13 January 2019

Dead fish

Regular readers can take comfort in my poor record of prognostication, but for the longest time I had assumed that the NSW election would have something for everyone: a nail-biter, with the Libs losing a few marginals, the Nats losing one or two seats to the Greens and/or ShooFiFa, but basically the government would be returned for its inevitable final term (because the tensions between Liberal moderates and conservatives, now relatively mild, will only intensify as the spoils of office contract), and new Opposition Leader Michael Daley would need only to hold steady and the 2023 election would be his.

Not so. The Coalition can't win the NSW election, and will probably be the first Australian government to lose office on account of climate change.

And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong

Stories like this followed a couple of guys posting on Facebook about algae and dead fish in the Menindee Lakes. The Menindee Lakes are part of the vast Murray-Darling river system that sustains farming in much of eastern Australia, toward the end of the long meander of the Darling River and its tributaries across NSW. Queensland bears some responsibility for the state of the river, but by this point the state should have more to show for any serious remediation efforts than it does today.

Remember this story when traditional media grizzle about Facebook: it wasn't intrepid journos who hunted down this story, people on social media handed it to them. Facebook can identify the existence of controversy, but not even the ABC (and no other supposedly professional traditional media outlet either) can determine who is responsible for what. The press gallery, so focused on The Big Issues and Liberal-Labor #balance, have missed this issue and its significance entirely. There will be more stories like this. Traditional media is already in symbiosis with social media, and you don't need those strangely ineffable qualities of journalism to re-up something you found on Facebook.

Stories like that stay in the mind far longer than the story-of-the-day hits that media people (both journalists and media strategists within political parties) consider good enough for the likes of us. There is genuinely something wrong with policy, with the government that produced it, that leads to such an outcome. There is something wrong when a whole town relies on charity to receive this life-or-death resource. This mining licence did not have to be renewed before March, or at all really.

The low flow that has led to the algal bloom and deoxygenation of the water across much of the river has disadvantaged not only large but small landholders in NSW, as well as country towns full of people indirectly linked to agriculture. This cannot be smoothed over, or propagandised away. A government that acts, through commission or omission, to bring about this state of affairs is not competent and can make no strong case for re-election.

It should go without saying that water underpins basic life in rural Australia. Government that has let infrastructure deteriorate, that has overestimated the extent normal flows are possible given lax inspection regimes and special deals to thirsty mates, is incompetent in ways that simply defeats any media/electoral strategy. Water is hardly a new issue in the politics of NSW, but this is the first election in a century where the Nationals (including their previous incarnations, Country Party etc.) simply aren't on it.

NSW Water Resources Minister Niall Blair has operated on water flow assumptions that take no account of climate change. He cannot claim to have been badly informed by clumsy bureaucrats, as the Coalition at both state and federal level: firstly, because he should have been (seen to be) across this issue well before now, and secondly because the Coalition at all levels of government has actively pretended climate change is a culture war front only, and not a factor in hands-on operations of government. Whimpering about lack of water simply isn't good enough because the water that was available has been squandered; this would continue even if rains doubled, or halved. His decision not to meet with Menindee locals who had waited to see him was dumb, and I will fight any media strategist who quibbles with that assessment. Blair deserves all the respect due to a man who has painted himself into a corner and who will soon be replaced.

Consider this map. It not only shows the state electorates of non-metropolitan NSW, it shows all the seats currently held by the Nationals. It also shows the state's natural watercourses. None of those seats is safe for the Nationals. None of those seats which they do not hold today (e.g. Orange, Wagga Wagga, Goulburn, even Ballina) is realistically within their grasp on 23 March.

The state director of the Nationals, Ross Cadell, is one of the best campaigners in Australian politics. He is down to earth but also highly sophisticated in all the dark arts of campaigning, and his dedication and skill in excising a Nazi cell from the Young Nationals is commendable. The fate of the NSW Nationals should be regarded as being despite his best efforts rather than because of them. If the Nationals hold half the NSW Legislative Assembly seats in 2019 that they won in 2015, it will be a massive success attributable largely to Cadell.

The Nationals are the weaker link in the NSW Coalition. Usually it's the Liberals who wax and wane with fickle urban seats, who get the big donations and have the more substantial ground game, who lead Coalition strategy overall and who therefore largely determine whether or not the Coalition governs the state, while the Nats simply hold their ground. Not this time, and it's why 2019 is different to your standard pendulum-swing job against the ALP.

The observer effect

The observer effect is a scientific theory that simply observing a situation or phenomenon changes the thing being observed.

In politics, media coverage can change a political situation, and the perceived need to respond to that coverage expands and even alters the political response to that situation. This section applies to both the coming NSW election, and for the coming federal election in regional NSW and beyond.

To be slightly fair to the press gallery (don't worry, I'll pass quickly over this) it is understandable that they should simply focus on overall polls and poo-pooh the idea that the Nationals are in trouble, given their strong vote at the last election. The decline of local journalism means there are no readily available means of judging whether or not a particular seat will not be the standard Nationals-Labor two-party-preferred runoff with the former trouncing the latter. If there is some local insurgency here or there, where's the proof? Show me the data! Give me some names!

When big, urban media companies took over small regional operations there were assurances that local issues would still be covered; those assurances are largely void. The lack of local media now means that national media are largely flying blind on local issues, and relying on their contacts in major parties who have every incentive to draw attention away from unfavourable results. It will mean, once again, that journalists using traditional methods will report on the election in ways that don't prepare voters for what is to happen after the election.

Local communities still have stalwart members involved for many years in local business, sporting, landcare and other community organisations. Those people will have been approached by the major parties because of their high reputations and name recognition, and for those same reasons the stalwarts will knock them back. The Nationals are so on the nose that such people will be under intense pressure to stand as independents, or as candidates for parties other than the Nationals, or even (where they are particularly desperate) by the Nationals themselves. The time is drawing near for such people to make up their minds.

Stalwart members of local communities have much to lose from a tilt at parliament. Being seen to reach beyond your grasp is seen as commendable among seasoned political operatives (our current PM is prominent, but far from the only, proof of this). In regional communities it can lead to loss of reputation: where the business community is intertwined with the Nationals, this can damage people economically and socially. Getting ahead of oneself is poison in regional Australia. While there are those who jeer at the taxpayer-funded sexual incontinence of Barnaby Joyce or Andrew Broad, there are others who feel sorry for them and despise piling-on.

The time is fast approaching for candidates to declare themselves, raise money, and execute a successful election strategy. Political journalists used to dealing with established political machines underestimate how hard it is to build one from scratch. Just as you don't quickly knock up a fully-functioning hospital if you become seriously ill, so too you don't just build a political operation just because you turned the tap one day and nothing came out. Part of the process these people are taking toward making up their mind to run involves not engaging the media until they have a declaration to make. Journalists and pollsters understandably omit those they do not know to be candidates. Both place undue emphasis on the results of the (very different) last election, so when they look for what's different now, they start from a long way behind.

After everything that's happened, there are still hard-working, well-regarded Nationals MPs. The trick for those to oppose them will be to prise their hands off the levers of parliamentary representation firmly, gently, and with sympathy. Note how Cathy McGowan went after Sophie Mirabella in 2013: McGowan could have gone in harder against the widely disliked Mirabella, but it would almost certainly have rebounded on her. Some of the duller journalists assigned to rural seats in the NSW and Federal election will be hunting for argy-bargy, but the smarter candidates won't give it to them and so the journalists concerned will miss the story.

Journalists will absolutely suck at covering the shift away from the Nationals in regional seats. Honourable exception to Gabrielle Chan, but she can't cover every corner of regional NSW or Australia and shouldn't be expected to.

The ingredients of a good message

In the standard narrative of political swings, the Coalition had a massive swing in 2011, then a more modest victory in 2015, and now Gladys Berejiklian should lead the Coalition to a technical win in 2019. I've already said why that won't happen, but I think the people surrounding the Premier aren't doing her - or themselves - any favours.

