31 May 2013

A constructive suggestion for media

Here is my suggestion for a positive model for reforming the way that the media reports on politics. Either a smart outlet will pick up this model and gain credibility that traditional outlets have lost, or an online outlet will build that credibility, or people will muddle through as they are doing now with a mix of both (yes, Gay Alcorn, a mix of both).

30 May 2013

Where's the money going to?

We could talk about this public funding of elections thing, I suppose; how it's both outrageous and at the same time just what you'd expect from those people, whether the government is responsible for a Liberal backflip, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.

We could talk about political funding as some sort of human right, where the more money you have the greater your right to donate it as you will, and that donations should be as secret as the votes that are cast. This would only be appropriate if there were well-empowered investigative and enforcement mechanisms against fraud and bribery (including serious measures against offenders such as massive fines, imprisonment of individuals, prevention of offending individuals and parties from contesting elections), and because that won't happen I don't support uncapped donations, and I don't agree that donations should be kept secret. The issue with political donations is always the quid-pro-quo, and if you're not going to chase that down then don't even bother. There are bigger questions when it comes to human rights, frankly.

It's taken as given that political parties these days need vast amounts of money, in the tens of millions, a need that cannot be slaked or even questioned. I'm interested in why political parties need that amount of money.

It can't be the broadcast media; declining audiences and financial mismanagement mean that it is less expensive, not more so, to run a national campaign.

It can't be direct mail; that technology peaked in the 1990s and the costs of postage and other processing have hardly skyrocketed since then. Hopefully the one lesson to be learned from the Howard government's re-election campaign in 2007 is that it is a very, very long way from being the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to effective political campaigning. When Grahame Morris recently used direct mail as an example of sophisticated modern electioneering he just looked like a sad old relic.

It can't be online campaigning (and here I lump broadcasting via bogusurl.com.au-type websites and social media tools in together); it costs less than you might imagine, and anyway Australians have barely embraced a fraction of the online campaigning tools available to political parties in the US or UK.

It can't be a shortage of 'creatives' to craft advertising copy; there is an excess of such people at a time where big ad agencies and broadcast media outfits are shedding staff, and where there are more graduates of such courses than there are jobs for them to do. Anyone who has been a political staffer could do, and many are doing, that sort of work. Such people earn get less than images of their flash lifestyles might suggest.

There are two reasons why political parties "need" vast amounts of money.

Firstly, they need to take up the slack for a whole lot of electioneering busywork that used to be done by volunteers. Many volunteers have left, and those who stayed are ageing and dying. I was a member of the Liberal Party from 1986 to 2000, and as the election draws closer I think about how I'd be gearing up to distribute material, and both enlist and train volunteers to hand out how-to-votes at polling booths; but as the old song says: baby that was years ago, I've left it all behind.

I think about my late aunt, a Liberal stalwart further to the right than me on Sydney's Upper North Shore; she too ran herself ragged on polling day, but by 2007 she could no longer keep up a full day in the field. I'm sure she blamed herself for Howard's loss to the end; I live in Bennelong and voted for Maxine McKew. By 2010 Aunty Elizabeth was in the grip of the ailment that would kill her later that year, notwithstanding her own almost-indomitable will and her affection for Abbott. I still voted for McKew but most of my neighbours didn't.

Now the ranks of Liberals, and Labor too, are depleted still further. The person who'll offer you a how-to-vote on 14 September may well be paid to do that, and there is no more point in blaming them for the shortcomings of their employer than there is in bawling out a waiter or a shop assistant.

Secondly, parasites like this and that are gobbling up as much money as the taxpayer will throw at them. The idea of, er, pieces like this are not about the issues described in them, but a way of hoping you won't mind him receiving ever-larger dollops of public largesse. Political parties will raise whatever money they have to raise to get the election won. Governments, which political parties offer to run for us, have to trim their budgets in line with restricted income. There are plenty of good businesses full of smart, hardworking people that have hit the wall because cashflow dried up. No major party has ever lost an election because they ran out of money. Even the hopeless NSW Labor government in 2011 had plenty of cash to splash about.

If Hawker|Textor or whomever jack up their fees, the respective party will pay it and use whatever funds are available - whether from the taxpayer, from Mrs Reinhart, Tom Waterhouse, Eddie Obeid, or anyone/anywhere else really. Public funding for elections does not satisfy major parties' urge to outraise and outspend their competition, in the same way that private schools do not lower their fees commensurately when they get extra money from government. Public funding of election campaigns is not some sort of bulwark for our democracy, because the spending is spent by and the services are rendered to a private party, a non-government organisation, whose affairs are not scrutinised by anyone who isn't a member (and not even by most of those).

Advisers/consultants are the people who suggest politicians talk about entitlements and the cutting thereof. They are not those whose entitlements are cut.

Public funding does not head off corruption. The allegations before the NSW ICAC about Ian Macdonald, Obeid and a range of other characters are very grave, and do indeed speak of the culture of NSW Labor. Apparently Obeid impressed then NSW Labor State Secretary Graham Richardson sufficiently to win a spot on the Legislative Council ticket; donations from Obeid and entities associated with him to NSW Labor around that time are hard to detect, and in any case the ICAC seemed focused on other issues.

If NSW Labor had half the public electoral that they've had, or twice as much, would they have made different/better decisions? Should NSW Labor today be liable for the actions of those guys (or of other ministers and premiers not so far investigated publicly)? Have the Victorian Liberals acted improperly over Mr Shaw sufficient to affect their public funding? What about Mr Brough and other LNPQers over Ashby-Slipper? I could go on.

Needless to say, I reject the desperate thesis of Mike Seccombe and John Birmingham that only public funding can save us from the kind of timocracy besetting the US. It's the mentality of the hostage-taker's victim - "Just give them whatever they want!" - rather than focusing on hunting down the hostage-takers. The victory of Obama over Romney last year, with a concerted campaign of exposing people like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers confirms the correctness of focusing on those who would corrupt the system and on not entrenching political advisers as a mendicant class.

No Digger, no sailor or airman, died for the public funding of election campaigns. That money would definitely be better spent on their care and rehabilitation, or even tossed into the gaping maw of the Deficit.

If you want to change government policy, there are ways and means of doing so. It is rarely appropriate to break the law to do so, such as committing acts of violence or jacking up on paying your taxes. Everyone's taxes goes toward things that the taxpayer wouldn't necessarily have spent that money on or even valued very much, but even so I am kind of serious about my intention to collect all the banal political jetsam that comes my way and send it to my accountant with the expectation of a tax deduction.

The government should reintroduce all of those provisions on transparency and disclosure as the final piece of legislation this term, making parliament sit longer in order to pass it if it has to. It probably won't, though.

The case why taxpayers should have to fund election campaigns as well as the elections themselves and other government services is not as strong as that small and loose confederation of the self-interested and the well-meaning-but-shortsighted might hope.

29 May 2013

The aroma of decay

Two disgracefully beef-witted articles by experienced journalists about their 'profession' almost but did not quite succeed in detracting me from completing articles and other activities.

The first one was Sweet Barrie Cassidy, showing us how journalists no longer pride themselves on their resistance to bullshit but the sheer quantity of it that they swallow:
The Coalition's strategy reminds Barrie Cassidy of the campaign that brought David Cameron to power in Britain.
Thanks to Nick Davies from The Guardian and the Leveson Inquiry, we know that the British media, and its relationship with that country's political and law-enforcement systems, was essentially corrupt. The Cameron government came to office as a result of a corrupt politico-media strategy, in a corrupt politico-media environment. Cassidy is pretty much alleging the same is true of the Australian media today.
When David Cameron became leader of the British Conservatives in December 2005, he set about almost immediately creating a sense of inevitability: he was the prime minister in waiting and Labour’s days were numbered.

