25 October 2012

Big Daddy

According to this, Liberals fear the prospect of the next election being a referendum on Tony Abbott. Well, what did you expect? When you not only have no policies but no vision for the country on which to base them, yet are so far ahead in the polls that the journosphere echoes with talk about when not if you win, all you have is the personality of your leader. And when your leader is an arsehole, that's an unfortunate position in which to have put yourself.

In this, Annabel Crabb finally wakes up to the idea that Abbott is not just one of those people you have to put up with, but a real live dickhead who should never ever become Prime Minister. She misses the point of what happened to Abbott on The Grill Team, however. He failed the Phwoarr test.

A bunch of guys like Matty Johns and Mark Geyer will test a man by going the Phwoarr test when that man is with his girlfriend/wife/daughters. Basically, this test involves a bunch of guys (it is never done man-to-man) approaching a man in said company, and making remarks that indicate their appreciation for the lady's/ladies' desirability. The man has three choices:
  • Leap to his feet in defence of the lady's/ladies' honour, and attacking the guys' oafishness, like a figure out of Dickens or Downton Abbey;
  • Go along with the guys, giggling away, destroying his credibility with the lady/ladies; or
  • Gently telling the guys about his pride in an achievement of the lady/ladies, something to do with their brains/character/other positive quality not related to their appearance or sexuality, which raises the tone and leaves both the guys and the lady/ladies with more respect for one another, and for the man in question.
People who like Abbott would reckon he behaved as per the third point above. Nothing doing; he behaved like the second, leaving his daughters on their own while he ingratiated himself with "the team" (the first makes you a laughing stock).

I can understand why Crabb might have found the encounter frightening, but the Abbott women were not the target: Abbott was. They asked the question about him saving people from a fire once, but the question of Abbott's character had been settled long before.

Crabb refers to Marr's Quarterly Essay on Abbott, which mentioned but did not examine the idea that Abbott was insulated from the consequences of his actions. He was not pursued for restitution for petty acts of vandalism, let alone penance or punishment. Minor legal actions were met with the sort of heavy-handed representation that would be more appropriate for high-stakes criminal or commercial matters. This is a man whose first step at every new stage of his career has been to do whatever it took to secure the loyalty of powerful men who, like his father, would reward his loyalty by indulging his foibles and insulating him from any consequences that might flow from them.

When the media dutifully report Abbott's sisters Christine Forster and Jane Vincent saying that Abbott is a great guy and PM material, they are speaking from the same family paradigm in which The Situation was raised: Ya Gotta Let Tony Be Tony. Not surprisingly, this is a paradigm with which Tony is more than comfortable. It was one of Howard's impositions on the Liberal Party: first Amanda Vanstone, as Education Minister, had to Let Tony Be Tony (in public service terms: LTBT), then so did the nation's Cabinet. By 2007 Liberal candidates who might have won without his help found their careers sacrificed to LTBT. In 2010 Queensland candidates capitalising on Rudd had to LTBT because the press found him captivating: disciplined and authentic at the same time, apparently.

In Crabb's article she wondered whether Abbott was somehow calculating in appealing to some vast insensitive sexist vote. Consider Abbott's challenge, from a Coalition perspective:
  • More than sufficient number of people voted Coalition over the four federal elections before 2004;
  • In the two federal elections since 2004, an insufficient number of people voted Coalition (we'll have none of your "so close" or "points for trying" malarkey, thank you). Therefore;
  • The challenge is to encourage all (or as many as possible) of those who voted Coalition in 2010 to do so again next year, as well as encourage those who didn't (but who might have before 2004) to do so, so that the Coalition ends up with a majority of votes in a majority of electorates. Not only must many thousands of Australian voters be persuaded to vote differently to the way they voted in the past two elections, they must also be more than happy to LTBT and while doing so, have the Treasury of the Commonwealth at his disposal.
Here's what follows from that, in answer to Crabb:
  1. There is a huge constituency of sexist dickheads who voted for Kevin Rudd, the apology to Aborigines, early childhood education and who will give all that away because - finally! - we have a leader who is prepared to stick it to The Man Person Woman; or
  2. No such constituency exists in any real numbers, and in the whole of the once-proud Coalition, there is nobody at all with the combination of guts and brains to confront the leader with the error of his ways.
Part of the Coalition's tragedy is that people like Grahame Morris and Mark Textor have charged them millions for longer-form and less perceptive analyses than the above. When people sneer at the big parties for taking corporate donations, consider: how much do you think it costs to keep Morris and Textor in the, er, style to which they have become accustomed?

Part of the media's tragedy, including Crabb's, is that they lack the skills and the inclination to test the above points and come up with a hypothesis to communicate to people.

For year after year, Annabel Crabb thought it was part of her job to be an LTBT enabler; that anyone coughed up by the party system into Parliament was there deservedly ("the public usually get it right") and was to be celebrated rather than examined. She appears to have taken her chances with the substance of Julia Gillard's speech against sexism and misogyny than insist on the "context" of Slipper as more sexist than Abbott. Now she's reached a point where simply making excuses for Abbott is not an option, she assumes there is a method behind the madness; Abbott's problem is that the madness is the method, and that LTBT is not some benign indulgence but a form of madness which the nation appears less likely to embrace.

Joe Hockey will vote to strip single mothers of entitlements but wants everyone to have a government-funded pram, the prices of which are already absurdly inflated. When to be indulgent, and when to be ascetic, is the arbitrary but unquestioned decision of the father. Any who question him are beset by his enablers, e.g. Credlin, one of the sisters, either Bishop, Mirabella. Those people have chosen to be LTBT enablers but are particularly bad at persuading the rest of us to be LTBT enablers too.

It's one thing for me to say that my life is richer for having been a parent than it was when I was childless. It's quite another to do what Abbott is doing, and imply that he is a better person for having been a parent than someone else is for not being one.

No parent I know looks down on those without children. You know enough people who have want to have kids but can't, and/or who have miscarried, or whose "parenthood journey" has been so rough, to know that parenthood is a matter of good luck and/or grace. It is only a source of virtue to those who romanticise it from afar. Hands-on parents regard Abbott with a gall that only he and his enablers confuse with awe.

The stupid thing is that he and Gillard made essentially the same lifestyle decision. He gave up a child he believed to be his for the sake of his career. She never had a child to give up. He largely outsourced his parenting duties but crowed about holding an empty title. Each considers themselves to be in the business of helping families, so long as we overlook Abbott's oft-professed (and indulged!) boredom as Shadow Minister for Families Families Families Baked Beans Families Families Families Families and Families in 2007-09.

Tony Abbott is appealling to a constituency that doesn't exist, and appalling to one that does. Rather than just report all those "Liberal sources" who will inevitably say "I knew Tony wouldn't make it", the time has come to find out why they are not confronting him. Howard did his own thing but when a big enough bunch of backbenchers came toward him, he sat up and took notice.

Abbott takes no notice. His silly tactic of trailing his coat to get the Prime Minister to go off at him again makes him look like the schoolboy taunting the female prac teacher. Even if he does rattle her, he won't convince anyone that he should be teaching the class; he's still just a naughty boy. There is no switch to flick to make him Prime Ministerial, it's too late.

The MSM have serious questions to consider about what falls off their schedule in pursuit of the latest pearls to drop from his lips. The idea of "balance" is not a public demand but one of the journosphere, because a "balanced" political system places them at the centre of events. Politics is out of balance, and politicians are spending all day wrapping themselves around "the media cycle" for zero impact; this simply can't go on.

I felt sorry for Michael Brissenden, who describes the storm clouds rolling toward him but ends his piece insisting that people like him need not modify their behaviour at all. Pollies are more nimble than the journosphere, and woe betide all the box-tickers in the press gallery who find one day - while out of the country or otherwise distracted perhaps - not that the bus has gone without them, but that it isn't going anywhere. Young journalists, why not sit up the front of a stopped bus and talk to Michael Brissenden? You could fetch him coffee while you listen to his cracking yarns (do some research first to find out who "Peter Costello" was).

21 October 2012

Failure to plan means planning to fail

The Coalition's response to Australia's victory in the UN Security Council vote showed a bunch of people with no short-term media strategy nor any longterm policy direction. They have had years to plan for this: not only for the vote itself, but the whole context of how Australian foreign policy generally accommodates a place on the UNSC, what the country is expected to do with it, and what happens to this country and its foreign policy once the term is over. What have they been doing?

Julie Bishop has squeezed in the odd trip to Jakarta in between choreographing parliamentary silly-buggers (probably a shorter distance from Perth than the trip to Canberra), but she's been in the job long enough to have a position - or at least have a statement ready. General Eisenhower had a speech written incase the D-Day landings had failed. President Nixon had a speech written incase the moon landings had failed. You can be sure Bishop, Abbott et al would have come out all guns blazing if the UNSC bid had failed.

It seems that we only engage distant nations, like those in Africa, when we want something from them - the Sydney Olympics, the FIFA World Cup 2022, and now this. It will be interesting to see what will happen when they want something from us. Neither Carr nor the Coalition, nor foreign policy sages in the MSM and beyond, talked much about that in the context of Australia as a global citizen.

