics is tantamount to violence.
Tony Abbott was never PM material. I thought he was so bad the press gallery would find him out, but they pretty much gave him a free pass. They all look like jerks now, Abbott hasn't vindicated them with some stellar statesmanlike performance. Even Liberals, who also knew what he was like, have stopped covering for him.
That's why he's finished. There's no-one left to cover for him: no phalanx of petty crime lawyers, no ranting Father Emmet Costello, no Packer or Howard; even Credlin, even Rupert Murdoch himself couldn't puff him up any more. The limited talents of Hockey, Dutton, or either Bishop just can't carry him.
Tony Abbott will be 58 years old this November: too old for rowdy-adolescent swaddling, but yet not ready for boards or consultancies or other roles occupied by adults. Do you reckon the next PM will make Abbott the last Australian knight? Me neither.
The fantasy is confusing
I laughed and shook his hand, and made my way back homeThis blog's pet bunny Mark Kenny had pulled over and popped the bonnet to find steam pouring out of it on Friday. "How did it come to this?", he asked, not helping his quest with silly imagery:
I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed
There's an oil and water quality to the competing narratives in Canberra at present. On the one side, we see an executive which claims to be sublimely competent, united, purposeful, and uniquely suited to progressing the national interest.There is no side; no oil, no water. Just because Abbott declared himself competent, the press gallery was not obliged to take him at his word.
No politician is ever entitled to be taken at their word. And yes, it is possible to stick by that principle without being snide or cynical.
Of course, the seeds of that discontent reach much further back than handing royal titles back to the very palace which hands them out.Firstly, the maturity of explaining the position on titles stands in contrast to Julia Baird's wacky effort, which shows no subtlety to Australian politics and thereby patronises her New York audience. Maybe this is what you need to do to get published in the US's atrophying press, but it's no less sad for that. Give Kenny some credit for that, and see more on Baird further down.
Indeed, the malaise at the heart of Abbott's now beleaguered prime ministership is a function of the deliberately created culture of conflict and strategic supremacy his office projected from the start. That supremacy is now its most central embarrassment ... Rather than providing co-ordination and leadership, Abbott's office styled itself from day one as a gratuitous conflict machine. Its operation has been characterised by sidelining MPs, lecturing ministers, vetoing trusted adviser selections and the claim that it was uniquely placed to make sound political judgments.
Kenny should have explained the Prime Minister's office in greater detail, given that an earlier version of it had already unmade one occupant (Rudd). Someone with Kenny's experience should have seen the same signs emitting from that office and warned us all - but no, only once the show is over do we get this kind of story - the very sort of thing that explains the link between Canberra shenanigans and how you and I are governed.
Instead, Kenny told us how great Abbott was, how he'd really changed, how he was super-duper in every way over that double-act from before. It doesn't make you a partisan to call out bullshit journalism. It makes you a citizen and a consumer, refusing to put up with the kind of sloppy shit that is Mark Kenny's standard fare.
The fantasy is someone else's fault
I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions hereWhen Laura Tingle is focussed on policy and judging politicians against it, there is no better journalist in the press gallery.
We must have died alone, a long long time ago
When not focused on policy, she comes out with this sort of thing, pretty much what everyone else says or does, hey it's the narrative what can you do.
For voters, it turned out that they really, really didn't know what he stood for – whether that was budget measures that they weren't expecting, or just how out of touch Abbott turned out to be on issues like knighthoods, changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, or funding for marriage counselling.What Tingle is describing there is professional failure, on her part and by the rest of the clowns she calls her press gallery colleagues.
Voters had heard the slogans repeatedly endlessly: stop the debt, stop the taxes, stop the boats. But whether there was any underlying philosophy in among the slogans was unclear.
"Spin" is just a consistent message with which you disagree. Scientific research into diseases, treatments and preventative measures is "spin" to anti-vaxxers. Labor policy is "spin to Liberal supporters, and vice versa. Abbott was always spinning. It's just that you chose to believe him on the way up, and not believe him now that he's on the way out. Don't think you're being 'unbiased' or 'playing the game' when you're sometimes taken in by spin and sometimes not. Just describe what's going on.
Tony Abbott is entitled to talk his own book, as are the Coalition. It's the press gallery's job to do the analysis, to measure the big talk against other sources of information. Tingle is wrong to blame Abbott for spinning a web in which the press gallery found itself trapped, from which it is trying to extricate itself with varying degrees of success.
