17 December 2013

On a journey

I can't disguise the pounding of my heart
It beats so strong
It's in your eyes, what can I say
They turn me on

I don't care where we go
I don't care what we do
I don't care pretty baby
Just take me with U

- Prince Take me with U
At today's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, there was the usual smoke-and-light-show with figures based on changed frames and assumptions, about which you can read on other blogs. It was no different to any other economic statement really: the Need For Fiscal Prudence, Taxed Enough Already, etc. The bit about taking the entire country along was jarring. Joe Hockey said in passing that he wanted the Australian people to come with him and the government on a "journey" toward a weakening economy, less government expenditure, and possibly even a budget surplus. That's the moment when I knew this government has no hope whatsoever.

Hockey started off with a short personal anecdote. Liberal preselection speeches in the 1990s used to all start with this device, to invite you into the candidate's world, which was then followed by a tenuous attempt to link that to a wider theme. There you'd be, smiling away at some innocuous image from a 1950s/60s Aussie childhood, only for it segue into a diatribe on tax reform or crime/immigration like some jerry-built freeway on-ramp. So Joe Hockey went up Mount Kilimanjaro - without assistance or acknowledgment, it would seem - but why he did so was not clear. What would have been the consequences had Hockey not climbed Kilimanjaro? What stopped him ending up like Hemingway's dead leopard? This lack of clarity and urgency swept through his speech like one of his clunky and obviously scripted arm movements.

For years now, Tony Abbott has been trying to do two different but complementary things: rally people to popular causes, and to create an air of seriousness around those that are Unpopular But Necessary In The Long Term. He has failed at both. People voted against the particular model for a republic in 1999, not because the nation loves the Queen and unelected authority as much as Tony Abbott does. In 2007 people voted against a government that had been very popular, and a Prime Minister whom Tony Abbott quite admired; an election that actually resulted in that government, that Prime Minister, and his own good self, being flung into the political loserdom of opposition. He thought he could pick off The Nerd and That Woman, but could only do so once both had weakened one another.

His stunts, the personality patch-ups with Margie-and-the-girls and other props, have all failed to rally people behind anything positive. It's all stop this, and cut that - and even if it does all come off, what? It has no ability to rally the wider public, no ability apart from polling to sniff the political wind - governments that lose touch get marooned long before they are defeated. This government faces the real prospect of being marooned before it delivers its first budget.

No government ever gets to set the lights by which it is judged. Every one of the 26 Prime Ministers before Abbott had issues with the Senate, and as for an opposition voting against what they supported in government - nobody is listening because all governments have to cop that, and insert temperature-related vacation of the kitchen here. For once the press gallery was impatient with Hockey, and his complaining about situation normal in Canberra; Hockey had the discipline not to blurt out "but I thought we were buddies!", but only just.

Hockey spent three years claiming debt was a huge problem for Australia. Then in office he hosed this down, and political and economic commentators united in praising Hockey for ditching his central message. Today, he tried to hose debt back up (a clumsy image I know, but the politics is clumsier). That ploy cannot succeed, and I don't care if Peta says it will.

The idea that people will go along with cuts to areas they consider important in the name of the abstract and easily fudged budget surplus is sheer bullshit. Any old pol who's won and lost a few elections in the community where they live knows this.

Two years ago in London, Hockey made a speech in which he declared an end to the idea that government could buy people's loyalty through welfare transfers. That was a bigger call than Hockey realised, not least because nobody really called him on it. Even those who could see Hockey would be Treasurer after this year's election didn't seize on it for hints and signals as to what an Abbott government economic policy might look like. There are a number of reasons for this. First, political journalists are stupid and flock-oriented, and economic journalists are better at predicting what has happened rather than the less certain future. Second, if you did a serious critique of Hockey's economic policy then you'd have to evaluate it against that of the Labor government's policy; see the first point, but also if you compared the Coalition to Labor you run the risk of a 2004 repeat, where a flawed government found itself returned against an inferior opponent.

None of the commentators have referred to Hockey's End of Entitlements speech as the prequel for today's effort. This is because press gallery experience means diddly-squat. Can you imagine how insufferable Rudd would have been had he won the election in September? Nah, give Tony the green light.

If the MYEFO with all its bluster and hype is to mean anything, Parliament will be recalled next week and will bloody well sit until the cuts are made, or until the government has a quiver of double-dissolution triggers. That won't happen, so the bluster and hype emanating from MYEFO means nothing.

If Hockey's throwaway comment about the nation coming with the government on the journey through The Valley Of The Shadow meant anything, there would be six months of painstaking explanations between now and the budget. There would have to be a lot of preparation with key stakeholders. Do you reckon that preparation has taken place? Do you reckon they even know who their stakeholders are? Is there going to be a lot of knee-jerk bullshit and self-defeating statements from The Situation?

Paul Keating would never have ceded the limelight to Peter Walsh. Peter Costello did joint appearances with Finance Ministers under sufferance, and always outshone them. When Wayne Swan did joint appearances with Penny Wong, there was a perception of warmth and unity to the government of which they were part. When Hockey shared the stage today with Matthias Cormann, however, he made Cormann look like the brains of the outfit. Cormann will soon be distracted by the coming implosion of the WA state government.

What's going to happen is that vague but menacing proposals for budget cuts are going to sit in the Aussie sun for the better part of a month. Christmas-/ Festivus-/ other-table arguments ring to the sounds of people arguing how awful a job Abbott is doing. After Graincorp and school-funding and other debacles, we know already that if an interest groups screams loudly enough, in chorus, for a few days then this government will cave. Even if it doesn't, it will stand firm on the wrong things:
  • It will claim education is important, but bellyaches about the schoolkids bonus and isn't measuring teacher performance in any real way;
  • It will commit to infrastructure, without realising that big projects suffer cost and time blowouts, that any project given to Tony Shepherd's company might be misconstrued (yet if his company is denied opportunities, there'll be hell to pay from business), and that nothing big will be ribbon-ready by 2016;
  • As soon as Abbott started talking about the lost cause of Olympic Dam to replace jobs lost at Holden, and then cut training programs, it was clear he had no clue and would have tens of thousands spiral into long-term unemployment. Talking points are meant to indicate vision, not disguise its absence; and
  • Nobody wants to trash the Barrier Reef. Nothing this government does on environmental matters can or will make up for that.
All of that will create inconsistencies to the point of weirdness, such that nobody will know what this government stands for. Hockey is the only one who could really have made a coherent case - not any more. He's going to cut just as people turn to government for services in a softening economy. Nanny-state lectures about how Austerity Is Good For You don't wash; they breed only resentment, and ours will be a sullen nation by mid-2014. Only Hockey had anything like a coherent narrative, given that his Cabinet colleagues can't even manage their own portfolios, and now he hasn't even got that. Hockey cannot sell austerity.

The whole idea of the welfare state was to get and maintain people's buy-in to the idea of the state for sustainable reasons. Previously the idea of the state was a collection of People Like Us - people who look like us, talk like us, pray like us. Enemies, real or imagined, were fought abroad and purged from within. Nation-states operated for hundreds of years on that basis, but a focus on Volk leads nation-states to a bad place. If you're going to wind back the welfare state at a time when the market and other institutions are failing to provide for general prosperity, surely talk about people expecting less from government is idle. Why would people even retain a government that thought and acted like that? Never mind ideas about recasting the form and purpose of government altogether.

The very idea that people will take to government service cuts with good grace, and will reward achievement of abstract targets, should have died with the Greiner government in NSW and the Kennett government in Victoria. They should have learned from Howard - 16 ex-ministers, and none of them worth a cracker. This government has forgotten nothing from those examples because they had learned nothing.

The IPA lost all credibility when it put out its Northern Australia thing, wondering how to both cut Mrs Reinhart's tax bill while also increasing the flow of government largesse directly and indirectly to her. The fact that Tim Wilson has taken up a government sinecure and Chris Berg a taxpayer-funded study of the public sector has diminished it still further. Its founder, CD Kemp, offered the IPA to Menzies as the Liberal Party's brains trust, but Menzies cultivated his own counsel (the UAP had failed because of shadowy links to opaque business-funded entities) and he kept Kemp at arm's length.

Kemp's sons became ministers in Howard's government and the IPA became the de facto brains trust for a hollowed-out Liberal Party in recent years. Today, it stands depleted at the very point where its prospects for victory are closest to hand. The political carrion-eaters who picked over the Democrats in recent years have their beady eyes on the IPA just as those who know it best are fleeing. It, and libertarianism more broadly, had been a useful intellectual scratching post - but now it's not even that.

When you realise that Hockey has thought more deeply about his portfolio than all other members of the government put together - including the Oxford-educated Prime Minister - and that his thinking is shallow and counterproductive, you can see what a joke this government is. It cannot succeed, and its sheer force of will (less than you might imagine, really) won't count. This government will drift, it will overvalue the unimportant and undervalue what's vital, and leave us all 20 years behind where a modern productive nation should be.

