19 June 2018

Arsey: Seven weaknesses of the Ramsay Centre

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation aims to educate Australians not only in the facts of Western Civilisation, but also in its beauties and wonders and its enduring relevance to Australian life going forward. Can it succeed in those aims? No. The directors of that organisation are wasting the benefactor's money, however much they wax lyrical about him, and they should either desist, or start getting on with it, rather than continue mucking about.


In reporting the fallout between the Ramsay Centre and the Australian National University over their proposed Western Civilisation degree course, traditional media outlets focused on the kerfuffle and the he-said-she-said and the SHOCK CONTROVERSY SHOCK which they (mistakenly) believe sells papers. This is consistent with the unenlightening and tedious way they cover politics and associated culture war issues.

What they did not do, and perhaps could never have done, is examine why the Ramsay Centre might want to partner with a university in the first place. University bureaucracies are large, slow-moving beasts, much criticised over many years by Ramsay Centre board members John Howard and Tony Abbott. Surely the institutions that caused the problem that the Ramsay Centre is seeking to solve (that Western Civilisation is denigrated or underappreciated by university-educated people today) are of limited use in solving it. Surely, the outcome delivered by the ANU was foreseeable by anyone with experience in high-level negotiations of this type.

In recent years, vocational education providers have developed syllabi and offline/online training courses in IT, business, WHS, and other areas using minimal bureaucracy, real estate, or other overheads of large established institutions like ANU. There is no good reason why the Ramsay Centre should not have a complete suite of online/offline courses ready to go, right now, to show ANU and whomever else what they're missing and setting the standard for others to follow. Leave the grizzling to wasters like Nick Cater. Let's be having you, if you're good enough.

One possible indication of the Ramsay Centre's motives can be seen in Chris Berg, an IPA shill who no longer identifies himself as such. He got a PhD from RMIT's economics department, stacked as it is with IPA alumni such as Sinclair Davidson and Steven Kates, and now uses RMIT to sell the cuckoo's egg of IPA policy.

Another is in the image of Ramsay given by Abbott above, someone who liked the idea of a well-stocked mind but who couldn't do it himself. The inaction in Ramsay's name stands in contrast to the more hands-on George Soros (h/t @liamvhogan):
Unlike most of the members of the billionaire class who speak in platitudes and remain withdrawn from serious engagement with civic life - Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg [or perhaps Paul Ramsay] come to mind - Soros is an intellectual. The person who emerges from his popular books and many articles is not an out of touch plutocrat, but a provocative and consistent thinker unambiguously committed to pushing the world in a cosmopolitan direction in which racism, income inequality, American empire, and the alienations of contemporary capitalism would be things of the past. Soros is as comfortable with Wittgenstein as he is with Warren Buffett, which makes him a sui generis figure in American life, someone whose likes we will not see again for quite a while. He is extremely perceptive about the limits of markets and US power in both domestic and international contexts. He is, in short, among the best the meritocracy has produced …

Throughout his career, he has committed himself to writing systematically about social, economic, and political ideas. In particular, he has highlighted Popper’s 1945 classic The Open Society and Its Enemies as key to his worldview.
When Popper wrote about the enemies of the open society, he was referring to people like Tony Abbott. I can't believe they have won.

As an Arts graduate myself, I'm used to the jibes like "airy fairy" and "arty farty" surrounding education in the humanities (not least, it must be said, from people like Howard and Abbott). Richard Denniss must surely have been tongue-in-cheek when writing this article about the utility of Western Civilisation studies. This brings us, however, to another important point.


Public debate, in Australia and elsewhere, is impoverished by a lack of general understanding of science. People who cross the gamut of economics, law, business or other matters come to a crunching halt when confronted with scientific and technical matters: "I'm not a climate scientist", they whimper, "I'm not a tech head", "I'm not a doctor", "I'm not an engineer", etc.

The whole idea of state aid to non-state schools in the 1960s was to forestall this impoverishment of public debate: not simply to head off a shortage of skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM). The great challenges of our age - climate change, the affordances and threats facilitated by ICT and bioengineering - require some understanding of and respect for science. The case for a generalist understanding of the humanities, regardless of the paucity of jobs in the area, has been well made (including by Denniss in his fourth paragraph), but the case for a generalist understanding of STEM issues has been made less well.

If you can draw up a treasury of Western Civilisation that includes (for example) Aristotle, Shakespeare, or Kant, then the same case can be made for Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein. These thinkers influence the way we think and act today. The very demarcation between science and the humanities, much lamented by C P Snow and others, would have puzzled many of the thinkers the Ramsay Centre would have in their canon. Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of helicopters weren't just cutely inventive, they were part of serious work on how to move heavier-than-air objects through the air. His studies of fossilised seashells in the Apennines arose from a resistance to the flippant thinking about their placement by the Great Flood. Rene Descartes came up with the idea of plotting data against two variables on X and Y axes: I'd suggest that is at least as important to Western Civilisation as the aphorism most often attributed to him, cogito ergo sum.

The reason why Western Civ advocates can't and don't include science is because the history of science involves challenges to authority, knocking off one set of certainties and finding a way forward until other certainties coalesce around what is known. Contemporary conservatives are jealous of the authority scientists have in developed societies. They must know how feeble they sound when they simply pooh-pooh lifetimes of study, and underestimate the detriment to their own power in doing so. Creationist science is no more reliable than the Lysenkoism of the Soviet Union. Conservatives assume falsely that their work cannot be brought within the Western canon, as 20th century musicologists couldn't find a place in their discipline for jazz.

It is a weakness of the Ramsay Centre, built on a fortune made possible by Paul Ramsay's father the property developer medical science, that it cannot and will not engage with Western scientific methods and discoveries. The division that frustrated C P Snow looks like a restrictive work practice and a cop-out. This brings us to another important point.


Young conservatives, growing up in an environment hostile to academia, aren't in a rush to become academics. Even so, they still react with puzzlement (as this guy does at 48:55 in the latest episode) that there are so few conservative academics, and hence the deficiency that the Ramsay Centre seeks to address exists and is not their fault but others'.

I've read some of the texts which leftist academics rely upon for their critiques - Foucault, Dworkin (Ronald and Andrea), Zizek, Baudrillard, to name a few - and they're hard work. It's slow boring through hard boards a lot of the time, and I sympathise with those who reject it as not worth doing. I don't blame young conservatives for treating an undergraduate degree as a means toward the end of a job, and that earning money is to be preferred over the vow of poverty that would seem to correlate with academia. The rollicking works of Niall Ferguson or the gentle rambles of Roger Scruton are much easier than the spiky, careening stuff translated from French into stodgy, dense English.

When I was a Young Liberal at uni it shat me no end that the people who were most learned in what I'd been led to believe was the canon of Liberalism - James and John Stuart Mill, Locke, Bentham, Oakeshott - those who knew them best were committed lefties. The academic who has probably studied the Liberal Party in greater depth than any other, Judith Brett, is a committed Labor voter, as was Menzies' biographer Allan Martin. Yet, those are the people who have done the work, and that work is to be respected.

The lack of conservative academics ready to develop and teach Ramsay Centre courses, or even to remedy the defect the Ramsay Centre aims to, can't be simply explained by discriminatory hiring practices across this country's universities. The IPA has a number of Research Fellows sitting around not doing or achieving very much. Conservatives have done this to themselves, and if they really think this is a serious issue they must change their ways. Not only is there no Ramsay Centre canon to work on, there are no scholarships or other means of encouragement for young conservatives to clamber up the sheer north face of the Great Books into the sunlit uplands that conservatives have in mind.

If you want to talk about systematic discrimination and unconscious bias, it takes to the place where feminists and other intersectional sociologists have been operating for years. Where is the conservative who really wants to go there?


But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

- Martin Luther King: speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, 28 August 1963
If you're going to not only study, but exult in, the glories of Western Civilisation - and wonder why not everyone is as enthusiastic about them as you are - then you're only being intellectually honest when you look into why women, dark-skinned people, Freemasons, LGBTIQ and others failed to appreciate and enjoy the freedoms and riches that the Ramsay Centre sees as the rightful inheritance of those who study Western Civ.

I had no idea (well, it's possible I was told by some left-wing student back in the 1990s and have forgotten it) that John Locke was a colonial administrator in British America who was perfectly fine with slavery, and that his famous injunction against "slavery" was really a wish to limit the powers of the King over his Caucasian male subjects. Jamelle Bouie's recent essay on liberty and racism highlights what is, for the Ramsay Centre, and other proponents of Western Civilisation, an unresolved blind spot and an intellectual weakness.

In the article linked earlier, Tony Abbott referred to his own education in history as a narrative of progress, "where 'freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent'". Abbott led a government, and as a backbencher nominally supports a continuation of that government, where freedoms were sacrificed to scaremongering about terrorism. The result of his own education has been to turn on it. Explain that, Ramsay Centre.

John Quiggin's point here is well made: if you believe Western Civilisation is a club anyone can join, it falls to you to be honest about why many haven't, why many shun it, and why only struggle can explain why they have any share in it at all. They can't all be stupid and ungrateful, can they?


