29 January 2013

Hiding and seeking the real Tony

When the journosphere announced that Tony Abbott was going to engage in a pre-election campaign, going around the country with stunts for the media but offering no specific knowledge about how we would be governed by the Coalition, I thought: how would this be different to what he's been doing for the past three years?

In the recent bushfires affecting the south-east of the country, Abbott purloined a truck and a uniform from the Davidson Rural Fire Service brigade (which was not on active service nor on stand-by), drove it several hundred kilometres and held a press conference for a Liberal MP who isn't seeking re-election.

It was stupid for Abbott to put himself in a position where he was using public emergency resources for a self-serving stunt. He has put the NSW Government in an invidious position too; one that might come back to bite them at a time not of their choosing.

Even if you write all of that off because hey, that's politics, Abbott just looks like a poser. This undercuts the whole action-man persona Abbott and people like Credlin have been carefully building for over three years. Having Abbott fly to Brisbane, spend two minutes filling a sandbag and flying out again - you have to wonder how serious the Coalition really are (as long as you're not a press gallery journalist, who do not dare ask even mild questions like that).

These are proper questions for the alternative government to ask (so long as it doesn't get in the way of actual emergency relief efforts as required right now):
  • Are there any lessons for the Federal Government to have learned from recent emergencies (e.g. the Victorian fires of 2010 2009, the Queensland floods 2011; it may be too early for lessons from more recent events like the Tasmanian fires) which are not being applied here?
  • Is there anything that the Federal government should do besides passively offering assistance and consolation, keeping the Bureau of Meteorology going, and sending out the Army?
Do you think Abbott and the Coalition - anyone at all, even some anonymous backbencher or staffer - is thinking about those issues?

Drag0nista has made the Abbott-Latham link almost ten years after Michael Duffy's Hot for Boofheads. What she and Grattan regard as "the likeliness that he will be in the PM’s office by the end of the year" is nothing more than the conventional wisdom of the press gallery, a meme in which they are trapped and out of which they cannot credibly break no matter what happens. They both rely heavily on the 'they would say that, wouldn't they' of senior Liberal frontbenchers talking up the Liberal leader and talking down his weaknesses.

The point about both Latham and Abbott that it was necessary for each to hide their real selves from the public, in order for the public to hold them at the same regard they hold themselves (and at which Duffy held them). Latham failed in that endeavour and Abbott is starting to do so now, despite Grattan and others in the journosphere having been more than happy to help out with his smoke-and-mirrors routines.

Karen Middleton is a former Chair of the Press Gallery and reports for SBS. Her reports never waver from presenting press gallery groupthink as though it's what is important about how we are governed. People who craft political messages, like Textor, love that predictability and Middleton loves an easy-to-get story. That explains the kissy-kissy insider intimacy here, the disdain for the barbaric "some" (we are millions, Karen, millions. You can't see us from Canberra even if you stand on tip-toes on Capital Hill, and nor can you see us in the crap Textor shows you in the name of "inside information")?

To give another example (if you're a Crikey subscriber), Bernard Keane thinks that Abbott's inconsistency is just part of his charm, and that you gotta let Tony be Tony if you're going to make it in the press gallery; never mind information-gathering for the reader/voter.

On Australia Day we had this, which generated a lot of outrage from people who'd never vote Liberal anyway. If you chopped the last two paragraphs those remarks would have been perfectly apposite, the sort of thing people who like Abbott mean when they speak well of him.

The fact that he didn't is the sort of thing that should worry Liberal partisans more than it does their opponents. The convict thing was a stupid thing to say in SA, a state where people - particularly Liberal voters - bristle at the very idea of "the convict stain". The fact that it leaves Aborigines out of any place in modern Australia is more than merely unfortunate phrasing. It undercuts a lot of the outreach work that Abbott has done with Aboriginal communities such as Noel Pearson's operation in Cape York, and then there's Noel Pearson's operation in Cape York, and of course not forgetting Noel Pearson's operation in Cape York.

The reason why leaders use historical references in speeches is to reinforce their position: to demonstrate an understanding of the past helps reinforce how we came to the present with the leadership that we have; and to command the present is to command the future. To demonstrate a ropey and facile understanding of the past, and one that irritates the audience, can only make people wonder about Abbott's present position and can't help him seek advancement later in the year.
May God bless you and may God bless our country on this important day.
A lot of people got upset at that little injection of religiosity into a secular occasion: I didn't. It was well meant and sincere, and should be accepted as such. His real mistake was to depart sunny Glenelg to throw himself into a pre-election campaign.

The pre-election campaign is a Liberal Party ploy foisted on weak leaders. Nick Greiner submitted to it in the late 1980s, leaving nothing to chance at a time when it was a new and exciting idea from the US. Of all people, Andrew Peacock succumbed to it in the lead-up to the 1990 election, and a fat lot of good it did him. Jeff Kennett and Barry O'Farrell disdained the very suggestion, and so have other confident and electorally-successful Liberals since. You show me a Liberal leader who gets sucked in to a pre-election campaign, and I'll show you someone who's electorally doomed and who gets pushed around by backroom operators. The last Liberal leaders to fall for it were, if I recall correctly, Peter Debnam and Robert Doyle. If Isobel Redmond survives she will almost certainly be subject to this indignity too.

Abbott's pre-election campaign launch in a Lidcombe shed did nothing for party morale. Active Liberals, keen Abbott fans, knew that they were engaging in an empty exercise - and it shows on and undermines the all-important TV optics. The fact that news programs shunted their coverage of it after the flooding in Queensland and northern NSW reinforces the image of Abbott as poser. That event did nothing for the part of Australia which doesn't regard western Sydney as any sort of heartland, i.e. most of it. For those who do it yielded nothing beyond those images. The only real trace of it is this shower of nothing in particular.

The picture on the front page is significant. If it was true that people respond well to Abbott as Alpha Male, they would have stayed with this, which basically says the same things but which appears to have been superseded. On the Real Solutions document, the team are arrayed to prop up a weak leader - similar to the way Labor propped up Bill Hayden in 1980 with the more popular Neville Wran and Bob Hawke.

In that picture the Coalition front bench resembles a public service recruitment panel. It is as though they are to recruit us to their cause, rather than we selecting them as our government. What are they looking at? They remind me of David Moore's picture of migrants regarding Australia for the first time, hopeful but wary; a mix of emotions on their faces as to what lies in store for them. Have Hockey and Turnbull just come from a funeral, or are they at one?

It is heartening to see that Tony Abbott, and by extension the Coalition, believe in Australia and its future. After all that consultation it's a start, but hardly a solution as such. The document really doesn't contain any solutions at all. It reads like the findings of focus group research, transcribed from butchers-paper scribblings with some basic graphic design slapped on top.

Note in particular the recurring logos featuring a white Australia, girt by sea and disconnected from everywhere else: a visual dogwhistle.

I will go into that document in greater detail later in the week, bringing it together with his impending Pikers' Club speech and the various bits of jetsam that have emerged from Team Abbott is recent weeks. The fact that Abbott has been asked more questions about Tim Mathieson's prostate exam comments than about Ashby-Slipper shows what you can expect from the National Pikers' Club.

For the moment, though, Team Abbott are learning the lesson that Team Latham only learned after it was too late. The real lesson of Latham for Abbott is not that the press gallery will suddenly turn into gaffe-hounds like they did with Latham - they won't, not for the Stunt Man who has served them so well. The real lesson of Latham for Abbott is that if you let the public in on the real person that is the leader, people will be repelled and flee before you.

In part, this election campaign will be a race between those who want to discover what an Abbott government will be like and those who want to hide it. This will be a most interesting part of the campaign and the mainstream media will not cover this at all well (and nor will they do "the big issues" either; you know how they roll, devil-is-in-the-detail, are-you-frustrated-you-can't-get-your-message-out and all that).

24 January 2013

Is Gay Alcorn kidding herself?

In this article, Gay Alcorn proposes a whole new way of reporting election-year politics, kind of. I know, I'm being harsh and she's trying to do something worthwhile, but what she proposes simply doesn't ring true.

