04 April 2015

Press gallery narrative and the 2015 NSW election

In the lead-up to the NSW state election last month, I knew that the Coalition stood to lose almost all of the seats they won on the Central Coast and Newcastle in 2011, thanks to the largely uncontested allegations of improper fundraising exposed in ICAC (or as Guardian Australia would refer to it, Eyeseeaysee). I knew that Labor's new leader, Luke Foley, was a more formidable competitor for the government than the burnt-out drone John Robertson, but that the ALP (Ayelpee) in NSW (enough now) had credibility issues in governing the state that a single term in opposition could not fix.

Beyond that, I was guided by the traditional media. My focus is on federal politics (and the way it is reported) and this is true of most bloggers on Australian politics. I used to enjoy Mr Tiedt's blog on NSW politics but he gave it up before it got interesting - before the downfall of Barry O'Farrell and Robertson, and the Coalition's vulnerabilities in social services, TAFE and ICAC. In making this I had left myself open to the enthusiasms of the press gallery, rather than any real idea of what was going on. I thought I was better than that.

The traditional media are suckers for bipartisanship. Under a set of assumptions that have long since died without them noticing, they assume measures supported by both Labor and the Liberal-Nationals Coalition must have some sort of broad support and legitimacy among the community represented in the parliament. With the rise of a relatively homogenous political class, bipartisanship leads to dumb and damaging policy in areas like asylum-seekers, data retention, and corporate tax. Journalists sneer at oppositions that oppose government measures, calling them populist, while they also sneer at oppositions that accommodate government policy, calling them weak*.

During election campaigns the press gallery can only think in horse-race analogies, presenting an often weak and/or populist opposition as though it were on par with the incumbent government, and ooh it's going to be close and marginal seats and you just never know. Journalists assume that voters are as impressed by stunts and announcements as they are. This method of reporting usually reinforces the status quo: the incumbent government usually gets re-elected with a bit of a swing to the opposition.

This is what happened in NSW in 2015. I was sucked in to the idea that the race was going to be close when it clearly wasn't. At the 2013 federal election I had believed that the then government and the press gallery would see through Abbott, and I was wrong; I interpreted the surge of interest in Foley as a self-interested press gallery adjusting to a real alternative government, rather than playing a bipartisan horse-race narrative at odds with the policy and political reality.

The NSW parliamentary press gallery were so busy with their own narrative that they couldn't tell us why we are governed as we are, and how we will be governed from hereon in. There is some sort of systemic problem with the way journalism is practiced in such an environment. Both democracy and effective government depend upon better coverage of state and federal policy issues.

My apologies to regular readers for offering nothing better than, say, Mark Kenny, one of Tony Abbott's most abject apologists. The poor bugger thinks he's being balanced when he said in February that his idol was living on borrowed time. He now claims Abbott has refashioned himself when all he's done is rededicate himself to his only real constituency, the press gallery. Resurrection and redemption are awesome, divine powers that neither Kenny nor Abbott can comprehend, let alone abrogate or even describe effectively.

Labor governments usually have at least one top-class lawyer in their ranks who is on a promise of becoming Attorney-General, which they don't now. They were clever in turning the dumping of Jodi McKay into a kind of martyrdom to show how much they'd changed. Mostly, however, they put up hacks to match the Liberal hacks, so that voters stayed with The Hack You Know and, again, the incumbents were returned. They were never ready this time and a better press gallery should have been honest about that, rather than wasting time on polls or the campaign bus.

Labor might have done a bit of work on their internal structures but they have done no work at all on policy. They put stale hacks onto policy in education and transport, and the capable ministers in those portfolios wiped the floor with them. They don't have donors telling them what they want in planning or asset privatisations, and so they're at a loss. They have apparently no opinions on law-and-order, the first campaign I can remember where it wasn't all-important. Labor has spent so long telling its members to shut up that they have either left, can't speak up if they wanted to, or have nothing to say anyway. Chances are Foley will drive policy from his office, but he is starting from a low base and will have to seek out voices that are not obvious to Labor insiders.

