28 June 2011

Lord of misrule

The Right are in the ascendancy in the Liberal Party at the moment. So long as this remains the case, the Liberal Party will be unelectable. The leader who wrests power from them will lead the Liberal Party to victory over the ALP.

Twice this has happened in NSW:
  • In the late 1970s, the Liberals fell into a slough of far-right despond - and yes, a far-right response is always an expression of despair rather than hope. Nick Greiner beat off the far-right within the Liberal Party while at the same time sticking it to a seemingly invincible Labor government. When Labor Premier Barrie Unsworth accused Greiner of being an apologist for Nazis, Greiner tore him a new one (not just because of his experience in the Liberal Party - Greiner had Jewish family members). The far right were weeded out of preselections and Greiner led the Liberals to a sizeable victory.
  • In the middle of the last decade, the Liberals fell into a slough of far-right despond - and again, a far-right response is always an expression of despair rather than hope. Barry O'Farrell beat off the far-right within the Liberal Party while at the same time sticking it to a seemingly invincible Labor government. When successive Labor Premiers accused O'Farrell of being an apologist for David Clarke et al, again it was out of hope rather than a sober assessment of the state of the Liberal Party. The far right were almost-but-not-quite weeded out of preselections and O'Farrell led the Liberals to the biggest victory over Labor for a century.
It's best to avoid the cancer of the far-right ascendancy, but it's never best to ignore it when it reveals itself.

Paul Sheehan confuses change with progress:
The mood in the room was buoyant, but the guest of honour was subdued.
Quite so. It's like that point in Power Without Glory where John West looks around at the height of his power and realises that he's surrounded by idiots. Eric Abetz has achieved precisely nothing at a time when the wily manipulation of a minor vote could have seen the downfall of a major piece of legislation, a ministerial career, even the government itself. Cory Bernardi would be the truest of true believers left and will be phoning Minchin daily to receive riding orders. Apart from them there would only have been mouth-breathers like Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Mitch Fifield, empty vessels who would be tailored to fit with whoever was their party's leader.
Minchin, by not deviating from his core beliefs despite enormous pressure to do so, had orchestrated the dramatic events that led to the end of Turnbull as Liberal leader and the shocking emergence of Tony Abbott as his replacement.
Yep - as long as Old Nick stays true to himself, bugger everyone else. The "events" Minchin orchestrated make a mockery of his claims of "treachery" about the party's Vice Presidents. Old Nick knows treachery when he sees it all right, but he squeals like a stuck pig when it's used against him.
[Minchin] also left Liberal Party politics behind, and he did so without a backward glance.
This is a lie. Minchin has nothing better to do - including care for his family - than become embroiled with who's doing what to whom within the Liberal Party.

As for Sheehan, he was the very sort of mindless drone of a reporter who would have been punted three rounds of Fairfax downsizings ago until he discovered his calling as chronicler of the far right. When what Gerard Henderson calls the "lunar right" overreached (Hanson and her lunges for public funding for elections, the CEC in thrall to American kooks LaRouche, racists, gun losers and tobacco-funded smokers' rights outfits) did Sheehan come back to the furthest right that is sustainable in Australian politics: the right-whinge of the Liberal Party.

Sheehan must have missed Heffernan's heckling of Minchin, which would have made him even more subdued. He also missed the statement by Old Nick that it's time for factionalism to come out of the closet:
Minchin had wanted to say something more controversial in his speech but refrained because he feared it would have been used as ammunition in the heated behind-the-scenes battle for the Liberal Party federal presidency, in which Minchin was intimately involved. He was the numbers man for Alan Stockdale, who on Saturday staved off a challenge by Peter Reith.
Fear is a big part of Old Nick's approach to politics. Minchin's first speech has a few digs at Keating's pigs but otherwise spends all its time bagging Hewson for sticking his neck out over actual policies like tax reform. Nick Minchin was not some lion of conservatism, he was frightened and clueless:
  • For factional reasons, Minchin directed the Liberals to run dead in South Australia in the 1990 and 1993 federal elections.
  • SA Libs only won the state election in 1992 because Labor had absolutely collapsed: Howard hated Liberal state governments because they directed attention and resources away from him. Minchin engineered the Rudd-like removal of a popular first-term Premier and replaced him with a muppet who duly lost office.
  • The last refuge of the weak and clueless politician is to call for bipartisanship, as Minchin did over tax reform: Howard brought about the GST in the face of Labor's most committed opposition and over the dead body of the Democrats.
  • Minchin's most substantial reform was to privatise Telstra exactly as Labor wanted, leaving it as a bloated monopoly with all the arrogance of a large corporation and all the complacency of a bureaucratic monopolist.
  • Minchin was too scared to tell Howard it was time for him to go in 2006.
  • Minchin was too scared to tell Howard WorkChoices was a bad idea (Peter Reith wasn't in Parliament then).
  • Minchin could not, for all his factional manoeuvering, get the Liberal Party to state openly that it goes in for all that Ayn Rand crap that environmentalism is just a front for socialism; that you can be in favour of capitalism and consume its products, or you can have a concern for the environment, but not both.
  • What he did succeed in doing, however, was getting muppets like Mitch Fifield and Tony Smith to quit the frontbench to undermine Turnbull's negotiations for an emissions trading scheme. He succeeded in making like miserable for Senators with more guts than he ever had (e.g. Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth).
  • When Tony Abbott knew that he would be asked questions about industrial relations in last year's elections, Minchin told him to faff, and he did. The Liberal campaign stalled and doubts about Abbott calcified, leading not to a victory but the kind of non-result that frustrates the hell out of Liberals and simply confuses the cattle in the press gallery.
  • When Abbott wanted to be flexible in negotiating with independents, Minchin held him back. He remains convinced that independent MHRs can be won over in the way that Senators can be bullied and bamboozled, but the result has been that indepedents regard the very idea of supportng Abbott as like turkeys voting for Christmas.
How this timid man got a reputation for toughness is unclear. Coorey continues:
Otherwise, he would have used his valedictory speech to repeat a long-held view that the Liberal Party should follow Labor and formally adopt factions.

While the moderate and conservative wings of the Liberal Party are often referred to as factions, they are more like personality cults. Minchin, who has been the leading conservative for so many years, believes this to be cancerous because of the personal nature of disputes that erupt.

Formalised factional groupings would enable disputes to be based on ideology rather than personality.

"The Liberal Party should recognise that in an organisation like ours, there are going to be groupings of one sort or another," Minchin told this writer. "We should acknowledge the reality of essentially having a conservative wing and a moderate wing."

There has long been resistance in the Liberal Party to the concept because Liberal philosophy places a premium on individualism. But Minchin has allies, especially on the right.
Especially? Don't you mean exclusively?

Things have come a long way since I was a member. Back then it was the moderates who were well organised in NSW and SA, with enough sway in the other states to pull off the occasional win. The right-whinge denied there was any such thing as factions in the Liberal Party - Bronwyn Bishop denied it so often it became a punchline - they cursed the moderates because they were so damn effective at it, and denied they would ever stoop to it. Now, because the moderates have gone (quiet, or left the party altogether - same thing really) he can finally come out and admit to being the factional hack he always was.
Minchin acknowledges factions have a bad name because of the way they have been abused at times within the ALP, but overall they are a beneficial system for settling policy disputes, communicating backbench sentiment to the leader, and even easing pressure on the leader.
When moderate liberals stood up to Howard over refugees, nobody was more critical than Minchin. He didn't respect their opinions, even though they were very careful to keep it in-house (which Minchin never does when the boot's on the other foot).
"Our party has a problem because it was built around Menzies and it's terribly and unduly leader-oriented," he said. "Leaders do not like structures like this; they want all the authority ... [But] factions can be a check on their egos and abuse of power."
In the case of the right-whinge, factionalism is destructive only. It was a check on Turnbull and the ETS all right, and it has been a prophylactic to all substantial policy development in the Liberal Party since. Nothing has come from the right whinge, and nothing can. Even something so wonkishly non-political like alternatives to the NBN or significant investments in defence force hardware is berated by the right as going against the Legacy of Old Nick (such as it is).
''Howard saw everything I did through the prism of factionalism and every action and statement as the produce of my conservative factional base," Minchin said. ''My views were often discounted as a result.''

This frustrated Minchin because, he said, his advice to Howard was motivated always by what he thought was good politically for the government, rather than being factionally driven.

By having formalised factions, such misunderstanding would have been eliminated.
That is so stupid it does not make sense. Howard discounted Minchin because he was a factional hack and if factionalism were formalised, he wouldn't have been discounted? Stuff that. More likely, Minchin pooh-poohed every idea Howard ever had so that when Minchin blubbered that it was all too hard and wanted to slink back to Adelaide and do nothing with his life, Howard chose damn-the-torpedoes-and-full-steam-ahead.

