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.


  1. Hillbilly Skeleton19/12/11 9:15 am

    I think points must go to moi, as I put a blog up on the 9th of September, at The Political Sword, http://www.thepoliticalsword.com/post/2011/09/11/It%E2%80%99s-time-for-the-Government-to-play-a-game-of-Musical-Chairs.aspx wherein I made the helpful suggestion to the Prime Minister, which she obviously took, to think about a Cabinet Reshuffle at the end of the parliamentary year.
    I am preparing the invoice for my services now. :)
    Although I must admit, I didn't see Nick Sherry coming down the road towards me. I guess I'll have to include a discount then for that reason. :D

  2. Good piece Andrew.

    Bushfire Bill does make some good points about Emergency Management being a Cabinet position, but he also says it deserves its own Department. As far as I can tell it will remain within the Attorney Generals Dept. I am of the view that Cabinet ministers should, except in rare occasions, have their own Dept. A couple Cabinet Ministers in one Dept can be havoc for the realities of organisations priorities of resources within the Dept.

    I think the challenge for McClelland is to make the position worthy of a Cabinet spot by what he does and how he does it.

    Good suggestion about Garrett going to Indigenous Affairs, one I have long had as well. The guy knows the area like no one else, and also wouldn't have to worry too greatly about things said in the past when he was Midnight Oil. In fact in this case it would probably help him. It seems next year is going to be the year they look to change school funding. For that they need a Minister who can sell the tough policy. Not sure if Garrett can do that.

    Excellent suggestion about a assistant Foreign Affairs Minister. Has there ever been one? There should be. I guess usually they give someone a Parl Sec of the Pacific Islands or some such. That said, would you want to be a assistant Foreign Affairs Minister under Rudd?

  3. Hi Andrew. Thanks for the shout out, and for putting into words the frustration so many observers of Australian politics feel at the quality of media "analysis" of what goes on in this country.

  4. Thanks for the pointers to BB's posts; does he only comment on Poll Bludger? He's good enough to blog by himself.

  5. Hillbilly Skeleton19/12/11 10:38 am

    Might I also just add that Bill Shorten proved his bona fides pdq last week, when, on Day 1 in the job of IR Minister, he set that malevolent IR munchkin, Chris Corrigan(proxy for Peter Reith's reawakened ambitions for a Senate spot and an IR-led Coalition storming of the government citadel), quickly back on the horse he rode into town on.
    Plus, he set that simpering excuse for a pretty boy political journalist, and no friend of the Labor Party(strangely, considering his OH), Chris Uhlmann back on his heels in the interview he gave to 7.30.
    Bill took no prisoners and took no BS. A portent of things to come next year, as Warwick McKibbon said at Josh Frydenburg's IR Forum, when the Coalition "just try to find a new name for Workchoices".
    Also, another dark horse who hasn't got a mention in despatches but which showed the genius moves of the PM in the reshuffle, Jason Clare has already proven that he will be more than a match for Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott when it comes to Home Affairs, aka 'Problems with Asylum Seekers'. His positioning over the latest loss of life at sea, as People Traffickers continue to exploit The Greens nonsensical position of only caring sooo much about Asylum Seekers once they have made it safely to Australia, and Abbott & Morrison's duplicitous hypocrisy of trying to blame a Minority Government for not being able to get legislation through that they, in principle, agree with but would not vote for in parliament, had both spokespersons yesterday strangely but exquisitely muted in their reaction.
    Sarah Hanson-Young just sounded like a dill, which you would when trying to explain the unresolved dichotomy at the heart of The Greens' Bleeding Heart position, meant to appeal to the unthinkiing Mung Bean Muncher in the electorate.(I keep thinking of Middle Aged 'Neils', from The Young Ones' when I picture Greens' voters. Oh, wait on, his name is Ian, Ian Rintoul).
    Not to mention Tanya taking it up to the self-important doctors(and I keep on wondering, why, when Qantas is telling Airline Pilots, who carry peoples' lives in their hands that, 'you're just another worker', why is it not possible to take doctors down a peg or two to Cuban levels for the same reason?); and Nicola taking it to the stuffed shirts in the Legal fraternity.
    I do believe that the government has the makings of being able to get Tony Abbott on the run, and maybe even on his bike.

  6. Hillbilly Skeleton19/12/11 10:41 am

    Bushfire Bill used to blog at The Political Sword. However he gave it away for the immediacy of Poll Bludger. We at TPS are much the poorer for it. Grumble. Grumble.

  7. Greensborough Growler19/12/11 12:10 pm

    Our witless MSM Press Gallery also missed Uranium to India and US base in Darwin. However, the PM has a new dog called Reuben.

