28 June 2007

Harping, madness and decline

Miranda Devine has long been a hack columnist but in this article we come up against the limits of political classifications. Is she a rightwinger just because she is sticking up for a Liberal government, or is she a leftie because she's cheering on the lavishing of state funds and resources on a cause that makes her heart bleed?

First of all: everyone and anyone who criticises the Howard government is mad. Sticking up for child molestors and Malcolm Fraser. Mad, mad, mad. Now I'm going to criticise Miranda Devine, and despite the fact that I hate child molesters more than Miranda does, her only defence is that I'm in league with them as well. That makes me mad.
the Federal Government's rescue plan for abused and neglected children in the Northern Territory.

What plan? There was an announcement. The announcement proposed to medically examine children, which in the absence of parental consent is criminal assault. There is, as I pointed out earlier, no "rescue" nor any other longterm solution proposed or funded by the government.

This whole policy is an example of a government wishing to get credit for doing something without actually doing it. Someone with the "objectivity" Miranda derides others for not having would have picked that. Miranda Devine is paid to be a member of the "chattering classes" (or the "harping classes", as she puts it), every bit as much as David Marr, Piers Akerman, Kenneth Davidson, Gerard Joseph Henderson, Adele Horan or Tim Blair. I'm an amateur, I'm doing this for free and drawing my income from other things, yet in her methodology and her attitude Devine is every bit as amateurish as me. Nobody thinks she has objectivity, nor that she would know it if she saw it; therefore it is silly for her to write, and for the SMH to publish, that the lack of objectivity in others is somehow deplorable.
The former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who has made an art form of attacking John Howard

This is rich! Howard defined himself by bagging Fraser and his government at ervery possible opportunity and would not be where he is today without having done this. Yet, when Fraser dishes it back it's an "attack". To his credit, Howard doesn't lash out at Fraser publicly and those who profess to admire Howard should do the same.
But rather than criticising Howard for doing nothing about Aboriginal dysfunction for 10 years, he should apologise for his part in creating the problem. As Helen Hughes points out in her new book Lands of Shame, the Whitlam and Fraser governments entrenched apartheid in remote communities - in the utopian belief that Aborigines would live an idyllic hunter-gatherer life unsullied by mainstream Australia.

Why does Howard deserve no criticism whatsoever for doing nothing for ten years, only to come in heavy-handed all of a sudden?

Apartheid was a system of government which allocated black people to reserves and prevented them from leaving without official permission. The Land Rights Act and other legislation establishes Aboriginal control over traditional lands not privately owned. When Miranda talks about "apartheid", I don't know what she's talking about and neither does she. I doubt that Dr Hughes made the case for "apartheid".

Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister from 1975 to 1983, and it's no surprise that his thinking on Aboriginal issues reflects the thinking of the late 1970s/early 1980s. John Howard was a minister throughout the full term of the Fraser government and has been Prime Minister since 1996, yet there is no evidence whatsoever that his thinking has been informed by any developments in policy concerning Aborigines since the 1950s. It's the one area of policy where it is absolutely fair to accuse Howard of being a throwback. Fraser didn't deny responsibility for his actions then and he's made it abundantly clear over some time that he's moved on. Howard can fairly be accused of neglect of this issue. Devine has tried to put it back on Fraser, but it has boomeranged.
It's a sign of how the debate has moved on that Fraser's comments, after an initial flurry of attention on Monday morning, sank without a trace. Not a word on ABC TV's 7pm news, or The 7.30 Report, or Lateline

As though one network - the ABC no less! - defines "the debate". As though there can be no debate outside the media. As though the words of a former Prime Minister have no weight.

Fraser has built a substantial presence among people interested in Aboriginal policy. This presence mystefies those whose only knowledge of politics - and Liberal politics - is within the Howard government. Howard has been PM for longer than Fraser, and the Liberal Party - indeed, the country - bears the imprint of Howard more visibly than that of Fraser. If Fraser was so irrelevant, why is he so reviled?
How can you combat intelligent people who have deliberately chosen to misconstrue the Government's intentions and have fallen into hysterical arguments about a "land grab" and "invasive" medical checks?

Why have the restrictions on access and use of land been removed then? I'm not a doctor but neither is Miranda, and neither of us know how one can conduct a medical examination for sexual abuse that isn't invasive.
Do the critics, who profess to care about Aborigines, realise the damage they cause by willing the project to disaster?

The alternative to this announcement is not disaster, the alternative is a better thought-out, comprehensive policy based on consultation and understanding and, yes, backed by a whole lot of funding where necessary. Failure to plan is planning to fail, whether it's in this area of policy or anything else. It's the whole now-or-never tone that creates the impression that this really is a political stunt after all, and no denial will shift that.
The troublemakers spreading unsubstantiated rumours about women and children "fleeing into the sandhills" for fear of another stolen generation are risking wrecking the entire project

I had expected stolen generation to be in quotation marks. Nonetheless, it's not clear what sort of substantiation would satisfy Miranda, or how the mere reporting of a social phenomenon makes you a "troublemaker". Maybe she should work for a newspaper which hires reporters who get accused of being "troublemakers" just for doing their jobs.

Still less is it clear how standard Devine targets like the federal leader of the ALP or a visiting professor from New York suddenly become statesmen when they agree with her.

You can rise above your status as a hack by thinking: if [insert name of last leader from the other party] did this, how would I feel about it? Miranda can't do this, and she thinks the only "debate" that matters is the one rattling around the MSM. When you understand how lame the presence of stale thinkers is, and how easily a Columnist can be brought down by a bit of careful reading, you can understand why the MSM is in decline. She's a lazy thinker, and so long as the SMH are lazy to publish her they need not complain about non-lazy readers being too busy to buy their paper.

26 June 2007

Why the Press Gallery is a waste of time

In Crikey both Mungo MacCallum and Christian Kerr attempted to defend the role of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. They failed because they only reinforced its main problem: it claims to inform readers/viewers about that which it covers, but doesn't.

Christian Kerr (you'll need to be a Crikey subscriber) started out with a bold defence of the press gallery, and spent the rest of the article undermining it.
The vast majority of its members are level headed, conscientious types - good men and women doing a good job

Where have I heard this before? The same is said of another beleaguered group of whom Kerr and I have some knowledge, moderate liberals. Like press gallery journalists, they are prone to groupthink and petrified of standing out and getting picked off. However, the question as to whether they can really be said to be "doing a good job" is separate from whether you are fond of them as individuals.
Bias can provide original takes on the issues of the day - issues that are all too often repeats or variations of issues that have come and gone and come and gone and need some new interpretation.

It is to be expected that certain issues of government will require constant management by the legislative and executive (or even the judicial) branches of government. The power that government has can be, and should be, used to provide ongoing and improving service to the community, and the whole idea of parliament and the media is to scrutinise how well this is done.

The challenge of political reporting is to focus on those issues and to treat their occasional appearance before the-powers-that-be as developments in those issues, rather than subjecting complex and long-standing issues to analysis by jaded hacks with short attention spans and no real interest in the issues themselves. Most parliamentary reporting - and Michelle Grattan is particularly guilty of this - is limited to theatre reviews of Australia's dullest but best-subsidised theatre. Worse, the reviewers have personal feelings about the actors affect reviews much more than happens with crits of plays or movies.

