25 June 2012

From rescue to recovery

The Opposition claim to have fifty fully funded and costed policies ready to go, according to this paywalled article I read via Google News. Immigration isn't one of them as you can see from another paywalled article you can access for free via Google News.

Scott Morrison believes "the time for talking is over" because he has run out of ideas. Immigration is such a contentious issue in the Liberal Party that the only way it can keep a lid on the internal debate is by reverting to the Howard government's policies, and a time when concerns about humanitarianism could be and was shunted to the margins. The fact that the Howard government was voted from office is a technicality that hasn't sunk in yet, or which can be ignored in the hope of reversing it.

The small number of votes to be had from intolerance and deterrence of asylum-seekers is easily quantifiable by mouth-breathers like Mark Textor, whereas the wider credit accrued to people like Malcolm Fraser for resolving actually exising problems in a humane way is just too hard for poll jockeys like Morrison and Abbott. Appeals to humanity and the national interests are wasted on those guys for that reason.

Morrison has no real idea about his portfolio. The only suggestions he offers are like the worst discussions of defence policy, a focus on hardware specs with "redeployment of naval assets ... and potentially expand our aerial surveillance capacity" etc. Lumping asylum-seekers in with piracy and drug-running is stupid (when a small fortune in China White goes to the bottom of the Arafura Sea, it does not need or get rescuing by the armed forces). He stumbles upon the idea of a regional solution but again focuses on military assets rather than the much-needed comprehensive involvement of governments, NGOs (including the United Nations) and private firms which have something to offer.

Nauru is not a solution because no asylum seekers start their journey to Australia from there. People would have to be taken there by Australian authorities. It is more accurate to describe this as a costly charade rather than "the Coalition's proven policies", particularly if you don't give the Coalition credit for "stopping the boats" during the time of relative peace and prosperity around 2005.

My favourite part was this:
The survey area and the frequency of surveillance must also be expanded and include the Indonesian coast, to enable vessels to be tracked more regularly, even from their point of departure. Where necessary, we should seek agreement from Indonesia for such surveillance.
But only where necessary, mind you. If we absolutely had to respect Indonesia as a sovereign nation, then Scotty can probably rustle up a bit of respect from somewhere. Seriously, which country is going to give up control over its territorial waters to that extent? You know that he hasn't even had a conversation with anyone in Jakarta about that. The insult to our neighbour is compounded by the blithe way in which he raises this: oh yeah, and we might discuss it with the foreigners if we must. And we're expected to have this guy as a minister in our government?

Now do you see why the Coalition's Asian languages announcement is a joke?

My least favourite part was the passive-aggressive way in which Morrison put his refusal to deal with his fellow Australians in the incumbent government:
  • "Sadly, this government has become the problem ..."
  • "Regrettably, I have no confidence that this government can fix this problem. Too much has happened ..."
If he can't deal with his fellow elected representatives in the Australian Parliament - if the harsh words of Judi Moylan, Russell Broadbent and Mal Washer within the Liberal Party room fall as boiling oil upon his head - then he has bugger-all chance in dealing effectively with people who come from completely different countries and have totally different priorities. Sadly. Regrettably. Pfft.

There are three major issues with the Liberal immigration policy that Morrison would need to deal with, and fast, if he faced real scrutiny from the media as well as a minister with his eye on the ball:
  • He still hasn't worked out the contradiction between his professed concern for human rights protections in Malaysia, which hasn't signed the UN refugee treaty, and his lack of concern for those same rights in Indonesia, which also hasn't signed the treaty; and
  • Morrison hasn't worked out the contradiction between the Liberals' domestic agenda (a professed concern for those with pluck and courage in business and a scorn for those who just sit back and fill out forms and want help from the government), versus his position on asylum seekers (scorn for those with pluck and courage in getting to Australia by any means necessary, and a professed concern for those who just sit back and fill out forms and want help from the government); and
  • Just what sort of deterrent is Australia supposed to put up? We're dealing with people who have been driven from their homes, families and communities by really significant disincentives. Short of machine-gunning people in the water there is no real disincentive you could put up to make refugees stop coming here. It's those darn "pull factors", Scott! If you think this country has gone to the dogs, wait until immigrants stop coming.
If Chris Bowen was not so overrated he would have torn Morrison apart over these contradictions, and in doing so revealed the Coalition as less prepared for government than Paul Kelly and others would have you believe. If journalists were exploring Morrison's lazy, muddle-headed approach to policy detail and his glib approach to serious big-picture international issues, it might actually be a bad thing for so many to be downsized.
The government should quarantine a minimum of 5000 places for the offshore special humanitarian program, in addition to the 6000 for mandated refugees through the UNHCR. The balance of the program should be available for onshore applicants. Where the quota of 13,750 permanent visas is exceeded, only temporary visas should be provided until a place under the program is available. If someone is going to wait for a permanent visa, it should not be those who are so vulnerable they cannot afford a bus ticket, let alone a plane to Jakarta and a boat to Australia.

The time for talking is over.
That paragraph is full of administrative arrangements that are eminently suitable for negotiation among people of sense and goodwill: 6000 of this and 13,750 of that and various programs and classifications, the very sort of horse-trading that pollies do all the time. The declaration that follows, at the start of Morrison's final paragraph, is just another attempt to make obstinacy look like decisiveness.

The Coalition declared that both the carbon price and the mining tax were dire threats to the economy and the nation. In a hung parliament they failed to stop either. The Coalition declared that Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper should not stay in their positions, and that Kathy Jackson and James Ashby were heroic for speaking out; they failed to remove the former and the latter have (to say the least) let them down. They can't win a trick.

In tonight's news Abbott was photographed chatting amiably with spoilt boy and convicted thug Nick D'Arcy, and was later reported to have done to a fat guy who owns the LNP something similar to what he did to Mark Riley. Peta Credlin is really losing her touch. This is the very time in the electoral cycle when deep, entrenched attitudes that can't be shifted in an election campaign take hold. No wonder Abbott wanted to fast-forward straight to election day.

Morrison was sent out to play the hits and memories of a non-policy that apparently strikes a chord. It has attracted all the votes it is going to attract. Those who are opposed are becoming less sullen and silent, as Malcolm Fraser demonstrates, and is starting to repulse those who are unsure. It also feeds into a wider narrative that Abbott is an insensitive dickhead, and that if Morrison is any example then the whole Coalition government will be like that. Imagine Morrison encountering in one of his talkback radio appearances an Australian who "cannot afford a bus ticket", and consider how far his humanitarian pose would extend.

Morrison thinks he's whacking a pi┼łata of popular support but he's really flaying a beehive, and is unprepared for what seems inevitable. Being incorrigible doesn't negate this silliness, it compounds it. There is a need for a regional agreement, but any joint command arrangements follow, not lead, such an agreement. Morrison and Julie Bishop have shown that they lack the flexibility to develop such an arrangement.

In NSW Bob Carr showed himself a past master at taking credit for what the Coalition hinted at dimly and pulling it off before they could weigh policy options with their limited skills and attention spans. Unless he's lost his touch, Carr has what it takes to carry the dead weight of Bowen with him, and give the Prime Minister another of those get-out-of-gaol-cards that she gets instead of credit.

Having declared that "enough is enough" and "The time for talking is over", it's puzzling that Morrison complains that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration haven't called him. They haven't called me either, Scott. Must be all that governing they are busy doing.

This is not to say that the Gillard government will do a great job with asylum-seeker policy (particularly under the current minister) but the Coalition definitely can't and won't.

24 June 2012

Journalism beyond newspapers

I watched with glee while your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades for the gods they made
I shouted out, "Who killed the Kennedys?"
When after all it was you and me

- Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Sympathy for the Devil
If you're just a little fish within the Main Stream of The Narrative, then your sacking would not constitute "loss of diversity". If you've ever complained that anyone can get a blog without so much as a by-your-leave from MSM HR departments, then your removal from a non-job does not constitute any threat to democracy.

