20 February 2012

All sizzle, no sausage

All that's pathetic and stupid and wrong about the media confection over the Labor leadership is summed up by, if not in, this piece by Malcolm Farnsworth.

At the risk of spoiling the story, let's go to the end to see where it goes most wrong:
For the rest of us, this is not a time to turn away. It is a time to pay attention. 
And perhaps to be heard.
To pay attention to what? There has been no policy discussion to speak of, so "the rest of us" (those of us who won't be getting any handouts, nor suffering any wrath, from a grateful/wounded leader) have no idea how we'd be better/worse off either way.

At a time when people are panicking they are less likely to be listening, not more likely - particularly not to people they hadn't been listening to beforehand.

The idea that this is an opportunity for "the rest of us" to get ideas and priorities through is rubbish. Today, the Gonski Report on education funding is to be released. Pretty much every journalist in the press gallery has asserted to the point of bragging that they're going to ignore the Gonski Report because of Rudd-Gillard. The idea that now's a great opportunity to have some input into important government policy could not be any less true.
I blame John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser. I was a young schoolboy in 1971 when their brawling inside the decaying coalition government awakened me to politics.

Their struggle culminated in a leadership challenge. William McMahon fought Gorton to a draw, so Gorton plucked a casting ballot out of thin air to vote himself out of the prime ministership. The ridiculous and treacherous McMahon became prime minister, and the Liberals compensated Gorton by making him deputy leader. I was hooked. Who wouldn't be?
Did you get a lot of face-time with the individuals involved, Malcolm? Did the Liberal Party develop a strong reputation for openness and inclusiveness in that autumn?

Millions of Australians witnessed the same events and they left them cold - not all of them are fools, or mug "punters" waiting to be played. Mind you, I was two in 1971, and reading up on them later I found them interesting.

There are three things to be said about McMahon which matter in the current debate, which mean we can't depend on the lazy baby-boomer cliché with which Farnsworth presents us.

First, McMahon was the first politician to recognise that Australia was no longer run from Melbourne, and that the priorities, assumptions, hopes and fears of Melbourne were not those of the country at large.

Second, McMahon made the government look more organised. This meant that many of Gorton's more ambitious and progressive policies bit the dust, particularly towards Aborigines, and I for one am sorely aggrieved that it happened this way. This also meant that there were fewer leaks to the press gallery, which they hated. This combination meant that good policy was communicated poorly:
  • The McMahon goverment did most of the work in withdrawing from Vietnam. To communicate this would have meant long disquisitions on the proper role of forces fighting for Australia's national interests, the idea of an objective and whether or not it had been achieved, pissing off the Americans and the appearance of giving in to hippy protesters. Instead, individual servicemen bore the burdens of both the war policy and its reversal, and people not very different to Malcolm Farnsworth give full credit to Whitlam for ending the Vietnam War.
  • The McMahon government introduced metric measurements. The fact that they didn't communicate it properly (and that the Whitlam government compounded this by failing to do so) meant that people still insist on conversions to gallons or feet or whatever.
The result was that the Coalition lost the election by less than they might have, and returned to office sooner than might have been expected. There is a lot of talk about losing parties seeking to "save the furniture" (which shows how much parties take safe seats for granted). The only successful example of this appears to be the McMahon government.

Third, let's get all Farnsworth-shallow here: McMahon, like Gillard, did not duchess the press gallery at all and presented his ascent to them as a fait accompli. McMahon, like Gillard, had funny ears, funny voice, and was rumoured to have included men in his love life. The press gallery scorned McMahon and treated him like a punchline. They bemoaned the government's incompetence at getting its message out. This made the job of the then Opposition Leader easier than it might otherwise have been.

