30 November 2011

Status quo journalism can't deal with change

When I think journalism of the status quo, I think Michelle Grattan, and the son she never had, Malcolm Farnsworth.

We live in a time of great change: journalism is undergoing far-reaching transformation, and so is the subject-matter of political journalism. Long-standing observers should be able to draw on their experience to identify what is going on, or else sit back and do in-my-day fatuities contrasting with the modern hurly-burly. Grattan is trapped in an eternal present which makes her largely useless as a commentator, and Farnsworth can't see the forest for the trees.

First, to Farnsworth:
The Labor Government celebrated four years in office on Thursday with a manoeuvre that all but guaranteed it will serve a full term ... But not much else has changed. Only the madly optimistic believe Labor will make it to a sixth birthday.
What he means here is that he doubts that Labor will be re-elected. He thinks that people who don't conform to the herd mentality that he inhabits must be mentally ill.

I could take issue with Malcolm's characterisation of the anniversary: last Thursday (24 November 2011) was the fourth anniversary of the 2007 election, not the anniversary of when the current government took office, which happened once the electoral and constitutional formalities had been properly observed and ... oh, never mind. The point is, Malcolm starts off trying to sound like some sort of oracle who's done a bit of research, but he uses facts as decoration rather than as a guide for an argument. His whole piece overlooks a key point about politics: you only have to beat the opponent in front of you.

Menzies knew that you only have to beat the opponent in front of you. Hawke knew it too. Howard knew it but forgot. He can't bear to think that, just maybe, Julia Gillard has started to realise that her future lies over the political corpse of Tony Abbott. This is what's happening in front of Malcolm's eyes but he dismisses it angrily; if it doesn't fit the Farnsworth narrative it ain't a story.
As 1954 loomed, Robert Menzies faced an unsettled economy. Inflation eroded his electoral base. His treasurer had handed down a famous 'horror budget' and joked that he could hold a meeting of all his supporters in a telephone booth. Mid-way through his fifth year, Menzies clung to office in an election in which the ALP outpolled the Liberals, despite the burst of red baiting provided by the Petrov defection. Had Menzies lost, we might well ask now what he achieved in four years in power.
Where to begin with such drivel? Firstly, a 'horror budget' would surely be infamous?

For a decade before 1954, Menzies had worked on shifting the conservative base away from the well-heeled and toward low-income strivers seeking material comfort, if not prosperity, from the social and economic fluidity that arose from World War II. This was made much easier by Labor's clumsy lunge at nationalising the banks: not for Australian Labor the well-considered Beveridge Report, which made state socialism attractive through a whole range of measures such as public healthcare and other essential services designed to offer a real and positive alternative to the racial basis of nationhood. Labor blew its chance at defining postwar Australia by not having properly considered the matter when it had the chance to do so.

Paul Keating was right to deride little Johnny Curtin wringing his hands about the safety of the troops across the Indian Ocean, only to then threw them away at Singapore, rather than starting the process of imagining what sort of country those troops would fight for and could come home to. Ben Chifley insisted that the labour movement was about more than putting an extra sixpence in someone's pocket, but never really defined what that was.

Chifley would have gone to the 1949 election with a very different program had he actually believed all that "light on the hill" business.

Menzies beat the opponent in front of him. He portrayed Chifley as a steam-driven man in a diesel-powered age. Strangely, Labor kept him there after the defeat and Chifley would have led Labor to the following election had he not died. Labor replaced him with Evatt, a man who had not given a moment's consideration as to what postwar Australia might look like apart from a bit of lawyerly trimming and quibbling here and there. Evatt arrived just in time to see Percy Spender put in place the ANZUS Treaty and other instruments of this country's Cold War position. It did not quite eradicate Evatt's work at the UN but it did change the game to the point where policy rollback was not possible.

As to the economy, Labor had no understanding of and no answer for the inflation and other issues that beset Australia in the early 1950s. Labor were policy-lazy and thought they could just promise a return to the days of Good Old Chif, but without Good Old Chif (in the same way that Tony Abbott is promising a return to the Howard era without Howard). After 1954 policy-lazy Labor would be in opposition for another eighteen years. The lessons to glean from 1954 are:
  • There are no second prizes in elections. Calwell learnt that in 1961, Snedden in 1974, Peacock in 1984, Beazley in 1998 and, yes, Abbott in 2010. Near enough isn't nearly good enough.
  • Policy-lazy oppositions never win government and can barely hold it together once the policy focus dissipates.
Menzies beat Evatt by playing up the divisions within Labor. The very question as to how best to identify workers' interests, let alone represent them, was an open one in the 1950s and if Evatt was half the intellectual his fans make him out to be then he would have come up with some way of keeping the labour movement singing from the same songsheet.
Three decades later, as Bob Hawke's Labor government moved into 1987, it had notched up an impressive record of economic and social reform, although the economic climate was now more unsettled and treasurer Paul Keating had warned of an Australian banana republic.

Hawke faced a divided opposition.
No, Hawke caused a divided opposition. Those "economic and social reform[s]" struck at the very heart of what it meant to be a conservative, even a Liberal. The Howard-Peacock rivalry embodied NSW v Victoria, free trade v protectionism - if you read nothing else he writes, read the Introduction to Paul Kelly's The End of Certainty to understand what went on. Hawke beat the opponent in front of him.
In early 2000 ... John Howard was a two-time election winner ... He had thrown away his massive majority in the 1998 GST election. The popular vote went to Kim Beazley but Howard won enough seats to hang on ... GST ... The government looked unsteady. It was polling badly. Whispers about Howard's leadership ... Disparate cost of living pressures bore down [sic]. Howard's fight back ... Tampa and September 11.
Howard bet that he had Kim Beazley's measure, and he did. A bunch of Hawke-Keating lags with nothing better to do stuck around to nurse their sense of entitlement, much like former Howard ministers like Kevin Andrews are doing now. Maybe the generation of ALP activists who eventually replaced Howard - e.g. Rudd, Gillard, Swan, Smith - would have been better off if they'd had to fight a bit, like Kelly O'Dwyer or Jamie Briggs are against Abbott.
Curtin won a massive election victory in 1943 at the height of the war effort.
I would have thought the effort peaked in the initial mobilisation and then again in 1942, after the Battle of the Coral Sea and the attacks on Darwin and other northern cities. Curtin won in 1943 because the underpinnings of Australian conservatism had been broken:
  • the Empire had demonstrably failed;
  • the socialisation of Australian society involved in the war de-emphasised free enterprise and personal independence;
  • traditional conservative forces such as church and family played less of a role in people's daily lives; and
  • leading lights such as Menzies were replaced by second-rate opportunists like Tom White and Billy Hughes.
Malcolm Farnsworth has learned the wrong lessons from history. Governments don't arise from the soil by sheer force of will, they are comprised of politicians who group together to beat other groups of politicians.
Much of the commentary of recent weeks has been absurd. There is no revival yet for this government.
You don't decide that, Malcolm. Two things have happened, and rather than get tetchy about them you should make note and adjust your themes accordingly, regardless of whether or not the journosphere or the polling have caught up.

The first thing that's happened is that the government can stop talking about what it's gonna do and is actually doing it. A key part of the frustration with this government is that it went past the point where gonna-do was attractive or even credible. Now it no longer has to be taken on trust.

The second is that The Situation's three-point strategy of "no, no, no" doesn't give the Coalition the sort of momentum it needs to get into government. The next Coalition government will have to be different to the Howard government, just as Howard's government was different to Fraser's. Abbott's whole pitch is that all the Coalition needed to do was unpick everything (or, in Malcolm's terms, what little) the Rudd-Gillard governments did and hey presto, we're back to 2005. Only now is it clear that people want more than just a reversal, and that they expect the Coalition to offer a clear idea of what that might look like. That is what Malcolm Farnsworth should have observed, and used the lode of historical material to help teach that lesson. Instead, we have a bad impression of a middling hack rather than any sort of incisive observation about what's going on in our political system.
Out in the shires,
Out in the what!?!? Particularly clueless Poms talk that way about their own country, and though Wilfred Owen's calling bugles still tears at the heartstrings, it is a nonsense to speak of parts of Australia as "the shires". It is to demonstrate the very insular behaviour that you would wish to rail against.

Besides, there is only one Shire.

I also laughed at this:
Aside from Albanese and a handful of others - the ambitious Shorten, Roxon when she's gunning for the tobacco companies, or Combet when he's methodically dismantling an opposition argument - the Government lacks a team of heavy hitters. Who is Gillard's Jack McEwen? Where is her hit squad of Anthony, Sinclair and Nixon? Where is the unparalleled talent of Keating, Button, Evans or Dawkins? Where is Albanese's support team, a version of Costello and Reith, or Young and Daly?
Malcolm can see the trees very clearly; what he can't see is the so-called forest.

