13 September 2011

Blank cheques

By the end of the year the government will have dealt with two big issues, refugees and the carbon tax. These aren't the two biggest issues facing people at the moment, regardless of how much they might occupy the MSM or what Robert Manne calls 'The Political Class'. However, they are significant in having the potential to disrupt the Coalition-inspired MSM theme that the Gillard government is a bumbling do-nothing government. The way the government deals with these issues may establish one way or another that if it can act in its own interests it may be able to act in the interests of the nation as a whole; but we'll see.

Quite rightly, there has been a lot of focus on the government during this time, having been humiliated by the High Court and with people wondering whether (rather than when) Gillard is going to turn things around. The incumbent government always deserves the scrutiny that comes with office, and if I had better data and more time I'd add to that scrutiny here.

The Opposition gets a lot of coverage, but not a lot of scrutiny, on the basis that while it isn't in government the polls show it is close to getting there. The Opposition is fairly weak when it comes to policy but with polls the way they are at the moment, so what?

The government doesn't have to beat the better angels of its nature, it just has to beat the alternative. Labor people do get all emotional about what a Labor Government might be and should be, but that's a relic from days when Labor Governments were wouldn't-it-be-luvverly aspirations, or few and far between, and you could hang anything you wanted on them and the idea would just float shimmering in mid-air. The least amount of sentimentality as to what a Labor Government is can be found in NSW, where Labor's been in power for 60 of the past 80 years.

The Coalition deserves more scrutiny. If they're going to become the government we need to know what they're likely to do - not just what they say. We need to know whether they are truly up to the job rather than (as I suspect they are) still screaming after being dragged from the lolly shop. Not many journalists do this, fewer than you'd imagine.

The dilemma facing the Coalition is one that faces all politicians with a lot of political capital. Any step they take in any direction will be a step down, but standing still won't help anyone either. This is a question of courage and leadership, and as such it's a challenge that The Situation cannot and will not rise to meet.

The clearest indicator of The Coalition's failure is here, a pro-Abbott article that damns him where it means to flatter. Gillard needs bipartisan support to get offshore processing up. If she doesn't get it she throws herself into the arms of Labor and the Greens and goes with onshore assessment of refugees. Either way she's a winner, and about time.

Surely by now even the biggest fool in either the Labor strategy team or the press gallery should realise that Abbott would squib a bipartisan solution. As was said of Yasser Arafat when negotiating with the Israelis: he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Mr Abbott said he wanted to see Labor's amendment's [sic] to the Migration Act before agreeing to support the government.

"I'm not going to pre-empt the government and I'm not going to give them a blank cheque," the Opposition Leader said.
This is hardly news. He does this every time - every time, for years now:
  • Day 1: the government extends the hand of bipartisanship to The Situation.
  • Day 2: ah, he says, I'll think about it, but no blank cheque.
  • Day 3: no, no, no, no - what a surprise!
Every time. It's not even news that he does this. You may as well report that he was wearing a tie.

Just because this is the dull pantomime that politicians dish out, it does not mean that this is the dull pantomime that MSM consumers want or need to be presented with. Massola has no excuse to be unprepared for the sheer absence of anything but bluff in the Coalition response:
As Opposition Leader Tony Abbott refused to say whether the Coalition would back Labor's amendments to the Migration Act, Ms Bishop rejected Immigration Department advice given to the Coalition that Nauru could now be on shaky legal ground.

"I don't believe that we need amendments to the Migration Act for us to reopen the detention centre on Nauru and for it continue to work as it has in the past," she said.
Well, there's the small matter of legal advice, and if you won't accept the good stuff direct from the professionals then no amount of railing from a blogger will do any good.

Because journalists won't do it, let's look more closely at Nauru.

Nauru needs a lot of input from Australia in order to develop the bureaucratic apparatus necessary to sustain the UN Refugee Convention. It is unlikely that a Nauru Solution II would escape scrutiny as it did under Howard.