The Coalition have, for the first time since 1988, put their best team into their ministry:
  • Gladys Berejiklian has shown that she can master detail and work across a statewide canvas, and (for what it's worth) deal with he media. This is why Mike Baird has put her into the Treasury to deal with the big issues of privatisations and dealing with Canberra at a time of economic downturn and a federal government increasingly prone to gaffes and games. Neither the state nor federal press gallery will wake up to back-channel relationships between Berejiklian and Joe Hockey that will see NSW better placed than other jurisdictions.
  • For the first time in who knows how long, the state government's Big Three Portfolios (Health, Education, Transport) are occupied by ministers based far from Sydney, and nowhere near its western suburbs.
  • Transport is safe with Andrew Constance now that Berejiklian has done the heavy lifting. If your local railway station needs a new lick of paint, he is your man.
  • The relationship between Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton, and Justice and Police(!) Minister Troy Grant, will be fascinating.
  • Departure Lounge Lizard: Anthony Roberts. Not strong on policy but has the most political heft of anyone in the Liberal Right, and has gone as far as he's going to go. If electricity privatisation gets up his services as a consultant will be in demand, and if not you can be sure Gladys Berejiklian won't cop the blame for it. The other part of his portfolio is good relationships with business(!); and TAFE, which he has shunted off to John Barilaro.
  • David Elliott will be the Scott Morrison of this government, the strutting tough-guy journos can't say no to even when he freezes them out. He is the sop to the Liberal Right after the dumping of Jai Rowell (I mean, I ask you) and Matthew Mason-Cox.
  • The dumping of Katrina Hodgkinson and Melinda Pavey in favour of western-plains newbies like Grant and Paul Toole is an interesting story: one that divides the press gallery into those who don't know and can't run the story, and those who do but won't run the story.
  • Nats are overrepresented on the front bench anyway. Leslie Williams' portfolios should have gone to a Liberal.
  • Ageing and Disability is designed to focus on the former, making elderly voters think well of this government; but increasingly the disability sector will demand greater focus with the coming of NDIS, and the hasty and so far little-examined deal to shunt disability services off to the outfit that runs asylum-seeker detention centres.
  • Health accounts for more than 30% of the state budget. Jillian Skinner decided to concentrate on health policy when she was first elected in 1995 and, 20 years later, is still at it because nobody else has the same policy focus. Skinner was due to retire but couldn't because the factions put up candidates who overestimated their own cleverness and have been shunted back into advisory roles. People dissatisfied with Skinner's policies have nowhere to go but the opposition, and even they are unclear about how to even start engaging with the sector. Her portfolio will go to one of those ministers in minor-league roles who really step up (I mean, Multiculturalism? Sport? Better Regulation? Honestly); or to Pru Goward, who is of similar vintage to Skinner but much less policy prowess. Watch the dynamic between her and Brad Hazzard over community services policy.

* This did not apply when Tony Abbott was leading the Federal Opposition. Everything he did was fine by the press gallery. He was statesmanlike, apparently, in his meanly personal attacks on Rudd and Gillard. He was equally statesmanlike in brushing off the few derisory questions journalists asked him about policy. Those who regarded him thus are unable to explain why he's such a dud Prime Minister. They point feebly to the last budget, as though it as a cause rather than an effect of policy and political ineptitude. These people are not to be trusted on important matters such as how we are governed.


  1. Happy Easter...great holiday reading over the long weekend. Raises glass.

    So happy I'm a Melbourne guy.

  2. Hillbilly Skeleton4/4/15 8:42 pm

    Andrew, I think you might find that Labor's gains on the Central Coast were not only because of the backlash of the local electorate to the shenanigans of the Coast Liberals, in fact, I would go so far as to say that it was a minority concern of the electorate here, but also the fact that Labor DID look outside the box marked 'Hack' and into it's local community for local heroes who exemplified Labor's values for their candidates. You know, the values that the commentariat are delighting in saying that Labor doesn't stand for any more.

    The Rank and File WERE allowed to choose their own candidates and an extremely hard-fought stoush was fought against Belinda Neal and John Della-Bosca, who wanted to either get one of their stooges up in Gosford against Sitting Member Chris Holstein, or, when that failed, Belinda herself. In the end, Kathy Smith, from a local community group, was chosen and ended up taking the seat off Holstein!

    We ended up winning 4 out of the 5 seats on offer on the Central Coast, despite Mr Nice Guy Premier Mike Baird promising the electorate the moon and the stars. Not only that, but the Bluest of Blue Ribbon seats up here, Terrigal, actually gave us the biggest swing on the day! Not only because it was the Coast's Liberal Don, Chris Hartcher's old seat, but also because Labor had a candidate who came straight out of the community that he was running for, a Firey of some 30 years residence and embededness in the Coast community. The Liberals could only come up with the local Chamber of Commerce Secretary, who didn't even reside in the electorate and was just another arrogant Liberal with an Entitlement Mentality.

    So, yes, Labor HAS started to make the internal changes that will make it a genuine alternative to the Coalition again, as you alluded to. This change, and especially at the federal level, may not happen overnight, as many would want it to, especially with respect to the continuing influence of the Unions, but it will happen. Western Sydney may be the Liberals' target now, and the Inner City and the North Coast the Greens' target but the Central Coast is a template for how Labor is also able to respond positively.

