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.


  1. Andrew - I always look forward to your 'cut through the BS' blogs. This one is a bargain with the steak knives thrown in - a great assessment of the last two weeks and the wash-up for the CPG; the team scorecard for each Minister/Shadow; disloyalty by a thousand cuts; and the ho hum effect of the Daily Stunt. Is that the ground I feel shifting?

  2. Mark Heydon7/3/12 9:25 am

    Good article. It will be good to watch.

    On the Wong/Robb match-up you say "Wong is slightly sharper on the minutiae".
    Robb seems to have this reputation as one of the more intelligent Libs. I gave him the benefit of the doubt when he first came into the parliament, but I have seen nothing to support him being thoughtful or intelligent, and many instances of the reverse. Perhaps the key is that he is one of the more intelligent of the Libs - not a very high bar.

    Despite the fact that she is a world class bore when she speaks, I reckon Wong is very good and wins this match-up by a mile.

    1. Wong is no Peter Walsh, or even Lindsay Tanner. Robb would probably be better on the fiscal discipline than Wong has been. Wong has undone a lot of Open Government an Govt 2.0 stuff that Tanner initiated (mind you, Robb wouldn't be big on that stuff either).

    2. I have to disagree, Andrew. Despite us being told time and time again that Robb is a big thinker, he comes across as an *utter* lightweight. Maybe that's because he's hamstrung by Abbott and Hockey? I doubt it. I can count on no fingers the times Robb has said the slightest thing that was insightful or useful.

      He's also a terrible, terrible media performer. Wong ain't great either, but she at least can put her case.

    3. Robb is one of the few in the Coalition who can articulate a whole-of-government vision and can talk intelligently about targeted public policy. He hasn't done so for a while because when he does so, Abbott and Credlin get rattled because he shows them up. I had hoped that his bout with depression had made him more amenable to better mental health policy, but nothing yet - you maybe right, that volcano may have become extinct.

    4. If you think Wong is 'a world class bore when she speaks' -- personally I'll take thoughtful, measured remarks at listenable speed in a mellow voice over hysterical show-pony-type neighing any day, thanks -- you obviously didn't see her having a relaxed, revealing and wide-ranging conversation, most of it meaty stuff about life in politics, with Annabel Crabb on Kitchen Cabinet.

  3. Thanks Andrew, good stuff and well worth the wait.
    I agree with Mark Heydon - I can't really see why Robb enjoys such a strong reputation.

  4. Greensborough Growler7/3/12 10:19 am

    Howard was routinely humiliated by the various State Branches on matters of pre selections. I can recall WA where Howard went in to bat for sitting members who were overthrown and similarly when the steamroller known as Malcolm was organising I recall Howard offering his fulsome support for the incumbant King.

    So Abbott is perhaps just continuing the long tradition of supporting the incumbant.

    1. In the lead-up to 1996 Howard didn't have the iron grip that he developed after 2001, and quite a few MPs did the hard slog through Opposition only to miss out on Govt (the WA events you refer to occurred during the 1990s). There used to be an acceptance within the Liberal Party that sitting MPs could be challenged if you were good enough - put it down to the cut & thrust of politics, market competition or just the ups and downs of life really. Howard reinstituted the idea that sitting MPs should not be challenged - the challenge in Wentworth by Malcolm Turnbull was shocking and bruising for that reason. The next Liberal PM will have to clear out some time-servers.

  5. Thanks Andrew - cracker of a read. I disagree on Macklin though as I think you need to look below the surface at some meaningful work in her port folio. Also recall Howard getting repeatedly rolled - repected father figure he might have been but the branches as always are petulant kids

    1. I think Macklin gets high praise for being competent and well-meaning. The work on Aboriginal communities makes no sense.

      As for Howard getting rolled, see my response to GG above.

  6. Comparing Julie Bishop to a void is a bit hard on voids ...

  7. Ian Milliss7/3/12 2:06 pm

    Minor point but IIRC Thales, which controls much of Australia's defence industry, is government owned - French government. Thankfully even the US would not want us to help invade the cheese eating surrender monkeys.