Kevin Rudd has spent a lot of time schmoozing UN stakeholders recently, and while the Coalition and some journos have sneered at the junket aspect of that they are underestimating Rudd both in policy terms and as a tactician. If Nauru's passage toward UN endorsement were to be held up it would make the Coalition look bad: not to mention the half-baked attempt at fudging a fairly clear direction from the High Court on what's legal and what isn't. One can respect Julie Bishop's legal training and experience while respecting even more those of six High Court judges put together.

The Coalition could have broken with two years of kneejerk reaction and backed the legislation. The question would then be one of how well it was executed: every time there was any sort of shortcoming in the Malaysian solution they could wring their hands and declare that they supported the government in good faith, pearls before swine, you can't trust these people, etc.

Until now, the Coalition got a good run from the MSM on refugee issues for three reasons:
  • Their position was clear: it was part of the Rollback pre-2007 thing that is at the core of The Situation's appeal, if not his very political being. Journos love their cliches, especially when those cliches buy them drinks.
  • No matter what the government did on refugees it looked like it was on the back foot. This was true when Howard was in government too but the then-Opposition and the press gallery never woke up to that: they still haven't.
  • Scott Morrison was always available to bag whatever the government did on asylum-seekers.
Today, the first option has been deep-sixed by the High Court, the second will be much less obvious, and the third will result in uncomfortable questions and thus the access will be cut back. Talk about a no-win situation.

There may still be people in the Coalition who think they can get the same good run by plugging the same line on this issue. All you can do is hope that those engaged on such a doomed mission have a fallback position, and bid them good luck into the future.

Scrape away all that rhetorical bluff and fudge (c'mon, journalists; this is meant to be your job) and it looks like the Coalition is covering up for four years of policy inaction, four years of denying that the voters rejected them for good reasons.

The Government has two perfectly serviceable options ready to go: what they're proposing with their legislation, and onshore if the legislation fails. The Opposition has no policy options on refugees, having forsaken all others to the point where any rethink would involve a humiliating climbdown and a loss of public clarity on what their position is: that sort of thing sees polling leads and donations evaporate, and leaders dumped. At last, this government is learning to play the strategically-limited Coalition off an even break.

Even more enjoyable is watching Niki Savva snookering herself:
... if Labor MPs stick with [Gillard], they are stuck with the carbon tax, which means the government is finished and a Coalition victory is assured.
The scare campaign only works so long as the tax is, like the stuff being taxed, in the ether. Niki Savva saw how quickly the anti-GST campaign collapsed when we actually started paying it, when some things went up and others down and otherwise life went on. I've said it before and like a good former staffer, I'll say it again and again: what value is there in a Niki Savva analysis?
Abbott's second-worst nightmare has to be Gillard striking a workable, humane policy on asylum-seekers which stops the boats, secures the support of Left and Right, and does it without his help. In all our dreams, most likely.
If we do have onshore processing, watch for harrowing tales from applicants followed by pictures of firm but humane processing, followed by happily resettled people warmly embraced by the community. Asylum-seekers will not be an issue at the next election: only the fringe-dwellers will dare go near that issue.
Given his office has (wrongly) taken backbenchers and frontbenchers to task for raising industrial relations reform, and Cory Bernardi had (rightly) been dragged into line for yet another transgression on Islamic issues, because the leadership did not want any distractions from the main game - in this case asylum-seekers - Abbott's threat [to deny Craig Thomson a pair to attend the birth of his child] was plain dumb.
In other words: when Gillard was at her lowest ebb, The Situation not only failed to deliver the killer blow but inflicted damage on himself. What a goose. Has he learned nothing?

The union movement have beaten the Coalition in the last two elections over WorkChoices. Recently the President of the ACTU, Ged Kearney, told the National Press Club that they were going to do the same thing again next time. Labor lost nine elections in a row last century because they couldn't shake the perception that they were too soft on communism. They later won four in a row because the Coalition couldn't shake the perception that they were too hard on Medicare. The Coalition is either too stupid, or too afraid of losing political capital, to rethink workplace relations policy from the ground up: until they do, The Spectre of WorkChoices is the gift that keeps on giving for Labor and the unions. No amount of shrieking from Peta Credlin can or will change that.

