28 April 2014

Being subject

The recent royal visit did not demonstrate continuity, but its opposite. The old tropes are inadequate and this country is undergoing fundamental change, which traditional media can barely describe or even understand.

When agents of the Murdoch media tapped Prince William's phone, they set off a chain reaction that none of them could have foreseen. Other celebrities need to keep themselves in the public eye to land the big roles and boost their going rate. Prince William's position, and the privilege that comes with it, does not depend on publicity. He does not need the media and has been raised to disdain them; they killed his mother. He pressed charges, against the conventional wisdom that keeping the media onside is a Smart Move.

The Murdoch media lost a royal editor and a key investigator ('professional journalists' having lost their investigative skills), and investigations are underway as to how high up the Murdoch hierarchy the phone-hacking went.

UK Labour leader Ed Miliband realised that no amount of Blairite grovelling would ever get Murdoch onside. He cornered the Cameron government into calling the Leveson Inquiry and giving it sweeping powers. That decision set Miliband above political-class hackery and forced press gallery to snap out of its clich├ęs as they no longer served to describe him.

In Australia, Murdoch has a much tighter grip over the media, in its own right and in setting a tone that the timid non-Murdoch media seems bound to follow. The coverage of the recent visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince George can only be described as fawning. There was no sneering, no crap about elitism or dressing rudeness up as iconoclasm: the Murdoch media observed protocol scrupulously, because even the slightest departure from propriety would have rebounded on Rebekah Brooks and her co-defendants. Kiss the hand you cannot bite.
IN this era of butt selfies and slut walks, Kate Middleton, aka the Duchess of Cambridge, is a revolutionary.
In her clumsy way, this is what Miranda Devine was getting at with the above quote and the rest of her piece. Name me one person more responsible for "this era of butt selfies and slut walks" than her owner, Rupert Murdoch. Devine got where she is through an accident of birth and by doing what she was told. For her sins she has been tasked to write about someone who's also been obedient and attained an even more lofty position. By shouting out to the Duchess she is trying to validate herself. She is trying two psychologically tricky things that I doubt she has ever done before: she is conferring superior qualities onto someone who is younger and prettier than her, with even fewer career achievements; and she is sucking up to someone who can do her career no good at all, someone who can be forgiven for being ignorant of her very existence.

The Murdoch media has also done its best toward a less powerful entity than the royals, one on which it relies but over which it exerts greater control: the Abbott government.

As I've said, the month or so before the Budget involves discussion on spending priorities, particularly in terms of what gets cut. The royal visit was the biggest distraction going. There are no big sporting contests to distract attention, and pensions and healthcare are so primal that debates cannot be left to wonks and spinners. Media space devoted to a handsome young family is media space not devoted to cuts, cuts, cuts; nor to Bill Shorten's attempts to pry open the doors to the crypt to which the Murdoch media has consigned his party.

The herd of media at staged photo ops, scrupulously obeying the conditions of those events, is self-validating for those involved and for those who employ them, in ways that public opinion cannot hope to penetrate.

The one that was most telling about this government was the picfac at Katoomba. Clearly, the royals' publicity machine wanted images of "the real Australia", the outback, while the government wanted them in the cities for economic and political reasons. As British racists claim that "the wogs start at Calais", so do insular Sydneysiders believe that the outback begins at Echo Point; and that, dear reader, is why the royals were photographed there, a place of real significance to Aborigines but from which almost all trace of Aboriginality has been scrubbed.

That said, one can only do so much. Those pictures where the Duchess attempts to maintain a sunny disposition in the leering company of Abbott, or where Prince George turns his grimacing face away from Abbott, undoes any cudos he and his media people hoped to get from the visit. The Cambridges were polite to Abbott, but they weren't loyal; they weren't grateful. They made him look cloying and desperate in ways no Labor leader has managed to do for long.

You'd think that such an ardent monarchist would have found a way to deal with the actual royal family. If anyone can integrate the royals deftly and comfortably into our national life, surely Abbott is the leader to make it happen. After his non-engagement with Prince Charles and his embarrassing schlockfest with Prince Harry, as observed earlier, the question must be asked: does the constitutional monarchy really have a future in Australia? By treating them as photo props, he makes the royals appear more alien to this country than they would otherwise be. After this royal visit Tony Abbott has made it easier, not harder, to argue that the monarchy is superfluous to our country.

You'd think that experienced newspaper people would realise that one of the key roles of a constitutional monarchy is to honour those who died fighting in their name. Every time the Queen or Prince Charles visited this country, they laid a wreath and spoke warmly of those who fell. By honouring those remembered at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, they preserve their own positions and they know it. How silly is it, then, to be surprised that the royals might pay tribute in the same way they always do? You can either be a credible paper of record or you can disgrace yourself with ignorant drivel, but not both.

Of course, in 1999 most Australians voted against a particular form of republic that would disrupt the political system as little as possible. Peter Brent believes that Australians will never vote for far-reaching reforms, and he is entitled to his opinion. It is possible for pollsters to be surprised, even ambushed, especially as political journalists have taken to cowering behind them and only predicting things that have already happened.

