24 January 2012

The relics of Manne

Robert Manne is a professor of politics. His analysis can be very good, but it's been quite some time since I've read a piece of his that showed a genuinely impressive breadth and depth of learning, and which illuminated a commonplace issue in such a way that makes you look at it differently. This recent piece, purportedly written by Manne, is a textbook example of slovenly analysis. Maybe blogs just aren't his thing.
For better or for worse, unlike most commentators, my judgments about Australian politics are generally formed not by conversations with Canberra insiders ...
Neither are mine. Depends who you mean by "most commentators", I suppose.
... but almost solely by reading history books, listening to radio, watching current affairs television and following the newspapers. As it happens, opinion polls are among my most valuable sources of information.
Oh dear.

Only after reading this do you realise this is a warning: Manne really does forsake any pretense to scholarly analysis and gives us a half-arsed summary from the tailings of the mainstream media. What he should be doing is showing us how inadequately the media covers politics, how poorly it acts as a conduit between the people and the representatives - he hinted at such a case with his work last year on The Australian, but here was a chance to make a wider case and he squibbed it.

Imagine Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson both listening attentively to Radio National. Talk about diversity.
Kevin Rudd governed Australia for two and a half years. Here, according to Newspoll, is the remarkable story of how his government fared, as measured in “two-party preferred” terms: 63% to 37% (once); 62% to 38% (once); 61% to 39% (once); 60% to 40% (once); 59% to 41% (five times); 58% to 42% (seven times); 57% to 43% (nine times); 56% to 44% (nine times); 55% to 45% (twelve times); 54% to 46% (four times); 53% to 47% (twice); 52% to 48% (five times); 51% to 49% (once); 50% to 50% (once); 49% to 51% (once).
This should be more embarrassing than it obviously is. A professor of automotive engineering who enthused about a particular car's paint job, ignoring its inadequate engine and bumpy ride, would be laughed out of the profession. A professor of medicine who looked a patient up and down and diagnosed, "Well, you look fine to me", would face disciplinary charges for negligence. Robert Manne has made the sort of assessment of a political situation that would embarrass Malcolm Colless and Dennis Shanahan after a long boozy lunch.

The Rudd government failed because its administrative structures failed. Announcements were made that were not followed up. There was little sense of the cohesive moral core to that government that appeared in Rudd's two articles for The Monthly while he was Opposition Leader; I had rather hoped Manne would have done something like that, compared the promise to the delivery. If Manne was going to do polls, I thought he'd be a bit forensic and go into particular demographics, issues, and points of time; sadly, no.
While it is logically possible that this year the Gillard government will see a revival of its fortunes, at present this seems rather unlikely unless some disaster befalls the Coalition or its leader.
You have got to be kidding.

