06 April 2015

Peter Hartcher and the kindness of strangers

Peter Hartcher thinks he has ascended to a high clear place where he knows our political leaders well and can trumpet their virtues across the land, reinforcing our respect for them and him and also, perhaps, improving our understanding of how we are governed. Only when you read his pieces do you realise how much he is kidding himself.

Take this, where he is trying to get you to accept the fact that Scott Morrison is on the rise and there is nothing you can do about it: you have to accept Hartcher's premises unquestioningly, just as he accepts Morrison's.
A boatload of asylum seekers had crashed into the rocky cliffs of Christmas Island in stormy seas. Forty-eight people died. Forty-two survived. When some of the survivors travelled to Sydney for the funerals of their relatives, the federal government paid some of their travel costs. Morrison complained about it.

It was a formative moment in the public's impression of Morrison, then opposition spokesman for immigration.

"I was wary of dealing with Morrison after that," says Xenophon. "His comments were appalling." Many others had the same reaction. The former Liberal leader, John Hewson, called his remarks "insensitive, lacking appropriate compassion, even inhumane". I described him at the time as "the greatest grub in the federal parliament".
Morrison diminished the humanity of those who died, and their grieving relatives. His comments then gave an insight as to how he would behave as minister, and someone like Peter Hartcher should have been awake to that. Instead, Hartcher was peeved at the then government for dumping his best source ever, Kevin Rudd. Anyone who opposed both Gillard and Rudd, as Morrison did, and who talked the language of polls and talkback radio (which people like Hartcher, and Michael Gordon from The Age, regard as the epitome of political sophistication) did not prompt scrutiny on Hartcher's part but instead a simple awe.
Once in power, Morrison went on to do what Labor had said was impossible. As immigration minister, he stopped the boats. Totally. He was effective.
Rubbish. He stopped announcing boat turnbacks. He held farcical press conferences. He was effective only in fooling gullible clowns like Peter Hartcher and those who report to him.
His treatment of asylum seekers appeared to be exuberantly harsh. He was effective, but he was ugly.
His treatment of asylum seekers has been catalogued by the Human Rights Commission, the Moss Report, and international agencies including the UN. Hatcher is wrong to gloss over that, and to elevate Canberra impressions over realities on the ground.
Second only to Tony Abbott, Morrison became the most divisive figure in the federal cabinet. When his alma mater, Sydney Boys High School, invited him to appear as the guest speaker at a fundraising dinner, nearly three hundred old boys signed a letter demanding the invitation be withdrawn. The dissenters did not want to "endorse the actions of a man who has demonstrated callous disregard for human rights".
He's not a 'divisive figure', he's an arsehole. Do what a real journalist should have done and go to Sydney Boys High School, ask the boys about their migration stories and those of their parents, and realise that Morrison was a poor choice for a role like that.
Morrison suggested ...
Who cares? The interests of hundreds of boys, old or not, is not trumped by some half-baked quip. Hartcher is wrong to frame this issue in this way.
"A lot of people are now asking, who is Scott Morrison?" a Labor frontbencher posed this week.
This is Peter Hartcher's favourite type of journalism: anonymous source. Anonymous sources insisted for years that Costello would challenge Howard, they were there when Labor and Liberal underwent leadership challenges, they chewed up space that should have been devoted to policy - and then Peter Hartcher wrote sonorous pieces about how successive governments could not do policy because leadership. Even after Rudd was trounced in leadership ballots, Hartcher's anonymous sources were the artificial resuscitation for his political career. Rather than examine his own reporting practices he declared the whole country to be adolescent, rather than his reporting method. If you cut anonymous-source articles out of Peter Hartcher's backlog he would be left with a slender offering indeed.

