31 March 2014

The bigots' friend

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose

- Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee
Years from now, George Brandis will be an old man blustering into restaurants with "Don't you know who I am?". He will be dining well when somebody approaches him whom he doesn't recognise, but Brandis will retain too much of the pollie instinct not to tell the person to go away.

"Excuse me", the person will say, "aren't you George Brandis?". It will have been a while since he was recognised like that.

"Yes, yes I am".

"I just wanted to thank you for saving us from the [racial epithet]s".

In that moment, he'll be crushed. Why don't people remember [some incremental advance in liberty, since reversed], or [some other small achievement of which he might be proud, but which none but lawyers notice]? Why is his legacy consumed by bigotry? Even more than John Howard, he will go into his dotage mystified that others don't regard him as the open-minded and tolerant fellow at which he prizes himself.

I believe Brandis is sincere in his belief that he went into politics to advance the scope of freedom available to Australians. He just hasn't done a very good job of it. The reason for this is because he isn't as committed to it as he makes out, which I've pointed out elsewhere. There is no strong, lifelong vow to anything that will define Brandis' career in any way other than as the bigots' friend.

Garfield Barwick was bankrupted during the Depression. As Attorney General he rewrote the law of bankruptcy, and as a High Court judge he came down against the heavy hand of government. Nicola Roxon's father died from smoking-induced lung cancer, and as Health Minister and Attorney General she took down tobacco companies with plain packaging and other measures. Brandis has no backstory, no depth like either of those. He talks about freedom in idle, school-debate terms. He does not and cannot draw on the lives of people different to himself, nor even on instances from his own life which might resonate with others.

Like all politicians Brandis will regard the odd concession to his enemies as so much foxing, distractions from some main/long game. The trouble is that he isn't that good at playing the game. This may account for his closeness to the IPA: the way John Roskam plays internal Liberal Party politics is similar to the way Brandis does, offering quid up front and no quo in return. Tim Wilson's appointment to a body that he wanted abolished is much better for Wilson than it will ever be for Brandis and any agenda he may have.

Brandis had entered the Senate on shaky ground factionally. Early in the century faced the prospect of losing preselection with nothing much to show for his career, either in politics or in the law. He ran interference for Howard in Senate investigations into "children overboard" and became a minister toward the fag end of his government. As delivery boy for Howard, and now Bolt, Brandis is more defined by them than they were/are by him.

Those who stand to benefit from bigotry are few and, as Pauline Hanson's career shows, ungrateful. Those who stand to lose from it are many, and not bound or inclined to regard him favourably either. He's just another jack-in-office in Canberra who made it harder for people for whom life is hard enough. Acts of violence or even derision cannot and will not be traceable to Brandis directly, and any attempt to do so will only overburden the decrepit nag that serves as his high horse. We all stand to lose from diminished social cohesion at home and greater distrust abroad, which is what comes from an Attorney General who sides with bigots.

Bolt had been a critic of the previous government and a fan of this one. His pride is such that he will not suffer any reputation as a kept boy and he will turn on this government when it suits him. For now, Brandis will happily wear the opprobrium that comes with representing Bolt, in that lawyerly way where a client's reputation never rubs off onto the lawyer. Politics isn't like the law in that regard, and if when Bolt parts ways with this government he will leave Brandis exposed. Brandis is not only dumb enough to truckle to Bolt, he's so dumb that he expects something in return.

Bolt didn't get where he is through sticking by George Brandis. Bolt will still be going after Brandis is gone.

Brandis' proposed repeal of s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is not a done deal, despite what the press gallery might have you think. It's not clear that Brandis can cut a deal with a disparate Senate, or work out some way to wedge Labor into voting for it. Peter Costello managed to negotiate the GST with the Democrats, and Peter Reith did the same with industrial relations changes (which is what we called them back in the day); but neither Brandis, nor any member of this government have shown such negotiating skill. Of all the turmoil in the previous parliament, never were Rudd or Gillard wrong-footed through some deft manoeuver by Brandis.

What else is he going to do, federal-state relations? Rename 'chairpersons' as 'chairmen'?

Brandis will puddle along and retire without having achieved much at all. There is no evidence that he himself is a bigot (some of his best friends, etc), but those who are will regard him as a friend and helper when others turned away. He may write a book but it almost certainly won't be any good. He'll retire seeking forgiveness to any he'd wronged and with goodwill to all, and the lack of achievement will cause many to think more fondly of him than is possible now.

Even so, what little achievement he has already is pretty much the only legacy he can or should expect. He'll feel diminished at being the bigots' friend, but he won't have much choice; a terrible position for any lover of freedom, whether real or merely professed.

Update: speaking of those who love the idea of liberty more than its practice, Chris Berg wrote a poor book on the subject and has come out panhandling in defence of Brandis, Bolt and the whole sorry self-inflicted mess.

