27 July 2011

Things to do in opposition when you're dead

I just don't know what to do with my time
I'm so lonesome for you, it's a crime
Going to a movie only makes me sad
Parties make me feel as bad
When I'm not with you, I just don't know what to do

- Burt Bacharach & Hal David I just don't know what to do with myself
So: you've been elected to Parliament as a loyal member of a party that has not shared your fortune, at least not sufficiently to form government. What do you do with yourself, apart from representing the good people of your electorate?

You can plug away like the Victorian ALP.
Fresh from receiving federal Labor MP Alan Griffin's post-mortem of the November campaign, Labor has embarked on a second review - this time to overhaul the way policy is shaped ahead of the 2014 state election.
Either Daniel Andrews is keeping a challenge from the door by creating activity and hoping that it looks like progress, or the guy is genuinely having a red-hot go at knocking off an opponent who is too slow off the mark. Baillieu has ceded too much early, energy-sapping and legacy defining ground to the religious right; Andrews is clearly seeking to psych him out at every step, like Cadel Evans against the too-cautious Schleck brothers. Good on him for refusing to accept Griffin's pulled punches.

Mind you, he is leader of the Victorian ALP:
Admitting that many of the former Brumby government's election promises failed to capture the imagination of voters, Mr Andrews said the review would look at a range of areas: the way policies are developed (including getting more "suburban mums and dads" involved); the type of policies Labor should put to voters; and better ways to communicate their plans.
They failed to engage voters because they were mediocre ideas, Brumby would hype them as though they were great and would brook no equivocation as to how they could be improved. Because the way those ideas were communicated was transparently bullshit, nobody believed anything he said and nobody believed he could evolve with the state. Baillieu seemed more flexible and approachable, and a state that believed in democracy first gave him a go (sort of - not by much).

Nothing wrong with getting those "suburban mums and dads" involved - just so long as they don't, y'know, try and change anything. If they remain fixated on the "better communications" they will end up like the Libs in NSW (and indeed federally) - "nothing wrong with out policies, they just weren't communicated properly", followed by a Lasseters-Reef-style hunt for the perfect media opportunity that was reported favourably and believed absolutely by all marginal seat voters at the same time.
"We needed one of those 'Year 9 experiences' each week," Mr Andrews told The Sunday Age. "We had a clear vision of where we wanted the state to go, but perhaps we didn't describe that and didn't sell it to the Victorian community."
A new opposition leader has to balance distancing himself from the loser government without becoming totally lost, especially as Andrews himself was a minister in that government. Here he sounds like a mealy-mouthed twat, not distancing himself enough - but it would seem that his actions belie that, meaning that he's either the wiliest reformer of his own party since John Howard or the reform process is going to get away from him.
The policy review will be conducted by opposition backbenchers ... widely regarded as rising stars within the party ...

Insiders say part of the problem was that many of last year's election policies were shaped by cabinet, leaving rank-and-file members in Labor's policy committees feeling frustrated.
It isn't clear where Andrews is going to conjure up "suburban mums and dads" who have the time to participate in ALP decision-making, the temperament to put up with that crap (the ShortCons will go berserk) and who, most importantly, also have something to contribute.

At least the Vics are trying - I mean, what is this warmed-over Bruce Hawker shit? Failure compared to what?

I can't believe that two intelligent and experienced operatives could only come up with this:
We need to be clear about what the brand truly stands for ...
You lost me at "the brand". At a time when consumers are media-savvy enough to see through branding, two clowns who should know better retain their newly-minted-MBA faith in fucking branding and apply it to what they should hope would not be some perishable commodity.