  8. I like the contextulising of your mainstream media criticism. a reshuffle is to freshen things up, promote new talent, get rid of dead wood - sure. we get that.

    but what light does it shine on the policy thinking within the government?

  9. Space Kidette19/12/11 2:09 pm

    IMHO the press gallery are still in the trenches fighting the 2010 election campaign. The govt, on the other hand have not only moved on but have their eyes well and truely on what is on our horizon. Exactly where it should be.

    If any of the press had actually paid attention JG was outlining where her focus was going to be in 2012, but despite repeating it ad nauseum in her announcement, the press gallery missed it because all they wanted to see was the oooh, JG is pissed with so and so and such and such is a Rudd supporter.

    The boy who cried wolf, anyone?

  10. HS, we're all trailing in your wake ;)

    Grog, I agree with you about one Dept per Cabinet minister. I think events will overtake McClelland's efforts, with the cumulative effect of disasters like the Brisbane floods and the Vic bushfires creating more and more bureaucratic momentum.

    Richard Marles is Parly Sec for Pacific Island affairs, and he's been pretty low profile. Even if there is no formal parliamentary role, I just thought it would behove the ALP even to put some rising star into his office and effectively do some work experience in foreign policy. Labor has had a cult of The Expert on particular topics throughout its history and it hasn't served them well (blogpost, if not a thesis, to come on that).

    Cheers Leroy.

    HS, wish I'd seen the interview you speak of. You might be right about the other stuff. BB used to post here too, and I leave the porch light on incase he's so moved to do so again.

    GG, always on the big issues are those folk.

    sprocket, by thy actions shall ye judge them; Lord knows the MSM don't know or care.

    SK, I agree completely about refighting the 2010 election. And they wonder why nobody buys their shitty product any more.

  11. Alphabajangodelta19/12/11 9:56 pm

    Another missing component of the MSM analysis is the strategic intent of the government, and I don't just mean the 'narrative'. Other than Albo's putting the Slipper into Abbott, most of the Government's wins this year have come from passing big stuff - carbon, MRRT, smokes etc - that, and I hesitate to say this, all signify 'moving forward'. But that too fits within a longer clearly staged strategy of using the first 5 months of the year for debate and negotiation, the next 5 for conclusion and delivery and the last for re-setting for the next stage. I haven't seen anyone connect the Slipper move to the reshuffle, but the two are clearly linked strategically. Surely the past 6 months success will encourage them to beget more. What new weaponry has Gillard directed her newly starred generals to procure and for what battles on what fronts? And conversely is there any chance the Opposition will offer more in response than a mounted donkey regiment? But no, the media's mostly gossip-mag superficial.
    A further question for me is who is at the core of this government beyond Gillard. We knew Rudd had his gang of four. But who is in Gillard's gang? And who is she taking her wider political counsel from? Faulkner no doubt but there must be a few more like a Bob Hogg with whom she tests ideas and strategies. And for the sheer goddam novelty of it all perhaps even a former female polly like Joan Kirner or even NZ's Helen Clark. Richo even? A really smart journo who wanted to build a proper insider reputation well ahead of the pack would set about finding this interesting and important background strategic advice stuff out and doing general interviews with the key mentors. They would then be mysteriously prescient (at least to most of their peers) when the strategy starts to become apparent over the course of 2012/2013.
    Lastly of meritorious note are a couple like Hartcher or Megalogenis who have inferred the big long-run national direction and are slowly joining dots back to government policy but they're more commentator analysts than reporters.
    Anyhow Andrew I'd like to say have a great Xmas and a long relaxing break. But I'll need something to fascinating to read while I do the same so it's no eggnog for you and straight back to blogging by Boxing Day!

  12. Agreed, very well written. And I completely agree about Arbib - we all know what he has done to the NSW Labor Party, he has been accused of being an American stooge, and was completely shown up on the World Cup bid. For penance, he should be sent back to Sussex St until the Labor wins back NSW again. That should tie him up for some time.

    And keep him out of the way of the genuine talent coming through - congrats to Shorten and Combet, Ellis, and Roxon. Well deserved all.

  13. Has the MSM ever been this terrible? Seriously, the reshuffle reporting was absolutely woeful "journalism".

    The Press Gallery groupthink is becoming so transparent, it is like the sheep following the sheep.

    This groupthink simply follows the polling without regard for the bigger, longer game being played.

    Overall the polling trend has come back to the Government as policy words turned into legislative actions. Some of the reporting reflected this at the time.

    However it took just one rogue Nielsen poll and an insider's flop on Slipper deflection to turn the reporting back to vicious and unhinged.

    The ALP conference, reshuffle and Rudd gossip were all examples of groupthink removed from factual reporting.