Labor's Luke Foley showed himself to be a weak leader, long before his sexual incontinence came to light. Berejiklian was entitled to believe she had his measure. By contrast, new Opposition Leader Michael Daley is tough and succinct in putting Labor's case, invoking long-serving former NSW Premier Neville Wran.

In this piece, Deborah Snow and Alexandra Smith cut to the quick:
Berejiklian does have the ingredients of a good message to craft for voters, her closest supporters insist. The state’s budget is in enviable good health, there is $80 billion of infrastructure being built, and NSW has the lowest jobless rate at 4.4 per cent.

But there is a counter narrative building as well: congestion, overdevelopment and the rising cost of living, a perceived tone-deafness on the part of a government too driven by a quest for deals with the private sector, and a lack of coherence around strategy and vision.

The toxic state of the federal party is not helping and Labor’s exploitation of the state government’s commitment to spending $1.5 billion on demolishing and rebuilding Sydney Football Stadium at Moore Park and refurbishing Sydney Olympic Park at Homebush feeds the narrative that Macquarie Street is out of touch with the everyday concerns of ordinary people.
The conventional electoral pendulum for NSW is here. You may as well take the Coalition's most marginal half-dozen seats and give them away, as I said at the top of this post (happy to swap out Monaro for a Liberal bolter higher up the pendulum). Any perception that development policy is driven by developers will endanger Liberal seats like Drummoyne, Ryde, or Parramatta. The Coalition might limit its losses if it can articulate a vision for people involving increased density, but I bet it can't. Nowhere is such a vision in evidence in any particularly high-density community.

This is just poor journalism:
Her latest foray into population policy, suggesting the state should halve its migration intake, is also an “attempt to change gears” a senior Liberal admits. “If there is one person who can say we need less immigration and not look a racist, it has to be Gladys.”
Not just because of the anonymous quote, but this notion deserved more than just transcription and transmission. Gladys Berejiklian could not speak English when she started school. She resisted calls from senior Liberals to change her five-syllable surname. She is the classic immigrant success story, but this policy is an exercise in self-abnegation on her part.

Malcolm Turnbull's public persona was built on two policy areas: climate change mitigation and technology as a force for economic and social good. The Liberal right saddled him with policies that were anti-climate and an NBN policy that impeded technological advancement; they later denied him credit for marriage equality by forcing him through the cumbersome and damaging postal ballot. By abnegating him politically the right made it easier to get rid of Turnbull, and they are doing the same to Berejiklian now. If the Liberals have a leader who vindicates Australia's immigration program, that's an electoral and policy strength rather than something to be traded away for, um, what exactly?
But again, seasoned hands worry about the scatter-gun approach to messaging . “They are focusing on too much,” says one veteran. “Instead of your 20-point plan, just pick five, or six. They do need a game-changer on transport.”
Again with the anonymous quotes. Longterm governments expand their reach across government but often lose sight of the need to constantly justify their own existence against alternatives, particularly when their lived experience of their political opponents and rivals is as partners in compromise.

The way to have changed the game was to have done a ministerial cleanout before Christmas: ministers retiring at this election should have gone, the hapless Andrew Constance should have been punted (and a strong party would have made him justify his future with a suicide mission in Gilmore), replaced by fresh ministers hungry for a fresh go in their own right. This is how longterm governments like Labor in Queensland and South Australia, and the Liberals in WA under Colin Barnett, worked.

But how late it is, too late, for all of that. There are regional Liberals but the Nationals earn their place in the Coalition by keeping across regional issues like water rights. Daryl Maguire failed as MP for Wagga and wasn't replaced by another Liberal because he wasn't focused on anyone in the local area who wasn't a property developer, and now Niall Blair shows that nobody in the Coalition is holding the line on regional issues. The Berejiklian-Barilaro government is exposed in country and city as a government that can't make a case for its re-election, much as happened with the Howard-Vaile government in 2007 and the Fahey-Armstrong state government in 1995.

With the systematic failure of the Nationals though, mere disadvantage and defeat will be manifested as a rout. The Coalition will learn the wrong lessons, and teach them by repetition to the press gallery: never elect moderates, never extol high immigration and multiculturalism, never invest in infrastructure, and jack up the rhetoric on Laura Norder. This will condemn NSW to the political model we see in Queensland, with Labor at the centre and various ratbags (Hanson, Katter et al) orbiting them like space junk. Labor partisans would hope that it returns NSW to Labor's postwar dominance (1941-65), but without the postwar state-building imperative it just seems like some extended you-scratch-my-back exercise.

Mind you, I've been wrong before. The stale pas-de-deux of political campaigning and reporting might throw up something incredible. Maybe it will rain in February such to wash away not only the forecasts of meteorologists but any shortcomings in water management besides.

More likely though is that the NSW government had decided that climate change doesn't affect practical matters like the water supply. When Howard lost in 2007 climate change was still a talking point, and the political system and traditional media of the day allowed for "skepticism" or "agnosticism" on whether it even existed: climate denialism survives in federal politics today, a dozen years after Howard. In 2019 there are consequences for denial, and they include electoral oblivion.


Disclosure: I knew earlier versions of Ross Cadell, Gladys Berejiklian, and Andrew Constance as Young Liberals in the 1990s.

16 December 2018

Trust in God and man

It's not really work
It's just the power to charm
I'm still standing in the wind
But I never wave bye bye
But I try, I try ...


- David Bowie Modern love
Having blown his precious first Hundred Days to define himself and his government, Scott Morrison has finally found an issue to make his own.

Conservatism needs religion, and vice versa. Conservatism is the default form of government in overtly pious countries. In postwar Australia, the Coalition consistently won government when people felt obliged to put bums on pews; this was particularly true in Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland, the states with highest church attendance; it was less true in the other states where church attendance was traditionally lower.

The last time a conservative government in Australia put its relationship with religion to the test was in 1961. Before then, marriage legislation basically ratified weddings consecrated in what were then the three major Christian denominations: the Anglican, Catholic, and Presbyterian churches. The changing demographics of postwar Australia saw increased numbers of marriages in Orthodox churches and synagogues; the Marriage Act 1961 removed the primacy of churches and even allowed for civil ceremonies facilitated by public servants or registered celebrants. It allowed for adults to be married despite church rules limiting marriage, such as where one party was not of the same denomination as the celebrant.

Churches were livid at what they saw as the intrusion of the secular state into their core business. Prime Minister Menzies, a church-going Presbyterian, felt the full force of ecclesiastical displeasure. His government had a one-seat majority in the House thanks to a misjudged economic policy that resulted in a credit squeeze; nervous backbenchers fretted at the government being denounced from the pulpits to a significant proportion of voters.

The following year, Catholic schools in the Goulburn diocese near Canberra locked students out and sent children to the local overstretched state schools. Church schools had been able to employ ordained clergy or devout loyalists as teachers, but the growing professionalism of teaching combined with the increased importance of science meant church schools could not compete with public schools for quality of education. Menzies found a way to mollify the churches without backing down: he lavished money on church-run schools so they could expand at the same rate as government schools did at the time, in response to the postwar baby boom.
Science teachers at Riverview have a lot to answer for.
Image (c) ABC

The Menzies government was returned handsomely at the following election, and the enduring lessons learned by the Liberal Party were:
  • Never, ever piss off the churches;
  • Throwing money at church schools means Liberals win elections;
  • (go back to the first point above, and repeat until you forget why you even suggested taking on the churches in the first place)
Liberals have noticed declining church attendance as well as anyone, but for fifty years it had no discernible political impact. After the downfall of former Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingworth as Governor General(!) in 2003, Prime Minister Howard explored the possibility of a royal commission into church neglect and abuse of children; then Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell warned Howard off the idea, comparing the very idea to the church schism under Henry VIII. Prime Minister Rudd often gave press statements outside his Brisbane church on Sunday mornings. As recently as 2013, incoming Prime Minister Abbott proposed a parallel form of marriage with more obedience and less recourse to no-fault divorce, in line with church teachings.

