05 January 2014

On a different plane

I love myself better than you
I know it's wrong so what should I do?
I'm on a plain
I can't complain
I'm on a plain

- Nirvana On a plain
The Federal Government is proposing to purchase a new aeroplane to transport the Prime Minister, his staff, and a gaggle of handpicked press gallery journalists around the world.

The way that news.com.au reported it was interesting. The government is a victim of its own mixed messaging: if there really is a budget crisis, that is the very sort of expenditure item that can and should be deferred. The media is in a similar bind:
The bigger RAAF planes would also be fitted with the latest in global communications systems ensuring the Prime Minister is never out of touch with his cabinet colleagues and key officials.

At present the nation's leader is incommunicado whenever he travels on a VIP jet.
There is no reason why modern communications facilities must be installed on a larger jet. It would be a security risk having those facilities on an aircraft carrying a critical mass of personnel outside the government and the RAAF. As a justification for a new and larger aircraft, this is a non-sequitur.

Oh - and Abbott is the leader of the government, not the nation, as he himself made clear in the lead-up to the 1999 referendum.
The aircraft also lack modern day in-flight communications, such as those fitted to the US President's jumbo jet Air Force One, allowing leaders to stay in touch in transit.
The US President is the commander-in-chief of the largest military force the world has ever known; the Prime Minister of Australia isn't. The structure of the US military-foreign policy axis is such that the US President can never be incommunicado. There has never been a negative outcome from having the Australian Prime Minister incommunicado for a few hours, and it is hard to imagine any such development.
The BBJs were leased by the Howard government after then secretary of prime minister and cabinet, Max "The Axe" Moore-Wilton, convinced the government to force the media to make their own way to overseas events.

In 2007 media companies threatened to ignore official overseas visits altogether in the wake of the deaths of five Australians, including journalist Morgan Mellish, when the Garuda Airlines plane carrying reporters and officials crashed in Indonesia during an official visit by then ministers Alexander Downer and Phillip Ruddock.

"Our current position and that of Fairfax is that our editors and bureau chiefs will not send correspondents on commercial aircraft in countries where air safety is an issue, if there is no room for them on official aircraft," then News Limited chief John Hartigan said at the time.
Yeah, right.

First, nobody voted for Moore-Wilton; just because he advised something it didn't oblige the government to take that advice.

Second, as you'd expect, Hartigan's statement was empty. Neither Mellish nor Banham worked for him. Media organisations threatening not to cover meetings overseas is completely negated by government media tactics like this (thanks @NKW2). Journos shrieked that Abbott was avoiding their hard-hitting questions (thanks @Leroy_Lynch): this overlooks the fact that they don't do hard-hitting questions when it comes to Abbott, and that where they do his non-answers are not followed up.

Politicians dodge press gallery questions as a matter of course. Those questions are only ever followed up if the journos think the issue will spell the end of the career of the politician being asked; again, there is no fourth-estate public interest thing going on there.

A big new plane combining journos and the PM would not make for better reporting. They have no perspective and ask inane questions in Canberra, and neither altitude nor distance improves matters. Recall Abbott's dire Convoy of Maximum Offence around the Asia-Pacific soon after getting elected, and the insistence by the hand-picked camp followers that this disaster was in fact a triumph. Journos may hanker for relaxed off-the-record chats with the PM, but there is no fourth-estate justification for that as they don't make it into public reports.

Imagine you're a press gallery journalist sent on an overseas assignment with the PM. Imagine that for whatever reason, Peta is in a snit about you and/or your employer, and is playing no-speakies with you - or if something like this or this or that happens. Do you tell your employer not to pay the nominated fare? If so, what happens?

Should the Royal Australian Air Force really have to cover the costs of victualling this ferociously entitled bunch (the press gallery, not just the government) or should passengers be charged extra? Do not even get me started on how the press gallery selects its members and whom it excludes.
The Boeing 777 and Airbus A-330 each cost about $250 million and both can carry in excess of 200 passengers in VIP configuration.
Journalists are quick to tell you that the government charges fares on VIP aircraft, and that those fares are higher than commercial airline fares. Of course they are: commercial airlines fly set routes regularly to drive down the unit costs. Anyway, those fares confuses the issue of capital expenditure (the cost of acquiring something) with operational expenditure (the cost of running something once you've acquired it).

That's a quarter of a billion dollars, folks, at a time when the Australian dollar is depreciating at a rate of knots against the currencies of aircraft manufacturers, and at a time when it could it be better spent on - well, lots of things really. Do we have a budget crisis or not? Insert your own public-sector spending preferences for that amount here - how many mental health treatments for returning Afghanistan veterans, how many before-and-after-school childcare places, how many drunken clowns bailed out of pokey in Denpasar, etc.

