10 February 2011

Test of character

Over the past few days we have seen Tony Abbott's character tested, and found wanting. He has cemented his reputation as one insensitive to the suffering of others, and of being unable to build any longterm policy agenda (one extending beyond the next episode of Insiders). It really is time to give up on the guy. Those who defend him look shrill and silly and miss the point.

First, Katharine Murphy once again instructs us on the attitude we are to take in order to maintain the increasingly unsustainable Canberra fantasy that Abbott is a credible PM.
Tony Abbott is serially scatological. It's a problem.

To have such a firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick does no favours in understanding this situation or presenting yourself as a credible reporter on Australian federal politics.

Firstly, the 2007 election campaign was a tough one for the Coalition, and you'd expect a highly-regarded senior minister to make things easier rather than harder. By swearing at Roxon and bungling health policy, it is a truly amazing feature of our political system that defeated Liberal MPs did not line up to wring his neck (and run for preselection for the subsequent byelection), let alone for Abbott lead the party to the following election. That's not just bad manners Katharine, it's bad judgment on his part, the Liberal Party's, and yours for talking him up.

Secondly, "shit happens" is an appropriate expression for anything other than the death of a human being (let alone a dangerous situation into which Abbott voted to commit people). As I said on Drag0nista's blog (of which more later), I'd thump anyone who said that. It wasn't a faux pas, it was a window into the guy's soul: of a piece with his cry-me-a-river response to the Brisbane floods or refusing to see the late Bernie Banton for being insufficiently pure.

Kevin Rudd could turn on the bad language and he was Prime Minister for almost three years: almost three year longer than Abbott will ever hold that office. But Rudd and Abbott aren't the issue here:
But it's not time for Abbott to become bland, to lose his texture, to speak only focus group and its associated dialects - otherwise we are looking at a rerun of 2010, when political discussion elected to give itself a lobotomy, the voters all switched off in disgust, and I nearly went mad and contemplated a second career as a sandwich artist to escape the shallow febrile horror of the landscape before me.

If political journalists keep playing "gotcha" - crucifying our elected representatives every time they appear before us in three dimensions - we will lead ourselves inexorably back to the vacuum of the past 12 months, and I for one do not want to go there.

Of course you do. It's The Narrative, and without it you'd be doing a different job. If everyone in the press gallery is writing the same story, Katharine Murphy will write it too. If you want someone to dissect some tendentious bullshit with Aesculapian skill, particularly where neither major party is better than the other, there is no reason to seek out the latest piece by Katharine Murphy ...

... well, that was my opinion until I read the last four paragraphs of her piece, starting with:
If we are intent on running a substantive ruler over Abbott, then here we can make a productive critique.

This is what the article should have been, it's the only bit of any value.

This piece by PvO can be dismissed out of hand. Abbott has been his own press secretary before and during his whole time in public life. The idea that he should be ambushed by the media - and of all people, Mark bloody Riley, a prize pissant if ever there was one - is a joke. The idea that he should be ambushed with several hours' warning is nonsense.

Abbott did nothing to dispel the doubts of people who might vote Liberal, and embarrassed those who do. If there had been footage of Mark Latham breaking the taxi driver's arm, it would've been of a piece with Abbott's bobblehead routine. He's done this sort of thing once too often. Philip Coorey, however, is ignoring this and trying to present it as a one-off:
To accuse Abbott of deliberately making light of a trooper's death is absurd and no one has levelled this accusation.

If you can accuse Julia Gillard of faking tears over Queensland flood victims, why not?
However, a key factor that has so far been overlooked is that the Coalition did politicise MacKinney's death at the time.

Indeed he did. He has sowed the wind of Canberra's media storms for two decades, and now he has reaped the shitstorm.
Several weeks ago, Abbott's senior minder, Claire Kimball left the office. It's a safe bet that, had she been around, she would not have let that happen.

As stated earlier, if Claire Kimball is all that stood between this clown and the Prime Ministership, then good riddance to Claire Kimball. It's an untenable position for a media advisor to save someone with Abbott's experience from themselves.

Former Liberal staffer Drag0nista had a go at constructive criticism of Abbott. My first reaction should have been: good on you for trying. That said, I stand by my comment on that blog, and regard her piece as showing the limits of media advice. If you found a cold, decaying and beheaded corpse it would not do to plot strategies for chest compressions, crepe bandages or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

One journalist who couldn't help himself is Greg Sheridan. Sheridan is right to disdain Bishop, but wrong to do so on an issue where she is clearly right.
The Coalition front bench could do a lot worse than read The White Man's Burden - Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly, a former senior economist at the World Bank.

