01 May 2015

Barrie Cassidy queers the pitch

Barrie Cassidy is one of the longest-serving members of the press gallery and the host of the ABC TV show Insiders. His analysis doesn't quite work because, like Michelle Grattan, he takes political developments as they happen without any real long-term perspective.

Take this. The first questions are: what is "Plibersek's gay marriage pitch"? At what will it fail?
No matter how fatigued and cynical seasoned political journalists become, they line up enthusiastically to hear debates in the Parliament set aside for a conscience vote.

Such debates are refreshingly honest and passionate, allowing members of Parliament on all sides to shed stringent party allegiances and follow their heartfelt convictions.

That the issue is not just restricted to religious beliefs make the debates even more compelling.
There are MPs who vote like this all the time. They're called independents. Cassidy regards them as freaks and ferals and wishes that the electoral system could be re-jigged to stop such people getting elected.

The reason why Cassidy starts the article like this is because he wants to make it clear that parliamentary debates should be conducted for the entertainment of journalists. He then goes on to explain why, and how much, Tanya Plibersek has let him down.
Now Labor's Deputy Leader, Tanya Plibersek, wants to bind MPs to a party position on gay marriage, rather than allow a free vote based on personal beliefs.

Plibersek has been accused of raising the issue only because her electorate has a high proportion of gay people, and the Greens, as a party committed, driven and united behind marriage equality, present as the only danger to her re-election.
Plibersek has represented the electorate of Sydney since 1998. I haven't been back through her record but it's fair to say she would not have won that seat, and kept doing so, had she not been deeply involved in issues affecting the LGBTIQ community.

If you understand politics enough to comment on her seat, you'd understand that and seek to convey it as part of your analysis. The idea that Plibersek woke up one morning to be confronted by marauding gay gangs wanting to get married is silly.

Note the passive voice "has been accused" - by whom, with what motives? Why did it not occur to an experienced political journalist to ask those questions? Whenever journalists lapse into the passive voice they are up to no good.

Cassidy wrote a book called The Party Thieves in which he claimed that ambitious politicians had somehow 'stolen' each of the major parties from their membership bases. Let's apply his thesis to Plibersek: a long-serving member of a political party (and a major one, none of your minor-party riff-raff), Plibersek worked within party forums to get same-sex marriage adopted to her party's platform. It's notable that the issue did not cause powerful opponents to flounce out of the party, as the ALP split in the 1950s.

The Deputy Leader of the Labor Party is seeking to get the Labor caucus to vote according to the already settled Labor platform: this is not quite the bolt-from-the-blue Cassidy is trying to make it appear.
More than that, her motives have been linked with the leadership, especially because Bill Shorten went on the record last year in a speech to the Australian Christian Lobby, locking himself into a conscience vote.
Again with the passive voice. If Plibersek is the tactical doofus Cassidy makes her out to be, Shorten is safe.

Sounds like the start of a LABOR LEADERSHIP SHOCK beat-up. It's on the record that Cassidy doesn't take kindly to ambitious Labor deputies. He didn't take kindly to Gillard, Crean, or Keating, deputies who turned on their leaders. He revered Lionel Bowen and Brian Howe, who each no more wanted to become Prime Minister than fly to the moon. He was quite fond of Kim Beazley, who waited until the leadership was dropped in his lap. As for upstarts like Hawke, Latham or Rudd - hey, that's just politics.
However, beyond that, her frustration is understandable. Despite a succession of opinion polls showing majority support for the move, the issue has been allowed to drift for years. Plibersek obviously believes that locking in Labor's numbers will guarantee change.
Not necessarily. Labor is in opposition. If there was a vote in parliament on same-sex marriage it would not pass because Labor doesn't have the numbers.

So, what does Cassidy mean by 'change'? Labor's platform won't change. Plibersek might be seeking to make a statement about Labor's intent when in government. She might be seeking to progress an issue she's been working on for years.

In politics, it's possible to lose a vote in the short term but win eventually. Look at Tony Abbott's repeated no-confidence motions in the Gillard government (Cassidy has): Abbott lost every one of those votes. Did this make him a loser? Eventually, Abbott convinced the public to share his lack of confidence in the last Labor government.

It is possible that Plibersek is playing a long game with same-sex marriage - indeed, it's likely - but in his lunge for PLIBERSEK FAIL Cassidy cannot even examine the possibility.

