29 February 2016

On and off the table

I beg your pardon
I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
There's gotta be a little rain some time ...

- Lynn Anderson (I never promised you a) Rose garden
About a year ago I wrote a thing on on the prospect of Malcolm Turnbull becoming Prime Minister. With my record of crap prognostications, nobody is more surprised at how well it stands up.

By contrast, experienced press gallery journalists are expressing befuddlement and bewilderment (but not bemusement) that Turnbull hasn't been as organised or as moderate as they had been led to believe. The whole idea of being in the press gallery, and taking up space there for a while, is that you can see the players and the plays up close. It isn't fair to say that nothing should surprise such people, but it is fair to note how regularly press gallery journalists express shock and outrage at things they should be able to foresee and explain.

Australia should have a broad-ranging debate about tax. It should be more than a narrow technocratic argument by economists or lawyers or tax boffins. It shouldn't be "pragmatic" speculation by (discredited) political insiders on what might be achievable given available time and resources. A broad-ranging debate must include questions about what we are paying for when we fund the government (and who we mean by "we"), and what trade-offs exist in raising money this way and not that.

We've had debates before. The sound and fury rarely translates to action, which discourages both public participation and careful coverage.

Malcolm Turnbull can't conduct wide-ranging debates. To be fair to him, conducting and concluding a public debate is not easy:
  • First, you have to gather interested parties together: busy people who have spent a lifetime examining complex matters in depth, and who know more about those matters than you. Then,
  • You have to persuade them that you're serious about addressing the very issues to which they have dedicated their energies, skills, and learnings, even though you've done other things with your life than join them in the trenches. Then,
  • You have to use the media and other outlets to convince people who aren't experts to think about those issues, and make a contribution (this can be tricky: experts will understandably dismiss inputs from those they don't recognise as fellow experts, but the leader has to insist that everyone's input is valuable without sounding patronising). Then,
  • You need to negotiate with political players to get the measures through the Cabinet and party room and into law, some of whom will have an incentive to make you look bad. Then,
  • After everyone's had their say, you have to weigh up different factors and make a decision.
The real leader can keep people involved and engaged after they've made a decision that, inevitably, not everyone will support. The real leader will follow the decision through without being obtuse or bloody-minded, yet clear and decisive nonetheless.

If you're an experienced press gallery journalist, if you've followed Australian politics generally and been aware of Turnbull, you'll know that he can do bits and pieces of that:
  • He can get people together.
  • He can use the media and other outlets effectively.
  • He can make decisions.
Not being press gallery journalists let's spell out the leadership qualities Turnbull doesn't have, or where he isn't strong:
  • He has trouble avoiding sounding patronising. From Sydney Grammar to Kerry Packer to Goldman Sachs, his experience is that you need only consult a small number of people who can make things happen, and if they don't want to come along with you then fuck 'em.
  • He can't negotiate with people he regards as his inferiors, yet who will determine whether his decisions fail or prevail, though he's better than he was. He could mock Abbott and Hockey as they failed to deal with the Senate cross-benchers, but he's yet to demonstrate much success there himself.
  • The nearest he came to broad-ranging public engagement was with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and people closely involved in that process agree it was and is flawed.
  • He has no experience managing a public debate, nor managing one through to a successful conclusion (if you want to talk about the republic, note that the ARM removed him just before the referendum - then look at the result).
The press gallery blithely assumed Turnbull would just acquire these capabilities somehow, and they were wrong about that too. They had no basis for thinking anyone, even Turnbull, just picks it up:
  • Hawke came to office as a participant in national debates, having been given credible platforms by his predecessors Whitlam and Fraser. He steered debates on economic reform without necessarily limiting them and brought people with him, using public engagement measures available in his time (I'll stop here before I go full Bramston).
  • Paul Keating tried initiating national debates about a republic, the arts, and our relationship with Indigenous people. Those issues failed as national debates and were written off as quirky preoccupations on his part.
  • Howard tried national debates about gun control, GST (not tax reform generally - just sales taxes and a GST) and a republic, but in each case he had decided on a position beforehand and steered the debate away from areas he considered "unrealistic". After five years he gave up on public engagement altogether, and because nobody else in his Cabinet developed the necessary skills he thought he was leader by default.
  • Rudd and Gillard opened big debates they couldn't resolve: their legacy is in those debates, like the treatment of disabled people (through the NDIS), the place of religion in society and what's normal in terms of sex (the royal commission into institutionalised child abuse and same-sex marriage), what it means to apologise for the Stolen Generations, carbon abatement and increasingly viable forms of energy.
  • Abbott thought public debate was bullshit, and that effective leadership was about shutting it down. He believed public engagement was about distraction from what his government did rather than helping it be more effective, and the press gallery went along with that for an indecently long period.
The Prime Ministership is a unique position for holding public debates on matters of national importance. There is no manual. Only 28 people have held the job before Turnbull, and 22 of them are dead. Of the survivors listed above, only Howard and maybe Hawke would give him the time of day.

