31 March 2009

What is the media for?

I read the transcript of the speech given by John B. Fairfax about 'quality journalism' (not so much a contradiction in terms as an irrelevant modifier, a bit like 'fresh organic shit'), and thought that it represented the ramblings of an old man confused about the world in which he finds himself.

I was going to link to it and pick it to bits, but it was only available on Fairfax sites as a pay-per-view item so stuff that. It was available, however, here on Margaret Simons' Crikey blog. Simons' intro is instructive - she correctly points out the contradiction over training, but isn't too precise in her critique about why Fairfax (company, and man) has disappointed her so.

First, I'll address Fairfax, then Simons' introduction:
Graham Perkin was a great editor. As written in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Graham’s success as editor “owed much to his ebullience, to his infectious enthusiasm for journalism, to his dominant - sometimes domineering - personality, and to his willingness to bear the heat of criticism.”

One from the heart there, JB. I could have looked up the Australian Dictionary of Biography myself. I would have been interested to find out how a domineering personality could prepare a paper that anyone other than he would want to read. Three cheers for the boofhead!
Graham did not believe that training alone produced good journalists - “Intuitive ability runs first for me, intellectual capacity second, training third”.

Nowhere is there any mention of the role training plays in sharpening the first two qualities. I read in the Australian Dictionary of Biography that Graham Perkin is dead, yet what lives on apparently is the idea that skating across the surface of an issue, scattering references like an undergraduate without anything at the core is good enough for the likes of you:
One of the less known philosophers, Anaximenes ... “quality alterations” or “quality butcher”. A shoe shop states: “quality at your feet”. Another boasts “quality you can taste”, “quality you can trust” ... Quality for one person may have a totally different meaning for another. As Robert Pirsig points out in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This is the sort of thing you'd expect from a 20-year-old aesthete, not a man in his sixties who's running a large company and who is trying to convince his employees that it isn't dying under him. At least he dropped that Zen/Motorcycle reference, what a groover!
When I was a schoolboy at Cranbrook in Sydney, a fellow student was struggling to give an answer to what I thought was a fairly simple question. I called out across the classroom, “use your gumption,” an utterance which brought about subsequent punishment.

A bit like 'What is quality journalism?' or 'What is the future of journalism?', questions that can apparently be evaded with a bit of ebullience and gumption, or just sheer bullshit. Looks like the punishment didn't work, JB.
Perhaps quality is only achieved when you have the time to produce it. The current trend to do as much as possible as quickly as possible, denies the investment of heart and soul in a work of truth and quality.

Any examples of where you yourself have taken journalists off the treadmill JB, and seen quality skyrocket?
So often quality is in the detail; and the precision; and the execution.

Quality is often a matter of taste and for this I revert to my “quality butcher”. Sometimes the sign will say “quality meat”. Frankly there is not much point in having a quality butcher if you do not consider the meat to be to your taste. And tastes differ.

Any reflection on the notion that the stand-alone butcher shop is struggling to survive, JB, the very position in which Fairfax is increasingly often regarded as being?
... suddenly there was a smell that quality journalism from the great Fairfax organisation - the largest media organisation in Australasia and still mostly in the hands of Australians - was about to die. I have no need to tell you who was expressing those sentiments. They are best ignored.

A bit of ad-hominem work, expressing both sensitivity to criticism and a contradictory wish to ignore it; this would lead a journalist to identify a sore point, a real issue covered with bluster. Thankfully journalists are the passive recipients of this rather than using it as a start for further investigation.
Reporting in my days was strictly facts; no interpretation; both sides of the story; no embellishment. But even today, facts are not out of fashion.

They're not out of fashion, JB, merely insufficient. It is not enough to report what was said; NSW State political journalists, from Fairfax and elsewhere, have dutifully reported the empty rhetoric of successive Labor Premiers since 1995 and the Opposition response. They have not helped us understand that one of the world's great cities is a mess because the rhetoric counted for nothing, and that those who keep piling on the rhetoric and those who dutifully report it add no value whatsoever.
In a wonderful book called The Elements of Style published as recently as 2005, it says: “Unless there is good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything and the temptation to toss them in is great. Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work.”

So it's a matter of quality, then, as to what's a good reason and what isn't. Any word from Anaximenes, or Graham Perkin, on this?
I doubt there is a media person anywhere who really knows the destiny of news and information. In a world where the Internet barely existed 10 years ago, who among us has the temerity to tell us what will be 10 years from now? We are all in a learning process, but more in a state of uncertainty. I am not prepared to make predictions about the future because technology moves so fast that almost anything is possible.

