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.


  1. Mark Kenny tells us "leftists" that Abbott is a changed man who will changes same sex marriage law; Mark Kenny tells us that Abbott is "sure footed" in diplomacy in Asia..... Is there anything Mark Kenny doesn't get wrong?

    1. If there is, he'll pick himself up and stumble on like nothing has happened.

    2. Mark Kenny, former Murdoch man, now with Fairfax is determined to polish this turd.

    3. He's really hammering hard to try to jam the square peg of Abbott's inconsistency and lack of substance into the round hole of a "firm and stable hand on the tiller" narrative of Abbott as PM

  2. Hit the nail on the head Andrew, great piece. Your words say it all.

  3. Aaaah Andrew, I fear that your list of old fools is a very long one, and that they will not relinquish their [perceived] power until a few more are shown the door as their employers see the writing on the wall. I love print media, but it is slowly, surely, and sometimes justifiably dying.....

  4. andrew the conspiratorial side of me wondered that when the election was decided and abbott went to ground,the media being so dependant on stunts and slogans to fill their spaces and being suddenly deprived made a decision to do a little blackmail via the expenses stories.in other words give us more free copy or we drop a bucket of shit on you.classic murdoch tactics allthough used by fairfax this time.

  5. That was an interesting remark about the cheques. It had never occurred to me that one should check that they had been sent. Btw do they still use cheques? As quaint as an abacus.

    I hope someone is checking on the community engagements TA says he undertook while competing in the Port Macquarie ironman ordeal.

    Apart from the utter hypocrisy of pursuing Peter Slipper while charging the taxpayer to pay the cost of attending Slipper's wedding, I find it galling that the taxpayer has been subsidizing the Liberal Party's showcasing of its Leader's 'discipline'.

    They ran a three-year Presidential campaign before the last election and the public was hit for some/most/all appearances by TA cycling, swimming, driving a fire truck, reading to aboriginal children, running out of the ocean, running to the ocean etc etc.

    We paid for the pleasure.

    On a final note I seem to have missed the case as to why the taxpayer should pay for MPs to attend the weddings of friends and colleagues.

  6. Btw Andrew I hope your 'operational reasons' keep you writing for a long, long time. I enjoy your blog. You have an uncanny ability to hone in on the essential.

  7. The problem being is that there is no right-wing intellectual fervour. They just don't have the necessaries to even think their way to a solution. I know it's an easy shot but Barnaby Joyce's statement that he's 'indentified water as being the main problem' with droughts is priceless. You have to wonder who does up their shoe laces in the morning.

    1. Chuckle

    2. I wonder if that's all Peta Credlin does...??

  8. You would have to pay me a very large amount of money to attend Sophie Mirabella's wedding....

    Then i would reconsider it??

    We need investigative journalists ourside of our media like Huffington Post to start writing and reporting for us...

    I listened to a local radio station of late and heard an up and coming future star actually admit they were up to no good...including liasing with underage eyecandy...

    All under the guise of humour of course...like fm radio it was supposed to be funny..


    You should play Nine Inch Nails
    March of the Pigs as the soundtrack to our political class and lives in the next three years.



  9. Hillbilly Skeleton12/10/13 12:27 pm

    I always knew that this government got into power for 5 main reasons:

    1. They weren't Labor.
    2. They appealed to 'The Great Unwashed' (thanks Janette Cotterill,but you directed your condescension to the wrong group of party supporters,it's the Liberal Party that are the magnet for their votes now), by using bread and circuses and stunts and photo ops and various other modern marketing tools to succeed at that.
    3. They had the media 4 square on their side, bunch of conservatives entrenched in a dying business model that they are.
    4. They played dirty, real dirty pool, and trashed any Westminster Convention of government that they could get their grubby hands on, in order to prevail over Labor.
    5. Vested Interests played 2nd Banana Opposition in order to thwart good Labor government policy at every turn.

    All the Coalition had in the way of policy was, Punisher and Straightener stuff(ABCC, Operation Sovereign Borders, being manly men and woman ignoring catastrophic climate change, that sort of thing), and appeals to the greed of the fecund, but which mainly benefits their core constituency, the Hooray Henrys from the Private School Set & their 'Too Posh to Push' wives. Plus the 'Aspirational' Middle Class Bogans. And now, as I said before, the great mass of unwashed bogans.