The phenomenon he describes is the decreasingly relevant "parliamentary theatre"; he's right to wonder why he keeps tuning in to such dull fare but he's wrong to blame the government for not playing the fruitless Abbott-Pyne game of rendering Question Time as a monkey-house. Keating was a master at Question Time, but people got tired of him snarling every night. They got equally tired of Peter Costello smirking at them. Parliamentary theatre is bullshit. Just as the Gillard government has gotten around the press gallery, so too it has gotten around Question Time; if it lacks a delivery channel, that's its problem, but it is lacking a lot less now that it has more to show for its efforts.

The forest-for-the-trees thing diminishes Malcolm Farnsworth's abilities as an observer of the broad themes of Australian politics. Can you imagine going into a pub with Malcolm Farnsworth?
BARPERSON: What would you like?

MALCOLM: I'd like a beer.

BARPERSON: (gesturing to the range of different beers on offer) Any type of beer ...

MALCOLM: Oh yes, I note the branding strategies of VB, Heineken, etc., but I just want a beer. I don't want to limit myself to just one type, if you know what I mean.

BARPERSON: (picking up a schooner glass) Would you like it in a schooner, mate?

MALCOLM: I acknowledge the role of mateship in Australian life, and in advertisements for certain types of beer, but what does that have to do with ...
Malcolm Farnsworth is emulating the style of Michelle Grattan, who is a fan of politics rather than any one party or individual. This is someone who likes the sizzle rather than the sausage, and who needs the memory of a goldfish to find drama and tension in the most lame of set-pieces. In this piece, she lets Warren Entsch confuse himself with Jesus Christ.

It was Entsch's job as Whip to keep Slipper in line. Entsch and Slipper have known one another for years. Entsch is aware of the shock of Slipper accepting the Deputy Speakership last September and should have considered himself warned. Having thus failed in his job, Entsch comforts himself with divine comparisons. It should set the stage for a rollicking piss-take, but Grattan spoils it with fault-on-both-sides as though the business of politics should be to avoid dramas like this.
The Coalition had been living on a knife edge of anticipation, despite many Liberals talking about the likelihood of a full-term Parliament. But the reality check hadn't quite got into Abbott's head (although at his drinks for journalists on Tuesday he jokingly alluded to his excessive optimism at his 2010 Christmas function, in thinking he might by now be in the Lodge).

One Liberal says Abbott has been "stuck in a mindset that we could be in an election any time".
It's not just a mindset, or a psychological issue with Abbott himself. The Coalition's whole strategy has involved sprinting where the longer game of the marathon was more appropriate. The whole way the Coalition ignores the idea that it has to offer an alternative, and its desire to shirk the risk that it may be less appealing than that offered by the incumbents, is what's at stake here. Who said what at some party is neither here nor there.
Even without the new circumstances, over the summer, Abbott would have needed to readjust, to try to look more prime ministerial - to become more than the tactical oppositionist (though he has to remain that too).
So now we're offering strategic advice to Tony Abbott? Why not, given forty years of reporting, examine the idea of Abbott "readjust[ing], to ... look more prime ministerial", and whether he really is capable of it.
One Liberal says the opposition cannot go on living "week to week, month to month" - there can't be excuses now for putting off the long view. "Tony probably appreciates it's a marathon, not a sprint. I don't think he's particularly keen about that. It's a tough task to hold things together over the longer term, maintain discipline, keep everyone happy." But now "he can't ignore people who have views on core policy issues".
Abbott will also have to think about whether he is getting wide enough advice: this year there has been a lot of internal party criticism that he relies on too narrow a circle, and especially on his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. He would do best to both broaden his advisory circles and to be seen by his troops to be doing so.
Again: can he do it? Has he demonstrated that he can flick this switch, or not?

The idea that "if you've got the quote, you've got the story" is bullshit, but it's central to the goldfish mentality that Grattan applies to reporting. She has no excuse for not recognising that "no, no, no" has lost its power in the face of substantial achievements from the government, that Abbott can't get a new narrative and that Credlin - the latter-day Ainslie Gotto - can't do it for him. Grattan's apprehension of "rogue events" shows she is such the creature of Canberra that she can barely explain it to outsiders, so her only hope is to report anonymously what someone sidled up to her and said at a cocktail party.
Bad Labor polls are Abbott's lifeblood. A significant recovery by Gillard would drain some of that away. Gillard's polls will be determined by how the government performs in coming months.
See, that just isn't good enough. It makes the reader cry out ""Well, der!", a sign that your authority and communicative skills are not quite what they should be. There should be more to a potential Prime Minister than some bloodless husk, don't you think? Well, don't you? Sometimes I swear Grattan is using Glenn Milne as her ghostwriter.

It's far from clear that the government will be re-elected, but so what? The time between elections is the very stuff of government and politics, not some dull interval punctuated by cocktail parties until you can traipse around the "shires" once again and admire the people's representatives patronising those whom they would represent. It's absolutely clear that there are substantial shifts underway in the politics of this country, and while Malcolm Farnsworth and Michelle Grattan are well placed to observe and report on these, they simply aren't doing the job.

27 November 2011

Australia's second-worst political machine

Australia's second-worst political machine has to be the LNP in Queensland (NSW Labor is worst). Yes, the Frankenstein's monster of this country's politics, made up of the Liberal and National Parties in that state, bits of One Nation and God only knows who or what else.

Like all Queenslanders they have their dumb luck. They contributed nine seats to Abbott's so-close-but-yet-so-far at the last eletion, and at the next state election they look odds-on to win. The latter is simply unbelievable considering what a rabble they are. Under the Politically Homeless theory that the polls don't matter but underlying political quality does, the next Qld election is the LNP's to lose. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (or some result like Newman losing his seat but Boofhead Seeney becoming Premier) cannot be ruled out.

The thing is that if the LNP do win state government next year, it will lance the anti-Labor mood going into the Federal election. Whatever happens at the next election the LNP vote will go down in Queensland.

The LNP should have no chance in the next Queensland election. Its state parliamentary line-up is almost absent of people capable of being good and innovative ministers. It is facing an incumbent government that has been in so long that it is populated by people who either have just been in the public eye too damn much over the years, or who are bloodless hacks. Yet, the LNP's central weakness is its party machine: it's too intrusive and will be unable to resist the urge to jerk elected parliamentarians back into line.

Nobody who isn't a paid-up LNP member voted for Bruce McIvor. Newman will bristle at this and set up some sort of showdown where the LNP must choose between him and McIvor, and McIvor will win it (or, will not be smart enough to let Newman appear to win it). The Queensland Parliamentary team, led by Jeff Seeney, know which side their bread is buttered on and will not side with Newman (had McIvor persuaded an LNP MP to stand down for Newman, things might have been different; Newman is on his own). After they lose, the inevitable conclusion will be that McIvor needs more power over the LNP and he will get it.

People hate machines like that and it will hamper the Feds, too. The Queensland Libs had to temper their wilder excesses when they were part of a nationwide organisation, particularly in federal elections. The same was true of the Nats (to a lesser extent, with Queensland having a disproportionate place in the nationwide organisation, and the record of the Joh Nationals in 1987). As the LNP, they're a law unto themselves.

Of the 20 remaining LNP Members of the House of Reps, seven will be 60 or older in 2013. They've all (apart from Jane Prentice) had a good go. None of them could bring themselves to step down in 2010, seriously believing the Abbott pitch that they had one shot left. Being mostly in safe seats, the LNP could have taken advantage of good polls and replaced them with solid people with good potential - if only they had any such people available:
  • Bruce Scott is just being bloody-minded in not standing down for Barnaby Joyce. True, Joyce is a moron who will probably flame out within 5-10 years, but the LNP and the Federal Nats need Barnaby more than they need Scott.
  • Warren Truss is going through the motions because he doesn't know how to do anything else. Truss holds the electorate with the lowest per-capita income in the country and it is an indictment and a mockery of Labor and the left that they can't mount a serious case to represent local people there.
  • For all the Federal Nationals' supposed boldness in resolving the CSG-farming conflict squarely in favour of farmers, the LNP is trying to play both sides on this issue. They are absolutely flat-footedly vulnerable to a well-orchestrated campaigns in farming communities, in the only state where a majority of the population lives beyond the state capital.
  • Alex Somlyay is only pissed off at Slipper because the latter had the guts to stand up and take the prize, and it is now more true to say that Slipper has achieved more than Somlyay ever has or can.
Ah yes, Slipper.

If the LNP was any sort of political machine it would have dumped Slipper before the last election (or the one before that) and last Thursday's events need not have occurred. Slipper has outfoxed them all, and while he has more past than future he is now in a position to be in for a good time rather than a long time. It's one thing to be outmaneuvered by a master but Abbott and Pyne accept no masters; this is their tragedy with Gillard, too, another opponent they don't respect and can't beat.