Turnbull has been raised to believe that to engage the media is to engage public debate. He was always a social media dilettante but has cut back on it as Prime Minister. Gillard lunged for social media when the gallery closed against her, which may discourage others from betting their careers on it.

The tax debate is fragmented because the traditional media doesn't do wide-ranging debate - GST increase is on the table, then it's off. Corporate tax must be cut, yet why bother cutting when so many pay none and unemployment rises regardless? Traditional media is where you conduct narrow, unresolved debates, not wide-ranging ones in need of resolution. Social media is too, but social media will help you find source material better than traditional media will or can.

To fragment such a debate ensures that it gets sucked into technocratic solutions that journalists find hard to describe, and the whole thing becomes less than what it might have been. Turnbull has no choice but to watch his dream of managing a wide-ranging debate get sucked into technocratic sinkholes and puddles (quagmires?) of media bullshit.

I have no doubt that tax experts across the nation are working on ideas that might or might not get up this time. I have no doubt that vested interests are lobbying the government behind the scenes. With the possible exception of Laura Tingle, nobody in the press gallery will ever bring these efforts to light.

The press gallery will make wide-ranging debate look like chaos, as they do with all such debates: they deflect this failure as one of leadership by politicians. They will be presented with the decision once it is made, and will soon find those who don't like it. They will bang on about non-options that the government has rejected, and overlook real options the government has not considered (and which the opposition won't consider either, thus it disappears from horse-race journalism).

People want a wide-ranging debate with public engagement - the media will blame politicians for not giving them one, and vice versa.

Turnbull might genuinely want to host a wide-ranging debate and bring it to conclusion; he just can't do it. He isn't squibbing it, in the same way that you didn't squib the Dally M medal or a Nobel Prize. You have to work with what you have, using the skills you have; and the skills Turnbull has developed over an impressive career do not include many of the skills he now needs. His tragedy is like that of Basil Fawlty, who wanted to be a warm and generous host to a genteel clientele but instead faced snippy guests and comically inept staff.

In May there will be a budget, and it will include tax measures that will bear little resemblance to public debates (such as they are). Scott Morrison's idea of a compromise rose garden will be to present full rose bushes with the actual petals snipped off. Public debates on those measures will be limited: the government will declare this is the only option, its opponents will demur, and all the subtleties will be lost (and the fewer subtleties, the better the press gallery likes it).

Those debates will be embodied in cross-bench Senators, who then become subject to partisan abuse that in no way enlightens the impact of a tax upon the economy. Journalists who helped kill it will cry: "what happened to the tax debate?".

Traditional media will not help you (or Turnbull, or Shorten, or anyone) with the tax debate. They can't. Turnbull's failure is their failure too.


  1. Sorry Andrew it was Lynn Anderson, not Loretta Lynn.

  2. Andrew, we the taxpayers do not fund the government, it's the government who fund us by spending the AUD into the economy.
    By law you pay your taxes in AUD, the sole legal sovereign issuer of the AUD is the federal government through the RBA.
    The federal government does not need or use tax to fund anything.