  8. Robb's seeming stupidity surprises me, actually. Didn't he used to be with the Producivity Commission? (It's not that I agree with them all that often, but they're generally pretty sharp.)

    1. ABARE. I think he's offside with Peta Credlin, which is part of the reason why he sounds silly by trying to say what he believes without openly shirtfronting Abbott.

    2. Right. Well, ABARE deserve considerably less respect than the Productivity Commission so maybe Robb is a fool.

  9. Andrew. I had missed your earlier reference to “The Situation”: very apt. To continue the theme, with his daily stunts and daily SSO motions, so too Abbott, wearing his very fitted shirts, daily GTL:
    (as defined by our friends at Urban Dictionary)
    The process of staying fresh and mint. Stands for "Gym, tan, laundry." Must be done everyday to achieve maximum potential. Side effects include fist pumping. Coined by the eloquent Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino from MTV's ground breaking Jersey Shore: “You gotta GTL everyday to make sure you're looking your best bro. If your shirt looks bad it makes the whole product look bad.”

    1. Stephen Smith is a GTL man too. Never has a breast pocket on his shirts and his hair never gets longer or looks shorter.

  10. I live in Secker's electorate.
    There have been rumblings among the faithful for years about his lack of performance.


    1. I'm not surprised. Even so, there are plenty of dud MPs for whom Howard fought tooth and nail. It's funny how things turn out, isn't it.

    2. Yep.
      Secker was unpopular with the faithful around here in '07 but they stuck with him cos it was backs to the wall time. The swing against him was huge, biggest in SA. In the other SA rural electorate Howard tried to dump the dud candidate [Ramsey -who??] weeks before the election resulting in a media kerfluffle and eventually they saw the second biggest swing against them. Both swings were double digit size.
      Even with state and local media firmly in the back pocket it was a dismal performance in what are fundamentally blue seats. Lazy stuff.


      ps Good article, in fact, very good, telling it like it is.

  11. I wouldn't expect too much improvement from the media. They'll spend the next six months wailing against the small increase in accountability that may come from the recommendations in the Finkelstein report.

    I am looking forward to a more aggresive government this year - both in terms of selling the achievements and knocking down Coalition stupidity - a target rich environment if ever there was one. Anthony Albanese's pre-Christmas salvo at the Tony Abbott Travelling Policy Free Sideshow was a start, we need to see more of it.

    I share your contempt for polls as news items, but as indicators they are interesting. This week's Newspoll 'Issues' poll went largely unreported, but there were some substantial gains for the ALP in a number of areas - I'd be very surprised indeed if this didn't translate into a bounce in the voting intentions / TPP results. Any improvement from the current 47-43 TPP puts the ALP very close to a winnable position. Then we'll see how the Coalition react to the pressure of being behind.

    Or am I just seeing what I want to see?

  12. One of those dud MPS Howard fought for in WA is Dennis Jensen, my local member in Tangney, one of the safest seats around. His local branches have tried twice to roll him and once succeeded only to be overruled at state executive level. He distinguished himself last week by texting journalists some rubbish about how arrogant Gillard had no right to announce Carr was going to the Senate while it was just a "convention" that the replacement Senator be from the same party as the retiree ... humble backdown followed soon after. He really is living in the 70s it seems with his support for nuclear power and denial of climate change. it aamzes me that the Liberals put turkeys like this in safe seats. They shoukd be reserved for the very best, at least front bench material. His predecessor was darryl Williams who made Attorney General but had some strange views on the independence of the judiciary.

  13. GTL sounds bit American Psycho. Which sounds a bit Abbott as well. Anyway...

    "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."

    I'd love to agree with you, Andrew. The problem is I don't think the press gallery is sleepwalking, I think it's started a war with Gillard. Thankfully, Gillard's already sent Grattan back to a convalescence hospital and has her sights set on a few more fools.

    1. Sure it has, but it isn't prepared for the consequences of that war. They still venerate Grattan. Sleepwalking.

  14. Tony Abbott has put his foot in his mouth again by claiming that a Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union official of visiting the homes of builders uninvited in order to intimidate them.