It is true that governments increasingly control information to the point where the only official source of information

Let's examine an issue that came up recently as an example of poor reporting: the purchase of new frigates for the Navy. In reporting this issue as a political issue, the media make a number of mistakes:

  • Assuming that the minister's signoff is a matter of moment rather than one event in a long process

  • Assuming that the functionality of these machines is a matter of "boys' toys" rather than part of longterm trends arising from naval operations in recent years (e.g. Australia operations in the Persian Gulf and East Timor, as well as recent operations by allied navies).

  • Assuming that the personality of the current minister, and his prospects of leading the Liberal Party, are more interesting to readers than broader issues of defence or questions as to whether taxpayer funds are well spent.

  • Assuming that experts other than Hugh White cannot write for a broader audience, and that any attempt to do so would be less interesting than indulging the self-delusion of an old woman from Sydney's northern beaches or some wire-fed shit from Los Angeles.

This is also true of every other issue, state or federal.

Media outlets should have specialist reporters who concentrate on these issues. They should remove journalists from the Parliamentary press gallery to concentrate on issues. There should only be two types of press gallery journalist: those who at least mention matters of principle in describing the hurlyburly (e.g. Grattan, Laurie Oakes) and those who are unashamedly gossip columnists (hose who use the word "punters" to describe those of us who are citizens, voters, taxpayers, and yes readers/consumers of media, e.g. Glenn Milne). Parliamentarians who complain about the lack of room for a childcare centre should take room from the bloated, flatulent press gallery, and cost-cutters in media organisations should be grateful.
It's only bad when it becomes dull - when it becomes predictable.

Political reporting in this country is, by this definition, regularly bad. Not good Christian, and certainly not good enough - just bad. Imagine a restaurant reviewer stuck in a town where every restaurant only served porridge, or a music reviewer that only does emo, and you have some idea how piss-poor Australian political journalism is. A journalist who says nothing with razzle-dazzle might impress the hell out of Holy Grail barflies, but so what?

No more need be said about the Howard Costello thing until it happens. No more. It is just not possible to be interesting about this issue. If this story were banned, consider how many other stories might have been released and examined. The Peter Reith phonecard story, one of the bigger stories in the charmed life of the Howard government, was broken by a 26-year-old journalist who did patient, old-fashioned reporting and was not contaminated by press gallery groupthink. Where is she now? She could take Jason Koutsoukis' job, he's not doing anything with it.

Then there's Mungo, who has even less excuse for not knowing better:
a great deal of what was dismissed as bias was actually judgement [sic]; a careful and (usually) sober evaluation of the participants, their performances and their policies.

And, let's face it, the press gallery was and is in a far better position to make such judgements than the city-based columnists who deride them.


Distance doesn't just lend enchantment, and does more than make the heart grow fonder. Whitlam was an economic moron in 1969, he was an economic moron in 1979 and every single day in between and since. Anyone who covered him should have twigged to that in the lead-up to 1972. The Cabinet papers, and even some of the pollies of that era acknowledge that all the signs were there. What wasn't there, despite their presence, was the press gallery.

One of the key rubrics of contemporary politics - that Labor can't manage the economy - is based on clowns like Mungo ignoring economics until the country got comprehensively mugged. The city-based columnists never took their eyes off the economic ball, and so when Keating came in they were the ones who explained the floating dollar and interest rates and all that flowed from that. The press gallery just wittered on about Keating's natty suits.

People like John Howard get away with perspectives that are fifty years out of date because the reporting of Aboriginal issues allows this: a problem that comes up from time to time, is ignored and replaced with something else, just like any other. Nothing special aboout that? It is if you have to live it, long after the press gallery has moved onto something else. Better reporting could lead to better policy: just a thought. Make numbnuts feel uncomfortable and out-of-their-depth on the big issues and perhaps we'll have fewer numbnuts, rather than indulging them once their press secs bully you. Give it a go.

A robust, diversely opinionated media is not a sign of a vibrant democracy. It is a sign that pre-packaged lameness and running with the herd is more important than thinking differently - genuinely differently - and making waves.

Instead of hiring more press-gallery-stuffing with pinheaded biases, why not have people prepared to confront their biases and themselves? The last press gallery journalist to do this was Margo Kingston, with her odd combination of inner-city and agrarian socialism, and she left a while ago. Fuck the press gallery I say, and leave the timid not-standing-out to the oligarchs who have to curry favour with media regulators. Journalists and commentators should be made of sterner stuff. They should find out, not only what Australian readers/ citizens/ taxpayers/ viewers/ voters are interested in but what effects us - and talk to us (not "at" us, Christian) about that.

25 June 2007


With his announcement on sweeping interventions into Aboriginal communities, John Howard has achieved two things. First, he has finally neutered opposition from both centrist liberals and libertarians once and for all. Second, he has forced Kevin Rudd down the road of me-tooism that led Kim Beazley to oblivion. None of these things have, will, or can do anything to improve the lives of Aborigines.

Centrist liberals were starting to get all uppity at the prospect of someone other than John Howard becoming Prime Minister (what about Peter Costello ... yeah, right! The only ones who believe Costello has any sort of chance, and would be significantly different even if he did get there, have a savage case of Capitol Hill Groupthink). With this announcement you get gushy pieces like this and Laura Tingle's piece in Friday's AFR.

Politicians live for stuff like this. Before going into politics they comb the papers, thinking how cool in would be if they got press coverage. They then become MPs and wonder why the big-time journalists they've followed avidly for years, Laurie Oakes or Michelle Grattan or whomever, ignore mere backbenchers - while staffers in the PM's office crack down hard on backbenchers offering any tidbits that might feed their publicity habit. From there they go into a world-weary phase, like Costello or Minchin, where they would like you to think that if a journalist never asked them another question they'd finally be happy. They still love it and will suffer dreadfully from relevance-deprivation syndrome if media attention stopped. All this shows why politicians think that managing tomorrow's headlines is more important than investing in anything longer-term.

Yeah, the above paragraph is cynical - but so is this. If you're going to use Little Children are Sacred to have a go at Justice Michael Kirby, it's fair to call cynical politics for what it is.

Pieces like Hartcher's and Tingle's result from the very sort of "white guilt" that people like Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt or Gerard Henderson have built their careers on railing against. Because this is a Howard policy, rightwing commentators overlook where the money might be coming from, or the futility of any sort of investment in (or "throwing money at") Aboriginal issues. The libertarian angles against any government spending or the civil liberties of those who don't want to be corralled and examined have simply been overwhelmed by the sort of sentiment that allows bad policy to slip through, leading to logical chains like this:

  1. We must do something.

  2. This is something.

  3. Let's do this.

Australians need redemption from the moral taint of how all that we have and are is built upon, or even stolen from, Aboriginal civilisation. Voters appreciate Howard's economic management but resent being made to feel bad about issues like children overboard or David Hicks (and the Devines and Albrechtsens of this world, who offer resentment at being made to feel resentment, don't help). Howard offers this in his rhetoric, less so in the specifics. In Hartcher's piece is this bit of wishful thinking:
The Howard plan is a beginning, a necessary condition for dealing with any problem. Howard's plan, while necessary, is insufficient. His plan is essentially authoritarian and punitive. It is a plan for establishing control and stabilising the problem. It is not yet a plan for rebuilding deeply traumatised and dysfunctional families and communities. That will need to be the second phase ... There will be many quibbles about the Howard plan and it needs to be developed further. But he deserves all credit for the political courage to take responsibility for addressing a shameful and intractable national problem.

