08 September 2020

The three-body problem

When one major party is in government in Australia, the most significant figure of the opposing party is usually the opposition leader.

If that's not the case, the most significant figure in the opposing party (and hence the biggest threat to the prime minister and the incumbent government) is almost always another member of the opposition in federal parliament: there's a challenge, the most powerful member of the opposition becomes opposition leader and takes on the prime minister. This is what happened with Labor when Kevin Rudd knocked off Kim Beazley in 2006, and to the Liberals in opposition when first Turnbull knocked off Brendan Nelson, then Abbott Turnbull.

Over the past ten years or so, the most potent threat to the incumbent prime minister has been another member of the government. Rudd and Gillard knocked one another off, Turnbull had his revenge on Abbott and Morrison knocked off Turnbull. Even now, it's most likely that Morrison's prime ministership will end at the hands of Dutton, Frydenberg, or another Liberal rather than being defeated at the ballot box by the ALP.

In the last couple of months we've seen the re-emergence of a different dynamic in politics, one not seen since the late 1970s and hard for observers to fully describe then as now.

NEGligible

It was 9Fairfax who got off on the wrong foot at the end of last month, with Rob (Another Win For The Government) Harris and David Crowe falling over themselves to pump up Josh Frydenberg. In the tradition of media diversity in this country, both tried to present Frydenberg as the kind of titanic political figure who could soar high o'er the landscape of squabbling party branches and Sort Them Out, in ways not really understood by those who can only see politics as something that happens in Canberra.

Frydenberg debunked this almost immediately, not with the usual kabuki of downplaying his ambitions and reiterating his fealty to the leader, but by lowering himself to the standard set by the Victorian state opposition. State Liberal MPs have criticised Victoria's Labor Premier, Daniel Andrews, as being both too hard and too soft in response to COVID19, but always criticising, following rather than leading content in NewsCorp coverage. When Frydenberg followed suit, he lost any authority that might have come from his position as Treasurer or as Victoria's most senior Liberal in federal politics. He joined their yappy daily chorus that calls to mind those that follow a postie dutifully delivering letters along a street, irritating the resident dogs but getting the job done regardless.

Before he entered parliament, Josh Frydenberg had a regular column in The Age about The Great Issues Of Our Day which were, it must be said, bereft of vision and fresh thinking. The early days of this blog cut its teeth on the staleness of his prose and thinking. Frydenberg has taken these qualities forward into government: his handling of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) was so bad that nobody knows what it is or what it guarantees. Such a balls-up should have ended his career, not that of the Prime Minister.

For almost forty years the Treasurer has not been some titanic figure crafting he economy in his bare hands. Keating pretended he was just as he was dismantling his own power to do so, with privatisations and outsourcings. The role has not quite been dumbed down to the point where Frydenberg can take it on. There are moments when he looks out of his depth, moments the press gallery might find humanising, but where he never quite takes us into his confidence in rebuilding the economy together. As a politican he is someone else's delivery unit, not a man of the people, and the press gallery should stop trying to package him for our delectation.

Frydenberg's bleats about Reagan and Thatcher revealed his shortcomings rather than buttressing his strengths. Reagan and Thatcher reinvented conservatism and harnessed it to neoliberalism. Conservatism needs to be anchored to its time in order to succeed politically; neither Frydenberg himself, nor Morrison, nor Reagan and Thatcher's successors in Trump and Johnson, have succeeded in crafting conservative answers to the challenges of this time. Only Angela Merkel gives a hint of what might be possible, but if you're an ambitious young Liberal are you going to go to Berlin or strike out for the suburbs and become a sub-factional playa?

I get that Frydenberg keeps in constant contact with the press gallery and makes them feel less lonely. Surely they can see through him as yet another smarmy git who isn't particularly fast on his feet, who is getting outplayed by Michael Sukkar (never mind Jim Chalmers or Albanese or Andrews). Frydenberg might be a foil for Dutton if Morrison really starts to tank, but he is mostly the kind of healer that the Liberals tend to elect as opposition leader following a loss.

The faith-based press gallery coverage of Frydenberg is stupid, but you won't change them.