The first thing to be said for Alcorn's piece is that it would, for all its shortcomings, have been a revelation had she written it as an editor at The Age - but she isn't one, she's a freelancer. There's a real lack of buy-in from the masthead, for which this is just another wacky idea lobbed out there to fill up column-inches.
As a journalist for more than 20 years, and an editor for seven, I'm surprised at how much I'm dreading it. Already, press gallery journalists have pronounced that politics will be more bitter, more personal, more toxic this year and that - groan - the election will be about "trust and character".
The solution is clear: sack the press gallery journalists. Yes, I'm serious: Grattan, Hartcher, pretty much all of them. They have shown that they do not - and cannot - tell us what we need to know. What's more useless than a journalist who won't tell you what you need to know? Like a Rechabite bartender, they undermine their own position to the point where it's easiest and best just to get rid of them.

Yes, the 2010 election was dire, and it's great that the coverage is starting to become part of that - albeit in that heavily qualified, excruciating and strangely usually facile way that journalists use when talking about one another, even though theirs is the industry they know better than any other. But (forgive the cliche here, but you know how journos love 'em) it's an ill wind that blows no good. Alcorn quotes from Greg Jericho's The Rise of the Fifth Estate, but she missed the most telling story that should give hope to editors who think that journalism is worthwhile.

Jericho tells the story of how, on the same day in the 2010 campaign, the Coalition released two policies in different locations. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison launched the immigration policy in Sydney while Tony Smith (then Shadow Communications Minister) and Andrew Robb launched the ICT policy. The political journos mostly went to Sydney, where they all learned nothing new and all wrote the same story (because learning nothing new makes you want to buy the paper every day). Very few press gallery journos went to see Smith and Robb, and more fool them because they missed the bigger story.

Most of the journalists who went to the ICT policy launch were ICT journalists, people who know the difference between bandwidth and throughput speeds. They listened politely to the introductory remarks, and they read the policy. They did not address Robb or Smith by their given names, nor pry into their private lives, nor did they talk over them as they answered questions. They politely asked them fair questions germane to the subject-matter before them, questions which Smith and Robb were unable to answer because they had not done their homework.

Not since 1990, when then Shadow Health Minister Peter Shack admitted that the policy he had developed in his portfolio area for his party didn't actually add up, has there been a bigger policy debacle (not a gaffe: a policy debacle). When questioned about this policy area afterwards, Tony Abbott complained "I'm not a tech head", as though that would excuse him from not having an operative policy in this area.

No tech journalist won a Walkley (the journalists' self-awarded prizes for excellence), but Laurie Oakes won one for being the recipient of a leak.
It might surprise Jericho to know that many in the established media, where most Australians still get their political news, agree with him. We limped to the end exhausted and chastened. Why didn't those journos ask about policy? Because their head offices weren't much interested. Because the assumption is that policies - apart from a few the parties want to talk about - are dull compared with personalities.
This is bullshit.

Journos were not at all chastened, they picked themselves up and continued on as though nothing had happened. Business as usual for journalists meant decline as usual for their employers, in circulation and influence. This is why so many of them (including Alcorn) lost their jobs. The people who made the decision about what was dull and what wasn't were the same people who wept crocodile tears while handing out pink slips.

It's also true that the urge to produce the same stuff that everyone else does is irresistible for journalists. The Murdoch press are big on EXCLUSIVE this and SPECIAL REPORT that, but when they feel they have a really big story they scold the ABC and Fairfax for not running it - and rather than laughing, Fairfax and the ABC fall into line.
And because once it starts, a campaign has one big narrative: who's going to win? The polls are the story, and how they go week to week dictates whether the leaders are judged harshly or kindly.
This too, is bullshit. It's dear to the hearts of journos and editors, but it's just not true.

Who's going to win is determined by policy. The Coalition's momentum in the 2010 election stopped short of victory because Tony Abbott could not give straightforward answers to questions about workplace relations. He couldn't give straight forward answers because he didn't think it was that important: he thought a few glib one-liners would suffice. He had been a minister for that portfolio, he was in Cabinet when WorkChoices was approved, and witnessed how it became a decisive factor for the Coalition losing government in 2007. He could not move on from WorkChoices without it being an implicit rebuke to his mentor, John Howard; yet he couldn't develop a post-WorkChoices Coalition workplace relations policy because he hadn't really thought about it. Still hasn't. Still can't.

As for the government, they released policy after policy and weren't asked about them at all. Instead, Prime Minister Gillard and other ministers were asked did they feel frustrated at not getting their message across, by the very people whose job it was to tell us what those policies were. The minister who did the best job at getting their message across was the uncredited one who leaked that damaging material to Laurie Oakes.

The polls are always the story (and in the absence of a fixed and proximate election date, as US analyst Nate Silver showed, they are almost always bullshit). Regardless of what this government has done, regardless of how we are taxed and what those taxes are spent upon, the journosphere has been all about the polls. This term of parliament has shown anyone, other than the idiots who run mainstream media outlets, that viewing policy and even politics through the prism of polls is stupid: all of the worst journalism from Canberra in the past three years or so has been framed by polls, and the best flew in the face of them.

If policy is so boring, why cover it at all? Go back through The Age and other major newspapers since the last election and you'll find lots of articles (some of them quite good) on complex areas of policy - defence, NDIS, carbon pricing, you name it. You'll find plenty of good articles on those topics and more in social media too, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The journalists who write those pieces between elections are the ones who should be quizzing policy during election campaigns. These are the people who are fobbed off by politicians who insist they'll announce their policies "at the appropriate time", but when that time comes the press gallery take over and determinedly miss the point.

Leigh Sales was rightly praised for interviewing Tony Abbott and other senior politicians where she asked them pointed questions, and indeed was Walkleyed for it. Mostly, however, Sales and other politics-focused journalists show their lack of policy smarts when they ask how an issue will play (i.e. how journalists will cover it) rather than how it will work (i.e. after the media have lost interest, will the policy meet its stated aims, and will those responsible for executing it have the resources they need to do so).

As recently as the final sitting week of parliament before Christmas, veteran press gallery reporter Malcolm Farr noted idly that there were 11 substantive bills that had gone through parliament. Did Farr cover any of those bills in any detail? He did not, because he was writing the same stuff that everyone else was writing - the non-story about Gillard and the AWU, a story from back in the day when, if there had been a story there, it would have been covered.

Alcorn's employer Fairfax Media could and should get by with 3-5 permanent press gallery journalists at the most, supplemented as required by writers with specialist knowledge who might be monitoring a committee hearing, a bill passing through the parliament, or some other political event that warrants their presence in Canberra.

For those concerned about departures from traditional journalistic practice, the above is similar to what happens in court cases. When a crime occurs, or when some other event happens that ends up going to court, the journalist does the fieldwork and sees it through the court case. The journalist who does the fieldwork does not hand over to a court-reporting specialist who reports every wink and smirk of the defence barrister, who speculates whether the assistant registrar will take over from the registrar. and ignore the case before the court.
But little has changed in the way politics is covered ...
Gotcha! So much for being 'chastened'.
... except that it's harder. Newsrooms have shed staff, and there is now such a relentless demand to feed the beast 24 hours a day that there is less time to dig, less time to think independently.
To use a phrase that psychologists put to people engaged in self-defeating behaviour: how's that working for you?

What is this "feed the beast" shit? Who or what is this beast, and how do we kill it? Don't you dare accuse me, an avid consumer of this country's news media, of demanding to know every word that dribbles out of some fool's face. To borrow a phrase from Tony Abbott and use it against the media, this goes to the question of judgment and character. The nation's editors and news directors are not fair dinkum. The fact that they (including people like Alcorn) assume this beast does in fact exist and can be sustained on the output of the mainstream media shows Alcorn and others are not as committed to reform as they might fancy themselves to be.

The Age does not have the in-house resources to change the way politics is covered; in-house resources will not drink Alcorn's Kool-Aid and will continue churning out the same old same-old. At the same time, there will not be (and to be fair, Alcorn does not explicitly state this) The Age is unlikely to make effective use of bloggers. They may link to blog posts that deal with forthcoming issues as effectively as this dealt with issues in the recent past, but even that would require pitch battles with management and the conceited culture of journalism to come about.