Media organisations in the US and Britain apparently have rules surrounding the use of anonymous sources. These rules are frequently broken - Woodward and Bernstein's reporting of Watergate relied entirely on an anonymous source - but in Australia there are no such rules. An Australian journalist who has a story rejected due to over-reliance on anonymous sources should count themselves unlucky. Hartcher's underlings at the SMH lined up to bag this anonymous-source article online, not daring to take on Hartcher nor do anything to put their own house in order (see The proper use of anonymous sources here).
Consider three Morrison actions.
Yes, let's.
First, Morrison persuaded Tony Abbott to euthanise his long cherished but half-dead pet, his forlorn paid parental leave policy ... Abbott had protected his PPL from Liberal party assassins, sustained it through six years and two elections, and spent enormous amounts of precious political capital to keep it alive. But the Senate would not endorse it.
Why is Morrison not an 'assassin'? When does a Liberal Party policy become a policy? Why don't Senators get the credit that Hartcher would sheet home to Morrison?
But Abbott's new minister for social services convinced the prime minister that it was time to let the PPL die. This would free some funds for a more important purpose – improving childcare.
No it won't. The 1.5% levy on big business that was to accompany the PPL has been abandoned. No funding that would have gone to PPL will go to childcare or anything else.
Second, Morrison conducted emergency surgery on an even more urgent policy disaster that he inherited.

Three days before Christmas last year, his predecessor, Kevin Andrews, had quietly started to cut off a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of federal funding that had been expected to support community services over four years ... Morrison announced that all the community groups would keep their existing funding till June 30 while the government reconsidered the policy. He is working now on a longer-term fix.
This is not policy, or even surgery; it's a cat-and-mouse game. Morrison is not a builder of policy but a stunt man attuned to the media cycle.
Third, Morrison amazed many by doing something rare among Abbott government ministers. Instead of trying to ram poorly conceived policies down the throats of a reluctant country, the new minister for social services sat down and listened.
Having failed to scrutinise the Abbott government in any meaningful way, Hartcher is trying to make a virtue of a necessity, to render basic competence extraordinary and deserving of gratitude.
Nick Xenophon again: "There is a public perception that Morrison is a mean, uncompromising bastard, but I've found him to be terrific to deal with."
Xenophon voted before Christmas to have children released from immigration detention, as Morrison promised they would. They haven't been released. Xenophon has been made to look foolish once, and now twice with that quote; the fact that children are still in detention and that Morrison used them as bargaining chips is still the issue here.

Again, where the 'public perception' differs from reality is a failure of journalism.
The cost of the age pension today is the equivalent of 2.9 per cent of GDP. The Intergenerational Report found that this will rise to 3.6 per cent over 40 years. That equates in today's terms to $14.5 billion a year in extra spending. As Morrison points out to welfare advocates, that's equal to the cost of the full-fledged National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Or, equal to the cost of 15 F-35s, or [insert your idea of $14.8b of public sector bloat here]. While Morrison isn't the Minister for Defence, but the political editor should bring a wider perspective.
... Morrison has adopted an ACOSS idea to tighten eligibility for the pension. At the moment, a couple can own their home, have $1.1 million in investments and still receive a part pension. ACOSS proposes reducing the extra assets threshold to about $800,000 instead. This measure alone would save the budget $1.5 billion a year without hurting the poorest pensioners.
Morrison has accepted nothing of the sort: no announcement, no commitment whatsoever, another 'consideration' designed to disarm ACOSS and fool Hartcher.
Morrison is also working to improve childcare.
Childcare is an issue of direct interest to my family, and I'm not convinced Morrison won't make things worse. Note Hartcher does not know or care enough to investigate what the problems are and who the knowledgeable stakeholders might be. Even if you give Morrison the benefit of the doubt, sincere and well-meant measures can be counterproductive; Hatcher can't tell, relying entirely on Canberra shenanigans rather than policy outcomes.
Labor has been surprised and a little taken aback at Morrison's new collegiality. When he first sat down with Labor's childcare spokesman, Kate Ellis, to seek common ground, she, like Xenophon, was wary. Was Morrison wanting to meet just so he could say he was meeting? Look at me, I'm the new, warm and friendly, bipartisan Scott Morrison! But eventually Ellis decided he was serious. He really does want to put together a practical and responsible childcare policy, she decided. And he's not being nice for the sake of it – he wants to get it through the parliament. Bipartisanship is practical politics.
Bipartisan outcomes can be impractical, as Manus Island shows. Policy does not end once a bill passes through the parliament; this is so obvious that it ought to go without saying, but only if you could negate it could you support Hartcher's belief that "[b]ipartisanship is practical politics".
Childcare is expected to be the centrepiece of a families package that the government plans to announce in the next month or so, before the budget.
Covering off with people who know about childcare will enable you to evaluate this package, otherwise you rely entirely on he-said-she-said from Morrison and Ellis. On this government's form it's likely that the budget will undercut the package, and that Hartcher will not notice until someone in the sector points it out (and then the coverage will be about "controversy" rather than the issue itself).
But the government will also demand offsetting concessions from the Senate on some cost-cutting measures already before it.
Morrison won't sit down and listen to them, it would seem, just demand. This goes against Hartcher's leopard-changing-spots narrative, doesn't it.
Morrison sees childcare as a social issue, but also an economic one. A key aim – to give more single parents the childcare support they need to get into the workforce. It's about participation. Single income families with young kids need extra help with childcare to hold down a job. Morrison wants to give it to them.