It will not ever be a plan for rebuilding deeply traumatised and dysfunctional families and communities, and nobody with any experience of this government has any right to expect that it might. Hartcher has no excuse for such wishful thinking, he is suspending the very critical analysis for which he is paid. Any opposition to a government policy is quibbling?

Thanking Liberal apparatchiks on the night of the 1998 election (or was it 2001?), Howard surprised everyone by claiming that there was no more important task for Australians than reconciliation with Aborigines. This prompted an elaborate pantomime where Aboriginal activists tried to prompt Howard to apologise for the way Aborigines have been treated - he didn't do that, nor did he do anything else for Aborigines either.

The most important thing about Howard's announcement is just that: it's an announcement, not a policy - not really, as Hartcher claims, a plan. It's a few badly thought-through stunts with no follow-through. It's built on lazy assumptions like:

  • all Aboriginal communities are dysfunctional

  • when it comes to Aboriginal communities, too many police is barely enough

  • the often painstaking and time-intensive policing needed to crack highly-organised and tightly-secretive pedophile rings is the same as the up-front and immediate tactics necessary to deal with the disorganised and blatant activities of a drunk

  • detecting a health problem and issuing a press release about it is the same thing as both curing the problem within the afflicted and avoiding risk of the problem recurring among the afflicted's community

  • grog is the only substance being abused. That's the problem with zero-tolerance: I can't see how you're going to ban petrol, and worst of all nobody in government can either. They don't even think it's an issue.

Aboriginal issues are regularly derided in Liberal and conservative as "trendy", even though every leader of government in this country since Arthur Phillip has had to deal with Aboriginal issues. No government can get over their own temporality by putting in place long term strategies to address long term issues affecting Aborigines. Government should work with Aboriginal people and communities, not on them as this announcement does.

Speaking of paternalism, it's interesting and rather sad that Cardinal Pell has had nothing to contribute on this matter of moral import.

Howard has also checked the Liberal State Oppositions. Scarce police resources are being sucked into an essentially political exercise which will deliver little lasting community benefit: any Opposition Leader should go in hard against such a proposal, but because it's Howard then O'Farrell, Baillieu, Seeney, Omodei, Hodgman and whoever is leading the SA Libs this week will just have to shut up. Howard has not really gone after any Labor state/territory leader, let alone dish out the kind of belting he has given Clare Martin - but the Clownish Loser Party won't be able to capitalise on that either (except, perhaps, exascerbating the career of a man who can't even keep his own domain name). As Louis Nowra points out, Iemma buried a similarly important report, with nary a word from Liberals O'Farrell or Howard.

This announcement hopes that the Howard government will be seen to be doing something about an ever-present issue, without the consequences of that short-termism and the hollowness of any long term hope becoming apparent, before the election. This announcement will demonstrate once again that any publicity is not good publicity in terms of drawing attention to Aboriginal issues, because nothing will come of it but more (publicly funded?) slim volumes from people like Louis Nowra.

It has succeeded in starving Rudd of initiative. He has no real clue about Aboriginal issues and, as Anne Summers all but admitted, is no longer setting the agenda but following that set by Howard (btw, which clown wrote the headline for Summers' article? Fancy doing that to a veteran feminist). Labor States have all gone the hundreds-of-extra-police promise and they always fall short, so this hasn't worked for Rudd. The only thing that can is if he demonstrates a commitment to addressing longterm Aboriginal issues - but the longer you spend with Aborigines, the less time you spend in marginal seats talking with non-Aborigines about mortgages and childcare. A dollar spent on health clinics in remote communities in a dollar not spent in a big city hospital or a nursing home. See? The more Rudd does, the more Howard can wedge him. The less he does, the more he looks like Howard's stringing him along. Aboriginal issues is one area that Peter Garrett could create real value for Labor.

This isn't enough to save Howard, but clearly it is enough to throw Rudd off his stride. How Rudd copes with that will determine whether this check to Rudd's momentum has become checkmate.

Update: Noel Pearson on this issue

20 June 2007

Man out of time

Labor has succeeded in making John Howard look out of touch, finally.

  • His hasty, and hastily unravelling, "policies" on climate change and water

  • The stumbles over ADSL and broadband generally, and the absence of any follow-through on what economic and educational benefits could flow from better broadband

  • The silly attempts to defend political shindigs at official Prime Ministerial residences, or parliamentary pay rises

They tried it when he was on 18% as preferred PM in the '80s, they tried it with the suburban solicitor thing, they tried it with Latham's reading to children and parliamentary super and whatever else he was on about. Now, after he's become the second-longest-serving PM in Australian history, this message is sinking in. Howard is losing it.

Keating looked visibly tired by the mid-1990s. He didn't want to be in Parliament, he couldn't translate the "big picture" stuff into practical action for you and I to take (other than voting for him - and I don't know about you, bu I didn't. I was a Liberal then ...). Now, Howard can't get across the big challenges before us, let alone attend to the detail and get in touch with us sufficiently to match our labours and hopes to the wider perspective. Rudd promises both something more in broad terms and finicky attention to detail. The risks are small, the benefits could be great.

Having a government that looks like it gets some of the challenges facing the country is far more valuable politically than some half-arsed hint that interest rates won't go up while you're at the wheel. Such a claim is easy to make, hard to defend - unless your opposition is non-existent and the media are asleep, and neither of these conditions apply now. Overdoing this explains why people are prepared to reward the perception of competence in the alternative, however fragile, so highly.

Reprising the "who do you trust?" message hasn't worked for Howard because you can't trust someone who has lost it, even if they can be trusted to keep their word. People would give him the benefit of the doubt again if there was no opposition, and the fact that such a lazy assumption remains in place is an indictment of the "political professionals" in the Coalition, all those overpaid halfwits who bluster around and rein in any State Libs who dare do anything that might win them government.

Now, though, Labor can probably be trusted to be no worse than the Coalition economically. Every slight interest rate rise has inflicted pain and both majors are equally unwilling to guarantee it won't happen again on their watch. Simply by clearing out dead wood and looking at issues anew, a change of government could lead to a freeing-up of resources and an overall economic boost. Even just renovating offices and downgrading Kirribilli House to a slightly more fancy Cadman's Cottage causes economic activity.

The Coalition hasn't won a well-respected opinion poll for over a year, so and all of the shenanigans pretending otherwise in recent times can't obscure the fact that the Howard government is heading for defeat. Even a terrorist alert isn't going to change things that much, as Rudd's perceived as more than capable in foreign affairs. We're not that scared of asylum-seekers, so another Tampa wouldn't work. Rudd is no wacky Latham, and bashing the journalists won't hurt Rudd at all. "It was politically devastating" my arse.

If economic management was the be-all-and-end-all, Labor couldn't have won in 1990 and couldn't have lost in 1996. It's a dearly-held notion among those I left behind in the Liberal Party, and they will regard a Labor victory as a vote for economic suicide.

