15 December 2013

No surprises

We will be a no surprises, no excuses government because you are sick of nasty surprises.

- Tony Abbott, August 2013
Everyone who took him at his word was a fool. And when I say 'everyone', I mean the entire press gallery, because they are busy pretending the poor performance of the government was only obvious after September rather than long, long before.

Lenore Taylor is usually one of the press gallery's most incisive observers, but here she is utterly blind to the role of the press gallery in all of this:
Despite its protestations, the Abbott government’s first 100 days have been anything but methodical and calm, and ... voters have noticed the confusion.
Voters should have been forewarned about the potential for that confusion, which was evident throughout the period while Abbott was Opposition Leader. The people who should have informed them of that was the press gallery.
They [i.e. the voters, people outside the press gallery] expected, for example, a government that would have a clear plan to deal with Holden’s decision about whether to leave the country – either to offer the assistance that might prevent it or to explain why the cost of prevention was not in the national interest. They certainly expected something a bit more decisive than a deflection of blame and internal divisions on public display when thousands of jobs are at stake.
Based on what? Lenore Taylor would have seen at close quarters the struggles that former Coalition Industry spokesperson Sophie Mirabella went through with the car industry - one moment promising more than Labor, the next much less. She should have used that to form the basis for an opinion as to what the Coalition might do in government, and then passed both the reporting and the opinion on to us for consideration.
The business community, which had such high expectations of the new conservative government, is also privately starting to express alarm.
A quick scan of the business pages in any newspaper indicates that sometimes business leaders try things that don't work as planned. This seems to have happened with the government. Maybe they didn't do their due diligence; business journalists come down heavy on business managers who risk their companies on the basis of inadequate information. It isn't good enough to just note that business leaders have changed their tune; a good journalist tries to find out why.
If the government had taken a clear decision that it was not going to provide more assistance to Holden, that Australians would be better off using the billions of dollars it gives the car industry for other purposes and importing cheaper cars, it could have made that argument.

But it hasn’t. For a long time the company has been clear about what it would need to continue Australian production and for just as long the Coalition has been unwilling to tackle its deep internal divisions on the issue and say whether it would be willing to pay. Before the election it papered over the divisions by saying it would refer the issue of long-term assistance to a Productivity Commission review.

After the election it set up the review with a reporting date well after the company insisted it needed an answer and then publicly called on Holden to hurry up and make up its mind before the inquiry had reported. Industry minister Ian Macfarlane is clearly struggling to win internal support for his plan to rearrange the existing Automotive Transformation Scheme money to develop a new car plan and keep the company in Australia.

Contrary to reports about his intended testimony, Holden Australia managing director Mike Devereaux insisted on Tuesday no decision had been made, but the company would need continuing subsidies. That really demands a more definitive response from the government than its public platitudes about the need to make the whole economy stronger.
This is passive-aggressive bullshit on the government's part. The press gallery had a duty to question the Coalition more closely and put it to voters as to whether we might want a car industry at all after the September election.

So, the Coalition had "deep internal divisions" on the question of car industry donations, eh? I thought so. Labor didn't seem to be divided at all on that question - it had been divided, mainly on personality-based issues, yet the divisions of which Taylor writes were not exposed in much the same way. It's bullshit to say that Labor was in government and the Coalition wasn't; an election campaign is about fitness for office after the election. A party that can't handle policy differences before an election won't get better at it under the pressure of government.
Instead of clear direction and leadership the government has said it wants a “national debate”.
Instead of incisive questioning and journalism, quoting a line like “national debate” might be Taylor's idea of journalism.
The absence of clear messages has made it difficult for the coalition to control the political conversation, and its early efforts to do so by keeping quiet and hoping politics would disappear from the headlines were always destined to fail.
Clear messages don't come from Peta Credlin shrieking at people, nor from Mark Textor's smarm and quasi-astrological calculations. They come from hard thinking and careful consideration about what the country requires. There is no evidence that the Coalition has devoted a moment to that at any point since Howard lost office. Their main critique of the Rudd-Gillard governments was that they weren't in office; the press gallery in the 1980s and '90s beat the Liberals out of that type of thinking by refusing to report such statements or deriding them when they did. The press gallery fell hard for Abbott when he took it up to a government they disliked, and it is a failure of judgment on their part when they realise there's nothing to this government.
But voters thought they had elected a government that – when faced with the possible demise of the Australian car industry and serious financial difficulties in the national airline – would have something a bit more decisive to say than “what do you guys think?” or “whoops”.
Voters were led to believe that by a press gallery that has no excuse for not knowing better. Whoops! She did itagain:
Like a Christmas cracker, or a New Year party popper, to use similes pertinent to the season, the trick used by new governments of blaming former governments for bad stuff they need to do only works once.