When athletes like Anna Meares and Evan O'Hanlon won gold in London, theirs were not Labor victories - they were victories for Australia. Labor supporters of Kevin Rudd struck the right note when they praised "Aussie diplomacy". Foreign Minister Carr talked about Australia's reputation as a good global citizen, leaving the door open for the Coalition to build on their role in building that reputation - but no.

Abbott wittered on about cost, but the shadow treasurer didn't. Hockey made a frankly idiotic link to asylum seeker policy, which the shadow immigration minister didn't back up. Their publicity effort was a shambles, and bodes poorly for the Coalition election campaign. The buck stops with Abbott but this isn't his failure alone - it goes all the way down, Bishop, Hockey, Credlin, and into the so-called future of the Liberals with the much-touted but little proven Briggs and Frydenberg.

When Alexander Downer was appointed to a UN rapporteur role by the Rudd government, the journosphere position on it was bipartisanship, Rudd reaching out to the Coalition. The appointment was also a case of Rudd snookering the Coalition. If the Coalition was going to trash the UN, as is their wont, they would also have to trash the man who - for all his failings and shortcomings - has forgotten more about foreign policy than the rest of today's Coalition put together. Downer's advisers Jamie Briggs and Josh Frydenberg are in the Coalition party room today, and neither man has added much to the debate on what UNSC might mean to a Coalition government.

On the face of it, not a lot of votes are won or lost on the basis of foreign policy. Perceptions of its real importance are hidden by nebulous poll-jockey concepts like "approval ratings", "preferred Prime Minister" or "fitness to govern":
  • Mark Latham's decision to bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan looked rash and ill-considered, hurting him far more than the taxi driver incident;
  • Kim Beazley's whole career involved defence issues. In September 2001 he could have struck a middle course between supporting the US while standing against the demonisation of Muslim Australians, and insisting on civil liberties protections while allowing for security legislation to adapt to new technologies. He'd have been Prime Minister and lots of things would have been different;
  • Fraser made Hayden look like an amateur on foreign policy, as Holt did to Calwell;
  • McMahon tried doing the same to Whitlam over "Red China", but when Kissinger and Nixon went there too that boomerang smacked him in the face.
Where else could a media-junkie like me turn but to the sage at the juncture of domestic and foreign policy, Peter Hartcher? He clearly learned the wrong lessons here. Of course the incumbents rate their predecessors, and of course Abbott will lean on Howard for the consistency and decorum that he lacks.

It's partisan bullshit to say that everything our side did was great and everything the others did sent the country to hell. You can see this in UK politics: incumbent Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron professed to admire Tony Blair, who paid the compliment back to Thatcher, who in turn had praised Attlee. Keating was hobbled by his inability to find a good word for Liberals, while Howard looked like a statesman for praising Labor leaders Hawke and Chifley.

Prime Ministers are part of a continuum in the life of the nation, and successful Prime Ministers recognise that. They are about encouraging as many people to vote for them as possible, which means making co-partisans feel put out when they slaughter a fatted calf to welcome those who had voted otherwise in the past. Part of this is a sly narrative to paint the incumbent as a wan imitation of their party's past masters rather than the rightful heir.

Gillard has this right in her portrayal of Howard:
"I always thought he was a commendably disciplined person and enormously psychologically strong in terms of a conception of himself and a conception of what he wanted to do next and if I can replicate some of these things I would be happy with that."

It was his manner but also some of his decisions she admired: "As prime minister, Mr Howard had some fine moments and I believe when those moments are shown, we should celebrate them in a spirit of bipartisanship.
Subtext: compare Abbott's macho strutting, his absence of policy and antipathy to bipartisanship, to Howard, the man Abbott supposedly emulates. If you want guts, determination, vision and pragmatism, you'd have to vote for me over him.

Earlier in the piece Hartcher quoted probably the only Liberal-voting tenured academic in the country, Greg Mellueish [sic], associate professor of history and politics at Wollongong University [sic]. Why? A bit of column-stuffing, but hardly big on perspective or analysis:
"You got Kevin Rudd, who wanted to be another John Howard at the 2007 election, because Howard seemed to be the definition of political success".
There is the conservative paradox right there. Why would Rudd want to emulate a man on the way out? Do you think Gough Whitlam spent a lot of time being Billy McMahon? Remember how Rudd drove Liberals crazy in 2007 by picking a few key differences but basically differing little on everything else? Again, compare and contrast with Abbott forcing the Liberals to fight on all fronts, with few real policy options. Melleuish, whose Quadrant pieces should not, I hope, count toward his academic publishing requirements, missed that context and so too did Hartcher.

Hartcher's attempt to bring in US politics clouds the point he is trying to make. He is trying for a bit of Sheridan-like intellectual overreach. Neither he, Melleuish, nor the other conservative academic Hartcher quotes, Tom Switzer (the man who, along with Simon Berger, put Brendan Nelson where he is today), manage to square their circle and compare Abbott not to Howard, but George W Bush. The recklessness, the relentless opposition to all things bipartisan, the sheer disdain for contrary opinions however well grounded, the unusually close relationship with key female subordinates; all of these things are aspects of the prospect of an Abbott government that need some further investigation. Where would we get some of that?

The nearest thing we have to a comprehensive Liberal critique of Australian foreign policy generally and the UNSC vote in particular is not from the shadow minister, Julie Bishop, who has been in the position for years. It hasn't come from cocktail-party accessory Josh Frydenberg, who has Abbott bluffed into thinking he's a foreign policy expert. No, it has come from a former pothead, the man who made the South Australian Liberals almost unelectable for two generations now, and who plays the Cheney or Tebbitt role of ideological enforcer on Australian conservatives from retirement: Nick Minchin.

Minchin spent ten times the amount spent on UNSC lobbying enriching Joe Cocker and Kerry Packer, selling us a tax we had no choice but to buy. He put in place the policy shambles that is our telecommunications policy, which the NBN is designed to undo. Minchin kept Howard going long past his use-by date and had a hand in every Liberal leadership campaign since. The next Liberal Prime Minister will unchain Nick Minchin from his party's heart: Tony Abbott is not the next Liberal Prime Minister. Meanwhile, marvel at the sheer gall of this man:
"I think it's frankly disgusting that we've spent this money, this time and this effort to pursue something that I think compromises our aid program and potentially compromises our foreign affairs positions."
Um, what policies and positions in particular?
"And now we've got Bob Carr prancing around the world saying he's going to solve the Syrian civil war," he said.
Really? I can't find any statements to that effect. Maybe we should just sit back and wait for Syrian refugees to start lobbing up on Christmas Island.
"What about our backyard? We've got lots of problems in the Pacific we should be focusing on."
Problems that should have been addressed by the government of which Minchin, Abbott and Bishop were senior members, not the least of which is the neo-colonialist perception of other people's countries as our extended property.
"We will have no influence because all the decisions are made by the permanent members of the UN security council," he told Network Ten's the Bolt Report program on Sunday.
Really? Is there no precedent for middle powers having an impact on the UNSC? Bishop should have diplomatically set Minchin straight on that - Condoleezza Rice would've done that, and examples like Canada and Scandinavian countries come to mind here. They don't however. come to any Coalition minds - and more's the pity for their attempts to show us that they have what it takes to govern us.

Minchin's position is silly and reactionary and ignorant and all bad things - but it is a critique, and it's consistent with a long tradition of UN-phobia in the Coalition ranks, and those references to existing foreign policy challenges gives it the sort of occasional resonance necessary to develop truthiness. Minchin's remarks are exactly the sort of jetsam that gets sucked into a vacuum and becomes confused with substance and principle - and we have seen that Coalition foreign policy is a vacuum, and that it is endemic, and vested in the very people Minchin props up.

If Barnaby Joyce can bring on a foreign policy crisis over Chinese interests taking over a farm in Queensland (no problem with British interests doing so), you can see Coalition foreign policy is a lightweight thing, buffeted almost to breaking point even by hot air. Joyce and Bishop got a free trip to India thanks to Gina Reinhart to attend a wedding. How they will build on our relations with India, which seems to be reaching a new high plateau, is a question that Peter Hartcher might be better off examining for the sake of his credibility if nothing else.

Now is the time when people are starting to take the Coalition seriously as a potential government. They have failed to demonstrate that they can rise to the national interest, nor can they play politics effectively, and they have wasted five years in letting their policy skills atrophy. They are not ready for government and will not win. They cannot and will not deal with surprises, and nor can they flick the switch to competence on issues more directly relevant to voters than the UN Security Council.

In terms of this election cycle the Coalition are finished, the Abbott experiment is over, and with it the happy little Minchinite dream of coasting into office thanks to a self-sabotaging Labor government. Labor is run by people who win votes, Minchin et al only lose them: that's political context for ya. Let the polls catch up when they will.

14 October 2012

How to hobble a high-profile candidate

* Update: this post has two new paragraphs: "Anderson did ... on principle".

Major parties talk about recruiting high-profile candidates to run for Parliament, people with community-building and media-relationship skills already developed and no toxic history of intra-party warfare, so that the parties don't have to carry their candidate base and can devote more time to fundraising or campaigning.