Beyond the Murdoch media, and beyond the questions that pollsters dare not ask, the political system is being remade. The Coalition, having enjoyed hefty margins and considerable goodwill, are sinking without a concomitant rise in Labor fortunes. The idea that Clive Palmer and Tony Windsor, as former members of conservative parties, are basically Coalition people has been proven to be delusional to anyone who will face it. There is a vitality in this part of our political system that the Greens have only in fits and starts, and which is dormant in the majors.

At some point, one-off victories here and there will form patterns that not even pet psephologists can ignore. Those victories will have effects on the political system that press gallery veterans can't understand or explain. Piping Shrike is right to say that the rise of Palmer is an indictment of the politico-media complex and not, as they would have it, of the electorate. The constitutional monarchy, like other aspects of the Constitution, might not be revolutionised but nor will it be as immune from change as Abbott and Brent would hope.

Rupert Murdoch's business model involves staying close to the political system. Yet, Murdoch's media do not help you understand what is going on within that system: the differences between what this government says and what it does, and how else we might be governed better. If members of the alternative government, and those emerging as alternatives to both the incumbents and the previous government, regard Murdoch media as an obstacle then it cannot last.

The royals don't need Murdoch, or Abbott, and it would be best if they did not come again for a while. Abbott and Murdoch, on the other hand, need one another more as each day passes.

21 April 2014

All about that

I've blogged very little on NSW politics, but now this:
Nick Greiner, who has known Mr Baird since he was a boy, speaks of him glowingly.

"I think he will be fantastic. His first strength ... is that he's economically and financially literate, and the state government at the end of the day is all about that," Mr Greiner said.

Mike Baird has just been sworn in as NSW Premier, and he is already doomed. Nobody will buy this asset sale recycling thing, and Baird won't be much good at selling it. Nobody believes that selling electricity assets will make consumer electricity bills cheaper, nor that selling public hospitals will improve healthcare, nor that better roads or other services will result from sell-offs.

Baird will probably not be as economic rationalist as Greiner was, and in the last two paragraphs of this he appears to back away from privatisation proposals. However, having defeated Labor, and with a party apparatus that is not above the self-defeating behaviour of its opponents, Baird needs a narrative to stay in office. That narrative is asset recycling: selling existing assets to build new and better ones.

As far as privatising hospitals goes: no, and no. Any Coalition MP who has a hospital privatised in heir area is done for next March unless they fight it tooth-and-nail, regardless of their margin in 2011.

NSW's electricity network is run down because successive governments have taken the money that should have been used for upgrades and put them into consolidated revenue, decreasing the amounts they have needed to raise from taxes and from Canberra. It operates on a nineteenth-century paradigm, where coal-fired generators far from the city transmit power to the city along high-voltage lines, such that the amount of power that actually reaches businesses and homes is far less than that actually generated at the state's ageing power stations.

The previous Labor government had a number of goes at selling the state's electricity infrastructure. Every time they tried, the price got lower and lower. Every time the sale was stymied by the relevant unions, which were influential in ALP preselections and affected policy accordingly. Now we have a government where unions play no role in its preselections; generation companies have been sold, and the distribution systems ('poles and wires') are next. Barry O'Farrell said that he would not sell them until he had a mandate, and now Baird is saying the same thing (i.e. the sale will take place next year).

They are repeating the malarkey that the sale of the distribution system means a better deal for consumers, without explaining how this is to be achieved. It's bullshit strategy and the government will embarrass itself every time it pushes this. At about the time the distribution systems are to be sold, the Federal government is expected to have demolished the carbon pricing mechanism, and go through the pantomime of acting all shocked when a) household electricity do not go down as promised, and b) whatever pissant concessions are wrung from power companies will not last long and incur no gratitude from voters.

The NSW government will be promising voters that they'll get a better deal from their power going forward, while sweetening the deal to potential purchasers which will not involve limiting what they can charge consumers. You'd need deft political skills to talk out both sides of your mouth like that, and just because you have what it takes to get the job it doesn't necessarily mean you have the skills and rat-cunning required to do the job.

NSW has a lotta roads to build: the Pacific Highway up the north coast, the spaghetti junction around Badgery's Creek, and the WestConnect proposal, not to mention rail links across Sydney that barely scratch the surface of what the city needs. There is a lot of downsides to cancelling those projects, or letting them run over time/budget, but no upside in having delivered them.
If all that means Baird takes the $30 billion privatisation of the state's electricity "poles and wires" to the election, he will face a fierce opponent in Labor leader John Robertson.
Garbage. Robertson has been a joke for three years.

Three years before that, as NSW Labour Council Secretary, he overplayed the unions' hand in a prior episode of the power sale game, bringing down Morris Iemma as Premier and Michael Egan Costa as Treasurer; Robertson replaced Egan in the NSW Legislative Council, bringing on him this letter from Paul Keating. Robertson is still the leader of NSW Labor, and none of its shortcomings have even been addressed. Labor have played a small target, hoping their flaws had been forgotten, and might somehow fix themselves.

It's lazy analysis on the part of the state parliamentary press gallery to assume that bad news for the Coalition is good news for Labor, or vice versa.

