25 March 2012

The work to be done in Queensland

There are two aspects to the Queensland state election: the LNP has won it and the ALP has lost (and as usual, my predictions sucked). There is a lot of silly commentary about the Federal implications, with Coalition people dressing up their best-case scenario as "pragmatic reality" to the point where journalists accept it as a real story, and it's time to have a long hard look at that.

The size of the LNP margin puts such high expectations on them that they will be unable to meet them.

In many Asian countries, the government is less than transparent and accountable when it comes to awarding tenders for major infrastructure projects. In return, they insist those projects delivered to specification, and stay within time and budget constraints. In Australia, government can be less than transparent and accountable when it comes to awarding tenders for major infrastructure projects at times, but almost always those projects regularly suffer from time and budget blowouts, and the companies involved retreat and let the relevant minister or head of government cop all the flak. If you're going to get schmoozed by a big company and do them a billion-dollar favour, surely you'd insist on absolute rigour in terms of reporting and no excuses for failure. Expecting that all state government infrastructure projects in Queensland will be models of probity and lessons in how to manage a large-scale project effectively is probably, if you pardon the expression, a bridge too far.

The fact that the CMC cleared Campbell Newman of misconduct allegations surrounding property deals (or at least recommended they be referred to the Ombudsman) should mean that the LNP is especially vigilant in steering clear of any and all perceptions of corruption. Look, it might work, but you have to be prepared for the possibility that it might not.

To give one example: Queensland needs a better health care system. The Bligh government concentrated on building capital equipment, albeit from a depleted base, to look like they were doing plenty when they weren't doing enough. They got the rewards that governments get when they privilege capital expenditure over operational, which is: thanks for the new gear, now rack off! A focus on capital expenditure is designed to treat people like shallow yokels who are meant to be overawed by the $millions attached to such projects. Those who propose such projects tend to believe their own publicity after a while, and wonder what "the punters" could possibly want more than a shiny new building worth $millions, catching themselves in their own shallow-yokel trap. Newman is going to lead a new government trying new things, and he's going to be transparent? Yeah, right:
The LNP knows that good economic management and careful planning can deliver health services on time and on budget.
Where's the proof that it can deliver "good economic management"?
... and less beds than originally promised.
Even though this is Queenslanders writing for Queenslanders, it's still fewer, not less. If you focus on this "accountability" too much you have health care professionals spending all their time answering to snippy auditors and spinners. This might not be that different to what they do already.

The LNP has won 44 seats. There are 89 seats in the Parliament. Add to that other MPs who didn't contest this election and were replaced by a member of the same party, and new members such as the Katterites, and you've got a Parliament where a majority of members - including the Premier - doesn't know their way around the details of Parliament and government. Basically, the LNP will need to run the perfect government in terms of delivery and probity, in order to match the high expectations reflected in last night's vote. No stumbling new ministers, no new MP who have dodged the kind of scrutiny that felled two candidates for Broadbeach but who may yet slip up.

It will also need to run a perfect government in order to carry the dead weight of their Federal counterparts, and Misha Schubert:
Coalition strategists say Labor would be "massacred" in Queensland if Gillard were forced to head to the polls soon. Of its eight seats north of the Tweed, they think Labor will be lucky to hold just three ... Griffith might fall too if Kevin Rudd does not recontest.
Here is the wolf of one party's wishful thinking dressed up as the sheep of pragmatism. On what basis would the Federal government be "forced" to the polls? Would Tony Windsor wake up one day and suddenly regard Abbott as a man of substance and discernment? Is Craig Thomson finally going to fall over (and is Dave Mehan really going to be unable to fend off whatever deadweight the NSW Liberals foists upon Dobell?)? It's a weak premise on which to hang a story. Besides, all those Liberal wannabe strategists seem to overlook the vote-repelling presence of 'Stinky' Gambaro in Brisbane.

Campbell Newman is not Tony Abbott. Newman has made some mistakes but he's a far better man than Abbott and he appears to actually like and respect women, in general rather than in particular. Newman has a record of achievement in his own right whereas everything Abbott has done has been under the close but paternally indulgent supervision of Fr Emmett Costello, Trevor Kennedy or John Howard. By the time of the next Federal election:
  • Newman and the LNP will have lost some of the best wishes and benefit-of-the-doubt it has today. It may not necessarily have lost all credibility whatsoever, but it will be a bit more shopworn than it is today; and
  • Gillard will have a greater record of achievement than she has already; and
  • Abbott and "Liberal strategists" will still be looking for that one knockout blow that obliterates all of Gillard's patient work.
The Queensland result looks to confirm the Federal Coalition in its policy inertia, which may be no bad thing.

Katter has arrived. He would have been embarrassed with no seats, but two seats is a start without the flash-in-the-pan aspect of Hanson's 11 in 1998. Katter took almost all the swing against Labor in regional Queensland. They'd have to be a strong chance for a Senate seat at the Federal election. In other states:
  • The WA Nationals seem to do what Katter is doing already;
  • Katter has a real ability to take votes from the Nationals and Liberals in rural NSW, particularly if he wades in to the Murray-Darling dispute;
  • He could do well in Tasmania as the anti-Green, attractive to disenchanted Labor voters who can't go all the way to the Liberals;
  • He could split the CLP in the NT, just as Labor is on the ropes there with its inadequate response to the Federal intervention; and
  • In other states he could be interesting.
By the way, a big raspberry to all those "professional" journalists who insist that Queensland Labor has been decimated. It hasn't. "Decimation" means a substantial reduction, and comes from a practice inflicted on the Roman Army by its own ranks as a disciplinary measure. What happened to Queensland Labor was far more than mere decimation, and it wasn't inflicted by their own ranks.

Anna Bligh faces the prospect of spending every day for the next year getting hammered by the new government, now wonder she wants to get out as soon as possible. The problem is that she is going to be replaced by one of the dauphins whom the LNP rightly targeted, who will have (like the Bourbon monarchs of France) learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

If Cameron Dick or Andrew Fraser or [insert other name of a recently defeated Queensland Labor MP who is a real loss to public life here] was really all that, have them teach a class or practice law for underprivileged people or something like that - not as a one-off media stunt but as a job that needs to be done, regardless of who's in state government and what they're doing with it. However convenient it may be to shun them into a political staffer job or something with a union, it would be counterproductive for Labor over the long term. Even in a caucus of seven or eight, if Annastacia Palaszczuk (pronounced palla-shay, apparently) becomes leader the media scrutiny on he new government will become distracted by phantom stories of the dauphin in South Brisbane maneuvering against Palaszczuk.

Last night Bligh was gracious in accepting defeat. It wasn't the time for coulda-shoulda-woulda but Labor does need to face up to why it lost. Assuming Newman will be incompetent and corrupt is a recipe for 20 years in Opposition. The dauphins are the answer to the wrong question. Gillard faces different challenges but is not prevented from getting out there and communicating what she's doing, and what Abbott isn't doing; she is not shackled to the corpse of the Bligh government by any means, and nor should she cringe before the phantom of the essentially dysfunctional LNP rolling over her.

