07 May 2015

The blind spot

When Senator Christine Milne retired yesterday as leader of the Greens and was replaced within hours of the announcement by Senator Richard di Natale, the press gallery was so shocked and so 'unprepared' that it actually reported the news. Those who complained about that lack of preparedness looked so stupid they cast doubt on the very idea of insider political savvy, on which the press gallery depends for its existence.

Next week Christine Milne turns 62. Days before he attained that age, Bob Hawke had been deposed as Prime Minister. When John Howard turned 62 he was still Prime Minister, but press gallery speculation was rife that he might be replaced by a much younger Victorian. Nobody then or since referred to Howard as "a bowser boy from Dulwich Hill" as Milne is just apparently a farm girl from Tasmania.

Senate preselections for the Tasmanian Greens are being held shortly. To win such a contest, and then the election, would commit the winner to a term due to extend from 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2023 - this would have put Milne beyond the constitutional age limit of 70, to say nothing of the personal toll of an already long career in politics.

The press gallery have no excuse for failing to even consider that Milne might choose this time to go. Those who remain in the press gallery from Hawke's and Howard's times look ridiculous in their failure.

When the announcement was made, the fix was already in. This is standard practice when governments make policy announcements. The press gallery never speculate about how an announced policy might be different to the way it is announced, though they may quote somebody who does. If the policy ends up being modified in the parliament, they report it as a personal defeat for the relevant minister or even the government as a whole, regardless of the effect any such change might have on the wider community.

The press gallery concentrates on government. It reports what government does uncritically and only covers opposition to that policy within a wider narrative of political maneuvering, not policy. The formal Opposition often does not quibble with announced policy, which lends it the air of Sensible Bipartisan Reform, to which the press gallery wants all policy to conform (see Jeff Sparrow on this - in his quest for a wider social narrative he lets the press gallery off far too lightly). When it does, the press gallery have to be alert to the possibility that the current Opposition might become the government, and go easy on the narrative that any such opposition exists simply to frustrate government policy.

Because the Greens aren't a party of government, any position they take is only reported by the press gallery through the lens of the major parties. While individual pieces in traditional media sometimes display an understanding of what the Greens are about on a particular issue, and what they hope to achieve, these are almost never written by press gallery journalists. Press gallery journalists don't understand, and don't want to understand, a party they can't imagine ever being in government.

The press gallery don't use favourable coverage to inform readers. They use favourable coverage as currency for the party that is, or might be, in government. A press gallery journalist who gave favourable reporting to the Greens would upset people from the Labor political party as well as the Liberal political party and the Nationals political party, which might make their job just that little bit harder.

In 2010 the press gallery was negotiating positive coverage with Kevin Rudd while his own party, unbeknownst to (and metres away from) them, was tipping him out. For the following three years they held out the threat/promise to the ALP that they would deny Gillard positive coverage, but that if Rudd returned as leader he might have a credibility that she lacked. By the time Rudd returned, people had stopped listening to Labor, and the press gallery wasn't listening to Rudd's warnings that Abbott might go back on his centrist-sounding promises.

The major parties regard their relationship with the press gallery as crucial. The Greens regard it as irrelevant. They maintain a significant vote, and a significant presence in the parliament, without the sort of relationship that the major parties cultivate and maintain at great effort. The very presence of the Greens and other minor parties is an affront to the press gallery, which gives them the desultory coverage that would make major-party players fear for their very jobs, but this does not have the effect of making the Greens die politically among the voting public.

The press gallery have a structural blindness toward the Greens. That's why they tend not to leak to journalists, not this. Nobody will leak to you if what you're offering has no currency at all. Annabel Crabb does favourable coverage so unrelentingly that its absence isn't even noticed, let alone missed.
... although it's obvious there was some pretty serious internal division within the party this year when it decided not to back the Government's planned increase to fuel excise, despite increased fuel taxes being a central part of the Greens policy platform, the exact details of the division are unclear.
Something that's hidden from you can't be "obvious" unless it's hidden badly, which this wasn't.

