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:
- That Kevin Rudd was popular in the electorate and getting more so within caucus.
- 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?)
- Everything the government does is a stuff up.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.