Bang! Shock! It’s all their fault, and regretfully we have to implement these nasty measures to clean up the mess we’ve inherited.
The vacuity of this government isn't seasonal, it's perennial. This government is about nothing more than revenging the 2007 election, and there was never any proof to the contrary.
The Coalition has also announced a royal commission into the first Rudd government’s home insulation program, which was a terrible failure ...
Worked pretty well at my place. Is this 'failure' some water-cooler meme at the press gallery, or are there any objective criteria to cast such a judgment?

So much for Taylor. So long as she's focused on the (real or imagined) deeds and misdeeds of others, she's fine.

What was a surprise came from Simon Benson:
An effective government must be in total command of the agenda and have control of the message.
Do you realise that developments in modern technology mean that no government will ever have that command-and-control, or will even be able to adequately define 'agenda' or 'the message' let alone control it? Talk about setting people up to fail.
... [Abbott] has refocused foreign affairs priorities.
Whenever they announce another round of redundancies at the Murdoch press, they talk about 'refocusing'. If you accept that as a synonym for 'buggering up', perhaps that is a fair if cack-handed way of putting it.

None of our government-to-government relationships are better under this government. I guess all those closed and cut-down missions abroad would save money.
... Abbott has been caught in a caravan of mostly unforeseen political disasters which has derailed his ability to maintain command of his agenda and control of the message, or media cycle.
And as I said, that's because there's no core of principle and consideration. Benson's line here is more revealing though: I suspect he loves the firm smack of discipline more than he lets on.
The government's broader message was always going to be fraught. On the one hand he promised to slow things down and stop the hysteria. He promised a stable and methodical approach to governance and an end to the daily press conference.

His Treasurer Joe Hockey, however, has been talking up the budget "emergency".

This by, by definition [sic], has instilled a sense of urgency for action which would appear inconsistent with its strategy of getting out of the headlines.
If you've spend long enough working for Murdoch, you must learn to couch criticism in weaselly terms as Benson has done here. You can bet that loyal Liberals pointed this out ahead of time, and were excoriated for it.
But if there is a sense of unease within the Coalition about any of this, it isn't showing. Largely because there is still three years to go.
Maybe they're just thick. When the NSW Labor government got rid of Morris Iemma it still had three years ahead of it. Whatever Ian Macdonald and Eddie Obeid did or didn't do at that time, they weren't worried about electorate cycles, news cycles, or polling.
For the Coalition, it is now hoping to bookmark the first spell before heading off on holidays by ripping Labor a new one with the release of the mid year economic and fiscal outlook. It will be a frightening document, no doubt.
Having learned nothing from recent weeks, the government is going to drop some bad news and then let it fester for weeks and weeks, hoping that the current opposition is happy to cop it sweet. Maybe it will work, but the sheer absence of a fallback position is negligent typical so obvious even Simon Benson has noticed surprising.

Benson's counterpart at The Courier-Mail, Dennis Atkins, is also easily surprised:
The other growing perception is the Government is review heavy. Consider the list: the auto industry Productivity Commission inquiry, another one on child care, a government activity audit, a tax review, a competition assessment, a lengthy probe into workplace law and a look at renewable energy.
In his speech to the National Press Club on 1 February 2012, Abbott announced inquiries into this and that as a substitute for taking any policy positions. Now those inquiries are coming to pass, and this is somehow a "growing perception"? Never mind Canberra, Dennis - next time it rains heavily in Brisbane, go and stand by the banks of the river without an umbrella and tell us all about your growing perception of wetness.
The Coalition consensus is that after Australia Day, it's game back on.

This is a sensible world view - recharging personal and political batteries and assessing the good, the bad and the ugly from these 100 days - but events always intervene.