The idea that press gallery journos are cool with the idea of One Big Plane, and have a reasonable fear that without it what happened to Morgan Mellish and Cynthia Banham might happen to them, is pretty silly. The idea that they are willing to trade off criticism of the government for the promise of a ride in such a plane is monstrous; not quite justification for shooting it down fully-laden, but getting there. There is no good reason why you couldn't have a commed-up smaller jet for the PM and staff, with a separate chartered jet for journalists also equipped with communication equipment, and for interaction to occur between the two in the air. Hell, why not send images straight back to Canberra, where all the facilities are already in situ?

There are dodgy parts of the world, to be sure, and if you ask an old foreign correspondent they will probably regale you with hair-raising tales of roughing it on Aëro-Dõdgi while being shelled, etc etc. You can bet, however, that the Australian Prime Minister won't be going to those places - too many potential asylum seekers for a start. A big damn aeroplane of the type being considered simply cannot land at airports other than with the most sophisticated equipment, which tend to be airports well covered by reputable commercial flights.

Foreign correspondents must laugh at their pampered colleagues in the press gallery, spoon-fed drops every day and demanding only the best travel should they be wrenched from their comfortable cocoons in Canberra. Imagine hard-bitten foreign corros refusing to go on any aircraft that doesn't comply with CASA standards or serve G+Ts on takeoff - then wonder no longer why the Australian media is cutting back its foreign bureaux.

At a time when even fewer people are concerned about politics than ever before, this one story reveals plenty about not only politics, but also the media:
Both Mr Howard and his successor Kevin Rudd pledged to take action but nothing has happened in the six years since the tragedy.
Of all the public policy issues left unresolved by the Howard and Rudd governments, this is not a priority for anyone outside the press gallery. The fact that the 'tragedy' does not apparently include the hundreds of other dead and injured fellow-passengers of Mellish and Banham is galling too. The opposition have been silent too, too silent. The prospect that the press gallery might trade off creature comforts in the air for a "truce" on the ground (and not limited to the aircraft), and hang the expense that they will never bear, is deeply revolting. It further reveals the redundancy of this sump of journalism, and only makes brighter the prospects for reporting on government once it is abolished.


  1. VoterBentleigh5/1/14 6:48 pm

    Generalissimo PM, here he comes!

    If the Prime Minister is worried about being incommunicado for a long time, he must be planning to be frequently out of the country for long periods. It is a good way to avoid answering any difficult questions, because the journalists on the plane are not likely to cause any turbulence on the flight, are they?

    Meanwhile, back on the ground here in Australia, the Abbott Coalition can remain incommunicado with the general public.

    Looks like the Opposition is incommunicado at the moment, too! For what do taxpayers pay parliamentarians?

    Thankfully, you're back, Andrew, because we need your voice.

  2. As usual, you bring a different perspective to something I had already read about. I had already picked up the disconnect between a budget emergency and buying a new plane to ferry journalists around in, and the implied threat that such journalists must only report positively. But you have also pointed out how pointless such a gesture is to journalism itself - journalism won't improve one bit and if anything else, the political journos will fancy themselves as "insiders" more than ever.

    This is why I always read your blog!

  3. Dear Andrew,
    This is just a note for you.
    It is Cynthia Banham. Not Badham.
    Best wishes

  4. Do you know that a staffer that used to work for Obama is in his media office??

    They're getting ideas from the American government and placing them into our own political class here.

    Won't mention her name...

    What exactly goes on in these overseas trips??

    Nice restaurants, french wine and some fun shenanigans! !

    Looking at twitter accounts , they're a bunch of shallow creeps me thinks.

    #Tosser Inc Pty Ltd

  5. It came to me today - the big issue with Abbott is a lack of leadership. Leadership is hard to define of course, but whatever it is, Abbott does not have it. Howard did have it, and Rudd had it for a while, as did Gillard.

    As for Keating.and Hawke..

    Maybe the problem is the Abbott non-communication strategy, Only appearing on right wing radio stations avoids tough questions, but ensures that you are only heard by a fixed proportion of the population. Putting out you tube videos is not leadership...

    What doesn't help is that the rest of the party appears to be gagged as well. So nobody is communicating to the rest of us apart from the fruitcake senator from South Australia...and surprise surprise, the polls are tanking.

    1. Josh Frydenberg, Kelly o Dwyer and Tim Wilson go onto the a.b.c....
      If Tim Wilson really wants to be taken seriously as a Freedom Commissioner.
      ..he would be as outspoken and out
      there...not being gagged by Credlin et al...

      Hypocricy is astounding.

  6. I wouldn't be surprised if the shenanigans entail long boozy lunches with the selected few "chosen" ones.

    Never ceases to amaze me the extent of the "chummy" nature between the fourth estate and our political class.