We'll decide what's spin and what isn't. When we threw out the Rudd-Gillard governments we threw out both baby and bathwater, because the press gallery talked up Abbott. The press gallery knew him better than anyone, so if he was the answer to the 'chaos' then the people took the gallery's word. Now with the departure of Abbott, there's much less baby and more bathwater than Tingle - and her press gallery colleagues - had led us to believe. People are angry at that, and the anger is partly but not wholly directed at the politicians.
I was awake to the fantasy all along, but neglected to tell you
Who knows? Not meThis is Katharine Murphy's line:
We never lost control
You're face to face
With the Man who Sold the World
Tony Abbott disappeared for me sometime in the middle of 2013. That’s not a hard deadline, but June is the last time I remember glimpsing the person I had watched and dealt with over years of political reporting.Oh dear.
When you go back to Murphy's reporting around that time, you should see her expressing some puzzlement about The Real Tony versus The Tony I See Before Me - but, no.
Murphy has been known to keen about the imaginary 24-hour news cycle and yearn to get her teeth into some policy analysis - but like most of the press gallery she didn't go after the prospective Abbott government for its policies or lack thereof, and was quite content to pass off his blandishments as a more serious critique of government than anything she could muster.
Team Abbott could fool themselves that they had actually conquered chaos.They could, but only with the connivance of people like Katharine Murphy. She's wise after the event of the Abbott government. She would deserve the credit that her readers and current employers give her had she been awake to Abbott at or during this time. It's all a bit late to take Abbott at face value and then decide in retrospect there was a facade that someone should have investigated.
The intoxicating power of that illusion cannot be underestimated in modern politics. Politicians crave control and certainty, because the old orthodoxies and rituals are busted. Disruption is now the only certainty. Modern politicians have become obsessed with fixes, with road maps, with gurus – not realising they are being led by false prophets, and sustained by false comforts.If only there had been journalists to smoke out the false prophets and comforts.
The take-no-prisoners culture imposed inside the government created the bizarre cult of Peta Credlin, which was both vexed reality and collective mythology. The “witch in the office” began to loom larger than ministers, and project as a proxy for the prime minister rather than a conduit. The prime minister was rendered a sock puppet, and consented to his diminution.You should have told us so at the time. You were negligent not to. That "witch in the office" was actually the difference between Abbott being some crass brawler and the apparition of a thoughtful, sensitive man who could have made a very good Prime Minister. She was (no domestic connotations intended) the woman behind the curtain.
Politics has a high tolerance for bastardry as long as the strategy is working. But the edifice began crumbling very slowly right from the start. The whole enterprise felt strangely vacant and unconvincing.
Abbott has always been a contrary figure, a complex person, and his stock in trade, aggressive simplicity, could only resonate when it was delivered in broad brushstrokes. The devil was always going to be in the detail.That is nowhere near good enough as a piece of analysis. It isn't only the devil that's in the detail. Thousands of good people live and work in the detail of government policy - they're not devils, and it's stupid to report their lives and work in that manner. That detail is the stuff of journalism, not drifting from press conference to picfac wondering if a person you've known for years isn't morphing into someone else before your eyes.
Tony Abbott is trapped inside his own feedback loop ... his fortress ... his bunker ...When someone mixes their metaphors like that, they no longer care whether or not what they are saying makes sense. Murphy could have warned us ahead of time what an Abbott government might have been like, an what we might have done to avoid it - but hey, no point killing yourself for a deadline, eh?
The proper use of anonymous sources
We are entitled to be told how we are governed.
Anonymous-source journalism was a big feature of the last government. It crowded out well-researched policy to which people were happy to put their names. It was sneaky and dishonest and made it look as though government was about something else than governing the country in its own best interests. Baird is great at research and explaining complex ideas, as her thesis-cum-book on women in political media shows.
Julia Baird cannot claim that she's protecting her job in the press gallery by keeping anonymous sources anonymous. She's based in Sydney, and comperes a game show where contestants talk past each other, add nothing to public debate, and win no prizes. She's playing the game but has forgotten, if she ever knew, what it's all about. That last tweet is a killer ("One MP is a Turnbull supporter, the other has a name starting with D; one MP cries in sad movies, the other is a passionate Tigers supporter" - you could go on and on like that, couldn't you). No wonder her articles on this country for foreigners are so wacky!