For all their talk, major parties really don't want high-profile candidates. They want candidates who would be nothing without them, who fear losing whatever the party may deign to grant them. This used to be a Labor preference, avoiding high-profile and personally secure candidates who might become tempted to buck the party line and 'rat', but now the Liberals and Nationals have adopted the same approach. In the process they haven't really thought about what they want from high-profile candidates. They continue to court them, but they just can't use them effectively, which makes both the suitor and the wooed look more than a little silly.

A recent case in point is Mr Gary 'Angry' Anderson.

Anderson grew up in Melbourne's tougher low-income industrial suburbs. He became famous as lead singer of Rose Tattoo, fine purveyors of four-on-the-floor Aussie rock in the 1970s and '80s like this. More substantially, Anderson works with young people from difficult family and personal circumstances; Rose Tattoo's gritty, grinding rock gave him credibility in dealing with kids from similar backgrounds to his own. This is hard work requiring full engagement of brains and hearts and guts, often confronting, an underappreciated branch of the emergency services that operates in slow motion. Anderson deserves a lot of respect for his years of work in this area.

In the course of this work Anderson decided to become a conservative politician. He didn't announce this on national TV or start pontificating about it, he subtly met with party officials and asked how he might become involved. Anderson's interest coincided with the similarly unusual career shift of Peter Garrett, where he only made his announcement once a seat had been lined up for him. When Anderson showed his hand, he got only platitudes and vague talk of a seat somewhere:
The director of the NSW Nationals, Ben Franklin, says Anderson is "an icon of the Australian music industry and has an outstanding record as a community activist".

"He's a strong voice for all of the traditional Labor supporters out there ..."
So, not a good Nationals candidate then, which may explain why Franklin was happy to sell Anderson out. He got a good deal overall for the Nationals because he was dealing with Liberals who wouldn't fight their corner, apparently, even though anything that upsets Alby Schultz has that to commend it alone. The Liberals got the Nationals to agree to not run Anderson in Gilmore, and they won't. They didn't rush to find him another seat either.

The geniuses who caved to the Nationals took Anderson in but look just as bad with this. All the mouth-breathers who think that the polls somehow reflect what will happen ten months hence would regard Greenway as pretty much a lock for the Coalition, and must wonder why Rowlands would even bother fighting the inevitable. It is, however, the very sort of seat where a hard-working and entrenched incumbent, backed by a Prime Minister who is more popular than Liberals can bear to allow, will finish ahead of an interloper who lacks hands-on political experience.

A close reading of that article will show that Anderson hasn't even been formally endorsed. Christianists like David Clarke kyboshed a candidate in 2010 who would have made Rowlands' task (and by extension, Gillard's) even harder than it was. Anderson has spent his life laughing at those sorts of people, but it is the Christianists who will blanch and gasp and carry on when the lyrics of Bad Boy For Love or Rock 'n' Roll Outlaw are thrust under their noses.
“When I spoke to the Liberals Greenway was suggested. The powerful men suggested it would be a good fit,” he said.

“I am very confident I could do a great job for the people of Greenway,” he said.

“I represent people who have struggled all their lives.”

Sources close to Tony Abbott, who is a neighbour and friend of Mr Anderson, said the Opposition Leader was seriously considering backing Mr Anderson as a way of breaking a deadlock in the seat.

Mr Abbott is understood to be unhappy with the frontrunner in the pre-selection ballot, Blacktown lawyer Jayme Diaz, 36, who contested the seat in 2010 ...
Anderson didn't want to rustle any feathers, he did what party insiders would hope aspiring candidates would do. They have rewarded him with a kite-flying exercise: Anderson is a bit rough around the edges, and so are many people in Blacktown, so why not run him there? Clarke was happy with Diaz, who came so close, and is a local ... don't you worry about Tony, whoever the Christianists run will be fine by Tony.

Anderson should have run in one of the communities in western Sydney where he helped so many young people (and had he not done so, the communities where their anti-social tendencies would have been felt most directly). He should have run for state politics, where the issues he cares about are actually delivered. He could have helped Mike Baird and Pru Goward understand the false economies of cutting social services - or even the big-picture opportunities open to a longterm government, where increased social spending could have reduced out-of-control expenditure on prisons over time. Oh well, too late for that. He would have been a lot better than the local government worthies occupying those seats now.

Back in January, Anderson declared that he wouldn't be hobbled. Now it's October and he has been hobbled, not through direct confrontation but by being stuffed about. The Nationals hobbled him by suggesting he run anywhere from the north coast to the south coast so long as there was bugger-all chance of him winning. The Liberals hobbled him by kite-flying, he might be a useful candidate somewhere or other in the western suburbs, but no promises or commitments.

Anderson did participate in the protests against the carbon price which led to all sorts of nasty misogyny, conspiracy theories, racism and goodness-knows-what oozing out. All Liberals and Nationals have to spout absolute crap on carbon pricing for the sake of party unity, and Anderson thought he was helping. He even lent support to some of that in the past. There was a time when major parties would have taken a firm line against such views as having no place in Australian society, but that has gone now. The reason why Ben Franklin did not tell Anderson unequivocally that he could not hold to extreme views on race and other issues is because there is no line in the sand - Barnaby Joyce regularly flirts with CEC types in his jaunts around rural Queensland, and the protected species Dennis Jensen regularly airs a range of appalling opinions on how the world works.

Sir John Carrick would not have messed about with Anderson. Sir John McEwen weeded out candidates who wanted to perpetuate the war against Japan long after it was over, and who thought that anti-Communism meant not selling wheat to the Soviet Union. The Liberals and Nationals should have forced Anderson to recant or bid him good riddance - they've done neither, so I hope they don't want credit for taking a strong stand on principle.

The proof that the Coalition can't tolerate candidates who are secure in themselves was demonstrated clearly under the Howard government:
  • Russell Broadbent had made a comfortable life selling furniture in Melbourne's fast-growing southeastern suburbs.
  • Judi Moylan sold real estate in WA.
  • Dr Mal Washer was an esteemed medical practitioner in Perth.
  • Petro Georgiou had been a senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser when Howard was a backbencher.
None of those people had entered Parliament at an impressionable age. They all knew how politics worked, but they refused to regard Howard's word as immutable and refused to regard themselves as less important than one of Mark Textor's focus groups or some 2GB transcripts. Younger members of the Howard government (e.g. Abbott, Julie Bishop, and given the overreach of staffers these days, Credlin too) seethed at these backbenchers calling the Prime Minister to account. Howard must have seethed too, but having come up through the old school he knew he actually had to persuade independently-minded Liberals rather than merely jerking their chains, like Abbott and Credlin do now.

Anderson would be an independently-minded MP too. He'd toe the line for a while, just like Garrett did, especially on issues like asylum-seekers (where Anderson is less convinced than Broadbent et al). The difference is that Garrett wasn't working with the ninnies that Coalition MPs not only sit along side but are led by. Peta Credlin would not tolerate him for a second - these are people who don't have a lot of Rosey Tatts albums or gig-ticket stubs, but who can find stuff like this in a Google search.

Anderson put his political fate in the hands of those who wouldn't stand and fight him, but who'd happily stuff him around until he gave up or his credibility was shot, which is what has happened. This doesn't make him a patsy - far from it, he went to the parties' great-and-good in good faith, he had much to offer them and they let him down. Say what you will about Angry Anderson, but he's got guts and brains and stature in the community. These are qualities that are not assets but inconveniences and impertinences to those who run the Coalition, however much they pretend (or, sadly, even believe) otherwise.

And that, my friends, is what 'context' means when we report on political stories. We piece together known facts and draw upon our experience of politics in order to tell a story. We do not dare bluff to our readers that someone who set up some narrowly-defined, low-stakes and sordid feint in parliamentary theatre is somehow a true winner, while his opponent who overwhelmed him at the time and since has won nothing. Nor do we insist that those contending otherwise have no right to construct a Narrative which we have not fed them.

Journalists titter and sneer at those who complain at being taken "out of context", yet they seem put out when they try it on and get the same response. This blog has outlasted several press gallery journos and will be going long after others who fancy themselves as big names have had the last of their credibility shredded, too.

11 October 2012

Media regulation: everything will be all right

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

- George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four
The only hope for the media in Australia lies in innovation and courage. In the absence of those qualities it will almost certainly plump for more regulation rather than less. This is a reversal from their timeless principles of, oh, earlier this year. It will be interesting to see if the regulators oblige.

Last year there was an inquiry into the way the mainstream media handles complaints, chaired by former judge Ray Finkelstein. At the same time was the inception of a different but related inquiry into the way that online media effectively blurs the distinctions between of previously separate domains of print, audio-only radio and audio-visual TV (known as "the Convergence Review"). At the time, the journosphere consensus was that:
  • both would result in greater regulation of the media; and
  • that greater regulation of the media was a Bad Thing, if not a Threat To Democracy And Free Speech; and
  • that even the merest tweak to existing legislation, let alone A Whole Raft (a raft being the collective noun for legislative measures, apparently) would mean Goebbels and gulags and gabble gabble gabble ...
At around the same time there was a bit of coat-trailing to the effect that if the government funds some journalists (at the ABC and SBS), why not keep all journalists and journalism in the manner to which they/it had become accustomed? This came hard on the heels of sizeable government subsidies support incentives donations to the car industry. Tendentious comparisons were made to public funding for utilities or the arts.