Manne regards Tony Abbott as the constant, while Gillard is some sort of stumblebum who can't do anything right. Manne lacks not only the good grace but the sense to acknowledge what Gillard's legacy would be if it all ended tomorrow: that she did what Rudd said he was gonna do, with the carbon price and soon the national disability scheme. Just as Ginger Rogers was said to have been every bit the dancer Fred Astaire was, but moving backwards and in high heels, so too Gillard deserves more credit rather than less for manifesting the high ideals of Rudd under the circumstances of the current parliament.
Indeed if the poll results achieved since April 2011 continue for several months into 2012 ...
Never mind what follows that quote, look closely at the assumption: how likely is it? Polls are what the economists call a leading lagging indicator, they react to events. The sillier members of the politico-media complex react to polls as new initiatives, ignoring the events to which they react. It would be a mistake to assume that the Gillard government will achieve bugger-all between now and the end of the financial year. Whether or not they get any credit from those who filter information through to Robert Manne is an open question.
Or it will return to the leader it destroyed. If this indeed turns out to be the way the choice presents itself, my recommendation would be for a return to Rudd.
The first sentence in the above quote is scarcely a sentence at all. It also shows the limits of political hyperbole: if Rudd had indeed been "destroyed", he can't become leader again. Mark Latham, Bill Hayden, James Scullin: there are three ex-leaders of the ALP whose capacity to return to that office can be said to be finished. The modifying clause in the second sentence is a pointless piece of backside-covering. If Manne wants a return to Rudd, why didn't he just say so?
In general, Kevin Rudd led a very successful government, at least until its final months. It is true, as Rudd has admitted, that he then erred very badly in postponing the introduction of the emissions trading scheme.
To return to a medical analogy, you could equally say that my grandmother was in good health until she died from cancer. Rudd's government was weakened by its administrative failure, and by the binary nature by which the once-proud ALP went from swallowing whatever he put up to having none of him. Manne should have sourced the shortcomings of the Rudd Government more widely than Rudd's own account.
Rudd lost office in part because he made some errors; in part because he made some serious mining and media enemies; but perhaps most importantly of all because he had spectacularly failed to win even the minimal loyalty of his Cabinet and caucus colleagues.
Prime Minister is the ultimate job in Australian politics. The failure to be hail-fellow-well-met and keep people on side is a basic requirement of politics. The 25 Prime Ministers before Rudd had all been experienced politicians, who had won and lost their share of fights, and who worked with colleagues who liked or disliked them to varying degrees (and who often faced more committed opponents from their own side than from across the floor of parliament). The idea that Rudd has been treated extraordinarily unfairly is an ahistorical nonsense that ought no be tolerated from a junior reporter, let alone a Professor of Politics.
The enduring popularity of the Rudd government was of course no accident. The single most important reason can be stated simply. Rudd led virtually the only government in the Western world to survive the global financial crisis without falling into recession.
That was the period in which the popularity of the Rudd government began to decline. Australians do not give credit to governments that deliver them from economic peril, nor punish them for leading them into it. Paul Keating became Prime Minister after, not before, "the recession we had to have" and won the election that followed. Following the 1961 "credit crunch" the Coalition spent another decade in office. Rudd promised to open opportunities that were not open under Howard; he had little to show for all his talk.
The overthrow of Rudd must seem to casual foreign observers of Australian politics almost entirely crazy.
Australian politics is not conducted for the benefit of "casual foreign observers".
In my observation, Australians expect their Prime Ministers to have a vision for the future of their country and to move confidently on the international stage. Unlike his successor, Julia Gillard – the least impressive Australian Prime Minister since Billy McMahon – Kevin Rudd had a vision and an international presence.
Ah yes, the old "Prime Ministerial" thing.

Whitlam didn't fail because he lacked vision; he failed because his execution was so poor. Rudd failed for the same reason. Rudd spoke Chinese but the Chinese came to despise him, and bilateral relations are no further advanced today than they were when Alexander Downer was Australia's Foreign Minister. Gillard has matched Rudd's international presence in half the time of his government.

Manne's barb about McMahon is telling. Since Gorton, all Prime Ministers bar two have actively duchessed the press gallery (including Radio National, The Age, and such other media as Manne consumes) in order to get into that office. The two exceptions are McMahon and Gillard. The press gallery, wounded at being shut out of big announcements and perfectly happy with petty ones like Abbott's Daily Stunt, are gunning for Gillard and happy to frame her announcements against how The Situation reacts to them. From this framing comes the apparently uncritical perspective of Professor Manne.
Thus far at least, in addition, partly through a lack of information, the nation’s journalists have failed to provide an even remotely adequate account of what actually took place between the conspirators in the weeks, days and hours before the coup. (By contrast, within months of Howard’s near-removal in September 2007, at the time of APEC, excellent, detailed accounts of the episode were written by Pamela Williams in the Australian Financial Review and Paul Kelly in the Australian.)
Partly, this shows the failure of press gallery journalists, who cannot gather information that isn't spoon-fed to them (the contrast is silly, because "within months" of September 2007 the Howard government was out of office. Gillard, Rudd, Shorten et al are all still in government. When the current government loses you watch them sing like canaries). Again, Manne should be awake up to this.
As Rudd seems to many Australians, especially those who do not belong to the political class, to have been dealt with unfairly, his restoration to the Prime Ministership of Australia will seem to them to be the righting of a wrong.
Many people felt the same way about Whitlam after 11 November 1975. Didn't happen though, did it?
If things go on under Gillard as they are, or if in a few months a new leader from the improbable list of successors is chosen, Labor will almost certainly suffer a defeat only a little less humiliating than the one that brought down New South Wales Labor last year. If however an election were to be held shortly after the restoration of Rudd, there is a reasonable chance that Labor might put in a respectable performance and even an outside chance that a Rudd government might be returned.