Even if they were serious, it is hard to see what they would do differently from ABC's The Drum website. It is impossible to imagine them shirtfronting The Narrative to the extent that Peter Wicks did on the HSU, and using a non-employee to do that: look at their failure to get anything of value from Mark Baker over Gillard-AWU. Journalists may feel they lack the time to be reflective and critical; what they also lack is the guts to criticise their Narrative-spouting, Kool-Aid-drinking colleagues.
The ABC says it has listened to the "public weariness" and will shake it up this year, concentrating much more on digging into issues that matter to its audience.
What this means is that focus group shall speak unto focus group: crafted messages from the major parties will be filtered through the crafted message of the ABC's News Director and such focus groups that he/she chooses to heed at any given point. The uncritical acceptance of an Abbott quote against the JuLIAR rubbishing of anything the Prime Minister says will continue. Alcorn has taken the ABC at their word and passed on some PR shite without consideration, analysis, or any value-add on her part - a harbinger of what's to come.

Remember the snide tone of Canberra denizens wrenched from their communities and thrust into ours, condescendingly describing their fellow citizens (and those who read their output) as they went about their business in the shopping centre or school or wherever they happened to be. The journos thought they knew people from polls and news-conference banter, but the election result showed the journos had no clue. The journos followed that result by berating us for electing a hung parliament. Fuck press gallery journos. Chastened, be damned.

Editors and press gallery journalists might fret that non-press-gallery journalists might miss the big political stories during the campaign. Here's a cut-out-and-keep guide for journalists, voters, and anyone else who might be interested on what's news and what isn't:

Traditional news
Actual news
Joe Hockey says Wayne Swan is a dreadful Treasurer
Joe Hockey can’t really explain why Wayne Swan is a dreadful Treasurer, or why he’d be a better one given the economic conditions before us
Opposition criticises government over budget cuts
Opposition specifies where money should and should not be spent, and why - and if not, they miss out on that day's coverage
Separate policy releases, separate stories
Examine how different policy areas work, eg
·         if one party wants to increase numbers in the ADF but they’re cutting entitlements to personnel, how serious are they really?
·         Is cutting entitlements to single parents the best way to a) increase their workforce participation and/or b) cut expenditure?
Nicola Roxon/ Stephen Conroy argue that restricting information makes us all safer
Journalist avoids talking to press secretaries on bus, reads policy document, applies experience in gathering information to what is said in policy document, explains whether and why gap exists between politicians’ words and actual policy
Opposition oppose govt measures on information freedom, word “liberal” in Liberal Party has literal meaning here
Tony Abbott, a control freak over information who plays journalists like trouts, is the champion of information freedom. Riiiight.
[Policy measure] makes life better for families, because proponents of it say so
Is this just more middle-class welfare? Is it? If that worked so well for Howard why isn’t he still PM?
Anyone who will give you a quote that fills the empty space is your friend
If quote fails the “he/she would say that, wouldn’t he/she” test, discard it. Kill your darlings! A commitment to this principle may mean that Paul Howes disappears from the Australian media altogether, but consider whether that would be a bad thing

(Yes, it's all top of the head stuff - but it's free. Mainstream media organisations are right now engaging consultants not very different to or better than the young Mark Scott and paying absurd amounts of money for work of far less quality than that table above.)
This year, what if the media, or at least parts of it, decided they were as bored as the public with it all, and tried something radical? The horse race would be covered, but what if the big story, the main narrative, became: What do voters need to know in order for them to make up their mind which party would be best to lead the country?

An election is a snapshot of a country's challenges, fears and hopes at a given moment. What if we did the work to make them relevant, lively, and revealing? It would be harder than an election framed around reading opinion polls, but my hunch is that it would be far more interesting.
The reference to the horse-race called to mind the racetrack scene from My Fair Lady where our heroine calls on her favoured nag to "move your bloomin' arse!". More applicable to this situation, though, is the wistful song "Wouldn't it be luvverly", where she muses over things that sound nice but aren't realistically attainable.

Look at Gay Alcorn's record as journalist and editor and consider how much of her work (under her byline and those of her subordinates) fits into the left column in the above table, and how much in the right. You don't get out of a cadetship unless you swallow certain fundamental beliefs about journalism that cannot really ever be questioned. Then consider whether she's serious about being 'chastened': never mind if the leopard has changed its spots, how sleek and supple is it really?

Now consider how committed The Age really is to all this: that her employer got rid of her and has brought her back on a very tentative arrangement, which is not necessarily resourced well and not at all integrated into the formal reporting structure of the masthead. If Alcorn's opinions come to blows with those of somebody who likes their news Traditional, and who has a place in the formal reporting structure of Fairfax Media, would you bet on Alcorn's view (such as it is) prevailing?

The hope expressed in her final sentence dies right there. Much of what she believes and promulgates rests heavily on bullshit. Trust me, she says, I'm a recidivist.

22 January 2013

Clearing the dead wood

The Prime Minister's announcement that Nova Peris would contest the Senate seat in the Northern Territory currently held by Trish Crossin has unleashed much outrage from those who never voted for Crossin, or rated her as much of a threat to those they did vote for; you'd think Crossin is the Demosthenes of Darwin, or that Gillard is the first politician to knife those who took up space without performing.

Let's not waste time raking over history and who did what to whom. Let us leave for another time the merits or otherwise of candidates not yet in Parliament, or punditry about who will/won't win.

Instead, let us catalogue the dead wood in the Australian parliament today, people who can and should be removed by those responsible for such matters (including, but not limited to, the voters) in the lead-up to the coming election. Young MPs deserve the benefit of the doubt, up to a point. To nominate those who aren't contesting the next election as 'dead wood' is redundant; I have not included Craig Thomson, who, if vindicated, deserves as much of a political future as anyone in Parliament. Here are the MPs and Senator who should be placed on the front verge for collection by either the great grinding rubbish-trucks of state, or by random opportunists who could make better use of them:


  • Anthony Byrne
  • Jacinta Collins
  • Doug Cameron
  • Yvette D'Ath
  • David Feeney
  • Laurie Ferguson
  • Joel Fitzgibbon
  • Mark Furner
  • Alex Gallacher
  • Chris Hayes
  • Harry Jenkins (retiring)
  • Joe Ludwig
  • Jenny Macklin (oh all right, but straight after NDIS)
  • Gavin Marshall
  • Robert McClelland
  • Claire Moore (see comment below)
  • John Murphy
  • Helen Polley
  • Michelle Rowland
  • Mike Symon
  • Matt Thistlethwaite
  • Lin Thorp
  • Anne Urquhart
  • Maria Vamvakinou


  • Eric Abetz
  • Kevin Andrews
  • Chris Back 
  • Cory Bernardi
  • Julie Bishop
  • Bronwyn Bishop
  • George Brandisandbrettmason (often assumed to be two separate people)
  • David Bushby
  • Michaelia Cash
  • Peter Dutton
  • Sean Edwards
  • Concetta Fierravanti-Wells
  • Mitch Fifield
  • Teresa Gambaro
  • Barry Haase
  • Bill Heffernan
  • Gary Humphries
  • Greg Hunt
  • Dennis Jensen
  • Craig Kelly
  • Helen Kroger
  • Andrew Laming
  • Ian Macdonald
  • Sophie Mirabella
  • Stephen Parry
  • Chris Pyne
  • Don Randall
  • Rowan Ramsey
  • Michael Ronaldson
  • Philip Ruddock
  • Scott Ryan
  • Dean Smith (see comment below)
  • Tony Smith
  • Alex Somlyay
  • Andrew Southcott
  • Ross Vasta


  • Ron Boswell (retiring)
  • George Christensen
  • John Cobb
  • John Forrest
  • Luke Hartsuyker
  • Paul Neville (retiring)
  • Ken O'Dowd
  • Bruce Scott
  • Nigel Scullion
  • Warren Truss
  • John Williams


  • Lee Rhiannon

All of those people have had their go, and more of a go than most get.

It is eminently possible that any of those people could be replaced by someone worse: this is not a reason for retaining them in Parliament. The above includes many who are regarded as rising stars in their respective party (Josh Frydenberg is not on this list, even though he is a waste of skin; the Victorian Liberals need to work him through their system, as they have with Smith, Mirabella and Hunt). The list excludes a number of Last Chance Larrys/Lisas, who may yet distinguish themselves this side of 2016.

The party committed to getting rid of its dead wood can truly demonstrate a commitment to our nation's future.