The effect is clear: the Greens voted against the government's proposal. They have a consistent and easy-to-understand position that they won't raise fuel excise to pay for roads. Crabb and her press gallery compadres would seek to blur with their lazy, cliche-ridden CHAOS SPLIT SHOCK pablum.

If you want to write about the Greens' position on an issue you have to address the issue. Labor and the Coalition now both support increased fuel excise to fund roads, therefore it has become Sensible Bipartisan Reform - and who in the press gallery could stand against that?
On the other hand, it's strange not to know where everyone stands. The abandonment of a central campaign platform item occurs, more or less seamlessly, and the lack of any evident fallout gives the whole thing a slightly eerie, unnerving air - like in Watership Down where the rabbits disappear and no-one says anything.
A better and more pertinent comparison might be when Tony Abbott abandons a central campaign platform item, and only social media call him out.
... there's a whiff of Moscow about it.

That effect is achieved in Moscow because, (under Putin, and before him under the Soviet Union, and before that under the Czars) killed people who leaked to journalists, and the journalists themselves. Even when the major parties change leader in Australia, nobody dies.

The only exception to that was with Holt in 1967, and you have to work pretty hard to attribute foul play to his disappearance. Gorton's successful campaign for the leadership was the first to engage the press gallery in the way people like Crabb regard as normal, which was a mixed blessing to say the least.

Today, Peta Credlin runs around telling members of the Coalition to shut up, apparently threatening with every dire fate short of death - but oh my goodness no, nothing Muscovite about that.

Crabb's third-last paragraph is a verbal train-wreck, but out of it you can pull what looks like criticism of press gallery consensus. Her swipe at Labor is silly, pointless, and typical (try telling the MPs for Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Newcastle that they are really representing outer-urban seats, or that they are politically doomed). Her final, major-party-centric paragraph tells you all you need to know about her imaginative failure and that of the press gallery as a whole.

The Greens clearly want something other than 'credibility' or 'openness' with the major parties and the press gallery - or at least this is clear to everyone but Crabb and the press gallery.

It is equally clear they have demonstrated the alternative to such 'credibility' or 'openness' is not impotence and oblivion; but adherence to that belief is crucial to the press gallery, to political-class operatives in the major parties, and everyone who regards themselves as "politically savvy". Either reality, or the press gallery's misperception of it, will have to change.

The major parties have introduced whiff-of-Moscow legislation to stifle journalists and other sources of dissent. A few days beforehand traditional media decided the big story in politics was that the Prime Minister ate a raw onion. After the legislation went through, traditional media and the MEAA half-heartedly tried to engage people on how serious that legislation is - but Crabb used her advocacy to return to the onion thing, and the MEAA represents the press gallery ninnies who've missed the significance of that legislation, so what can you do.

Mark Kenny is always on the lookout for a good-news story for Abbott. He spent February being puzzled how suddenly they dried up. He's found them in what was Julia Gillard's bathroom, he's found it in Christine Milne's old office, and if Malcolm Turnbull steps in dogshit while gladhanding in Rose Bay you can be sure Mark Kenny will declare it good news for Tony Abbott.

Chris Pyne's input to the Greens' leadership transfer is a taunt, not serious political commentary. The press gallery simply can't cover a political issue that didn't involve either Labor or the Coalition, and Pyne has inserted himself into every real and imagined change of leadership for a generation. Pyne was rubbing salt into a wound that seemed to heal quickly, which just left him rubbing salt onto other people - but the press gallery didn't get where they are by making Chris Pyne look/feel awkward.

You could criticise the press gallery, as I have and do, for being gibbering dupes of the major parties. This falls flat when you also accept the gallery's basic premise that political coverage is all about the majors and that minor parties, especially the Greens, have no future, none at all, etc. One constant of the major parties is having commentators predict their demise. There might be as much of a future in death-riding the Greens than being one of its representatives: it's not quite parasitism but not symbiosis either.

