15 November 2017

So close, and yet so far

There was a time when to be the best male Australian tennis player was to be the best at that sport, to be able to beat any man in the world anywhere in the world. Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, and John Newcombe, along with supporting players like Ken Emmerson or Tony Roche, dominated the sport as it transitioned from an amateur era to a professional one. This dominance lasted over a decade, which hadn't happened in Australian sport before or since: in swimming or cricket there were seasons of Australian dominance in fits and starts, even with uniquely talented individuals like Bradman or Dawn Fraser. Even in women's tennis, Margaret Smith Court was a freak sui generis; Evonne Goolagong Cawley did not breeze past her contemporaries as Smith did. Both those women left tennis to raise families, while Newcombe and Roche in particular tried to keep alight the mystic flame of Australian men's tennis.

John Alexander was fated to be the leading Australian male tennis player behind Newcombe. Later in their careers, Newcombe and Rosewall held off the brash and aggressive American Jimmy Connors, but Alexander in his prime could not. The 1970s saw the Europeans adopt Australian coaching techniques: Ilie Nastase from Romania, Bjorn Borg from Sweden, Guillermo Vilas from Argentina, Connors, and others all showed that there was nothing in our water, nor in Vegemite or Milo, nor in any other way essentially Australian about the skill and focus necessary to win big-time singles tennis tournaments. Alexander was a very good singles tennis player, but not a great one. He wasn't lucky, like Gosford's Mark Edmonson winning the 1976 Australian Open. He didn't have a heart-rending back-story and an oafish foil, like Jelena Dokic. The recent parallel would be Andy Roddick, the US male succeeding Sampras and Agassi and Courier, but fated to be creamed regularly by Nadal and Federer and Djokovic. John Alexander showed us the important lesson that sometimes guts and determination just aren't enough.

Alexander won the Australian Open twice as half of separate doubles pairings. He didn't bond with one other player to form a memorable killer team like like MacNamara/McNamee or Woodforde/Woodbridge, and he had a reputation for being short-tempered. Other tennis players had this reputation too - but in the 1950s and '60s the optics were all of Gentlemanly Behaviour and Good Sportsmanship. Winners are grinners, and the image of Laver or Newcombe grinning so often holding up trophies smoothed any jagged edges in their reputations. In their later years, Connors and Nastase freely admitted to having been pricks, assessments not contradicted by observers at the time. Not so Alexander: when Connors or Nastase threw their racquets around, intimidated ball boys, talked back to umpires, or snarled at interviewers, this Bad Sportsmanship somehow underlined their foreignness. When Alexander did the same, it confirmed him as a sore loser and UnAustralian and Surely There's Another Talented Young Australian We Can All Get Behind?

I was a kid in the 1970s. My Dad's family were all big on tennis, playing and watching. They made it clear to me, my brother, and my cousins, that we were not to carry on like John Alexander. Better to do your best and lose gracefully than to end up like that guy.

I've said before in this blog that I used to live in Bennelong, and that I observed a number of times how awkward he is with actual humans whom he has represented in parliament. He seems to be attentive only to people he knows well, or who are important, or both; seven years representing the community has not defrosted him. One thing the left always underestimated about Howard was his preparedness to engage with locals, to talk sincerely about vandalism in West Ryde or schools in Gladesville at the same time as he was dealing with Iraq or the economy. Alexander still can't fake genuine interest in the small stuff. Alexander is a tall man (I'm 183cm and he's a head taller than me), and often such people have to work hard not to appear aloof - but he always looks pained when approached by randoms, always on the lookout for someone else to talk to or somewhere else to be. He has mastered the ability to turn up to an event just before pictures are taken and leave immediately afterwards, with local papers happy to create the impression of warm engagement on his behalf.

Once he beat Maxine McKew in 2010 the massed dim lights of Australian political journalism went off him, and he seems to like it that way. He increased his margin out of that limelight, confirming his political instincts. In the past two elections he has faced an authentic product of Labor's left-leaning local branches, Lyndal Hewison, a local teacher and a nice person; at the last election she lost the primaries to Alexander 28-51. Yes, that's right: this remote man has increased the Liberal vote in Bennelong to the point where it doesn't go to preferences, back to where it was early in Howard's prime ministership despite the massive demographic changes in the area since. The swing against the Coalition that saw so many Liberals lose their seats last July saw Alexander hold steady.