In that case, you have no business being anywhere near the head of a media company. I bet your idea of "a learning process" is not having your emails printed so that you might read them.
More and more, I find, people go on to the net not to see what is different, but to find that which conforms to their world view - to see news, and views that reinforce where they already are.

Depends which people, really, and whether they're the consumers to whom you want to appeal.
It is hard to imagine that for reliability and quality of whatever sort, the pool of journalists that now scan the screens and tap the keyboards at newspaper offices, will not continue to provide well-written, accurate and properly assessed reports and opinion pieces for the consumption of an increasingly intelligent “readership” throughout our communities.

It might be hard, but for someone at the head of a media organisation it is necessary - particularly when you've put so many off, it shouldn't be that hard to imagine at all. You've made them sound like drones at a call centre rather than investigators and explainers. It might be hard to imagine that high-quality farriers and blacksmiths might have been made redundant by the motor car, JB, but that's what happened.

Fairfax then goes on to quote a piece which quoted a piece by "Milanda Rout - surely a pseudonym" - a simple Google search reveals that Rout was a Fairfax employee. Nice own-goal there, JB (you can ask one of the young persons in your office what an own-goal and a Google search are).
Probably the most guilty of bad language are the sporting commentators: “Now Brett Lee is real quick”. I think you know what I mean. They get away with some appalling use of grammar, and yet it is the newspapers that are accused of losing their quality! How often do you see mistakes on television captions?

Sporting commentary and caption-writing are not meant to be reflective, nor to provide context like you'd find in a newspaper. Crimes against grammar might have been punished at Cranbrook but a knowledgeable commentator of a particular sport my be forgiven the odd lapse - or have it attributed to colour - if the sentiment expressed is clear and true for all that. Jack Gibson's "played strong, done fine" is regarded as high praise for a masterful coach who gave it sparingly, and those who titter at it reveal themselves as lacking affection and understanding for which no grammar can replace.
Quality is derived from the basics ...
The basics are:
” Rigorous factual accuracy
” Completeness in reporting
” A sense of expertise in the subject matter so that the reader has a sense of learning something new
” Strong concern and empathy for the community
” Clear sharp writing for news; inspired and creative writing for features
” An absolute separation of reporting from analysis and opinion
” An editorial sensibility driven by a sense of intellectual curiosity

This puts the lie to Simons' assertion that Fairfax failed to define quality, but he did muck about in getting there. It is, however, difficult to apply: many people praise Michelle Grattan for the first two points, and very occasionally she'll do the third if she's been well and truly duchessed briefed, but in no sense does she have the fourth quality unless you define "the community" as wholly covered by membership of either the House of Representatives or the Senate. The idea of "news" separate from "features" or "opinion" is also nonsense - you can link to the straight dope (or original sources like press releases), the opinion and the context are all-important.
My personal view is that journalism will not suffer through restraint. It will in fact force mediocrity to retire to the bench, leaving the best players to operate for the occasion.

No, in this case you have winnowed out the wheat from the chaff but only the chaff can survive in a dull and uninspiring environment, one lacking utterly in vision. What you get is people playing a game for a market that you don't understand, don't participate in and which, once the sepia mirage before you becomes unfulfilling and unsustainable, won't save you.
We live in a special country with comparatively few restraints. We must never fail to fight for our freedoms and in particular, freedom of the press.

We live in a country where constraints grow by the day, particularly over information. As a whole the Fairfax press rarely strains against the tethers upon public information. Matthew Moore's occasional column for FOI nerds isn't enough, what's needed in every article are examples where information that should be public knowledge was sought and blocked.
We can be like Norman Mailer who said arrogantly in relation to his writing: “I’m going to be the champ until one of you knocks me off.” The Mohammed Ali of writers. I think I can safely say that on behalf of Fairfax Media, we want to be the champ - the very best there is.

The above paragraph is a triumph in self-delusion: the verbal equivalent of throwing out a boomerang and having it smack you in the back of the head. Fairfax is saying he wants his company to be arrogant? He wants his company, like Ali, to accept that its day has passed and to present to the world as a shambles? To be the "champ" [/irony], like the very best farrier or Cobb & Co racing a Qantas plane?
My hope was merely to “keep your attention.”

Well, in the absence of information hopefully the delivery of the speech was sufficiently compelling.