18 January 2013

Evaporating in the heat

Three examples show that up-and-coming Liberals simply don't believe their own rhetoric. They don't believe their own rhetoric because there's nothing behind them. The fact that politicians say things without any backup should be noted by journalists, rather than them assuming today's rhetoric is tomorrow's reality.

The first example is Greg Hunt eating his own dogfood, or attempting to.

If his Green Army had any credibility at all it would be further advanced than it is. Note how strong-sounding, how definite those first five paragraphs are; then comes the admission that, less than twelve months to the election, he's got nothing:
We are asking the Peninsula community to submit ideas for worthwhile projects. It may be cleaning up a local creek, restoring a bushwalking path, establishing a boardwalk or rehabilitating the foreshore, for example.

We are keen for local environment groups or councils to be involved. They may work together with the Green Army to get the job done or they may act as co-ordinators for projects which they see as a priority for our area.

Areas such as Chinamans Creek, the Balcombe Estuary, Red Hill-Main Ridge walking and equestrian trails and the foreshore around Western Port and Port Phillip bays are possible options for a Green Army scheme.

Importantly, we want the community to come up with the projects to ensure they are locally driven and are the right priorities for the Peninsula.
Never mind the use of the royal pronoun here. If Hunt was in any way serious about his policy, he would have issued the above press release two years ago, and used his own electorate to deal with teething problems in the scheme. He would have been able to say to Coalition MPs and candidates, to the media and anyone else: I believe in this policy, it works on my home turf and it will work for you on yours too.

Sitting here in Sydney, I could have done a quick scan of local papers from the Mornington Peninsula and tossed out some idle ideas like Chinamans Creek or whatever, and sounded every bit as keen and as knowledgeable as Hunt is in that statement. If he really was "keen for local environment groups or councils to be involved", he'd know those people by name, he'd convince them of his commitment and bona fides, and have them support a community action plan that works for that area - and which shows the nation how it's done.

Now, it's just too late. The hoo-ha over the carbon tax and how it was going to ruin us all has shot Coalition credibility on environmental issues. There seems little point in planting millions of trees if they are just going to burn every other summer, and become the Coalition's equivalent to Labor's "fatal pink batts". The fact that the Coalition don't budget adequately for the initiatives Hunt talks about is a worry. Those issues are too big for Hunt and Abbott to nail down between now and the middle of the year, when the election campaign will start in earnest.

Then there's this:

This is what you'd expect from some idiot on gruntback radio, but not for the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Health and Indigenous Health. He compounded it with this:

"To clarify" be damned. This wasn't a clarification, it was a reversal; or it would have been had Laming seriously believed he had made a mistake and sought to rectify it.

You're dead right jobs and training are the key for Aboriginal and Islander people who face the various kinds of disadvantage which led to that riot. It remains unclear what Laming is doing with all the resources provided to him by the taxpayer to "[work] together with those communities".

The tweets Laming has sent since those are telling: no references to meetings with communities, working towards peace and jobs and all good things, but merely how successful he has been at getting his message out. Laming's tweets are not boofhead aberrations, they are the real deal for this man, who he is and what he's about.

The idea of the second tweet was to say anything to get the issue off the front pages. J'accuse Liberal Ambassador to Social Media Tommy Tudehope here. Journos should be alert to hosings-down and ramp up their attention accordingly.

One of those cliches that the mainstream media swear by, and which is slowly killing their entire industry, is that we are now in "the silly season"; that no issue other than cricket is worth reporting on, and that there is plenty of footage from the northern hemisphere to pad out news bulletins. The fires have put paid to that. Nobody gets a month off over January any more. It is entirely reasonable to expect journos to look into issues and not just rely on tweets (besides, [insert standard journosphere dump on social media here], amirite?).

There is no reason why a journalist should not be looking into the extent to which the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Health and Indigenous Health actually deals with indigenous communities other than Noel Pearson. Simply reporting Laming's initial tweet and the follow-up as POLITICIAN GAFFE SHOCK was identical in terms of scope and depth to the analysis of the matter provided by social media, which pretty much invalidates [insert standard journosphere dump on social media here].

You can see why those who run the Coalition want to crack down on their people using social media. Laming is supposed to be one of the more knowledgeable ones on this score. Mind you, those who run the Coalition have decided we need to know more about the workings of Peta Credlin's fallopian tubes than Greg Hunt's environment policy or Andrew Laming's indigenous health policy. They thought it was a good idea for Abbott to purloin a truck from a bushfire brigade and use it for purposes not designated by that brigade or by RFS headquarters.

It is absolutely true that the Rudd government did not release its election policies this far out from the last election. It is also true that the Rudd government had produced two budgets by that point, and for better or worse had a track record. The Coalition have no track record other than saying no and cutting back on existing policies. Any promises that the Coalition made on the environment or indigenous health would be sucked into its "budget black hole", an example of one credibility-sapping theme cancelling out just about every other. The Rudd government did not win a majority of seats at the last election, and it is unclear why the Abbott opposition want to follow such a strategy anyway.

The third example comes from before the last election, and should have been more searing than it was. As I said at the time on my blog, and Greg Jericho said in his fine book The Rise of the Fifth Estate, then Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith hadn't done his homework on telecommunications before launching his policy. He had a collection of motherhood statements that simply didn't fit together, and which was eviscerated by tech journalists who attended his launch. Hunt and Laming - and every other member of the Coalition - should have vowed not to let themselves get so exposed as Smith was (and as Peter Shack, Shadow Health Minister in 1990, had been).

Hunt, Laming and every other member of the Coalition is every bit as exposed as the Coalition were in 1990. Journalists should be alert to this and it is an indictment on them that they aren't. This is the point where it's too late to flick the switch to policy substance: there is no switch and the wire hasn't been earthed, so someone is going to get burnt (and it isn't the government).

It isn't too late for the journosphere to use this opportunity to do some scrutiny on a blithe Coalition, as Richard Ackland demonstrated. Ackland's long-standing and specialised focus on law and justice issues made him a blogger before there were blogs. A regular contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald but not of it, Ackland puts the lie to those in the journosphere who fear outsourcing and the so-called "diminution" of their "profession".

When the heat is on you see what people truly value, even if they panic and act clumsily. Greg Hunt values spreading his message widely but not to any depth, not in his backyard nor in mine nor yours. Andrew Laming thinks he's being paid by the taxpayer to turn flatulence into words, like Piers Akerman or Gary Hardgrave do. Paid journalists take them at their word when they say they are actively acting action, or that they're contrite: it is possible that they have lost the ability to fossick for stories that go beyond the press release.

13 January 2013

What we cover when we cover politics

The Federal Parliamentary press gallery purports to cover goings-on in federal parliament, with a central focus on the lame theatre of Question Time and the pursuit of rumours. When called upon to cover major issues of substance and complexity that arise in that place from time to time (e.g. the Budget, Aboriginal disadvantage, misogyny, sexual abuse of children), supposedly experienced correspondents dismiss them with "the devil is in the detail" and go back to the ephemera that sustains them.

Stephanie Peatling's press gallery stories that are worth reading: they can be traced back to actual public issues and rarely involve the same dreary flights of fancy that apparently keeps her colleagues employed. In any industry full of mouthy bludgers the quiet achievers are the most interesting; this article is in that vein.

Peatling refers to Peta Credlin opening up about about a topic that could hardly be more personal. Given that Credlin approached the journalists concerned to do so, and given the fact that she is more powerful than almost any elected Liberal MP, is she now deserving of greater scrutiny by the media than she has so far received? If we are to really understand what the Coalition wants - in the short term, within some passing parliamentary standing-order feint, or in the long term from "an Abbott government" - surely it is fair and relevant to scrutinise someone Credlin more closely than has been the case to date.

The odd profile that declares someone to be a "power behind the throne" and leaves it at that might suit the person concerned perfectly well, but in a democracy it is not on.

When you elect a government, you elect a whole package. Senior staffers and advisers are part of that package. Many of those people who came out of Paul Keating's office with a book publishing deal might have served their employer, party and country better building linkages between vague big-picture pronouncements and practical outcomes of same. The early Howard government would have been better understood had journos not just used Grahame Morris as a source for colourful quotes, but really examined what made him tick and how he made his presence felt. The transition of Julia Gillard from a wooden repeater of catchphrases to a genuine and direct communicator has to, in large part (but not wholly) the result of a turnover of staff. Staff deserve scrutiny.