Now you see what Farnsworth is up to here. He's giving the press gallery an easy out for ignoring substantial matters and playing up the insubstantial. He thinks that their rage at missing out on the biggest story of 2010 is entirely justified, and that it is more important to report interpersonal gossip rather than on the outcomes of deliberations that affect us all.
... survival usually wins.
When one party is destroyed in a conflict then no, survival doesn't win.
It is the individual us writ large.
What gobbledegook that is. Nobody who writes stuff like that is in any position to criticise Julia Gillard's speech to the ALP conference in December.
Since Fraser gutted Gorton, only two contests have come close in terms of impact and importance. The Hawke-Keating match-up is a clear winner. Their successors, Howard and Costello, were in the running for a while but when push came to shove the pretender wasn't up to it.
What running? The idea that Howard was under constant challenge from Costello is bullshit. 95% of media content generated on that topic had no basis in fact whatsoever. At best, it showed journalists being manipulated for reasons other than full and proper disclosure of what goes on in government; journalists advertising themselves as mugs.

As I pointed out earlier, all that coverage of the Howard-Costello non-story detracted attention away from real stories in that government, like the Iraqi wheat scandal that was wrongly shunted home entirely to a private company. The non-coverage of that issue is a indictment of the entire press gallery of that time, not the celebration Farnsworth would seek to create.
Challenges? Even when their very existence is on the line, Labor people today will talk like HR managers. Even so, there was no doubt the prime minister's people were worried. The past couple of weeks have seen a steady escalation of apocalyptic talk of mass resignations and instability if Rudd were to be returned.
This bit confused me: are HR managers known for their "apocalyptic talk about mass resignations"? Not in my experience. What it showed was that the leadership is not the most important preoccupation of government (or even a form of "entertainment" as Farnsworth regards it).
When all else fails, play the fear and turmoil card.
The Rudd camp responded on the weekend with Darren Cheeseman, a backbencher who declared Gillard's leadership was "terminal".
Gillard's response to Cheeseman was to portray him as a frightened rabbit who lost it under pressure, and that he should just calm down and play the long game. It was masterful and Cheeseman isn't human if he isn't having second thoughts about what he's done.
Remember that neither of these Lilliputians is Paul Keating.
Why do you want them to listen to you, then? How can such insignificant people be as "entertaining" as you profess, Malcolm?
There was never any question of his legitimacy as a prime ministerial usurper.
One is either legitimate or one is a usurper, Malcolm. Another sentence that makes no sense, based on poor thinking about that situation and its applicability here.
And it's been great fun so far, not least because so many people, in addition to the paranoiacs and conspiracists who increasingly occupy the online world, have been denying the reality of this contest for months.
Insofar as anything so ethereal can be said to be real - I still deny it. Rudd's numbers have not changed: had they improved, a ballot would be on and had they declined, Gillard would be secure. There's still nothing going on, only there's more of it and it's louder now. However much it thrills Malcolm Farnsworth there is still nothing in it for those of us who think more of government than the shenanigans of pollies and journos. If Baudrillard can deny that the Gulf War took place in 1991 I can deny that Prime Minister Gillard's position is under serious threat now.

Having worked himself into a state asserting the reality of something that isn't real, and gloating at those who think differently to him, Farnsworth sets up some straw men:
It's de rigueur now to profess disgust at this turn of events. Serious minds decry the brutality, the ambition, the lack of policy debate.
I don't think anyone has claimed brutality and ambition have no pace in politics. He sneaks these in with "lack of policy debate"; fair enough only when you consider that this man invented the concept of a legitimate usurper.
They bemoan a political system that has somehow failed.
The Syrian political system has failed, Malcolm. The political system of Zimbabwe has spent two decades on the brink of failure. Nobody but your straw man is claiming failure for the Australian political system. Some journalists hint at it and Abbott confuses his failure to win the last election with system failure, but apart from that we can say this failure nonsense has been plucked out of your, er, imagination Malcolm.
But I'm having none of it.
Malcolm 1, Straw Man 0: and did any of you Straw Man fans out there expect any other result?
These are marvellous times for politics. These are the times when you see how things really work. This IS the system working, not failing.
No, these are the times when government is distracted by bullshit. The standoff where nothing happens and nothing is resolved might keep Malcolm Farnsworth on the edge of his seat; but whatever it is or might be, it isn't the political system at work.
As Barack Obama would say, it's a teachable moment. It's time to revel.
Ironic, isn't it? All those nascent teachable moments made possible by the Gonski recommendations going begging because Farnsworth is hooting and hollering from the cheap seats about something that isn't happening. If Barack Obama was trying to teach you something I doubt there'd be too much revelry.
It's a great battle and a great human drama.
Only in the hands of better writers than me, Malcolm Farnsworth, or anybody else in the press gallery.
Think of the potentially satisfying consequences.