Simons complained about Fairfax's definition of quality, while going on about how Fairfax had disappointed her. The model of the old-fashioned media proprietor was one where perceptions of quality were always shifting, as per the Potter quote at the end, usually to set an intelligent workforce on edge and to avoid any progress on their part not subject to whims and fancies by senior management like JB. The nostalgic nonsense with which Simons attributes Fairfax, ink-in-veins and so on, is only possible if you ignore what Fairfax did to Rural Press (or if you continue to think, in the way that city people patronise the country, that it doesn't matter). JB Fairfax has shown great determination in getting back into the family firm, a bit like a salmon returning to die in the stream where it was spawned - you had no right to expect it would be anything other than self-referential.

Nobody wants immediacy from Fairfax, mere relevance will do. As Gandhi said of Western civilisation, I think that would be a great idea.

18 March 2009

How would you know?

For the average, lazy journalist, quoting a spokesperson and not questioning what they say is all that's necessary to support a MSM story. This unquestioning quotation is called "reportage" and even now, in the face of all the evidence, journalists still regard this as the core of their job - if they have one.

Here is an example of why the whole value of the spokesperson has to be questioned. An employee of Telstra embarrasses the Federal Communications Minister. It would have been perfectly understandable for Telstra to take some sort of action against an employee who did this - David Quilty has shown admirable restraint in not wringing Nassar's neck, regardless of formal reporting lines within that organisation. Yet, a spokesman strained any credibility he may have by denying any sort of admonition had taken place.

Nobody believed the spokesman anyway, but the question has to be asked: how would you know? How would you know if this employee had been disciplined? If he had not been, would you say so?

Good on Leslie Nassar for throwing the spokesperson under the bus: however, he deserves to be condemned for being photographed with that child under these circumstances. Imagine if Telstra or Conroy had dragged Nassar's child into the controversy, would this not be gratuitous and awful? Similarly, Nassar should have scheduled some daddy-time outside his media commitments and not used this little girl as some sort of PR prop. Who does he think he is, a politician?

Spokespeople have a nasty habit of going to ground in the middle of (to use a Prime Ministerial expression) a shitstorm, which must surely reduce their value to journalists: a spokesperson who won't speak when there is a great need for them to be heard from is a useless creature indeed, and their value in the normal course of events must be vastly diminished as a result. Still, lazy journalists keep going back to unreliable spokespeople, who feed them pap which they then pass onto consumers, who shun MSM as a result.

Spokespeople will only ever be good for generating pap, which may keep journalists busy but is of no value to consumers, which has an effect on the financial results of media organisations that produce nothing else.

This is the kind of thing you get from a spokesperson: all transmit, no capacity to receive let alone reflect and adjust behaviour that has no value to the consumer. The sheer hilarity of the first paragraph sets the tone for this piece:
Australians consume politics like we consume sports: as spectators, and usually from the comfort of the couch. Our aversion to joining the game has led to a reliance on government that is unhealthy, dangerous to our democracy, and costly to the economy.

To be fair to Andrew Maiden, he has been saying that sort of thing for as long as I've known him. To be fair to Maiden and everyone else, the only proof that he believes this is having heard or read him saying so, no other proof exists in word or deed of him following through on cultivating and articulating any sort of broad-based movement. This is someone who learnt to cultivate and transmit messages, and to shun any message he had not actively sought, and to only seek messages which fitted his preconceptions anyway.
… good public policy depends on competition between governments, business and community groups in the marketplace for ideas.

Yes, indeed it does - but Telstra's competition in the marketplace of ideas failed because it did not know where to start in courting community opinion, except by taking the sort of "catch the vision or catch the bus" tone it adopted with employees, until it got to the point where anyone opposing Telstra was favourite to win any public debate in which Telstra participated.
Experiments repeatedly show that groups of regular citizens, each looking after their own interests, on average produce outcomes that are superior to the judgements of experts.

The same can be said for spokespeople, really, except they offer less of the expertise that makes experts reliable commentators about their field of expertise - and such convenient scapegoats for spokespeople.
The late William Buckley once said: “If I had a choice between being governed by the Harvard faculty or the first 100 names in the Boston phone book, I would take the phone book”. He said that because history is replete with examples of experts and technocrats getting it wrong.

Buckley said that because the old populist fancied his chances in pulling the wool over the eyes of random strangers as opposed to people with access to information and trained in critical thought.
... the founder of telephone company AT&T, Theodore Vail, predicted that one day there would be a market for “fifty calls a day between New York and Chicago”.

Yeah, those dills who run telcos eh!