The problem with that is twofold, as Peatling alludes to in her quotes from Paula Matthewson. Firstly, nobody elects staffers. Secondly, thanks to The West Wing many think that their roles deserve more attention than they get, and would only be too happy to hog what little limelight falls upon Australian federal politics.

The response to that is also twofold: first, whether or not people elect them, they are there; they are influencing policy outcomes, they way our taxes are spent and our laws made. Second, professional journalists should be able to filter out self-aggrandisement chaff from the kernels of real stories.

This applies to staffers who become lobbyists. The Rudd Government set up a lobbyists' register where lobbyists are identified individually, along with who they are working for. No press gallery journalist has made effective use of this resource. In the corridors of Parliament House, lobbyists sail past journalists on their way to ministers' offices to conduct business that will change the way government policy works; journalists wave them by without a second thought that these people might have a story worth telling.

Peatling's quote from Damian Ogden fails to examine what happens when there are jarring differences between a politician's personal story and their subsequent actions in office, as happened with Obama. It seems (and you have to do a fair bit of inference to Peatling's article, and drag in a lot of other stuff to reach this conclusion) that you have to rely on the other side to run a bunch of turkeys, but are rewarded with mandates that vindicate both image and reality.

There are journalists who cover substantive issues, and who do so seemingly in isolation from the federal parliament whose deliberations are so crucial to those issues. It is silly to demarcate journalists who, for example, have been patiently describing what the NDIS is and how it might affect particular individuals, from those who are supposedly following the passage of the relevant legislation through the parliament (there is so often a surprise deal in the Senate in the early hours of the morning of a sitting day that changes a bill so profoundly, which is almost never covered in any detail, that it is worth having dedicated Senate correspondents).

It is often said that covering politics is like an iceberg, where elected representatives are the above-surface visible portion while the far larger part (staffers, lobbyists, permanent public servants) are below the surface and out of sight. This may be so, but isn't that what journalists are for: to uncover what is hidden and to make sense of it?
Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

- George Orwell
Press gallery journalists should be more often guided by their colleagues who cover those areas that federal politics regulates - between them, they would make for better coverage of how we are governed than we receive today. It would mean less jowl-wobbling outrage about "context" and the forced redundancy for many who are now, falsely, regarded as paragons of a profession that can only survive with such disruptive innovation. Someone like Stephanie Peatling would almost certainly handle such a transition much better than the stale, cliched offerings of almost all of her colleagues, particularly those encrusted with self-referential journosphere accolades.

10 January 2013

The empty mantle

The Liberal Party hasn't started 2013 at all well.

When your mainstream media coverage is stuck on an issue that makes people squirm (Peta Credlin's fertility) within a wider theme that is death for your side of politics (women: Tony Abbott just doesn't get them, but his side of politics wants him to be Prime Minister anyway), you need to change the subject fast. The Liberals chose the wrong guy (Josh Frydenberg) and the wrong subject (workplace relations).

Here's the article by Josh with a warm-up routine by David Crowe. You can read both for free by copying the headlines into Google.

First to Crowe. When Michael Stutchbury left The Australian he took a few acolytes with him, which didn't quite create a vacuum but did result in the backwash that swept Crowe into that organ (whether Fairfax or News benefitted least from that particular exchange is a debate fit only for pubs in Surry Hills or Pyrmont; even blogs have higher standards than that). Paul Kelly used to hold the title that Crowe now occupies, and the very idea of him writing a cloying intro for an Opposition backbencher would have seen him crack the mother of all tantrums.
TONY Abbott is being urged by his allies to commit to major workplace reform and encourage the use of individual agreements, as the Coalition's internal debate on the key election issue escalates despite fears of a political backlash.
It is not escalating. Liberal MPs are in their electorates, spending time with the families for whom they will later leave politics to spend more time. They are being asked can they really win with that man, and have run out of Chrissy comestibles onto which the conversation can be deflected.
Howard government adviser and rising Liberal MP Josh Frydenberg has reignited the industrial relations debate by calling for a crackdown on union power as well as changes to make it easier for employers and their staff to use individual contracts instead of union awards.
He's reignited nothing. As we'll see, Josh is proposing nothing that hasn't been chewed over for much of the past seven or so years. Crowe is wrong to make out that Frydenberg is shifting the debate, or adding anything nearly so substantial to constitute "ignition".
The Opposition Leader has raised hopes for a more assertive Coalition stance on industrial relations by vowing to release detailed policies early in the year, as business leaders seek a clear commitment from the Coalition to dismantle elements of Labor's regime.
Less than a fortnight into the year is pretty early, and to be fair to Abbott he is serving the community to a far greater extent as a volunteer firefighter than he has or even can by applying his talents and experience as a politician. Frydenberg isn't jumping the gun, as Crowe is trying to make out. He is part of the strategy of taking up media space without saying anything.
... Mr Frydenberg is stepping up the case for major reform by citing a "productivity slump" and a spike in workplace disputes as proof that the Fair Work regime has failed to deliver on Labor's promises.
He's not stepping up anything, he's reiterating what has been said before. Crowe is being cute with language here. It's the policy of his paper that Australia's overall productivity has flatlined since WorkChoices was abolished, even though economists find it hard to prove. Can't wait to read the article where Josh clearly establishes that the increase in disputes is directly attributable to the legislation.
Mr Frydenberg marks out three reform targets including scaling back unfair dismissal laws, which currently apply to employers with 15 or more staff. While [he] does not nominate an alternative threshold, some within the Coalition favour an increase to 20 or 25 staff so that more small businesses would gain exemptions from the unfair dismissal laws.
Why does he not nominate an alternative threshold? Why have others done so without putting their names to it? Surely this is part of the broader policy debate? Why can't the Liberals have a debate any more?
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox assailed the Fair Work regime last year in a speech that singled out IFAs for criticism on the grounds they had "promised so much but delivered so little".

Mr Willox said employers and employees could not rely on IFAs because the current rules meant either side of an agreement could unilaterally terminate the IFA with only 28 days' notice.

The government's review of the Fair Work laws last year suggested the period be extended to 90 days but Mr Willox said companies and their staff needed a more secure arrangement with terms of up to four years.
This is poor criticism: do you want flexibility, or comfort and security? Many commercial contracts have terms of less than 28 days. News Ltd could sack David Crowe and have him off their premises in far less time than that. If you want comfort and security offer permanent employment, or enter into a commercial arrangement beyond the Fair Work Act. Why criticise a piece of legislation for being too flexible, then complaining it isn't flexible enough? Rather than just transcribed Willox's words Crowe should have questioned him on it, like a journalist would.
Mr Ciobo urged Mr Abbott last year to back the restoration of individual employment contracts like the Australian Workplace Agreements used in the Howard government's Work Choices.

Other MPs are wary of doing so as Labor seizes on talk of individual agreements to claim an Abbott government would bring back Work Choices and AWAs, which were widely criticised in the 2007 election campaign for cutting working conditions.

In a sign of the internal differences, opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey declared last November that workplace reform was not a Coalition priority.

Howard offered Joe Hockey the Faustian bargain whereby he could get into Cabinet only if he put together a piece of workplace relations legislation that was flexible only for employers, but which didn't appear that way and enabled the then-government to fudge electorally unappealling aspects of it. Hockey seized the opportunity and produced a piece of legislation every bit as long and convoluted as the Corporations Act, and which also brought on the biggest labour-movement scare campaign in recent history.

It isn't quite fair to blame Hockey for single-handedly losing the 2007 election for his side of politics. He should, however, have stood up to Howard and demanded some flexibility, and he had a duty to steer the party away from those rocks in debates since that time. The idea that the Coalition would have nothing to say on workplace reform is garbage - particularly as the leader said that there would be a whole new policy early this year, meaning that it is in fact a priority at the very time Hockey claimed it wasn't.
Mr Frydenberg has spoken consistently on the need for workplace reform but insisted last night that he was not proposing a return to the Howard government's IR regime.

Mr Frydenberg said his call for changes to the IFAs did not amount to reinstating a key element of Work Choices.