These "events" are proving the problem.
Three things arise from this profound piece of insight:
  1. How long have you been a journalist? Do you not know that "events" happen all the time, to everyone, in or out of government? The whole idea of government is for them to deal with events so that we don't have to.
  2. Clearly, people like spinners and staffers and lobbyists and pollsters who claim they can foresee and manage events are bullshit, aren't they? You can include Abbott in that list too.
  3. As I said earlier, if the government drops a bad MYEFO and then goes and watches the cricket for a month or so, it could well return to find people deaf to its message.
Peter Hartcher has pretty much missed all of the big political stories of recent years, but this one's too big for even his obtuse capacities:
Like Keating's famous 1986 warning of Australia's economic decline, it can be a national shock, but also a jolt to national action ... Keating followed his warning with a controversial program of economic reform.
Now make the case that the Abbott government even has a program, controversial or otherwise, that goes beyond cutting this or repealing that and hoping there are no "events".
Rather than relying on Holden, Australia's economic future depends on Hockey. Is he up to it? We are about to find out.
You've had years to make that assessment. He doesn't deserve the blank cheque you are thrusting into his hands.

Then there's this pompous rubbish. What would motivate Abbott to act in such a way, Pascoe? Where is your evidence that he is even capable? The worst thing you can do is give a politician the benefit of the doubt. This is what The Sydney Morning Herald did on election day and, in the worst traditions of journalism, continues to blame others for problems its intellectual and moral laziness has caused. None of that was unforeseeable before 7 September, none of it.

The press gallery observed Abbott at close quarters over more than three years when he was Opposition Leader. They noted the tight control around his media appearances and didn't question it. They saw the trees of individual criticisms of the Gillard and Rudd governments, but they failed to notice the forest of incompetence that attended Abbott and his team.

Abbott said that his team brought experience from the Howard government. They have less excuse for the bumbling and dithering start to government than, say, Rudd or Howard did in their first few months. Just because a politician promises to do something that sounds good, it doesn't mean that they will do it, or even that they are capable of doing it. People who are experienced observers of politics - like press gallery journalists - should know that. They had no right to proclaim, as they did, that Tony Abbott can be believed when he says something. They have no claim to be surprised, as they do, that this government has no policy direction and makes knee-jerk responses to events (one of which involves denying information to journalists).

Those people I quoted above are not press gallery newbies. They are the people who set the tone for political reporting in this country. The idea that they're surprised by situations that bloggers foresaw years ahead of time speaks not only to their irrelevance, but to that of the very construct of the press gallery itself. Abbott is running a no-surprises agenda, and certainly Labor, the Greens and even Palmer aren't surprised by this government. The press gallery have been so close to the Coalition that they have lost all perspective, and if voters were ill-informed then they are more responsible than they would dare admit.

Update: showing how it's done is a non-gallery journalist, Renai le May:
Long-term readers of Delimiter will be aware that I have long tried to hold all sides of politics to account on an equal basis when it comes to technology policy and implementation. Whether it’s Labor, the Coalition or the Greens, I have tried sincerely to praise the merits of each, as well as criticising each where criticism is due. I have tried to seek truth and to be objective. This is standard journalistic practice and it was how I was trained.

This has, at times, led me into conflict with many readers. Many in Australia’s technology community have long believed that the Coalition has not sincerely had intentions of pursuing Labor’s National Broadband Project to fruition. When Malcolm Turnbull was first appointed as Shadow Communications Minister three years ago, back in 2010, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott reportedly ordered Turnbull to “demolish” the NBN, and many readers have long believed that has been the secret intention of the Coalition when it comes to this most high-profile of Labor projects.

In that past three years, I have attempted to treat all statements by all sides of politics on their merits. I have treated the Coalition’s statements on the NBN seriously, and I have treated Labor’s statements on the NBN seriously. I have treated the Greens’ statements on the NBN seriously.

Many readers have argued with me about this approach. They have pointed out that Turnbull, and others within the Coalition, have very often taken an inconsistent approach to the NBN, stating one thing and then doing another.
Not only does le May apologise for confusing Malcolm Turnbull with someone who has the nation's best interests at heart, he has the courage to look deep into his journalistic methods. This is a lesson for all journalists, inside the gallery and out, before that 'profession' disappears up itself.


