23 October 2013

The second time as farce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 October 2013

Clearing the air

I've heard it all before
So many words
Then you just close the door
If you notice
The changes that you fear
But now it's too late to see

I say, you say
Weren't you listening
Now it's too late
You're not listening

- Pseudo Echo Listening
Nobody is listening to the party formerly in government now that they've been defeated - unless, of course, when somebody within that former government wants to have a crack at someone else within it, which makes it compelling in a way that the decisions of the new government apparently aren't. .

This is the very time for Labor people to get things off their chests. Before now, it would have damaged election chances; beyond now, you interfere with framing the government. Even if you're the sort of person who finds actual policy boring, regarding parliamentary terms as longueurs between elections (relieved only by polls, sweet polls, like so many oases across the wasteland that is actual government), you'd have to agree that an election is less likely now than it had ever been at any point during the last parliament. The idea that such outbursts will cause longterm damage is only expressed and shared by those who can't tell the difference between the short and long term.

Any outburst by anyone will be forgotten by Christmas - except by people who follow politics closely, and you know how irrelevant we are. I can even remember how Tony Abbott complained that going from Minister for Health to Opposition backbencher saw him suffer a paycut that could only be assuaged by parliamentary perks.

Anna Burke is as miffed now as Abbott was then:
Does one go from speaker of the House to nothing and think they have been recognised and rewarded by their colleagues for the hard yards and effort, or does one just feel the same old winds of inevitability in a system which, after 15 years, I still cannot fathom?
It's a fairly specific job, hard to generalise about what one does in such a situation.
The problem with women is that they think effort will be rewarded and recognised. They work like girly swots and naively believe that they will get meritorious selection. But there is no meritocracy ...

Yes, I am bitter and disappointed – I declare that upfront – but it does not deflect from the process. Of course, it is wonderful to see both Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong being awarded such elevated positions within the party, but our process remains one where the most senior women in the Labor party were accorded no positions going forward, and no ability to actually argue their case and demonstrate why they would make the best candidate based on immediate past performance.
It's hard to tell from this angle, but Burke may be describing a generational flaw rather than one of gender as such. She's of similar age to Kim Carr, Doug "mind mah tea" Cameron, and Joel Fitzgibbon - all of whom ended up on Labor's front bench, all of whom are less outspoken than Burke, and all of whom might fairly be regarded as dead wood (the minister shadowed by Fitzgibbon might fairly be regarded as having a free pass). Any correction to the problems noted by Burke would benefit women younger than herself.

It's unfair to deny or even overlook the possibility that, whatever qualities are needed for an opposition whip, Chris Hayes has and demonstrates more of them than Anna Burke does.

As for Plibersek and Wong, they are senior Labor women, and were before the caucus ballot about which Burke complains so bitterly. Does anyone think they go in for this 'meritocracy' stuff?

Journalists and their editors who regarded Nicola Roxon's comments as "scathing critique" or "extraordinary attack" were silly. There is nothing extraordinary about those comments or the post-election timing. Because hype is inexhaustible it's easy to overuse it, but when you have a genuinely extraordinary/scathing event it's hard to get people interested. Reporters told us both that Roxon's comments about Rudd were "scathing", then they said that Rudd was unscathed by those comments.

Journalists have traditionally not used hype sparingly, but they and their editors have to decide whether consumer turn-off is one of those traditions they wish to preserve and accelerate. Over-egging the pudding is the failure of journalistic credibility from which all others follow.

Journalists complained that they got too little information from the ALP on why they replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard in 2010. As that government continued in office, members were reluctant to talk about an issue that gave them no upside, and only worsened their treatment by the media and prospects of re-election. Now that government has been consigned to history, and those who were once members of it are now private citizens, but even so apparently Roxon and unnamed others are providing too much information, and at the wrong time.

Always be suspicious of a journalist who complains about too much information. It's their way of saying they are out of their depth.

Let us have no sniffy nonsense about airing dirty washing - garments need washing in the normal course of their use, and the whole idea of laundry is to remove the dirt with minimal damage to the garments. Much of what Roxon and Burke have said involve matters internal to the ALP, and members will do what they will.

Will there ever be a proper, authorised time for a former government to debrief, and if so when might that be? Can anyone come, or do you need a licence? Do you have to be a member of the Labor Party, or of the press gallery? Basically, if you've ever seen a change of government, you have no excuse for carrying on about members of a defeated government venting.

