The reason why the Queensland election mattered is not just because the swing was so large - had that happened in Tasmania, it would be academic. Queensland is where government is won and lost in this country's elections. Queensland provides the second-largest delegation to the Coalition's party room. The Coalition MPs most willing to criticise Abbott in early February were Warren Entsch (from Queensland), Andrew Laming (from Queensland), and so when Abbott was searching for a new Chief Whip he lit upon a Queenslander (Scott Buchholz). In the lead-up to that election the consensus was that the LNP would lose some seats but not lose altogether; that consensus turned out to be bullshit, with real-life consequences that are still being worked out.
Most of the work of the press gallery consists of building a simplistic consensus to describe complex issues. All too rarely is a consensus busted so comprehensively as it was over the 2015 Queensland election; the question about who might lead the LNP should Newman lose his seat preoccupied reporters and editors alike, and was the wrong question. Soon after a consensus is busted there is an outbreak of truth in reporting, much as there was in the few days after September 11, before a consensus congeals and the traditional media returns to business as usual.
There are always backbench MPs disgruntled with any leader. Some of them will hang around the press gallery and grizzle. Every PM (back to and including Barton) had a few disaffected members on their back and front benches, and Abbott is no exception. The key is the attitude of the press gallery: they think they're pretty special when they wave away elected representatives like they don't matter, which is what they do most of the time. Some of the time, however, the disaffected hit prime time, as happened last month (or in the case of Gillard, every day).
There are all sorts of journo protocols about when anonymous sources should be used, etc., which never seem to apply to the actual practice of journalism - particularly not in the press gallery, where they use anonymous quotes whenever they want and their editors think it's part of the deal. Peter Hartcher's career rests largely on anonymous quotes. In early February there was a plethora, a veritable spate, of stories that relied entirely upon this or that Senior Liberal Source. Those stories did not end with the 39-61 vote for Anyone but Tony Abbott. They ended with the ferocious assault on Gillian Triggs.
Everybody knew that Triggs was big enough to look after herself, that she had her facts straight and that her knowledge of the various laws was unimpeachable. Her trouble - and Abbott et al made it her trouble - was that she spoke out of turn. There is a tightly controlled schedule for releasing announceables, and Triggs' report was not on the schedule. Brandis was miffed, having let her know that he didn't want to work with her any more, that she didn't just go; she regarded his disfavour as irrelevant, rather than the potent career limitation Brandis had intended. The ferocity of the government response revealed them as people who know they've stuffed up but can't bear to accept responsibility. The anonymous-leaky stories stopped dead: which was the main thing for the government, a correlation that went unnoticed by the press gallery.
Abbott became PM in the first place because the press gallery didn't seriously examine what he and his team might be like in the job. Australians have never liked the guy, but the press gallery effusively assured us he was OK. The Liberal Party bears some responsibility for not screening him out earlier, but the press gallery - having not examined Rudd closely enough before his ascent - has foisted a bad government on us through insufficient scrutiny.
In early February they started to seriously examine things like the GP co-payment, and the fact that the Budget hasn't been passed, and blow me down if he got flustered and his popularity began to tank. Now the press gallery has backed off - led by the Murdoch press, which was happy to pile on Abbott but not to the point where it forced his long-fostered career to an end. Here a Murdoch organ blames everybody but themselves, and the Liberal Party, for the government wilting under scrutiny.
By stopping all those anon-source stories and once again confusing stunts with serious policy, the press gallery has reverted to the toxic and docile condition that made Abbott possible in the first place. That's why this blog's official bunny can express his relief that all those years of sucking up to Abbott haven't been wasted, and contrast that against Niki Savva's gall at blaming Abbott for her embarrassment at having touted him a capable leader.
The press gallery started to ask hard questions about when it started to go wrong for Abbott - and when it turned out that Abbott's major liabilities had always been there, not only back to last year's Budget but before, it gave rise to uncomfortable questions about the (lack of) scrutiny applied to this government. Were we sold a dog of a government? Who did the selling - the Liberals are entitled to talk themselves up, but then the media ... flinched. Dear reader, the media flinched before the question of self-examination, and flinch they shall all the way to the next rounds of redundancies.