Smirks and wedges

With a piecemeal economic strategy geared around corporate handouts (a strategy that would have prevailed regardless of COVID19, if we're to be honest here), Frydenberg has no alternative course to chart for the government than Morrison's game of smirks and wedges. Morrison ignored expert advice around the fires last summer and was caned for it; he hewed closely, if imperfectly, to expert advice on COVID19 early in the year and received the warm but fleeting rewards of mid-term political popularity. He couldn't keep it up, though. His disdain of experts on matters outside politics (he might jeer at a contract tracer's projections, and as Treasurer would not hesistate to trash unflattering economic forecasts - but he would never do likewise to, say, polling by Crosby|Textor) was too strong.

If he could wedge Labor in parliament, Morrison assumed that he could do likewise to Andrews, Palaszczuk, and McGowan; all three reaped the political rewards in their home states, and Morrison lost his (even with strong media support from Murdoch and Stokes). Howard showed that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing to have Labor governments at state level, and Morrison has shown himself ambivalent to the fates of his state colleagues. This has done two things detrimental to Morrison and his government: it has created openings in those states for federal Labor, and it has created a substantial leader for Labor in Daniel Andrews.

Morrison has overestimated how clever he has been in shutting down Labor in federal parliament, moving that Albanese not be heard on major public debates (denying him the oxygen Abbott got after almost every Question Time). Morrison sits with his back to the Opposition, slumped like a bag of garbage too late for the council pickup. There will come a time when he will feel compelled to get voters excited about re-electing the Coalition to government: he will find this difficult, not because of any Albanese masterstroke, and not because of any fourth-term juju invented by the press gallery, but because he is showing us a man not rising to the occasion of national leadership but shrinking before it.

The "sports rorts" affair has all the makings of the slow, corrosive scandal that kills governments and stops people listening to new initiatives. The same has not yet happened with water trading and Angus Taylor, but this could change if significant independent candidates stand in Murray-Darling basin seats that ought not be marginal for the Coalition, and which could pose an existential threat to the Nationals. Morrison has stood by Richard Colbeck far longer than any PM in recent years would have tolerated system failure resulting in many Australians dying. Colbeck is a decent man utterly out of his depth in a life-and-death crisis, because among the other careerist hacks assembled behind him nobody is going to step up into a role that will end the political career of anyone who goes near it - possibly including Labor's Julie Collins, the putative minister in the next Labor government.

Traditional media in an unconventional time

The NewsCorp response to the Morrison government's aged care failures has been interesting. They have tried to pin it on Andrews but this isn't even working in Victoria, let alone outside it. Simon Benson and his editors are not pretending that only politically-correct elites care about this. Janet al-Brechtsen and Timb Lair have uncharacteristically refrained from referring to frail elderly nursing home residents as 'bedwetters'. The government has been in office for seven years, for 18 of the past 24 years; it is not a new issue, and nor is it good enough to insist all normal checking and procedures have been followed. Labor's mild responses cannot be, and are not, framed as mad extravagant socialism.

The ABC's focus is also interesting. Hospitality is a big employer in Melbourne and in much of regional Victoria. For those of us beyond Victoria, hospitality and tourism are part of the lens through which we view and understand the place. The ABC's focus on devastated hospitality business owners helps the framing of COVID19 not as a life-threatening virus, but as a pretext for Dictator Dan to stomp on people's hopes and dreams.

Progressive projects have been scuttled when people are persuaded that the problem(s) they set out to solve aren't real, or aren't pressing. Progressives appalled at the wreckage of the policy agendas of Whitlam, Keating or Gillard acknowledge through clenched teeth that conservatives were effective in bringing them down. Only when those problems show themselves to be real and enduring, and when Labor has answers to those issues and the conservatives don't, does a once-in-a-generation political window open for progressives.

9Fairfax and 7West have largely offered watered-down versions of the Murdoch line, but where mawkish sympathy for victims of the disease does not translate to appreciation of public health efforts by anyone above frontline nurses. So much for 'go woke, go broke', or even media diversity.

People are stuck at home, and traditional media can't make money in this market. Maybe they're just no good.