Everything Chris Bowen has and is in politics, he owes to Rudd. Very, very few Australians are similarly indebted. His defence of Rudd was craven and ignorant. Rudd is being given the respect he deserves, good and hard. People tiptoed around Rudd in 2010, and during his pointless term as foreign minister, and again when his return was a symptom not of his indomitable will, but of his party suffering reflux (if not coprophilia). If Rudd had lashed out at people because he had some sort of infirmity, Roxon's comments would have been unfair - but they weren't. Rudd isn't dead, physically or even politically, so Roxon's comments aren't insensitive to the bereaved nor even kicking a man when he's down.

There is an idea that Labor is a fragile thing, like a china shop, and that a single out-of-place comment like those made by Roxon means that the shop has to be swept and re-stocked and tentatively opened yet again for business, while staff and owners and customers (whether regulars or tentative prospects) dread the next random bull to come careening through it. Three groups of people are responsible for creating and maintaining this perception:
  • People in media relations, whose jobs depend upon the fantasy that the vast torrents of information that flow from government activities really can be channelled, dammed and otherwise controlled so that journalists might provide favourable coverage, and that this will cause people to think well of the party in power and re-elect it (and who can't be convinced otherwise);
  • Silly journalists who report on politics but don't think about it too much; and
  • People in the ALP who have no real base in the community other than their membership of a Party that is only ever great in retrospect. These people rely utterly upon perceptions by the other two to maintain and advance their position.
These people believe Labor has no option other than to be on its best behaviour, all the time. Labor can't change leaders quickly and without involving the press gallery, as happened from Rudd to Gillard in 2010. Labor can't change leaders in a drawn-out way, involving the press gallery blow by blow, like they did in reverse up to 26 June. It can't change leaders in an orderly, polite way, like it did earlier this month. The current leader is a loser, and any alternative is worse. Labor is on a hiding to nothing no matter what.

Behind this paywall is a press gallery hack upset because, in the John Button Oration, Roxon referred to Button in passing but dwelt on a former leader. Button was the guy who broke it to the last Queenslander to lead the Federal ALP that he wasn't going to get two goes, or even one, at becoming Prime Minister. Button wrote this. Read some of James Button's commentary about Rudd and wonder whether that apple has fallen far from the tree. Now re-read Roxon's speech: John Button Oration indeed. The speaker at this almost certainly never met the man after whom the lecture is named.

With the possible exception of the final days of Turnbull in 2009, there was none of this china-shop nonsense for the Coalition. From 2007-09 it embarked upon a caravan of courage toward what a post-Howard Liberal might do and be, only to give up two years and as many leaders later and decide that someone with more flaws than Howard and fewer of his qualities would more than suffice.

Is there anything more fatuous than a 'listening tour'? Did any such tour ever have the desired effect, for leaders and led, and make for better leadership? Shorten and Albanese went on a talking tour rather than a listening tour, among Labor members whose input had contributed little to the decisions of the recent government. One criticism that may be made of Burke and Roxon is that they are talking when nobody seems to be listening (except, of course, those keen to see the merely defeated become a rabble, keen to ensure they can never rebound). Alas, the time for 'listening tours' lies ahead of us, but for now let's enjoy listening to others get what's on their chests off.

My favourite part of election night coverage is that lull between the result being clear, and the cross to the leaders' speeches - in that period the winners express their reservations about taking office and the losers their genuine thoughts on leaving it. Apparently you can't have clear air if you're clearing the air. Clear air in politics is not sought by those who prefer clear air per se, but who want to spread their own scent.

This is the time for the defeated to level with us, to tell honestly what happened and what should have. You can't take the stick to Roxon and Burke and then insist that politicians not spin and hedge. A politician who claims entitlements to indulge his hobbies (the 'pattern' has been under your nose for years, scoop!) or investments is self-indulgent. A lifelong activist who currently holds the last high office she will ever hold and who will lose it within days, who faces a future without another high office to aim at, is mere bathos.

The idea that Roxon and Burke are stomping out the tiny green shoots of Labor revival is a joke, one that reveals the po-faced teller of which to have no idea about politics and scarcely any business commenting on it.