Turkeys like McIvor should have realised that in such a supposedly tight situation require all hands to the pump, and that characters like Slipper require careful management - part of which includes the occasional swallowing of pride. The fact that they forced Slipper into a corner, where his only options were betraying the LNP or accepting extinction, show that the LNP are not the cluey professionals they regard themselves to be. The same applied to Abbott, but Parliament does not sit for most of the year - for most of the year MPs go to their electorates, and in Queensland Coalition MPs are subject to the tender mercies of the LNP. Slipper's slippage is mainly the LNP's fault, with contributory negligence on the part of Abbott, and yes Slipper himself.

Slipper hasn't led a life of blameless purity but neither has he been charged with anything. Craig Thomson's handling of funds at a NGO have received much more focus than Slipper's handling of public monies. If the press gallery really was holding politicians to account, Slipper would be washed up long ago. The Sunshine Coast Daily has done what it can but the press gallery is full of journalists who consider the work of the mighty Daily to be beneath them.

Abbott's threat to go after Slipper like Faulkner and Ray did to Colston in the late 1990s is absolutely hollow, for two reasons.

When you read about Faulkner and Ray at Senate Estimates Committees, you get some inkling of what a House of Review is supposed to be. When you see Coalition Senators at Senate Committees today, they take a very firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick and wave it around, hoping it will get them on television, while huge issues with the government's performance pass unnoticed before their very eyes. The Coalition do not have the capability to run such a forensic campaign over months and months; I mean, Michael Ronaldson, I ask you (well, people like Kelly O'Dwyer or Jamie Briggs might, but Credlin and Abbott are hardly going to get over themselves enough to ask them).

The second reason is blowback. Slipper was and is, shall we say, his own man in lots of ways. Even so, it is impossible to believe that his whole political operation over 19 years as a Coalition MP ran absolutely parallel to that of the LNP, Liberal and National Parties. To go after Slipper's associates, donors, fundraisers, enablers and old muckers generally, you are going to incur a lot of collateral damage on people who are pretty central to the operations of the LNP itself. Slipper is Gillard's man to some extent, but any trawl back through receipts and meetings and who said what and who did what when is unlikely to include a lot of rusted-on Labor people.

The McIvor LNP machine is an accident waiting to happen. The next Queensland election is the LNP's to lose and at the very least they may end up with less of a public endorsement than they might hope. Don't give me any of this crap about "too early to tell" for the Federal election, only poll junkies believe that. They are structurally weak and as such are more vulnerable than the lagging indicator of polling might allow). Speaking of people who've overstayed their welcome:
Chief opposition whip Warren Entsch, a blunt North Queenslander, doesn't feel the need to hold his tongue about his erstwhile colleague Peter Slipper. "He's played the role of Judas," he said yesterday. "He's accepted his 30 pieces of silver.
Betrayal, perhaps; but you only ever accuse someone of being a Judas if you've already assumed Christ for yourself. That's always a stretch for mortals, particularly so for politicians. There was a time when conservatives would cop a lot of friendly fire for that, and backtrack accordingly. Entsch's job is to convince the Coalition backbench that there is nothing to be gained from ragging the Speaker, and that patience is the best approach to such a man.

The McIvor LNP machine is similar to the "Sussex Street" machine of the NSW Labor Right. In the 2007-11 term of NSW Parliament the machine got way out in front of the parliamentary party, such that successive Labor Premiers weren't regarded as speaking for their government or even their party. By the time the election came around the machine was rejected and the parliamentary team with it. This is the fate awaiting the LNP: one day a LNP Premier is going to say something Bruce McIvor doesn't like, and the Premier had better win because otherwise they, the LNP and possibly McIvor are all finished. McIvor won't cop the slightest infringement to his authority, so watch a (potential) LNP government scuttle itself over a trifle.

That said, Labor have to get rid of Andrew Fraser. He's the nearest thing Labor have to born-to-rule. Shunt him off to Canberra, or send him to a menial job in the backblocks Cultural Revolution style, but on no account must he become Opposition Leader or Premier without a long walk through the wilderness. It just isn't right and will do more harm than good.

Over the coming year the LNP should, but won't, set about reinventing itself for and in government, on the state and federal levels. Under the McIvor crew they can't and won't do it, so the story of limited people up against their limits will be the stuff of great political drama.

21 November 2011

When the bubble bursts

The dynamic nature of politics means that a policy vacuum rarely remains a vacuum for long (even so, this does not mean a policy can't be described as vacuous almost indefinitely). The whole Abbott-Credlin method of opposing every policy Labor puts up is starting to implode because people need to act on the basis of what's real. You can't sustain anyone or anything on the fantasy that a couple of media-management junkies seek to project, as though it were - or might one day become - real.

This is the problem that the Coalition face with the mining tax, as reported here and here. The legislation hasn't been passed, but recent examples with the carbon price and the US base that Howard lusted after for a decade show that the government can now be taken at its word when it says that it intends to push ahead with a particular policy. The MRRT not only promises big bickies but enables a shift away from income and business taxes, benefitting taxpayers and government alike.
When the opposition resources spokesman, Ian Macfarlane, said over the weekend the Coalition would consider supporting amendments to lift the threshold, he urged people not to get carried away. The Coalition, he said, would still abolish the tax if elected.

If the legislation was destined to pass, in the interim the Coalition may as well ameliorate its impacts.

However, a small but growing group in the Coalition is urging a rethink. One MP, who comes from a mining state and who was vehemently opposed to the tax when it was announced a year ago, told this column the group believes the threshold should be lifted to give smaller miners a break but the tax retained to ensure the bigger miners contribute.

Such a policy about-face would be a humiliation for Tony Abbott, who has vowed to fight the tax to his last political breath and, for this reason, it is unlikely he will flip.
Abbott backflips all the time, and the press gallery never call him on it. Abbott has to answer how he will raise the revenue other than through the MRRT, and the press gallery never (in the Peter Fray sense of the word 'never') call him on that either.

There is also the question of broadening the tax beyond iron ore and coal. Gold is enjoying super-profits and so are rare earths; why they should be excluded from this tax is unclear. It shouldn't care what stage the negotiations are at; at Christmas I shall be having ham, but this is not to say that I'm holding talks with the relevant pigs.

Anyway, back to the Coalition: they aren't having much luck with finding cost savings so additional sources of revenue that can't be shunted off-shore is a better bet than they would credit. The people calling for the broadening of the tax base to include long term super profits are not only right but are likely to prevail when the Coalition eventually makes it back to government.

They are likely to prevail because there is no alternative. Abbott and the leadership group could kill the idea of the MRRT remaining in place under a Liberal government simply by coming up with some other funding model. From the Coalition, any chatter would stop because The Party Line had been decided, end of. To do that, however, would require some consideration on the Liberals' part as to where Australia is at right now, where we're going and the right option among the many that will help us get there. This policy development isn't happening, and announcements that it is underway should not be taken at face value. The Federal Coalition does not do policy any more. It does press releases instead.

So apparently Abbott is "playing down suggestions that some Coalition MPs would prefer the scheme be amended and retained" - well he would, wouldn't he. It might be enough for The Australian to take as given but it isn't enough for the rest of us. The Australian is a useful guide to what the current Coalition leadership is thinking but it is not a useful guide as to what is going on or what should happen.

Here's what John Howard would have done: he would recognise this backbench rumbling as a challenge to his leadership. He would have come out with a defiant statement that his position was clear and he wasn't going to deviate from it - then he would have taken soundings among his backbench. The weaker souls would have stopped their comments on Howard's announcement and assured him everything was fine. The stronger ones would speak to Howard politician to politician: you're giving me nothing to work with here. Do you really expect either of us to win any votes at all promising FA and plenty of it? Howard would see the sense of this (provided it wasn't leaked) and act accordingly, quietly, denying that he'd backed down but doing what needed to be done.

Abbott is too proud for that, and hasn't been through the wringer like Howard had (not that Abbott would or could survive half the adversity that Howard went through).

Another sign of the Coalition vacuum is the NBN. Yes, the Coalition policy is that they're against it and will repeal it, while at the same time Coalition MPs want their fair share, mocking that on which they feed. Your garden-variety hypocrisy and feeble charges thereof just don't cut it here. We all want better broadband, but there was no credible alternative to the NBN before the last election and there isn't one now.

MPs are doing their job when they call for a government service to be extended to their constituents. If there was an alternative broadband strategy, Coalition MPs could offer it as the alternative to citizens wanting that service. This puts Coalition MPs in an uncomfortable position but not an impossible one.

It is political suicide to expect politicians to choose between their constituents and their leadership. Constituents ensure that a politician keeps their job; leadership threatens politicians with loss or diminution of their job. Any Coalition MP/Senator knows Peta Credlin won't help them get another job. Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson and every other party leader who ever got rolled, did so on the basis that their 'leadership' was imperilling the ability of the politicians they led to appeal effectively to their constituents.