"It's about tweaking existing provisions in the Fair Work Act to ensure that they work more effectively for both employer and employee, so they're a more attractive option than is currently the case because they're under-utilised," he said.
Ah, so Josh doesn't want to "ignite", he just wants to "tweak". Why didn't you say so, David? LIBERAL MP BASICALLY HAPPY WITH LABOR WORKPLACE LAWS, CALLS FOR TWEAKING would be more accurate than exciting, but accuracy is an under-appreciated and greatly missed feature of newspapers today.
Extending the timeframe of the IFAs, along the lines proposed by Mr Willox from AI Group, was a serious issue that needed to be looked at, Mr Frydenberg said.
What non-committal tosh. Crowe should have called Frydenberg on that.
Mr Frydenberg, who worked as director of global banking at Deutsche Bank and as a lawyer at Mallesons Stephen Jaques before entering parliament, cites the business criticism of the Fair Work Act as a reason for an urgent response from the Coalition.
Again, Crowe is being cute here, puffing up Frydenberg's title at Deutsche and omitting the most substantial part of his pre-parliamentary resume. Frydenberg spent relatively little time in the private sector; there are senior officials in the Chinese Communist Party with more actual private-sector experience than he, including in the important practical areas of dealing with employees and unions. Crowe should have told his readers that Josh is yet another MP who has spent much of his pre-parliamentary career as a party hack (Frydenberg was a staffer to Downer and Howard). Regular readers of The Australian loathe career staffers and wrongly assume hacks are a feature only of the hated Labor government, and would discount Frydenberg's words accordingly if only they knew.

It's understandable that Frydenberg should want to get his name in the paper, but Crowe is meant to be the one with a bit of sense and experience on what news is. Crowe should have looked at Frydenberg's article and declared it as non-meaty as a tofuburger, then gently broken it to Josh that he won't get a run until he can actually contribute to a debate rather than just calling for one. Crowe has tried subtly undercutting Frydenberg but it hasn't worked.

Enough of Crowe and on to Frydenberg directly:
Labor believes there is a trade-off in the workplace between flexibility and fairness, and a contest between a greedy employer and a helpless employee.

This is simply not true.

Employers and employees need each other. Without an effective, workable partnership, there is no enterprise, no profit and no job.
Straw-man knockdown followed by vacuous motherhood statement! If there is such a thing as a stamp of authenticity from Josh Frydenberg, that has to be it.
This workable partnership is under threat from an overregulated workplace, where unions are emboldened, militancy is on the rise and productivity in decline.

These are problems of the government's own making. In return for union financial support at the 2007 election, the Rudd government's Fair Work Act increased union power in more than 120 areas. Greater right of entry, more authority over greenfield sites and an enhanced ability to restrict the use of independent contractors are just some examples ...

This is Australia's new industrial landscape - a throwback to the past, unwinding not only John Howard's reforms (which were responsible for more than two million new jobs and a 20 per cent rise in real wages), but also those of Paul Keating, whose 1993 reforms encouraged enterprise bargaining at the workplace level.

The result has seen productivity slump and costs rise, penalising the very workers Labor purports to represent.
This has all the red-meat indicators of a desire to scrap the Fair Work Act altogether and start again: none of that "tweaking" nonsense that Crowe was quoting. Which is it? Is the current legislative environment completely inadequate or in need of shoring up?
Working days lost through industrial disputes were up 83 per cent in the year to June 2012, levels not seen since 2004, and high-profile stoppages such as the Qantas strike and the blockade at Grocon's Myer Emporium site dominated front pages.
The two examples quoted were employer-initiated lockouts rather than employee- or union-initiated actions: not helpful in making Josh's point. It's telling that 2004 is the nadir Frydenberg uses: while Howard was in office but before WorkChoices, the point where the mining boom started to take off and so did wage demands. He fails to mention low unemployment as a factor in increased disputation.

I'll leave to a qualified economist to deal with productivity and industrial disputations. There's plenty of quant goodness to be had here too, and I'm disappointed it's to be expected that Frydenberg hasn't even engaged with the data.
Greater industrial disputation not only creates higher costs for companies that are inevitably passed on to consumers but can also lead to companies cancelling projects in the pipeline.

In the past 12 months Shell, BHP and Woodside have shelved more than $100 billion of investment as the viability of resource projects is called into question.
And when asked why they shelved those projects, those companies explicitly state that high labour costs aren't a factor. Only cranks like Gina Rinehart, who wants the government to build all her infrastructure and to pay her employees no more than $2/day, bellyache about high labour costs as a factor in investing in this country. The companies Frydenberg cites are all mining companies: mining produces about as many jobs as the arts sector.
In May, BHP chairman Jac Nasser said "restrictive labour regulations have quickly become one of the most problematic factors for doing business in Australia". Using BHP's Queensland coal business as an example, he said in the past year alone that business faced "3200 incidents of industrial action" and "received over 1000 notices of intention to take industrial action and then approximately 500 notices withdrawing that action given on less than 24 hours' notice".

BHP's experience is not a one-off. David Peever, managing director of Rio Tinto Australia, has also spoken out on the issue and Santos chief executive David Knox has said Australian labour costs were double those in competing jurisdictions.
When Nasser was called on his labour regulations remarks, he admitted that they weren't that significant. Commodity prices and the Australian dollar are far more significant in determining the viability of projects in Australia.
This hasn't gone unnoticed by our competitors and global equity investors. Last year Australia fell from 11th to 15th on the World Bank's ease of doing business index ...
And how much of that was down to the Fair Work Act and other workplace legislation? None? Thought so.
and in the World Economic Forum's measure of global competitiveness, Australia fell four places to 20th overall and 123rd out of 144 countries for flexibility in wage determination and 120th in hiring and firing practices.
The latter two indicators are tricky to sell politically. If you are going to make it easier to sack people you run straight back into the Your Rights At Work campaign. Innes Willox was complaining about a mere 28 days notice: imagine the flexibility of giving immediate notice.

If you're going to criticise the current legislation, it is important to be clear about what your criticism is. You might think you're a tactical genius for attacking from both sides at once, but it makes you look flaky.
... Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten remains, in Kathy Jackson's words, "Dracula in charge of the blood bank".
Not a smart move to be quoting Kathy Jackson. Abbott is stuck with her but you may as well go boozing with Peter Slipper for all the good it will do to your cause.
A former secretary of the AWU, Shorten has become "the minister for unions".
Yep, that's what happens to Labor workplace relations ministers. Something similar happens in Coalition governments to Nationals who become Minister for Primary Industry. I learnt that in first-year politics. It's amazing that Josh has only just discovered it; and not necessarily an indictment of teaching at whatever uni Josh went to as one can only do so much.
[Shorten] conducted a Clayton's review of the Fair Work Act ... ignored the Department of Finance's suggestion that the implications for productivity be included ... stacked the Fair Work Commission with former union officials ... government's intervention in a legal case in support of the union movement... crudely "partisan".
So with stock-standard Liberal criticism of a Labor minister, and referring to criticism from employer groups, it is hard to see how Frydenberg is getting out in front of Liberal policy or even contributing much to it. Crowe has sold readers a dog here; everything Frydenberg has said is a rehash of what others have said, with no inkling or enlightenment as to what we might expect from Coalition workplace relations policy (even though, according to a former Liberal Workplace Relations Minister, it isn't a priority at all).
Not to mention his long silence over the Craig Thomson matter, which has raised serious questions about the conduct of senior union officials and the willingness of Fair Work Australia to conduct a proper and timely inquiry.
Michael Lawler has a lot to answer for, eh Josh?
Since union votes continue to dominate Labor conferences and ex-union officials continue to dominate the Labor caucus - even though overall union membership is in freefall - it is clear only the Coalition can make the practical changes necessary to our industrial relations system.
By that logic, only Labor governments can regulate corporate interests.
Tony Abbott has the track record to do this. As a reforming minister he instigated the Cole Royal Commission, which led to the creation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. In his book Battlelines he identifies the "destructive" elements of Labor's Fair Work legislation while pointing to industrial relations reform as a road to a more productive and fairer society.
Here we are in the fourth-last paragraph of Josh's article. While Frydenberg has name-checked everyone who has ever criticised Shorten and the legislation he administers, he hasn't used it to propel his argument as to what's wrong and what needs to be fixed. All he's done here is name-check the leader, who basically set in place the conditions that led to the breakout of 2004.
Now is the opportunity for the Coalition to go on the front foot and put forward proposals that make unfair dismissal laws less of a burden on small business, lead to individual flexibility arrangements in the Fair Work Act becoming more attractive to employers and employees, and put the brakes on coercive union power beyond reinstating the ABCC and making unions more accountable through reforms to their governance arrangements.
That's it? That's the policy substance we've all been looking for?