  1. Bushfire Bill15/12/13 3:35 pm

    Forget about "Abbott said that his team brought experience from the Howard government," Andrew.

    You must have missed the bit in Dennis Atkins' article where he told us:

    "Monday marks 100 days since the election and it’s been a busy and steep learning curve for ministers and staff, many of whom have no experience of confronting consequences with every decision they make..

    See? So all that guff about being "Government ready", and having those 200 fully-costed and developed policies, ready to be swung into action should the nation call &etc., was slightly exaggerated.

    1. Indeed it was. I must have suppressed it!

    2. "Government ready" was the miriest lie Abbott ever served up. His mob, including him, were Howard's Third Team, in cricket parlance - the holdovers, the hangers on, the beige backgrounders. And so they 'perform' in government.

      Abbott used to mock Kevin Rudd for his 'selfies'.

      What else was his ridiculously self-laudatory First 100 Days of Government press conference than selfie onanism with an audience?

      This 'man' has no distance on anything. Self, political policies, diplomacy.

      "Distance" to assess (or even have awareness of) the impact of his odd and egocentric behaviour that the rest of us have to live with as the results of government edict.

      As living through the Howard years was being forced to participate in an old man's fantasies of a disappeared-by-decades Australia, now we are being dragged along in a bully's self-mythifying of himself as 'the man who will bring a nation to embracing his apotheosis as its finest leader'.

      Abbott is delusional - his list of 100 days' achievements was hollow, half-baked, and essentially of no contribution at all to the nation's good.

      The list he didn't mention, the sacked boards and commissions and statutory authorities, almost all of which did have roles in serving the nation's good, that is the true record of the Abbott gumnint's first 100 days.

      Bastardy, ideological narrowness, carpetbagging for old mates (hello, Malcolm), sly redrafting of promises (hello Christopher), international stumblebumming (hello Julie) and sheer incompetence (hello Bronwyn), those are the hallmarks of the Abbott Error.

      And there is nothing, not a jot of a hint of a possibility of a likelihood, that Abbott and his crew even have the nous to recognise what national governing beyond ticking off party political platforms requires.

      He was never up to the job of PM, his cabinet and fellow government members are incompetents or so ideologically mind-hobbled it amounts to incompetence, and we, citizens of Australia, are at their mercy.

      There is no-one less 'merciful' than a thwarted bully.

  2. Yeah I saw le May's apology.
    And unlike most of those commenting at his site I didn't buy the apology.
    Maybe I'm hard to please whatever but the thought that was uppermost in my mind was why he was bending over backwards to be 'fair and balanced' when it was bleedin' obvious for years that the Turnbull NBN was crap?
    As he admits, in the last para you quote, he was told - repeatedly.
    And now, when its too late [none of this 'better late than never' stuff] he sees the light.

    Similarly Ross Gittins did the same about the carbon 'tax' with a note to his unborn grandkids
    Not impressed.


    1. Yep. I felt the cold shoulder of Le May's banning because I dared suggest he should support ABC technology editor Nick Ross instead of agreeing with Turnbull's shoot the messenger style when he (Ross) came under fire from the Earl of Wentworth for daring to actually report the truth. Renai's hindsight isn't worth a pinch of shit. A tiny bit of foresight and actually investigating the real implications of the Liberals policies would have been far more valuable than a mea culpa now that it is tragically all too late.

      Screw him and all the rest of the moron media that allowed themselves to become patsies to the frauds in the Coalition because they placed the quest for false balance (or are just plain lazy and stupid) above actually doing their job. Every fact balanced by a corresponding mountain of Liberal bullshit. I hold them all in far greater contempt that the Murdoch/Redneck media cheer squad who I doubt are under any delusions about what they are, but have assessed that the ends justify the means.

    2. I read le May's pieces just before the election. I think he realised that a Coalition govt was coming and was trying to make his peace with it. Denial is part of that - they won't be that bad, will they? - and now those people are having their delusions dashed by reality.

      He was big enough to admit wrong and apologise, which is more than the press gallery nobs cited above (and elsewhere in this blog) are big enough to do. I have far more disregard for the press gallery careerists than for someone like le May - politics isn't his forte and he's in that horrible position where he is copping it from all sides.