Soon afterwards, the government proposed to retain the internet browsing data of all Australians. They imposed Control Orders on some people and locked others up indefinitely without charging them. The MSM were not as alert to threats to the liberties of Australians as you'd hope their experience would have taught them, focused as they were on former union officials misappropriating expenses and a political staffer who seemed, career-wise, attracted to a politician as sordid as himself.

The whole process demonstrated the sheer bankruptcy of the idea that when the MSM campaigns on an issue, the politicians had better watch out because the public will get right behind it and sweep away any governmental inertia or stalemate. If they can't act in their own interests then their periodic campaigns about public transport or crime or anything else will be worthless: have your say, make a comment.

Then came the Alan Jones thing, which has hit commercial radio in Sydney as suddenly and as decisively as September 11. Jones is the most commercially and politically powerful shock-jock in a town that tolerates them more than most. Much is made of Jones' part-ownership of his station, 2GB, but until two weeks ago he largely carried that station financially: to the victor the spoils. It wasn't as though social media campaigns in this country picked off a succession of commercial radio small-fry before taking on the big guys - target number one was the biggest target in the biggest market.

Notwithstanding Mike Carlton's dump, the fact is that Jones has - had - the veneer of class and success that the rest of the station has always lacked, and which it keens for now. That veneer kept the oldies loyal. It is indispensable to conservatism generally and the myth of that station as the place through which you reach a wide and influential audience: going, going ...

Without Jones 2GB is like Kyle Sandilands without the catchy tunes: reporting on politics, but as remote from it as Sandilands' showbiz gossip is from actually influencing events there. The other presenters on that station tend to be grubs, there is no reason to talk or listen to them.

"Without Jones" is a real possibility. No other radio announcer - not even on the ABC - would have kept their job after embarrassing their station and causing it such massive financial damage. Jones is in his early 70s. It is clear that there has been no succession or key-man planning even assuming that their business model hadn't been broken, which it has been. This is the epitome of sloppy management: a failure to plan for contingencies that are eminently foreseeable.

For 2GB to let Jones go would see it fall off a cliff of relevance. It would concede that their entire business model has failed, that its audience was never as valuable as the ad space fees suggested. It would see the whole station do what Jones accused another man of doing: die of shame.

The fact that Jones and 2GB have gone from dominant to doomed within one ratings period explains why the story has gone on and on: it's no longer a political story but a media story, and the media will talk about itself long after more substantial issues have been declared passe and dispensed with.

(Google the headline) Christian Kerr illustrates the problems faced by the MSM in coming to terms with this. Kerr noted the story is entering its second week and, again like September 11, the media can't talk about anything else even though they have nothing new to say.

Kerr came to prominence under an online pseudonym, just like "Xerxes" or "Hairy Maclary", or the anonymous troll with the wetsuit metaphor. As with any white-collar worker, Kerr's indispensable work tool is a keyboard. In an earlier era Gough Whitlam called Billy McMahon "Tiberius with a telephone": a neat alliteration but, as with Kerr, it wrongly emphasises the technology over its political use. Any means of communication can be and is a political tool.

I wonder whether the images of keyboards on smartphones and tablets count as "keyboards", or as something else again. Perhaps Kerr's definition makes Jones a "radio activist"? No wonder he's regarded as toxic.

Like Alan Jones, Mark Textor stands on his dignity with a weak logical case and a fairly tendentious record. He asserts that people who organise campaigns through online media can't be mainstream because, ah, because - look, he just made Christian Kerr feel smart by co-opting him into propping up a bogus distinction. Textor was happy to credit Jones as being synonymous with mainstream Australia when Howard was in power, and the decline of Jones' audience was part of Howard's decline. I have written about Textor's strategic and intellectual laziness and Kerr has him compound it with his own, ah, um, well, words.

People have simply grown tired of Jones, and to be tired of Jones is to threaten an entire, previously comfortable industry. The lazy paradigm which he built and sells no longer applies in the real world. Like most conservatives Textor can't pick a fad from a structural shift. Whether he knows it or not, Textor is in a similarly uncomfortable position to the psychic who cancels a show due to "unforeseen circumstances". He will play a leading role in the Coalition's campaign of 2013 to the co-dependent detriment of them and himself. Textor has been shown up here, not by some radical leftie but by an admirer who took his genius as given.

Talkback radio is the nearest thing the mainstream media has to the "anonymous trolls" of Twitter and Facebook. "Bob from Cranbourne" or "Helen from Carlingford" are no less anonymous and pseudonymous than, say, "Hillary Bray". Commercial radio looks silly complaining about the very methods that saw them wield such disproportionate power for a generation. They will give up "Bob" and "Helen" and everyone else if their future depends on it, which it does.

The mainstream media will assert its credibility by railing against "anonymous trolls", and join their cause to that of increasingly intrusive government. This has started with the Daily Telegraph, which still runs quotes from "senior sources" and trolls like so-called "Piers Akerman". Moves to crack down on "online trolling" and "cyberbullying" will be increasingly and warmly applauded in the MSM. Julian Assange has broken more stories than all the journalists at News Ltd Australia put together, but those rallying to his defence are few and getting fewer.

Having learned their lesson with Grog's Gamut (where the pseudonymous blogger exposed as Greg Jericho became a respected commentator on social media rather than a harried, unemployed wretch cringing before the might of News Ltd), the mainstream media will flex its muscles by going after pathetically powerless individuals, especially teenagers embarrassing themselves like so many latter-day Digby Bamfords. They will make the case for government that online anonymity is not on, and the legislation will probably follow.

In return for publicly but selectively abandoning anonymity, the mainstream media will lobby for legal protection of its privileges. For those who abandoned 2GB, both advertiser and media outlet could launch legal action against Facebook users who had them break their contract, if only the law would allow. Press releases now freely available might be restricted, at least for a while, to help the good old MSM get a head start and showcase their "professionalism", while all those cyberpunks behind Gov2.0 have the choice of being co-opted or vilified.

The Right To Know Coalition has no chance against a Right To Exist Coalition. If government action were necessary to secure that then so be it, purely for the shareholders. Assertive independence is all very well but not when commercial survival, and the appearance of real clout, are at stake.

Don't give me any crap about fearless journos asserting an independence from management that they talk about, but don't really have. Journalists differentiate themselves from and above bloggers by the accumulated public reach, clout and history of their employers, compounded of course by their wisdom in hiring such talent as they. Having bagged bloggers so hard for so long they are generally not keen to join us, even when fate intervenes.

The political class (including MPs, staffers and lobbyists and limpets like Textor) did not get where it is through social media. It got where it is as part of a politico-media complex. It regards the insurgency against Jones as random and unpredictable, not foreseeable and controllable, and it will almost certainly act in order to bask in the adulation of the legacy media.

A political class that can get around the MSM effectively has not yet arisen, and only when it has will the impetus to regulate in favour of mainstream media abate. By lobbying for legislative protection the MSM will be even more co-opted than they are now, and that will truly be the death of them: propaganda is unreliable. Worse, it's dull to read, dull to watch and dull to listen to. Take the consumers/voters out and the logic is more compelling: we'll keep on being gatekeepers if you (re)build the gate, and any flaw in the construct is your fault.

Corporate Australia tends to oligopoly. This is true of banking, retail, telecommunications and many other industries. Large players maintain their positions through lobbying to secure regulatory environments that makes it difficult for all but a small number of competitors to challenge them. Libertarians spend time wondering why "free enterprise" doesn't reciprocate their support, time that might be spent more usefully challenging their own assumptions.

The tendency to oligopoly has been a feature of media too. Radio and TV rely on government licences for broadcasting spectrum, but Fairfax and News Ltd achieved the same in newspapers through accumulated scale and reputation and the ability to defend high-stakes lawsuits. As Jonathan Green points out, these organisations are "simple commercial self-interests that are no longer either a public necessity or holders of a public trust". It beggars belief that big media wouldn't engage corporate lobbyists to secure favourable public policy outcomes.

Media organisations won't be able to lobby themselves into existence forever, just as you can't botox yourself to immortality. Market forces, time and technology are against them - but they will give it a good go for a while yet.

There is some hope for a government that has recently been encouraged to go around the MSM, however tentatively, and engage with social media directly. This is hope compounded rather than dashed by its lack of overarching policy direction. By contrast, the Opposition looks increasingly doomed by sticking by the only media it knows: the "main stream", the quest for which is as futile to 21st century Australia as was "the Inland Sea" to the 19th.

10 October 2012

Slipper and the damage done

The mainstream media did themselves no favours in covering Peter Slipper's resignation. Tim Dunlop's article on media coverage of these issues is more important than the entire output of press gallery on this subject, but Slipper's resignation is still important in itself. They all ran the same story, and the wrong one: a close reading of what was in the MSM and a determination to seek out information that they did not provide showed their inadequacy once again.

The Coalition ostensibly moved against Slipper in the name of being seen to stand up for against misogyny. Never mind that they said they wanted legal processes to run their course first. The Coalition doesn't stand up for due process, and won't look like a responsible government until it does. They have a "leader" who was desperate to counter a reputation for misogyny and thought it was clever to send him over the top. And over the top he went, as Anthony Sharwood pointed out in that unfortunately-named Murdoch website.

