25 October 2015

The nostalgia act

More than most journalists, political journalists get caught up on the idea that their work is "the first draft of history". Laurie Oakes has a particularly bad case of it. He embodies just under half of Australia's federal political history in his own person, and while his blind spots have been shared by others in the press gallery this is not to say that they do not exist, or are trivial.

What follows is not some sort of sledge on Oakes, but a demonstration of why the press gallery as a construct (including its construction of "doyens", the ultimate straw-men among people all too fond of building them) is such a lousy way to report to citizens about their government.

In this trip down memory lane, Oakes uses all his yesterdays to mislead his readers about political success - what it is and how to achieve it:
IN the valedictory speech marking his retirement from Parliament on Wednesday, Joe Hockey lamented “the Abbott government was good at policy but struggled with politics”. The first part of that sentence might be open to debate, but the political ineptitude of the administration in which Hockey served as Treasurer was there for all to see.

The Rudd and Gillard governments were also hopelessly ham-fisted when it came to the political basics.
When you go after a Liberal government, you apparently have to dump on Labor for "balance". To their credit, both Lenore Taylor and Laura Tingle rubbish the idea that the Abbott government was good at policy; maybe they can rise to the idea that the very prospect of an Abbott government was anathema to good policy, and that they should have called Abbott out ahead of time.
Everyone has seen Bill Shorten in action. The jury is perhaps still out on Malcolm Turnbull ...
Subtly writing Shorten off in favour of his fellow Packer retainer? So much for balance. But that's not where Oakes lets himself down. Most of his article is a book review gone wrong, where he does what a self-respecting political journalist must never do - what Taylor and Tingle didn't do with Hockey in the examples above - Oakes takes a politician at his word.

OK, he mainly quotes Keating, who seems a more substantial figure and somehow more vivid than many of those who came after him. Even so, he was wrong simply to quote Keating without matching his words to actual events:
On performing in Parliament Keating says: “It’s an art form. You’re on the stage. You must maintain the psychological control.

“Someone like Alexander Downer would step up to ask me a question ... I used to call Peter Costello the talking knee ... They’d all laugh. But those laughs are so off-putting and confidence-destroying.

“You must be winning in Parliament; you must keep the psychological hegemony, and that means when they come to ask you the questions, you have to have the answers and be psychologically in charge.”
Those references to Downer and Costello came in Keating's final term in power, 1993-96. Look at the video of Keating from that time and you see the glum faces behind him; they knew they were shot ducks, and however little or much a bit of levity might have punctuated the darkness it didn't change this politically or policy-wise one bit. Costello and Downer did not disappear into history like, say, Jim Carlton or Peter Shack. They replaced him and undid things Keating cared about.

Keating, his biographer Kerry O'Brien, and Oakes were all veterans in different ways of the 1980-83 parliament, the last term of the Fraser government. Any reading of Hansard, of contemporary press coverage, and of the growing range of books covering that period, forms a consensus that Fraser had an absolute psychological ascendancy in that parliament over Labor leader Bill Hayden and would-be Labor leader Bob Hawke. At one stage Fraser so rattled Hawke that the latter fled the House in tears. If you think that stuff really matters, look at the results of the 1983 election and consider: so much for psychological dominance. Neither Abbott nor Turnbull have achieved that level of dominance over Shorten, and would it matter if they had?

Performance in parliament has never been a duel of oratory or wit. The closest the Australian parliament has ever got to that was the sparring of two fine legal minds, Robert Menzies and H V Evatt, and even those engagements were rare and featured more pulled punches than telling blows. Even in Fraser's day, certainly in Keating's and more so now, "performance in parliament" is little more than the government asserting: we won, you lost, ner-nerny-ner-ner. If the government is behind in the polls the opposition might dish it back. Apart from that, assertions by Oakes and Keating about the importance of parliamentary dominance counts for absolutely bugger-all. Keating may not want to admit that as parliamentary performance is part of his legacy.

Parliament is Australia's best-subsidised but lamest performance space. Almost all of the great issues of our time are played out elsewhere, including at press conferences near but outside the actual House and Senate chambers. By the time the big issues reach parliament they have been premasticated and often predigested; they sit oddly in the mouths of those delegated by party machines to 'represent' us. The back-and-forth of Question Time elucidates nothing about the issues, nor about the personalities involved in public life today. The major parties put this on for their own bemusement; no tactical victory, real or perceived, is worth the revulsion and diminution of public interest in policy, politics, and politicians that results. You will know politics is changing for the better when it is abolished altogether.

Oakes took Keating at his word, and as a result Keating has less to tell us about modern politics than Oakes seems to imagine.

Laurie Oakes should be more than just some sort of polite reviewer of parliamentary theatre, or books thereon. All press gallery journalists should be - but apart from Taylor and Tingle none of them are. Parliamentary theatre is the sort of shitshow that makes real journalists suspect the story is happening elsewhere, an instinct that journalists assigned to the press gallery never had or which have to be dulled if you're going to get-along-to-go-along in that environment.