This is particularly true with a populist leadership; if people want the NBN or MRRT, who is the leader to say we can't have it? On what basis, within what framework and what priorities - and offering what alternative - can the contrary claim be made?

Into the policy vacuum go a series of politicians who can't accept the vacuum is there as part of some wider aesthetic. They fill it with the status quo because people, inside Canberra and out, can relate to what's actually true and real and tangible. Despite what media management frauds professionals might think, reality is a great starting point from which to develop policy, and there should be more of it. If there's any conflict between what voters want and what feeds the leader's vanity, you can't expect retail politicians to vote for what feeds the leader's vanity.

The only way you can get clarity on policy is not for one person or another to hand out a songsheet and pleading with/shrieking at people to sing from it. The only way you can get clarity on policy is to have clear policies, that candidates can tailor to their audience.

True, only journalists really care about detailed policy and there is the Hewson thing. Hewson had to go into detail because he didn't have decades of frontline political experience to draw upon. That said, a detailed policy that is based on some sort of consistent bedrock of proven behaviour and principle resonates even with voters who don't pay much attention to politics. This is what happened for the Coalition once they got rid of Downer in 1995-96; they released a whole lot of policies that weren't particularly detailed but set out broad parameters. People saw them and thought: yep, sounds like what you'd expect from the Liberals. Howard knew he couldn't get away with what Abbott still thinks of as his only option: "trust me", with a wink and a grin.

Labor isn't improving because Gillard "seems more Prime Ministerial", as the press gallery would have it ("Waiter! Another jug of Old Prime Ministerial, put it on my tab!"). Labor is improving because they've stopped with the announceables and have something to show for them at long last. This isn't a game of competing vacuums any more; the party that made the most convincing break with the politics of 2010 wins in 2013. Right now Labor only look unbeatable because the Coalition are still playing 2010 politics, it's what they're best at. The Coalition aren't in the game (poll junkies please note: the polls will catch up to reflect this reality. Polls are what economists call 'lagging indicators': they are not useful at predicting behaviour two years out, only assessments of structural capability can do that).

There was a time when the Coalition policy vacuum acted as a bubble that saw the Coalition float above the government and bounce off solid realities and even the odd pointed question. Since the government has stopped responding to that vacuum with its own counter-vacuum, people and things are getting sucked into the Coalition vacuum in a way that the party's leadership can no longer control. Using that vacuum as a platform is about as politically stable as a multistory building in Christchurch (it takes real talent to mix three metaphors in one paragraph, but as ever it's the thought that counts).

People want to vote Liberal because they want stability, and people only do vote Liberal when they can credibly offer that. Nobody votes Liberal because they're enamoured with some eccentric in sluggos who could do any random thing at any random time to any random person or group of people. Nobody who insists the contrary ought to be as safe atop the Liberal Party as they appear to be.

16 November 2011

Draconian journalism

Legislation and regulation is an inexact science and in Australia they tend to be light on punishments for their own sake. Penalties are put into certain laws with a view to modifying behaviour for the greater good. Some people don't want their behaviour modified, and they can have their go at changing it but generally it is possible to live and work within this country's laws without necessarily cowering.

An example of this is the carbon price. It is not, despite what some would have you believe, designed to suck as much cash from the economy as possible and funnel it into the great sucking maw of government. It is designed to modify the behaviour of industries that emit carbon pollution into the atmosphere as a by-product of what they do. The price imposes costs upon those producers, giving them an incentive to minimise their carbon emissions. Getting people to minimise carbon emissions is the policy objective.

In reporting the debates leading up to the passage of the carbon price legislation, it is more than fair for journalists such as Murphy to quote opponents of the scheme describing the legislation as 'draconian'. It's a journosphere cliche that unwanted legislation is 'draconian', and lobbyists wanting to draw media attention are best advised to use their cliches so that they can bolt them together and assemble some content.

'Draconian' comes from the Latin word dracon, meaning 'dragon', a mythical creature which inspires fear but which does not actually exist.

There are journalists who are employed to report on legislation passing through Federal Parliament. One of them is Katharine Murphy. Her working life involves watching legislation being formed: the debates among stakeholders, the development of bills for submission to parliament and the lobbying by lobbyists, and the horsetrading by politicians as the bills proceed through both houses of parliament (well, like most press gallery journalists she doesn't come close to covering the full range of her brief, but her editor doesn't push her and press gallery groupthink encourages her to think that whatever she does is sufficient).

Katharine Murphy should have plenty of experience in listening to dire warnings of self-interested lobbyists and rentseekers, warning that this or that measure will be 'draconian' and will have far-reaching and dire effects on the economy and Australia's way of life generally. She should know that few, if any, of those spectres actually come to pass.

In this piece, Murphy acts like just another self-interested rent-seeker and insists that any outcome from the Independent Media Inquiry can only ever be - yes, you guessed it - draconian.

She tried to develop a bit of perspective, with that hand-wringing about how journalists have brought it all on themselves, and maybe she's right to despair of her managers and their peers across the mainstream media to accept that reader interaction is the way things are done now (and that decades of journosphere tradition to the contrary are not only invalid but counterproductive):
If there's intent behind Finkelstein's persistent interrogation on matters such as whether there should be a statutory regulator for newspapers, an automatic right of reply when people are wronged or whether the Press Council's standards need to be strengthened - then the industry is in for a swift kick in the pants.

And the worst of it is we deserve this whole discussion. We've brought it on ourselves. We have soiled what should be an open-and-shut case for self-regulation by abusing the privilege, by arrogantly failing to accept that the freedom of journalism carries with it significant responsibility: to get it right, to be fair, to understand the difference between fact and contention.
Part of the call for openness and feedback that social media makes possible - and necessary - is that the mainstream media should have gotten over itself and adapted to build communities of interest, rather than propping up the walls of legalism and bluster that has maintained those organisations throughout the centuries. Commercial pressures have failed to move them forward, so a kick in the pants may well be their only method of locomotion (yes, 'at some point'; it is possible that Finkelstein's report will be shelved and that the issues he raised will be revisited later). It will certainly be better for the mainstream media than the defensive assumptions they operate under currently.
Because the practice of journalism is not actually about us. It's about you, the readers who rely, still, on the veracity of what we do; and who need someone, institutionally, to stand up and ask questions where there are real abuses of power.
Yes, the practice of journalism really is about those who are employed as journalists, and how well or badly they do their job. Something can be true without being important.

Journalists should of course be alert to abuses of power, but there are three main issues with that:
  1. It is almost impossible that any such abuses will be uncovered within the press gallery at Parliament House.
  2. Given the scare campaign about how any and all restrictions on journalism are and must be 'draconian', are these the people who really can distinguish loud and obvious hype from quiet and obscure truths?
  3. Far-reaching Watergate-style abuses are few and far between, and can't fill up hourly/daily news reporting requirements. Reporting is best served in explaining what policies and legislation is coming at us, explaining the context and the effects of those, and asking: is this what you really wanted?
The most impressive journalism Murphy did was far from Canberra and its stultifying groupthink: here, a real story with real impacts on real people. She could have travelled to the APY lands and to those communities already interventioned against to see what this might mean, or her editors could've done so - but there's no regulation that can weigh against poor follow-through. It's a lie to assume that reporting on what government actually does must be worthy and dull, while writing about trivia (e.g. blow-by-blow accounts of Question Time) is compelling reading and high-quality journalism. It's a cover for sloppy and boring journalism.

Worse than that, it's a lie that makes journalists feel better about themselves inversely to the regard they are held by the society they're supposed to serve. This sustaining lie can be compared to the increasingly rare highs experienced by the addict in the degenerative phase of their addiction. The tragedy of Murphy and others is that they're dimly aware of their problem but cannot snap out of it.
Forgive me sounding furrowed-browed and uncompromising, but I've had the privilege of a long apprenticeship with Michelle Grattan, a person who epitomises a simple journalistic creed - take all the steps you can to get it right, and if you don't know, don't pretend.
To get what right? This idea that you're meant to be impressed with the firmness of the grasp of the stick rather than whether or not you're grasping the wrong end of it (or, indeed, the wrong stick) just makes me laugh.

A prime example of that is this, in which Annabel Crabb portrays Gillard and The Situation locked together in combat like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty tumbling down Reichenbach Falls. It is possible to examine what it is they're arguing over, and what the consequences are of either prevailing, but the Grattan Doctrine is that to describe the conflict in as dull a way as possible is to have the story (with the implicit pox-on-both-houses that comes from any conflict in which you're not engaged).

Another example is where a journalist will accurately quote a politician, business leader or someone else saying something which isn't true, deliberately or otherwise; as though the words should be taken on face value and not related to the facts behind them, or those affected by such crap-talking. This is a failure of journalism and its focus on a false fact/opinion dichotomy means that powerful people are taken at face value.