15 October 2013

Nothing if not pragmatic

Two examples why press gallery journalists just don't matter when it comes to covering politics: Clementine Ford and Hugh White ran rings around that sad little drop-seeker who wallows in the title of "chief political correspondent".

Journalists wring their hands and act all conflicted when it comes to the balance of what they report versus maintaining relationships. They are taught to do this by journo-trainers, who consider this to be a Matter of Deep Conflict, when clearly in the press gallery it no longer is. This press gallery isn't even trying to maintain any sort of balance. They have invested all their credibility over years and years in hoping establishing that an Abbott government would be immeasurably better than one led by Gillard or Rudd. Any evidence to the contrary, we now see, will be ignored or even turned into some sort of Orwellian triumph:
Travelling abroad, Tony Abbott has been saying things very different from what we have heard from him in Australia. There are two ways to interpret this. One is to praise him for suddenly becoming a statesman, putting the national interest over petty domestic politics. The other is to see him as weak, unprincipled and insincere. The first interpretation has prevailed among Australia's kind-hearted commentators. But our regional neighbours are not so generous and they will incline to the second interpretation. So Abbott's diplomacy is off to a shaky start.
No sensible person wants to encourage Abbott in any way with his weird and cruel measures against refugees, yet even so it has to be said that his most substantive pre-election policy has pretty much been defeated in the hour of its triumph. It has to be said, but it won't be by journalists. As he does with all powerful people (e.g. Murdoch, Pell, Howard), Abbott prostrated himself before President Yudhuyono and got precisely nothing in return, for himself or for the country. That nothing was also overlooked by the travelling media, whose expense claims eat into resources that could have been devoted to valuable investigative journalism.

He gave a shit-happens to Malaysia and made himself look ridiculous in both Beijing and Tokyo by both insisting on a China free-trade deal but then spiking it. These so-called journalists made up for it not by providing information to Australians seeking validation of their new government, but instead going the suck on the new government in the hope of landing a few drops going forward.

Abbott told the media on 1 October that turning refugee boats around and sending them back to Indonesia was never a part of Coalition policy. A few press gallery journalists noted this with bemusement but none recognised it for the blatant lie, the signal of sheer disrespect, that such a statement most assuredly was. The press gallery simply lacks the self-respect not to throw that back in Abbott's face again and again, like the first half of Gillard's statement about "no carbon tax". The sheer gall of these people in simply transcribing this quote and passing it on, as though we who must have misunderstood.

Journalists profess concern for their colleagues in developing societies who risk arrest and even death in simply doing their jobs. Yet, when presented with the opportunity to stand up for their foreign counterparts in a real way, they declined. They declined to tell us about it too, hoping perhaps that we wouldn't notice, forced as we are to seek our news more broadly than a groupthink-fucked press gallery could ever offer.

Yes, foreign policy can be complex. What's not complex is the politics-as-theatre-review, with its well-stocked pantry of cliches (thanks Annabel!) which enable even the dimmest journalists to assemble prefab stories out of nothing. With no irony at all, Fairfax smart-arse Judith Ireland giggled at a newbie politician:
Keen to mark the moment when she first made it into the House of Representatives as an MP, Ms McGowan tweeted a seemingly harmless picture - of herself sitting on a bench in the chamber, "listening to an address from the Speaker, Anna Burke".

What the member for Indi did not realise was that taking pictures in the House of Representatives is a tightly restricted activity - only accredited press gallery photographers can take still images of parliamentary proceedings.

While Parliament was not officially in session, Ms McGowan's twit pic was still a no no, due to the high degree of sensitivity about images taken in the chamber.

"Media activity" is prohibited in private areas of Parliament, including on the House of Representatives and Senate chamber floors.

In part, this is to ensure "respect for the privacy" of MPs and "non-interference" with the ability of parliamentarians to carry out their duties.
When Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, her chair was shifted a metre or so to the right so that "accredited press gallery photographers" could not take pictures down her cleavage. In no part whatsoever is this a matter of "respect for the privacy" of MPs - parliamentary debates are a matter of public, not private activity. MPs take pictures in their offices all the time, whether or not the picture-taker is 'accredited'.