  3. Lets just say Tony has not worn a yellow vest since or kissed a fish, or drove a truck. Have the factory staff at Holden noticed that I wonder.
    Did any msm juno at the time enquire as to why, after all one can visit in a suit and BLUE tie, don't recall any msm juno asking that question, while the rest of us looked on with amusement, but not amused now, but what is happening, was forecast by many. May be surprised observers next time will seek out folk who read blogs and tweet.

  4. The warnings were the in full view to anyone with an ounce of nounce, that this man was full of crap, and had no intentions of being on the "same page as Mr Rudd" I doubt he is on the same page as any sane and normal person! The press let this country down and I for one would like to see them all taken to account for their actions or lack of action in keeping the public informed of the truth!

  5. swearyanthony15/12/13 8:22 pm

    Re pink batts: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollytics/2010/10/19/insulation-fire-risk-%E2%80%93-the-data-is-in/ note that this piece is over three years old. Yet Taylor still trots out the bullshit.

  6. this article should be compulsory reading for anybody who has an interest in australian politics

  7. Andrew,
    Here's hoping you rip Andrew Bolt a new one for his 'more in sorrow than in anger' piece to commemorate Abbott's first 100 days! Complete with advice from courtier to king about how he could freshen up the malodorous government's messaging in the new year, so as to pull the wool over the electorate's eyes afresh.

    Which really is the problem with this government in a nutshell, isn't it? A government by journalists(Abbott), for journalists(it's all about the messaging). And round and round the Mulberry bush they go, Canberra Press Gallery in tow, seemingly led by the nose by the Murdoch Press pack hacks.

    As you say, without an innovative policy idea between the lot of them, and no urging for one from the reporters. Just the daily Talking Points sent to one and all from the bunker of Peta Kremlin, after she has received the daily focus group tea leaf readings from Mark 'Smart Arse' Textor, the legend in his own focus group of one.

    The Abbott government appear to me to only have one idea, to vindictively dismantle all the good policy enacted by a government that had a clue and left the previous Howard government eating it's dust. For all it's dysfunctionality.

    Of course, much else WILL be done by this government over the next 2 & 3/4 years, but only after it's brains trust of Tony Shepherd, John Roskam, Maurice Newman, Henry Ergas, Gina Reinhart & Judith Sloane get done deciding what they want it to do. Abbott's job, as always, will be to convince the nation to eat the shit sandwich they want to serve up to it.

    Thus will come to pass the results of a very interesting experiment to decide just how much crap you can force down an electorate's throat before they say, "No more!" This is what I'll be watching with interest.

    Also, how much crap half-way decent journalists like Lenore Taylor will swallow, before they too can stomach it no more.

    1. I only have three words to say about Andrew Bolt, and the last two are "Andrew Bolt".

      The government isn't obliged to be overly innovative, but it must do more than it considers necessary to prepare this country for the twentyfirst century. Their brains trust can't really help them.

      As soon as Tony Shepherd's company gets a slice of the infrastructure pie, it will tarnish the whole program. There are always cost blowouts and delays in big projects and they will make things look even worse. People like Sloane, Ergas and Newman are passengers rather than drivers in this government, I wouldn't worry too much about them.

      I think the press gallery are using this surprise-and-disappointment thing as their excuse to drop the fawning coverage. It's a poor excuse, though.

  8. Andrew
    I always look forward to reading your thoughts on politics and full of admiration for your writings.
    We have been let down by journalists writing about politics in this country.
    I find it so frustrating having to read article written by the likes of Grattan,Marius Benson, for Grattan to be awarded a position with a university tells me how out of touch the leaders of this university are.
    I have ceased to have any publication from Murdoch or contribute financially to this evil company and I say evil because we in this country should by now know the length this megalomaniac will go to influence the outcome of election with the likes of Kelly who are willing to spread bullshit to assist with desires of Murdoch.