All that changed last year.
Never gonna fall for
(Modern love) walks beside me
(Modern love) walks on by ...
The postal ballot on same-sex marriage remains an unmitigated defeat for conservatives. They deployed all the tricks that had worked in previous campaigns - water-muddying, slippery slopes, scare campaigns against "our children" - and they lost two-to-three-against. Only 17 of the 150 electorates in Australia voted against same-sex marriage, many in electorates which the Liberals have no realistic chance of winning.

When she resigned from the Turnbull government, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells cited the same-sex marriage debate as a grievance for conservatives without any indication of how better the government might have handled it. This helps those of us who were never impressed with her explain to those who didn't know her well (including the notoriously obtuse press gallery) why she should never have been appointed a minister in the first place.

That sense of failure was compounded by the rise of Scott Morrison instead of Dutton to replace Malcolm Turnbull in August. Once the polls hardened against Morrison, it was the conservatives - not nervous Nellies in marginal seats - who came out publicly against Morrison. Even after dumping her from the ministry, he had to answer the question that Fierravanti-Wells posed but could not answer: what do conservatives expect the government to do?

The British model of conservatism, centred on the Crown, died with Abbott's conferral of a knighthood upon Prince Phillip. Australian conservatives never really defended the move, initially passing it off as A Distraction From The Main Issues, then as Tony Being Tony, watching with horror as the most conservative Prime Minister ever began tanking before their eyes. The American model of conservatism, interspersing Christianism with big business as described by George Packer, persists as a potent role model for Australian conservatives, despite its inapplicability:
Taking away democratic rights — extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters — is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.
None of those remedies are available to Australian conservatives. US conservatives in the 21st century have consistently won elections by rallying their base against a broadly apathetic electorate, which doesn't work with compulsory voting in Australia. And yet, conservatives will go on SAD (Sky After Dark) virtue-signalling about The Base.

Morrison said that 70% of Australians are, however nominally, religious. The same people who maximise the reach of Australian religiosity when it suits them can constrict it: if you've ever heard the pejorative term "cafeteria Catholics", or if you've been jeered at for attending religious services at high holidays or for religious events surrounding birth, death, or marriage, you know not to trust this blithely proffered statistic. Religious freedom must be ecumenical: those most insistent on the sanctity of the confessional when crimes are confessed are most insistent that imams refer their parishioners to police at the merest hint of wrongdoing.
(Modern love) gets me to the church on time
(Church on time) terrifies me
(Church on time) makes me party
(Church on time) puts my trust in God and man ...
Politics is the art of the possible. So, in the context of contemporary Australian politics, and following the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse and Neglect, what is politically possible for the government to help religious organisations?


Never mind the Jewish voters of Wentworth. By process of elimination, we see that the recognition of "West Jerusalem" as the capital of Israel as the only feasible sop to Australian conservatives, who believe the decision will yield huge donations and other support from Australian conservatives as it has in the US. There is no large constituency that will punish the government for what might seem like a foreign policy technicality. Once again, we see Morrison as the answer to questions that simply never occur to anyone outside the Liberal Party.

People who understand foreign policy warned this government against its increasingly close ties with the current government of Israel. Now we see these ties have cost us closer relationships with Indonesia, a priority for successive governments since the 1960s. It has threatened Australia's relationships with other Muslim nations, who may use this country to express dissatisfaction with US policies at no cost to that country. Morrison has ignored the experts yet again. He ignored them for years over refugee conventions, and as I said earlier he has built his career on contempt for foreign policy.

The decision not to relocate the embassy "at this stage" is gutless, given the decision. Why would technocratic concerns about cost or propriety matter now that the decision has been taken? It might make sense as a sop to the Foreign Minister, Senator Marise Payne, who has never seemed comfortable with this decision - but only the press gallery have access to find this out, and they just aren't awake to the possibility of the Foreign Minister having a position that hasn't been announced.

Morrison has the gall to warn Australians overseas to watch out for reprisals. Part of the idea of Australian foreign policy is to safeguard Australians abroad. A government that knowingly makes a decision that imperils Australians abroad is failing a core duty to the nation and its citizens. Scott Morrison is personally liable for any Australian who cops so much as a slapped face over this decision.
(God and man) no confessions
(God and man) no religion
(God and man) don't believe in modern love
So, you just don't believe that Morrison is really that religious, or that a person's religion is a private matter that has no bearing on their public life. This is the position of the press gallery, which is so solicitous of politicians' private lives that when they burst out into the open like this they simply cannot cope. Morrison's religion is impeding his performance as Prime Minister, and disadvantaging the country, but they can't report on it because they dare not admit it.

But honestly, I hear you cry, the Liberals are just catspaws of the Business Council of Australia, and they are using this Jerusalem hoo-ha to detract from economic issues. Look to the past ten years or so and see how this relationship has broken down.

In 2004, when the Howard government secured both houses of parliament, the BCA pushed for changes to the workplace relations system that came to be known as WorkChoices. It dovetailed neatly with one of Howard's longterm obsessions, that working people could be pried away from the union movement to become independent contractors. As Howard's government fell apart, as policies failed and ministers failed and voters fell away, he doubled down on WorkChoices even as it became a rallying point for the wider labour movement.

The BCA continued to back the Liberals in pushing their policy agenda. In early 2010, as Abbott realised that he needed an economic policy platform to supplement his culture war and press gallery stunts, he went cap in hand to the BCA and they gave him their agenda, which the press gallery noted but failed to scrutinise. The 2014 budget was the result, where Liberal politicians were forced to sell the unsellable. Turnbull continued the industrial relations agenda and cut taxes, but Morrison has less flexibility and less goodwill than Turnbull had.

The BCA has an essentially unsellable policy agenda, and Labor will give them scraps off their table; this is more than they can expect from the hapless Morrison government. The more Morrison's government unravels, the more he will double down on Jerusalem. It will become his white whale, as WorkChoices was for Howard. If you want a politician to Stand For Things, to Show Us What He's Made Of - if you see politics as a performance art, like the press gallery do - then you have to allow for some individual politicians to be weird or irrelevant. The Morrison government is weird and irrelevant, hemmed in by its limitations on economic and climate policy (and energy policy, the point where these two imperatives intersect), by the US model of conservatism, and a general lack of both verve and imagination.

Morrison looked like going out dithering, putting out spot fires while having the whole show collapses around him. That's one model for losing government; this is what happened to Labor federally in 2013, to NSW Labor in 2011 and in South Australia earlier this year, and to the last (ever?) Liberal-Nationals government in Victoria four years ago. Now he's going down in what none but Liberals regard as a blaze of glory. Note that those who share both his fixation and his limitations won't thank him once the hurlyburly's done.

02 December 2018

Enough, enough, enough

Our Prime Minister knows the big challenges facing the country in our time are beyond him.

The vital early period of his term is over: he is not asking what you can do for your country, nor proclaiming excitement and disruption, nor bringing together unelected stakeholders for summits. The first hundred days is the same as the next hundred days, and the hundred days after that: culture war stuff, picking on transgender kids, visiting drought-stricken country while bagging environmentalists, proclaiming his faith - headline-grabbing but insubstantial. He will demonstrate once and for all the electoral futility of focusing on culture war while big and significant issues go begging.

When you ask people what they remember about the Whitlam government, they usually rattle off something from the duumvirate of December 1972: recognising the People's Republic of China, say, or ending prosecution of draft resisters, or sanctions against apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, achieved a lot without putting legislation to parliament. The House of Representatives had been elected on 2 December but had not been convened while these administrative arrangements were put in place. This then set the context for Labor's caucus to convene and elect ministers, who would then put legislation for more substantial reforms through parliament.