The process of 'accreditation' is one of those expensive public-sector make-work schemes: in this case one that protects Ireland's colleagues, and enables her employer to retail the fantasy that it offers superior coverage of politics through having employees in the press gallery. Neither Clementine Ford nor Hugh White are members of the press gallery, and we have seen that their insight is superior to that of Kenny or Ireland - with their superior knowledge of bogus 'rules' and what is or isn't (to use the fancy technical term) 'a no no'. There is a real question over whether the (quasi-)legal processes and law-enforcement measures of the state should go toward propping up failing enterprises in this manner, a question the press gallery are both too dim and too conflicted to answer.

Cathy McGowan is an accredited member of parliament, given that accreditation by tens of thousands of Australian voters. Hundreds of thousands of Australian armed service personnel have fought and died to uphold the democratic process; nobody at all has exerted themselves in any way for the accreditation system. The process of accrediting photographers to the press gallery is both far less democratic and less legitimate than the process that propelled McGowan to her new role.

You can see by the angle of the picture of McGowan that she didn't take it herself. She sure as hell didn't shoot her own cleavage, like a 'professional' would given the chance. Too right McGowan won't be reprimanded - superjournalist Judith Ireland could not be any more usefully employed than in finding out who did take that picture of McGowan, and then tattling to Speaker Burke.

But it isn't only journalists who can't see what's in front of them and don't report it. Tony Abbott has committed a huge blunder in his handling of his third Labor leader:
Mr Abbott has previously indicated he would do whatever it takes to abolish the carbon tax – including calling a double dissolution election – but on Tuesday at a press conference at Canberra's Parliament House he retreated from this scenario.

“We are confident that the public pressure on the Labor Party will be such that they will not defy the mandate of the Australian people,” Mr Abbott said.

Mr Shorten, he suggested, would support the legislation because he was “nothing if not a political pragmatist … nothing if not a political survivor.”
Most of the Australian public want a price on carbon. Labor has to show that they stand for something - not making big statements and then backing down, like Rudd used to do (and as Abbott is also starting to do - smart observers of politics will keep an eye on this phenomenon, and on how drop-seekers cover it). If Shorten caves into Abbott he's a dead man - those Labor members who voted for Albanese will have been vindicated.

Too right Bill Shorten's a survivor. The hero of Beaconsfield, the builder of the foundations of DisabilityCare, he has a small but substantial record of achievement. As with Kim Beazley (Labor's only other leader with more experience in government than out), that record dissolves once he starts agreeing with the conservatives to often and too enthusiastically. Shorten doesn't have to go over the top like Abbott did - in fact, if he's calm and firm in his opposition it is the government that will start unhinging, and once again the voters will have to elect a government that can get things done.

The Coalition's lack of negotiating skill is not, as Greg Melleuish would have it, some technicality that can be easily overcome. It is a structural defect that cripples any prospect this government might achieve anything at all, for better or worse. Backing Bill Shorten into a corner where he has no choice but to look like a statesman is incredibly dumb. He really believes Shorten is just like him, but less so. Vain people make lousy strategists because they can't get over themselves, and the idea of anyone Leading Opposition to Abbott is more than he can bear.

Governments come and go, but the press gallery has sunk its credibility into the success of the Abbott government. If that government is manifestly unsuccessful, where does it leave them? Do they report that the emperor has no clothes, or witter about 'context'? What if they complain to the Speaker about a breach of privilege and she tells them where to go? The next government could well come to office over the dead body of the press gallery, bobbing lifelessly in the Arafura Sea after having searched for evidence that Tony Abbott's policies are tracking just fine and that our nation enjoys warm relations across the world as a result of his - and their - fine work.

Abbott wasn't too much of a lightweight to become Prime Minister, but he is too much of a lightweight to stay in the job and do it well. No amount of soft-focus journalism will make up for that, and nor will any but the best sort of journalism recover the reputations of media organisations represented in the press gallery.

11 October 2013

Competence, discipline, strategy, and timing

The government, the press gallery, and the media strategists who work between the two have all failed this week, on all of the above fronts.

In every policy area, the Coalition offered less than Labor at the last election: less money for schools, a lesser telecommunications system, fewer women in Cabinet, less overall. They won with this lesser offering because of the perception of competence: the idea that a Coalition government was more likely to deliver on what it promised, in contrast to a government that delivered less than it promised.

This government lives or dies by its competence. Rorting Travel Allowance is not a hallmark of competence. Traditionally, the fact that Labor MPs have also claimed travel allowance for things they shouldn't have would be enough to dispel this issue.