It takes a complete ignorance of politics to classify Peter Reith as a moderate: I'm surprised he hasn't sued the lazier members of the press gallery who've described him thus. It is fair to say, however, that Reith was tough enough to take the rough-and-tumble of political debate and that he did not shut up when Minchin got all jittery about Controversy. Every time Reith opened his mouth you can imagine Minchin wringing his hands and fretting and taking soundings from his buddies in the ALP who told him what his attitude should be. The ructions of this week over the Liberal Presidency go way back: as a conservative leader, Minchin could handle a moribund pensioner like Alan Stockdale, but not the bumptious Reith.

The fact that Tony Abbott felt that he'd "better" vote for Stockdale and wave his vote around like some gutless Paul Howes acolyte shows that he's not the guy to rise above the factionalism that got him where he is. I'm trying to remember the last Opposition Leader who was in thrall to his own chief of staff and her husband. Showing your vote is the sort of thing that happens in nakedly factional organisations: as personal behaviour within the polite circles of the Liberal Party goes, it's about as indecent as dropping your pants. It shows why Minchin's factionalism dream just won't fly, and the idea of a closed inner-party will only repel prospective members. Even Niki Savva made the startling admission that Abbott can't make the transition from stuntman to statesman.

Eventually, the Liberal Party will grow deeply weary of opposition. They will start to come up with concrete alternative ideas to those being put by the Labor government, and will tire of the insistence of happy-little-Minchinites that no policy is good policy. They may even come up with ideas that appeal to those who have voted Liberal in the past and are open to doing so again; people who today are appalled at Tony Abbott and want him well away from the levers of government.
First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

- Mohandas K. Gandhi, who never voted Liberal in his life
Yeah, but first you've got to get something for which to fight. Then you have to learn how to fight.

Some good people will cop it in the neck during the dark times of the right-whinge ascendancy, but eventually there will be some Liberals will stand up and say enough. That battle is not yet joined, however. Turnbull lacks the organisational nous and the patience to hunt down Minchinites and root them out. Joe Hockey has both those qualities but too few others to win a drawn-out battle and drag the party to government. It won't even begin until the Liberals lose the next election (and I don't care what today's polls say, they will).

26 June 2011

Advertise your own irrelevance 2: Tony Smith, ideas man

Can Tony Abbott find a way out of his policy-free zone? If so, it's a bit silly to expect Tony Smith might be of any help.

Sean Carney is usually one of this country's best political journalists, but he's botched this one. All but the last five paragraphs are fair enough - Tony Abbott needs to get a vision for the country and something like concrete policies to fulfil such a vision (or at least make them plausible enough so that people will vote for them), and only Dennis Shanahan believes he can do it.

When it comes to industrial relations, the Liberal Party takes its cue from business. In the 1980s it was wrong of the Labor government to expect Australian business to adapt to a new world of deregulation and lower tariff barriers while keeping in place the archaic industrial relations system. The Liberals campaigned for individual agreements and an end to demarcation because that was what business was calling for. Business leaders continued calling for industrial relations reform into the Howard government, but when the union movement fought back during the waterfront dispute of the late '90s and with WorkChoices, the Libs were pretty much left to their own devices. It's fair to say that business has been sending mixed signals about what it wants in response to the Fair Work Act. Nobody in the business community is standing up to Labor over it so why should the Liberals stick their necks out?

The Coalition is still so in thrall to the idea of media management that they seriously believe there is a way where a Liberal leader can dodge the idea of industrial relations reform. They might need a minimalist policy, but they need a policy that is defensible. They need to admit that WorkChoices was a dud and that they've learned their lesson. That is what is necessary to stop incessant questioning of that policy and the Liberal agenda generally. The lesson of 2010 is that no amount of casuistry can disguise any purported intention to "bring back WorkChoices" - only a full, non-weaselly apology can and will sink it for all time.

Into this context of real policy debate comes Tony Smith, a dogpaddler in an Olympic 1500m final.
Liberal backbencher Tony Smith has found himself with time on his hands lately.
Why? He's Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Tax Reform and Deputy Chairman, Coalition Policy Development Committee. He should be the busiest man in Canberra, which isn't saying much [damn these libertarian hackers!]. Every time Abbott dumps on the carbon tax and the mining tax, or witters on about government waste, and pledges to undo those measures - he should have something fresh from the desk of Tony Smith or Joe Hockey, ready to go.

This week, the Coalition had to pass a measure they had bitterly opposed because they "couldn't find equivalent savings measures" - in other words, "because Tony and Joe hadn't done their homework". It is Smith's fault that Abbott is utterly vulnerable to attack when delivering guff like this.

As Deputy Chairman, Coalition Policy Development Committee, he should not just be reviewing the train-wreck of Coalition policies at the last election, but have a clear understanding which parts of it compelled the independents to go against the Coalition rather than with them. Here is a man who should be ready to tweak in order to pull Wilkie, Oakeshott, Windsor and Crook over to the Coalition side - with sufficient deniability from Abbott's office if it all goes horribly wrong. Bet he has no idea at all what those guys think.

If Tony Smith's job is the Federal Coalition's equivalent of a banana lounge, Abbott and the gang are in more trouble than I thought. At the very least, Smith should be consulting widely with tax experts around the country.
Smith was on the frontbench during Labor's first term. It fell to him, in the lead-up to last year's election, to cobble together the Coalition's communications policy - or more accurately, its anti-NBN policy - which did not go well.
To rephrase this slightly: Smith was responsible for the one area that truly engaged with blue-sky possibilities for the nation's future. He could've sketched out an alternative vision to the NBN, or shot Conroy's proposal so full of holes that it would rank alongside pink batts as a political punchline. He did neither. As I said at the time, to call that policy half-arsed would be flattering.
Smith has dusted himself off and has set out to persuade his party to take up the "ownership society" as one of its key objectives. As an adviser to Peter Costello in the late '90s, Smith was at the heart of the GST-formulation process. He knows that it takes years to put together deep reform.
It's clear, from last year's telecommunication policy and now with the void where a tax policy should be, that Tony Smith is way out of his depth. It's like putting a connoisseur of fine dining in charge of a top restaurant ("well, he's got the experience") who has never cooked anything more complicated than toast. Smith might have been present in Costello's office but this was a guy who started out as a gofer. He might have been present when long and complex advice was wheeled in from Treasury but he wasn't witness to the hard slog of impressive minds with vast information hammering out a brief worthy of presentation to the Treasurer.
In a speech to Liberal Party members in April, which has gone unreported but has received a strong response from sections of the business community, Smith urged his colleagues to take the longer view on policy.

Recalling the Hawke government's tax reforms of the mid-'80s and the Howard government's GST package at the end of the '90s, Smith observed that ''in each case, the changes and reforms were argued, contested, attacked and massaged for a long period of time, but they were ultimately successful … In the end, the necessity for change became clearer after what I like to describe as the long slow policy pressure-cooker effect. This, in my view, is the only way taxation reform will occur in the future."

Any reforms should be able to be sustained for 15 to 20 years, he said. Pooh-poohing Treasurer Wayne Swan's proposed tax conference set for October, Smith said it was up to the Liberals to hash out over many months a new set of priorities for tax reform.
So, he likes the idea of having ideas. His contemporaries Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt and Peter Dutton do something similar when they try to sound all visionary. What they don't do is actually advance ideas, make a case for them and reveal their thinking backed by a bit of data, so that after it gets knocked around by the political process you can recognise what it was trying to do rather than some strange artefact of unknown provenance in a jumble of policies, like most Coalition efforts are (Abbott fans call this process "dynamic"). Hash indeed.
"Owning a share of a company has been the new wave of the past two decades. What about spreading the opportunity to own part of a business employees work in - to encourage Australians to have a stake in the business they work at, for, and in? Deep and widespread employee share ownership is … the next great opportunity in the Australian ownership enterprise project," he said.
At a time when employee loyalty to employers has never been more fluid, this just doesn't make sense. Can you imagine Gina Rinehart or Rupert Murdoch, to name two leading employers of Australians (and people of influence over the Liberal Party) giving employees shares? Imagine downsizings complicated by shareholder revolts: if you think Jack Tilburn disrupts corporate AGMs, wait until Ged Kearney gets in on the act. In the UK it's the emptiest of slogans. This idea sounds like an off-the-cuff comment from Costello in about 1991 that hasn't been fully thought out. It is not a breath of fresh air, not even if you accept the low standards of contemporary politics.

Yes, the Liberal Party needs new ideas. What it does not need is ideas about ideas. It needs people who can do research, make a case and advocate it in the public debate.
Tony Abbott has tactics but no strategy. At least one of his MPs is trying to help him out with that.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king - but we deserve better vision than is possible from a one-eyed man, particularly someone who is palpably not his own man. Carney should not be so desperate for relief from Abbott that he is taken in by the vacuousness of Tony Smith.

25 June 2011

Advertise your own irrelevance

Dear Mr Hywood,

My name's Geoff Strong*. I'm employed as a journalist with The Age, which is a newspaper in Melbourne. I'm redundant, so please sack me. You can see from my latest offering that I have no idea about reporting in the twenty-first century, so please, do us both a favour.