Fraser Nelson, writing for the Spectator in June 2006, quoted a senior Conservative policy maker who said the game plan was to create a "Cameronian aroma" which was "vastly more important than any specific policies the party would advocate."

Nelson wrote: "The task (according to the policy maker) is to create an aroma around the Conservatives so people naturally imagine our policies are the right ones without necessarily knowing what they are. It is about turning the intangibility of Mr Cameron into an asset.
When Tony Abbott became leader of the Australian conservatives in 2009, he set about almost immediately creating a sense that the Rudd government faffed around and backed down all the time, which it had done and continued to do. He continued this long after the Gillard government outflanked him in negotiations after 2010, and outflanked him again and again on key legislation since. As a conservative, Abbott cannot pick the difference between a passing fad and a structural shift, and neither can Sweet Barrie or the press gallery.

Abbott is not intangible. He was a high-profile figure in the previous conservative government. Cameron had been a press secretary, not an MP or a minister, under the Thatcher and Major governments. The only people who like Abbott are people who don't know him very well, and the few who are no better than he is, clearly including Sweet Barrie.
... the notion that Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are somehow being unfair by not spelling out chapter and verse the Coalition's economic strategy until the last couple of weeks of the election campaign.

They will not because ... they don't have to.
But they do have to - if for no other reason to give journalists some self-respect.

So unfair of us to expect politicians to tell us how they will govern us. So unfair of us to expect journalists to go through the undignified work of finding out. Waiting until the last minute didn't work last time and it didn't work the time before, either.
The electorate already regards their policies as superior to the Government's without even knowing what they are. They base that judgment on the "aroma", the sense that the Coalition is simply better at economic management than Labor.
No, they give the Coalition the benefit of the doubt, because a) the government has been relentlessly bagged at every turn and b) the Coalition hasn't been scrutinised as an alternative government. The broadcast media in general and the press gallery in particular are responsible for that. The only "aroma" here is one of decay on their part.
There will be considerable cynicism with that approach all the way through until September, and no doubt some uncomfortable truths expressed when the policy is finally released. But those truths will need to be exceptionally uncomfortable – and vividly transparent – if the entrenched views of the Government's competency, or lack of it, is going to be reversed.
Abbott's whole approach has been to pretend that economic and political realities are different to the way they are. The quibbling over the accuracy and validity of budget figures are a sign of that. The government has not been able to pretend things are different to the way they are, and has faced up to reality. The broadcast media, Sweet Barrie included, are endorsing the non-reality based approach.
In his speech, Abbott promised to keep the tax cuts and the pension increases linked to the carbon tax, and to delay the increase in super contributions.

He also kept open the option of keeping all of the Government's tax increases and spending cuts "to deal with the budget emergency".

But apart from that, it was essentially a political speech, big on a critique of the Government and short on alternatives.
Tony Abbott has a record of saying things he doesn't really mean in order to get elected, and then doing things other than what he'd said once in office. The idea that any politician can cut taxes and increase spending at a time of economic uncertainty, while criticising others for being economically irresponsible, is bullshit. Sweet Barrie and the gang have a responsibility to call out the opposition on that, a responsibility they have shirked.
First, the Coalition put out the two policies ahead of the budget that were never going to be well received: a timid industrial relations document that disappointed their traditional constituency and a far from convincing National Broadband Network alternative.

Labor Party research has found the Coalition's NBN policy is close to the disaster that social media feedback suggested it was.

Not only do two-thirds of Australians have some knowledge of the policy, but by two-to-one, they prefer the Government's approach ...

But it was quickly accepted by business that Abbott and his colleagues would be pushed no further on workplace reform, at least not now.
In both cases, it is fair to accept that the Coalition will act differently on those policy areas than their words suggest. Harsh realities like the unsustainability of the copper networks and the link between productivity and the workplace relations system, and the focus on those realities, did for those policies.

Note also Cassidy's old-media harrumph about the link between social media opinion and poll findings. Liberal Party research almost certainly shows the same thing, but because it is not self-serving they will not share it with Sweet Barrie nor anyone else. Sometimes it's best to examine events in real time rather than wait around for someone to spin you out some pollshit.

The reason why business is not condemning the Coalition's stated workplace relations policy is because they know there is no relationship between that and what the Coalition would actually do. Real journalists would have smoked that out, but not Sweet Barrie or the press gallery.
The second stage of the strategy will see the Coalition incrementally release as many "good news" policy initiatives that it can muster in the period between now and the release of the pre-election update in mid-August.
All of them will be based upon unrealistic economic assumptions, not the least of which is the imperative to cut the budget for its own sake. It's one thing for different parties to offer competing policies based on an understanding of where the country is at, but it's another thing for one party to both refuse to face reality and insist that it is still in the game. The Coalition still think the electorate are greedy bastards who just want cash shovelled at them/us, and the results of the last two elections don't support that; the one thing Kevin Rudd got right was to call Howard on his cash-splashes, after which one of the most deft politicians of our time ran out of options. Neither the Coalition nor the media (including Sweet Barrie) have any excuse for not having learned that lesson.
Enough to create interest and hold at bay those demanding more detail.
Interest is conditional upon detail. The less detail, the less credibility and the less interest. The term for high-interest-low-detail is hype.
The third and final stage is the tricky bit - the release of the "bad news" along with the funding detail, which last time around proved to be so ropy.

On that score, a party with a big lead in the opinion polls has the luxury of assuming it will come too late to make very much difference.
Just like Beazley in 2001, I suppose. Ropey policies before the budget, ropey policies after the budget, and ropey, dopey, slippery-slopey policies after the PEFO - and they're still going to cruise to victory apparently - if Sweet Barrie and the aromatic press gallery have anything to do with it. So much for this old stager insisting that the press would get around to scrutinising Abbott in their own sweet time.
The Government will howl long and hard about [the press falling into line with Coalition strategy]. The tactic will frustrate many people who want to make a considered judgment on the two policy prescriptions. But that's how it will happen this time and next, no matter who is in government and who is in opposition.
It will only happen next time if the Coalition is vindicated this time. If the Coalition is not vindicated then the way Australian journalism is practiced will have to change. The idea that the press gallery can survive regardless of the election outcome is manifestly false, another example of journos kidding themselves to the endangerment of their careers.
Fraser Nelson in that Spectator article suggested the British general election in 2010 would be about the Cameron fragrance versus the five-year plans of the government.
And as Britain enters recession for the third time under the incumbents, it is clear that the politicians and the press sold them an absolute dog of a government, one that had no policies that were appropriate or even credible in terms of the economic and political circumstances facing that country. The same prospect faces us today, and the journosphere is doing nothing to avert the political and economic - and yes, media - disaster that befalls the UK today.
Make that the 10-year plans of the Gillard Government and you get the picture here.
No Barrie. The Cameron fragrance has dispersed, and so too have the plans of the previous government. The UK is left in a political wasteland. If Abbott wins Australia will have a government that has no clue and a Labor opposition unsure of what lessons the electorate was trying to teach it - but hey, the press gallery will stumble and bumble along, attempting to assure us that not only does Abbott's shit not stink but that it is positively fragrant (and who knows more about Abbott's shit than the press gallery?).

