26 July 2009

Not bouncing, crumbling

One of the animating fantasies of the Liberal Party over the last twenty years is the one-term dream. This is the idea that a defeat at the hands of Labor will be reversed and, after a single term in opposition, the Liberals (and if necessary, the Nationals can come along for the ride) will bounce back after a term in Opposition and pick up where they left off.

I saw this in NSW in 1995: had 1500 voters in certain seats voted Liberal rather than Labor, John Fahey would have been returned as Premier and Labor would probably have turned away from Carr as leader. This focus on the technical narrowness of the loss gave rise to the ghoulish Bathurst strategy, where the Liberals waited for a sick old man from the ALP to die in order to force a byelection they thought they'd win. It also prompted a vicious round of finger-pointing. As a result both of overestimating their own importance, and underestimating Carr, the Liberals lost and lost again, and got so into the losing habit that a shop-window mannequin beat them in 2007.

That same arrogance has replicated itself around the nation. If you look at Labor in the 1950s and '60s, they had the same problem; their opponents weren't much chop and normal service will be resumed as soon as we complete the current round of bloodletting.

The Federal Coalition has suffered a severe case of this since 2007, and the idea that Peter Costello was anything other than a relic on his way out was proof of this. The ETS debate within the Federal Coalition shows, however, that whatever pretence remained of this phenomenon has gone. The Coalition won't bounce back into office in 2010. They aren't serious about the hard work it takes to get back into office because it would be fed by the butchery of sacred cows.

The current leader of the Liberal Party was elected because of, or perhaps despite, his leadership on environmental issues. Peter Garrett has tried to mince away from his environmental policies and it has left him with nothing: Turnbull should take heed of that and let his damn-the-torpedoes style do some real good. There are no cashed-up foreign conglomerates eager to take over this country's ageing coal-fired power stations and I wish Turnbull would point this out more than he has.

In the event of a federal election, Turnbull would have to go around the country claiming, with a straight face, that Tuckey and all the other protected species of dead wood are better candidates for public office than anyone Labor might put up. If blanket opposition to carbon change initiatives was such good politics, then now is the time to reap the fruits of that position: the favourable polls, the big donations, the endorsements. Surely someone somewhere has noticed the howling void at the heart of the do-nothing position on carbon, the sheer absence of any coherent popular movement against do-gooder greenies, and how muddying the waters on climate does not lead automatically to quietism on this issue: how people look for leadership on this issue with a reproachful stare, and will not look away.

Turnbull should also take comfort from the fact that his opponents within the Liberal Party are not vigorous young Turks, but rebarbative old dingoes like Wilson Tuckey. However, successful political parties also have a cadre of officials - where are the head office honchos raising funds and threatening backbenchers? Most Liberal cadres are not sharks like Graham Morris or tacticians like Andrew Robb, they are gormless John Hyde Page types who do what they're told even after the sensible advice has run out, and who look absurd when they get up on their hind legs. Nobody is telling Wilson Tuckey to pull his head in because nobody has the standing to call Mr Tuckey by his given name, much less push it in if he refuses.

Labor has one the work on the economy: the debt thing will not hit before next year, but it may be an issue in 2013 or '16. Labor still don't "own" the economy as an issue: Swan is still unconvincing as a frontline politician and all you have to do is not ignore Ken Henry. Not all of Labor's marginal seat MPs are gum-chewing sluggards like Amanda Rishworth or harpies like Belinda Neal. It also has what every government needs to survive: a group of ministers who like being in government and are good at it. Tanner, Albanese, Gillard, Plibersek and Faulkner are getting on with it: by contrast, the saturnine Eric Abetz impresses nobody by his seizure of the wrong end of the stick; Minchin's shrill insistence that the Liberals shackle themselves to pointless positions should have discredited him in 2007, and should see him lynched today; Abbott is bored with his job and his only ideas come from the Middle Ages; and Julie Bishop just looks vacuous when bumped off a narrow brief. Only Joe Hockey has the hunger necessary to help the Liberals back into office (Pyne fans say he does too, but what would he wear?).

The Coalition's one-term strategy is dead. What has to replace it is the long haul of deciding what the issues will be in 2013 or '16, and tailoring policies and personnel to suit. This is hard graft and only the strong and the lucky will survive. The next Liberal government will pursue power generation from sources other than coal, and will impose real penalties on polluters - but it is not overly endowed with any group of thinkers who can take it there (like Labor, the Libs have outsourced their sources of new ideas to lobbyists).

It is amazing that there is no tax policy to speak of from the Liberals. Where are the Liberals on books, the second Sydney Airport, even the Northern Territory intervention? This is not an outfit that is bouncing back, this is an outfit that is crumbling with a weak pulse. The Nationals can be left to die but the Libs cannot: the chucking-out of dead wood has to start now, and when better than when the dead wood identifies itself by dumping on the leader?

24 July 2009

An immature culture

In today's AFR (click here but you'll need to be a subscriber), Stephen Kirchner says that we'd be more mature if our central bankers gave press conferences. Apart from trying to put a veneer of rationality onto cultural cringe, it is hard to imagine what this might mean and reading the article leaves you none the wiser.

So, central bankers in the UK, Japan and other countries front a news conference. So what? Questions are reverential and not well thought out, hardly better than the brain-farts Kirchner complains about from politicians and other commentators.
Australian media and politicians do not exactly facilitate mature public debate, often seizing on trivial differences of opinion and beating them up into something they are not.