You take take out the subbies too. I'm a bit ambivalent as to whether Julian Assange is a journalist or not, in my capacity as Gatekeeper of the Profession, but the subbies have decided that it's my job - no, our job - to take pot-shots at the most valuable source the news media has ever had.
IN ABOUT April last year, just before his name became a byword for, depending on your viewpoint, either transparency or treason, I attempted to interview WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Armed with a mobile phone number passed on to me by a colleague from an unknown source, I found myself talking to Assange himself. His response to the call was understandable and hypocritical.

His first words were: "Where did you get my number?" When I offered a vague explanation, he expressed displeasure that it had been passed on to me. It was a natural response given his organisation was in the process of severely embarrassing the almighty US government by releasing the video from an American attack helicopter showing non-combatants, including two Reuters newsagency staff, being shot dead. Assange had reason to cover his tracks, but missed the irony in being contacted via leaked information.

We conducted a stilted discussion in which he said he had already been interviewed by Good Weekend (published subsequently), said he might talk to me if I had some information to trade, and required that I text my phone details. Apart from acknowledging that he received my SMS, I never heard from him again.
Here's a guy who trades on information, so what I did was dodge a direct question and offer him nothing. That shows you what a smart operator I am.

If irony is what's defined in that song by that Canadian lass just recently, then you can see it was pretty ironic for Assange not to talk to me. While it's true that every press sec and PR type in town fobs me off, I'm buggered if I'm going to cop that from Julian No-Mates! I'll rubbish him in The Age - and when you've been done over by The Age, there's no coming back. Assange will come crawling any day now, any day. Nobody can survive a going-over from The Age. Thanks for letting me use the paper for this purpose, Mr Hywood.

The US government is in the news, Julian Assange is in the news, I just assumed that they had equal standing, y'know? Apparently there is this belief that individuals have a right to privacy but corporations and government don't, but as an old-school journalist if I want a story I just go out and get it - and when I don't have a story, I'll beat it up until it looks like one.
Many would dispute Assange's claim that he is a journalist, but I agree that in a loose sense he probably does qualify.
Yes, if the Journalists' Club hadn't closed down, I might let him buy me a drink. As the Gatekeeper of the Profession of Journalism, I have standards you know. This is a guy who's released more stories than The Age ever has, so maybe possibly I just might, y'know, begrudgingly consider him a journalist, I suppose, if I had to. If he asked nicely. Which he didn't, the bastard.
Journalism is changing as traditional news organisations contract. A couple of years ago I calculated there were probably three or four former journalists who had crossed to what we still in the business consider "the dark side", for every one left working for the mainstream media.

By the dark side I mean spin doctoring, public relating or otherwise manipulating information fed back to their former colleagues. Incidentally, I can't blame people taking this path given the contraction of media jobs; people have to earn a living.
When I say "calculated", what I really mean is "pulled a number out of my arse". I assume that's what you mean when you talk about "the value proposition of journalism". I can't blame PR people for doing what they do, because like a good journalist I depend on them absolutely for anything I write. I tried interviewing a guy once, gee it was hard work!
Another change is the proliferation of dissemination outlets from organisations like ours, either online, a digital copy of the printed paper or an exclusive edition pitched to the disciples of Steve Jobs.
I know that people who drive Fords aren't "disciples" of Henry, nor necessarily subscribe to his views about workers, Jews etc. See, Mr Hywood? I just don't get it.
We call these things platforms, a recently appropriated word which in the past was associated with railways stations, the manifestos of political parties or the type of shoes worn by people who favoured bell-bottomed trousers.
I don't mean "we" in the first-person-plural sense of the word, or even in the royal sense-of-entitlement sense. Me and the boys down the pub tried to think of a word other than "platform" and we couldn't. Seeing as political parties don't have platforms any more, you may say: why can't media have them? But I'm old-fashioned, me. Don't get it, never will.
Ha ha! Used to work, Mr Hywood! Not at all like The Age, where our critical faculties are absolutely everything! No, I meant the other place.
Bearing a name almost as challenging as an Icelandic volcano is Kristinn Hrafnsson. His last name pronounced a bit like "Frobson", except that the beginning sounds like a sort of guttural Nordic throat clearing.
Xenophobia is an essential quality in any journalist, particularly in an increasingly globalised world - and especially in a multicultural city like Melbourne, where Age readers fancy themselves as part of a vibrant community, I thought it would be in the paper's best interests if I carried on like some mindless gibberer. Yes, even though he gave me the time of day and answered my inane questions, even though he is more of a journalist than I'll ever be, I thought it best to frame Mr Hrafnsson up-front like that.
Hrafnsson does have traditional journalist credentials - he has even recently been made redundant ...
C'mon, redundancy is the new black. I want some!
He says he is not sure about the future role of journalism and can't see where the business is going.
Believe it or not, a personal encounter with Geoff Strong of The Age failed to convince him. There's no pleasing some people.
Privatisation of things previously run by governments has been a factor; journalists have not been able to overcome that.
Because when a PR person says "no", that's it really. You may as well just give up.
And we see previously strong media organisations, like The New York Times, sitting on stories because they have been asked to do so by governments. This would not have happened in the 1970s."
Having spent all that time sucking up to government to regulate in favour of media organisations, we at mainstream media now find ourselves in a Faustian bargain with government. Teetering on the precipice of irrelevance, the last thing we want is for government to start fiddling with the corsetry of regulations that keep us solvent, let alone extending some of those "controversial measures" that have snuffed out the rights of others.
Hrafnsson's views were a little depressing. The upside was that he had no problem with how I obtained his phone number.
That's what the punters pay for: thorough reporting and insightful analysis. It's just a pity I can't do it. Fancy getting the chance to interview Kristinn Hrafnsson and Julian Assange, and having only this excrescence to show for it! The twenty-first century can only get more confusing, Mr Hywood. Please, all I want is to eat a cold pie and drink a flat weak beer and cheer for a footy team that doesn't love me back.

Please, sack me now. It's the only vindication as a journalist that I could possibly hope for.

* No it isn't! I'm Andrew Elder, writing a satirical blog piece as though I were Geoff Strong. I'm not "an anonymous blogger" just because you haven't met me.

24 June 2011

Two bald men fighting over a comb

If you ever wondered how the once-proud Liberal Party could be stampeded into dopey and ultimately self-destructive decisions, look no further than this.
In a letter to federal council delegates from his home state of South Australia, the party powerbroker [Nick Minchin] says: "I know from talking to Labor senators the ALP is salivating at the prospect of Peter Reith becoming federal president.

"It would help them enormously in their efforts to put industrial relations back at the top of the political agenda, and make sure the next election is a rerun of the anti-Work Choices campaign of 2007."
Minchin is not yet described as a "has-been", which is more the pity. The Liberal Party, with its liberal wing gutted and insecure as to what being a 'conservative' means in an age of rapid and far-reaching change, is easily stampeded by fatuous claims that Labor wants X so let's do Y.

When Kerry Chikarovski was manoeuvering to take over the leadership of the NSW Liberals in 1998, the most solid claim she had was the oft-repeated claim (by the sort of Liberals who look up to Nick Minchin) that Bob Carr was terrified of her. The Liberal MPs who stood up to Howard against mandatory detention of refugees, particularly children, were told by people like Minchin they were playing into Labor's hands. There are hundreds of examples of stupid decisions made by the Liberal Party in recent years, and each of them had their advocates insisting sotto voce that theirs is the option that would most discombobulate the ALP.

In 1998 Minchin had nothing like the clout he has now, but if he did he might have come out with something like this:
In a letter to federal council delegates from his home state of South Australia, the party powerbroker says: "I know from talking to Labor senators the ALP is salivating at the prospect of the GST becoming law.

"It would help them enormously in their efforts to put tax and everyday expenses back at the top of the political agenda, and make sure the next election is a rerun of the anti-GST campaign of 1993."
If it amazes you that politicians can make decisions with no firm basis in fact, consider that as the Liberal trump card. It can't be verified: no ALP politician who really believed that a certain course of action by the Liberals would be disastrous for their party would go public about it, and if they did they'd be foxing, extremely stupid, or from NSW. Minchin is on shaky ground when he stands up for Liberal principles (a man with an employment background like his, whose main achievement was to make Telstra a monolith insulated from government policy, technological change and consumer responsiveness cannot seriously claim to stand up for free enterprise). He does, however, spend more time with Labor politicians than is wise or healthy most of us do, so if he tells you that Labor politicians believe X you have no grounds on which to gainsay him - other than a history of dopey reactionary decisions that have worked to the Liberal Party's detriment.

As to Minchin's central claim, so what? Reith was gone from politics before WorkChoices was even put to parliament. The ALP's Federal President is Anna Bligh, who faces the prospect of losing her day job as Queensland Premier at the next election. If the Liberals had the courage of their convictions they might be 'salivating' at the prospect of going into an election where their opponents could only offer:
  • A relatively unpopular Federal leader and Federal President;
  • Unpopular proposed taxes on mining and carbon emissions, with statements on compensation widely distrusted;
  • A reputation for ineptitude and bastardry; and
  • Oh, what more could you want?
Under those circumstances you could exhume the dead body of Stanley Melbourne Bruce and nominate it as Federal President of the Liberal Party. The next best option to that in terms of effectiveness, however, is for Alan Stockdale to remain in the role. Stockdale is a burnt-out husk who has little to show for this century. He went hard as Kennett's Treasurer and made good decisions as well as bad ones. Leftists who shook their fists at Stockdale as he closed schools and killed pet projects would've said things like "I hope you enjoy cushy rewards from the corporate sector for all this!", but, well, he hasn't. He has hardly set the world on fire since leaving parliament - you'd expect him to have the sort of directorship profile that, say, Nick Greiner has, or else to be enjoying his retirement playing golf or gambolling with his grandchildren. His only achievement in recent years has been to undergo the sort of complicated personal life that would have killed one's reputation in conservative circles in another age.