This economic theme of participation is to be a recurring theme in Morrison's approach to reforming social services.
Morrison isn't entitled to be taken at his word, as Hartcher unwittingly demonstrates later in his piece by reference to Morrison's promise-everything-deliver-nothing approach on asylum seekers. He can't imagine why children would need education, or even to be free of abuse and neglect; that such a man now wants to look after children, or would even know where to start, strains the credibility of everyone but Thirsty Pete.

Tony Abbott's whole political outlook assumes that Australia's mothers are, and want to be, stay-at-home-mums like his own wife. Any "package" put up would not have the comprehensive policy reinforcement it would need to succeed. Hartcher can't pick that because he has no respect for policy in that area.

Peter Hartcher has been lost since his career high-point as Rudd's apologist. He couldn't get any inside running from Abbott. who didn't need Hartcher. Hartcher tried Joe Hockey but Hockey faltered, ceasing to be a leadership contender after the 2014 budget and then suing Fairfax.

Hartcher tried a Woodward-style imagined dialogue with Julie Bishop and Abbott before the latter's leadership was challenged - but Julie Bishop doesn't need him either. The Sydney Morning Herald barely reaches into Sydney's western suburbs, petering out long before Bishop's powerbase in Perth. Hartcher can't go back to Labor; they're awake to him. He can't go beyond the major parties because he regards them as freaks, notwithstanding a longterm decline in support for the majors that Abbott and Shorten look to accelerate.

Now he's lit upon the idea that Morrison is the coming man, and is giving him the green-light absence of scrutiny. We'll see whether a deft media operator like Morrison needs a clapped-out groupie like Hartcher, to what extent, and to what ends.


  1. An anonymous source tells me that often the anonymous sources quoted by Peter Hartcher as the origin of his information don't actually exist, instead its only opinion or just plain and simple make it up that is being peddled as purported fact from an anonymous source.

    An anonymous source also tells me that Scott Morrison is a devout Christian of the happy clapper variety, that's why he is so good at his job of making people less fortunate than himself so miserable. An arsehole like Morrison finds it easy to behave so deftly in a venal manner to those who have no means to challenge.

    As for my anonymous source(s), don't ask who they are, they might not actually exist. Peter Hartcher take note.

  2. Why is it that political journalists feel the need to put a shine on what is clearly an inept incompetent government?
    Why write a puff piece on Scott Morrison, a thoroughly vile individual with no redeeming human features what so ever.
    As you say Peter Hartcher may have sniffed the wind and decided Scotty is on the up, but unfortunately for him if the Daily Terror ran a front page photoshop of Morrison in the black uniform of an ss obergruppenfuhrer I suspect most people would nod and think " yeah, that's about right".
    As I commented on a previous post, Scott Morrison has all the public appeal of a demented cockroach. No amount of puff pieces is going to put a dent in that.

  3. I commented on that article along the same lines, that it was sad to see a political journalist swallowing and spouting such sycophantic nonsense.

    No abuse, just reasoned argument.

    it wasn't published, of course.

    Thanks, Andrew, spot on again.

  4. Why I am still paying a sub for this increasingly tabloid pretender I am now no longer sure. (Well, SWMBO is the main reason, to be honest~domestic conflict avoided).
    What abject sycophancy; he is a double act with Kenny-on-Abbott. What amazes is that he doesn't go to any effort to disguise it; it's appearance is that of 'journalism' in a corporate environment, i.e.in service of the employer. To all intents and purposes one could assume he was in fact working for Morrison. Actually, he may have cut and pasted swathes from such a press release.
    So... we're to look for the sort of bipartisanship we saw with the Abbott opposition in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years?
    Thank you for posting on this latest apologia from the SMH's stable of 'Senior political....' The term hack would be too kind.