A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism.

- Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx is a thinker steeped in the Western tradition. Yes he is. His intellectual antecedents include Hegel, Lycurgus, and (believe it or not) Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Marx wrote and published prolifically around the middle of the nineteenth century. Much of the history of the past 150 years - particularly in Western societies, but also in non-Western societies colonised by Western Civilisation like China and Vietnam - is incomprehensible without reference to Marx, marxism and Marxists.

Marx is a significant thinker in and on Western Civilisation. Yes, he is.

The Ramsay Centre should take Marx seriously as a writer and have its students study his work in detail, and engage with what's there rather than continue wrestling with the spectre Marx himself identified. It won't, though. It can't. Conservatives have looked on in dismay as generations of students have discovered Marx and, if not becoming devotees, then taken him and his works seriously. Like travellers to Solaris in Stanislaw Lem's novel, they are helpless to prevent this and don't really understand why anyone would want to go there. A Ramsay Centre course on Marxism would be like a Rechabite wine-tasting: there'd be nothing there, and nobody would enjoy it.

As for Cultural Marxists, wouldn't it be best to Know The Enemy? Initially, the term "cultural marxism" might have referred to writers like Habermas, Adorno, Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School, but it has come to apply to basically any matter that the Murdoch press does not like (and on which those writers referred to in this paragraph, and Marx himself, paid scant attention to), such as women in Liberal Party preselections, critics of the current President of the United States, those who believe Britain should remain in the European Union, the impact of tax cuts on economic activity, or even transgender people using the loo. Good luck finding intellectual consistency in that mess of potage, and teaching it.


The board of the Ramsay Centre is itself a problem. They are timid people frittering away the money over which they are responsible, for the reasons described above: if Paul Ramsay had squealed like a stuck pig every time a deal fell through, he wouldn't have gotten anywhere. The Ramsay Centre has not backed itself, and it has not demonstrated any faith in the richness and appeal of the inheritances of Western Civilisation. They would display artefacts of Western Civilisation like Royal Doulton china (collect the set, get a Bachelor's degree!) rather than put them to work.

Tony Abbott has stuffed up everything he has ever been put in charge of, from the Federal Budget to the expenses of his own office. If you honestly believe this man should remain in any position of governance then you can make no case against Catherine Brenner.


This last point isn't a big deal, but it is indicative that the Ramsay Centre isn't really serious about its stated mission.

Here is an image from the homepage of the Ramsay Centre's website:

(c) The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation

Here is an image of that same painting, 28 July, Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, from the website of the Louvre:

(c) Musée du Louvre

Back when France issued its own currency, they printed the Delacroix image onto banknotes:

(c) Banque du France

Maybe it's just me, but I have noticed that the Ramsay Centre have edited out the nipples on Lady Liberty. When I went to Paris and visited the Louvre and saw that painting, you could say I was paying homage to Western Civilisation. Given that the Ramsay Centre people also love Western Civilisation, why would they do that? Admittedly, it isn't only Western women, or women at all, that have nipples - but even so, is such an impulse consistent, or even compatible, with all that's good about Western Civilisation? As we move into an information age, an age of abundant and easy access to cultural and other inheritances of the Western tradition, is bowdlerisation something to be encouraged? Is it necessary to maintaining and advancing Western Civilisation? Honestly?

02 April 2018

Flinching at the future

I look to the future it makes me cry
But it seems too real to tell you why

Freed from the century
With nothing but memory, memory

And I just hope that you can forgive us
But everything must go

And if you need an explanation
Then everything must go

- Manic Street Preachers Everything must go
In 2018, traditional broadcast media is dying and politicians are starting to look for alternatives to standard media management. Two recent incidents from two current politicians, and the responses from the media covering them, show that the place of the media in the future of politics is clear: there isn't one.


There are those who govern, and those who are governed. For the past two hundred or so years in western democracies, the entirety of Australia's post-settlement political history, that relationship has been mediated by accredited media. Accredited media was supplied with details about government decisions that had been taken, and it also took to reporting both reactions to those decisions, and proposals for government decisions not yet taken. In that gap, between the government and the governed, Australia developed political systems and cultures developed and are developing still.

For much of Australian political history it was possible for a politician to build a career through close, physical contact with the community they represented. Since the 1960s politicians had to deal with broadcast media as the most efficient way to reach a mass audience: one of the reasons why Gough Whitlam was so lionised by journalists in the late 1960s/early '70s is because he took broadcast media journalists more seriously than his Coalition opponents at the time. For a generation, it was largely only possible to get into politics through a major party; and the major parties outsourced their public outreach function to broadcast media, which operated on a similarly clubby and oligopolistic basis as the major parties themselves.

Today, political parties have their media relationship down to a pretty fine art, bound by conventions (such as 'off the record', or observing publishing deadlines) and imposing tight rules to govern the press gallery within Parliament House. However, the environment has changed around them to the point where this fine art actually works against the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. That relationship is paramount, and it prevails over secondary, failing relationships with the broadcast media.

Over the mainstream media

I hate journalists. I'm over dealing with the mainstream media as a form of communication with the people of Canberra. What passes for a daily newspaper in this city is a joke and it will be only a matter of years before it closes down. 
- ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, 8 March 2018
When The Canberra Times (the daily newspaper referred to above) discovered Barr had said this, it initially couldn't believe it, reduced first to dumb and incredulous reporting of his words; then it went officially berserk. No calm and measured reflection on changes to technology and reader information needs. For years, senior management at Fairfax Media has sought to assure investors that it has a strategy for transition to digital: the hysteria from The Canberra Times shows either no such strategy exists, or it is so tightly guarded a secret that head office will have to do the whole lot by itself.

Instead, The Canberra Times carried one unsourced assertion from Barr and another from its editorialist about readership figures, and then insisted that its coverage of municipal Territory affairs is equal to detailed scrutiny of government. Of course, most of its coverage is merely relaying press releases; as with the federal parliamentary press gallery, the person who drafts the press release does much more work than the journalists who simply pass it forward. Only when a government is fading in the polls, or when it has actively alienated its press gallery, is there any scrutiny worth the name.

Politicians spend a lot of time crafting their message, only to have journalists fail to grasp it or go off on some frolic of their own. That relationship has its frustrations; but parties to that relationship can only patch over its frustrations in both parties are actively convinced that dissolving the relationship would be worse than patching things up and getting on with it. Kirsten Lawson's initial article quotes Barr as actively looking for channels for engaging his constituency in the affairs of its government, in ways that go beyond the standard relationship with broadcast media - inadequate and consistently failing. Lawson was wrong to claim Barr has "set out his new plans to bypass traditional media", because later in the article she makes it clear no such plans exist.

The editorialist identified this lack of a coherent alternative to traditional media relations when it portrayed Barr's look to the future as some sort of mental problem. Opening the framing by comparing Barr to Trump, using terms like "pique", "lashed", and deploying straw men in such numbers and futility that it must surely be in breach of ACT environmental regulations, The Canberra Times draws on a record of competence hoping to create the impression that it has a future.
[the ACT government's] implicit push towards controlled messaging and social media ...
Which is it? The use of "implicit" shows this is a figment of the editorialist rather than the work of the Barr government. You can either have a controlled message or a social media engagement strategy; you can't really do both. You show me a tightly controlled social media account and I'll show you one that fails to engage. Lumping those terms together shows The Canberra Times doesn't understand either of these terms, which bodes ill for its future as a viable media organisation regardless of what Barr might or might not do.

This arrogance, combined with that of other Fairfax mastheads, leads the company to demand resources that might more usefully (and profitably) go to other ways of disseminating information to Canberra and the world. If you're serious about resources for good journalism, consider whether the resources might better be spent on sites like The Riot Act, arguably Canberra's ragless true local rag, rather than propping up The Canberra Times for old time's sake.