This government's entire reason for being is completely negated if the case can be made that it is no better than the previous government.

After Brandis and Joyce, and now with Abbott, it would appear that the government is trying to address the competence issue and defuse grubby questions of mere greed. They do this by including in their mea-culpa statement that they've sent reimbursement cheques in the hope that the damage to their reputations might be mitigated. I think it's worth checking that those cheques have arrived at their destination (never mind who guards the guardians, who checks the cheques? Is there a public service accounts clerk willing to risk becoming one of The Twelve Thousand sacked by this government by admitting the cheque the PM said he sent hasn't arrived?). It is possible that a statement issued by a politician may not check out in every particular, and this applies even to senior members of the Abbott government.

Abbott is using his own behaviour to excuse those who have been rorting the system, or who at least have been careless. This will blunt any discoveries about how bad the previous lot were. It also blunts his ability to build a reputation as a leader who can get people to tap into their better selves, and thereby get more out of them than they might have imagined.

It is true that politicians' work requires them to attend the sorts of events which are social events for the rest of us, and thus attending such events might fairly be regarded as work-related expenses. It is not true, however, that politicians can and must only be judged according to their own lights.

With the decline in full-time employment, fewer of us get employer-funded perks, and rules around their granting are much tighter than those available to politicians. When politicians complain that they are following the guidelines, and that the guidelines are hard to understand and very loose, they think they've answered the question when they've just opened up new ones. Self-employed tradies in western Sydney don't draw on perks like Abbott does.

This goes to the heart of what Liberals regard as Abbott's core strength: his discipline. He gets up early and rides his bike around: so disciplined. He hammers the same messages over and over again: so disciplined. Plundering politicians' allowances and encouraging your team to fill their boots too: very sloppy indeed, most indisciplined, and a better indication of how this government will go than wishful thinking about discipline.

Liberals think this government can impose its supposed discipline onto the country, and indeed the world. President Yudhuyono of Indonesia is no less disciplined than Abbott, and in their meeting it was Yudhuyono who set the terms, not Abbott. Abbott may have chosen not to lecture China on human rights, but it left him with nowhere to go when Russia's Putin shirtfronted him. He gave Malaysia a big shit-happens and embarrassed us before the Japanese, declaring them to be our third best friend this week. Australian media commentators who insist otherwise in praising Abbott simply have no basis on which to make their case, no understanding of foreign policy, and no perspective on how previous governments conducted foreign policy.

The Abbott government may not be able to impose its gay marriage agenda even with the force majeure of the Constitution. If Joe Hockey has another economic policy idea beyond the Greiner-era infrastructure bonds thing, it isn't clear what it might be.

This is where we are going to see tetchiness from this government: measures for imposing discipline within a party do not work for that party in imposing discipline beyond it. A government that made no attempt to be persuasive or to challenge prejudices cannot be trusted to do the slow, patient work of shifting public opinion where it needs to. It will, however, get frustrated at its inability to enforce its will despite having the necessary discipline to get into office. Opponents of this government should be prepared for laughter to be as effective in rebutting this government as concerted fire-with-fire opposition.

The most apparent and direct threat to this new government is in Ian Macfarlane's zeal for fracking. Australia does not have a shortage of gas like the US has. The government is sending mixed messages about the future of coal, it has not progressed nuclear or renewables, and nor has it made a strong public case why we need more gas (and why we should give up farmlands permanently to get a short-term fix of gas). There are at least a dozen rural electorates where an independent could go from a standing start to displacing a member of this government over such an issue, following the Cathy McGowan model (with Sophie Mirabella like a noxious gas in concentrated form).

Fancy a Coalition Agriculture Minister regarding non-coastal Australia as 'darkness', or lamely attempting to displace his rorts onto Australia's wealthiest person; if this government gets into real trouble this guy will only make problems worse. Macfarlane is probably the best minister this government has, but if he became a lightning rod for popular dissatisfaction then this government is in real trouble.

The government and its media advisors think they've built a bond with those who elect them when all they've done is widen the gulf. Laugh all you want at John McTernan, but like most veterans of the Gillard government he has the satisfaction of having been replaced by lesser people.