A press gallery that could not evaluate policy if it wanted to should have compared and contrasted Labor and the Coalition, but could not risk Labor re-elected. Yes, insofar as it even matters now, Gay Alcorn was completely and utterly wrong to see a better side of the occupation to which she devoted her life, and hasn't been big enough to admit it. The press gallery is pretending the government's ineptitude is a surprise, but in saying that they only draw attention to their own ineptitudes. The failures of their 'profession' arise not from technology, but from their abrogations of fourth-estate responsibilities.

This government cannot and will not stay the course to austerity and fiscal rectitude, and as a result you can expect a blizzard of culture-war crap like Peppa Pig hoping to distract from this essential failure. It will distract the press gallery, because they're stupid, and if the government turns off the drip-tap almost all of them have nowhere else to go.


On that note, this will be my last post for 2013 as family holidays demand a respite from this and other toils. I offer more goodwill to all than you might imagine, so ding dong merrily on high and see you back next year (especially you). This blog will see off the Abbott government, and probably the IP bloody A at the rate it's going. There shall be much more interference in traditional media from this platform in 2014, just you mark my words: the ambivalence some detected earlier this year in these pages has well and truly gone.

15 December 2013

No surprises

We will be a no surprises, no excuses government because you are sick of nasty surprises.

- Tony Abbott, August 2013
Everyone who took him at his word was a fool. And when I say 'everyone', I mean the entire press gallery, because they are busy pretending the poor performance of the government was only obvious after September rather than long, long before.

Lenore Taylor is usually one of the press gallery's most incisive observers, but here she is utterly blind to the role of the press gallery in all of this:
Despite its protestations, the Abbott government’s first 100 days have been anything but methodical and calm, and ... voters have noticed the confusion.
Voters should have been forewarned about the potential for that confusion, which was evident throughout the period while Abbott was Opposition Leader. The people who should have informed them of that was the press gallery.
They [i.e. the voters, people outside the press gallery] expected, for example, a government that would have a clear plan to deal with Holden’s decision about whether to leave the country – either to offer the assistance that might prevent it or to explain why the cost of prevention was not in the national interest. They certainly expected something a bit more decisive than a deflection of blame and internal divisions on public display when thousands of jobs are at stake.
Based on what? Lenore Taylor would have seen at close quarters the struggles that former Coalition Industry spokesperson Sophie Mirabella went through with the car industry - one moment promising more than Labor, the next much less. She should have used that to form the basis for an opinion as to what the Coalition might do in government, and then passed both the reporting and the opinion on to us for consideration.
The business community, which had such high expectations of the new conservative government, is also privately starting to express alarm.
A quick scan of the business pages in any newspaper indicates that sometimes business leaders try things that don't work as planned. This seems to have happened with the government. Maybe they didn't do their due diligence; business journalists come down heavy on business managers who risk their companies on the basis of inadequate information. It isn't good enough to just note that business leaders have changed their tune; a good journalist tries to find out why.
If the government had taken a clear decision that it was not going to provide more assistance to Holden, that Australians would be better off using the billions of dollars it gives the car industry for other purposes and importing cheaper cars, it could have made that argument.

But it hasn’t. For a long time the company has been clear about what it would need to continue Australian production and for just as long the Coalition has been unwilling to tackle its deep internal divisions on the issue and say whether it would be willing to pay. Before the election it papered over the divisions by saying it would refer the issue of long-term assistance to a Productivity Commission review.

After the election it set up the review with a reporting date well after the company insisted it needed an answer and then publicly called on Holden to hurry up and make up its mind before the inquiry had reported. Industry minister Ian Macfarlane is clearly struggling to win internal support for his plan to rearrange the existing Automotive Transformation Scheme money to develop a new car plan and keep the company in Australia.

Contrary to reports about his intended testimony, Holden Australia managing director Mike Devereaux insisted on Tuesday no decision had been made, but the company would need continuing subsidies. That really demands a more definitive response from the government than its public platitudes about the need to make the whole economy stronger.
This is passive-aggressive bullshit on the government's part. The press gallery had a duty to question the Coalition more closely and put it to voters as to whether we might want a car industry at all after the September election.

So, the Coalition had "deep internal divisions" on the question of car industry donations, eh? I thought so. Labor didn't seem to be divided at all on that question - it had been divided, mainly on personality-based issues, yet the divisions of which Taylor writes were not exposed in much the same way. It's bullshit to say that Labor was in government and the Coalition wasn't; an election campaign is about fitness for office after the election. A party that can't handle policy differences before an election won't get better at it under the pressure of government.
Instead of clear direction and leadership the government has said it wants a “national debate”.
Instead of incisive questioning and journalism, quoting a line like “national debate” might be Taylor's idea of journalism.
The absence of clear messages has made it difficult for the coalition to control the political conversation, and its early efforts to do so by keeping quiet and hoping politics would disappear from the headlines were always destined to fail.
Clear messages don't come from Peta Credlin shrieking at people, nor from Mark Textor's smarm and quasi-astrological calculations. They come from hard thinking and careful consideration about what the country requires. There is no evidence that the Coalition has devoted a moment to that at any point since Howard lost office. Their main critique of the Rudd-Gillard governments was that they weren't in office; the press gallery in the 1980s and '90s beat the Liberals out of that type of thinking by refusing to report such statements or deriding them when they did. The press gallery fell hard for Abbott when he took it up to a government they disliked, and it is a failure of judgment on their part when they realise there's nothing to this government.
But voters thought they had elected a government that – when faced with the possible demise of the Australian car industry and serious financial difficulties in the national airline – would have something a bit more decisive to say than “what do you guys think?” or “whoops”.
Voters were led to believe that by a press gallery that has no excuse for not knowing better. Whoops! She did itagain:
Like a Christmas cracker, or a New Year party popper, to use similes pertinent to the season, the trick used by new governments of blaming former governments for bad stuff they need to do only works once.

Bang! Shock! It’s all their fault, and regretfully we have to implement these nasty measures to clean up the mess we’ve inherited.
The vacuity of this government isn't seasonal, it's perennial. This government is about nothing more than revenging the 2007 election, and there was never any proof to the contrary.
The Coalition has also announced a royal commission into the first Rudd government’s home insulation program, which was a terrible failure ...
Worked pretty well at my place. Is this 'failure' some water-cooler meme at the press gallery, or are there any objective criteria to cast such a judgment?

So much for Taylor. So long as she's focused on the (real or imagined) deeds and misdeeds of others, she's fine.

What was a surprise came from Simon Benson:
An effective government must be in total command of the agenda and have control of the message.
Do you realise that developments in modern technology mean that no government will ever have that command-and-control, or will even be able to adequately define 'agenda' or 'the message' let alone control it? Talk about setting people up to fail.
... [Abbott] has refocused foreign affairs priorities.
Whenever they announce another round of redundancies at the Murdoch press, they talk about 'refocusing'. If you accept that as a synonym for 'buggering up', perhaps that is a fair if cack-handed way of putting it.

None of our government-to-government relationships are better under this government. I guess all those closed and cut-down missions abroad would save money.
... Abbott has been caught in a caravan of mostly unforeseen political disasters which has derailed his ability to maintain command of his agenda and control of the message, or media cycle.
And as I said, that's because there's no core of principle and consideration. Benson's line here is more revealing though: I suspect he loves the firm smack of discipline more than he lets on.
The government's broader message was always going to be fraught. On the one hand he promised to slow things down and stop the hysteria. He promised a stable and methodical approach to governance and an end to the daily press conference.

His Treasurer Joe Hockey, however, has been talking up the budget "emergency".

This by, by definition [sic], has instilled a sense of urgency for action which would appear inconsistent with its strategy of getting out of the headlines.
If you've spend long enough working for Murdoch, you must learn to couch criticism in weaselly terms as Benson has done here. You can bet that loyal Liberals pointed this out ahead of time, and were excoriated for it.
But if there is a sense of unease within the Coalition about any of this, it isn't showing. Largely because there is still three years to go.
Maybe they're just thick. When the NSW Labor government got rid of Morris Iemma it still had three years ahead of it. Whatever Ian Macdonald and Eddie Obeid did or didn't do at that time, they weren't worried about electorate cycles, news cycles, or polling.
For the Coalition, it is now hoping to bookmark the first spell before heading off on holidays by ripping Labor a new one with the release of the mid year economic and fiscal outlook. It will be a frightening document, no doubt.
Having learned nothing from recent weeks, the government is going to drop some bad news and then let it fester for weeks and weeks, hoping that the current opposition is happy to cop it sweet. Maybe it will work, but the sheer absence of a fallback position is negligent typical so obvious even Simon Benson has noticed surprising.

Benson's counterpart at The Courier-Mail, Dennis Atkins, is also easily surprised:
The other growing perception is the Government is review heavy. Consider the list: the auto industry Productivity Commission inquiry, another one on child care, a government activity audit, a tax review, a competition assessment, a lengthy probe into workplace law and a look at renewable energy.
In his speech to the National Press Club on 1 February 2012, Abbott announced inquiries into this and that as a substitute for taking any policy positions. Now those inquiries are coming to pass, and this is somehow a "growing perception"? Never mind Canberra, Dennis - next time it rains heavily in Brisbane, go and stand by the banks of the river without an umbrella and tell us all about your growing perception of wetness.
The Coalition consensus is that after Australia Day, it's game back on.

