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.


  1. Bushfire Bill30/9/13 9:43 pm

    When Climate Change became "he-said/she-said"that was the end of Climate Change.

    It wasno more a matterfor climate scientists. When it moved to the realm of *political( science, with Newspoll (apparently) deciding whether civilization was going to survive, we'd hit rock bottom.

    1. US politics reporters are having to fight their false-balance pose to get any work done: http://www.thenation.com/blog/162356/media-blows-debt-crisis-coverage-balance-bias# You just have to accept that people with no perspective and no clue simply can't tell you what's going on with those who govern us.

  2. Casablanca1/10/13 2:26 am

    The Brandis Canon
    Stephen Murray
    Over the past four years, taxpapyers have helped underwrite the cost of George Brandis’ wide ranging tastes in newspapers, periodicals and books to the tune of over $12, 000, with several thousands of dollars potentially spent on subjects previously questioned by the Australian National Audit Office as ”at risk of being outside the scope of the entitlement”.

    1. I linked to that in the paragraph beginning "I read this"; very good, isn't it.

    2. I was particularly amused to see he'd paid top dollar for "Lazarus Rising" - he should've waited for it to be remaidered like everyone else.

  3. one doesn't bother reading these types of stories in the msm because one never seems to read a follow up ,there must be more to stories than the dead ends, you wait look read, and the stories never seem to go further , not just this one but nearly everything you read in the msm where is the attracting to finding a big story, they only have to pretend in their minds they are writing a book and search for the next chapter, may be they all need to do a writing course with fiction authors to take their non fiction stories to the next level there is always dead ends when one is sure there must be more, so in the end you don't bother reading at all, Andrew may be this does not make sense to the educated journalist , but I am always waiting in aus, for a story that deserve a big award for getting to bottom of things,

  4. Politicians code of conduct looks a lot like the "Pirates Code". The code is more like what you call guidelines than actual rules.


  5. Enjoyed the article. We need more comment like this.

  6. High school students do more work in writing an essay than these so-called professionals - what did all these journos learn exactly at Uni?

    1. Well, Tony Abbott learned how to punch walls and get away with it by sucking up to the right people.

    2. Schmoozing would be more appropriate....

      I objectify the Australian media as a result just to amuse myself when they write crap...

      Its a really fun game...

      The people Abbott et al had to suck up to and sleep with in their course of their career would be a more appropriate phrasing...

      Thats for another entry...!!

  7. Brandis' expenses were not related to his parliamentary, electorate or ministerial duties. The journalists have yet to ask him the hard questions about what category he believes his attendance falls into. Unfortunately, it would have been better to refer the matter to the AFP for investigation prior to publication, thereby foiling any attempt Brandis may have made to repay the money. This is exactly what he did to Slipper over the matter of $900 in taxi fares.

  8. If Mr Brandis or Mr Joyce were employed in private enterprise { their party's preferred lifestyle } and they had been found to falsify their expense accounts to this level, they would be sacked. No question, no argument.
    Why is this in any way not an issue for the PM to speak on?

  9. Attending a shock jocks wedding??

    That says a lot about the close association between that crap media and the current liberals...

    Shallow creeps!!!

    Interesting the images of the wedding show this idiot married to a girl of ethnic background.

    They espouse racism in their shows and then marry an ethnic girl!!

    Ludicrous hypocritical wankers!!

  10. Andrew....

    Why don't you engage in a soapbox event at The Wheeler Centre?

    I would love to see you debate this blog in length...


    1. Well, because I live in Sydney, and one day I'd love to go to the Wheeler Centre

  11. I laughed at Paul Howes espousing Marriage Equality tonight with Christine Forster on the late night news.

    What credibility does this man have ( if any) to ask the labour party in accepting a change for gay couples to marry.

    Hilarious to watch!!

    This man changes his mind as a factional fuckwit like he changes his wife.....

  12. It was never going to fly, claiming a wedding do as an expense, and they have rightly been called. It looks all the worse because Brandis was at the forfront of the lynch mob action against Thomson and Slipper. Hypocrisy thy name is George.

    The impressive bill for George's reading list is more striking, not merely for its size, but the surprising range of material. I'd always assumed that he had no more intellectual depth than Abetz or Andrews. Was I wrong, or is it a case of keeping up appearances?

    It would give an impression of 'learnedness' for any visitor to George's office seeing the glass cases behind with such books and journals, which I suppose is what he may want as Attorney-General.

  13. Interesting that 'Battlelines' wasn't on the list of George's book purchases.