The seats on the state's northern coast are good examples where the failure of this approach is evident: if the Coalition are going to lose those seats, they will more likely lose them to independents rather than Labor. The press gallery hear a lot about western Sydney but don't know a lot about it; wait until this government, like its federal counterpart, gets mugged in rural areas by independents.

Mike Baird will need to be a master politician to counter this drift away from his government, to stop voters taking it for granted and to stop them/us regarding him as some dessicated calculating machine. He may not be around to see the completion of the 'recycling' (those shiny shiny new fully-funded and costed assets, which politicians love to declare open). Mad politics happens between the commissioning of things and their completion. Appointing Andrew Constance, a jukebox of political cliches, as Treasurer may well help Baird reinvent his persona but it won't help the way he thinks. Baird is yet to be tested as a deft warrior in dealing with disparate groups (gunlosers, independents, Christianists); in a sense, Labor is the least of his worries.

Mere economic competence is not sufficient. Barry O'Farrell knew this, Nick Greiner still hasn't learned it. John Robertson probably understands this, but he is far from being a master politician. We are more likely to see the emergence of masterful practitioners of politics at the micro level, who will come together and work out what the macro system needs. This presages a new politics, tentative and ramshackle but agile. This new politics will occur over the dead body of the traditional media (of which the press gallery, and its absurdly exalted role within traditional media organisations, is part), and I'm cool with that.

19 April 2014

The bottle and the damage done

Barry O'Farrell misled ICAC and had to resign. It's still a pity that he's gone from the Premiership, and it's taken me days to work out why.

He made his way up through the Liberal Party with the deft touch of getting along with everyone without being anyone's patsy. He spent time observing all of the players in the NSW Liberals up close, including their weaknesses and how to get around them. It's part of the reason why I both liked him and rated him as a real political operative, not just a player but a stayer, attaining a state to which most political-class dickheads can only aspire.

This slow-baked shrewdness is why O'Farrell could and did outplay Tony Abbott in internal NSW Liberal power games, and why until Wednesday he was a real countervailing force to Abbott. Dopey political journalists insist that Prime Ministers face real challenges from Premiers of the same party; this was true with Askin, Bolte, and Bjelke-Petersen against Gorton, and it was true with O'Farrell and Abbott, but in all other instances it is bullshit.

O'Farrell cut TAFE places and left disabled children without transport to school; he also slapped down Christopher Pyne's vandalism of NSW's school system. He initiated much-needed road and rail projects, but turned Barangaroo into just another third-rate billionaires' folly. His repeated denials a month or so ago that he'd ever met Nick di Girolamo has to be contrasted against the evidence that he seems to have given the man his home address.

You know who else has a mixed record like that? Julia Gillard. Supporters both fiercely defend certain aspects of their still-recent record and face-palm at other aspects, with jeers and even apoplexy from those who never supported them anyway. Each got their start in politics at university, each spent decades working between factions of their party to make it into parliament, and each lasted atop government about the same length of time.

O'Farrell's resignation brings to a head a number of issues that remain unnamed from the Nasty Parliament of 2003-07, issues that have barely been named. NSW politics a number of developments from that parliament which have been slow but inexorable, but which a capable and popular O'Farrell government has managed to hold off in the name of Getting Things Done, until now.

In the NSW Parliament of 1999-2003, Premier Bob Carr did two dumb things which were little noticed at the time, but which have had massive long-term consequences in NSW politics.

First, he made Eddie Obeid a minister, giving him both a taste of power and some experience in how to wield it via the networks that exist in NSW.

Second, he capped the amounts for which one can sue in tort law, not quite smashing the business model of personal injury lawyers (often cruelly called 'ambulance chasers') but limiting it considerably. This sounds fairly arcane, and because it affected the Liberals more than Labor you can imagine Carr congratulating himself for guaranteeing his party two more terms in office.

In the Nasty Parliament of 2003-07, the consequences of both those things started to play out.

First, Obeid ceased to be a minister. For over a century Labor has established protocols for dealing with those of its members who are granted preferment, and who react angrily when that preferment is withdrawn. The foreboding associated with the term 'rat' is usually enough to make most Labor people in that position shut up, thank the party, and depart quietly. Obeid's political genius was to pursue his revenge against the party and the government, and to shore of his post-parliamentary economic position, while co-opting the party to those ends. The NSW ALP didn't rat on Eddie Obeid, and nor did Obeid rat on it; the NSW ALP, including Obeid, ratted on itself. By ratting on itself, NSW Labor ratted on NSW and NSW ratted on it, which (along with O'Farrell, about whom more later) explains Labor's result in the 2011 NSW election.

The corollary of that genius is that the co-opted are widely and fairly regarded as mugs, if not crooks. Labor cannot un-rat on itself or on NSW, not even by expelling Obeid or whomever else - this is like the victim of a practical joke getting angry at the protagonist while the laughter is still ringing. Labor needs the processes set in train by ICAC to play themselves out, and it needs to keep losing elections until after those processes are complete. It cannot fix its own problems. This is an existential threat to its own integrity that nullifies all the well-meant suggestions from John Faulkner, and all the wry witticisms from Carr, and all the earnest insistence from others who persist as members that Labor still stands for something in NSW, put together.