In an associated article the Keneallys define "the brand" not as something owned and imposed by others, but which is manufactured in Sussex Street and pumped out with no feedback mechanism.
For a start, we should abandon the Blackburn declaration that we stand for "the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features." We should be clear that we stand for increasing the incomes, opportunities, choices and self determination of working people and their families.
What a coincidence, that's what the Liberal Party was founded on and still stands for. Better yet, who would you trust to deliver on that stuff - Barry O'Farrell, or Princess Wonkyhair? We know the answer. The Blackburn declaration is sufficiently mealy-mouthed to serve as a salve for a divided Labor Party conference, and it shall stay to serve that purpose - the dodge on gay marriage at the most recent conference showed the extent to which the deal-cutters and pap-meisters run the NSW ALP, and what could be more apposite than a declaration conditioned and compromised into meaninglessness?
We should avoid compromising the salience of this proposition with a raft of additional concepts such as sustainability, equality and rights. While important, none of these are core to our mission.
Harrumph! Quite so, what! John Murphy wants all those idealistic do-gooders to join the Greens and who are you, or the Keneallys, to quibble with Captain Stroganoff?
Ah yes: Labor as an ossified Ben Chifley Appreciation Society. How different it all seems, with a mad thwarted Foreign Minister on a UN jag, a Immigration Minister who looks like the most colourless bureaucrat imaginable, and with even a Wong or two. Every working person knows that whenever a Labor luminary quotes Chifley and/or Curtin, they are about to introduce measures that screws working people good and hard.
If we want to be a successful party, we need people. And in particular we need working people. People who can argue for us with their friends and families, donate to our campaigns, and most importantly advise and influence our candidates and MPs.
No possibility of those people bringing their own ideas or even replacing those MPs, oh goodness no.
Granting automatic membership to every member of our affiliated unions would radically shift our membership towards working people in one stroke.
It would give them something they don't want and don't value, and the organisation should be prepared for the full ramifications of that: bloat and apathy, the Keneally recipe for success.
Our party needs candidates that can win the support of working people.
What about candidates who are working people? Look at all those early caucuses, with their autodidactic tinsmiths and cabinet-makers and wharfies. Face it, a candidate like Chifley or those potato-headed Premiers between McKell and Askin couldn't beat someone like, say, Verity Firth or either Keneally in today's ALP.

The federal electorate with the highest number of qualified tradies is Casey (Vic), held by a particularly gormless Liberal. Do you think the ShortCons will put up anyone but an equally gormless Labor candidate, some hack who'll run dead in the name of getting a good spot on the executive of the Amalgamated Bludgers & Whingers Union executive? You betcha.

A solid, community-based campaign would push lazy Tony Smith into oblivion, but he can rest assured that Victorian Labor would never trust a campaign to "suburban mums and dads".
We cannot allow our preselection processes to become an industrial battleground, nor our candidates and members to be hostage to public sector unions.
Too late for that, too hard to unscramble that egg.
Each Federal and State electorate and each Council area should be required to hold at least 10 meetings per year to which every party member in the area is invited. Sitting MPs and councillors should be required to attend these meetings.
Earlier you said those meetings are to be interesting, right? Which party leader is going to give sitting MPs leave from sitting days to attend local branch meetings? Then again, if you've listened to enough Keneally you'll watch out for phrases like "should be".
An advisory, policy development oriented conference would, by contrast, enable more far reaching and thoughtful debates and seminars because of the lower stakes involved.
And would thus be more appealing for participants? This is real let-them-eat-cake stuff in terms of being disconnected from members.
Policy is the core activity by which we deliver on our brand promise.
No, delivery is the core activity by which you deliver on our brand promise. The NSW governments of 2007-11 had policies up to billy-o but had no capacity to deliver, and were punished accordingly.
The establishment and maintenance of an effective progressive "Think Tank" should be a head office responsibility.
And they will be appointed through head office patronage, with no connection at all to realities.
In the new media landscape, where investigative reporting is expensive and opinion is cheap and effective at attracting eyeballs, "balance" appears to consist in having commentators from both the Tory right and the anti-Labor left. Whenever we do take a progressive policy direction we face a strong reaction from a range of establishment forces.