The only reason to watch Cassidy's show Insiders is for the old-school interviewing. Cassidy might be the last consistently good interviewer in Australian political journalism (quibble with that if you will, but name me better - everyone else has abandoned the field). The flick-through of cartoons and photos is also very good and deserves more space. Just as The Simpsons outgrew The Tracey Ullman Show, let's hope Talking Pictures keeps going long after Insiders has gone. The other three-quarters of the show, inane jabbering about spin, is a complete waste of time and resources.

That lack of reflection by the media about their own role is also present in this piece on a site much lauded by the broadcast media for its skill in colonising new media with the values of the old. It's all very well as an introductory piece on how to get media attention for people who've never done it before. It's bullshit when addressed to the current government - as if there is any way of opening the closed, small and inflexible minds of the press gallery.

Julia Gillard came to office without the help of the press gallery, only the second PM to do so in the past 50 years. If she wins re-election she will have no reason at all to thank the media, or to change the way she deals with them going forward. Rizvi makes the same mistake that Sweet Barrie makes, assuming that the press gallery is as permanent a feature of the Canberra landscape as Lake Burley Griffin.

Be in no doubt that the careers of every political journalist in Canberra, and beyond, is in play right now. Their die is cast, and even if Abbott were to win it would only prolong the inevitable. There is no market for obtuse journalism, no desire to hear from Kool-Aid drinkers like Jamila Rizvi and Sweet Barrie Cassidy - let alone drink the regurgitated stuff as they would have us do.

28 May 2013

Recent pieces

When Margo Kingston from Australians for Honest Politics (and now Macquarie University) asked me to write something on George Brandis, I thought I'd draw on his extensive background as a champion of free speech. After ending up several dry gullies I came out with this.

When people started making allowances for Tony Abbott and implying that he has a liberalism that he simply does not have and has never had, it shat me no end and I wrote this. To write that I put off once again by long-promised article on how the NDIS might show a different and better way of reporting politics, which has now been delivered to the long-suffering crew at King's Tribune and is being wrestled into shape as we speak.

The e-book is coming along, slowly.

See, I can write short blog posts. When they relate to my achievements they're very short indeed.

12 May 2013

Manufacturing base

This is the point where companies are starting to make investment decisions about the next financial year, and to make long-term decisions for the rest of the decade. We're at the point where the Coalition should start looking like a confident alternative government, rather than like a bunch of chancers riding their luck. Late last year, The Australian's Paul Kelly declared that the Coalition had fifty fully-costed policies ready to go: it's increasingly clear this isn't the case, and could well be for Kelly what assertions about Iraqi WMDs were to Colin Powell.

Let's look at one example where a key member of the would-be Coalition cabinet is playing ducks-and-drakes long after it has ceased to be cute. Sophie Mirabella has written this piece hoping that the case against the government has already been made and can be taken for granted. She hopes that the teasers on policy are more enticing than annoying. She hopes that pic doesn't make her look more than a little unhinged. Let's look at the article and see what, if anything, is there:
The outcome of this year’s Federal election will be vital in determining whether manufacturing with grow and flourish in Australia. As part of our policy approach, the Coalition has identified manufacturing as one of the five key pillars of our economy.
Pillars don't grow, let alone flourish. The Coalition has enough trouble with its silly metaphor about slicing up a growing pie, stop the metaphors! Most manufacturing businesses regard it as their only pillar. Readers are meant to be grateful about this snippet of the Coalition brochure being thrust into their industry, aren't they.
We believe a vibrant manufacturing sector is essential to a diversified economy, job creation, and driving innovation and economic growth.
Who doesn't?
The Howard Coalition Government presided over the longest industrial expansion in our modern history, including an expansion in manufacturing activity for 13 of its last 14 months in office.
See, that "13 of its last 14 months" casts a shadow over what went before it. What is "an expansion in manufacturing activity"? More capital equipment? More output? This is the point where I start to need sources rather than accepting Sophie's word. She sounds like any Canberra bureaucrat rather than the prospective minister.
Between 1996 and 2007, manufacturing employment remained stable at over one million jobs ...
So much for expansion, then?
... and real wages for Australian workers rose by an astonishing 21 per cent.
Now that's what I call a WAGES BLOWOUT of the sort that The Australian Financial Review has been keening for. Who'd promise employers a return to that? I bet this article has plenty to say about addressing skill shortages, eh.
This contrasts with downturns for almost 65 per cent of the Rudd and Gillard Governments’ tenures - including a decline for every one of the past 11 months.
That decline has largely been due to the high cost of the Australian dollar, and the rise of competitors in Asia-Pacific markets. Oh, and the GFC. I wonder what Sophie has to say about the central issues facing Australian manufacturing?
If elected, we will provide the stability and certainty that our manufacturers need to be able to get on with what they do best. We will abolish the carbon tax, reduce red tape by $1 billion a year, get government spending under control and create the right economic environment within which manufacturing can grow.
That's it?

Carbon tax is a non-issue (and if it really is the difference between economic life and death, Minister Mirabella won't be able to do much about it). All governments propose to reduce red tape and somehow I doubt they'll resort to increased IT expenditure to make compliance less burdensome - and an Abbott Government would be very big on Compliance indeed. Government spending is under control. The economic environment is not something governments create - and when I met Sophie Panopoulos, as she was then, she knew that too.
Since the announcement of the carbon tax, over 27,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. For the first time in decades, the number of Australians employed in manufacturing has fallen below one million. And even the Government itself has failed to deny that the rate of manufacturing job losses in recent years has been unprecedented in Australia’s history.
Having failed to address the reasons for that, and offered four talking points, readers of this article are at the point where they/we start doubting that the Coalition really do have any answers: a bit of red-tape cutting and good luck with the rest?

What sort of pissweak construction is "failed to deny"? It sounds like a bad action flick: Tom Cruise IS Jack Reacher IN 'Failed To Deny' (shot of Aussie manufacturing business blowing up) ...
We understand that, for our manufacturing businesses to prosper, they must be able to compete on a level playing field. Abolishing the carbon tax is an important first step as it will remove a tax that increases the cost of manufacturing in Australia whilst imports get a free ride.

We have developed a world class anti-dumping policy that will cut the time and cost of anti-dumping applications and better ensure that foreign products are not dumped into the Australian market at below cost price.
That sort of rhetoric makes it hard to said foreigners, which is the whole point of the trade thing. As to anti-dumping, believe it when you see it.
We have also signalled our intention ...
You have what? Are you going to do this or not? One pissweak construction looks like someone taught at a Victorian school, two is starting to look like a spivvy prospectus.
... to change Australia’s standards regime so that imported products comply with the costly mandatory standards imposed on locally-made goods.
I doubt Standards Australia can or will bear a change of that dimension. The ISO won't, and if you're using standards to play silly-buggers with imports then the World Trade Organisation will jump on us with both feet. And when I say 'us', I don't mean career politicians who sit around thinking up ways to make life difficult for people; I mean Australian businesspeople far from home attempting to cut deals, knowing Sophie Mirabella is putting up barriers that make those deals difficult. Thanks for nothing, political-class hack.
A vibrant culture of innovation is essential to growing and diversifying our manufacturing base. The Coalition understands the importance of innovation in a highly competitive global economy.