21 March 2012

Running out of options

This blog has long held the position that Tony Abbott hasn't got what it takes to become PM. It's increasingly clear that Team Abbott are letting the side down too. What's not yet obvious, however, is that there's little that can be done to help the Coalition present as a credible government.

When Peter van Onselen runs out of story ideas - a disturbingly frequent occurrence - he gives a big shout-out to his buddies on the Liberal backbench. I was happy to set this aside until Alastair Drysdale weighed in on the same theme.

Alastair Drysdale was a senior member of Malcolm Fraser's staff and acts as a bridge between the Liberal Party and the Melbourne business community. It's true that the Melbourne business community does not have the national pre-eminence it once had, but it's equally true it ought not be dismissed out of hand; brash parvenus of Perth have much to learn from their Collins Street cousins about getting things done behind the scenes. Drysdale is not your stereotypical ex-staffer who loves to see his name in the paper and he would no sooner appear on Q&A than on a float in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. He does not speak until and unless he has something to say, and after he has spoken the conversation changes. There is a strong correlation between him making a statement about public affairs (e.g. that a given Liberal leader is no good) and that statement being manifested (e.g. that leader being rolled).

What both men miss about their call for Abbott to reshuffle his front bench, is his fundamental weakness. Howard taught Abbott that reshuffles earn you the enmity of those who feel demoted, which is not outweighed by gratitude from those who feel promoted. Abbott cannot admit to anyone but himself the essential truth of Drysdale's statement:
At the moment, [Abbott] doesn’t have the team or structures in place. He’s got the sound-bites and 'look at me' TV pictures on track but not any underlying sense of economic competence.

His front bench economic team is threadbare at best. They frequently offer confusing, contradictory and nonsensical sounding messages. They lack sense of purpose.

Treasurer in an Abbott government would be Joe Hockey, with Andrew Robb as finance minister. Industry minister would be Sophie Mirabella.

Based on experience and past judgement this is not a team to lead the grind of nuts and bolts economic management.
There is a brutality and a finality beneath that understated prose: those are words not chosen lightly. Had the media treated Abbott in the same way that they treat the Prime Minister, he would have been peppered at every one of his picfacs over the past week about these comments, with commentary about how weak Abbott is within his party's organisation, LIB SPLIT SHOCK etc.

Robb and Mirabella are Victorians. After Drysdale's comments they may as well pack up now. Robb has made a series of statements over recent weeks where he appears to contradict his leader or express frustration with some aspect of Coalition policy, but stops just short of doing so. During the 1980s and '90s the past master of this was John Howard (but only when the Liberal Party was led by someone other than John Howard). Kevin Rudd did this to Gillard until 27 February. Robb last embarked on such a campaign when Malcolm Turnbull was on his last legs, but unlike then it looks increasingly like Robb is off on a jag of his own. Abbott may have a reshuffle forced on him if Robb keeps going the way he has.

Mirabella was operating at full throttle before this came to light; her absolute best was never good enough, but now with her worst following her around like a bad smell she is pretty much finished. The Liberal Party will have to dump her or face defeat. Even in her weakened state Mirabella has strong networks throughout the Victorian Liberals and she'd fight any such move ferociously, but the Libs have to replace her.

Labor will not win Mirabella's seat of Indi in the foreseeable future, but if Victorian Labor were not run by oafs it could do a bit of mischief.

A few years ago the Victorian state government proposed to build a water pipeline from the Murray River to metropolitan Melbourne, which was stoutly resisted by locals. Networks of activists in that campaign may be dormant but not necessarily extinct. Combined with recent developments in Murray-Darling water allocations and methods for organising rural communities against coal-seam gas, and you have the potential for an independent to garner a sizeable vote in Indi. A candidate who could pull this off would have to be the sort of person that rural conservatives could vote for without feeling that their interests were being compromised: Tony Windsor has done this for the past twenty years, and Bob Katter has done it for longer.

If Labor and such an independent as described above could get a combined vote of about 45%, exchanging preferences tightly, it could force Mirabella to a vote of around the same size (if she wins >50% of the primary vote, preferences don't matter and she's back in), and preferences from other candidates decide the result. That's where things could get very, very interesting in Indi, much more interesting than that seat has been in a long time.

The Liberals can forestall the above scenario if they dump Mirabella in favour of the sort of candidate who can tap into the sorts of networks I've described above, and secure >50% of the primary vote for themselves and the Liberal Party. Mirabella will fight like a Kilkenny cat against a single opponent, inside the Liberal Party or out; but against a broad-based multi-front movement that can't be split she is finished.

Joe Hockey isn't a Vic and can thumb his nose at Drysdale to a far greater extent than can the other two. Hockey is sound and knowledgeable on corporate regulation but not on other aspects of the economy. In a match-up with Swan, the incumbent Treasurer holds his own by the fact that he's more measured and across his brief while Hockey tends to overestimate the value of the points he's able to score.

Van Onselen makes a nice point about pay for shadow ministers:
Abbott has been neatly wedged by Special Minister of State Gary Gray. While media attention was on the Kevin Rudd challenge, Gray quietly did a deal with Abbott allowing his oversized shadow ministerial line-up to receive a pay rise without being forced to abide by the legislative rules that it be no bigger than the government's ministerial team.

The independent tribunal awarded shadow ministers a $45,000 annual increase in their take-home pay, with a proviso that the size of the line-up should be no larger than that of the ministry. Julia Gillard leads a team of 30 ministers, Abbott's shadow ministry numbers 32.

That could have left Abbott with the awkward duty of informing two of his frontbenchers they were the least deserving of the pay rise and would not be getting one.

It sounds like the kind of situation Labor might like to force on Abbott, but Gray was thinking longer term. By granting Abbott a one-off exemption so his full shadow ministry could collect the pay increase, Gray has made it difficult for Abbott to reshuffle his line-up at any point between now and the next election. If Abbott promotes so much as one MP, he not only needs to find someone to demote, [but] he will also have to dock two others a slice of their salary.

So instead of presenting the Australian public with the best alternative team at the next election, a $90,000 annual payday for two undeserving, under-performing shadows is contributing to Abbott's decision not to improve his team.
It's tempting to name who you'd turf from Abbott's frontbench and who should go into what portfolios, but ultimately it's unproductive. Here we come to the central problem of both Drysdale and van Onselen in calling for a Coalition reshuffle: it isn't enough.

What the Coalition needs are shadow ministers who can rethink the issues within their portfolios from first principles, work out why policy responses from not only Rudd and Gillard but also Howard haven't met the mark (accepting the reality that the 2007 election meant a public rejection of Howard), and work out what government can do as part of the solution. Coalition fans simply assume that their side has the talent to be able to do that, and they are mistaken.

When the Gillard government reshuffled twice in the last three months, I expected shadow ministers to step up and force their agenda onto newbie ministers. In particular, previously high-profile shadow minister for health Peter Dutton should have taken on Tanya Plibersek as soon as she was appointed. He should know that portfolio well enough by now to set off one land mine of neglect, waste and maladministration every day, making Plibersek look reactive and hunted and adding to the Labor-incompetence theme. Instead, Plibersek has taken to her new portfolio looking calm and in control and making a few big announcements to stamp her authority as Minister for Health. Plibersek has already taken a few shots at Abbott and it is only a mater of time before Dutton wanders blithely into a confrontation with her and gets eviscerated. Shuffling Dutton away from Plibersek won't be enough; that policy area requires a rethink.

