21 February 2016

The credibility gap

There is a myth in the press gallery that Tony Abbott had a deep and abiding concern about Indigenous people. There was never any evidence of it, but it has become the stuff of unshakeable press gallery myth.

Another myth in the press gallery is that Malcolm Turnbull might be more moderate and accommodating than Abbott.

It's worth examining this to work out how these myths form, what effects they have, and how impervious they are to proof and reason - which goes to the question of what the press gallery is for, and what its members mean when they insist that they respect their audience.

Abbott and Indigenous people

Unlike Whitlam, and even Fraser, Abbott had a long record as a minister in areas affecting Indigenous people directly (Employment, then Health), where evidence of commitment to Indigenous people and issues might have been evident. Not much to see there, and a genuine surprise that none of the experienced press gallery journalists went looking for it.

Tony Abbott doesn't have a deep and abiding concern about Indigenous people. Actual Indigenous people never rated Abbott they way they did for politicians who actually listened to them and came through for them, like Gough Whitlam or Malcolm Fraser or Fred Chaney. They did not vote Coalition in greater numbers when Abbott was leader than they had when Howard was leader, and apart from Pearson there are no spontaneous outpourings of thanks or support from Indigenous people, as there might have been for someone who made a real difference or who really gave a damn and did his best.

He might have a deep and abiding concern about Noel Pearson, but that isn't quite the same thing as a commitment to Indigenous issues and people.

If The Australian had decided, say, Marcia Langton or Gary Johns rather than Pearson as the tribune of all things Indigenous, perhaps Abbott would have hung out with them instead. Pearson can churn out variations of the same article about how white elites ensure Aboriginal kids get an inferior education, and The Australian will give it a run every time; but they can neither dismiss nor laud something like his oration at Whitlam's funeral (e.g. "The Whitlam government is the textbook case of reform trumping management"). This should leave them with no option but subtle and nuanced analysis, delivered gently and respectfully; but they lack the ability to do that, and so, therefore, did Abbott. He could dismiss and he could laud, but Indigenous affairs require more and better and reward even ardent advocates with heartbreak: Abbott was nowhere to be found.

Nobody has had more of an effect on the education of Indigenous people in far northern Queensland than Noel Pearson: no education bureaucrat, no Minister, no Premier or PM. People in that area should be among the best-educated in the country: if any group of Indigenous people were to come close to non-Indigenous education levels, that's where you'd look. Sadly, statistics are hard to find, and the normally forthright culture warriors of The Australian equivocate on the issue. Tony Abbott has himself had a fine education (St Ignatius' Riverview, Universities of Sydney and Oxford), and not much of it devoted to considering Indigenous issues.

Luke Pearson outlined Abbott's record in what was to be his final days as Prime Minister, and it rewards a read. Notions like Sydney being "nothing but bush" before 1788 or the litany of what Luke Pearson calls "oddly patronising" comments (what a press gallery journalist might call "gaffes" or "Tony being Tony") reveal a mind that is simply not engaged with these issues and these people. His dismantling of Abbott's three-point slogan on Indigenous issues is masterful, the sort of thing press gallery journalists and established media outlets are meant to do.

On what basis, then, do press gallery journalists insist Abbott's interest in Indigenous issues was strong and genuine? Well, before he won government, he took a bunch of press gallery journalists (none of whom had much background in complicated Indigenous policy) deep into the bush and professed his concern for Indigenous issues. Yep, that's it. They actually took him at his word, and continue doing so.

When he didn't spend his first week as PM in an Aboriginal community, they should have been suspicious rather than tossing it onto the pile of broken promises. When he eventually spent a week near an Indigenous community not really engaging with them, engaging in vacuous picfacs and puny announceables, proper journalists would have felt insulted, and started to dig for stories.

Long after he had trashed his word and his reputation, press gallery journalists kept insisting that Abbott was a clever and sensitive man. In policy area after policy area people pointed to the desolation that comes from refusal to engage in informed and considered thinking, and eventually journalists stopped with the magical thinking about Rhodes Scholars and started seeing Abbott as a wrecker, a man who used his intellect to bamboozle and mislead rather than elucidate and lead.

