21 March 2011

Into the pyre

In the lead-up to Labor's victory at the 1972 Federal election a number of journalists produced books about Whitlam, either entirely as biographies of the man or at least partly so. Depending on your regard for press gallery journalists, these works either surfed the wave that swept Labor to power or they were gobbets of jetsam on that wave.

In the past six months, only journalists have been listening to Kristina Keneally. There is no relationship between what she says and what actually happens. When Bob Askin or Neville Wran or Nick Greiner announced something, it bloody well happened. The office of Premier of NSW can be a very powerful one and it shall be again, but it hasn't been under Keneally.

I lost count of the number of times she said she was "determined to see this through", and nothing happened about whatever it was. I lost count of the number of times she demanded "a full and immediate report" on something or other, and just sat on it. Many times she said "I am very angry" that a particular stuff-up occurred - but no consequences flowed from that anger and the same sort of thing happened again and again:

  • When Wran or Greiner got angry the structural changes were so substantial the ground almost shook;

  • When Bob Carr got angry a journalist would get a phone call laden with sarcasm. The entire state parliamentary press gallery would go to water and immediately drop any investigations they were pursuing into the inertia and/or malfeasance of that government. Then, Carl Scully would make an announcement about the Parramatta-Epping Rail Link to which they would all go and report on like it was real news;

  • When Morris Iemma got mildly displeased with something inside the Labor Party, Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar would use it as another excuse to get rid of him. When the issue was outside the Labor Party, he would call a commission of inquiry chaired by Fred Nile;

  • When Nathan Rees got angry, for the first month or so things happened - then after that, nothing; but

  • When Keneally gets angry, there is a grab on the news where she says how angry she is and that's pretty much it.

Lately, however, there have been all these biographical pieces on Keneally as though she's storming into office like Whitlam in 1972. Andrew Clennell in The Daily Telegraph (I tried linking but the News Ltd search engine is crap) and this piece by Sean Nicholls in the SMH are running the sorts of puff pieces you'd expect at the start of someone's career, not the end.

All that stuff about her fierce determination, from the high school basketball courts of Ohio to the backrooms of the NSW ALP - it seems to have dissipated once she got the top job. There should be more evidence of it, in actual transport and schools and hospitals, than is apparent. That contrast is the real value-add in reporting, and none of these profiles went there.

There is also plenty about her compassion and her work for Catholic social organisations. It's all good, but none of it really explains why she talks at people rather than to them. None of it explains why as Premier she lets her media outfit use kids and others in need of special (labour-intensive, costly and highly-regulated) care as backdrops for picfacs.

Overdoing that determination and community work makes journalists look like they are just taking whatever PR bumf Labor hands them and running it uncritically. John Fahey played rugby league for Canterbury-Bankstown and the Liberals would have looked absurd in 1995 had they over-emphasised that in terms of the Premier's toughness and determination.

It would have been nice if journalists could get over themselves enough to understand how disruptive it can be for an organisation for the Premier to descend on them. The relevant manager is informed and comes under increasing scrutiny, including fielding calls from media flacks making veiled threats and demands but not offering extra resources. Then a bunch of media people turn up, trampling the flowerbeds and running cords everywhere, and they snarl whenever you ask them to do their job in a manner that respects the place they are visiting. Then the Premier arrives, patronises everyone, makes an announcement (which, in Keneally's case, is almost always later retracted) and leaves, then the journalists hang around for a while and they leave, while those who remain try and fail to answer the question: what was all that about?

It would have been nice if journalists could get over themselves enough to understand the sheer poverty of their assumptions:
"It would be foolish of me to sit here and claim that I would never be in a position where I have made a mistake", [Keneally] says. "In hindsight, sure, if I could do it over, I would do it differently. If I was faced with the same decision today, perhaps I would have spoken to a wider group of people about the ramifications."

It's the closest she will come to admitting error. Yet it's not clear if she has grasped quite how much damage it inflicted. Inside Labor there are mounting concerns about her strategic judgment and apparent lack of deep political instincts.

A government backbencher states: "She has a real ability to go and learn a brief and go out and talk about it. But as far as real political nous goes? I believe that she lacks that and so do many of my colleagues."