Of course if Rudd were to return to the Prime Ministership of Australia things would need to be very different this time. In his last political essays, George Orwell often wrote about how individuals were sometimes required to make what he called a “moral effort” in order to be able to acknowledge uncomfortable or unpleasant facts about themselves. If Rudd regained the Prime Ministership, he and his supporters would have to make the moral effort to understand why his rhetoric so often overreached his performance and why he so comprehensively failed to win the loyalty, trust and affection of his Cabinet and caucus colleagues and also of the senior members of the public service. Searching self-criticism, and in particular with regard to questions touching on character, is tough. Without it, however, if there is a second Rudd Prime Ministership, it will be doomed to failure.
Maybe Manne is writing for the benefit of his "casual foreign observers", because these two paragraphs in particular are so banal they are not worth reading; why he imagined them worth writing is a mystery. There is no evidence that Rudd or any of his acolytes have done the “moral effort”. This is probably the most significant reason why it is so idle for people like Manne to hope for a restoration of a government he clearly did not understand.
Another matter for reflection, if Rudd is restored as Labor leader, is the Party’s relationship to the Greens. Under Rudd relations were very poor. Under Gillard, mainly through force of necessity, they have improved. It seems clear that in the short and the middle term, if the Left in Australia is to have a future and if the populist conservative tide is to be turned, some form of Labor-Greens alliance is vital.
See? An admission of that kind is not so hard. Instead of hurrying on as though it never happened, a bit of reflection may have yielded a different and better piece by Manne.
... the Gillard government, following the High Court’s ruling on the Malaysian solution, implicitly looked to the Coalition for asylum seeker policy support. This was always entirely foolish ...
Indeed it was. A Labor-Green alliance would have worked toward a regional solution, which would require a Foreign Minister who can tear himself away from the beige corridors of Brussels and work regional capitals. That's the type of Foreign Minister this country needs: now compare that ideal against the incumbent and the problem, which undermines Manne's whole thesis, becomes clear.

The current situation, as described earlier, does not have to be described or even understood against the frame of reference set down by the Howard government. The fact that the government attempted a bipartisan solution on a matter of national importance makes their position stronger, while making the Libs look like a nostalgia act deliberately reaching for an extreme position.

The third-last and second-last paragraph of Manne's piece are fair enough as far as high-level summaries go, but he is wrong to attribute such measures as disability insurance and mental health to Rudd. The difference between the guy who talks a big game and the woman who gets things done is a commonplace piece of black humour at the workplace, but Manne is flatly wrong to assume that he policies he describes are not part of Gillard's program. This sets up his final, concluding paragraph to be a false dichotomy, a non-sequitur to what wasn't much of an argument anyway, and then a bit of idle speculation worthy of - well, a "casual foreign observer", rather than a well-regarded professor of political science.

Robert Manne has the depth of knowledge about the political system and how it works to make a far better commentator than he is. He chooses instead to engage in such stale, warmed-over, fifth-hand punditry that you may as well take his media reports directly and forget about his poor perspective. Manne is scarcely better than or even different to Malcolm Farnsworth, who for all his inadequacies is trying his best. If I want Robert Manne's opinion I'll get it direct from Michelle Grattan. There is an adjustment process to be undertaken here where a once-important commentator should be turned down in the mix to join the background noise rather than the eminence due to Manne's clear writing and strong analysis, which is apparently a thing of the past.


  1. I must say I am in disagreement with what seems to be your main thrust. You are berating Manne in one breath for extrapolating an argument then continue on that he didn't extrapolate it further thus coming to the conclusion YOU want.
    Manne has presented some facts (poll results) interspersed with his opinion as a political observer. You have just presented what you HOPE will happen.
    There seems to be a very real trend developing to shoot the messenger any time a critical analysis of Gillard appears. Sadly, this article is a thinly veiled ad hominem attack pock marked with sneering asides in inverted commas and for some reason, an attack on another journo who has nothing to do with Mannes article.
    I fail to see why Mannes article is "stale" "warmed over punditry". It just seems to me that what you really mean is you disagree with it. Fine. But tell us why he is wrong without reverting to MSM based unfounded rhetoric (Chinese "despise" Rudd) which you ironically rail against.
    Yes, for the record I happen to agree with Manne. Mainly because he has put forward a credible argument. I am yet to see a credible article refuting it. This one included.

