30 September 2013

Before a fall

This story will probably not lead to the downfall of two Cabinet ministers straight away. It does, however, give an insight into those ministers, and the sorts of inherent weaknesses that might well* lead to their downfall. That article also shows what's wrong with the way politics is reported, particularly by Fairfax.

Barnaby Joyce and George Brandis have been in Canberra a long time. Earlier in their careers it may have occurred to them that seeking taxpayer-funded entitlements to attend a wedding would have been absurd; that regardless of what the rules around entitlements may or may not say, it is a Bad Look to be claiming them to attend a wedding of a friend. Before entering Parliament, Joyce was an accountant and Brandis a lawyer. Neither has any excuse, other than the gradual dulling of common sense that comes from spending far too long in an environment where entitlements are freely available but rarely commented upon.

Joyce's problem from day one in politics has been that he talks in generalities but rarely gets across the detail of whatever he's talking about. Journalists have found this charming, because they don't care about detail either, and rural people who support Joyce share his disdain for details. Now that he has access to a large ministerial staff, he should hire at least one person who is both very much detail-focused when it comes to his personal arrangements, and ferocious in protecting his interests to the point where they can upbraid him to his face and get him to change his ways where necessary. Such people are rare, but vital for an easy-going man to keep up appearances.

If Joyce becomes another grey, defensive politician, it will be because he is at the mercy of pernickety forces he fears but doesn't understand. He is not a reformer, so he will not end up overreaching and caught on the horns of untold dilemmas as happened to the last government, or to Keating, or Whitlam. He seems like an honest man, and will probably not be caught doing something flagrantly wrong. Joyce's career will probably end being shown to have not known something he should have, or not paying attention at a crucial time.

George Brandis is not a lackadaisical bloke, he is tightly wound and puffed up. His weakness is an overestimation of his own cleverness, both in the interpretation of rules and in defusing the scandal by dashing off a cheque once he was caught out. In the execution of his duties he will have to mix it with people who are much cleverer than he, while having the last word because he is the Attorney-General of the Commonwealth of Australia while they (and you) are not, so there.

Again, Brandis does not appear avaricious for anything but prestige, and he will almost certainly overreach in terms of his abilities. Again, his career might not end in disgrace necessarily, but you can see how such a man might get ahead of himself.

All political careers end in failure, said a former British Cabinet Minister not very different from Brandis in many ways. That minister, Enoch Powell, showed that a political career can be over long before the resignation is submitted or the sack is delivered, whether by a leader or by the voters.

It is an old trick to play on journalists: to cut off the supply of official information except through official channels, and then to restrict those official channels to the point where nothing that comes from them is useful to the public at large. For journalists who have no investigative skills beyond the reading of press releases or the cultivation of drops, this is a cruel trick, like hiding the stash of an addict. They might grumble, they might even crack a tantrum, but if they don't expire it could be the best thing that ever happened to them.

It is astonishing that members of the press gallery, seeing Tony Abbott up close for years now, could not have foreseen that an old press secretary would act in this way. The poacher of media attention from the Gillard and Rudd governments has become the gamekeeper of government-press relations. It is ridiculous to see and hear the mewling of journos missing their daily dose of Abbott's blather and antics to fill their gaps. No sympathy is due to them and to their attempt to rope in the rest of us by muttering darkly about democracy is pathetic. They've made their bed, by waving through Abbott into office without the necessary scrutiny. They can lie in it, knowing that they can't just turn on the journalistic scrutiny as they always assumed they could.
Attorney-General George Brandis is one of Parliament's "biggest hypocrites" ... says acting opposition leader Chris Bowen.
Well, he would say that, wouldn't he.

Here it becomes necessary, yet again, to tell qualified and experienced journalists how to do their jobs: it is not a story that there is argy-bargy over the issue. The story is about the claiming of 'entitlements' themselves.

The reason why the story is phrased in this way is to allow the journalist to maintain their self-adopted pose of impartiality: one side says this, another says that. I'm not responsible for helping journalists maintain their deluded pose, and neither are you; I'm interested in finding out what's going on with this matter and what it means more generally. These two journalists aren't helping us do that by concentrating so hard on their appearance of equipoise.

(Note also to the headline writer: a reliance on cliches will cause 'lashes' to lose their sting, which is a bad thing for news providers, for keeping politicians accountable in a democracy, and perhaps even for headline-writers).
Senior Labor figures Chris Bowen and Mark Dreyfus had called for Senator Brandis to be stood down from writing the new ministerial code of conduct, but a spokeswoman for the Attorney-General said he would not be involved in writing the new code.

"It had nothing to do with the story," she told Fairfax Media on Monday.

Fairfax Media understands the new ministerial code of conduct is being drafted within the Prime Minister's office.
Fine, but Brandis is still to be bound by the code, and as a member of Cabinet he will have to endorse it. Here the journalists are being smart-alecks:
  • it doesn't matter what Brandis' spokeswoman says, his behaviour and attitude toward public entitlements is directly relevant to the question of a ministerial code of conduct;
  • the fact that a spokeswoman would presume to tell journalists what the story is shows how highly their professionalism is regarded (and bugger it, if a spokeswoman can tell journalists what the story is and isn't, this long-suffering consumer of news stories can certainly do so); and
  • It doesn't even matter where the Code is being drafted. Maybe Col Allan is drafting it with his other hand while taking a piss; I wouldn't put it past this lot.
Brandis is First Law Officer of the Commonwealth; the execution of his duties is central to the success or failure of any effort to ensure probity in government. That principle is lost in he-said-she-said, voice-from-nowhere, strike-a-pose journalism.
At the weekend, Fairfax Media revealed that Senator Brandis had claimed $1683 in taxpayer-funded entitlements for the wedding of his close friend, radio presenter Michael Smith.

Despite reports the Attorney-General was "tearing up the dance floor", Senator Brandis insisted the wedding was mostly a work-related function.
Firstly, Brandis wasn't Attorney-General when that event took place, and neither is Smith a radio announcer.

Secondly, the Midwinter Ball at Parliament House is a work-related function for politicians and journalists alike; having attended a few of those in his time, Brandis' confusion is understandable.

I know I'm meant to credit Fairfax Media for running this story at all, but - no. The access and privileges accorded to press gallery journalists should see them come out with stories like that every day. No gratitude is owed for an exception that only proves the rule about how sloppy the press gallery are. Like politicians, journalists expect reward and appreciation just for doing their jobs; this is why they are the lowest-regarded professions in Australia.

What I am grateful for is that the superjournos at Fairfax Media's press gallery weren't covering US politics in the early 1970s:
The White House today denied any involvement in the Watergate break-in. "It has nothing to do with the story", said a spokeswoman.
I read this, and frankly I thought it was ungenerous. I wouldn't mind a shelf of books like that (you can keep your CLR though). Then I thought: if I really knuckled down I could buy all those books. Then I'd pay tax on that, and George could buy some more: government as Ponzi scheme. Luckily George isn't a single mother on entitlements benefits, because that would be intolerable sucking on the public teat they don't have time for reading anyway. Would you want to talk to someone on a plane if they were reading So Greek?
Senator Brandis publicly made the case for prosecuting Mr Thomson as well as former speaker Peter Slipper, who was later charged with misusing his taxpayer entitlements.

Given his role as the Coalition's watchdog, Senator Brandis was "clearly one of the Parliament's now biggest hypocrites," Mr Bowen said.

The Attorney-General had "tried to hold other people to a very high standard, a standard he has failed to meet himself", he added.
The journalists are brave enough to point out Brandis' role as Javert to Thomson's Valjean, but in making the link between that and Brandis' behaviour in office going forward, then they scurry around to hide behind the man who built his credibility on Grocery Watch. The journalists present principles about the execution of public office as just another bit of argy-bargy.

This is why people roll their eyes at political conflict and give up on media altogether. When big issues sneak through under cover of the argy-bargy, they get all surprised and disappointed while disdaining politics and media as means to redress those big issues.

For those of you who insist on cheering on random acts of competence in Australian political reporting: this is gutless journalism. By calling it as such I am giving it, and those who practise such journalism for the time being, the respect they deserve.

This story is pretty much dissipated; Brandis and Joyce will continue in office, while the careers of Peter Slipper and others have ended over far lesser breaches of 'entitlements'. Only the cranks who hate this government will even remember this incident, whereas "experienced press gallery veterans" won't remember or learn a thing. Any claims these ministers may have against the misdeeds of others might ring more hollow now than they have, and would hope. But here at least we have the measure of these men, Joyce's carelessness and Brandis' overweening pride. While we haven't seen the chickens come home to roost for each of these men we have seen the chickens, and the roosts, and know it's just a matter of time.

Here too, we see that if there is any investigative journalism to be done into this government, the opposition will have to do it themselves. The journalists need to maintain their fruitless pose more than they need the respect that comes from getting hands dirty and working through complexity and nuance. We see that any government spokesperson can negate a well-grounded, documented attack by simply turning it into he-said-she-said argy-bargy, which repels media consumers and nullifies journalists into the bargain.

* Note the more modest phrasing following this site's TAWNBPM debacle.

26 September 2013

Shipping news

Australia's first media consisted of message sticks and rock paintings. As a business model it wasn't broken so nobody fixed it.