This arrogance sent ace reporters Daniel Burdon and Katie Burgess into a tizz:
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr's comment that he "hates journalists" has been labelled a "brain snap" and likened to views once espoused by the disgraced former Queensland premier, the late Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
When someone in the public eye swears or laughs so hard that snot dribbles out their nose, that's a brain snap. Listen to Barr's speech again: you do your readers a disservice and discredit your own work when you mislabel events like that. As for Bjelke-Petersen: my dudes, he sure as hell wasn't trying to connect with Queenslanders under 30 using multi-channel strategies. Griffith University political analyst Professor Paul Williams, quoted in that article, has beclowned himself with that comparison.
The utter absence of media solidarity with Canberra's oldest broadcast outlet is notable, as is the speed with which Burgess dropped this existential threat to civic life in the nation's seventh-largest city and seat of government. But never mind such trifles. Here is the much-vaunted Uhlmann statement:
Here's where Uhlmann is right: broadcast media is dying. Here's where he's wrong:
  • "And now [sic] we are gifted with politicians who can't be arsed being accountable". No jurisdiction in Australia is gifted with politicians. We elect them on the basis of information supplied by accredited broadcast media. A politician keen on multi-channel engagement ought not be confused with one who wants to shut down any and all scrutiny;
  • "I have known Mr Barr since he was a youth" - oh please, condescension without superiority;
  • "far greater political minds than his have grappled with the torture of dealing with the mainstream media and decided it was central to a healthy democracy" - those minds dated from periods where mainstream or broadcast media really was the only media, where both the politicians and the journalists were better than they are now. Barr is a provincial politician in a well-informed polity right now, and he can see the beginnings of a post-CT future, while all Uhlmann can see are Orwell's cavalry horses answering the bugle;
  • "Given it is going hand in hand with the decline in trust with all political institutions ...". Here Uhlmann goes for a bit of tu quoque and comes up short. It is a fantasy of insider journos that politicians must go down with them, grappling and plunging like Holmes and Moriarty off the Reichenbach Falls. That isn't how politics works: if you're going down, pollies cut you loose and laugh at your descent. If Uhlmann doesn't know that much he clearly doesn't understand politics as much as his job titles over the years might suggest.
  • "When the last, irritating, journalist is sacked and when the last masthead closes, does Mr Barr imagine his already underscrutinised government will be improved?". The question is: will Canberrans be better informed? Scrutiny is not exclusive (still less EXCLUSIVE) to journalists at outlets like The Canberra Times, and Barr deserves credit for trying to discern the dim outline of what is yet to come rather than that which has the reputation but no future to speak of;
  • "does Mr Barr honestly believe that the social media alternative will be better?". Again, Uhlmann assumes social media is an alternative rather than a supplement to the emaciated and fading broadcasters. As he doesn't understand the state of the media today he has no business lecturing politicians, or anyone else, about it. He also overestimates the extent to which Barr can pick and choose his own media. Barr is not, as politicians are often accused, "picking winners"; he is picking losers, and his picks seem more astute than Uhlmann's throat-clearings and harrumphing;
  • "will its wild winds create a storm that will have [Barr] longing for the smell of newsprint?". Why are you asking him? Even if he did sup the Kool-Aid of nostalgia as deeply as Uhlmann has, would he be able to save The Canberra Times from its fate by embracing it?
The above statement, purportedly by Channel 9's Political Editor, does not seem to appear on Channel 9's political news site. Perhaps [$]Bernard Keane was not entirely wrong when he claims this whole issue is a storm confined, if not to a teacup, then to that hill-edged basin surrounding Lake Burley Griffin ... but if so, why write about it at all? If he's spent so long in Canberra, is he the right person to judge hard news, or its absence? This was the best bit though, all the funnier for being so earnest:
Why can't a wealthy city of 300,000 people, the nation's capital, populated by people notionally engaged with public affairs and home of one of Australia's best universities, sustain a publication focused on what they do?
Like the beep of a reversing truck, that word "purportedly" shows Keane has it backwards. Canberrans *are* engaged with public policy and other matters that journalists might bundle up into "public affairs". The whole business model of journalism requires a market that is less well informed than the journalist, and content both to remain so after the journalist's output has been consumed and to come back for more. This is a hard ask in Canberra, where public servants in any given area must resent journalists' glib misrepresentations of their work and the misallocation of credit or blame to those blow-ins sent to town from elsewhere in the country.

The coverage of public service affairs rarely extends to sloppy press gallery journalism causing problems for politicians, who in turn cause problems for public servant heads, who in turn impose career-ending limitations on lower-ranked public servants who have done what they were asked, let alone drives improvement in reporting to a well-educated population demonstrable capable of appreciating nuance and disdaining hype and bullshit. The idea that the people of Canberra are unworthy of the newspaper foisted upon them rather than the reverse is not just a self-own on Keane's part, it shows why journalists will never be able to solve their career problems in an information age.
Part of the problem is that not much actually happens in Canberra ...
How does he know this? Even committed readers find The Canberra Times thin gruel. And so the downward spiral continues.
... beyond the Raiders and the Brumbies in winter.
Both kinds of football: rugby league and rugby union. But I digress.

Of course Barr has backed down, to an extent. Julia Gillard also flirted with female bloggers as a way of getting her message through to people, and the traditional media outlets that make up the press gallery (then as now) went berserk. Barr has to run a government today, and gauzy visions of the future have to take a back seat to realities here and now. The Canberra Times has to deal with the ACT government, and it is both good and bad news that its coverage has returned to the same old pattern; I'm sure readers are delighted and new readers flock in to see what the fuss is about. Another reality is that the ACT government does have to deal with The Canberra Times, but what future either have - in cahoots or at daggers drawn - remains to be seen.

Desperate needs

... the crazy lefties at the ABC, Guardian, the Huffington Post ... [who] draw mean cartoons about me ... They don’t realise how completely dead they are to me.

- Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, 22 March 2018
This is not a man who is trying to engage with people using multi-channel strategies. He would be flattered by the comparison with Bjelke-Petersen, which may be why Professor Williams of Griffith University hasn't made it. This is a man who makes decisions and does not expect to have to answer for them to people who aren't already fully supportive of them, as 2GB's Ray Hadley is. He is one of the few ministers in this government who does not own the ABC's Leigh Sales, whether through smarm (as Turnbull does) or bamboozling her with bullshit (as Morrison, Hunt, or Frydenberg do). The only time he regularly accounts for himself is in parliament, where he flaps and squawks like a panicked goose; his criticisms never land like well-considered, well-turned phrasing sometimes can. Lacking the power to haul Labor MPs down to the station for questioning, he seems rather lost and impresses nobody but the anti-Turnbull right on the Liberal backbench.

Jacqueline Maley tried to call out Dutton's tactics, but only drew attention to how easy it is for a galoot like him to play the broadcast media:
But far from being dead to him, Dutton’s critics are actually an essential part of his political tactics.

Without critics, you can’t have controversy, and controversy is the oxygen politicians like Dutton need in order to breathe and grow.

Consider his feat last week - with no warning, he came out with a left-field proposal to help an obscure sub-group of the world’s persecuted population, a group whose suffering, such as it is, is so niche it has escaped global attention for several decades, and is beneath the mention of the United Nations, which appears focused (however ineptly) on the persecution of Syrians, Rohingas [sic] and Christians in the Middle East.

No one in mainstream political discourse has talked about South African farmers in decades. They are a '90s throwback.
It wasn't a proposal, it was a brain-fart, and should have been reported as such. If journalistic experience in covering politics has any value, it should be to know the difference between a major policy shift and a bit of kite-flying designed to distract journos who can't and won't focus on actual policy.
[Dutton] said “independents can scream from the sidelines” but they only thrive on disruption and are not serious parties of government.
And yet, when the government tries to get their legislation through parliament, they go cap-in-hand to those same independents. Again, experienced journalists know this and avoid getting wound up; yet, Male thinks you have to be devilishly clever to fool not just one journalist, but absolutely all of them, en bloc:
Dutton’s trick is to co-opt the disruption and sideline-screaming of the right-fringe and bring it into mainstream political debate. To civilise it. That way, voters don’t have to turn to independents, because their grievances (anxiety over reverse racism, nerves about how far political correctness will alter social values) are embedded in the main party of government.
If they stayed on fringe outlets like 2GB, right-fringe issues wouldn't enter political debate. People like Jacqueline Maley, the sorts of dills who employ people like her and Mark Kenny and the rest of Fairfax's appalling politics team, they are the ones who bring right-fringe issues into political debate.

Maley refers to Trump: but much of the US media, their readers, and others such as academic journalism schools, are engaged in deep reflection and debate about how they were played in 2016 and what they can do to improve the way they work. They are aware of their need to contribute to a healthier body politic, that the freedoms of the press are joined to responsibilities about sound public information and debate.

It's rights-only-no-responsibilities for Jacqueline Maley and her frantically silly colleagues at The Canberra Times; when the next bit of political tinsel catches their eye, whether from Dutton or the ACT Opposition or anyone else, they'll charge after it and leave more pressing and serious issues in the dust. Then they have the gall to complain about resources! If journalists had any pride, they wouldn't be played so hard and so often by Peter fucking Dutton. Dumb journalists are the reason why he's being positioned as a potential Prime Minister, rather than as a bollard or some potentially useful piece of civic infrastructure.

Dutton, like Andrew Barr, is a politician today. There are lessons those guys can learn from Pericles or one of the Plinys or Churchill or [insert your favourite dead politician here], but for a lot of it - including how to deal with today's media - they have to make it up as they go along. Some of it involves getting journos on side, some involves ignoring them, and for all this pas de deux large sections of the public will be left cold. This disenchantment has different effects on politics and media: politics can and does survive public disenchantment (to a point), media can't and doesn't.

Every time a journalist complains about resources, call out an example of a self-own like Maley or Keane (they do it all the time) to demonstrate that the problem with Australian journalism today isn't a stubbornly ungrateful readership, but a lack of sense in allocating the resources they have, which discourages giving them still more resources to squander in yet-undreamed-of ways. Resource misallocation is also what bad governments do, and yes the two are directly related. Symbiotically. There's nothing more Aussie than facing the future and flinching.

04 March 2018


Michaelia Cash has overreached herself in politics, and has nowhere to go but down.