Stockdale has done pretty much bugger-all as the Liberals' Federal President, proven by an endorsement from Kevin Andrews. With the polls the way they are and some of the decisions taken by the federal government, you'd expect that the Liberal Party would be awash with cash from the mining industry, and Minchin's grateful friends at Telstra. You would expect that the best and the brightest people would flock to the party, boosting not only numbers but also improving policy input, enlivening preselection contests and making for a quality offering of candidates at the coming election. There is no proof that Reith can provide that either.

No corporate leader would survive a situation where all of his direct reports were calling for him to stand down: such a person's position would be absolutely untenable. The idea of riding in with sabre drawn in defence of such an obvious dud and gibbering about "treachery" is desperate stuff. It's interesting, though, that none of those Vice Presidents are stepping up and that someone is being parachuted in from exile.

That said, it's hard to agree with Amanda Vanstone's pitch that a Reith Presidency is a ticket to the sunlit uplands for the Liberals. Reith, like Vanstone, is a throwback to the Howard days and endorses the idea that what Australia needs is a Howard Restoration, rather than a rethink from the ground up. Reith is no more a grassroots Liberal than Stockdale, or Vanstone for that matter.

Both Reith and Stockdale come from the wrong state. The Liberal Party has overindulged Victoria for the sake of nostalgia. Melbourne hasn't been the country's business and legal capital for three decades, and in terms of business clout in politics the biggest corporates based in Melbourne have a global perspective and are run by foreigners, precluding much involvement in local politics. Ted Baillieu owes about the same credit for his success last November and any successes since to either man. Gillard's mockery of the Melbourne Club verged on cruel in its enfeebled state. Victoria's dominance within the Liberal Party is not only gone but its very presence in federal politics is less significant than that of Queensland. The fact that the Liberal Party can't inspire candidates from beyond the less windy parts of the country represents a failure of leadership in those parts of the country where Liberals have a real chance of actually beating Labor.

Vanstone does a good line in shaking the Liberal Party by the lapels and making the case that the status quo is unsustainable (well, without the necessary examination of the incumbent's failures), but she treats Reith as a blank canvas onto which any hopes can be projected. The last Liberal politician to have an image like that was Andrew Peacock.
Australian politics has a nasty side that is not so prevalent in other countries. It is an ugly but common political tactic when some don't like a policy, to attack the proponent. The so-called "Howard Haters" were masters at this.
The GillardHaters™ are their successors. Imagine you could ask the ministers in the government anything at all, and the best you can do is refer to The Lodge as "Boganville". The incumbent Liberal Shadow Treasurer (successor to Reith) tooling around Canberra last night with a cardboard cut-out of the Foreign Minister was playing the man and not the ball, and in turn it is impossible to refute claims that he is a fool or to insist that the policy debate must rise to some higher plain. It does not make for an interventionist Federal President to call the Shadow Treasurer and urge him in the strongest terms not to do anything like that ever again. Who will do that?

From time to time both major parties come out with a lot of cant about public service. Service involves putting the interests of others above your own. The paradox of political parties is that they must appeal to their own base supporters while at the same time  appealing to a broader but less engaged constituency, in the name of hard-to-define notions such as 'the national interest'. Thanks to people like Minchin, the Liberal Party appeals to its base and to hell with everyone else - this works in the US but not in Australia, where compulsory voting means slaughter and irrelevance for parties that appeal only to their base (or, in the case of NSW Labor, not even to that). This makes for a membership that is too old to staff a booth on election day, or who would rather ride around in a publicly-funded car on such days, rather than engage with communities where they live - and have that engagement go both ways, putting local concerns to the party's decision-making forums and putting party platforms to local communities.

Minchin was too spineless to stand up to Howard and say that WorkChoices was a poor idea. He lacked the vision and capacity to offer alternatives (having made Telstra what it is today, he wouldn't know a good idea from a bad one). Even today, Minchin can neither disown nor embrace WorkChoices. Minchin killed off policy debates by claiming that whatever he didn't like played into Labor's hands, owing to his supernatural power to divine the will and soul of the ALP (an ability lacking in, say, Sam Dastyari or Kevin Rudd). It was Minchin who left Abbott bereft when the media started Abbott questions about industrial relations policy at the last election, robbing the Liberals of election-winning momentum rather than the crock of excuses that console them today. You'd think he'd just slink back to Adelaide and leave others to clean up his mess, but it would seem he'd rather fight to create more mess.
Q: How does Nick Minchin take his coffee?

A: Ask Labor Senators how they think Minchin should take his coffee, then do the opposite and give him that.
People like Minchin have to preserve Stockdale in aspic because otherwise they will become the has-beens that people like me would wish them to be. If it's more important for people like Minchin to control the Liberal Party than it is for it to be the sort of organisation that might win elections, then Stockdale will win.

This isn't to say that Reith will turn the Liberal Party into a lean-mean-fighting-machine or the sort of place where members are valued and ideas welcomed, striking out for a post-Howard future. The Liberal Party isn't looking for a post-Howard future, and if it were it wouldn't turn its lonely eyes to Peter Reith.

22 June 2011

Sold out

The estimable Matt Cowgill has important issues to raise on retail sector workers' wages, but he has overlooked some key issues in the retail industry's employment practices.

Firstly, Cowgill coyly dodges the declining proportion of retail sales to Australians conducted in retail outlets located in Australia employing retail workers able to be legally employed in Australia, and possible effects of this decline on said employees over time.

Secondly, there are wider political, managerial and media issues surrounding Australian retail which are not subject to the kind of searching analysis conducted by Cowgill and all-too-few others.

Retail sector employees tend to fall into two groups: younger people starting their working lives (and mostly going on to careers outside retail), and middle-aged women partly or wholly supporting families. Of the two, the latter are much more likely to join the union than the former. The retail workers' award provision under the new legislation that prevented employees from working short shifts was squarely targeted at students in their teens and twenties who not only sought, but actually held jobs in retail after school which then had to be covered by other employees.

Retail employers are to be commended for fighting for the right to hire students, and in so doing fighting against the organisation that purportedly represents young retail workers (and which, in recruiting new members, puts guilt trips on gullible youngsters for something unionists call "the free rider effect"). Some might be tempted to over-egg that pudding without laying blame where it belongs, but the principle is still important, however freaky it may appear: young people, a politically hard-to-organise group of people, were screwed by their union and a Labor government, and their interests were upheld by the employers.

If I was still in the Liberal Party I'd be going hard at this issue. One reason I'm not in the Liberal Party, however, is because it's weighed down by the sorts of people who pay undue attention to the head of the retail workers' union. For all the unreconstructed union-bashing in WorkChoices, John Howard had a solid relationship with SDA leaders, directly and through ciphers like Kevin Andrews. It is inconceivable that any senior member of the Liberal Party would have anything like that level of influence in the ALP.

Retail workers can be hard to agitate but they were easy to organise back in the days when the union did sweetheart deals with Coles and Woolworths. Back then, retail employers would only complain about wages as a gambit in wage negotiations, and then keep quiet once the deal was done. These days there is a greater proliferation of employers and fewer sweetheart deals, making for your traditional tension between employers and employees (particularly when retailers are as rattled as MSM proprietors, with their business model under attack across a number of fronts).

The SDA, meanwhile, has moved on from mere retail employees to being a force in the ALP. Each state has a Labor Senator who is a former employee of that union but who still owes his or her job to them. The shift of focus by the SDA to politics has not been to members' benefit.

Cowgill's graph showing the dip in employee wages after the introduction of the Fair Work Act 2009 (legislation that strengthened the SDA's hand out of all proportion to its actual representation of retail workers) is telling, and not flattering to the union. One non-wage indicator of the extent to which the SDA valued its relationship with employers over that with its members was over seating. Retail workers are expected to be too busy-busy to sit down, even when there aren't many customers to serve. Ironically, younger workers have fewer problems with spending long periods on their feet, but older workers - the ones more likely to join unions - suffer knee, back and foot problems from having to stand on hard floors for extended periods and lift things. Occasionally there is training performed by larger employers for its employees, or by the union (again, mostly for the easy-to-organise employees of larger multi-site retailers), on which employees of smaller firms miss out. This training tends to be a tick-the-box effort for the trainers and the training organisers as much as the trainees. Occasionally the SDA produces OHS reports castigating naughty employers for not allowing employees to sit at checkouts, for example, but nothing much is done about it.