The usual tactic to deal with initiatives like this is to 'muddy the waters', to create sufficient doubt that any investigation goes nowhere and momentum is lost. George Brandis built his political career by water-muddying a Senate investigation into "children overboard" in 2001. Aside from moments of lucidity around the Asian financial crisis, the GST, and East Timor, Peter Costello and Alexander Downer did little else but water-muddying. That hasn't worked, it won't work now.

In the olden days, when there were investigative journalists in the press gallery, water-muddying just caused people to keep digging until they struck something solid. These days press-gallery journos reach the top of their profession when they're "on the drip"; just when the pollies had cowed the press gallery, journalists from outside Canberra and investigative writers in social media are basically doing the job they are nominally sent there to do.

Then there's the issue that these stories are many years old, and why weren't these stories run earlier? When Tony Abbott claimed allowances for competing in an ironman thing at Coffs Harbour, the local papers ran the story but the press gallery didn't (keep in mind that national media companies have taken over regional outlets expressly to "leverage synergies" like this).

There are two explanations for this. Either the press gallery have only just stumbled upon easily-verifiable facts that have been under their noses for years. Or, even worse, the strategic geniuses that have buggered our media overestimate their cleverness by sitting on stories.

Last Sunday the current editor of The Australian Financial Review, Michael Stutchbury, declared that travel allowance rorts by the then-opposition wasn't important as a story, but now that those same people are in government it has become very important. There seems to be a lot of this about: stung by the idea that they just waved these clowns into office without so much as a journalistic pat-down, let alone the scrutiny as to whether this lot might be less effective than those they eventually replaced, they are digging out the cliche of travel rorts and flinging it about as if to say: see, we dish it out to Both Sides! We're not biased!

So we have:
  • a government made up of people who aren't very good at the details when it comes to spending public money, boding ill for its ability to deal with education and defence and the budget and all that government stuff;
  • a PR machine for said government whose only tactic, water-muddying, will only make things worse; and
  • a mainstream media that loses credibility - and ratings - when it tries to schedule scandals to its timetable.
All we need now is for some old fool who gives only lip-service to the faults and flaws of institutional journalism to declare that the press gallery is the indispensable source of quality journalism on how this country is governed, while commentators from far beyond the press gallery can only be viewed with suspicion and hostility and need more lecturing by the press gallery, rather than much, much less.

05 October 2013

Left right out

In Shakespeare's Henry V, an immature and destructive young man unaccountably destined for high office hangs out with riff-raff who encourage him in his immaturity. Upon assuming leadership he sobers up and wins a famous victory against a larger but disorganised enemy. In the course of that he leaves behind his old mates, who end up wretched and dead in the hour of his triumph.

Something similar is happening to the far right of the NSW Liberals. The ascent of Tony Abbott represents everything they hoped and worked for over a generation, but he owes them nothing. They are bitter because they put all their eggs in his basket, and now he's taken that basket and shared the spoils with everyone but them.

This is the story that ABC superjournalist Matt Peacock has missed not once, but twice.

I met John Ruddick when I was a Young Liberal branch president in 1992-3. The party's head office referred him to me as a prospective member and we met in a pub. He was living at Moore College but denied that he was studying toward Anglican ministry (turned out that he had been, but was in the process of unwinding his commitments; the truth would have been more interesting than the blow to his ego that came from looking irresolute, but that's John for ya). He made his own way into the Young Libs and realised before I did that the moderate ascendancy in NSW could not survive the coming of Howard. He was personable unless you disagreed with him, had your facts together and stuck to your guns without getting emotional, whereupon he would become dull company.

The reason why his service and loyalty to the Liberal Party has not been rewarded is because, while he is a smart guy, he only operates well where others aren't as smart as he is; thus his devotion to the dopier, more extreme rightwingers (and they to him). In party backrooms he was either boorish or snivelling, lacking the peer relationships and basic respect necessary for cutting deals. He was amazed when people saw through tactics like his overuse of your given name when he speaks to you, for example.

He told me that the moderates would never support me and that I should come across to the right, where the power was. He was right about the former but wrong about the latter, and we each considered the other weak for having chosen the wrong side. At a time of increased factionalism in the NSW Young Libs I would say hello to John and he would snarl at me, and we haven't kept in touch. By the time his side came through I didn't even care. Years later, at the 2007 APEC leaders' meeting in Sydney, he made a right git of himself with placards venerating President Bush and yelling abuse at those insufficiently enthusiastic about all things American.