Australia's second media consisted of shipping news: comings and goings at Sydney Cove, snippets of news from Mother England and ports visited along the way. New-media nerds like John Fairfax put pages out there and worried how to monetise it afterwards.

The very idea that a PR dolly like Scott Morrison should stand before a bunch of Australian journalists and sneer at "the shipping news" proves that they have no pride in their 'profession'. He owes Australian journalists far more than he could ever repay; none of them, not one stepped up to give him a backhander, verbal or otherwise. Telling journalists he wasn't going to release information must have killed him, especially as Morrison is absolute crap at every aspect of government other than spruiking.

Morrison's father was a police officer: little Scotty asking him how his day went could be rebuffed with "operational reasons", but the whole country is not being governed by Morrison's dad. But let us not dwell on that irrelevant twerp.

The fantasy of the press secretary/media adviser/communications professional/[insert other puffed-up title here] is that to control a government's message is to ensure that government remains strong and relevant, and hence impervious to challenge. A government with a consistent message is properly appreciated for its efforts, or perhaps even gets more credit than it is due, and gets re-elected; a government with an inconsistent message is pretty much buggered no matter what it does.

The negative case is widely deemed proven with the comms strategy, such as it was, of the Gillard and Rudd governments. Whether the positive case can be made, by controlling the message of this government while maintaining its credibility, remains to be seen. I believe they will have a red-hot go at controlling the message from government, but the evasions necessary to maintain an overarching message of competence will see the government lose credibility.

It isn't quite true that anyone who goes off-message will be excoriated. Elected representatives are disposable - this government could lose a dozen seats at the next election and still retain office, and preselections favour those who toe the line - but when Mark Textor wants to say something but doesn't want his name used, where is the journalist who will insist he go on the record? You'll still see "senior Liberal sources" appearing in the media when Coalition communication strategists want to make a statement without being seen to have made it.

Those of us who thought the Coalition's front bench were dummies have been vindicated by measures such as this. The man who appointed them, Tony Abbott, thinks they are all clowns when it comes to deciding who they will appoint to help execute functions of government, and how they will communicate their decisions to we who are governed.

Kevin Rudd's "Gang of Four" were all elected - Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, Lindsay Tanner and Rudd himself - and still the government became paralysed in its ability to process information and make decisions quickly. Tony Abbott saw that up close. He is not running a reformist government, but such ideas as he does have require extensive consultation and forethought, and some concern that any consequences arising from decisions will have to be borne by those who made the decisions. Abbott cannot guarantee that his government will not be sidetracked by events that impose requirements for consideration and consultation, in the way that the Asian financial crisis beset the Howard government and the global financial crisis beset Rudd.

Even so, Abbott still cleaves to the media-adviser fantasy that it is possible and advisable to control both the message that a government sends, and the manner in which such messages will be received. Astrology and chicken-entrail-reading are far more appropriate and valid predictors of political success than Managing The Message. This fantasy is the structural weakness at the heart of this government. It will negate the guile and strength that Abbott has shown in manipulating the press gallery and his colleagues to get to the top. This is a weakness that journalists cannot detect or examine in any sensible way; they might be able to detect symptoms of this problem but will flinch before that root cause.

If it's true that all media requests and board appointments are to be cleared with Kate Walshe and Peta Credlin, then we are to have government at the speed of Kate and Peta. What's good for this country depends on what Kate Walshe and Peta Credlin think is good for this country, and to what they allocate their time.

They had better be the smartest and most warm-hearted people in the land, never too busy for anything that truly matters. They would be wise to talk to Alister Jordan or Deirdre Willmott, to Jim Spiegelman or John Menadue, or to Ainslie Gotto about what it takes to run an entire government fronted by muppets from the back rooms. I bet they don't, though.

With Walshe and Credlin (and other as-yet faceless and nameless minions in the bowels of the Prime Minister's Office) exercising real power over the country's legislative and executive government, suddenly complaints about too few women in that sheltered workshop known as Cabinet seem beside the point.

There is an obvious strategy for the opposition (not only the formally constituted Opposition but those sneeringly termed "the minor parties", which are ignored until they exercise power over government decisions at crucial times, which always take the press gallery by surprise). That is to pepper the hapless ministry with questions and issues until its veneer of calm and focus begins to look like complacency.

If this government gets a reputation for being able to raise hell in opposition but calmly deflect it in government, it will be re-elected comfortably. Such a strategy would reinforce the reputation of the last government as one that could raise issues but not resolve them, casting a pall over the opposition as an alternative government. Any opposition that looks like a pale imitation of the incumbents is done for, and a smart Opposition Leader would avoid such a strategy.

This decision to outsource political decisions to non-politicians isn't simple hypocrisy. It's a flagrant demonstration that he doesn't get how government should and does work, and that their rhetoric to the contrary is so much cant. I thought that would prevent this government from coming to office at all, but it remains sufficiently potent to erode what little goodwill it has and fling it back into opposition.

You can accept an imperfect outcome from those who will deal with you, and in any democracy such a way of operating is fair enough. That buy-in is an essential part of the strength of democracies. Some bureaucrat sitting in Canberra deciding what is or isn't good for you can only make for a government that is stupid, and hopefully doomed, before it has even gotten underway.

The great example of the flaws in this strategy, and with the wider student-politics model of governing through disengagement, comes with asylum seekers. They can decide what they like in Canberra, but it's in your community and mine that such unknown and desperate people will settle. The only way out of this disgusting position our country is in, is for politicians to level with us. Give us the stats, get out there and show us that they aren't scary and in fact are doing lots of good things. Both candidates for leadership of the ALP have promised to do this, but frankly I have my doubts.

If Tony Abbott can waste his preparation for high office gutting fish and donning hi-vis then his successor (as both Opposition Leader and PM) can shake hands with asylum seekers and welcome them to the community. Gruntback radio in Sydney will go berserk, but Labor has to have the courage to write them off in the way that UK Labour stopped truckling to Murdoch, and has started to look like a strong alternative government as a result.

Both Annabel Crabb and Simon Copland have fallen for the syllogism that because information is released it can only ever be beaten up and blown up, so it's best not to release information at all and assume that those who govern us know what's best. Journalistic failure excuses rather than exposes government duplicity, so let's all cover up both and be polite about it.

Both Crabb and Copland are admitting professional failure by saying that hysteria is the only valid journalistic response, the only context in which that information can be put. If journalism was a serious profession, those two would be drummed out of it. They will not be vindicated, but rather their failure will be compounded, if Morrison is right in assuming that the flurry of protest about not releasing asylum-seeker arrival details will die down eventually.

The ultimate example of policy failure in asylum-seeking is SIEV-X, and the incident at the end of 2012 where an asylum-seeker vessel foundered on the rocks at Christmas Island. Michael Keenan, a Liberal MP from Western Australia, wept at the images of Christmas Islanders reaching out to those desperately attempting to get ashore. Here's an image of Michael Keenan shortly afterwards:

That's him on the right, in front of a billboard demonising asylum-seekers. Back then you didn't hear people like Amanda Vanstone calling for a bit of shoosh to discourage the asylum seekers, because it would have been as stupid then as it is now.

Keenan at least has the good grace to look a bit sheepish at that event - but cheer up, because he is now the Minister for Justice! Like all ministers, he reports to Kate Walshe and Peta Credlin and does nothing but what they think is best for him to be seen doing. That's small-j justice for ya: weep for Michael Keenan if you like.

I don't mind being ruled by those who are unaccountable, so long as they are absolutely right about each aspect of everything all the time (and if you think the latter clause in the preceding sentence is unreasonable, then the former is not on either). Best to get this post out while it's still legal to criticise Morrison, Keenan, Walshe, and Credlin.

21 September 2013

My Prime Minister, your Prime Minister

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

- Walt Whitman Song of myself

There remains a desire in this country to hold the government to account. Some people want the government to do what it was elected to do, others want it to do something else. Traditionally the media also held governments to account, but these days they only do polls.

What do people mean when they say "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister"? What do others who hear that think it means?

When Liberal voters hear "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister", they hear sad people in denial about the country from whose government they have been removed. In politics, as in sport, it is not enough to win; others must fail, and people upset that Tony Abbott is doing what he always said he'd do must have failed.

Despite the fact that Coalition supporters treated Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard with contempt, and despite their often appalling behaviour extended to non-members of the last government like Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, and Tim Mathieson, they seriously believe that the nation should just shut up and let the Abbott government do whatever it feels like doing. Even though every government gets criticised for what it does and doesn't do, they sincerely believe this government should be heard in the respectful silence that Coalition functions extend to visiting Abbott government ministers.

When those who opposed the government, or who oppose particular policies, say "Tony Abbott is not my Prime Minister", they mean that they think the country is better than Abbott and the policies that he brings with him - 7 September notwithstanding. They take the ability to criticise the government - any government - pretty much as given. Dissent need not be impolite, let alone as insolent as Coalition fans think it is. When a government is dismissive of the authority that comes with experience and learning, and appears to be in the grip of the Dunning-Kruger effect, it can make civil discourse that much more difficult (while also overestimating their ability to prevail when things turn ugly).