Morrison is in the opposite position. The failure of tax cuts, the strange idea that a Liberal government would punish energy companies for making profits, and the outcome of the Wentworth byelection demonstrate that the legislative agenda of this government is over. A government needs to be able to negotiate with the formal opposition, but the Abbott-Dutton tendency are paranoid about catching Labor germs. The minor parties offer small achievements that go against the government's agenda (e.g. banning live animal exports or ending mandatory detention), a time-suck for a government running out of time. The agenda of his government, insofar as it has one, is administrative and petty: toying with asylum-seekers, a 'pub test' for academic research, outsourcing Centrelink.

The party man

Morrison did not attempt to be the big man on campus at UNSW, like Turnbull or Abbott had at Sydney University. Instead, he sought out Bruce Baird as a mentor: Baird was then the NSW Transport and Tourism Minister, and on his staff at the time were Barry O'Farrell, Mitch Fifield, and Ross Cameron. Morrison was found a policy role at the Property Council, where he would have learned how to lobby and how to do just enough research to make your proposal look plausible.

He later became NSW State Director of the Liberal Party. At a time when the moderates and the right were starting to carve up the party between them, he shut down a rich ecosystem of members beholden to neither faction, and thus regarded as troublemakers by both. Both factions worked with him but neither fully trusted him.

Morrison then went onto tourism jobs in New Zealand and Australia. When Bruce Baird went to Canberra as Member for Cook, he believed Howard would promote him to ministerial rank. Instead, Howard appointed as ministers other backbenchers he had been deliberately ignoring, but who became leading lights in the successive Coalition government: Pyne, Brandis, Dutton. Had Baird joined their ranks, Australian political history might have been slightly different. Certainly, Morrison might have enjoyed more support in Canberra than he did when Fran Bailey sacked him.

Morrison is entirely a creature of the Liberal Party but has no capacity to shape it. John Howard had been a party activist since he was 17, but when he became leader in 1995 he was able to reshape the entire party in his image. None of those who followed him had either that depth of understanding, nor the clout to make the party pivot around him. Nelson didn't. Abbott lacks Turnbull's wealth and breadth but is shaped more profoundly by sixth-century Catholicism than by the Liberal Party. Morrison, like Rudd, is only there until the factions unite and cast him off.

Morrison has lived the narrow political life Turnbull studiously avoided, which may explain some of the disdain the former prime minister shows toward the incumbent. If Simon Crean or Alexander Downer had become PM, they might have been like Morrison is now: transactional, cliche-ridden to the point of being a cliche himself.

Towke

If ever there was a clear example that Lebanese males in their vast numbers not only hate our country and our heritage, this was it. They simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that's taken them in.
- Alan Jones, 2GB, 28 April 2005
Michel Taouk wanted to exercise political power. His politics were to the right of Australian politics' main right-of-centre party, but several active members of that party assured him they could help him.

The NSW Liberal right at the time was led by David Clarke, who was appalled at swarthy types and demanded they Anglicise or "de-wog" to meet his approval: Concetta Fierravanti-Wells smothered herself in pancake makeup and insisted on being called Mrs Connie Wells. Michel Taouk became Michael Towke, and stuffed Liberal branches in the Sutherland Shire with goons who couldn't sign their own membership forms or pay party dues.

Morrison shored up the outgoing member for the area, his old mentor Bruce Baird (much he same as he had with Turnbull in August), then set about undoing Towke's work on local branches. When Towke beat Morrison, Morrison worked to have the result reversed with far-right stackers weeded out. Reversing a branch-stack is highly complicated work and requires a high degree of political sophistication, cleverness and toughness. It is unlikely that the Liberal Party today could hold off a right-wing insurgency like that. It is a proven fact that the Nationals couldn't.

Morrison deserves credit for outmaneuvering Towke. Firstly, the end of outmaneuvering a right-winger almost always justifies the means. Second, political success involves beating

Had Towke's victory been allowed to stand he would now be a minister in the Dutton government, or he would have gone the way of former Queensland MP Michael Johnson. People who use Towke as a stick to beat Morrison do so on the following assumptions:
  • Nobody could be a nastier, further-right politician than Scott Morrison, and
  • This article can and should be taken at face value.
Firstly, Morrison is a vicious right-wing thug or he's an ineffective duffer: he can't be both. Second, the journalist who wrote that article, Paul Sheehan, is what happens when you give traditional media more resources than they enjoy today. He wrote a number of apocalyptic if-blood-should-stain-the-wattle books predicting and tacitly endorsing right-wing violence in Australian politics. All I can say to those people taken in by the Sheehan article is, have a swig of Magic Water and be careful about believing articles that you wish were true.

Secrecy

Morrison started his career as a lobbyist. Being a lobbyist relies very little on media exposure to be effective. Lobbyists walk straight past press gallery journalists day after day on their way to meet with politicians to make significant decisions that affect us all: if press gallery actually contained journalists, they would intercept the lobbyists and ask them questions, refusing to be fobbed of by non-answers in pursuit of the public's right to know. In reality, press gallery just sit there waiting to be approached.

Everyone who has ever become Prime Minister has courted the media to some extent. Deakin, Scullin, Curtin, Abbott, and Turnbull had been journalists and learned the tricks from inside that trade. Morrison has actively courted the media less than any of them, except for those that only ever sought to act as caretakers (Forde, and Country Party PMs Fadden, Page, and McEwen). He has worked his way up and through the Liberal Party, with no media exposure beyond The St George and Sutherland Shire Leader or the odd, quickly passed story in national media on his tourism shenanigans.

For all those comparing Morrison's evasive interview answers to Trump, look at his performances as Shadow Immigration Minister. Morrison developed a line and plugged it, and plugged it and plugged it. In opposition he could (and did) dodge questions about his own position, or that of the Coalition. In the same way that journalists love capturing an unscripted remark and make the departure from scripted lines the story, so too those who are interviewed often relish pumping their lines out and avoiding unscripted questions. He simply talked over Leigh Sales until she learned not to push him for information. By renting a house he smashed the whole concept of, and conceits behind, Annabel Crabb's Kitchen Cabinet. Morrison has made an art form of dodging answers. He did this before Trump, dodging answers has got him where he is today, and he isn't changing.

The only time that mask slipped was when he admitted to David Speers that putting children into offshore detention caused him to weep and pray. This had the capacity to fracture the whole self-image he had built up, as both a tough guy and fair at the same time (after all, mandatory offshore detention is bipartisan, and the press gallery thinks the ship of state is bipartisan-ship). Advocates of offshore detention thought he showed weakness of resolve. Supporters of ending mandatory detention hoped to use his humanity to confront the idea of ending the practice. No journalist pressed him on this: he put up the facade by resolving to cut immigration, playing along with Matthew Guy's doomed law-and-order strategy, and even if he were pressed he would dodge the issue.

Right Ho, Fink

Before there was South Park, there was Yaron Finkelstein. As a student at UNSW he saw people throw themselves passionately into various pursuits, and he thought they were risible. I only saw him care to the point of stone-faced seriousness on two occasions: when performing volunteer labour for Keith Windschuttle, who had schooled him in the arts of copywriting, and on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister whose death effectively ended the two-state solution and gave rise to Binyamin Netanyahu.

Imagine my surprise to see Finkelstein photographed in a shadowy way and described accordingly by Michael Sainsbury:
“An avid practitioner of the edict that political operatives should be rarely seen and never heard, Finkelstein has flown under the radar in politics for some time. This, however, has not impeded him in becoming one of the top campaign operatives in the country,” according to a bio on the website of lobbying firm Advoc8.
It is a false dichotomy that one cannot pursue a career in politics without the media quoting your every word and putting your name to it; Morrison knows that and so does Finkelstein. The only people who don't know are the press gallery and others who don't understand politics.