    It doth not equal a legislative agenda though, and I keep on wondering what the hell they are going to do with themselves once they have, in their eyes, 'de-loused' governance by getting rid of Labor's agenda.

    They don't do moderation well, which only leaves the prospect of Abbott caving to, the barely-restrained more radical elements of his Coalition, in the future.

    Plus what will come of negotiations in the Senate with Big Clive's PUPs, the Libertarian Dems, et al. For as we know, Tony don't do negotiating well. His main tactic is to appeal to people's greed. Or bully them into submission, and I think he has met his match in the Senate now.

    All I'll say, to conclude is, that it's going to take a lot of turd polishing by the media to keep Abbott's government in power. John Howard he ain't.

  10. Peter Reith on a Sky News panel amongst a panel of hacks yesterday was a case of extreme hilarity

    It's a shame The Australian Sex Party wasn't elected as it would have saved the taxpayer money with all those dirty little secrets "some" politicians get up to....

    Fiona Patton looks like the type of woman Mr T likes an awful lot!!

    I am not a fan of lobbying for the Adult Entertainment Industry creating a faux party when it involves young children to their cause..

    Makes them look trendy and hip when in reality it's sleazy capitalism .

    Miley Cirus eat your heart out when Australian porn stars start becoming candidates as they already have!!


  11. I have said for years we have the worst and laziest media on the planet today, led by racist tools and fools they blather out their bullshit unchecked by anyone.

    And example that is done to death is "offshore processing" as if refugees who arrive in Australia for protection can be offshored like spare bales of wool (to quote the vile Greg Sheridan before he lost his heart), and not one of the scabs either ask':

    1. does any other country exile those who seek asylum in their country?
    2. what are people able to apply for in the Pacific prisons when we try to prevent them applying for protection here and break our own law?

    You see, there is a very simple criteria to be used for people who seek our protection - 46.Section 36(2)(a) provides that a criterion for a protection visa is that the applicant for the visa is a non-citizen in Australia.

    Now there is no protection in Nauru or Manus, there is only prison and torture or forced deportation.

    So why do our useless media prattle about something that does not exist in law? They are innately lazy and racist.

  12. I have to thank you once again for your most interesting commentary on politics as it is played out by the media we surely are let down by the likes of Michelle Grattan, Sally Warhart, Annabelle Crabb, Lee Sales, Greg Sheridan, and the shaking Denis Atkinson, and that is just a small sample of the fools who speak or write about politics. And they expect to keep selling the bullshit they try to spread via the ABC and Murdoch.
    How Barry Cassidy can keep justifying these clowns as guest commentators is beyond belief.

  13. Tim Wilson's piece about the challenge to A.C.T laws on gay marriage in The Australian proves the points Andrew has said in his article about lazy journalism

    $ 500 in the bank for a one hour job.

    That's the calibre of opinion pieces in our credible media.


    I reiterate..the fourth estate have private school fees to be paid and bathroom renovations to be completed.

    Easy sleazy job for their final years before Mr Murdoch dies..

    Let them believe their own mediocrity,

    Piers Akerman is the most racist of all...

    Insiders is very difficult to watch!!

  14. VoterBentleigh12/10/13 9:06 pm

    The Prime Minister gave a number of press conferences during his recent overseas trip and the public learnt almost nothing about what he was doing from them. There was no indication of any achievements, even on trade.

    He often began the press conferences by acknowledging a gala event and then literally ticking off on his fingers the names of different national leaders he had met. This was followed by a a brief, general comment on the purpose of the meeting. There was no outline of any Australian policy initiatives with Asia and no detail about anything he was actually doing. There was talk of a Trans-Pacific Partnership on free trade, but no specifics with the PM waffling on about horse-trading and objectives of “ever freer, ever more liberal trade”, which tells us nothing.

    Here he is on China:
    “China's strength, China's growing strength is a benefit to the world, not a challenge. Certainly we in Australia owe much of our prosperity to the rapidly growing trade relations between our two countries. We have a strong relationship and it's my fervent hope that it can become even stronger in the months and years ahead.” (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-07/abbott-meets-with-chinese-president-at-apec/5001958)
    The first sentence shows no great insight and the second we already know and it's nice to know he has a fervent hope. It's just complete nothingness.

