Some rise to the challenge and end up with achievements they never expected earlier in their political careers: they end up having presided over some major reform quite by accident, never having expressed any interest in the issue (or even having scorned it). This is how Martin Ferguson of the ACTU ended up as some sort of expert on mining policy, and how Peter Howson parlayed a few undistinguished months as a paternalist Aboriginal Affairs minister into decades of inane commentary.
The exhaustion of political silly-buggers in the face of day-to-day reality surprised Lenore Taylor, who felt the need to explain the inevitable as though it were novel, even 'commendable':
When leadership speculation was rife in early March and the government was still struggling with the political death throes of savings measures from its previous budget, Abbott spelled out his immediate strategy to his party room with commendable candour. He was changing focus, he said, from policies the government was unable to get through the “feral Senate” to smaller things that didn’t need Senate approval, but would appear “meaningful” and “positive” to the person on the street.Take any government that lost office over the past decade or so: Rudd/Gillard, Bligh and Newman in Queensland, Napthine in Victoria, Giddings in Tasmania, Keneally in NSW. At different stages they stopped poring over polls and focus groups and turned to flurries of new announcements, the way distressed cuttlefish squirt ink: a new road here, something to get you photographed with little children there, a taskforce, something else to get you photographed wearing hi-vis, etc.
Headlines about policies rejected by voters and defeated in the Senate were duly replaced by scores of announcements about taskforces on the ice epidemic, crackdowns on childhood immunisations, inactive bank accounts, country of origin labelling on food, codes of conduct for supermarkets and sod turnings for new roads.
It was a deliberate plan to ease the sense of crisis engulfing the government, soothe the party room panic and restore some semblance of normal, to use the short attention span of the 24-hour news cycle to the government’s advantage by filling it up with small, positive things while the large unsolved budgetary questions were considered in the background.
If experience counted for anything in political journalism, the press gallery would be awake to that; they are wrong to assume their readers/ viewers/ listeners are not. Large unsolved budgetary questions are very much in the foreground of the commentary I read - though, admittedly, I have to hunt for it rather than just get handed a press release.
Remember how all that activity by the Gillard government was framed:
- "In another desperate attempt to shore up her leadership, the Prime Minister announced ..."
- "The Opposition has criticised the government for its attempts to ..."
The "24-hour news cycle" did that framing to lift individual issues above the business-as-usual context the (beleaguered) government sought to create. The "24-hour news cycle" and the (beleaguered) government accused one another of spin. Whoever was in opposition at the time just stood there and accrued a credibility they did not deserve, because the "24-hour news cycle" lacked the skills and the inclination to assess how they might govern. People rely on the "24-hour news cycle" to show them who will govern best: ongoing disappointment has diminished the "24-hour news cycle" as a credible source of information, or even as an excuse.
Colin Barnett benefitted from this on the upside in 2008. The WA Labor government couldn't take a trick (despite being led by a former journalist, who doggedly insisted on "getting on with the job") and Barnett was set to retire until a bizarre sequence of events saw him thrust into the Premiership. He presided over a mining boom, and thought he was intensifying and prolonging it by cutting out long-term investment proposals: no to the new train line, no to a new stadium (see this and that on the investment return on stadiums), no to additional school funding. He gave the Treasury to wasteful, destructive oaf Troy Buswell, and then to some numpty from the IPA.
When his luck ran out he couldn't believe it, like this had never happened to any WA Premier before.
He fell back on that mainstay of WA politics: blame Canberra. He thundered into COAG this week as though running out of fuel halfway between Nowhere in Particular and Nowhere Else was someone else's fault, and not something that should ever rebound on him. When he disputed the feel-good message of COAG's commitments on domestic violence and other issues by saying "I must have been at a different meeting", he wasn't seizing the initiative. He just looked like a doddery old man who didn't get it.
Barnett and Nahan have always been starve-the-beast small government men: their squabbling for public coin is unedifying to say the least. Abbott gave him that same smirk that he gave Napthine when he embraced him before the Victorian election - Howard knew that the fewer Liberal Premiers there are, the better it was for him. Abbott always had a keen nose for weakness.
In Australia, the state/territory level is mainly responsible for the delivery of social services on which the nation relies most heavily: health, education, transport, law-and-order. In Canberra, the press gallery regard COAG as a game show in which the PM succeeds only when the states/territories get as little as possible to deliver those services - then, after each COAG, they write disquisitions on how dysfunctional federal-state relations are.
No leader who so recently faced a leadership spill ever got such a free run as Tony Abbott is getting now. Lenore Taylor can describe that free run but not explain it, except by referring to the mass-psychosis of press gallery norms as though they were natural phenomena like the weather, or "24 hour news cycle"; affecting all humans but never itself subject to human agency.
Barnett is showing Abbott, and anyone else who can bear to watch, what happens when a government has run out of options and luck. Barnett had a good go, and a longer go, than Abbott. Barnett faces the prospect that his legacy consists only of cuts - cuts to Aboriginal communities, and no doubt cuts to non-Aboriginal communities coming up in Nahan's next budget, followed by cuts to the number of Liberals in the WA parliament at the next state election.
Nahan has his ideology to take comfort in cuts, and not to care about electoral consequences. He can commission a poll from the Lomborg Institute to show everything will be just fine, eventually. Barnett is part of that WA elite who regard themselves as builders first and foremost. He sees his future, and that of his state, stretched out before him like a patient etherised upon a table at Fiona Stanley Hospital - and, in short, he is afraid, and right to be afraid. He's an old man, he doesn't do "eventually".
Whether WA Labor are ready for government is an open question that probably can't be answered, or even adequately explored, by the state's terrible media.
Tony Abbott has cut his way to a similar predicament to Barnett. He is not the small-government ideologue that Nahan is but nor is he a builder. He, too, will run out of options as unemployment rises and tax revenues fall, and the getting-on-with-it thing will convince fewer and fewer people. The press gallery won't be able to predict that, either; and unlike Taylor they will barely be able to describe it. They will still assume - and insist, despite all evidence - that Abbott has some deeper reserves to call upon not available to other failing leaders.