Second, ambulance chaser personal injury lawyer David Clarke did what he swore he would never do: he entered Parliament.

Successful personal injury lawyers need to convince their clients to maintain the grievance for which they are seeking legal redress through expensive, protracted and hard-to-understand legal proceedings. David Clarke was a very successful personal injury lawyer, partly because he was very good at getting people to maintain burning grievances, often in the face of discouragement, over many years. Outside of work he convinced members of fringe Christian cults that they weren't just being ignored but actively persecuted by 'secularists' and moderate members of their own faith. He convinced migrants from eastern Europe that the ALP and moderate Liberals were ready to deport them to face the legal systems of Soviet bloc regimes. He built a substantial power base with little, if any, media coverage.

Moderates do not nurse grievances for years. Moderates start with a position and work toward a compromise. Moderates were flat out building a power base within the Liberal Party, and when it came time to build power bases beyond it they relied entirely upon the media. Moderates regarded David Clarke as a bit weird but basically yet another input to future compromises. David Clarke regarded moderates as foes to be scourged by fair means or foul; he was not interested in compromise, and in about 2002-05 reached his apogee power by securing himself, and a relatively large number of (as it were) fellow-travellers, as Liberal candidates for the 2003 State election and the 2004 Federal election.

Clarke entered Parliament to be led, however nominally, by a moderate young enough to be his son, a man with few economic and political means other than those the party had bestowed on him, a man wedged into the public eye in a way that Clarke could and did eschew. Barry O'Farrell had seen Clarke up close and had known him for years. In Clarke's black-and-white view of the world O'Farrell was as much a moderate as Brogden, but Clarke could never make the charge stick among those who weren't Clarke loyalists; moderates are better at winning people over, however temporarily, by argument. O'Farrell could match Clarke in the party's backrooms, Brogden couldn't. As leader, Brogden was expected to both rise above factional maneuvering and be untouched by it when his side lost, and he couldn't do either. Brogden's impact against his opponents was undermined by internal enemies, led by Clarke, just as Julia Gillard's impact against Abbott was undermined by members of her party nursing long-term grievances that resisted any resolution except destruction.

O'Farrell saw the destruction of John Brogden up close, and enjoyed the freedom to work the party's backrooms and avoid the media where required. He also saw the vacuous Peter Debnam sell his soul to the Liberal Right and get nothing whatsoever for it, which has retarded its recruitment efforts ever since. O'Farrell got off the fence without becoming a moderate. He wedged the Liberal Right into a corner and got most of their candidates out of state and federal parliament (moderates didn't help by alienating people like Chris Hartcher and Marie Ficarra, whose grievances were cultivated by the Right).

Outside the Liberal Party, O'Farrell as leader landed blow after blow on Labor without the internal undermining that Brogden faced, or the self-undermining that Debnam did by indulging the Right. He stopped Labor using the 'Uglies' (seriously, have you seen these people?) as a stick to beat the Coalition with, because Labor's claims that he was a major force in the Liberal Party was evidently false and hurt their waning credibility.

With the diminution of the weirdly religious, non-communicative Clarke as a powerbroker and the rise of O'Farrell as a plausible Premier, business began to take the NSW Liberals seriously again - inversely as Labor began to implode. Moderates took advantage of this situation, and at the same time solved their long-standing problem of creating power bases outside the Liberal Party, and the media - setting up lobbying outfits.

The NSW Liberals did not need all of those panhandlers and spivs who simply switched from Labor. They didn't need to raise that much money, given that Labor was digging its own grave for free. They denounced Obeid, yet they decided (as Thatcher said of Gorbachev) that he was a man with whom they could do business. Waleed Aly is right that the Liberals should have kept themselves nice, but that would have denied the moderates an income, and a way of re-inserting themselves back into the heart of the Liberal Party (what with Howard, Abbott, asylum seekers, and Murdoch, it's been a long time between drinks for the Liberals Formerly Known As Moderates).

The Nasty Parliament of 2003-07 was hardly a moment of Original Sin in NSW politics but from it came problems that are still being played out, and which are barely even being named let alone being classified and addressed in any real way. It showed what happens when the political class not only occupies but cements its hold on the high ground of politics.

Labor and Liberal people had started young in politics, mostly in campus ballots, and had ascended to high office with no incentive or reason to change the way they operate. The worst thing you can say about political-class people in high office is that they Don't Get Business. It's their Achilles heel, their kryptonite. Labor elected Nathan Rees (Premier 2008-09) and Kristina Keneally (2009-11) because of their lack of experience with Obeid and business (because Obeid = business for many NSW Labor people then, and still).

For Liberals, lobbyists offer to help with the lack of business experience - to help their mates in politics navigate the tricky world of business, and vice versa. Nobody helps Labor in that way because pfft, those losers.

Every business person who doesn't get what they want from government complains that government Doesn't Get It, blah blah Red Tape blah Stifling Business. Every political-class politician who is accused of this feels it keenly. Political-class operatives can't distinguish sore-loser spivs from businesses genuinely able to deliver, for them and the state.