Tony Abbott isn't "my" Prime Minister, or yours, because you and I aren't Rupert Murdoch. All of Abbott's life has been consumed with snuggling up to authority and then gradually assuming it, without having to justify that authority or answer to it in any meaningful way. As Health Minister, he was rarely interviewed by journalists who specialise in health policy; when he was interviewed by political journalists they would ask him about anything but his portfolio, which they never really understood, not even when Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek introduced measures to compensate for Abbott's inaction or maladministration.

In only a few days in office the Abbott government has attracted a lot of criticism over two issues: having few women ministers, and cutting environmental programs. In both areas, its post-election behaviour is pretty much the same as its pre-election behaviour. While it is always possible to hope for more and better, it is silly to be disappointed at eminently foreseeable events like the dismissal of Tim Flannery and the dissolution of the Climate Change Commission. Take this letter in The Age yesterday (Courtesy @davidadonaldson):

Oh yes you did, Ms Paton. You ignored the warnings and believed all the blandishments. Yet, there will be more like you than those who go the other way.

Does this mean Tony Abbott is my Prime Minister? No. Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of my country. I take responsibility for the vote I cast, and while I wish more of my fellow voted in a similar way to what I did, I recognise the reality of what happened. Australia has one of the most open and fairest electoral systems in the world, and I do not believe the Coalition subverted it by force, graft, or other illegality such that would invalidate the result. I do not believe our political system is the kind of choice-of-two-evils facing the people of Egypt, the non-choice of evil in Zimbabwe, or the non-choice of many evils besetting Syria.

If you're an Australian then Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of your country, as Sarah Burnside points out:
There is nothing inherently wrong with political conflict and there is, certainly, a great deal in Abbott’s mean-spirited platform about which to be angry – for instance, deep cuts to foreign aid and to the Aboriginal Legal Service (which Warren Mundine now suggests may be reversed) ...
This will be an interesting test for Mundine. Having left the ALP, where he had been National President, to take up with the Abbott government, Mundine had better be right about statements like that. If he keeps insisting that we look on the sunny side of the Abbott government, and were such optimism were to go unsupported by what the government actually does, Mundine's credibility might suffer; how strange that would be where the Prime Minister was so committed to Indigenous issues.

Burnside rightly points out:
The desire to parade one's despair and anger with our new government is civic engagement of a rather narrow kind. The sphere of the political seems to shrink; instead of a concern with the wider world and the clashing ideologies and the power relations that shape our society, politics is a matter of individual performance. The personal is political, the political personal, and the snake devours its tail until nothing is left.
That's true about despair in general. It might also be fair to say that about those who insist that "Abbott's policies on [whatever] are truly scary". Oh, please. What we have here is a series of rallying cries for those who are out but not down. Tony Abbott gave no quarter or respect to the last government and is owed none in return. Burnside seems to be arguing against the sort of quietism that overcomes football fans once their team drops out of finals contention, unless she is arguing for it as Liberals are; it is unclear what she is arguing for, how those who oppose the government wholly or in part should go about the business of securing outcomes they perceive as better.

Not everything that governments say or do are justified by a mandate. John Howard did not have a mandate to help East Timor secure its independence, nor for WorkChoices, yet both came to define his government. Paul Keating, definer and scourge of Balmain basket-weavers, was the last person you'd expect to deliver the Redfern speech. It is possible that those who urge Abbott to go against his base (and base instincts) may be doing him a bigger favour than his rusted-on muckers egging him on to do his worst.

Barrie Cassidy wrote:
Tony Abbott's immediate media strategy is to put the country to sleep, or at least lower the volume so that everybody can enjoy a little quiet reflection after a tumultuous few years.

That approach is eminently defensible and politically smart.
No it isn't. It might be different were the government basking in the sort of roseate glow of goodwill that lasts for a while after a new government takes office - that has all but gone in this case, and your crusty old journos who've seen governments come and go missed that entirely.

On what are they/we reflecting? Bad things about Abbott: his discomfort with women in positions where they might challenge him, and the fact that the challenges surrounding climate change will be squibbed altogether rather than tinkered with. His base might revel in that, but a clear majority is uncertain at least on both issues.

This, however, made me laugh:
... the media has to be alert to the danger that Abbott and his ministers wind back media engagements primarily to avoid scrutiny and accountability.
If you seriously still assume that the media are in the accountability business, take these two of so, so many examples where that is simply not the case.

On 20 June, Leigh Sales interviewed Dr Craig Emerson on ABC's 7.30. At the time, Emerson was Minister for Trade and Competitiveness; Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research; and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy. None of his portfolio responsibilities were covered by Sales - no executive actions, no expenditures of taxpayer money, across such a wide area. Sales put to him Canberra chatter about polls, polls, and polls:
LEIGH SALES: I'm not talking about polls.

CRAIG EMERSON: You are. You're talking about a pollster and talking about Julia Gillard standing in polls. There are polls out now - not every week, Leigh, but every day ...
In this case, it was the government minister who held the journalist chairthing presenter to account. So much for your Fourth Estate.

Consider the recent controversy over the gender make-up of the Abbott Cabinet, and consider that this exchange took place just three months ago:
LEIGH SALES: Speaking of Tony Abbott, in a speech last week the Prime Minister said that under an Abbott Government, women voices would be banished from political life. Why did she over-state and exaggerate her case like that?

CRAIG EMERSON: Well I think it's pretty clear that Tony Abbott, in the way he talks about women or certainly has talked about women in the past, has created anxiety amongst women as to whether they really would be part of the mainstream under an Abbott-led Government.

LEIGH SALES: How exactly would women's voices be banished?

CRAIG EMERSON: There's two women, for example, in the shadow Cabinet, just two.

LEIGH SALES: Well therefore that's not banished.

CRAIG EMERSON: It's a greatly diminished and this is the point the Prime Minister's making.

LEIGH SALES: I'm asking about the Prime Minister's credibility and her accuracy and why she exaggerated.
This week 7.30 had the good grace to note the paucity of women in the Abbott Cabinet, and to avoid having Sales lead that. She banished the issue to Heather Ewart, who cited only Liberal critics of the Prime Minister; clearly, non-Liberal critics of the Prime Minister are not to be considered on such a matter.

I haven't just picked on some junior journalist making a rookie error for an obscure outlet. Sales and Ewart are among the country's most experienced reporters on politics. Should they be banished when it comes to 'holding the government to account'? They certainly do a crap job of it and are unlikely to get any better.

One who should be banished from slow-media journalism if it is to rebuild any sort of credibility is Mark Baker. If Paddy Manning can be sacked for his measured piece for Crikey then Baker should have been for his silly, swingeing attack:
The Slater & Gordon complaint was vigorously rejected by The Age ...
Well they would, wouldn't they.
... and this finding [the Press Council adjudication] is flawed and illogical - like so much of the work of the Press Council.
Now if a blogger had written that, Baker would be the first to vault onto his high horse and declaim about journalistic standards and unfounded allegations. He has now shown us that he has no standards indistinguishable from the assertion of his ego. He was caught fabricating a story, and now he's blaming the ref for collaring him. Alan Austin has more credibility than Baker, as do we all. The idea that Baker is going to hold anyone to account (or help his subordinates to do so) is absurd, given his diatribe worthy of a drunken derelict arguing with a tree.

Why should I accept that Mark Baker and The Age are laws unto themselves? I don't accept that's the case about the Prime Minister.

Find me a countervailing example of holding the government to account by a slow-media journalist, go on.

The media didn't hold the last government to account and it will do less for this one. Because press gallery journalists' investigative skills have atrophied (or are substituted with fabrications in the case of The Age) the simple act of stopping press conferences will cause the press gallery to create more and more noise about less and less.

Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of my country, and yours if you're an Australian. That means you have to, if you haven't already, get an appreciation of what is and isn't in Australia's best interests; and then judge the policies and decisions of the Abbott government against that. Whether a decision is made on day one, day one hundred or day one thousand of a government's tenure, it is a decision that deserves examination and evaluation. Those who insist that this government must be the first in our history, and unique in the world, to operate without any examination or criticism whatsoever (as happens within the councils of the governing parties) are to be ignored.

You should acknowledge where (if?) the government does a good job, and where it does a bad one consider how it might do better. By doing so, you are helping the incumbents avoid the sort of overreach that saw them bundled out in 2007, and you give an alternative government a clear path forward. My country, and yours, needs this level of scrutiny if it is to live up to its potential. To hell with everyone whose sole contribution to public debate is to call for the deadness of a bit of shoosh.

18 September 2013

Who's who and what's what

The press gallery reporting of the Abbott government ministry (the very phrase still rankles) has been poor, to say the least, and that bodes ill for the quality of reporting we might expect from it over the years ahead.

First, the generalities. The reason why the make-up of the Coalition ministry does not reflect the glorious diversity of Australia is because the Coalition parties don't. The average age of Liberal Party members is over 65. They remember an Australia run by white men, they tend to preselect white men, and Tony Abbott promised a return to John Howard's Australia. What did you expect? Abbott's frontbench is 80% the same as it was in opposition.

Anyone who is surprised by the gender and ethnic makeup of the Abbott ministry is a fool. Anyone who confects surprise in the hope of making political reporting more exciting than it is really doesn't know anything about politics or journalism, and to persist at both in that state is doubly foolish. When you get to something wilfully stupid like this, you just despair.