This is a sensible world view - recharging personal and political batteries and assessing the good, the bad and the ugly from these 100 days - but events always intervene.

These "events" are proving the problem.
Three things arise from this profound piece of insight:
  1. How long have you been a journalist? Do you not know that "events" happen all the time, to everyone, in or out of government? The whole idea of government is for them to deal with events so that we don't have to.
  2. Clearly, people like spinners and staffers and lobbyists and pollsters who claim they can foresee and manage events are bullshit, aren't they? You can include Abbott in that list too.
  3. As I said earlier, if the government drops a bad MYEFO and then goes and watches the cricket for a month or so, it could well return to find people deaf to its message.
Peter Hartcher has pretty much missed all of the big political stories of recent years, but this one's too big for even his obtuse capacities:
Like Keating's famous 1986 warning of Australia's economic decline, it can be a national shock, but also a jolt to national action ... Keating followed his warning with a controversial program of economic reform.
Now make the case that the Abbott government even has a program, controversial or otherwise, that goes beyond cutting this or repealing that and hoping there are no "events".
Rather than relying on Holden, Australia's economic future depends on Hockey. Is he up to it? We are about to find out.
You've had years to make that assessment. He doesn't deserve the blank cheque you are thrusting into his hands.

Then there's this pompous rubbish. What would motivate Abbott to act in such a way, Pascoe? Where is your evidence that he is even capable? The worst thing you can do is give a politician the benefit of the doubt. This is what The Sydney Morning Herald did on election day and, in the worst traditions of journalism, continues to blame others for problems its intellectual and moral laziness has caused. None of that was unforeseeable before 7 September, none of it.

The press gallery observed Abbott at close quarters over more than three years when he was Opposition Leader. They noted the tight control around his media appearances and didn't question it. They saw the trees of individual criticisms of the Gillard and Rudd governments, but they failed to notice the forest of incompetence that attended Abbott and his team.

Abbott said that his team brought experience from the Howard government. They have less excuse for the bumbling and dithering start to government than, say, Rudd or Howard did in their first few months. Just because a politician promises to do something that sounds good, it doesn't mean that they will do it, or even that they are capable of doing it. People who are experienced observers of politics - like press gallery journalists - should know that. They had no right to proclaim, as they did, that Tony Abbott can be believed when he says something. They have no claim to be surprised, as they do, that this government has no policy direction and makes knee-jerk responses to events (one of which involves denying information to journalists).

Those people I quoted above are not press gallery newbies. They are the people who set the tone for political reporting in this country. The idea that they're surprised by situations that bloggers foresaw years ahead of time speaks not only to their irrelevance, but to that of the very construct of the press gallery itself. Abbott is running a no-surprises agenda, and certainly Labor, the Greens and even Palmer aren't surprised by this government. The press gallery have been so close to the Coalition that they have lost all perspective, and if voters were ill-informed then they are more responsible than they would dare admit.

Update: showing how it's done is a non-gallery journalist, Renai le May:
Long-term readers of Delimiter will be aware that I have long tried to hold all sides of politics to account on an equal basis when it comes to technology policy and implementation. Whether it’s Labor, the Coalition or the Greens, I have tried sincerely to praise the merits of each, as well as criticising each where criticism is due. I have tried to seek truth and to be objective. This is standard journalistic practice and it was how I was trained.

This has, at times, led me into conflict with many readers. Many in Australia’s technology community have long believed that the Coalition has not sincerely had intentions of pursuing Labor’s National Broadband Project to fruition. When Malcolm Turnbull was first appointed as Shadow Communications Minister three years ago, back in 2010, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott reportedly ordered Turnbull to “demolish” the NBN, and many readers have long believed that has been the secret intention of the Coalition when it comes to this most high-profile of Labor projects.

In that past three years, I have attempted to treat all statements by all sides of politics on their merits. I have treated the Coalition’s statements on the NBN seriously, and I have treated Labor’s statements on the NBN seriously. I have treated the Greens’ statements on the NBN seriously.

Many readers have argued with me about this approach. They have pointed out that Turnbull, and others within the Coalition, have very often taken an inconsistent approach to the NBN, stating one thing and then doing another.
Not only does le May apologise for confusing Malcolm Turnbull with someone who has the nation's best interests at heart, he has the courage to look deep into his journalistic methods. This is a lesson for all journalists, inside the gallery and out, before that 'profession' disappears up itself.

08 December 2013

Disguise fair nature

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage ...

- Shakespeare Henry V
This past week has shown that a directionless government can easily lose what little focus it has. This past week showed that a party which is a 'flat track bully' when the polls go with them will go to water when polls are less than favourable. This past week has been all about ramping up for this government's one true test: the repeal of the carbon tax, the rod for this government's back.

After disasters on foreign policy, immigration, education, and other issues, the government needed a focus. The Murdoch press would have looked really silly if they had continued lionising this bunch of turkeys, so they dusted off their old campaign against public broadcasters. It was feeble, a fraction of the ferocity we saw in Howard's first term when gutting the ABC was a real prospect, complicated by Murdoch's grumbling about losing the Australia International TV gig and its phone-hacking corruption cases in the UK.

Despite being old enough to know better, Mike Carlton was taken in hook, line, and sinker:
Putting the ABC to fire and sword is unfinished business for the Tories ... They did their best, but it didn't work. Battered but unbowed, the ABC sailed on. But the Tories have long memories, and the Abbott lot are determined to succeed where Howard failed ... The idea is to goad the Tories into action, and so far it's working splendidly ... There is an eerie, Orwellian air to the Abbott government.
Oh, please. There are at least three reasons why Carlton is wrong.

First, Carlton should've disclosed that his wife works for the ABC. This is a basic bit of journalistic arse-covering which someone of Carlton's experience had no right to overlook.

Second, there is no proof that Abbott will succeed at anything which Howard failed. The braying of Bernardi is itself a signifier of irrelevance. The same people who put paid to Archer Daniels Midland taking over Graincorp are the people who put paid to Howard doing over the ABC, and the same people who will stop any meaningful action against the ABC by this government: if you're going to gabble on about political matters, look at where power actually lies.

If you wanted to wipe out the Nationals altogether, and such Liberals who currently represent regional electorates, you'd make the Coalition hack into the ABC. The ABC is a far greater national and community unifier than any political party, and Coalition MPs know that (even though this clueless press gallery journo doesn't, wittering on about Peppa Pig in the face of the ABC's ageing, dispersed demographic). The ABC is so hard-wired for 'balance' that it cannot take its own side in an argument, which means that Carlton's over-the-top effort defines the gullible but fails to rouse them.

Third, Carlton has lost the right to be taken on face value. In the 1980s Carlton was the second-most-popular host on Sydney morning radio. He was beaten by a genial man named Gary O'Callaghan, whose role in life was to give people a smile on their face and a spring in their step. Carlton went after O'Callaghan with snarling ferocity and eventually triumphed, and established from then on that to win at Sydney morning radio you have to be a prick. Alan Jones, Kyle Sandilands, all follow the Carlton template: Carlton himself attempted a kinder, gentler comeback years later and was rolled by his harder-edged successors. It's been a while since he was the journalist he claims to be; he is no more a journalist than I am.

Before the last election Carlton insisted that Abbott wouldn't be so bad as PM, that there is something ennobling that seeps off the walls of the Lodge as you sleep there and that Abbott would rise to the job. If that was going to happen, it would have happened by now. Carlton has joined the ranks of the duller press gallery hacks, acting all surprised that Abbott is every bit as bad as he said and proved he was going to be.

The stale bullshit flung by culture warriors within Team Murdoch and the Coalition was an attempt to rally the troops in preparation for next week's assault on the carbon tax. Abolishing that impost is the biggest test of this government's credibility - now that promises around debt, boats, and school funding have all been abandoned, this is pretty much the nearest this government has to any substance at all. Given the current configuration of the Senate, it cannot abandon this promise, but going through with it will be disruptive and have no benefit. Just as banks do not pass on savings from Reserve Bank interest rate cuts, so too power companies will not pass on any savings from an abolished carbon tax.

We all know it's a sad pantomime, but Coalition MPs can't be allowed to think that. They must hurl themselves at the Parliament with ferocity; the way to do that is to have the Murdoch press pump out the bile, and when it comes to the ABC there's plenty to go around. The fact that they can wind up an easy mark like Carlton on the way through is a bonus.

Mark Kenny embarrassed himself yet again with this. Everything in that policy imbroglio, Sophie Mirabella (remember her?) had been wrestling with for three years, with she and Abbott lambasting Labor for doing both too little and too much for our car industry - and now Kenny acts all surprised as though yet another Abbott government policy failure had been entirely unforeseeable.