Later, he says:
It is right that our aid emphasises the Asia-Pacific while European aid emphasises Africa.

But Greg, Easterley's book slams European aid in Africa: isn't Australia's practical, community based aid far better than that dished out by the EU? Did you not share the Wikileaked US criticism of Australia as ineffective against Mugabe?
A hundred million dollars will generally buy you a smile and a warm handshake in most parts of the world, especially when so much of the money will inevitably be skimmed off in corruption.

If we want to help Africa, we'd be much better off opening embassies there and promoting trade, which might actually help.

... or get skimmed off in corruption, Greg. Damned if we do, etc.
Everything [Bishop] touches she gets wrong, in both the politics and the substance.

Here she knocks Abbott into a cocked hat. Never mind Gillard, it's Julie Bishop playing Judith to Abbott's Holofernes.

Sheridan is dead right here, if clumsily expressed:
Building schools in Indonesia is about the best possible use Australian aid money could be put to.

But not here:
Also, if Abbott looks as though he can't handle Indonesia, it will threaten his credentials to be prime minister.

We've never had a Prime Minister elected to the office on the basis of appearing to "handle Indonesia". None of them have spoken Bahasa Indonesia - is there anyone who can speak that language in Federal Parliament? Howard came closest: even he took some convincing that we could do it without the Americans, and for all his experience his analysis of the place and its politics is pretty rudimentary.
Finally, Abbott's other mistake was to recommit to the Millennium aid goal for 2015. This clunky, dumb formula allows for no proper evaluation of aid levels, as every other part of government spending is subject to. It is just part of the nonsense consensus of the international relations class.

Clunky and dumb goes for much of Bush-Blair policy, but because Greg wets himself over that he refers to that consensus as "the Anglosphere" rather than "the international relations class".

It's also true that the Millennium goals represent something of a last gasp by the US and Western Europe in exerting themselves in world affairs. China and India are increasing their use of aid as part of their 'soft power', which has real implications for Australia. Stick the Easterley book Greg, and investigate that.
A cosmopolitan, sophisticated, liberal opposition with any intellectual firepower on foreign affairs might challenge this consensus. Alas, there is no sign of that in this opposition. Abbott can't do everything himself, and he is poorly served by his front bench in this area.

Abbott's whole career has seen him work against a Liberal Party (much less its parliamentary party) consisting of "cosmopolitan, sophisticated, liberal" people. Given his experience and job title, Sheridan is wrong to lament what Abbott would consider success.

Abbott's front bench can only work within the parameters their leader sets. While Abbott may not be able to be his own foreign affairs spokesman as Rudd, Beazley or Peacock were, he has to be able to set some sort of direction. Bishop's floundering is not her responsibility alone.

Tony Abbott is showing us that he can't be Prime Minister. That's the story, press gallery people. Don't wait for "anonymous rumblings", because Abetz et al are following you and not the other way around. Show us what the job of Prime Minister should involve, and then assess Abbott - and Gillard, and whomever else - against that.

The reason why the press gallery is so protective of Abbott is not that he was once a journalist back in the day. It's because he plays the politico-media game that Gillard can't and won't play. He butters up journos, he picks his favourites and treats them like they are important. They can't believe that the last true believer in old-school media relations won't restore the Whitlam-to-Rudd situation where the press gallery hold the keys to the Lodge. If Tony Abbott goes down, the press gallery would be as irrelevant as it is to voters/media consumers. Never mind Riley's riles: the efforts to prop Abbott up are starting to look silly.


  1. Glad to see someone agrees with me that "shit happens" is NOT the way to describe the death of a soldier in battle, especially given that cameras are rolling.

    Among soldiers maybe it's acceptable, pprobably is, but when the wannabe rootin', tootin' shootin' LOTO gets in there and tries to act the tough guy it's a disgrace.

    No wonder the father, hearing his son described as being the victim of "shit happening" was upset.

    Abbott has a potty mouth, as many of us do, but he uses it in his professional as opposed to his private life: he likes to roll it out to intimidate people (Roxon), express his disgust ("shit-eating grin") and now make himself look tough to a bunch of REAL tough guys.

    The journosphere doesn't think it was out of place because they're pretend tough guys too.

    The simple test is: what would the media have done if it had been Gillard caught saying what Abbott said?

    You're right: Abbott is not fit to be Prime Mininster, or even a milk man.

  2. Keep working to make the No Marks in the Press Gallery irrelevant, Andrew.
    Now, do you have a spare $Billion to set up an Internet Aus HuffPo, a TV station, and a Media Unit at Parliament House? :)