Gardeners know that newspapers make excellent mulch. Pet owners use newspapers to line their pets' beds or cages. When I was a child, fish shops wrapped their products in newspaper (it's against health regulations today). There's no doubt newspapers have their uses. Now that the twin towers of Australian newspaper journalism, Fairfax and News Ltd, are finally crumbling both the nostalgics and denialists are having their day. The question that needs asking now is: what should be pulled from the wreckage? What can be safely left there as economic and journalistic mulch for another time and purpose?

Just because the business model of newspapers has been declining for quite some time now, this does not mean the end of journalism; people might miss a particular restaurant when it closes, but they don't starve. It doesn't mean the end of a diversity of voices; the diversity of voices available to Australian media consumers has never been greater, so long as your definition of "media" isn't restricted to platforms available fifty or a hundred years ago.

It doesn't mean the end of a well-informed populace in a democracy, because journalists are no longer gatekeepers of important information. Go through each article in a newspaper and consider: is there a way that I can find this out without having to rely on a journalist to tell me? Sporting results are available from the websites of the contest organisers or even the clubs involved. Press releases and other information is available from the websites of government, companies and interest groups. Business news is required to be reported to the stock market and other regulator authorities under disclosure requirements - very rare is the business news story (or any other kind of media story really) not cobbled together from publicly available information.

In many cases newspaper articles, and spots on radio/TV news, are nothing more than rehashed press releases - once you have read original sources the magic goes off journalism quite a bit. The bombastic insistence that everything the media does all the time constitutes "high quality journalism" (this assumption underpins media organisations' reluctance, if not refusal, to admit error) is fatally exposed.

This story is an example where professional journalists abused the respect and trust that is due to those who put in the work and report from where the action is. The sad thing is that these jokers assumed nobody (let alone Annabel Crabb!) could ever - or would be able to - call them on their bullshit. With this, Dennis Shanahan's reputation for veracity is gone. In 2007 he became a laughing stock for insisting that Howard's poor polling would turn around, an error of judgment compounded over at least a year and still unaccounted for. Nowadays Shanahan is cited by right-wingers keening for validation; but after putting words into the mouth of the EU President he is not just past his best, but finished as a reliable source of information about federal politics. Add him to your list of departees, Mr Williams, and choose some other old lag to mentor the youngsters.

This report provides another example, without the integrity issues of the previous example. The news that Julian Assange was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London was available from numerous sources - e.g. the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry. By standing outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Lisa Millar was doing what she was assigned to do - but she added nothing to the story by being there, another example of the sort of waste that has bled private media to the point of unsustainability.

Political journalists relying on anonymous sources may have the only stories that cannot be obtained other than by journalists, so they'd want to be good - and mostly they aren't. So, the same half-dozen Labor MPs who are hard-core Rudd fans are worried about the enduring unpopularity of the Gillard government, again? So senior Coalition figures are worried that the public have twigged to the fact that Tony Abbott is a boofhead? Is this a make-work scheme for the mutually irrelevant, or are the journalists right and this is the very essence of high quality journalism?

Compounding this lack of judgment is the delusion that only journalists can judge what quality journalism is. In every other profession outsiders at least have a seat at the table. Indeed, journalists insist on scrutinising other professions: Michelle Grattan has never been a politician, Greg Sheridan no diplomat, Francis Leach never played top-level football; I could go on but basically all insist on their right to scrutinise and their expertise in having done so. Look at how they carry on at the prospect (the spectre!) of any form of government regulation. Any journalists who so much as questions my right to scrutinise their output can go and boil their heads. If journalism is important then it is too important to be left to its practitioners, however their number might decline.

This explains why the ABC's Media Watch can only be presented by somebody who is or has been a journalist. The fearless independent broadcaster would collapse in on itself were that show to be fronted by someone who is well-read and has a broad general knowledge of government, business, sport and entertainment, and who is eminently capable of sorting shit from chocolate when it comes to media output without resorting to the snobbery we have come to expect from Stuart Littlemore or Jonathan Holmes. Journalists have a hard time accepting Media Watch at all, and any journalist involved might face accusations that they are letting the side down; but a non-journalist would send the poor little petals into meltdown.

Let us have no more nonsense about charters of editorial independence, because that is just a licence to bullshit on the part of journalists. Fairfax's heterodoxy produces only slightly more reliable news and opinion than the Juche-like orthodoxy of News. Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood is a former journalist and News Australia CEO Kim Williams isn't, yet both find themselves in a similar place in terms of their impact on journalism and journalists.

The economic historian Robert Heilbroner wrote that Schumpeter "was the most romantic of economists, and capitalism to his eyes had all the glamor and excitement of a knightly jousting tourney". The same can be said of Sinclair Davidson, a tax-eating ivory-tower academic with no more practical idea about business than the most committed Marxist, as seen from his statement that:
One of the benefits of a takeover is that inefficient and ineffective work practices get abolished.
Former Fairfax and now ABC journalist Jonathan Green skewers this pointy-headed dreaming with two decades of practical experience at Fairfax. Going into debt to fund media takeovers is itself an inefficient business practice. Assuming that rationalisations that apply to other industries can simply be applied to journalism while maintaining sales and "quality" (don't get me started) is inefficient. Decisions about what is or isn't efficient are distorted by the very process by which those so deciding came to be in a position to make such decisions.

One decision that successive middle managers made was to allow PR people to pitch stories to journalists. The reason why this made journalists so angry isn't because the assumptions are behind it are offensive, but because they're true. As Yes (Prime) Minister is to public servants and executive government, as In The Thick Of It is to press secretaries, so there is a darkly humorous TV sitcom to be written about PRs and journalists. Tina Alldis could be the person to write it.

Middle managers could have decided that if PR people wanted their message in the paper, they should pay for it, and had they stuck to such a principle the financial positions of media companies would be better than they are. Media content would be more reliable than it is, and the demand for an objective source would sting less than it does. Too late now. Why did middle managers wreck their employers' value proposition in this way?

The decline in newspaper organisations correlated with a rise in middle management. Old-school newspapers were fairly flat organisations, with journalists having few layers of management between them and their editor, and between editors and owner/managers. An increasing number of middle managers faced decreasingly realistic career prospects within newspaper organisations, so they built bridges to PR companies across which many travelled to greater reward and less stress than allowed in traditional editorial careers.

The great trick that media middle managers made in encouraging PR dollies to pester journalists with prefabricated stories which bore or mislead readers is that they made journalists accountable for those problems. Journalists do not tell PR people where to go because of the pressures placed on them by middle management - and because they too might need to step across to PR career-wise when newspaper middle-managers reveal themselves to be so inefficient as to send Sinclair Davidson into a tizz.

Getting back to political journalism, I know I was meant to be appalled by this but like Oscar Wilde at the death of Dickens' Little Nell, I laughed:
You probably missed this story, on page 15 of today’s Australian Financial Review, overshadowed by all the big media moves and staff cuts:
“The parliamentary bureau of the 86-year-old Canberra Times will close as part of the restructure of Fairfax Media … Journalists were told The Canberra Times’ ‘focus in future would be on more local news’.”
Let’s parse that news. The only daily newspaper in Australia’s capital city, where politics and government is the main industry, will no longer have its own bureau or its own dedicated journalists covering federal parliament and all its entrails.

Of all the white flags raised by Fairfax this week ... the decision to close the parliamentary bureau of the national capital’s proud newspaper is, in symbolic terms, one of the most depressing.

This is newspaper that, in its heyday, attempted to model itself on the Washington Post as a serious broadsheet that covered the capital’s local news and national affairs for a unique audience in the company town of politics ... The unravelling of quality journalism doesn’t get much closer to home for federal politicians than this.
Oh, please.

Firstly, no amount of hype casts a shadow. That's what distinguishes hype from its opposite, substance. Secondly, the notion that even though we don't deserve to be in the club of those hand-wringing about the future of journalism (the patronising if statistically-verifiable assumption "You probably missed this story") but we're being invited into the club anyway, by the sheer good grace of the editorialist.

Thirdly, in Canberra many of the decisions that affect locals are taken by "the permanent government"; senior public servants who serve both Labor and Coalition governments equally, rather than blow-ins who are foisted upon Canberra from elsewhere in the nation. These people wantonly blow away painstaking work by legions of honest Canberrans with ill-chosen remarks or parish-pump campaigns against "tax-eating shinybums with no idea about the real world". If The Canberra Times turns its back on standard "political journalism" and builds a substantial practice examining government as it is practised then it will put the press gallery to shame.