Not only is there only one female minister in the Cabinet, but that minister - the Foreign Minister - is the one most likely to miss any given meeting of Cabinet. Annabel Crabb is right when she says Julie Bishop is nobody's token, up to a point. Julie Bishop rose through the ranks of the legal profession, won the safest Liberal seat in Perth and fixed the wreckage of aged care policy left by her hapless namesake Bronwyn. Then she entered Cabinet (coincidentally, the point at which Julie Bishop was dragged out of her depth is also the point when Crabb began her career as a parliamentary theatre reviewer), where it all fell apart in every sense but the titular.

The whole idea of the Gillard government's education reforms was to address the utter failure of Amanda Vanstone, Brendan Nelson, and Julie Bishop in that ministry. They should've made more of that; when Bishop, Pyne and other senior Liberals insisted before the election that the way schools are funded now is perfectly adequate, someone should've asked Bishop to explain the current funding system. The response would have made Jaymes Diaz look like Rudd at his most programmatically specific.

Julie Bishop is, like most of us, a foreign policy moron. This blog has been down on her silly lecturing of Indonesia. While it's true that Greg Sheridan has also pointed this out, the fact that he and she have been on junkets to Sri Lanka and formed similar glowing judgments of that country's government shows that it takes one to know one. The real reason she survives as Deputy Leader is because none of the leaders she served view her as a threat. Press gallery journalists have no excuse not to know this. The Indonesians in particular will leak to them, but will they have the wit to use them against Bishop?

We're poorly served by our new foreign minister and she hasn't even been sworn in yet. That's what's missing from Crabb's piece. That, and the fact that her clumsy segue into Mirabella shows one of her starkest limitations: her imaginative failure. Just because Mirabella isn't in the Cabinet, it doesn't follow that no other woman can be. In Crabb's world it doesn't follow that any woman not even in the Parliament today might make a good and useful cabinet minister. If the options aren't on the table, according to Crabb, they aren't options. Watch Crabb rhapsodise about Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker.

This brings us to another hard truth that the press gallery can't face up to regarding Abbott. Good old Tone the media tart is a thing of the past, and the journos don't believe him when he says he wants a break from having to front them. Mirabella isn't out of Cabinet because she made an announcement - she's not in Cabinet because she lost a safe seat. If you think Twitter is down on her, go and talk to the Liberals in what are now the two or three most marginal Labor seats in Victoria. Press gallery is too lazy to go there and they don't have Twitter accounts, but the anger is both real and valid.

The minister who's next most likely to miss Cabinet meetings is the Trade Minister, Andrew Robb. Abbott's office can't stand Robb because he doesn't back down when they yell at him. He will be one of the better ministers in this government, sifting through the legalistic and ceremonial bullshit to get to the essence of the deal. He will probably help industries you mightn't expect in markets you mightn't expect. Robb is the first Liberal Minister for Trade since 1956 and only the second one ever. The Nats/Country Party have traditionally clung to the portfolio jealously, and stuffed it up; witness the dead hand of Black Jack McEwen (bloody Indi!), or Doug Anthony trying to jam his bloodied toe into the closing door of 1970s Europe, or Mark Vaile simpering before the Americans to land an empty "free trade agreement".

Kelly O'Dwyer is smarter and harder-working than Jamie Briggs, who came from a similar staffer background and entered Parliament before the last election replacing the ministers for whom they worked. She built her profile via the media whereas he worked behind the scenes. She missed out on a frontbench gig whereas Briggs didn't. I knew Dennis Jensen had no hope of anything once he started shooting his mouth off in the media. As with Howard, the worst thing you can do if you care about an issue and want the PM to address it, is to go to the media.

O'Dwyer made one of the cardinal mistakes in politics, a newbie error: never go on telly unless you have something to say (and no, talking points do not count as "something to say"). She was widely disparaged by people who follow politics closely for acting as a relay-station for what are clearly the thoughts of others, and poorly-considered thoughts at that. Keeping up the media availability would be a mistake - the next time she should appear on the media she should have something to say as a result of her own hard work and investigation, and should have cleared it with the relevant minister without merely being an echo of that minister. It is possible that she may not be elevated to a job befitting her talents until the Abbott Government has almost, or completely, run its course; this need not be a bad thing.

Compare O'Dwyer with Josh Frydenberg, who entered Parliament after her and who is again another ex-staffer. The deep humus of this blog has plenty to say about Frydenberg and what a sillyhead he is, yet in Liberal circles he has a reputation as a thinker, while she's just a talking head.

Both O'Dwyer and Briggs - and you, dear reader, for that matter - are smarter and harder-working than Peter Dutton. His contribution to this government's victory is zero. He did no work on policy or campaigning and should not have received so much as a cracker from Abbott. All Coalition arguments about merit and against quotas fail in the slack-jawed face of this utter waste of skin. As Minister for Sport he will spend the coming parliamentary term swanning around next year's One-Day Cricket World Cup here and in NZ, as well as the FIFA World Cup and Olympics in Brazil.

He will do bugger-all about ageing in a nation with a steadily-ageing demographic - one largely responsible for this government being elected at all. He will not even have the wit to fuse sports and health in some way, in a country with such an obesity problem. He is ill-served by having Fiona Nash as Assistant Minister. His successor as Shadow Minister for Health should be able to mess with his head pretty easily, if not claim his scalp.

The one thing Dutton will do is impose boards on hospitals. Studies show local hospital boards do nothing to improve health services, nor to improve the cost per delivery of services, nor tailor health services to local needs. We already know what this government thinks of studies and proof and facts, don't we. Local health boards will be stacked full of busybodies, lurk-merchants and resume-polishers, thanks to Dutton.

Among the many important issues about which Dutton will be doing bugger-all is disability services. One of the central ideas behind DisabilityCare is to deliver the same services for less money. Whether setting it up or abolishing it altogether, this area needs energy and vision - yes I know Dutton is palming this off to Mitch Fifield, I said energy and vision. Fifield is a grey bureaucrat who might keep some obscure corner of government from getting into the slow media, repelling journalists through his sheer dullness, but the wrong person to build anything and reach out to people. The right minister could be so successful that Labor would have trouble convincing future voters that it was their idea - Fifield is not that minister.

Matthias Cormann, like Stephen Conroy, doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him. He is the perfect counterfoil to Joe Hockey, who deep down wants people to think he's a good guy. When it came to the Gillard government's regulation of financial planners, Cormann showed both his mastery of detail and the ability to advocate dumb policy with a straight face - two rare and indispensable qualities for this government. It is Cormann who will snarl at aggrieved stakeholders about the need for budget cuts. The whole nation will think he's a prick, and he'll look like one until the entire WA government starts to implode (Cormann is largely to blame for the WA state government being like that), at which point he'll look like a doofus. Hated and smart is OK for a senior politician; hated and clumsy is political death.

Arthur Sinodinos is effectively Minister for Tax and Regulating Big Companies. It's complex and there are no real winners, but this is his chance to develop skills he doesn't have in actual politicking and dealing with the dumber journalists. Nobody doubts Sinodinos can handle the backroom nitty-gritty - hell, Julia Gillard could do that. If Sinodinos really is the complete package let's see him do the grassroots stuff without being able to invoke the authority of the PM's office. Abbott is also feebly trying to signal to Howard that he's his own man; let's see how long that lasts.

Kevin Andrews belongs in the bin with the rest of them, but for one factor: he is the conduit between the Liberal Party and the broad but largely obscure movement of Catholic conservatives. What Andrews lacks as an administrator of the common weal, or as a media performer, he more than makes up for as a tactician while keeping hidden conservative Catholic motivations and support. Next time abortion or euthanasia or gay marriage resurface as issues, it will be Andrews who does the behind-the-scenes work for this government to quietly but unequivocally suppress them. Andrews will do the dirty work to scupper the Royal Commission into Child Abuse, on which a smart opposition would raise hell.

Andrews, through Joe de Bruyn, is the backdoor channel into the ALP; when Liberals bag unionists, you can be sure they do not have de Bruyn in mind. Andrews was such a crap Workplace Relations Minister because he was so conflicted. In his current role he isn't conflicted, but he will be furtive. His shadow minister should be alert to his lack of attention to detail and avoid getting sucked into culture-war themes unless there's gross waste involved.

The reason why there is a Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC is not some tokenistic "Minister for Anzac Day". Next year is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. 25 April 2015 will be the centenary of the landings at Anzac Cove, and any Australian government would be into that up to its eyeballs; this stuff will not organise itself. In much the same way, there were ministers for the Olympic Games before and during the 1956 Melbourne Games and the 2000 Games in Sydney.

The fact that said minister is the non-entity Michael Ronaldson is not at all comforting. Veterans' affairs is too hard for him. Normally a sinecure, the fact that (for the first time since the 1960s) there are kids at school today whose fathers have been killed at war means that the portfolio needs careful management, if not reinvention. It involves more than patronising old diggers; the push for better mental health and disability services will be driven largely from this portfolio, whether or not the "all in good time" ethos of this government allows it. Young men of working age who got bent out of shape in Afghanistan won't be brushed aside by half-witted Liberals like the Vietnam vets were. Ronaldson should be an easy target for a shadow minister on top of his or her game.