The kitchen sink

There are 151 seats in the House of Representatives, the Coalition have 77 and the ALP 68. Morrison has made the wrong calls and Labor the right ones in Victoria, WA and Queensland. In The Australian [$] Simon Benson wrote that polling shift was driven by the border wars, with the PM caught on the wrong side of the argument in states where continued closures remain popular. The trouble with that is state border closures are popular everywhere - you can't consider it an exception when it's the norm.

In the next federal parliament there are expected to be 150 House seats. It is entirely feasible that ten seats - and hence federal government - could change hands in those three states alone:
  • The Liberals in Victoria have been enfeebled by thirty years of factional war, winning three of the nine state elections in that time.
  • In WA the departure of Matthias Cormann exposes the incapacity of Chilla Porter's boy and George Cash's girl to hold the show together and fend off the evangelical churches as loci of organising strength.
  • The LNP in Queensland was always a shitshow and the Murdoch media there embarass themselves by pretending otherwise.
  • In South Australia, the Liberals are reverting to their mean (in both the pejorative and statistical senses of that term), which make losses more likely than gains.
  • Liberals in NSW and Tasmania will be flat out holding the line rather than making up for losses elsewhere.
Labor should have strong and experienced operators in those states. Labor's factional problems and state government issues can be assuaged by expanding into federal politics, in fields previously denied them by effective Coalition campaigns organised from outside those states.

Daniel Andrews has simply hewed to the advice of experts, which gets him credit both for being right (what the experts said would happen has happened, and all he did was support them) and wrong (look, he just followed what the experts said, tough times etc). He has answered press gallery questions simply and in few words, which is what Abbott did in his ascendancy. He has kept calm and resisted the urge to be nasty, while also being firm in putting detractors in their place. Morrison has not done this consistently. Andrews has become a figure of national authority, a position Premiers rarely attain and which none of the other incumbents have.

The Murdoch press threw the kitchen sink at Andrews in 2018, hoping to beat him or at least force him into the bare-majority impotence that beset federal Labor in 2010-13. It is doing so again now. The criticism of him isn't consistent and doesn't have to be. The point of the criticism, from all sides (even washed-up footballers jonesing for one last media fix) and unrelenting, is to fix Andrews with the virus: to make it in him, and of him. The idea is to make Andrews the face of everything you hate about the virus - the horrible and lonely death of your νόνα, the closure of your local pub/coffee shop/nail salon, the footy matches in far provinces full of ingrates and unsophisticates - and when it is over, to consign it and him to history like the scapegoat of old.

The Victorian Liberals have their opponents but can't make them a unifying force for their internal combatants. As with Abbott, the Victorian Liberals are happy for NewsCorp to dictate both strategy and tactics. Menzies distanced himself from Keith Murdoch, as he had seen how Hughes had come to rely on him too much, and he was polite but distant to Murdoch's lad when Sir Keith died. No such nous or confidence exists in Menzies' successors today. Victorian state political reporters say that Liberals admire Andrews' political skills, much as NSW Liberals begrudgingly admired Carr and Iemma; but in both cases in didn't take a genius to keep those Liberals in opposition.

The trouble with the pact between the Victorian Libs and NewsCorp for Krieg ganz Krieg against Andrews is that there is no fallback position for either party. If Andrews is vindicated and the lockdown results in a negligible COVID presence until the (swift) arrival of a vaccine, his opponents in both media and politics are exposed. NewsCorp's sales have declined to the point where their business model depends increasingly on handouts; an Andrews victory, cemented at the state election in 2022, will embolden those less disposed to reward this editorial line. The Liberals have lost Hawthorn and came close to losing Brighton to Labor - a concerted independent campaign by the sorts of people who are too good to run for Liberal preselection could finish the party in what was once its homeland.

Dumbed down

The press gallery narrative dichotomy that people are either Dan Stans or Freedom Warriors is stupid, one of those media constructs that impedes public debate rather than facilitating it. The large majorities supporting lockdown reflect a sober-minded, mature populace recognising the strains on the health system and the desirability of sharply limiting the spread of the virus that has already ravaged so many, and so much. The people to which the media report is always better than the media that supposedly serve them/us: to invert that is to court career disaster.

You'll notice that Andrews is not exactly beating quiet public respect off with a stick. As political legacies go it is potentially much better than NewsCorp would have you believe.