Quite so, and it is hard to imagine why the pearls of central bankers should be cast before such swine even more than they are. Wait until we get a central banker who has a colourful love life, or who is "linked" to someone of ill repute, and then the folly of this proposal will be clear. Face it Stephen, your only claim that this is anything approaching a good idea is the whine that "everyone else does it, why can't we?".
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand, when releasing its monetary policy statements, holds a media conference at which the governor takes questions on interest rates and the economy.

Well, whoopee-doo for New Zealand. The governor who instituted this practice, Don Brash, did so because he wanted to raise his profile for a political career. What's good for the governor is not necessarily what's best for the bank, nor the economy at large.
A central bank unwilling or unable to speak out on issues related to its statutory mandate gives the appearance of timidity and compliance rather than independence.

This call-out is way beyond wrong and well into the realm of stupidity. It's outsider pique. Other public servants, such as judges and military officers, disdain publicity and journalists demean themselves by demanding public disclosure of operational matters best left off the public record for the time being. Accountability to journalists is not at all the same thing as accountability to the public.

If you underestimate the sheer folly of this naive faith in public disclosure, get a transcript of any public inquiry of former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who spoke quite a lot but said nothing: transparent as billy-o but an architect of a financial system that collapsed in on itself. This is the very sort of person who would float to the top of a system where the Reserve Bank Governor was expected to be a media star - and frankly, it's too much a price to pay. Quiet, nerdy competence is fine by me, as is the idea of diversity - just because others do it does not make it better.

That said, Kirchner has a point about disclosure in a democracy. He is simply wrong in believing that this openness can be had in a press conference, a heavily stage-managed environment designed to conceal more than it reveals.

What should happen is that the Reserve Bank's raw data, including its modelling, should be publicly available. The Reserve Bank has some of the most sophisticated economic modelling tools in the world, and it would be an inestimable public benefit to be able to see inside the raw data on which the RBA makes its decisions. The assumptions, the depersonalised inputs and intelligence (and comparisons with, say, ABS and census data), would be fascinating for the idle viewer and constructive for variously interested parties. Yes, some commentary would continue to be ill-informed or disingenuously spun - but you could tap into the source and get another side of how this country really works, the kind of insights currently only available from opinion polling. IT and education in this country would benefit enormously, and sources of information other than the admittedly-inadequate media would (in true CIS style) emerge. Rather than follow the world Australia could lead it in a truly admirable way.
A decade of cosy neglect under former treasurer Peter Costello had left the RBA languishing near the bottom of international rankings of central bank transparency ...

One of the tragedies of [Ian] Macfarlane's time as governor [of the RBA] is that a great mind that could have contributed so much to national debate over economic policy was rarely heard in public.

Eh? If Macfarlane's mind was so fine, why weren't the benefits of transparency clear to him? If Macfarlane and Costello had a serious disagreement over RBA transparency, or any other aspect of national economic policy, who would have won it? Would any such debate have been examined on its merits, or merely reported as a "stoush", and somehow wedged into the then leadership of the Liberal Party? Costello used to front press conferences all the time - hell, he even used to run for elections. Is that the sort of thing you're after, Stephen? Really?
The issues are simply too important to be left to politicians.

All issues are too important to be left to politicians, and too important for MSM journos for that matter. It's always a pity when a radical suggestion ends up as a damp squib, particularly so that the usually rigorous Kirchner should slump into an intellectually lazy set of assumptions that would leave us none the wiser nor better informed about our economy.

Andrew Elder has just been awarded this year's Greg Lindsay Fellowship at the Politically Homeless Institute.

18 July 2009

End of the line

Here is a prime example of why a return to "old-fashioned journalism" (i.e. quoting from press releases and interest groups, add a touch of hysteria and stir) is utterly worthless in understanding a complex issue, and asserting the role of journalism in helping readers toward such an understanding.
The State Opposition has vowed to scrap work on the $5.3 billion CBD Metro project if it wins office in 2011.

Contracts for the metro are set to be awarded over the next 12 months, and construction work is due to be well under way by the time of the election.

Brian, do you have any experience of NSW government at all? If you know enough to bleat about the Eastern Suburbs line, you'd know that:

  1. $5.3b is optimistic at best, and likely to be a guess;

  2. I bet passenger forecasts are not reliable either; and

  3. By the time we get to scheduling, what is there to do but laugh?

There is no point being a journalist if you're just going to pass on what's fed to you, rather than examine it a bit and report on the examination. If you're going to put nonsense under your byline people will think you're a fool, viz:
If the project were then stopped it could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars for broken contracts ...

Yeah, far better to piss away $5.3 billion dollars we don't have on a route that can be cycled in minutes, Brian, than cut our losses with a bit of compo.
... and result in further damage to the state's reputation as a place to do business.

After triumphs such as the Epping-Chatswood stump line and the Lane Cove Tunnel, ending a farcical proposal can sometimes seem like good sense - and what better environment to do business in than one in which mistakes are not only admitted but not perpetuated?
Instead of the CBD Metro, which would run from Central to Rozelle, the Opposition wants to build the North-West Rail Link, a 23-kilometre line linking Rouse Hill with Epping, by way of Castle Hill, for $3 billion, and the $1.2 billion South-West Rail Link, both of which the State Government shelved.

So? Liberal policy different to Labor's, says our man on the spot, Brian "Scoop" Robins. A story to please John B. Fairfax, perhaps, but doesn't help the rest of us.