Chris Pyne will persecute the culture war and knows his Adelaide honk annoys people; the correct way to deal with him is not to engage but to simply dismiss him as a know-nothing. He can handle being disliked but not having his bluff called. Sussan Ley will be a cracker of a minister; I pity her shadow, and she will not be able to help showing up Pyne. Michael Keenan is talked up by Liberals but I suspect he is full of shit; a shadow who goes him hard and early might rattle him.

Paul Fletcher was outed today as the genius who foisted an internet filter on Malcolm Turnbull, and the rest of us, on the day before the election. That should have ended his career; it has certainly ended the 'promising' aspect of it. The sillier members of the press gallery tout Fletcher as some sort of ICT policy genius as the basis for doing so gets more and more flimsy. Lumping him as Malcolm Turnbull's parly sec is cruel to both men, unless Turnbull has the sense to lump Fletcher with things like having to erect metal boxes in every street.

Ian Macfarlane thinks he has to be a spruiker for industry. That's what lobbyists are for; maybe he's making an early pitch for such a job. The former spokesperson for farmers has gone full circle in support of the frackers. If he really gets going he will hollow out the Nationals and give rise to dozens of Windsor-McGowan-style independents at the next election, which will finally end the Whitlam-era idea that the outer suburban seats determine government.

It was sensible of Abbott to drop the useless John Cobb from Agriculture. On every bit of public policy affecting agriculture over the past six years - beef to Indonesia, wheat sales, NZ apples - John Cobb managed to stuff it up and had to be rescued by Abbott's office. No press gallery journalist noted Cobb's ineptitude, preferring instead to let Barnaby Joyce complain about foreign-owned farms (Joyce can be quite sanguine about British and US interests owning farms; less so about Chinese and Filipino interests, for reasons no press gallery journalist has thought to explore). Now Joyce is well placed to do something about agriculture policy, but it isn't clear what - like Abbott himself, Joyce is like the dog that's caught the car he chased so ardently, and now he has to drive it.

Why was Warren Entsch dumped as Chief Whip? Along with the dumping of Senator Ian Macdonald from the front bench, you might assume that Abbott has something against far north Queensland. This is going to make it hard for the government to demonstrate that it's big on developing the deep north.

Eric Abetz will be rubbish at negotiating outcomes in the Senate. He's a culture warrior who'll beat up on enfeebled unions (except de Bruyn's, of course), devoting maximum energy to the irrelevant, assuming that everybody works in fulltime jobs within stable organisations with secure employee benefits. The Coalition message on workplace relations is all over the place, thanks to this gimlet-eyed knucklehead who hasn't had a new idea since the 1980s. He is both a liability for this government, and utterly irreplaceable.

Greg Hunt has so hollowed out his credibility that I hope he chokes on his reward. Scott Morrison never had any, and the rest of the Cabinet aren't worth their own weight in bottle-tops. Warren Truss didn't join the Nationals in order to build freeways in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Smart lawyers will run rings around Brandis, who won't have the good grace to admit his own mediocrity and try being affable instead. Brandis fancies himself as a champion of traditional freedoms but he has nothing to say and less to do on the subject; a tough, smart Senate should eviscerate him.

When a new government comes to office the administrative arrangement orders set out which minister is responsible for which legislation, and which departments. It's seriously wonky, but a) the market for that is bigger than you might imagine and b) there is much in that for political journalists to use in assessing ministers' performances. There are thousands of soon-to-be-unemployed public servants who understand these, and a few will be able to explain what they mean. Do you think the press gallery will reach out to such people? Me neither.

Labor's putative front bench are both younger and more experienced than this ministry. Consider two smart, hard-working and effective pols from NSW: Tanya Plibersek and Marise Payne. Plibersek has six years' ministerial experience, including a stint in Cabinet - even if Payne matches that record, and I wouldn't be surprised, she will still be five years older than Plibersek. At some point press gallery journalists will opine that 'the government is tired' and/or 'the opposition is invigorated', because Labor will offer greater relative experience, diversity, and youth.

Whenever a conservative writes a "w(h)ither Labor?" piece, it's almost always an attempt to mask a feared weakness in conservative ranks. This is why halfwits express their amazement that social media treats Abbott with similar contempt to that which the slow media showed Gillard. This is no exception. The internal democracy of the ALP seems very important to those within that organisation, and is neither here nor there to those outside it like Matthewson and me. Rudd was destabilising because he would never accept no for an answer, and neither would his acolytes. It may be that whoever loses the Labor leadership contest white-ants the winner, but it may also be that the loser turns his energy against the Coalition. It's hard to tell from this angle and Matthewson just looks like she's painting Labor in the worst possible light. She should leave that crap to Chris Kenny, or Mark Kenny, or any other member of the Kenny family really.

This government won with less than the thumping majority it had hoped (those pollsters who predicted Rudd and Bowen would lose their seats can just fuck off, and stick your statistical excuse-making). The lack of women and diverse personnel in this government has all but killed the honeymoon effect enjoyed by newly-elected governments (the best commentary on this is Tim Dunlop's article, because it's about Abbott and those who voted for him rather than those who didn't).

At the very point where this government starts the It's Worse Than We Thought pantomime and starts making Hard And Unpopular But Necessary Decisions, along will come the new Labor leader saying that it doesn't have to be this way. That's when the trouble will start for this government. They seriously assume that the opposition, in parliament and out, will let them get on with it with only the kind of quiescent embarrassment that people inside the Coalition who had doubts about Abbott showed toward him.

Labor assumes it will be able to go in hard over its two big strengths, education and health. The loss of government federally, and in four states with two more to come, suggests this would not be a good idea. Because nobody is listening to the opposition anyway at this point, it would be silly to expect them to feint and invite Abbott to engage them on their favourite issues. The opposition should meet this government where they're at, and shirtfront them on the things they care about. The government is all over the place on the economy; it should be possible to get in their faces before they can develop a narrative.

One of the central beliefs animating the Liberal/National base is that Canberra is full of shinybum bureaucrats cooking up plans to raise taxes and generally screw the country. Part of the reason why you so often see Abbott on a bike is to reassure the base - a man riding a bicycle is not trying to break anyone's business model. When Abbott said before the election "I've got a plan", I was waiting for the rejoinder "but he hasn't even got a clue", which never came. A few hard, early blows portraying Coalition figures as having been in Canberra way too long will sting.

The central problem facing this government is that its "all in good time" ethos will start to look complacent. Peter Hartcher has unwittingly admitted that this is a vacuous government, and that it doesn't yet know what aspects of its negative campaign are to be retained or dropped. This makes it enormously vulnerable, but not necessarily in the tu quoque way Hartcher seems to assume. This country has an enormous future provided the Coalition are prevented from applying their bonsai techniques to the mighty potential for social, artistic, and economic outcomes. When polls turn against this government the dopier commentators will assume that they are driving its decay, when in fact they will be reflecting it.

If you don't know why you're in government (other than for its own sake, or for the lurks) you won't be there long. Labor has to learn that lesson, but so too must the Coalition. Guess which is most receptive to learning hard lessons, has nothing to lose that it doesn't value, and has more time and more energy up its sleeve. Guess which is complacent and risk-averse, and confuses debate with dissent. The press gallery literally have a box seat in observing this new government, which isn't new to them; but they just can't tell what's going on.

15 September 2013

The student who never learned

Sophie Mirabella, mirabile dictu, has lost her seat on the very cusp of becoming a Cabinet Minister. I've noticed that my previous post about her has received quite a lot of traffic since Cathy McGowan announced her nomination for Indi, but is that the limit of the significance of that event? I think it shows the limits of a model of politics that has passed its peak without a new model to replace it being readily available and replicable.

Mirabella came from student politics, which relies on disengagement from an intelligent electorate. You can get elected to a student representative body with as few as fifty votes - I've done it myself, and so did Sophie Panopoulos (as she was then), especially with a well-known political brand behind you. Basically, if you really want a job that few others want, and work at convincing a small number of others that you're serious, chances are you'll get the votes. Then, you'll find yourself among the small number of others who want to lord it over the refectory, and over grants to clubs and societies.

The main criticism with student politics, particularly among people who have taken other routes into state or national politics, is that it teaches practitioners to fight intensely for issues and baubles that don't really count for much. Worse, it doesn't really teach bridge-building or the necessary skills to marshal broad support for a particular issue, particularly with people who will support you on no other issue. Local government might teach you that, so might NGOs, or perhaps getting involved in a union/professional association - but not student politics. Learning how to distinguish the various flavours of marxist and then fight (for or against) them is both a absorbing pastime on campus and utterly useless beyond it.

Sophie Mirabella embodied all of the worst aspects of student politics and none of the best. She learned nothing about building small-c coalitions, but learned how to build a small, tight-knit and ruthlessly committed knot of supporters who could get her anywhere she wanted to go. This was what she took to the monarchist movement in the '90s: she was always kept away from events where people might need persuading, but where there was a little-watched debate against some diffident republicans putting their case as though it were inevitable, she would all but sink her teeth into their ankles and make sure any undecideds left the debate undecided as the republicans limped away. She'd done her homework but those who could match her there were threatening, personally threatening. She got nasty early and had no game plan for those who could stand the heat. People who backed off when she got personal vindicated her self-image as a strong person.