Aldi has no sweetheart deal with the SDA, and it allows its employees to sit at the checkout (as Aldi employees do in Europe). It is stronger at enforcing safe handling and other safe work practices than, and its workplace injury costs are a fraction of those of, its competitors. Aldi employees aren't just paid for their time but for their throughput at checkouts, which is why customers wait for shorter times at Aldi checkouts than at other supermarkets. Regardless of employees' experience, though, the SDA are terribly upset at Aldi for their lack of interest in cutting a deal with the union. Who do they think they are?

Retail employers should expect to be no more successful with their bleating about wages than they were about GST, or whatever other excuses they make for their own laziness in the face of e-business and other changes to their industry. No wonder foreign retailers like Zara, Harvey Nichols and Costco are lining up to take on these mugs.

Journalists covering industrial issues reported the disenfranchisement of students from retail work, but didn't examine why this happened. Journalists covering business issues cover retail employers, and write stories that - almost always implicitly, and usually unintentionally - reveal them to be run by mugs. Journalists covering the federal parliamentary press gallery occasionally mention the SDA as one faction in the Labor Party, but usually pass over them because the SDA don't spend a lot of time courting the media - as any journalist will tell you, organisations that don't actively court the media obviously have no story worth telling, while those that aggressively seek media attention must be fascinating to journalists and to the wider public. It is a slander (if not a heresy) to claim that there may be any difference between what fascinates journalists and what those who read/listen to/watch them want and need from the media.

There is a whole set of stories to be told about the SDA and its political influence, and how they and a bunch of (at best) second-rate managers control what is still one of the major sectors of our economy. Such stories represent the kind of high-value journalism that MSM defenders fancy themselves as producing on a regular basis, but the reality is that journalists can't and don't tell those stories.

19 June 2011

Where shallow politics gets you

I have worked for a number of NSW government departments on contract in recent years. In the policy areas of those departments, almost all of them had Victorian Government manuals on their desks: a tribute to that state's policy leadership and its valuing of smart, hardworking people. The ability of its Premiers to stand up to Canberra knowing that they had solid research and rolled-gold facts behind them has set Victoria apart from other governments, and gives pause to even the most enthusiastic disparager of states' rights.

The one exception: Police. NSW Police had been through the wars in the 1980s and '90s, where a culture of making excuses for dodgy policing or even slackness was slowly and painfully scourged. Victoria acknowledged this by importing a senior NSW police officer who had been closely involved with reform, Christine Nixon, as their Commissioner; but one person can only do so much, and she should have gone long before she became so blithe as to underestimate the response required on Black Saturday.

During their most recent spell in State Opposition, the Victorian Liberals made great sport of the then-Labor governments' difficulties with law-and-order. It was one area where a normally socially liberal party would get all high-dudgeon conservative. They would never blame the police themselves for any shortcomings - hardworking, difficult job and all that, as long as they didn't ask for more money - apart from the odd crack at the (Labor-appointed) Commissioner from time to time.

Yet, some police were the problem. In some cases stupid people held high office within the Victorian Police, particularly those responsible for twentyfirst century skills like media manipulation or IT portfolio management. The spate of shootings whereby the inconvenient were erased by trigger-happy detectives, memorably portrayed in Animal Kingdom. There were too many to ignore, too many to pretend that the whole Victoria Police was shamed and limited in their effectiveness by a critical mass that was, apparently, too small to be identified easily and excised cleanly from the Force.

Every generation, the Victorian Police hits a new low when some gang becomes legendary by making the Victoria Police look like monkeys - Ned Kelly, Squizzy Taylor and John Wren, Kath Pettingill, the Painters & Dockers, and now the Morans and Carl Williams of our time. Every time, the Police eventually plod forward, arrest and/or kill the main protagonist(s) and consider the problem solved. Every time, politicians are so grateful that the bad headlines disappear when the offender is off the streets that their calls for reform fade, and with any momentum for it within the Police.

The Liberals ran a simple, dumb law-and-order campaign: more police (from where? In an age of full employment, who wants to plod around as a Victoria Police officer?), a crackdown on boganry in all its forms. It sounds great and looks snappy in advertisements. It was a no-brainer for the Victorian Libs, and look how well it did for them. Labor can do the Laura Norder thing too, but the conservatives will usually sound more convincing (except in NSW, where the Libs tried bringing out Laura at every election bar the last one - i.e. every election they lost - because it was their only real policy of any substance).

You can't run a law-and-order campaign with a police force that has been led badly, where sloppy and dodgy policing works side-by-side in identical uniforms to careful, shrewd and decisive policing. It was never going to work, and Victorian Liberals who sneer at smart-alecs being wise after the event or piling on to a difficult predicament are missing the point, again. The Liberals should have thought long and hard about what you can and should expect from a police force these days, given a community like Victoria, and worked out ways to get the Victoria Police from where it is to where it needs to go.

Australia doesn't have the abysmal police forces of other countries, where police abuse their arrest and entry powers to solicit bribes, sexually harass women, or pursue political ends on behalf of government. Any criticism of police cannot but affect the majority of police who are dedicated to doing the right thing and who do their jobs as best they can under often difficult circumstances. Victoria Police are right to bristle at sweeping accusations, but - even considering its source - the idea that the Victoria Police is a world unto itself governed by its own standards and rules is silly and unsustainable.

It is always difficult to comprehend and fix a system while it is still operating. Mechanics can put vehicles up on hoists and surgeons can anaesthetise their patients, but those who conduct far-reaching inquiries into key agencies of government have to deal with events that are changing while the inquiry is underway. Findings may be inapplicable as soon as they are written, let alone announced.

The task of those who would reform a police force face both those problems: hurt feelings, and the difficulty of investigating a complex, continually operating system - and in the case of police, one that is necessarily not open or transparent. No wonder the Liberals shirked it, and as you can see it has worked an absolute beauty in sheer political terms.

The problem is that policing has the capacity to suck the oxygen out of everything else they were hoping to do. Neville Wran was a vigorous leader elected in a landslide in 1981 (again, in NSW - yes, yes, but bear with me) but two terms later he was gone because that old whore Laura Norder wore him down. Who cares what policies he brought in for education or whatever: you may as well praise Richard Nixon for his environmental and OHS laws. Policing, judicial sentencing and associated issues wore out a government that not merely mastered but pioneered modern media-intensive political techniques.

The Baillieu government has come to rely heavily on the credibility of its Police Minister, Peter Ryan, in establishing its political momentum. By the standards of Victorian state politics, Ryan is certainly knowledgeable and tough, but it won't be enough for the government to rely on him to the degree that it does:
  • Firstly, there isn't a depth of knowledge in the Victorian Coalition on these issues - talking points simply aren't convincing. You need a debate, different points of view with the minister and the leader having to master and decide on differing and well-informed points of view; and
  • Secondly, a police minister needs to build a case for reform that goes above and beyond the usual politics. Any Police Minister who decides to take on villains and sluggards within the Force single-handed becomes overwhelmed and isolated by a coalition of those who are not only his targets, but Greg Davies types who won't hear a word of criticism against our fine, hardworking police (difficult job, circumstances etc, here have a cops-are-tops T-shirt), and of course the Opposition. I am still amazed that Victorian Labor hasn't started banging the drum about Liberals-dumping-on-public-servants; this is what Bob Carr did to the NSW Liberals in the 1990s (all right, enough with the NSW comparisons).

The media are showing their limitations, but they are doing their best. John Silvester and Andrew Rule are not only two of the best police roundsmen, they are easily in the top dozen journalists in Australia. They're thorough and well-connected, and they write well. They too can only do so much. Other journalists focusing on policing and justice describing this incident or that do not necessarily come to grips with the big policy questions, or if they do they lack the ability (alchemy?) to turn anecdotes into information. Rarely, you get exceptions like this. Of course, politics journalists know only about polling, parliamentary theatre and parliamentary gossip, which is to say they know nothing at all.

By playing to the media Victorian Liberals aren't advancing the debate, or taking the chance that they can lift the debate to a level where the Opposition, such as it is, simply cannot follow them. Ryan, Baillieu and the government are facing former ministers knowledgeable about policing generally and the Victoria Police in particular. They need not be so spooked as they seem to be, nor can they rely on old-school political tactics like bluff and a sense that they are still growing into the job.

Because there are no answers to the complex issues of policing Victoria within the Liberal Party, there has to be an open commission of inquiry outside both the government and the police. The Victorian Liberals should have gone to the last election promising just that: admitting the problems were too big and hard for them, and promising not to play the same cack-handed political games that brought Labor down, and which proved too hard for them to pull off successfully.

Yes, there is the old Sir Humphrey rule that you never call an inquiry unless you know the outcome already. Governments are at their best when responding to big issues that are way beyond their control: look at Hawke's responses to the Campbell-Martin inquiry and the Costigan commission, or Howard's responses to the Port Arthur shootings and East Timor. Ryan might think he's being clever by acting as a steady presence amid the turmoil going on around him, but a tumultuous police force papered over with PR can't implement effective policing, whether over basic keeping-the-peace or sophisticated policing strategies that outwit clandestine networks. He needs to be the bigger man and call that inquiry, and go with it where it will.

