21 August 2018

Burn out, fade away

The Coalition has two choices going forward, and both depend on the Labor Party. This means that the leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten, is more powerful than the current Prime Minister and more powerful than any Liberal who might replace him (Dutton, Abbott, Bishop, Morrison, take your pick).

Shorten's first option

Turnbull could reach out to Labor to pass a bipartisan NEG. It is possible that Shorten would play a cat-and-mouse game with him, and send Turnbull back to his party room with a deal he cannot sell, but this is not consistent with our experience of him. Shorten's behaviour as a union leader and as a minister under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd suggests that he will surprise observers not by demanding his opponents meet him halfway, but by offering the other side pretty much everything they want and then getting his side to back the eventual compromise. If you accept the idea that a Labor victory at the next election enables Shorten to reshape or abolish the NEG, then he loses almost nothing by giving Turnbull what he said he wanted last week. He even looks like the guy putting some steel into the spine of a weak leader, buttressing his claim to be a Hawke-like healer and uniter, and diminishing Liberal framing of him being a schemer and wrecker (certainly in contrast to Abbott). Whatever triumph Turnbull puts forward will never fully be his own, because Shorten will own it too.

Abbott, Dutton, and the para-Liberal right (e.g. Joyce, Bernardi, Hanson, Sky News, 2GB) will frame this compromise as selling out. As the Liberals start preselecting candidates for the coming election, the party at its grassroots will debate negotiating tactics in its deliberations over who they choose to participate in these negotiations. This debate will override any dictate from the leader's office or from a party-room vote. Turnbull has not done the work at the party's grassroots to make this debate work in his favour: he is not a grassroots politician even among Liberals, he is a politician who gets the lead players into a small room and hammers out a deal, the very outcome that will not work here. The wider Liberal Party will look like chaos, it will not be able to be contained by the party's gatekeepers, and Abbott is the Liberal Party's lord of misrule.

Turnbull cannot claim that any Liberal who supported the no-policy status quo is finished politically. The evolution of the Nationals away from being a farmers' party toward being a general non-metropolitan conservative party demonstrates this. The shadowy political support mechanisms provided by Gina Rinehart toward failed politicians Sophie Mirabella and Adam Giles, not to mention Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson, negate the idea that political aspirations end once the major parties are done with you.

Remember how big business groups like the BCA and Ai Group lobbied Liberal MPs to agree to something over nothing? Those people lobbied Shorten too. In times past, some leading CEO - the head of BHP, or AMP, or one of the banks - would have angrily demanded the ninnies in Canberra pull their fingers out and get on with it, and Liberals fearful of a fundraising drought would comply. Nobody in the corporate world today has that kind of political clout.

Shorten's second option

The other option is that Turnbull continues not to reach out to Labor, fearful of being seen to be too close to them and unable to differentiate the Liberal Party from them in the coming election. This means he will continue to achieve nothing rather than something, and negates his advantage as the incumbent: any opposition can develop plans and talk them up, but they suffer from not being tangible. A contest between Shorten's castles in the air and Turnbull's may see the opposition - the major party without Tony Abbott - given the benefit of the doubt.

If Shorten reaches out to Turnbull and Turnbull won't engage, they both look weak and like they're not achieving anything. The both-sides argy-bargy narrative of the press gallery will diminish them both. Even if Labor wins more than 76 seats in the next House of Representatives, both-sidesism will mean he will have to deal with an unpredictable Senate. To secure a decisive Labor win, with Labor having to deal with as few non-Labor Senators as possible to get legislation through, Shorten will have to take charge of the current political situation to an extent that neither Turnbull, nor anyone else outside Labor, can.

Having held out the olive branch, it's within his gift to drop it and move no confidence in Turnbull as Prime Minister. He needs a majority of members present to win the vote, which would make Turnbull's position untenable. There are 69 Labor MPs in the House of Representatives. It is possible that pairing arrangements will be dropped. It is possible that independents such as Rebekha Sharkie and Cathy McGowan will decline to support such a nakedly partisan motion. Even so, as I said in the previous post below, Abbott, Dutton, Joyce and Kevin Andrews may find it too tempting to finish Turnbull; with Dutton before the High Court, the Liberal Party could face a run-off between Abbott and non-Abbott (probably Morrison), and the temptation to hold a election before the Victorian election on 24 November (but outside the football season in September).

These two options show that, regardless of what Turnbull or any other Liberal may do, the government is not master of its own fate and thus cannot long be considered a viable government. No such handicap appears to beset the ALP.

Problems with Dutton

If, as this excellent journalism from Hugh Riminton and Kate Doak (why does the best political journalism come from outside the press gallery?) indicates, Peter Dutton will have to be referred to the High Court for his eligibility to sit in parliament under section 44(v) of the Constitution. Such a reference might preclude him from running for Dickson or any other seat. The prospect of a challenge may have dissuaded some Liberals from voting for him in the party room spill this morning, or they may not given that Nationals MP David Gillespie survived a similar challenge earlier this year. You will know that Turnbull is going for the death-or-glory option if he refers Dutton and puts his wife's business under public scrutiny: the right will hate him, but they hate him anyway.