For Mirabella herself, intensity paid dividends. For those who weren't paying attention it was easy to see her as just another hack on the make.

These were the qualities she brought to Indi. This is an electorate with no dominant centre: a few prominent townships of roughly equal size but no central media market. But for the constitutional prohibition on electorates crossing state boundaries it would be focused on Albury. Someone who's big in Wodonga, say, will be unknown in Mansfield, etc. The region is consistently conservative but, curiously for those accustomed to politics-as-bloodsport, apolitical. Politics is practised subtly, indistinguishable from other business and community transactions. In regional communities you simply have to work with others whether you like them or not, and you're going to lead a miserable life if you don't so get along and go along.

Mirabella was used to living a miserable life. She worked in the family business at Laverton and attended St Catherine's at Toorak. She looked down on those who dropped by the business as much as her meaner, narrower schoolmates looked down on her; she realised that business put her through school but not to the point where she made more of an effort into helping the business grow. She was a high-achieving Melbourne Uni law graduate but none of the big firms or corporates would touch her. She graduated about the time Jeff Kennett led the Coalition to government in Victoria, but couldn't get a staffer job. For five years she had a lover whom she couldn't introduce to her family, and whose family disdained her. A compartmentalised electorate where few people swapped notes suited her down to the ground.

Colin Howard believed that Mirabella would be set for life with such a conservative seat. He overestimated her ability to build large but loose alliances rather than small, tight alliances surrounded by moats of hostility. People were either fiercely loyal to Mirabella or they hated her, and over a dozen years the latter came to outnumber the former; certainly more moved from the former to the latter than vice versa. She had, for better or worse, become part of the community she represented. Those who came to feel Mirabella did not, and ought not, represent local communities faced the dilemma of how they could remove her without rending the very conservative fabric that they blamed her for damaging.

Over time her opponents became united and committed while her inner circle rotated in personnel and became fewer, absolutely and relatively to those whose bridges had been burnt from her end. Having your support base small but tight might be good for your own self-definition but it's a lousy way to operate as one who must smooth over local concerns, or bring focus to them.

The staff in her office turned over regularly. Back when the government ran job ads in the papers, jobs in Mirabella's office were advertised frequently. Country people look to government jobs as sources of continuity in a world beset by fluctuations in seasons and market prices. MPs rely on long-serving staff to provide ongoing service and to become experienced readers of community concerns. Turning over staff is a bad look at the best of times, and unproductive, but Mirabella burnt more than just the individuals who worked for her with her flaky demands and ingratitude.

It must have been galling for local campaigners for mental health services to find Mirabella claiming credit for their work. More significant, however, was that such a movement gained sufficient traction to get a meeting with a federal minister without the imprimatur of the local member. Few would have begrudged Mirabella a photo op or a good-news press release had she been part of the campaign. The then-government helped her opponents by bypassing her - a breach of parliamentary protocol in normal circumstances but one of those things that falls away under conditions of total warfare generally, and where you have a particular disdain for the individual opponent in question.

The fact that she wasn't involved, insisting that other issues were more important, is telling. The fact that she's claiming credit for something in which she played no part is a bit sneaky. The belief, however, that she'd get away with it is extraordinary. That's your real indicator of an absence of emotional connection, an understanding that any group in the community who are committed enough to get top-level meetings in Canberra without help from the local member are going to be pissed off if that member decides she's going to snatch all the credit, thanks very much.

A local member needs to build relationships not only with, but among, a local community; particularly in communities that haven't been as atomised and deracinated as many urban and suburban communities have. I don't care whether you've read enough French philosophy to regard that as bourgeois, and to regard that as a bad thing. Which brings us to this.

It fails on two, eminently Razerian levels. First, 'universal' hatred? Really? Like Bashir al-Assad, or whoever wrote Patrick out of Offspring? Second, it misses the point.

Mirabella was never some kick-arse babe whose default pose was a snarl and a raised middle finger and Razer is wrong to portray her as such. Canberra, like other small towns, relies on people at least making an effort to maintain dialog with others in order to get business done. As Shadow Minister for Industry facing a government with which business relations were strained, she would have been a magnet for lobbyists and would have known how to play that game. Consider three basic facts about politics:
  1. Building bridges is a basic skill of politics; and
  2. So is holding a safe seat against enemies within and without your party; but
  3. Last Saturday, quite a number of politicians who were better at building bridges and other basic political skills than Mirabella lost their seats to candidates who didn't work half as hard as Cathy McGowan did; and
  4. At an election where most electorates swung toward the Coalition, those that swung away sure are worth examining; and
  5. Politics is tough. Everyone learns on the job to some extent, but basic lessons should have been learned long before your name is called out by a returning officer. Nobody who's been in the game for as long as Mirabella has can claim any excuse, and nobody who's been as pitiless as she has gets a break (unless, like Helen Razer, you haven't been paying attention). Mirabella is like the football player who drops the ball with seconds to go in a tight game - 'universally hated' for a while perhaps, but suck it up because that's how you earn the tall dollars: it's all part of the game.
Naomi Parry is right when she points out that Mirabella was first elected in 2001 with 62% of the vote, and that was whittled down to under 49% by a succession of female candidates like Zuvele Leschen, Jenny O'Connor, Robyn Walsh, and McGowan herself. The history of the Liberal Party is replete with strong, powerful women like Ivy Wedgwood, Margaret Guilfoyle, Rachel Cleland, and Beryl Beaurepaire - Mirabella could have learned from them and built on their achievements, but it's too late for that now. Here we get into questions about whether female candidates are seen to/portray themselves as better bridge-builders and networkers than males, and questions of agency in a patriarchal context, and - look, I don't know why you even come to this site for that because I have to go elsewhere to get across it.

Last year Fenella Souter from Fairfax rang me about my previous post on Mirabella, in preparation for a piece on her in The Good Weekend. She said that she had met Mirabella and found her "perfectly nice", and wondered how anyone could find her otherwise. I gave her some examples, and how she resorts to that early on in an argument (or even an idle chat) rather than as a last resort, when pushed to the edge. I talked about the points listed above, and what I'd hope for from a member of parliament let alone a prospective Cabinet Minister. She paused and reiterated: "Yes but she was perfectly nice, I just don't understand ...", and I thought: she has retained just enough of that St Catherine's polish to put one over you.

Razer says that Mirabella is no worse than Cory Bernardi, and that's probably fair. The difference is that Bernardi made it to State President of the Liberal Party (in South Australia) and retains enough support there to lead the party's Senate ticket in that state. Mirabella has no real clout on the Victorian Liberal executive - again, we go to questions of political skill and competence here.

To divert for a moment, SA also shows the state of the modern Liberal Party. That state elected two Liberal Senators and also gave 1.8 Senate quotas to Nick Xenophon, whose support base consists largely of moderate liberals. Had extremists like Bernardi and Nick Minchin not preferred a small, tightly-controlled Liberal Party over a genuine 'broad church', the Coalition would have a majority in the Senate and be able to pass whatever legislation it could get away with. Show me a tightly-controlled political party and I'll show you one safe for morons. A looser, cat-herding arrangement brings quality to the fore.

There are two personal issues that Liberals try to drag into the debate over Mirabella, and where they succeed they only make her critics look petty. The first, they insist, is that Mirabella is a loving mother. That may be so, or it may not; either way, it has no bearing on whether or not she should represent a community in parliament.

The second is that all this gloating over Mirabella losing her seat is somehow akin to Liberal attacks on Julia Gillard while she was grieving the death of her father. MPs lose their seats as a verdict of the people on their representation in parliament; Julia Gillard's father was not put to death as a result of his daughter's unpopularity, real or imagined. Even if it were true, and that those who felt nothing for Gillard's grief are now pained at Mirabella's, perhaps we might see a change in the way that politics is practised. I doubt it, but I've been wrong before.

The better parallel is with the ALP's drawn-out execution of Belinda Neal, Mirabella's tormentor and sister-from-another-mother in many respects. Even better: the rolling of the then Sophie Panopoulos by the Melbourne University Liberal Club. Many of those who turned on her were people she had known and worked with closely. The same would happen as she walks the streets of Wangaratta or Benalla, watching people who had been loyal supporters averting their gaze. Yeah it probably is painful, but the time has come to stop blaming others for her problems and to stop assuming that it is possible to compensate for them.

What now for Mirabella? How ya gonna keep her down at the Wodonga law practice at now that she's seen the Cabinet table (well, almost)?
  • The Napthine government won't touch her with a bargepole. Think of all the problems facing that government and consider which ones Mirabella might make better - and there you have her essential problem in a nutshell. She might get a job writing a report for them or for an employer organisation, but only if she does so from outside the office - you wouldn't want her monstering the admin staff and junior researchers.
  • Abbott needs to reward Mirabella, not as some sort of favour but to show his new government that he will not leave them in the cold should they stumble. It's true that I don't think highly of Abbott or Mirabella, but if Abbott starts disparaging her or gives her nothing despite decades of loyal support, then he is a damned swine on top of everything else and his own team will rightly start to disengage from him. It's not at all impossible to envisage Mirabella in Sydney again, doing this or that with and for "Tony" and "Bronwyn"; she owes them so much and they need to be seen to be returning the favour.
Does this mean Mirabella's failure and dysfunction has "broken the business model" of student pols and their disengagement-dependent methodology to national politics? Hardly. In a month or so we could well end up with each of the incumbent and alternative prime ministers being a student politics veteran from Sydney Uni named Anthony. Mirabella has only been 'robbed' of what was 'rightfully' hers if you have no respect for her agency or that of voters in response. She's a clever person in many respects but not in terms of how to deal with people, and what they want from government.