The alternative is that the government keeps on playing games about who met with whom, who said what in which context, and other ridiculous bullshit that helps nobody. If the Baillieu government gets overwhelmed on policing people will stop listening to it on transport (what is it doing on those issues?) or health (ditto) or whatever. The nightmare scenario is that Laura Norder runs the Baillieu government ragged, with the Liberals able to identify issues only after they have them by the throat.

In contrast to the more subtly-minded moderates the hard right came to office with a clear idea about what they wanted to do, which is why a basically sensible bunch of Liberals end up tarred with the right-wing brush because fines-for-swearing and other trivial right-whinge nonsense is all there is to show for half a year of Liberal government, really.

And that's where you get with a shallow approach to politics: you get overwhelmed by issues which are foreseeable, and through which clever and dedicated people will help you so long as you don't actively repel them. The Liberals' dilemma is that they have driven many such people from their ranks and replaced them with careerist suckholes. That dilemma will become a problem if they can't start showing themselves capable of intellectual heft and nuance pretty damn soon on issues that have gotten away from greater minds than theirs. A culture change is necessary within the Victoria Police but also within the Victorian Coalition - profound, far-reaching and the sooner it begins, the sooner it can be settled.

The Liberals risk creating the impression that they can get into government but can't do much whilst there but issue press releases and hold talks. Even Labor can do that.

17 June 2011

Black is white in the red room

The press gallery are usually rubbish at reporting events in the Senate.

Legislation can and does come out of the Senate changed utterly, with far-reaching changes when measures are enacted and it takes months for the journosphere to catch up. This happens parliament after parliament, so let's not have more nonsense about the current configuration. They place too much focus on briefings from the major parties and so-called "parliamentary theatre" in the House, ignoring minor parties or consigning them to the fringes. Then, when the issue (a piece of legislation, or a subject facing committee scrutiny) goes to the Senate, the entire journosphere just throws up its hands as though anything could happen, as though it hadn't actually listened and done its job in studying the tectonics of the Senate. Asking journos to provide some understanding how the Senate might react given a particular set of circumstances is real your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine stuff, a cop-out for so-called insiders. The idea that legislation and the issues that attend them disappear behind some black screen and reappear in changed form is one of the absurd pantomimes that people just have to love put up with, apparently.

The idea that the 2010 election was tantalisingly close for the Liberals is about to be put to the test starkly exposed. During 2005-08 the Coalition had a majority in the Senate. They lost it in 2008-11, having to rely on former Liberal Nick Xenophon and nincompoop Stephen Fielding - but oh wait, they were in opposition by then and they didn't set the legislative agenda any more, nor did they slow down anything that the supposedly vulnerable Gillard government wanted to do.

In less than three weeks, the Coalition will go backwards again. The numbers will stack up as follows:

34 Coalition
31 ALP
9 Green
1 Xenophon

76 TOTAL (minimum number needed for a majority: 39)

Given that Abetz has been utterly useless at tipping a knife-edge parliament to the favour of his party, where is he going to get five votes from?

Only Niki Savva can see this as a positive for a party that had its head handed to it at two elections now. The arguments she puts forward require you to be the most giddy Coalition booster with no sense of history (indispensible for a conservative in normal times), and no sense about Australian politics generally.
[DLP Senator-elect] Madigan is acutely conscious of his party's place in Australian political history. He is equally conscious of the part he could play in shaping events in the future.
It's a pity that Savva isn't. Her article assumes that Madigan is some sort of in-the-bag vote for the Coalition. Madigan beat an actual member of the Coalition, Julian McGauran, to take his seat in the Senate - yes, McGauran was a waste of skin, but if you like that sort of thing he was an actual Coalition vote rather than a maybe.

The Green-Labor alliance - what brings them together, what drives them apart - is the fascinating story of the coming two years. It is the Senate which will determine the configuration of government in the House, and not the other way around. Press gallery journos waiting for independent MHRs to align with Abbott are the same lazy lumps who predicted breathlessly that Costello would definitely challenge Howard, definitely, later this week or early next week, definitely ...

Just because the DLP kept the Liberals in office during the 1950s does not mean they are some sort of lucky charm for the prospects of conservative government today. When Stephen Fielding was elected, it was interpreted by the less cogent members of the press gallery as some sort of vindication of Howard's picket-fences-and-family image imported from the US Republicans. Madigan is replacing Fielding, and rather than being the titan of Savva's dreams he is likely to be every bit the chucklehead Fielding has been and is. On what is arguably the greatest challenge of our time, the Senator-elect upon whom Savva places so much faith is just as wishy-washy as Fielding:
Madigan says he believes in climate change, but does not necessarily believe it is man-made, and is not convinced a tax will fix it.

That sounds very much like he would vote against it, and when I put that to him in a phone interview a few days ago, his reply was: "At this point I am a no."
On that basis, Savva thinks Madigan is some sort of loyal footsoldier of the right. It's almost like she doesn't care what else he thinks. Unlike his co-religionist Tony Abbott, Madigan is more likely to push traditional Catholic preoccupations of abortion, euthanasia etc. His views on drug treatment would be shunned by both major parties.
According to party strategists, if Abbott wins government, and replicates the 2004 Senate result for the Coalition ...
This time - and any "strategist" worth their salt should know this - the boofhead is leading the Liberals. All Labor has to do is remind voters what happened last time the Liberals got control of the Senate: a giddy ride to the peak of hubris, followed by a death-plunge at the hands of the ALP.

I'd love to say that Savva was being silly in pursuit of her rosy scenario, but there is a real prospect that the carbon tax and MRRT won't go through. In that case, Gillard and Labor are finished.
With that number, plus the support of Madigan and Xenophon it could, if it sticks to its pledge, repeal the Gillard tax.
If if if if if if if if.
Xenophon, a climate change believer, is not swept up by the government's carbon pricing proposals, preferring a different model ...
Another case of Xenophon backing himself into a corner - neither major party supports that idea, so he can trade it away in return for - um, what? So that he can vote for an expensive re-realignment of the country's fiscal mechanisms? Over to you, journalists.
As well as touring the farms, [Madigan] talks to old people who while away hours on bitterly cold days in shopping malls because they can't afford to keep the heating on at home, so he is anxious not to sign up to anything that would make life even harder for them.

"I very much deal in facts and tangible things," he says.

"If there is no benefit firstly for people and secondly for the environment ... there has to be a tangible benefit. I want to enhance people's lives."

Madigan could make the DLP relevant again for the first time since Gough Whitlam wiped the party out at the 1974 double-dissolution election, and he knows it.
This is a man who would not know where to start with facts and tangible things. He seriously thinks a carbon tax is "a tax on life", and the practicalities of terminating pregnancies conceived in rape and incest simply pass him by. It's one thing to help the poor and elderly in this country, but that does not mean the country is run for their benefit. Relevance be damned.

Like Bob Katter, Madigan is a candidate for an Australia that has passed but which the poor and old can't and won't accept has gone forever. Savva may think it's smart politics trying to rope such people into the Coalition, heightening the case for the Coalition to turn its back on the future and campaign for a redux of 2006, but it won't serve the interests of the Coalition at all. Madigan will be as much help as hindrance to the Coalition, and they are in for a spell where their impotence gives them the excuse for ineffectiveness they have so far lacked.
... the passing of the balance of power in the Senate to the Greens.

The reason the Liberals look forward to it is because it will, even more than previously, cement the view in the minds of voters that Labor is beholden to the Greens.

The manager of opposition business in the Senate, the ever-alert Mitch Fifield, promises to press home that point at every opportunity.
Mitch Fifield is responsible for nobbling Jason Wood in LaTrobe in what is already the Liberals' worst state on the mainland. Please understand this: there would be a Liberal government were it not for Mitch bloody Fifield.

Keep in mind also that Labor used to "press home" that Menzies was beholden to the DLP. This didn't do either of the latter any harm at all, and many Labor MPs went home rather than to the House as a result. For all the unpopularity of Gillard at the moment, nobody is going to believe Senator Fifield over her.

Yet, even so, press gallery drones will continue quoting Abetz and Fifield as "senior strategists" and treating each new failure as an aberration. The House will be treated as a hotbed of intrigue while the pictures reveal it as a lame set-piece rebounding to the Coalition's discredit. Meanwhile, in the Senate, where the real action is, the press gallery will write it off as wacky and unknowable. We have been poorly served by the press gallery in this parliament and this will not improve any time soon. In 2010 voters voted despite the press gallery and there is every indication that they/we will do so again. If the people vote against the press gallery, sooner or later the press gallery will be out of a job.

15 June 2011

Dirt poor

So Julie Bishop has been to India: that's nice. Who paid for her to go, who went with her, and what does this trip - we have only her report of it to go on - mean for Australia's trade, and our economic future? If I were a journalist I'd ask these questions.