The weakening by the current government of R&D tax incentives for manufacturing will therefore be reversed. Like many manufacturers, the Coalition was bewildered at the abolition of the very successful Commercial Ready programme and its replacement with the inferior Commercialisation Australia model. We need practical and effective commercialisation programmes, particularly for small business.
Well, yes. What was so great about Commercial Ready, and why was Commercialisation Australia so inferior? Are you going to reinstate Commercial Ready, and if not, how will you improve on Commercialisation Australia (given, apparently, that it isn't so hard)?

Come on Sophie, I bet you've been all over Australia consulting with manufacturing people. By now you will have a clear idea of what needs to happen. What, in the name of stability and certainty, might that be?
The Coalition will abolish the Government’s flawed Industry Innovation Councils. We will work, through genuine consultation with Australian businesspeople, to deliver better future plans for individual industries. In the wake of regular Labor cuts, we will also ensure that Cooperative Research Centres are appropriately funded to continue their work in creating greater collaboration between researchers and industry. We will also encourage much closer collaboration between academic researchers and business.
How "flawed"? Hasn't the "genuine consultation" been done by now? Everyone talks about closer collaboration between business and academics (well, when you're not bagging them as ivory-tower elitists and skivers). What came from the consultation? What are you going to do differently? Will you promise all your policies will be flawless? That there won't be any cuts, at all?

The following paragraph, listed as the most important in Mirabella's screed, is actually a dollop of pablum with which no-one disagrees. Then there's this:
For too long, manufacturing in Australia has languished under the economic torpor and policy ineptitude of a divided, dysfunctional and chaotic Labor Government. If we are to regain our competitive edge in an increasingly global marketplace, we must take immediate action to address the inequalities that have been created through the unwelcome introduction of excessive red-tape and new taxes.
Should that be "iniquities"? This blog has had a lot to say about political shenanigans in Canberra, and of course Mirabella revels in it (and gets chucked out of Parliament regularly) but the woes of Australian manufacturing can hardly be traced back to that. Even if they can, have all those failed motions to suspend standing orders or bike-riding, fish-gutting stunts made a blind bit of difference? If not, why not?

As for "increasingly global marketplace": what is this, 1986?
We must take immediate action to address the uncertainty that has been created through the constant moving of the goalposts and chopping and changing of policy.
The best way to do that is to keep the incumbents. That nice Mr Combet seems to have matters in hand. Let's not risk that risky Opposition. Oh wait, that's the opposite of the effect you're trying to create, isn't it?

Where evidence of thinking exists, it's sloppy. And we're toward the end of the article.

She lunges for a strong finish; insofar as Sophie Mirabella has a style, that's it. It's big of her to allow Australia a future with a 21st century manufacturing base, and she gets a bit ahead of herself by a) implying that "Our Plan for Australia" is something more than a brochure, and b) that manufacturing, but one 'pillar' mentioned in passing, is somehow "front and centre" of it.

Mirabella clearly knows bugger-all about manufacturing despite more than three years in her role. She'd love to help but she clearly doesn't know how. The Liberal Party used to be full of old manufacturing hands who'd gone into politics as a second career, old hands who knew where the problems were but wouldn't embarrass themselves by promising more than they could deliver, or going on about non-issues - but not any more. Other countries seeking to actively boost manufacturing don't just abandon the field, as Mirabella would have it, but actively address issues like skills and infrastructure and even manipulate the currency. Mirabella isn't promising that but she isn't promising anything else either.

The audience for that piece are probably Liberal-leaning and can read the polls about as well as anyone. They are looking for a Liberal Party that gets it, and that the Nationals will tag along. They will almost certainly vote Liberal anyway, but in this piece Mirabella raises real doubts as to whether she and the Abbott team really are across the issues. Can they really take on well-briefed incumbents like Combet and Gillard, especially if prevailing winds turn against them? It isn't just that the Liberals are promising nothing, including the usual change-of-government rebadging, but that they don't get it and won't know what to do if manufacturing conditions get even worse.

Pablum like we've seen from Mirabella isn't just boring, or even patronising; it's the sort of complacency that Australian manufacturing knows only too well, the sort of complacency that sees previously underestimated competitors jump up and eat your lunch. There is a dishonest campaign about in the broadcast media implying that there might be more to an Abbott government than meets the eye today; Mirabella has shown here that, well, no there isn't. It will take them until 2015 to find the toilets in the Ministerial Wing, let alone work out what really ails Australian manufacturing and what government can/will do about it.

Do you really want these clowns running the show? Would it really be so bad if the incumbents got back in - sure, they could do some things differently/better, but look really hard at the alternative. It isn't just Labor that is full of talentless political time-servers.

Why is it up to me to ask questions like this? I don't even work in manufacturing. Don't they have journalists for this sort of thing - and plenty of them looking for work, from what I hear.

09 May 2013


We do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career. If we want women of that calibre to have families, and we should, well we have to give them a fair dinkum chance to do so. That is what this scheme [Coalition policy] of paid parental leave is all about.

- Tony Abbott, 7 May 2013, defending Liberal policy on paid parental leave
Tony Abbott has copped a lot of stick over the use of the word 'calibre' to describe well-educated, highly paid women, in an attempt to ascribe inherent virtue to them that goes beyond an individual's intelligence, drive, support networks, and good fortune. Some of it comes from a transgression of a basic rule of politics, but most of it comes from the force that comment has in smashing the contorted views of Abbott that are starting to appear like so many mushrooms: that Abbott is actually a nice guy, that he's not a snob or a sexist, that he'd be a decent Prime Minister, and that there is some sort of link between what he says and the policy outcomes we can expect from him.

It's a basic rule of Australian politics that Liberals can't afford to be seen to be snobs. Every successful Liberal leader has promised stability and opportunity for (pretty much) everyone. Every failed Liberal leader has, fairly or not, created the impression that only those who are already wealthy deserve tax breaks and subsidies and other measures that cement them at the top of the heap. Current Liberal proposals to lower the tax-free threshold and tax superannuation for lower-income earners is mind-bogglingly stupid. It's hubris in its purest essence, and they will not look convincing when they have to run away from it.

As David Marr points out, Tony Abbott comes from a group of ambitious North Shore people who have been given lots of advantages in life and who are driven by a wish to appear to make the most of them. He's engaged in mutual admiration with Nick Cater over what they see as virtuous defence of the wealthy and the unity of wealth with virtue. Another high-profile example of this phenomenon is Miranda Devine, Abbott's sister-from-another-mother. Marr claims Abbott is not a snob, a common Canberra Insider theme, yet he acts all surprised when Abbott comes out with the 'calibre' comment, or the idea that men are to have dominion over women, or this excerpt from a speech he wrote for John Hewson twenty years ago (complete with, ah, Abbott's verbal, um, mannerisms):
In any street, of course, it's always easy to tell the rented houses. They're the ones where the lawn isn't mowed, the plants aren't watered and the fences aren't fixed.
Abbott isn't a snob, he's an honourable man: and so says David Marr.

Abbott's Pollie Pedal is supposed to balance his fitness obsession with his generosity of spirit. No journalist looks into where the money goes, or even whether it's appropriate to bedeck himself in sponsorship. The fact that he claims a daily allowance for this supposedly recreational/charity work shows you what no journalist can bear to confront about this man. Marr wrote about Abbott's drop in income after going into Opposition without questioning why others similarly affected sucked it up and moved on.

Marr says Abbott is generous and unconcerned with money, and Marr is a great journalist.

The Liberals have put a lot of work into convincing aspirational voters who rely on their own efforts, and who no longer have steady, unionised jobs on offer, that a Liberal vote is the right vote for them. A retreat into the university-educated professions imperils that, and makes a joke of twenty years of careful long-term strategy. They sneer at Prime Minister Gillard for her insistence that a good education is the answer, yet in the 'calibre' comment is the tacit admission that she's right.