Like I said, Brian, the route from Rozelle to the city is well served by buses and is cyclable. Hell, you could walk it. There is an assumption that the idea of a rail line would be universally popular the length and breadth of Rozelle, but this would be a mistake: the drilling over the course of many months would irritate even the staunchest supporter of the State Government ALP - let alone the prospect of million-dollar terraces going the way of that block of flats into the Lane Cove Tunnel.

Why don't you hit the streets of Rozelle yourself and ask them, Brian, rather than wait for David Campbell's spinner to feed you story ideas. After you've done that, stop by one of Rozelle's many excellent cafes/pubs and consider how few Liberal votes there are to be lost or gained over this issue, and why the Liberals are taking the position they're taking:
"We believe we are doing this in the best interests of the state," said the Opposition spokeswoman on transport, Gladys Berejiklian. "It's unethical of [the Government] to sign anything substantial ahead of the elections when key stakeholders are saying 'we don't think the CBD Metro is a good idea'.

"We want a termination clause inserted, to allow us to extricate ourselves from these contracts."

For the Liberals, this is a high-risk strategy. Going on the front foot early and deciding which contracts will go ahead and which won't robs Labor of the power of incumbency. However, it also puts Labor in the position of blaming the Liberals for everything that goes wrong and positioning their ideas as an alternative to the paralysis of the status quo - it's an odd strategy but it worked for Bob Carr, and the Liberals never worked out how to counter it. I don't believe they've gotten any wiser, I just hope Rees isn't as lucky as Carr was.

Note how Brian removed "Labor" and inserted "[the Government]", as though that august institution were above mere politics.
The Transport Minister, David Campbell, said the Opposition's decision was insincere.

"This is simply a political game being played by [the Opposition Leader] Barry O'Farrell," he said.

Ohhh Dave, he looks pretty serious to me. If the Rozelle line goes to the dogs it will be a pretty damn sincere indictment on your ability to make decisions and have them stick - remember what happened with power privatisation? Nobody remembers how sincere or otherwise O'Farrell was, but you guys did lose a Premier over it. Besides, you're a former Labor Mayor of Wollongong - is it possible that you simply wouldn't know whether or not you were being rorted, and that it may be best for you that way?
The construction contract is scheduled to be awarded by June next year, and the operations contract by September 2010, with work to be well under way by the end of 2010.

The fact that our mate Brian swallows this whole is the first indication that he's covered in Labor pocket-lint: no Labor project has even gone that smoothly, nor will do so. The second is that there are no quotes from, or references to, the Greens - a party with no small presence in Rozelle and one which has consistently opposed this project.
"I've already advised my members that with a change of Government the metro would be shelved, replaced by the North-West Rail Link, and they didn't bat an eyelid," the head of the Civil Contractors Federation, David Elliott, said.

David Elliott doesn't need to wait for Brian Robins to know what's going on - he and Gladys Berejiklian used to work together in Peter Collins' office and they know one another well. Note the complete lack of concern from the industry representative though, and contrast it with the sheer hysteria from Brian:
For the successful bidders, the cost of losing contracts after work has begun, not to mention the cost of putting together tenders for multibillion-dollar projects like the metro, which can cost a consortium $20 million for each large contract, will prompt some groups to reconsider working in NSW.

Participating in a tender process over a highly-politicised issue is always a speculative venture, Brian, and if they can't lose $20m and stroll on then they are in the wrong business. If David Elliott said they aren't batting an eyelid, where is the source of this despair of doing business in NSW?
To limit the potential for any damages claims, the Opposition could give winning bidders for the metro "preferred tenderer" status for the North-West and South-West Rail Link projects, but their position is still unclear.

You mean: it's not legally binding.
Following chronic problems with other big-ticket projects, such as the Cross City Tunnel and the Lane Cove Tunnel, both of which were based on wildly optimistic traffic forecasts, and other projects such as the Airport Link, the damage to the state's reputation when negotiating big projects involving the private sector is clear.

It sure is. NSW Labor understate costs and overstate usage of their pet projects. Chuck them out.
"Last month South Australia abandoned an $800 million private-sector-funded prisons project, just as it is about to turn to the private sector for a $1.5 billion hospital project, raising questions about the likely level of bidding support for the hospital work," the head of a large construction group said.

A weak ending to a weak article:

  1. South Australia is the second-smallest state in the Commonwealth, NSW the most populous. NSW will lead the country out of recession so get on board with a team that will be making decisions.

  2. Berejiklian and Elliott and even Dave "They're bluffing!" Campbell were quoted and can be held to account for their words. Brian's "source" (let us assume this person exists), "the head of a large construction group", can't. Interesting to see if this talking "head" is a big Labor donor and/or a member of the winning consortium, or just a whinger from Adelaide.

  3. The party in government in South Australia wouldn't be the same party governing NSW now would it, Brian? Is South Australia a better place to do substantial business than NSW? Really?

The Sydney Morning Herald has done a lot of work on Sydney's transport needs generally, and the silly Rozelle proposal in particular - Brian references none of that, expecting us to believe that Labor the NSW State Government has some sort of monopoly on Business Confidence. He hasn't made his case: business will work with whomever the voters of NSW elect, without batting an eyelid, and if they lose here they'll pick up there. That's business, Brian, and it's politics; and it's your job to report on both without fretting about the (soon to be replaced) State Government.