Australia has depended on India more than is often realised. The fledgling colony of Sydney was saved from starvation by what modern tabloids would call "mercy dashes" from British outposts in India. The revolt by sepoys in the 1850s forced the British to rescind religious discrimination, a massive change for Britain given its hundreds of years of the practice: in the Australian colonies, it encouraged ecumenism and discouraged the entrenched clerical arrogance that comes from being coupled with/shackled to/inebriated by state power and enforcement. When we relied more on Britain than we do, ports then known as Calcutta, Madras and Bombay were crucial stopping-off points to and from that country. Indians as members of the Empire helped confound the White Australia Policy. Indians fought alongside Australians at Gallipoli. All this comes before Australian hippies and Christian missionaries started going to India since the 1960s: baby-boomers can't claim credit for that either. To say that Australia's relationship with India is all about cricket and curry, as many do, is more than a little sad.

The question must be asked: is Julie Bishop the right person to be building the future of this relationship?
It is not hard to be overwhelmed by the scale of the development challenge confronting the government of India.

The third and fourth words in that article should have been swapped. That isn't just pedantry: the whole article starts with a swoon, which makes it hard to trust some of the more difficult contentions that it raises: nuclear exports for a start, poverty, greenhouse gas emissions, and the one Bishop skated over with a single word.

Australia has massive reserves of uranium, and India has a massive need for energy. Given the fact that the ALP has been split for a generation over nuclear energy, I am still surprised that the Howard government didn't move on uranium mining once the GST was bedded down and Beazley Labor vanquished after 2001.
[India] is a nation struggling to provide adequate services in response to the economic growth necessary to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty ... 25 per cent of the population currently does not have access to electricity.

Economic growth is necessary to lift people out of poverty. However, too much can be made of Australia's role in alleviating that:

  • Will Australian-supplied power be targeted toward the homes and job-creating enterprises of poor people in India?

  • Will that power be used in a way that doesn't make these people worse off than they already are (in terms of pollution and industrial accidents)?

  • Is Julie Bishop really the person to make either of the above points stick?

Then, there's the word that Bishop skates over. She describes India as a "growing economic, political and strategic mega-democracy". The growing economy is pretty well understood, and because autocracy was always limited across such vast populations and distances the place has always been political. The key word here is "strategic".

India shares borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma and China. It is building a blue-water naval fleet (i.e. one that can sustain operations away from home ports for long periods), and has one of the largest armies on earth. Its air weaponry needs would be similar to ours in nature, but on a much larger scale. It has nuclear weapons. The growing economy isn't all about lifting people out of poverty: it will also be about arming, protecting and projecting itself and its interests. There is a massive amount of adjustment to be done to the mindset of Australia's foreign and defence policy outlook to deal with this - again, is Julie Bishop the right person to be doing this? Really?

Then, there is the question of economic power. It is unlikely that Indian companies will be content for Australian and other non-Indian companies to dig up and ship resources to them. Indian companies already play a large and growing role in the coal industry as well as in IT, and will take the same sort of stake that Japanese, Chinese, Korean and US companies take in our resources sector. This isn't an argument for xenophobia, far from it; what it does mean is that the relationship with India will require a depth of understanding that simply isn't evident right now. I doubt Julie Bishop is across, or feels the need to get across, these kinds of issues.

Given that we are talking about massive economic power over Australian resources, let's try and address issues of downstream processing without getting all radio-talkback shouty and racist about it. Again, we've had this debate regarding the Japanese and getting all upset gets us nowhere - but be prepared to go through it all again, and the same amount of nothing to be gained from such. We should have sufficient leadership to lift us above this, but we don't.

Given how many asylum-seekers come to Australia from the Middle East and Afghanistan, India could help Australia in its regional initiatives to deal with this problem - but it doesn't, because successive Australian governments are too stupid to ask them and too lazy to build the sort of substantive relationship that might be of assistance to all concerned.
The World Nuclear Association reports that India plans to expand nuclear power capacity to at least 25 per cent of its total requirements by 2050.

This will allow the government to rapidly increase electricity generation while reducing its relative reliance on coal, with obvious benefits in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Since when are we in the business of increasing the capabilities of foreign governments? Aren't we about lifting people out of poverty and reducing greenhouse gases, while making a bit of dough along the way? I'm so confused Julie.

When you consider that the World Nuclear Association is a lobbying outfit for companies in the nuclear industry business - well, they would say that, wouldn't they. Julie's just passing it on incase you are all feeling a bit credulous today. It's the next decade or so that's crucial with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. Even if Julie Bishop becomes Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2013 (oh stop it), there will be no discernible impact of Australian uranium exports and usage on greenhouse gas emissions. It's silly even to introduce this into the debate.
The Howard government agreed in principle in 2007 to supply India with uranium, subject to appropriate international safeguards to ensure Australian uranium was only used for peaceful purposes.

It was the judgment of the Coalition at that time that while India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has an exemplary record of non-proliferation and that adequate safeguards could be built into any supply agreement.

Other nations, including the United States, Canada, France and Argentina have come to the same conclusion and have signed agreements to supply nuclear fuel and technology to India.

Canada seems to have forgiven India for playing them for mugs and acquiring nuclear technology in the 1970s. The question remains, though, about the "appropriate international safeguards" - if not the NNP Treaty, what might they be? Did you really go all the way to India just to be told that all you need to do is wind the clock back to 2007?

Given that this is the Liberals' main value proposition - winding the clock back to 2007 - how important would the jaunt to Hyderabad and the ensuing article be in convincing Australians that JB should be managing that relationship? Rudd went in hard over AWB but I still don't know what role Australian officials played in oil-for-food.
The OECD survey said, "Wide-ranging reforms and increased investment have lifted potential growth to almost 9%, the highest in Indian history, helped by improvements in infrastructure. Inclusive growth of 10% per year is feasible given that demographic developments are set to push up saving, but will only be achieved if the administrative and regulatory barriers facing companies are reduced."

Which OECD survey was that? The OECD, like, produces so many surveys.

It seems we should, then, hold off sending uranium to India until the IPA/CIS have taken their cutlasses to "administrative and regulatory barriers". Imagine John Roskam and Terje Petersen sweeping through that country like latter-day Robert Clives. Anyone can read The Road to Serfdom but it's quite another to go to where that road ends, and to convince people that to go the other way along that road they must first abandon where they are, or that Australian uranium exports really are being proposed with them in mind.
India is currently Australia's fifth largest two-way trading partner and accounts for over 7 per cent of Australia's total exports, currently dominated by coal and gold.

And education, Julie, remember how you used to be the Minister for Education? We've all moved on, but not to the extent where we blithely undersell one of our country's major assets as far as India is concerned.
It is important that Australia develop and maintain strong relations with India.

Yes, it is. Apart from the red herrings about Indian poverty and greenhouse gas emissions, and setting aside vulgar greed about the money to be made from selling minerals - what, from Bishop's perspective, is there to this relationship?

To be fair to Bishop, however, much of the responsibility for Australia's poor relationship with India comes from the incumbent minister and his two predecessors, Smith and Downer. Australian Foreign Ministers should have been going to New Dehli much more often than they have. There's time like the present, though, and the incumbent shows no sign of correcting his earlier mistakes by smoothing the way for Australian exporters. It is a dereliction of duty for Rudd not to have helped ameliorate Indian anger over the deaths of students in Melbourne, and it is a dereliction for Downer too that Rudd - and Bishop - had so little relationship for the incumbents and the next government to rely and build upon.

I knew Rudd wasn't much chop as Australia's Foreign Minister (a longer-form post on this is under development), and have long been concerned about Bishop too. It's hard that this area of policy is so bereft of any real understanding, of Australia's interests or of those of other countries. The journosphere can't really examine the strengths or weaknesses of individual politicians or parties against the national interest:

  • For all its foreign correspondent resources nobody from the ABC has comprehensive foreign policy clout, nor does anyone from commercial TV/radio;

  • Fairfax has Peter Hartcher - and Daniel Flitton (thanks kjob85);

  • News Ltd has Rowan Callick (no, Greg Sheridan does not count. There are backpackers reviewing flophouses across southeast Asia who have greater foreign policy acumen and insight than that man); and

  • er, that's about it really. There are some things you just can't outsource to the Lowy Institute.

India and Australia [sucks air through teeth]: big issues there. In the absence of leadership from politicians and guidance from the media, that's all I have to say about that.

Hope the debates on other areas of policy get better than this.

Seriously, the Australia-India relationship is a case study of politico-media failure because their failure lets this country down and leaves us unprepared for our future, and less able to take the advantages of that future than we might be.

09 June 2011

The herd mentality

As you'd expect from a veteran journalist, Barrie Cassidy has looked into the eye of a media storm and found the journalists have acted impeccably, particularly when it comes to reinforcing preconceived ideas that might otherwise be challenged by facts.
It's hard to identify a more popular decision taken by the Gillard Government than the suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia.

Yet even that has been awash in an ocean of negativity.

The overwhelming sentiment of most of the graziers in the far north has fallen somewhere between philosophical and supportive. One quoted his son saying that he would rather go broke than put his animals through such cruelty. Another - Paul Holmes a Court - one of the biggest exporters of live cattle to Indonesia - says the government had no choice and the ban should only be lifted when proper surveillance is guaranteed.