Clementine Ford makes two important points about Abbott's paid parental leave (PPL) policy. The first is that we are being asked to believe that he really is committed to his policy in a time of austerity, when he wasn't at a time of relative plenty:
When Abbott says, "we do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career", he's echoing a long held (liberal) feminist viewpoint. What was forgotten in Tuesday's online melee was that Abbott had earlier also said, "It's a very important sign that we get it when it comes to the modern family, the modern family invariably needs more than just one income. If we want to encourage families to have kids, if we want to make it easier for women to have careers and families, we need something like a proper paid parental leave scheme.

"We can't really afford to lose so many highly capable women in the prime of life and from the workforce. So I think this is not just a family policy or a social policy. It's not just something for women. This is something for everyone."

Fine words from a man who once said compulsory paid maternity leave would happen "over this government’s dead body, frankly. What we'll end up doing [with universal maternity leave] is creating more resentment in society. More division, more alienation and, I suspect, not produce more freedom of opportunity for women to enter the workforce."
Not quite 'something for everyone'. It represents an improvement over the government's current policy (a reverse of the parties' relative NBN policies), so in that sense Abbott is devoting a lot of effort to solve what in policy terms is a non-problem. What he is doing, of course, is attempting to address the very real problem over his perception by women - until he disowns it in the name of a budget surplus.

Ford's point about analysis is well made. Rather than go for the gotcha, the media should analyse policies to the extent that Eva Cox did on PPL. It's inadequate to describe the Coalition's workplace relations policy to the extent that it isn't like WorkChoices, nor like Fair Work - hardly seems worth doing, really. The press gallery seem to be taking it seriously, and when you're stuck in the politico-media complex that counts for everything.

Tony Abbott was raised to think that social cohesion is under threat, and that women in the workforce is one of those threats: yet he is married to a woman with a career, and may well regard his daughters among the 'women of calibre' he describes. The trouble is, he hasn't reconciled those thoughts in his own head, and hasn't worked out which forms the basis for the policies with which he would govern us. He might recite Shakespeare or Augustine by the yard, if not the chain, but he can't reconcile competing thoughts within his own skull. It's that compartmentalisation that makes him unstable: you never know which bucket - thug bucket, Oxford bucket, Santamaria bucket - his thoughts will come from.

Marr can't critique Abbott effectively because he accepts Abbott's compartmentalisation. Tony Abbott is an intelligent and thoughtful man, and so says the press gallery.

This gets to the most genuinely horrible defence of Tony Abbott, by Mia Freedman:
Ok. So he proposes to do something extremely progressive, swims against the tide of many in his own party and floats a Paid Parental Scheme that leap-frogs the current scheme to the overwhelming benefit of women. And? Those same women seek to slam him for it, based on a single word.

These predictably gleeful Gotcha! moments have become the toxic albatross of politics, sapping it of all authenticity and turning it into stultifyingly boring rhetoric. Wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah.

So what Tony giveth, Tony can and often does take away. If you know anything about Abbott at all (and the whole idea of the pics that prop up Freedman's piece is that she has some direct personal insight into those people that you and I lack), you know that his entire public life has been this doh-si-doh of making a statement, backtracking on it, making another statement etc.; anything to keep his name in the media without clarifying what he might do.

It's telling that the Liberal Party's once-formidable women were not the source of PPL policy; and that if Abbott, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb change their minds on it, there's bugger-all those women can or will do about it (more so for non-Liberal proponents like Cox or Freedman). Labor and Greens people complain about abuses of democratic party processes more than Liberals, but if you're going to live by the sword of unilateral power then be prepared to die by it.

What's really revolting, though, is the idea that the penalty for going after Abbott's true opinions is to suffer more and more bullshit. The "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah" only occurs when you have a media that places more of a premium on dumbly quoting what is said and avoiding actual analysis of policies and motives.

The reason why politicians' words are scrutinised, and why journalists occasionally draw them out on what they say, is because we need to know what they are doing with the power they have and what they might do if they had more. The sorts of people Freedman are used to interviewing are celebrities, who generate "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah" because that's what they do. Tony Abbott's words are scrutinised because if he becomes Prime Minister, his words and actions will have real impacts on the real lives of real people. Abbott's verbal doh-si-dohs means you can't really tell what he thinks or what he might do.

Freedman sees bullshit (or as she calls it "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah") as some sort of punishment for examining what is true - and that only if we accept what is said and done passively, then the defensive wall-of-blah might go away. I can't describe how much I reject that. There is no proof for it and we would be no better off, not even Freedman whose picfac opportunities (and that's what she really cares about, amirite?) would continue regardless.

I think Abbott's a bullshitter. He's about as likely to introduce a PPL as he is to climb Mount Everest. I also think he's a weak leader, as you can see buried in this story from a friendly media outlet that's not about PPL:
The referendum may be uncomfortable for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, following recent reports several in his party room oppose his in-principle support for it.
It can't be uncomfortable. He's been doing this sort of thing for more than three years as Opposition Leader:
  1. He floats an idea vaguely in agreement with the government, because he has few ideas of his own (believe it or not he did this with carbon pricing);
  2. The far right of the Liberal Party don't have many ideas either, but they need the kind of self-definition that can come with deep thought about what you value and your relationship with others. These fragile people have power over Abbott, they are his powerbase, but wherever he disagree with him they override him;
  3. In this instance, they gain self-definition by opposing what Labor proposes: Labor propose recognising local government, they oppose it. They've done it before, in 1974 and 1988, which gave Peter Reith a purpose that he has since lost (unless you count getting your face on ABC TV is a purpose) but may yet recover.
Tony Abbott is not his own man. There is no link between what he says and what actually happens. You can calibrate your assessment of him on the basis of what he says, and do so fairly. I don't care how David Marr or Mia Freedman feels about those descriptions, or about the following as it regards their (former?) profession. To come up with unflattering assessments like those about Abbott you need to free yourself of the mushroom-cultivation techniques that pass for media management. Media management only works if people believe what's in the media, and when content-providers link their words to what actually happens. It breaks still further when you have a man who will generate "wall-to-wall blah-blah-blah" simply to attract attention. You kill it by refusing to engage.

Stop refusing to blame that man for generating pablum and nonsense. Stop claiming he's not a snob and whatever else the evidence points to, accept what he is. Stop blaming those he would govern. You reveal yourself as having too small a calibre to supply people with the information and policy outcomes that they - we - need to choose in order to build their/our - lives.

07 May 2013

Shadows on the Press Gallery wall 2: Where the action isn't

Recent articles by Josh Bornstein and Erik Jensen on the downfall of Kevin Rudd have told us much about Rudd as an individual, and about how the ALP works both with and against such an individual. What they also show, however unwittingly, is the near-redundancy of the full-time press gallery and relying solely upon it for news about politics and government.

In the olden days, ministerial statements were made to Parliament rather than at a primary school in Adelaide/ a building site in Mackay/ wherever. When a report came out, it was tabled in the respective House and then distributed to journalists who were there (and not distributed to those who weren't). Those were the days when being a Full-time Press Gallery Journalist was Important, An Important Check Upon Those In Power, Fourth Estate etc.

