18 April 2015

Sweating the small stuff

Eventually, a section of the political class that has ascended to high office through back-room maneuverings and media stunts comes to the realisation that governing is more about day-to-day grind than maneuverings and stuntwork. This becomes the real test of the government. Some never recover from the shock: this is the point where ministers often come crashing down or quit 'unexpectedly' as some gobbet of Canberra gossip finally makes it into traditional media coverage.

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.

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.
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.

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 ..."
For some reason, coverage of the Abbott government is not framed in that way. It is no more popular than the Gillard government was three years ago. Even after the disconnect between what Abbott says and what Abbott does is clear to everyone but journalists, the press gallery still flock to his announcements as though that broken connection was strong enough to support the weight of government, journalism and public expectations combined.

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.


  1. Indeed. So well put. Sharing

  2. ernmalleyscat18/4/15 6:50 pm

    Good one as usual.

    Genuine lol at "turned to flurries of new announcements, the way distressed cuttlefish squirt ink".

  3. Yhe only deep reserves Abbott has is of nasty.

  4. Abbott is treading water. The Press seem to be holding things together while awaiting the arrival of the White Knight. Meanwhile, voters await with clubs and knives. Great essay, always look forward to your blog.

  5. "No leader who so recently faced a leadership spill ever got such a free run as Tony Abbott is getting now".

    Aside from the sycophantic fantasists of the Murdoch press (who I guess simply know what's good for them and how to keep their fat paycheques), why doesn't the media feed off Abbott?

    He is such a rich source of ridicule, backed by an equally ridiculous ministry that you'd think their job would be quite simple. Or are they simply too lazy (okay, I'll be generous; overworked) to go beyond regurgitating the media releases?

    Those of us with enough wherewithal to peruse the internet media can see how much crap comes from the 'government' but the traditional news media are MIA.


    1. To change their ways is to admit that they have failed.

    2. AuldBrixtonian21/4/15 6:33 pm

      Worse, it would be to admit that their power of anointing the chosen, if it ever actually existed, is now a mirage.

    3. For example, I notice that Katherine Murphy is still clinging to the "I wasn't fooled, it's just that Tony suddenly changed" line

    4. He suddenly changed and Murphy didn't notice for two fucking years. Anyone else who went to sleep on the job for that long would/should have been sacked.

  6. It's a strange time indeed, Shorten is ahead in the polls but there is a thinking that Abbot will pull something out of the hat and win the next election. What is this mysterious "thing" that he could do, I can't think of anything that's left that he hasn't already tried. Could Turnbull take over? Doesn't look likely now, Malcolm seems to be past his best with all the wrecking of the NBN and metadata stuff against him. Will this pissy small government stuff save Abbott? Unlikely again as Andrew has alluded to. Perhaps Abbott thinks that we will all forget everything in some sort of national amnesia when we go to vote and just return him because he's already there, a bit of the Howard boring but steady approach. Maybe with this hopeless complying press gallery he can do it.

    1. Press gallery won't save him, it can't save itself.

  7. Abbott's just an ice-hockey (!) mask on the IPA vandals. There is no plan to recover from the wholly-owned LNP selling the national furniture to International Rich Bastards Inc. to then demand usurious interest for "user pays". It's the corporate business model that requires a large number of victims to exclude, discriminate against and rob. Toady and his Tory thugs (tautology alert!) are entirely dependent on Rupertarian FUD and the greed and fear of 10% of the electorate.

  8. It all seems to still come back to that, as you call it, 'mass psychosis'; i.e. "we can't bring ourselves to admit that we gave him a huge (unearned) handicap start, but he's a dud!"
    They're all sitting there like bashful schoolkids, wondering who's going to have the guts to put their hand up and say.. "..it was me, Miss, I done thought he was orright, but he's an idiot, and he was back then, and we missed it ..".

    Still the delusion that will not be mentioned. So they continue to allow a thug PM, a near-innumerate Treasurer, and a sadistic Immigration-now-Social-Services Minister the mantle of competent, informed statesmen who actually have a discernible, enunciated policy agenda.

    Yes, at least Taylor is able to kind of describe it. But it must be like a teacher re-scouring an exam paper to get a a struggling student over the passmark.

  9. Yes and I kindly remind readers of this blog that The Liberals lost an election in Victoria for the first time...

    The clubs have been out here a long long time ago!!

    South Yarra resident
    We're not all greedy and heartless bastards.

  10. "No leader who so recently faced a leadership spill ever got such a free run as Tony Abbott is getting now...."