Quite why Qantas wants to subject its fate to the geniuses who put Graincorp and Holden where they are today is unclear. The head of government relations at Qantas (Geoff Dixon's old job) is Andrew Parker, who used to be a high-profile lobbyist in Canberra a decade or so ago, and well-connected with the Coalition. I thought a campaign run by him would be more focused, more effective than this one has been.

The government conceded the failure of the Foreign Minister on the essential big-picture aspects of her job by sending her to the Philippines. There she did not apparently hobnob with her counterparts in government or profess our undying friendship/ trade/ cultural/ ties etc with that country, but instead went patronising victims of Cyclone Haiyan. Going around patronising people is what Margie-and-the-girls are for, not the Foreign Minister. If the Foreign Minister isn't up to Foreign Minister work, then we need a new Foreign Minister rather than for Julie Bishop to carry on as she is.

I want a stamp in my passport indicating that, if ever hospitalised in a foreign country, I am not to be visited by the Foreign Minister. It should be possible to do that without having my passport revoked altogether.

Given the treatment meted out to Nicole Feely as John Howard's chief of staff, and now Credlin - and of course the vile treatment of Julia Gillard that went well beyond the treatment meted out to an opponent - it's clear that the Coalition has a deep-seated unease with women in power. After the hoo-ha surrounding the Governor-General, we see that the Coalition is uneasy about women in figurehead positions.

Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker is no worse or better than she was as NSW State President of the Liberal Party in the 1980s, ignoring objections and conflating obstinacy with courage, observing traditions and niceties only when they suit her. When this government starts to look bad because Question Time is a monkey-house just like it was before the election, Bishop won't be able to improve things. When Sophie Mirabella was proposed as a suitable head of the ABC, it was again as a figurehead doing as she is bid rather than as an suitably effective manager of national traditions.

I've dealt with Credlin before on this blog and the whiny detractors quoted in the more recent Aston/Johnson piece remind me of nothing so much as the Fitzgibbon/ Husic/ Bowen briefings against Gillard. Gillard, at least, faced popular election and took public accountability seriously; Credlin didn't get where she is through accountability. The assumption that she is enforcing higher standards of governance and quality on this government in the selection of staff and dictation of government processes is, at best, questionable; this government only talks about higher standards and better government. Look at the parliamentary ranks: there is no deep reserve of Coalition talent ready to take key advisor roles.

When long-serving opposition staffers burn out in government's earliest days they need to be replaced by cooler heads, less enamoured of electioneering and even less personally loyal to particular politicians. Such people are most likely to be found in state parliaments, where Coalition governments have been at it for a while now. Who would move from a real job in a major city to work for, say, Peter Dutton or Chris Pyne? How many of those people have been impressing Peta Credlin from afar? Can she really resist the temptation to replace someone who's good at their job but not loyal to her with someone utterly loyal but second rate (and not only staffers, but ministers)?

Credlin is the internal lightning-rod for all dissent within this government. That will spare the leader, but only for a while. This isn't clever or novel politics - the Coalition has form.
It wiggles, it's shapely and its name is Ainsley Gotto.

- Dudley Erwin, explaining why he lost his ministry in the Gorton government, 1969
In 1968 Prime Minister John Gorton appointed his 22-year-old secretary, Ainslie Gotto, as his Principal Private Secretary and came to rely on her for political advice. She was the first modern staffer in Australian government, and the Coalition did not take well to her; she was blamed for isolating Gorton from the political forces that ended up driving him from office. In later years Gotto, like Credlin, worked on the staff of Senator Helen Coonan. If press gallery experience meant anything, older press gallery journalists would be drawing contrasts between Gotto, Feely, and Credlin in terms of what it says about the Coalition, Abbott, and women exercising power.

Abbott depends as heavily upon Credlin as Gorton did on Gotto. Any successes of this government will be attributed to Credlin by the media, while any failures will be worn by Abbott and his ministers. Nobody goes into politics in order to be a mouthpiece and/or a punching bag, yet that is the extent of Credlin's vision for them. There is no mechanism for calling Credlin to account apart from a frontal assault on Abbott; Credlin can see those coming anyway, and will be taking names.

When Cormann calls for Credlin's critics to capitulate, he wants the focus on the Labor-Green alliance determined to price carbon. He is also being chivalrous, as are all those people (including those not necessarily supportive of this government) who don't want a repeat of the vilification directed against a prominent woman in politics. Is quietism really the only alternative to vilification for women in public office?

If you want more nuanced, polite discussion, you need something to discuss. Not only do you need policies, but you also need respect for stakeholders and other interlocutors who might cause you to adopt a position different to that identified by focus-group wranglers. You need to abandon your idea that any change of position is a backflip, a backdown, a breach of faith, a weakness. And in that, you see the central shortcoming of the Abbott government right there. The question for Abbott and Credlin and all the other decision-makers (real and imagined) in this government is, what's to discuss?

06 December 2013

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013)

What Mandela taught me was the bankruptcy of political extremes and the need for a national leader to work in order to bring everyone around.

In the 1980s I was a Young Liberal, and bought into the whole notion that sanctions against South Africa were pointless. I bought into the idea that Mandela was a communist terrorist and that Mangosuthu Buthulezi was a good-enough replacement. I thought this only served to prove that the devil had the best tunes. Then I met more and more people emigrating from a country that was as good as it could have been, given the insistence on excluding most of its people from actual and potential opportunities, and given the sheer skill of their politicians at excuse-making.

What Mandela showed was the bankruptcy of class and sectional warfare in national governments. Yes he killed people, and he represented those who were killed on much the same basis. He spouted all that Trotsky/Maoist crap about armed struggle, which usually comes after you have ceased to represent working people and started to regard them as a sheeplike base which you own and punish. Unlike his contemporaries, he rose above it.

The apartheid state was formalised in South Africa in 1948. By the 1960s it was clear that it had failed. Kids born around and after 1948, who had known only apartheid, rioted at Sharpeville in 1960 and were neither cowed nor awed by the crackdown that followed. Mandela was arrested in 1964 and sent to an offshore detention facility, but not to the point where he was cauterised from his country's politics. Keeping him there was a smart move - the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, had been murdered by a parliamentary attendant in 1966, and it is highly possible that the seething politics of the ANC would not have similarly accounted for Mandela. His detention was a national insurance policy, and showed that the Broederbond who ran the politics of apartheid might have been stupid, but not crazy.

What, then, was the alternative to apartheid? At the time, communism was being imposed on people in Europe and China by regimes no better, and often far worse, than apartheid South Africa. Successful communist uprisings, such as those in Cuba and Vietnam, distanced themselves from the drones in Moscow. Those uprisings were largely free of race, gender, and other social cleavages not related to Marx-defined industrial classes; South Africa had no choice but to manage and accommodate myriad interests without the wittering about My Struggle Is More Important Than Yours, which renders the left a national joke almost everywhere else. South African communists were smart enough to realise that they were a support act to the ANC rather than the other way around. Joe Slovo or Ronnie Kasrils would have disappeared from history had they seriously regarded Mandela, Walter Sisulu, or Oliver Tambo as "useful idiots".

Australia began turning away from apartheid just as South Africa committed to it in the early 1960s. In early 1960s Australia you can see the earliest developments toward recognising Aborigines, which came with the 1967 referendum, the shift in emphasis on Colombo Plan toward encouraging students to stay here rather than just study and return, and the beginnings of the end of the White Australia Policy. It's funny how things turn out, really.

In the 1980s Australia underwent an economic revolution, predicated on the idea that the country was ready to deal with a global economy. For South Africa that didn't come until a decade later, and even then it was limited. Even so, South Africa under Mandela showed what can be achieved with real political leadership. The ANC made the country pretty much ungovernable in the 1980s, with small brushfires of dissent and violence, but threw the switch when it came their turn to govern. Trevor Manuel's economic stewardship came with a lot of goodwill, but didn't rely so heavily on pointless blame-the-predecessors to make positive cases for change.

South African voters in 1994 were as grateful for their franchise as voters in the former Eastern Bloc and USSR, which made Keating's "true believers" indulgence grate even more. Keating had a vision, but let himself down by refusing to rise to the occasion that leading a vision demands: if Labor limits its leaders in that way, then be that on its own head. Howard thought he could vault the lessons of history by being effusive, but the look of disgust on Mandela's face as he received an honorary Order of Australia from Howard showed the poverty of that tactic. Mandela was all about the repetition of simple, clear messages, but his lines looked like distilled wisdom rather than the focus-group muppetry of Australian politicians.

If you win government, then spend all your time blaming your predecessors until they become your successors, what have you won? Australian media organisations think they're clever by churning out pre-assembled content, but I doubt it's that insightful and reinforces their laziness rather than challenging it with topicality and reflections on a broad, tumultuous and often difficult life. Certainly, the Prime Minister shirked the opportunity to reflect on his example by consigning him, G W Bush-like, to "Africa".