When the Gonski Report was released into school education - the most far-reaching investigation of its type in forty years - shadow education minister Chris Pyne should have a better response than a few dot points about bringing back the cane or teacher unions, or chasing the silly Kevin Donnelly equality-of-outcomes phantom around. A reshuffle won't be sufficient; a rethink is required.

I could go into plenty of other areas where the relevant Coalition spokesman has failed to lay a glove on their opposite minister. When Alastair Drysdale says Turnbull should be forgiven for not abolishing the NBN, he is basically showing that the business community isn't as opposed to it as the parliamentary Libs are making out. The Coalition threw away more than a decade in opposition by opposing Medicare, and they could end up doing the same with not only the NBN but the economic and social possibilities it facilitates if they aren't careful.

What the Coalition has done instead of rethinking is to unite around the idea that the Howard government represented the best government this country could have, which is why their policies tend to simply call for a reversion to the status quo of 2006 and be done with it.

Van Onselen is wrong to simply assume that Kelly O'Dwyer and Jamie Briggs are qualified to be senior shadow ministers just because they did a bit of work experience in the offices of Costello and Downer. They (and other ambitious backbenchers) should use the experience they have gained, contrast it against recent developments since 2007, consult more widely than they have so far, and come up with some new but measured ideas in some key policy areas that demonstrate their fitness for a shadow ministry. To rely too heavily on Howard government experience is to fall into the trap Abbott has fallen into, that the last two election results were clerical errors that can be rectified rather than sea-changes to which the Coalition must adjust.

They should, but to be fair to O'Dwyer and Briggs, the reason why they haven't is because any attempt to do so would be a direct attack on the shadow minister in that portfolio who is busy aligning him- or herself to the polestar of Howard government policy. To imagine what that must be like, look at the generosity and equanimity that Peter Costello showed in 2005 toward the ideas on taxation put forward by newly-elected Malcolm Turnbull, and multiply it by orders of magnitude generated by fear, insecurity and spite. The Coalition is in an intellectual lockdown from which only electoral defeat can free it.

Look, I love Drysdale's idea of Turnbull and Sinodinos in an economic policy duumvirate. They would fizz with ideas and put Swan and Wong on the back foot. What Labor would do eventually is learn to work around them, and that's where the trouble starts.

Imagine the reshuffle that Drysdale envisages had already happened. Imagine that you were putting together a business delegation to discuss a few issues with the Coalition as they prepare policy for the coming election, and you don't have a lot of time. Who do you go and see - Turnbull and Sinodinos, with whom business can be done - or that ex-seminarian who never really grew up and who can't really come to grips with issues except in a look-at-me publicity sense, with his chief of staff shrieking away like Mrs Rochester? You wouldn't be fobbed off with a cup of tea hosted by Kelly and Jamie.

Once you understand that, you understand Abbott's problem. The business community will tell him that he needs to get serious about economic policy, and that Hockey-Robb-Mirabella is nobody's idea of serious (Hockey to Industry, maybe). For Abbott to comply would mean unleashing forces he can't control, forces that would belittle and marginalise him - and I haven't even started on how (or whether) Abbott could deal effectively with the wounded feelings of those three.

Turnbull and Sinodinos would monster Swan and Wong a few times in their respective Houses of Parliament. The press gallery would love it and confuse it with the main game.

A Turnbull-Sinodinos duumvirate would attempt to dictate policy to all shadow ministers. Big-spending ideas would be shredded by those two. They would attempt to go over their heads to the leader, who would shrug and say there was nothing he could do. Occasionally the leader would assert his authority by countermanding them, but it would soon pass and the duumvirate would reassert control over proceedings. Abbott would find himself less indispensible than Turnbull-Sinodinos.

Neither man would be able to deal effectively with local warlords like Bernardi or Cormann, or the hold they have over pollies focused on their preselections. The first elected office Arthur Sinodinos ever held was NSW State President of the Liberal Party, and to that end Briggs and O'Dwyer are well ahead of him in a personal understanding of politics (Sinodinos refers to voters as "punters", bless him). We saw what Turnbull was like as leader, impatient with pettiness; but while patience is a prerequisite for all other learnings, it isn't a substitute. Once Swan and Wong figure this out and direct their attack onto those who resent Turnbull and Sinodinos, the frailty of the seemingly formidable Drysdale proposal becomes clear.

Mind you, Turnbull would be much better at dealing with billionaires than Abbott has so far.

The mining billionaires Palmer, Rinehart and Forrest have been generous to the Coalition. It's facile to claim that they are buying compliance from the Coalition, but it is true that the Coalition has volunteered to promote their interests in public policy terms by promising to wind back the carbon price and the MRRT. In politics, if someone's going to stand up for you then you are obliged not to make them look stupid for doing so.

First, Palmer, with this mad nonsense about the CIA and the Greens or whatever. The Coalition look like absolute turkeys for throwing their lot in with someone like that. If there's still anyone who thinks that Abbott's lead is so impregnable that he can shrug this off, look at how Gold Coast United were lauded early in their career, then look at what happened to them.

The only thing that could possibly be explained by a Greens-CIA link is something that has long puzzled me: how all those old Marxists proceed straight to the board of Quadrant without pausing in the broad and fertile grounds of moderation.

Then there's Rinehart, whose family travails fit the Museum of Broadcast Communications' definition of a soap opera: the patriarch (Lang Hancock, though dead a vivid larger-than-life presence), the matriarch (Gina), the good child (Ginia), the bad child (Ginia's siblings), and in-laws (Barnaby Joyce and Alby Schultz). Yer Rudd-Gillard kerfuffle cannot and does not compare to that. If Abbott had either sense or guts he would have carpeted Joyce and Schultz and whoever else, and told them to stay well clear of that business.

Then there's Forrest, a man who doesn't pay tax and complains about the prospect of doing so. The mining tax is so popular that even Michelle Grattan has to admit it.

Abbott must be stupid to stand up for these people. He couldn't help himself.

Swan snookered Abbott into this position. Swan was accused of playing at "class war" in his article for The Monthly but he was actually playing at another game entirely, one guaranteed to be far more effective in the contemporary context. Where he attacked someone, Abbott had to defend them. Because Abbott defended them, he took responsibility for all their wacky antics.

Swan didn't attack the big mining corporates that aren't embodied in individuals because that would have been old-school class war. Labor has learnt that lesson: losers like Calwell might shake their fists at BHP but winners like Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard don't need to. Any wacky personal traits by senior people at those companies are not so obvious, or compensated for by other more normal qualities.

The billionaires don't have a support base that they can swing behind the Liberals; the Liberals already have the support of those who make the billionaires possible. Politicians need billionaires more than billionaires need politicians. The fact that the Labor base might rally to a ALP Treasurer who sticks it to rich people is a bonus for Labor, but Tony Abbott is stuck with a political Tar Baby.