Australians will change governments if two conditions are present: if the government has run out of ideas and if a credible opposition is ready to take over. These conditions were present in 1949, they were present in 1972 (let's all agree that 1975 is sui generis, OK?), they were present in 1983 and again in 1996. One or both of these factors were absent in all the others in between. Both factors necessary for a change of government are present in 2007.

17 June 2007

Icarus takes off

It used to be an axiom among the NSW Liberal Right that candidates should offer some experience other than having been a political staffer. This was their stated objection against Marise Payne and other moderates. Now, to demonstrate their objection to retaining Payne, NSW Liberals have preselected - for their safest seat anywhere in the country - a narrow-minded young man who has only ever been a political staffer.

Hawke's challenge will be to develop a real presence among community groups in that electorate that would enable him to survive politically if the prevailing political wins go against him. My guess is that he won't: he's a cold fish to those who aren't already and fully onside, a lonely place to be in a democracy. Hawke can't and won't make any meaningful contribution to governing a post-Howard Australia.

David Elliott could have done both these things, and may yet do so if he gets the chance. He probably will when he challenges Maxine McKew for Bennelong in 2009/10. At least Hawke is now out of Barry O'Farrell's way.

Hawke will embarrass the Liberal Party with his simplistic denunciations of the world in which everyone but him has to live and work. He'll think he's rallying the faithful when he is only isolating them and depressing their numbers. Drama queens among you will be keen to bring on his Gotterdämmerung, but it's true that a necessary precondition of post-Howard reconstruction for the Liberals involves the political euthanasia of Alex Hawke and the Dave Clark putsch.

On a lighter note, Koutsoukis has discovered that there's a difference between what animates political journalists and what makes voters choose one party over another. Still, no time for reflection, must get ready for the Mid-Winter Ball!

It's telling that Jase regards this year's do as "the final act", even though it's not a fat lady who's singing. It's also telling that "ego" is applied to anyone who can imagine someone other than John Howard or Peter Costello becoming Prime Minister - as though this quality were absent among those in (and reporting on) public life.

16 June 2007

Not thinking

The Sydney Morning Herald ran a series of opinion pieces (not published online) called "A country that has stopped thinking". They are trying to assess our grounds for optimism in a changing world, some sort of update on The Lucky Country.

In the body of the piece it's clear that, well, some Australians are thinking, but this is being stifled by cost-focused and unimaginative leadership. He's right to lament the advances in solar energy and other innovations going offshore after being neglected here. Fair point, and the headline should have reflected these issues. It's just that Burrell and others should have strained at the bit more than they did, if for no other reason to show what's possible (and to negate all those nasty blogger accusations of stale and unimaginative writing coming from the MSM).
Keating ... was voted out not because he had run out of ideas, but because he had too many that were too big and remote from an electorate that yearned for a return to a quiet life.

Keating was exhausted, as I've said, and he couldn't translate that big-picture stuff to practical reality. He didn't show us how we could help, other than by voting for him, so we didn't. With Howard, he creates the impression that what little he does is sufficient, or even all that's possible, to match the wider vision (e.g. "practical reconciliation" with Aborigines).

Burrell skates over the national lack of imaginaion as a function of its head of state arrangements. Donald Horne and David Marr have gone into this in some detail, and this debate has not been settled for all time in 1999. It was germane here, it could have been with better writing, and Burrell et al and their employer should have weathered the storm from monarchists who'd actually help prove the wider point: the monarchy acts as a brake upon ambition.

Burrell notes but does not explain the "stoush" over broadband. Basically what's happening is that Telstra wants to roll out "broadband" such that it entrenches its pre-existing monopoly over capital, and the G9 (other telco providers) want to do so in a way that makes Telstra just another provider. The government is dithering over this, and is not willing to invest the sort of money necessary to roll out the infrastructure. This political dithering by both the incumbent Coalition and their Labor challengers is deplorable.

Noting the "stoush" is not enough. Nor is it good enough not to note that the Federal government is happy to run a rail line from Melbourne to Brisbane. Will changing land-use patterns in response to sustainable water use have ann effect on this project over the longer term? What effect will it have on Sydney, having all that produce from the NSW Central West diverted between Australia's second and third cities? How will it help Brisbane become second-biggest and Melbourne third? What if we ran a massive fibre-optic "spine" by the track? No thinking outside the box for Steve, oh no.

Burrell's comments on art demonstrate the kind of "poverty of ambition" he would rail against in others. It's not necessary to have films funded by government. The fact that Kenny was financed by a private company ought not be as disappointing as it was to Steve. Crocodile Dundee wasn't publicly funded - does that make it less Australian? The Matrix, on the other hand, was partly funded by government money. It was filmed in Sydney but only the most bland, generic streetscapes were used - it's hard to imagine that anyone would be motivated to visit Sydney after seeing that film.

Given that Kenny was centred on toilet humour, who else would have done it but a private company? It wasn't to everyone's taste, and it was commercially successful. These are two factors that should insulate it from (not always philistine) complaints about wasting taxpayer money, as with, say, Bastard Boys.

The same applies to films Burrell praises. Priscilla was about a bunch of people whose manic flamboyance drained them internally and affected those around them negatively as well. Muriel's Wedding was the story of a banal person, distinguished by nothing other than having her story told. Same with Strictly Ballroom, Petersen, the Bazza McKenzie films or even Jedda. Perhaps the reason why people seek out "reality" TV is to achieve this transcendence, hoping that others can reveal a core that they themselves can't get in touch with.

Why the focus on film, though? People seem convinced they cannot tell a story effectively unless they have at least $1m of taxpayer's money at their disposal. They're wrong, aren't they? Given years of consistently declining standards at the Archibald Prize, given repeated grousing about public sculpture in Australian cities, could those that know about these matters not generate a response that involves bitchiness - itself a sign of narrow-mindedness unworthy of Art?

Lisa Pryor should have done the piece ahead of Steve Burrell. This piece is witty and perceptive. She should have made the link that Richard Florida makes between being open to new possibilities and discernment in private life and extending that to economic activity. Maybe she could have, with more space. The SMH should also have made better use of Elizabeth Farrelly's oeuvre, too.

When economic pull from overseas is strong, cultural push is also strong, so we merely become wealthy enough to buy imported stuff (or local copies thereof). This is an important issue, made not by Burrell but by Pryor. When demand for raw materials from overseas is strong, the country tends to do as little as possible to resist it, and as little as possible to fully exploit it in terms of building infrastructure.

Incase you thought Burrell, Pryor et al represent a change of direction, the same old, lame old comes through from Michael Duffy. Duffy is right about the shifting and narrowing focus of the left, but the poor bugger probably finds a treasury of diversity among Albrechtsen, Devine and other members of the choir. It is not essential to be a Trotskyist, or even a Labor voter, to hope for more from Howard; it is perfectly possible to do so within the main stream of Australian life. This article is a symptom of the puzzlement with which Howard supporters regard increasing dissatisfaction with mediocre performance.
When the authors want to compare Australia with other countries, they often make out the worst cases: on freedom of speech the comparison is with the United States; on government response to climate change it could be Germany.

This is called benchmarking, Michael. Companies do it to lift their game, and those who love Australia compare it to the best in the world and dare hope for more that what's dished out to us.
With this approach it doesn't take long to portray Howard as the Saddam Hussein of the First World.

What, a long-standing American client who is now dead?

