19 February 2012

Oxygen thieves

What happened this week in Canberra? I don't know, I wasn't there. To find out, what I did was what most people do: I turned to the media. They weren't any use. The media was full of something that hasn't happened and probably won't.

The normally reliable Laura Tingle wrote:
It would be nice to write about something more edifying than the Labor mambo this week, but it utterly consumes Canberra, and the government.
No, it doesn't.

This week saw the government introduce more policy with no opposition to speak of:
  • The haemmorrhage of $billions subsidising private health insurance has been curbed.
  • It appears that tax reform is further advanced than it was thanks to a deal of which Rob Oakeshott seemed keen to take ownership.
Don't tell me that stuff doesn't matter, because it matters a lot more than insider gossip. Both the above affect millions of Australians and that there is more to come on each of these, whereas the leadership stuff is just the same old same-old. The above policies, and the way they are enacted, give us some basis by which we can assess the government and its alternatives; more anonymous backgrounding does little but deepen contempt for those who engage in it (including those who seek it out and pass it on). The fact that grown-up government goes on puts the lie to the idea that leadership is a story.

Here's what happens when the processes of government are 'utterly consumed' by the sort of shite we have seen this week:
  • The Health Minister, a member of the left faction, would have be effectively countermanded by some idle musings by Rudd or one of his supporters; to get her proposals up she'd have to pick a side and even then some good policy might get lost in the tumult.
  • Oakeshott would have acted all weary and called for "leadership" on tax reform without specifying anyone or anything in particular, trying to rise above the fray like Cheryl Kernot did during her Democrat phase, and ultimately getting nowhere.
This is the sort of thing Tony Abbott did to his two predecessors, it's what John Howard did to every Liberal leader he served under, and it's what Hawke, Keating and Latham did in their respective campaigns for their party's leadership.

When personality conflicts crush policy, then - and only then - leadership becomes a story rather than marginal scuttlebutt.
In all this, timing is everything.
Yes it is, and when you're raking over a two-year-old story you look stupid and irrelevant.
Journalists spend hours trying to determine whether Gillard personally showed polling to colleagues against Rudd in 2010 (very little evidence), or was it just her lieutenants showing or spruiking them, and/or did the lieutenants just tell some MPs about it?
Why? Sack them all, every one. The next editor, journalist or apologist for same who wrings their hands at the expense of investigative journalism should consider how much it costs to have hundreds of press gallery journos chasing this non-story of who said what to whom two years ago.
Gillard strode into the first parliamentary fortnight, staring down all the speculation of her imminent demise, beating the opposition in Parliament, yet ending up back in the poop all because of a bad decision on giving an interview.

Whatever is said about the Prime Minister’s political management capabilities, it is doubtful we have ever seen quite such a tough operator in our lifetimes.

She has grimly stood through relentless pressure for almost two years that would have left many of her colleagues blithering wrecks.
Now consider that Rudd would have been one of those "blithering wrecks" and the story becomes clear. Since when do journalists criticise pollies for giving interviews?
The main problem we have here is that the two camps seem to be working on plans that rely on the other camp making a mistake, rather than any actual plan to resolve things.
That's why it's a stand-off. Day 605 of Rudd-Gillard tensions, no news to report - well no news worth reporting, which isn't quite the same thing.
Rudd’s people, meantime, are trying to force caucus to confront the damage done to its primary vote – and their career prospects – since they deposed their leader, and persuade them to put it right.
Here's Rudd's central problem. He has to promise that he will restore Labor's popularity to where it was in 2007-09, and keep it there, and never ever return to the kind of death-spiral since 2010. At the same time, he also has to demonstrate that he's completely changed the way that he works with people, an manages the Labor machine, to the satisfaction of those who have worked with him closely over many years. On top of that, he actually has to show that he follows through once he announces things. Only Darren Cheeseman appears to have signed up to that: good luck.

Rudd has made no impact in the Queensland election. If Labor gets the drubbing that is widely predicted, will his involvement make him any more appealing to backbenchers? If he trails off toward the end of that campaign, distancing himself from sinking Bligh, will that improve his standing in the eyes of those who turned on him (or who never liked him) in 2010?

The fact that there will be no challenge is given here: because the tectonics within the ALP forbid it, so the wittering to the contrary by frightened backbenchers that Peter Hartcher places so much faith in is so insubstantial it has to be discounted - particularly by anyone who got sucked in to the Costello-Howard thing.
... in NSW notably, Labor has learnt the error of its ways. Sussex Street, the central nexus of Labor's Right faction power, has discovered that its practice of ruthlessly beheading leaders as a substitute for fixing anything did not, in the end, fix anything.

The general secretary of NSW Labor, Sam Dastyari, set out his position to the Herald yesterday: "As far as I'm concerned, there isn't a ballot for the leadership and there isn't a need for one. If one were to arise, I would rigidly stick to my view that it is the role of the party machine to support the leader and bring stability to party leadership. That is a case I would make on behalf of party members to all NSW Labor MPs."