    Abbott has had a free run since he became opposition leader. It is inexplicable. He has the press gallery and the wider press in his thrall. He can spurt the most ridiculous absurdities and none dare question him. Why?? There is no explanation. The press, since he came onto the scene, have been pro Abbott and anti Labor (regardless of actual events or facts) and are still that way now he is in government. The only recent piece of really honest reporting was Laura Tingles 'Being governed by fools is not funny' in the AFR a month ago. She says in part:

    ' ...we don't seem to quite be able to take in the growing realisation that we actually are being governed by idiots and fools, or that this actually has real-world consequences.'

    It is almost as if she is talking to her colleagues in the press. They are not litening. They are listening to Tony.

    1. Tingle has no excuse for not realising that years ago. None. She thought this government couldn't be worse than its predecessor but it is.

    2. Patricia Karvelas has been critical as well on her twitter account which has surprised me!!


      Do you think that Cate McGregor's praise for our p.m accepting her status as a transgendered woman is worthy of praise..

      I'm not a fan of Abbott but he did accept her against all his conservative colleagues

      That has to be admired at least and is good for the gay community

      It makes conservatives take a good hard look at themselves..

      Cate McGregor is a great Australian and one of the few I like in this government

      Her National Press Club Speech was amazing!

    3. No. Abbott is a 'feminist' to his wife, daughters and chief of staff, but all other women are second-class citizens. Cate McGregor is known to Abbott but other LGBITQ people get nothing. He would be a bigger person and worth the accolades you give him if he extrapolated out his personal relationships to the rest of the country.

    4. Very valid point...

      He's a selfish prick and a ghastly role model to his daughters if he's like that.

      Very exclusive and narrow minded mentality.

      Pretty disappointed that Tim Wilson goes down the same path as well....

      Saw him at a gay networking function and he was ghastly as a mentor..

      Very creepy and weird gay man that's a joke to the whole gay community.

    5. Why is something that happens to a transgender woman "good for the gay community?"

  11. There's an acronym online - tl;dr. This poster has been better.

    Andrew, for all the noise you make (and the almost embarrassing name-dropping of politicians), you're very short on solutions. Sure, a good ol' journalist-bash is fun, but you've made your point.

    Perhaps I'm interrupting, but what on earth are you trying to suggest now?

    - Joe

    1. My response to that has always been: ow;gf

      You can regard your contributions as a couple of seconds towards my 10,000 hours. Watch this space. In your case, you have nothing better to do.

    2. At least we can now put a (pseudo)nym to the bullshit box ticker. When it attacks with Anonymous words, we know it's hurting. Please keep administering the beatings until its morale improves.

  12. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/statler-and-waldorf-on-the-campaign-trail/390894/


    1. Thanks Lee.

      One of the assumptions behind theatre-critic journalism is that the story is familiar, unchanging and not worth examining - but the performance, the stage set is everything, as in much-performed classics like Shakespeare. That is exactly the wrong approach to take in a time of fast-moving broad-based change: the idea that the Budget always comes out in May and the opposition always whinge about the Speaker or whatever gives people the excuse they need to turn away from politics, equating it with the dumb and trivial coverage it attracts.

      The syllogism about bad journalism pandering to the audience it wants is important, like Orwell's line about the man who drinks and fails.

      That article gives too much credit to those journalists, that 'they get it right in the end' which they often don't.

      The policy wonks get it right. Amy Corderoy's piece on food labelling is still the most important piece of political journalism conducted during this term of parliament. It caught tout Canberra napping, almost taking out a minister but instead taking out political-class operator Alistair Furnival. Naturally, Corderoy was not recognised for this.

      By contrast, a couple of days before the parliament introduced legislation to inhibit journalism and imprison journalists and their sources, the entire traditional media decided that legislation was less important than the PM eating a root vegetable. Even after the legislation was passed, theatre-critic Annabel Crabb declared that she couldn't get past the onion.

      The comparison is not between Australia and the US. To understand what failed political media looks like, read the English-language press from Saudi, North Korea, Zimbabwe: they are all gushy and unquestioning Annabel Crabbs, Maureen Dowds and/or Michael Gordons. They are space-fillers for media that is not worth reading.

  13. So true Andrew.
    Wouldn't it be luverley if our media did away with soap-box commentary, dinkuses, names as headlines (Andrew Bolt) and most by-lines unless earned. Oh, and all appearances on panel shows.
    Journalists should not be players and celebrities.
    They should be diggers and delvers, seekers of unadorned facts, assemblers of facts, questioners. Their work should radiate with the elegance of objectivity.
    It would be far more rewarding to be such a journalist. At the moment many behave like dung beetles pushing their great, compacted messes round and round and round.

  14. John Webster30/4/15 6:17 pm

    We can see the quality of gallery journalism in the lead-up to the ALP National Conference. So important to have "discussion about issues" but then it must be written as Plibersek undermining Shorten while he is overseas for ANZAC. Same with the Israel/Palestine policy.