What Abbott should have done was tap his forefinger against his temple and say "if Wayne Swan thinks Clive or Gina or Andrew are the biggest threats to this country, they're mistaken". Cut to an image of one or more of those people handing over a big cheque to a worthy cause, saying "Mr Swan would rather I wasn't here supporting you. He thinks it's better if I was funding his pink batts habit". The article would have rebounded on Swan, and Abbott would be more flexible than he is. Oh well.

Again, this is a judgment call by the Liberal Party. They do not have the strategic infrastructure either to compensate for Abbott's shortcomings, nor to enhance his positive qualities (such as they are). They want to bring back 2006 rather than bring on 2016. Gary Gray and Wayne Swan - two supposed bit-players, not a patch on Labor luminaries of old apparently - run rings around him. They want this guy to be Prime Minister even though he just can't flick that switch. The worst thing a politician can do is run out of options, while Abbott's whole life has been about nailing himself to a particular spot and hoping his determination will compensate for his lack of sense.

18 March 2012

Learning from Margaret Whitlam

Margaret Whitlam died yesterday after living a full life of ninety-two years. I didn't know her though I offer condolences to those who mourn her. A well-written obituary by Malcolm Farr is available here and the eulogies at her impending funeral will doubtless be corkers.

It must be said that her passing was an event that would have gone by without contribution from me until the dopey passing barb from The Situation forced a reassessment.

Margaret Whitlam was the first modern Prime Minister's wife:
  • Australian Prime Ministers' wives from Jane Barton to Dame Pattie Menzies operated in an environment where the media, and the population at large, was respectful of their role as behind-the-scenes support for their husbands (Dame Edith Lyons' political career in its own right only took off after her husband had died, and even then you should read some of the condescending tosh written about her at the time).
  • Zara Holt would have been a hoot were she around today; but in her time she was of the old school where, in public, her guard was up and her upper lip was stiff and appearances were utmost.
  • John McEwen was a widower during his short period as Prime Minister.
  • Bettina Gorton used her husband's time at the Lodge to get the degree that she had left incomplete for marriage and children, but otherwise played little role in public affairs apart from escorting her husband to functions.
  • Sonia McMahon was eye candy, the funkiest thing about her husband by a long shot. That said, if she was as flaky as was widely believed, and if he was only using her as a beard, that marriage would not have lasted as long as it did.
  • Journos had their suspicions and their rumours about the three marriages described above; they stayed out of the papers and off the air, but they limp into history showing what a poor first draft journalism can often be.
At a time when the roles of women were undergoing great upheaval, Margaret Whitlam showed that a woman in public life need not be mousy and hidden, like a support beam within a building. She showed that a woman can engage in all of the compromises necessary to maintaining a long-term relationship with a powerful man without being a doormat or a sell-out, and that harangues about the patriarchy were not a necessary part of being a modern woman. Since Margaret Whitlam:
  • Tamie Fraser preferred to take a lower profile than her immediate predecessor, but she spoke out and advocated her own causes to a far greater extent than those of her predecessors she would have known personally Damie Pattie, Zara, Bettina or Sonia.
  • Hazel Hawke championed social welfare issues to a far greater extent than Whitlam, a former social worker, had done in her husband's government. This would have upset a few of Hawke's ministers but hopefully they're over it.
  • Annita Keating's championing of the arts is straight out of the Margaret Whitlam playbook.
  • Jeanette Howard was the anti-Margaret Whitlam, preferring to be the hidden strut to her husband. Even though she underwent cancer treatment while living in Kirribilli House she felt herself under no obligation to advance treatment or understanding of that disease for anyone else one iota.
  • Therese Rein running a global business - with significant social welfare interests - while her husband was PM was a continuation of Margaret Whitlam's insistence on being her own woman.
Tim Mathieson has his own issues as First Bloke, and is blazing a trail for other men to come in that position. The next woman to serve as Prime Minister's wife (Margie Abbott, Lucy Turnbull, Chloe Shorten - take your pick) will be judged, however indirectly or even unfairly, against the standard set by Margaret Whitlam.

As Malcolm Farr pointed out, Whitlam had her own career as a social worker. From 1964 to 1967 was the only person of that profession working at Parramatta Hospital, then one of Sydney's major hospitals. While raising her own children, she would have been there when the babies of unmarried teenaged mothers were taken and adopted out. She would have been there when Aborigines would have been treated officially as non-people, even though their need for medical attention is part of their humanity. She would have seen workers from the James Hardie plant at nearby Granville dealing with the early stages of mesothelioma. I wonder what she thought of all that.

She later hosted a chat show on the ABC. Reruns of the show reveal her to be welcoming and appreciative of her guests without being gushy, and neither know-all nor facile in discussing their work; achieving a tricky balance in what might appear to be a simple format. The Coalition at the time criticised the national broadcaster for giving the Prime Minister's wife a plum role.

Much has been made of her participation in the arts, and she spoke eloquently of art in its various forms being indispensable to the life of a nation as well as a form of nourishment to individuals. She showed arts administrators that their role was to build a community around their companies rather than just hustle the government for ever more money. In their eighties, she and her husband insisted on entering the Sydney Opera House via the open stairs, as per Utzon's vision, rather than the cramped escalator off the carpark that was part of the abomination of Utzon's vision but which most people use.

Less has been made of her role as an athlete. She represented Australia as a swimmer in the 1938 Empire Games, a fact mentioned in passing but worth considering. Had war not prevented international sporting competitions from 1939 to the late 1940s it is entirely possible that Margaret Dovey (as she then was) would have played an important bridging role in Australian women's swimming between the pioneering efforts of Annette Kellerman and Fannie Durack, and the dominance of Dawn Fraser and successive generations who came after her.

Look at the video of Tony Abbott paying tribute to Margaret Whitlam (following Gillard doing so). It's clear he doesn't want to do it but he can't get over himself enough to throw himself into the task. He manifestly doesn't care that people are mourning her loss, and cares even less about her patronage of the arts. There is none of the for-whom-the-bell-tolls humility that comes from a recognition death and mourning as universal all-conquering human experiences. Taking a swipe at Gough Whitlam and his government on the way through may have been minor, but it reveals a character fundamentally too weak to become Prime Minister.

On the day before he dismissed the Whitlam Government, Sir John Kerr attended St Ignatius' College Riverview to give out prizes. He gave Tony Abbott some sort of consolation award for coming second in his class (beaten by someone who is unmarried and never had kids, but let's not go there). By the time Abbott enrolled at Sydney University the following year, Whitlam occupied the office that he holds today. Abbott might have developed his political position in reaction to Whitlam, but in his prime - and even afterwards - Gough Whitlam would have had Tony Abbott on toast had the latter been so stupid as to tackle him directly. Whitlam achieved what he did by leaving smarter and more principled people than Tony Abbott in the dust. The idea that Abbott should take a swipe at Whitlam on a day surely more devastating to him than all of 1975 put together is sickening.

Sickening, but not surprising. Had Margaret Whitlam died while Abbott was an undergraduate, a graceless comment from undergraduate Abbott might have been forgiveable - but not now. After numerous addresses-in-reply to foreign dignitaries and other formal occasions when addressing Parliament, we've seen that he can't resist getting a dig in at the cost of whatever message he's meant to be getting across. That lack of decorum and a sense of occasion in the context of what it means to be Prime Minister renders irrelevant all those people who insist that Tony is a lovely guy when you meet him face-to-face.