    1. "You have just presented what you HOPE will happen". No, I've observed what is actually happening and contrasted it with Manne's false dichotomy between what the Rudd government proposed and what the Gillard government delivers. Manne relies too heavily on poll results, like many of the insiders whom he claims not to consult.

      "There seems to be a very real trend developing to shoot the messenger any time a critical analysis of Gillard appears". Any time, Stephen? I'd be a lot busier than I am if I really was some sort of Gillard fanboy. Do you even know what 'ad hominem' means?

      Manne's article is stale, warmed-over punditry because he repeats uncritically what the MSM pumps at him, and I expected better from such a man. Depends what you're looking for in terms of 'credibility', really.

    2. Yes I know what lots of big words mean... like condescending and hypocritical. Clever aren't I ?

    3. What about 'sarcastic', and (here's a phrase for ya) 'passive-aggressive'? I made my case and you've failed yours.

  2. Lachlan Ridge24/1/12 4:05 pm


    Finally some one has outed Manne for the venal and obscurantist car wreck of an intellect he is. I remember debating with Manne back in 2001 (this was when he was flirting with the middle class wannabee lefties in the Overland crew) about the detention of asylum seekers. I had an 'oh dear' moment when it became apparent he was not across the fact that asylum seeker detention was initiated by the ALP, and by left wing ministers at that.

    One also has to revisit the garbage Manne put out about Workchoices back in 2005-2006. Manne has all the credibility of Malcolm Mackerass, but with none of the gravitas.

    Manne reminds me of those baby-boomers I shared the left with who looked nostalgically at the fifties and its protected industry, high union densities and full employment - forgetting that this was all accomplished under the Menzies paternalism.

    His Road to Damascus journey from his days editing Quadrant show just how far down the toilet the standards of articulating Australian progressive thought have sunk. Thank fire truck for this blog is all I can say.

    As for Rudd, how's that 2020 conference coming along?

    1. I subscribed to Quadrant when Manne edited it. I miss his insights, all he more so when I read his latest stuff.

  3. Manne has an enviable platform for his blog and yet he chooses issues of critical irrelevance. This ranks up there with his brave stance on refugee policy that turned out to be nothing more than a half-baked analysis of boat arrivals before and after Howard.

    Manne should be talking about pokies policy, or gay marriage, not a Rudd revival. If these lukewarm and disingenuous praises are all Kevin has going for him I would hate to see what his true enemies think.

    1. Hopefully he has more insight than the sources he lists at the top of his article.

  4. When are they going to let it go, Kevin Rudd won't be leader again.
    You should add to your header Tony Abott will never... and Kevin also.

    The constant "What could this mean for a leadership challenge??!!!111!!, who snubbed who" etc. Just the laziest form of "commentary, they might as well be discussing a soap opera, cause that's what they seem to think is going on every day.

  5. Apart from setting my teeth on edge from the sheer shallowness of analysis, that article completely embodies both the managerialism and serial messiah complex that have sunk the ALP in its present moribund state.

    An excellent takedown, thankyou.

    1. Cheers Tom. I thought Manne's approach to politics was an idle one, and that's sad.

  6. I think you meant to say polls are a lagging indicator

    1. Quite apart from the impossibility in political terms of Rudd coming back, people are forgetting that the man has had serious heart surgery in the last year. He probably shouldn't try to return to the Lodge after that!

      Thanks for the rebuttal of Manne, Andrew. He does seem to be falling off his trolley recently.

  7. Nice post Andrew. Yes, that is an `oh-dear` moment there. The bring back Rudd was another `oh-dear` for me.

    I find it quaint that people still keep thinking Rudd has any hope of getting back and the embedded media are so dull to keep peddling it.

    I am not as confident as others that Joolya can win next time round. The Wilkie Pokies deal not even presented for a vote will annoy more voters this week. Joolya did not look well being grilled in the RN/ABC interview.

    Both Joolya and Mr Rabbit still look like crap to me, why anyone like Manne thinks either won`t or can`t implode between now and the 2013 poll has me zonked.

  8. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch since I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!
    Sorel Women's Tofino CVS Boot