    He is actually getting sued for defamation.

    Andrew, do you think Tony Abbott will be able to keep his mouth shut and not utter more stupid statements? He managed to do it to the lead up to the 2010 election.

    1. He managed to do it in a short burst. The longer it drags out the less likely it is he'll be able to maintain discipline over himself or his team. I doubt that lawsuit will be the end of him but it will be one more thing that saps his energy and momentum.

  15. I won't yet again bore you with praise, Andrew.

    Instead, I shall propose some useful activities for your (and the minority government's) detractors:

    1. For those who have nothing constructive to say, find a hot air balloon and exhale.

    2. For those who have only bilious things to say, find a hot air balloon, exhale, and run away really quickly.

  16. As far as Shorten v Abetz/Cormann - don't put aside simple appearances. I reckon every time Abetz gets media coverage there would be a measurable drop in Liberal votes. He's an absolutely terrible media performer. Cormann is barely better. Shorten has far more ego than he should, but he's at least able to sell a policy without making the family pets hide under the couch in terror.

    Macklin, I have been persuaded, is way underrated. She doesn't do the big media stuff, just gets stuff done in what's a pig of a portfolio. Yes, the NT Intervention is a loathsome policy, but hey, it's not like the libs are any better.

    As I noted above, I seriously don't understand the love for Robb. He's a lightweight and a fool. At least Bananaby could get media, as much as he was terrible in Finance. Robb can't even do that.

    Bowen v Morrison is another I'd disagree with. Both push hateful policies, but at least with Morrison you get the feeling that his contempt for refugees is genuine. I suspect this plays better in the media.

    Oh, and re Pyne, see comment re family pets. No-one likes a snivelling little shit. Watching Albericie dismantle him on Lateline was a thing of joy.

    1. I agree about Abetz. Look at the way Labor dominate Tasmania and see that it's all his work. Libs confuse a masterful player of internal politics with one who can beat Labor - they make the same mistake with Nick Minchin and David Clarke.

      I expect more of Macklin than mere competence, and you'll see that when some future minister turs that portfolio on its ear and shows how dull-witted she has been.

      I see your point about Robb. He wasn't always that way and there are those who've seen him at his best and hope he can pull it out. A loss in 2013 would mean that he'd probably retire in the next term.

      I disagree that Morrison has a genuine contempt for refugees. I think he'd be very compassionate one-to-one in particular cases, but in the general and abstract he plays to the gallery a little too much to win over conservatives who aren't fully convinced he's one of them - which is all the more despicable. Being slightly better than that isn't good enough.

      Pyne has spent his entire life wanting to be seen as tough, an it's hard to respect people like that.

  17. Casablanca8/3/12 10:25 pm

    I decided to double-check the GTL reference at Urban Dictionary and one comment went further than the definition mentioned by Anonymous above, ie GYM, TAN, LAUNDRY.
    The other meaning is GAY, TAN, LOSER. Which is reminiscent of the oft quoted comment from one of Abbortt's daughters, namely that he is a “GAY, CHURCHY LOSER”.

  18. Interesting thing about the lack of judgement by Abbott and Credlin is exampled today in that Abbott attacked Gillard to see whether she supported Smith, and so Abbott came out in support of Krafer in the defence row.

    Considering that it was International Womens today, that "Kate" potentially suffered unnecessary stress and is still withot a position at ADFA, and that a dirtbag who hides behind the rank of his uniform is expecting to glide back into his position, this must be as thick as it gets from Abbott and his adviser(s).

    I hope that Smith raises every one of the 775 potential charges to remind Abbott - starting with the ones when he was in Government of course. Why would anyone with half a brain touch this story?

  19. Well, he's said to be liberal, but I usually have difficulty finding much to disagree with in his posts.
    What must this make me? He's done more to demolish my "left" credentials, simply by talking objective honest common sense, than any army of McCarthyites.
    Why isn't Andrew writing for the Age or the OZ instead of the bozos and mongrels there at the moment?
    Paul Walter