What's the point of doing all that work to change the Labor platform if you can't enforce it? Should this issue be on Labor's platform at all? Cassidy should engage those issues, but can't.
But the party's national conference will resist the call for a host of sound reasons.

Undeniably the community wants change, but a conscience vote on both sides would be the best expression - and endorsement - of that attitude; an opinion freely expressed rather than one driven by party discipline.
Tanya Plibersek isn't deputy leader of 'both sides'. Like any practical politician she is doing what she can with what she has, and what she has is some influence within the ALP.
The tactics are wrong as well; and that was best underlined by openly gay Liberal Senator, Dean Smith, who supports gay marriage.
So a Liberal backbencher has greater tactical sense than the Deputy Leader of the ALP? Smith has more directly at stake with this issue than Plibersek, a straight married woman, but Plibersek has the record on this issue that he lacks. Cassidy is only quoting him because he needs some support in opposing Plibersek.
He recently said that "if the ALP was to adopt a binding vote ... then the issue of a conscience vote in the Liberal Party is dead".

He is right. Such a move by Labor would release the pressure on Tony Abbott to grant his side a conscience vote.
No it wouldn't, and no he's not.

First of all, same-sex marriage is dead within the Liberal Party so long as Tony Abbott is leading it. Smith, Cassidy, and everyone else with any political experience at all knows this.

Abbott and same-sex marriage is like John Howard and the republic - he's just not going to support it, and everyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. He'll go around stomping out debate, saying that Liberals who support it aren't really Liberals at all - until community pressure builds and a vote must be held, whereupon he will frame the vote in such a way that it can't succeed. If same-sex marriage came to a vote while Abbott is Prime Minister he would put up a travesty: Smith and other prominent same-sex-marriage advocates would vote it down, proponents would be split, and Abbott would declare the issue as dead as the republic. People like Barrie Cassidy would praise his deft political skills.

Abbott's opposition to same-sex marriage isn't tactics, it's strategy. Cassidy should be able to tell the difference.

What pressure is there on Tony Abbott to hold a vote on same-sex marriage? Tony Abbott is under pressure over a number of issues, but same-sex marriage isn't one of them. How can you ease pressure that is barely felt?

Smith did not win a Senate seat for the WA Liberals by being a passionate advocate for gay marriage. They voted for him despite, not because of, his position on this issue. What he is trying to do here is not introduce same-sex marriage, but keep alive the idea of the Liberal Party as the natural party of government - the Liberal Party disposes in its own good time and not a minute sooner.

Progressives often criticise conservatives for being against any and all social change. Not only is this not fair, it's inaccurate: just as there are plenty of eminently conservative positions brought in by Labor governments, so too there are progressive positions that were brought in by Coalition governments. Conservatives almost never dismiss social reform out of hand: "now's not the right time" or "there are other priorities" deflect and bog down progressive momentum, whereas outright opposition can rile it up.

Smith would rather there were no same-sex marriage for the next fifty years rather than have the ALP or any member of it get some credit. That's how conservatives work. Barrie Cassidy has no excuse for not knowing that, and failing to convey it to his readers.
Neither would it be a good look for the Opposition to impose a binding vote, and then suffer the humiliation of MPs voting against it anyway, as some surely would.
Labor has established mechanisms for dealing with its members who vote against their party's platform, and Cassidy knows that - but more on that later.
And already merely raising the issue has shown how divisive it can be. The ALP's national conference is a singular opportunity for its leader, Bill Shorten, to take centre stage with a developed plan for the future built around economic management. The issue of Palestine threatens to distract from that. Loading up the agenda with an unnecessary brawl around gay marriage is a further impediment.
Labor has an established lead over the government in the polls, just as Kim Beazley did a decade-and-a-half ago. Shorten led it into that position by being risk-averse, by only opposing the government where it was proposing something unpopular. Say what you will about Plibersek and same-sex marriage, or recognition of Palestine - it isn't risk-averse. Cassidy should acknowledge that, but he can't because it goes against his narrative.

Why does Labor have to focus on economic management? The Coalition promised to be econocrats first and last but most of their energy has been dissipated in cultural stances like abolishing Medicare bulk-billing, or enforcing Anzac Correctness. Why can't Labor's future include same-sex marriage and a Palestinian state?
For most of its first 60 or 70 years, Labor insisted on tight discipline. New members had to take "the pledge", allowing for internal debate initially, but absolute adherence to the party platform in the end.

They wanted to resist factions going off on a frolic of their own, splitting the party into disparate groups.