After her comments about female staffers in Bill Shorten's office, Jane Caro and Jenna Price and many others have written about her betrayal of women in the workplace, particularly in environments (like Parliament) where women find it hard enough to make a contribution and be rewarded for it. Paddy Manning and Ben Eltham, among others, have written about how she sets low and worsening standards in public office. I broadly agree with what they've said and don't propose to reiterate or quibble, but to observe that a mediocre politician has bitten off more than she can chew and is suffocating helplessly before our eyes.

Cash vs the political class

Michaela Cash is unequivocally a creation of the political class. A lot of the anger directed at her has been from other members of that class amazed that anyone would shit in their own nest.

Cash's father was prominent WA state Liberal politician George Cash. Her entree to politics was in an unrelentingly blokey environment, one that would not tolerate quotas or adapt the environment even slightly to allow much space for women in non-traditional roles. She adapted to that environment and won a rare place in but also above Perth's elite, as a member of federal parliament.

Christian Porter is her brother-from-another-mother: his father was also a prominent WA state Liberal politician, they are about the same age, and in Perth's small elite they have fallen in and fallen out on their way to Canberra. He was spoken of in WA circles as a future Prime Minister, and she never was; part of that is sexism, but not all of it.

She entered the Senate in 2007 to replace Senator Ross Lightfoot, having worked on his staff and been his lover. It would be easy to write her off as some sort of kept woman, and both unfair and inaccurate; over more than a decade since entering the Senate in her own right, Cash has established a political career as significant as any who has made it to Cabinet. Yes, she's been stupid; but even a cursory look at Australian politics shows genius is hardly a prerequisite, and smarter people than her haven't gone nearly as far in politics. Yes, her behaviour has been appalling; but for all the piling-on she is still not the worst person to have entered politics. Yes, for all that we are still right to hope for better.

There will be political staffers, men and women, in Shorten's office and outside it (including in Cash's own office!), who take similar paths to hers toward high political office. Again, others have written what a betrayal Cash's snarl at Cameron was toward women, in a workplace that often assumes women take traditional roles or none at all. It is also a betrayal of Liberal women staffers, of women staffers outside the major parties, and other women who work in parliament (e.g. Hansard and press gallery journalists, cooks, cleaners, clerks, and security staff). Beyond that, it is a betrayal of the political class, people who have moved and who would move along a similar career path to her own: who the hell is Michaelia Cash to kick down the ladder up which they climbed/are climbing?

Long after this kerfuffle has blown off the front pages, there will be ministers and other high-level political-class operatives who burn with resentment that Michaelia Cash implied they were whores. Even those currently engaged in relationships not dissimilar to that between Cash and Lightfoot back in the day will resent that, and her.

Cash vs Shorten

Bill Shorten has been Opposition Leader for a longer continuous term than anyone in that office since Whitlam. He has survived the Heydon Royal Commission and the nihilistic treacheries of Victorian Labor, and other tribulations besides. This isn't sufficient proof that he'd be a great Prime Minister, or even that he'll necessarily make it to that office at all: but even rusted-on Coalition voters have to concede he's a survivor and a tough operator.

All ministers in this government bag Shorten personally and the opposition generally, it's standard political theatre. Cash has gone beyond Question Time answers and set-piece statements in her pursuit of "kill Bill". No other minister - not Joyce, not Morrison, not Dutton - has gone as far trying to knock over the main external threat to the incumbent government. The raid on AWU offices to discover its - and Shorten's - role in establishing GetUp! was her initiative, and its shortcomings can be sheeted back to her. Her ill-fated response to Doug Cameron's questions about her staff is also her own doing.

Sport is designed to teach you that if you play hard within the rules and spirit of the game, then if you win you'll have earned it, and if you don't you can have the quiet satisfaction of having done your best. If you play dirty, there's a taint over your victory and if you lose, you've lost face and everything really. This is where we find Cash today, sat on her arse in Losertown, and the last plane out of Sydney's almost gone (harmonica solo). She played tough and took on a big opponent - but she didn't win. There are no consolation prizes. Cash might be the hard-arse that Jenna Price says she is, but Shorten is harder.

A successful Prime Minister strolls on as Opposition Leaders fall by the wayside. Since Menzies, the only Prime Ministers not to be presented with the severed head of an Opposition Leader have been those we regard as generally less successful, beleaguered: Gorton, McMahon, Gillard, Abbott, and now Turnbull*. Howard saw five changes of Labor leadership when he was PM, Hawke 4 of the Liberals, Keating and Rudd 3 each. There would have been massive political cudos for Cash had she succeeded in knocking off Shorten, using the powers of her office and some inherent guile to expose ... er, something that might have caused Shorten to fall on his sword, or Labor to roll him. She'd be a giant-killer, a Person Not To Be Messed With, something like Barnaby Joyce was back a month or so. It hasn't panned out that way. Cash went in hard, playing for the big stakes, and has come off second-best. If Cash is forced out, the political credit goes not to Turnbull but to Labor, while Cash goes into history with her own boomerang embedded in her face.

"Kill Bill" has to be the dumbest political strategy since the creepy "Bathurst strategy" of the late 1990s in NSW politics, or Kevin Rudd playing silly buggers with both the Greens and the Liberals over emissions trading only to lose his own job. It is a demonstrable failure but it will not end. If Shorten does become Prime Minister, you can bet the Coalition in Opposition will plug away with the "kill Bill" playbook, and the press gallery will marvel at their cunning.

Cash vs the Business Council

The Business Council of Australia is not appropriately grateful for this government's policies in suppressing wages, and may even regard its triumph in this area as somewhat Pyrrhic. On becoming Liberal leader in 2009 Tony Abbott adopted their agenda wholesale, and both his successes and failures can be measured against this (rather than, say, any intrinsic beliefs he may have developed from his life experience, or the Vatican-line agenda on things like abortion and euthanasia). It has not reflected on either its successes or its failures, and has adopted the belligerence of its US counterparts in pushing for tax cuts and still more regulatory relaxation.

For all her bombast, Jennifer Westacott has less skin in the political game than the lowliest Coalition backbencher, who understandably flinches at the unrelenting pursuit of policies that do not appear to advance political or community interests.

Turnbull and Cash must mediate the relationship between the Coalition and the business community. The prime responsibility falls on Cash, and she isn't cutting it: she hasn't got the BCA to pull its horns in, and nor has she convinced the Coalition that promoting the BCA agenda will lead to political success (Morrison has done most of the heavy lifting in that area). A Liberal has to manage that relationship effectively: not being a doormat, but not standoffish either. Before 2009 political scientists could and did make the case that the Liberals were more than the puppets of big business, but Abbott had trashed that too and Turnbull hasn't got time to quibble.

Cash is the minister responsible for workplace relations and industry. These roles have not been combined since before World War II. It requires a vastly capable minister to be able to cover this field, especially as a Liberal: everyone in the Liberal Party fancies themselves as an expert on business-friendly policies (a bit like being Agriculture Minister in the Nationals, or workplace relations minister in a Labor government). As I said, Cash is no fool but she's not a vastly capable minister. Being snippy is simply not an adequate response to fair questions on her portfolio.

Cash vs the press gallery

Chris Uhlmann is about as close to this government as it is reasonable for a press gallery member to get. The fact that he's in trouble for photographing Cash's phone is stupid, and shows that both the formal rules for press gallery engagement and the informal understandings and relationships serve to produce neither good journalism, compelling content, nor a public that is well-informed after having consumed that content.

Blocking media coverage of her entering a room in parliament was pathetic, the sort of thing an under-siege minister might scream for but which an experienced staff should realise was always counterproductive. Female journalists may well feel let down by Cash's recent efforts, if not some solidarity with Shorten's maligned female staff. The smarter ones can smell death on her too. All those press gallery members who've worked so hard to build relationships with her must wonder why they bothered, and what future those relationships may have.

The press gallery gave a free pass to Tony Abbott in his criticism of Cash. Be in no doubt that had Abbott remained as Prime Minister (and assuming he'd put Cash into Cabinet), he would have backed her more forcefully than Turnbull did. He'd have brought all of his renowned sensitivity toward women's issues that is now overlooked by experienced press gallery operators. I know Cash stuffed up, but she should not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man either. It's like the gallery forgot all about Abbott, and yet again gave him the coverage he only ever wanted: to have his words taken at face value, on the day and in the context in which he said them.

The Cash-less society

Nobody in the business community is impressed by someone who picked a death-match with a man who is clearly not dead. The business community has to do bipartisanship because its plans go beyond the news cycles or even the three-year electoral cycles, and Michaelia Cash is not a long-term player in frontbench politics. Her credibility is shot. She might make a useful lobbyist in a few years. The Prime Minister's pride is such that he will not pole-axe her straight away (she failed not by departing from his agenda, but by being zealous if imprudent in pursuing it). He isn't exactly overwhelmed with alternatives, or Cash would be gone by now. Sending her to an ambassadorial position so soon after Brandis would cement the idea that his government is on the way down, and that capable operators should not rally to its support but take to the lifeboats.

There will be no big initiatives developed, announced, and seen through by this minister, not in her current portfolio nor any other. If the Coalition loses the next election the next Liberal Opposition Leader might well call on former ministers to help return them to office, but Cash will not be one of them. Michaelia Cash is finished.