In the video, Abbott does not face the PM during that fateful phrase "died of shame" but reads it from prepared notes: this wasn't one of his heat-of-the-moment gaffes, it was planned. It's not the execution but the strategy. The leader must wear the responsibility but Pyne, Deputy Leader Credlin and Deputy Deputy Leader Julie Bishop must own this too.

As many have pointed out, Gillard tore Abbott a new one. If this isn't "the real Julia" it will do; people who despise her will write that off as an aberration while there are plenty who see in that an authenticity, and yes a decency, that is more appealling than polls appear capable of conveying. Any journalist who failed to report that has failed their readers/ listeners/ viewers rather than cemented any reputation for "balance". Even trenchantly anti-Gillard journos should be able to write a "mouse bites cat" story.

The government replaced Slipper with an experienced parliamentarian, which puts Abbott is a position where he is taking orders from a woman (and where Opposition defiance of the Speaker makes him look even worse). Anna Burke needs to take the harder line against Opposition disruption, like Slipper did - it worked, which is the main reason why they hate him.

Abbott's perception of misogyny is not diminished. The central strategic objective of the Coalition over the past two weeks has been reversed. The kudos he got for his kind words to the PM on her father's death has evaporated. His wife needn't have bothered. He has no-one to blame but himself.

It is understandable that Sophie Mirabella was hurt by the now-public texts of Slipper and Ashby, and even that she played it up for maximum political impact - until you remember the picture of her under those banners before that mob. Thanks to Independent Australia, the Federal Court and Peter Slipper, I will happily and non-misogynistically refer to her as a "botch". If she's going to act all hurt, she needs the self-awareness to rise above her record: her leader, and her mentor Bronwyn Bishop, both lack this capacity. She is meant to be someone with a future, but again like them her past seems more significant and substantial.

As an independent MP, Slipper hasn't been a rusted-on Coalition man for some time but now he's not even-handedly disposed to the Coalition. He may vote with the Coalition against the government on particular issues, but all independents do that.

Peter Slipper's appointment as Speaker is not some incurable cancer on the Gillard government, but a boil that has now been lanced. Any Coalition MPs who are still going on about Slipper six months from now will get all the respect that is due to those who propose nothing but criticise regardless.

Drag0nista insists that our federal politics can only be understood properly and reported properly if they are reported on insider terms:
... the Prime Minister became wedged by Abbott’s motion.

The sheer force of that speech and its resonance in the community busted that wedge. If she had made it in the context of a debate on monetary policy, or the price of eggs, or the shooting of Malala Yusafzai, it would still have been more important than whatever pissant motion Abbott was putting up.

Abbott has no credibility on measures against misogyny and was picking on the isolated Slipper because he can't be sure of trouncing Gillard. He could have won if she had simpered before him like she did before Alan Jones last year. He could have won if she had read out a lawyerly prepared statement in her drawling, passionless monotone. She did none of those things.

Sometimes when you take on an opponent in a battle or a game they can beat you by playing a slightly different way, playing it better, and exposing a weakness that you are trying to hide. Sometimes they can even be lucky, and you can be unlucky. That is what happened to Abbott here. Nowhere does she defend Slipper's texts nor even his position - if you would take Abbott literally at his word you must take Gillard literally at hers too.
Sometimes we need to take a step back to see the whole picture.
Or, you could do what Drag0nista did and put your nose so close to the text of yet another forgotten, irrelevant, failed Abbott motion that the "big picture" - which was picked up by the rest of the world - eludes you as it eluded Drag0nista. Abbott lost the wider battle/game.

It didn't matter whether or not he won some minor skirmish. When you understand that, you understand why this is funny: the pet shop owner has won the same tactical victory that Abbott won yesterday by pointing out the "beautiful plumage" of the dead parrot (yes, it is indeed beautiful, but it isn't the point).

It does Drag0nista no credit that she started her article with this weak equivocation:
I like Julia Gillard. She is a gutsy, intelligent and compassionate woman who I consider to be a formidable role model for all Australian girls and women.
Not enough for Get Shortened, it would seem:
There have been a litany of moments in Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership when she has effectively chosen to ignore Abbott’s overt displays of, and complicity with, sexism towards herself and Australian women in general. By expressing her unquestionably genuine offense now, only when her reputation and minority government is at stake, gives off hints of opportunism and sends the wrong message.
Her reputation and minority government is always at stake. She is not obliged to jump whenever Abbott pushes the sexism button; imagine if she had a reputation for doing just that. Instead of shrinking into himself like a frightened animal, Abbott would have rolled his eyes and said "there she goes again!" to a chorus of laughter from his backbench and the press gallery. She showed the tactical successes

Let's hope she shows her passionate side more often, and uses the Prime Ministership as more of a "bully pulpit" to get issues aired rather than just another transactional office as she has tended to treat it. The decision on cutting single parent benefits is at odds with the spirit of the payrise for community service workers; but sometimes a small step on the right track can just look like a big step foregone.

Steve Lewis has been left without a story, a dangerous place to be for a relatively highly-paid but otherwise undistinguished journalist at this point. He will almost certainly get a Best Supporting Walkley for his gig with James Ashby. Few journalists will now follow the Slipper story through to its end. Because the story has lost currency, Lewis is unlikely to keep pursuing Slipper - it was all rather sordid really, and even though his book has copped all the flogging it can possibly bear he will find excuses not to take calls from Ashby. Hopefully Centrelink will accept his Walkley as a form of ID.

James Ashby's enemies are many and his friends are few. He has increasing debts to persistent lawyers and diminishing means to pay them (would you hire him to do your publicity, or in any capacity at all? There are many, many ex-press secs and unemployed journos already out there chasing too little work). Ashby has flagged that he has been suicidal, which at the very least is a request for the media he once courted to back off.

Peter Hartcher revealed more about himself than the political situation before us when he expressed his yearning for Gillard to be Pearl Pureheart. If she had been, it might have been easier for Hartcher and other Rudd-backers to have undermined her. When Hartcher says "we" expected more of Gillard perhaps this is who he means, rather than abrogating a royal pronoun or that old-school MSM arrogance that he speaks for his readers and has some insight into what we think. So she did a deal and it didn't come off, even though she held up her end of the bargain. I ask again: what's the point of being an "experienced political journalist"?

The idea that the government invested a lot of political capital in Peter Slipper, and that it has blown the lot, sounds fair - but what is "political capital"? Isn't it just risk? This government has taken a lot of risks, and some have paid off while others have not - but is this not true of all governments?

Six months from now, what would stop Gillard from simply agreeing with critics who contend that Slipper was a gamble that didn't pay off? Where does that leave those who need to believe that Slipper is some sort of disfiguring wound to the Gillard government?

Nobody comes out of this smelling of roses. Those supporting Gillard are bouyed by her performance while her various opponents seem bogged down. Those with experience in covering politics have no excuse for not reporting what's in front of them, and should be strong enough to rise above The Narrative when it has so demonstrably failed.

05 October 2012

The Situation with women

Step to the rhythm step step to the ride
I've got an open mind so why don't you all get inside
Tune in turn on to my tune that's live
Ladies flock like bees to a hive
Hey ladies - get funky

- Beastie Boys Hey Ladies
The Liberals clearly recognise that women are reluctant to vote for an Abbott government, and that having Margie Abbott talk about her husband in glowing terms might help turn that around.

It is a standard tactic in American politics to have a candidate bring out their spouse as a way of generating positive impressions without the hard work of policy development and persuasion. Even the most appalling candidate can appeal to voters with a spouse or a family member who can tell endearing, humanising anecdotes about them.

Margie Abbott should be believed when she says that it was her idea to go on television to support her husband and deny that he has a problem with strong, capable women. It would be a misunderstanding to refer to her as someone who is "wheeled out" to spruik in the way one might refer to a backbencher, or to Chris Pyne, when they are required to prop up their increasingly inadequate leader.

The fact that Tony Abbott married a woman of substance requires not only a more nuanced understanding of her, but him too. Even people who loathe Tony Abbott should have more sympathy for his wife than they demonstrate when she makes a public stand in his favour.

At the same time, she has chosen to play the sort of blatantly partisan role that attracts negative attention from commentators, amateur and professional. Like Calpurnia, she speaks rarely and is above suspicion. In her public appearances Margie Abbott usually wears white, which probably isn't be a coincidence or simply due to her taste. If any criticism is due to her media appearances it is due to those who think they are clever in crafting media events of this type: to what extent will that appearance lift Tony Abbott's poll ratings? The judgment of and about those people, and not Mrs Abbott, lives or dies on those questions.

Liberal activists who bristle at any criticism whatsoever of Mrs Abbott are just being silly. Janet Albrechtsen's incredulity at describing people who dislike the policies and personalities of Abbott or John Howard drains her credibility on other matters. They are protesting a little too much, and clearly placing a lot of faith in a stunt an appearance like that to turn around perceptions. They are clearly bereft of other ideas about how to do this.

I didn't see the television interview but I read about it here, on a website that insists users pay to see articles whose quality is usually (often wildly) overestimated. That article was made publicly available as part of an effort to make the public think more highly of Tony Abbott than they/we do, and hardly entices anyone to fork out or more. Grog's Gamut deals with News Ltd coverage in more and better detail.

