25 October 2016

Politics beyond Canberra

The reason why the press gallery sucks so hard at reporting on politics isn't just because they largely shirk the detail of legislative and policy changes that affect us all (and that their editors can't be bothered hiring articulate specialists). It's because they think they can just sit in Canberra and all the politics comes to them; and that if it doesn't come to them, it isn't really politics.

They look at things like young people being unable to afford houses or legally questionable detention, or anything beyond Canberra really, and wait for it to be raised in a committee or on the floor of one of the houses, whereupon it becomes a Political Issue and can thus be Framed and Reported On by the press gallery using one of its few allowable tropes, and quickly dropped once they all agree on what the next story is, and how to Frame and Report On that.

Let's look at two political issues that emanated far beyond Parliament House, which bounced around inside that building and were frankly misreported - not by rookies, but by two Political Editors, no less. Their insistence that political issues are only political when they happen inside Parliament, and that they own them once they do, actually inhibits their understanding and their ability to report on those issues - including to people with more direct experience than they.

Mark Kenny and same-sex marriage

In this piece, Mark Kenny decided that he owned same-sex marriage as a political issue.

Kenny didn't put the issue of delaying same-sex marriage to the skilled lobbyists and other tacticians who forestalled the proposed plebiscite on the issue. A quote from someone leading the campaign, a quote from a disgruntled person who might have to wait years to marry their partner in Australia, and it could have demonstrated both basic courtesy and journalistic skill on Kenny's part toward those whose stake in this issue is much more direct than his.

It is a journalistic imperative to want this issue "off the table" so that journalists can apply their ignorant and facile takes to other issues. Conservatives in the government who do not wish to change the status quo are playing to this imperative when they insist that throwing out the bathwater of the plebiscite inevitably means discarding the baby of same-sex marriage.
What's more, this correspondent was advancing the arguments for marriage equality back when it was routinely brushed off by the major parties as a boutique concern of the inner-city latte set – something even Abbott stopped arguing last year.

And this advocacy came, by the way, well before the Labor party, unlikely hero of the latest pyrrhic victory, finally showed the gumption to campaign against an unconscionable legal discrimination.
The campaign for same-sex marriage has been a slow and patient one, an exercise in how to bring about substantive change in a democracy. The campaign has focused on the grass roots: letter-writing campaigns, peaceful demonstrations, meetings with MPs in their electorates, things Mark Kenny would not know about because they took place far from Parliament. It appears to have been modelled on the 1951 campaign against banning the Communist Party, where a tiny minority had their basic rights vindicated in the face of a massive scare campaign. It also draws from the LGBTIQ community's slow and patient campaigns to decriminalise male-to-male sex, to recognise HIV-AIDS as a real and important public health issue.

To find out what's going on, listen to and read first-person accounts by frustrated same-sex couples. They seem more concerned that same-sex marriage be enacted properly, by procedural means and legislative end, rather than the quick-and-dirty political solutions that Mark Kenny and the gallery pass lightly over and then consign to the fishwrappers, or the hue and cry of a plebiscite that might give back to the bigots the privilege of equal time that the workings of a polite and evolving society has denied them.

But to recognise all that, Kenny would have to acknowledge political activity emanating from outside Canberra, and that the activity within parliament follows rather than leads the wider community. He just couldn't do it. On his Twitter feed and in a subsequent article, Kenny continues to assert a non-existent right to be free of criticism, batting away calm and reasonable explanations and representing any/all such criticism as intemperate and misplaced.

He's even failed as a reporter:
Despite its obviously self-serving nature – denied publicly but acknowledged privately by senior Labor figures ...
Name them, go on. If they're so self-serving, if you're so committed to this issue, you'll call them out and let them take their chances with public debate ... no? What, you're going to privilege your insider status instead? Yeah, that'd be right.

Not only is Kenny boneheaded in thinking that his turf is the be-all-and-end-all of Australian politics, he's not even right about the Liberal Party. He seems to regard the statements of the government as fixed for all time, and that the stated position now is going to be the position next week and next year and into the next term of parliament and yea verily unto the end of time. That isn't how politics works. It isn't even how this government works. Mark Kenny, Politics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, has no idea how politics works.

Sabre-rattling is all very well - but sooner or later you have to put it to the test.

Conservatives are going to have to roll (and be seen to have rolled) Malcolm Turnbull on a particular issue to show their clout is real and not just hot air. This is what's happened in NSW, where popular Mike Baird was brought down a peg on greyhound racing.

Moderates are going to have to roll (and be seen to have rolled) conservatives on some issue in order to demonstrate their value - that of providing the winning edge that keeps the Coalition in government (see the next section for further discussion on this). Same-sex marriage is as good a battlefield as any - it is infinitely closer to being realised than, say, neutering section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Politicians shift position on the basis of polls, or unforeseen events (e.g. the Port Arthur massacre that led Howard to ban semi-automatic weapons, or the refugee vessel that foundered at Christmas Island in 2012 and led Labor to reintroduce mandatory detention of asylum-seekers) which support one narrative over another. Someone in Mark Kenny's position should know this.

There are two types of people who confuse politicians' declamatory statements with fixed positions: partisans and dills. Mark Kenny is no partisan. He is, however, the official bunny of this blog.

Kenny's assumption that the government's position on this issue is fixed for all time is ridiculous. If John Howard could change his mind on a GST, if he could accept the relative moderation necessary to pass the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and then reverse it with WorkChoices, then the sheer silliness of assuming the government's position on this issue is fixed becomes apparent. I needn't take you through the backflips and evasions of this government since 2013 - indeed, I could do so solely by reference to Mark Kenny articles, where he dutifully quotes Abbott or some other member of the government saying one thing and then dutifully reports outcomes opposite to what was said, with no reflection on the value of those direct quotes.

We live in times of great uncertainty, where old certainties no longer hold and where we are implored to be agile and innovative in order to survive. If you can't cope with the idea that same-sex marriages codify actual relationships, and that they can be as valid as any secular marriage, then your credentials on reform and open-mindedness and agility and so on more broadly are tarnished. To be fair to Kenny, he does recognise same-sex marriage as valid; and insofar as it matters he came around to that position well before I did.

What Kenny has not done is tie notions of open-mindedness, pragmatic reality, and flexibility on this social issue (same-sex marriage) to the government's rhetoric on agility and flexibility in other issues (e.g. tax and other economic reforms). Whitlam and Keating were the only Prime Ministers in recent history to insist that flexibility and reform should apply to economic and non-economic issues, and that artistic and economic creativity would flourish as a result; there was some hope that Turnbull might have similar vision but that hope was misplaced.

Mark Kenny trails dolefully around Canberra behind his wife, a doyenne of Canberra's cultural scene (stop laughing, it does so have one), from flower show to film screening like some dimwitted vice-regal consort. He seems not to have learned the necessity to link the open-mindedness that comes from same-sex marriage with artistic and economic activity or with reform and flexibility more broadly, and to judge politicians' words and deeds against such a standard. Why argue with a dimwit, same-sex marriage advocates? Like conservatives, Mark Kenny thinks same-sex marriage is all about him, and his understanding of politics isn't that great anyway.

Katharine Murphy and NSW Liberal 'chaos'

Kenny's counterpart at Guardian Australia, Katharine Murphy, clutched her pearls in this belated observation that factional tensions in the NSW Liberals spill over into Parliament.
In 20 years of political reporting, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Oh, please.

If you like the feel of fine wool and/or the taste of juicy steak then it behoves you - at least once in your life - to go to the saleyard, the shearing shed, and the abattoir so you can see and hear and smell those dumb dirty beasts sweat and shit and piss and fuck, knowing at some fundamental level that they're doomed. You just don't understand politics if you regard it as a performance put on in Australia's best-subsidised performance spaces for your entertainment and review. You can't report on it properly from that vantage point: what do they know of Canberra who only Canberra know?

To understand politics and politicians, you need to go to their political bases, and see how they work them; part of that includes the use of parliament in order to further political agendas beyond parliament, something that fries the tiny minds of the press gallery. Bronwyn Bishop regularly denounced real and imagined opponents within the Liberal Party in Hansard, but the press gallery ignored her because they didn't understand the factional issues. Just as they do with policy nuances that escape them, they write off factional tussles as just more "argy-bargy", a framing designed to avoid engagement with issues and to treat the conflict as somehow exciting or unusual when it is neither.
Abbott v Turnbull is not just politicians being politicians – two testosterone-fuelled bulls stomping in a paddock – this is an identity struggle, and a multi-pronged one. Even as the Turnbull government exhibits signs of getting its act together organisationally, and practically – it remains riven by factional differences and philosophical ones.
Right, and those differences don't come from within Canberra. They come from within the NSW Liberals. The ebb and flow of factional power is pretty standard; I was an active member between 1986 and 2000 and those sorts of spats used to happen fairly often during that time, and it need surprise no-one that they continue. Every Liberal MHR and Senator - people known to Katharine Murphy and Mark Kenny - every one of them is there as the result of factional game-playing. Even the ones who disdain factionalism are there, directly or indirectly, because of some factional stitch-up or cock-up. As party membership has dropped, those who remain have doubled down in their commitment; and those who sit in Canberra are acutely aware they are there only because they have mastered the game at the local branch level, and within the State Division that sends them there.

Liberals in NSW are arguing over the very mechanism by which candidates are selected and sent to parliament. If you change the rules of the game, then those who had mastered the game are masters no longer. Those who might not have realised their parliamentary ambitions under the old system may appear under the press gallery's noses under the new, and vice versa. There are limits to which even churchy conservatives will apply biblical teachings to politics, and Matthew 20:16 is one of those.

It applies across the board: I have no experience in Labor politics but I understand that certain unions are stalwarts of particular factions and closer to some MPs than others. Greens internal politics is an absolute mystery, not least because the media is the last place you'd go to for information on that. With libertarians, any two of them (in or out of parliament) will represent at least five factions.

I understand these things because I don't believe, contra Murphy and Kenny and their mouth-breathing colleagues in the press gallery, that all politics happens in Canberra.

Murphy's insistence that NSW turmoil stay in NSW is absurd, and so is the (unflattering) comparison with Rudd-Gillard tensions. Isn't parliament designed to air and thrash out political issues? All those Pinteresque cold silences and unconvincing banalities of "getting on with the job", dumbly reported, created the perception that politicians and journalists aren't telling us the full story - which leads to votes and circulation heading south, which worries journalists and politicians so much that they dare not depart from the behaviours that got them into that predicament. What's with all this creeping about behind the Speaker's chair, all these unnamed sources and double negatives ("people not unsympathetic to Abbott")? How's that working for ya?

Michelle Grattan prizes neatness in politics, with one side over here and the other over there, with as much bipartisanship as possible and never mind what is actually being debated. There's more to our political differences than tidy parliamentary practice vs untidiness. It isn't so long ago that the press gallery found Abbott's untidiness thrilling ("best opposition leader ever"). What option does he have but to return to his folly, particularly when the press gallery has forgotten what his Prime Ministership was like and won't call him on his antics? Why not go to the country's biggest city and see how his adolescent behaviour plays among those who once applauded him at set-piece campaign events - people who know him and other pollies better than you do? Why act surprised at the very behaviour that brought him to your attention?

Murphy's taxonomy on 'conservatives' and 'moderates' is meaningless. We've seen how 'conservative' policy disrupted our social fabric, making both jobs and welfare and other assumptions by which Australian society works insecure and inoperable. We've seen how 'moderates' failed to moderate those excesses, or even address substantive issues about people's roles in society and Australia's place in the world. John Howard showed that conservatives could win and win again by being unabashedly conservative, and that the moderates could survive only as passengers with conservatives in both wheelhouse and engine-room; he reshaped the Liberal Party from the branches to the federal parliamentary leadership.

Don't give me any of your crap about 'moderate lobbyists' when you see who's on the payroll of Gina "She Who Must Be Obeyed" Rinehart, or those shadowy ecclesiastical cabals trying to thwart both same-sex marriage and the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse.

Turnbull thinks he can revert the party to its pre-Howard days (centrists get more attention to keep the party in power, conservatives get tossed a bit of raw meat occasionally) from the top, and he's wrong. That said, it was a masterstroke to align with Mike Baird in kicking the voting-rights issue down the road. There was no way the Liberal membership would have shirtfronted their state and federal leaders: had they done so, that would have been chaos. It would have put the Liberals into the predicament the UK Labour Party is in, where the moderates were discredited and those cleaving to nostalgia would repel swinging voters, further discrediting the moderates and strengthening the nostalgics, etc.

But to see these things, we need to see politics as something that happens beyond Canberra. If you live your life beyond Canberra then you can see how issues affect Canberra, and how decisions made in Canberra affect those of us beyond Canberra; press gallery can only perceive this stuff through polls and anecdotes, and then only dimly. Press gallery journalists pride themselves on bringing the context, but they don't understand politics or policy until it's spoon-fed to them by someone in that house on the hill. And when you call them out for their slanted reporting, they'll protest their source is impeccable and bristle at the very idea of having been played.

During elections the press gallery travels to set-piece events beyond Canberra, with politicians they see every day in Canberra. You might see them come to a school or shopping centre near you. You can puncture the fantasy that the press gallery reports to you simply by observing how they trample your friends and neighbours, and tell you to piss off from your own community when you laugh at their inane questions, or demonstrate their rugged diversity and competitiveness by agreeing the angle they'll report on is not what you've seen. The very idea that they might tell you about your marriage or assert a monopoly on political understanding that they simply lack, is risible and pathetic.

It isn't just politics. Art isn't engaging us either, and Jane Howard admits that art journalism is inadequate because it fails the public. The institutionalised nature of political journalism, and its focus on politicians rather than enduring effects of their actions, means that Murphy and Kenny dare not question it at the level that Jane Howard does - let alone come to the same conclusion. They would be relieved if Australian voters, taxpayers, and citizens did not want to engage with that conversation right now.

The press gallery are proud and dumb and insular, and draw more comfort from their herd than is wise. They are struck mute or babble at events that don't surprise anyone who has been paying attention. When (If?) you turn to political journalism to anticipate the developments that affect us in our lives, the press gallery can't really provide meaningful explanation or assistance. If they can't provide meaningful explanation or assistance, there is no reason to buy their employers' product (or that of their sources, for that matter). But you can't tell them: that would be broadcasting reflux. They tell you, remember? Why won't you just listen, listen to them? What's wrong with you?

21 October 2016

Under the gun

Tony Abbott is niggling at Malcolm Turnbull again, and much of the press gallery have reported this in terms of its impact on the Turnbull government's agenda. There are three things to consider here, and all of them go to the question of the very point of political reporting and a press gallery.

Firstly, the press gallery seems to value process over product. It likes calm, orderly passage of legislation through both houses, with banal and brief set-piece debates and preferably bipartisanship among the majors; if not, a minimum of mystifying horse-trading in the Senate might be tolerable. It would rather describe how legislation passes rather than what might be in it - even when legislation limits journalists in doing their jobs, it will be actual journalists far beyond the gallery who raise the alarums.

When you discuss policy, and potential changes to the law that affect real people's lives and work, you run the risk of engaging readers/ listeners/ viewers and having them engage in political debate, and maybe work with others to make changes to deals that have already been done in Canberra. Far better to just sit by and describe the passage of legislation in purely functional terms, the way you might sit beside the Molonglo and observe the trickling water, the bird calls, the wriggling and wafting of nature taking its inexorable course.

Note how the press gallery covered the Gillard government. There were more journalists in the press gallery than members of parliament, and yet every one of them agreed that the prevalence of horse-trading in both houses and relative absence of Bipartisanship was Chaotic and the very sort of thing that must not happen again. By contrast, the Abbott government passed very little legislation, but so orderly - when that government's budgets were stymied in the Senate, and passed in the barest terms only to avoid a repeat of 1975, the press gallery couldn't cope with the idea that concerns from outside parliament had somehow made their way in to affect votes in parliament. Instead, they cried chaos, disaster and hoped it would all go away.

Government is only either calm or argy-bargy, according to the press gallery, and in the latter state they overestimate their ability to both describe the situation accurately and engage their public. To give one example - when Katharine Murphy gets excited she loses herself in mixed metaphors, as you can see here (a game of chicken in Gethsemane?).

Secondly, no government has ever been good at managing internecine conflict. The chaos narrative of the Gillard government was fed by Rudd scowling at the backs of ministers speaking to legislation and answering Question Time questions, not how well or badly those ministers performed. There was no real equivalent to that in the Howard government, but there was in the latter half of 1991 when Paul Keating was a backbencher in the Hawke government, and apparently the last twelve months of Fraser, Whitlam, and McMahon were less than stellar.

Press gallery journalists should be able to draw on that history: is the government paralysed? Only Laura Tingle (no link, paywalled) appears to be making the case that it isn't, that in administrative terms (see above) it is starting to hit its straps. Can the government build an administrative exoskeleton to compensate for its obvious weaknesses with personnel and interpersonal issues (if Chris Pyne and Marise Payne are treading on each other's toes, this government truly is finished)? Tingle wisely avoids projection this far out from the likely next election, and my forecasting record speaks for itself.

When it comes to Abbott, though, calm and orderly government (or the appearance thereof) leads us to the third issue with recent coverage.

Have we forgotten what Abbott was like as Prime Minister? Look at that negotiation with Leyonhjelm (if you can hack through the tangled thickets of Murphy's mixed metaphors above, it's as good an account as any). For starters, Abbott was being sneaky, holding out a promise he had no intention of honouring. Then there's the issue of him implying a staffer in Michael Keenan's office acted independently of Abbott's office; the sheer degree of control exercised from the PM's Office by Peta Credlin should have made anyone with any recollection of the Abbott government (i.e. pretty much the entire press gallery) laugh that notion off the public record.

Abbott is overestimating how clever he is by dumping on a staffer, showing the gutlessness and dishonesty that made him unfit to ever be Prime Minister in the first place. The Liberal Party failed itself and the nation by electing such a manifestly unsuitable leader. His behaviour here is consistent with his performance as leader, and believe him when he says (however implicitly) that he will do that again if he were to be brought back up like a bad pizza.

Tony Abbott is not some sort of intelligent, reflective person who adapts his ideas of political leadership to prevailing circumstances. Churchill was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Depression hit in 1929, and saw the age-old economic law of tying the value of currency to gold crumble under him. He spent the 1930s studying Hitler and the Nazis in far more depth than his Daily Mail-reading conservative colleagues, or the pacifist left of the time. Franklin D. Roosevelt had spent the late 1920s in political furlough, considering what government was for and what it might be, before lunging for the Governorship of New York and the Presidency of the United States. Abbott might have some patter about having been humbled, but there is nothing to back it up - and any journalist who merely quotes him is a patsy.

If you're going to cover Abbott's niggles, don't simper like Leigh Sales did while Abbott talks over you Trump-like, lying and fudging without challenge. Sales, and every other journalist covering this, should have called him out on his inability to delegate and his blithe disregard for those trying to do the basic transactional work that makes complex government possible. Setting broad parameters for ministers, their staff, and other underlings is the essence of leadership. Its absence with Abbott as Prime Minister meant the country was misgoverned. If Abbott returns as Prime Minister, we will be misgoverned again.

Turnbull was right to call him out, wrong to imply such a sound and well-supported policy might be watered down. Shorten is right to finger the dissent within the government, wrong to imply Labor might be above making concessions to gunlosers in pursuit of regional votes. Merely quoting both argy and bargy (which is how the press gallery sees its role) is simply not good enough given the important broader issues of community safety far beyond locked-down Parliament House.

The press gallery is obliged to frame its reporting of Abbott in the sickly light of experience - not to lose themselves in slathering at the prospect of argy-bargy, or thinking that his actual record constitutes 'bias'. Start telling the truth, draw upon experience and apply it, and some of your credibility issues might recede. Hopping excitedly from argy to bargy and back again, projecting your own short attention span onto your your audience, can only confirm the decline of journalism from which notions like "24 hour news cycle" never fully detract - let alone fix.

We have a right not to be misgoverned, which is more important than any press gallery wish to return to a time and place where they felt more comfortable.

16 October 2016

The Game nobody wins

Politicians and political journalists in capital cities across the world have different versions of The Game. The Game involves the politicians feeding gobbets of content to the journalists, and the journalists excrete content that flatters the politicians who fed them, and thus two groups of lonely people prop up one another.

Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be elected President of the United States within weeks*. Many of the profiles of her, like this one, return to a common theme:
[Clinton] has been a presence in American public life for more than a third of a century, and yet for all her ubiquity she remains a curiously unknown quantity to many voters.
That, in its purest form, is journalistic failure. Journalists have been observing a person up close for years, hearing their words, challenging them on their positons and motivations, watching them smile and flinch and empathise and snarl, and yet after hectares of print and hours of blather, they concede the person has been hiding in plain sight all this time.

The same publication conceded the same about Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan, and yet it is regarded as the pre-eminent news source in the United States. Other organisations make the same admission: after all this time, we don't know who Hillary Clinton is, so what hope do voters/readers have to form an opinion about her suitability for the Presidency?

In the UK too, at a time of great upheaval (the kind of upheaval that will be felt for years, and whose full effects can't be known by deadline), Theresa May has ascended to the top of British politics while being - you guessed it - unknown. Her Chancellor of the Exchequer, who would be the architect of Britain's post-EU economy, is also regularly described as unknown.

In Australia, the current Prime Minister and his predecessor/stalker are both former working journalists. Both understand the need of journalists to have content several times each day to justify their existences and gum up their employers' output schedules. Both were better at The Game before they became Prime Minister, and each was hopeless afterward.

The Australian media was unable to explain how each of these well-known men would perform the duties of Prime Minister, an office established and occupied for more than a century and covered extensively by political journalists. The morsels that do come to them via The Game are so petty they actually discourage people from taking an interest in how we are governed, and this imperils the very media organisations that employ journalists. Merely by doing their jobs they way they've always done them, journalists are not shoring up their own positions or reaching out to the community they serve; they are committing professional suicide.

The doyen of the press gallery, Laurie Oakes, has known the current Prime Minister since he was an undergraduate. It is not at all difficult to dig up glowing profiles of Malcolm Turnbull as a potential Prime Minister. It ought not be a surprise, then, to find him in the office of Prime Minister but without a clear agenda as to what (or even how) he might put the powers of that office to best use.

In the past week we saw Kelly O'Dwyer accuse her Labor detractors of point-scoring, and then fail to accrue any sort of credit for doing so - other than column-inches and airtime minutes by press gallery journalists shunning the readers/ listeners/ viewers whose patronage keeps their employers in business. But this gets us back where we started.

We are at a point where The Game seems to work for no-one. We've been here for years. Part of the reason why I haven't blogged much this year is sheer disgust at this fact, and disgust makes for poor social media practice. This has changed, however, as evidenced by the fact this thread was three times longer than it is, and will almost certainly spill over into posts throughout the coming week.

It's more encouraging than many might like that I only need to apologise to regular readers when I don't post. This is better than having been your average press gallery oxygen-thief, who has helped piss away decades of goodwill accrued by their predecessors and employers by shitposting every single day. I've missed you too. Let us go forward together.

* Keep in mind how bad my predictions and prognostications have been