Whether or not Brian Robins has pleased Labor spinners with his effort here examined, this is poor journalism, poor public service - and if this is an example of journalism today then it truly has no future.

05 July 2009

Sloppy research is unhealthy

I remember when libertarians had initiative in questioning the basic assumptions of how we govern ourselves, and are governed. You still get small numbers of classical liberals, like Stephen Kirchner or Andrew Norton, who bother to do research to test their theories, but these tend to be the exception. Even Jason Soon will do this to some extent, and when he doesn't you can criticise him for it knowing that he recognises sloppy research is a bad thing.

I suspect that the disappointment of John Howard, who talked a good game about small government when in opposition but who abandoned libertarianism once in office, has turned libertarians to cynicism. These days, libertarians distinguish themselves by pooh-poohing any suggestion that comes up, that any change at all will be worse that what we have and might get.

The prime example of this is silly Chris Berg.
The Federal Government's Preventative Health Taskforce has spent the past year coming up with creative little ideas ...

Because any idea they could have is "little", or even "bad"(see below) eh Chris?
On Tuesday, the taskforce delivered its recommendations to Canberra. But they've been dripping out their proposals to the media for a few weeks.

Indeed, the taskforce seems to have adopted a tactic new to policy debate: if you propose enough bad ideas in a short enough space of time, it's impossible to rebut them all.

Assuming that the only thing to do with these ideas is to rebut them, or that you have the knowledge to distinguish a good idea from a bad one.
One of the least convincing ideas is the one that has got the most attention: subsidised gym membership and fitness equipment to tackle obesity.

Yes, gyms can be expensive ... Maybe we are all craven, stingy fatties, but if we are, then it'd be a good bet that we're lazy too. A few small tax breaks or a small government-sponsored reduction in the price of a gym membership is not exactly a compelling motivator to cast aside the pizza boxes and pump weights.

Speak for yourself, Chris. Nobody is going on a jihad against pizza. A few small tax breaks don't necessarily help all the causes for which charities are set up, but the tax deduction signals a social good that adds some incentive (and you can donate less than the price of a mobile phone plan). Where did that figure come from? I'd suggest the fact that few gym memberships are used to their full value makes this a blunt instrument for achieving desired ends, and would like to see a bit of research into that. Blithe sneering doesn't help anyone.

What also doesn't help are fatuous celebrity references. Is Gwynneth Paltrow (an American lady who used to act in films) the only person you know of who goes to gyms? Does she endorse your policy, or oppose it, and would it matter either way Chris?
One of the more prominent anti-smoking proposals of the taskforce is to scrub cigarette packs of all brand identification — logos, colours, everything — as if stencilled gold foil pasted onto a cardboard box is all it takes to eliminate an individual's willpower.

The nature of an addiction is that ingesting more of the product represents a continued failure of willpower, Chris, not a demonstration of it. You'd find that out if you'd done a bit of research, fellow (there are plenty of celebrities who are addicted to nicotine, why not use them for your next piece?).
Are there really that many people who want to quit smoking, but keep being drawn back by the shiny wrapping, like a nicotine-addled magpie?

Apparently - that would explain why nicotine companies spend millions producing said packaging in that manner. As this is against the wide public interest, to reverse this would discourage non-addicts from taking it up while reinforcing its lack of appeal to those who are addicted. There's plenty of information on this if only you'd research, fellow.
We're a lot further down the nanny state's slippery slope than anybody could have predicted a few decades ago.

Not really, and again a bit of research would put the lie to that.

In the 1940s, for example, the Nazi state had been in operation for more than a decade: governments to the west and east of Germany were devoting considerable resources to its destruction. The Marshall Plan and the Warsaw Pact poured many millions of taxpayer dollars toward rebuilding societies and economies devastated by war. In the face of all this state activity, men like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek complained that various states were re-enserfing the populations who paid taxes, voted and were governed. This took considerable gall but they became recognised as great thinkers once the postwar states were strong enough to be sneered at. An English writer named George Orwell wrote a number of essays and books in which he foresaw what you call the "nanny state", Chris.
There's a big chasm between the medical world and the world of public policy ... They may have good intentions. Nobody wants Australia to be needlessly unhealthy.

You've missed the point, Chris, and that's why your article is so silly.

The health system in this country is overwhelmingly state-funded, and as such there is a public interest in driving down health costs. The demand on our health system is increasingly as a result of "lifestyle factors", ailments where the sufferer could have avoided being in a position where they need expensive medical care if only they had avoided certain addictions, or other behaviours which ultimately impose great cost on individual and state.

What would constitute needful unhealthiness? Does anyone need to be unhealthy?
But these medicos with ambitious regulatory proposals rarely consider some critical questions. Will there be unintended consequences? (Such as drinkers changing from alcopops to hard spirits since the tax was increased.)

Will there be unintended consequences of anything? Why bother getting out of bed? What made you think the alcopops tax was imposed by "medicos"? I thought it was politicians who did that. I'd be interested in seeing the research on that, and if you have it might add some of the credibility you currently lack.
There is an almost unanimous agreement among public health lobbyists and the commentariat that the Government should ban junk food advertising to children. But the Royal Journal of Medicine argues there is "no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children's food consumption".

Is this in Britain, or some part of Britain, or is it universal? If so, why haven't food companies cottoned on to this and axed their marketing departments? Did you have to wade past voluminous research to the contrary to find one piece that may support your view (or may not - volume, chapter and page no. please Chris).
Our peak communications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which has repeatedly looked at the issue over the past decade, agrees.

