28 November 2013

The teachable moment

If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?

- George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four
Events come and go, and all newly-elected governments have teething problems. It's tempting to confuse (or, in wishful terms, conflate) teething problems with crippling deficiencies that will ultimately do for this government. Yet, there are deficiencies among the Coalition that were detectable before they entered government. They are well and truly on display right now. There is no evidence of bureaucratic envelopment or wise counsel or other measures that might help this government grow the brains and capabilities that it so copiously lacks, and has always lacked.

Apart from Abbott himself, nobody in the Cabinet is more media-savvy than Scott Morrison. Morrison underestimated his skill in being all over the media before the election, and then engaging in blocking tactics afterwards (e.g. refusing to confirm his own statements, refusing to confirm that he talks to the PM, using a staff officer to lend him the authority that he lacks). The dissonance in Morrison being present yet absent for the media, and the fact that the Indonesian government (and the Indonesian media) is being as sensitive to Australia's internal politics as Abbott (and the Australian media) was to its, all makes for something of a gap between the responsible adult government we were promised and the shambles we were delivered.

That promise came not only from the Coalition, but from the press gallery. The press gallery cannot credibly maintain its hastily-constructed claim that this government's shortcomings have come about suddenly (and thus unforeseeably).

Soon after he became Treasurer, Peter Costello went to Washington and had a private conversation with then-Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. Costello breached protocol and related Greenspan's words to the waiting media, and US stock markets and exchange rates juddered and lurched as a result. Costello learnt his lesson, but it is unclear what lessons Julie Bishop is learning about statecraft. If she is learning anything, she's doing it the hard way and expensively - but hey, maybe that's just Julie's style.

Having brought on rebukes from both Indonesia and China should be enough to get anyone sacked from the position she occupies, surely; a loyal deputy for six years under three leaders, she is letting the side down. She is certainly no Percy Spender, who put in place the entire architecture of postwar foreign policy in 19 months. She even offers less than the cross-continental dithering we saw in the last government from Smith, Rudd, and Carr. She has no excuse for being so unprepared.

There is no hinterland of considered thought, writing and speaking on which to build a hope for more and better in this vital area of federal government policy: only the partisans, with faces painted and screeching encouragement, can truly believe this pivotal moment in our foreign relations is best handled by someone so out of her depth even with basic political and diplomatic niceties.

It's possible that the last of the foreign policy wonks will take in hand these wayward ministers and lead them through to the fallow but safe-seeming ground of foreign policy conventional wisdom (much of which remains from Spender's time early in the Cold War). Being involved in this country's political class pretty much precludes long periods overseas during adult life, learning languages and other ways of operating; it's the one area of policy that smart-arse politicos seem happy to leave to the professionals, where gimps with focus-groups and standard deviations on internal polling simply have no impact. They airily claim that WesternSydneyTM has no interest in foreign policy, but in an interconnected world (and given the ethnic diversity of that area) how sustainable do you reckon that is?

An adult government need not come to office with a complete manifesto; Menzies didn't in 1949 and neither did Hawke to any real extent in 1983. It needs to hit the ground running though, or at the very least emerge from post-swearing-in hibernation looking co-ordinated. The whole promise of "no surprises", of government run entirely from the PM's office, leaves no excuses for the disjointed effort we've seen from this government in its establishment phase. The sheer absence of a clue means that someone like Mark Textor, wrongly regarded highly for his tactical acumen, screams and postures in the backrooms about Strategy but can only fluff and bumble when the limelight falls on him.

The floundering of Chris Pyne in education, however, shows just how far the rot in this government descends.

Like Morrison, Pyne is one of the government's more savvy operators. He is not some junior woodchuck acting above his pay grade, he has been in parliament for twenty years and was a minister in the last Coalition government. He cannot be said to be good at anything if not at managing the media: for many years he kept up the narrative that Peter Costello was thiiiiis close to knocking off John Howard, the model for Rudd's more successful guerrilla sulk, and has been a "senior Liberal source" ever since. Many members of the press gallery know Pyne more closely than do members of his family. His witterings about media misunderstandings are laughable.

Here is Pyne's political calculus: the largesse given to private schools will reinforce private school communities to strongly support the government, while public school communities are weak and will not rally against the government. That's it, really.