  9. " They come from hard thinking and careful consideration about what the country requires. There is no evidence that the Coalition has devoted a moment to that at any point since Howard lost office. "

    Andrew, I'm not a blogger, I've not spent the last 10, 20 or 30 years immersed in politics, but what you've said as quoted (and more) about this government was as obvious as a boil on Tony's up ended arse that he's been showing us for the last three years and more.
    What's more it was about three years ago that it started to filter through to this fairly non political person that Tony Abbott was lying time after time and the media never questioned the veracity of those statements. On the other hand Julia couldn't wear a new pair of glasses without a 3 page article being written about it. It was the complete lack of equality in scrutiny from the media that got me involved. Especially the media I used to trust, like the Age and the ABC. Newscorpse is a lost cause. Since then I've become more and more active on Facebook and more recently Twitter trying to get the message through to my seemingly dimwitted friends and others that electing the LNP with Abbott at the helm was the biggest mistake we will ever make. I would also like to add that the media were at their worst when Julia Gillard was PM. They seemed to be hunting as a pack, being only able to focus on the leadership tensions real or confected (most of the time) whilst completely ignoring their raison d'etre. I swear as soon a Julia had been forced from office by a gleeful LNP, a triumphant Rudd and a rabid press some semblance of normality returned almost instantly. I was not the only one to notice. I still don't understand what was behind the actions of the media during that time but they are complicit in losing us a PM who had those qualities described in your quote. It is time they took some responsibility for their absence of integrity.

    Robyn Hannan

    1. Robyn, I think we're going to end up at 2020 half way to where we needed to be at 2000.

    2. Yes, having spent some of that time pedalling as fast as we can backwards. And today, to learn the Tim Wilson is our new Human Rights Commissioner beggars belief. Even though most of it was quite clearly signalled, everyday in every way they manage a SURPRISE for us, and this one's a beaut! Robyn

  10. Journalists bring all this criticism upon themselves! They like to be referred to as 'professional', but show no signs of professionalism in their reporting. Some say they are under the influence of the media proprietors, with the threat of dismissal if they don't follow the proprietor's instructions (real or implied). If that is the case, don't call yourself professionals - prostitutes would be a better word. If they are under undue influence, surely they could band together and 'strike'?, or is there a fear that they will be replaced? Prostitutes!

    1. They have banded together before. Some time ago but it was mentioned just the other day. I'm sorry I can't remember any details. Journos then seemed to have more integrity. Robyn

  11. Do you think that The Guardian will achieve viable readership numbers with its reliance on the group think political commentary of sacked Fairfax journalists like Lenore Taylor and Katharine Murphy

    1. I don't believe Taylor and Murphy were sacked, they were offered better jobs. A nuanced appreciation of Australian politics is hard to get from London, and I still think Taylor was a smart hire on their part (Murphy, less so). What's significant about the Guardian is the way they get stories about public policy from outside the press gallery bubble, which Fairfax can't/won't do any more to any real extent.

  12. You write of the "press gallery" as if they are ALL stupid, clumsy and lacking basic foresight....Well..they can't ALL be stupid and whatever, but there certainly are a number who deliberately boosted this current mob into power, knowing the disaster they would bring to many areas of infrastructure and social policy..all on a platform (as you correctly point out) of revengeful ideology while under the orders and pay of a (now) foreign citizen.
    What they are..and so few seem to want to name it..are TRAITORS...pure and simple...I've written of it, but no-one else seems to want to take it seriously....we, as a nation, have been betrayed by members of the forth estate....sold-out, stiffed, swindled, wrangle, swizzle, cheat...go to the thesaurus, there must be dozens of substitutes...but why don't we just spit it out?...BETRAYED!...deliberately and willingly betrayed..
    The press gallery are were a nest of traitors to this nation.

    1. It isn't tough to call this treason, just inaccurate. A relatively free media and a relatively free vote is as much as you can ask, and more than most get; the Abbott government got where it is today within the system, not by subverting it.

      The press gallery is generally incompetent. There are a few who are particularly so, and a few who are less so, but generally they are incompetent and so are the editors who put them there.

      There is only one moderator for this blog and it is a part-time operation. I almost never post comments in allcaps but you raised issues I wanted to address. I doubt this will be the case if you reply, but give it a go.

  13. I remain bewildered why the press gallery and political commentators were so beguiled by Tony Abbott.

    I have written here before that I have never heard him say anything interesting. I have never read anything that led me to believe that he has any insights about how this country can position itself in a changing world.

    Tony Abbott is always in conflict with someone or something. The most prominent members of his inner circle have adopted the same overbearing, belligerent, shut-up-we-know-what-is-good for-you tone.

    The trouble for all of us is that they don't. As you have written time and time again Andrew, they have absolutely no clue.