The public authorities that used to build major roads and railways have been so stripped of capable managers and skilled professionals that in order to build a major road/railway in Sydney, the NSW government (regardless of who is in office) could not do it with in-house resources. It has no choice but to go to companies that actually employ managers and skilled professionals, and who charge a premium for doing so.

It is not true, however, that to build large-scale water and sewerage infrastructure in northwestern Sydney, that Sydney Water lacks the capacity to do this in a timely and cost-effective way. There is no evidence that Australian Water Holdings has the managers and skilled professionals necessary to do such a job. Yet, to baldly point this out would be one in the eye for Good Old Arthur and Good Old Nick, whose contributions to the Liberal Party's financial position have been redundant but which are not to be discouraged.

In 2003-07, the state parliamentary press gallery did not go much into the above issues. Their conventional wisdom was:
  • The 'Terrigals' sub-faction (pro-Obeid Labor Right) were savvy and tough and the futue of Labor and the NSW government: Matt Brown, Reba Meagher, Eric Roozendaal.
  • The anti-Obeid Right ('Trogs'), the Labor Left and the Liberals were all clowns - except Brogden who was nice, and then a victim, and then gone.
Kate McClymont of The Sydney Morning Herald used to be an investigative reporter. These days she simply transcribes what ICAC has uncovered, further evidence that investigative skills are atrophying among remaining journalists with fulltime jobs.

O'Farrell could mostly pick the difference between a private enterprise wanting a go from government, and a spiv on the make. Yet, his devotion to people like Reg Kermode and Max Moore-Wilton in the face of evidence that doing them out of their sinecures woould benefit the state enormously, is puzzling and not adequately captured by pecuniary interests or other transparency measures.

How did he get it so wrong, then, over di Girolamo and a bottle of wine? The explanation that works for me is a sport analogy - you can watch a top-level sporting contest and see a skilled and experienced player make the sort of error that a competent child playing that game might not have made, but with the massive consequences that apply in top-level sports which don't apply in schoolyard games. You can still rate that athlete highly while regretting the error, and bear the taunts from those who rate the error above the athlete. If you're not a sport fan, try Greek tragedy. This is why Liberals - and I - insist that O'Farrell is a good bloke who executed his duties honestly and effectively, even though he misled ICAC under oath. I think this is different to someone like Abbott, who will say anything to get himself out of difficulty and whose respect for the truth is considerably less than O'Farrell's.

Barry O'Farrell may resign from Parliament before the next election (due the last Saturday in March 2015). He may not recontest his seat of Kuring-gai at that election, which will be 20 years after he was first elected. He is unlikely to be re-elected in 2015 and serve a full term, as an ex-Premier and unpromotable backbencher: he's not a long-grievance guy. It will be interesting to see what sort of factional log-rolling will take place to elect the new Liberal candidate for Kuring-gai, and what competition that candidate will face from an electorate that has sent two Liberal Premiers and no Labor members to Macquarie Street.

The last preselection I voted in was for the state seat of Manly. Mike Baird was one of the candidates but I didn't vote for him. The candidate who won (and I didn't vote for him either) was a dickhead and deserved his loss at the following election. Funny how things turn out, really.

As Premier, Mike Baird is interesting for two reasons.

Firstly, Liberals talk about free enterprise but they tend to draw MPs from the smaller end of it. O'Farrell was a career political staffer before entering parliament. Debnam was in the navy and puddled around in small businesses before politics. Brogden was also a career staffer with a bit of lobbying. Chikarovski, Collins, and Fahey ran small law firms. Greiner had a Harvard MBA but ran a small family company. Baird had a genuinely successful corporate career, with staff and budgets and everything - and in banking, where throwing cash at spivs is often a career-limiting move, and being able to distinguish going concerns from rubbish gets you to the sorts of heights Baird achieved before entering politics.

Baird entered politics after the Nasty Parliament in 2007, playing no role in the Clarke-Brogden thing.

Secondly, Baird has promised to reform the regulation of political donations. O'Farrell tried that and was defeated in the High Court. It is possible that this will result in another redundant law - had O'Farrell declared that bottle of wine under existing pecuniary interest rules he would still be Premier.

Liam Hogan is right in saying that ICAC should sweat the small stuff, because (and this is what the state governments of Queensland and Victoria, and commentators such as Andrew Norton, overlook) you can't get to the big, seismic investigations into grand mal corruption unless you have dealt with petty and banal instances of the same phenomenon.

Will Baird really take on the lobbyists who comprise much of his party's elite, like Jesus outplacing financiers from the temple? If he does, the only beneficiaries will be these turkeys, Clarkoids who would be flat out running one of those Glenn Druery micro-parties let alone a party of government.

The NSW Liberal Right have bounced back from their low point in 2005 and made no contribution to victory in 2011, but here they are causing trouble:
"We've been ignored for the past three years," a senior right faction source said.
There is no reason why that should change - if it ain't broke, etc. The report is silent as to whether the journalist handed the source a tissue.
"Quite frankly, it's been advancement more based on the relationships with [O'Farrell] than merit selection. We have simply had enough. It's time the party was represented across the board."
The ability to impress someone and form a productive relationship with them is so alien, frightening, and unfathomable to members of the NSW Liberal Right. None of the people named would get preselected on merit, let alone promoted, with the possible exceptions of Elliott and Patterson.