It seemed to be effective under Howard, although he had the advantage of Labor leaders who were ineffectual (Beazley, Crean) or unbalanced (Latham). Shorten appears to be neither of those things, but like Bill Hayden be could end up as nothing else either. Coalition state governments have not trashed the public school system to the extent necessary for Pyne's calculus to take hold.

With the fading of the resources boom, and the passing of the idea of almost effortless upward mobility that Howard sought to cultivate, people came to realise that education was all we could count on as a reasonable prospect for the future. That's why Gillard pinned everything on education. That's also why Pyne and Abbott pledged a "unity ticket", which they've since torn up; it was the difference between what they have now and much, much less, if not oblivion.

When Pyne mouthed off against Gonski earlier this year, Barry O'Farrell hauled him up to Sydney to show him what actual government and its needs are really like. The fact that neither man spoke about their encounter after the fact indicates that O'Farrell tried to knock some sense into Pyne, which he has clearly since lost. Nobody in NSW would choose Abbott over O'Farrell. Nobody in the Liberal Party wants the two to come to blows, but if they have to sacrifice the twerp from Adelaide to make peace do not doubt that he shall be sacrificed. Abbott is in the stronger position constitutionally but O'Farrell is the superior politician; if he has to run against Canberra then that's what he'll do, he will play grassroots populism better than Abbott will or can.

Education has retained both a depth of community feeling and of community organisation that the political parties have lost (they even used to be the same people in a more community-minded, less busy-busy age). Your average Parents and Citizens/Friends will have far greater tactical nous and organisational ability than your local branch of any political party. Any backroom operator, any Cabinet minister or inner circle denizen, who thinks the Abbott government is going to embrace that third rail and survive is kidding him/her/itself. Nobody who remembers the popular revolts in NSW against the Greiner government's education policy in the late 1980s/early '90s will ever forget it. O'Farrell doesn't. The sheer force of it propels Greiner's wife Kathryn onto the Gonski committee more than two decades later. Those who forget the lessons of history, at the very least, have no business mucking about with the curriculum.

If not Gonski, what? Under an adult government there should be an orderly transition to another funding model, not some dusted-off effort that led to longterm decline in school performance, and which was wrongly romanticised by Liberals (if Textor's advice was worth anything, he should have advised the Coalition to cut the nostalgia act as it impressed nobody who wasn't rusted on). Under an adult government the Education Minister would not be flinching and mincing at his own discomfort, but instead offering clear guidelines within which professionals can conduct careful planning. Bronwyn Hinz and I were completely wrong in April to assume that Pyne was doing any education policy work worth the name. At least he's had the good sense not to wheel out culture warrior Kevin Donnelly, when no other Coalition government is having anything to do with him.

There are a number of newly-elected Coalition MPs who won't make it past the next election because Pyne blundered into a political minefield. Pyne himself, having taken a safe seat to a margin under 5%, might well join them. He's sticking to his guns, but they're badly calibrated and pointing the wrong bloody way, and guess which fool placed them there? When constituents come to them and say that Marginal Vale Primary is losing this, or St Preference's is losing that, how will Pyne help them? He'll brush it off, and in doing that a lot of the respect that he earned by decades of hard slog that seemed to have paid off (for him at least) will be brushed off too.

Joe Hockey cut his political teeth under Greiner too, and has no excuse for gibbering about infrastructure in the hope that it will lift this government above the fray (let me guess: another second Sydney airport study), with all that crap about taking "tough decisions" instead of smart ones.

Much of the big important stuff that defines any government happens early in its term. Well, here we are early in the Abbott government's term. What's to show for it? No going to war as part of the new United Nations, no floating of the dollar, no gun buyback - no responding to Events in an adult-government way at all.

There is a school of thought that says a government should get its bad news out early. The trouble with this government is that it can't be sure its run of bad news is over, or that they have the power to decide when it is. Pyne's troubles over education do not detract from Morrison's problems with Indonesia, they compound the sense that this government is a bunch of stumblebums. This failure should be sheeted home to Abbott, and to strategists like Credlin and Textor. There is no suite of well-thought-out policies ready to go to stabilise early jitters, and thus nothing to bear fruit into 2014-15 to be harvested at the next election. Their only options are knee-jerk stuff, and that's when you get dopey policy outcomes like the ones that the Coalition try to hang on the previous government.