It's also true that Andrews was Premier for five years before COVID19 struck, and before that was Health Minister under Brumby and Bracks. Any shortcomings the Victorian health system has, absolutely or in comparison to NSW/NZ/any other jurisdiction you think is valid, belong with Andrews as much as anyone else. Pandemics aren't a Liberal/Labor issue, so good old-fashioned ministerial responsibility will have to do. Andrews seems to appreciate this in ways that Frydenberg and Morrison do not.

That was a cue?

But, I hear you cry, Labor already has a federal opposition leader; and indeed it does.

Around the turn of the century, when Anthony Albanese faced a concerted campaign in his seat against the Greens, the Daily Telegraph ran a front page lauding him: Australia needs Albo screeched the headline, without being clear what it/we needed him for. Anthony Albanese has spent his entire career in inner-western diffusing generations of near-revolutionary energy and zeal across the spectrum of the left and harnessing it to the lumpen ALP, facilitating urban development and gentrification while minimising other changes. I doubt whether any federal electorate but his has so many ABC employees and tertiary education workers. Labor was founded in the 1890s to represent the sorts of people who dwelled in Rozelle terrace houses and Marrickville workers' cottages, and Albanese has helped ensure it still does.

Like Joe Biden in the US, he has known tragedy and disappointment in life. Both men are backroom deal-makers rather than orators. Like Biden, Albanese comes to the leadership of his party where rather more is expected of the role than glad-handing the increasingly uncompromising right. Now is the time to demonstrate what Australia needs Albo to do, to say, to be, and not to yield.

Albanese's problem is that Daniel Andrews has demonstrated to a far greater extent what is needed for Labor leadership in these times. Paddy Manning noted that Albanese has stepped up, to a point, on aged care. Manning noted that Albanese has given more interviews recently - you bet he has. Katharine Murphy gave Albanese an expansive interview, which started badly for him (and which, sportingly, appears in the transcript on Albanese's own website in all its glory):
KATHARINE MURPHY, HOST: Hello, lovely people of the podcast and welcome to the show. You are with Katharine Murphy and the show is Australian Politics Live. And with me in the pod cave is someone who has missed their cue. ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Oh, that was a cue?

Listen to that for yourself, but Albanese tries to make the case that as Opposition Leader, he isn't the hapless Kim Beazley and nor a boofhead like that other veteran of Sydney Uni student politics named Anthony - nor does he make a compelling case for removing him from opposition altogether and putting him into government.

Maybe that wasn't the idea of that interview. The trouble is that all successful opposition leaders are aggressive and push the government out. The old saw that "oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them" is dead wrong - the opposite is true. Abbott, Rudd, Howard, Hawke and Fraser all knew that time is short and life is cruel, and each pushed hard until they could afford to be gracious on election night. Unsuccessful opposition leaders, from Sir John Latham to Mark Latham, all played The Long Game and fat lot of good it did them.

Albanese seems to lead a united team in Canberra. Plibersek, Burke, and Bowen are all from NSW and all have similar strengths and weaknesses to himself. Non-NSW contenders like Jim Chalmers can't yet make the case that Albanese has failed, and that they have what he lacks. Shorten is an exhausted volcano, like Simon Crean proof that Hawke shut the union-to-PM door behind him.

The three-body problem

The federal government, the Victorian opposition and commercial media have combined to present Daniel Andrews, not Anthony Albanese, as the most significant Labor figure and the most potent external threat to the government. Andrews is not a member of federal parliament and isn't subject to either the argy or the bargy of that arena. He does not confront Morrison and Frydenberg across the dispach box, and nor is he hunting Albanese in the caucus room.

The last time Australian politics had this predicament was in the late 1970s. Malcolm Fraser had crushed Gough Whitlam with what are still the two biggest electoral majorities in Australian federal politics. The Opposition Leader in federal politics was Bill Hayden, but he wasn't Labor's most potent threat to Fraser. That title belonged to Bob Hawke, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The Canberra press gallery rarely grilled Hawke (at a time when they had more journalists who hunted out their own stories and were offended by the pre-digested pap that passes for reporting these days) but they knew all about him. Polls consistently showed Hawke as much more popular than Hayden or Fraser or anyone.