This article says three things that Nicholls missed:
  • The NSW Liberal Right can't win elections because they can't read the rules, and by the time they take their socks off to count into double digits the moderates have it all stitched up;
  • Gladys Berejiklian is the next NSW Liberal Opposition Leader; and
  • Never mind the pundits and the anonymous sources, Charlie Chaplin was right: there is nothing funnier than impotent rage. The NSW Liberal Right are in no position to demand anything from Baird and take comfort only in the fact that he's a church-going Christian.
O'Farrell had the NSW Liberal Right on the ropes. Greg Smith was on the way out and other Uglies were deftly outmaneuvered. Had he co-opted people like David Elliott, who has been attacked from the right himself in internal party battles, he might have squeezed them out altogether. Baird will appoint proselytising Christians into public schools and hospitals and be genuinely puzzled at 'secularists' who protest. You can expect a heated but inconsequential vote on abortion/ stem cells/ homosexuality/ euthanasia/the monarchy before the next election, but probably not to the extent that is happening in Victoria.

It's stupid to assume that what's bad for O'Farrell/Baird must be good for Labor and Robertson. A pox-on-both-houses approach will benefit independents and small parties as a dress rehearsal for the next federal election. This will mean that NSW will continue to see half-baked outcomes, whether stitched-up before they come to light or as the outcomes of horsetrading in public. It will be like the do-nothing excreted from the Nasty Parliament of 2003-07 - or the fast and loose coalition-building that stymied NSW in the late 19th century, and which saw Melbourne with its joined-up government become the biggest and wealthiest city on the continent. This will happen again, unless Baird has qualities that aren't obvious except to his most fervent admirers.

Baird is saying all the right things, and the named and unnamed members of the Liberal Right are saying the wrong things, but the press gallery is not obliged to simply transcribe them and take each at their word.

14 April 2014

Good news for the confused

It's good news week
Someone's found a way to give
The rotting dead a will to live
Go on and never die

- Hedgehoppers Anonymous Good news week
You fools! You ingrates, you Fairfax readers! After all Mark Kenny and Michael Gordon have done for you, you go and claim that the science of Tony Abbott somehow isn't settled.

Mark Kenny has long been on a mission to make you think well of Tony Abbott. Long after it was clear that there was no story with Julia Gillard, her former partner and his AWU slush funds, Mark Kenny was flog-flog-flogging it. He got his official title, chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, only because of his inexplicable failure to land a Walkley. Kenny helped pioneer the syllogism that eventually spread around the press gallery like a dose of the squirts:
  • Julia Gillard makes announcements;
  • We in the press gallery want to establish that Julia Gillard's announcements have no credibility;
  • Tony Abbott basically gainsays what Julia Gillard says;
  • If Julia Gillard says anything, it is only as a foil for Tony Abbott; therefore
  • When Tony Abbott says something, he isn't just another politician - boy, you can take it to the bank.
All that led the Liberals to eat their own dog food to this extent:

When you are dealing with people who have trust issues, the very last thing you should do is overreach like that with a statement that you know - and that everybody but the press gallery knows - can only ever be bullshit.

This also explains why Mark Textor's gobbet (no I won't link to it) about trust and slowing down the media cycle is such utter crap. Tony Abbott is not the dependable sort of guy to restore trust, either in word or deed, and in pretending otherwise Textor et al were setting him and the nation up to fail. Governments always react to developments whether they like it or not, an obvious truth that cannot be accommodated in Textor's silly Fueherprinzip. For example, whoever is responsible for the media strategy surrounding MH370, and its effect in losing all trace of the actual aircraft, can be fairly regarded as a) having followed the Textor playbook unswervingly, and b) an idiot who has gotten in the way of big and important issues of global significance.

Once Abbott, and those around him, started believing their own press to that extent, there was no way they would or could ever go about the necessary business of getting over themselves. There was no way that the press gallery, having invested so much in their success, could simply engage the political clutch and revert to voice-from-nowhere political neutrality. The press gallery and Abbott were, and are, in it together.

This is why Kenny got all giddy with this - I mean, I ask you. If a journalist in North Korea or Egypt came out with something so cloying, so treacly, you could assume they'd been tortured or their family had been threatened. Kenny just does what he does because he's a suck. He does it in the hope that he'll get little drops in the lead-up to the Budget, looking less like some fearless source of truth than some yapping lap-dog.

In that position, you stake everything on the object of your obsequiousness going from triumph to triumph. This is what Peter Hartcher got right for a couple of years after 2006 with Rudd. Not so Kenny, firmly in the basket of a hot-air balloon which has already begun its descent. Look at the path of Kenny's columns immediately after he had laid what was left of his soul so bare:
As Bushfire Bill says, any more successes like that and they are done for.