I'd love to see "an open-and-shut case for self-regulation", or even an example of where it has worked to ensure probity and accountability in any other facet of Australian life. Self-regulation with no legal checks only ever works for insiders against the interests of outsiders. No sly co-option of readers/viewers by journos can change that. I thought Jonathan Holmes would provide it, but I was wrong about that too.

The only acceptable self-regulation of the media is, apparently, Uncle Jonathan squeezed into a spare ten minutes on Monday nights: wagging his finger, raising his eyebrow, with a bemused and indulgent smirk at scallywag young journalists trampling this and tripping over that in pursuit of "the story". Occasionally he gets up on his high horse about Bogan Media (e.g. Today Tonight, A Current Affair, Alan Jones), but either way there's no harm done and nothing really changes.

To paraphrase Holmes up to, but not beyond, the point of parody: journalism is conducted for no purpose beyond the employment of journalists. We journalists only rope in the public to our defence when we feel that inertia - which succeeds in dampening most initiatives - might not defeat a particular initiative. When we're back to our default state of smugness, which is inevitable among mortals who regard themselves as indispensable, we just shunt the public back out into the cold so that they may just consume in silence that which we choose to pump at them. Any issues should be sorted out behind closed doors, because that's what's best for everybody. Nothing to see here, move along now, no need for an Inquiry! We chaps conduct all the inquiry one could possibly want in the front bar of the pub nearest the office. See you there!

Holmes seriously believes that your only acceptable recourse against misreporting is to accost media owners Kerry Stokes, in any of the many avenues where you might have the chance to approach the man at all. Leaving journalists to do what they will ensures their freedom and that of us all, apparently. The preceding paragraph is not nearly as absurd as the core beliefs of an experienced media practitioner. The Holmes model assumes that journalism is simply a conduit for reporting issues raised by others and is not a source of legitimate or substantial issues in itself.

The Holmes model does not work for those of us who are not journalists, and who can't be sure that editors/news directors or senior executives would take our call (the SMH's Readers' Editor and the ABC complaints process are a waste of time, a source of instruction to readers/viewers rather than a channel for feedback by them/us which materially changes the way reporting is conducted). Perhaps it isn't meant to, if you take the approach that the media is journos first and bugger the rest of you; if you take the approach that "the plethora of media platforms" needn't materially change the way journalism is practiced.

The case for regulating journalism is much the same as that for regulating companies: if the regulatory settings are wrong, innovation and economic growth are stifled, but if they are right then it can free economic growth and innovation from market restrictions such as collusion, graft, and abuses of market power such as monopoly, monopsony and oligopoly (these being forms of power vulnerable to abuse to which the Institute for Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies are wilfully blind). A balanced approach is, given the evidence of other organisations, possible; to complain that these processes are imperfect is no argument against regulation per se.

The challenge facing the Independent Media Inquiry is to identify a balanced approach to regulation of the media, having identified exactly what is being balanced. It does no-one any favours to pretend that Finkelstein is either a dupe or a some sort of catspaw for dark and sinister forces, particularly when reasonable change has been ignored or dismissed for so long. The idea that the only outcome possible from the Finkelstein Inquiry is a kind of blunt legalistic cudgel that can only stun, maim or even kill journalism in this country, is unworthy of experienced journalists and deserves far less respect than it has so far received. Even less is the idea that the media is already staggering under the burden of regulation besetting it already: this is the very sort of thing you get from lobbyists.

You'd hope that experienced journos would stop and think about parroting the most inane lines of lobbyists. Why be constructive when you can just sit back and shriek about how 'draconian' it all is (or might be)? To do that, they'd have to get over themselves: some can't even do that, but lip service is not the only alternative and nor is it adequate. It's hard to pity a profession so committed to its destruction, and despite what Tim Dunlop thinks, there's no incentive to encourage it in its collective folly but every reason to encourage successful breaks from journalistic groupthink wherever they can be found.

12 November 2011

Bigger than Mark Textor

Every Saturday, Mark Textor writes a column for The Sydney Morning Herald , and every week it is rubbish. Textor has been all over the world and spoken to interesting people, yet all he can do is offer insights into his own piss-poor self. What is he trying to say in the latest one? That although he fights the conservative corner he has a sneaking affection for the left? That might be what he's trying to say, but what he's really saying is two things: first, he's so awesome that he can't get over himself; and second that his whole modus operandi doesn't bear scrutiny even from himself, and it evaporates as soon as he starts looking at it.

The idea that ordinary Australians are beset by elites does conservatives no favours. Labor was at its weakest when it raged against "Mr Menzies and his wealthy friends". By playing the politics of envy it forfeited its chance at shaping the postwar future and had no answer to communism. Labor has only become competitive in Australian politics when it sets that rubbish aside.

At least, though, wealth can be defined. I think of the way a dictionary might define 'elite':
a group of persons exercising the major share of authority or influence within a larger group
Then I read Textor's cod definition of 'elite':
We think of the academics, the writers, artists, the Melbourne Club folk, the members of the pulpit politics clergy. Even human rights lawyers.
Speak for yourself: I've rarely seen such a harmless bunch in my life. The Melbourne Club might have been a big deal in 1951 or 1881 but it has little impact on Australian life in 2011. Academics have awesome power in an uneducated society, less so now. Do people selling jewellery or watercolours at Mindil Beach Markets really exude serious clout? As for "the pulpit politics clergy", I don't know what Textor means and neither, it appears, does he.
For a bloke like me, from the suburbs of Darwin, they sound like an awful little group. Their type would be decked within five minutes in one of my favourite Darwin pubs. Two minutes in the old Dolphin Pub.
Apparently Textor wants you to take him at face value. He's the son of an NT policeman; I doubt he spent much time at the Dolphin or any other pub, or even glides by them in his stretch limo on rare visits. If this piece were published in the NT News he'd be called on it. For the effete readers of the SMH, a line like that adds swagger and colour to a life dedicated to turning powerless fear into powerful rage and avoiding the consequences of doing so.

The rest of the article describes how Textor had to go to Eastern Europe to find decent and good people working away at jobs that weren't lucrative, but about which they cared deeply. For a bloke like him from Darwin, it is unclear why he didn't slide on down to the Royal Darwin Hospital and watch the nurses stitch back together people who'd been decked at Darwin's pubs. For a bloke like him from Darwin, it remains unclear to him why people do any job that pays so little and from which you can only draw non-material satisfaction.

People in the caring professions can draw heavily upon non-material issues such as community benefit and care for others, assuming that it counts for more than it does for blokes like Mark Textor. What is unclear is why it grates on blokes like Mark Textor as much as it does.
In fact, I'm an atheist
There are many solid intellectual cases to be made for atheism, but blokes like Mark Textor don't make them. This leaves blokes like Mark Textor vulnerable to the two main arguments that religious people make about atheists:
  • they can't imagine anything bigger than themselves; and
  • when you don't believe in something, you'll believe anything.
Guilty on both counts. When Textor runs a focus group he believes he has aggregated the collective wisdom of that group, which enables him to screech at elected officials that he knows more about their electorates than they do. Textor's belief that artists and human rights lawyers run our country is every bit as well-founded as other people's belief in Cthulhu or Yahweh. By failing to acknowledge anything more awesome than himself (whether notions of community and humanity, or a divine presence above and beyond), this bloke from Darwin is a sadly diminished little man.
The thing that struck me about [Jan Carnogursky] this former associate of the "elite" was that he had fought for true democracy, he had earned his stripes. He had done what he'd done for the right reasons.
What a sucker, eh? Carnogursky's opponent Vladimir Meciar presided over the asset-stripping of Slovakia's few assets. People who do that sort of thing truly deserve to be considered elite, marrying political power to economic power. To do that sort of thing in a society like Australia, it is necessary to engage someone like Mark Textor to pump out the FUD and skew the debate. The idea that people might presume to engage in politics without paying him or his brother-from-another-mother Bruce Hawker for the privilege is what it means to be "fiscally clueless". It is necessary to get people to regard public debates with the sort of incredulity Mark Textor applies to people who actually participate in them for no direct personal benefit:
And what is an actor "risking" apart from a fragile ego in criticising a political position on immigration, or a chief executive doing the same who doesn't live in a suburb affected by social change?
Why would an actor, or anyone else, care about the sort of society they lived in? You can't get it through to Textor so don't even try (this lack of ability to understand others and their motivations counts against Textor's perceived reputation as a political strategist).

Where is "the suburb [un]affected by social change"? Seriously, where? Which electorate is it in?