Vail's words weren't proven wrong, despite being wrenched out of context and flung into our faces like that. Presumably there was a time when the number of calls was less than fifty, when Vail would have made that statement (and let's assume he did), and now that call volumes exceed this it ill behoves us to be too clever after the event. Vail hadn't said that the number of calls should be capped at fifty, or that if the government was offering free money to increase call capacity then the very effort should be resisted and scorned. Vail is probably dead by now, which is why it takes a spokesperson to hold him up to ridicule.

Much more pertinent to Maiden's case (insofar as there is one) would be Bill Gates' oft-quoted statement from the early '70s that nobody would need more than 637KB of memory in a personal computer. Let's leave aside the Telstra-Microsoft relationship, you wouldn't need a Fake Bill Gates as the real one actually admits having said that. Gates has clearly modified his position - not because he's competing with government, citizens or anyone else in the marketplace for ideas. Because he's not a Telstra executive, Gates is clearly open to the idea that his own opinions might not be the most important ones, and that there is profit in adapting to people's wishes rather than talking past them.

What neither Vail, Gates, Preece nor any other "expert" has not done is put text in bold to emphasise the points you want to make or even random phrases, like they did in Mad Magazine to let you know when a punchline was approaching.
Imagine if powerful governments, relying on expert opinion and unconcerned with the free market, had regulated on the basis that Preece and Vaile [sic] were right.

As opposed to powerless governments relying on polls of badly-informed citizens, perhaps.

It is an ongoing fantasy of Telstra's that it is a free market organisation. Its market position and almost all of its infrastructure was funded by taxpayers and built by public servants. Its business depends utterly on government regulation and upon smooth relationships with government. When Telstra does well, it is due to effective lobbying; when Telstra does badly (over broadband, for example), it is because of ineffective lobbying, such as that practiced by national punchline Dr Phil Burgess. When it comes to PR and government relations, you could say that Burgess - and even Maiden - are experts.

You reflexively add an "e" to the surname "Vail" if you've focused more on public-sector Mark rather than private-sector Theodore.
Yet in Australia, decisions about technology investments have too often made this way rather than by free markets.

The implication here is that Australian government policy - presumably including both Labor and Coalition policy - are dedicated to limiting the growth of broadband speeds. There is no proof of this. The government offered some money to increase broadband speeds, and Telstra didn't want it. This complaint implies that the government is restricting Telstra's efforts to introduce new and better technologies: no such restrictions exist, no such efforts exist, and you won't catch me claiming that new and better ICT technologies than those currently available in Australia can't and won't exist.
For instance the decision about how to construct Australia’s national broadband network is in the hands of experts, not the free market, even though the delay is costing our economy $200 million each month we wait.

Despite the cost to our nation, few companies aside from Telstra (and few executives aside from Telstra’s outgoing public policy chief, Dr Phil Burgess) have been willing to engage citizens in public debates that affect their economic interests. They have been concerned about upsetting governments, or deterred by the unwillingness of Australians to join the game.

I love the "we" who wait, as though you and I are partly culpable for not whacking up a national broadband network in our spare time so that Telstra could have a good old natter.

Why doesn't Telstra show those amateurs sucking on the government teat how a proper broadband network should be done? At the rate the NBN is going, with all that red tape and nobody certain about who's Stephen Conroy and who isn't, Telstra should have a broadband network up and running before contracts are signed. Why hasn't that happened? It isn't because the government wants to cap broadband speeds, or because it is limiting Telstra's capacity to compete with NBN. Telstra could render the NBN redundant; it should have been using its size and power - and yes, its expertise - to do so once the previous government started with its ultimately pointless OpEl malarkey.
This is why Telstra has attempted to transform the debate over our broadband future by inviting citizens to join the conversation. In fact everything we have done has been intended, one way or another, to mobilise the civic sector and empower civic leaders to take a greater role in debates affecting their vital interests.

Rugged free-enterprise types will tell you that infrastructure gets built with money, expertise and equipment, not debates. William Buckley, yes the very same William Buckley, knew that and wrote about it eloquently and extensively. What is shaped by debate is government policy, and Telstra should have learnt the perils of relying on government policy.

All of Telstra's vigorous activity in the government relations/PR space has yielded it much the same benefit had it joined the rest of us upon the couch, and far less than it would have gained by actually producing the sort of super broadband network that makes those in Korea and Japan run like Preece's messenger boys.
They are essentially about transforming debate in our sector from a passive spectator sport, into an active participant sport.

