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.


  1. On Grattan, is her morning bit on RN with Franny about the most tedious example of political commentary known to person kind? Almost always a collection of the " well der " moments described above. With Fran breathlessly following up with " but Tone is so fantastic ".

    Or is that just me?

  2. Do I feel vindicated reading this! Farnsworth writes his commentary as though he is still teaching Year 12 Politics (badly) - all history, no insight, as you argue. The recurring themes - Oh the glory days! This useless PM, this weak and temporary government - have made me feel trapped in his virtual classroom (I no longer take his subject - Politics for the Unenlightened). As for Grattan liking the sizzle more than the sausage - there is no more to be said!

    Thanks Andrew -

  3. There are no second prizes in elections. Calwell learnt that in 1961 (etc.)
    Malcolm Farnsworth has learned the wrong lessons from history.

    I question whether any, and particularly Abbott, learnt the lesson. Just as Farnsworth has seemingly learnt the wrong lessons from history most oppositions take away the wrong lessons from their loss.

    There is no better example than the Labor Party that still thinks that the main lesson of the 2001 election was ... being tough on Asylum Seekers and Stopping the Boats wins elections.

  4. Great piece again Andrew, that last paragraph in particular. The news media are only interested in the type of contest where results are measured by an election (or even better: near continuous poll results). The contest of ideas is well beyond their capacity for analysis.

    I can only bear to read the SMH on Saturdays now, and even then it is full of 'well, der' opinion dressed as analysis.

  5. That wasn't even the worst piece by Grattan about the Slipper coup. From memory, her first rushed piece was all about how it would reinforce Gillard's reputation for being untrustworthy etc etc blah blah blah. Honestly, it was like a cut and paste piece where the subject was added to the 'untrustworthy theme', no thinking required.

  6. Spot on, as usual.

    I'm heartily sick of commentators talking about how stuff "plays" (usually not far away from that odious term, "punters") and "perceptions" or "being seen to" -- what is the difference between Abbott actually broadening his circles and him being seen to do so?

    If the journos focus on the substance of things, maybe others will too.

  7. As an aside; we have the theme for Januaries round of Rudd restoration (journalist repeat every two month for Ruddstoraion, fundamentals every two year for the end of the world).

    It will be Gillard's lack of authority over the upcoming gay marriage conscience vote (how you have authority over a conscience vote is something I am looking forward to finding out).

    The predictability of the articles offered by the likes of Farnsworth etc. is actually becoming quite entertaining.

  8. To quote from one my own Tweets: "Political commentary in Australia these days is just blah blah blah polls blah blah blah leadership blah blah blah".

    I used to like RN and Insiders, but now I see how it IS Just about the game. I admit that there's not much appetite for policy out in the community, but if journalists don't do it, then politicians won't even bother.

  9. Grattan is at it again today. Too lazy to write a piece about the Coalition's audit scandal, she just spits out another 'I hate Gillard' piece.

    Grattan is a complete waste of space. She's written so many articles predicting the downfall of Gillard that her pride is preventing her from admitting just how wrong she's been.

  10. "You only have to beat the opponent in front of you."

    What a beautiful blinding glimpse of the obvious. An excellent piece of writing. This is becoming my favourite blog.

  11. Rod: I have no idea why Fran bothers. The ABC employ their own reporters, the appeal of Grattan star-power is hard to discern.

    Anon1 & 4: thank you.

    Mick: this is their time to take the risk. The idea that there is no going back to Howard-Costello will be devastating for many Libs.

    PeterH: and they wonder why their sales are declining.

    Kymbos: no, it's typical and the sad thing is that someone like Malcolm F will regard being lumped in with Grattan as a vindication.

    Ruprecht, what we need are new journalists, not new "punters".

    Anon2: I don't find it entertaining and it's effete to say so.

    aslsw: journalists believe that policy debate has to be dry, which is more an indictment of their lack of skill in presenting information. Politicians should only be allowed into the policy debate when they actually address policy, and the assumption that everything they say or do is newsworthy should be beaten with a stick.

    Anon3: Not surprised. She likes orderly, dull politics with assiduous briefing of media, and Gillard doesn't offer that. I keep hoping Grattan throws in the towel, admitting that she doesn't understand this business any more.

  12. Great post again. Glad it is not just me who can see through the superficial dross that is pushed out by people like Grattan and Farnsworth.

    The Farnsworth schtick is that he thinks he is going against the 'deluded' views of his mostly left of centre peers. He thinks he is right because he disagrees with them and this somehow gives him insights. See, he is supposedly controversial but really just reports press gallery group think.

    The Grattan schtick is really sad. She is worse than the other hacks only because she actually believes that pedestrian banalities count for political analysis. Also she seems to be mixing her news and opinion reporting. Like Farnsworth, she gets lost in all the minute details, missing the action altogether.

    Just a hunch but I have had a suspicion for a while now that both of them have a personal dislike of Gillard and their reporting reflects this. This is confirmed usually on their first reactions to some of the PM's actions or speeches.

    My main gripe with the press gallery is that they go for the easy political horse race calling with the added pop psychology for good measure. It is lazy and does a disservice to the quality of the political debate in this country. They too have a public service role to play that is greater than themselves.

    We are lucky to have some bright shining lights such as Laura Tingle and George Megalogenis as well as political discussions on blogs to cut through. Twitter and blogs are now the best way to find the signal in the 24 hour media noise. Thanks for your great insights.

  13. Alphabajangodelta3/12/11 11:40 pm

    More good stuff. Though I can't help thinking of fish in a barrell. It stimulated me to go re-read End of Certainty. Discussing the sources of Hawke's power after 1983, Kelly notes "above all Hawke had a discredited opposition". The Abbott opposition is sliding towards discredit. Although history never repeats, there's a sense of rhyme developing around Labor. The big story is thus not 'Gillard is so very doomed', but rather is the question of 'does Gillard have what it takes to both beat Abbot AND craft and market the large scale reform agenda needed for Australia to meet the multiple challenges of a destabilising modern world?'. In that sense it's also proxy for a greater question about Australia's capacity as a nation to face these challenges. And as a number of commenters have noted only a few journos have their eyes and ears open to this question the rest are dazzled by the epiphenomena. If Gillard can discredit Abbott then the Libs will be defunct for at least two more terms. If she can't the nation faces a period of drift, not unlike the Fraser years.
    "And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
    With this regard their Currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of Action."

  14. Lachlan Ridge4/12/11 12:16 pm

    Alpha, I would have thought the appropriate quote from the Bard would be from the play that is not mentioned:

    "It is a tale told by an idiot.
    Full of sound and fury signifying nothing".

    I believe that it is emerging that the sickness at the heart of Australian politics is driven by an intellectually enfeebled fourth estate rather than the legislature, with the quality of our public representation and concurrent policy debate reflecting the journosphere rather than the inverse.

  15. "Just a hunch but I have had a suspicion for a while now that both of them have a personal dislike of Gillard and their reporting reflects this."

    Ha! You can confirm your suspicious hunch! The bile in Grattan's 'I hate Gillard' piece today (5 Dec) is just embarrassing - for Grattan, obviously.