In Indigenous affairs, however, they still cleave to the old fiction that Abbott really was serious, that some work of noble note might yet be done, hoping that nobody will call them on it. Luke Pearson was far too polite about it, and they have ignored him: tell me again how being polite to press gallery journalists gets your message across, go on.

As journalism seeps into history, such as in the rushed and lightweight confections of Aaron Patrick, we see Abbott's deep interest in Indigenous affairs asserted but not evidenced, let alone examined.

Turnbull and Indigenous people

Like most Australians, Malcolm Turnbull had little contact with Indigenous people. There are relatively few in his electorate, he didn't encounter many at Sydney Grammar or in Kerry Packer's office, nor at Ozemail or Goldman Sachs. On what basis, then, did a supposedly experienced press gallery journalist like Michael Gordon seem to believe Turnbull would take to Indigenous issues like a duck to water?
There was more than one gap on display when the nation's MPs gathered to hear the Prime Minister deliver his annual Closing the Gap report on Indigenous disadvantage.
As you might expect, Gordon nowhere considers his own role in this, nor that of his equally obtuse press gallery colleagues.

Look at the targets for Closing the Gap. All of them are complex issues that resist easy political measures like press releases or three-word slogans. All of them require skills in working with diverse, often rebarbative people, and getting them to focus on a common cause over more immediate priorities and prejudices. Turnbull is doing badly on Closing the Gap not only because Abbott left him with nothing to build upon, but because working with diverse and often rebarbative people is not a core Turnbull skill. Never has been. He might learn on the job, or he might not; but Gordon, amongst others, looks like a patsy for giving him the benefit of the doubt.
There was the gap between Malcolm Turnbull and a section of his backbench, who chose not to take their seats in the House of Representatives to hear their leader's first substantive speech on Indigenous affairs.

"Where is everybody?" one Liberal MP asked another, as Turnbull rose to his feet to become the first Prime Minister to begin an address to the Parliament in the language of the traditional owners of the land on which it is built.

There is a convention that when the PM addresses the chamber, his troops are there in force to demonstrate solidarity. It went by the board on Wednesday morning.

There is also a convention that when a subject of national importance that goes to questions of national identity or national security is broached by the nation's leaders, all MPs take their seats. That, too, was waived on the Coalition side.
Whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice, they are up to no good. Why was it waived, Michael, by whom and for what purpose? As ever, some journalism from the press gallery would be nice. It would beat the hell out of cliches and puzzlement at the all-too-familiar.

Look at other occasions where that convention has been breached - and by whom. The Liberal MPs who disrespected Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008, Sophie Mirabella and Peter Dutton, have since proven themselves so misanthropic that it was probably for the best they were not there.
Was it lack of interest in the issue? Or lack of respect for the leader? Either way, it was conduct unbecoming.
It was to be expected. Your experience should tell us what is to be expected and why, not airless nonsense about keeping up appearances.
Then there was the gap between Turnbull and the man he replaced, Tony Abbott, whose passion for this area of policy was sadly not matched by achievement during his two years in office.
What gap? What passion? What nonsense, Michael Gordon. You want to see something that isn't there.
Abbott was there to hear Turnbull's speech, but there was no room in the Prime Minister's remarks to acknowledge the efforts of his predecessor. That was an unfortunate oversight.
There was nothing to be said, so he said nothing. For a man often accused of being verbose this must have been a relief. What did you expect him to say: "a good government had lost its way", perhaps.
Then there was the gap between the government and the opposition, with Bill Shorten backing a referendum on recognition next year, arguing the case for a new target to reduce Indigenous incarceration and asserting: "You cannot cut your way to closing the gap."

Here, the differences were ones of emphasis, not direction, with Turnbull expressing strong support for recognition, outlining action to tackle rising imprisonment rates and determined not to "sugar-coat the enormity of the job that remains".
So there's a gap between government and opposition, but it's only rhetorical? Luke Pearson said that the proposed targets on justice in Closing the Gap were important, that Labor is proposing while the government is not necessarily disposing; and Michael Gordon of The Age regards this as just a difference of emphasis?