So what if Tony Abbott's sisters, wife and daughters are all strong and capable and love him dearly? Even members of the Liberal Party who have known him for many years (including members of his shadow ministry) and have learned to put up with him aren't that close to him. The voters of Australia are not being invited to join his family. The political premise behind Margie Abbott's remarks is absurd.

She should not have gone on television with Abbott next to her. It wasn't quite like a hostage haltingly reading out a badly-written statement with a Kalashnikov-wielding, balaclava-clad thug standing over - but she should have been free to tell the sort of anecdote that made him look like a bit of a doofus. Even better, she should have given an example of where she and/or the other women in his life have actually changed his seemingly inflexible mind. That might have made a difference.

He should also have recognised publicly that Barbara Ramjan, Cheryl Kernot and every other woman who has gotten in his way over the years are no less deserving of basic respect than the women closest to him. It would have built on the generous humanity in his comments to the Prime Minister on her father's death, and shifted the ground to an extent that puts opponents off balance and opens up some space in otherwise tight contests. Oh well, too late now.

That Tony Abbott's wife thinks he's nice is neither here nor there. An interview like this might have made a difference in early 2010, but it's too late. Again, the target here is Abbott's strategists, not his wife.

The question that should have been asked of her was: can you understand why some women don't like Tony? A good answer would have reinforced her as a basically sensible person whose opinions should be listened to, and given both of them the credibility that her husband clearly lacks. A poor answer (Albrechtsen-like incredulity, stand-by-your-man docility, and/or simply dumping on the media for misrepresenting him) would have invalidated the whole exercise and left it open to be defined by Twitter memes.

In any case, The Situation had better not have problems with strong and capable women. Julie Bishop is basically holding his leadership together.

The fight has gone out of Abbott. He failed to capitalise on Labor's divisions: the vote itself was decisive but the comments of Crean and other Gillard supporters have left scars ripe for the Coalition to pick at. He was reduced to unworthy targets like Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, and even though he went after them with full force they are still in place ... my kingdom for a Carbon Tax! He's vulnerable and he knows it.

He's not above the fray, acting all Prime Ministerial. This is a man who doesn't know he's alive unless he's being punched in the head, and who will gladly punch himself if nobody else will oblige. Mind you, Greg Jericho thinks he may have done himself some damage already:

Julie Bishop has been useless as a Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party for most of the time she succeeded Peter Costello in the role. She smiled inanely as Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull floundered, and she has been rubbish in her policy roles. Ever since Labor's leadership contest earlier this year, however, she has lifted her game.

It is Julie Bishop who takes it up to the government in Question Time. It is she who stopped Mal Washer and other Liberal moderates from letting the government escape the fate of adopting Liberal asylum-seeker policy, or making Abbott look like a loser over same-sex marriage. She put Pyne in the attack-dog role, because a snarling Pekinese can be endearing if not certainly less threatening than Abbott's pitbull. When she says that the Tony Abbott she knows is a milk-of-human-kindness kind of guy: whether or not you agree, you have to believe her.

The current debate over wheat marketing is one of those issues that rarely makes it to the forefront of national debates, and smart-alecs in the press gallery use this as an excuse to ignore debates like this that require both mastery of detail and considerable passion simply to understand what is going on.

(If policy detail bores you, skip the next three paragraphs and go to the politics, starting with "It's a basic function of politics ...". You're welcome.)

The idea that wheat farmers should sell their crop en bloc rather than individually came from the middle of last century. During the Depression and drought of the 1930s, farmers' incomes collapsed; individual farmers were played against one another by brokers. Government in the 1930s was subject to austerity and small-state fetishism, which went the other way in the 1940s when rationing and bans generated enough economic activity for national survival and little else. By the 1950s, state and federal governments had recovered their fiscal strength while tempering their command-and-control impulses sufficiently to establish a "single desk" for marketing the nation's entire, undifferentiated wheat crop. This continued until the 1980s/'90s economic reforms elsewhere in the economy made it unsustainable; qangos such as the Australian Wheat Board and NSW Grains Corporation were privatised and became sellers' agents rather than compulsory acquirers.

Most growers seemed satisfied that a brokerage system balanced out the highs and lows of annual wheat crops better than any other system. Some were enthusiastic free-marketers in the good years and equally enthusiastic agrarian-socialists in the lean years; many of these are from Western Australia, where Julie Bishop also comes from.

Bishop initially sided with her home-town heroes who wanted to go the whole free-market route. Then it was impressed upon her that she is the Deputy Leader of a national organisation than just facilitator/enabler for left-coast cowboys (the role most WA Liberals see as their purpose in life), and the rest of the country contained a) wheat farmers who love their agrarian socialism, as well as b) urban Liberals who are enthusiastic free-marketers, urging her to her original position, and c) those who would dump the nation's wheat crop into the ocean, preferably onto a coral reef, rather than help the incumbent government.

It's a basic function of politics to resolve competing arguments and interests by negotiation, rather than violence and/or sheer weight of money. Abbott should have been alert to the political difficulties involved in this issue. He should have apprised himself of the issues and got the stakeholders together and worked something out. It would have made him look hundreds of times more Prime Ministerial than sitting with his wife talking about Downton Fucking Abbey (to use its full title).

Howard would have gotten across the issues, gathered people together and worked out a solution. It's the sort of thing the incumbent PM could and would do too, regardless of the fact that she isn't running a Liberal-National Coalition government. You don't have to be some sort of agricultural-policy wonk in order to do this (it might even be a hindrance), you have to be a skilled politician with experience in the highest level of government. You have to be someone who brings people together, someone who can cut a complex but workable deal and make it stick.

Abbott couldn't do that, he didn't even think it was important. To say that Labor won't win many wheat-belt seats is to miss the point that Abbott lacks the top-level political skills required of a Prime Minister. Press gallery journos who overlook wheat marketing as a political issue - "devil is in the detail" - aren't much use either.

It is Julie Bishop who is saving his bacon here. Laura Tingle thinks it's Tony Windsor but the point is Abbott is not stepping up and leading, he's not saving himself and so he gets no credit whatever happens. (Google the headline) Paul Kelly is right when he says that Abbott's advisers aren't much chop, but wrong to stop there. Abbott has delegated the leadership functions to the point where he has pretty much negated himself.

Tony Abbott has well and truly proven that he can cause trouble but not resolve it. Winners present themselves as healers and solvers of problems:
  • Bob Hawke titled his 1979 Boyer Lectures The Resolution of Conflict and presented himself as the constructive candidate in 1983.
  • In 1996 John Howard presented himself as a healer of the divisions brought about by Keating.
  • In 2007 it was Rudd who presented himself as the healer and resolver of impasses.
  • Tony Abbott. Healer. Problem-solver. Yeah, right (but there still are people who not only think he's the next Prime Minister, but that it's inevitable).
Character became an issue when the MSM basically gave up on explaining policy, and you couldn't trust politicians to carry out promised policy anyway. By playing the character card Abbott has shown the Coalition has pretty much given up on policy. For example:
  • Abbott's wife and sisters have done all the mothering they are likely to do;
  • Abbott's daughters are young women in their late teens/early twenties, so statistically at least they are unlikely to become eligible for parental leave during the 2013-16 period; and therefore
  • Those of you voting Coalition in the hope of Paid Parental Leave should keep this in mind as to non-core promises, budget black holes etc.
There might be thrills and spills in living with a guy who slips vodka into the communion wine or spear-tackles an elderly neighbour - c'mon, where's your sense of humour? After a while maybe you just learn to live with it, and perpetuate his parent's toxic insistence that You've Got To Let Tony Be Tony. You should be able to understand why others might be repelled, or can't be bothered even dealing with that sort of nonsense. Only once you start to get over yourself to that extent can you properly appraise the task ahead of you, whether you have got the right people for the job, and whether it is even worth the effort at all.

03 October 2012

Picked and stuck

One of the central problems of being a conservative is that you can't tell the difference between a passing fad and a permanent shift. A seismic rumble prompts the same reaction as a particularly loud fart. Abbott relies on being able to play to the media but the media landscape is changing to the point where he is finding it harder to play it.
"I am not going to ignore an audience of half a million people in Sydney"

- Tony Abbott, on Alan Jones' radio audience
Abbott overestimated Jones' daily audience by a factor of three. Julia Gillard's appearance on Q and A attracted as many people in under an hour than those who listen to Jones in a week and a half.

Jones was at his peak in the mid-1990s. Leading up to the NSW election of 1995 he was furious at then-Liberal Premier John Fahey for being respectful but not fawning; he got his own back by having then-Opposition Leader Bob Carr on to engage in mutual schmoozing. At about the same time John Howard became Federal Opposition Leader: Howard was in whatever-it-takes mode, and after Carr's victory he began to schmooze Jones too. Liberals engaged in a lot of post hoc reasoning that flattered Jones, and soon realised they had created a monster (they have done something similar with Mark Textor, too).

You could say that Carr engaged in a Faustian bargain with Jones and conservatives on The Daily Telegraph in order to secure government for Labor in NSW, but then you'd be one of those pet-shop galahs that the latter-day Carr rails at. There is nothing so in keeping with Labor tradition than being accused of selling out Labor tradition.