I kept looking around Bennelong for an example of Alexander's legacy, and I think I found it. Behind Eastwood Library, there's a kids' playground and a public toilet and an oval that shows up in old maps as a lake. In that area is a green, wooden table-tennis table: Alexander had it placed there, a nod to Eastwood's Chinese community, who all seem far too busy to use it. It's also a nod to Alexander's tennis career but he's too busy to use it too. Like the local real estate market, it isn't a level playing field. Only the die-hards come forth with bats and a ball and a cloth to wipe the birdshit; they don't stay for long.

It's almost fitting that Labor have passed over Hewison for the byelection, or promising local mayor Jerome Laxale, in favour of Kristina Keneally. She's warm and engaging where Alexander is aloof and awkward. Like Alexander, she lives in another part of town, and in the 1970s and '80s spent quite a bit of time in the United States. Also like Alexander, she knows what it is to step up just as a winning streak is ending, and to cop the blame for that.

Her media experience counts for nothing. The total audience for Sky News is so small, and perishingly so in Bennelong, that she may as well have spent the past six years getting drunk. Her former co-host Ross Cameron is politically just as dead today as he was in 2004. The idea that she'll be a media darling like former press gallery journalist Maxine McKew - and that this will count for something - is bullshit.

Toward the end of his career, John Watkins was Deputy Premier and State MP for Ryde (the state electorate that takes up much of Bennelong). When Watkins retired in 2008 Ryde swung heavily to the Liberals. That byelection may have been the last time Keneally set foot in the electorate until the last day or so. That byelection was a precursor for the 2011 state election, and so too Federal Labor is hoping for a dramatic result that works against the incumbent government. Like it or not, Keneally is associated with a flailing and failed government, one that casts a shadow over a government that is yet to come.

What are the possibilities for this byelection, and what are the consequences more broadly?
  • Alexander wins handsomely, like he has at the past two general elections. This (along with the likely re-election of Barnaby Joyce in New England) would confirm Turnbull and the government and they will blunder on. Surely the performance of the government will give rise to a protest vote.
  • Keneally wins Bennelong. This is unlikely but it would panic the Liberals into wounding Turnbull and generally running around with their hair on fire while trying to convince Sharkie and McGowan that they really are a stable and responsible government.
  • Keneally gets a swing toward Labor but doesn't win. This will be the kind of result that anyone can read anything into, producing the kind of inconclusive and fatuous jabber that is "political debate" and "insider commentary" in the Australian media. This is the most likely result.
Keneally will wander the streets saying "你 好" to people and getting "G'day" in return. Alexander will be out and about wincing at people for the cameras and it will make no difference at all. Turnbull will condescend to petty locals in their petty lives and people will vote for him with gritted teeth. Shorten will turn up and create surprise at being a regular guy, who may be up for consideration next time. Labor's NSW head office will be confirmed in its view that the best way to win in Bennelong is to override the local branches.

It will be quite the blessing that the press gallery will mostly be on holidays, and that The Daily Telly won't lose one of its few presenters who doesn't just nod along with Paul Murray or Chris Kenny. The sheer witlessness of Australian political journalism will not be affected in any way by this byelection. The Australian media has in its archives all of that stuff about Alexander's sporting and political career, and Keneally's: and yet the sheer wasteland of drivel on this topic (no I won't link to it) stretches out before us once again, with no useful information and no respite.

05 November 2017

The choice of Joyce

But look, oh look, the Gothic tree’s on fire
with blown galahs, and fuming with wild wings.
The hard inquiring wind strikes to the bone and whines division.

- Judith Wright For New England
The press gallery seems to be of one mind that Barnaby Joyce will win the New England byelection handily on December 2. Tony Windsor isn't running, PHON and ShooFiFa aren't running, therefore Joyce will win it in a canter, won't he?

Joyce has an excellent ground operation, the envy of any party. At the last election we saw money was no object; Joyce started his political career as the champion of Cubbie Station, and ever since he's had more sympathy for those who breach their water allocations than you might expect from the leader of the farmers' party. He's cultivated a beautiful friendship with Gina Rinehart. Those who say Joyce will win easily have a point: surely on the night of December 2 they'll simply weigh Nationals votes rather than count them, and that he's good for at least 70 percent of first preferences, surely?