Mandela knew the answer to that question, that you have a limited time in power and you have to take people with you. He didn't solve every problem, and it's silly to frame his legacy as a dichotomy between saint and sinner (though such a lame approach will get you top marks at journalism courses, because that's the house style at newspapers and magazines in the northeastern United States). Maybe it is unfair to judge Australian politicians against Nelson Mandela, but hey that's what greatness is. Churchill redefined the way his country should be governed and cast a shadow over those who followed, and so has Mandela in his country - preceded by that reverse-von-Papen F W de Klerk, and succeeded by the prissy and flaky Mbeki and the dodgy Zuma. Mandela is the Churchill of our time; that's what defines him, not the partisanship and political conveniences of a bygone era which he successfully transcended. Goodbye Mandela, and thank you.

28 November 2013

The teachable moment

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?

- George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four
Events come and go, and all newly-elected governments have teething problems. It's tempting to confuse (or, in wishful terms, conflate) teething problems with crippling deficiencies that will ultimately do for this government. Yet, there are deficiencies among the Coalition that were detectable before they entered government. They are well and truly on display right now. There is no evidence of bureaucratic envelopment or wise counsel or other measures that might help this government grow the brains and capabilities that it so copiously lacks, and has always lacked.

Apart from Abbott himself, nobody in the Cabinet is more media-savvy than Scott Morrison. Morrison underestimated his skill in being all over the media before the election, and then engaging in blocking tactics afterwards (e.g. refusing to confirm his own statements, refusing to confirm that he talks to the PM, using a staff officer to lend him the authority that he lacks). The dissonance in Morrison being present yet absent for the media, and the fact that the Indonesian government (and the Indonesian media) is being as sensitive to Australia's internal politics as Abbott (and the Australian media) was to its, all makes for something of a gap between the responsible adult government we were promised and the shambles we were delivered.

That promise came not only from the Coalition, but from the press gallery. The press gallery cannot credibly maintain its hastily-constructed claim that this government's shortcomings have come about suddenly (and thus unforeseeably).

Soon after he became Treasurer, Peter Costello went to Washington and had a private conversation with then-Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. Costello breached protocol and related Greenspan's words to the waiting media, and US stock markets and exchange rates juddered and lurched as a result. Costello learnt his lesson, but it is unclear what lessons Julie Bishop is learning about statecraft. If she is learning anything, she's doing it the hard way and expensively - but hey, maybe that's just Julie's style.

Having brought on rebukes from both Indonesia and China should be enough to get anyone sacked from the position she occupies, surely; a loyal deputy for six years under three leaders, she is letting the side down. She is certainly no Percy Spender, who put in place the entire architecture of postwar foreign policy in 19 months. She even offers less than the cross-continental dithering we saw in the last government from Smith, Rudd, and Carr. She has no excuse for being so unprepared.

There is no hinterland of considered thought, writing and speaking on which to build a hope for more and better in this vital area of federal government policy: only the partisans, with faces painted and screeching encouragement, can truly believe this pivotal moment in our foreign relations is best handled by someone so out of her depth even with basic political and diplomatic niceties.

It's possible that the last of the foreign policy wonks will take in hand these wayward ministers and lead them through to the fallow but safe-seeming ground of foreign policy conventional wisdom (much of which remains from Spender's time early in the Cold War). Being involved in this country's political class pretty much precludes long periods overseas during adult life, learning languages and other ways of operating; it's the one area of policy that smart-arse politicos seem happy to leave to the professionals, where gimps with focus-groups and standard deviations on internal polling simply have no impact. They airily claim that WesternSydneyTM has no interest in foreign policy, but in an interconnected world (and given the ethnic diversity of that area) how sustainable do you reckon that is?

An adult government need not come to office with a complete manifesto; Menzies didn't in 1949 and neither did Hawke to any real extent in 1983. It needs to hit the ground running though, or at the very least emerge from post-swearing-in hibernation looking co-ordinated. The whole promise of "no surprises", of government run entirely from the PM's office, leaves no excuses for the disjointed effort we've seen from this government in its establishment phase. The sheer absence of a clue means that someone like Mark Textor, wrongly regarded highly for his tactical acumen, screams and postures in the backrooms about Strategy but can only fluff and bumble when the limelight falls on him.

The floundering of Chris Pyne in education, however, shows just how far the rot in this government descends.

Like Morrison, Pyne is one of the government's more savvy operators. He is not some junior woodchuck acting above his pay grade, he has been in parliament for twenty years and was a minister in the last Coalition government. He cannot be said to be good at anything if not at managing the media: for many years he kept up the narrative that Peter Costello was thiiiiis close to knocking off John Howard, the model for Rudd's more successful guerrilla sulk, and has been a "senior Liberal source" ever since. Many members of the press gallery know Pyne more closely than do members of his family. His witterings about media misunderstandings are laughable.

Here is Pyne's political calculus: the largesse given to private schools will reinforce private school communities to strongly support the government, while public school communities are weak and will not rally against the government. That's it, really.

It seemed to be effective under Howard, although he had the advantage of Labor leaders who were ineffectual (Beazley, Crean) or unbalanced (Latham). Shorten appears to be neither of those things, but like Bill Hayden be could end up as nothing else either. Coalition state governments have not trashed the public school system to the extent necessary for Pyne's calculus to take hold.

With the fading of the resources boom, and the passing of the idea of almost effortless upward mobility that Howard sought to cultivate, people came to realise that education was all we could count on as a reasonable prospect for the future. That's why Gillard pinned everything on education. That's also why Pyne and Abbott pledged a "unity ticket", which they've since torn up; it was the difference between what they have now and much, much less, if not oblivion.

When Pyne mouthed off against Gonski earlier this year, Barry O'Farrell hauled him up to Sydney to show him what actual government and its needs are really like. The fact that neither man spoke about their encounter after the fact indicates that O'Farrell tried to knock some sense into Pyne, which he has clearly since lost. Nobody in NSW would choose Abbott over O'Farrell. Nobody in the Liberal Party wants the two to come to blows, but if they have to sacrifice the twerp from Adelaide to make peace do not doubt that he shall be sacrificed. Abbott is in the stronger position constitutionally but O'Farrell is the superior politician; if he has to run against Canberra then that's what he'll do, he will play grassroots populism better than Abbott will or can.

Education has retained both a depth of community feeling and of community organisation that the political parties have lost (they even used to be the same people in a more community-minded, less busy-busy age). Your average Parents and Citizens/Friends will have far greater tactical nous and organisational ability than your local branch of any political party. Any backroom operator, any Cabinet minister or inner circle denizen, who thinks the Abbott government is going to embrace that third rail and survive is kidding him/her/itself. Nobody who remembers the popular revolts in NSW against the Greiner government's education policy in the late 1980s/early '90s will ever forget it. O'Farrell doesn't. The sheer force of it propels Greiner's wife Kathryn onto the Gonski committee more than two decades later. Those who forget the lessons of history, at the very least, have no business mucking about with the curriculum.

If not Gonski, what? Under an adult government there should be an orderly transition to another funding model, not some dusted-off effort that led to longterm decline in school performance, and which was wrongly romanticised by Liberals (if Textor's advice was worth anything, he should have advised the Coalition to cut the nostalgia act as it impressed nobody who wasn't rusted on). Under an adult government the Education Minister would not be flinching and mincing at his own discomfort, but instead offering clear guidelines within which professionals can conduct careful planning. Bronwyn Hinz and I were completely wrong in April to assume that Pyne was doing any education policy work worth the name. At least he's had the good sense not to wheel out culture warrior Kevin Donnelly, when no other Coalition government is having anything to do with him.

There are a number of newly-elected Coalition MPs who won't make it past the next election because Pyne blundered into a political minefield. Pyne himself, having taken a safe seat to a margin under 5%, might well join them. He's sticking to his guns, but they're badly calibrated and pointing the wrong bloody way, and guess which fool placed them there? When constituents come to them and say that Marginal Vale Primary is losing this, or St Preference's is losing that, how will Pyne help them? He'll brush it off, and in doing that a lot of the respect that he earned by decades of hard slog that seemed to have paid off (for him at least) will be brushed off too.

Joe Hockey cut his political teeth under Greiner too, and has no excuse for gibbering about infrastructure in the hope that it will lift this government above the fray (let me guess: another second Sydney airport study), with all that crap about taking "tough decisions" instead of smart ones.

Much of the big important stuff that defines any government happens early in its term. Well, here we are early in the Abbott government's term. What's to show for it? No going to war as part of the new United Nations, no floating of the dollar, no gun buyback - no responding to Events in an adult-government way at all.

There is a school of thought that says a government should get its bad news out early. The trouble with this government is that it can't be sure its run of bad news is over, or that they have the power to decide when it is. Pyne's troubles over education do not detract from Morrison's problems with Indonesia, they compound the sense that this government is a bunch of stumblebums. This failure should be sheeted home to Abbott, and to strategists like Credlin and Textor. There is no suite of well-thought-out policies ready to go to stabilise early jitters, and thus nothing to bear fruit into 2014-15 to be harvested at the next election. Their only options are knee-jerk stuff, and that's when you get dopey policy outcomes like the ones that the Coalition try to hang on the previous government.