The press gallery's best exposition on the Green's change of leadership (despite its lousy headline) came from Lenore Taylor. What follows is unfair to that article and to Taylor's work as a whole, but it shows that even the best press gallery journalism is still limited by press gallery journalism:
Most voters have probably never heard of Richard Di Natale ...
Public ignorance of public matters is a failure of journalism.
He didn't say anything different to existing Greens policy. But more to the point he wasn't saying anything much different to existing Labor policy ...
Green policy can't be understood except by reference to a major party.
And he sounded authentic, like he was speaking in sentences he had made up himself.
This shouldn't be so shocking as it is.
The former GP is also likely to be harder for Abbott to dismiss with the Coalition's usual critique about the Greens being "extreme" and "ideological zealots", and Di Natale maintained he had "small 'l' liberals" in his sights as well. He wanted to convince them that "they can trust us with their vote".
Tony Abbott spent his early political career trumpeting the message that small 'l' liberals had no place in the Liberal Party. Di Natale is reinforcing that. If you look at the recent NSW election you'll see that the second-placed candidate in the seats that make up Abbott's seat, and other safe Liberal seats in Sydney, were almost all Greens. Abbott is likely to be the victim of his own 'success' yet again.
But [di Natale] taking on the leadership just as the government brings down a budget, which to the extent it does anything at all, does things that can't be attacked as unfair. That paves the way for potential deals with the Greens on things such as wealthier pensioners losing payments more quickly.
It remains to be seen whether the budget can't be construed as unfair. The link between what this government says and what it does was never as strong as Taylor seeks to imply (and she will get no quarter when she falls over shocked after the budget is delivered).
Since 2013 the party has been sidelined somewhat by a government agenda it could seldom support and a Coalition happier to do deals with the assorted independents on the crossbench.
On 22 October 1957 The Times of London apparently ran a weather story under the headline "Heavy fog in Channel, Continent cut off". It all depends on your perspective in terms of who is "cut off" or sidelined".

In 2012 the press gallery missed Bob Brown's retirement until it happened. Crabb said then there was a "whiff of Pyongyang" about it (I've never been there, what is that whiff? Stale boiled cabbage?), and the opportunities for press gallery improvement identified by Tad Tietze back then go begging still. Now they missed Christine Milne's, and they will miss di Natale's too. Can't wait for the olfactory journalism on that one.

When leaders of the Australian Democrats stood down the press gallery reacted in much the same way they did with Milne yesterday: one small-party freak replaced with another former teacher from Adelaide. This changed with the rise and fall of Natasha Stott Despoja, who used the press gallery to gain the leadership but was not a more effective or popular leader as a result, and was unable to maintain that well-cultivated relationship when she failed at non-press-gallery-related aspects of her leadership.

Subsequent Democrat leaders were unable to stem the groundswells of dissent that would surge up from the membership and sweep them away. They were like Roman emperors who were happy to dispatch their rivals to far-flung provinces but unprepared when those rivals returned, cashed up and battle-hardened, to knock them off.

If anyone leading the Democrats did have any clues about popular support, they didn't have time to implement them. Unlike the Roman Empire, the Australian Democrats' culture of everyone-gets-a-turn which worked against the strong, decisive (yet bipartisan!) leadership for which the press gallery yearns. That's why the press gallery measures all minor parties against the Democrats and finds them wanting.

After months of treating him like a hoon, a poltroon, and a buffoon, the press gallery couldn't understand why Senator Muir won't confide in them on his legislative votes. They gang up on him when he ventures out of Parliament House, the way court reporters jostle witnesses in high-profile cases to provoke a reaction on the footpaths outside hearings. Perhaps Muir has the whiff of Mt Panorama about him, whatever that might mean.

Taking their lead from the media, major-party negotiators treat Muir the same way. This only reinforces the political gap to which he was elected (however circuitously) to fill.