John fell in with Christianists* like David Clarke and Ross Cameron. When the Howard government took office in 1996, Cameron became Federal MP for Parramatta and Ruddick joined his staff (this is easily checkable, but note how Peacock presents them as just two guys who just happen to agree with one another). Few moderates got staffer jobs in that government. Eventually Ruddick fancied his chances in business, and rightly recognised that he couldn't build a political career from staffer jobs, so he left Cameron's office and was replaced by the far more capable and assiduous Alex Hawke.

In Parliament Cameron followed Tony Abbott around like a puppy. Tony was the big brother Ross never had, and Ross the annoying little brother Tony never had or wanted. When Cameron's political career failed in 2004 nobody took him on as an advisor or a lobbyist, including Abbott, despite other ex-MPs being warehoused in that manner. Cameron went to Macquarie Bank and achieved precisely bugger-all: he had been Assistant Treasurer (he was succeeded in that job by Peter Dutton, who is in Cabinet today), when Macquarie was at the height of its pre-GFC powers. He crawled out of the Defects skip at the Millionaire's Factory in order to produce crap like this**, which is to good writing and service to the nation what burnouts are to automotive excellence.

In the 1980s Ross Cameron had worked for NSW Transport Minister Bruce Baird. Baird held the NSW parliamentary seat that Cameron's father once held. Baird's chief of staff was Barry O'Farrell, who is in a position to offer his erstwhile colleague a job but hasn't yet. Baird's daughter Julia sometimes hosts ABC TV's The Drum, which sometimes slings Cameron the taxi fare to and from the studio. Mark Scott, now Managing Director of the ABC, worked in another Greiner government ministerial office while Cameron was there.

Prime Minister Abbott has clearly been too busy to call his old mate Ross (if he had offered Ross a job, we'd know all about it): what with putting together a new government, and do they even have telephones in Jakarta? You know how it is.

There is an old saying in politics that applies to successful governments, particularly to those that are newly elected and united: those who know don't talk and those who talk don't know. Ross Cameron talks a lot.

Ruddick, Cameron, Fierravanti-Wells et al are from that part of the Liberal Party that most disdain the ABC. That talk about the national broadcaster as a nest of lefties comes most strongly from and appeals most strongly to them. Quite why Matt Peacock gave these guys the time of day, let alone representing them as political cleanskins, is unclear. Quite why the ABC takes on Cameron or other erstwhile ABC critics like Peter Reith or Amanda Vanstone so enthusiastically is unclear too. This isn't balance, it's a lack of institutional self-respect. Like the sex worker happy to take the coin of the morals crusader indulging a secret vice, it's possible to overestimate your own cleverness in dealing with those who just hate you and want you gone.

In the lead-up to the 1999 NSW election I was a Liberal preselector for Manly. There were a number of candidates, and I guessed (rightly) that the one I knew wouldn't make it. I rang Joe Francis, who was then working for the Federal MP whose eklectorate included Manly. "Mate", he said, "if a pigeon shits on The Corso, I'll know about it". I asked the obvious question, about who was likely to win the preselection and why, and he became vague. I asked him about the branches in the area and he stumbled again. Joe plays dumb very, very convincingly.

When I found out he'd become a state MP in WA I read his inaugural speech. He pays tribute to Ruddick directly and indirectly - the Joey Francis I knew had never read a book in his life, let alone Hayek. You can bet all that small government stuff has melted away with the responsibilities of office, with the realisation that being carried fiscally by the rest of the nation is a pretty sweet arrangement.

Meanwhile, back in NSW, Liberal Senator Marise Payne, who started out as a moderate, had actually developed a long-term and wide-ranging strategy for expanding the Liberal vote in western Sydney. Cameron and Ruddick and Clarke had been wedging clowns like Jaymes Diaz into winnable seats, because they could. The right got in the way of Payne's plan without offering a superior alternative (like Abbott's unrelenting opposition to Julia Gillard, but without the success). At the election last month two things became clear: the extent of Payne's planning and effort, and the extent to which the Christianist right had stuffed it up.