The idea that the press gallery is surprised at this government performing under expectations shows only that they haven't been paying attention, and have therefore rendered themselves redundant well ahead of the inevitable decisions of their current employers.

A government that wastes time eradicating any trace of the previous government incurs two big opportunity costs. First, you can't blame a government for all your woes and constraints if nobody remembers them. Second, and more tellingly, a lot of the big scope for action gets frittered away as momentum and goodwill dissipate - as they do, and nobody in the backroom or at the top table knows how to stop it. Labor, the Greens and other parties aren't exactly cringing before the threat of a double dissolution election. Looks like blocking the carbon tax is all this lot really have; anything else they do will be an accident, for good or ill.

24 November 2013

Played off a break

Having played the press gallery when in opposition, the Abbott Government stopped talking to the press gallery while they adjusted to office. The press gallery acted all surprised and muttered darkly about accountability, as though they couldn't have seen that coming - but I dealt with that in two previous posts. The government has not made its members any more available than they have, retreating to a model of government not seen since the 1960s - with the addition of a stable of pseudo-spokespeople whom nobody elected (and who can't be gotten rid of), while affording easy deniability.

The opposition haven't filled the media vacuum for two reasons: as with the last Labor opposition, their frontbench is full of recent ministers who have followed Kim Beazley's lead in being too respectful of the demands of government to add to them with populist tubthumping. They also remember how the press gallery only wanted to talk about leadership and polls, and have been disinclined to cut the press gallery any favours in its hour of need. How long they can keep this up isn't clear - Shorten, like Abbott, is quietly going around his party shoring up his position and working out which aspects of the former government should be kept, and which should be ditched. Nobody wants to hear from the former government right now - especially as they are not providing the public spectacle of either melting down even further, or arrogantly asserting that they were robbed - but sooner or later Shorten is going to have to gainsay Abbott from a consistent position.

The government has filled the vacuum with a stable of Spokespeople You Have When Your Decision-Makers Go To Ground. People like Maurice Newman, Peter Reith, Amanda Vanstone, Alexander Downer, and even David Murray aren't just old hands with relevance-deprivation syndrome. They speak for the government when the government can't be bothered speaking for itself. When the government wants to create one impression for the public and another for its base, it does so with a mealy-mouthed official statement combined with a red-meat announcement from one of its retainers. This means the government has its cake and eats it, while the press gallery haven't worked this out or bothered to press for who really speaks for this government.

Maurice Newman is often billed as "the chairman of the Prime Minister's business advisory council". In 2007 Labor set up such a council, chaired by Sir Rod Eddington: Lindsay Tanner said later that he dreaded being asked who else was on that council, because it consisted only of Eddington. The correlation between what Eddington said and what the Rudd government did was not strong, but journalists duly reported Eddington's words as though they had weight with the then government. Abbott is playing the same trick with Newman and nobody of the press gallery, for all their experience and savvy, have woken up to this.

The people who advise the Prime Minister on business are those who run business. The idea that some retired stockbroker is across the scope of Australian business today is laughable. There is no evidence of an instance where Abbott and the government was of one opinion on business matters while Newman was of another, and Newman's opinion prevailed. There is no evidence of business calling for an outcome which the Coalition resisted, and Newman stepping in to smooth things over. Newman's talents might be usefully applied in persuading, say, Max Moore-Wilton to drop his opposition to a second Sydney airport, or some other process where Chap Shall Speak Unto Chap and Sort Things Out Quietly.

Sadly, Newman's recent speech to CEDA is, to be charitable, a mixed bag. It includes matters that are absolutely congruent with official statements of the government, such as infrastructure. It includes matters that are absolutely congruent with the general direction of the government and the wishes of its supporters, but at odds with official statements, such as his rubbishing of climate change or calls for workplace relations reform. Newman fills up media space vacated by actual decision-makers in government.

There have been lots of earnest discussions that take Newman on face value and link it to the government, such as this, but to link Newman or the other spokespeople named above to the government is to wrestle with smoke. Any press sec can kill a story by simply stating that Newman (or Reith, etc.) do not speak for the government and have no official capacity, and that's that. There is no link between what these people say and what comes out of the government.

So too, there have been a lot of earnest disquisitions about what exactly is the problem that the Indonesian government has with the Abbott government, and how the latter might resolve it (including just sitting tight and waiting). Regular readers of this blog were across this issue in July, but again the press gallery acted all surprised (not least to those who insisted his jaunt through Asia according bestie status to all he met was a 'triumph'). The intervention by a Filipino porn aficionado was considered to be proof of his great savvy, as though he were spokesperson for bogans. Even experienced observers so lack confidence in their own judgment and the audience to whom they report that they have to agree with him.

There are two problems with Textor's position. First, loudmouths calling for the government to stick it to foreign powers rarely stick by that government when times get tough. Those for whom Textor spoke are the very first to kick out a clumsy, beleaguered-looking government, without working through the complexities. Defence Force recruiters at youth festivals target yobs decked in the flag and/or with Southern Cross tatts: when offered the chance of a secure and venerable but dangerous career, said patriots tend to pike it. So it is with Mark Textor, king of pikers: when Malcolm Fraser called on the Liberals to sack Textor, he too is wrestling with smoke. Textor holds no office, his status as an 'advisor' is as nebulous as Newman's; he is not accountable, and both he and the government like it that way.

Second, Textor and a small number of others had the seemingly impossible task, similar to the Hollywood movie Wag the Dog, of presenting Tony Abbott as a statesman. Rather than polish that turd, Textor dipped him in lacquer and asked the press gallery to back off lest Labor be re-elected, which they did. While Abbott mouthed the phrases fed to him by experienced Jakarta hands, Textor offered a counterpoint designed to rally Liberal loyalists against namby-pamby subtleties (the idea that the Liberal Party is the party of business dies in instances like this: whatever the Coalition's motives for antagonising the Indonesians, good business practice has nothing to do with it). Are the ethics of a porn star of whatever nationality significantly different to that of what Textor does - doing the sort of things that people do every day in private, but getting paid for it and having the results recorded and broadcast?

Again, Textor can be easily distanced from the government ("the bubble" of which he complains is the very membrane and substance of his business model), and exactly what this government is about becomes hard to assess - particularly if you're just reporting one thing, then reporting another, and not really making the connection or helping your audience do so. The government thinks it's being clever in playing a double game like this, except the Indonesian government is awake up to it to a far greater extent than the Australian media.

In her recent Boyer Lecture, the Governor-General made comments about same-sex marriage and an Australian republic that are at odds with positions taken by the Abbott government. Opposition Leader Abbott would have bagged her for such comments and implied that this accomplished and tough-minded woman was somehow under the sway of her son-in-law. Prime Minister Abbott, who has to work with the Governor-General, said some mealy-mouthed stuff about how she's entitled to her opinion, gracious etc. It's down to a Liberal State MP and former monarchist media strategist who doesn't have to work with her to voice the government's true position on this matter.

The Liberal Party in NSW has set up a committee to investigate preselections and other internal matters. Judging by its personnel the purpose of this committee is to quash any reform proposals and to assert that the way things are is the way things are meant to be. Conservatives calling for reform are wasting their time and have no way of taking on this committee without looking desperately self-defeating. Nobody else with ideas for the Liberals to change their ways should be under any illusions. Again, plenty of political journalists will 'cover' this but I doubt many will do so with much understanding.

When political journalists are confronted with political issues, they tend to be concerned with how an issue plays rather than how it works. The contrast between the official statements and those of unofficial bobbleheads like those indicated above is part of the play of how this government works. Press gallery journalists are having their schedules stuffed with pabulum from quasi-official camp-followers rather than accountability from actual decision-makers. This is the point where political savvy departs from fourth-estate accountability; this is where the press gallery lose the plot and the justification for their assistance. In that gap a lot of dumb, if not bad, government is taking place.

Who are they who govern us? What are they about? The press gallery can't and won't see it, let alone explain it to us.

06 November 2013

Swine without pearls

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

- Matthew 7:6 (KJV)

It seems another age if not another country now, but we had a government that held together a seemingly fragile majority and had to argue every point it made, all the time. It released mountains of information under the assumption that everybody was as policy-wonky as they were, or if not that they would be impressed with all that forethought and detail and careful planning. In every policy there was something you could hate, something to love or at least grudgingly appreciate; something to talk about anyway.

The bloke who'd gone before (and who came again after) demanded heaps of information and turned them into press releases - and often less than that.

The bloke who'd come after him sneered at all that hard work and promised to sack thousands of public servants who had made that possible. The press gallery joined with that bloke and ignored all the detail, asking about polls or clothing or sex or anything, really, other than the policy at hand. If journalists were forced to address policy at all, in the short interludes between polls, all they'd ask is how it would play rather than how it might work.