But to truly examine all that's awful about the press gallery's decision to ease off Abbott, it's necessary to turn once again to Michael Gordon.
The first seven paragraphs are just humbug. If you make it to paragraph eight you get this:
In the Parliament, the atmosphere of crisis and a PM under siege was tempered by forces beyond partisan politics – forces that could be detected on four fronts.The Abbott government has cut millions from programs that actually assist people with domestic violence. It might deserve the benefit of the doubt if it had consulted closely with people who live and work with domestic violence issues and funded other, possibly more effective measures instead. Instead, people who work in this area are devastated that the Sisyphean nature of their work has been made harder still by the Abbott government.
First came the push for a more comprehensive, practical and urgent response to the national scourge of family violence, one that has galvanised MPs across the political divide, especially among the more recent arrivals.
As one of the new guard, Labor's Tim Watts, expressed it, Wednesday's debate on the issue had revealed "Parliament at its best". Almost invariably, the passion of those who spoke was sparked by personal interaction with those who have suffered.
Having campaigned for the Labor leadership on the promise of action on this issue, Shorten produced his own policy, proposing a national crisis summit of Commonwealth, state and territory governments "to agree to urgently implement coordinated judicial and social services reform within their areas of responsibility to better deal with family violence".
In question time on Wednesday, Shorten asked if Abbott would be willing to meet him privately to discuss the idea.
Immediately after last month's party-room vote, Abbott's instinct might have been to decline. After all, the Prime Minister had already placed the issue on the agenda for the next meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.
Instead, to his credit, Abbott told Shorten: "This is a big issue … it is an issue that could easily unite, and should unite, this Parliament. I am very happy to agree to sit down with the Leader of the Opposition to discuss what both of us, and what all of us, can do to ensure that we get better outcomes on this issue."
The government does not come to this issue with goodwill, and Gordon is wrong to extend it to them. Talking about an issue while doing nothing to help, and indeed cutting back what little help is rendered, is not "Parliament at its best". Parliament is discredited by this disconnect between the facade of bipartisan goodwill and the reality of cutting support to frontline services such as legal aid and policy advocacy.
Gordon has no excuse not to know this and point it out. Instead, he's a sucker for bipartisan happy-talk, and expects his readers will be satisfied with that too.
Consider this and that, about which Gordon must surely have been aware. It is noteworthy, if not ironic, that two men who have been under police investigation for sexual assault are going to sit down behind closed doors - and apparently come up with a solution to a wide-ranging and complex policy and social issue.
Then there was the backdrop of the impending executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, where the Parliament has spoken with one eloquent voice in pleading to Indonesia to, in Abbott's phrase, "step back from the brink".The Bali 9 were first arrested in 2006, and governments since have done little to forestall a fatal outcome for Chan and Sukumaran. For someone who promised a Jakarta-centred foreign policy, Abbott has stuffed up diplomacy with Indonesia in general and on this issue in particular. His linkage of tsunami aid in 2005 to their fate prompted fury in Indonesia, not only from Jakarta officials but from ordinary people who doubt our sincerity in having a close and mutually supportive relationship. Gordon should have pointed out that, whatever Bishop is doing to help Chan and Sukumaran, Abbott has made their job harder rather than easier. Indonesia's politics are different to Australia's, but Abbott should have understood that his comments would have made it harder for President Widodo to commute their sentences and kept his trap shut.
There is no more potent antidote to partisan rancour and petty point scoring than shared sadness and foreboding. In this case, the sadness and foreboding are all the greater because of what we have learnt of the rehabilitation of these two young men and the likelihood that international pressure will ultimately prompt Indonesia to restore its moratorium on the death penalty.
Again, Gordon has no excuse not to know this and point it out. Instead, he's a sucker for bipartisan happy-talk, and expects his readers will be satisfied with that too.