By 2007 Jones' audience had been in decline for years. John Howard kept schmoozing Jones, and lost his seat. In 2007 Tony Abbott was so obtuse he didn't notice that Jones was past his best, and he hardly performed to expectations in that campaign himself. Jones requires a lot of sucking up and there are those who think there is a payoff for doing that. There isn't, and hasn't been for years.

Abbott still hasn't learned the lessons of 2007. A party will not win an election until it learns those lessons:
  • Labor lost office in 1975 and was thrashed at the next two elections because all it had to offer was: "We was robbed!". When it realised that economic illiteracy was a non-starter, no matter how vaingloriously asserted, they began their return to office.
  • The Coalition pretty much realised why Fraser lost office within a month after the 1983 election. They then made every other mistake a party can make over the next dozen years before John Howard slapped them all into shape.
  • Kim Beazley couldn't bear to face the problems of the Hawke-Keating governments. Crean and Latham insisted on making their own mistakes. When Rudd embraced reform without Keating's pitbull snarl, he was in.
  • Tony Abbott has 16 members of Howard's ministry on his frontbench. If he starts disowning Howard it will be all over - like Rudd disowning "the greatest moral challenge of our time", nobody will know who he is or what he stands for. The whole idea why the Liberals elected Abbott was only because Howard himself wasn't available. Howard would always kill the fatted calf for Tony, and Abbott brooks no dissent against Howard even now. Liberals think the 2007 election was some sort of tally error (and the idea that the 2010 election wasn't a lost election but a "near victory" is another example of denial). Liberals can only learn the lessons of 2007 once they get rid of Abbott.
One of the lessons of 2007 is that sucking up to Alan Jones is not worth it, in terms of the political payoff with his listeners. Barry O'Farrell demonstrated this a few days ago; the Premier left Jones' studio diminished by the clownish ranting of his "host". He is a fool if he goes back for more of that treatment from such a man.

What is interesting about the changing media landscape is just not that old stagers like Jones are fading away. Other conservatives in the media are coming up and through; the quest for false balance (where one side puts something up and another pisses on it, treating both the putting-up and the pissing as equally valid) is an attempt to assert a stability to political debate that it doesn't really have. It isn't left-wingers over there and right-wingers over there and us honest toilers in the media in the middle. This model allows those who have nothing to say to take up time and space that should be occupied by those who can bring the power of government brought to bear on real issues.

In this, Peter van Onselen was incensed at what Jones had done, and batted away Michael Kroger's attempts to make the kerfuffle about Jones' whole life and person rather than his manifestly broken moral compass. Michael Kroger's political peak passed at about the time Jones hit his, and for Jones to be discredited would put Kroger himself in the dinosaur class too. Kroger mightn't be able to cope with his own irrelevance but he can cope with people who dislike Alan Jones, and when he can't fight on that front he snarls at van Onselen to get in line.

To be truly outraged at what Jones did, as van Onselen clearly is, you have to accept two premises: a) that Jones did something reprehensible and didn't do enough to be forgiven for it, and b) that the insult to the Prime Minister and her family goes beyond the normal rough-and-tumble of politics and injures the civil discourse (the preservation of which is a core value of conservatism). Kroger accepts neither: Jones can do no wrong that negates his great legacy in support of the conservative cause, and to hell with Gillard anyway. Kroger didn't get where he is (was?) with all that Decency and Fair Play and Family Values crap; those who do and did believe in those things are so much roadkill in the path of the Kroger juggernaut.

That van Onselen believes he can take on Jones and still have a future as a Liberal camp-follower is telling. He took on Julie Bishop in 2008 when she submitted a chapter for a book he edited that she didn't write herself, but that has been smoothed over. There have been other niggles where van Onselen has departed from the conservative line over time, but clearly not to the point where The Australian has Made Furious Propaganda Against Running-Dog Apostate, and nor has Abbott's office declared that Coalition MPs are not to deal with him.

David Penberthy has come to the same conclusion: you can attack Alan Jones and still be a conservative. This is not the hand-wringing work of someone who had to rethink everything he ever believed. This is the work of someone who's had enough of someone who is more trouble than he's worth, and that person is to be left in the dust and spoken of no more until it comes time to bury him.
It has now dawned on politicians of the centre and the left that they should no longer worry about their Jones strategy. It has taken a long time for this penny to drop. The reality has always been that Jones' audience does not comprise many swinging voters. He is preaching to the angry and the converted, many of whom keep listening to 2GB because they are too frail to get off the sofa to change the dial.
It would be rude to point out that Jones' listeners are almost certainly avid readers of the Daily Telegraph, and were when Penberthy was editing it and targeting it to the very sorts of people he now portrays as ridiculous and pathetic.
Jones, who is fond of talking of himself in the third person, lashed out at the Twitter campaign for an advertising boycott, and talked about how horrible it was (and it is) that some have wished his cancer to return.

"This is the best way to neutralise and silence Alan Jones. They use this as an excuse to silence Alan Jones," he said.

It's almost as bad as saying a woman's father died of shame over their daughter. This is karma writ large. Alan Jones is getting everything he deserves.
Quite so.

The quote from Jones shows his self-importance, the idea that he is so invulnerable that he stands firm against a multitude; the sharing of that opinion is the price of admission to his inner circle, a price Kroger and others pay happily. It fails to register what Penberthy and van Onselen make clear - that Jones is so vulnerable that his own words can undo him. If those words are as appalling as Jones' were then it can both undo his commercial standing (on which his political reputation depends) and damage the Liberal Party on the way through, damage that they don't need and which compounds pre-existing doubts over their suitability for office.

Surely the Coalition's suitability for government ought not be in doubt by now, given the manifest failure of the incumbents and the self-evident superiority of the Coalition? People like Kroger are annoyed that the question should even be open, and questioning whether or not Alan Jones is viable is not even helpful to the buttoned-down, no-questions-asked, united-front perceptions needed to secure political victory.

This is why Chris Kenny, Janet Albrechtsen and Miranda Devine (no links, News Ltd; hope you understand) can't believe the Jones phenomenon is over: once more unto the breach and The Old Order shall be restored. Nothing will or can persuade them otherwise as conservatives often conflate obtuseness with strength. These are people who will defend Alan Jones until told not to, and they haven't yet been told. They will imagine a post-Jones future when it is provided to them, and will ignore van Onselen and Penberthy in the meantime. There will be none of this dangerous chart-your-own-path, call-it-as-you-see-it as van Onselen and Penberthy have taken upon themselves.

Frank Devine probably didn't die of shame and would probably be proud of his daughter Miranda. This not only shows the understandable blind spot of a father toward his daughter - if you read his output you'd realise that Frank's career as a journalist contained little achievement to leaven the blemishes, and that he was as stupid and as nasty as she is. It takes mean people to begrudge the families of the recently departed John Gillard and Jill Meagher broad and genuine support in their grief, and all the more because few have or will do the same for this branch of the Devines.

The Liberal MPs who defended Jones most strongly by lobbing a few grenades at Labor and culture-war opponents were Greg Hunt and Chris Pyne - neither of them come from Jones' home market of Sydney, neither attended the function where Jones spoke. Alex Hawke, whom Jones called a cancer on the Liberal Party, paid money to go and hear Jones speak and (eventually, mildly) condemned his remarks. Turnbull condemned Jones. Hockey praised Jones' record in general terms as though his recent remarks (and his failure to apologise) were not worth mentioning. Sydney Liberals have been very, very quiet on a matter where you'd expect them to swarm like angry wasps.

This whole story has been a failure of the mainstream media too. Jones said something dreadful, almost unforgivable, and then called a press conference which contained the word "apology". Professional journalists reported Jones had apologised to Gillard. Traditionally, this would have been a two-day wonder for journalists: a man failed, then he made amends, move on.

On social media there were enough people who saw Jones couch his apology in an insulting context (Gillard is emotional, maybe she's not tough enough; so here's a sop to someone who's emotional). He then qualified his apology to the point of meaninglessness, all the while wallowing in the attention and the sound of his own voice. Throughout the past couple of days the MSM have run articles claiming that Jones apologised, and social media - not the Journalists' Code of Practice - called them on it. The public record shows that Jones said something appalling about the Prime Minister and that he did not really apologise for it, and apart from Media Watch the MSM have let us down again.

Jones portrayed Gillard as refusing to accept his apology because she made no effort to take his call or provide Jones with her number. The politico-media complex knows this is part of dealing with someone they can't avoid dealing with, and they factor it into dealing with him. Outside the journosphere, it looked absurd for Jones to phone the Lodge and expect to be put through to the Prime Minister: who does he think he is?

The next time Abbott ventures to Greenwich Pyrmont (thanks Elissa!) in order to vigorously agree with Jones, he should be prepared for a wounded soul who will go all the harder for being diminished - a bit like this story of a man who goes up a creek without a paddle to visit someone he had once admired. Some conservatives have sensed the Jones phenomenon is over, others believe it is stronger than ever. Abbott has found that fence-straddling satisfies nobody.