On 30 January this year - this year - then-PM Julia Gillard gave a speech at the National Press Club. True, it won't ring down the ages but it was chock-full of policy and political goodness. At the time, Laurie Oakes and his pals at the SMH reported on only two aspects of it: the fact that Gillard announced an election date, and that she wore glasses. Later that, year, at the Sydney Writers' Festival, Annabel Crabb called this process "bringing the intelligence" (i.e. there is no intelligence in a laboriously crafted speech across the gamut of government policy, but top-of-the-head blather about polls is apparently where the intelligence is).

The press gallery now have the gall to complain that the government isn't what they hoped. Far from providing the infinite jest of pie-eating and bicycle-riding, this government has cut off the supply of information. For weeks they told us how shrewd this was, revelling in being treated like absolute mugs and patsies; now they're getting bored.

Why is The Sydney Morning Herald quoting Laurie Oakes? It has a Political and International Editor and a Chief Political Correspondent, both of whom are hopelessly compromised by years of inability to report on how we are governed. Both advocated for a lightweight opposition to relieve them of an imperfect government that dealt with them in a cursory manner. Both talked up Tony Abbott's humiliating traipse around our neighbourhood as though it were a triumph, on the assumption that their feeble opinions counted for anything. Oakes is as guilty as they are of letting scrutiny of the Coalition slip by, and now that they have nothing to do but scrutinise them they have nothing to go on.

They can't compare the brochure-ware of the Coalition's "plan" to actual outcomes, because there are no outcomes - and if they were, neither Oakes nor Hartcher nor Kenny would be able to tell in the absence of a press release. Their investigative journalism skills have withered to the point where no information on this government is available unless it comes from a minister's mouth, and even then ...

The Oakes comments was meant to be a shot across the bows, but the man once dubbed The Sphere of Influence has no firepower behind him at all. His main employer is broke and relies utterly on this government's good favour to save being wound up by the creditors who own it.
"You can’t thumb your nose at the voters’ right to know and you can’t arrogantly say ‘we’ll let the voters be misinformed and we won’t help journalists get it right'. That’s just a disgusting attitude."
You'd have to be a mug not to see it coming, whether you've been in Canberra 50 years or 50 minutes. They faked it to the media until they made it.
He highlighted Assistant Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs and NSW Labor MP Ed Husic as potential leaders of their respective parties.
Husic spent three years lying to journalists about Kevin Rudd's strength of support, who in turn spent three years lying about his effectiveness at leading a government. Little Jimmy Briggs lies to journalists about social cohesion in Inverbrackie and university research; and given he is up against Max Moore-Wilton he is either lying about this, or he is writing cheques that his political clout can't cash. Both men are watching Abbott stonewalling the media and learning this lesson: they actually think it's clever when you start blocking information flow. After a while they start to wake up but there's nothing they can or will do about it.

The Coalition went through two years of distress and disorientation at the prospect of charting a post-Howard course through the uncertainties of the twenty-first century. For the past four years they decided to have a Howard Restoration anyway, and have not been seriously challenged on the inadequacy of their policy offerings since Abbott became leader. This is why Bianca Hall is wrong to state this:
But two months since the election, it's increasingly becoming apparent that a "no-surprises" government is coming at the cost of open government.
Two months be damned. This was obvious for four years at least. Abbott lulled gullible journalists into thinking that "no surprises" meant "plenty of warts-and-all information", and that a government led by a former press secretary was all about open government. When he needed journos to be on-side he gave them little information, and now that he doesn't what do they expect? Hall and Oakes have nothing to declare but their own gullibility. Why are we listening to these people? What fools are employing them?
Since winning office, Abbott has fronted the nation's media just eight times. Calls to his office, and to his ministers, frequently go unanswered or unreturned.
Given the inane questions that come from "the nation's media", Abbott could have fronted them eighty-eight times and we'd scarcely be better informed. Hall's assumption that scrutiny can only come from journalists asking questions is not just naive, it is nowhere supported by actual behaviour and practice.
... Morrison has also moved the weekly asylum seeker briefings to Sydney, his home city, making it harder for the Canberra press gallery, which is responsible for covering federal politics, to attend. As a consequence, the number of journalists attending has dwindled - as has the information provided.
There are plenty of people in Sydney who understand asylum-seeker issues very well, and who would go to these sessions if only the media organisations were smart enough to engage them. Truculent press gallery journalists who insist that they dare not leave Canberra incase some politics breaks out clearly do not know what their jobs are. Those who manage them lack the wit and force to make them go where the political news actually is. If you can send journalists all over the country to do picfacs a school here or a building site there, all to be brushed off with answers more inane than their questions, then it beggars belief that a trip to Sydney to watch a media poppet come over all stern is beyond their job description.

Reading Hall is like listening to someone insisting that babies are brought by storks long after the facts of human reproduction have been patiently explained to them, and becoming increasingly hysterical that only the storks can relieve our fertility crisis. It's stupid and pathetic, but it's a systemic problem that Hall is too well trained to see or get past: the entire credibility of those media organisations represented in the press gallery depends upon the Abbott government being nothing less than a shining exemplar of good and wise and fair government, not just slightly better than Gillard-Rudd but one for the ages. Anything less - petty rorts, banal scandals and simple fuck-ups will mean the end of the press gallery as a credible source of information on how this country is governed.

If Laurie Oakes' only story is how he can't get a story, and to complain about his own ineptitude to his employer's rival, then where does that leave any member of the press gallery, or any journalist for that matter?

This was a particularly good article from an uneven writer enjoying a recent purple patch. Ignore her attempt to seek support in Hall's article when the reverse is more the case, and pretend that silly third-last paragraph isn't there - the wider point that "we" need political news more than ever is dead right.

People who are employed to do a job can't claim that it's clever that they can't do their jobs. Everyone enjoys a bit of a respite from work now and then, but if you spend too long with too little to do you can start to get antsy - particularly if your employer is not faring well financially. There's a word for people who can't seem to be able to do their jobs: redundant.

The other thing about the control over information is that you never know what people will like. John Howard's supreme achievement as Prime Minister was being able to mobilise the population toward a gun control more strict than the US, but which didn't strangle sporting shooters or farmers - a policy that was never part of pre-election policy, one that had no business plan, but which showed infinitely more political leadership than the bombast of "we will decide who comes to this country" and all that expensive Textor claptrap. Rudd, like all Canberra smarties (including Abbott) thought he could dump climate change without realising that reversing lukewarm support doesn't mean lukewarm opposition, but oblivion. Gillard's payrise for aged care workers was negated by withdrawing welfare from single parents. Hundreds of Coalition politicians, and thousands of staffers, lobbyists and party members, are placing their hopes and futures in the hands of a small number of people focused on matters other than their own best interests: any gloating from such people belies their sheer terror at their vulnerability.

The flipside of absolute power is that you have to be absolutely right about everything all the time. If you're the "Queen of No" you might be farting through silk these days, but when it turns nobody will cut you any slack or forgive you your trespasses. If you accept that there are things you can't control then you start to realise how silly the insistence on absolute control is - but then if you're in this PM's office you don't realise that at all, and that's where the fun begins. That's where you stop the sad-sack act of Oakes and the reverse-Credlin of Bianca Hall, railing at those who don't return your calls for showing you up.

There are those who realise there are ways and means around this government; there's no sign of it now but it is technically possible such people might have stumbled into the press gallery by mistake. And once you realise that, the presence or absence of pearls in your press gallery sty won't be an issue - and the bacon that you save may well be your own.

04 November 2013

No time

This is no time to ignore warnings
This is no time to clear the plate
Let’s not be sorry after the fact
And let the past become out fate

- Lou Reed There is no time

The press gallery's insistence that the Abbott government is being smart by denying information to it is dumb. The government is being dumb by denying itself a base of early engagement that will enable it to withstand the inevitable - yes, inevitable - downturns. The opposition is being dumb in not making full use of all this dumbness, suggesting that it is adding to the dumbness rather than offering an alternative to it.

Barrie Cassidy showed what a hard-bitten old journo he is by sucking up to the new boys:
The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, demonstrated twice this week that the new Coalition Government has it all over the previous mob when it comes to strategy.

First, he insisted that the debt ceiling be raised way beyond expectations to $500 billion. That should take the politics out of the debt issue. What government wouldn't want that?

Hockey merely wants to ensure that Labor in opposition can't do to him what he did routinely to them when they were in government.
Bugger the politics: there's a fiscal issue here about how much debt we are in and why. We are being excluded from that conversation because Hockey and the media want to pretend this is just another political football. And when you see everything as a political football you can't get away with statements like this:
For now, the tactic probably has public support. The sound of silence is just what they need after the ceaseless crescendo of what has passed for debate for years now.

The electorate was surely sick to death of the daily churn.
Churn was all we got from the media under Rudd and Gillard. We kept bagging them online and off, and still they wouldn't stop. We* even voted out that government, and voted in the party they seemed to like, because they made them out to be adults. They're not adults, they were never adults, but the media got the government it wanted. Now, with its waning power having suddenly been arrested overnight, the media find themselves powerless - powerless to call on the government that it made, powerless to develop any investigative skills to make up for the shutting-off of the drip.