Yaron Finkelstein has spent his entire life in Wentworth, and if you don't understand the politics of your own backyard then how good are you really? It is nonsense that the Liberals are shrugging off the loss of Wentworth, because when a party fails in relatively safe seat then it fails all round. Whether it's the byelections in Bass in 1975, Flinders in 1982, or Canberra in 1995, this is a byelection that clangs like impending doom.
Dave Sharma was an excellent candidate, almost certain to be a future cabinet minister, but he did not have a high profile. A high profile is not only useful in terms of name recognition by voters, it necessarily makes the candidate more likely to get national news coverage, which feeds back into the campaign.
Here we see the sheer poverty of a life spent in politics and media: nobody will vote for you if they don't know who you are. Sharma was kept away from public engagement because the Liberals feared unscripted encounters, and the more they double down on this the more they will shun votes. A dedication to the base is an exercise in seeing who exactly will keep voting Liberal in the face of this highly scripted crap.

It is snide to blame Finkelstein for the policy brainfart of moving the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Finkelstein could argue either side of that debate equally convincingly, as he might any position really. There is no sign of any policy nerds making up for Morrison's absence of policy, and if they did Finkelstein would snuff it out before Morrison got any ideas. This is a screensaver government. All sorts of stuff is going on behind the facade, but so long as there's a daily press conference the press gallery will never dig for them.

John Howard employed staff who compensated for abilities he didn't have. The triumvirate of Arthur Sinodinos, Tony Nutt and Graham Morris were different to each other and to Howard, but together they complemented Howard and made a formidable team. By employing Finkelstein, Morrison has entrenched his worst aspects (flippancy, disdain for policy detail) and failed to compensate for his manifold shortcomings.

Very foreign policy

Scott Morrison does not give any sort of fuck about foreign policy, and you can't make him. His political career began in earnest trashing various international protocols on refugees. Denunciations from foreign media and multinational organisations made not a whit of difference or were flung into the culture-war mill.

Treasurers get an appreciation of the wider world - we saw this in Keating and Swan, but not Morrison. Turnbull had planned to go to the South Pacific Leaders' Forum at the end of August, and when Morrison took over he simply didn't go. Japan's Prime Minister Abe gave Morrison a lesson in tact at the commemorations in Darwin, which Morrison has almost certainly missed (watch Morrison at the next wreath-laying speech-giving ceremony to honour The Fallen, and see if he doesn't behave like an oaf trying to accept Best & Fairest at footy club trophy night). At the APEC summit Morrison sat there without headphones: leaders of mighty nations tuned into translators to hear from other leaders, but not our current Prime Minister. They must know he won't be at the next one, he does too and doesn't give a damn, so how many opportunities go begging for the nation as a result is hard to quantify - but it is probably more than the bugger-all assessed by the Prime Minister. At the G20 he is a tourist, not building in any way on recent low-profile work by Julie Bishop and DFAT in improving relations with Latin America.

Say what you will about Turnbull, but he could play a Prime Minister on television. That stuff matters less than Julie Bishop thinks it did, but more than Morrison and Finkelstein ("Merkel? How many points in Newspoll is she good for?") can imagine. All Morrison has done is lower the bar for Shorten to scale on his way to press gallery endorsement as Prime Ministerial.

Jakarta, Jerusalem and junk analysis

Toward the end of World War Two Australian troops were shunted off to clear Japanese forces out of the Dutch East Indies while US forces powered toward Japan. Australians regarded themselves as sidelined. In 1945 striking dockworkers in Melbourne inhibited the restoration of Dutch colonial rule, helping the Indonesian nation come into being and in turn compelling the Chifley government to recognise the new nation of Indonesia. In the 1960s Australian policymakers came to recognise Indonesia was a growing power economically and militarily; despite fifty years of appalling corruption that commitment to dialogue and ever closer relationships continued, with military and currency agreements already in place, and had begun to bear fruit as a limited but promising free trade agreement.

All Morrison has to do to make that agreement happen is to junk a symbolic commitment to moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He can't though, because the Liberal right need a win. The Liberal right were denied Dutton as leader, and are facing a rollback of their beloved mandatory detention position. They failed utterly, and publicly, on marriage equality. The Liberal right hobbled Turnbull on climate change; Morrison is so happy to nobble himself on this policy that the right can't assert their influence by making him adopt a position with which he doesn't disagree.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the ankle bracelet that the Liberal right have clapped on Morrison. They expect him to scupper a deal over fifty years in the making to deliver a victory that the Liberal right can claim as their own. Pentacostal churches hold the Liberal Party together in WA and in parts of Queensland. In Victoria, Marcus Bastiaan mobilised fundamentalist Christian sects into joining the Liberal Party there, and even without him the party there is reaping the rewards for appealing to a base that is already within the party membership but scarcely evident beyond it.

I doubt that Morrison is particularly torn by the pentacostalist belief in bringing on the Rapture by fomenting divisions between the Israeli Jewish state and their Muslim neighbours. Moving an embassy to Jerusalem, recognising Israel as one state and not two with Palestine, is deliberately provocative and successive Australian governments have left the issue well alone. If you can accept that Tony Abbott is a committed Catholic, and yet after several years as Health Minister and PM abortion is practiced lawfully in public hospitals, then you can accept that this matter is relevant but not pressing for Morrison.

Even so, he lacks the wit and the clout to simply draw a line under this issue. Both the power dynamics within the Liberal Party (the right must be seen to have a win over the new Prime Minister) and Morrison's own professed faith (pentacostalist churches in the US strongly support Trump's relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem) explain why this seemingly unimportant issue cannot simply be shut down by the Prime Minister.

The reason why this experienced political journalist cannot fathom Morrison's position is because of press gallery niceties around political coverage: that Morrison's faith is a private matter (clearly it isn't), that everything is just grist to the mill of winning momentary advantage (er, not true either), and so the Liberal right must logically be in pursuit of votes not otherwise available to the Liberal Party (not true either, but telling an obvious truth means you miss out on juicy juicy drops).

In other words, the niceties of the press gallery are preventing the story from being communicated to the public.

As always, the press gallery move as a pack. Gone is the Annabelle Crabb notion where every lumbering manoeuvre and dull quip is fascinating, and everyone in Canberra is lovely once you get to know them (so please don't vote out my friends!). Now the pervasive mood is adolescent truculence, where everything and everyone is, like, soooo lame. The press gallery are trying to cultivate the impression that they're above this, that if there were some serious policy happening they would absolutely prefer to cover that than, uh, whatever it was Josh Frydenberg said about the thing.

The press gallery were a docile bunch when Keating fed them policy on a daily basis, and they are worse now. They have not become high-minded policy wonks and are not judging what politicians say against what people who know about policy say. The idea that they chafe against this government's backbiting and dithering and yearn for the broad expanses of, say, energy policy is obviously nonsense. When Shorten makes policy announcements they are roundly ignored in the gallery, so that when they are repeated at election time they can be covered in a thick layer of hype, and when rolled out as government policy the gallery will treat them with incredulity and rely on the new opposition to frame them.

There will be more on this later (soon, soon), but we are heading into a transitional moment where Labor occupies the centre of politics, doing the worthy work of government with limited room/imagination to innovate much, while various bits of jetsam orbit them to no or limited effect. The model here is Queensland, where Her Majesty's Official Opposition is indistinguishable from chancers and freaks like Hanson or Katter. The political system can adapt to deal with this.

The press gallery can't. It is built around balance and he-said-she-said, where every disagreement is argy-bargy and all water is muddied. There will be lots of colour-and-movement, which will be enough for the press gallery; but as ever they will offer little enlightenment about how we are governed and what the options are. Combined with the inherent weakness of media organisation management, and their insistence on elevating the non-stories of the press gallery in place of news, this means the press gallery is doomed in its current form. They will tell you this means democracy is doomed too, because democracy is a thing they own; this is crap too. We need information and we need to go around the press gallery to get it. If the political system can adapt so too can the population at large, and the press gallery can mark time until relieved.

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.

16 August 2018

Dead in the middle

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky ... Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

- Ernest Hemingway For whom the bell tolls
Turnbull is giving his all for a shemozzle of a compromise which will benefit nobody but him and Josh Frydenberg, and not very much even then. His predicament reminds me of the final days of centrist former NSW Labor Premier Morris Iemma a decade ago. Sillier press gallery observers claim that the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) puts Turnbull's fate in his own hands once more, but the opposite is true.