Policy comes from diffuse sources. The broadcast media's division between the coverage of those sources, and the coverage of Parliament where the decisions are supposedly made, obscures our understanding more than it helps. Editors think they're offering broad coverage of issues and debates, but they're wrong about that too. Let's indulge press gallery journalists in their fantasy that policy doesn't matter, and look at what they really love writing about: leadership skullduggery.

The downfall of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and his replacement with Julia Gillard was complex and caused by a range of factors, but it can be boiled down to:
  1. Rudd ran a dysfunctional Prime Ministerial office, rushing some announcements and slowing down others; which led to
  2. A lot of MPs who once supported the leader turned against him; and largely coincidentally
  3. Union leaders around the country decided he had to go - no threats, no ultimatum, the warning shot was fired between his eyes; which led to
  4. The challenger confronting the incumbent and telling him that numbers were against him, to the point where if he even contested the ballot he'd be slaughtered.
In the Old Parliament House (1927-87) press gallery journalists could pick the tensions and directly observe knots of conspirators form and disperse. Leadership challenges tended to only follow steps 2 and 4 above (except when they died physically). When Parliament moved to the current building, much larger than the old one, they complained that it Wouldn't Be The Same - and so it has proven, but for reasons unrelated to the architecture.

People inside political parties (not just the pollies) generally like publicity, but only in short, sharp, warm bursts. They hate the drawn-out process where rumours of instability are picked up by the media, which worsens the instability, which leads to more slavering headlines, etc. They hate this as much as journalists love it. What has happened in recent years is that the parties have outflanked the press gallery when it comes to leadership challenges, and that the press gallery has been too vain and too dumb to notice.

People who have attained leadership usually have the nous to keep enough people onside to ward off the narks and backstabbers, and it is notable that Rudd lacked the perception and guile to do that. The key step here is step 3, where union leaders far from Canberra turned dissatisfaction into action, and made caucus do what they told it to do.

Kevin Rudd did not become ALP Leader in 2006 by gaining the trust and admiration of his parliamentary colleagues. He became leader by outflanking them, not only via the populist route of morning television but through lobbying Labor powerbrokers who weren't and aren't in Parliament. He eventually convinced them that he should be leader instead of Beazley, and they told MPs who depended on them to vote Rudd over Beazley, no matter what their misgivings, hence Rudd became leader. It was not a spontaneous uprising within the caucus but the press gallery could only report it as such.

When it came time to replace Rudd, he was outflanked in a similar way. Labor powerbrokers - who didn't have to work with him every day on actual government work - wanted him to stay and so he did. Step 3 above was the crucial step in the downfall of the Rudd government, and nobody in the press gallery knew until after it passed.

People who have to deal with journalists regularly tend to work with their schedule. When such people don't it means that they regard some people as more powerful than the press gallery.

If you're going to announce/do something that you want to go into evening news bulletins and the following day's papers, you should get it done by mid-afternoon. Video footage has to be edited and positioned within a bulletin, with the journalist providing a summary. Newspaper articles have to be written and formatted so that the presses can be cranked up and papers delivered for the following morning. For most journalists "the 24 hour news cycle" does not extend beyond mid-afternoon. Journos whinge hard and long when a press release is issued, say, at 5pm on a Friday. Only radio stations, and the ABC with its evening news programs, take it seriously.

On 23 June 2010 this comfortable little schedule blew up. The press gallery still hasn't recovered, nor have they gotten over themselves and adjusted to reality.

Greg Jericho's The Rise of the Fifth Estate describes the process in detail. Just before 7pm, the ABC's Chris Uhlmann tweeted that Gillard was confronting Rudd and calling for a spill. Gillard and others who moved against Rudd had deliberately waited until after the press gallery deadline before bringing the matter to a head. At the same time, Labor MPs were informed by union leaders and other ALP heavies that the spill was on and that they were to vote for Gillard. This wasn't a sudden, spontaneous development, and to describe it as a caucus phenomenon was poor reporting. The move against Rudd had been planned meticulously over quite some time. The public aspect was only the final step in the process.

Paul Howes, in his interview on Lateline that night, was the wrong person to deliver this news. He was keen to get his face on the media in a way that older hands like Bill Ludwig or Joe de Bruyn weren't. Nobody outside the AWU (i.e. most of us) voted for that guy, the Tom Waterhouse of politics. Howes tried to create a sense of calm and order around an event that was shocking and disruptive to everyone not in on the secret. Instead, just looked like a smug jerk - doing himself no favours, nor a number of since-defeated Labor MPs, nor anyone else but Abbott and Rudd.

Howes, Ludwig, de Bruyn and others weren't members of Federal Parliament and hold their power bases by means other than broadcast media interviews. If anything, they diminish their power by overexposure to media. No press gallery journalist thought to question them, nor had any guarantee their calls would be returned. As with sport, the players only make themselves available after the game is over.

There are journalists who deal with unions extensively. Industrial journalists cover workplace issues and disputes, and deal with union leaders but rarely cover general federal political issues that don't directly relate to union advocacy. There is no record of press gallery journalists asking their industrial colleagues in early-mid 2010 if something was afoot regarding the federal Labor leadership.

The reason why the Rudd's 2012 leadership challenge was dead in the water was because Labor powerbrokers hadn't changed their minds. Rudd knew this, which is why he was reluctant to have the vote at a time not of his choosing. The press gallery had no right to claim that the numbers were close, it was bullshit and they didn't know what they were talking about.

The same thing happened six weeks ago. MPs like Simon Crean, Joel Fitzgibbon, or Richard Marles might be reasonably prominent in caucus but they are not Labor powerbrokers in any wider sense. Crean wasn't even much of a powerbroker when he was his party's parliamentary leader: as ACTU President in the 1980s, working on the Accord, he was more powerful across the labour movement before he entered Parliament than he has ever been since. Again, the Labor powerbrokers hadn't changed their minds, so it didn't much matter what Crean or anyone else said: Gillard was staying, and that was that. Again, Rudd knew it, and didn't even bother with the farce that caucus decides anything.

Again, the press gallery carried on kidding themselves about who makes the decisions on political leadership in this country. Not only the fall of Kevin Rudd, but also his rise, should have shown the press gallery and its supporters that their game has changed.

This isn't just a Labor thing, which non-Labor people can be forgiven for not understanding. Malcolm Turnbull had irritated his colleagues in the Parliamentary Liberal Party when he was its leader, but only when Liberal powerbrokers like Nick Minchin, Bruce McIver, David Clarke and others moved against him was he threatened. The resignation of Turnbull's frontbench was reported as though it was a cause of his downfall, when it was a symptom of a wider illness.

Abbott does nothing to threaten the positions of Coalition powerbrokers. He has not remade the party in his image as Howard did. Whenever Abbott supports someone in an internal party ballot, and those guys want someone else, someone else wins: just ask Patrick Secker and Gary Humphries. Abbott will be removed when he poses any threat to Liberal powerbrokers maintaining their power.

Full-time press gallery journalists currently report the output of the Opposition as though it was decisive: "Tony Abbott has announced that ...", as though you could take it to the bank. As though the link between what Tony Abbott says and what actually happens has proven to be clear and strong. There hasn't been any debate about policy or values within the Liberal Party, just a bit of media strategising within the Leader's office; watch what happens when the lid blows off that simmering pot. The press gallery have accepted the opacity of that office and commended them for being clever for doing so. Fuck that, and fuck everyone in the press gallery who thinks that way, as almost all of them do.

Nick Minchin is a private citizen who is not obliged to return journalists' calls. He speaks to them rarely, and almost never to those not employed by News Ltd. When he does, there is a strong correlation between his rare statements (e.g. against gay marriage and a conscience vote, against NBN) and what the Liberals do; far stronger than in the voluminous statements of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. So much for media coverage as the key to understanding politics.