    Anyway, I don't know where it leaked from but during the campaign 'a Senior Labor source' was quoted as saying that they realistically were working on a 3 Term Strategy to get back into government in NSW. This actually sounds about right to me. Leaving plenty of time for Luke Foley to put his policy stamp on the Labor Opposition and then take them into government again.

    At least the contest now will be a more even one. There is good young talent on both sides of the NSW Parliament (and some ideological deadwood like Damien Tudehope in Epping, sadly). So, let the jousting begin!

    Should be more enlightening to watch than the federal 'contest'.

  3. Hillbilly Skeleton4/4/15 9:30 pm

    Actually, thank you for crystalising something about the difference between The Greens, Labor and the Liberals.

    It seems as though, as you have sketched, that The Greens and their candidates are now the well-educated, culturally and environmentally-conscious kids, like your own, from the 'leafy suburbs' and the Inner City, or the North Coast Exurbs.

    Whereas, Labor and their candidates, not wholly but to a large degree are, like Luke Foley himself, the smart kids and Ugly Ducklings from the Wrong Side of the Tracks who have been brought up hard by Single Mums and the like. They have a Social Conscience tempered with the sort of realism and pragmatism that that sort of life engenders, and which tends to spawn the less 'sexy' type of policies, like, say, on Domestic Violence (which,lets not forget, was first brought up in the public political sphere by Bill Shorten), Financial Advice, and Disability Services. 'Bread and Butter' issues which tend to bore Green and Liberal supporters until they become trendy. However, there is still a constituency for that.

    Finally, the Liberals are the party for those with no conscience, good genes, good connections and an appetite for destruction. Of everyone and everything, environment and opponents alike. Which they hide behind their Private School-inspired cloak of 'Christianity'. (As opposed to The Greens, whose policies are inspired by their Steiner School education, or Private School Humanities stream education).

    Of course, this isn't definitive but it kind of makes sense to me.

    1. So where does that put gay candidates like Alex Greenwich in your generalization Hilbilly....is there another subgroup for independents like him coming through the system???

      Hilarious post and very enjoyable to read!

      The Sex Party like Fiona Party in Melbourne

      Where do these people fit in your analysis?

      I want all the decent progressive Liberals to come to Victoria and the rest can stay in Sydney. ..we have our standards here as we produced Malcolm Fraser

      Classy Liberals need only apply thanks

  4. Thanks for acknowledging that your political analysis has its human frailties as well Andrew, unlike pundits and so called political experts who almost never admit they're wrong until all their peers do.

    Rob Stokes replacing Pru Goward is also noteworthy. She never really had the talent for the policy detail of planning. He's highly qualified for the role and did well with a similarly difficult appointment as environment minister. Could help swing the regions back to the Coalition by prosecuting a fairer approach to resource development.

  5. The MSM is not what it was but bloggers like yourself still must rely on it as an primary source. You, more than most, Andrew, understand that we are all presented on a daily basis with news larded with views.

    I think it was easier to see from long distance that the NSW election would not be close nor do I see it as a failure for Foley et al. In my opinion, he won a respectable number of seats but coming so soon after Queensland and Victoria, the ALP's electoral gains were dismissed as a failure by the media who crave drama.

    I rarely read MSM commentary these days unless a link is provided on-line because it is so predictable. But what makes me angry are straight news stories which simply regurgitate all the loaded words of a media release. If a journalist does not herald certain claims with 'According to', 'the government spokesperson said', then some news reports can be delivered as straight propaganda.

    It is insidious.

  6. This strikes me as a long (and boring) apology in response to an accusation that was never made.

    - Joe

    1. Perhaps clarify what you meant by "In making this I had left myself open to the enthusiasms of the press gallery".

      I can't make head nor tail of it.

      - Joe

  7. Let me get this straight ... they want to privatise the electricity and they've had members dismissed for outright corruption.

    But after careful consideration (and a gratuitous mention of your child) you voted for them?

    So what do you actually stand for?

    1. I don't regard electricity privatisation as some sort of war crime, there's more to governing NSW than that, and there is a difference between what they want to do and what they will. Nothing gratuitous about my child. Read the blog and what I stand for politically might become clear.

  8. Actually governments only make laws these days, they don't actually govern or rule anything but their own lunch boxes.

  9. Yes, the MSM cut'n'paste brigade also love 2 flies on a wall election commentary, rather than actually applying analytical/deductive thought processes.
    And Glad will definitely be doing the Hokey Cokey in a back bar at the Marulan truck stop, to circumvent those pesky Labor State Treszes. Good point, and yes, they'll all miss it, despite their MAs in Journalism.