No, coming through with a fast and reliable network without any help from government would have demonstrated the kind of credibility Telstra so desperately lacks. In telecommunications, as in sport, action can be inspiring to team-mates and spectators and dispiriting to competitors and nay-sayers. It certainly speaks louder than words, even bold words, or words in bold.
It’s time to get active, a little sweaty and definitely out of breath.

Depends on what you're hoping to achieve, other than the sound of your own voice or other self-pleasuring activities. I always found Maiden's handshakes to be clammy, and now I understand why.

If you're out of breath you can't talk, and if you can't talk you can't participate in debates: which is all Maiden and everyone else in Telstra could hope for. Like his employer, Maiden can't participate in a debate which he hasn't framed, which limits his ability to complain that the debate is taking place without him. William Buckley wasn't afraid to wade into debates he hadn't framed - including many at Harvard, and on couches - where he built the respect of many whether or not they agreed with his views on particular issues, or in general.

Kill the spokesperson! The way to do that is to question their epistemology - you could restore media organisations to robust good health (including, but not only, financially) and have all spokespersons sacked with the simple deployment of that phrase, "how would you know?". Journalists who do not have a Communications degree can use the following examples:
Spokesperson: Telstra has taken no action against Fake Stephen Conroy.
Journalist: How would you know? If it had, would you say so?

Spokesperson: The government's policies are economically responsible.
Journalist: How would you know? If they weren't, would you say so?

Spokesperson: These shares are an excellent investment.
Journalist: How would you know? If they weren't, would you say so?

Spokesperson: The Liberal Party is united behind its leader.
Journalist: How would you know? If it wasn't, would you say so?

Spokesperson: [Celebrity A] is getting active and a little sweaty with [Celebrity B].
Journalist: How would you know? What if the opposite were true?

Spokesperson: [Random Footballer] is not guilty and will play on Saturday.
Journalist: How would you know?

Spokesperson: I think the Australian media does an excellent job in calling people to account.
Journalist: How would you know?


Media organisations lose credibility, and thereby their market, because they transmit low-credibility pap - it is time they insisted on providing their consumers with better-quality information and increased the quality of information provided. It would encourage journalists to go after substantial information and therefore have a more secure basis for opinion and analysis on how the actions of government and other organisations affect us as consumers - on the couch or anywhere else.

Andrew Elder is an official spokesperson for Politically Homeless and definitely no expert, and thanks you for wading through such a long post.

Update 3/4: Andrew Maiden did a search for me on LinkedIn. Wonder what he learned, if anything.

17 March 2009

Not waiting for the world

The Fraser government went to the 1983 election with the slogan "We're not waiting for the world", and lost it. Ever since then, Australian governments have not promoted any policies which might enable Australian producers to get ahead of world-best practice and to create a competitive advantage that could form the basis of an export industry.

Barry Jones was roundly ignored for his serial enthusiasms and attempts to second-guess researchers. The solar energy project at UNSW has generated billions for foreign ex-students and has made Germany, not Australia, the leader in this field because successive Australian governments have ignored the possibilities for a domestic solar industry. In the current environment it would have been nice to have a mature industry capable of employing all those effectively redundant motor and TCF workers.

Lenore Taylor has told us that the government isn't trying to get ahead of the game, not why. This piece could have been framed in terms of giving unemployed people jobs that are sustainable both economically and environmentally - but instead the tone is vaguely whiny as though the only training you need is on the job, or that formal education is something you set aside when you become an adult. Then there's this:
UNIONS have accused the State Government of forfeiting thousands of new jobs and billions of investment dollars by going soft on solar power.

In a pointed letter to the Premier, Trades Hall secretary Brian Boyd said a broader and more generous solar subsidy scheme had the potential to create $2.5 billion in solar investment and 2500 jobs.

"(Trades Hall) is disappointed that the Victorian Government is not implementing policies which will create new jobs around key environmental positions," he wrote.

Like hell it is - all those brown-coal miners and burners are members of unions, whereas nobody is employed in institutions which do not exist. Five years ago, any solar proposition would have had Brian jumping up and down about "our members' jobs". This is why Suzana's friend is kidding himself with this:
"I've got more than 17,000 potential climate change warriors in this state," he said. "There's a lot of green collar jobs to be had if only governments were serious."

Then, there's this from the minister, a 1st century equivalent of having to walk in front of a motor car waving a red rag:
Energy Minister Peter Batchelor has opposed a gross feed-in tariff, arguing that it would be unfair to households that did not have solar panels.

But a solar expert, University of NSW academic Muriel Watt, has studied the likely impact of a gross system in NSW and found it would cost all households 3 or 4 cents a week.