When blow-ups like this occur Abbott fans roll their eyes and say, "it's just Tony being Tony", and maybe it is; it won't be the last one, either. We're not obliged to have this joker as Prime Minister.

OK, so Abbott's comments about the Whitlam government weren't very nice. A lot of things in politics that aren't nice can be justified on the basis of being politically smart, the means justified by the ends of winning votes and holding power. Abbott won no votes at all by going after the Whitlams in that manner, at this time. No voter who is doubtful about the incumbents is encouraged to vote Liberal/National on account of that comment. From the perspective of hard-headed politics, every word that comes out of Abbott's mouth should reinforce Coalition voters in their inclination and discourage Labor/other non-Coalition voters in theirs. Any topic of conversation not conducive to those ends should not be uttered by him. Abbott has not only failed a test of decency, but also of politics at its most pragmatic.

John Howard is meant to be Abbott's role model, and even people who loathe Howard admit that he would have observed propriety on an occasion like this and would never have stooped so low as Abbott did. The first election I was involved in was 1987, and even as a Young Liberal I noticed that a lot of Labor voters were disappointed in Hawke. Come election day, even the biggest whingers rallied to their cause: because Howard had threatened to gut Medicare and the Conciliation & Arbitration Commission, and end race-neutral immigration, Labor people redoubled their efforts. By 1996 Howard had learnt that lesson and there was scant fuel for a Labor scare campaign.

Abbott might think he's jamming it up Labor by having a go at Whitlam on he day his wife died, but he underestimates how positive it will be for him or his party. Liberals too overestimate how easily small stuff like this doesn't vanish from the public mind but accumulates to the point where it's toxic to swinging voters going Liberal: just because it disappears from "the news cycle" doesn't mean that people will forget, and won't use it against Abbott in judging who should become Prime Minister. Abbott should want Labor discouraged by bad polls and stuff-ups, not fired up from a broadside on one of their icons as he mourns. You could point out that this is how it's done, but too late.

Margaret Whitlam (and her husband) showed that class need not be defined in economic terms. "Working class" had been clear enough but Labor failed in its historic task to monopolise their votes, and by any measure that "class" is dissolving and fragmenting to the point where it can barely be defined effectively, let alone represented. At the same time, in Australia the ruling-class has always been so thin and so fluid it consisted largely of those who stepped up and had a go.

No, "class" in Australia is something else entirely. Margaret Whitlam had it in spades and showed how it could be applied to help people and society/nation more broadly. That's why people who never met her are sad at her passing. Tony Abbott does not have nearly enough of it to maintain his current position, let alone ascend further. That is why people, whether they've met him or not, are sad that Abbott is occupying a job for which he's unfit and won't give over to someone who does have the class necessary for high office in this country.

16 March 2012

Too little too late

In a bid to become more responsive to readers, mainstream media organisations have created positions known as Readers' Editors, whose job is nominally to identify consumer concerns and provide a means for addressing them in some way, but which in reality is a means for MSM management to pretend they're more open than they are, to pretend they're doing something they have no intention of doing. I will believe in Readers' Editors when I see one get one of their superiors sacked.

The most famous Readers' Editor in the world is Arthur S. Brisbane, who occupies that post for The New York Times. The controversy surrounding his "truth vigilante" utterances is well summarised by Jack Shafer, who links through to Brisbane's original posts. Basically, Brisbane believes it's too hard to compare what someone says against objective sources of reality, so if that's what you expected from journalism then ha ha ha. A journalist who is assigned to cover a particular area, and whose expertise over that area becomes a selling point for their employer, ought not be expected to know that area sufficiently well to identify inconsistencies or gaps by those operating within their area of expertise.

The Sydney Morning Herald has a Readers' Editor, Judy Prisk, a subeditor saved from redundancy by being shuffled into a non-job. Prisk sees her job as educating people how they are to read The Sydney Morning Herald and put up with what comes out of it. Here is Prisk's most recent column. Let's look at it to see how she does, and sees, her job.
On February 14 a Herald reader asked why an error he had seen in the edition of February 11-12 had not been corrected ... It was deemed its time had passed.
It was deemed by whom? It was deemed in accordance with what rules, what practice, what directives, what regulations or ethics or standards? The phrasing of this management decision in the abstract and the passive voice is telling: it doesn't concern you who or what is the clear message here, despite the 'who' and 'what' being centrally important to the issue.

Prisk tries to appear open-minded and even-handed:
I have written before about my attitude to corrections - the more the merrier, I say. And not just on "important" blues, such as forgetting to report the civil rights movement.
There was no question of "forgetting" to report the civil rights movement. Go to the seventh paragraph of Prisk's story, where she refers to a newspaper in the southern United States that "neglected" to report the civil rights movement, a centrally important public issue to its readership. A former subeditor should know that 'forgetting' and 'neglecting' aren't synonyms. The neglect identified by the Lexington Herald-Leader in that instance should prompt serious examination by that organisation as to the extent to which such 'neglect' is still part of their coverage; and that if such an enormous issue was neglected, what else is being neglected by people who call themselves 'reporters'?
... but what some may consider trivial others may see as part of a pattern, a sign that reporters and subeditors are not focused on aiming for perfection.
Never mind perfection: people read The Sydney Morning Herald in order to get reliable news. If journalists and their (sub)editors don't care about what they write, why should readers read it and treat it with any sort of credibility? The odd slip will be forgiven far more readily if the attempt to get facts right and correct them where they're wrong is clearly in evidence. It's easier for MSM organisations to brush off reader complaints as though they're perfectionist cranks rather than put in the hard yards of fact-checking and post-publication correction. Prisk's claim of 'perfection' is straw-man work.

Prisk has the entire back catalogue of The Sydney Morning Herald at her disposal. She could - if she wanted to, if she dared - see if there are any patterns which would indicate laziness as to facts and a lack of concern about the veracity or validity of material printed by that organisation. And if she discovered such a pattern, or had one pointed out to her by a reader, what would she do with it? Easier to negate it with an equal-but-opposite assertion and leave it there.
Getting street names, or geography, historical facts, dates, times, people's names wrong - not to mention grammatical and spelling errors - can all add up in readers' minds to a lack of faith in the paper.
Look at the decline in circulation of newspapers and realise it's too late for nonsense like that. Look at the fact that Prisk, while noting this phenomenon, proposes that absolutely nothing be done about them. Look at the trivial examples she uses, implying that the SMH gets the big issues right and should therefore be excused trivia. There are two rebuttals to this.

First, Barrie Cassidy on reporting the Rudd-Gillard leadership battle:
Peter Hartcher wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald ... that Rudd had not been "duchessing" editors. Yet Andrew Probyn wrote in the West Australian that not only was he "duchessing" editors, but in the process, he had referred to Gillard as "a bitch."
That is a direct contradiction about an aspect of the relationship between leaders of the media and leaders of the government in our country. Hartcher and Probyn cannot both be right. This goes well beyond a misspelling or some minor detail, it goes to core business of an outlet like the SMH. Yet, Prisk sees the errors of the SMH as insubstantial, and thus those who complain about them as trivial.