This too does Textor no favours.
But one thing is for sure. Whether they're annoying, patronising, paternalistic or not, I'm glad the elite exist. I don't like them, and I disagree violently with most, but I like that they are there, somewhere.
All the adjectives in the second sentence can apply to, say, Alan Jones. The rest of that final paragraph reads like the work of a man floundering. Textor has set up a straw man and, in knocking it over, it has fallen on him and pinned him down to an unsustainable position. He's too proud to ask for help so he needs to start by saying that the imaginary group against which he and his imaginary friends have been violent mightn't be so bad after all. It's both feeble and funny, this projection of pomposity onto others and a complete misunderstanding as to where power lies in society. All the great comics show their appreciation for that truism - Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Andrew Bolt - and now a private man who wants to exert public power from a weakly defensive mindset has stumbled into their ranks.

Maybe he does have such contempt for SMH readers that he'd write this shite, and you do yourself few favours by reading it - except to understand what sort of mind lies behind the focus groups, policies and communications of the Liberal Party and his other clients. Textor is so caught up in his imaginary constructs that he can't present to his clients an accurate picture of what is going on out there. He's testament to the idea that travel broadens the mind but he still has to work on the idea that other people matter even if they don't give you money.

Update 14 Nov: Another example of Textor's work is here, strangely unacknowledged by Coorey. CrosbyTextor are in charge of Qantas' public and regulatory perceptions. After the debacle of the board trying to sell the airline to private equity companies in 2009, and now this, it must be said that any further triumphs by Textor and his crew could be fatal.

10 November 2011

The Peta Principle

Over the past week the structural shortcomings of the Coalition have been highlighted as starkly as they were once skated over. The Coalition has time to deal with those shortcomings, but it does not have the perspective or the will to do so. It will not get these qualities until after they lose the next election.

(Note for those who are new to this site: I'm not interested in polls going up or down, I'm interested in who has the capacity and the wit to use power effectively. I think that the Coalition lack the capacity and the wit to govern. I think Labor have both, but are only starting to realise that and are only just starting to use them. Commenters who want to go on about how Gillard is "embattled" or Abbott is "riding high in the polls" can post on one of the MSM sites, they needn't bother posting here.)

The profile of Peta Credlin in The Weekend Australian shows the basic problem with a policy-averse Opposition. It can only go so far, but not into government, in the sort of environment that makes her such a key operator. Already the limitations of that model are starting to show and rob the Coalition of momentum: the fact that the Coalition had no story regarding Qantas (see previous post) and had nothing to say about the carbon price other than to rack off to London.
Credlin describes herself to colleagues as "the Queen of No" and her sole mission, for now, is to get Abbott into the Lodge ... She's a control freak.
When you focus on day-to-day images, as Credlin does, you might get to drive past The Lodge but you'll never get anyone elected to live in the joint. For a start you need a clue about what it is you should and shouldn't say no to, and there is no proof Credlin has such judgment. The vetting of Abbott's diary and other petty actions described by Legge tell you all you need to know about Credlin - namely that she's not ready for Prime tiMe and that she can't take Abbott there either.

All PR dollies who claim they have all the information anyone could want are bullshitters. At best they are like those people Oscar Wilde described as knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. At worst they are just bullies floundering out of their depth: nobody can or does know everything about economic policy and health policy and defence policy and all the other policies that go to make up modern government, and the idea that someone like Credlin sits in judgment on it all saying no, no, no is just too silly. She knows nothing about the country or the Liberal Party or what limits there should be on government; she'd just like a low-profile but high-impact job at the centre of it, is all. People like Kate Legge might take that on face value but I bloody won't.
"No one person should have that much influence," despairs an Abbott supporter who believes the leader needs exposure to alternative sources of advice. "She's on the road with him all the time, making herself indispensable. She does everything for him; whether he needs a cup of tea or an important policy paper, she's there. He shrieks, 'Peta, Peta, Peta'. It's too close."
Credlin is Echo to her employer's Narcissus, with her focus on the "media cycle" and her lack of understanding, let alone respect, for the longer game of the country. She should realise that Abbott is a sharply limited character and that he needs people around him that complement him, rather than just those who compliment him. This is why Abbott has no switch to flick in order to become Prime Minister; like Howard in the '80s he'd rather conviviality than challenge in his office, which leaves him free to waddle about with such utter certainty. Had he been challenged a bit and been aware of the safety net prepared for him by others, he'd be a more complete man and a better candidate for Prime Minister, and aware that the job was bigger than just him. John Howard came to realise this by the '90s, with people like Grahame Morris and Sinodinos complementing him and giving the appearance of breadth and humility that a Jesuit education clearly can't do by itself.

The fact that the Coalition went to the last election with less of an economic policy than would be necessary for a small business to get a small loan is Credlin's fault. The fact that Abbott waved through a supposedly toxic Gillard tax on 28 June that he had vowed to oppose is her fault, because she was so focused on the stunts and the correspondence or whatever that actual policy affecting thousands of Australians simply slipped by. These are far bigger blunders than the one Legge describes when she let Turnbull down. Yet, if someone like Morris or Sinodinos (but without the reputations those guys have since established) presented themselves to Abbott offering their services, you can be sure that Credlin would look the gift horse in the mouth and declare it wanting.
Poll numbers appear to support Credlin's modus operandi.
The way Credlin and Abbott work is to create a constant sense of crisis in the government, which means that any Liberals who think about alternative ways of governing the nation are splitters and not people with the wider interests of party and nation in mind. Alternative approaches are not considered because they have no capacity to do so - the Credlins of this world would look feeble arguing for one position over another, so simply insisting that the position has already been decided and forcing all Liberals to echo it might look like strength, but it doesn't last when journos and the ALP stop playing along and asking questions about what an Abbott government would do. Polls can't last in the face of structural weakness.

How would Peta Credlin know what an Abbott government would do? She gets given a brief and told to push it through. Now that she's in a top job she can't not know what an Abbott government would do but the fact is she doesn't care about much beyond the "media cycle". People who care about policy are suckers to be manipulated. Do whatever it takes, say whatever it takes, screech at people who disagree and bag them to the point where their opinions don't get a hearing. That sort of thing only works for a while, and someone with Legge's experience should know that.
Talented individuals often alienate peers.
So do talentless bullies, particularly if you can't tell the difference and share their perspective that the context (in this case, the policy direction of the putative next government) is all about them. Just because you can wheedle something through a Coalition-controlled Senate doesn't mean you are in any position to assess the workings of government policy beyond the outer rim of State Circle.
"She shouldn't tell people what to do and what not to do," complains one Liberal backbencher who has tested Abbott's patience. "It's perfectly understandable that Tony Abbott wants to stay on message. But MPs are MPs. As long as you're not a member of the executive you're entitled to talk about issues." ...

... that's where the negativity comes from, especially when you have junior shadows and MPs thinking, 'Who are you to tell me what to do? You're only a staffer'."
Legge is so starstruck with her subject that she's missed a very important principle of the way we are governed: here 'negativity' (i.e. Princess Peta not getting everything her own way) and feminism are beside the point. The fact is that a backbencher has been elected by their party and thousands of Australians outside it to represent them in the Parliament. Staffers should be very careful in abrogating the representative rights and obligations those people have, and (we are talking conservatives here) the Burkean notion that a representative owes electors free exercise of judgment (mind you, any Liberal MP or staffer who has to do a Google search as to what the hell a Burkean notion is should be sacked). Legge just skates by that, and its implication for what sort of government we might have if this person and her employer end up running it. Blithely ignoring an issue of such importance is what turns a dispassionate journalistic profile into a puff piece.
How does Credlin measure up? Reviews of her policy skills are mixed ...
They're non-existent. She is like a dog with a bone once a bill is introduced, she doesn't get to choose which bone or even the beast it's cut from, or why the hell we're butchering animals and chucking their bones around at all. That sort of perspective is essential from senior officials in a good government, and that's the standard against which you judge people like Credlin (not whether you can get idlers like Greg Hunt or Brendan Nelson to make a phone call). Look at the shambles of Coalition policy, look at Credlin's power and control-freakery, and do some journalism.
"Who is going to shirtfront Loughnane with complaints about his wife and vice versa?" worries one Liberal upset by losing the safety valve for letting off steam ... Younger conservatives defend the status quo: "In a perfect world you wouldn't want a couple in these two positions. However, they are both talented individuals. It would be to the party's detriment if one was forced out." Some argue it's a plus, with twice the networking, leak-proof communication between the leader's office and the party wing and double the investment in success.
That's fine so long as both are doing an absolutely excellent job in all respects. Those "younger conservatives" quoted really have no idea, do they: no sense of history, no sense of how a long-festering sore covered up can cripple rather than heal, and both Credlin and Loughnane are in the cover-up business. "Letting off steam"? Loughnane's only win was against Mark Latham, come on Kate.
Earlier this year former Howard cabinet minister Peter Reith failed in his bid to topple party president Alan Stockdale, who was treasurer in the Kennett government. Reith's backers traced the fingerprints of Loughnane and Credlin locking in the "old guard". Abbott had encouraged Reith to run and then made a surprise last-minute switch. "Peta got to him," one insider insists of a result that suited Loughnane's preference for the status quo.