Why the NEG is a shemozzle

People who study this sort of thing agree that it is designed to give the appearance of solidity to a desperately unstable status quo. A national plan for a national problem that pleases nobody. The end result of a long and stupid process that put the one thing government can't deliver - lower power bills - at the centre of the debate. It will have no impact on carbon emissions. It is not worth doing, except as a political exercise, and the very emptiness of the political exercise has experienced commentators slavering when they should be sneering.

Iemma then ...

Morris Iemma succeeded Bob Carr as NSW Premier in 2005. He saw off two internal challengers in Craig Knowles and Carl Scully, and led Labor to victory in the 2007 election over a Liberal Party convulsed by a Christianist insurgency. Then it all went wrong, first gradually and then suddenly.

Iemma made the politically fatal error of departing from Carr's proven model for success: manage the daily spin cycle and forget big, long-term issues.

Increased public patronage of public transport strained aging infrastructure. You might think Labor would be good at public transport, and maybe in other jurisdictions they are, but not in NSW:
  • Jack Lang built one fucking bridge, and that was initiated by the conservatives (see below).
  • All those Labor Premiers from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s who look like they're sculpted from mashed potato bought some buses but did little else infrastructure-wise. One of them, Joe Cahill, actually used to work at the Eveleigh rail yards but is better known for his expressway and opera house.
  • Wran put colleagues he hated into that portfolio. He took credit for the risibly inadequate eastern suburbs rail line (including spiking the Woollahra station near his home) and blamed the Liberals for the Granville disaster. Even Bramstonian Labor history sucks admit transport was never a strong issue for him.
  • Carr excused his lack of action on transport on immigration. Insofar as laborism is a thing, anti-immigration is one of its worst aspects. Sydney-based journalists treat Carr as something of a sage, but on immigration and infrastructure he is pretty much Fraser Anning with some Proust shoved up his arse.
  • Right now, the NSW Opposition is furtively engaged in balancing its two historic imperatives in this area: doing absolutely nothing about what has not been done, and fucking up what has. It has a third, constant imperative, namely fooling the state's particularly dreadful press gallery (worse than the feds!). Whatever Labor takes to the March 2019 election in this area, it will be worse than what the Coalition is doing and offering. Labor voters will have to hold their noses when it comes to public transport; they have no right to hope for anything more than the completion of projects initiated by the incumbents.
Iemma, bless him, wanted to depart from all that. This put him offside with public transport unions, generally more militant than the state's right-wing, accommodationist union tradition.

He thought he could fund public transport upgrades by selling the state's electricity network. This had become a long-festering sore in NSW Labor: Carr had repeatedly made tentative moves in this area, only to realise that he couldn't solve it quickly, backed off, then repeated the whole thing a few news-cycles later. The state president of the Electrical Trades Union was also the party's state president, who with the secretary of the NSW Labor Council (now Unions NSW), John Robertson, led internal opposition to electricity privatisation. By the time Iemma faced the issue he could only either eschew it for all time or make it happen.

Following their loss in 2007 Barry O'Farrell had become leader of the Liberal Party, managing the implosion of the Christianists and uniting the party on the state level as the Howard government declined and fell. O'Farrell had, as previous Liberal leaders had, pledged to privatise the electricity network; Iemma saw in him a man with whom he could do business. In April 2008, the world economy melted down but Morris Iemma was still seen as a man who could cut a big and complex deal in NSW.

When O'Farrell declined to support Iemma's privatisation proposals, the premier was exposed and so was his party. Iemma could not deliver on that issue nor unite it on any other. On 3 May the NSW ALP voted seven to one against electricity privatisation, a personal triumph for Robertson. Two days later Iemma was gone, and so were his electricity privatisation proposals. Later that year Robertson replaced Iemma's (and Carr's) Treasurer, Michael Egan, in state parliament: Paul Keating's letter of non-congratulation rings through the ages both as a summary of the politics of the time and as prescience for Robertson's career (and, potentially, that of current NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley).

… and Turnbull now

Those who ignore the lessons of history seem to have quite a nice time of it, breezing through life's ups and downs in all their apparent novelty. Those of us who have studied history become exasperated and the ignorance and lack of preparation, and whether we gently disagree or screech in protest we become part of the scenery past which the blithe and ignorant insouciantly glide.

Turnbull faces a united opposition under Bill Shorten, the significance of which is underestimated by a press gallery acutely alert to its absence. Turnbull's main internal opponent, Tony Abbott, has both the swashbuckling daring and sooky resentment of John Robertson, a potential leader who comes pre-tainted with strengths vastly overestimated by only the keenest partisans.

NEG has no significance as a policy. Nobody will invest a single dollar on the basis of its flimsy assumptions and unsustainable conclusions. It doesn't matter, and those in the press gallery who confused its passage through the party room with a real achievement should know better, and ought not be in the press gallery in the first place. It can safely be cut down or amended beyond recognition, with no loss to anyone but Turnbull and Frydenberg (and the latter will more likely survive than the former). It makes sense only as a talisman for Turnbull.

Shorten's support for the NEG is lukewarm and conditional, as we have seen from Labor leaders in other jurisdictions. He may have Labor vote to pass it now and amend it later. It is entirely possible that he would vote against NEG at the last minute - a protest if nobody from the Coalition votes with him, but a game-changer if they do.

At the 2016 election, the Liberal right actively undermined Turnbull. A decisive victory would have set them back and redefined what a Liberal government meant, departing from the template established by Howard. It could have forced old stagers like Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews from the parliament. Abetz masterminded a duff campaign in Tasmania that lost the Liberals a senator and three seats in the House. In the 2015 NSW election, former MP Jackie Kelly split the Liberal vote in the marginal seat of Penrith (within Lindsay) and preferenced Labor's Emma Husar. If Abbott and his Sancho Panza, Craig Kelly, were to cross the floor against NEG and meet a jubilant Labor caucus on the other side, it would represent a massive escalation of Liberal internal tensions for years to come. Labor has an anti-mythology for those who betrayed their party to the point where it lost office, those for whom "rat" is inadequate, but the Liberals don't.

Such a move would leave Turnbull stranded without being able to deliver on electricity policy and without much time to craft a new and credible alternative. It would leave him exposed as a leader who couldn't unite the party on anything else either, just as he is about to hit the median term of service as Prime Minister (15th out of 29), with few policy achievements to show for it.

Tony Abbott had three choices after he lost the Prime Ministership in 2015. He could have:
  • Retired; or
  • Shut up and joined the team, like Turnbull had during the 2010-13 term; Turnbull's loyalty helped cement the unity that was absent in Labor at the time, which in turn helped make the case for Coalition victory in 2013; or
  • Challenged Turnbull.
He hasn't taken the first two options: it's death-or-glory time. He invokes 2013 as though everyone but him hasn't moved on from there. If he starts referring to NEG as "a bad policy" the likely demise of this government becomes a certainty, regardless of the leadership.

One Coalition MP who has threatened to vote against Coalition policy is George Christensen. He has never done so, but has threatened to do so regularly. Abbott has been slightly more careful with his words but acted similarly with Christensen. If Abbott and Kelly are to vote down a signature Coalition policy, they will need at least some allies; it will be interesting to see how Christensen chooses.

If Shorten tried to split the Liberal Party in this fashion (particularly after the made-for-Ellinghausen moment of Frydenberg embracing Ed Husic), he would be seen as "playing politics" and a man whose word could not be trusted, particularly by stuffed shirts like Peter Hartcher. The retort to that is obvious: not only the example of Barry O'Farrell cited above, but also that of Malcolm Fraser, who had initially promised to help pass the 1975-76 budget and, six months after changing his mind, was in the Lodge with the biggest majority at any federal election.