    The journalists' questions elicited little further information because the PM just gave non-committal responses or reiterated old answers.

    In speeches to Asian leaders, he apologised profusely over issues of principle and suggested actions taken by previous Australian Governments had been poor. Apart from the flatness and lack of oratory skill in the speeches, he criticised previous Australian government decisions in order to score political points against his opponents at home, which gave the impression that Australia was wholly to blame for the problems cited. He did not tackle controversial issues with Asian countries, either because he lacked the diplomatic skill and courage to tackle them or he couldn't care less about such issues. By ignoring issues on our doorstep and by the nature of the response he gave to questions about them, he has sent the message to Asian leaders and to everyone back home that Australia has no role to play in the world. What a put down of the Australian nation.

    1. Obama has the respect of people in all countries with his intelligence and warmth.

      Boofhead Abbott as Aljazeera has labelled him is not fot to be a great leader.

      Liberall spill please and put in Malcolm Turnball quickly to save us from embarassment

      Tosser Inc Pty Ltd

  15. Correct with the above points..

    Diplomacy is not his forte, that's ok.

    He did defuse a potential row with Indonesia by blaming it on something.

    Give him credit for that in Tosser Inc Pty Ltd...


  16. The Australian Federal Police need to prosecute at least one politician and send them to jail!!.

    Just one only !!

    It sends a very strong message for the rest to stop being so corrupt.


  17. He is very presidential not prime ministerial...


    He can't be a decent P.M ever with very little credibility as he was such a negative opposition leader..

    His nastiness will come back to bite him!!

    F.....wit of the century.


    The polity voted against the labour party NOT for him.

    Ricky Muir and P.U.P as a team.

    No deal with independents according to Tony Abbott...

    Welcome to our very own Star Wars senate.

    Live it and love it Australia!!

    Trough 101 Clive Palmer inc pty ltd

  18. Perhaps the problem, robin (12/10, 7am) is that there really isn't any scrutiny of the government from the political right of the media. Nobody is going to conjecture, let alone bother to ask, what they're going to do as a government. all they're going to do is warn them,au Greg Sheridan, that they have to keep their eyes on the ball. With only the left to actually point out what's wrong with them, they aren't going to take any notice. And any failings arising from the Murdoch exhortations to get their house in order will ultimately be excused by those same people.

  19. Well your putative tradie probably is filling his new mega ute, if not leasing it, partly on taxpayer subsidy. And quite happy the government wouldn't even go along with Labor's last minute proposal to rein in FBT on cars let alone for the self-employed...

    But that aside, thanks so much for the link to Sen Joyce's op-ed. Is it the most rambling ever? What were they serving as he tapped it out above our dark interior?! At least we know it was all Barnaby's work rather than ghosted by some staffer....

  20. Congrats to Shorten for placing the wonderful Tanya Plibersek as deputy in the labour party.

    She is the real deal..watched her genuine emotion as a child of migrants with a suitcase scenario today...

    The rest like Stephen Conroy are factional nasties....


    At least there are women in the front bench unlike the coalition.

  21. Congrats to Waleed Aly on RN drive with his very impressive interviews post election

    Speaks like an angel yet stings like a bee!!


  22. VoterBentleigh15/10/13 11:10 pm

    At long last, the saviour of the cost of living has appeared at the Prime Ministerial pulpit to call on the ALP to repent of its toxic sins and to seek forgiveness. (Apparently the Greens are beyond redemption).

    In the lead-up to the festive season, expect to see Greg Hunt austerely robed in only a in sandwich board, exhorting the evil doers: “Repent, oh you Labor sinners, for the day of judgement is at hand!”

  23. It was the description of an expensive gift to MPs by someone with commercial interests that are aided or hindered by government decisions as a savings to taxpayers that made my jaw drop.

    The media obsessed for a little while over 50 shades of grey between private and public expenses whilst not pointedly not making too much the black and white of MP's getting expensive gifts from mining magnates. How does anyone calculate how to pay that back? Besides looking benevolently upon the magnate's wish list of political decisions.