If scrutiny of government processes rather than press gallery hoo-ha is what The Canberra Times means by local news (and truly emulating The Washington Post at its best), that can't be a bad thing. If it's not, and if that means The Canberra Times is just going to become another suburban rag, it will be eaten alive by The Riot Act - a case of the MSM delivering itself up to its worst fears about the internet.

Crikey's notion that Canberra is "closer to home" for federal politicians than their constituencies (and particularly suburban rags therein) is telling.

Morning radio and TV largely reads out stories from the newspapers. These media will have to develop their own journalism to get stories that enfeebled newspapers can no longer provide.

How to be a journalist

To do journalism today, the first thing you have to identify your sources. Link to or nominate a press release, a wire report, whatever. No journalist should expect to be taken on trust. Anyone who gets up on their high horse against this is not some noble defender of Truth, nor even an analogue Quixote; they can just piss off.

The second thing is that you have to develop the courage that no jobsworth has: the courage to say that your boss lacks judgment, and that you are going to pursue journalism without their imprimatur because your judgment is better than theirs. I don't know how to pay for it either.

The third is to find a way of linking your story back to people's lives. I don't care if you have a killer quote or inside tip, if you've got 600 words of bullshit you can keep it.

Yes, yes, there's more to it than that; but if you've seen so-called professional journalists at work, not much more; not nearly enough.

18 June 2012

Goading and politics

When I was a Liberal Student in the late 1980s, you knew you were a proper Liberal if you put up a proposal that goaded the lefties. Proposing something like privatising the refectory or rolling your eyes at condemnations of racism could reduce someone with a big title on a student association to gibbering about Baudrillard while you represented yourself as Addressing Real Student Issues. In a non-compulsory election where you could hold an office with multiple winners, all on less than 50% of the vote, such a position was a winner.

I've moved on from then, and so have most others who were students around the same time; but the small numbers of people who think that represented the model of what politics is and how it should be conducted have not. One of these is the alternative Prime Minister of Australia.

In recent days he has gone in hard against asylum seekers and given verbal support for Gina Rinehart's bid for Fairfax. Neither of those positions will win the Coalition a single extra vote. Nobody who voted Labor in 2007 and 2010, or who voted for Wilkie or Windsor or Oakeshott, or who voted for Katter's mob at the Queensland election, will vote Coalition next time as a result of those positions.

Observers who shake their heads at NSW Labor winning state election after state election should consider how much help they got from the Coalition. In 1999 and 2007 the Liberals deliberately pursued policies that drove up the Coalition vote in the seats they already held but which effectively forfeited marginal seats. This pattern is being repeated federally; it is increasingly likely that the Coalition will make some of its safe seats very safe while starving marginal seats of the few votes they need to displace Labor/Independent incumbents.

Why Abbott and the clowns who consider themselves Coalition Strategists (and who, alas, are thus considered by others) are stuck in defence is unclear. The media narrative is that Abbott is always on the front foot against the government, perennially confident, dukes up and toujours l'audace - but reality can't support that narrative. When such differences open up it is the narrative that is unsustainable. In the polls, and as far as press gallery consensus is concerned, the Coalition have the government by the throat. This is the point when the Coalition should have the courage to try out new ideas.

The Coalition has put all their eggs into the basket of stunts and skulduggery rather than policy. That's all gone now, egg on faces all 'round (well, it looks like raw egg - that's as close an analysis as we need, thank you very much). That debacle means the Coalition is left with nothing. One reason why you don't risk winning ugly is because losing ugly is so unbearable. The Coalition will have years to repent both the sugar-rush that gave them such great polls in 2011, and the fact that they did so little with them.

At the equivalent point in the electoral cycle in late 1995, shadow ministers started floating ideas so that claims by Labor during the election campaign that the Coalition stood for nothing fell on deaf ears. Abbott is supposed to be emulating Howard but only in lip-service terms, which is all very well for journalists (and voters) happy to take Abbott at his word. Voters happy to take Abbott at his word are fewer in number in marginal seats than in electorates where they are already surrounded by people who think as they do.

A focus on non-issues is exactly the wrong thing for them to be doing right now - nobody will believe anything they bring out during the campaign. This is why Phillip Coorey is wrong when he thinks the next election is a reprise of 2007. Coorey assumes that the Coalition have the policy heft and temperamental stability to convince people that the answer to the present malaise (such as it is) is a Coalition government. There are no grounds for anyone to assume that, and blowing away that flimsy assumption is a far easier task than that facing the Coalition - which they and the press gallery appear destined only to realise too late, too late.

NSW Liberal patriarch Sir John Carrick always said that you can't fatten the pig on market day. Right now the only fattening going on is in that most ephemeral and unreliable of indicators - the polls. Abbott and the generation of Liberal strategists gathered around him are mounting a much more substantial challenge to the Liberal Party's received campaigning wisdom more than they are to Labor's incumbency.

That lack of strategic nous is the only explanation I can find for this nonsense. One of the Coalition's most relied-upon tacticians seems to have all but declared his intention to sit out the next election or cruise through it in second gear, rather than go all out for a serious shot at governing the country.

If Liberals are ambivalent about the prospect of an Abbott Government, what makes anyone think swinging voters are at all exercised by the prospect? Nowhere are Liberals more ambivalent about winning government than in the nation's most marginal seat. A heavy hand with "counselling" will see Liberals stay at home when the hard graft of setting up a campaign is to be done over the next few months. I've been in election campaigns where it is hard to rally the party faithful let alone the undecideds, and that's what we are looking at here. People busy fretting about what an Abbott Government might (not) do should really get a life.

Look at the new government in Queensland. They do not have to win any more votes, and so far the only decisions they have made have been leftie-goading: development against the Barrier Reef, cancelling literary prizes and defunding HIV education programs. No votes lost or won from any of that for Newman, but the difference with Abbott's crew is they're not in government. If Abbott creates the impression that he's going to stuff cronies into every crevice of government and fiddle with a few programs, there's no incentives for swinging voters to shift their vote from Labor.

Labor supporters plead for voters and the media to have some sympathy for the government, to admire the sheer pluck of Gillard and Swan and to recognise that they are doing their best. Such sentiments will follow, rather than lead, a perception that the Coalition are just not up to governing the country. People want to feel good about their decision, but most voting decisions are made in private on cold calculations of advantage. Keating won in 1993 because the Coalition made people feel greedy and stupid about voting for Fightback! - he did just enough for people to create post-facto justifications for giving him one more chance. This worked far better than dewy-eyed pleas for forgiveness like Kevin Rudd offered in 2010, or the damn-the-torpedoes bluster that tipped out both John Brumby and Jeff Kennett from governing Victoria.

Supporters of the government, whether rusted-on Labor people or not, need to wait out this aberration whereby Abbott gets to goad people who are better than him. There will be a time to give it to Abbott with both barrels, but it is too early for that. Simply by executing the carbon price with the same steadiness that killed the anti-GST campaign the government will have done enough to put the Coalition off its game of winning over those who have voted Labor.

Before Hawke it was accepted that Prime Ministers didn't have to be popular in order to win elections. Nobody outside his family loved Menzies, for goodness sake. Now popularity is assumed to be essential, the oxygen without which a Prime Minister cannot function, and someone who keeps on going without oxygen must be a freak. That assumption requires you to forget how quickly both Howard and Rudd made the rooster-to-feather-duster transition. Gillard will win for the same reason that Fraser and Keating both did: nobody loves them but the other guy is hopeless. If you must goad you do so after you win, not beforehand; premature goading can make people standing with you feel that their judgment is poor, and they may not be there when you are challenged to do something more than lazy culture-war bullshit.