Today, press gallery journalists still think they are Where The Action Is, despite many years of evidence to the contrary. They are confirmed in that opinion by their dull-witted editors, and by the boards of the organisations which currently employ them. When broadcast media laid off hundreds of journalists last year, the fact that very few jobs went from the press gallery was a sign that they'd botched it.

Today, full-time press gallery journalists insist that they should get credit for successfully predicting one-and-a-half challenges to Gillard despite social media jeers. There have been thousands upon thousands of press gallery stories about Labor ructions since the 2010 election, almost all have been sourced from within Parliament rather than across the broader power structures of Labor. A busted clock is right twice a day: which press gallery journalist can match that? The fact that only one-and-a-half  predictions have come off, and that the expected result (Rudd regaining leadership) hasn't, means that any journalist seeking vindication might as well jump in the Lake.

It's true that there has been a lot of wise-after-the-event reporting on the leadership spills, but it isn't the place of journalism in a free society to present voters with faits-accompli. That's what journalists in dictatorships do: "the government has decided that ...", and that's that, no debate is sought or welcomed. We are part of the debate and we must be informed what's going on while the decisions are being made. This means that there might be more to the government of this country than the hubbub outside your little office, and a self-respecting journalist would go seek it.

Almost none of the real-world situations described above have much to do with the internet and social media.

Australian politics still needs to be covered, analysed and debated, but the role of the full-time press gallery is smaller than it was and may well disappear, at little real cost to the nation or its democracy. Thanks for reading this far: now kick back and listen to a happy tune from the days when the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery really was where the action is.

05 May 2013

On the table

If you're going to quibble with the Budget, you need to answer six questions (the headings of the following lists). What follows here is not costed and not really aimed at securing either a surplus or a deficit, and cherry-picks the Henry Review to some extent. There is a lot of vague language here but you get that in other documents of its type, even the ones with lots of graphs and tables. While there is nary a single pie-chart or histogram in what follows, it is far better researched, well-considered and more principled than the Hundred Brain Farts of a more lavishly-resourced outfit I could name. I'm hoping the following results in a net gain to the bottom line and the nation in all sorts of ways:

Here's what I think is important from government:
  • Openness and adaptability to change
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • NDIS
  • Productivity
  • Research
  • Free movement of people who aren't out to attack our society (whether they have an Australian passport or not, and includes putting white bigots under the same scrutiny as, say, brown Muslim jihadis)
  • A Defence Force that is nimble and packs a punch where diplomacy fails
  • Better care for wounded veterans and other victims of post-traumatic stress
  • Integrity in tax and justice systems
Here's what I don't think is important:
  • Defence/intel bloat
  • Handouts to farmers or industry that take the place of prudent risk management
Here's where I'd cut spending (or, why should I go to prison for refusing to fund ...):
  • Offshore processing. Too expensive, achieves nothing. Labor gave it a go and it didn't work, and would have solid grounds to attack the Libs for reintroducing it. Sri Lankan and Afghan dissidents are not a threat to Australia.
  • Combined funding of ASIO, ASIS, ACC and AFP: budget cut by 15%. Insiders know where the bloat is, they should fix it.
  • Defence materiel: cut by 20%, make it happen (e.g. drones for northern surveillance instead of manned aircraft).
  • Joint Strike Fighter? Forget it, Sukhoi S-22 is the machine everyone's afraid of so let's get that instead. The US will forgive us eventually.
  • Donations to the car industry; gone (or, introduce this).
  • Donations to aluminium and steel smelting phased out over five years.
  • Reduce private health rebate to 0 over five years, don't privatise Medibank Private until then.
  • Halve diesel rebate, abolish other fiscal incentives on fuel usage (e.g. current FBT system requiring cars to burn given amount of fuel by 30 June).
  • Naval vessels built in Australia are not to be as labour-intensive as current plans require: increase in plan/build phase but reduced operating costs.
  • The way to cut middle-class welfare is not to yank it away but to remove any social cachet it might have. Family Tax Benefits, housing and other forms of assistance should be paid only to those on below-average incomes.
  • Public funding of political parties: gone.
  • First Home Owners' Grant: gone.
  • Tourism operators spend more money lobbying than upgrading their own facilities, so give them time-limited incentives to upgrade and reduce unproductive junkets and cash hits from government.
  • When meteorologists travel the country to advise farmers of sustained extreme weather events, those who ignore forecasts should not have recourse to public subsidies.
  • Cut parliamentary debates so that speeches can be tabled rather than having members read speeches for the sake of pantomime, leaving time for members to speak when required.
  • Members not granted an overseas study trip each year, except if research forms part of committee, bureaucratic or academic research work; any research findings that can be found by Google-type search should oblige members to reimburse the Commonwealth for their junket.
Here's where I'd raise/introduce new spending:
  • Graduates of foreign universities who are native speakers of key languages (e.g. Indonesian, Spanish, Arabic), and who have been educated at tertiary level in those languages, to be eligible for three-year scheme: half the time to learn how to be a primary or secondary school teacher (including English training as required), the other half the time teaching. Offer reciprocal schemes for Australians wishing to live/teach overseas. No, this is not the "Colombo Plan" the Coalition have sketched out, it's far more substantial than that. 
  • Newstart increase by 25%.
  • Increased incentives for occasional childcare.
  • Maintain level of support for arts funding, but introduce training for gallery/theatre staff in theory and to engage in debates, subsidise transport to art galleries and theatres, increased emphasis on arts as tourism drawcard.
  • Infrastructure bonds for transport and communications infrastructure, capped to minimise risk to government.
  • Relocating Immigration/UNHCR assessors throughout Asian countries, not necessarily limited to capitals if host countries agree.
  • Customs to take over baggage handling at airports, and to conduct preliminary screening on board aircraft at point of take-off before entering Australia, to expedite passenger and baggage throughput at Australian ports.
  • Increase funding for Gov2.0, small-scale IT services for government services, including health and disability support; foster Canberra as innovation hub for information management and IT (including apps development).
  • Include Tasmania in the regional tax allowance system and reduce taxes to companies that base themselves in and operate from there, for the sake of employment and innovation.
I would bring State/Territory and local government Departments of Health, Disability and Ageing into the Federal Government, with:
  • 50% increase in mental health funding over five years.
  • Dental coverage within Medicare.
  • National cancer screening scheme.
  • National centre for post-traumatic stress disorder, including veterans and their families - and, yes, refugees - with a view to global leadership in this area.
  • No decrease to GST takings for any state that agreed to cede health powers.
Here's where I'd raise taxes/cut rebates:
  • Super-profits tax on organisations that dominate their industry, e.g. banks, retail conglomerates, and yes the media.
  • Tax RSL Clubs to fund care for veterans, because the dills who run those bloated outfits have lost sight of what their mission is and palmed it off to the government.
  • Non-profit organisations paying compensation to victims of institutional abuse to be levied with a financial penalty as a way of improving internal systems.
  • FBT on vehicles in line with Henry Review, except reduced to 0 in three years not five.
  • GST exemptions removed, including on food.
  • HECS-style scheme on AIS set at a rate that would cover 50% of its operating costs in the first year.
  • Increase penalties for ACCC, APRA, ATO, FWA and environmental protection, including bounties for investigations.
  • Remove rebates for mining exploration, combine with general tax breaks for start-ups. Rebates on mining taxes for quality of environmental and cultural management.
  • Tobin tax. Worth a shot.
  • Halve negative gearing on residential property (except where housing supply lags population growth, e.g. Sydney, Albury-Wodonga, SW WA), cap it to 7 years.
  • Donations on fertiliser: cut by 20% a year over five years. Ban fertilisers derived from fossil fuels and subsidise replacements from urban sewage.
  • No offsetting farm losses against other income. Hobby farms should be just that, not tax havens.
  • No duty-free tobacco products, increased duty on tobacco products made outside Australia.
  • Increase tax breaks for health research and tie it to foreign aid: Australians as healers.
  • Increase tax breaks for art and education of non-relatives (to encourage charitable giving to education).
  • Capital Gains Tax on inheritances from estates in the top quintile.
Here's where I'd cut taxes:
  • Until I read Recommendation 9 c) in the Henry Tax Review, I had no idea that Fringe Benefits Tax was levied on toilets, office furniture, and stationery. Those facilities should be excluded.
  • Raising tax-free threshold on income tax.
  • Incentive schemes on gifts above a certain amount (say $1m) which is congruent with government policy goals.
  • Reduce corporate tax in line with payroll. If you're serious about creating jobs (govt) and complaining that labour costs are unbearable (some of the lazier employer advocates) this is where you'd offer tax relief.
  • Tax deferments on start-up businesses, including artistic endeavours and mining exploration.
Yep, that's pretty much it. No evidence of vast wealth to be unleashed with more significant tax cuts than that.