Second, journalist and academic Jenna Price identified an important and often overlooked group of people:
... the subjects of our stories who occasionally get done over by Big Media, Little Media, all media ... There is no process for them to get help. No-one stands up for them, ever.
Not even the Readers' Editor. It must be said that no such people teach journalism courses either.
It can also lead to some developing a theory that the paper does not care enough about some topics and cares too much about others.
The issue here is how soundly the theory is based, and if sound how it might be corrected - not what "some" may or may not dare to do.
The reader was angry no correction had been printed and was not mollified when she received an email saying it had been corrected online and in the archives but there would be no print correction. "I can imagine what would happen if you had wrongly attributed a recipe of Neil Perry's to Kylie Kwong or similar - it would be all over the letters page with grovelling apologies on page two."
That mixup with recipes was a big deal for the SMH and set a high standard for the paper's commitment to accuracy in dealing with people and issues it considered important (as opposed to, y'know, the government of the country). Nobody should be "mollified" by a patronising statement in that impersonal and disempowering passive voice: "there would be no print correction" (given the decline in advertising revenue, why not use all that blank space to print more corrections?).
Eventually I found the error had been deemed too old for a print correction.
Had been deemed by whom, Judy, by what ... oh, I give up.
How late is too late for a disillusioned reader? Time will tell.
How late is too late to consume a product by an organisation that doesn't give a damn about its wider market and which does whatever the hell suits itself? Prisk has interpreted her title as meaning that it's her job to edit the readers, not to act on their behalf. Those who don't complain and simply cease to take the paper are your real worry, Judy, and next time the redundancy blunderbuss goes off you may not - you ought not - dodge it.

The CEO of Fairfax has told investor briefings that the Readers' Editor is an important initiative, despite all evidence that it plays no more of a help or hindrance to the company than does a limpet on the hull of a boat. Why the effort to engage in such empty window-dressing, and is there any analyst worth their salt who actually believes it is a value-add? Certainly no reader need pay any heed to the Readers' Editor: such an initiative needs external perspective and legislative teeth. I'll deal with Finkelstein in a later post.

11 March 2012

Tone deaf and defensive

At a time when Labor is supposedly bleeding internally over the leadership and the upheavals in the ministry that flowed from it, you would imagine that the Coalition - unafflicted by if not invulnerable to such ructions, apparently - would be making out like bandits with uncommitted voters. Instead, they are playing to their own base as though they, and not Labor, were in need of defending and rebuilding.

Tony Abbott's comments in defence of ADF culture (here, about three-quarters of the way down) are instructive. It's true that ADF personnel vote Coalition more than any other profession. It's also true that, while pride in the armed forces is not unique to conservatives, it is central to conservative conceptions of Australia, its (sorry, 'her') history and the purpose of government. You can understand why he'd want to represent any sort of criticism of the ADF as a swingeing assault of an institution at the core of the nation's life, one of great pride to almost all Australians, as a political maneuver to portray Labor as antithetical to the nation's values. Even so, it didn't work.

Every Federal MP who has been in office a while will have received complaints from those who had been dedicated members of the Australian Defence Force, but who had found themselves ensnared in some Kafkaesque nightmare and shunted out of what was not only their career but part of an attempt to fuse their identity with that of the nation. I would be very surprised if the office of the Member for Warringah is an exception to that.

Over many years, we have seen story after story after story about how the ADF is endemically unable to deal with the sorts of sexual harassment cases. The "rotten apple" thing becomes unconvincing after a while.

This was an opportunity for Abbott to start identifying his weaknesses and working on turning them around - particularly his standing with women, at a time when a female Prime Minister was supposedly so weak that she was a role model to nobody. By defending the ADF from any and all charges of misogyny and ineptitude, and linking such failure to "the ANZAC spirit", he has not won or retained a single vote. Nobody who is vaguely regretting having voted Labor in 2010 is convinced that they must vote Coalition at the next opportunity as a result of that effort. His whole position on that issue was not worth taking, and almost certainly did his cause some harm.

Abbott's claim that if there is no crime committed then there is no problem, and that a commander who has been clumsy is unworthy of censure, rings hollow. You don't want your leader ringing hollow. Especially not on International Women's Day: the whole idea that Peta Credlin, Julie Bishop, any female Coalition MP/Senator/candidate or even his own daughters provide civilising influences on Abbott's more Neanderthal tendencies is completely rubbished by his attempts to rally the lads to a dysfunctional status quo. Good, positive policy like this sank like a SIEV. It was dopey politics, squandering an opportunity to stick it to a supposedly vulnerable government.

Coalition supporters will tell you that Abbott is under no obligation to release his policies early, and they're right. Policy papers don't have the impact they once did, when journalists and voters would write to the offices of the respective parties requesting policy papers so that they could compare and discuss them. Policy papers these days are advertising copy made up of dot-points. They are not worth writing, let alone reading, and what little detail they have becomes non-core in the face of the inevitable post-election Budget Black Hole. The idea that All Will Be Revealed In Good Time when the policy documents are released is a joke. Every statement, every vote over the course of a term builds a picture of what a government or an opposition is like, a picture that even the most lavish ad campaign can't shake.

All that no, no, no has entered the soul of the Coalition, and has certainly coloured public perceptions of them even if they haven't quite hardened into voting intentions (more reasons why polls are crap). Policy papers promising love and sunshine from the Coalition can't and won't change that, not even with uncritical media coverage. The squandered opportunities to bring out the best in ADF personnel by casting out the worst is one example: if you're going to get rid of dud teachers, surely the task is all the more urgent with dud ADF personnel. ADF personnel don't get to choose the teams they are assigned to, they have to work with whomever they're assigned to work with: in that context harassment/bullying can be seen as insubordination. It is bullshit to assert that a creep who harasses subordinates is really a mighty warrior and must be respected as such. Tony Abbott has committed the Coalition to not improving but maintaining an ADF which is weakened by its failure to tackle the sorts of problems that have largely been addressed (if not entirely resolved) in wider Australian society. Be it on his own head, and on those who would stand with him.

The Australian is rarely more pathetic when it tries to put one over its own readers. It reports this, it reports that, but fails to link the two as part of a whole problem within the ADF, and adequately assess whether it is Abbott or Smith who is taking the most appropriate response. Nobody expects that august journal of record economically pitiful catalogue of Chris Mitchell's insecurities and failures to start shirtfronting Abbott, but it has a role in nudging him away from indefensibly dopey positions.

Abbott insists that the Defence Minister must have the confidence of the ADF, but I can't think of a single occupant of that office who was ever really beloved from the top brass to the lowest ranks for having personnel interest at heart. Peter Reith came closest to bending the ADF to his will when he defended the claim that asylum-seekers had thrown children into the Arafura Sea despite ADF personnel, respectfully and deferentially, disagreeing that any such thing had taken place. His career ended soon thereafter.

The fact that the Shadow Defence Minister is invisible and hasn't mixed it with Defence policy wonks is a concern because it gives no indicaton as to what we might expect in this area from a Coalition government. It's extraordinary for conservatives, who supposedly live and breathe Defence stuff. Contrast Johnston's small-target obscurity with Smith's up-front, almost Keatingesque, approach.