Abbott is being defensive when he should be attacking, but he has nothing to attack with. The usefulness of his stunt strategy evaporates when doorstops go feral and have to be cut short. Nonetheless, there are still people who insist that he's going to be Prime Minister, it's just that they are already the sorts of people who would never have voted anything but Coalition anyway. The fact that those people can't relate to those who voted Labor in 2007 and '10 is why the Coalition are going to lose. Labor haven't consistently been able to relate to them either, but consider how much easier their task is and add the benefits of incumbency.

Goading people who don't rise to your bait make you feel like your judgment about people and situations sucks, and judgment about people and situations is the very essence of politics. If Abbott can't snatch government from Labor, only a journalist would believe he'd have anything to offer in terms of gentle and substantive persuasion over the long term.

17 June 2012

Shoe leather fetish

This piece of fluff is designed to make journalists feel good and important, which is why so many of them tweeted and retweeted it. Apart from the feel-good aspect it doesn't really work for the same two reasons that any piece of journalism fails: it lacks perspective and it has no powers of observation.

It is wrong on almost every level. First is the straw man that new media such as Twitter and blogs don't do journalism but that newspapers do.

The mainstream media decided, for whatever reason, that the biggest story this year is what one backbencher allegedly did with a work credit card back in 2005. I dare any editor to produce any evidence whatsoever that the public is clamouring for more and more details - the more prurient the better - on Craig Thomson's activities. Nonetheless, that's their story and by heavens aren't they sticking to it, sticking to it like oh never mind.

None of McKenzie-Murray's idealised journalists are doing a fraction of the work that Peter Wicks and his small team are doing. What's worse is that there is a kind of embarrassment on the part of the so-called professional journalists that there is more to the story than they had managed to uncover. Walking from the press gallery to a press conference and back again might satisfy McKenzie-Murray's definition of "shoe leather" expended, but it isn't good enough.

How much "shoe leather" was expended by Channel 9 in getting an interview with that prostitute? Is that team more likely, or less, to be recognised by their fellow journalists than Peter Wicks?

Like any industry sliding into redundancy, it's silly to claim that the problem is that the workers aren't working hard enough. The problem with Australian professional journalism (and I mean that strictly in the sense of getting paid for what they do) is that they are working on the same things. The idea that the two most scrutinised politicians in the country in the country right now are a former Liberal backbencher and a former Labor backbencher (neither of them ever ministers) is an absolute joke. You don't understand politics if you believe that, so therefore we can conclude that almost all editors and political journalists do not understand politics. Perhaps that's why McKenzie-Murray doesn't praise journalistic brains, or their ability to explain complex situations simply - just the donkey-work of "shoe leather endeavour".

As to Watergate, it's getting a little old. Imagine if every doctor who botched treating a patient could simply invoke Christiaan Barnard, implying that they were in that league simply by doing the same job, and leave it at that. Keep in mind that Mark Felt approached Woodward and that much of the work done by him and Bernstein was basically transcribing what Felt had said. Nice work if you can get it.

Imagine if burglars were caught red-handed in John Curtin House (Labor's headquarters in Canberra) or Robert Menzies House (the Liberal Party's equivalent). It would be covered the following day as follows by any press gallery journalist you care to name:
A group of burglars wearing business suits were arrested last night at [building name], the head office of the [relevant] Party.

The Party's [Federal Director], [name], expressed his disappointment at the burglary and hinted that it was not a standard property crime.

A senior official in [the other party] said that it was "preposterous" that anyonre in their party would be involved. "Ha ha, you're just being paranoid!".

"I'm not here to discuss burglaries", said [the leader of the other party]. "I mean, that's a state issue".

And there the story would rest, unless a blogger followed it up, whereupon the media would refuse to follow up and admit their errors.

Anyhow, back to McKenzie-Murray:
For the other side, much of our political reportage is dross, the web versions of our major newspapers are disheartening and publishers seem increasingly confused or cynical in their response to a haemorrhaging model.
Is it really too much to ask for a de-drossing? I'll take my chances with Schumpeterian creative destruction any day, but increasingly I think supposedly experienced journalists who become editors are the problem rather than the solution. It would only take a few to wake up to themselves to turn things around, but failing that let's have dotcom startups moving into Holt Street and displacing, say, Greg Sheridan. It will be less of a tragedy than anyone might imagine, and therefore more of an indictment of the politico-media complex and its impact on our democracy.
The public goodwill that newspapers have developed - and the imprimatur they confer to their journalists - has allowed for an access to public figures and institutions as yet unavailable to our notional "citizen journalist".
If you want to find out what is going on, how we are actually governed, the last place you would go is to Parliament. The idea that a press secretary is all-knowing, or even capable of being a human search-engine, is both an assumption that underpins the way modern journalism works and an absolute furphy.
You'll find the same skills and institutional support were vital in making sense of the Wikileaks cables. That's why Julian Assange gave them to four reputable newspapers - The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and The Guardian - well before their public release, so trained journalists could corroborate and contextualise them for their readers.
Those "trained journalists" have barely scratched the surface. It was Assange who did those outlets a favour by according them a relevance they simply didn't have. Proof of this lies in an account by the then-editor of the NYT, Bill Keller, who wrote an astonishingly petty piece about dealing with the man who made his career. No wonder Mark Felt avoided the NYT if clowns like Keller were working there.
People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.

- US President Richard Nixon addressing newspaper editors, 17 November 1973
If Bill Keller had been at that function he would have declared those words good enough to dump any Watergate investigation his paper would have done, and distinguished himself with a bitchy piece on Felt as post-facto justification. When Martin McKenzie-Murray goes on about his US-based studies and tries to extrapolate them to Australia, Bill Keller is the epitome of the wise and good editor that the shoe-leather fetishist could want. Keller recently embarrassed himself by comparing Facebook to Murdoch's hacks.
One of the curious demarcations in the culture wars is that between "mainstream journalists" and independent writers. The line is most hurriedly and observably drawn on Twitter, where bloggers and journalists boorishly defend their turf. Not all, mind you. Many writers and journalists realise it's an increasingly fatuous distinction.
It's what's called a straw man, Martin.
High-end journalism is being eroded the world over, and the democratisation of micro-publishing isn't an antidote.
No-one said it was. But when you acknowledge the role of subject-matter experts and people with perspectives that the media cannot hope to capture, there's little to be lost that should really be missed.
David Simon, a former Baltimore newspaperman and creator of the television series The Wire, testified at a Senate hearing into the future of journalism. He said: "You do not, in my city, run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars where police officers gather. You don't see them consistently nurturing and then pressing others."
Well, of course not. There is nothing, nothing to be gained by hanging out at City Hall. Nothing to be gained by joining a press gallery, or even following a politician around a shopping centre or some other public event. That's not where news is. Everyone who says otherwise, or invokes bullshit like "newspaper traditions", is mistaken. No-one wants to pay for that crap, and everyone who has spent their working lives honing those unnecessary skills is facing a bleak future.
We live in a country beguiled by possessive apostrophes whose blogs are given to repetition and apoplexy.
You won't see my dinkus atop this blog, Martin, and unlike some "professional journalists" I could name I actually know how to use an apostrophe properly (name me a professional journalist reporting/commentating on politics who uses apostrophes possessively less than I do). That leaves "repetition and apoplexy", and good luck in your endeavours to establish that the media is free of those qualities.
Perhaps, if newspapers continue to be squeezed and liquidated, we'll all be unveiling Captain Emads and AWB scandals in our spare time, but I doubt it.
"Captain Emad" has left the country. It ill almost certainly be a "stringer", a person whose business model is closer to that of a blogger than a journalist, who tracks him down, rather than a journalist who only knows less about Australian immigration law and practice than Scott Morrison does.

As for AWB, plenty of journalists had plenty of opportunities to look into the role of government in that debacle. Plenty of them could and did call up John Howard, Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile to get a quote, but none have really drilled those guys on (to employ a Watergate-ism) what they knew and when they knew it. None of them asked Kevin Rudd, who built his profile on AWB, to look into the archives. Mind you, Woodward and Bernstein didn't interview Nixon, either.