Right now, you can expect some angry ant in the Victorian ALP, probably Batchelor himself, is looking for ways to nobble Watt for apparently shirt-fronting the minister like that.

Rather than simply reporting the backwards-and-forwards of political exchange, focus on growth and innovation and judge government policy accordingly. Australia needs more thabn just the odd change of government now and then, it actually needs a government prepared to punt on the future (including with education and other social measures). It also offers more evidence, if any were needed, that reportage is dead and need not be mourned.

15 March 2009

If you're gonna do it

Turnbull has taken a leaf from John Howard's book by appearing with his wife and offspring at the Federal Liberal Party Conference (let me guess: applause lines every 90 seconds, with those members able to stand giving standing ovations before, during and after) with a defiant personal message: here I stand, come and get me Peter.

The headlines here and here are unfortunate and reveal only the poverty of political journalism. Stuff reportage, we can get that directly from Turnbull's site on what was said. What you need journalism for is to examine statements like this:
``Australia deserves leaders that are confident and optimistic,'' Mr Turnbull told the council.

``Strength and resilience are part of my character and I know are part of yours. They are part of the Liberal spirit.

In other words: I will lead the Liberal Party so long as they want me, and as it's in their best interests.
Liberal president Alan Stockdale told the gathering the party had learnt from its 2007 election loss.

“The Liberal Party gets the message of being in opposition,” he told delegates. “We know we have to lift our game and we are lifting our game.”

You think that means doing more of the same, don't you Alan; learning nothing and forgetting nothing, not questioning any assumptions and looking backward, stumbling over the present and not engaging with the possibilities of the future at all.
Mr Turnbull also took the opportunity to again say is party will not support the emissions trading scheme (ETS) in its current form or on its current timetable.

"A poorly designed ETS, like that currently proposed by Labor, which damages our export industries so that they move offshore to developing countries does nothing for the environment or the economy - we expect both the jobs and the emissions," he said.

"And we will not support a poorly designed ETS."

Leadership is not just knocking down what the incumbents put up. Leadership is articulating and defending what should go in its place. Questioning what that might be is the stuff of journalism, not mere transcription.

Let's write Annabel Crabb's next column for her in examining this phrase "I'm your man", which calls to mind both this:
If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you
And if you want a doctor
I'll examine every inch of you
If you want a driver
Climb inside
Or if you want to take me for a ride
You know you can
I'm your man

... and, of course, this:
I don't need you to care
I don't need you to understand
All I want is for you to be there
And when I'm turned on
If you want me -
I'm your man!

If you're gonna do it, do it right - right?
Do it with me

Now listen
If you're gonna do it - you know what I say?
If you're gonna do it don't throw it away
Don't throw it baby
I'll be your boy, I'll be your man
I'll be the one who understands
I'll be your first, I'll be your last
I'll be the only one you ask
I'll be your friend, I'll be your toy
I'll be the one who brings you joy
I'll be your hope, I'll be your pearl
I'll take you halfway round the world!
I'll make you rich - I'll make you poor
Just don't use the door

The lugubrious and the vapid, that's the Australian political-journalism complex for you.

14 March 2009

Could be worse

Imagine if Peter Costello actually did become Opposition Leader. It's a ridiculous thought and I still don't think it will happen, but let's imagine:

  • By the end of his first week, every journalist in the country would ping him on the lazy notion that a vote for Costello would automatically mean 'happy days are here again' and the Libs will outpoll Labor on better handling of economic difficulties.

  • You can be a hard-arse on industrial relations reform when jobs are easy to get, when take-it-or-leave-it can be leavened by a range of opportunities if you do leave. You can't cede to Labor the appearance of caring-and-sharing toward job loss as well as that of best economic policy to suit current and anticipated economic circumstances; this is exactly what Costello would do, and what Turnbull is seeking to avoid.

  • The rise of Costello would see the increased prominence of Tony Smith and Mitch Fifield, who play Biff and Happy to Costello's Willy Loman but otherwise offer nothing to the nation, Victoria or the Liberal Party. Costello has made the Victorian Liberals in his image, and what a sorry bunch they all are. No electorates in Victoria now held by Labor would vote Liberal because of the man from Malvern.