* I didn't count McEwen because his was a caretaker role while the leadership of the Liberal Party, not Labor, was being resolved. Parliament did not sit while he was PM, he cannot be said to have failed to knock off the Opposition Leader (Whitlam) when there was no proof he was trying to do so and when his limited term was so focused on other matters. As for Turnbull, it's true that his Prime Ministership hasn't ended but as of today that statement holds.

16 February 2018

What conservative triumph looks like

Conservatives within the Coalition should be enjoying their moment of triumph. They have negated a supposedly progressive Prime Minister and tethered him to the unpopular and disastrous policies of his conservative predecessor. They have cast off all but two of those pesky state governments, with their namby-pamby health and education and human services, and have command of the high ground of the federal government. They stand poised to deliver tax cuts, to hold forth against Aboriginal claims through the Uluru Statement, and for welfare crackdowns.

This is the moment Australia's conservatives worked so hard for so long to achieve. Why, then, is everything crumbling around them? Could it be that what Donald Horne called "second-rate people" are part of our defences against tyranny?

The press gallery started the year by trumpeting a 1% rise in polls as "a strong start to the year" for the government, and we now see why that was not merely wrong but fundamentally stupid. It simply had no basis in fact. It was wishful thinking masquerading as analysis.

There Can Be Only One

Turnbull and Joyce have been at one another's throats for a week now, and today it came out into the open.

Malcolm Turnbull is the first Prime Minister since Gorton and McMahon whose parents were not married before and throughout his childhood. Keepers of the sacred flame of Leather Jacket Malcolm, closet liberal, overlook and cannot reconcile his absolutely fustilarian attitudes toward marriage and adultery. It may explain why his approach to the same-sex marriage debate convinced both sides he wasn't with either. The amendments to the ministerial code are in line with that aspect of the man: if you ever wanted an authentic response from Turnbull's heart to a public policy issue, that will have to do.

Barnaby Joyce has rallied his party around him (see below) and acts like he's invincible. In 2009, Joyce's lower-key predecessor Warren Truss helped sink Turnbull's first term as Liberal leader when he all but declared he wouldn't work with him. Joyce is trying to reprise that when he called Turnbull "inept", but the stakes in government are higher than they were back then. He has reached the stage where Nobody Tells Him What To Do, what the Greeks called hubris - and you don't need a classical education to know what comes next.

From time to time the Nationals have to stand up to the Liberals to protect their distinct identity, and to assert the interests of rural constituents. This is not one of those times. Any National who dies in a ditch defending Joyce - come to think of it, they seem awfully quiet at time of writing - gets nothing from this government. Even Christensen has retreated into the arms of his white supremacist buddies than defend the man who stuck his neck out for him.

Joyce is the minister in charge of national infrastructure. To do that job you need to operate effectively across government, and with the now-Opposition in order to give jittery financiers the bipartisan support they crave. If Joyce can't do that, they will ramp up their relationship with former minister and current shadow, Anthony Albanese, and wait out the fall of this government. A Coalition government will do absolutely anything to avoid this. Even if Turnbull backs down, the Nationals will need some way of pulling Joyce's head in now that they have forfeited the ability to do so themselves.

How am I supposed to live without you?

Barnaby Joyce first rose to prominence as a Senate candidate for the Nationals in the 2004 election, by publicly taking positions contrary to his then-leader John Anderson. Joyce's term in the Senate began the following year. For over a decade, he has been a dominant personality in the Nationals. He has shaped the public image of that party. The fact is that if you want to be a Nationals MP, you are going to have to deal with Joyce.

There are 16 Nationals in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate. Only Luke Hartsuyker and Senator Nigel Scullion entered parliament before Joyce (both in 2001): all the rest of them have entered a parliamentary party which he has shaped. Barry O'Sullivan is only in the Senate because Joyce resigned from it. Matteo Canavan was a member of Joyce's staff. Joyce has promised publicly to get George Christensen into Cabinet. It could have been different - there are Nationals preselection candidates, dedicated members of their party, who were defeated or dissuaded from running because Joyce took against them. Those who are there are largely Barnaby's people. Apart from Hanson, no other federal political party leader has that degree of control over his caucus/party room. If you pardon the expression, Joyce has made his bed and is lying in it.

Nationals MPs know that Joyce has done everything necessary to be kicked out of a leadership role. They are sincere about marriage and families. Natalie Joyce and her daughters are not abstractions, as they are for journalists or bloggers; they are people they've all known well for years. It is telling that no Nationals other than Joyce and those in his retinue, Nash and Canavan, have been affected by section 44 and its questions over citizenship: while that's partly down to membership demography, it also shows the party doesn't have a culture of playing fast and loose over constitutional validity.

The Nationals can't get rid of Joyce because they can't imagine their party or life generally without him. Liberals can and do imagine a future without Turnbull; Shorten isn't the be-all-and-end-all of Labor, either. If you can't even imagine the Nationals without Barnaby Joyce, what are your grand visions for rural Australia worth? You can see how Joyce persuaded the party to use its scarce funds to tide him over during the byelection campaign: imagine Turnbull, Shorten, or di Natale asking the same of their respective parties.

Joyce might go within the next few days or he might not. Media assertions about him "surviving" or "weathering the storm" are stupid, because we have seen this man in his flaws. Joyce does not have nerves of steel and an unconquerable will (dare to quibble with that, press gallery drones who've known him for years). Joyce is a man who has been under extreme pressure for a long time now, and the idea that he will simply carry on as before is a fantasy.

What the Nationals are doing by dithering over his future is putting it into the hands of the unknown public. In other leadership challenges, MPs invoke the public being for this candidate or against that as reasons for voting as they do. Because the press gallery denied New Englanders the necessary input into their decision on 2 December, nobody with the Nationals party room has a real clue about what people think about what has now come to light about Joyce.

What is most likely to happen is that, at some point, the Nationals will be required to take a strong public position on an issue. Joyce will not be able to make that position, because the response will be derision. This is a basic aspect of leadership, and Barnaby Joyce is not up to it. He never was, and all the glowing profiles written about him from the front bars of dusty pubs somewhere are just so much award-winning content shit. O'Sullivan's rustic imagery about the horse that jumps the fence doesn't work, because a horse can be put back on the right side of the fence and everything can carry on as before: not an option open to the Nationals. The Nationals may well decide to defer their decision, but they will be no clearer about their future than they are now.

Keep in mind that recent polling would see at least four Nationals MPs (Michelle Landry, Ken O'Dowd, Kevin Hogan and George Christensen) likely to lose their seats to Labor. O'Dowd might not be Joyce's favourite bloke right now, but their future requires them to work something out or hang separately: Joyce can't dispose of him like he did with previous party opponents. Others may come under threat from local heroes who don't think the incumbents are up to the job (e.g. in 2016 Rob Oakeshott went from a standing start to come within 5% of knocking off Luke Hartsuyker in Cowper). The Nationals have this in mind. Existential pressures such as these emphasise the need to make a decision, but do not necessarily improve the quality of the decision made.

The undead John Ruddick

Once again, the NSW Liberals have expressed a wish to broaden their base beyond their existing membership and existing pool of candidates. Once again, John Ruddick pops up and claims The Members want people like him and Abbott to run the party. Once again, the NSW Liberals vote for something more than what they have, as befits an aspirational people. Once again, Ruddick convinces himself - and then some of the more gullible journalists - that an actual vote of party members represents a kind of false consciousness.

Tony Abbott disgraces himself further by lending his name to Ruddick's quixotic cause. He gets his just reward by being shown not to be The True Champion Of The Liberal Base, The King O'er Narrabeen Lake, to all but the most dull-witted observers. If Ruddick were elected to parliament, he'd give Turnbull some minor grief and then defect to the Cory Tories; NSW Liberals know this and consistently vote against him. Trent Zimmerman beat him for NSW Young Liberal President in 1991 and will beat him again if Ruddick runs for preselection in North Sydney. After a few months, journalists will again return to Ruddick as though he were A True Voice Of The Liberal Base, regardless of the accumulated evidence.

The hill to die on

In Victoria and Queensland, the coalition has basically offered their agenda to that of the Murdoch papers. Teach Aussie values rather than fancy-pants foreign languages or computer code; but deride the teachers doing the teaching. Law and order, but no new prisons and run down lawyers and judges.

Their commitment is now total, but their success is far from assured. Matthew Guy should have resigned over the "lobster mobster" thing because he is now diminished, if not absurd. Deb Frecklington in Queensland is willing to lend her name to the daily story in The Courier Mail but in recent years success in Queensland politics has been more assured by turning away from that noisy and insubstantial publication. Could Guy and Frecklington be the last conservative leaders willing to die on the hill set for them by the Murdoch papers?

Peter Dutton's scare campaign against African gangs in Melbourne has done nothing for the conservative vote in Melbourne nor in Queensland. Could this utter lack of impact be a harbinger for his political future? Would it make any self-respecting journalist wonder if the real story was wherever Dutton wasn't? The answer to the latter question is no, of course, so that they can try to drum up interest in a dead contest ahead of, well, any other live but complex issue.