I'm not so sure. Joyce is no longer a fresh face in a promising government. He is not a powerful member of a stable government that is racking up substantial achievements. Election campaigns often end differently to the way they start, and experienced press gallery journalists should know this.

This isn't simple contrariness against the gallery. To be fair to them, I'm not exactly the go-to guy for political predictions - but then again, when I said Tony Abbott would never be Prime Minister, I was closer to the mark than those who assumed he was good enough to become Prime Minister. On the same basis, I reckon any victory Joyce wins in New England will be pyrrhic.

Strong and stable

Joyce's central offering to the people of New England is that he is Deputy Prime Minister in a stable Coalition government. He spent the first couple of days of the byelection campaign sledging unnamed detractors from within that same government; strong people do not do this, they dismiss their detractors. Since then we've seen the President of the Senate and the Minister for Energy experience similar doubts over their nationality as that which put Joyce into the position he is in now.

Electricity infrastructure in New England has not been gold-plated. Coal-fired power still comes from the Hunter and from Queensland, and its cost to New England customers is rising as it is for the rest of us. It isn't only hippies who are installing solar in the hope of boosting reliability and cutting costs over time. If you don't blame Joyce for making the price and reliability of power worse, then you can't claim that he is doing much to make things better.

The position in Manus now, under this government, is similar to that point in the Gillard government where boatloads of asylum seekers were crashing against the rocks of Christmas Island. Remember Michael Keenan and Joe Hockey coming over all teary at that? They are the same people pooh-poohing the men on Manus Island digging for water while coming down off anti-depressants. It goes way beyond a bad look. A policy has failed when it ends up at this point, and so have the ministers responsible for it - and Barnaby Joyce has been one of those ministers.

This isn't to say Manus is a hot-button issue in New England right now, but it does go to the competence of the government and Joyce's place within it. It does mean that other political actors have scope to exploit the gap between what good government should look like, and what Barnaby's offering. The status quo, steady-as-she-goes approach isn't the elixir that the lazy press gallery thinks it is.

Old-fashioned journalism

He's the last of the backslappin', have-a-beer politicians - well, the last you'll find above municipal level. Some journalists have to hunt for their stories, but the press gallery love nothing better than dusting off a cliche, painting by numbers and then flicking it at the public. They'll be looking forward to writing those same stories from the pubs of New England - particularly where Joyce is the main act and not a sideshow in a multi-faceted, continental general election. It will be interesting to see if Joyce gets sick of them, or if he discloses some tidbit too tempting not to share.

Another cliche is the idea that people - rustics, particularly - are so bedazzled by promises of public largesse that they auction their vote the highest bidder. It's hard to imagine more largesse than that promised by Shenhua in its various explorations into the Liverpool Plains, or the similar proposals for the Pilliga. It doesn't quite work out like that. Joyce is stuck between those locals who like both places as they are, and the whiny drone of the economic vandal: "business confidence". NSW Mineral Resources Minister Don Harwin has almost nobbled the Liverpool Plains proposal, but any decision (including none) would have put Joyce in a difficult position. Mining companies were all very well when they were lobbying for non-farming land, but now that they're after the prime stuff it's all a bit Faustian for everyone's mate Barnaby.

The advent of social media and the weaponisation of polling this century saw the end of taxi-driver journalism. Journalists would hire taxis and represent the driver's patter as The Voice Of The Common Man, warping all coverage of political and social issues around half-baked impressions gained from reading tabloids and listening to gruntback radio. If you have ever wondered how Ray Hadley got to be like that, look back at taxi-driver journalism and wonder no more. When you hear journalists praising old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism, part of what they mean is plonking their arses in the back of Ray Hadley's taxi, switching on the tape recorder, and letting their stories write themselves. The only practitioners of taxi-driver journalism these days are press gallery journalists, long cut off from - dare one describe it thus - the mainstream of traditional media offices.

They'll miss the stories that are both more interesting and more telling. You don't have to pretend that warmed-over cliches are valuable and worth supporting.