Next year is significant because it will be 50 years since the referendum to recognise Indigenous people in the census. That referendum passed with 90% in favour. Where has all that public goodwill gone? What makes an experienced press gallery journalist think Turnbull and/or Shorten can arouse, or even tap into, that level of support?

Look at that picture of Abbott leaving the House as Shorten spoke. The bearded guy watching him leave is Senator Nigel Scullion, the Indigenous Affairs minister who owns the failures set out in the Closing the Gap report, and who's had more experience in Indigenous issues than Abbott, Turnbull, Shorten, and most of the rest of Parliament put together. Do you think Tony Abbott will ever get over himself (a necessary precondition to reaching out to people who aren't plentiful in his electorate either)?

Do you think Gordon (or anyone else in the supposedly diverse and competitive press gallery) noticed Scullion, or is calling for his job over his failings in executing his portfolio? Again, no - but still he plods along:
Turnbull's speech was replete with good intentions, empathy, optimism and commitments to engage with those who have devoted their lives to finding answers and improving the circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Just like Tony Abbott, and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd before him.

Ten years after the closing the gap project was conceived, the voice of country's peak Indigenous body is ignored; a landmark report on empowering communities is awaiting a considered response, 12 months after it was delivered to government; racism persists and the recognition campaign desperately needs an injection of momentum.

Turnbull made an impressive start ...
Did he? Why the jaded response to his three predecessors and measures that could have been addressed over recent months, if he was genuinely "impressive"? Is empty rhetoric "impressive" now?

Why does the recognition campaign need momentum (which can't really be "injected")? Doesn't it need to be scrapped? Is it a Good Thing that needs Bipartisan Support (like, say, tax minimisation or refugee detention, or any one of a number of bad policies), or is it the waste of time many commentators see it as?

I hunt around the web for different perspectives: traditional media like The Age only hold up experienced journalists like Michael Gordon, claiming they can lead us through big complex political issues like that - but once again, all they do is rehash assumptions that simply fall apart once you examine them.
... but, when it comes to righting history's wrongs, he will be judged by the gap between his words and his actions, his intentions and what he actually delivers.
But press gallery journalists will only quote his words, and not weigh them against any actions. It's hard to tell what Turnbull's intentions are on Indigenous issues, and if he leaves office without having achieved anything in that area do you think it will bother him? Do you think anything he pulls together will be half as productive as a copper-wire NBN? It doesn't bother do-nothing Nige, it doesn't bother the press gallery.

The press gallery can't investigate government on these issues, and they can't explain why either Abbott or Turnbull deserve the benefit of the doubt they (and not actual Indigenous people) seem so willing to give them. Why am I listening to these people? Why must I accept the unexamined assumption that their experience is worth more than the pinch of conditioned air I prize it at? Michael Gordon and the press gallery disgrace themselves when they do business-as-usual reports on political and policy failures like this. You have to go beyond the press gallery to find the best reporting on policy and politics.

Once again, the whole point of the press gallery could not be less clear. Your guess is as good as theirs. Decades of experience in not doing investigative journalism counts for much less than those people might hope.


  1. It does seem that 'empty rhetoric is important now', Andrew. After all, politics is all about entertainment. Politicians regularly wow the crowds with empty rhetoric and it seems they're on a winner - at least with the press gallery.

    Even when they say something that is not empty rhetoric, it's explained away by the PG or, even worse, ignored as being too complex, and not suited to analysis.

    i'm interested on who you think is primarily to blame for this situation: are the PG under so much pressure that they don't have time for reflection and analysing rhetoric, lazy in that it's easier to regurgitate a media release, or are their bosses convinced all that wonky policy stuff just won't sell subscriptions?

  2. Thank you.

  3. Meanwhile, on the ground, this is what it's like trying to get in.. to the actual Gallery. http://bit.ly/1Q3VhEY