Matters of life and death

Conservatives failed at blocking same-sex marriage, though they succeeded in blocking Malcolm Turnbull in claiming any credit for it. Welfare crackdowns like the debit card and robodebts are compensation for aggrieved conservatives. They won't win the euthanasia debate but they will win concessions like more palliative care and psychotropic drugs for the terminally ill. Offshore detention is a way of penalising some, but not all, non-Anglo migrants. Conservatives wan economic growth without economic disruption: this explains why education funding and the broadband network are so limited. They've given up altogether on Indigenous people. They are failing badly in invoking the authority of religion in any area beyond the strictly theological.

Conservatives can't win the big debates about our economic future but they are doubling down on the petty measures to which they find themselves confined. This is called the culture war, and you take up arms at your own peril. It is not designed to be won, it is designed to give nobodies something to do.

The Anglosphere

Both Theresa May and Donald Trump have bitten off more than they can chew. Neither offer much help to conservatives in Australia. The NZ Nationals under Key and English provided solid examples for Australian conservatives, now both are gone. Boris Johnson is yet another British politician who seems well-disposed to Australians but offers nothing whatsoever in policy terms. Julie Bishop has been Shadow Foreign Minister and now Minister for a decade, and she seems utterly discombobulated by events in foreign policy; there is no evidence anyone else in the Coalition parties in thinking about the many moving parts in foreign policy right now. The foreign editor of The Australian, one of the great champions of the Anglosphere, is more at home with shenanigans at Young Liberal branches in northwestern Sydney than he is with actual foreigns, and his counterpart at Fairfax is obviously an algorithm that synthesises American magazines that the company hopes their readers have not read. There are no lessons CrosbyTextor can apply to Australian campaigns from the widely discredited 2017 UK election. No clues are offered, nor any picked up.

At the moment of triumph

Strong, stable leadership is easy to talk about, hard to deliver. The moment has arrived for Australian conservatives but they have nothing to show for it. It's as though conservative triumph had no moment beyond the careers of empty vessels like Abbott or Abetz. Conservatives don't do steady any more, and shirk the responsibilities that come with paternalism and/or The White Man's Burden.

The consensus for what should replace them isn't clear, but it never is. We should be at a moment of conservative triumph, and see what that belief system looks like at its finest and most effective. Even for dedicated followers such triumph seems to ring hollow; and what to celebrate, what to cast away, is no clearer than it might be in a moment of conservative defeat.

11 February 2018

Out with the bathwater 2: a change of focus

After writing the post below I had a good laugh at Katharine Murphy's effort and was reinforced in my respect for Asher Wolf when she posted this Twitter thread, with a fraction of the resources available to Murphy and the press gallery. I watched James Massola, of all people, condemn the idea of journalists running unverified rumours - and then moments later, another story under his byline consisting entirely of unverified rumours, which has pretty much been his entire "career" so far.

I may be getting soft in my old age, but after all that I re-read the Murphy piece. I felt some sympathy for this position:
So I don’t want to be the Canberra sex correspondent.
Non-press-gallery journalists Woodward and Bernstein probably didn't want to cover each and every burglary in early 1970s Washington - and if we look at their career, they didn't. Non-press-gallery journalist Andrew McGarry covered a court case in Adelaide and ended up writing the definitive book on the Snowtown murders. Sometimes in journalism, the story chooses you.

Murphy took a strategic decision not to pursue a story that is having far-reaching implications that go to policy decisions, and the very political structure of the government - a story worthy of any self-respecting political journalist, let alone a Political Editor. Regardless of how she feels, she will have to play catch-up on this story. But because the story started in a place that was (to use Jacqueline Maley's technical term) icky, Murphy chose not to lead the story while rising above the ick.

A nurse who faints at the sight of blood or shit, or people who rail against the wickedness of John Barleycorn while somehow working in a licensed establishment, are not just fools or hypocrites. They are people with no future in those jobs. So it is with a journalist who stumbles upon a real story and, when it blows up in their face, disdains it:
I’d rather think about energy policy, or whether any of us will ever get a wage rise, or whether our hospitals will be properly funded, not because I’m a buttoned up puritan, but because that’s why I think I’m here: to keep close eyes on those things for readers.
Those stories are better covered by journalists who really understand those areas and can convey ideas being given visitors' passes to the parliamentary press gallery. If journalism is to survive, those journalists (often freelancers, or writing for niche outlets with little hope of employment in the sort of media outlet represented in the press gallery) must be given more assignments. Those assignments must come at the expense of perpetuating the palpably disappointing fantasy that a press gallery journalist can turn their hand to any subject.

All of the worst stories written about these and other important issues are written by press gallery journalists whose hearts are not really in this subject matter, whose minds are simply not on the job, and who still cannot shake the herd instinct of the One Big Story that might be happening wherever they're not, and to which they contribute little if anything and thereby diminish the very idea of news.

All of the worst takes about Joyce-Campion start and end with the label sex scandal. Like most journo cliches, it's alliterative and the very name almost tells you how to write the story - slap and tickle, the distant missus keeping the home fires burning, the nu-media temptress, long lonely nights and the aphrodisiac of power - but the story has moved way beyond sex scandal, and as a result catch-up journos are going to have to dig for the story rather than have it ladled out in press releases. See for example Asher Wolf's Twitter thread above for prima facie questions arising from Joyce's post-marital accommodation, his landlord's other business interests, and how these appear to overlap with Joyce's portfolio responsibilities. Journalists who sniff about Twitter will be out of a job if they keep being shown up like this.

On 9 October 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her speech against misogyny. In the days that followed, press gallery journalists wrote increasingly silly pieces about why the speech did not matter, or how you got it wrong because you weren't here in the gallery with us. Nobody remembers those pieces, even though sadly many of the journalists who wrote them are still employed and unrepentant. I suspect the pieces by Murphy, Maley, and Overington will go the way of those earlier journosplain pieces - they are covering their inadequacies while overlooking more substantial and enduring issues, too much of which negates any value proposition journalism may have.

But seriously though, what would I do if I were a press gallery journalist right now, thoroughly discredited and playing catch-up? Would I be shrieking about constrained resources (as though journalists were the only people with this problem? Isn't the whole idea of traditional media to pitch news at people too time-poor to dig for it themselves)? Would I be yammering about Facegoogle or whatever? No, I would be lapsing into old-school journo solutions:
  1. I would take a sheet of paper (well, start with one) and divide it into two columns.
  2. In one column I would write down every Open Secret, every gobbet of scuttlebutt and innuendo and rumour that had reached my shell-like ears, no matter how icky.
  3. I would cross out those matters that have already been done by traditional media. I would also cross out the ones that I could prove were false (e.g. X and Y weren't even in the same country on the 29th, let alone the same bed, and here are the travel documents).
  4. Against each one, in the other column I would list the public policy implications: was public expenditure involved? Did the government choose Surprise Policy Outcome B over Expected Policy Outcome A, and could that be traced back to this?
Starting with observable outcomes, you can then work out motivations, and reverse-engineer timelines and paper trails from there. Stained sheets and video of bags of cash being exchanged come later, or can be left to others once the substantive issues are dealt with. This is proper journalism, and the press gallery are better placed to do it than anybody else. Start tomorrow after the post-lunch lacuna sets in, and continue until quarter to five when those pesky press secretaries surprise you (as they do every other day) by releasing information they would prefer was buried. Repeat until it all comes out. This beats the hell out of disdaining the icky, and failing to imagine how something so prurient can only ever be so regardless of what else comes to light. It is the sort of thing proper journalists outside the press gallery do each day.

You know what I really think of press gallery journalism? I think it would be a great idea, and it is not discredited for being tried so rarely.

08 February 2018

Out with the bathwater

The fact that Barnaby Joyce had impregnated a former staffer and NewsCorp journalist was widely known before the New England byelection on 2 December last year. It has been ridiculous, and a bit sad, watching traditional media justify itself in relation to this story.

Fucking inconvenient

Let's remind ourselves of the political situation in late 2017.

The government needs a stable majority in the 150-member House of Representatives. It had 76 members, meaning that with the Speaker above the fray the Coalition fielded 75 members against 74 Labor and others outside the Coalition.

Barnaby Joyce, as Member for New England, was a NZ citizen by descent. John Alexander, Member for Bennelong, was a UK citizen by descent. Both renounced their non-Australian citizenships and were endorsed for the byelections. Each man, we now know, had left their wives and were living with another woman beyond the family home. Both men represented, and had sought to represent again, conservative electorates with above-average rates of married couples raising children.

Had either or both lost the byelections held last December, the Turnbull government would have been forced into minority status, propped up on a contingent basis by some of the MHRs outside both the Coalition and Labor. Almost every media outlet represented in the press gallery had editorialised before the 2016 election to return the Turnbull government. They still believe in Peter FitzSimons' Fantasy Malcolm. The press gallery hated having to cover a multivariate parliament in 2010-13; they tailored their reporting to minimise the possibility that the Turnbull government would lose its majority (oh yes they did). Labor candidates in Bennelong and New England did not make their opponents' marital woes an issue, and journalists didn't either.