In 1979 Hawke entered parliament and Fraser began monstering him straight away. He went from running his own show to the very different arena of federal parliament, where he had to at least pay lip service to Hayden. By 1982 Fraser had seen off a challenge from Andrew Peacock and was playng Hayden and Hawke off against the other. He was the master of the House, and if you believe in that Annabel Crabb theatre-of-parliament guff then Fraser looked unassailable (which is precisely why it's garbage political analysis).

Morrison has seen off one opposition leader already and may well see off another - so what?

Last year there was talk that Mark Dreyfus, federal member for Isaacs (Vic), would resign to take a state judicial position; but in this time of COVID19 and Some You Wreck all that has gone quiet. Nobody in the press gallery has followed up on it, of course.

If you accept that the Snap Back isn't going to happen, you need a vision for how we go forward through and out of the COVID19 predicament. The idea of a Roadmap Out Of Lockdown is absurd in the absence of a vaccine. It works only as a conversation topic amongst idle people and also as a stick with which to beat Daniel Andrews. It will not sell newspapers and offers little of value in terms of economic and business planning. Perhaps Andrews is the man of the hour without our political media being able to fully explain why.

10 May 2019

Shadows on the wall

One of the most important pieces on media criticism in recent times is Richard Cooke's NewsCorp: Democracy's greatest threat. Read it if you haven't, see you when you get back.

Pearls before swine

As someone who has been critical of journalists myself, I applaud the line about the gravitron (rather than the gravitas) of The Good Murdoch Journalist. However, such an image is worse than unfair: it's inaccurate.

The better parallel would be those committed Christians who follow the teachings of their faith in service to the poor, the sick, the wretched of the earth. Church organisations refer to these people, frequently overlooked and underresourced, with the clear threat that a dollar spent on defending abuse cases or making reparation is a dollar not spent on good and holy works.

In his attacks on Facebook and Google, Murdoch invokes his Good Hard-Working Journalists as though they were all like that. He did the same during the Leveson inquiry in the UK. They are the cuttlefish's ink, the scent of the skunk.

All media organisations complain about being Under Attack, blending their own acts of omission or commission with unfair criticism or personal attacks into a kind of miasma through which all of their staff trudge doggedly each day. The reality of NewsCorp is that if you doubled the resources available to its newsrooms, or if you halved them, the ratio of good:bad:ugly journalism would remain about the same.

Mind you, this is much the same for the ABC or for any other media organisation.

Go back to those times when newsrooms were better resourced than they are, to see both the hack work and the insightful stuff. The bylines are interesting: some of today's hacks were once capable journalists, while some who have since rehabilitated themselves were clearly Just Following Orders back in the day.

NewsCorp as propaganda

This is not to say that Cooke's central thesis - that NewsCorp is a propaganda outlet more than a news organisation - isn't correct. The fact that Australia has no language even to hold a public debate on the Christchurch shooting shows how comprehensively Murdoch has shifted the Australian media since he came to dominate it in the 1980s.

It is also a symptom of having conservative governments for 17 of the past 23 years. Go back to periods in the past where long-term conservative governments came to their end: first people had to develop a language for talking about issues, and only then could they develop and advocate for policies that addressed such issues as military failure or structural disadvantage.

NewsCorp learned this in its DNA. Keith Murdoch wrote the narrative on Gallipoli and not only imposed it on the Hughes Government, but treats each Anzac Day as a franchised product that it owns. It even mints coins for the occasion, the only organisation outside the federal government that does so. The Twitter debate "who was Australia's worst PM, Turnbull or Abbott?" properly belongs with Hughes: he cut a Faustian bargain with Murdoch and conducted not one, but two, deeply divisive sectarian referendums during a world war with Murdoch's enthusiastic support.

Say what you will about any Prime Minister in my lifetime, none of them plumbed Hughes' depths. He was a maggot, and NewsCorp own him. He shows how deep their roots go. Had Bill Shorten gone to New York in response to Rupert Murdoch's summons, it would not have surprised me if the old bastard brought out a glass jar with Hughes' wrinkly old scrotum floating in glycerine.