Smith deserves credit for taking on that culture, ending the last vestiges of gender-specific roles and giving the benefit of the doubt to complainants over ossified symbols of an unsustainable way of operating. Airing of those old assault cases, giving hope to the possibility of a military justice system that was destroyed by sticking up for the alco-loser in command of of HMAS Melbourne in the 1960s, is no small thing.

Apart from the essential purchase of transport vessels for the Navy, Smith has avoided being sucked in to the expensive, underperforming defence equipment purchases that have ruined the reputations of his predecessors back to Reith. Drones seem to have almost obviated the tank and perhaps the fighter jet, and it could be that drone submarines are the answer to the problem facing the Navy is staffing and equipping our underwater defences. Smith seems to believe that if he can get the right people and get rid of some dickheads, smarter decisions and recommendations will result. Stephanie Peatling's article on Smith's handling of disciplinary issues at ADFA is the best article on that topic.

Whether we're talking about the Defence needs of the nation, or the right of one person to feel like they're valued on their merits rather than their gender, you have to wish Smith good luck because at least he's trying. It's more than you can hope for from the Coalition under its current leadership.

Update: Hugh Riminton raises doubts for old Walkley's sake, but ends up vindicating Smith rather than condemning him. The differentiation between shaving foam and Jif made Riminton look absurd, rather than Smith being "wrong on every level". As an old scoophound he is no doubt grateful for a leaked document on which to hang a story, but he should have questioned the leaker's/s' motives more closely.

07 March 2012

Turning to custard

The established narrative by the press gallery on the Gillard government is that it's hopeless, that everything it touches turns to custard. Over the past two weeks we've seen that narrative die. It's no longer useful as context or even as backdrop to the developments of the past fortnight. Facts that didn't fit the narrative were once ignored - until the facts got so big that they had to be reported.

Media Watch noted this, giving journalists the sort of light roasting that professional football players receive on their respective versions of The Footy Show. "It's easy to mock the journos", Holmes admitted, without conceding that it might ever be necessary. Jonathan Holmes skated past the frankly pathetic attempts by people like Michelle Grattan to insist that, despite all the evidence that the political game had changed, it was all actually the same and no matter what Gillard did, she was still done for. Read Grattan's opinion pieces between 27 February and 3 March to see her insistence that even though the facts had changed, the Gillard-as-incompetent narrative still floated above the fray, intact and unsullied. In particular, her piece last Friday on Carr not becoming Foreign Minister is a shower of nasty adjectives and adverbs.

The nearest Holmes got to any sort of admonition of those who seem to be obscuring the news rather than reporting it was showing Andrew Probyn from The West Australian bleating about "a reverse wedgie on the press gallery". It ain't all about you, fella.

What was interesting is how The Situation has been caught off guard. He looked gutted on the day the leadership vote was taken, insisting that Labor was divided when it had faced down one of its three major demons:
  1. That Kevin Rudd was popular in the electorate and getting more so within caucus.
  2. Notwithstanding 1. above, that there could be a "third man" for those who just can't abide Gillard (or possibly any woman leader really) and The Real Story for the coming year is to look for that "third man" (Smith? Shorten? Combet?)
  3. Everything the government does is a stuff up.
The appointment of Carr as Foreign Minister negates the second, notwithstanding attempts by Grattan and others to talk up Carr as a leadership threat and - if not a perpetrator, then certainly a carrier - of "NSW Disease", a condition where a change of leader solves all political ills.

Let's look at the third of these: the idea that the government can and does do nothing right. What has happened is that it's done a workmanlike job with too many compromises, such that any achievements cannot be owned let alone celebrated. When things went wrong they were celebrated by the opposition, and highlighted against a beige background by a press gallery starved of attention, accustomed to being the gatekeepers between the public and the politicians. With Prime Minister Gillard setting a more decisive tone, and clearly revelling in her in-house victory, the idea of achievements going uncelebrated looks like being a thing of the past.

The last time this happened, on a small scale, was the passage of the carbon price. It was soon undone by the resentments of the reshuffle and the bland, hollow ALP conference, but note that there was a week or so when the focus was on policy and The Situation struggled for air. This is what's happening now, in a more protracted form.

Here is a matchup of the Cabinet vs the Shadow Cabinet. Who would you rather running the country government?
  • Treasury: Wayne Swan vs Joe Hockey. Swan wins that matchup.
  • Tertiary Education, Science, Research: Chris Evans vs Christopher Pyne. Evans, because he takes an interest in his portfolio.
  • Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy: Stephen Conroy vs Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull has had no success in overturning the dog's breakfast bequeathed to him by Tony Smith of all people, but perhaps he needs to prove to Libs that he's a team player. His needs, and those of the Liberal Party aren't the nation's problem, however, and however much of a prick Conroy is he gets the mail through. Conroy (through gritted teeth).
  • Regional Australia, Regional Development, Local Government & Arts: Simon Crean vs Barnaby Joyce (Brandis in Arts). The old stager versus the populist yokel, and Barnaby too. Crean.
  • Defence: Stephen Smith vs David Johnston. Smith is a doer and Johnston a windbag. Smith.
  • Health: Tanya Plibersek vs Peter Dutton. Oh come on, Plibersek has achieved more than Dutton ever has or can, especially as the latter has gone to ground against the new minister. Plibersek for turning up.
  • Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs: Jenny Macklin versus Kevin Andrews. Equally useless. Neither.
  • Infrastructure and Transport: Anthony Albanese vs Warren Truss. A tie, first one to do something about Sydney Airport and the Pacific Highway wins.
  • Finance and Deregulation: Penny Wong vs Andrew Robb. Wong is slightly sharper on the minutiae. Wong it is.
  • Schools, Early Childhood and Youth: Peter Garrett vs Christopher Pyne. Nope, still Garrett.
  • Attorney-General: Nicola Roxon vs George Brandis. Roxon.
  • Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry: Joe Ludwig vs John Cobb. Indonesian cattle vs NZ apples. A tie.
  • Sustainable Population, Communities, Environment and Water: Tony Burke vs Greg Hunt. There's much to be done in the Murray-Darling but at least Burke isn't still coasting by on his Honours thesis. Burke.
  • Resources, Energy and Tourism: Martin Ferguson vs Ian Macfarlane. A tie, but I'd lean toward Macfarlane because he may not be out of ideas like Ferguson is.
  • Immigration and Citizenship: Chris Bowen vs Scott Morrison. Incompetent vs a nasty little shit. Neither.
  • Trade: Craig Emerson vs Julie Bishop. Substance vs the void. Emerson.
  • Mental Health and Ageing: Mark Butler vs Peter Dutton. Butler does his homework. Butler.
  • Minister for Innovation, Industry, Climate Change and Energy Efficiency: Greg Combet vs Sophie Mirabella and Greg Hunt. Oh please, Combet.
  • Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation: Bill Shorten vs Eric Abetz & Matthias Cormann. Shorten does his homework, the other two do half-witted scare campaigns. Shorten.
  • Foreign Affairs: Bob Carr vs Julie Bishop. Carr, without having spent a day on the job, deserves the benefit of the doubt.
  • Small Business, Housing and Whatever: Brendan O'Connor vs Bruce Billson. A tie.
You see the Coalition's problem here.