Thank goodness they agree with Chris Berg, otherwise they'd just be another mob of bureaucratic busybodies.
Nevertheless, we still get vacuous claims about "pester-power" — claims which seem to be driven by the belief that only the government can stop kids nagging their parents.

Advertising is meant to inform consumers of their options in the market. Younger children do not earn nor control sufficient money or freedom to get to junkfood stores and consume said products, and they lack the ability to discern implicit claims against their wider self-interest. Advertisers know this: they seek to manipulate children into altering adults' purchasing behaviour toward the commercial interests of producers (= advertisers' clients), in an emotional manner, away from the interests of the children and the healthcare system. See how it works, Chris?

In modern capitalism, costs are foisted onto government if that's the cheapest place for them to be. That's why the healthcare system is government-run: it's cheaper to offset healthcare costs as part of government than have the market provide them. Every country in the world bar one accepts this, and the US looks increasingly likely to take this step once they realise the sneers of people like Chris Berg count for nothing. It's cheaper and easier for the state to have a monopoly of violence, and there are other issues besides: once you accept that you can understand the place of the state within a capitalist society. You'll be a better Research Fellow for such a realisation.
Mark Twain was concerned that giving the government the power to "meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens" risked people losing their "independence of thought and action".

Yes, and Twain was a funny man, wasn't he? Always calling for this or that to be banned. Richard Doll hadn't reported on nicotine addiction and lung cancer during Twain's life, and there's been plenty more research done since then. New and different information can often required new and different responses, Chris.

The Melbourne curmudgeon is a cliché tradition in The Age. Columnists like Keith Dunstan or Ranald Macdonald wrote columns in favour of the rotary-dial telephone or against teabags, or that Aussie Rules football was better when players weren't paid to play it - but these were always leavened with a genuine understanding of the alternate viewpoint, they were well-written and witty. Kenneth Davidson writes grim columns against capitalism in all its forms, hoping Melbourne will become like East Berlin c.1958, but he at least will draw on empirical research to support the platform from which he whinges. They are running Berg in the hope that he might be a "young fogey", but he isn't a patch on these other grumpies.

Berg is wilfully ignorant of that at which he sneers, making a mockery of the "research fellow" tag and those who slapped it on him. By treating his opponents' points as beneath him, he denies himself both intellectual respect for his own position and personal respect for any generosity toward theirs. Andrew Norton takes great pains to be civil and respectful to those who takes a different view, and to fail to do so fails to advance your cause - such as it is.

04 July 2009

Safety in numbers

In the US Senate, the Democrats can claim sixty of that body's hundred members. In theory this enables them to votes as a bloc to introduce legislation, free of the threat of filibuster from the Republicans. In practice the conventional wisdom has it that this may be a bit more fraught, as this article demonstrates:
Keeping occasional mavericks like Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana in the fold could prove vexing. At the same time, senators at the more liberal end of the spectrum have been known to balk when they feel legislation has been too heavily tailored to appeal to more moderate and conservative Democrats ...

“Sixty is an important threshold, but we shouldn’t overstate it,” said Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Al Franken is going to put the wind at our back. But we are not a monolithic caucus.”

In the US, Senators tend to be self-made people and are more directly answerable to their home-state constituencies than Australian Senators are, as this piece illustrates. Of course they are going to assert their independence, particularly from people who played no part in helping them get there.

President Obama is not only popular, but his agenda addresses a number of key issues that have been unresolved in US politics: access to healthcare; the degree to which Iraq needs US forces to maintain public order and national integrity; and the regulation of the finance sector, the search for a system that will prevent a recurrence of the current situation without creating other problems down the track. He might not have all the answers and if his agenda is tweaked here and there, his record as a facilitator and a coalition-builder suggests he will accept these.

If Obama gets his agenda through, his popularity will be cemented: not just hope but achievement, on issues that count to people. The fact that polling shows huge majorities for healthcare reform, which always seem to be scuttled, watered down or filibustered out of existence by a Congress elected by those same people, is one of the conundrums of US politics. If Obama were to break and recast this debate in favour of service delivery that works for people who need healthcare, it would set him up with the greats who have not shied away from seemingly intractable issues, but tackled them head-on even at great cost.

If he fails then he's just like all the other Presidents, really. Clinton got re-elected despite failing at healthcare reform and Bush II was re-elected after dismissing its importance outright. Obama has recast politics in lots of ways, and it's a pity that The New York Times article fails to acknowledge that.

The wolfish glee from Republican commentators that the last President to enjoy a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate was Jimmy Carter in 1975-79 appears misplaced: in the late 1970s the Republicans recovered from the near-fatal blow of Watergate thanks to the leadership of Reagan and intellectual depth provided by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and others.

There is no coherent opposition in the United States. It's a rabble, it is intellectually exhausted and leaderless. Republicans and their chattering-class supporters are in no position to telegraph, let alone land, any blows on Obama. Their adoration of Reagan has blinded them to the idea that the way that Democrats felt in the early-to-mid '80s is similar to that facing Republicans today.

Obama Administration figures seeking to persuade Senators Nelson, Bayh and Landrieu above could do worse than take them to listen to the howl of the void that lies beyond their position. Where are the votes for a Democrat against the best chance of healthcare reform in a generation? Where do you go, and how do you come back from there?