I used to be a Liberal because I thought they'd build infrastructure to vouchsafe our longterm prosperity; I left that party because I was wrong, they weren't serious at all. I thought that with all this push and pull, we'd become more grounded in who we are. I was wrong about that too, but I just can't give up hope that it may yet come to us.

14 June 2007

Free Australia

In his 1922 novel Kangaroo, D H Lawrence thought Australia would be highly susceptible to fascism. He wrote of people's laid-back attitude disguising a love of order and hatred of foreigners, and fictionalised a "leader" who would exploit these qualities in turning the country to fascism. Twenty years later Australians were distinguishing themselves in a global war against fascism. The qualities conducive to that tendency within Australia were not as strong as Lawrence thought they were, and weakened as time went on.

Lawrence's contemporary Sinclair Lewis said that "when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross". This has been misinterpreted by many to claim that any display of flag or faith is inherently fascistic, a category error similar to the claim that any concern for the underprivileged must be communistic.

Today, we have a resurgence of faith and flag in Australia. Does this mean that we also have a surge of fascism? If we did, how would we know? The title of this post could be a description for some, an imperative for others.

in this article, American writer Naomi Wolf uses the term "fascism" and "tyranny" (in quoting political essayist and former US President John Madison) interchangeably. Wolf is a bit hit-and-miss with her polemics, a bit like Christopher Hitchens, but good on them both for getting in and wrestling with the big questions.

Her ten steps are more like ten features of totalitarianism, as one does not necessarily precede the next. There is also a question of degree to consider in reading this article. It is not clear that the timocracy that preceded Thailand's recent coup could be considered democratic. Wolf pays tribute to the resilience of America's democratic character while at the same time insisting that George W Bush has created a fascist regime in the face of that character.

To take issue with Wolf's article is to wade into American debates and slanging matches which others can deal with. There has been no antidemocratic measure here like the burning of the Reichstag or the closing-down of the Florida electoral count in 2000. Still, it bears examination: to what extent are the phenomena Wolf identifies present in John Howard's Australia?

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

The obvious candidates here are not Jews or Freemasons or Rotarians or whomever else, it's the Muslims. Australia's Muslim population have distinguished themselves by being moderate without being weak. The Howard government has, apart from a few barbed comments and a bit of dogwhistling, resisted demonising Muslims as internal enemies.

Members of the chattering classes like Andrew Bolt have insisted that internal enemies exist within the ABC, but he was doing that before 11 September 2001 and his jeremiads have no more discernible purchase than they did then.

The external enemy has been invoked in the sending of small numbers of existing regular troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those troop deployments match deployments elsewhere which are not overtly directed against this same enemy, such as East Timor or the Solomon Islands. Nobody is claiming that we have to fight criminal gangs in the Solomon Islands over there so we don't have to fight them here.

Invoking an enemy to the extent necessary to effect authoritarianism would require a mass mobilisation of fighting-age men. This happened in Australia during both World Wars, where we were fighting against authoritarianism rather than for it. It happened half-heartedly with the lottery in Vietnam and has not been tried since.

Australia's presence in Iraq is small and not likely to increase. It is a token effort to curry favour with powerful friends in Washington rather than a tool to repress dissent and rally Australians behind the incumbent government. If the government really though the external threat was as grave as political rhetoric might suggest, the Australian armed forces - in Iraq and elsewhere - would be better equipped and bigger than they are. US Presidential candidate Barack Obama was right when he called Howard out over this country's troop commitments. Any abuse of troop rotations, reserve call-ups or neglect of casualties would have greater political consequences for the Australian government than they appear to do in the US.

The threat posed to Australians overseas with the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 was significant, as was the tsunami affecting Indian Ocean countries at the end of 2005. The government has not used the Bali bombings to mobilise the country (i.e. to divert people and resources away from private-sector activities to the control of government and fulfilment of its own policies). Perhaps this is because there is no coherent plan for attacking fake militant Islam, toward which resources can be mobilised. Perhaps this is because the Howard government's hearts just aren't in the whole authoritarianism thing.

2. Create a gulag

The Howard government seems happy to outsource this to the Americans, if the experiences of Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks are any guide.

Australia's history as a British gulag creates a different perspective on this phenomenon than occurs in other countries.
But soon enough, civil society leaders - opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.

No sign of this yet, though the lingering persecution of Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus is embarrassing and hopefully not a precedent.

Persecution of journalists (if we extend this definition to contributors to student papers) was laughed out of existence in the decades following Vietnam. While it's possible that Australian authorities have learnt nothing from this experience, those so named were hardly impeded from leading full and productive lives. Many were enhanced by the experience, again a culturally-specific Australian phenomenon of rallying support for those "victimised" by the authorities.

Habib and Hicks have not yet succeeded in winning widespread sympathy for themselves and their activism for fake militant Islam, leading to a long-standing perception that they deserved what the Americans dished out to them. This belief persisted until too much time had passed for too little result in terms of hard evidence against the two, whereupon the Americans begrudgingly handed them to the Howard government. Authoritarianism has not won a victory nor suffered a defeat with the popular and legal ambivalence over these two.

3. Develop a thug caste

David Clarke has certainly done this within the NSW Liberals, but there is no evidence of it beyond that institution. The New Guard is no more after its ridiculous zenith with de Groot "opening" the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

4. Set up an internal surveillance system

Increased resources for the Australian Federal Police do not necessarily constitute a Stasi-like apparatus. Surveillance only comes to light when it is retroactively justified with a conviction and does not appear to impede lawful organisation of dissent against the current government.

5. Harass citizens' groups

Citizens' groups that wade into the political realm are subject to political attack, crossfire and collateral damage. Fake outrage at political rough-and-tumble does not constitute authoritarianism - it barely constitutes news. No evidence has come to light of political opponents being tax audited, spied on, denied operating licences or otherwise harassed by government.

6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release

Apart from Hicks, Habib and Jack Thomas, who volunteered for fake militant Islam and got burned, this hasn't happened. Greg Combet, David Marr, Simon Crean - these are among the many critics of the Howard government who have not been caught-and-released like Rex Hunt's fish.

7. Target key individuals

Habib, Thomas and Hicks were nobodies before they left for their little boys-own-adventures and they've been nobody since. Civil servants, artists and academics might be "monitored" by over-keen Young Liberals if they go on the ABC but otherwise, this hasn't happened. There's been nothing similar to the politically-motivated purging of US public prosecutors here.

8. Control the press

Lazy journalism is more of a problem than actual control.

Media legislation by successive governments - including that of the current Opposition when it last held power - delivered a sizeable proportion of the print media to one organisation that aggressively supports neo-conservative policies, and with it the incumbent Australian government. Mainstream media is suffering a longterm decline in the proportion of the population paying attention to it.

Australian governments have relied too heavily on the media in presenting the best possible impression to those who voted for it, to the point where they (the current government and the one before it) flounder when no amount of shiny shiny news stories has any impact on voter perceptions and intentions. Control should be made of sterner stuff.

The Howard government has been extraordinarily successful in stemming the flow of leaks, mainly because there was no countervailing force to protect leakers from retribution by government. It will be interesting to see if public servants feel freer to leak politically damaging information now that a change of government looks likely. Again, the Harvey/McManus case is a worry but if there's a negative version of "one swallow doesn't make a summer", it applies here.