Going after Thomson is inextricably linked to Coalition policy on workplace relations. The sort of flexibility Thomson requires (and which Abbott is denying him) is the very sort of give-and-take a modern workplace policy needs (and which doesn't give you confidence in Abbott's ability to come through). As for the other allegations against Thomson, the fact that the police are onto it robs the allegations of any political force and brings to an end the Javert-like role of Senator Brandis. It drags out the timescale (Libs need a quick result, which is not possible when trawling through documents and interviewing different people with competing claims and agendas) and makes a result like this more likely.

Speaking of parasites, Cory Bernardi is undeniably of a piece with today's Liberal Party and its federal leadership. If you're going to attend rabble-rousing rallies in Canberra and receive people like Chris Monckton or David Clarke, on what arbitrary basis do you declare Geert Wilders beyond the pale? This is what happens when you lower standards to the point where The Situation is your choice for Prime Minister. People like Savva are treating Bernardi like he's from another planet, but he was Nick Minchin's protege and was SA President of the Liberal Party. If his roots in the Liberal Party ran less deep, like Pauline Hanson's in 1996, he'd be gone from the Liberal Party by now. The fact that he isn't is more significant than Savva can bear to contemplate.

Savva must feel all righteous in calling for Bernardi to be dumped, but if she's any sort of analyst she must confront the idea that The Situation won't dump him, and what happens then?
Despite Abbott's denial, Bernardi did offer to help divisive Dutch politician Geert Wilders with his proposed visit to Australia. Once again Bernardi embarrassed his leader, and infuriated his colleagues, who believe his behaviour threatens votes in western Sydney. This is not limiting free speech; it's about Bernardi not knowing or not caring that he has crossed a line.
Bernardi thinks that he's shaping debate, within the toxic environment created by the rhetoric around asylum-seekers, and the dog-whistling by his leader, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and other senior members of the Coalition. Bernardi's actions and beliefs are squarely within the Liberal mainstream today. The Liberal Party will indeed lose votes in western Sydney - and Melbourne, and you'd be surprised where else - because Bernardi is not the wacky outlier Savva tries to make him out to be.

That's why Abbott won't sack him - and if he did, like Howard's axing of Ian Campbell, the only effect it would have would be to lower morale (and, perhaps, give rise to Cory's Kampf).

Savva is right about Kevin Andrews but while I can say that, coming from her it's just mean. Is there really anyone left from Costello's office who hasn't yet been looked after? Besides, when ALP Vice President Joe de Bruyn wants the Liberals to do him a favour, who will he turn to once Andrews - the father of WorkChoices - goes?

A failing, defensive party will always indulge insiders rather than sacrifice in the hope of wider appeal from those not yet inside the party room. Howard in 1985 would have stood up for someone like Bernardi, but ten long and hard years later he would have thrown someone like that under a bus and appeared on TV the next day eating Turkish delight.
Abbott also has to take ownership of the economic debate. Rather than release detailed policies, he can talk about themes and propositions. What is his story about where the country should go? Which threads will he use to bind and distinguish his administration?
He won't do it convincingly, he can't do it convincingly. "Themes and propositions" didn't work for Andrew Peacock or Simon Crean and they won't work for The Situation. Niki Savva has no excuse for not knowing this. She has no excuse for not conveying to her readers her sheer inability to come to terms with this particular pig, let alone hold it still long enough to slap some lipstick on it - or why she feels compelled to do so.

The carbon tax - along with the mining tax - is a massive change to the way we fund our government. Once a tax is introduced it never gets abolished, it just means that other taxes are adjusted around it. Because of that it represents a change as to what we can expect from government. At one stage only people with property (i.e. people who paid taxes) were able to vote or be represented in Parliament, and so when the franchise was extended so too the nature of government changed, because those who were served by government underwent change.