J'accuse: political journalists deliberately held off reporting, or even confirming, stories about Joyce's infidelity in order to maximise his chances of winning, and by extension ensure the continuation of the Turnbull government.

Delayed gratification

Yesterday's sheepish effort from Sharri Markson (no I won't link to it) was too little, too late, but the press gallery has finally given itself permission to start talking about the issue. Almost immediately, traditional media was forced by reader outrage to defend its decision to avoid the Joyce story. This is not a proud moment in Australian journalism. It is not a harbinger of a bright future, nor even one that might keep things much as they are for that beleaguered industry.

Before we go through the traditional media's sorry-not-sorry piece, there are three precedents (in terms of pollies' actions and how the media responded to them) that are relevant here. Senior members of the press gallery, and the ninnies who now occupy the ranks of editors/news directors of traditional media organs, were directly involved in these incidents:

Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot

Evans was Attorney General and Foreign Minister in the Hawke-Keating Labor governments, and a senior Labor frontbencher once his party went into opposition. Cheryl Kernot was a Senator and leader of the Australian Democrats. Both were married to other people when they began a sexual relationship, which (as with Joyce-Campion today) was widely known but not reported.

Laurie Oakes decided that the hypocrisy of Evans championing family values and Kernot failing to mention the affair was enough to put the story into the public domain. Then as now, the press gallery talked about the convention of private lives being private while slavering over the story. There was no social media back then.

Ross Cameron

In 2004 Ross Cameron was an up-and-coming junior minister in the Howard government, a vocal proponent of heterosexual marriage and other traditional values. While his wife was pregnant in Sydney, Cameron began a sexual relationship with a woman in Canberra. The woman shared a flat with a press gallery journalist.

Traditional media covered Cameron's infidelity in the lead-up to the 2004 election. Cameron lost his seat (at that election, Barnaby Joyce was first elected to the Senate). Then as now, the press gallery talked about the convention of private lives being private while slavering over the story. There was no social media back then.

Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard had never married but had a male partner. There were no allegations of infidelity but plenty of media speculation about her private life nonetheless; "private lives are private" be damned, and there was social media but the press gallery were only starting to become afraid of it.

I will not be lectured about media ethics by that journalist

Fairfax ran a piece by Jacqueline Maley lecturing us about the media ethics around this story (*snort!*) and NewsCorp did the same from Caroline Overington (oh come off it). There's been enough accusations about hypocrisy over this matter, so fuck it, I am just not going to do Caroline bloody Overington lecturing anyone about anything. The Maley piece is bad enough, and she has form for being a terrible journalist, but for now let it serve as the chew toy for journalistic ethics in covering political sex scandals.
Why didn’t Fairfax Media publish the story? Why would we protect Barnaby Joyce?

The reasons were less conspiratorial than they were journalistic: we couldn’t stand it up.
Oh no, they were conspiratorial all right: the press gallery believes people shouldn't judge politicians on the basis of their private lives, and have been horrified to see political careers end at the hands of voters who take a different view (see Kernot, Cameron above).

As to stand-up journalism, this can be very selective. Let's look at some of the other stories on politics Maley's colleagues have seen fit to publish:
  • This article speculating about the US Ambassador to Australia is terribly weak. First, Admiral Harris' name has been floated earlier, and the appointment has neither been officially confirmed nor denied, so it isn't really news. Any compelling force it may have is negated with tenuous links like "Fairfax Media has been told [by whom?] ...", "Mr Turnbull is also expected ...", "It is widely expected ...", "Fairfax Media understands ...", and "[Turnbull] is expected also to discuss the economy and trade with Mr Trump [no shit, really?]". How did this slip through Fairfax's iron ethical grip?
  • The idea that Anthony Albanese might challenge Bill Shorten for leadership of the ALP is one of the longest-running non-stories in Australian politics. It is no closer today than it was three years ago or at any other point since Shorten became leader, but it helps dispel the fantasy that Fairfax never runs speculative political stories.
The entire oeuvre of James Massola and half that of Kate McClymont would have to be binned if Fairfax seriously applied the put-up-or-shut-up standard Maley is trumpeting here. Apparently, as with their counterparts in North Korea, the Canberra press gallery can only report what has been formally announced.
Within our newsroom, there was debate over what resources, if any, should be devoted to confirm the rumours.

In a newsroom that is hollowed out by cost-cutting, every reporter who is assigned to cover a love child expose, is a reporter who cannot write about national energy policy (which affects far more of our readers), or about the latest factional dispute in the Labor Party, or about the citizenship crisis.
Energy policy is better covered by dedicated and knowledgeable writers (who often spend little time lounging about the newsroom) rather than gallery hacks splicing a press release to a Google search. The Labor Party aren't in government, and if you can't tie a factional spat to a policy outcome (and you can't), then forget that. Perhaps framing Joyce's family issues with the journalistic cliche of the "love child expose" is the problem here?
At the same time, we knew it would probably be broken, sooner or later, by the News Corp tabloids.
Before the New England byelection Joyce's daughters had toured Tamworth with a loudhailer, warning that if he could breach trust with his family then none of his political promises could be trusted either. Independent Australia put out not one but two articles to this effect. So did True Crime News Weekly. There is a long tradition in the Australian media of "respectable papers" waiting for "the yellow press" to break an unsavoury story, and then appear to pick it up reluctantly: any of these events would have given traditional media the impetus to run the story, on 3 December if not earlier.

The ABC is doing this hold-your-nose-and-report-the-story thing tonight too, and it's risible. Joyce would normally retreat to the conservative redoubt of Sky, but nobody watches that crap outside of what bushies call the SCAM triangle (Sydney, Canberra And Melbourne). Leigh Sales has, like Joyce, undergone a recent marriage breakdown, which may explain why she has gone so easy on him and is treating him like the victim here.

You'll always have an excuse not to do your job. And when it comes to political journalism, you can count on Jacqueline Maley to not do it well at all.

Maley exceeds herself by lapsing into what-if:
If it had been published in full, could the story have changed the crucial byelection result in New England?

During the campaign it was reported the Deputy Prime Minister had broken up with his wife and was living with his sister. Rumours about an extra-marital affair and a pregnant “mistress” (terrible word!) were widely known throughout the electorate. His long-time nemesis, former New England MP Tony Windsor, frequently tweeted about it. At one point Joyce was hounded by a man who harangued him about his family situation in a pub.

None of it affected his popularity. Joyce won the byelection with a huge swing to him of 7.21 per cent.
For starters, the candidates at the byelection were different to those at the general election. Here's what would have happened if traditional media brought their imprimatur to this story:
  • Candidates who might not have stood against Joyce may well have done so, affecting the result;
  • The local gossips might have borne less of the burden for the story, and so too those stout defenders of the Deputy Prime Minister ("what a terrible thing to say! I know Barnaby and his family! That would never happen!") might have looked a lot less silly. The authority of trusted media helps clarify matters both for those who want to believe the news, and those who don't.
  • The idea that journalists at major outlets call it as they see it without fear or favour would be reinforced, and not diminished as it has been. When Jacqueline Maley calls on you to subscribe to Fairfax and to help with the campaign against proposed laws that might send journalists to prison, she might've been able to point to a recent example where fearless reporting outed a family-values hypocrite and a crap Agriculture minister, rather than misrepresenting a political liability as the nation's choice.
If you're going to trash your reputation for fearlessness in gathering and disseminating information, be it on your head. This is why it's silly to stake your reputation covering for Joyce: five years from now he'll be gone from politics, will you be gone from journalism by then?
Joyce, a Jesuit-educated Catholic, has long proclaimed the sanctity of traditional marriage. He has often spoken of his conservative “family” values.

During the debate on same-sex marriage Joyce advocated against it, saying he believed marriage was a heterosexual institution that had “stood the test of time” and was “a special relationship between a man and a woman, predominantly for the purpose of bringing children into the world”. He then abstained from the same-sex marriage vote, perhaps because he realised how untenable and hypocritical his position was.

Joyce is a leader, not just a regular MP, so his character is part of his political brand. Voters are now free to judge him on it.
Voters are always free to judge him on it. Always. On 2 December you should have provided voters with the information they would need to make such a judgment, and you chose not to do so, diminishing your value as a provider of information.

Joyce's decision on the same-sex marriage vote is less important than the decisions cast by people who sincerely believed the Deputy Prime Minister, and who believed that his words were quoted in the appropriate context by Fairfax outlets. They weren't, and it doesn't matter whether or not Joyce's office and/or the Fairfax newsrooms were festooned with knowing smirks as his words were quoted without that vital context: that he could not imagine any same-sex couple might fulfil the rights and obligations of marriage at least as well as he had (this is where the blithe "love child expose" bullshit falls down).
Then there is the human factor of the story. Who can look at the photo of Vikki Campion, surprised by a photographer outside her Canberra home, heavily pregnant and wearing gym gear, and not feel a little icky about it?