Berg sounds unhinged when he snarls at the existing statute and its pesky reasonableness-and-good-faith. Andrew Bolt was found guilty of having been dishonest in his dealings with the facts on Aboriginal identity. While Berg sneers at judges deciding what's free speech (until the High Court agrees with him - such a relief for all concerned, no doubt), judges are actually quite good at sifting through fact and falsehood and deciding who is or isn't a liar.

Andrew Bolt was convicted of lying. Chris Berg is defending his 'right' to lie, just as he did when Conroy proposed to regulate the way newspapers deal with mistruths. To defend Bolt it is necessary to be dishonest in a way that goes beyond your Berg-standard straw man work. Berg and Bolt and Brandis want a public debate where what's true or not doesn't matter. With such heedlessness all you have is assertion, and the one with the biggest megaphone wins. Andrew Bolt and Adam Goodes had bigger megaphones than their opponents; only Goodes used his for truth and generosity: two values to be prized more highly in public debate than Berg using the Australian of the Year as cover for dishonest abuse against Aborigines.

Courts take frauds out of business every day. Courts have a role in weeding out powerful voices for dishonesty in race debates, and dishonesty about who even is allowed to participate in such debates. This should not change simply because the B-boys wish it so. They have not made their case at all, let alone honestly and in good faith.

Now that the budget is under development we can influence how we are taxed and governed. Joe Hockey's first budget will not be sidetracked by Brandis' culture-war pas-de-deux with Bolt. Given that most of the Senate is hostile to Brandis' proposals and to the general thrust of the budget, all this baggage puts the government in a more difficult position than wise management would have put it in.

If the government had to get either the budget through the Parliament, or Brandis' reforms, which do you think would it choose? Puts the straw-man arguments of the B-boys into relief, doesn't it.

23 March 2014

Weighed in the balance

In the 19th century, it was widely believed that there was in the centre of Australia a vast inland sea. Some went motivated by greed, others by a quasi-religious search for a new Galilee too seek it out. In the process, some died, some disappeared, and some went crazy. Eventually technology improved to the point where it could be established that no such inland sea existed, and an educated population came by and large to accept that evidence. Those who continued to feel otherwise frittered away their money and credibility by asserting their case in the absence of evidence.

In the early 21st century, Australian political journalists still believe there is a 'left' and a 'right', at a time when fewer and fewer of their readers/ listeners/ viewers do. They spent each day on a quest to can negate any opinion, fact or thing so long as you can find another opinion - anyone, anywhere - to countervail any other, and then impose whatever you reckon as The Voice Of Balance. At the same time, they present daily evidence of the sheer uselessness of these notions in describing anyone or anything (how 'left' is Doug Cameron? How 'moderate' is Christopher Pyne? How 'right' is John Madigan?). Yet, when political journalists feel themselves under siege, these meaningless terms group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern in much they same way that Jacqueline Maley does here.

This article is this year's equivalent of the appalling press gallery follow-up to their efforts in November 2012, when it asserted that Julia Gillard's speech against misogyny was really about Peter Slipper and could in no valid way be interpreted as about that aspect of womanhood which involves copping misogyny. People like Peter Hartcher, and yes Jacqueline Maley, engaged in jowl-wobbling outrage at the very idea that it was even possible to interpret any utterance by any Australian politician that didn't accord with their interpretation.

Her original March in March piece (to which the later one refers) reads like one of those sniffy and unkind contemporary reviews of, say, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or A Farewell To Arms which dismissed them as having no lasting value. She covered it the way she covers Parliament, as a theatrical production put on for her bemusement. It is telling that she noticed the puerile and offensive slogans and ignored the polite and whimsical ones - so much for Pembroke-style politeness as the way to get your message through.
When I rang the national convener of the rallies on Sunday, he ... launched into a speech about how his group was used to being overlooked by the "MSM" (mainstream media).
A real journalist would have sought independent corroboration.

A real journalist would have recognised that reporting tens of thousands of people on the streets of your town is actually the meat and potatoes of your 'profession', rather than what looked like Maley sulking that her bosses had set her an assignment that she didn't want to cover.

A real journalist, or anyone who cares about journalism, would have recognised that March in March is the latest in a chain of significant community events whose significance the traditional media organisations have entirely missed. Two other examples include the outpouring of grief following the death of Jill Meagher and the seemingly spontaneous memorial services for Reza Berati. Significant numbers of people organised events on the streets of our cities which journalists underestimated both before and while they were taking place. The idea that such events might have a longterm significance and impact is one to which Maley and her superiors simply cannot come to terms, let alone report.