The couple has everything riding on Abbott's success. "Peta and Brian have got stars in their eyes," snipes one insider. "They've got 'soon to be PM' fever. They think they are going to be in the Lodge in the next 10 minutes." Discontent is kept in check while Abbott prospers.
Well they would, wouldn't they. They need to think that - and inculcate that belief across the Coalition - otherwise the prospect of hard slog and weighing up competing policies for the good of the nation in challenging times is just too damn hard. A reflective Liberal Party is an environment in which neither CredLoughnane would thrive let alone succeed. No-one minds them building castles in the air but when they shriek at people as though they were serfs whose role in life was to maintain that castle - that's where the problems start. The best backroom operators are realists first, and realism means cutting people some slack incase they may one day be right about something important. That's the real reason why the Liberal Party used to think the 'broad church' was important, and the secret of its success until the 1980s. Hawke Labor had the same success until the Faustian bargain with Richo became too expensive. Credlin can't understand that: diversity is death for robots like her.

Leaving Andrew Robb out of a phone conference about superannuation is not strong, it's pathetic. If you're going to do that, do the whole Lucrezia Borgia thing and sack him for disloyalty: Robb won't come back from a sacking. A real powerbroker would have lined up Robb's replacement in Goldstein by now - or if not run for it herself, pushed one of the hapless Senators into it. That's what a real powerbroker would do, Kate Legge, not act like some nasty schoolgirl because Robb makes Bri-Bri feel insecure.
She once sought the counsel of senior Liberals on a Senate spot. They think she'd be stunning.
Well, yes - but who wouldn't? Look at the Victorian Liberal Senate team. You'd never guess that Victoria was once the jewel in the Liberal crown: someone's snippy ex, a pensioner from Ballarat who is more arse than man, and two staffers way, way out of their depth. Almost every local council boasts a more impressive line-up than the Victorian Liberal Senate team. Credlin is entitled to think that she'd be able to mix it with those clowns. Neither Legge nor Credlin nor anyone else is entitled to think that the Victorian people would be better off for such a deal, or that our heroine would take well to the medicine she dishes out: do what you're told and shut up.
For every hater there's an advocate who loves her to bits.
I'd be very surprised if it was a 1:1 ratio, but I would absolutely bet it blows out something shocking once polling day draws nigh and people still would happily get rid of Gillard only if it didn't mean Abbott getting in. The prevalence of such a perception, after two years and a lost election, is an indictment on Credlin's so-called political skills.

It is so lame doing a profile on someone who is so widely known as a bastard/bitch to trot out some sillyhead who insists they're really all rainbows and ponies. The trick is to find some evidence of that in the way policy is actually made. If the Liberals come out against the disability and injury insurance schemes, this will count for absolutely nothing at all.
"It was hard to get good people, many were exhausted, people went AWOL, they buried themselves in grief," Nelson recalls of his scramble to staff the leader's office. "I rang her to see if there was any chance she'd come back to politics. I couldn't believe my luck when she said, 'Yes, I'd love to.'"
Getting on with your life after the work is done is going "AWOL"? What an arrogant little turd.

The whole notion that Credlin is such top quality is undone by that quote - talk about damning with faint praise.

Tony Abbott is in London seeing what a post-Murdoch Anglosphere government looks like. It has more liberals in it than he'd be comfortable with. He may come away from the experience with a new perspective, realising that Credlin isn't the wind beneath his wings; if he does, he'd have to be a stronger man than he is to let her go and reshape his office and party with a breadth and reach that it doesn't currently have. He'll come back to Credlin and Credlin will lead him to stumble after stumble, week after week, snarling and spitting as her dream evaporates. Someone like Abbott might yearn for a great showdown but he'll get pecked to death by gaffes and slip-ups, and the policy equivalents of bringing a butter-knife to a knife-fight with a government growing in confidence.
At a nearby table Prime Minister Julia Gillard looks surprisingly calm given she's got the most to fear from the giraffe in the room.
Given what Legge tried to say but couldn't, Gillard is right to be calm. She has nothing to fear from Credlin, and if this government's record is any guide then after it is re-elected in 2013 they will probably offer Credlin a job, and she will probably take it; the whole Howard fabric, tattered and unsustainable, will be irreparable by those who could not tailor and trim where needed. A blood pledge here, a new tax there, low unemployment or carers' relief or - who knows, something for Aborigines - and the very things Credlin should have prevented from happening will happen because she's there and won't go away, because and not despite the vision and the competence that are as sharply limited as those of her current boss.

Peta Credlin will always come up smelling of roses, and maybe that's why Legge admires her. Only when that ceases to be the point of the exercise for the Liberal Party will it realise how much it has truly been had. Until then, accept that the situation that makes Peta Credlin possible is that party's problem. Those invertebrates who wanted to give Kate Legge the real dope on Credlin but couldn't will not be part of the next Liberal government either.

Soon after 2013 Bonnie Credlin and Clyde Loughnane will be gone, but they'll be back when the next Liberal government takes office, and the press will make a big fuss about their much-vaunted political skills for old time's sake (like they are doing with Richo now). That's a long way off though, and we'll see what happens.

07 November 2011

Lessons from the Qantas shutdown

Turn off all life support systems, I'm finished for the day
I'm on the midnight flyer and I've really got to get away
Shut down all your main engines, I'm going on reserve
There are things still undiscovered, oh I hope I've got the nerve

Shut down, turn off until the morning light
Slow down, splash down time to end the flight
Make way dream time, here comes another night
I wish I could remember where I've been

- Little River Band Shut Down, Turn Off
Qantas gave advance notice of their shutdown last week to the Coalition. Let the journos quibble about who knew what, when. The fact is when you get information like that you are meant to have an advantage: 'forewarned is forearmed' and all that.

What's also a fact is that the Coalition was no better off for having that information. Abbott just looked like a gibberer when he went on about how he expected the government to act under Section X of the Fair Work Act when he wanted them to have acted under Section Y. His whole modus operandi relies on him setting traps for the government who then falling into them, and when the government won't act to his initiative he's pretty much bereft.

The government seemed on top of the whole issue by mid-week. The person who should have alerted them to the Qantas shutdown was not only Qantas management but also the head of the Transport Workers Union, Tony Sheldon. Sheldon has been playing brinkmanship with Qantas management for weeks, warning of strikes then cancelling them at the last minute, causing uncertainty for Qantas passengers and management without looking like the bloody-minded union leader.

Old-school Qantas management would have kept the planes flying at all costs. The reason why Qantas employees have great job security and other perks can be credited to hardball unionists, but also to a management ethos that had the cash and would shovel it around to keep the business going. Sheldon thought he was dealing with old-school Qantas management, which is why he looked so rattled when management shut down the airline themselves.

Sheldon was dealing with Alan Joyce, a veteran of the shakeup of European airlines in the 1990s, and Leigh Clifford, who showed the mining unions that once management lift their game on pay and OHS the unions have little to offer prospective members. Old-school Qantas management took government protection for granted in a way that Joyce and Clifford clearly can't. He should have known that the game had changed. Sheldon was playing 1970s-style bash-and-barge rugby league in a game of Aussie Rules, where his opponent had sailed above him, taken the ball, booted a goal, and elbowed Sheldon in the eye for good measure; all without the ref seeing.

Sheldon did not look like a union leader who was outraged on behalf of his members. He wasn't doing the sort of confected bluster combined with lovin'-the-attention smugness you'd expect from Paul Howes in that position. He wasn't doing the quiet more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger determination thing that you might expect from the people currently running the ACTU. Sheldon had the sheepish look of a man who had been fucked and burned in a high-stakes game, and who then had to front the media and describe in detail just how badly he had been both, ah, fucked and, ahem, burnt, again and again.

Tony Sheldon is a big wheel in NSW Labor and is running for Federal President of the ALP. He may be the only union leader with a Chief Of Staff; a union leader needs a Chief Of Staff like your local mayor needs a goldie-lookin chain that makes them look like something from Gilbert & Sullivan. While Sheldon isn't entirely responsible for the predicament NSW Labor is currently in, it is there because he and a couple of others not only failed to stop the rot but even to identify it as such. This dispute with Qantas is not a case of teething problems, it is core business for a long-serving union leader.

The fact that he has failed to intervene effectively in his members' interests and warn a Labor government of a significant issue of policy and perception casts serious doubt over Sheldon's suitability for positions he holds now, never mind those to which he might aspire. Gillard and Albanese should refuse to have anything to do with him. What distinguished Labor powerbrokers of old from those of today is that they would have gently nudged Sheldon out of the running for the Labor Presidency, my members are priority number one, etc.