The idea that the press gallery is surprised at this government performing under expectations shows only that they haven't been paying attention, and have therefore rendered themselves redundant well ahead of the inevitable decisions of their current employers.

A government that wastes time eradicating any trace of the previous government incurs two big opportunity costs. First, you can't blame a government for all your woes and constraints if nobody remembers them. Second, and more tellingly, a lot of the big scope for action gets frittered away as momentum and goodwill dissipate - as they do, and nobody in the backroom or at the top table knows how to stop it. Labor, the Greens and other parties aren't exactly cringing before the threat of a double dissolution election. Looks like blocking the carbon tax is all this lot really have; anything else they do will be an accident, for good or ill.


  1. It really is death by a thousand cuts stuff at the moment isn't it. Labor are watching on in bemusement as the Liberals seem to be self destructing on every serious policy front. The wildcard is Barners, he was purple faced in the first week of the new parliment, what's he going to be like when the screws start getting turned for real.

  2. Andrew,

    Another excellent analysis. Occasionally I have a haunting fear that Abbott and gang will get their act together and survive but reading one your posts soon fixes that.

    Just a thought - EVEN IF Pyne's objective were only to implement something like Gonski while creating the impression that he has "fixed up Labor's mess" he would atill not get any credit because of the appalling way he has handled things.

    Of course, as you point out, the real objective is to shift a lot of the money to private schools. His hope that he can hide this behind a foam of spittle is surely delusional - people who have been shafted rarely have difficulty comprehending the fact and identifying the shafter.

    The one success Abbotf's gang are having is establishing a huge coalition of people and groups to work for the removal of the government.


  3. Shirley Green29/11/13 10:53 am

    Thank you for a great article which is as frightening as it is accurate. Our poor, once wonderful, country.

  4. I'm becoming a regular reader Andrew; you write good stuff. Superior by far than mainstream journalism at this point.

    Will the press gallery ever come around and start doing their jobs? I'm dubious myself; if they wanted to know where Abbott and team stand and what they think about the dominant issues - climate for example - they would surely have begun before now. Only a few selected journalists even get opportunity to put questions to them, mostly of the Dorothy Dix variety; those that do get to ask questions that Abbott doesn't want to answer don't seem willing to do so - or else fail to be on top of the issue and seem unwilling to employ the kind of relentless persistence required.

    Unfortunately for Australian democracy I think Abbott is running - with media compliance - a deliberate strategy of remaining opaque and unavailable by preference and ambiguous or contradictory when pressed on the issues that are most important, yet I strongly suspect this is not simple expediency. I don't think (as J.Green at ABC does) that it's as shallow as saying or not saying whatever it takes to win; I think it camouflages convictions that are so deeply held that being disingenuous, is (a bit like spying ) justifiably necessary. In order to save the nation from the ravages of an ongoing green left ideological infection, that has so distorted the public debate that
    'adult' opinions (like John Howard's on climate) cannot be openly expressed, prevented, presumably, by an excess of 'political correctness' !

    I think I would prefer cynical political gamesmanship than strong ideology and conviction that, for the sake of expediency disguises itself as expediency.

    Ken F.

    1. Power for powers sake...

      Nice and simple.

    2. My point is that it is not simply power for power's sake; these people have an agenda based on strong convictions and ideology. It's extreme enough that it seems to require those with relevant expertise being cut out of the decision chain. I think they are running on ideology and believing their own BS. Perhaps engaged in a noble crusade to save Australia from perceived green left enemies within? I think they are forgetting that it was their own political spin that made climate a fringe green issue - in order to prevent it being seen as a mainstream 'adult' concern.

      If being disingenuous is 'necessary' to prosecute their crusade on climate, it's a small step to do so on other fronts.

      Clever, yes, but not clever enough to see beyond the consequences they seek and see the consequences they will make.