    When journalism leaves out the facts in reporting, it just becomes crappy fictional writing.

    But to give credit to the @murpharoo piece, it has found a new bottom as it crashed through the floor.

  14. I feel the missing element of your ongoing analysis of the Australian media, cutting as it is, is the murder-suicide pact that the press gallery and Sydney-based MSM journos have with the NSW Right of the ALP. Both of these decrepit institutions are on death's door, and their only remaining hope at relevance is to cling to each other as their ship plows into the iceberg. No wonder they feel no compunction in labelling the NSW Right as the alternative government, as that has been the continuous narrative they have pushed since they missed out on the original #spillard scoop.

    The journos' only contribution to understanding the Gillard government is publishing the faecal matter thrown from the direction of Sussex St. In their overtly stated quest to remain "Insiders", there's no point in the lizards sucking up to the Libs because they aren't inside anything important, and the powerbrokers behind Gillard have long since decided that journos are the enemy. Thus the post-Richo NSW Right and the press gallery, in conjunction with newsdesk occupiers centralised in Sydney, have no option but to conspire in naked desperation to save their existence.

    It's a race against time to see if the combined weight of the two doomed apocalypse birds dissipates enough by the time the election finally arrives to prevent them from sabotaging the government. Which will come first: Fairfax and News Ltd dismantled with the bits that make money surviving, but the futureless newspapers gutted; the federal wing of the NSW Right obliterated as they were at state level; or the Gillard government losing an election? All three are inevitable, but to me the last of the three looks the furthest away.

  15. If I could articulate my frustration at the state of mainstream political reporting in this country slightly better than a lonely scream into the night, I'd hope that it would be something along the lines of this article.

    The commentators you mention are beyond useless: they failed to predict every big moment of the last three years; and every prediction they make is wrong.

    What's worse is that they turn their anger and embarrassment onto others. Who is to blame for their failed - and frequent - predictions of Gillard's demise? Gillard, obviously.

    Doesn't she recognise their genius? Doesn't she know how important they are? Doesn't she enjoy being interviewed as if she were a Home and Away teen starlet appearing on the front cover of Dolly?

  16. Alpha: I agree with you about the riding orders of the new ministers. I'm thinking of how Howard set Kay Patterson up to fail and then replaced her with Abbott, who got everything he wanted to make Patterson look hopeless by comparison.

    Anon1: seen my earlier piece on Arbib? Holds up well I thought.

    Anon2: I think the press gallery think that if they have a quote, they have all the facts you could possibly need. It's sad, really. A once-proud profession is headed straight for the cliff, and as we saw when NOTW went down in Britain nobody will miss them.

    m0nty: the NSW Right are busy defying political gravity at the moment. I think NSW will make little contribution to the re-election of the Gillard government in 2013 (oh yes) and that a re-elected Gillard government need not see overly many of them in its ranks, which will create whatever the opposite of a vicious circle is.

    Anon3: welcome. This has been a constant theme of this blog for some time now. The government's policy of getting on with it and keeping the press gallery at a distance should mean the press galler adapt the way they work, but not yet apparently. Change or die, is all I can say.

  17. Bushfire Bill20/12/11 7:14 pm

    Merry Xmas Andrew. And thanks for the plug. Your own posts have been a "must read" source of consistent pleasure for me to read. Always a good day when there's new one.

    Onwards to the New Year!


  18. Andrew: if the NSW Right is to be gutted federally in 2013, that's a lot of seats that Gillard has to make up elsewhere. Perhaps a bit early for Antony Green style drilldown analysis, but a broad brush look at the state-by-state breakdown of your Gillard victory scenario would be interesting.

  19. Hillbilly Skeleton20/12/11 8:26 pm

    The opposite of a 'vicious circle'? A virtuous circle! And, yes, the PM is waiting for the Press Gallery to stop writing crap & for Fran Kelly to stop talking crap to Michelle and Alison. Sigh. Mean Girls are Mean.

  20. For reasons associated with work (an unpleasant subject, I know) I've neither read nor listened to much meeja for the lst week and a half. I do wish, however, that I had read this yesterday - and all the comments, especially AlphaETC's - would have cheered me up no end.

    Apart from Arbib, I don't thing the reshuffle is all that bad. However, I shall try to get to the links in the next day or so in order to form a more considered opinion.

    Meanwhile, I shall retire to my couch and refuse to contemplate having flu in summer.

  21. Happy Christmas Andrew and thanks for your work over the year. You are a beacon of light when some of us oldies truly feel like giving up.

  22. Interesting - thank you. The MSM didn't comment on the fact that Treasury has five Ministers to work to now instead of three. Coupled with the public service cuts will any will receive the top notch advice they are sure to expect?