The third area is more one of potential than real bipartisan action: the Intergenerational Report released by Treasurer Hockey, and the picture it paints of a nation where the number of people aged 65 and over is projected to double over the next four decades.Given that "bipartisan action" is a contradiction in terms, the Intergenerational Report is a partisan joke. It made no projections on the basis of climate change and carried forward no economic studies on infrastructure projects. It has avoided serious debates on immigration, education, jobs, and closing the gap in living standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. Apart from that has sunk without trace already; the idea that such an inadequate effort will propel the Treasurer and his message through to May is sheer rubbish, an again Gordon has no excuse for missing that.
You'll note all those quotes on the issue from Ryan and Westacott talk past the IGR rather than engage with it - a testament to the sheer poverty of what should have been an important document within and beyond the government.
Gordon has no excuse not to know this, too.
A final cause for optimism could be found in the Senate chamber late on Thursday, when Ricky Muir delivered his "first speech", some eight months after he was elected and began by apologising in advance "in case I don't deliver".Muir has been in Parliament for eight months now, and has a voting record that is traceable through Hansard. Rather than compare a politician's words against his actions, like a journalist would, Gordon instead went the Annabel Crabb route of treating Parliament as a theatrical performance put on for his entertainment. All politicians say they'll vote for good policy and against bad. Note how Gordon skipped over Muir's comments about Mike Willessee and journalistic ethics.
Deliver he did, revealing himself as a commonsense person of principle and offering some advice the Coalition would be well advised to take as it prepares this budget.
If bipartisan politics really is "more constructive", it is not at all clear what will be constructed - and that, not bipartisanship in itself, is the real point here. The fact is Abbott's ministers are too busy making up for Abbott's mistakes rather than achieving anything. They wanted the media to back off and the media have complied. We are no better governed, nor better informed about how we are governed.
Gordon's promise that the press gallery will get around to scrutinising Shorten is a joke - Rudd and Abbott got a clear run and Shorten is entitled to expect the same. With three or four exceptions (not including Gordon, or doyens like Oakes) the press gallery has no ability to scrutinise policy anyway. Gordon's lust for bipartisanship above all other political considerations is stupid and shows how easy it is for partisans to neuter what little reporting and analytical skill Gordon has.
Consider that however few voters directly sent Ricky Muir to Parliament, more people want him there than appointed Michael Gordon to the position he holds, or want him to continue in it. Both enjoy considerable perks in public office, but only one gets serious scrutiny.
But enough about Gordon. To what extent is he a symptom of a wider problem?
"Politician makes announcement" is not news - it is up there with 'sun rises in east' or 'Pope attends Mass'. It is not even journalism. Journalism only occurs when a statement is tested against
Since the last time I went after Gordon he actually applied some journalism to political matters, but now that he has taken his masthead to the journalistic dogs once more it falls to me to put him in the spotlight he would apply to Shorten.
Shorten is the press gallery's guilty conscience: they can't give him the same easy ride they gave Abbott, but they look like hypocrites if they go him too hard. They simply can't tell when he's right to distinguish himself from Abbott or when he's right to agree with him, or whether the provisos matter. Same with Muir - the press gallery dog him but avoid equally inexperienced major-party Senators (unless there's a spill on, see above), and condescend to him for speaking plainly.
The press have backed off Abbott, and thus lent a "Prime Ministerial" air of a detachment to a clown digging himself out of his own hole. If Mark Latham had become Prime Minister in 2004, his ministry would be doing what Abbott's is doing now - 'clarifying' his mistakes (e.g. Bishop, Ley) or compounding them (Brandis, Andrews). Rather than report what's going on, the press gallery are clustering behind the dirty and broken frames of bipartisanship. All they are doing is reiterating their own redundancy.
When neither party has much of a clue and people can sense this, despite a lousy press gallery clogging up the traditional media - bipartisanship has no future. It certainly has no future as a career choice for journalists who want to be sought out for their experience and judgment.