The Queen has met every Australian Prime Minister since Menzies, and has more direct experience of Australian administrative government than anyone in this country. Rupert Murdoch has met every PM since Hughes, because his father Keith had them to dine with him at their family home in Melbourne. Murdoch follows Australian politics more closely because his business model depends on Australian politics more than hers does.

There are two examples that prove the propaganda-over-news thesis which are not scientific, but could have been, so well do they make the case.

Jessica Irvine was an economics writer who started at Fairfax. She drew together statistics with pronouncements by politicians and other analysts, drawing conclusions carefully and building trust. Her articles were always worth reading and she was a breath of fresh air promising a future that Ross Gittins - once a fearless advocate for economic reform, now a stale and fearful both-sides theatre-reviewer - could never deliver.

When Irvine went to NewsCorp, Fairfax's fate as a journomuseum seem sealed. When News started running her pieces, the first third of them were culture-war garbage that didn't relate to the topic of her piece. The rest of those pieces seemed compressed, as though the point derived from her analysis were somehow secondary.

Irvine returned to Fairfax and her pieces are still among the best produced by its former mastheads. Economics pieces contain a lot of political content and are important in evaluating whether or not a government is doing its job, far more so than breathless press gallery inanities.

By contrast, Greg Sheridan was education writer for The Bulletin before he joined NewsCorp. He was obsessed by leftwing control of the National Union of Students (NUS), and missed entirely the shift taking place in higher education to becoming one of Australia's major export industries and soft-power exports, as well as the changing role of technical and further education in a de-industrialising economy.

In the time Sheridan has been Foreign Editor of The Australian, the foreign policy of this country has changed profoundly. He has not covered the decline of the US and the rise of China (particularly its interference in Australian technology systems) at all well. He does not understand the EU except through the most tawdry of British reporting (though, to be fair, no journalist does). He has not addressed to any significant extent the decline in our relationships with Papua New Guinea and countries in Melanesia and Polynesia - and no, his equation of support for the current government of Israel with support for that country's existence really does not make up for it.

Sheridan is at his best covering shenanigans at Young Liberal branches. Given his failure at his titular job there are very real questions whether he ought to have any job at all in the media, but if he does he should be his paper's Shenanigans Editor. Cooke's gravitrons have no hope of making up for Sheridan's professional shortcomings with earnest but hastily constructed pieces on, say, recent elections in Indonesia or India (and why they may be more significant for Australia than, say, republishing US pieces on polling non-college educated white female voters in Tennessee).

Murdoch press set up their own commentators as experts over those outside the organisation. This has happened in climate change, as Cooke points out, and also in electoral politics. Recently we have seen SkyNews organise a joint press conference (outrageously designated The People's Forum), where most of the hand-picked attendees agreed Shorten had made the more compelling case to become Prime Minister over Morrison. This was immediately followed by NewsCorp's "experts" making the contrary case. Andrew Bolt followed this by blaming voters, rather than misinformation from traditional media, for both the reality of and potential for bad government.

The idea that the people are sovereign in a democracy is against NewsCorp's business model. It is an inconvenience that the company truckles to when it cannot manipulate it with blatant misinformation.

Shocked, shocked I tell you

Part of the decline of any organisation is when bits fall off it and once-loyal retainers make telling criticisms:
No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.
Really? Paul Kelly seems happy to go along with The Australian on its downward slide, having been editor at its peak in the early 1990s.
The journalists are not to blame. Many have been friends of mine for decades and they share my disgust. Probably the most blatant example of bias and low-grade coverage is the employment of most of the columnists who appear weekly. Their observations are, in the main, predictable, weak, unresearched and juvenile.
Yes they are, as Cooke points out. They take the paycheque and carry all those columnists, dead weight who will drag down the organisation once it reaches its tipping point.

Being friends with those journos gives you less of a perspective on their culpability, notwithstanding umpty-ump years as a journo and all the trinkets (bucket o'Walkleys, Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia Work, etc). You'd have to be thick not to notice the rightwing drift of NewsCorp or to think this is a recent invention... and yet, on page 20 of The Australian today, there is a profile on the leftwing US folk musician Pete Seeger that is more sympathetic than you might expect (did you know Seeger attended Harvard with John F. Kennedy?). If you were a journo, you'd fall on that as proof that #balance is not completely dead. Me, I'd use it as further proof that you only understand Australian journalism when you separate coverage of politics and government from coverage of anything else (because this is clearly what NewsCorp editors do, and it's key to understanding everything else about them and the Australian media more broadly).