She shares that failing with more people in politics than you might imagine. The tightly-controlled, 'disciplined' model of politics is designed for people slightly less dysfunctional than Mirabella, and slightly less talented in many respects. What lessons will those people learn from the demise of Sophie Mirabella, if any? Sophie who? Wasn't she one of those women from the Gillard era?

12 September 2013

As good as it gets

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshine-y day

Jimmy Cliff I can see clearly now

Australia needs to be an open society, tolerant of personal differences among people and communities, and innovative in terms of the business practices of government and the economy more broadly.

The question before the last election was, can Tony Abbott deliver a government that meets the needs of the country?

I said no, repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, and voted accordingly. Mark Kenny disagrees. He believes that the election results invalidates any opposition and, in line with the editorial position of his employer, insists that Abbott must be taken at his word.

The first thing to be said about "Labor's case against Tony Abbott" is: well, they would say bad things about him, wouldn't they. His descriptions of them were reductive and exaggerating, and Kenny has no right to be surprised that he copped a little bit of his own medicine back.
The opposites of rash, aggressive, impulsive, and frenetic are probably things like calm, consultative, methodical and steady. Unsurprisingly, these latter words are the ones Tony Abbott wants you to attach to his new government. Abbott is building a public relations case for his administration against the negative backdrop of the "chaos" he replaced.
Well, he would, wouldn't he. Just as we need a thesaurus to work out synonyms and antonyms, so too we need journalism to decide whether or not that's valid. Journalists have to decide the extent to which they want to play along with the PR strategy of the government of the day, and the trade-offs in credibility they make in doing that.
Clearly, the Rudd and Gillard incarnations of Labor were notable not just for their poisonous divisions but for their desperate attempts to rev up the news cycle. In their adolescent plea for friendship, they were prepared to backflip on just about anything. Be just about anything.
This paragraph clearly isn't meant to be informative, the product of an experienced political journalist.

In getting through carbon pricing, restrictions on tobacco sales, reforms to education and disability services, and many other things besides, the Gillard government was required to be calm, consultative, methodical and steady. It lasted for the standard parliamentary term of three years on that basis.

I admit to underestimating how important the "poisonous divisions" were to people outside the ALP. The rest of that paragraph may fairly be regarded as bullshit, and an attempt by Kenny to curry favour with the new government. The Gillard government appeared to care very little for the 'news cycle' and indeed its disdain for it has a level of maturity that Abbott, with his stunts and inability to deliver nuanced messages to intelligent adults, now seems to aspire. It was the press gallery whose need for affection and respect was so great, and when it was not reciprocated they simply blackballed the government and insisted, with or without proof, that everything they did was hopeless.

Now that government, baby and bathwater, has been tossed. We have a new government now.
No surprises then that the idyll of an "adult government" was mentioned a few hundred times in the campaign - straight from the focus groups that one.
That maybe so, but the question is whether or not Abbott is capable of delivering on that. He's certainly capable of putting up a front, I don't really need a journalist to tell me that - what I need from a journalist is whether there's any substance behind that front, and no a simple assertion to that effect will not do. Maybe the focus groups should be reconstituted and sworn in instead of the recent shadow cabinet.

Tony Abbott seems to have put up a series of propositions which he cannot reasonably fulfil.

The petty partisan round of appointments and disappointments that follows every newly-elected government will disrupt the idea of "adult government". The first time a Coalition MP is chucked from Parliament for being rowdy, or a minister is dumped for some eminently human flaw or impropriety, that aspiration will be further diminished. The iron discipline that Abbott has imposed upon himself, and which Kenny takes as given, may well slip. Consider the Coalition's monkey-house antics in Parliament and its vacuous stunts beyond it, and wonder whether - if "adult government" is what you want - Tony Abbott is yer man to deliver it. Some of us considered that before the election - oh well.

Then, there's the speech on election night where Abbott actually affirmed the pie-in-the-sky propositions he had put during the campaign. He made promises about the budget that depend on both a hard-to-discern global economic outlook and a sheer absence of any action on his team's part to bring about outcomes on debt and surplus. He actually promised that the boats would be stopped, when the only way to do that is to both engineer a highly unlikely global environment where push factors are absent, and to make Australia every bit as bad as the societies from which people are fleeing. This highly partisan man even promised to reach out to those who never voted for him.

It's one thing to campaign on that stuff: but the more you reiterate it without having what it takes to back it up, the bigger the disappointment you are setting up for those who hoped for better from you. Kenny should be alert for differences between rhetoric and reality, and he isn't.
For Abbott to be successful, he needs to turn around a persistent view of him as a jaw-jutting political bovver boy ... So much for all the emergencies on the borders, in the budget, in the economy.
Yep. I always thought that rhetoric was bullshit, and it's a real shame no journalist was awake to that possibility.

Then again, he and his team have done so little policy work that they need to get on board that Clue Train, and leave the baggage on their party platform if need be (it's too late to do to all of them what was done to Sophie Mirabella, and rip up the ticket in their faces). Public servants have to do the work that the party membership can no longer do, in terms of setting a policy platform.

This would be reassuring if Abbott was slowly and methodically putting in place well-considered policy positions and personnel, but I don't think that's the case. Prove me wrong, Canberra insiders (don't just tell me I'm wrong, prove me wrong).

Playing down that 'emergency' rhetoric will make it hard for Abbott to rev it up again when he needs to get things moving. Denying funding to some worthy cause because of "budget/debt emergency" will start to look like a cop-out. If I was an experienced political journalist I'd know that, and would point it out to my readers.
He even wants politics off the front pages in favour of sport.
Yeah, so did Malcolm Fraser after 1975, so did Hawke and Howard; and if I was an experienced political journalist I'd know that and share it with readers. It's another way of saying: shut up and do what you're told, stop questioning us all the time. Mind you, what with drugs and sex scandals in AFL, and a palpable lack of success in a range of sports played against other countries, perhaps it is not quite the opiate of the masses that politicians might hope.
Abbott had actually been standing on the brake pedal before he won, such was his momentum towards office. The signs were there if you looked. Softening the rhetoric, toning down the outrage, winding back the expectations. Witness his surplus promise, which does not even match Labor's four-year path.
That fluff about the surplus actually looks like a dodge. Two years from now a journalist will accuse them of breaking a promise, and the word-games will begin (see "adult government" above). As for "The signs were there if you looked" - that's your job, Mark. You look and report on what you see.
The story of Abbott's stunning success is inseparable from his political maturation.
Abbott's stunning success is the result of an appearance of maturation (or perhaps 'maturity'? I thought only yoghurt underwent 'maturation'). Whether he really has matured is an open question.
Yet the case against him has been set in aspic. The political left's fascination at his surprising one-vote victory over Malcolm Turnbull in 2009, the oft-cited proof of his shaky internal mandate and his capacity to divide his own MPs.
Not necessarily. This is straw-man work on Kenny's part.

The one-vote thing was always a dead letter after the Coalition party-room changed so significantly after 2010. Abbott does divide his own MPs, but the slow media doesn't really report this. From the mid-1980s to the mid '90s, Liberal turmoil was a regular feature of political reporting, even though they were in Opposition at the time. Since Howard took over the curtain has come down on Liberal turmoil; there was a recurring non-story about Costello supposedly challenging for the leadership, but not to the point where he'd set out to upset anybody in any way. The Liberal leadership changed twice in a single term of parliament, just like the Labor Premiership of NSW - but according to the media this was never proof of turmoil, oh good heavens no.

One reason why disagreements with Abbott were never proof of 'turmoil' is because those who put Abbott into the leadership controlled preselection outcomes in party executives and at branch level across the country. Politicians are loath to criticise their leader because the ramifications for their careers in doing so are real. They tend to do so only if their political base is absolutely secure. When Peta Credlin went around dressing down those who even looked like shirtfronting Abbott, part of her arsenal is a direct or implied threat against her target's very political future - a vulnerability she, and other unelected staffers, lack.
Yet as George Brandis points out, Abbott's internal support is unrivalled. It is not that he won by a single vote that's important, it is that he turned that tiny edge into genuine authority, unifying his team to a greater degree than thought possible and forming a spearhead aimed right at Labor's belly.
The first six words in that paragraph cause a sinking feeling that only comes about when genuine authority is required, but is absent.

Kenny, and Brandis, confuse momentum and victory with authority. What Abbott had was momentum, and he kept Liberals in line by appealing to them not to disrupt that. As a result, they have indeed secured victory. Authority is more elusive, it won't come with being sworn in or with blue ties or suspensions of standing orders. Congratulations George and Mark for knocking down a straw man and confusing what words mean.
Those clinging to the view that the country's new prime minister is some kind of one-dimensional throwback to the 1950s simply haven't been paying attention.