Martin McKenzie-Murray regards "good journalism" as though it's something of which he has experience and familiarity. He's patronising and dismissive about journalism outside media organisations, especially when it's those people who are carrying the can right now. His attitude toward "good journalism" should be more like that of Gandhi's attitude toward "Western civilisation" - a good idea to be worked on and not clouded by false dichotomies, pulled punches on your colleagues, and other examples of dishonest thinking. I can only assume that he fetishises shoe leather so much because he has gotten used to the taste, what with his foot being squarely in his mouth.

15 June 2012

Sinodinos exposed as a lightweight

Arthur he does what he pleases
All of his life his master's toys
And deep in his heart he's just -
He's just a boy
Livin' his life one day at a time
He's showing himself a really good time
He's laughin' about the way
They want him to be

- Burt Bacharach Arthur's Theme
I believed all the commentary about Sinodinos adding some sort of heft to the Coalition's offering on economic policy until I read this paywalled article that I read on Google News. It was standard hackery when real policy substance is so badly needed.

This is a time of promise and opportunity - yes, it is. The biggest criticism you can make of governments over the past ten years or so is that they have mismanaged the opportunities and failed to translate them into tangible benefits for people, including opportunities not provided directly by those businesses which Sinodinos and others regard as "wealth creators". Government has a role in redistributing private largesse across the economy, and the trick is to do so in such a way that it creates more opportunity than the "wealth creator" could have provided had they kept their money.

When I started reading Sinodinos' article, that's what I was looking for: a sense of an alternative future for our country and confidence in the means to make them real. A comprehensive policy document would not be necessary, but a critique that clearly tapped into wider themes would have been nice.

Last week, Joe Hockey made the basic politico-media error of fronting the press without having anything to say. Sinodinos has compounded the error, showing that the Coalition's problems go deeper than a slip by one person.
WAYNE Swan should have used last week's national accounts to reposition the government's economic message.

He should have been upfront with Australians about the reasons for their lack of confidence and should have offered a positive plan for tackling the nation's economic challenges. Australia cannot afford Labor's inconsistent approach to economic management.
As far as I can recall the main news to come out of the Budget was that Swan followed through on a long-standing commitment to deliver a surplus. Of all the criticisms that can be made of Swan, the idea that he was some sort of flake changing with the prevailing winds was a new one. I looked for Sinodinos to back this up - nothing.
The Treasurer's celebration of the economic data may be short-lived. National accounts statistics are necessarily backward looking and are not reliable indicators of future prospects.
That second sentence is more than a little rich when you consider Sinodinos' main schtick is as a nostalgia act for the Howard Government, and that the central message of Abbott is that he can and will reprise the happy days of that bygone era.

As to the first - well it may be, and it may not. Talk about a stinging critique right there. All he has left is a bit of quibbling about messaging, and precious little of that.
Much of last quarter's economic growth occurred in the mining boom states of Western Australia and Queensland, and the Northern Territory.

Non-mining states such as NSW and Victoria continue to experience anaemic growth.
The politics of this is interesting:
  • The state with the worst economic growth, Tasmania, cleaves most strongly to the incumbent Labor government.
  • The next two worst-performing states, Victoria and SA, are pretty strong for the incumbents and highly suspicious of The Situation.
  • NSW, simplistically written off as a "non-mining state", is fifty-fifty for Labor, probably better disposed were its leaders not familiar Sydney types.
  • The parts of the country that do best under this government - WA, Queensland and the Northern Territory - are those parts least likely to vote for the incumbents.
The more the government does what Sinodinos would have it do, the less successful it would be.

This shows why it's all very well to have pollsters telling you what people said in response to the questions they asked them - but never ever should pollsters have any input to policy substance, and nor to the circular process by which messages are crafted and sent to those whom they poll.
Swan has struggled for months with the sluggish state of the non-mining economy. He had publicly agonised over the cost of living, families doing it tough and the patchwork economy.
Substitute "Swan" for "Hockey" in the above and it rings true. The difference is that Hockey has a lot of simplistic answers, and enjoys the luxury whereby journalists don't call him on assumptions like the idea that getting rid of the mining tax will be good for the economy.
Ongoing turmoil in Europe led by Greece and Spain, its impact on the US and Chinese economies as well as the regulatory uncertainty resulting from minority government continue to weigh down on business and consumer confidence. In an era of reduced asset values and wealth, voters are grumpy and do not feel wealthy or optimistic.
Nor has the Coalition given them any reason to feel less so.

Australia tends to be culturally oriented toward Europe and North America while being economically oriented toward Asia. This has been some sort of quirky paradox for decades, but now it's a seismic fault that requires government to lead the cultural reorientation process. Tony Abbott isn't the guy to do that, either.
Rather than lay some basis for hope, Swan has sold aspirational Australians short with his class-based rhetoric, scapegoating the miners and playing at Robin Hood. He should adopt a more positive framework for managing the resources boom. It should be about maximising and spreading opportunities to create wealth rather than stoking the politics of envy.
If you're going to maximise and spread economic benefit beyond the holdings of mining companies and other wealth creators, this will involve some recourse to the tax system. Rinehart and Forrest and Palmer squeal like stuck pigs at the prospect of having to pay tax, and you can anticipate the pantomime of them wailing that the Liberals have sold them out by levying any kind of tax on them at all. That pantomime will be further away than the polls indicate, but the lazier journos can start drafting their pieces on it now.
Empowering workers and entrepreneurs should be the name of the game. People feel more secure the more they have control over their own destiny.

Job security cannot be mandated. Equipping workers and entrepreneurs with a global mindset and a capacity to cope with change is necessary to create a sustainable competitive advantage.
The existence of the public sector workforce in this country shows that people do and will trade away higher incomes for what they perceive to be job security. As a career public servant, Sinodinos should have more sympathy for that than he exhibits here. That mentality extends into the private sector, too.

I've been a contractor for most of my career and Sinodinos is employed under a kind of six-year rolling employment contract with the public sector, but the fact is that not everyone can or does get the global entrepreneurial mentality that Sinodinos would wish. That mentality is at odds with the hankering for security and stability that pervades your polling, Arthur.

Once you come to grips with that contradiction you will finally understand what we are all up against with the politics of workplace relations.
The costs of providing new infrastructure in Australia are blowing out compared with overseas. The Business Council of Australia estimates the cost blowout compared with the US to be about 40 per cent for resource projects overall. Australian airports are 90 per cent more expensive to build than in the US and for hospitals the differential is 62 per cent.

The BCA study released last week is an important reminder that, in a global marketplace, Australia must benchmark its competitiveness and productivity against not only developed economies but also emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
You there, stop sniggering at the BCA.

The USA did not skimp on skills education like the Howard government did, Arthur, and its high unemployment has pushed down the cost of labour. It also doesn't have an undersupply of housing, the resolution of which is pushing up prices here. It, like emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, also features "burdensome and unnecessary regulatory requirements".
Australian entrepreneurs and companies continue to highlight that, in many industries, the cost of doing business in Australia is anywhere between 20 per cent and 40 per cent higher than for our main competitors.
If returns weren't also much higher, I suppose the capital inflow and economic growth would just stop dead. The fact that these haven't stopped dead should force a rethink, and render the once economically rational Sinodinos embarrassed to spout such guff under his own name.
Firms that cannot pass on new taxes will have to reduce investment or employment. Labor has failed to even acknowledge that possibility. Some businesses have already started reducing their investments and employment levels in anticipation of the July 1 carbon tax start date.
No examples? No sentences beginning with the phrase "Now if the Coalition were in government, we would ...".
Now is a good time to go full throttle on genuine economic reform to grow the supply side of the economy and lift the speed limits on growth.
Yes, it is. This will involve more debt and taxation though. You're up for that, aren't you Arthur?

The Grattan Institute has laid out an economic reform program based on lifting female workforce participation, increasing the retirement age and a big-bang tax reform that builds on the Coalition's reforms under the new tax system. Extending the GST to food, health and education is not politically palatable in the present environment of new taxes.
What he's saying here is that he is not committing to the Grattan Institute proposal, or any other reform really. Still, he thinks it would be nice if Labor went all out so that he doesn't have to.
Dealing with female labour participation requires an examination of how the various family-related payments interact to provide consistent incentives while preserving a capacity to support young children at home if that is the family preference.
This is a work of sheer piffle, doubling back on itself and strangling whatever meaning it may have had. Howard, and any other minister worth their salt, would have sent that back for a rewrite. Sinodinos might have been a legend behind closed doors in Canberra, but even in the safe and shallow waters of The Strain he is exposed.