The unnamed national convenor of March in March did pretty much the same as what Pembroke did, except that Maley had to chase him rather than wait for Pembroke's letter to drop into her lap, and that organising a multi-site protest for tens of thousands is more of an achievement than writing a letter in Annandale. Regarding all criticism as abuse, Maley follows this by saying (sniffily and unkindly as you'd expect):
It is strange that people who despise the MSM so much are so angry at being ignored by it.
It's fairly standard. Fancy living a 'life' where you are insulated, isolated from that stuff. I wasn't involved in March in March at all, but I'm perfectly happy to go through the 17 March edition of any Fairfax broadsheet and nominate which stories should have been cut or dropped to accommodate more and better coverage of March in March.
I was abused on Twitter for my online story, and also for the fact that it didn't run in the paper.
See how journalism works? You can park an idea, find a countervailing one, then you don't have to deal with either. It's disappointing reading, but Maley is like that. She overestimates the extent to which she's covered by refusing to engage with actual ideas about what is actually going on.
Even though they were offended by the comparison when I made it, many of the Twitter/internet critics complained that while the "Convoy of No Confidence" rallies got plenty of coverage in the traditional media, their left-wing protest didn't.

These people overlooked a few key facts - those right-wing protests got largely negative coverage
Rubbish. Alan Jones didn't give them negative coverage. Those rallies were organised within the traditional media, and got coverage accordingly. Alan Jones did, however, give Jacqueline Maley negative coverage at that event. It is strange that Maley does not appear to regard the Jones-Maley spat with equanimity, and does not simply believe that two countervailing opinions can simply negate one another.
... and many of the participants complained of bias in that coverage.
They would, wouldn't they.
Also, those protests were of greater news value due to the attendance of Coalition MPs and senators, including the future Prime Minister, who famously stood next to a crude sign about Julia Gillard.
And the very journalists who breathlessly covered that event were stunned, stunned I tell you, that people would regard Tony Abbott as a rabble-rouser and a misogynist when they didn't even know him. Bloody internet!
Their presence lent legitimacy to a ragtag bunch of extremists, homophobes, nutters and anti-carbon tax protesters who should never have been given any.
Whereas what should have happened was that the extremists and nutters should have discredited the politicians, and shown us what sort of government we'd be in for if we voted to replace the then government with this one.
That became the story, particularly because the atmosphere of the last Parliament was so precarious and febrile.
Here she is describing the limitations of how the media cover events, rather than the events themselves. Note the switch to the passive voice as a way of deflecting responsibility or even consideration of the media's role in the last parliament.
(remember how Alan Jones, enraged by the poor showing, claimed that hordes of would-be attendees had been stopped at the ACT-NSW border? Adorable!).
Remember how no journalist actually checked with either the NSW or ACT Police until days afterward to see whether this was true? Ridiculous!
The lack of coverage of March in March probably had something to do with the fact that, like so much left-wing protest, it was unfocused. The speakers and protesters had a grab-bag of complaints, from asylum-seeker policy to gay marriage to fair trade.
By contrast, open any edition of The Australian and what will you find - "a grab-bag of complaints, from asylum-seeker policy to gay marriage to fair trade", and not much journalism to speak of in the 'news' space.

Maley confronted a swirl of ideas that couldn't be adequately boiled down to simple slogans, people with so little respect for her pampered press gallery ways that they didn't even maintain message discipline. Part of the trade-off for mobilising tens of thousands of people is that you have to cast a wide net to fit everyone. If you look at pictures of big marches from yesteryear, like the Vietnam Moratorium of 1970 or the protests against the Greiner government's cuts to NSW education in 1991, you will see placards that had nothing to do with the supposed focus of the protest.

You show me an organisation that maintains a strict message discipline, and I'll show you an organisation that has a large and proactive operation dedicated to keeping journalists happy. And by 'happy', I mean a predicament situation where the journalist doesn't have to work for their living but has stories spoon-fed to them; where quoting someone's words is all you need do to remain 'employed'.

Maley showed us nothing about March in March, but plenty about her sheer inadequacy at the fundamental journalistic skill of having to forage for a story. She doesn't even have the excuse of having been a 'kid reporter'; you can imagine how 'unfocused' an event with a name like "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" would have been.
The whole thing was interesting because it demonstrated the widening gulf between what is popular on social media and the internet, and what traditional media organisations consider newsworthy.
See, it isn't true that everything Jacqueline Maley writes is drivel. In that line is one of the central questions of our age. Watch Maley botch it, though:
Sometimes the two overlap, but whether the bloggers, tweeters and other internet denizens like it or not, newspapers still get to make that call.
Almost every article of hers I've ever read has been read online; does that make her an "internet denizen"? Yeah, it does.

Given that Maley's original article was published online and not on wood pulp, and that for every wood-pulp reader there are five to seven online readers, why is it significant that her superiors shunted it from the wood-pulp version? Why did her headline-writer claim the story wasn't 'run', when clearly it had been? She diminishes the piece herself ("sniffy and unkind", which hardly distinguishes it from the accumulated dead weight of her efforts). After all that, this much diminished piece, its writer and publisher(s) are apparently pivotal to agenda-setting in this country.

Is Timothy Pembroke's open letter responsible for more hits on Maley's article than the article to which he referred (and the various inducements that Fairfax brings to its articles) could manage beforehand? I wouldn't be at all surprised. Where is the evidence that Maley, or her superiors, have engaged with the ideas that Pembroke put forward - at all, let alone in comparison with those who put their positions more stridently.