      Ken F

  5. Store a big pot of money and throw it at marginals come re-election time. would be the plan.

    1. Lachlan Ridge2/12/13 3:04 pm

      The problem with this approach is that there are so many Marginal seats. With the government's majority of thirteen seats - all held on margins of less than 3,000 votes - you have to go back to the 1954 election to find a government so vulnerable. And, with the electorate being so convinced that spending money will leave us all rooned, what's the sense in running economic stimulus II?

      They are not great snooker players, but throw in other Smartest Men In the Room like Bruce Hawker and you see where that poll-driven boiler room politics gets you. I.e., nowhere in the medium term.

      The problem is Liberal Democracy is dead. More decisions that affect our day-to-day lives are made in boardrooms than in cabinet meetings. But the sideshow of electoralism bumbles along. Throw one bunch of clueless, neoliberal bums out and what do you get? Another set. I suspect Palmer type outfits will increasingly encroach on the mainstream and, like the last hung parliament, we may get some peer-review based consensus policy - but that will be despite, rather than because, of the two major political groupings.

      Doubt me? Check out the rise in how well informal has been doing in elections lately. My thesis is that a fair chunk of that is a "none of the above" vote.

      If your policy is decided by ignorant focus groups you get ignorant policy. It's not rocket surgery. Watch for a rise in populist outsider politicians. they may be another Windsor or Oakeshott, but my thirty plus years of political campaigning makes me suspect we'll get more Harraduines and Xenephons.

  6. Thanks Andrew. Pyne has since tried to distance himself from Howard's schools funding model, saying 'it is just a start'. The problem is that he's pushed back uncertainty around funding, which nobody likes.

    Ken F. the MSM are already onto this; this morning Barrie Cassidy was full of how the episode would 'play out' for Shorten, and how he needed to capitalise on events as they unfold 'going forward'. Horse race commentary indeed.

  7. Andrew if the media had done its job your prediction that Abbott would never be PM would have come true.

    There have not been too many coalition Govts who have managed to annoy two major regional trading partners and two Liberal state Govts all in the space of a few weeks.

    Confrontation is the hallmark of the Abbott administration.

  8. Unfortunately the cuts to educatiion are just the start. Get prepared for Social Security/Pensions and Health to be next.

  9. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/nov/29/russell-brand-rages-sun-rupert-murdoch

    A great little rant by Russell Brand

    The thinking persons celebrity

  10. Andrew
    I now do not trust journalists to portray a truthful and reliable information stream.
    My first port of call is to your site and Loon Pond

  11. Good piece as usual Andrew.

    I had been thinking that they were out of their depth, but it doesn't cover their performance to date, does it? They were convinced for the last two and a half years of the previous government that the election was theirs, so they did no policy work. Employing monkey house tactics in parliament was enough to win, but no-one, neither on the front bench nor the back room staffers, have done any thinking on what to do with power.

    I thought they were going to try to bring back the glory years of the Howard government, but even that seems beyond them now that the mining boom money is running out. They may regroup in the new year, but if not what is going to fill the policy void?

    I don't know if Shorten is incisive enough to take advantage. He needs to be patient, considered and explain a vision that is in contrast to the rabble government, but who knows if he's up to the challenge.

    1. And Shorten has a formidable opponent - one Rupert Murdoch.

  12. What I cannott understand is how Abbott/Pyne can say that Labor has 'ripped' $1.2bn out of education. The plain fact is that 3 States/Territory REFUSED a total of $1.2bn because they were unwilling to sign up to the Gonski reforms and requirements needed in order to get Gonski money. Why the whole MSM has not questioned closely this weasly worded accusation made by Abbott.Pyne is beyond belief. It seems so much of the media accepts the accusation as truth.

    Now that the Coalition has provided the money and made in principle agreements with the States/Territory which refused - agreements made over one weekend, apparently - how much of Gonski will remain beyond 2014?.It looks like Pyne, like so many of his fellow Ministers, is just not up to his portfolio.

  13. Every policy position Pyne has advocated in government so far has been promptly over-ridden by Abbott. Can't say i'm holding my breath for the media to start lampooning the coalition government by rapidly retracted thought bubbles.

  14. What will they do when they have rubbed the slate clean of ALP fingerprints?

    Maybe they will start to devour their own policy. They only had the one I think. The Parental/Maternal leave scheme. Then what?