That's what The Australian (Financial Review) and the employer organisations has been expounding for years: some sort of alchemy whereby WorkChoices will just pop back onto the statute books without voters noticing. This is more substantial than Frydenberg's effort, and it reads like the blimpish eructations of an armchair general who doesn't bear responsibility for Liberals on the front line. If you asked someone like David Crowe what changes the Coalition would make to workplace relations - shit, if you asked me - off the top of one's head and without reference to Josh Frydenberg, anyone would probably rattle off a list like that. Buy the paper, indeed.

The only attempt Frydenberg has made at dealing with workplace relations policy was this. Scroll down to my name and you'll note my comments on how he and his mate Alan failed to take the issues (which affect broader workplace relations issues) seriously. With this earlier article, his sorry record generally, and now yesterday's effort (even with Crowe's build-up), it's clear that policy is not Josh's thing.

Ironically, the issue that Josh was tasked to change the conversation from - Peta Credlin's reproductive difficulties at work - offers a host of workplace relations issues that are worthy of examination from a policy perspective.

Policy wonkery is not the be-all-and-end-all of politics; there is a place for hard-headed political calculation too. Business got WorkChoices out of the Liberals but when WorkChoices was threatened in the 2007 election, they all but abandoned it and the Coalition. Greg Jericho might think outfits like this are somehow sinister, but from a Liberal perspective they are laughably insufficient. If Innes Willox wants WorkChoices back he can bloody well pay for it: if business won't back workplace relations reform to the extent necessary to beat the labour movement, the Liberals should not stick their necks out for them. If Frydenberg was ever going to bite a bullet in this debate, that was it: he shirked that too.

Never mind seizing the mantle, Frydenberg should just take his coat. There is nothing for his leader or his party in his typically sorry offering. Josh Frydenberg, as was said of Newt Gingrich, is a dumb person's idea of a deep thinker. He drifts into policy debates with nothing to say, no contribution to make, and drifts away having made no impact whatsoever. No Labor ministers need fear any challenge by Josh Frydenberg, and it's doubtful any do. Flattering him as Crowe and others do goes beyond merely gilding the lily: to call Josh Frydenberg an up-and-coming Liberal is to set him, and the Liberal Party, up for failure.

We need more and better consideration of the big issues facing Australia than Josh is capable of offering. We also need the press gallery to stop dragging him out of his depth and insisting that his hapless floundering is so much artful positioning.

07 January 2013

Exit strategy

The Coalition had hoped to win the 2013 election with a series of stunts that boxed Labor into a range of narrow, unpopular positions while enabling the Coalition to basically cruise into office promising anything and nothing. Everyone in the Coalition has been devoted to that strategy and it worked, for a while.

Now the strategy starting to fall apart. The government is occupying more positions that are less unpopular and looking more like a government. It is in a position to challenge the Coalition to prove itself rather than being able to maintain the position that all politicians dream of: to have their words taken at face value.

The Coalition has failed to address its Howard-era weaknesses in workplace relations and in being seen to engage with what might broadly be called "the future": policies such as education, telecommunications, economic/ cultural/ military/ other engagement with Asia, all fall into that general but palpable category. The idea that Labor are trying to deal with those issues but the Coalition aren't even trying will be a key reason why Gillard will get another go, however grudgingly, and why the idea of an Abbott Government will remain both a fantasy for Libs and a bogey for everyone else.

The failure of the Coalition's strategy can no longer be attributed to a failure of commitment. Right-whingers used to blame moderates for undermining the Coalition in past election campaigns, but by 2007 there were no more moderates left to blame. There is nobody in senior federal Coalition ranks who is not in thrall to the proven failure that is Mark Textor and his basic assumptions, which are:
  • Nobody really cares about policy detail or how policies actually affect them, elections are really all about "the vibe";
  • Part of "the vibe" involves a chip on the shoulder about "elites", from which corporate and political elites are excluded but which does include people involved in the arts and/or education; and
  • That Mark Textor is a genius. Any doubts about the first two points can simply be negated by the sheer obvious force of this one, so shut up.
There is no scope to challenge that failing Coalition strategy now that we are in an election year, not even privately within Coalition circles. There will come a time for finger-pointing, where petty mudslinging and big-picture canvas-splashing become indistinguishable; there'll be plenty of that this time next year. As a Coalition insider the best you can do is see clearly what is going on, pack your parachute and shuffle discreetly toward an exit-row seat. This is what Arthur Sinodinos did in early 2007, and what Julie Bishop has done on regular occasions since then.

Two Coalition staffers (are they financial members of the Party, and does it matter either way?) are in their personal endgames as far as bringing about an Abbott government is concerned. They each have an exit strategy, but the differences are fascinating.

Peta Credlin's exit strategy involves pregnancy, as you can see if you winnow out the dross from this. She warned Abbott that she had other options and was pursuing them, while helping confine Abbott to a series of inescapable and flawed positions (e.g. on carbon tax). If she gets pregnant, nobody will blame her for leaving Abbott to play his game of double-or-nothing with basically the same stake he had last time (except fewer women's votes).

It's touching that she took Abbott at his word on abortion and IVF, but pretty stupid that she expects the nation to do likewise. It's puzzling that News Ltd believes such views makes one "progressive". The Coalition vote has not gained appreciably in any way that compensates for the collapse in support from women since 2010, and Credlin bears much responsibility for this - until she takes her leave.

Credlin was happy to describe herself as "The Queen of No" when it suited her purposes, which were identical to those of the seemingly-powerful Abbott. Now that Abbott has lost his lustre Credlin needs a change of image, as a prelude to a change of scene. Remember how Mark Arbib said that he was quitting to spend more time with his children (remember how the press gallery took him at face value)? Credlin doesn't have children, and given that her husband is the Liberal Party's Federal Director and Campaign Manager she is already in the right position to spend as much time with Brian Loughnane as anyone could want.

Loughnane's absence from Credlin's recounting of her IVF experience across different publishing outlets is telling. IVF is rarely a journey on which women go by themselves. Almost every every other article on the topic features both parties in a couple recounting their different perspectives of a process that is almost always medically and emotionally fraught. Samantha Maiden was clearly too polite to ask after Loughnane, and being a rookie reporter she also blew the opportunity to ask Credlin some pointed journo-style questions about Gillard-AWU or other political scandals du jour, or indeed about Coalition strategy more broadly.

The fact that Loughnane has opted out of such a public discussion of a private matter is to his credit. It is hard to imagine the stiff-necked Liberal backroom operators of yesteryear - Andrew Robb, Sinodinos, Alister Drysdale, even Grahame Morris - discussing whether or not their boys can swim and how this is affecting their partners and/or their relationships. Credlin has to go through this to get an alibi. Loughnane doesn't need one, he is strapped in for death or glory.

So too is The Situation. Imagine his outrage if a government staffer had used a publicly-funded fridge for this private purpose: the shaken head, the sotto voce lamentation at waste, the dog-whistling to those with a religious objection to IVF, etc.

This is where the testimonials from the women in Abbott's life fail: nobody doubts Tony will support women who support him. In the same way, nobody doubts his antipathy and/or indifference to the broad mass of women beyond his personal circle, who believe they should be able to enjoy basic rights over their bodies and reproduction without having to form close personal relationships with Tony Abbott. That's how you break the silly set-piece debates Gordon Graham is talking about here; it is possible to 'win' such debates and lose the election. The extrapolation from Abbott's private life to the country at large simply does not work.

Then there's the question of "support". Given that an Abbott government will seek to reduce existing levels of government spending, nobody seriously believe Abbott would maintain or increase spending on abortion and IVF. This is why it is meaningless to claim Abbott "supports" these things for people with whom he is not close.