Politically Homeless pioneered the disdain for Australian polling data that has since been emulated elsewhere, and this remains regardless of which ways the polls pitch and yaw. Opinion rendered as 'hard data' by pollsters really is an example of what Orwell called "an appearance of solidity to pure wind". US polling data enables a level of granular examination that can be relied upon by people like Nate Silver, but Australian polling does not. Kenny does his best befuddled Shanahan at the poll data before him:
The degree of voter disenchantment suggests the government has again squandered the goodwill which had ebbed in the lead-up to Christmas, but was thought, now, to have been recovered.
There is no such thing as a double or repeat squander. The very idea suggests either fraud, or mistaken counting in the first place (note the passive voice - who, exactly, thought it had been recovered?).
... the government has paid for a month in which its central economic policies such as repealing the carbon and mining taxes and crafting a fiscally responsible budget were allowed to be swamped by self-inflicted political controversies.
No, this government has shown that it really has no agenda other than repealing two taxes that only really affect a few very big and wealthy companies. Once they lose that focus, they are lost pretty easily: Brandis' shout-out to bigots, Six-buck Dutton, the safe pair of hands that had been too grasping, etc. The repeal of those taxes is this government's sine qua non, its Godot, without which there isn't much going on at all. And again, the passive - "were allowed to be swamped" - to describe such an active, swaggering government.
In Western Australia, where the Greens succeeded less than a fortnight ago in having their sitting senator re-elected following a well-fought campaign ...
Having failed to sneer the Greens out of existence, he tries to worm his way in with a party that will clearly be a political force for as long as Mark Kenny will have a job in the press gallery.
Labor's dominance on the two-party-preferred basis is being driven by the Greens' support and by a noticeable shift in voting intention between the cities and the non-capital city votes.
That really is the key sentence in this sorry drizzle of a column.

First, there are realignments going on between Labor and the Greens, conflicts and allegiances far more profound than anything seen on the left in the 1950s. Second, the idea that this government stands or falls in regional Australia - not in western Sydney - could enable a sharper focus on why this government reacts as it does, thus improving the way politics is reported.

Or not:
"It has been an important week for our country," [Abbott] said in his weekly Facebook message.
Given that we can read Abbott's Facebook messages as and when we choose, what is the point of Kenny and his supporting edifices of Fairfax and the press gallery in merely relaying social media content?
"My hope is that in the years ahead Australians will see first-hand the benefits of closer, freer trade with Asia – through more jobs, more affordable goods and services and even closer bonds with our north Asian friends and neighbours."
That's what they all say. Really. There is no news value in such banality.

Keating and Howard relied more and more on staged foreign-policy events when they were on the way out. Rudd, a former diplomat, staked everything on the Copenhagen conference and was shirtfronted by the Chinese: the people we thought he understood better than anyone. When Gillard negotiated tradeability between the currencies of China and Australia, it was too late. Now Abbott, having failed in his first foreign policy forays, has gone straight to vacuous posturing with no intervening period of achievement.

Note that Abbott mentions not a word about immigration, even though South Korea and China are important sources of migrants to Australia. Not a word about cultural exchange, or that "new Colombo Plan" stuff. Note also that the press gallery don't follow it up, not wishing to embarrass Abbott.

Why embarrass the Prime Minister when you can embarrass yourself? This is the approach taken by Michael Gordon, who has never recovered from his unrequited man-love for Keating, and who should simply shut up until he can work out what's going on:
Call it counter-intuitive. Tony Abbott enjoys the finest week of his prime ministership and goes backwards, Bill Shorten goes on leave and goes forward, and disenchanted Coalition voters park their votes with the Greens.

And that's just for starters. For all the talk of primary producers benefiting from freer trade, the big drop in Coalition support has occurred outside the cities, in regional Australia ...
So regional Australia is outside the cities now?
Then there's the fact that Labor, after recording a record low vote in the West Australian Senate re-election and being under pressure on multiple fronts, finds itself in an election-winning position in two-party terms if an election was imminent, which it is not.
What, exactly, is the "fact" that Gordon promised? Is it the truism that Senate votes can be different to "election-winning" (House of Representatives) votes? That negation at the end is Lewis Carroll stuff, except it is Gordon who can't both hold onto his prejudices and work out what's going on.
For all the seeming contradictions in the latest Fairfax/Nielsen Poll, two points are clear.

The first is that the Abbott government remains deeply unpopular, having surrendered much of the support that delivered the emphatic victory at the last election.
No double-squander here. Like Kenny, Gordon was one of the few people who believed Abbott when he made the claims in that picture above. Gordon, Kenny and the press gallery then presented the 2013 election as though both major parties were offering the samey-same outcomes, but that Abbott had more credibility. They were wrong on both counts - and these are the guys who see Abbott up close on a regular basis. If they're wrong about that, about what might they be right?
The second is that there are plenty vying for the attention of voters whose inclination more than two years out from an election is to disengage, with no consistent pattern in thinking emerging other than the fact that neither side has a clear ascendancy.
Voters aren't disengaged from education, or jobs, or health. Voters are disengaged with the fatuous way that these issues are (mis)reported. Michael Gordon and Mark Kenny are, in part, responsible for that disengagement; it represents professional failure on their part.