  • Beyond Victoria, a victory for Costello in the current context would be a victory for the far right, and voter-repellent candidates like Alex Hawke and Peter Dutton. Chris Pyne would cut a deal to stay in the game were Costello to get up. Costello wants a Liberal Party intact and rivals exhausted, but he also wants to use the Liberal Party as a hammock rather than a springboard: he isn't strong enough to buck the right and move toward the centre, wherever that centre ground might shift. Having represented himself to the right as the keeper of the Howard flame, he can't represent himself as a post-Howard Liberal like Turnbull can and does. Costello can't through the switch to vaudeville, because like that other vapid Victorian Andrew Peacock neither the smirk nor the scowl are convincing.

  • Costello would win no rural votes, none.

  • Costello would win no votes in outer suburban seats like Lindsay, Macarthur and Robertson (NSW), McEwen, McMillan and Corangamite (V), Forde and Longman (Q), Solomon (NT), Hasluck and Canning (WA), Bass (T), Kingston and Wakefield (SA) and their equivalents in other parts of the country.

  • "Parliamentary skills" count for nothing. Nothing. No polling says that it does and any that says otherwise is wrong. Costello at his best is inferior to Keating on a bad day: Keating got to be Prime Minister, and he lost; only the latter is true of Costello.

In short: for the Liberals to hand Peter Costello the leadership of the Liberal Party would be suicidal, before 2010 or after. He'd win no votes for the Liberal Party and repel many.

WorkChoices is to the post-Howard Liberals what abolishing Medicare was post-Fraser. Time and again the Liberals vowed to abolish Medicare, and loyal supporters cheered them to the echo as it reflected everything the Liberal Party stood for. Time and again voters voted against abolishing Medicare. In 1996 Howard dropped his objections to Medicare and voters dropped their objections to him: never did the Howard government move to abolish Medicare, not even with control over the Senate, despite the nudge-and-wink campaign of people like Minchin to rally the faithful in '96. That's how you deal with the Liberal Right: lie to them, give 'em nothing.

Just because Peter Costello has been to a G20 meeting or two doesn't mean he'd know what to do at the current meeting, or the next one. The message that these are uniquely fraught economic circumstances has well and truly got through, and cuts out any advantage Costello may have in economic policy.

Costello embodies the idea that a return to Howard-era policies is viable. He is not, in himself, any sort of potent threat to Labor.

Wen Turnbull was first elected leader, Rudd tried to raise the idea of a republic to wedge the Liberals: Turnbull blunted this brilliantly by talking about the economy and other big issues, and implying that Rudd was being irrelevant and obtuse by focusing on the republic. It was brilliant and worked brilliantly.

Labor are doing something similar by focusing on Costello: the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is a joke and the Murray-Darling a tragedy. Wayne Swan goes all the way to Britain, where the Labour government is convinced that Australia has nothing to teach them. Peter Garrett may as well go back to his old job, and so might all of Labor's ministers theirs for all the good they appear to be doing. Costello is the diversion they've been looking for - and with a lazy press gallery, they're of course covering Costello as though he mattered, rather than that confusing economics stuff.

John Howard achieved more in Opposition than Peter Costello did in government. Deny it if you dare: that statement is the rebuttal to all those "political professionals" who insist that winning government is all, and that principle, policy and even guts are secondary to holding office.

11 March 2009

The unravelling of Stephen Fielding

Steve Fielding was elected to Federal Parliament by factional deals first, and a tiny proportion of the good people second. He's out of his depth, which didn't matter in his capacity as just another Senator, but caught between the tectonic plates of the major parties in the balance of power, Fielding is starting to unravel.

His first speech to Parliament was a declaration of principle and intent by Family First, an organisation of well-meaning souls who had broken into the club of those who wield legislative power by having representatives elected to Parliament. Since then we have seen him come down from the high plane of principle to cut deals and become a player, and pull stunts to keep up the profile. The nature of those stunts outside Parliament and the positions Fielding has taken within it show that he is not coping, and this could become a worry.

The stripping off with pensioners at Melbourne's Flinders Street Station was ill advised, to say the least. It would have been perfectly legitimate for the Senator to support the pensioners in their aims, but removing his shirt was a bad look, and more than a little creepy for anyone who believes Family First rhetoric about nudity and appropriate public behaviour. It called to mind Bob Hawke appearing on TV with the budgie-smugglers, after his Prime Ministership with Blanche, and before it at the 1975 ALP Conference at Terrigal.

The difference is that Hawke could handle the pressure and rise to the occasion where possible. Hawke could lose his temper from time to time, but in most cases the explosion was carefully controlled to bring pressure to bear on those who stood against him. Fielding's rant about "arrogant" government bypassing him over the stimulus did the opposite: it showed he couldn't handle pressure and it strengthened rather than weakened opposition to him and his agenda.