Abbott needed to be a leader for the whole Liberal Party, not just the Christianist right, and here was his chance. He rewarded Payne with a ministry (had the Senator been Martin Payne, he may well be in Cabinet). Abbott dropped NSW Liberal right stalwart, and Ruddick-Cameron mate, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells to a lesser portfolio than she would have hoped or expected. He wouldn't have done that if Fierravanti-Wells was powerful or if she had contributed greatly in net terms to Abbott's victory. When we're down we all hope for redemption, but in Fierravanti-Wells' case she is more likely to be leapfrogged not only by her old rival Payne, but by younger people like Kelly O'Dwyer or Little Jimmy Briggs - or even ideological fellow-traveller Cory Bernardi.

David Clarke had been a solicitor in his own practice and an influential powerbroker in the NSW Liberals for many years. Lawyers sneer at the sort of lawyer Clarke was; "ambulance chaser" is a cruel thing to say about anyone. Yet, for such lawyers to maintain their business, and keep clients going through emptionally and financially draining legal actions is to stoke a sense of hurt and grievance, and keep it going for years. Clarke is very good at this.

The victim mentality you see in Ruddick and Cameron within Peacock's reporting comes from Clarke. Clarke cultivated religious communities on Sydney's western fringe, telling them that they were persecuted by inner-city secularists and homosexuals and that he would be their champion if only they would join the Liberal Party en masse - he would pay the membership fees, and no input would be required of the members other than to turn up and vote. People who have surrendered their attachments to the outside world and who do what they're told are the best branch-stack fodder there is. Both Ruddick and Cameron know their Bible and can talk the talk to such people. Sophie Mirabella should put her adventures in Kelly country behind her and join John and Ross and the gang.

In the 1970s Clarke cultivated Croatian migrants, claiming that he shared their anti-communism (Serbs were disproportionately in control of communist Yugoslavia). Most Croatian migrants have made a great contribution to Australia but Clarke courted those from the fringe of that community. Again: no input required, not even any money; just loyalty both ways, a relationship in which openness and transparency plays little role. Without having hacked it, I wouldn't be surprised if Clarke has a bigger ASIO file than many self-aggrandising old student leftists.

Just because Ruddick talks about transparency and accountability doesn't mean he will or even can deliver it. All political outsiders talk about those things. You can criticise Rudd and Gillard for lacking accountability and transparency, but despite his words electing Abbott to replace them will do little to improve those matters. The Liberal right work best when they're secretive and dismissive of challenges; their record in creating open and transparent environments isn't great. Look at Ruddick's job: he's a mortgage broker, a job involving subjective judgments and secrecy. He's simply not going to create, or thrive in, an environment where his every move is second-guessed.

Look at another of their good mates, unaccountably left out of Peacock's stories: Peter Phelps. Despite a lifetime in politics he fails to understand that very few opponents of Pinochet were really seeking to build a similar tyranny; most sought to be free of tyranny altogether. As someone who's never been in business, he failed to understand that arbitrary arrest and execution impact negatively on the economy. It takes more "moral courage" to face reality than to poke a stick at leftist drones, real or imagined . Ruddick's political judgment and commitment to transparency is scarcely greater than Phelps, but only due to Ruddick's lack of what Phelps would call 'moral courage'.

It is true that the Liberal Party has been taken over by rent-seekers. I saw that in the 1990s, and did what little I could to turn it around; it didn't work and so I left. Since I left the Liberal Party my life has gone from strength to strength, and I note the party's success at local, state, and federal level: talk about a win-win situation. The Christianist right were the first to bid good riddance to me and other moderates (the moderates who stayed and gave up their moderation did too, but they don't get it either). Now the Christianist right are so lacking in understanding and humility that they cannot cope with being on the outer in their own party, bleating about transparency just like the moderates did in the '90s.

Tony Abbott is the sort of Liberal Leader and Prime Minister that the Christianist right had not only dreamed of, but spent a generation working to bring about. Now he's left them with nothing, and it's too late for them to start again. When Abbott starts to fade he will turn to them again and they will rally, because they have no choice. Such a prospect is a poor base on which to build whole careers in politics; but this is where the Christianist right have positioned themselves. With the carry-on in Washington over the budget they are unlikely to draw comfort and tactics from abroad.

Openness and transparency from John Ruddick and the Christianist right? Yeah, right.

* Yes, like Islamists - people who claim to profess a religion but who disdain core aspects of it relating to gentleness, humility, and tolerance.

** Thank you @AequoEtBono