The last blogpost piece yarn article thing bearing her dinkus that I read and commented on sent her into a flurry of tweets which can fairly be described as "unpleasant", but far from deeply so. She hated what I said and has never met me, but insisted on calling me "buddy". Polite Timothy Pembroke never got called 'buddy', possibly because his very civility has been used against him, with Maley using his very good manners as justification for dismissing the point he was making.

One thing on which you can agree with Maley: people who edit newspapers definitely decide what goes into newspapers.
Newspapers, edited as they are by humans, do get it wrong, and the Herald should have covered the marches.
Note that this admission had to be made by a middling employee who can't even get her stories inked onto wood-pulp. It has not been made by one of her superiors who confuse never admitting you're wrong with never actually being wrong.
Contemporary newsrooms have constrained resources, papers have fewer pages due to declining advertising, and the increasing clutter of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle makes news selection confusing.
Oh, fuck off - and I mean this sincerely. This is self-interested mewling by people with no idea about their own jobs, or anyone else's.

We're all busy. We all face constrained resources and a deluge of information. Media organisations used to present themselves as the people who'd sort through that deluge and present the news you needed to know about what was going on: that was what we would now call their business proposition. Now, they are sniffy and unkind, blowing up non-stories and ignoring real ones, and their opinions and judgments are no better than mine or yours. You have to forage for news like an old-school journalist, and as old-school journalists do it's hard to maintain respect for those who have it all handed to them. That lack of judgment is what really killed the traditional media - the internet has been coming at them for decades, and the fact that it went from irrelevance to menace so quickly is evidence of news organisations' lack of judgment and bad management. The employment of Jacqueline Maley is another.

There is no such thing as "the 24-hour news cycle" when it comes to federal politics. Whether you're a press gallery journalist or not, you can listen to AM and read the newspapers online from home. Press gallery journalists maintain Canberra hours, rolling into the office after 9 and furiously drinking coffee; their working day is over by about 2.30/3pm when their employers' daily deadlines close, and they watch the nightly news or Lateline along with the rest of us. Watch how Maley and her colleagues (particularly those who have been around a while) bellyache when somebody puts out a press release at 5.30pm. I've had to work late from time to time and so have you; I still need to know what's going on, which means that Jacqueline Maley is among the last people I consult for said knowledge.

Press gallery journos who confuse themselves with people who work hard can and should jump in the Lake - no, they should all just fuck off. Just because something buzzes around a newsroom like a blowfly in a dunny, it doesn't mean that it should displace actual news on the public record. People who edit newspapers should recognise their own limitations and reorient their output to what interests non-journo people - writing by journos for journos isn't even working for the journos.
But the left does itself no favours if it resorts to insult, vitriol, and mad muttering in dark corners of the internet.
Take out the reference to the dreaded internet, and 'the left' has been doing that for a century at least. Tony Abbott wouldn't be where he is without "insult, vitriol, and mad muttering in dark corners of the internet", along with simpering deference from Jacqueline Maley and her colleagues.

Defenders of corporate journalism claim that big news organisations can afford lawyers and stand toe-to-toe with other powerful organisations. One of the downsides of corporate organisations, in the media or not, is that they foster drones and jobsworths with no initiative. An obtuse journalist should be a contradiction in terms, like a taxi driver who barely understands the city they traverse, but they exist nonetheless. Jacqueline Maley is an obtuse journalist. Whatever comes out of March in March, it will have more of a future than she does.

Her fulminations carry no weight, they reminded me of the French taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. She has been weighed in the very balance she would impose on others and has been found wanting. The quest goes on.

19 March 2014

The rise and fall of Arthur Sinodinos

Arthur Sinodinos was a well-regarded Treasury official who went to work for John Howard when nobody in Canberra wanted to know him. When Howard's luck changed, so did Sinodinos'. He spent the early part of Howard's Prime Ministership with his eyes on policy while fixers and spivs frittered away the third-biggest electoral margin in history.

When people like Grahame Morris fell away, Sinodinos stepped up. Being a backroom fixer is a step up from being a policy wonk and, if you've seen the blowhards and tryhards who call themselves fixers up close, you can be forgiven for thinking it isn't that hard. For a decade Sinodinos met with people who itched where only a Prime Minister could scratch. Almost all of them were people who earned more than he did.

When he resigned from the PM's office, Howard could've made him an Ambassador,  like Keating did Don Russell and Hawke did Garnaut. Instead, Howard sent him into the world with a rare but strong recommendation: Arthur solves problems. He solved problems at NAB. He solved problems at AWH. He solved problems in the NSW Liberals. He had never run for anything, but so what? Politics is about solving problems. Arthur solves problems.

Had Sinodinos run for something before entering top-level politics, he'd have met shonks and spivs and done one of two things: learned to spot them and stayed right away, or become tarnished early and been filtered out by a once healthy political organisation. He never met people like that at Treasury. People like that tended to be filtered out of Howard's office before they could even get to someone so senior as Sinodinos.