It is such a huge invasion of her privacy, not to mention the privacy of the unborn child, at a time when a woman is at her most vulnerable (and prone to emotional distress).
Can I direct you to your highly ethical coverage of Lindy Chamberlain, or Stormy Daniels, and ask you to shut the hell up about icky.

Here's icky for ya: Vikki Campion is a former NewsCorp employee. That invasion of privacy, the slut-shaming and all the rest of it, was done by people whom Campion personally knows and worked with. You'd think there would be some "honour among thieves" among Caroline Overington and the Murdoch people, but clearly not. Jacqueline Maley's newsroom is full of former and prospective NewsCorp employees: there but for the grace of God and Rupert Murdoch go we all.
Some readers will remember the huge scrutiny and nasty sexual innuendo Julia Gillard copped over her personal life and suspect a double standard is at play.
No suspicion: the contrary case simply cannot be made. Contrast with the treatment of the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, and start preparing lists of press gallery journalists who need to be replaced as soon as possible.
The scandal is unlikely to be a career-ender for Joyce.
Only people who don't understand politics would say this. Anyone who's seen politicians come and go knows that Joyce has more past than future. His Cabinet picks showed the overreach of a man on his way out. We know not the date or the time (unless the press gallery are holding out on us again), but only a fool would be shocked at the prospect of a new father suddenly wanting to spend more time with his little one - particularly if the youngest Joyce proves to be a boy. Watch as the very same photographer snaps pictures of Barnaby being a doting dad!
Finally, there are Joyce’s four daughters and wife to consider.
You should have considered them when Joyce trotted them out for staged pictures that made it look like he could manage a long-distance family life on top of everything else. You could have used some journo skills to show that he was a sham and a joke at that, too. We'd be better informed, and you'd be the respected news outlet that nobody in the newsroom dares admit you no longer are.
The families of politicians are generally considered off-limits for good reason: they didn’t sign up for public scrutiny ...
Driving down the main street denouncing one's father, the Deputy Prime Minister, deserved some scrutiny; Fairfax diminished itself as a reliable news outlet by failing to provide even that.

Imagine the impact on Australian politics of a Deputy Prime Minister felled by the feisty women of his broken household, who weren't going to put up with his shit any more. Some allies you are, Jacqueline Maley and Caroline Overington and all the rest of you arse-covering swine. Barnaby fucked up, and so did all those newsroom heroes: you haven't exactly made a strong case for more resources and loyal readers, have you?

02 February 2018

Constant Constance Face

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance should be a politician at the top of his game. He is the steward of several large transformative infrastructure projects, and a former state Treasurer: all that, and not yet 45. In his current predicament he is more like someone at the top of that slow initial climb of a roller-coaster, just before plunging and being jerked this way and that before eventually being returned to where he started.

Transport is one portfolio that resists nimble, blithe solutions. Decisions made 50 years ago limit the options available to decision-makers today, and those made today limit those going forward. This article gives a good summary of why the problems with Sydney's passenger rail system are so intractable and multi-dimensional; they also show why Constance, a politician largely focused on the current news cycle, is so badly placed to deal with them.

History is a nightmare from which Andrew Constance is trying to awaken. No minister ever gets a blank slate and unlimited resources, yet Constance has no sense of historical continuum and his place within it: you can't appeal to him on that basis in the same way you can't argue with your cat about rugby league. For him, there is no history, and no future beyond the next news cycle or election, there is only now.

Whether it's the tram tracks to Sydney's inner-west being of a different gauge to the proposed tram line through the inner-east, or arguments over proposed routes of tram and train lines that haven't been well managed, or now train timetabling that stretches human and physical resources beyond safe and sustainable usage - Constance isn't good at addressing issues with complex long-term causes and where the few options available are all controversial.

The decision to hold a public contest to name a ferry and claim 'Ferry McFerryface' was the popular choice (even though it wasn't) shows some important political lessons, and not just the ones about lying:
  • The UK contest in 2016 that would have named a government research vessel 'Boaty McBoatface' was a clear expression of contempt by those who voted against their government and political class. Constance's "captain's pick" in favour of 'Ferry McFerryface' shows that contempt returned in full measure, with interest.
  • The contest overseen by Constance returned 'Ian Kiernan' as the popular choice for the ferry. Kiernan was a property developer and a recreational yachtsman who is best known for having founded Clean Up Australia. Unlike most property developers/yachtsmen, Kiernan was never beholden to the Liberals. He organised a broad, well-regarded social movement that is the envy of any political party. In the past, a Liberal Transport Minister might have gritted teeth and done a grip-and-grin with Kiernan in front of the new ferry bearing his name, but Constance has used the more basic tools of PR to deflect onto May Gibbs (there are those who admire this sort of thing, many of them journalists covering politics).
  • Constance's attempts to raise the bogeyman of unionism are absurd. Previous leaders of the union covering train drivers, like Bernie Willingale or Michael Costa, were bloody-minded negotiators who happily inconvenienced the public at the slightest provocation. Constance can and does stick to a script, lacking the wit to realise that underlying assumptions have changed and confusing persistence with commitment. He is going to have more trouble going forward in that portfolio rather than less.
Constance has no experience of having to negotiate with workers to keep an enterprise running, and nor does he come from the IPA/CIS wing that militates against union privileges. The fact that the union was quickly shut down by the Fair Work Commission in its attempt to strike undercuts the scare campaign. De-fanging the union movement makes them look like benign workers' self-help societies. For a government focused on the future, with infrastructure projects and Gonski-level education funding, carrying on about unions is a throwback to an earlier time.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is someone with a sense of history and future, and has set many of the directions within which Constance has to work. She has put him in a portfolio she knows well, and she backs him because she sympathises with the limits which he faces. There are, however, limits on her ability to indulge Constance indefinitely. There will be a state election on the last Saturday in March 2019, which means 2018 will be a year of clearing niggling controversies. Given that Constance is a fuckup ongoing source of controversy in a high-profile portfolio, he can't last as Transport Minister. She is loyal - she and Constance go back more than 20 years together - but she is not overly sentimental.

The ongoing war within the NSW between the far right and the relative moderates means the right will be out for blood. They are not going to take on Berejiklian directly, and nor will they take on sitting federal MPs. Berejiklian will be able to toss them the severed head of Andrew Constance and appoint one of their mouth-breathers as Assistant Minister for Whatever. Factionalism aside, it is hard to see where Berejiklian will find someone with the requisite depth of skills and understanding to be a useful Transport Minister, unless she deprives another equally important and complex portfolio of its minister.

There were rumours that he might switch to federal politics. Safe Liberal seats in NSW are largely held by his contemporaries, bar one - Warringah - but he doesn't have the political skills or momentum to knock off a former Prime Minister. Constance holds the state seat of Bega; I'll defer to others who know the politics of that area, but I note as Treasurer and now Transport Minister he hasn't been that successful in improving the road that holds that electorate together, the Princes Highway. Two federal electorates cover that area:
  • Eden Monaro is increasingly safe for Labor due to demographic overspill from the ACT, and the formidable incumbent Mike Kelly.
  • Gilmore is represented by the hapless Ann Sudmalis; if the Court of Disputed Returns found against Sudmalis, or if she trips over her own shoelaces again, it is entirely possible Constance would fly the Liberal flag (with Turnbull offering one of those Assistant Minister for Whatever roles). However, Gilmore is one of those seats standing between Labor and federal government. If the polls are as indicative as their sponsors hope, I don't fancy his chances.
This is not to say that Constance is finished altogether. He might make a solid Minister for Tourism, state or federal; those who thought more highly of him, including himself, have been shown up. People who like him and those who don't agree that he can be warm and engaging in person. When they concede that, his various political opponents should be forgiven by their respective bases.

He was always going to graduate to one of those roles post-politics that involve lunching and golfing and opening doors for one's lunch/golf companions. It's just that the moment has arrived 15 or so years earlier than he might have planned. He is older than Nick Greiner, Nathan Rees, Kristina Keneally, Mike Baird, and Gladys Berejiklian when each became Premier; older than John Howard or Peter Costello when each became federal Treasurer. He doesn't have the sort of resume that makes the private sector create board seats for him (and aren't the boards of corporate Australia crying out for more mediocre white men). Sydney lacks Melbourne's parallel power structures of gentlemen's clubs and AFL clubs.

The great political-class fantasy is that you can get into politics at a young age and bypass all those worker ants climbing the corporate ladder, landing some cushy all-care-no-responsibility corporate job that will take you through middle-to-old age. Yet, the very rhetoric of politics these days is that there are no free rides, no featherbedding, and everyone has to pull their weight. We see this in an age of mass sackings and insecure jobs, where CEO tenures last scarcely longer than fruit flies.

Very few operatives who have made their careers in politics actually make it to the sunlit uplands of non-executive directorships. They bristle at the indignities of freelance consulting, only realising post-politics the nature of the "jobs jobs jobs!" they trumpeted while in office. They often seem to be unfulfilled somehow, hanging around party head office during election campaigns but contributing little, maybe sounded out occasionally by up-and-comers or journalists desperate for a "senior party source". If they're willing to delude themselves about their own careers, you can see why they do the same to gullible journalists and their dwindling audiences.