As with Mark Kenny, the more this government spits in Barrie Cassidy's face, the more he'd love it. Journalists who think this government is being clever are exhibiting, for all their pomposity and swagger, that they have no real confidence in their job and their capacity to do it. And if there's anything more ridiculous than defending the indefensible by supposedly iconoclastic, seen-it-all journos, it's feeble whimpering like this:
SOMETIMES when he fronts the fourth estate, Scott Morrison's arrogance ­can be little short of ­breathtaking.
All the time over the past five years, Morrison's arrogance was on display. He never missed a media opportunity and happily fielded inane and fanciful questions. He made no sense in policy terms, but no journalist called him on it because they couldn't believe that those who'll engage in scurrilous behaviour for you will also do it to you.

Nobody in the media has any excuse for failing to expect Scott Morrison to turn like a snake and invoke "national security" to shut down information and debate. The more experience you can call upon, the less excuse you have. Laurie Oakes has been in the press gallery since 1966. He's seen the Prime Ministership of this country change 13 times. At the next election he'll have been there fifty years. It's pathetic that such a man has no investigative journalism skills to call upon to replace a lean spell of press conferences.
Implementation of Abbott's "stop the boats" policy is being run as a military operation, with the grand title Operation ­Sovereign Borders ...
Oh gosh, who could have foreseen that - anyone in the press gallery, I suppose, who thought about opposition policy and what it might mean for the country. Anyone who'd been around long enough to remember official press briefings from the Vietnam War, and how this supposedly gave rise to a generation of hard-grilling, crap-cutting, iconoclastic journos.
Agencies that used to be part of the information flow - the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, for example, when asylum seeker boats got into trouble - have been ordered to put up the shutters.
And how do you expect a journalist to come up with a story without an official press release and a picfac, hmm?
When he marches out with the general to deal with the media, Morrison barely bothers to be polite.
Pass the tissues. The journalist once dubbed The Sphere of Influence is just another mug punter who's been had.

Speaking of iconoclasm, here's where I disagree with m'learned friend Greg Jericho about letting the government jack up its debt ceiling. The parties that are not members of this government should make the government wear its "debt crisis" crap like a crown of thorns. Labor should claim that it has "learned its lesson" about debt, and refused to add another cent until the government makes the case for increasing it. Shorten could beat this government by appearing so gosh-darned humble without in reality giving this government any more than it gave his party from opposition.

The government should level with people about why the debt is as it is, and why it is necessary to increase debt in the short term in order to lower it over the long. It hasn't done that because it can't. You have to learn to take people with you, a central lesson of representative government and democratic legitimacy that this government cannot and will never learn. The fact that it won't is the key to its own lack of depth, and its mirror-image in terms of the lack of deep support which this government is able to call upon.

That's the problem this government has, for all its supposed media-savviness: it is crap at making a positive case. It's great at making mountains out of molehills and even asserting that things are true when they're not. Yes, so the government will hit its current debt ceiling in December: have a double dissolution over that, go on. The government would cut and cut and blame it all on debt: let them try it. They can't explain themselves because - deep down, and vindicated by September 7 - they don't think they have to. They have no strong social base to work from, no real plan on which to follow through, no grounds for confidence in their own abilities. You also see this in the fill-yer-boots approach to parliamentary lurks.

They depend on the media to give them a good run, as punishment to non-compliant Labor. The fate of this government is outsourced to two factors beyond its control: the will and strength of the press gallery, and the feebleness of Labor.

They have disconcerted the media with their sudden reversal from being freely available to being unavailable (including many, many people who should know better - many of them unaccountably spared the axe while sacking better journalists than they). They have decided not to take the media with them from day one; that's fine so long as you have the ability to turn on the Churchillian/Obama-style rhetoric when it suits you, and then retreat into official secrecy. This government doesn't have that luxury. It has no political capital, no deep wells of affection and support in reserve, only the thin and fickle backing of the media. When things turn bad for this government, as they do for all governments, it will have no principle to stand on, only obduracy; no grounds for optimism, only shrieks to toe the line.

Whenever a government campaigns on 'trust', it does not mean transparency and testability but rather the opposite. Howard did that in 2004 and brought in a whole lot of under-the-radar stuff that eventually hastened his demise. This is what Amy Mullins has missed here in an otherwise perceptive, hopeful, and well-written piece. Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd got where they are today through a series of backroom deals - not by being candid and sharing information. Only when you get a Prime Minister who has gotten where they are by being open and transparent, and who can wrong-foot his/her opponents in doing so, will Mullins' desired state come about.

The legitimacy of the Australian media organisations that are represented in the press gallery (that will have to do to replace feared/derided shorthand terms like 'MSM' or 'legacy media') depends entirely upon the wise and steady leadership of the Abbott government. Should that government prove unwise and unsteady, the reporting and indeed the experience of Cassidy or Oakes or other old lags becomes utterly discredited. The government is indeed proving unwise and unsteady, and the only alternative is another bunch who also rely utterly on the media while also being disdainful of it. They don't have the language, the contacts, the investigative skill to describe the functions of government in the absence of a press release.

If politics isn't about preening, blathering politicians, what is it about? Laurie Oakes can't tell you. Barrie Cassidy and Mark Kenny can't tell you either. Amy Mullins is on the right track but she, like the others, needn't be so reliant on politicians and their media wranglers. Once you slip the surly bonds of the media wranglers and the notions behind set-piece appearances, things could become interesting in Canberra - and journalistic experience be damned, genuine information on how we are governed is more likely to come from someone who insists on openness than someone who whimpers about (or even exults in) government secrecy.

Lou Reed could've told you, but all there is to say about him is goodbye and thanks. Not all questions are equal; inane questions should be treated like this.

* Well, not me specifically, but you know what I mean.

23 October 2013

The second time as farce

Tony Abbott is Kevin Rudd. Yes, I'm serious; bear with me.

Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007 because he was a more invigorated, less threatening version of John Howard. Tony Abbott won an internal party ballot on the same basis two years later, and then a general election four years after that.

As Opposition Leader, both Rudd and Abbott promised the public they'd be more economically responsible than the incumbents. Neither was to any significant extent, though Rudd was tested in the fires of the GFC in 2008-09 and not found wanting, while Abbott is yet to be tested to that extent.

As Opposition Leader, both Rudd and Abbott rattled the incumbents. Both talked big visions with a future built upon special relationships in Asia (China in Rudd's case, Indonesia in Abbott's) but delivered little. Rudd got the Chinese off-side and Abbott has done the same to the Indonesians.

In the space of a week, Abbott has declared that Australia's best friends are the Indonesians, the New Zealanders, the Japanese - which does seem a bit promiscuous. Abbott has insisted that a free trade deal with China be concluded within a year; there would be more activity from the Chinese than there has been if they were serious about making that happen.

Both men promised orderly, even boring, competent governments. Neither delivered.

Both accused their predecessors of being fiscally profligate, then did everything their predecessors did and more.

Rudd said that what we need in education its lots of extra facilities and upskilled teachers. He failed to deliver. Abbott says that what we need is lots of chalk-and-talk; this is the Kevin Donnelly Moment. That won't work either.

Both promised to act on climate change. Rudd put insulation into people's homes to uneven results and Abbott plays dress-ups in firie gear. Davidson RFS (Abbott's volunteer bushfire unit) is going to get a reputation for having lots of schmick new gear but not being deployed to use it where needed.

Rudd got his jollies from going to international conferences. Abbott gets his from riding his bicycle. Both claim public entitlements in large quantities for doing so, but their ability to link of those events back to their day jobs is tenuous.

Rudd positioned himself in the centre thanks to the NSW Labor Right, yet it was the left who saved him from obscurity. Abbott was a creature of the Liberal Right, yet they're on the outer and he has surrounded himself by former moderates. His moderate mask threatens to eat his face. Both men have played the most dangerous game you can play in politics: irritating your friends and appeasing those who care little for you, while being distracted by the realities of government from which not even a control-freak chief of staff can fully protect anyone. Remember it was Alister Jordan's missteps that gave Julia Gillard the motivation/excuse to topple Rudd; just because Peta Credlin says she's infallible, and fools cowering Libs and Nats into believing that, it doesn't mean she is.

Rather than wake up to this story, journalists act all puzzled at both men. As Opposition Leader, Rudd/Abbott was a fellow of infinite jest, always ready with a quip and a grab. As PM he's come over all stuffy and distant, and they're as surprised as though it was the first time this ever happened. The PM seems to hold their own in staged events with all those world leaders but the journalists don't really understand what's going on so they give Our Man the benefit of the doubt, and don't engage with detractors who explain why he's not the big-time operator he seems up there on that stage.

I thought Abbott was so poor that he wouldn't become PM at all. I was wrong about the latter so I should be wrong about the former - I'm enough of a patriot to want the Prime Minister of my country to succeed, even though I didn't vote for him. Yet, it looks like the jock will pike the big challenges just as surely as the nerd did.