Of course, this is really nothing new for the ALP. We used to run our own newspapers and radio stations to combat the problem. Our challenge now is to develop direct communications capabilities so we can manage within this context. This includes direct contact with our members and supporters using new forms of media – we should be able to send detailed responses and refutations of critical stories to every branch member within hours of a negative story.
See, they're still focused on elite broadcast-only messaging, they can't bear the idea of feedback and engagement. Look at that quote and consider who is meant by "we".

"Come join the Labor Party, you'll get deluged with spam" - nah, doesn't work. Why on earth would anyone want closer engagement with a failing, fading mainstream media?
One of the key messages of the NSW defeat is that disunity and personal misbehaviour cannot be tolerated.
Yeah, that'll really convince people that you've changed. The whole Princess Wonkyhair image fell apart because the bland pleasantries spouting nonsense over dysfunctional policies contrasted so sharply with the "Ah-am-very-angry" that accompanied every resignation, like the snarl of some miffed Pekinese. See the earlier point about delivery: nobody would mind if David Campbell got his dick sucked so long as the transport system worked. Campbell was taking time out instead of, not as well as, his official duties.

One person's or two people's "disunity" is someone else's passionate debate: depends what you think makes for an "interesting" meeting I suppose.

The Keneallys can take some comfort from the fact that their guaranteed-failure model of branch member disengagement and the draining co-dependency with a dysfunctional media is being embraced even more enthusiastically by the Federal Liberals. For all the dismissal of fringe online media by the journosphere and people like Lindsay Tanner, this piece contains some of the sharpest political commentary around.
... opposition Senators who still haven’t come to terms with being in opposition decide to tie up the committee on some faint hope of uncovering a scandal or shopping a ‘gotcha’ moment to the channel-hopping press gallery.
That's what you shouldn't do, if you ever find yourself in Opposition: make yourself a tool of the press gallery. Make them do their own bloody research. You can see why media organisations cut their graduate intakes: when Opposition Senators volunteer to go trawling for you like they have nothing better to do, why train journalists in analysis?

I've said it before, and it bears repeating: why would the Shadow Attorney General make a dill of himself for the sake of a media organisation?
I asked the chair of the committee – a Government Senator – why they allowed this time-sucking waste of oxygen to spool out day after day, and was told exactly why. As long as the opposition are using up endless hours grilling public servants into a state of semi-consciousness, no possibility of actual transparency, disclosure or accountability is likely to arise.
And so long as the government is capable of playing the opposition for mugs - 100% of bills put to a hung parliament by the Gillard government passed and enacted - you have to give them the benefit of the doubt, even in the face of appalling polls. If the Coalition were capable of the kind of cut-through at the policy level that their leader demonstrates on the non-policy Stunt Man level, they would have the calm assurance of a coming government rather than the shrill bluff they have now.

You can't refuse to engage openly and fully with people and issues and expect to worm your way back into government. Oppositions who think otherwise have either gone through searing re-examination and restructuring, like the Federal Libs did by the mid-'90s, or - like these jokers described above - are kidding themselves. It really is too much to expect vision and recognition of timeless values in a changing landscape, isn't it.


  1. Bushfire Bill28/7/11 6:53 pm

    Andrew, your columns are always fascinating to read, entertaining and ultra thought-provoking.

    If you don't mind my saying so, you are one of the best, if not THE best, political commentators in Australia today.

    In fact: world class.

    May you prosper and keep writing this great stuff you write. Compulsory reading for me.

  2. Lachlan Ridge28/7/11 7:07 pm

    Oh dear. It's out.

    "suburban mums and dads" is the new Working Families. I've watched this emerge in the States in the context off their health care reform debate, where, of course, it's "suburban moms and dads". Nothing new under the sun in Australian politics today. And to think that a century ago we were the political laboratory for liberal democracy, now we are a C/D demographic dumping ground for a product that's outlived it's snob appeal in the metropolis:

    "Wankers once used mobile phones, but now that sort are changing

    Yobboes lived in cottage homes, ain't social change amazing"

    - What are ya? TISM

    There's a certain media company close to the ALP in Victoria that loves to import this sort of astroturfing pfaff from the States. They all think they're Dick Morris, when the better analogy would be Jason Cabel Roe.