The press gallery exists to mediate the relationship between those who (would) govern and those who are governed. The idea that there's "nothing wrong" with cosy journo-pollie relationships fails when the public is regularly uninformed and/or misinformed. Whether it's this one on Julia Gillard and "mummy bloggers" or that one on Abbott's in-house photographer, the press gallery's buddies in the major parties are busy trying to get around them.

Music critics don't need to explain Sia in terms of Wagner. But even the best in the press gallery - let alone the other 200 busy making the case for media diversity by pumping out the same story with the same angle - are stuck in the frame of Sensible Bipartisan Reform. The press gallery don't do minor parties because they just can't, while the major parties smooth their dying pillow - the press gallery's, not the minor parties. The more minor parties there are in federal politics, the less the press gallery will be able to meet their brief of reporting to you and I about how we are governed.


  1. John Webster8/5/15 1:59 am

    Thanks Andrew. Clarification: constitutional age limit of 70 allies only to judges, not MPs.

    1. Thank you John. More of a convention then, aimed at Bill McMahon who was into his 70s when that referendum put and wouldn't take the hint to retire

  2. AuldBrixtonian8/5/15 9:41 am

    Glad to see someone finally notice the voting pattern on the North Shore. If there's to be a state Greens government you'd put money on Tas or NSW.

  3. Obviously, none of the brain dead members of the press gallery have remotely considered that Milne might have decided she'd like a life and lots more time with her family.

    No doubt she has grandchildren and would like to have a strong relationship with them.

    I say good on her; she's punched above her weight and leaves the Greens in a strong position. Not a bad achievement in a short time.

    The majors would do well to take note.

    1. She's about to become a grandmother for the first time, apparently, and she's been in politics for, what? 25 - 30 years. Of course she wants to retire, or at least do something different.

  4. You gotta love Paula M's lack of real reflection even when penning, for her, a decent article. Oakes' relayed leaks dealt a 'killer blow' to Gillard in 2010, apparently. Er, no, Paula, I think you'll find that they didn't.

  5. Of the quality we always expect from you, Andrew.

    You raise an unusual insight into the way the Press Gallery views things. I'd always thought that their failure to notice what the 43rd Parliament achieved was a sort of sour grapes at being caught unawares. To spend 3 years obsessed with Abbott and Rudd's destabilising stunts was to miss the obvious. As Mr Denmore made clear, no financial reporters would have got away with such twaddle for so long.

    I'd put it down to a variety of motives: Murdoch's directives, sexism, desire for revenge against the ambush so secret, and that ignorance which comes from seeking opinions from each other.

    You have raised another in this piece: the lack of interest in the minor parties and independents. It would explain why they missed the possibility that Gillard would form government, just as they missed the revolt in caucus. Poor Ms Gillard: left them with red faces twice in a few months. Maybe that contributed to the negative spin they put on everything she tried.

    They completely missed the importance of Windsor and Oakeshott, as well as the Greens. For it was about much more than carbon pricing, securing the Murray-Darling Basin, the NBN, Gonski and NDIS. Amid all of that was a concerted effort to restore public infrastructure. In education, health and transport it had suffered badly during the Howard years. Particularly for country and regional Australia it was urgent and critical. It owed much to those two and JG's ministry.

    It reminded people that minority governments could work and be effective, just as Curtin's 1941 one was.

    History passed them by, but there's more fun in just viewing it as a horse-race or theatre.

    1. Thanks Don, and agree about the sour grapes.

      Curtin's 1941-43 term was far from perfect - sending the army to Singapore was nobody's idea of sound policy - but Labor succeeded in building on that somehow to win in a landslide. Gillard was constrained by the press gallery and should have found a way around them - nope, me neither, but I am still certain there's a way.