By the end of this year, if they haven't already, the thoughts of US politicians will turn to the elections of 2010. here are the Senators up for re-election. Let's look at their chances whether or not Obama gets his agenda through:

  • Boxer, Barbara - (D - CA), Inouye, Daniel K. - (D - HI), Mikulski, Barbara A. - (D - MD) and Murray, Patty - (D - WA) are among the more liberal Senators. They are unlikely to be anything but strong supporters of Obama on healthcare, the environment, economy and other issues, and have waited so long for a supportive President they are unlikely to block his initiatives for the sake of purity. Anyway, they have all been in politics longer than Obama has and have strong followings in their home states.

  • Bennett, Robert F. - (R - UT), Coburn, Tom - (R - OK), Crapo, Mike - (R - ID), DeMint, Jim - (R - SC), Grassley, Chuck - (R - IA), Shelby, Richard C. - (R - AL) are the incorrigibles. The reverse of the above, they're safe in their home states if they block Obama at every turn.

  • Bond, Christopher S. - (R - MO), Brownback, Sam - (R - KS), Bunning, Jim - (R - KY), Burr, Richard - (R - NC), Isakson, Johnny - (R - GA), Martinez, Mel - (R - FL), McCain, John - (R - AZ) and Murkowski, Lisa - (R - AK) - they all fancy themselves as part of the preceding group but are actually highly vulnerable if there's a swing on. All are from states where Obama did well last year, and it will count against them if they have nothing to show but having stonewalled Obama.

  • Gregg, Judd - (R - NH), Thune, John - (R - SD), Vitter, David - (R - LA), Voinovich, George V. - (R - OH) are all dead meat. These guys were all elected on the coat-tails of Bush in 2004. Gregg was offered a political lifeline by Obama and turned it down, and Vitter was caught paying a prostitute to roleplay with him wearing a nappy; he comes from the state that still hasn't recovered from Hurricane Katrina. If you think Obama has been bold by scraping together 60 Senators, wait until it gets to 64 or even 70.

  • Then there's the Democrats: Burris, Roland W. - (D - IL) and Specter, Arlen - (D - PA) are likely to be rolled by Democrats in their own states, who will owe President Obama - unless they throw themselves on the President's mercy. It is entirely possible that Reid, Harry - (D - NV) will also be devoured by a netroots campaign.

The rest of them are Democrats, who may have some amendments but are unlikely to spike key legislation altogether.
Senator Robert C. Byrd, the 91-year-old West Virginia Democrat, just finished a hospital stay of more than a month due to a staph infection. Aides could not predict whether Mr. Byrd would be voting regularly when the Senate returns from its Fourth of July break ... Mr. Byrd might be a tough sell on the global warming bill, given strong resistance in his coal-producing state.

Byrd was on the wrong side of history with the Civil Rights Act and may not wish to be so again - but then again, he might. This might be true of any Democrat who were to replace Byrd as well. The challenge is to put a major solar/wind/other new-power plant in West Virginia, not as a sop but to sow them what the future could look like, to include them and give them confidence in it.

Opposition from Byrd, even if present, need not mean a filibuster - many a time the two Republican Senators from Maine (neither of whom are up for election in 2010) have been prevailed upon to produce a result that hardliners on either side could not bully through.

The parallel is less with Carter than with FDR and Truman: when the Republicans lost office in 1932 for misjudging the Great Depression, they were gone for twenty years because at every election the Democrats were addressing the issues of their day. The Republicans may have been big men in the localities which elected them, stuck firmly to old ways, but they seemed to shy away from the big issues of their age - and so it is again now.

What does this mean for Australia? Not much. Any chance that the US might water down some of the peculiarly anti-Australian measures in the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (honey?) are pretty much stuffed, as is the idea of Australian motor plants making key components for US vehicles. I hope it will mean a better deal for New Zealand than the freeze-out they've received since 1985, but somehow I doubt it.

02 July 2009

Night thoughts from John Hartigan

I read the John Hartigan transcript. Two things struck me:

  1. it was exactly like John B. Fairfax's back-to-the-future routine; and

  2. how utterly clueless it is; talking about thinking outside the box while at the same time insisting that anyone outside the box is gone for all money.

It started with contradictions: rousing words (if you read the transcript, which Hartigan controls), timidly delivered (if you saw the video, which he doesn't control).
What it will take is a complete rethink of the very essence of what is “news”.

We have never been challenged as we are now, to justify why someone should pay for our content.
I believe people will pay for content if it is:

- Original...

- Exclusive...

- Has the authority

- and is relevant to our audiences.

Journalism that doesn’t help people live their lives is going to be a low-value commodity.

The boldness of the demand for a rethink is completely undermined by the clichés that followed:

  • Paying for AP/Reuters/[other News Ltd franchises] content isn't original, and neither is rehashing a press release - but it is the very essence of journalism.

  • Nobody gives a damn about "exclusive", as I've said earlier. Old wankers like Hartigan who could spend a whole day skiting and taunting the opposition value this highly; the rest of us, not so much.

  • By "authority", Hartigan means "bombastic" or "sneering". Fuck that.

I'll give you the last one: but how would Hartigan know? Focus groups? Editorial-office bull sessions: "Nah, what the punters really want is ...". You don't stampede your way into a position of market dominance and then go all soft about what the punters want. The punters will take whatever News Ltd bloody well feels like printing, that's what made this company and this country.
How many journalists in this room have written a story recently that was original, exclusive, highly relevant and genuinely useful to your audience?