Obeid caused the NSW ALP more grief than the NSW Liberals could manage for most of its last term in state government.  The smarter Liberals resisted Obeid's entreaties; Sinodinos saw a Labor donor looking to switch. If there's one thing Liberals love more than apolitical politicians, it's prodigal sons; Sinodinos saw no harm in arranging a few meetings and making a buck along the way: Arthur solves problems.

Remember when Abbott was all about reprising the Howard government? Sinodinos should be in Cabinet. Nobody knows more about how top-level government works than Sinodinos, not Abbott (even now), not Credlin or Hockey. Sinodinos has forgotten more about how to run this country than Turnbull or Morrison or both Bishops put together.

Sinodinos has no real power base. He could've been Finance Minister, but with the PM and Treasurer from NSW the other states do get their noses out of joint. Had he been Finance Minister, Cormann would have to put his own proposals on financial planner regulation up; proposals that might fairly be regarded as dead and ripe for quiet burial.

The reason why Sinodinos is not in Cabinet is Abbott's weaselly hope that he won't taint his government, in much the same way that you can do a reasonable summary of the Howard government that doesn't dwell too much on, say, Jim Short. The trouble is that it's too late for that decency-veneer; a government born in Donny Randall's rorts and George Brandis' extravagances should have nowhere to go but up. With Sinodinos gone this government has lost one of its most substantial operators; someone to whom Liberals look up, someone whose loss frightens them.

Sinodinos was shadowed by the clever and decent Andrew Leigh, another relatively inexperienced politician. A standard political response to Sinodinos would have been to conflate his personal business arrangements with the worst-case scenarios of lax financial planner regulation, and blast Sinodinos as Dodgy Arthur. Leigh seems to have achieved the same effect without going in so hard.

Arthur Sinodinos is finished, make no mistake: he would only get a second chance at the expense of a more promising MP's first. He'll complain about being quoted out of context, about how it wasn't like that at all: things other politicians learn on the way up. He would've stayed to tough it out if that had solved the problem and he would have quit politics altogether if that had. 'Standing aside' doesn't give Labor the satisfaction but it gets Sinodinos out of the way of the WA Senate election and the budget pantomime. Sometimes the greatest contribution you can make is to go away quietly. Arthur solves problems.

There is no good reason why a journalist could not have gone through AWH and told us all about it, which would have headed off Sinodinos' political career before it began; but that's a blogpost in itself. Such an investigation would've had far more value than Malcolm Farr's assertion that Sinodinos is a good bloke.

11 March 2014

Systematic failure in Western Australia

The Liberal Party and the ALP are the two political parties with experience in governing Western Australia. In the same way that the ALP had systematically failed in governing NSW, we can now say that the Liberal Party has failed systematically in governing WA, and that this cannot be remedied by working it through or even making piecemeal changes.

Politics happens at the interface between the individual and wider society. The WA Liberals have failed at that interface, and on either side of it.

It is easy to laugh at Troy Buswell, an adolescent man whose behaviours toward women, alcohol, and property should have been better than they were. It is easy to keen for Buswell, whose father suicided when he was a child. It is easy to be impressed by Buswell, who topped UWA's economics undergraduate program and had all the outward trappings of success from a young age. It is easy to sneer at Buswell, for having blown WA's AAA rating while revenues were booming and drains on the budget (like transfer payments or infrastructure projects) were relatively low.

People who cared about this complicated man for his own sake should have seen that he needed help. There are professionals who help people through such problems, but Liberals sneer at scientific expertise. People who thought highly enough of Buswell to nominate him for high office, and who had the ability to deliver those who impressed them into such office, should have intervened with measures other than telling/begging press gallery journalists to shut up.

Keep in mind that the people is whose interests the WA Liberals are run is the state's business elite. What we might call Buswellian excess has pretty much been stamped out of the higher levels of the country's corporates, and is actively stamped out in the better-run private and public-sector organisations: it's inefficient, if nothing else. A corporate director, a branch manager who went so wildly off the rails so often would be managed out, dumped, or otherwise dealt with decisively rather than indulged for so long.

Buswell had his career-ending accident on 23 February. Did I mention he was Transport Minister as well? It was not reported until 10 March. The entire WA parliamentary press gallery should have been sacked for such a lapse.

Troy Buswell is a failure of the entire WA Liberal organisation, from the Vasse locals who never challenged his preselection to Colin Barnett, who brought him back when better men than Buswell would have been long gone for far less. The disconnect between the Liberals and corporate Australia could not be clearer.

Next year it will be ten years since Buswell entered parliament. He is not an old man and not without qualities - or flaws. Who would employ him, and to do what?

Buswell is a failure in himself, and a public policy failure on two levels.

Firstly, any WA public servant who is acting inappropriately with facilities and powers entrusted to them can fairly accuse their prosecutors of not making an example of Buswell. Every day, fragile people are pummelled by justice systems in this country in ways that don't correlate to their offence. It isn't quite true to say that Buswell has been let off scot-free because public disgrace is not nothing, and a man who is a prisoner of his own whims is a prisoner indeed. He isn't free to seek help, because clearly there is no help to seek.