It is possible that the Turnbull government will end in a pincer movement between Labor and Abbott-led insurgents. How likely it is takes you into a hall of mirrors and double-talk such that nobody really knows, and if the did they wouldn't tell you until after it happened.

A broken right wing

What's also at stake here is the future of the Liberal Party, which (as we have seen in right-wing meltdowns in South Africa, the US and UK) has broader implications for the operation of democratic systems. Some of you reading this might be Liberal partisans but most won't, so let me spell out why it matters from a perspective across Australia's political system.

The Liberal Party presents two potential futures, both to its members and supporters, and to those equally active political opponents who have to work around it.

One model for the Liberal Party is that it either bumbles along in government (unlikely), or goes into opposition hoping to form a credible alternative government (more likely but not certain). They might undergo the odd bit of relevance deprivation syndrome, even a bit of leadership ruction, but basically a Liberal-led opposition keeps a Labor government on its toes before eventually replacing it. This is the assumption underpinning the two-party system, and is based on much of our political history.

The other model is that it becomes an insurgency, sniping both at Labor governments and those Liberals looking for a calm, centristbipartisan return to office. This is the preferred model of Abbott, Dutton, Craig Kelly, George Christensen, Andrew Hastie and a few others, roaming across the landscape and striking real and imagined foes much like the partisan described in the Hemingway quote at the top of this article. The government says black, they say white. The government says yes, they say no. Right-wing rather than conservative. They ignore yearning for bipartisanship and figure every gripe with the new government can be turned to their advantage.

The Victorian division of the Liberal Party used to be a bulwark of the former model of the Liberal future, now it is firmly in favour of the latter. Reportage of that organisation, even by experienced commentators, is inadequate because they can only understand it as a departure from the Victorian tradition. Rarely if ever to they draw the dots to Liberal politics in NSW, Queensland or even Western Australia, from which the developments in Victoria make much more sense.

Consider the senior Victorian Liberals in the federal government, in no particular order: Kelly O'Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg, Dan Tehan, Alan Tudge. All of those people (some more conservative than others) will adhere to the idea that there's a responsible way to behave in government, and that getting (back) into government is something the Liberals should aim to do. All of them will be targeted by Abbott and his gang of lost boys, and what remains of the press gallery will love it. They will be puzzled that a party wishing only to become an insurgency will skew the country's politics, but they'll go galumphing helplessly after every partisan snipe the way a dog chases a rabbit, and then insist we listen to their sober analysis of, ah, whatever is next. Unless it is released late on Friday afternoon.

I used to wonder why the gallery loved Abbott's goofy stunts and hated Rudd and Gillard's wonkiness: now I realise, it's because Abbott is a moment-to-moment, no consequences operator, and so are they. Michelle Grattan was piling on Emma Husar as hard as anyone, and she's been in the gallery since before Husar was born. They are going to keep giving him fresh air and he's going to turn it into farts, those farts will puff the dandelions of their stories, he can't help it and neither can they.

Malcolm Turnbull does not have what it takes to knock Abbott out of Warringah: getting Craig Kelly out of Hughes will be hard enough, he'll run as an independent and preference Labor. By contrast, Shorten has already settled Labor preselections in Victoria, where the Liberals are refusing to preselect candidates until after their state election. If the Liberals were forced to a federal election by a Shorten-Abbott no-confidence motion, they would be forced into a hasty, unconvincing campaign with few resources: what Sir John Carrick called trying to fatten the pig on market day.

There should be more Queenslanders commenting on politics. Kevin Rudd, Clive Palmer, Bob Katter, Peter Dutton, and now this shithead Anning; all the seismic shocks that bamboozle federal politics come from there, and we need to hear from those who have seen these jokers coming rather than yet another theatre reviewer expressing their amazement.

Politics isn't just what happens in Canberra. That's why the press gallery can't understand the significance of party preselections and their impacts on decisions made in Canberra (the assumption behind the press gallery model is that decisions made in Canberra need to be explained to those beyond it, and they don't even do that well). They have focused on the non-story of the NEG in the hope that it might pump up the non-politician who occupies the highest political position in the land. Why they do that isn't clear. I don't know why they think it constitutes compelling content, but whatever their reason it must be really (and unintentionally) funny.

02 August 2018

How the press gallery killed Fairfax

The press gallery killed Fairfax and it will kill other traditional media organisations too. Traditional media organisations and major political parties will have to change the way they work in order to change the way politics and policy are covered, because neither will or can survive if you're content to let the press gallery keep on being the press gallery.

New readers might find the above alarmist and sensational. Regular readers will recognise it as a consistent theme of this blog. I am not trying to pour the old wine of press gallery inadequacy into the new bottles of the Fairfax takeover, and the recent coverage of federal politics and policy (well, I am, kind of, but if you read on the results more strongly support that than the idea that press gallery are just regular journos doing their best in a fast-moving world).

A reduction in diversity

In recent years there has been a trend away from diversity as a priority for media. This wasn't a result of last year's legislative changes; parliament mostly follows rather than leads public debate (and this pretty much discredits the "theatre critic" model of political coverage, but I digress).

The press gallery has led this with its governing principle that there can only ever be one story, and one narrative for reporting that story. John Howard couldn't be beaten, until the day he couldn't win. Kim Beazley was tomorrow's man, until he was yesterday's man. Barnaby Joyce was a top bloke, until he was a cad and an incompetent minister. They even boast about the conditions that create the samey-sameness of political coverage, and the inability to snap out of it; a magic land of sharing and caring, where what they think of as competition is the narcissism of minor differences.

(c) Hanna-Barbera
"Great yarn, mate! Top yarn!"

Press gallery output leads news bulletins, websites, and newspaper front pages. It mostly presents politicians' quotes without the context that might make their proposals work, or otherwise meaningful. It does not challenge their assertions, and represents any and all disagreement as "argy-bargy".

When the Walkley Awards for Australian journalism were inaugurated, there was no special category for he press gallery. Press gallery rely heavily on press releases for their stories; breaking stories about politics or policy issues, with in-depth investigation from original sources, tends to come from outside the gallery. Photographers and camera operators are more likely to hold their own in industry-nominated awards than press gallery are with proper other journalists. As a result, press gallery journalists really lifted their game lobbied for a special category only open to press gallery journalists.

While there have been reductions in press gallery numbers, they have been fewer and proportionally less than in the newsrooms. Press gallery tend to get paid better than other journalists. Now consider that these reductions have been compensated by new entrants to the press gallery, who have mostly hired press gallery veterans anyway, and the privilege of the press gallery is clear to all not within its walls. When journalists back in the newsrooms are downsized, Canberra press gallery send their thoughts and prayers in much the same way that Washington's NRA-funded legislators do with US mass shooting victims.

To get to the journalism practiced by Australia's traditional media, you have to push past press gallery output. Those who investigated dodgy financial advice practices made a real difference, and won awards too, but strangely they forgot to interview Senator Cormann who lobbied so hard for the legislative changes (among the first legislation passed by the Abbott government) that made those practices lawful. Those who investigated institutionalised child abuse and covering-up didn't bother chewing the cud of poll results. Newsroom journalists cop jeers from their peers and sneers from Media Watch for writing up product-launch press releases as news, while press gallery get away with it every day. Journalists who complained about government proposals to restrict information from government about its activities were not those who witnessed the legislation being debated and who rubbed, ah, shoulders with the perpetrators.

If traditional media outlets really believed that excellent journalism is what makes their outfit great, they would lead with it. If an editor pulling together the daily rushes finds that the single best gobbet of journalism before them is a piece about a football match, or the shoes that an actress wore to an awards ceremony, then that should go on the front page/top of the bulletin. The obscurity of inside pages should be the place for hackery: the accident blocking the busy road, the treasurer who declares opposition policy to be economically disastrous, etc.

They don't do that because they don't believe in journalism, not really. There's a formula and bad press gallery coverage is baked in. It's not news that the prime minister is criticised, but journalists can't tell whether or not the criticism is valid. They say that they'll let the reader/viewer decide, but the readers/viewers have increasingly turned off and I've decided press gallery is killing journalism.