I’m not saying there haven’t been stories like this. But, there have been too few.

This is where you need leadership, Hartigan - from yourself, and those snivelling bums you call your editors. Tomorrow's Daily Murdoch will be full of the very stuff you decry, and next week's, and next year's - and if you try to change it you are history, because you didn't get where you are by bucking the culture of News Ltd.
Newspapers in the US are disappearing left, right and centre.

Fewer papers are being sold and in my view it’s because many of them are largely boring and irrelevant to their readership. Their content is ubiquitous rather than unique.

If you listen to breakfast and morning radio in the capital cities - directly, in the case of 2GB/3AW/etc. and indirectly on the ABC, you can pick up the audio version of The Daily Murdoch.
It has been assumed, without any rigorous scrutiny, that Australian newspapers will go the same way as their US and British peers.

Some say the trends are the same; we are just a year or two behind.

Frankly, I’m dismayed at how many Australian journalists seem to accept this. Some are even willing to stick their byline on this opinion.

I mean, at its most basic, it’s just bad reporting. There’s almost no evidence.

There's some harsh language there, an opening barrage designed to dissuade scrutiny of what follows:
Even in the past year, the decline in ad revenue in Australia is a fraction of what’s been happening overseas.

The falls in circulation and readership here are very modest compared to American and British papers.

In the latest Australian audit, when you’d expect a big drop, overall sales were flat.

Readership in Australia has been relatively stable over 10 years, but, as I said earlier, it’s been decimated in the US and the UK.

When Hartigan said "there's almost no evidence", you'd expect him to go all stat-happy like he was with his outline of the decline of US and UK newspapers. If The New York Times want to announce that it has lost $70m, that's up to them - but don't expect Hartigan to announce how much his own papers are haemmorrhaging, and don't expect the bluster to convince you otherwise. To say "there's almost no evidence" is Hartigan's way of saying, "there is evidence, but if I don't show you then you probably won't find out", which is the opposite of the sort of journalism he'd want you to think he's offering.
... what about the journalism?

If I had a Power Point presentation I could summarise this whole speech with two points on one slide:

1. If you want to attract readers, break stories people want to read.

2. Give them something they can’t get anywhere else, make it relevant and useful and let them get involved.

See that: let them get involved. Careful, big fella - if people want to get involved they'd be independent bloggers. Perhaps you think that you can determine what it is that they're involved in?
There are plenty of examples.

The British MP expenses scandal has sold an extra million copies of the UK Daily Telegraph since the story broke in May.

It wasn’t simply because the Telegraph paid for a leak.

It assigned dozens of people to the story, spent weeks preparing its coverage and had a brilliant strategy for breaking and then staying in front of the story. It broke it online and then really went to town in print.

Without question, the moral authority of the paper and the depth and quality of its coverage made it a story that only a newspaper could own in this way.

London's Tele is not a News Ltd paper. If it was, it would never have put the raw files on its website an invited the public to do their own trawling, thus getting details out earlier. Instead, Hartigan would have kept it all in-house and released the info when he was good and ready - and he'd be playing favourites with it, too, rather than the admirable let-the-cards-fall-where-they-may attitude of the Tele.
In Australia we had the Victorian bushfires. It wasn’t exclusive to News obviously. But our coverage was unique.

We sold an extra half a million newspapers in the week following Black Saturday. Our website traffic more than doubled ... Who can forget the images of the fireman sharing his water bottle with the Sam the Koala, perhaps the iconic image of the tragedy?

The images that appeared on television around the world carried the water mark not of Seven, Nine or Ten but of heraldsun.com.au.

That'd be the image insinuated into the February story, even though that koala was injured two weeks or so before those fires? Sneaky and dishonest, just what you'd expect from News - iconic all right.
Three weeks later, we published a book which immediately became the number one non-fiction best seller with every cent going to fire victims.

Flatly untrue.
The Australian relaunched its business section online last June. We hired people, spent some serious money.

Since then unique visitors to the site have more than doubled. Page impressions have increased seven fold. Advertising revenue has already recouped the investment.

True, they have stolen a march on The Daily Fairfax - apart from Ian Verrender, none of them are much chop. Ross Gittins has gone off the boil and Dizzy Lizzie Knight (Kath's sister) was never any good.
Pumpkin soup is very big on Tuesdays.

This is an incredibly powerful proposition to take to an advertiser.

But, as journalism, it absolutely nails the criteria I mentioned earlier. The content is original, it’s exclusive and people actually use it.

Good luck with patenting "pumpkin soup", Hartigan. Good luck with selling advertising space when people are reading the means to avoid having to buy the product. Just because you think your customers and advertisers are dills, doesn't mean they are.
In return for their free content, we pretty much get what we’ve paid for - something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance.

Andrew Keen, in his book The Cult of the Amateur, cites Hurricane Katrina as an example when:
“reports from people at the scene helped spread unfounded rumours, inflated body counts and erroneous reports of rapes and gang violence in the New Orleans Superdome – all later debunked by mainstream news media”.

First they were spread by mainstream media, and then they were debunked - it's all about churn, Harto! Yesterday's fishwrappers and nobody remembers, eh!

The other thing to point out here is how Hartigan blasted those who thought US media = Australian media were lazy, yet here he's found some peanut who says US blogs = Australian blogs, and he's fine with that. He has no idea about Australian blogs - excellent!
Citizen journalists, he says, simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training but access to decision makers and reliable sources.