If Rudd wins, there will be many public and quite a few private cheers if Shorten, Arbib, Farrell, Feeney and Howes have their high-handed disregard for the electorate thrown back in their faces. Somewhere in Crown Casino, Karl Bitar might even feel the disdain blowing his way.
How long would that satisfaction last? Out with with factional bathwater would go the 2011 Finance Minister of the Year, the architect of the economic policy that is Labor's only hope of any sort of future outside its own support base. Out would go the most experienced minister in the government, Simon Crean. Rudd better have some mighty good healing skills is all I have to say about that. If you don't care about that stuff, it's easy to overlook I suppose.
This [re-electing Rudd] is the opportunity for the caucus to upturn that world and restore its lost dignity.
What about all the lost dignity that came with Rudd centralising all decision-making in his office and then dithering away the goodwill he created in 2007? Are you willing to bet he won't do that again? Is this the same dignity that they willingly signed over to Rudd as a down-payment for more and more contempt - from Rudd? It wasn't Gillard who did the stealing, Malcolm.
Yes, there is an economy to worry about. There are serious issues that need attention. But this matters too.
It matters much less than the economy, Malcolm, and the many other very serious matters facing the government and the country right now. That's the reason why people are upset that it's receiving more attention than it warrants. Just because Malcolm Farnsworth doesn't understand all that "serious-minded" stuff, doesn't mean it's as unimportant as Farnsworth tries to make out.
His was the last electorate to be decided in 2010. He won by 771 votes and now holds the most marginal seat in the nation by 0.41 per cent. His seat stretches from the suburbs of Geelong, snakes through coastal holiday towns, and extends into rural areas such as Colac. In some ways it is a snapshot of suburban, provincial and rural Australia. Cheeseman would know better than most how ineffective and discredited is Gillard. He is, as an online wit observed, "not a happy little Corangamite".
He's showed his hand early in a high stakes game. No wonder he's "a bit worried". If Gillard plays the long game as I suspect she will, Darren Cheeseman has about as much political future as Craig Thomson - particularly if Rudd feints in this round. If Rudd gets up Cheeseman may not be any better off, because Rudd's that kind of guy.
On the other side of the Caucus divide, we can give a cheer to Bendigo's Steve Gibbons.
No points Malcolm? Even Gerard Henderson gives "two cheers" to things that meet his grudging approval.
Gibbons released a statement yesterday morning castigating Kevin Rudd's "chaotic and deeply offensive style of leadership". Later, he accused Rudd of being "a psychopath with a giant ego".
No engagement, Malcolm? Not even the briefest pause that these might not be positive qualities in a Prime Minister if not compensated for adequately - if not within himself, then by an effective support crew (staff, parliamentary acolytes)? The whole idea that Rudd has changed is pretty key to the whole issue of whether Rudd deserves a second go.
They might find the electorate appreciates it, however much the media trivialises it. They might just earn points for standing for something.
Not if Malcolm Farnsworth has his way - you can only accuse the media of trivialising issues and people if you yourself are not culpable of the same thing. Farnsworth has praised Rudd for dancing around the question of whether or not he'll contest the leadership and regain the office of Prime Minister, so why he should hold a couple of backbenchers from regional Victoria to a different standard is beyond me.