When Gillard declared that she wasn't interested in foreign policy, Rudd got away with murder. His record as Foreign Minister is, as I've said, mixed. Gillard was right to get across it and form the basis of policy positions, from the relationship with the US to participation in the G20, to take charge of that policy area as much as any other.

By letting her team have their head now that Rudd has gone, Gillard is spreading the risk and showing that government isn't all about her, setting the tone and letting ministers get on with it more than Rudd was able to do. Gillard is as personally popular as the government is, and as the government has thrown its lot in with her and accepted her leadership, Gillard's authority over the government is clearer than Abbott's over the opposition.

The Coalition has a clear poll lead over the government and has for some time, but Abbott is about as popular as Gillard was before the leadership ballot. For the Coalition, the party is carrying the leader and not the other way around. In 1996 Howard was more popular than the part, meaning that candidates and party operatives were happy to accept his authority without public demur. In 2007 the same was true for Rudd over Labor, which is why Labor tossed out all those traditions like caucus electing the ministry etc. Because the party is carrying the leader, and not the other way around, they chafe under his directions and restrictions. If Gillard rises in reaction to events of the past fortnight while Abbott has no basis to do so, that chafing will start to get ugly.

Over the past week we've seen:
  • Hockey pick a public fight with rural Libs and Nationals. Yes, he's championing the interests of urban consumers over rural producers, but the former won't thank him and the latter will only get resentful.
  • Robb casting doubt over the one policy that might make Abbott slightly less repellent to female voters. He should be smarter than that. Nobody cares that the party room weren't consulted, only Labor gets all huffy about their caucus (but even they don't do that any more).
  • Then there's this. I wish Heffernan had the presence of mind to round on Mirabella, after a dramatic pause, with: "Don't you speak to me like I'm your boyfriend". The whole party room would have laughed and it would have lightened the mood, which Mirabella would have destroyed by going berserk.
Tony Abbott went to the Thales plant at Bendigo yesterday and insisted that the government subsidise it. It almost certainly will, so Abbott will get no benefit from this stunt. The demographic movement of Victorians out of Melbourne to regional centres is a development much better dealt with by Labor than by the hapless Victorian Liberals. Abbott insisted that Thales was an Australian company and should get more subsidies than foreign manufacturers (i.e. vehicle manufacturers). Thales is no more - and no less - Australian than Ford or Toyota. Today was an example that the sharp edge his daily stunt once had has dulled, he looked flat-footed and put-upon. The Daily Stunt, like another of his key tactics, the Suspension of Standing Orders, has lost its power halfway through the term.

Another example where Abbott's leadership is diminished is with the deselection of Patrick Secker. It might not seem that significant but within the Liberal Party it's a bigger deal than you might imagine.

I lived in Adelaide in 1987, and for the first part of that year Patrick Secker was SA State President of the Young Liberals. When meetings of State Council got a bit rowdy he'd roll his eyes and berate the meeting like a starchy schoolmarm, grumbling that he was swearing off politics forever. At the time I nudged the guy next to me and suggested that if Patrick was going to carry on like that he should join the Democrats. Imagine my surprise when he became one of the few Liberals to enter Federal Parliament, rather than leave it, in 1998.

Imagine my lack of surprise that Secker ended up as one of those loser pollies not being able to raise campaign funds and employing his family on staff. The point is, though, he was Deputy Whip - not an exalted title I grant you, but one that shows loyalty to the leader above all else. If the Coalition were to catch the Gillard government napping and force a motion of no confidence, it would be Secker and the other whips who'd make that happen. Whatever nonsense dribbled out of Abbott's office, Secker and the other whips were responsible for making sure that all Liberal MPs followed it to the letter. Part of Secker's problem was that time not spent impressing his preselectors was spent carrying water for Abbott and Credlin.

To be fair to Abbott, he and Chris Pyne endorsed Secker in his preselection. The fact that this backing counted for nothing - Secker was trounced - is telling. It's fine for Abbott to claim that he can't be responsible for everything that happens in the Liberal Party, but there is no way something like that would have happened under Howard - not to a whip. Howard would have been aware if one of his team was on the nose in their local branches and would have intervened well before time to help stare down any threats. That's why Howard had the utmost loyalty from his team - he knew the Liberal Party inside out and backwards, in a way that Abbott doesn't. Abbott dances with who brung him, namely the right, and if they say that someone's on the outer then Abbott doesn't stand in their way.

All MPs and Senators spend time and effort shoring up their support base during no-sitting periods, but when they're far away in Canberra they feel remote from branch activities and therefore vulnerable. A leader can make them feel less vulnerable, particularly if that leader is more popular than the party and can lift someone by promising a local visit or some such. A leader who isn't popular is tolerated rather than embraced by backbenchers on their home turf. Patrick Secker has been humiliated and his leader didn't really stick his neck out for him, which will not have gone unnoticed among the more insecure Libs in his team. "New blood" is all very well but Secker has not been replaced by a superstar. Pyne's already inflated reputation as a political tactician has suffered by the downfall of Secker.

Someone like Peta Credlin doesn't understand this stuff at all and is of no use advising a leader on something so fundamental as loyalty and how branch-level politics percolates upward to national politics. John Howard didn't need anyone to advise him on that stuff.

Tony Abbott won't be destroyed by some mighty blow, but by lots of little trickles of the kind we are already seeing. Frontbenchers contradicting one another, painstakingly constructed countermeasures (like the paid parental leave scheme) treated like just another bargaining chip or not reviewed against developments (the government's scheme, while less than perfect, neutralises any poll advantage to the Coalition), silly spats like the Ryan-Heffernan-Mirabella thing - there is going to be more of this sort of stuff and Abbott won't be able to handle it. Because the small stuff will pile up he won't be able to do the big stuff like balancing farms vs CSG, or building a proper relationship with Indonesia. All the hot-button wording that usually stops the rot - Loyalty! Disunity is death! - simply won't work.

Abbott won't be able to go after Wayne Swan bagging the mining billionaires:
  • He could take Swan on, but Swan and Labor want Abbott explicitly standing up for billionaires who want all that largesse for themselves. The unions covering the mining industry, the AWU and the CFMEU, haven't been that successful in recruiting members among those earning $300,000 a year; a class war is probably the only thing that will get their attention. Swan, an AWU man from way back, is only too happy to help.
  • Abbott could join Swan in bagging the billionaires, albeit to a slightly lesser extent - but they are the difference between the Coalition having campaign funds next year and not. Besides, Abbott is all about stark differences with Labor, so when they say black he says white, not shades of grey.
  • Abbott could ignore Swan, but that would make him look weak and disengaged, the opposite of the whole action-man thing.
To coin a phrase: settle in.

For the press gallery, we are at a point where the narrative will have to change to fit the facts, rather than the other way around. The press gallery cannot sleepwalk toward the 2013 election peddling the same non-stories caked onto the same tattered narrative like the lining of a long-neglected budgie cage. In the short term it will be fascinating to see who survives in the press gallery, and in the longer term it will be interesting to see the forms that political reporting takes.