Anyone can crunch a press release down, you don't need "access"for that. The fact that I don't go drinking at the Holy Grail means that I'm more likely, not less, to break a political story that might discomfit denizens of that bar. You don't need access, and access isn't that valuable - it's the consequences of the decisions made that counts, and the consequences of those decisions are often imperceptible to those with "access". Perspective is more important than "access".
The difference, he says, between professionals and amateurs is that bloggers don’t go to jail for their work

No, bloggers are a bit smarter than that. It's the job of editors and lawyers to get the story out without the journo having to do time - but that would require innovative thinking, wouldn't it? You'll note, Hartigan, that it is Godwin Grech rather than Steve Lewis who is in the gun at the moment.
Like Keating’s famous “all tip and no iceberg”, it could be said that the blogosphere is all eyeballs and no insight.

Other way around. If it was no insight, you'd let the story stand. The whole idea of this post, this blog and others like it is to provide the insight that the original source has failed.
As Robert Thomsen of The Wall Street Journal says: “The blogs and comment sites are basically editorial echo chambers rather than centres of creation. And their cynicism about so-called traditional media is only matched by their opportunism in exploiting it.”

Tonight for dinner I ate some fish - this does not make me an "echo chamber" for fish and nor does it make the fish more important than me. You're fodder for this blog Hartigan - it may be the most important thing you do.
It started as a moralising soapbox; boasting about its lack of standards.

Almost all news outlets do this, boasting that they are not bound by the standards of truth to which they hold interview subjects.
In the blogosphere, of course, the mainstream media is always found wanting. It really is time this myth was blown apart.

Blogs and a large number of comment sites specialise in political extremism and personal vilification.

"Blogosphere"is such a silly expression: blogs are far more diverse than the groupthink in the journosphere. How can you be innovative when your thoughts are hobbled by silly expressions? Are all blogs everywhere as politically extreme as The Australian?
Radical sweeping statements unsubstantiated with evidence are common.

It sure is, Johnny boy - but then, that's what you get for reading News Ltd.
One Australian blogger who shoots first and checks facts later is proud to boast that his site is “Not wrong for long”.

Mainstream media understands, most of the time, that comment and opinion is legitimised by evidence.

And when that evidence comes in after News Ltd has gone to press, it conducts ad hominem attacks and ignores the correction, only to print it months later at the bottom of an obscure page if forced to do so by the Press Council. I prefer “Not wrong for long”: it is another nail in the coffin of the "scoop". No blog would have printed the Pauline Hanson pictures, or failed to pull them once the error became clear.
Good journalism is expensive.

The Huffington Post recently announced it will spend $US1.75 million on a new investigative journalism unit to produce original content.

But it is not being funded by subscribers or advertisers, it’s being bankrolled by philanthropy.

The Australian has never made a profit: it is underpinned by philanthropy from the Murdoch Family, and produces second-rate journalism at best.
Take this list of important stories of recent years:

- John Howard’s leadership promise to Peter Costello;

- Marcus Einfeld’s downfall;

- Bundaberg Hospital’s trail of death;

- Tougher restrictions on P Plate drivers;

- New laws that mean rape victims don’t have to give evidence in open court.

These stories had two things in common.

First, they had serious impact and influence – on everything from a change of government, to the conviction of criminals to new legislation.

Second, they were all broken by tabloid newspapers.

Mostly bullshit:

  • Howard-Costello? Oh, please. The biggest load of bullshit, utterly empty of content and importance.

  • Einfeld? Political gloating, and vastly overstated in its importance. Just because Einfeld lied about his driving doesn't mean he lied about Toomelah.

  • P Plate drivers? Vilification pure and simple. The roads are no safer and those people are no better drivers.

  • Evidence in rape cases: I think Paul Sheehan at The Daily Fairfax had a hand in that. Just a bit.

That leaves Bundaberg Hospital: sure, but who gives a shit who broke that story? It only became an issue once it got too big for one outlet to "own" it.
In recent years, many of the most important national stories were the fruit of time-consuming, expensive, painstaking investigative journalism, predominantly by The Australian.

Stories like:

- The Australian Wheat Board scandal;

- Children Overboard;

- Mohammed Haneef;

- the tragedies on Palm Island and at Arakun.

It is no coincidence The Australian broke these stories and produced coverage of national significance and impact; because The Australian has made the biggest investment in journalism of any paper in the country.

It is no coincidence The Australian broke these stories because it was so embedded with the Howard Government that it leaked those stories to its house organ.
People will pay for it if it is good enough. By good enough I mean that it will have to be:

- well researched;

- brilliantly written'

- perceptive and intelligent;

- professionally edited;

- accurate and reliable.

This is not the territory in which aggregator sites or amateur bloggers will do well.

This is the natural terrain of the well-trained, professional, experienced, clever journalist.

Hartigan's vision is the very sort of thing of which Australian journalism falls short in every way but rhetoric. It's back to the future for News Ltd. None of the above describes The Punch, for example. They're paying journalists more but imposing the same standards that current staff seem to limbo under with ease.

To see the bankruptcy of Hartigan's case, see this non-story. Christian Kerr's basic value-add is to say: "yeah, what he said", after the boss has spoken. Bloggers are readers, discerning readers, and people like Hartigan are intent on patronising us. Some future.