If it is the family preference to support young children at home, that family had better have the economic means to provide for that preference. Single-parent families and almost any couple living in Sydney will not be able to do this. There is no reason why the social welfare system should provide half-hearted and half-witted measures that nod in this direction but don't actually facilitate it. Conservatives who would provide some part and tokenistic payment for stay-at-home parents and/or domestic nannies have no grounds to claim that they are shrinking the tax burden.

Given that the issue of some families' preference for raising children in the home is a minority one, and not congruent with or particularly relevant to the economic agenda item of increasing female participation in the workforce, let us now understand that childcare is essential. It has to be flexible, given the demands for flexibility in the workforce, and it has to be of high quality. Where are we going to get a whole lot of highly skilled and committed people who care about little kids and who'll work for very little money, Arthur? No, me neither. Thought you'd have some answers by now.

Another support mechanisms for greater workforce participation include national schemes for disability and income support. Shame that Sinodinos' sorry excuse for a leader has put that on the never-never. When your own leader is not serious about mechanisms for increased workforce participation, maybe you need to broaden the scope of your review.

There are other issues behind increased female participation in the workforce, and I haven't asked them either because I'm just a blogger. If I were a Senator for New South wales I'd ask my female constituents the questions that Sinodinos shows no sign of having asked.
Labor's trend towards means testing such payments at relatively low income levels can create poverty traps, particularly for secondary income earners, most often women, wishing to re-enter the labour force or work longer hours. Comprehensive reform of such payments will need to be part of a larger tax reform package.
Yes, I suppose they will. This is not to say that means tests should be abandoned, because that would mean welfare expenditure would blow out and we can't have that.
Increased competitive intensity and more flexible labour markets are central to creating a culture of continuous improvement based on closer links between wages and productivity at the enterprise level.

To increase "competitive intensity" would mean a reversal of the longterm trend in the Australian economy toward oligopoly in many industries; I assume this means a greater role for anti-competitive behaviour on a level that makes Alan Fels look like a piker. You can be competitive and constantly on the lookout for new opportunities, or you can be relaxed and comfortable, Arthur: take your pick.
More competitive markets encourage innovation as firms seek first-mover advantage. This approach should also extend to greater contestability of service provision in the public sector to improve performance.
Australian firms know that first-movers are suckers; the second mouse gets the cheese. For Sinodinos to assert the contrary proves a principle that has to be repudiated if his career is to succeed: that shinybums in Canberra have no idea how things work and are undercutting, not supporting, those of us in the real world with their honeyed words.
Swan should focus on accelerating reform rather than class warfare; no ticker, no start.
That line worked against Kim Beazley 15 years ago, sort of: it might work again, but if not ...?

Arthur Sinodinos should not have let that go out under his own name. Wyatt Roy or some other inexperienced MP might have gotten away with this sort of drivel but better should be expected of Sinodinos, given the sheer gulf between the wraps he gets and the evidence herein. Sinodinos has been exposed as a lightweight; far better to be imposing behind closed doors than to expose yourself on the public record as just another guy who doesn't really think about stuff or talk to many people who aren't already like him.

This guy is meant to be one of the titans in the next Coalition government, one of the people of real substance. Maybe he doesn't respect the public enough to level with them (a charge he levelled at Swan). If you really think Wayne Swan is a hack and a lightweight, then you can't produce a lightweight piece of hackery in response.

12 June 2012

No message is the message

Every pinhead in PR/media who wants a veneer of gravitas and relevance is churning out articles about what a great communicator Abbott is: so punchy. Silly editors think mistakenly that they are doing their outlets and these people a favour by providing a platform for such drivel. Where this falls down is his success in conveying how the country would be different if he were Prime Minister.

Apparently, there'd be no mining tax*, and there might be a bit more money for people who take parental leave*. Most people don't pay the former or enjoy the latter. Most people do pay electricity bills, and Abbott has offered no reason to think that electricity prices would go down. He can parrot all that focus-group stuff about rising prices; he knows there's nothing he can do to actually reduce those prices, and to his credit he hasn't committed to any policy that would do so.

At this point committed Liberals rhapsodise about how successful he is at getting his message across, that the few policy positions he has are so well and widely known. People who are most keen on this tend to be people who have little understanding of political history. Most failed Opposition Leaders have one or two well-known positions:
  • From John Howard's first term as Opposition Leader in the 1980s, a male hand squeezing blood from a stone;
  • Kim Beazley's GST rollback; and who could forget
  • Mark Latham's slogan "ease the squeeze", catchy but so what?
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Tony Abbott is running on pretty much the same theme that Mark Latham did in 2004, with about the same degree of success. I'll leave it to you to work out who's the bigger boofhead, but emulating a proven failure is not conducive to "almost inevitable" electoral success on the part of "authentic" Abbott. Your guess is as good as mine about what we might expect from an Abbott government. This means the messaging has failed, not succeeded.

In the past two years of the Gillard government - yes, it has been that long - there is no example where the Opposition has forced a reassessment of and improvement to policy by its drawing attention to it. Abbott told Alan Jones that he was holding the government to account. Nobody would expect Jones to embarrass Abbott by asking him for an example of where he's actually improved the way taxpayers' money is spent - but nobody would expect any self-consciously "professional journalist" to do so either (and if any did, Abbott would avoid being interviewed by them). There is, in short, no reason why the country should look to Abbott as a better leader to Prime Minister Gillard, and nor will it do so.

Much is made of Abbott's Rhodes-scholar intellect, and his fans claim he's a tolerant person against all the evidence - but he is not a leader who can cope with "split advice", either.

Any other promises (actually, I'd include paid parental leave in this) is negated by the commitment to cut in service of a budget surplus. That confusion over priorities is a failure of communication. If there is no message to get across it is nebulous to talk about "getting your message across" or "dominating the media space" at a time when the space has largely been abandoned as a forum for public debate on real issues.

Let's conflate the issue of the carbon price, the Coalition's need to combat the historically high vote for the Greens, and the negotiations over the Murray-Darling basin into a single overarching narrative of "the environment". Let's look at the Coalition's message on "the environment", which is no better or worse than its narrative on "the economy" or "working families" or whatever.

If he's going to establish a clear position against the carbon tax, Abbott needs to do one of two things:
  • Declare the carbon-climate link is "absolute crap" and run on that basis, from a position of conviction and the kind of clear distinction from Labor that conservatives hanker for constantly. In fact, it is a symptom of weakness by the party's membership and the adroitness by which they can be manipulated by party officials that grassroots Liberals do not push for outright denialism as Coalition policy. It would succeed if a vote were held, but not such vote would be held; or
  • Acknowledge that the carbon-climate link is a problem to be managed, explain how he'd manage it better than the incumbents, stop letting Monckton and Reinhart define his message for him, and lift the debate.
What he's doing - or trying to do - is bits of both. There has never been an instance where a tax has been wholly rescinded, and there can be no confidence that Abbott will stand against accepted political wisdom about what is either right or feasible. His position is muddled.

 Any fool can get their picture taken in a picturesque place, but this does not equate to a demonstrable program rooted in a real commitment. People will forgive dropping this element of a promise or postponing that, but where there is no commitment the PR/media overestimate their own abilities by substituting it for fluff.

The whole idea of a policy that's more expensive than the government's (i.e. the Coalition's current policy) is stupid. Greg Hunt should realise that he will have more credibility if he resigns. He is working within the parameters set by his leader, and he should be bigger than that. He should have more faith in himself and his party's future than to be stuck advancing the absurd. Messaging professionals should recognise that either Hunt needs more scope to work with, or the selling of such a policy is best done by somebody other than Hunt.