Tamworth, Tamworth, Tamworth

Tamworth's airport is over-engineered for a town of its size. The airport was designed half a century ago to accept the biggest aircraft of that time, the Boeing 727. The idea was not to facilitate junkets from Canberra, or even the annual spike in tourism for the Country Music Festival. Tamworth airport was designed to support high-value agricultural exports by aircraft, where food could depart New England in the morning and then be consumed that evening in Asian cities.

Despite several free trade agreements endorsed by the Cabinet of which Joyce was a member, that dream is no closer to reality than it was in the 1970s, when Joyce and I were growing up in that area. Contrast this with the Wellcamp airport west of Toowoomba, which went from conception to execution within the past decade and which handles the sort of cargo (including from northern NSW) promised but rarely delivered from Tamworth airport.

If you ask Barnaby Joyce about Tamworth airport and its potential, he will offer a generous helping of word-salad that the equally ignorant press gallery will accept and pass on without demur or examination. It will also show how disconnected government policy is from actual economic development in this area, not to mention the value-free and valueless practice of press gallery stenography.

During byelections, press gallery journalists gingerly venture forth beyond those concentric roads around the building from which they operate and afflict the people beset by the candidates and flyers in those communities that in Canberra are just are names on maps. In the New England byelection, taxi-driver journalism is concentrated on Tamworth. Tamworth is the biggest town in New England, with regular air connections to Sydney (not many 727s on that route any more, but never mind). It's easy to blow in to Tamworth, squawking and flapping with the tape recorder, and get back to the city without having to bunk down in a local motel. However, there are two main problems with this as quality information: 1) towns within New England like Quirindi, Uralla, or Inverell aren't suburbs of Tamworth, with distinctions that matter for those who understand the subtleties of rural communities; and 2) a review of voting records shows that Tamworth's polling booths are particularly strong for the Country/NCP/Nationals.

If you want to reinforce your preconceived notion that Barnaby is returning to Canberra as a formality, go to Tamworth and get a full dose of it. Senior press gallery journos have done exactly this, from almost every media outlet represented in the gallery, which again utterly defeats laws and other measures designed to foster media diversity. Every gallery outlet but the ABC has closed its regional and suburban outlets, making coverage of this community with nuance and depth impossible. As I've said, you don't have to pretend that warmed-over cliches are valuable and worth supporting.

For a short time, Tamworth turned away from the Nationals to send Tony Windsor to state and federal parliament. The Gillard government's abrupt ban of live cattle exports to Indonesia hit Tamworth's meatworks hard. Tamworth did not get the benefit from the NBN that Armidale got. Then again, when Tony Abbott became Prime Minister, Windsor's difficult choice became understandable. The vote against Windsor in 2016 was a vote against this difficult and aberrant part of Tamworth's history and a return to the National status quo; it may negate his ability to shift the Nationals vote in future contests. His absence from this byelection hardly negates Tamworth's history as strong Nationals turf.

A careless man

Barnaby Joyce once drove a government vehicle through floodwater, barely escaping with his life and writing off the vehicle. Most rural people, and some in the cities, rightly regard people who drive through floodwaters as idiots.

There is no evidence Joyce has learned anything from that. He spent more than $600,000 on refitting offices in New England. He toyed with the lives of public servants and the effectiveness of an agency vital to Australian agriculture by shifting its offices. He promised a white paper (a comprehensive policy document) on Australian agriculture that shows no evidence of in-depth, long-term consideration, and which failed to even consider that changes to the climate might affect agriculture. His blustering approach to his own citizenship has forced a byelection on his electorate that need not have been necessary: when Jackie Kelly did something similar in Lindsay in 1996, the press gallery lectured her for foolishness and the waste of public money arising from it.

Joyce is careless with matters of public trust, and with public moneys. People recognise this and will vote accordingly. The survival of the Turnbull government, however, depends upon the foregoing not being the case, or being overlooked.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Both Joyce and the government of which he's part are on the nose. The press gallery believe both that a) Joyce has some sort of magic on the campaign trail, and b) the government has been behind in the polls; but they have not concluded and dare not consider that c) New England voters will mark Joyce and the government down on December 2.

Having blithely assumed that Joyce would return to Canberra, reinforced with a quick fly-by through Tamworth, press gallery journos will be at a loss to explain why Joyce will not be returning to Canberra with a thumping majority. They will assert their expertise in matters political nonetheless.