  6. It's farcical isn't it, the Greens have a primary vote that is proportionately larger than the nationals, yet are treated like some fringe dwelling oddity by the media.
    The laziest and most contemptible reporting is that of their policies, the Greens actually bother to list what they would like to do (yes, I know the argument is that they would never be in a position to do it) and cost them, a simple search would illuminate the copy-pasta press gallery.
    But I guess, if it doesn't fit the "narrative" then why bother.
    Crabb is the ABC's version of Women's day for the analysis she presents, more concerned with a witty turn of phrase or a Seinfeld-like observation, than anything insightful.

  7. The Press Gallery don't do major parties either.....they just trot out garbage piece after garbage piece.

    It was all so predictable, the day after Milnes announcement/ the vote for Di Natale. Of course there was the ludicrous offering from Annabel Crabbe, as mentioned by you. The smart arsery of her hyperbole is often simply cringeworthy.

    The SMH rushed to the gate, offering headlines like "The push that finished off Christine Milne" and "Greens lobbied Milne...".

    As noted so often, by SO many, they are simply embarrassing at this stage. So predictable, so pathetic, such a failure.

  8. Andrew...they look and sound stupid

    Listening to Patricia Karvelas with Raph Epstein today was astounding.

    She mentioned that her highlight of the weeks news was the Greens leadership and how Hilarious it was that no- one saw it coming.....she sounded incredibly trite by suggesting how much the greens hate the right....very interesting. ...

  9. Is Annabel Crabb part of the press gallery?

    I just assumed she was a Fairfax gossip columnist

    1. Once you've been part of the press gallery it's a bit like the Hotel California: you can check out any time you like ...

  10. Many thanks, Andrew for this phosphorescent exposure of Crabb's worth as a journo and for the delicious vision of Peta Credlin, to wit, "runs around telling members of the Coalition to shut up, apparently threatening with every dire fate short of death - but oh my goodness no nothing Muscovite about that. (from Crabb.)

    Crabb is a failed foodie so she takes her anger out on journalism. Words in her articles, like her foodie ingredients are used for decoration rather than for flavour or nourishment. She uses a lot of them but the needs of neither flavour nor nourishment, the essence of food for thought or bowel, are accomplished. In essence, that is, she says nothing of essence but lots of vacuous claptrap. News, to her are a nuisance to have to deal with.

    She's a thesaurus looking for a statement.

  11. Deputy PM Natale's retirement circa 2025: A whiff of London?
    Rais, Perth.

  12. I wonder when (if) the Press Gallery will ever work out that the Greens don't leak to them for two reasons.

    When they don't ignore the Greens completely (like, say, when the party released a major policy statement), they misrepresent them shamefully.

    Why would you tell them anything?

  13. This is a classic example of how being a regional party can give you a disproportionate benefit. The Nationals (an ironic name, if there ever was one) essentially represent people from certain areas with a particular mindset. They are 'rewarded' by government ministries, constant press attention, and lavish hagiographies. They have nine members of the Reps and 3 senators. The Greens, with a nationwide reach, have far more votes, but due to the electoral structure, have far less lower house MPs. They are constantly dismissed and trivialised.

  14. Thanks Andrew, Great analysis. Crabb is a featherweight, and her pieces are always little more than unsubstantiated and ill-thought fluff. But the fact that Crabb is regarded as a senior journalist in the ABC should send alarm bells about the decline of the ABC in terms of its coverage of national affairs. Many of those who now hold senior positions within the ABC journalistic ranks just do not cut the mustard - one thinks of the truly egregious Chris Ulhmann, or the anodyne Barrie Cassidy. With the general exception of The World Today, ABC Radio and TV coverage has deteriorated in quality, and ABC News is now padded with "feel good" news stories and barrow pushing. I am not sure whether this is the result of budget cuts, management pressure or the loss of senior staff, but it does not inspire confidence. The fact that a total nonentity like Crabb occupies such a prominent role should serve as a warning to what is happening within "our" ABC and generate concern as its future as a national broadcaster.