The journosphere should look into the carbon tax more than it has: not into the horse-race impact of "who wins the daily media" but into the longterm shift of who pays for what. Savva's assumption that it is an automatic boost for the Coalition is stupid. Is there a competing vision from The Situation, and if so what is it? That's the kind of information we need to make voting decisions, actual value-add, rather than preparing us for a government in which Tony Abbott simply plays cat-and-mouse with every new idea put to him before killing it.

Let's descend from the high plains of Theory and Policy, though, and see that even if you stick to conventional horse-race political reporting, Tony Abbott is not "riding high in the polls". He's in diabolical trouble, and it looks like his whole business model will be on the rocks by Christmas.

Peter Brent makes some good and telling points about where Abbott's support is and isn't coming from but he does himself no favours with this:
People aren’t great at anticipating how they’d vote in a hypothetical situation.
All polling is a hypothetical situation. There will be no election this Saturday, and there wasn't one last Saturday either. There hasn't been a barrage of trite tat which I discard straight away, despite having paid for it with my taxes. There hasn't been the sort of Freudian slips or character-revealing lapses which are worth more than a thousand hours of staged bullshit. I remember polls where Kim Beazley and Mark Latham were "riding high in the polls", yet neither man became Prime Minister. Even if you fully enter the magic wardrobe and accept the premise of polls, they play the same role in modern politics that weighing oneself several times a day plays in the life of someone with an eating disorder.

Depth is what we want from political coverage and you're not going to get it from Niki Savva or James Massola. If that sort of depth is too hard for today's journalists then we need new and different and better journalists.


  1. Your logic is infallable, as usual. The only small detail that continues to frustrate your analysis of the Liberals' unelectability is their continuing and growing success in the polls.

    Sadly, logic matters not for the Situation, nor for the electorate that is happy enough with 'JuLIAR' and whatever other bullshit is shovelled its way. It doesn't have to make sense if it aligns with what you already think.

    I'd love to think you're right, and the Situation's house of cards will soon come tumbling down. I just don't see it happening.


  2. I think that you overestimate the polls and underestimate how coverage is changing. Abbott is not getting the free run he got 6 months ago.

  3. "Asylum-seekers will not be an issue at the next election: only the fringe-dwellers will dare go near that issue."

    I REALLY hope you are correct on this, but i wouldn't expect the Coalition to give up their best dog-whistle and source of FUD that easily.

  4. It won't be up to them. Remember Howard grasping at straws in '07? It'll be like that.

  5. I don't know, he was out of ideas, so if you call that grasping at straws OK.

    He was still given a free run in the media, particularly talkback radio (Lawsy maybe), not a critical statement was made

  6. What brilliant analysis Andrew. There has to be a reason why we are not getting this sort of in depth reporting from our print journos. It can't just be laziness and stupidity surely?


  7. Hillbilly Skeleton14/9/11 5:23 pm

    Tick Tick Tick. Tony Abbott still hasn't sacked Cory Bernardi, gutless wonder that he is. I wonder how the head of Howard's Muslim Advisory Council, who threatened to walk away with a sizeable number of marginal seat votes at the next election, if he didn't, feels?
    All of which is entirely of a piece with an understanding of how Abbott would lead the country. That is, he would be incapable of leading. Pandering to the lowest common denominator, yes; leading, nuh.
    You know, I often wonder whether he even wrote Battlines, or just free-formed some half-baked thoughts to Tony O'Leary and let him write it in exchange for a pat on the head and continued employ by the Liberal Party, while 'The Situation' went out and desported himself to the electorate in order to win over the wavering female vote, undermine Malcolm Turnbull and conspire with Nick Minchin and the likes of Bernardi, to replace him.
    Still, the increasingly sleazy behaviour of the Coalition wrt the Gillard government will likely leave them in no good odour with the electorate in a couple of years. I think the electorate will only sit back bemusedly as he cavorts around the nation pointlessly for so long as an election is not imminent. Then just watch him crumble once the spotlight is turned on him and the scrutiny we all crave is finally applied rigorously, as with a Media Inquiry hanging like a Sword of Damocles above them now, not even the Murdoch men and women will let him get away with blue murder for forever and a day.