Soon after this the Federal government began to back away from internet filtering. I don't believe that Stephen Conroy has a Tony Abbott-style love for family-family-family rhetoric, but he does need to keep Fielding and the de Bruynite members of his own caucus onside, and by standing steadfastly by internet filtering he is doing that. Conroy could afford to ignore the techies who decried the fact that it would slow Australia's already snail-like internet, and wouldn't stop transmission of porn anyway - how many votes do techies have? - but if the Bible-bashing vote can't be relied upon to stick by filtering, and if it can't be used as leverage to get other Labor policies through, then stuff filtering. Next time Fielding pulls a wacky stunt that sucks in the media, watch Conroy quietly drop internet filtering altogether.

This story on Fielding is old-fashioned straight-bat reporting at its best, if only it weren't for the internet. A straight-bat story about politics where you quote one politician saying this and another politician saying that is unnecessary, you can go straight to the relevant parties' websites and check out their media releases directly. The value-add of media is no longer the transmission of this information but the evaluation of it; it's a pity that Christian Kerr didn't have time to tailor his story accordingly.
KEY crossbench Senator Steve Fielding is standing his ground as the Government increases pressure to pass its workplace relations legislation.

No, he is not standing his ground. As you read the article it's clear that Fielding has no firm ground to stand upon.
"Work Choices was too hard, the question is, is the Fair Work bill too soft."

Fielding lacks the ability to do the classic Goldilocks balance-of-power routine, of which the Democrats were past masters and which Xenophon, and Green Senators Milne and Siewert, are adept at: what, exactly, would be "just right"?
But Senator Fielding has repeated his call for a statuary body, not unions, to inspect employee records.

I hope Christian Kerr strangles the sub-editor who confused "statuary" and "statutory" - what statuary body had he in mind, the Venus de Milo perhaps? - or if that's what Fielding said, his addled participation in debate is worse than I thought. Union inspection of records is a small issue in the wider issue of the regulation of employment in an environment where unemployment is likely to rise - the emphasis has to be on regulations which don't cause people to lose their jobs who might otherwise have kept them had regulatory settings been different. Kerr missed this with his straight-bat reporting, and worse still Fielding shows no evidence of having thought about it. So much for media holding politicians to account.

(I agree with Fielding and Xenophon on the "right of entry" question though - I suspect Labor want to give all those union organisers who aspire to become MPs some real work to do rather than sitting around soaking up member contributions and scheming against sitting MPs. Unions have no right to inspect wages records for non-members, but they should have access to their members' records.)
Senator Fielding has flagged a further fight with the Government over its emissions trading scheme.

Draft legislation for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was released yesterday, but the Senator has raised concerns over its proposed start date of July 1 next year.

"We don't want to see jobs booted offshore," he said this morning.

The CPRS as mooted would not see a single job in Australia sent offshore: Fielding has taken some Coalition hack or lobbyist at face value. Pity he couldn't have raised this issue earlier. Harradine would have at least asked for information before coming to a conclusion like that. Global warming affects families, pollution affects families. Reducing carbon emissions is (or should be) a question of the very kind of economic efficiency that will promote economic recovery: Fielding has never shown any sign of being able to take in the big picture, he's a small-picture man and his world is closing in on him.

Fielding faces re-election next year, and Australia has not exactly, um, caught the fire on Christian-based politics, so there won't be any groundswell for Our Steve nor any interlocking preference deals. His election in 2004 came at the expense of a Labor-SDA Senator, and if Fielding is going to stymie every government initiative that comes up then Labor are hardly likely to preference him. The Coalition might, but then they have to get four Senators re-elected in Victoria where they'll be lucky to get three.

The pressure on Senators with the balance of power can only increase as the Rudd government makes its case for re-election, and the Coalition theirs against. Steve Fielding is likely to be confronted with more of the big issues for which the Bible offers little, or contradictory, guidance; his stunts are likely to become both more lame and erratic as unemployment increases and his own job comes up for review.

Negotiators from the major parties are likely to increase the pressure on Fielding, rather than let up as his increasing vulnerability would warrant. It is too early to tell, and I am no psychologist, whether Fielding is doing an Evatt-style slide into madness - but it won't be good enough if he is returned to the bosom of the Fielding family in mid-2011 broke and broken (he doesn't get the fat pension), unemployed and unemployable, to have both of the cliches rolled out:

  1. Politics is a tough game!

  2. Is the media to blame? (long canvassing of issues, followed by resounding no, sneering at Fielding's expense, then see 1. above)