There has been no discernible coincidence of terror reports diverting attention away from political embarrassment, as pointed out here.
In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003.

I have no sympathy with the notion that one journalist going into a war zone and getting killed is somehow more of a tragedy than the deaths of those they would use as story material. There's no firm allegation in those cases - and none for any Australians - that they died at the hands of their own governments with the intention of suppressing political dissent.

It is still possible for journalists to get access to information to which the Australian government would prefer they not have access. Hard, yes; increasingly difficult perhaps - but nowhere near authoritarian.

9. Dissent equals treason

This is the weakest part of Wolf's analysis, doing a bit of scaremongering herself. Howard has done this in offhand remarks but has not pushed it. This might be more convincing if Australia were under direct and recent attack, but it actually looks over-the-top and diminishes the Prime minister's poll standings when he does do it.

Doing something that diminishes one's standing is counterproductive for someone seeking to cultivate an authoritarian persona.

10. Suspend the rule of law

Apart from Hicks and Habib, this hasn't happened, and we blame the Yanks for that anyway. I doubt the Australian High Court would prove so compliant with the wishes of the executive as its US equivalent.
Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole's baby ...

No, that was the media, that pliant mob so easily nudged away from political stories. No Australian legislation, no bill makes it easier to invoke martial law than it did before 11 September 2001, or before the current government came to office in 1996.
... a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions - and this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure.

This may be true, to some extent, but the hollowness is most pronounced in the media.
What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.

In Australia, this would be the end of newspapers as reliable sources of information. Newspaper readership has been in decline since 1947, when there was a newspaper for every 1.4 adults. This seeming inevitability would be followed in short order by a collapse of ad revenue and the transfer of attention to other media - like blogs, for example.

The Howard government doesn't have the heart to go authoritarian, it doesn't have the plans and it couldn't execute them anyway. Hooray for inept and fading government! Hooray for politics that doesn't motivate people! Hooray for a hollowed-out media!

13 June 2007

After the smoke clears

What would happen to the Federal Liberal and National Parties in the twelve months or so after the defeat of the Howard-Vaile Government in 2007? Assuming they do lose of course - Howard fans and lefty pessimists can take heart, I've been wrong before. This post describes the fault lines that continued electoral success both covers and deepens.


The moderates would be first out of the bunker, but so what? You could be forgiven for assuming that there are no moderates left in the Liberal Party, but they do exist and can be divided into two groups:

  • the old and bold, those who have largely given up on career advancement and can thus speak out against the worst excesses of the Howard government: Petro Georgiou, Judi Moylan, Bruce Baird.

  • the relatively younger moderates prepared to temper their public comments for the sake of longevity and career advancement: Joe Hockey, Chris Pyne, George Brandis. You don't get anywhere by rocking the boat, but by being so determined never to make a splash you get nowhere else.

They have been long ignored and their grievances are significant. Moderates would form the core of any Costello challenge. The fact that Costello has not moved against Howard is due in part to them refusing to go over the parapet for him, and partly also because the fact that moderates as a bloc are so keen on Costello as the Antihoward makes it hard for him to also get support from those who are quite conservative and happy with the way Howard has gone. They have been extraordinarily disciplined: the current problems facing the government cannot be put down to moderate white-anting.

That said, the moderates have been so relentlessly buggered for so long that it is hard to know what they stand for when for much of the Howard years they seem largely to have stood by. Whither the stirring defences of civil liberties, the boosting of arts and education, the concern for the underprivileged - especially Aborigines and new migrants? I don't know either, that's why I left the Liberal Party. If there was any action on these fronts there has been precious little progress.

Where are the achievements of the Howard government of which moderate liberals can be proud? Phillip Ruddock gave up on being a moderate when it became clear Hewson was a loser. Amanda Vanstone gave it away on cutting unis and being turfed from Cabinet anyway. Robert Hill bent over backwards to get concessions for Australia in negotiations for the Kyoto Agreement, but when it became clear that the Yanks weren't going to sign it Howard pulled Australia out of the agreement too. Hill should have resigned, he would have been the liberal icon his friends claimed he was. Now all that's happened is that moderate liberalism is a contradiction in terms, and Hill's just another gravy-train passenger with an expired ticket.

It's back to first principles, and there are too few of them to do it. Baird is retiring. Marise Payne is in the death-seat, third on a Coalition ticket in NSW where only two - Helen Coonan and a bloke named Wacka - can win. She'll go down with the Howard government, which is ironic if you overlook the fact that she was re-elected in 2001 after Tampa, the post-September 11 security scares, and other campaign tactics of which liberals ought not be proud. Brandis and Pyne are not the type of guys to build wide popular appeal. Georgiou and Moylan are in their seventh decade, and while they mightn't be frail they are not going to put in the hard yards rebuilding the Liberal Party for government. No thinkers, nobody to quietly and patiently plug away for liberalism in the sheer face of a cocly Labor government and carry it forward into office.

All hope for the moderates depends on Joe Hockey, having to defend WorkChoices (and who will have to try the Nuremberg defence afterwards to those who'll vote for Rudd because of WorkChoices). It's too much to ask, just as it was for his contemporary John Brogden. Still, Hockey will be a standard-bearer and will be going forward, and the newly resurgent ALP will well and truly have his measure.

Howard battlers

By definition, these people will be gone if Howard loses. Jackie Kelly has piked the only fight that wasn't stacked in her favour. Many other MPs from outer metropolitan seats will not return to Parliament if the Rudd juggernaut rolls over them. They will, however, regard Howard as the default of all Liberal activity and any departure from that as a travesty and a cause of Liberal defeat, which is why they will resent any resurgence by the moderates.

Conservative protectionists

Many of these, like Bill Heffernan and Wilson Tuckey, are exhausted volcanoes and will not want to stick around in Opposition. They will, however, give the moderates plenty of gyp and blame the defeat on them. They will then distinguish themselves by making sexist remarks about new Labor ministers or otherwise demonstrate that they are so out of touch with the changed times. they will slink off into retirement, but not before bringing in proteges who are much like them. These people dominate the safe seats, so they won't just shrivel up and wither away.

Relevance-deprivation tragics

I reckon Chris Pyne will go into this category, as will others who will be bereft when the Comcar does not pull up to go somewhere important to do important stuff. Helen Coonan probably will too, but will get over it and knuckle down. These people will not only have an aching void to fill, they will have to renounce some of that important stuff they had been doing - and what if you renounce the wrong stuff?

Kim Beazley was one of these. He was only just starting to get it when Rudd knocked him off. Simon Crean is still there. If Costello and Minchin fail to land nice jobs (see below) they'll end up here.

The All Right Jacks

As in: stuff you, I'm all right Jack! These will be the people the private sector decides are quality people without being too tainted as to attract the displeasure of the new government. Peter Costello and Nick Minchin might get nice jobs with banks provided they leave quickly after the election, and maybe a few junior ministers might get jobs with companies in areas they used to regulate like Larry Anthony did (Rudd will bring in legislation to stop this happening, or at least enforce a prohibition period between leaving government and going to the private sector, to avoid giving his people ideas and to make the Coalition look squalid).

Half the National Party will expect their mates at Qantas to come through for them, and they will be disappointed. There are only so many impressive-sounding do-nothing jobs at a lean mean organisation, and you don't get where Qantas is by irritating the government of the day and stacking it full of its political opponents.