You can use your dotage to sharpen your perspective, like Oakes' and O'Brien's contemporary Alan Ramsey has, or you can become the jukebox of nostalgia like Oakes has become - lending his own fading brand to those of fading brands NewsCorp and Channel Nine, diminishing both in their power to tell us how we might be governed (and thereby diminishing their influence in determining outcomes). A masterclass in politics and journalism right there.


  1. Thank you for another thought provoking article. Thanks also for reminding me of Alan Ramsay, which led me to read this article of his from early 2011

  2. Keenly observed Andrew.
    Political reporting would be far more interesting if journalists tested their appraisals of politicians against reality. Taking politicians at their word is hardly illuminating.

    I am irritated by the labels stuck on politicians: Windbag (Beazley), Modest (Howard), All Round Aussie Bloke (Hawke), Nerd (Rudd), Wimp (Shorten).

    Keating therefore is lionized as a Labor hero when in actually fact the Accord promoted by Hawke and himself led to the unravelling of the ALP's power base.

    Malcolm Turnbull is now being presented to us as a moderate figure when in reality his commitment to economic neo-liberalism is stronger than that of Abbott's.

    One dimensional portrayals of the politicians who make the decisions which have the potential to change this country fundamentally is not in our national interest.

    In my opinion journalists should leave the Canberra goldfish bowl and write about the impact of political decisions on the population.

    I would like to read more about the stresses and strains on the middle class and low income earners as wealth becomes more concentrated and influential.

    It concerns me that a country with an increasingly disenfranchised middle class may become ncreasingly susceptible to those with quick- fix solutions.

  3. George Megalogenis is another exception.

    Fading brands like to include themselves on shows like The Verdict...

    Ms Henderson is a case in point.

    Have a great Melbourne Cup Day long weekend dear Liberals
    See you all darlings at the track

  4. The article is about him, Faux, not of him.

  5. Andrew,

    I'm utterly bemused by the glowing praise being dumped on Turnbull for doing relatively little. He waffles like Rudd, how long is the public going to put up with it?

    Most leadership changes have a feel good period but eventually the electorate expects results. I'm pretty sceptical that Turnbull will deliver.

    The economy is turning, the mining boom is ending, the car industry is closing down (and taking 200,000 jobs with it) and Australians have notched a record private GDP-to-Debt ratio of 190%. Maybe in a booming economy, he could get away with just not being Tony Abbott, but I don't think that will work now.

    By the way, there has been a torrent of articles about how hopeless Abbott was. Where were these articles 2 or even 3 years ago? I find it incredible that the media are pretending that they knew Abbott was hopeless all along given their coverage of him for the last 6 years.

    1. The media is demonstrating that they have learned nothing (or that they are still being paid by the same paymasters to do the same thing) from the Abbott debacle. Praise a leader before he's done anything. Earnestly promote anything the electorate wants to hear as something the new leader will totally do, and that you can totally trust him to do it, even though he hasn't said he's going to do it. Gloss over his past record, because he's totally for sure a changed man who has learned from his mistakes. Meanwhile, pour scorn on his opponent from a great height and refuse to print anything positive for that opponent. After all, how can you keep claiming the opponent has no policy if you had actually reported the policies he's launched?

      The press gallery have already written many times more glowing words about what Turnbull might do than they have in the past 2 years about anything Shorten has done or might do. The bias is plain to see. They've been cheering for Turnbull to replace Abbott for months (it's called "covering up your mistakes") and are now ecstatic that their saviour has come to time to charm them and make them feel important.

    2. I'm utterly bemused by the glowing praise being dumped on Turnbull for doing relatively little...

      I've done something about this. I've stopped reading The Age/SMH

    3. Ordinary Baracker31/10/15 1:43 pm

      I stopped reading when I realised all other news was subordinate to Iphone releases.

  6. At the end of the day - it is about lack of competition (And I regard this blog and blogs like Piping Shrike as competition, though limited). If you punished these journos and their owners for poor 'results' you don't have any alternative to move to.

    The idea of a Canberra press gallery might have made some sense when this so called Canberra was a cow paddock and rail siding west of Queanbeyan, that journos were consigned to for months at a time because it was just too hard to get to. These days, internet n all, should be just as easy to write federal politics anywhere - on a plane, in Perth even.

  7. It says rather a lot about Abbott that once relieved of the strictures of Prime Ministership, and presumably in a position to speak his own mind, he's flown to the UK and made a speech which made the Tories cringe and seems to have aligned Abbott with UKIP most of all.

    To think there were journos claiming that Abbott in office was being forced to the right by his party and that it wasn't the real Abbott. Dearie me.

  8. Interesting to see Abbott churn out Stop the Boats sloganeering at the Thatcher lecture.

    How? I wonder. But that is another matter.

    I don't think Abbott's musings and warnings received much attention anywhere but here. As usual anything that Abbott does or says is treated seriously or seen through the prism of Leadership Instability.

    I think he is banging on about asylum seekers because he imagines himself as the Western world's Winston Churchill who had been labelled a war-monger for sounding an early alert about the rise of Nazi Germany.

    Abbott is a huge Churchill admirer.

    Boys Own Annual stuff going on here.