Keneally was chosen for the Premiership precisely because she can transmit ideas. She was never expected to have political nous, deep roots in the community anywhere within this state.

Political nous involves the interplay between the opinions of the community and the extent to which they can be changed. Democratic policy-making is a two-way process; an increasingly educated populace armed with technology should be more of a two-way affair, but not in an age where communication shapes policy and governments regard themselves as transmit-only mechanisms. Contemporary politics, with its focus on "selling the message" and repetition of "talking points", is a one-way process. This can be seen from restricting the scope of action for backbenchers, to renaming press secs as "media advisors" and having them override policy decisions, to misinterpreting focus group data, to preselecting candidates who have "media savvy" but who lack the depth of experience that might give them political nous.

For journalists, where there is two-way democratic interplay you can report on surface-level goings-on, because the debate is out in the open. You needn't go into dull backroom operations, because that isn't where the action is anyway. Where politics is one-way transmissions, the backroom processes that really make decisions become all-important and the journalist must not be fobbed off by spin or inappropriately old-fashioned journosphere notions that it's all too boring.

One would expect a senior politician to have political nous. Keneally wasn't hired for her nous, she outsourced it to people who overestimated the extent to which they had it: Roozendaal, Tripodi, or the various State Directors of the NSW ALP. She outsourced it to the people who put her where she is, because what further validation of their political judgment could she want? When she talks about consulting "a wider group of people", she doesn't mean a particularly wide group - certainly not so wide and so representative as, say, the State Parliamentary ALP Caucus.

The factional system within political parties can work to manage disputes within that organisation, to distribute rewards and punishments in a manner that is orderly and sustainable for the party. Factions are not responsive to community needs, notions of efficiency, or policy issues. What has happened to NSW Labor over the past 16 years is that they have believed that to manage the party is to manage the state. In the absence of an effective opposition, this has been a fair assumption, but with the emergence of an Opposition that has established not just a threat but pre-eminence, the Labor government just looks like it can't get out of its own way.

Rather than flog the dead horse of NSW Labor again, let's look to Japan. The major parties in Japanese politics operate on factional levels so that the Prime Ministership is turned over regularly: the holder of the office transmits policy but does not receive political signals from the populace, and does not stay in office long enough to get airs that would place any political imperative above the factional. Now that Japan needs real, cut-through leadership - where emergency services must respond in real time to real issues on the ground - the Prime Minister of Japan is unable to give it, reciting the kind of anodyne scripted lines on radiation levels or fresh water supplies that might be more appropriate for slower-moving issues like teachers' pay negotiations or the biodiversity of some gully.

Anna Bligh is the product of the Queensland ALP machine, but she also had the ability to cut through and get information from her bureaucracy in that State's recent travails, and communicate them to the public. She did not get in the way of operational decisions; she did not have to. Keneally is also the product of a Labor machine, and she lets her staffers get in the way of operational decisions. Keneally's character evaporated once she got a job with real power: all she has left is the front for a whole lot of dopey decisions.

There is a difference between smiling as the ship goes down, rallying the troops etc., and the kind of denial verging on mental illness seen from Keneally these days. The complete disregard for what others may think, the scorn for the very idea that the will of an ill-governed people might have consequences, only confirms that chucking this government out is the right way to vote. In times like these, voting Labor is an anti-social practice performed by a small number of people, like spitting. The idea that a bad Labor government is better than the best Liberal one comes from a time when Labor governments were rare, and the current NSW government negates it utterly.

Maybe the reason why the MSM are lavishing attention on someone to whom the public has stopped listening isn't just because they are lazy ("that's what we do every election, it's what the punters want, it's balanced") or because they are tired of having viable businesses and an engaged public. Maybe they expect Keneally to bounce back in some transmit-only capacity (the federal government would be mad to take her on until they get a sizeable majority), in which case they are investing in a longterm relationship. Whatever it is, wherever you have a politico-media co-dependency complex it is clear that over time the pollies do all right, but the media suffers. Given technological and social changes on top of that, the MSM have to wonder how much suffering they are willing to tolerate in the name of "just doing the job".

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