  5. I find Hartcher's writing trite, inaccurate, bigotted, and lazy. It is so poor that I no longer read his columns. It is scandalous that the SMH keeps him on as their head political reporter. He is excruciatingly bad at his job and I am surprised that he has any credibility with anybody

  6. "clapped-out groupie. " a superb summation. Hartcher and for that matter Grattan and a lot of others make the Walkley awards a farce.

  7. Samantha Maiden is another with the rising star bullshit for this monster. Morrison should be in prison for kidnapping, trafficking, torture, murder and all sorts of other atrocities.

  8. Very truee, harcher is a fraud. Wannabee paul kelly, another poseur.

  9. Your posts are like a cool drink on a hot day, Andrew.....Harcher is yet another mediocre, overpaid, political journalist sucking up to Morrison in the hope he will give them relevance. There seems to be a lot of them about lately - they love him, they need him, they want him; with nary a distracting word to the public about those irrelevent brown people and what what they endured at his hands.
    If you want to know what the issues are listen to what they are carefully not saying. Now that Abbott has done his dash, they are all desperately sniffing the wind for the next new thing. That the putrid Morrison is the best that is on offer, and that both the CPG and the LNP are prepared to countenance someone of Morrisons character and the amoral methods he uses to gain his ends, illustrates the deplorable state of politics in Aus. This is the real story. Both the Abbott government and Morrison in particular have been indicted by human rights organisations here and abroad but that is par for the course with the LNP. They have sunk so low they now look to sadistic torturers to give them leadership, direction and infinitely more important than those two - an ability to retain power at the next election..
    Your piece was car crash journalism; painful to read and captivating at the same time. You shone an arc light on an ageing two bit whore doing a slow strip tease attempting to please a man who they know, without a doubt, is watching with contempt...

  10. The main reason why Abbott wasn't removed recently is that the majority of the parliamentary Liberal Party were waiting for Morrison to prove his abilities by withholding information in another portfolio and getting away with it, then he can be inserted. As the Labor Party have gone right along with mandatory detention for asylum seekers it's difficult to see how they can argue against him.

  11. Right through the eye of the sluggish fish in the turgid barrel once again, Andrew.

    It's lickspittles like Hartcher who have gutted the profession of journalism. You can blame the Internet, but ordinary people long since stopped listening to tenured hacks spruiking for their elitist mates.

  12. I simply CANNOT read Hartcher any more. His role as K Rudds lap dog for 3+ years simply means that he has ZERO credibility.

    It is a testament to the very poor management at Fairfax that people like Hartcher still have jobs. I recall bumping into a senior bloke I know at Fairfax, during the height of the "leadershit" stories that ran, day in day out, during the JG govt. I asked him, basically WTF? He assured me that the stuff being written was what its press club journos assured them was happening in Canberra, and what everyone was talking about. The revelations later about how Rudd, Fitzspinelessgibbon, K Carr and a few others were feeding rubbish to a small band of willing ears was simply mind numbing: ie. how these people managed to focus on THAT as opposed to the proper discussion of policy, how the press gallery became an echo chamber and how MANAGMENT let it happen.

    Lazy at its most benign, scurrilous and dishonest in the betrayal of readers and the failure to deliver real reporting.

    Just fed up with reading CRAP from Hartcher, and most of the rest of the Press Gallery (a very small number of exceptions!).

    1. A succinct and accurate snapshot of what is becoming the Sydney Morning Sludge.

  13. Let's look at one sentence: "Morrison is also working to improve childcare."

    I can accept that on a brochure or pamphlet if I live in Morrison's electorate ... but from a senior political correspondent? What on earth else should a Social Services minister actually do?

    I am not surprised to see this article so deservingly eviscerated on here.

    - Joe.

    1. Indeed Joe.
      Journalists routinely accept claims made by politicians by neglecting to use time-honored distancing devices such as 'according to' 'he/she claimed', 'the Minister claims', 'he/she said'.
      It happens all the time, even on Our ABC.

  14. "He's not a 'divisive figure', he's an arsehole."
    A very good sentence. I imagine it being said in the same tone as "he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!" ;-)