Free and diverse societies benefit from relatively light governance. It is not true that light-touch governing can be done by the insouciant and the incapable, as Malcolm Turnbull has demonstrated. Surveillance technologies can give heavy-handed government the appearance of light-touch, unobtrusive government, which is made easier if you look the other way when certain people's rights are abused. Peter Dutton was on the cusp of power as an authoritarian, and press gallery journalism has played little role in describing his growing power (which tends to rebound on journalists eventually, far more than the figurative "the ABC and Guardian are dead to me"). Doing journalism on monitorial government is the hardest journalism of all, made harder by constrained misallocated resources and a defeatist idea that the public doesn't care and cannot be made to care even with committed journalism.

Now the right-wing ministers in the government are resigning, one by one, just like they did from Turnbull's opposition front bench in 2009 (naturally, nobody from the press gallery is awake to this, even the ones who actually covered those resignations then). Zed Seselja was a waste of space as Science Minister, Mukka Sukka is a waste of skin at any time, and quite why Concetta Fierravanti-Wells sought to catalogue the reasons why Turnbull should never have appointed her in the first place is one of those puzzles only she can answer. When conservatives talk about "the base", these are their champions: very base indeed.

Two parties one narrative

It is almost unfair for the country to go to an election with one side of the two-party idea so manifestly inadequate, but to insist that the election is a tight race between two equally (in)capable sides is a form of bias far less grounded in reality, more destructive and far less useful, than simple partisanship. The Liberal Party does not have a leadership problem, it has a systematic problem that goes to its very roots. Malcolm Turnbull can't solve it, nor can any other member of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, nor can their staff, nor can old stagers from the organisational wing like Michael Kroger or Gary Spence. Those people can barely articulate what the problem is.

Other countries don't have binary two-party systems as Australia, the US or the UK have. In 2010 the Australian electorate came close to instituting such a political system: Labor and other politicians worked with the parliament the voters gave them, while conservatives and the press gallery screamed for three years until what looked like a conventional conservative government was conjured into being. That vision has since dissipated, and the press gallery still cannot cover politicians from outside the major parties except as freaks. Other countries that might once have been showcases for multi-party democracy (e.g. Italy, India) show instead that the far right of politics have the capacity to distinguish themselves in inchoate environments, and develop an influence that goes beyond both their support base and their capacities to govern free and diverse societies.

When you have a two-party system, and one side pretty much collapses, coverage of the slightly-less-crap side collapses as journalists ingratiate themselves with the incoming government. The flaws that brought Kevin Rudd undone as Prime Minister in 2010 were well known by press gallery and Labor insiders well before 2007, but they chose not to let voters in on it until it was too late.

Institutions that cover up diminish themselves. It is no good complaining about diminishing respect for institutions after the fact of a cover-up. It is no use complaining about constrained resources after having publicly squandered them.

Both sides not

The Coalition is, with Labor, one of two major political groupings capable of forming government. It is part of standard political debate as to which of these may offer the best deal at any given election, but the following points are now beyond all but diehard partisan quibbling:
  • Electricity supply is one of the key infrastructure challenges facing Australia, given changing technologies and costs associated with delivering these; and
  • People of goodwill and good sense may have different opinions on the best way of ensuring both reliability of electrical supply at an affordable rate, and innovation in generating and delivering electricity; and
  • The Coalition is not capable of having that debate, let alone delivering any sort of solution on this crucial issue.
It would take both-sidesism to its most ridiculous extent to claim that Labor is also incapable of delivering a coherent policy capable of benefitting suppliers, distributors and consumers of electricity. Maybe they will botch it: for now, they deserve the benefit of the doubt whereas the government does not. Governments lose office when the debates of the day are considered too hard for them to solve. Consider Rudd in 2013, Howard in 2007, Keating in 1996, or any of the recently departed state premiers: it was more in sorrow than in anger that they were put out of office, but put out they were. They tended to depart office with a kind of pained dignity, leaving only partisans to gloat at their demise.

The same problem exists with the increasing push for Indigenous sovereignty. It is fair to assume this won't be a major issue at the coming election, but it will be increasingly important going forward. Again, Labor do not have all the answers, but the Coalition's default position is intransigence and bad faith.

The issue of asylum-seekers has maddeningly resisted firm assessments of its electoral significance, but it is increasingly clear that the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru are entering their endgame (and that there has been all too little scrutiny of Christmas Island, showing how dependent political journalism is upon what has been announced). There will have to be a change of policy over the next term of government, but what might it be? Partisans can't answer this, so journalists can't and don't bother finding out what our options are.

Experienced press gallery journalists think they know how to cover election campaigns. They offer feeble, cliched critiques of supply/control mechanisms like campaign buses, food, and wi-fi, and report statements with no information other than that handed to them by the party making the announcement. They work their contacts, who tell them less and less, and therefore give us less and worse information about what's going on. Few of the big issues of our time are used to measure competing candidates and their claims.

To report accurately and fairly on the coming election would require different skills: deep knowledge of complex policies and communities, which would render the campaign/press buses as ridiculous as they are. Political journalists aren't going to do that, but other journalists and knowledge workers might. They are going to rely on quotes from people with no idea what's going on. Business-as-usual leads to a badly-informed population, which both increasingly disdains the traditional media represented in the press gallery as a reliable source of information, and makes ever worse choices from increasingly dreadful options on the ballot.

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