You can demonise Joyce all you like but he's given nothing away to Sheldon and the other unions involved, who are not reacting at all well to the situation Joyce and Clifford have put in front of them. Yes, Joyce and Clifford have played the game masterfully, but there's no grounds for CEO-worship there: if you are in a game and yours is the only team playing the game, how can you lose? Your opponent can shadow-box as much as they want but you only have to land a blow they're not expecting, and down they'll go. Joyce knew that, Clifford knew it - and now Sheldon's learnt the lesson good and hard, one he has no excuse for not knowing beforehand.
I wanna talk to the pilot, he's in charge of my dreams
But he insists on vanishing just as soon as he thinks he's been seen
I wanna recharge my batteries, leave me alone for awhile
We'll set off again in the morning on a wing and a prayer and a smile
But back to the Coalition (oh yes). They had the advance warning, and as usual they had a few snappy lines. What wasn't usual that it wasn't enough. The Qantas shutdown was a serious issue and in venturing comments on it, the Coalition invited serious comments. In the face of serious comments about a really important issue, the Coalition wilted.

The fact that CHOGM delegates were inconvenienced was a matter of significance for Australia, one they let slip by (showing that the Shadow Foreign Minister has little idea of the significance of such an event held in her home town, and/or little clout in Coalition strategy sessions).

They were wise to skate around the whole inconvenience to the Melbourne Cup - yes, racing is a multi-billion-dollar industry, but to most Australians it's a trifle and combined with the focus on pokies at the moment it would be a bad look for the Coalition to remind people how much they are in bed with the gambling industry.

This leaves them relying on policies on transport and industrial relations, which they don't have. It isn't good enough just to say that the details of those policies haven't been finalised, wait until the election etc. In the 1980s and '90s Liberal policies were constantly under review and when journo put John Howard on the spot he could come up with a coherent statement on most key issues, even if he was winging it, in general accordance with previously stated policy principles of the Liberal Party.

The difference now is that Tony Abbott has no principles to speak of, save the tattered DLP ones of his most callow youth. These included job security and perks for those in protected industries - the unions up against Qantas are fighting on much the same basis. They are fighting for qualities that retreated from much of the unionised workforce in the 1980s, and which the recession of the late '80s/early '90s pretty much finished off. By the late 1990s the only one gibbering about Aussie jobs for Aussies was Pauline Hanson.

Abbott could have gone for populism. I half expected to see him in an airport terminal egging on livid passengers stuck in Adelaide for four days, or strapping on the fluro to tell locked-out workers that he's the one who can guarantee cradle-to-grave job security. It is to his credit he did neither. What he needed to do was flick the switch to Prime Ministerial and show the nation what might have been, and what might be yet. He couldn't do that because he has no sense of what is in the nation's best interests, no reservoir of principle to contrast the present situation with the way it should be. This is where policy laziness bites you. Had this dispute taken place next November Abbott's position would be in question, if not in play.

There are still two years to go before an election (oh yes there are) which is plenty of time to develop some policies. If it's true that business is starting to take more of an interest in donating to the Liberal Party, then there's no reason why business can't donate time and resources to help develop some policies that go beyond dot-points. That's what a broad-based movement would do: a small, tightly-controlled outfit focused on the "news cycle" today and tomorrow won't, however. They see the Qantas dispute as an issue to be put behind them for the sake of unity and tomorrow's news cycle.
Shut down, turn off, until the morning light
Slow down, splash down, time to end the flight
Make way dream time here comes another night
I wish I could remember where I've been

Where have I been?
On a Qantas plane recently full of white-collar workers who are well and truly accustomed to contracting and outsourcing, it was at times quaint, funny and pathetic listening to pilots bleat about the perils of such an arrangement befalling them. You'll survive, guys.

The Qantas shutdown last week is the very sort of incident where people's perceptions become fixed in place: the very sorts of perceptions that are so hard to shift in election campaigns. Big industrial disputes usually go on for weeks, but this one was off the boil (if not fully resolved) within days. The whole idea that the incumbent government is incompetent is starting to look a little thin, while far from being comprehensively rebutted. The whole idea that the Coalition are no better, and may even be worse, is starting to take hold and the proof coming from this incident counts against the Coalition.

Qantas management knows what it is about and the unions up against them do not; the odd engine malfunction in some far-off place is having no impact on questions of safety, job security and engineering utility. The whole Aussie Jobs For Aussies thing is hard to distinguish from a toxic brew of self-interest and xenophobia. The only thing that will give that argument any currency at all will be the worst outcome possible, something that won't be dealt with by Fair Work Australia: a Qantas aircraft crashing to earth, with the sorts of people who were inconvenienced last week wedged among the wreckage.

Yes, Virginia, there are bigger issues at stake here than who might have phoned whom when.
Shutdown turn off until the morning light
Slow down, splash down time to end the flight
Make way dream time, here comes another night
Oh, I wish I could remember where I've been

Shutdown turn off until the morning light
Make way dream time, here comes another night

(Lyrics: Glenn Barrie Shorrock)

03 November 2011

Exclusive*: News Limited plot exposed

Simon Benson is not denying reports that he will become editor of The Daily Telegraph as early as this month.

News Ltd sources behind the push for the wannabe editor to take the job that was cruelly snatched away from him and given to some luckless ponce from The Australian not good enough to be pinched by Fairfax have confirmed he was now being advised by his closest confidants not to wait until next year but to launch a challenge as early as the second last week of November.

Senior sources within Holt Street claim the leakage of support away from Mr Whittaker, who flew out last night for some sort of Murdoch hajj, was snowballing.

"There are three things that are certain: there is a editorship challenge under way, Benson doesn't have a majority yet but has enough numbers to be a contender, and they are strategising about how to get it done," said a senior News Ltd source.

But there was mixed support for the idea of an early move, with some Murdoch minions claiming they would "deliver the editorship" to Mr Benson in February - if he waited.

In a sign Mr Whittaker is now taking seriously the threat of a challenge, an internal counter-offensive has been launched to shore up his editorship.

Mr Whittaker is reported over the past week to have lobbied key Holt Street figures with influence over executive members as to how Mr Hartigan takes his coffee and what his recreational pursuits are. Steve Lewis is also believed to have privately warned several NSW News colleagues that he would resign if they supported a move to impose Mr Benson as editor, having had his reputation shackled to Mr Benson over one of the silliest examples of journalism in Australian history.

Politically Homeless has spent the last two weeks sitting on reports that News Ltd executives were softening in their support for Mr Whittaker following the bungled anti-terrorism raid and their deepening concerns that News Ltd can't just make stuff up and sell it as though it were real.

Should Whittaker be replaced with Benson? Tell us below

"It sent Whittaker's office into a panic. Lewis has told people that he would quit if we went to Benson but I doubt he was serious. He wouldn't want to be remembered as the bloke that brought down a News Ltd masthead," a senior member of the News Ltd executive said.

"That's our job."

"I mean, can you imagine if Fairfax or the ABC spiked an anti-terrorism investigation? We'd be all over them like ants at a picnic. Now, all the Ala Akba or whatever they're called have to do is gissa call, and we'll bugger up the AFP investigation for them."

"We're handy like that."

Mr Lewis would not comment last night.

News Ltd has only one working week left after this week, after which employees will run over to Pyrmont and beg to be hired by Fairfax, or at the Fish Markets, or by anyone really, to avoid the next visit from the Great Helmsman with pink slips in both of his scaly, spotted fists.

Sources close to Mr Whittaker said he was well advanced on a policy pitch to address News Ltd's desperate credibility problems over issues including public transport in Sydney, the carbon tax and problem gambling.

One senior News Ltd, a Benson supporter, claimed advertisers were starting to "get edgy" over the government's unresolved editorship crisis.

"Advertisers know it's a question of when and want it sorted," they said.

Despite Mr Benson's self-professed popularity, a boost in support for the Tele if Mr Whittaker was rolled was not assured. Secret Politically Homeless research conducted recently in secret (in contrast to, say, a Federal Police raid on a terrorist cell) concluded voters believed the paper was drifting.

Other editorial candidates such as Miranda Devine and Annette Sharp refused to return calls by deadline. Even Joe Hildebrand, the Chris Pyne of journalism, refused to rule out a tilt at the top job "down the track".

Why buy the paper in the morning when you can check it for free on your phone, and then get a copy handed to you titled as "MX" in the afternoon?

Voters believe News Ltd's policies are out of synch with mainstream values, targeting key policy areas including the carbon tax and asylum seeker policy. They also expressed concern at the influence of the so-called Murdoch Family (diddly-dum, click click ... read the lyrics and change the family name).

Then again they're only punters, so fuck 'em.

* The reason why this is Exclusive to Politically Homeless is because I've made this up.

Update 5 Nov: Not content with a shot at the editorship "down the track"*, Joe Hildebrand lunges for martyrdom. Each of those amounts look pretty hefty until you realise that his employer charges that for each ad about the size of a coffee cup that appears in a newspaper. If he can get one or two of those weepy ads that Andrew Bolt's pals put together he needn't worry.