Even before Jones' latest outburst, Lenore Taylor observed that Abbott was faring badly in a media environment where he faced greater scrutiny over big issues. Taylor points to things like this:
But the normally disciplined Coalition leader is making more of these kinds of blunders, in part because his simple, slogan-style - and to date very successful - political messaging isn't as well suited to more nuanced debate.
There are two problems here. First, Abbott should have moved beyond simple slogans, and the fact that he hasn't/can't is a failure on his part. Second, where did this "nuanced debate" come from? Why hasn't it always been in place on serious issues affecting Australia and its people? Taylor can't say.

Abbott has to believe that Jones is the colossus of radio who brings working-class votes to the Liberals in Sydney - because if that isn't the case, where is the plan B? He has to hammer the simple slogans, because where are the nuanced policy positions that would enable Liberals to hold heir own in nuanced policy debates?

Time and again, Howard would try something on and if it didn't work, he always had a plan B to avoid failing and being seen to have failed (he largely lacked this quality before 1995 and it deserted him about ten years after that, but in between he was a deft politician). Abbott has no plan B. There is no switch to flick, no hidden depths to draw upon, no plan B.

Jones' failure reflects on Abbott; the younger man, the man of higher attainment than Jones, cannot brush him aside nor make light of him, and nor can he really rely on other conservative media to give his tattered dog-and-pony show back the momentum it once had. With the failure of Jones, and the independent thought of once stout defenders as van Onselen and Penberthy (not to mention increased scrutiny by people like Taylor), the cheerleading of Chris Kenny or Miranda Devine just won't be enough for the Coalition. Abbott is increasingly reliant on the kindness of strangers in the media at the very time when his critique of the government is starting to falter.

01 October 2012

2011 all over again

Every year I make a point of buying the Power Issue of The Australian Financial Review, and it's always interesting and usually informative. This year, however, they have basically tried to redo their 2011 edition, having largely ignored what has happened over the intervening year.

First, there was the sonorous article by Andrew Cornell about how Gillard's up against it, isn't she?
Twelve months ago the panel had entertained the prospect she might parlay that triumph [of securing minority government] more broadly, to have grown in standing due to her reputation for having toughed out a hung parliament and a vitriolic opposition. It was not to be. Gillard's year has been disastrous.
Really? She got a lot done, both in terms of the Rudd agenda (carbon pricing, balanced budget) and the next steps (de-glamourising tobacco, helping the disabled, starting to shift the debate on education).
Leadership challenges repeat like waves of nausea on a listing ship. The government seems congenitally incapable of selling neither an economy that is the envy of the developed world nor economic data that provides monthly testimony to sound economic management.
Oh, please. The obsessions of the journosphere are not those of the community, which is why there is an inverse relationship between journos using leadership "stories" as space-filler and public interest in those stories, or even in the idea that if that's politics you can keep it.

Cornell isn't guilty of being partisan. He's guilty of the worst thing a journalist can be - being obtuse. It was a poor introduction to a sloppy list.

The Overt Power list, the main event of the Power Issue, put Abbott at number two: at the very point where he is visibly deflating through failing to offer an alternative, it was a poor choice. Swan, Stevens, French and Barnett all deserve a place on that list ahead of Abbott, who has talked about stopping the government doing things but hasn't actually stopped it doing much at all.

Newman has done a bit of culture-war trimming but hasn't really exerted the sort of transformative power that Jeff Kennett had wielded by this point. Similarly, Jac Nasser has stopped some things from happening but hasn't made much happen, and Gina Rinehart hasn't even done that.

Missing from the Overt Power list:
  • Stephen Conroy has been on that list since 2008. Sure, he's on the media/telco sector list, but the MSM still matters, doesn't it? Aren't the regulatory repercussions of the Convergence Review and Finkelstein still hanging over their heads?
  • Nicola Roxon's victory over tobacco companies has shown up a political hoodoo of five decades. Tobacco companies had money and access and any move against them was assumed to be too hard, and while you probably can't now screw them with impunity they are shadows of their former selves (and raise questions about the power of the well-resourced in modern society). Her proposals on data retention puts her at the centre of debates over our rights and freedoms to an extent not experienced by government since Menzies tried to ban the Communist Party. She has changed the perception of what is possible in what had been a secretive, fusty and arcane office.
  • Barry O'Farrell has a bigger governmental responsibility than Barnett and Newman put together. His role in normalising state government in NSW has been underestimated by people who should know better.
Then there was the Covert Power list:
  • Watt and Shorten deserve their positions at the top of the list, but are probably the wrong way around. Had it not been for his role in the Qantas dispute, and the CFMEU-Grollo imbroglio in Melbourne, he would have been toward the bottom of the list as a Labor factional heavy.
  • David Gonski belongs on that list for his key role within the Sydney business community, but this has not stopped him being rubbished up and down the country as a political stooge for his report into education funding - an act of altruism unparalleled by a wealthy, well-connected Australian.
  • Paul Howes should have been replaced on that list by Bill Ludwig. The former holds office at the pleasure of the latter, and both know it; that's what covert power is.
  • Joe de Bruyn has more covert power than the AWU. The fact that the Prime Minister, a lefty lawyer from Melbourne, won't come out for gay marriage is probably down to de Bruyn. Changes to the Fair Work Act - from any side of politics - will live or die dependent upon whether it suits de Bruyn. Any deal on school funding will see a good result for Catholic schools, and it won't be Pell or Abbott who secure that - it will be de Bruyn.
  • Mike Fitzpatrick is chairman of the AFL, and on the boards of both the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and of Rio Tinto. The PM sat next to him a the AFL Grand Final and he is a sounding-board for her on business issues.
  • Bruce McIver is the President of Queensland's LNP. He was a prime architect behind the various deals that made possible the merger of the state's conservative parties, as well as its extraordinary results at both the 2010 Federal election and 2012 state election.
  • Ken Henry doesn't belong on that list so long as people keep ignoring his recommendations, and Martin Parkinson can't be kept off it so long as Gillard and Swan adhere to his.
  • Pyne? Someone is taking the piss, to the detriment of the AFR's credibility.
Then there's the Cultural list:
  • ABC Managing Director Mark Scott should be the head of that list for his commissionings and his insistence on "news balance" (that reporting of the government can only be done through the prism of opposition criticism). The fact that he isn't even on it is crazy.
  • Pearson should go further down that list. Freedman is at least equal to Bolt, a diminished figure since his right to define who's Aboriginal and who isn't exposed the cesspit of his blog comments.
  • Demetriou should be on that list but ARLC Chairman John Grant should be ahead of him, in terms of his role in reframing the game and shunting aside rivals like Colin Love and David Gallop, not to mention making the media put their money where their mouths were.
  • Tony Jones should not be on that list; if you are going to argue the terms that justified Jones' position you would put Tracy Grimshaw ahead of him. Neither should Tim Fairfax - Frank Lowy donates more and has a more far-reaching effect culturally than Fairfax.
Captains of Industry? C'mon, AFR - this is where, to quote Ralph Wiggum, you're a Viking:
  • If Jac Nasser got onto the Overt Power list, why is he only no. 2 on this list?
  • James Packer is not anything like the seventh-most powerful captain of industry in this country. To contend otherwise is to allow him to coast on his father's reputation.
  • Greg Combet is the Minister for Industry. Given the grants at his disposal he could sink any one of those turkeys.
On Capital Hill:
  • Anthony Albanese, Anna Burke and Chris Evans all play a bigger role than Barnett or Rudd. This is where Pyne should have gone, if anywhere.
Global Aussies and Defence Strategies:
Workplace players:
  • No criticism here, except Mark Skulley has put his finger squarely on one of the Coalition's key vulnerabilities: Eric Abetz, a man who cannot balance the competing impulses for workplace reform (see also de Bruyn above).
Good sports:
  • Noeleen Dix is president of Netball Australia, one of Australia's largest participan sports, which is starting to become monetised through the ANZ Championships.
  • John Coates is surely a diminished figure after Silver! Silver! Silver! London.
Vox Populi Shock Jocks. Why is this even a category?
  • Neil Mitchell is far more dominant in his market than Hadley is in his.
  • Jason Morrison is more important than Howard Sattler.
  • Even before this week, Alan Jones is a much diminished figure.
  • Gotye puts the lie to the supposed power of The Voice or X Factor.
  • The late Adam Cullen has proved to be an influential painter for a generation of Australian painters.
Where are the influential cooks, farmers, local government people? Robert Doyle and Clover Moore are both ex-state politicians shaping their cities more than those they left behind on Spring and Macquarie Streets. Who are journalists Linking In to? Where are the bloggers eating their lunch? Some important articles by Laura Tingle and Loretta Napoleoni don't save it. The whole Power Issue format needs to be junked and started all over again.

This segment from the ABC talks about how Fairfax turned their back on digital media. There is a story to be told about John Alexander, who seemingly denied Fairfax the resources it needed to make it in the digital world, and then did the same for the Nine Network - another business reporter who went too far out of his depth, while being applauded all the way by business journalists of the time in awe of his career and confusing that with his achievements. Mark Scott's initiatives in digital should be understood in the light of those failures (Scott is a former Fairfax executive).

Journalists have no idea who does and doesn't have power in this country. The conventional wisdom won't hold and they won't dig for covert or out-of-the-box answers. The failure of this Power Issue shows why journos pursue non-stories so ardently while leaving others begging.