I actually think that Malcolm Farnsworth means well (not damning with faint praise, I really mean that). He has, however, been sucked into the politico-media complex to the point where he thinks that's what politics is, that's all it could be, and he accepts its circular logic as to what it's for. A media that stood more aloof from the politicians and measured the impacts of Canberra horse-trading upon those who have to live with those outcomes is so alien to Malcolm that he dare not even consider it, thus the straw man work. No longer a young schoolboy but a schoolboy in his fifties, Farnsworth believes politics is whatever Mother Grattan says it is, and if she don't like it then it ain't kosher, and folks who think otherwise are to be pitied.

Here at Politically Homeless, we think Gillard is playing the long game and is tougher and smarter than both her Opposition Leaders. Rudd has come too far out of the gate too early; this time next year his pitch might have more appeal than it does, but too much can go wrong between now and August next year. Farnsworth has kind of done us a favour in showing what that wrong looks like (now that's damning with faint praise, I really mean that too). And speaking of wrong, The Situation was losing momentum last week and will almost certainly continue to do so (which may explain the current kerfuffle) - but only if the press refrain from giving him or Rudd more standing than their contributions to the nation would warrant.


  1. Brilliant piece again. Total demolition of the Michael Farnsworth narrative, sorry the Canberra press gallery narrative.

    I do like Malcolm as well and I think he means well. Why do some people think he contributes anything original though. He is an echo chamber of Michelle Grattan as you point out.

    Grattan does the professional gig and Farnsworth does the amateur gig on The Drum. They have all bases covered inside the bubble.

    Loved your strawman pickup. That is spot on. So easy to argue with. He should try a bigger challenge.

    How can anyone beat his paragraph:

    " It's a great battle and a great human drama."

    "Only in the hands of better writers than me, Malcolm Farnsworth, or anybody else in the press gallery."

    The soap opera, the drama, the kitch and the farce is in the eye of the writer. These are serious and important issues being debated that impact a lot of people.

    It is hardly a joke or entertainment. It is mainly bored and cynical people on good incomes who treat it all like a circus and a sideshow. It isn't. It matters.

    The politicians are making history and their legacy good or bad will be remembered. The journalists mostly are unaccountable and forgotten.

  2. There is no reason that I should 'listen' to you since you would appear to represent everything I oppose politically and personally .e.g. liberal / self righteous / petty / historically selective et al. Yet dammed if I don't look forward to your articles and the fresh air that comes from observing the fray from above.

    I thank you.

    1. Now that's high praise. Thank you, and rest assured your dirty little secret is safe with me.

  3. Bravo Andrew...excellent post.

    I fully agree with you...this is the prime example of the press gallery circle-jerk in action. They've worked themselves up into a lather about something based on whispers form unnamed sources. If people aren't willing to go on the record how seriously could you take it?

    I hope the PM ignores it and continues on...you could heard the heads of the Canberra Goldfish Bowl explode rom here.

  4. The tedious bullshit that continues to emanate from the would be king makers of the presso is becoming ever so boring, but mayhap they are indeed giving rudd the help he so desparately needs to destroy the Labor party and clear the way for peta's puppet to move into the lodge.

    Wish we could be the recipients of this sort of analysis in the MSM.

  5. Speaking of press gallery narratives, Carney's editorial today is pretty hilarious. Somehow he can't just get over the idea the one true king Kevin Rudd was 'knifed' by Gillard: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/reaping-what-you-sow-20120221-1tlq8.html

    Apparently that part about him alienating almost all of the Labor caucus didn't really happen.

  6. *relieved sigh*
    I know I can count on you, Andrew, to save me from the sickmakingly complacent meta-journalism that is all most of the MSM provide.

  7. David Maher is suggesting that Labor should have been as outspoken in 2010 about the reason for Rudd's removal as they are now. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/total-candour-was-only-way-to-stop-him-20120223-1tqs9.html

    In his video he also suggests that Rudd is driven by a deep seated anger.

  8. Good stuff, Andrew. The Drum isn't completely useless, though, since they've subsequently posted this piece:
    which, like you, puts it all together nicely.
    As of the post-Rudd demolition next Monday, any journo who quotes "a govt source" when criticising this government should be laughed out of the gallery. And Rudd will be a lame duck.