The first and third paragraphs read as though there's some sort of coincidence - if not alignment - between government policy, stakeholders and the community at large. So far, so good: but that middle paragraph is puzzling. What could it mean?
Yet barely anywhere in the media, not in print, on radio or television, on the ABC or the commercial outlets, or online is there any real reflection of how the community would have wanted the government to respond to the horror of the Four Corners program.

Right, so the journalists are trying to create a story where there isn't one. The poor buggers probably think this is what is meant by "adding value". Time for some leadership from this press gallery veteran (not yet a doyen in his own right for pandering to Paul Kelly). The answer here is simple: get the media reporting the story rather than making stuff up - right Barrie?
It's easy to blame the media, as many will.

Well, yes. The question is not how many will, or how easy it is, but whether it is right or fair to do so.
The media treatment was compounded early on when the introduction to many of the reports - even on the ABC - spoke of fury and anger in the north over the decision, while the reports themselves contained nothing of the sort.

The media are responsible for making up non-existent fury. The media are responsible for elevating ideas that did not previously trouble them to centre-stage ("Why wasn't this done months ago?", "What about the graziers whose businesses could go to the wall?", "This is going to dramatically increase the price of meat for Indonesia's poor" - oh, please). Yet, according to Cassidy the media can't be held responsible for its own actions.
It was almost as if the media couldn't comprehend that maybe the industry itself would take the view a problem existed that needed fixing.

In other words: the media failed to do some basic journalism and find out what the industry's views were, and reporting that.

If it is true that Meat & Livestock Australia were aware that animals exported from Australia were mistreated in Indonesia, what we have here is a cover-up and a lax attitude to risk management. Just as wheat farmers were badly let down by AWB's shenanigans in Iraq, so too graziers can rightly feel aggrieved at MLA. There is a wider question to be asked about rural industry bodies and those they purport to represent, and I wish we had some journalists looking into that.

Instead, journalists whinge about issues that don't really relate to the topic at hand.
The circumstances of a hung parliament and minority government has created unfamiliarity and uncertainty around the issues, whatever they are.


This is an issue that could easily have arisen ten years ago, when the Coalition was securely in government, or a decade before that, when Labor was. The maltreatment of cattle in Indonesia has many causes - the composition of the House of Representatives in Canberra at any given point is not one of them.
The Government's history, on insulation, school halls, and the East Timor solution invites instant scepticism on everything. A government decision controversy crisis. They can't even give away set top boxes to pensioners without a furore.

When you've been involved in politics and journalism as long as I have, Barrie, you understand that every time the government does anything there will be someone out there who criticises it. Sometimes the critics have a point, sometimes they don't; but criticism itself is a given. Part of the job of journalists is to help people assess whether or not particular policies and criticisms thereof are valid.
The media has its faults, but a lot of the blame rests with the Government itself. In this case, there was nobody other than the Government to sell the positives; not the animal welfare people because they wanted tougher action; not the graziers because they had to have one eye to compensation; and not the cows because of their obvious limitations.

This is pretty standard, Barrie. Grifting farmers out for a handout, cranky animal activists, and the government developing a policy in the national interest. Cows have never had much of a voice. The government has done its job - it has banned live cattle exports to Indonesia, and made announcements to that effect. If only the media had reported what was announced and looked into how the announcement was received and applied, it might have been different.
It was up to the Government, and they blew it.

The Minister for Agriculture (yes Australia has one) Joe Ludwig had been warned about the problem for months but handed it back to the industry to fix.

As opposed to what - having the RAAF strafe Indonesian abattoirs? You can imagine some oily lobbyist from the livestock industry assuring the minister: no worries mate, it's fiiiiiine. Every other industry is self-regulated (look at the stick Bill Shorten is copping over financial planners), why not livestock exporters?
Then when the Four Corners report went to air he astounded many of his caucus colleagues by taking a half way measure and calling for an inquiry.

It's standard practice, really. Nobody expects government ministers to be paralysed with horror when things happen. It would not have done for Ludwig to leap into action with a pre-defined course of action: it would have been rash, or if carefully planned then surely it could have been done before the ABC chose to broadcast that report.

It's also interesting that journalists played a minimal facilitator role in bringing about the Four Corners report on the brutal treatment of animals in Indonesian abattoirs. Lyn White from Animals Australia won't be eligible for a Walkley award, but the person who sat in a studio and did the voiceover work is. The non-journalist got the story straight, but the journalists reviewing the fallout (Cassidy included) stuffed it up.
And finally when the sensible decision was taken, the minister talked about "appropriate animal welfare outcomes" and "supply chain assurances".

To the prospect of resuming the trade in six months, he said "We need to put in place that supply chain assurance so as soon as we can move to a supply chain assurance then we can transition for the longer term."

In other words, when we're satisfied the Indonesians have stopped brutalising the cattle, we'll resume the trade.

But these days gobbledygook is not the only problem. It goes way beyond that to a failure to tell the public the truth about anything.

It is unclear why Ludwig has been singled out here: I've see worse examples of ministerial gobbledygook. Ludwig's wording is fairly typical PR-speak (is this a departure from normal practice? Does Joe Ludwig usually speak in the hard clear prose one would expect from, say, David Mamet? Only an insider could answer such a question), but the meaning of Ludwig's statement is intelligible by people who are used to hearing and analysing government announcements. Barrie Cassidy was a press secretary to then Prime Minister Hawke, it is a pity that he can only recognise "gobbledygook" when practiced by others.

Cassidy hasn't really made a case against Ludwig or the government, but he does attempt to clamber up to the high moral ground (a bit like some self-serving politician):
Ross Gittins hit the nail on the head in the SMH when he wrote: "One thing I despise about life in Australia today is the way power chasing politicians and self promoting media personalities seek to advance themselves by encouraging people living in the most prosperous period in our history to feel sorry for themselves.

Indeed he did, Barrie, but this doesn't really fit a narrative of people feeling sorry not for themselves but for cattle, for whom economic prosperity or otherwise does not spare them from inhumanity at the hands of humanity.

Neither does what follows:
The Government folds itself into the Opposition's narrative that cost of living pressures are weighing down the nation.

Announcing that Australia is banning live cattle exports to Indonesia has nothing to do with cost of living pressures. If Ludwig and the government were concerned only with turning a dollar, they would have defended fulfilment of the contracts and said that humane treatment in the abattoirs was for Indonesia to deal with. Instead, they took a decision that was popular without being populist, and announced it.

Oppositions always go on about cost of living. The accusation that this government is rubbish at promoting its policies is more than fair, but you have to go into issues other than banning live cattle exports to Indonesia to make that case. Cassidy is not giving the government credit for making a good decision, in a case where it clearly has done so.

The Gillard government is taking the risk that if it introduces sound policy this will be self-evident, and either the media will come around or their opposition won't count for much. This is a sensible approach. It can come unstuck where you have a populist opposition who actively courts the media, and who makes the most credulous and foolish among the feel like major players in the public affairs of our nation. We'll see about that at the next election. This government faced a challenge, it did not squib it but rose instead to meet it. It deserved better media coverage than it got.

The Shadow Minister for Agriculture (yes Australia has one) is John Cobb. He's been very quiet at a time when there's been a lot of interest in the portfolio. Shadow ministers usually complain that they don't get equal coverage, ad if the hung parliament is so important you'd expect journalists to be all over Cobb, asking what he, in an Abbott government, would have done in Ludwig's place.

Grizzled old journos can complain about youngsters with their Masters degrees and their Twitter, or even about bloggers; but if this is what veterans come out with then it's time for a change of journalistic guard (and who guards the guardians when the guardians ... oh, never mind). It's a poor piece, and the editor of The Drum should have asked Cassidy to rewrite or pull it altogether: an old-school editor would have flung the copy in his face and threatened to sack him for writing such utter shit. If Adam, Myf and Alan can decide that it's time to walk away from Spicks and Specks, surely Barrie and the gang should do the same to their piece of ABC light-entertainment on Sunday mornings.

What Cassidy is doing here is exactly what shock-jocks do: taking an announcement and disregarding what was said, and loading onto it a farrago of hopes, fears and other irrelevancies.

The government is the victim of poor media coverage, not the perpetrator of it - and according to the Insiders' insider, the perpetrators get off scot-free. If you can't blame journalists when they get it wrong, then they can't expect any credit when (if?) they get it right.

Update 11 June: This is the article Cassidy tried to write. It still skates over the culpability of the media:
It's just that, well, that's the way it swings for the Labor Party in 2011. Even when [the government is] taking action that's popular, somehow it still fails to attract expressions of support or endorsement from the media and the wider community.

Why is this happening? Some of it is due to the unforgiving and impatient nature of contemporary political discussion.

Spare us this self-serving bullshit. The view(s?) of the media is not synonymous with those of "the wider community".

Carney does, however, do a better job at explaining the role of the risk-averse ALP in hobbling its own future. Yes, Ludwig is probably a dull man, and not your standard attention-seeker pollie - but there has always been a place in every government for the grey technocrat in amongst the show-ponies. Still, "contemporary political discussion" covers a multitude of sins, and it isn't the job of a journalist to be covering up.