The Israel Folau of Australian journalism

This piece proves yet again that journalists who lapse into the passive voice are up to no good:
"Am I lending credibility to a horrible machine? I don’t know?"
Oh, please.

The sceptre and the isle

Cooke rightly points out that there have been several in-depth studies of Murdoch from people helpless in the face of the juggernaut. He also points out in passing that circulation of media is in decline. And again, he notes recent pictures of Rupert Murdoch looking frail, and his son Lachlan taking on ever greater responsibilities within the company.

In the preceding paragraph, the latter two notions make the first unsustainable.

Any empire becomes vulnerable at the point of succession. When Sir Keith Murdoch died in 1952, his son Rupert was 21 and did not have the reputation for turning big companies into little ones that Lachlan has (you'll tell your friends about One.Tel). Part of the reason why Rupert set up News Limited in the first place was because his father's estate was a shambles: Sir Keith was more a propagandist than a businessman. Lachlan Murdoch may well be as right-wing as his father, or less so; he may be equally determined to fight Google and Facebook, or his laid-back nature and financial vulnerability may incline him to avoid fights he cannot win.

Lachlan Murdoch is unlikely to have the same influence over politicians than his father and grandfather had. The last great editor in the Murdoch stable was Paul Kelly (editor of The Australian 1991-95), well before the advent of social media and the odd conflation of the NewsCorp editorial line with libertarianism and ultramontane Catholicism. Part of the drawback of an organisation that is firmly under your control is that it is inevitably top-heavy with supine idiots. While Cooke is all over this, and notes that it has persisted and gotten worse for decades, it is simply not sustainable. Loyal idiots who lose the focus of and reciprocity for their loyalty rarely fare well. Such people cannot be part of its future, nor that of Australia's other traditional media outlets going forward.

The entire Australian media will melt down when Rupert Murdoch dies. Even those who have never worked for NewsCorp will be unable to function when he is not merely o'er the seas, but permanently an ex-person. Some will do things they dared not do when he was alive, as The Herald Sun made a racehorse Sportswoman of the Year soon after Dame Elisabeth was no longer alive to complain. This is a far more significant risk (both in impact and likelihood) for Australia's traditional media than broadband internet. Lachlan Murdoch will not be able to impose himself to quell uprisings and maintain order to the same extent. He might avoid the Icarus-like plunge of James Packer, but may not avoid becoming Australia's Richard Cromwell.

NewsCorp is an odious organisation, and as it declines it will likely become more nasty than less. This will particularly be the case if Tony Abbott and other rightwing bonnet ornaments are ejected from federal parliament on the 18th and foist themselves upon NewsCorp demanding payment and profile, because the imagined political-class progression has eluded them too. While such an organisation might poison the national discourse, it cannot also be said to control it.

Unpopular populism

Bill Shorten took a calculated risk in not flying to New York to meet with Murdoch, and they have treated his campaign for the Prime Ministership with disregard bordering on contempt. NewsCorp has generally preferred to support popular groundswells, providing at least tepid support to Labor in their victorious campaigns of 1972, 1983, and 2007.

It is taking a risk in not supporting Shorten and Labor this time. The risk is compounded by the backfired hatchet job on Shorten's mother (no I won't link to it) which underestimated the power both of her dreams and their deferrals, their impact on her son, and the extent to which her story resonated with people - including loyal Daily Telegraph readers. Shorten's risk is paying off; Murdoch has no experience of an Australia where he is not at least respected, preferably feared.

It has taken a risk in backing a long-term government whose internal contradictions have snookered it. Scott Morrison was the answer to a question nobody outside the Liberal Party or NewsCorp was asking. Having a bland, do-nothing record will assist the Murdoch press in its attempts to whitewash the Coalition and present it as superior to an incoming government that will inevitably stumble in its early days. However, as with the 1980s Liberals, those who survive the next fortnight might not be capable of presenting themselves as a strong alternative independent of Murdoch coverage, and thus both further embarrass NewsCorp for being unworthy of its support and be unable to deliver as a realistic prospective government.