But times have changed, and dramatically so.

Across the country, there is nothing like the support for the main parties that existed even 20 years ago. As voting patterns change, parties need to be more diverse. The broad church imperative grows, not diminishes.

That means, at times, foregoing discipline for flexibility; being more open to conscience votes, not less so.
But wouldn't that be embarrassing? Cassidy said it would be embarrassing if some Labor people voted one way and others another. Now he's saying there should be more of it. Why were Labor splitters of old "on a frolic of their own", while those who want to vote against today's platform are just being broad-church? When Plibersek opposes her leader on this issue, a matter of party platform, is she being broad-church or frolicsome?

Cassidy has not made the case that flexibility of the type he advocates is the answer, or even an answer, to declining support and participation in traditional politics. Maybe no such case can be made. Does political debate really end with the bemusement of journalists?

Barrie Cassidy is entitled to engage in political analysis, too; his employer pays him to do so. His analysis just isn't very good. He trashes his own experience, even the thesis of his Party Thieves, to make what looks like a self-defeating point. He flails a successful politician in pursuit of a long-term social reform goal whose popularity bears no relationship to the numbers of people directly affected. This year's Labor Conference is less significant than you might expect; it is certainly not that significant to a journalist who's seen plenty such conferences come and go.

Cassidy's political experience should be worth a lot more than he makes of it, and not just to himself. The Drum should do a better job of editing what is submitted to it. Cassidy can't even have a meaningful debate with a blank piece of paper - no wonder he can't handle political debates among other people.


  1. I remember watching Cassidy on "Insiders" a while ago - I think it was around the time of the Lib leadership spill vote - asking Tony Burke the most fatuous questions about nothing of substance. It was cringe-worthy.

    As for this article - ugh. You've pretty much summarised why my eyes rolled all the way back in my head upon reading it. And can he and his counterparts please stop bloody calling it "gay marriage" (and thank you, Andrew, by the way for not using the term)? It may come as a terrible shock, Barrie, but a number of people who might want to marry someone of the same sex or gender identity - and the two aren't necessarily one and the same but that's a whole 'nother issue - are not ipso facto "gay". But I fear it's too much to expect certain members of the press gallery to grapple with the concept of not excluding people who don't fall into neat sexuality and gender binary boxes, since anything beyond the most simplistic and superficial attempt at political analysis appears to elude them. Good grief, it's depressing.

  2. Yeah, really. I have been reading reaction to Pliberseks comments this week with an all too frequent eye roll. The media treatment is as you have described.

    Shortens reaction really annoyed the crap out of me. All he had to do was say, essentially, that this issue, and others are up for internal discussion ALL THE Time. That it is not uncommon for people in political parties to have different views on some topics. What the hell is new about that? Isn't policy supposed to EVOLVE? It took Albanese to make sensible statements to that effect.

    Cassidys piece was a long winded, an as you note, often contradictory load of rubbish. Seems like times like this substance rather than word count should be the aim.

    Oh gawd, so fed up with this navel gazing, lazy drivel.

  3. I'm pleased to read such a concise demolition of Cassidy's tosh.
    I re read that bit about the naughty ALP destroying the liberal party's hopes for a conscience vote several times on the assumption there was something I'd missed, but there wasn't.

  4. My guess would be that Cassidy is old fashoned labor catholic right and that piece is close to my reading of the beat up also..the right faction is happier to make war on what's left of the left faction than deal with Abbott and the tories.

    People like Cassidy do well enough out of the system and social issues are something they instinctively shun. Things are nice just the way they are. That's not to say he is deliberatley malicious, just complacent.

    The samll target stuff is fair enough. Beazley made a terible error not maing Howard fry in his own Tampa Sieve X mess. Later, when Latham attempted some thing a bit imaginative as to Tassie rainforests, the vested interests showed their usual fall back position of collluding to sabotage a change in the status quo. When Rudd tried to break factional control of the ALP they waited till they could sabotage him.

    Plibersek is of a different type to the apparatchiks, although you'd suspect also a poitician, but I think it is likely that she and the right faction big shots don't get on either, because she is too well educated to fall for the nonsenses of social conservatism.

    I think there is a problem in the ALP with hidebound thinking: They should have challenged on DataRetention but failed dismally on a serious issue. Th eALP has become like someone half way up a ladder, who suddenly panics..they have forgotten how to act boldly and set the agenda.


  5. Cassidy=sinecurist. Bludger.