02 May 2013

Shadows on the press gallery wall

This started as a response to this piece by Margo Kingston and that piece by "James Evans", but it has grown to the point where I will have to host it here.

For those of you who suffer nosebleeds from long blogposts: what follows is about 1300 words, including a quote.

Part of the change that has taken place in journalism over recent years involves niche specialisation. Take, for example, someone who works in public health, and who does a bit of journalism in that area as a sideline. Let's imagine that person has to come to Canberra, or one of the state/territory parliaments once or twice a year to cover particularly big debates/legislation/committee hearings/other parliamentary business relevant to their area. Under current Press Gallery Committee (PGC) rules practice that person has Buckley's of attaining the privileges of the Press Gallery.

Take another perspective: you're press secretary to the Health Minister, and you want to invite the person described above to a particular announcement/ presser. You should be able to issue that person the sort of pass that is issued to anyone who visits a Minister, but you can't - if the PCG President finds out someone's practising Random Acts of Journalism on 'their turf' without permission, there'll be hell to pay.

With all due respect to the institution and tradition of the Press Gallery, fuck that.

With the shift from FOI ("why do you need this information?") to Open Government ("why shouldn't I have that information?"), I think the best solution is to remove the standing order that prohibits note-taking in the public galleries. Anyone who isn't out to do harm should be able to rock up to their Parliament and record what's going on. This applies to Craig Reucassel's points about satire, too.

I'm not and have never been a journalist, but I have visited Parliament a few times. The first time was when my Year 10 class visited what was then Parliament House (now the Museum of Australian Democracy). We were warned sternly that we must not take notes in the public gallery. Our teachers had set us assessment tasks that required recording observations. Some kids simply disobeyed the instruction, which set Parliamentary attendants into conniptions. Others sat for a while, got an answer to a question, then left the public gallery to make notes in the hall outside, and then returned to the debate to make other observations, going in and out like fiddlers' elbows. This too upset the attendants, even though the damage to Australian democracy from that visit can barely be detected. Across the chamber, press gallery journos passed notes to one another and giggled.

I'm not just focused on this because I'm a Sydneysider - but real estate, or the lack of it, is an issue for the press gallery. The PGC Committee has expressed concern about that to the Parliament and it is a factor in their decision-making. When Michelle Grattan left Fairfax she had to reapply for a press gallery pass, and while her years of service counted in her favour the PGC were seriously concerned that there was no office space for The Conversation.

There is no reason why real estate should be a factor limiting the number of people who report on Parliament. The Australian Football League has four times more journalists accredited to it than in the Federal press gallery. It imposes no requirement for AFL journos to have their offices in any one fixed location, nor even for journalism to be a reporter's full time job. Parliament conducts much of its business in Parliament House Canberra, but not all of it; just as all AFL is not played at the MCG, those who cover federal politics should be more decentralised than they are.

Let's not pretend practical considerations are the sole factor in decision-making. When Stephen Mayne ran Crikey he applied for admission to the budget lockup. The Treasurer has absolute discretion to approve/reject access to the lockup, and Costello rejected Mayne. It's telling that no press gallery journos stood up for Mayne. Mayne was unsuccessful in joining the press gallery, but after he sold Crikey to former SMH editor Eric Beecher, doors opened to the publication.

The decision by current PGC President David Speers against Callum Davidson shows that snobbery has not dissipated. Independent Australia isn't a news outlet because real news outlets have journalists in the press gallery, and because it doesn't have any journalists in the press gallery it can't have press gallery accreditation.

The decisions to admit The Conversation (Grattan), The Guardian (Lenore Taylor, Katharine Murphy) and The Global Mail (Mike Seccombe, Michael Bowers) to the press gallery, as well as Karen Middleton's to Margo Kingston, were based on who those outlets employed. There was no serious assessment of news-versus-commentary, it was sentimentality and The Old Mates Act. This is decision-making on a journo's personal brand; not on some arse-covering, half-baked assessment about the nature of the employer. Speers' response is in breach of the various non-binding journo codes for one simple reason: it is dishonest, and slides around the truth. The decision to reject Davidson and Independent Australia was based on snobbery and fear - fear not of any deterioration in standards, but of being shown up by a blow-in. This situation cannot last. Good and sensible people should do nothing to prop it up.

The idea that a formally constituted and arraigned press gallery acts as some sort of quality control measure over journalists and journalism is such utter bullshit that no good thing can be built upon it. The herd mentality in the press gallery means that they mostly write pretty much the same story, so anyone complaining about copyright breach would be a bit like calling the fire brigade to an arsonists' club. If the Press Council and ACMA are 'toothless tigers', and yet any action beyond those powers is 'Stalinist', then what can anyone expect from Speersy and his jolly crew?

Surely any serious breach of whatever Journalists' Code - written or unwritten - would result in reprisals that were subtle yet devastating, Pinteresque.

The PGC's major task is to organise a booze-up when Canberra is at its coldest. Apart from that it has no power to improve parliamentary journalism, nor any substantial ability to correct breaches of, um, anything really. Like any institution that is both officious and largely powerless, the appropriate response is to jeer at it until it inevitably keels over.

It was a real shame that Margo Kingston wrote:
I am also not adverse to a requirement that the applicant has previously worked as a journalist because, among other things, ethical questions are acute in reporting politics.
Andrew Bolt would be eligible and I wouldn't. Christopher Skase worked as a journalist and his handling of ethical questions is a matter of record.

The Press Gallery is a restriction on trade for a profession that desperately needs to be able to trade without a license from old-school employers. It artificially inflates the value of those employers and is a demonstrable and significant barrier to new entrants. It should be possible to bust that cartel without making political journalism worse than it is. In fact, I'd suggest the only way to improve the standard of Australian political journalism, the only way to give it a future, is to take it from the feebly grasping hands of the Press Gallery Committee.

I could have sent the above to Speers, if his proposals to Call For Submissions into the future of the press gallery could have been taken seriously - instead, here it is on the blogoweb where he'll never find it.