The Herald Sun both protests feebly against the Andrews state government, and keens at being ignored. Anastacia Palaszczuk owes nothing to The Courier-Mail. In Sydney, Adelaide, and even Hobart the support by the Murdoch press of the incumbent state governments is nice-to-have but those governments would survive an old-school concerted campaign from the Murdoch tabloids. In WA the most potent Murdoch outlet is The Australian; it echoes the voice of the discredited Liberal opposition and neither does the other any favours.

Murdoch and his team might prepare for a battle with the imminent Labor government, inflicting minor damage (expect Shorten to lose a minister or two in his first year). Nothing in its corporate experience, particularly that of Rupert Murdoch personally, prepares it for a future where its populist campaigns leave people cold.

Murdoch and his team gearing up for battle need not inspire the fear they once might: look at him tilting at the windmills of Facebook and Google. Say what you will about those organisations, at least Facebook and Google know that they are in the information business. Rather than rise to their challenge NewsCorp wallows in the bullshit business, and its decreasing returns for doing so are nobody else's fault.

As a politician, Gough Whitlam said that he had to "crash through or crash". Shorten acknowledged that this election is his last chance to become Prime Minister. All politicians win some, lose some. Big businesses in Australia get kickbacks or just get kicked by various governments, but they survive on commercial merits; NewsCorp is now up against the prospect that its non-political pretences are withering, and that like the politicians it favours and/or attacks, it too lives and dies at the ballot box.

Politicians go where the people are. Traditional media had power because of the assumption that it had a reach and a connectedness with the public that politicians, and their parties as community organisations, lacked. The absence of reach and connectedness has been laid bare for years now, and now we have a major party testing its luck in that breach.

There is not a constituency in this country for banning media organisations, particularly well-established ones that often resist narrow definitions. There is, however, a recognition of the relationship between media and politicians, and a recognition that the media are actors rather than passive transmitters of information: someone like Alan Reid could operate in the shadows in his time but Laurie Oakes or Simon Benson cannot and do not.

There is a contempt for politicians who are hamstrung by fear of media disapproval. The popular wish for action on climate change includes the recognition that NewsCorp oppose such action, and that some politicians toe the NewsCorp line while others do not. NewsCorp denizens must know that, for the first time, shirking responsibility for their work by claiming they were just doing their jobs simply will not do.

NewsCorp has lived by its political nous. It is dying both for lack of it, and through exhaustion in offering a service to politicians (community reach and engagement) which it cannot deliver. You don't have to storm the citadel and kill the king, still less slap his face or put fetters on him, because Murdoch is a corporate rather than a political leader. What's best is also what's most likely: watch him fade.

It would be dumb to have a royal commission or a Senate inquiry into media ownership. In the early 1990s Kerry Packer appeared before a parliamentary inquiry similar to that being proposed for Murdoch: he sailed through the feeble questioning. Watch the delight on then newly-elected Liberal MP Peter Costello, who thinks he has supplanted Packer in today's media landscape. Murdoch has been playing politics since before Morrison and Shorten were born. It simply would not work, the stupidest idea since a debates commission. Ownership is not the problem with lack of media diversity: it is rendered impossible by cross-promotion and other mental fetters (e.g. There Can Be Only One story about politics each day, which doesn't apply to sport or road crashes) by timid, dim-witted editors.

Call to mind that pathetic picture of Rupert Murdoch in the surf with Jerry Hall. We live in an age of precarious employment, so what sort of fool would hitch their wagon to this family, or to the clowns who encrust the upper reaches of their organisation? Those who have done so for decades must, for all their bluster, feel time's winged chariot drawing near. You can watch individual journos' careers go the way of Murray cod in Menindee Lakes, and either laugh or cry (check if they have written any articles about the need to upskill and be flexible in our modern economy). You can look at the political candidates before us, and see which are scarred or warped by having to deal with Murdoch.

The choice starts with voters, and will inevitably flow through to politicians and media executives. The power of Murdoch and NewsCorp is the shadows on the cave wall in our national life. The future, as always, does not belong to the fearful. It does not belong to the sick-and-tired. Whether it belongs to those who make us fearful, sick, and tired, remains an open question.

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.