28 April 2017

Shootout at Manus

About once a month in her column at The Conversation, Michelle Grattan comes to the conclusion that Peter Dutton is not a team player and not fully honest when it comes to the complicated facts and issues of asylum-seekers. This doesn't deter her from quoting his (what by now must surely be) worthless assertions: thanks to the wonders of goldfish journalism, every Dutton stuff-up is a fresh surprise to someone who sets the standard for the press gallery.

When it came to ministerial responsibility, public accountability, and other key principles underpinning democracy, Peter Dutton never had a chance. He entered parliament in 2001, at the election following hysteria about September 11 and the refugees aboard the MV Tampa. He defeated Labor's Cheryl Kernot, learning the lesson that even high-profile opponents can be brought down with enough dirt. Being a politician in a marginal seat requires a warm personality and a genuine concern for the local community; Dutton learned that fundraising can get around such shortcomings, particularly where Labor largely seemed to direct its energies elsewhere.

By the time Dutton became Assistant Treasurer under Peter Costello, the Howard government had lost its policy reform momentum; Costello had become bitter and twisted at not becoming Prime Minister. Soon afterward the Howard government lost office: any opportunity to teach young Dutton the finer points of vision, negotiation, or any other aspect of policy development and implementation simply went by the board.

He could have learned these lessons from the two Health Ministers he shadowed, Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek. Both ran rings around him, policy-wise and in terms of having things to announce, but Dutton just sat quietly for six years; eventually their job simply fell into his lap. Healthcare professionals rated Dutton the worst Health Minister in a generation, but onward he went.

Like a child raised in poverty and dysfunction who ends up addicted and/or imprisoned, there was never any possibility Peter Dutton would or could have become an effective minister. Grattan and others in the gallery who chide him for falling short of standards impossible for him look like they don't understand the people and environment they've been covering for years.

From Trump and Abbott, Dutton learned that doubling down when wrong appeals to those who confuse obstinacy with fixity of purpose. The events of this week, where Dutton implied that asylum-seekers were pedophiles and shirked responsibility for yet another riot on Manus Island, should not have been as shocking as they apparently were.

Four things arising from this were surprising, however, and none received much coverage from the supposedly alert and diverse press gallery.

The first is that the Papua New Guinea police flatly contradicted an Australian government minister. Papua New Guinea had been an Australian colony from the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to independence in 1975, and since then the country depended heavily on Australia for aid. Previous PNG governments danced around open confrontation with Australia; any exceptions tended to be reported in the Australian media as personality defects of the PNG politician concerned, rather than the issue itself. Recently, however, PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has boosted relations with China, which has reciprocated in spades. PNG's trade and economic position relies less on Australia than it has for a century. Note the contrast with always-compliant Nauru, or too-quiet Christmas Island. We can expect more of this.

While Dutton has brushed off the accounts of local police about the Manus incident, it is clear the PNG government will not spare Australia from embarrassment, and that more information is yet to come out from Manus about conditions in the detention centre. Anzac Day pictures of smiling "fuzzy wuzzy angels" were designed to convey the idea that PNG will continue being compliant to Australian interests, but to rely too heavily on that would be a mistake.

Second, Turnbull didn't have to lend his name to Dutton's frolic. It has done him no good politically to embrace Dutton and feed his tough-guy fantasia. John Howard happily set off his pet ministers like Peter Reith or Tony Abbott on frolics of their own, not denouncing them but not standing in shot by them, prepared to step in to either claim credit or smooth over the damage, as appropriate. Turnbull should discipline Dutton for lying, and he needs to start casting around for an Immigration Minister with some credibility; he can't do either of those things. The Prime Minister has limited the scope he needs to manoeuver, which can't end well for him or the government more broadly.

Thirdly, the idea of cracking down on asylum-seekers as a vote-winner no longer applies. Nobody in the press gallery has twigged to this.

Fourth, Dutton as secret-intelligence bullshit artist hasn't learned the lessons from his fellow Queenslander, George Brandis. As soon as he became Attorney-General, Brandis began enthusiastically reducing our civil liberties on the basis of threats to which only he was privy. Over time Brandis' credibility has been diminished with all this wolf-crying, to the point where his every announcement is assumed to be a gaffe or a stuff-up. Demonstrations of competence, such as High Court appointments, are treated with relief. Brandis has spent decades trying to cultivate gravitas on the barren fields of his own abilities, and it hasn't worked; that's why it is time for him to go. Dutton is approaching the same point.

Peter Dutton's first job was as a police officer, a job requiring instant cultivation of gravitas and respect for kept secrets. Like Brandis, Dutton overestimates the extent to which "because I said so" is actually going to convince anyone. Never mind sincerity - conservatives have to be able to fake gravitas, or they're finished. This government is full of senior ministers who simply couldn't do gravitas if their lives depended on it - Dutton and Brandis, Pyne, Hunt, Cash, Joyce - they have to know on some level that their game is up.

As I've said before, Dutton has no powerbase. Queensland's LNP is disintegrating before our eyes, and he is neither a big enough player to ride out the storm nor small enough to survive and start again. No marginal-seat Liberal wants Dutton gladhanding in their electorate. The idea that he might become Prime Minister is a joke. He is a stalking horse for Abbott, just as the equally hapless former Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews was; just as the Abbott forces hoped Morrison might have been.

Dutton's attack on Mike Cannon-Brookes was reported by Mashable as just wacky political randomness, and the press gallery missed it entirely. Dutton was making a proxy attack on Turnbull. The Liberal Party isn't big on tech, and Turnbull's limited, long-ago experience of the sector (which informs his out-of-date preferences for the NBN) are virtually their only connection to a non-farm industry sector growing in size and importance. To attack somebody - anyone - in the tech sector is to attack Turnbull. Cannon-Brookes appeared not to realise this; government departments, the banks and other big companies import more IT workers (and employ more Australian IT workers) than Atlassian, yet you'll notice that Dutton didn't go after them. After all this is over, watch Abbott or Dutton sidle up to Cannon-Brookes and semi-apologise for using him as a political football.

For Turnbull, this is the thanks he gets for sticking his neck out for Dutton. It was genuinely amazing that the press gallery weren't all over this.

Queensland Labor needs to target Dickson with a seriousness that has largely been absent throughout Dutton's career. No more nice-but-dim local heroes. You don't want to give the LNP a run for their money, you want them to write Dickson off and scramble to foist Dutton elsewhere.

To be fair to the press gallery, while they remain deeply flawed we have seen this year some actual outbreaks of something approaching real journalism. Press gallery claim to be hunting for truth 24/7, but this is bullshit. In the first year of both the Turnbull and Rudd governments, the press gallery behaved as if the government could do no wrong. Throughout the entirety of the Gillard government, the government apparently could not do anything right. We are not in a position where the government is dead, where the opposition are wildly popular or where they have the gallery bluffed like Abbott did. Yet, the embarrassing gushing about Real Malcolm is behind us, and lately gallery reporting sometimes starts from a position of scepticism about what is being announced. It was genuinely shocking to see a carpet-stroller like Barrie Cassidy brave the choppy waters of ministerial authority - like Justin Bieber playing Macbeth, it's so incredible that it is even being contemplated that actual critique can't and doesn't take place. It can't last, and it's a product of an uncertain environment where gallery narratives simply aren't strong enough to sustain regular stories. Normal (dis)service will resume soon enough.

If Dutton has learned from Trump that you double down when the facts go against you, the US media is starting to learn the limits to which you can/should hang upon every word of a bullshit artist. The Australian media has never learned this: Abbott is not the media pariah his predecessor Billy McMahon was after 1972, and the media have embarrassed themselves by showering his handler Peta Credlin with the trinkets and baubles of their profession.

While it lasts, start thinking about government from first principles, and compare the tentative reporting of today with the gushing rubbish and ridiculous pile-ons from not very long ago. Then start thinking about how government can and should engage with the public. Playing the double game of hoping for more and better public information, while also lamenting the loss of redundant journo jobs, will only drive you crazy. Those wider questions of coverage and who does the covering has taken focus away from the daily whack-a-mole on which this blog has been built (and haven't I told you that lapsing into the passive voice means the writer/speaker is up to no good?). The work continues, with apologies to those hoping for more content more often.


  1. Christmas Island isn't "too-quiet". It's part of Australia, directly controlled by the federal govt.

  2. And with the terrifying state of Aus politics, the appalling Dutton is being seriously promoted as next Lib leader!

  3. First class commentary, as we have come to expect from you.

    The Press Gallery as in recent years has tried to control the agenda but has lapsed into a pack mentality, which has always been a risk, and even occurred back in Mungo's day, albeit with much more professionalism.

    It seems to be a combination of factors: the Owners, where Murdoch has made Frank Packer look like a lightweight, and in TV & Radio where Stokes and Singo have been active. Murdoch lackeys regularly attack the historically more independent Fairfax and ABC, so much so that they often get defensive/ apologetic and fall in with the herd. The result has led to a near-uniformity of news and what they offer as analysis. It is typified by the backscratching that occurs in BazzCazz's Insiders.

    The most appalling example occurred with the one paper usually trying to be Bona Fide independent, The Melbourne Age. It ran a front-page editorial demanding that Ms Gillard step down as Prime Minister. The reasoning was not based on any PM or ministerial incompetence or impropriety (of which the government was conspicuously free from). The only reason was that opinion polls had remained consistently bad for her, suggesting the government would be trounced. Government by opinion polls and media beat-ups never seemed much of an alternative, and it's all we've had since.

    A lot of the Gillard could do no right had to do with the manner of the unexplained coup that led to the toppling of Rudd. Some to do with sexism, taken to great lengths on Hate Radio. And a lot had to do with them simply swallowing the Abbott stunts and beat-ups so uncritically. Some might even have had to do with the lack of resources available to the financially-stressed managements.

    It did a grave disservice to the nation and how we are governed. It is not for the public good. Although the powers that be have always been able to influence ministers, the ministers in earlier times at least tried to reach some consensus in governing for the whole nation, not always successfully (aborigines) but with at least acknowledging the disadvantaged. Not any more. And the Press Gallery mostly hasn't noticed the change.

    As Mr Denmore has observed, Financial reporters would just not be tolerated with that level of tardiness. They still represent one of the few levels of quality reporting as exemplified by Adele Ferguson. but we should be able to expect it from our political reporters, but only a few live up to it, as we so when they missed the impact of Ms Gillard's Misogyny Speech.

    It's very late in the day for them to regain some credibility but they need to hurry, or they'll all miss the collapse of this government.

    1. First class comment Gorgeous.
      You too Andrew.

  4. Andrew so good to read an assessment of politicians and journalists that hits the mark.
    I see a problem in achieving an unbiased reporting of politics in Australia is the dominance of Murdoch

  5. As a lawyer, I cannot emphasise enough how much Brandis is treated with absolute disdain by the profession. When he spoke at the national Family Law conference in 2014, the audience were literally laughing at some of his more ridiculous pronouncements.

    1. Yes, here in Victoria, he'a also a joke, by appointing Freedom Boy with zero credentials to do his dirty work.

  6. Out of all the coalition Dutton sticks out as being the most sociopathic, Morrision is also up there. It's no wonder Turnbull looks so tired and frayed at the edges. He's surrounded by people that have no compassion or conscience. Who knows who would roll Turnbull, Morrison or Dutton would be terrible, but they couldn't go back to Abbott, surely... But then again, I didn't think Rudd would get another go at it again either.

    1. I.p.a brats are in that category, they're a special breed.

  7. Funksoul, Abbott Dutton and Morrison are Turnbull's insurance policy against any leadership challenge. Even other Ugly Right MPs have the sense to know that putting any of them in place of Turnbull would mean a landslide loss at the next election.
    I've had a little dealing with all three of these gentlemen, and believe me Mr Dutton is the slowest (by some margin) as well as the most charmless. Abbott and Morrison are quite warm people face-to-face, though Scott Morrison's warmth is not the sort I'd trust (ie he's the sorta person who's good pub company but somehow always gets called away just before it's his turn to shout).