These people will sneer at those who stay in and work the night shift, with a clear but false implication that they could do better. This will serve to make the Labor Government view them and their new employers with a roseate nostalgia rather than the fear and loathing due to feared opponents.

The Wilderness Trekkers

These will be the leadership contenders: Abbott and Nelson, Turnbull if he survives, Costello if no nice jobs come through, Brough as the "spare" to these heirs. Downer might also want the job back for old time's sake, but he'd be easy meat for Rudd. They will use the chaos to stamp their image on the Liberal Party with a view to dragging it back into government. Their loneliness of command will be heightened by all those they've pissed off over the years, and will be leavened by newbies who are just working with the boss and have no pre-existing enmities. They'll quite enjoy Opposition and voters will be reluctant to disturb them from it.

Julie Bishop will do this in WA but it would take her more than one term to turn the local yokels into a fit government. She might not stick at it. Peter Dutton would be better off in Queensland politics if he can stand up to the Nats.

The landscape

The most senior Coalition politician in the country this Christmas will be the Lord Mayor of Brisbane.

Ted Baillieu and Barry O'Farrell will be the next Liberal Premiers but they will do it tough against a tough, smart and entrenched Labor bloc. There will probably be less centralisation as the Feds will be quite happy with the states' role as service providers, rather than silly duplications as with TAFE.

A handful of former Liberal MPs will end up going into State politics. Those who aren't defeated in 2007 deserve credit for real fortitude and commitment to the public good to leaven the cynicism of their not being able to give up the gravy train, or the pity of being hopeless political junkies looking for the next fix.

The generation of Liberals including Chris Pyne and Greg Hunt will spend their best years in Opposition, and run the risk of crowning their careers in Cabinet with too little too late, just like Robert Hill did.

It'll be three years to the next Federal election, three years of Labor gloating under the magnifying glass showing up all the patched-over, she'll-be-right sins of omission and commission. Good people will falter and scumbags rise. Three years of Labor government getting credit for stealing the Coalition's better clothes. Three years of no Comcars and having to hire Young Liberals with no policy-development skill, whose media skills fail them as journos pass them by, and the best of whom will be out to win seats at the expense of sitting ducks for whom three years is such a long time. Barren, yes, but deliberately? Depends if you have someone to blame.

10 June 2007

The war against ignorance is a just war

The State Parliament of New South Wales is debating legislation to limit stem cell research. Cardinal Pell made a characteristically robust but clumsy contribution on behalf of his church, which led to a flurry of piffle like this, this and this.

A religious leader does have a right to put a case in a debate like this. A man even has the right to be clumsy, humanly frail, having loved too well but not wisely, etc. The better Christian leaders have a strong grasp of this notion of human frailty and an attendant modesty that can be most attractive to those of us who hear the call of the Lord less clearly or urgently than others. If only Pell would demonstrate these qualities his blowhard pomposity would seem like a lovable eccentricity rather than the Pharisaical hypocrisy that it is.

That said, when not condescending to people Pell can sometimes demonstrate real intellectual subtlety that is all the more precious for its being so fragile. In reading Pell's considered response to the NSW debate and attendant hoo-ha, and seeing his boss' confab with Bush about Iraq, I wonder whether stem cells and artificially-manipulated cells might be considered casualties of a just war.

The idea of a "just war" is an abomination to many, including many Christians, who see their faith as not only abhorring but transcending the violence of this world. Yet, the idea has a long history. Cicero hammered away at it, so did Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and many others besides. Popes of old were not averse to sanctioning, or even commissioning, armies in the field in the full knowledge that individuals within those armies they so blessed would kill and be killed. Pell's comments here on Mannix and his opposition to conscription in Australia during World War I indicate that conflict may not be considered a "just war" by the Catholic Church. The fight against fascism in World War II can be considered just with or without church endorsement, complicated by the slippery role played by the then Pontiff.

I don't regard zygotes that cannot ever become a nascent person as human life: when a fertilised egg is absorbed within the uterus within the same monthly cycle as conception, it is not the same as the death of one who has lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, etc. Others do, and rail against these lives being pressed into service that none of us could be expected to perform.

While there is a moral element in creating life to be destroyed, the Catholic Church can't make it. An organisation that can't come to terms with "just wars" that now look silly, or which considers a conception in sexual assault to be one of love must admit to some shades of grey here.

The notion of a just war can extend to a war against disease, for disease kills as surely as any foe. Research that would improve our understanding of that vessel which God has given us to live in might be self-indulgent, but it cannot be so wholly bad as Pell makes out. In other words, the issue of human cellular research and what may (not) flow from it is not so clear that those who support it can be regarded as unreasonably careless with human life. Those who do research are seekers after truth just as the religious are; it is possible to conduct your search in both the lab and the church/mosque/temple. Truth is not something Pell owns, nor to which he can control or deny access.

Carlton is right in saying that we don't have 400 years to muck about while the Catholic Church works out whether or not it has botched this question. I weep for all those Catholics whose only option for conception is the prohibited IVF, and when their Church changes tack on this (as surely it must on doctrinal grounds - firstly, more babies is a good thing, as products of IVF are no less human than we; secondly, the Old Testament in particular is big on making deserts bloom, so to speak) they will be bereft and a generation at least of western Catholics will go unborn.

We are all beneficiaries of those who came before us for good or ill, of death and violence and unsavoury practices. While this should give us pause it is not to say that Pell has much to teach us. Pell would have us fear the shadows on the wall of the cave rather than confront that which casts the shadow, and as such he is an obstacle to the possibility of human progress in this world. His clumsiness might inspire some, but defying him contains of itself no more clarity of moral purpose than those who claim for his teachings a provenance, a heart and a truth they just don't have.

06 June 2007

Corrupting public debate?

There's a clear assumption in Andrew Norton's question that there was once a time when public debate was uncorrupted. Perhaps I missed it.

Public debate is corrupted whenever people are denied the information they need to form opinions from which they can operate within the society in which they live. It's true that the Howard Government limits access to information, the release of which does not endanger the state but may prove embarrassing politically. It's not true that they are the only government that has done, is doing or will do this.

Marr's analysis should have covered this, but in focusing on Howard it falls down on two levels. First, it's pointless to stand up for for investigative journalism when journalists are so content to be spoon-fed. Second, it depends on what you mean by "dissent".

A journalist who wanted to investigate education policy (for example) would get some press releases from the relevant minister, some press releases from the opposition, cobble together a few hundred words and job done. The fact that the story would bear no relevance to those who work in education would be irrelevant to the average journalist. The journalist who spent time and effort visiting local schools and speaking to teachers and parents would get a story that might testify to the effectiveness of government policy, and the connection between official policy and objective reality. This would prompt a paranoid flurry from the State Education Department's media unit and possibly the minister's office, to which management would not necessarily stand up for the journalist. "Investigative journalism" today means checking the fax machine to see if another press release has been received so that it can be cannibalised and turned into a "story".

In The Age, Frank Moorhouse wrote that the press should be "constantly alert to the vulnerability of freedom of speech, not only when it is threatened by the state but also when the quality of freedom of speech is damaged by intellectual laziness, intellectual intimidation, easy certainties, and all the fashionable sensitivities and peer pressures that creep into our social communication". He was referring to literary magazines, but the same might also be said of news outlets.