Secondly, if the Barnett government cannot address the very real mental health issues surrounding its own Treasurer, can it pretend to any voter that it can address mental health services in any real way for anyone? Every day, in WA and elsewhere, individuals and families and communities deal with mental health issues, negotiating support services that exist in fits and starts if at all.

A booming economy brings the implicit promise that social services will improve as everything seems to get better and shinier when the economy goes well. If Troy Buswell stumbles time after time, year after year, and the nearest thing he gets to sympathetic listeners are journalists whose highest qualification is to quote him accurately - what hope does anyone in that state have? His is the saddest political meltdown since Chris Sumner.

The fact that Buswell can't be easily replaced is an organisational failure on the WA Liberals' part. Christian Porter looked like playing Hotspur to Buswell's Hal, and a strong state organisation that believed in itself would have curbed his Canberra ambitions to avoid the current predicament. Porter is well placed to realise the ambitions some have for him if the whole Howard-Abbott model of governing fails utterly and discredits everyone who has played a greater role in it than he has.

The other person missing from much of the commentary has been Deidre Willmott. Her political pedigree should be every bit as strong as Buswell's. President of the UWA Student Guild, head of the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Executive Director of the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry, chief of staff to two WA Liberal leaders - she was the stand-out candidate to replace Colin Barnett in his safe seat of Cottesloe, until he reversed his decision to retire in 2008.

Plenty of promising politicians rebound from setbacks like that and run for other electorates. No safe seat, or any seat in Parliament really, has been found for her. When Chris Ellison resigned from the Senate in 2009 the WA Liberals made a show of considering Willmott, before replacing him with nobody in particular. Willmott set up the organisation to facilitate the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; the following year, when Porter went to Canberra and Barnett exhumed Buswell, Barnett insisted straight-faced that nobody but Buswell who could do the job.

Willmott should be the Margaret Thatcher of the west, but instead she's blowing up balloons at a PR outfit.

One who deserves a great deal of blame for WA Liberal organisational dysfunction is one who has benefitted most from it: Matthias Cormann. He secured power in the WA Liberals by stacking the organisation at all levels with people no better than himself. It is fair to judge his performance in his current job against the machine he built and operated in the WA Liberals, and to keep this in mind when suffering his leaden rodomontades on fiscal rectitude.

The WA Liberals are crap at running WA. They fought off Gonski and the NDIS and have nothing better, or else, to show for it. There is some talk about a train line but every major city has that talk, but the only people who hang their hats on it are those who get paid to write feasibility reports. They've blown a historic mining boom in a boom-bust state. As the bust starts making itself felt with a Job Liberator from Sydney rubbing it in and contributing nothing, there are - according to the WA press gallery - only two people who apparently even understand that state's economy: a clapped-out drunk and a has-been who never was (not including Willmott here because nobody else does). Businesses keeps their capable managers and foists try-hards and numbskulls onto the community, like Joey "seagull shit" Francis.

On April 5 WA will re-elect six Senators. It will re-elect David Do-Nothing to do his special brand of nothing at Defence. It will re-elect oddly-coiffed Michaelia Cash in much the same way (and for much the same reasons) that Moonee Ponds flung Dame Edna to London and New York. It will probably not re-elect the third Liberal candidate, a woman who may well be a capable person with much to offer (I am detecting a pattern here, but let's pretend we're press gallery journalists and just ignore it).

It will almost certainly elect Scott Ludlam, who artfully managed to insert home affordability into a critique of WA under the Liberals, who managed the balancing act of describing the WA environment as both vast and delicate, and whose use of Aboriginal words to describe features of that state made the familiar sound exotic. It will re-elect one of Tony Abbott's Sydney Uni rugby mates under the Labor banner, because political diversity is what democracy is all about and WA Liberals were too dim to spot him.

It will not elect a state parliament for three years, and this is probably just as well.

WA has a strong tradition of electing independents in the Windsor-McGowan mould when the muppetry of the major parties gets too much. This tradition needs careful cultivation.

WA Labor has some nice candidates and some fine ideas. Some candidates were related to people who had been successful Labor candidates in the past. However, they can't expect to waltz in over the prone corpse of Barnett, just like they didn't last time. WA Labor should be aiming to dispatch this government to history as thoroughly as the takedown of the United Australia Party in the 1940s; but it cannot do that with a kind of pallid like-the-Liberals-but-less-so-in-some-areas approach.

The WA Liberals are moribund and there is no way to change them without making them even more like that. It would be a wicked problem if they weren't, from this distance, such a joke. I wanted to insert a metaphor about dead bloodied sharks in a shark net spun from bullshit attracting other sharks; but I can't so I'll end this here.