The first rule of Peta Credlin is that there are no flies on Peta Credlin; nor will there be, and nor will any evidence exist as to where any might have been. Her exit strategy is to spend time creating a family with which she can spend more time, the one alternative to her current role with which no conservative can legitimately quibble or sneer.

This is a rule that James Ashby would have done well to abide by. Ashby has pretty much staked everything on the Coalition coming to government and rewarding him for bringing down Peter Slipper. Ashby has no choice but to go on; he can't slink away after the sort of caning that Justice Rares dished out. It's vindication or the void.

Those who call for an inquiry into Ashby-Slipper are almost certainly wasting their time. Only rusted-on Coalition partisans and people with good memories for political ephemera even remember Slipper as being linked to Labor in some way. The more time goes on, the more Mal Brough and Mark McArdle and other LNPQ characters are implicated, the more it becomes a problem for the Coalition - and with every appeal, and every Anthony McClelland media stunt, that problem is highlighted. The government doesn't need an inquiry to draw attention to the Coalition's predicament, they will do it themselves.

Ashby is, metaphorically speaking, covered in flies; you can see where they've been, and he'll never be anything more than the Slipper honey-trap guy. He isn't going to "spend more time with his family". He's locked in to one of those horrible politico-media-legal imbroglios where nobody comes out a winner, where vindication is pretty much impossible, and where the only question comes as to when the LNPQ conspirators will drop him to minimise their losses.

Abbott isn't going to regroup because there is no idea for him to regroup around. People thought this would be true of Gillard, and they were wrong. When people like Peta Credlin start heading for the exit only a fool would stick around on the expectation of victory. Only a fool would "take one for the team" that is going nowhere and starting to fall apart. Commitment is essential to victory, but there's no point failing to put yourself into a position where you can fight another day.

05 January 2013

Reasons to be cheerful, part 2013

Dear Alex White,

I disagree with most of your post, and its basic argument. I realise your job is to gee up people on the left and get them mobilised, but you do people a disservice by misleading them in the hope that they'll get fired up and forgive you afterwards. Maybe that's the difference between being "of the left" and just being broadly supportive of the Gillard government over the Abbott alternative.

OK, so the Gillard government has done some good things, some bad things. Sounds like every other government really - including, as you point out, the government of the US.

The government will change if they can be convinced that those who are now in Opposition will do the good things better and the bad things less badly. This is how Howard beat Keating in 1996, it is the same basis on which Rudd beat him in 2007, and it is the same basis on which neither Beazley nor Latham beat Howard.

Abbott cannot convince anyone that any policy area would be better managed by him and his crew than by the incumbents. That's why they can't and won't win. It's in the media's interests to pretend it's a tight race and that there is intense political competition, but there isn't really. The competition isn't there - people who follow politics see it now, and those who don't follow politics closely will see it when they choose to look, which will most likely happen closer to the election.

You can shove your polls up your arse. Really. Without a known polling date polls are pretty useless, and the wider the gap between the polling and the election date the less reliable it is. The statistical busywork applied to polls to convince people of their validity is much the same as that applied to astrological forecasts; the a priori assumptions are bullshit, the output is bullshit, so don't try and impress me with the process.

The fact that there is no real competition between the parties, while journalists engage in increasingly stupid tricks to insist that there is, diminishes mainstream media rather than leads a credulous population buy the nose. You're wrong to take the power of the mainstream media as given.

The potency of the AWU/Gillard thing diminished within the final sitting week of parliament last year. The idea that it will retain the potency it had earlier in that week, or that it will increase, is rubbish. I notice you didn't mention Ashby, which is OK as I'll do it for you.

James Ashby will have to appeal, but in doing so will make it difficult for the Coalition to escape the taint of sleaze. It will also make it difficult for Ashby, a man who has lived his life in pursuit of publicity and is about to learn in the harshest way possible that "there is no such thing as bad publicity" is, in fact, bullshit. The story of Ashby is all wind and no candle, leaving the protagonist without any redeeming legend or other benefits of superstardom - and, indeed, almost no grace.

Any inquiry into Abbott's earlier slush-fund attempts depends entirely upon whether Pauline Hanson will play along, which will require her to give up her dream of a parliamentary pension to carry her into old age.

These issues will negate any lingering benefit to the Coalition from Gillard/AWU and start to eat into core Coalition strengths (e.g. stewardship of the economy). They will work against the Coalition particularly hard in Queensland, where the effect will be like cutting out a melanoma with a broken bottle. Abbott has repeatedly proven powerless to stop the LNPQ from self-harm that spills over federally.

As for asylum-seekers, there is a real bind: yes, there is an active push toward exclusionary policies, but also revulsion at the impacts of those policies (e.g. children self-harming, Australian citizens being deported). Mostly, the media just present these facts; sometimes you'll see a story where someone goes into bat for one side or the other, but you get that.

The question on asylum-seekers is: who do you trust to resolve this impasse? Nobody trusts Abbott to resolve it, you can only trust Abbott to be harsher while playing stupid media games with those exposing cruelty. The Coalition loses credibility when it appears to criticise the government for doing something it would do if it had the chance.

And the bottom line is, it won't get the chance. The link between state and federal politics tends to be weak, but state governments in Queensland and Victoria are acting in such a way that it is possible to say to voters in those states: state Coalition policies are a dress-rehearsal for what an Abbott government would be like.

Labor will win 4-5 seats in each of Queensland and Victoria. Labor will win at least one seat in South Australia; it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could win both Boothby (knocking off Andrew Southcott) and Sturt (Chris Pyne), which would make Adelaide as much a Labor town as Canberra or Wollongong. This will be offset by winning/losing one seat here or there in NT or WA, but you get that.

Labor is more likely to win Denison than the Libs. The Libs have a chance in Braddon and/or Bass.

God only knows what will happen in NSW. The Labor Right in this state has collapsed as a governing model. The O'Farrell government has had the fresh paint knocked off it, but on one side is a non-Opposition, and on the other it is not as threatening as the Abbott-led federal Opposition.

The Coalition will not win Greenway, Robertson or Page, where Labor has a strong local presence and (except in the case of Greenway) representation independent of the NSW Labor Right. Any Sussex Street stink wafting around Michelle Rowlands will be more than countermanded by the smell of sulphur emanating from the Lib, owing to the branch-stacking in that area by the religious right.

At this stage it is hard to tell what Lindsay, Banks, Reid or Lyne might do, but then Labor could pick up Cowper and/or Hughes. Windsor will win New England if he runs again.

As for Dobell, if Craig Thomson is vindicated as comprehensively as this suggests, Labor would be mad not to run him and the Coalition wouldn't have a chance, given that their candidate's only pitch is how awful Thomson appears to be if you accept everything of which he's been accused.

What Abbott will achieve in NSW is what 1980s-model Howard did - big swings in safe Labor seats (not enough to win them though) while losing close battles in the marginals. MPs like Laurie Ferguson and Chris Bowen will have their arses handed to them, but not their heads.

I don't expect Abbott to be Prime Minister at all, which is why I'm not spooked by your Abbott Government scare campaign.

The spectre of a Royal Commission into the union movement didn't save the Fraser government in the early 1980s, and that was when a majority of working people were also union members. If the unions aren't tightening their administrative practices in the light of HSU and AWU then they deserve what they get. Say what you like about the SDA, but that union's leadership has been vigilant against the kind of abuses and slackness that seem to be prevalent at sister bruvver uvver organisations.

It was the spectre of a return to WorkChoices in 2010 that stopped Abbott's momentum in the first week of that election campaign. Because he's a moron, and because people like Abetz and others on his frontbench are too, he hasn't developed an alternative policy or a strategy for "playing down" those vote-losing concerns. People didn't vote Coalition until they got over their promise to dismantle Medicare, and people won't vote Coalition until they develop a workplace relations policy that is substantially different to WorkChoices.

So Alex White, what does that leave you with? Your no-brainers about the Middle East Western Asia, the global economy and climate change. Big strategic insight right there.

Your idea that people will be like so many turkeys voting for Christmas, as instructed by The Daily Telegraph, is ridiculous. You assume that the Federal Coalition is more substantial than it is, and that the government is the supine outfit Kevin Rudd left it as: enough of these bullshit assumptions. Let us start the new year with Reasons to be Cheerful: