19 December 2011

The reshuffle

At the start of this week the Prime Minister reorganised her ministry. By the end of the week it is clear that the mainstream media have failed to report what happened, and that bloggers have done a far better job of explaining to people what the changes mean as far as the way we are governed. That reshuffle may be more far-reaching and enduring than the political one.

There was no parallel in the newspapers, radio or TV to any of the following:
(Thanks to @Leroy_Lynch for bringing some of the above to my attention.)

BB makes a convincing case that Emergency Management must be a Cabinet role, while Jericho is less convincing in his contrary view. Read them to know what good political analysis looks like, because it shows that scrutiny of public affairs can be well-written and entertaining. It shows that covering politics need not be sneering, facile or sanctimonious like it is in the mainstream media. Then, turn your eyes from these amateur diversions and look with pity and scorn upon the so-called professionals, who are paid to knock around Parliament House and report on this stuff for a living.

Nominally, the mainstream media claim that they cover politics in order to explain to we taxpayers, voters and consumers how our taxes are spent, what priorities public services are directed to place ahead of others, and to what extent our cries for more of this and less of that are heeded (or not) by those who rule us. That high-minded spirit animates reporting so rarely that we might safely say that journalists who love the tittle-tattle and horse-race aspects of politics are the norm, while those who explain politics effectively are so rare as to be almost freaky.

Let's take to the program that sets the news agenda more than any other: ABC Radio's AM program, always good for a bucket o' Walkleys, but almost always rubbish when it comes to political interviews. Here's Alexandra Kirk focusing on Kim Carr:
  • Carr is a long-time factional operator in the Victorian ALP. Over the years, he's dished it out to people and he's copped some back. He's a grown-up and should be treated like one. No allowance should be made for any sulking on his part. If he really thinks he's hard done by, if all the emoluments of ministerial office aren't enough, he should get out of the ministry or even out of Parliament altogether (as a Senator, no byelection! Lots of Victorian ALP displaced by Brumby's folly hungry for a step up ...); and
  • Carr is minister for manufacturing, and in a few weeks he's off to Detroit and Tokyo to discuss Australian vehicle manufacturing with those companies. Will those discussions be harder if he's a non-Cabinet minister? What about dealing with local manufacturers, like the no-marks who've run Bluescope Steel into the ground? So,
  • Given that AM is so hard-hitting, and that Kirk is one of its experienced journalists, you'd expect her to focus on the politics and the policy ...
No, sadly.

Kirk's line of questioning is, to be generous, juvenile: you got de-mo-ted, ner-nerny-ner-ner, are you pissed off? Are you still besties with Jules? Do you reckon you'll be better off if Kev comes back? Carr handled himself with considerable dignity, allowing himself a human moment of disappointment in amongst steadfast professionalism. Carr is doing a serious job as manufacturing minister, and there are questions to be asked about the extent to which traditional measures like subsidies or sweetheart deals with the relevant unions are actually going to do much into the foreseeable future. Kirk wallowed in the goss and left the hard stuff, and it isn't the first time she's done it. For serious political analysis, best to skip AM.

Serious journalists like Fairfax's Lenore Taylor and Phillip Coorey and Laura Tingle, and almost all TV correspondents, are back to the stale line that everything this government does is a pratfall. Take Michelle Grattan's silly effort (no link, can't be bothered) where she referred to McClelland's portfolio as a grab-bag - but then made light of the similarly incongruous portfolio of Mark Arbib, and nothing of Greg Combet's (if he's Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and Minister for Industry, and that he's pretty much led the case for the carbon tax, why is someone else Minister for Energy? Why is the Minister for Energy wittering on about nuclear, an energy source currently used by 0% of Australian households and industry, rather than focusing on renewables or even questioning the need for a "grid" in the 21st century? Why is this sorry little blogpost the only place you can even read about that stuff?).

For desperately silly, however, you have to go to the national affairs correspondent for what was once regarded as the best newspaper printed in English. The paper for which Alfred Deakin and Keith Murdoch wrote. I refer - how have the mighty fallen - to The Age and Katharine Murphy:
AUSTRALIA ends the year with two governments. There's Julia Gillard's minority government. And there is the government in exile, led by Kevin Rudd.
I thought the Coalition was the alternative government. Even if you do accept that Rudd is undermining Gillard, that's not the same thing as saying he's running an 'alternative government'. Between his first failed challenge and his second successful one in 1991, Paul Keating was not running an 'alternative government'. The Opposition aren't an 'alternative government' because they don't have any policies worth the name, and none that you can trust. Gillard is pretty much doing what Rudd promised but failed to deliver. What makes Rudd's castle-in-the-air an alternative government?
To confuse matters further, these competing regimes manifest their own divided states of being.
Nobody's confused here but Katharine herself, and anyone who hasn't realised she's a dill.
Can Julia Gillard unite her divided states in 2012? Right now that looks impossible, because the Prime Minister who can scale Kosiuszko [sic] is the same PM who is standing on quicksand, sinking before our eyes.
That second sentence shows the appalling imagery that only comes, as Orwell pointed out, from someone who isn't thinking about what they're saying. If you've scaled Mt Kosciuszko (sp.) you'll know that it's an easy stroll. Only in the movies do people sink completely in quicksand. Murphy is revelling in a return to the whole Gillard-as-stumblebum routine that the whole press gallery has returned to like so many dogs to their vomit, and no amount of policy or even parliamentary achievement is going to dissuade her from ground on which she feels secure.
This week's cabinet reshuffle was supposed to buy Gillard six months of clear air to do two things: lift Labor's primary vote above 30 per cent, and force Tony Abbott to tell his own story ...
Clear air. What does that even mean? It's one of those meaningless terms of the politico-media complex, nothing to do with actual quantifiable atmospheric pollution. The government gets a focus on its policies and the absence of those from the Coalition when it actually does things like legislate a price on carbon rather than just talk about it, and force Abbott into pledges so silly that he gets only the pity that is his due. Action speaks louder than words and reshuffles are always temporary events that focus on a government's internals. Why have great polling when you can play the long game that wins votes and denies them to Stunt Man?
...the reshuffle was supposed to turn all of Bill Shorten's well-honed ruthlessness on Abbott in an area where the Coalition is vulnerable, industrial relations.

It was supposed to turn Greg Combet's quick policy mind to the task of winning back the blue-collar manufacturing base ...
Yes, Katharine, it did both those things. It just didn't do them before your deadline; if it had, you might have written a better story. Abbott has had a good run for two years and he's not going to be sunk in two days. Shorten and Combet are players of the long game and are wise to know what powder they have at their disposal before they embark on the process of keeping it dry.

I noticed, as Katharine Murphy and the rest of the journosphere didn't, that Shorten's shadow minister Eric Abetz has been very, very quiet. If Abetz had the genuine assuredness his cocksure manner is designed to hide then he'd be all over Shorten this week, forcing the new boy to dance to his tune. Abetz has no tune to dance to and when Shorten is done with his swotting and the preliminaries, you can bet that one of the biggest guns in the Coalition front line is about to be taken out. Shorten's teeth-cutting will be on Abetz's hide. With the O'Farrell-like ascendancy of Will Hodgman in Tasmanian state politics, 2012 is shaping up as a year for Eric Abetz to forget before it's even begun. Eric's super is maxed out, his links to the far right and lack of links to business large or small will be no help at all, as is his record of failing to stop a single piece of Labor legislation in a hung parliament: bye bye Eric.

As for Combet, he's up against the hollowed-out husks of Greg Hunt and Sophie Mirabella. See, that's basic political reporting right there, and like the rest of the peanut gallery your old pal @murpharoo has missed the idea that the government has only to beat the opponents in front of them.

Murphy embarrasses herself by quoting Lachlan Harris, a man who has gone from obscurity to nowhere without any intervening period of achievement or demonstrating any sense: sneer ye not at bloggers so long as you quote Lachlan fucking Harris. Malcolm Farr should know better than to report Abbott cheered for half-witted platitudes, Burke jeered for failing to solve large intractable problem shock. Marius Benson just embarrasses himself with the whole of this shower of drivel.

Forget those jerks and accept that the mainstream media is in a tailspin out of which it lacks the sense, clout and skill to pull. The press gallery was embarrassed by its failure to pick Slipper taking the Speakership this year, and Gillard taking the Prime Ministership last year. Insider status means nothing, press gallery doyen(ne) status nothing, nothing at all.

Let's look at the government. We have some idea of what this government is about. We know that ministerial reshuffles involve compromise and bastardry at the best of times, let alone in a hung parliament. We're adults, so the shock-horror that people might be displeased while others are pleased is not a story in itself. Here's how the reshuffle should have been different in order to more closely align the government's activities to its goals:
  • Garrett should have replaced Macklin. Macklin has achieved nothing in four years, not in policy substance or communication of same; adding Disability Reform, a large and significant reform, to her portfolio is just cruel. Garrett has both the plodding policy credibility and the promotional skill to do this really, really well.
  • Energy should have gone to Combet.
  • Ferguson should have combined Resources with Skills Training, giving him something significant to tackle rather than rehash Gorton Government platitudes about uranium ("perfectly safe").
  • Ludwig should've been replaced by someone to take on the enfeebled Nationals.
  • Mark Arbib should not be Minister for Sport and should have been offered the most pissant ministry available, which he might have rejected so that he could then sulk on the back bench and leak to Michelle Grattan and Malcolm Farr. Hopefully it will be obvious that an Assistant Treasurer who doesn't focus on policy detail or give a stuff about policy is a bad thing and he'll immolate over the coming year at some point.
  • It's great that Childcare has a minister, and hopefully Kate Ellis will have better luck than Maxine McKew.
  • It's a shame there's no assistant minister in Foreign Affairs so a young rising star can learn those ropes.
  • Mark Dreyfus and Mike Kelly should've got something more substantial.
The reshuffle shows that the mainstream media can't help you understand your government, and it puts out the stories it wants to put out. The entire politico-media complex is in for a seismic jolt once this government gets re-elected. Imagine a government that doesn't cower before the journosphere, that just gets on with it, and a populace that turns away from the journosphere to understand how it is governed. If you can imagine that, the confusion and still-forming shapes before us start to take clearer form, and what looks like serious and informed commentary appears as so much wind. Call it a reshuffle of the mind.

Update from before the above was posted: Preston Institute.

12 December 2011

Policy against type

One of the amazing things about politics is that you'll have a picture in your mind about a former politician, and you'll have to admit something which goes against that image is nonetheless inextricably part of that politician's record. Whether it's John Howard picking up the long-held leftist cause of Timor Leste, or Gough Whitlam selling them out in the first place, politics can be a funny business. People are entitled to reap the benefits of a particular policy regardless of its political provenance.

Each of Abbott and Gillard face policy positions that go against public perceptions of who they are and what they're about. There are dangers for them in pursuing those positions. They illustrate the limits of political tactics, where it's assumed that putting out a press release with a position statement on it is to be taken seriously on that position.

For Gillard, this happens with gay marriage. Whether it's her student activism in favour of "homosexual rights" (doesn't the turgid prose reveal it as authentic?), or the persona of her adult life as a leftist lawyer, it is absolutely in keeping with the image of her that she would support gay marriage. Her protestations to the contrary look like a feint than a deeply-held conviction. There are three positions against gay marriage, and none of them fit Gillard:
  1. Those who are in heterosexual marriages and who do not believe and/or cannot admit that gay/lesbian relationships are as valid as their relationships are;
  2. Those who, for religious reasons, are celibate and have fixed ideas that marriage is for heterosexuals only (in support of 1. above); and
  3. However unwittingly in support of 1 & 2 above, those gay/lesbian people like the eloquent and learned Sue-Ann Post, who believe that rejecting marriage is an essential part of being gay/lesbian.
At the ALP conference earlier this month, the Right claimed they were "protecting" the Prime Minister and the journosphere reported this without examining it. Protecting her from what, from whom? With the conscience vote on gay marriage, Gillard faces two options:
  1. Gay marriage gets up, in which case Gillard can't claim credit for it. Supporters of gay marriage won't give her credit, opponents will resent her, and those who are ambivalent will rightly perceive the lack of leadership ahead of the rights and wrongs of the situation; or
  2. Gay marriage does not get up, in which case we're back to the situation where Abbott looks strong and Gillard looks diffident and shifty. Gillard won't be believed when attempting to dismiss this as a big issue for her.
Neither option is within Labor's control and neither reflects well on Gillard. If you had more respect for Labor's Right than I have, you'd accuse them of setting her up. She's leader of the Labor Party, they feel strongly about this issue, so she should get over herself and lead them. The idea that Gillard looks like a strong leader for standing against gay marriage is beyond wrong, it's absurd.

Abbott's equivalent is a position he does not hold yet, but toward which he is being nudged (towed?) by those who back him: pulling out of Afghanistan. Abbott is no more interested in foreign policy than Gillard was, but he will always default to dance with those who brung him.

The US alliance was a given in Australian Cold War politics, regardless of who was in power in Washington or Canberra. Now it's a political plaything: With Keating and Clinton the US alliance was strong, but less so with Clinton and Howard. Things warmed up again with Howard and Bush II: the latter had the temerity to warn Australians against not re-electing Howard, who similarly disgraced himself by warning Americans against electing Obama. Both Rudd and Gillard enjoy good relations with Obama but it is clear that the bilateral relationship is no longer bipartisan.

People like Greg Sheridan and Tom Switzer are absolutely unconvincing with their hand-wringing pose that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won. Having failed to define victory in the first place they declare their political opponents incapable of achieving it. Such a position enables them to both jeer at them for further deaths and disasters arising from staying while also snarling at them for abandoning the Afghans and being reactive to terror threats should they withdraw. It's a despicable position for the right to take (compounded by their refusal to accept that those fleeing that war are legitimate refugees), and while utterly in line with Abbott's core of principle, it goes against the whole action-man persona.

When Abbott went to Afghanistan he insisted on being photographed in a bomb-disposal suit, denying its use to those who work in them. Before that he insisted on firing weapons and going on missions, despite his complete lack of training and discipline, which would mean the troops would spend all their time defending him rather than achieving the goals set for them. However stupid these were from a perspective of military operations in a dangerous environment, these actions were consistent with Abbott's action-oriented he-man image.

When you tell most people that Billy McMahon pulled almost all Australian troops out of Vietnam well before the 1972 election, they are puzzled: surely it was Whitlam who brought the troops home? For Abbott, wringing his hands and fretting over war dead goes completely against the whole persona. What's OK for gibberers like Switzer and Sheridan will not wash for would-be Prime Minister Abbott. Gillard can get away with staying or going, but not Abbott.

For the media, the fact that a politician makes a statement is the story. For everyone else, the fact that a politician makes a statement is neither here nor there. A politician who makes a statement out of character will be assumed to be a gibberer unless there is overwhelming proof to the contrary. Political tacticians who think it's smart for Abbott to call for withdrawal from Afghanistan, or for Gillard to stand like a bulwark for heterosexual marriage, measure their success only by press coverage.

There was no public clamour for Hawke and Keating to float the dollar. It was big and they made the case that it was right, so the public went along with it. Similarly, there was no public clamour for Howard to introduce a GST, bit it was big and they made the case that it was right, so the public went along with it. Gay marriage and withdrawal from Afghanistan are big and require leadership to get up; done badly these issues will damage leadership.

We saw this when Abbott proposed paid parental leave. You just knew that he would toss it straight into the maw of Labor's Budget Black Hole, so why vote for it? Just because gibberers in Canberra want to talk about it, and tell us "the policy is pitched at the mums and dads", doesn't mean that said target group have to behave as the strategists would wish. Abbott might call for Afghanistan withdrawal to "soften his image", but his lack of foreign policy knowledge would undermine any attempt at looking genuine and he'd just water down the appearance of toughness that it his one political asset. Gillard would get a lot of kudos for backing gay marriage, and it would expose the SDA (and thus exposed, diminish the ridiculous amount of power they appear to wield, leaving Gillard freer than she is and looking more powerful than she does).

Sometimes taking a contrary position is a sign of personal growth, a sign that you have to look at a politician in a new way (and thus think about the country and its politics in a new way). Mostly, though, it's the politician and their advisers attempting to look more clever than they are. Journalists don't look clever at all for failing to call them on it, or even know the difference between thought leadership and its absence. When policy goes against type it's the policy that suffers, and so does everyone who needs better policy from the politico-journalism complex.

10 December 2011

The Australian media in 2011

See my piece in The Drum.
Your satire shows how shallow and city centred you are.
No it doesn't, it shows that the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery can't get out of its own way. You'll notice no reference to Fukushima, Christchurch, or the various flavours of extremist sticking the oars in to the Greek riots who get Guy Rundle all moist. If you need information you have to go around the press gallery, not rely upon them for anything but the satire which they cannot and dare not get.

You're dead right it's "the same joke written over and again in too many words". That's what the press gallery gave us in 2011. The cracks of light in that united front of blah were the exception rather than the rule. If the press gallery were better, this piece would have been written differently - or not at all.

I slept on it and opened my hard copy of The Sydney Morning Herald today. Blow me down, the very things I protested about yesterday were there, in spades, in two supposedly thought-out pieces on the direction of journalism.

There was this effort by Chris Rau, ostensibly on Bali Dope Boy but seeking to involve us all in the wider malaise (except journalists, of course):
... the media ran videos and photographs of hessian bags put up by his family to protect privacy at their ... home ...
Rau names the place where they live, not exactly lifting herself above the ruck of those who would deny this family their right to get back to their lives.
If a judgment is required, judge the people who feed off the distress of others. They include the agents and the media audience. The media can be judged by how they exploited - if they did so - the family during their ordeal.
You bet judgment is required: it's part of being the discerning reader that media outlets say they want, but whom journos and their managers immediately dismiss should they fail to consume quietly.

Look at the sheer gutlessness in that paragraph. The idea that the prying journalist, breaking laws and unenforceable journo-rules, is really an authentic representative and 'umble servant of thousands of slavering readers hanging out for the latest updates. The idea that editors have an unerring knack for knowing what the public is clamouring for, and that they meet that need in full. These are the sustaining myths of the journosphere but there is no connection between them and what actually happens.

If that story disappeared and was replaced by another story, it would not be missed; it is in the media because people who run the media want it there, and because the story can be captured easily by the lazy and dull-witted people they have chosen as their subordinates. There is no evidence that "media consumers" are hanging out for more and more details on a story that has passed. Against this, Rau's proviso "if they did so" is an appalling cop-out. She really can't believe that a journalist might even be capable of anything unethical.

The only journalist worth the benefit of the doubt would be the one who, when told to go to the place where Bali Dope Boy comes from, refused to do so. Chris Rau can't imagine such a person and has produced no evidence of one.

Bali Dope Boy isn't a story, it's a band name waiting for a band to reap the free publicity.

I was waiting to read how Rau would tie this in to the Finkelstein Inquiry and the unrelenting insistence that journalism must continue to operate above the law. Still waiting.

Then came pifflemonger Mark Textor on datajournalism. Having dismissed it as "pretty chart[s]", he went on and on about it, which made me suspicious.

Textor did not get where he is by "accuracy, objectivity, verifiability and contestability", nor by the release of data that he and others like him do not control or even fabricate. He got where he is by flatly denying that facts were true and insisting that constructions should and must take their place. All those snappy, empty one-liners from The Situation are the very kind of factoids, or non-facts, that Textor would seek to warn you about.

Datajournalism isn't the vaccine against people like Textor but used well, it can make a much smaller place for such people than we find in our politics and journalism today.

The last paragraph is the pathetic bleat of a man watching his business model go down the S-bend. I think there should be a moratorium on "internal polling" of the type excreted by CrosbyTextor, but I'm not one of those gullible editors.