04 March 2014

Who your mates are

Why have an epilogue when you can have some context? Peter Hartcher has been political and international editor at The Sydney Morning Herald for over a decade. He was starting to get bored with the role when Kevin Rudd began using foreign policy to raise his profile; Hartcher became Rudd's press spokesperson, which paid off for Hartcher when Rudd became Prime Minister in 2007 and continued after he lost the job three years later. Labor people with a gripe about Gillard went to Hartcher first; Labor people seeking to promote the Gillard government were wasting their time; Liberals had written Hartcher off since his boy became Labor leader in 2006.

When Rudd became Prime Minister again last year, Hartcher was vindicated. The rest of the media had promised that Labor would get better coverage if they dumped Gillard for Rudd, then turned on him because ha ha too late and it was Abbott who could do no wrong. After the Abbott-Rudd debate in 2013 Hartcher turned on Rudd but the Liberals gave him all the respect due to a sated tick that has dropped off its host. He seems to have settled on Hockey but it is unclear to what extent this is reciprocated.

Here Hartcher is trying to show that he's Still Got It when it comes to The Big Geopolitical Vision, and splicing that into the daily grind of Canberra machinations.
The Chinese government was unhappy with Australia's new Prime Minister ... A senior Chinese official privately asked Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop for an explanation in Canberra in November. She disarmed the Chinese by laughing it off: "Tony does that all the time in cabinet. He puts his arm around everyone, everyone's his mate, everyone's his best friend."

When everyone is your best friend, no one is your best friend. It was a clever way of deflecting the protest that lurked behind the question.
It would have been clever had it worked. There is no evidence that it has. Hartcher should have looked for that, rather than talked up Julie Bishop.
So the Abbott government so far has set out two different hierarchies for Australia's foreign relations, and China isn't in top spot in either.
From the mid-1960s until about five years ago, Japan was our largest trading partner. Tokyo was never in top spot in Australia's foreign policy hierarchy for any Australian government during that time. He doesn't really explain what such a ranking might entail.
A new Labor senator looking to make a name for himself in foreign affairs, Sam Dastyari, has picked up on this.
What's happened here is that Dastyari has picked up on Hartcher. Any tidbits on Labor from hereon in will come from Dastyari, any "pragmatic assessments on the state of Labor" will basically be whatever Dastyari is trying to get across.
Dastyari, formerly the general secretary of the NSW Labor Party, sees a troubling trend, a turn away from the great rising power.

China dominated the world economy till about 1840. Just as the Middle Kingdom returns to the centre of world power, is Australia about to marginalise itself?
Dastyari is following the Rudd playbook to the letter. What a smart guy! If you want someone to suck up to powerful people, Sam's your man and so is Peter: to quote from Humphrey Bogart, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I wonder if Sam has an opinion on President Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama certainly has lots to say about empty vessels with important-sounding titles, like Sam and Peter. I don't expect either of them will be commenting on that.

Read the second sentence in the second line of that quote immediately above: it should be the central question of Hartcher's article, with the performance of both the incumbent and the alternative government judged against it.
Japan's provocative act was when its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an official visit to pay his respects to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine a month later.

Again, this doesn't sound very dangerous, but it inflamed opinion in Beijing and Seoul because it is the official shrine to Japan's war dead, including the war criminals who led Japan's invasions of China and South Korea.
Australia's best friend wouldn't go anywhere near Yasukuni.

Hideki Tojo, who led Japan during World War II, is entombed and honoured at that shrine even though he never made it to Darwin. So are a number of war criminals directly responsible for the abuse of Australian prisoners-of-war. A train carriage from the Thai-Burma railway is exhibited at the site as a triumph of Japanese engineering and infrastructure-building for an ungrateful Asia. Every time a Japanese politician plays to that country's more ignorant and xenophobic voters by going to Yakusuni, it is a big fuck-you to Australian war dead, Australian veterans, and Australians generally.

When you consider that the family of Shinzo Abe (Japan's current Prime Minister) benefited economically during the 1940s from indentured labour by Australian prisoners-of-war. That Abe went to Yakusini on the eve of an official visit from his Australian counterpart (and a few weeks before this country commemorates its war veterans), the sheer depth and breadth of Abe's diplomatic and ethical breach should be apparent.

As a former Herald correspondent in Tokyo, Hartcher should know this. He should report on it. His editors should call him on this.
In calling Japan "Australia's best friend in Asia", Abbott was merely repeating a formula that John Howard used when he was prime minister. Australia's ties with Beijing survived and thrived.

Bishop's point that the overall economic relationship with the US, including investment, makes the US, not China, Australia's economic best friend, may be cute but it's not wrong.

And Dastyari is wrong to claim her statement is in any way "at the expense" of relations with China.

As Howard demonstrated, and as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard also demonstrated, it's entirely possible to improve relations with all the great powers at once.
Times have changed.

The relationship between China and Japan is more fraught than it was under Howard, Rudd, or Gillard. The incumbent government, the alternative government, and journalists who report on government, should all be alert to that.

Hartcher should know this. He should report current events in light of broader developments. What he is doing instead is buttering up the incumbent Australian government in order to keep his job. He is playing his employers, and readers, for mugs.
In fact, it would be a betrayal of the national interest not to. And this is exactly what Abbott will seek to do as he embarks on the three-nation trip to the region he announced on Monday.