The one environmental issue where the Coalition has a clear narrative is the campaign for commercial fisheries against a proposed network of marine reserves, which is more a pro-fishing than an anti-environmental policy necessarily, but still germane to the Coalition's whole "environment" narrative. The Coalition has a Shadow Minister for Fisheries; it's John Cobb, who holds a landlocked seat in NSW. Cobb failed as a shadow minister with the issue of New Zealand apples, and he was absent from the debate over live cattle exports to Indonesia. Whenever the Coalition talk about agriculture and food security, Barnaby Joyce or Bill Heffernan or even Andrew Robb talk over Cobb.

In any real analysis of politics Abbott should be asked why he hasn't replaced Cobb, and who it is that speaks for the Coalition on core national issues related to land, water and food.

The designated leader of the Coalition attack on the marine reserves proposal is Senator Ron Boswell, a backroom fixer with no grasp of environmental detail and scant respect for science or urban electorates. Boswell wins no votes for the Coalition on any issue anywhere south of Noosa. He appeared on television florid-faced, belligerent and arrogant, saying no and offering nothing, like the worst stereotypes of the Coalition. Making Boswell the Coalition's point-man on this issue was a tacit acceptance that they have given up on it, a momentum-killing tactic if ever there was one.

Joe Hockey admitted last week that he has no grounds to criticise the government other than wistfulness; he wishes Swan were scarier than he is and that he got the credit for Swan's work. The only way Hockey's comments make sense is if he's aditting that he's scared of Swan, underestimated by the Coalition as some latter-day Frank Crean. It was sloppy messaging to put Hockey in front of the media when he had nothing to tell them.

If Hockey repeats such poor performances and errors of judgment he'll be a latter-day Peter Shack: accepting that he has no alternative to offer and slipping into obscurity as a could-have-been. Hockey, like Hunt, should be bigger and smarter than Abbott and his handlers would allow. Hockey has to show that he's not a threat to Abbott; but if you make yourself too small a target you can't ramp it up when you need to, as Costello discovered.

Tony Abbott isn't unpopular because he is the bearer of bad tidings. Tony Abbott is unpopular because he has failed to convince people what he and the Coalition would do differently to Gillard. The only member of the Coalition who seems to believe that sound media depends on sound policy is Andrew Robb, and he's not a good advertisement for either. The idea that you can have a smart media strategy instead of sound policy is foundering now that people are looking to Abbott for post-Gillard leadership, and finding him wanting. There is a real question to be asked as to whether Abbott will be tapped on the shoulder, and whether he will give up if asked. He is a prophylactic on the prospects of a Coalition government.

Yet, the reality is that he is the last real prospect for a Howard Restoration: to give up on Abbott is to give up the long-standing Liberal fantasy that the Howard Government was as good as a government gets, that it lost because of trickery, and that the good economic times of 2003-07 can be restored simply by voting Coalition as soon as possible. That's why the Coalition stick by him and forgive him, they are hard-wired to compensate for and explain away his shortcomings because hey have been doing it for years.

Punting Abbott and taking a chance with someone else would mean rethinking the way the Coalition would govern this country, and even their conception of the country itself. It would mean squabbles over policy - squabbles that can currently be resolved within the party by simply turning the clock back to 2005, a time when all Liberals agree everything was just fine. It's easier for party powerbrokers to punt the leader than examine their own role in positioning the Coalition to govern a country that they don't really understand.

Abbott's pig-headedness means that he would not give up his position lightly, but he is not immovable in the way that Howard was because Abbott cannot command the factions as Howard did (even after being "leader" all this time). Next year he'll be 56 - what else would he do with his life, wear white-flannel trousers and walk along Queenscliff Beach? He's got no head for business or charity, and his kids are adults. If the Coalition were led by someone else Abbott might become a Cabinet Minister but he's been there and done that, and the next Liberal Prime Minister would not indulge him like Howard did. Yet, if Gillard continues her slow and steady ascendancy over him Abbott will become a national laughing stock, and he won't stick around for that. Those profile-writers who love boxing metaphors can talk about him diving in the eighth round.

Abbott is all tactics, no strategy, and the tactics are failing: the suspension of standing orders, a potent political weapon used to great effect by Curtin, Menzies and Whitlam, gives rise to sniggers under Abbott. The cudgel language that the government is "hopeless", "a disaster", etc., has lost its cut-through (when commentators applaud Abbott for a quality he no longer possesses, their own judgment is in doubt, which means a loss of revenue and ooh let's convene a talk on digimedia).

Julia Gillard will lead Labor to victory at the next Federal election. The government has a message and she is starting to give her voice to it. People are wary, holding off for some consistency that will lead to a bigger picture, a picture in which their own role becomes clearer. Messaging professionals who turn away from Labor's recently poor record and who admire Abbott's "cut through" are themselves missing the point, and failing in their own role as communicators.

* This is crap. Abbott hasn't thought this through, he couldn't get it past a hostile Senate, and there would have to be about four elections over the next six years in order to get all the ducks in a row for Abbott, as outlined here - during which time voters would have to maintain both a burning hatred for Labor and absolute forgiveness to the Coalition for breaking any promises. Good luck with that.

07 June 2012

On drugs

The series of articles on drug laws and the need for reform in The Sydney Morning Herald has been positive, arising from the Australia21 report on the issue. The SMH have much to show their News Ltd colleagues about fostering a debate rather than running a campaign. While it's telling that so many major figures have come out against prohibition, with Mick Palmer not the least of them, this has been a debate that's been part of our lives more broadly. Drug law reform can't and shouldn't succeed until its scope is broadened; it is a shame that both Australia21, and the SMH, have overlooked that.

There's more to the drug debate than just prohibition vs decriminalisation. You can see that in the debates going on elsewhere that both Australia21 and the SMH has rigorously quarantined from its coverage of drug law reform. Perhaps they have done this in an attempt to bring clarity to what everyone agrees is a complex issue. I disagree that it will be effective or desirable in either securing drug decriminalisation, or in mapping out what might or should happen once drugs that are now illicit become legalised.

People want drug addiction to be seen as a public health issue. Let's do that, and in so doing let's look at a public health campaign that has been hard-fought and almost won, and which is not at all unrelated to the debate on other drugs: tobacco.

The first thing to remember is that tobacco is a more serious health problem for Australians, in themselves and in terms of costs to taxpayers and the economy more broadly, than illicit drugs. The cost of prohibition should take account of the averted costs of its alternative, rather than simply being written off as some sort of dead loss.

The second is that, just as the tobacco industry faces the prospect of sinking to its knees under the weight of plain packaging, it faces the prospect that decriminalisation will not just throw it a lifeline but open a cornucopia of commercial opportunities. All of those charges levelled at tobacco and alcohol companies about marketing to minors will come back with a vengeance when tobacco growers get a licence to grow cannabis, and when smaller companies that form part of the tobacco distribution network see the opportunities in now-illicit drugs as compensation over the government's war against tobacco. Big companies will sneak their special-treatments in with the smaller ones, and government will give them. Those hoping for additional funds to be spent on healthcare can only watch the money flow away from them as "incentives" for those who have waged war on public health campaigns.

You may think that your local neighbourhood drug dealer sidling up to the kids after school with a collection of little baggies is A Threat To Our Children, if not to Our Way Of Life. Wait until the perfectly legal, expensive and sophisticated marketing campaigns hit full stride. Look at the success that junk food has had over a younger generation, and imagine how successful similar campaigns for illicit drugs would be. Now contrast that against the odd junkie scuttling into the shadows for their hit in terms of the length and breadth of a real social problem, and ask yourself whether you are really making things better.

These companies will make the case that they can take the illicit trade out of the hands of thugs - subjecting them to taxation and regulation - just as legalisation did for gaming and abortion. They will be right, too. Do not doubt that those interests will prevail over those who would tightly regulate those drugs that are now illicit, as per the Australia21 report.

Purists will maintain that illicit drugs should be reserved for medicinal purposes only, e.g.:
  • Pure heroin for use in safe injection environments, as part of programs to work addicts off the drug, or
  • Distillation of those chemical compounds within cannabis that stimulate appetite and create feelings of well-being to counter the ravages of chemotherapy.
Setting up this new regulatory environment will require a great deal of expenditure on the part of government with little or no offsetting income. There will be adjustment difficulties that make government look stupid. It will still require the enforcement of prohibition against those who desire drugs and have the means to pay for them, but who have no need for them as determined by medical programs operating within government regulation and budgets.