2011 was a year where the Australian media was confronted with the prospect of its own irrelevance and resolved to do more of the same. The consequences of this will almost certainly be damaging but they are definitely risible. let's hope for better in 2012, otherwise the media at their most earnest will only be funnier than they are.

06 December 2011

Something to talk about

In the last month or so the incumbent government developed a reputation for doing things, rather than talking about proposing to form a committee to convene a gabfest based on focus groups that may or may not do something. People began to look on the government and its leader in a whole new light.

People also began to look upon the Coalition in a whole new light once its entire strategy - wait for the government to stuff up - seemed to fall apart. As with the ALP at its worst there was no Plan B. That absence of fallback options makes for poor government, and shows why political skill is indispensable to effective government. Nobody in the Coalition seemed to consider that there was a possibility that Labor could do a passable impression of a competent and proactive government. Scales started to fall from the eyes of previously sycophantic journos on what sort of alternative the Coalition actually offered.

It was a category error of a piece with Labor assumptions that The Situation could not maintain the discipline necessary to be a potent threat but would inevitably revert to being a boorish gobshite. Sometimes I despair of the self-limiting nature of the so-called professional political class.

Anyway, the point is that the government's good work was pretty much undone by the ALP conference on the weekend.

The idea of all those topics up for discussion was to give the government the impression of momentum over the summer break. All it did was push the government back to where it had never wanted to be: in the land of Gonna-Do. Gonna give gays and lesbians the right to marry, gonna sell uranium to India, gonna gonna gonna; no have-done and are-doing and will-be-doing-even-more-and-better.

Gay marriage is one area where the Liberals are not going to claim to be able to do better than Labor. Abbott will have no credibility doing anything other than damn-the-torpedoes opposition. Any attempt to leaven this position will be undone by retribution at those who dare cross the floor over the issue.

There is now no benefit in staying on Tony Abbott's front bench in terms of career advancement. If Turnbull and others were to leave the frontbench and cross the floor, Abbott would be looking over his shoulder every day until the end of his leadership. If they didn't, there'd be no point to them at all (and it wouldn't save Abbott anyway). There won't be a conscience vote because Old Nick won't allow it. It would mean Abbott was no better than Gillard. The disintegration of Abbott will be a marvelous thing to see, all the better for being protracted and at the hands of people he doesn't respect.

Howard's position on selling uranium to India was weak, shilly-shallying nonsense. Abbott needs a position other than going along with the government, not for the sake of policy but for his own reptilian kill-or-be-killed mind; his problem is there isn't one. His foreign affairs spokesperson is not exactly the Percy Spender of our age. For all the explosion in International Relations courses, this country sure has been beset by the most appalling failure in coherent foreign policy.

There should have been no mention of refugees. The regional solution is a matter for the diplomats now. The idea that the government can play both sides of that game - insist on limits and due process while increasing intake numbers - is way beyond wrong, and well into the realm of stupid. The proposal put by Chris Bowen was just another bet each way that pleases nobody and satisfies no need, it should have been scratched by the stewards. Labor should just shut up and come up with a regional solution rather than draw attention to the awful predicament that it, and the country, are in over this issue.

I expect that the ALP conference would be disappointing to people who care about the ALP, but the pantomime about party reform being shunted off to a room full of factional hacks is no longer tragic or even funny, just boring. It's like an alcoholic promising to swear off white wine: they might think it's a compromise but it is actually missing the whole point entirely, and you can't tell them. Others can wail and rend their garments, but the only thing to do is just turn and walk away and ignore attention-seeking behaviour.

The ALP conference was also notable for the fingering of Rudd as responsible for the leaks that damaged Labor's 2010 campaign. History, as William Faulkner said, isn't gone and it hasn't passed. Labor's presentation of its national conference showed that it still sees its core role as throwing up announceables, assuming that news editors have a better sense of what the public want and are interested in than elected politicians and supposed numbers-men. This was not an event to maintain the momentum that will see Abbott eating Labor dust (and worse) for the next year or so. It was an event to let The Situation catch up, by playing the only game he can play: calling the government out for being all talk, just like he is.