My local member is Liberal MP John Alexander. In all this hoo-ha you can bet a press gallery journo has heard from Alexander, and should be in a position to tell me and my neighbours how he is voting tomorrow. We should be able to lobby him, as we would for any other matter of public importance. The idea that Baird and others are protecting him in some way is silly and wrong. What great journalism ever came from petty confidences such as these?
It would probably be a waste of time. Alexander's media is full of his getting out and about and being consultative, etc. The fact is he turns up late to local events, gets his pic taken, talks briefly to the two or three people who run the event, and high-tails it out of there. He grimaces or winces at people rather than smiles: I just don't think he likes people and resents that great-unwashed aspect of his job. Why Baird feels the need to protect him, or any other incumbent, is unclear. Anonymous sources should only be for the big stories.
That said, I have read Baird's other pieces on anonymity and loss of control by the sorts of people who mentored her career, and how everyone on social media whom she has not already met is some batshit-crazy freak. From that I have reverse-engineered this cut-out-and-keep guide for all of you social media denizens who want to do things to Julia Baird's satisfaction:
Acceptable Use of Anonymity in the Media
Anonymous sources commenting on matters concerning the life and death of governments and policies
Anonymous focus groups and poll responses, and the anonymous figures who leak those findings anonymously
Anonymous social media comment
Unacceptable. The end of civilisation as we know it
Social media comment that isn’t anonymous, by people who don’t mix in politico-media circles
How is that different? I’m confused
The task of the press galleryThe press gallery failed in its role to properly scrutinise Abbott, just as it had with Rudd.
The ALP and Liberal Party respectively also failed, but that's another story; it's too easy to let the media off the hook when it comes to systematic failure. Indeed, letting it off the hook only lets it blame internet or whatever, and excuses its gaping and ongoing failures. The audience, the readership, the citizenry are mostly content to slip away from the failure of political reporting, and too few of the press gallery really miss them/us when they/we have gone, assuming they are vindicated by their employment and those (fools) who maintain them in that employment.
The press gallery can't all be like Niki Savva, who wouldn't hear a word of criticism about Abbott until her employers told her to Make Glorious Propaganda Against Running-Dog Abbott, whereupon she pivoted and the guy can't do anything right. She's not a journalist. Niki Savva can fuck off, and so can everyone who thinks "that's a bit harsh".
The task of the press gallery is to match what politicians say/do against objective, or at least respected, sources of truth. That's the job. The above do that to varying degrees but not nearly enough. They do not work harder than we outside the gallery work. They deserve no more excuses or allowances than the rest of us get in our jobs. If developing an ability to analyse policy, and assess politicians' words against that, will save your job - then why not do that? What else would you do? You can't seriously imagine the same old crap will be good enough ad infinitum.
When you grizzle about how hard you work, and cringe before the phantom that is the "24-hour news cycle", consider that Tony Abbott did his best - and his best wasn't early good enough, not even close. This should have been more obvious to the press gallery long before this.
*Grabs the press gallery by the lapels and shakes* You should have told us. You could have forwarned us. This, our country, did not have to be in this predicament.
Feeling sorry for Tony AbbottYes, seriously. I thought he was a dickhead when I met him in the '90s. But then, look at who he has to work with.
Abbott kept Arthur Sinodinos' job open for him for over a year (hell, the Liberal Party only gave Harold Holt a month). Abbott copped a lot of stick for that. To see Sinodinos turn on Abbott was pretty low - had he held his water and stood by the leader, he would have demonstrated the integrity his supporters insist is the essence of the man. I wouldn't give him any job after this.
It can be a tragedy when good, hardworking MPs lose their seats when a duff leader stuffs up the campaign. One of those who sponsored the spill motion tomorrow, Luke Simpkins MP, is a climate denier who wants to ban burqas. A more moderate approach to government will save his job; while a leader in line with Simpkins' values would see him lose his job. Politics is pretty funny, isn't it.
A final thought on TurnbullImagine if Turnbull had quit the Coalition front bench on any number of issues - climate change, gay marriage, the NBN or the ABC. Imagine he had spent the last 17 months on the backbenches. How would things be different? He wouldn't have missed the extra ministerial income. He would have shown that sucking up to Rupert doesn't make a lick of difference; when you're gone, you're gone. Someone like Peter Dutton could have achieved everything that Turnbull has done as Communications Minister. Turnbull would still be a contender for the leadership, just as Bishop would have piked it as she always does.
All those compromises, those heartfelt declarations of fealty to Abbott and his agenda, the one that can't be sold. What was it all for?