  8. Lachlan Ridge14/9/11 6:46 pm

    Good piece again (what can I say, I'm a fan).

    Two points; a blush of Godwin's Law in the otherwise excellent assessment of that strange fellow from Adelaide (No, not that one, I mean Bernardi); and I pose this question - what role will incumbent state Liberal governments play in the next Federal Election?

    Australians aren't noted for being overly politically literate, but one received wisdom was that Australian voters, generally, liked to play their state and federal governments off against each other; that Howard was supported by people who voted Labor at a state level in NSW.

    Could the appearance of two Liberal administrations in the two most populous states - and an opportunity for a third in Queensland before the next Federal poll - sap a bit of thunder from The Situation's long march to the Lodge?

    This could be exacerbated if the O'Farrell government maintains a slash and burn approach to public services whilst spluttering infrastructure development dogs his administration (the Northwest rail line won't be open by 2013).

    A third factor could be if the ALP (not noted for it's intestinal fortitude at the best of times) loses its nerve and dumps Gillard for Rudd. If that happens then, after a brief honeymoon we will remember why we got rid of him in the first place (the man is borderline sociopathic). That, and the ALP will look like the party of opinion polls which, despite the received wisdom of the MSM, are not respected in this country, as it leaves an impression like the nerdy kid trying too hard to fit in with the cool kids. Or like Peter Costello guffawing with "the punters". Fingernail down the blackboard stuff and totally socially and politically toxic.

    But, enough to say that the ALP is right in this contest.

  9. Alphabajangodelta15/9/11 12:05 am

    The Coalition remind me of the Kennett Libs in Victoria who lost the 1999 election on a margin call by independents and spent the next seven or so years believing the electorate had made a mistake. Bracks in contrast followed a soft-centrist post-Kennett reformishy program and was rewarded with a landslide in 2002. While that's currently looking remote, but not impossible, for Gillard, she's at least setting herself up for what could be a fairly competitive 'listens then acts' campaign. To this might be added some reform proposals coming out of the current set of reviews (media, tax etc) but with actual actions, in contrast to Rudd's furious inaction (2020 summit, Henry).

  10. Personally I'm just waiting with baited breath till abbott has his next "brain fart/urge to punch/parkinsons" episode being interviewed again.

  11. Greensborough Growler15/9/11 8:13 pm

    Abbott may take the opportunity to demote Bernardi when there is a shadow Cabinet reshuffle to accommodate the ineffable Sinodinis. Doing it as a gesture may only make him a martyr.

    The polling with Rudd as a surrogate just tells us that people aren't that unhappy about Labor's policies atm. So all the blather about "liar liar pants on fire' is not the likely road to the Lodge for Abbott. In fact, I'd be surprised if he lasted beyond one poll with a TPP for Labor with a 5 in front.

  12. Senexx, Abbott is out of ideas. Always has been.

    David, laziness and stupidity got editors where they are and they are convinced that they have to try everything but depth and breadth first.

    Lachlan, a few weeks ago I might have disagreed re Rudd, not sure now. As for state politics, I think Qld will be fascinating and the proof of your theory will come in SA, where the Labor govt is in decline but stays in office until 2014.

    Alphaba: yep, me too. The hubris train has left the station and there's no calling it back. Toot toot!

    Funksoul: not long now. Thinks are so toxic at Question Time you're going to see a dust-up sooner rather than later.

    GG: that's why polling is bullshit. A real election campaign will force people to make serious choices.