When you talk about journalistic excellence at Fairfax, I talk about Kate McClymont, Schneiders/ McKenzie/ Baker, Michael Bachelard and Jewel Topsfield from Jakarta, Adele Ferguson or Neil Chenoweth or Michael West from the business pages, Caroline Wilson and Jacqueline Magnay from sport, and perishingly few others. None of those people are/were press gallery. Their press gallery contingent isn't worth their own weight in press releases. Whether it's the blowhard Peter Hartcher, the Owned Boys Phil Coorey, Mark Kenny or (admit it) Michael Gordon, or the prim process-over-outcome focus of Michelle Grattan, it's time to admit that Fairfax didn't put their best into the press gallery, and that the nongs they did put there have done the business no favours.

For all the fretting about Nine diminishing Fairfax journalism, the fact is Lane Calcutt's just-the-facts approach runs rings around the entire Fairfax contingent. When press gallery veteran Greg Hywood was appointed Fairfax CEO in 2011 his appointment was universally praised within the media: hooray, a real journalist, they cried as one, when his greatest investigative skill was getting on the dripfeed from Keating's office. Hiding their journalistic light under the bushel of press gallery output was one of Fairfax's biggest mistakes. NewsCorp do the same thing, with inane press gallery compounded by a further layer of cold grey drizzle of culture warriors that ward off all but the most intrepid seekers after journalism who might venture there. They will face a similar reckoning once the old man dies.

The choices we make

The press gallery, through its easily gamed One Story One Narrative policy, decided in Fairfax's final week that there would be two stories:
  • the byelections of 28 July, of which Our Malcolm would win at least one because #balance, and
  • Emma Husar
Taking the second first: I've worked for some crap bosses and I'm glad I never worked for Emma Husar. That said, in the great annals of graft and bludging in Australian politics, Husar's dog-walking and child-minding simply do not rate. And the more experience you have observing politics, the less excuse you have for slavering over every twist-and-turn in this non-story, the less credibility you have when you claim you'd love to do Serious Journalism, oh my goodness did you see what Emma Husar just did ...? Press gallery who disdained going after Barnaby Joyce (and who still regard his story as a sex scandal rather than rorting or policy incompetence) are hogwild for all things Husar.

Emma Husar's domestic incompetence recalls Queensland Labor MP Leanne Donaldson. Another unmarried mother who became a Labor MP, Donaldson hit the headlines for antics like driving a car while unregistered and not paying council rates. Anastacia Palaszczuk sacked her from the ministry and at the last state election, Donaldson lost her seat. Donaldson has spoken of her struggle with depression, and Husar may yet do likewise; but while two anecdotes do not form a pattern, it might be worth investigating whether political parties could do more to support women in politics, and that such support might be the necessary price for all that easy talk about attracting more women to public office.

In the Coalition, unmarried women are all but excluded by dint of sexism. What those parties lose in crushing the aspirations of capable young women and appealing to a broader constituency, they save themselves the embarrassment of a Husar or a Donaldson. Those women who break that rule (e.g. Marise Payne, Gladys Berejiklian, Julie Bishop) spent decades studying the factional tectonics of the party and leveraged it with overwhelming support, overriding any objections about their domestic circumstances. Bronwyn Bishop only ran for preselection after her children were adults and her marriage ended: her far-right constituency would never have backed her if her husband and children were an issue, or had she never married at all. The key is to attract candidates who aren't fixtures of the party landscape and to give them an inkling that they just might have a chance, but that key turns no lock in the Coalition. They'll endorse a man at face value but won't consider a woman they don't know intimately.

Husar isn't a member of the government. In two of the four byelections on 28 July (the two seats where the main competition came from strong Liberal candidates), the Labor candidates were women. The clear implication of the Murdoch jihad against Husar is that those candidates are just like her: a vote for the Labor woman is a vote for Gillard/Jordan Peterson chaos. As it happens, those two women are headed back to Canberra, and it is entirely possible that Husar won't. She might become another victim of a brutal system, she might lash out at her entire party and the journalists. She hasn't entered Lindy Chamberlain territory for weird and prurient media coverage, but you can see it from here.

Protesting too much

Paul Keating called Nine a lowbrow outfit. While it's hard to disagree, and hard not to welcome back an original voice into the mealy-mouthed dialogue of today, he protests too much.

When Keating was at the top of Australian politics, Nine's Sunday program was consistently excellent journalism, of a standard unknown in Australia's traditional media today. Its investigative pieces with Ross Coulthart gave Four Corners a run for its money. While Keating had the measure of most in the press gallery at the time, if anyone was going to knock him off his game it would be Laurie Oakes. In 1993, when Kerry Packer realised what Hewson's GST proposal would do to his profit margins, he sooled Nine onto the Liberals and helped Keating to his only victory as Labor leader.

Keating is the second-last Labor leader (excepting the brief summer of Rudd in 2007-8) to get anything like a fair run in the Murdoch press. Murdoch's voice was consistent throughout his organisation but that voice did not set the news agenda like it does today, thanks to Keating allowing Murdoch to take over the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987. NewsCorp definitely is a lowbrow outfit, proudly so, and don't get me started on 10 or 7 (though again, Mark Riley > the entire Fairfax press gallery contingent). Keating was wrong to play up the mote in Nine's eye to the extent that he did.

That said, Nine will quash the delicate flower of Fairfax journalism through dumbness ("what do you need that for?") rather than spite.

How late it was, how late

Both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age were founding members of the press gallery. Before it existed, both papers led debates about whether a federal parliament should even exist, and in what form; but all parliamentary buildings in this country were built with a press gallery pre-installed, including all three that housed the federal parliament. Press gallery do not have to forage for stories like real journalists do; how this must gall sacked journalists who have to forage for an income once the traditional media paycheque is, despite their best efforts, yanked away.
Here’s a point I’m absolutely willing to concede. We spend too much time with theatre criticism … and not enough time burrowing down into the issues on which voters make their choices.
- Katharine Murphy, Political Editor, Guardian Australia
on ABC Insiders 29 July 2018
Murphy did not arrive at that concession by herself. On this blog and in my Twitter feed, I and many, many others hammered Murphy for years until all her other options fell away. Murphy does not operate from any sort of elevated place from which addressing actual policy issues might be considered a descent. Her recent work on electricity has been impressive, and the constraints on journalist numbers is worth mentioning, but it's still too much to expect this Fairfax veteran of the press gallery to become a full journalist. Press gallery play at journalism from time to time - now it's electricity, now foreign policy, now school funding - but soon enough it slumps back into the One Story One Narrative of polls and intrigues, real and imagined. Apart from the equally hopeless Barrie Cassidy, nobody else in the press gallery is even awake to the sheer enormity of the problem they have caused their fellow journalists.

I laughed when Tony Wright threatened to cover the coming election with the same dreary template the traditional media applies to all election coverage: more readers looking for answers and finding only cliches, more media executives wondering why punters aren't lapping up the argy-bargy and bleating about disenchantment. The joke's on you, fella. We can't vote you out, and the choices we make at elections are not foretold by polls, but by layers of yarns and narratives from the press gallery.

We are badly informed about politics and policy, and a people in that predicament can never be well governed. Press gallery overestimate their own cleverness by dumbing down debate to a level that makes them comfortable. They see journalists depart from the home offices and never accept their own role in creating a media environment that makes acts of journalism more random, and as far as possible from wherever they are. You'll note that among the journalist positions whittled away were the actual arts critics - theatre, film, and music critics, book critics - and yet press gallery cannot be dissuaded or deterred from covering parliament like Australia's best subsidised and lamest theatre complex.

Bad political journalism makes the country governed badly and kills good jobs in journalism. Despite all the evidence, I'm still not convinced that bad political journalism is the only coverage of policy and public affairs possible - but I've been wrong before.