Peter Baume was a moderate Liberal who was Health Minister in the Fraser Government for less than a year before it lost office, the last Federal minister in that portfolio who didn't have to deal with Medicare. He was a factional opponent of John Howard and the Liberal right and he retired from the Senate ahead of the boot as the party changed around him. Many of the arguments that appear in the Australia21 Report are those which he tried to push through the Liberal Party in opposition, including trying to push through the Young Liberals during my time there. The moderates were under such sustained attack that to support Baume was a factional stand in favour of a pluralism that has now gone. Baume became tetchy when challenged, even by moderates, which detracted from messages like this:
Heroin was legal and could be prescribed by doctors in Australia until 1953. That is, heroin became a problem after, and not before, it was prohibited.
In 1953 authority had a greater hold over the population than it does today. The campaigns against the non-medically sanctioned use of opiates in the nineteenth century still applied in 1953: it was something that was the preserve of Asian people and was proof, for those who sought it, of their inferiority to White Australia.

Baume has been impeccable against race-baiters, and I defer to his understanding of the dimensions of heroin addiction as a real public policy problem; but in an age where Authority in general is much diminished there is no equivalent social repellent to turn Australians away from a dangerous drug. Public health campaigns against addiction have the appearance of make-work schemes, doing worthy work but too little against a problem that can only grow.

The first group of Australians to experience heroin addiction as a significant problem were much overlooked in their time, especially in terms of their health. They were the first Australians who travelled to and from Southeast Asia in their thousands: Vietnam veterans. They had problems with alcohol and Agent Orange exposure too, and these problems were simply and flatly denied. The fact that heroin was illegal, that alcohol wasn't and that nobody went out sculling DDT is to ignore the lessons of that time.

Simply legalising and containing heroin addiction within health programs is an inadequate response to a much wider problem. It's foolish to graft on yet another health program to the ragged patchwork already in place and expect any benefit beyond the marginal, at a cost that will have to be massive in order to be realised. Let's not even talk about co-ordination of other policies beyond law-and-order and health (e.g. housing, welfare payments).

Baby-boomers weren't politically powerful in 1953. Decisions were made on their behalf by a waste-not-want-not people, in the parliament, in the bureaucracy, in pharmacies and doctors' clinics and police stations, and in the community more broadly. They pushed for drug decriminalisation in their youth for lifestyle reasons, and now as they enter their dotage they appeal to medicine and palliative care. The political question is, do baby-boomers still have the power to command public resources for a policy that suits them, and won't necessarily benefit the rest of us? Will they tolerate health funds being diverted toward younger people, away from them?

It's a basic flaw of the Australia21 report that it focuses on heroin overdoses and other drug deaths. It refers in passing to incidental crimes committed by addicts to fund their habits, but there is more to the drug problem than that and costs from widespread, normalised drug use should have been factored in, even if funding for the report did not allow for detailed modelling. I'd be fascinated to see the soil degradation, runoff and other environmental impacts from an industrial-sized cannabis crop (what do you mean, no modelling has been done?).

Australians in particular mix drugs. Australian policy must relate to Australians. "Social smokers" who consume tobacco when under the influence of alcohol, and who combine alcohol with drugs of varying legality and chemical composition, show that demarcating illicit drugs in the name of 'clarity' or 'focus' are chasing a mirage and doing the country a disservice. The report skates over mental illness in drug use, particularly for those abused as children, but it needs to be part of a bigger solution than decriminalisation. Anyone who thinks that illicit drugs is so different to pokies, alcohol etc. can shove their apples and their oranges; those issues are more similar than different.

The other fundamental flaw with the Australia21 is a misreading of the political system. The report is predicated upon an assumption that bipartisan support for their position is desirable and even achievable, despite a sop of realism to the pressures on politicians to avoid controversy. This is so wrong that it completely undermines the report, and is puzzling from a board that has operated at the highest levels of government.

Led by Tony Abbott, the Coalition have trashed bipartisanship. The changes to the Liberal Party that forced Peter Baume into retirement have continued to the point where a latter-day Baume would flee from his first branch meeting, and would have no hope in a preselection. There is no way that the Coalition as currently configured can or will consider legalising now-illicit drugs. Any individual Liberals who might have considered it are keeping their heads down and toe-ing the Abbott line (e.g. Joe Hockey, Marise Payne), or are marginal figures (e.g. Mal Washer), and put together they couldn't actually change policy and spend additional money.

Consider that Peter Dutton has been shadow health minister before and since the last election, and this is the nearest thing he has produced to a policy. His most substantial policy after all that time is reaction and denial about an issue from the fringes of significant public health issues affecting this country.

If ever there was a field where the status quo of 2004 is inadequate for 2014 (which is the central message of the whole Howard Revival), health is it. Dutton has not contributed in any meaningful way to health policy debates: the former health minister was promoted, whereas if Dutton was an effective shadow she should be political roadkill. A new minister is firmly established in the portfolio free of any challenge from her "shadow".

Dutton seriously regards prohibition as a good idea that has never been fully tried. This is a clear indication of:
  • His ability to address issues in the community;
  • The quality of the man as a future minister; and
  • The sheer futility of expecting, or even hoping for, bipartisanship on this issue.
The Coalition clearly regards illicit drugs as a law-enforcement issue (supposed concern for addicts is so much mealy-mouthed bullshit waiting to be scythed in expenditure review - c'mon people, am I the only one who has learned how Abbott works?). Like Dutton, Brandis grew up in Queensland under Bjelke-Petersen; he'd know all about drug prohibition. The silence from the alleged shadow attorney general on this issue - a normally voluble man who goes on and on about much lesser legal issues - is deafening.

Forget the Coalition. Forget bipartisanship.

The only hope for an enlightened drug policy, with a carefully thought-out public health response and a sound communications strategy, rests entirely with Labor. It would have to be led by a strong and progressive leader such as we have not seen in a generation, and the prospect of which is indiscernible to those who watch federal politics closely. That leader would have to be prepared to go all out to secure their policy against both internal opponents (who would want scarce health resources spent on anything else). That leader would need the courage to prevail against nervous nellies inside their party (including those armed with polls and conference-floor delegates), go the polls with a consistent policy, defeat a prohibitionist Coalition and divert health funds away from baby-boomers in order to ease druggies off their addictions.

Nope, me neither.

I'm sure that the Australia21 board and supportive contributors to the SMH are aware of the current political situation. I share their optimism that it is a passing phase - not only the defeat of an Abbott government but also President Obama defeating the US Republicans this November will hopefully break reaction as political strategy. However, I've been wrong before, and so has Peter Baume; the prospect that the future of Australian politics lies in the major parties emphasising their differences (while "playing it safe" with the status quo in drug law) should not be discounted.

Look, I dare you, at the shambles that is the regulation of poker machines and alcohol in this country. Know that this is the fate for the regulation of drugs. Listen to the cries of alcoholics and pokie addicts in their more lucid moments, and of those who care for them despite everything. Know that those travails can and shall be compounded by the direct and indirect victims of legalised drugs. Forget policy that makes things harder rather than easier.

For those who like the personal touch injected into this debate, my late brother was an alcoholic who died in a motorbike accident. Readers can take comfort in my assurance that this is not the start of a campaign to ban alcohol, nor motorbikes for that matter; as the report points out, alcohol is also a much greater issue than all illicit drugs put together. I realise that piecemeal efforts against drugs that are now illicit are inadequate, but the alternative is worse because it hasn't been thought out properly.

Proponents think they are being clever by separating drugs off from other problems like pokies, alcohol, tobacco etc., but I'd suggest they are not being clever enough. Like the republicans of the 1990s they are mistaken in thinking that they are being clever in proposing a small reform and selling it as a big one. There should be linkages across disciplines among people doing good work and making whole-of-government NDIS-style solutions. I am just not interested in any policy that will detract from efforts against real problems, and the prospect that they might add to them leaves me cold. I am sick to death of rallying behind well-meaning but ill-considered policies and getting run over by the foreseeable.