The second half of Dastyari's position, put privately to the 20 NSW Labor members of the federal caucus, is that the old days of fear and loathing are gone. "Our MPs and senators are not messenger boys for Sussex Street. What makes head office right about everything? We have to trust the judgment of our MPs. Threatening people's preselections is deplorable."
Gullibility can be cute sometimes. It's cute that Sam Dastyari can actually be taken at face value. The NSW ALP has become some sort of consultancy where people can form their own opinions ... or it has been so smashed that it no longer plays a role in national politics. There was a time when Peter Hartcher would actually pursue this as a story, if not write a book about it; the idea that he or this gaggle would accept such a development at face value shows that currying favour with contacts obscures rather than facilitates the process by which journalists tell us what's going on.

There is no evidence that Rudd would or could break the press gallery's strike on reporting what the government actually does. No evidence that Abbott would or could do so either: according to the press gallery, he's be constantly looking over his shoulder at Hockey, Turnbull or whomever else.

Abbott was so rattled by week's end that his Chief of Staff had lost faith in his ability to defend her and he rounded on asylum seekers yet again, rather than on 'entitlements' for those who ought not be entitled to them. He's not waiting for government to fall into his lap because if he did, it would be there by now. He's stalled, he's stuck and he can't ask for help.

Gillard takes the press gallery strike as given and gets things done anyway: this is a state of affairs that would mortify any of the other politicians named in this paragraph. That's why Gillard is still PM and is still the best bet to remain in the position that the others covet, and it doesn't matter if the polls say otherwise.

The press gallery strike on giving the government the "oxygen" of publicity must be broken. It is the central fact of our politico-media environment and all other interpersonal impasses in the preceding paragraph, real or imagined, pale by contrast. I think the best/only way to do that is to abolish the press gallery, but it will be interesting to see what happens after the Gillard government is re-elected next year (oh yes).


  1. Press Gallery strike! What an excellent description that is. It struck me this morning while watching Insiders that there's absolutely no point in a panel of insiders talking gossip for an hour; what can it possibly achieve? And Barrie only encourages it. It's run its course. And I think the whole Press Gallery is in a similar situation. we need to start all over again, it's broken.

  2. Space Kidette19/2/12 10:41 am


    Thank you for your posts. Your articles hook me back into reality and confirm I am not going insane.

  3. "Grown-up government goes on ... ."

    And yes, how TF is the government supposed to "get its message out" if most journalists have explicitly refused to report policy?

    Once more, I along with many others never cease to be thankful for your dispassionate analyses. Thanks, Andrew.

  4. Thanks for writing this. In the current environment, News Corp/Fairfax hating a politician should be taken as an endorsement of the politician, not their 'rivals'. Though I suspect the Rudd boosters don't care whether or not a vote happens. They're just happy playing along with the media crap because by denying Gillard 'clear air' it helps keep the polls lower than they otherwise would be.

  5. Alphabajangodelta19/2/12 2:04 pm

    I think you're demonstrating the danger that even by discussing this issue from a distance one can't help but get involved in the merits of the arguments over whether the 'leadership tensions' thesis has any basis in empirical reality.

  6. peter warrington19/2/12 4:39 pm

    yes you encapsulate the shitheadedness of it all so well.

  7. 'Oxygen thieves' ; 'press gallery strike' - you have a powerful way of distilling the essence of this madness and malaise. Thank you Andrew.

  8. Thanks for a note of sanity. I predict several independent members of parliament, not a few allegedly disgruntled Labor backbenchers have the final say on who remains as leader.

  9. The Press Gallery seems to be running a bit of an information `ponzi` scheme. They seem to be more informative when Parliament is closed. Just more white-noise for the time being.

  10. Press gallery strike is a great line Andrew. Thanks for your grasp of reality, once again. The breathless way the ABC news on Sunday led with a chat between Uhlmann and Simpkin about how matters could be brought to a head in maybe a week or so — the first item in the national news — makes me think that we (the media consumers) ought to go on strike as well.

  11. Jude
    Exactly. That's why most people refer to that show as 'The Outsiders' and switched off a long time ago.

    Yes, we media consumers have actually been on strike for a while now, which is why ratings/sales are plummeting and the numbers reading intelligent blogs such as this are rising. Come join us!

  12. It is probably demonstrative of something that I needed to google to find out what the reference to tax reform regarded. And the top link that I could find that explained it was a Rob Oakshott press release, not a single news article.

    The press on this issue is driving me crazy. Through all of it, watching Gillard put her head down and just continue to make progress with her agenda is actually a better reflection on her leadership than anything else.

  13. I sympathise with the tenor of this, but Old Man Crean's public burblings suggest this is no media concoction; more a negative feedback loop.

    As for when 'the Gillard government is re-elected next year' are you the betting type? You could parlay some fine odds on the treble of the current PM surviving x ALP's re-electability x longevity of the government !

    (Saying that I think Gillard has some fine qualities, well suited to the hung parliament; but the rot in Labor's base seems to go too deep).

  14. Gillard has grown, and will continue to grow, in the role of Prime Minister. The Parliamentary Press Gallery needs to give her and the public a fair go. The Gallery journalists should do their own research into issues and not rely on backgrounding from the likes of Rudd and the talking points circulated by the Coalition.