Labor's case against Abbott suffered from this very misconception, which goes a long way to explaining why it has serially underestimated him.
I've been paying attention. Tony Abbott is a multi-dimensional throwback to the 1950s. Wanting sport on the front pages rather than politics is part of that. Now, where is that latter-day Frank Sedgeman?
It may be one of the larger ironies of Australian politics that on the socially divisive issue of marriage equality, for example, it is the Catholic conservative Abbott, rather than the atheist progressive Julia Gillard, who eventually delivers, by allowing an unfettered conscience vote among his MPs and, perhaps even, by dropping his previous objections.
I've read that paragraph over and over and I still can't make sense of it. Will Abbott introduce legislation to allow gays and lesbians to marry, or won't he? What's this "perhaps even" crap? Opponents of gay marriage have every right to expect Abbott will maintain his shared opposition, and they will be furious if he doesn't. There may even be division, if not turmoil.

Abbott should be taken at his word when he says he's against same-sex marriage. It might be sad if supporters refuse to do so, but it wouldn't be ironic.
The left's answer to the Abbott challenge so far has been to assume deceit.
Whenever he moderates his position to the point where his backers can't stomach it, this is a fair assumption.
To posit that Abbott remains every bit the right-wing ideologue but has hidden his real desire to fully deregulate the workplace ...
Let's see about that.

There was a Coalition workplace relations policy released in July that looked pretty moderate. Then-shadow workplace relations minister Eric Abetz refused to defend it in a debate with Bill Shorten at the National Press Club. Then, during the campaign, he and John Alexander disowned it. Amount of slow-media focus on this key issue, which was fairly decisive in the previous two elections: negligible.

This may not reflect Abbott's "real desire" (what does?), but it is evidence of the disunity that is supposedly always fatal. It does give rise to confusion as to what will actually happen and one's ability to plan for that over the longer term: decisions far more complex and difficult than what goes into tomorrow's paper. The paucity of media focus on this has been disappointing.
... wind back advances for women, re-oppress Aborigines and hand over the environment to big oil and big coal.
I don't think he'll have the guts to do any of those things to any real extent. Aborigines will end up mucked about rather than "re-oppressed" per se. In general terms it's doubtful that women or the environment will be better off at the end of an Abbott government than they are at the start of it.

This is more straw man work: even the smallest action, the tiniest trade-off for a major loss in those or other areas, will see Liberals shrieking that they get no credit from ingrates and why do they even bother. This is what happened under Howard and, again, Kenny should be awake to this pantomime.
The idea that the Abbott offered in 2013 was not the "real Tony" was not merely soft thinking, it informed various overreaches of the Labor case - from the working assumption that, in the end, Abbott was unelectable to the embarrassing claim in the penultimate week of the campaign that Abbott had enacted a $10 billion fraud on voters.
People who opposed the Coalition in 1996 always believed that John Howard would bring in workplace relations legislation similar to WorkChoices. The fact that such a scare campaign didn't work at that election, and was not vindicated for almost a decade, does not invalidate it. The signs were there if you looked.

Yes, Labor sure did lose the election last week. To what extent are "the left" and "Labor" interchangeable? Is Bill Shorten "left"? I'd ask whether such a tag applies to Bruce Hawker but he'd probably sue. Journalists need not worry about taxonomy to the extent that political science academics do, but given their reliance on words they should consider what they mean in the current context, if anything.
A tweet during the ABC's Q&A program on Monday summed up the confusion on the political left as people try to reconcile long-held views of Abbott as a hardliner with the reality they see before them.

Abbott, it was asserted, was economically dry and socially wet.

Business worries that the reverse is true, pointing to his taxpayer-funded direct action plan to replace Labor's market-based emissions trading scheme and his taxpayer-funded, gold-plated paid parental leave scheme.
It is scarcely surprising that different (unnamed) people should have different opinions.

This is where some of that consideration of who or what is politically "left" might be useful, if nothing else to stop silly pieces like this. We have little real idea what an Abbott government might or might not do. Poor political journalism is largely, if not entirely, to blame for this. Rather than admit this, Mark Kenny dribbles bullshit like this:
Neither could be described as "dry". Rather, they are entirely political, showing Abbott's propensity to shape-shift and go beyond his programming to hold the centre.
What twaddle that is. The sheer embarrassment in having to write that can only be outdone by that of being partly culpable for such a shameful phenomenon.

Having spent years observing Abbott up close, and claiming the ability to clearly perceive reality, Kenny is reduced to admitting the key player in Australian politics right now is hard to define even for an experienced political journalist who's kept a close eye on him for years. That, dear reader, is professional failure pure and simple.
The truth is, Abbott in government is likely to be populist, political and pragmatic, rather than right-wing, reactionary and regressive.
But then again, Abbott is this unknowable shape-shifter ...? It's too hard to follow your line of thinking Mark. Howard was the three Ps, and also the 3Rs, and he still lost. Hell, so was/did Rudd.

It would be a real pity if Mark Kenny thought that he has seriously made the case in this article that Tony Abbott isn't, and won't be, right-wing, reactionary and regressive. Even so, it's touching that he still finds time in his busy schedule to look out for others:
And the longer the left takes to understand this, the longer it will take it to come to terms with its own failings.
Yeah, that left. It can only dream of ascending to a clear high plane where it has no failings. Mark Kenny and George Brandis live there, and so does Tony Abbott (except where he doesn't - he's such a shape-shifter!). It's a pity for all concerned that actually doing stuff in government can only be a comedown from that clear, high plane. It may even impact the polls, and as everyone knows that's where the real stories are.

We will all pay dearly for our refusal to take Tony Abbott at his word - mark Kenny's words.

11 September 2013

When Rudd disappears

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where -" said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

"- so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question.

- Lewis Carroll Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Kevin Rudd will leave politics when the media stop listening to him en masse. He will not go when this or that commentator says he must. He would not go if a clear or even overwhelming majority of the refashioned Labor caucus begs him to go. When the Canberra press gallery stops listening to him, he will have to find other avenues to get his message out, and that will involve him leaving politics.

All any politician wants is to be quoted in the media (except Jaymes Diaz, perhaps, which is why he hasn't been elected as a politician). Over the past three years Rudd and Tony Abbott achieved that without having much to say. There was the Gillard government, churning out detailed policies over, well, everything across the gamut of federal government really; Rudd and Abbott ignored them and insisted that they could do better. They didn't need to offer any proof because the press gallery took them at their word.

Imagine what it must have been like in the press gallery just a few weeks ago: see the poor beleaguered scribes staggering under a weight of detailed policy documents issued by a reforming government. All of a sudden one looks up and squeals: "Look everyone, it's Joel Fitzgibbon!". Nek minnit poor Joel is running away, professing his loyalty to the ALP and its leader, while the press gallery pursues him like the opening scene from A Hard Day's Night. Hysteria and ill-considered blather in the politico-media complex makes Rudd possible. Once that dies away, or changes focus, the environment that nurtures Rudd becomes hostile to him.

What's changed? Today's slow-media assault suggests that anyone from the ALP who wants to go on about their party's leadership for old time's sake will still get a good run. I was astonished at how cliche-stonkered and generally badly written this was, and it was by no means the worst of the commentary on this subject. So long as this continues, the idea that Rudd might simply opt out is the product of people who don't understand politics and have no business commentating on it.

Labor people have no more control over the press gallery now than they did when in office: they can't force them to ignore Rudd. People who follow politics closely can stop reading stories about Rudd, but press gallery journos care nothing for what people actually pick up on (this is poorly measured by clickthrough rates). One day the press gallery will decide that Rudd is no longer a story.

You won't see them run stories like that because they have no capacity for self-reflection: banal campaigns are the parties' fault, or even your fault; never than that of journalists, toward whom campaigning is tailored. Rudd was elected leader last June at the very point when the press gallery had started to 'play down' the prospect that he might challenge at all.

Leaving aside recent history (post-Keating) in the federal ALP, and final years of the Democrats (where, befitting a party of ex-teachers, Everyone Must Have A Turn), most leaders depart when defeated. Malcolm Fraser was the last party leader to have a problem with ex-leaders hanging around. In the late 1970s he gave John Gorton and Billy McMahon GCMG knighthoods. Gorton took the hint and was gone within weeks. McMahon didn't, leaving at the worst possible time (the 1982 by-election for McMahon's seat of Lowe was a harbinger of defeat for Fraser's government).

Rudd won't leave because his party want him to, and nor would his timing be influenced by his party's best interests. Labor have to consider whether a by-election loss would be worse than having Rudd stick around.

When and if the press gallery brush aside Rudd and his minions, and run stories that relate in no way to what they say, do, think, or want, then he will be extinguished politically and, in a way perhaps, personally.

When Rudd leaves politics it will take the press gallery by surprise. Even Peter Hartcher has deserted him and is unconvincingly currying favour with a new government that doesn't need him. The gallery will have no right to be surprised, and they will lose credibility for being caught out on a matter which is eminently forseeable and which 'insiders' exist to get across; there will be the usual excuses about "24 hour news cycle" (which rarely affects the press gallery anyway) or whatever. Basically insider journalism is little more than a make-work scheme for 'insiders' and not nearly as valuable (or even as valid) as they would like to believe.