He will travel to China, Japan and South Korea.
Now there comes the question as to the difference between what Abbott seeks to do, and what he does.

This is where we need an experienced political observer; someone who's been around Canberra, knows how it works.
Relations with all three are in solid shape.
Bullshit. The relationship with China has scarcely been worse since the relationship commenced in the 1970s. Note the laughable headline and rest of the content on this paywalled article by Hartcher's more reliable Fairfax colleagues.
Abbott's government has already concluded a free-trade agreement with one of these three, South Korea, and is making good progress on the other two.
It didn't have time to stuff up the work done by previous governments. There is no progress to speak of toward a trade deal with China, apart from the say-so of Abbott and his staff. The idea of a free trade deal with Japan has made no progress since 1957. As far as the governments of China and Japan are concerned, no progress has been made, and recent comments by the Chinese government have been clear that they do not regard a China-Australia trade deal as a priority (especially given Australia's involvement in the TPP process).

Again: Hartcher should know that, and report on it.
China has moved beyond Bishop's rebuke, or any of the other perceived Abbott government slights, as all countries do when they are getting on with the big issues.
The People's Republic of China does not suffer rebukes, nor girlish laughter and fobbing-off. True, Australia's relationship with China isn't as bad as that of Japan, but the fact that it is could be worse does not mean that it is as good as it can be. It is certainly not better than it had been under each of Abbott's three predecessors, or even as good.

Hartcher should know this. He is wrong to misrepresent the state of our foreign relations in this way.
The whole concept of a "zero sum" in Australia's world affairs, where progress with one country can only happen at the expense of another, is sandbox stuff.
Mostly this is true, but not always. It may not be true now, or into the foreseeable future.

In our first decade as a nation, Australian politicians maintained that we could have equally good relations with Britain, then the world's leading power, and Germany, the rising economic powerhouse of the day. They were mostly right, but it was silly to dismiss the prospect of "zero sum" just as Hartcher is doing now.

Now we are in a time of disequilibrium among the major powers in our region, and in the world. Hartcher's blithe assurances are not soundly based on anything but precedent for a time that has now passed.

The fact that gaffes by Bishop and Abbott haven't caused lasting damage is beside the point. The fact is they shouldn't have been made. We* put those people into office on the basis of inadequate information by Peter Hartcher and his ilk, who should have used their knowledge of politics and international affairs to tell us what it takes to represent Australian interests internationally and then measure the political alternatives against that. What Hartcher has done is sucked up to Bishop and Dastyari for his own sakes, and theirs.
The trade negotiations with China and Japan both appear to have gained impetus from the success of the deal with South Korea.
Based on what? To give one example, the share of the Australian car market for Japanese manufacturers has nowhere to go but down as a result of this deal with a competitor they don't really respect.
As for publicly ranking countries, Dastyari is right. It's gratuitous and juvenile.

But if the Labor Party detects an Abbott "pivot" away from China, it's more upset about it than Beijing itself.
This is more silly, straw-man stuff. Dastyari isn't the Labor spokesperson on foreign affairs. It is silly for the incumbent to slap a powerful country across the face as often as the Abbott government has and does. This isn't to say that it hurts that powerful country, but it's generally poor form on Abbott's part and on the part of Bishop, whose line is better expressed as: we have to put up with Tony being Tony, so you do too.
Labor should wish Abbott a successful trip. In the national interest.
Labor should be prepared for Abbott's foreign policy adventures not to go well, to bring this to public attention, and to develop foreign policy responses that might restore China-Australia relations (and our relations with the US, Japan, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and other countries) to a warm and productive state. That's what Labor should do, in the national interest.

You don't have to do much to be on good terms with the UK and New Zealand, our only "solid" relationships under this government.

Yes, Labor are biased against Abbott. They will give him little or no credit for any successes he may have, while highlighting the shortcomings and failures of the incumbents. This does not put Hartcher in a position where he must lecture them on what foreign policy is or should be. His assessments on the current state of foreign policy (or relationship with China is great! Couldn't be better! Go Tony go!) are poor, or at best suspect. Why a major newspaper represents the work of a cheerleader more highly than is appropriate is a matter of great misfortune, for the once-proud masthead itself, and for the public debate that is polluted by this sort of thing.

Peter Hartcher has form for insisting that political context is whatever he says it is. Now that we have established that context is other than what he says it is, or the opposite of what he says it is. The value of Peter Hartcher's reporting, his title and the employer who bestowed it, is less than each might appear. Like Kim Beazley or Andrew Peacock, Hartcher has gone straight from being Tomorrow's Man to Yesterday's Man with no interval of attainment, only promise unfulfilled.

What we need is someone who'll tell us what is going on, so we can decide how and by whom we will best be governed. What we've got in Peter Hartcher is someone who'll only tell us what will make us think well of a small number of people who also think well of him.