In terms of dissent, the rights of a small group comprising both thugs and latte-sippers chanting "whaddawewant whendawewannit" does not constitute "dissent". Demos might have been scary in 1789, they might have had an impact in 1917, and they were somewhat notable in 1968, but they contribute nothing in 2007. For the most part they are irrelevant, and if it's Howard v protesters then Howard will win every time.

What constitutes dissent today? This is an important question if you're concerned about silencing dissent, or if you're trying to develop policies for a post-Howard Australia. Marr should have devoted more thought to that, as it's becoming clear that you can only defeat John Howard by outflanking him - by changing the debate so profoundly that he can't credibly participate in it.

04 June 2007

Who's the rabbit, Jason?

Jason Koutsoukis' candle for Peter Costello still burns brightly, but it and the cake on which it sits have been left out in the rain.

One of only two cogent points in this article is that a government doesn't have to be hated to lose office. None of the Coalition State/Territory governments of the '90s (with the possible exception of Kennett) were hated. Scroll down for the other one.

The rest of it is the standard wilful blindness and an inability to process what little information he does have.
watching Prime Minister John Howard hunched over his writing pad in the House of Reps last week, he looked like a modern portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge. All that was missing was the green eye shade.

What's missing here at the start of this article is a fresh insight that might encourage a reader to complete this article. Warning, stale imagery ahead! That's a criticism that could have been made at any point over the past thirty years. It was made a lot by Labor in 1996, and a fat lot of good it did them. In 2007, such a statement is so lame as to be unworthy of an experienced columnist in a plum job for a major newspaper. Talk about playing the man and not the ball!
If the PM doesn't want to go, Costello should force the issue and toss him out.

What's missing here is all the polls suggesting that Howard is much more popular than Costello. Why would embattled Liberal MPs want their popularity to go down, rather than up? In 1983, Labor changed leaders just before an election. They dumped their existing leader in favour of someone more popular. More popular with people other than Jason Koutsoukis.

Peter Costello is not Prime Minister for the same reason that Kim Beazley isn't. If Costello had the leverage he would have forced Howard out already. Costello fans are wilfully blind to this, and none more so than Koutsoukis.
Here's a sample of some of the responses I got last week talking to Liberal MPs about the state of play.

You don't think they were cracking hardy Jason, whistling past the graveyard? 11 years of experience of this government suggests that any Liberal MP who gave an honest assessment would be done for, regardless of how safe their seat was.
"Oh, but it's too late," a Costello loyalist told me last week. Actually, it's not. With six months left in this political year, Costello has plenty of time.

Just as Rudd was able to turn things around quickly, so could Costello.

An opposition is a blank slate, all the more so when it is full of people desperate to win. A government in office for 11 years and a Treasurer with a hot-and-cold record of reform does not have the same room to manoever.

To be fair to Jason, he does explain why he holds to this extraordinary opinion. However, his explanations are no good:
A deluge of Costello profiles would help present a softer side to the man who has been lumbered with the Treasury portfolio all these years and give the electorate the sense of "change" it has been yearning for.

A deluge of a different sort would help drought-stricken farmers, but a deluge of this kind would make no difference whatsoever. There is no guarantee the coverage would be favourable or that it would change voter perceptions of the man. Costello's support for the Essendon Aussie Rules club is all very well for some, but in marginal seats in NSW and Queensland this passion is as eccentric as Keating's French Empire clocks. He should've gone for the Presidency of the World Bank while he had the chance. Nobody believes their job or mortgage is less insecure if Peter Costello becomes PM, and no amount of soft-focus blather changs that in any way.
Tanya Costello, a corporate lawyer, could also come out of the shadows. The Costellos are every bit the modern couple that the Rudds are.

That's nice. Has she got a conflict of interest too, given that she's employed by an organisation regulated by her husband?
Because Costello and Rudd are, in many ways, so similar, if Costello were leader it might cancel out much of Rudd's current appeal.

Rudd and Costello are the same age, they are both committed Christians, they are both economic conservatives, both republicans, are both married to women with high-flying careers of their own, and have the same number of children - who are all roughly the same age.

Either that, or it might make the Libs look like they were desperately trying to catch up. It would be a disgrace for the sitting PM to be a pale imitation of the Opposition Leader, and for incumbernt ministers to have the insecurity of new portfolios while trying to sell stability.

Let's imagine that our Jase were covering Federal politics in 1972:
Because McMahon and Whitlam are, in many ways, so similar, it might cancel out much of Whitlam's current appeal. McMahon and Whitlam are the same age, they are both economic Keynesians, both lawyers from Sydney and are both married to women.

Doesn't work for me either.
Another important question is "can Costello match Rudd in the areas where Rudd is doing well?"

This is an important question, and having posed it what a shame he's dodged it. What he does instead is shirk anything like responsible journalism by getting petty:
[Costello] certainly has some things Rudd doesn't.

Such as a sense of humour (has anyone ever seen Rudd really laugh, or crack a joke?). Costello is also a man who makes friends easily, while I'm yet to meet one person who describes themselves as a friend of Rudd's. (A Labor MP told me over dinner last week that he could not name a single friend Rudd has made in the eight years he has been in Parliament.)

I liked Rudd's comment about Howard and black-and-white television, but if you didn't then I suppose it doesn't count. Not having been to dinner with Costello I find him smug and snide, but all those unwritten puff-pieces might (not) turn that around. Rudd has probably the same number of friends in Parliament that the aloof Whitlam had in 1972, or Fraser in 1975. Holt and Gorton were hail-fellow-well-met, and (in terms of electoral outcomes) so what?
There are also signs that Rudd shares some of the characteristics that made Hewson a poor political leader. He is a workaholic with a short temper, he is quick to blame others for mistakes and is apparently unwilling to listen to other points of view.

Many successful people have those same qualities - including John Howard.
He also has a tendency to drive his staff too hard.

Awwwwwwwwww. That's why Beazley never made it: all his staff thought they could just cruise and the government would fall into their laps. If you're going to beat John Howard you have to work harder than him, with fewer resources than Howard has. The Labor MP quoted above (with nothing better to do but take Koutsoukis to dinner) is obviously not considered useful in getting Labor into government, which taints his little aside with the whiff of sour grapes.
Rudd does not respect the intellect of most of his peers and doesn't mind showing it.

Depends who you regard as Rudd's peers, really. He's more clever than most of these, for sure.
Conversely, Rudd doesn't seem to command the sort of respect from the caucus that a good leader should have.

I think you mean "besides" rather than "conversely". If he gets them into government they'll respect him just fine. Conversely (note proper use of that word), watch how the massive respect for Howard and Costello will evaporate if the Coalition comes up short.
No political leader in Australian history who has taken over as opposition leader immediately after his party has lost government has gone on to become prime minister.

Hooray! This is the second cogent point in this article. It may dispel the myth that a one-term government is possible. That's two nuggets in a pile of dross. C'mon Jase, now for the big finish:
If Howard loses, and Costello becomes opposition leader, the chances are he will never make it.

Costello will only make it to the Prime Ministership if John Howard dies between now and the next election. Otherwise, for the reasons stated earlier (his own gutlessness and unpopularity) he won't.

UPDATE: Christian Kerr, bless 'im, also takes Koutsoukis on at Crikey.