  13. Hmm
    For the Opposition's thought bubbles to be scrutinized as they richly deserve requires that the government stop burying itself with humiliation upon disaster upon outright stupidity. Anyone think this is likely to occur before the next election? Abbott and his band of orcs have nothing to fear from the media while the government is so comprehensively destroying itself. The unbelievable and ongoing series of own goals over asylum seekers is just the latest in a continuous series of gifts that just keep on giving for the Opposition. All Abbott needs to do is stand on the sidelines pointing - 'look. over there! See what they've done this time'!

    Misha Schubert accurately summed up the situation with her piece on 'Teflon Tony'. Labor hasn't a clue how to deal with him. Yr average punter doesn't like Abbott and probably most folks need no convincing that Abbott's policies are rubbish or non existant - a small number might feel some sympathy for Gillard facing Attila the Hun over the depatch boxes, a few might be revolted by his excesses but most of those whose votes will decide the coming election are so fed up with this government that come Hell or High Water they will punish them severely in 2013. I personally think this will happen irrespective of whether or not Rudd is prevailed upon to return to try and save the family jewels from the coming conflagration.

    I am no friend of the Coalition but surely I'm not alone with the sneaking feeling that this might just be the least competent Federal government I've ever seen. After four years in power Labor is still completely unable to communicate any vision for the nation, any semblance of a coherent agenda. Gillard's speech rallying the troops to her idea of party reform and renewal poignantly underlines the impossibility of either and the lid now seems to be coming off the hidden cronyism, corruption and mismanagement within the Union movement. Try as it undoubtedly will to distance itself from this mess the Parliamentary ALP will inevitably be singed with blowback from this.

    I'm afraid we are witnessing the destruction simultaneously from without and within of a once great and important political party. It took the ALP a very long time to come back from the split with the DLP and I fear the current crisis is at least as great. I personally don't see a path back and would not be surprised if the ALP split into Social Democrats and Liberal Democrats. This is a tragedy for the country but pretending that Federal Labor remains viable, that it is likely to compete effectively in 2013 or that the Gillard government's plight is somehow the product of inept and/or lazy journalism serves no purpose.

  14. Yeah, that's what they said after 1975, Doug! The Liberal Party isn't strong enough to carry mainstream Australian politics by itself.

  15. I'm not sure what you mean by that. After 1975 Hawke and Keating found a market friendly path back (it still took 8 years I think) but I don't see a Hawke or Keating on the horizon. It is ironic that by doing this they set the forces in motion (the rise of the right wing of the party - with its mantra of 'whatever it takes') that led to the current crisis. Not only don't I see any Hawkes or Keatings I don't see an agenda (that the ALP is likely to endorse) which might form a path back from the (likely) coming disaster.

    I do see plenty for a progressive government to do but for such a government to emerge requires that Labor first resolve its inner tensions either by splitting or (perhaps) in its desperation, turning on the right wing – whose idiotic meddling has brought the party to this pass – and then subduing the massive sense of entitlement that sets it at odds with the Greens. I don't think any of the foregoing is likely but who knows? The recent Danish election provides a pointer to a possible path back to left-ish government in this country but is the ALP ready for a coalition of the left? I can't see it.

    Whether the Liberal Party is strong or weak has no bearing on the crisis faced by Labor. After the DLP split we had (I think) about 25 years of stultifying mediocre government from the right before Whitlam. The Liberal Party was not as far as I know fundamentally different then but it still took a quarter of a century for the pendulum to swing again so I don't really see what you are getting at with the comment that the Liberals are not strong enough to carry Australian politics by themselves. It may well not be about that but whether the electorate perceives a viable alternative government. If the next election goes as badly for Labor as I fear it may well do we are conceivably faced with a decade or more of Federal coalition government. Won't that be dandy!

  16. Doug, Hawke and Keating didn't just slot into place in 1976 with a ready-made solution. Keating was still in thrall to Rex Connor and Catholic teaching about women in the home until the early '80s. There was much wandering about aimlessly and they were smashed much harder than they have been now.

    The Coalition isn't offering a viable alternative and I'm certain that will become obvious before the election. Gillard Labor doesn't have to beat its better nature (however real or imaginary that may be), just the opponents in front of them.