    If Doug Cameron ever gets his anti-dumping laws up then the ACCC should go after people insulting us with second hand IP from US political campaigns.

    Brands are consumable and suit retail politics. The problem is, retail politics doesn't fix social problems, it just gets you elected. In fact retail politics is simply electionism, which is an endgame for democracy.

    Unless the "suburban mums and dads" organised their own political representation, independent of the major parties?

    Wasn't it good to see Captain Stroganoff let fly again! If Murphy wants people who support progressive ideals to join the Greens then no doubt he agrees that people who support market based economics mixed with social conservativism should join the Liberal Party.

    This all stems from the political "genius" of Greame Richardson who, aided by a few acolytes in the St George area in Sydney from the early seventies, turned a once marginal area into safe ALP territory - for a little while. His strategy? Emulate the Liberal Party - hence the suits, expensive suits, embracing the big end of town, etc. It was simply an exercise in out-porkbarelling the Liberal Party to the big end of town. (This strategy left the NSW Branch of the Liberal Party so broke that they were forced to accept a large donation from Larry Adler, not really the GPS type - not that it had anything to do with Treasurer John Howard granting Adler senior a license to become FAI Insurance, which proved such a successful acquisition to the HIH organisation, but I digress).

    This Richardsonesque conservative party lite is electable for a while, but when the economic heat is on voters return to the party that meets the needs of that mix of bloody minded self-interest and outsourcing of process that is at the heart of Australia's political consciousness.

    Howard lost 2007 because enough Australians were worried about what AWAs would do to their, or their kids, ability to service a mortgage. Rudd was popular because he'd been on morning telly, but as we got to know him better th relationship soured. And he was their best! On the other hand electionism has thrown up a failed priest who wants a big government solution to an economic problem that would make even Blackjack McEwen blush. Ain't social change amazin' indeed.

    No doubt our vibrant and engaging media will identify this dearth of political rectitude and inform the suburban moms and dads as to what the political process means for their housing equity, retirement savings, household budgets and community infrastructure which we so soundly and safely enjoy and expect our children to enjoy.

  3. "That's what you shouldn't do, if you ever find yourself in Opposition: make yourself a tool of the press gallery. Make them do their own bloody research."

    Um yeah? I have read elsewhere a fellow bemoaning the pathetic coverage of the so-called cracking of the NBN. He as an IT industry insider was appalled that the media generally, and the ABC in particular, had got the story so wrong. (And continued to do so despite expert feedback.)

    He said this was a clear warning to him on how a lack of specialization and research capabability in the media could distort coverage on almost every contentious topic.

    I would say wonder not my friend. As a senior policy bureaucrat serving both Labor and Liberal State Governments over an extended the lack of intellectual rigour in media coverage in the area of my expertise also appalled me.

    Little wonder then that the pollies see the media as little more than a tool with which to pursue their own agendas.

    They are the users not the used and are generally too stupid to realise this.

  4. Sure, Anon, but that assumes people believe what the media puts out. For discredited politicians to use a discredited media can't bring credit on either.

  5. Johnny Rotten (formerly Anon)29/7/11 9:02 am

    Andrew the media ie the tabloids and the shock jocks help run agendas and they are effective. Just ask Christine Nixon.

    Abbott with his journo background is playing the media like a fiddle. His latest soundbite refers to the invisibility, weightlessness and odourless nature of CO 2 in an effort to discredit the use of carbon price auditing. He conveniently forgets that technology for this purpose exists and he will have to rely on it for his own direct action policy.

  6. Lachlan Ridge30/7/11 8:24 pm

    Johnny Rotten, Andrew and all,

    A good explanation of where policy intersects with politics, how this has changed in recent history and the role played by ignorance is provided in this review by David Runciman at the London Review of books: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n08/david-runciman/didnt-they-notice