There is "no consistent pattern in thinking emerging" from the press gallery; this is unlikely to change so long as moribund outfits like Fairfax resist turnover in both personnel and in the way they report politics and government.
Photo opportunities with world leaders rarely translate to higher approval ratings for national leaders ...
This is another one of those predictions that would have been more powerful before or during the event rather than afterwards.
... it is likely to take time for the electorate to process the value of Abbott's whirlwind Asian tour and the free trade agreements, either signed or in prospect.
Because the facile media coverage was so manifestly inadequate.
It is also possible that voters have delivered an adverse judgment on the bigotry debate, a debate we did not have to have, and on the decision to bring back the titles of a bygone era.
What 'debate'? To call it that, you have to assume that Andrew Bolt's readership constitutes a political constituency, which it doesn't. This was the mistake Howard made in 1998 and it almost cost him government. Abbott is much less deft than Howard; for a start, Howard could see that Brandis was a liability, whereas Abbott indulges him again and again (travel rorts, the bookcase, Tim Wilson, and now the soon-to-be-iconic s18 of the Racial Discrimination Act. What next?).
Nervousness about tightening eligibility for the pension ... help explain the drop-off in Coalition support among older voters.
It isn't just that, it's cutting off other options that is doing for Abbott. It's one thing to shut down the car industry if there is some efflorescence elsewhere, but there isn't. Abbott is all about slashing, not pruning. Older people want education for younger generations, and healthcare; I cut out the reference to PPL because it made Gordon look silly.

By this point Gordon is not in a position to make any declamatory statements at all, not even inane ones like these:
Not that there is comfort for Labor ... For both sides the budget looms as a crucial test.
Consistent with the rest of the piece, I was half expecting Gordon to flatly contradict those statements and then resign, but sadly it was not so. Instead, he puts the boot into Bill Shorten - but in doing that Gordon just reinforces his own confusion:
... almost one in five voters are not sure whether to approve or disapprove of the performance of Labor leader Bill Shorten, who is on bereavement leave after the death of his mother.
Do you think the press gallery has given voters the information they need to make such a judgment, Michael? Having explained why Shorten isn't making speeches or twisting arms in Labor backrooms, Gordon then says:
Shorten is right to say the party must change, but is yet to articulate how and when.
Why isn't he articulating that, Michael? Oh.

Mark Kenny and Michael Gordon are not a couple of blow-ins. They are senior members of the federal parliamentary press gallery. It is equally undeniable that they have no idea what is going on with our political system. Business journalists who didn't understand the stock market, sports journalists who don't understand individual matches or the wider competitions in which they are played, have no future. Yet, Fairfax have kept these numpties for too long in a press gallery construct that doesn't work for anyone. The reason why Karen Middleton can't find anyone to celebrate or support the press gallery is because, even at its best, it is bullshit.

When we become disengaged with their addled and fatuous commentary, apparently it is we and not they who have the problem. Yep, the political predicament we're in shows that we just don't appreciate all the hard work that Michael Gordon, Mark Kenny and the gang have put in.

10 April 2014

Victory over the 24 hour news cycle

Journalists complain about a phantom that they call "the 24 hour news cycle" which supposedly makes their jobs tougher. Even press gallery journalists, whose day starts with listening to AM and is all over by mid-afternoon, regard this as something real and try desperately to convince others of it. It was always bullshit but over the past week, the Australian media have shown how to deal with it: pretend it doesn't exist. Plug away with stories that aren't "breaking", or in any way important, and this could be the cure for an affliction that was never real.

Right now, the federal government is putting together its Budget, which will be formally announced and released in May. This happens every year, and you don't need to be a member of the press gallery to know this.

During April, the media is usually full of speculation about what will or won't be in the Budget. Interest groups, bureaucrats fending off incursions from the infidels at Treasury, and even government ministers other than the Treasurer - all background journos and leak documents, and the resulting discussion has an impact on what goes into the Budget and ultimately on what sort of government we have in this country.

This April is different because public servants have not only been told to shut up (this happens every year, no matter which party is in office); but that the government will go through their private lives with a fine-tooth comb and that anyone found to have been leaking, or being disparaging, or even expressing qualms about government policies. However unwittingly, press gallery journalist Samantha Maiden declared closed the traditional multifaceted April debates closed without even realising it.

The institutions of the permanent public service have been commandeered to serve the political interests of the incumbent government. This used to be a big deal and senior journalists, senior public servants and other worthies used to force governments to back down when they did this in the past; no longer.

Maiden has presented this as a problem for the public servants instead of a symptom of a weak government suspicious of those who serve it. Greg Jericho, a former public servant whose career collided with his social media activities to the detriment of the former, can be forgiven for regarding this as a problem for public servants rather than the country more broadly; Maiden can't. Having been diminished as a source of truth by simply quoting Abbott's assurances that he wouldn't be bringing back knighthoods, Maiden has again simply transcribed what she heard with no further consideration about what it means.

Samantha Maiden has done everything a journalist can do to keep on side with this government, and with her employer (but I repeat myself), and all she gets is humiliated. An experienced journalist reduced to a blogger's punchline, I ask you! Give her a Walkley.

There had been a Commission of Audit. The government decided not to release its findings before the WA Senate re-election on 5 April; that election has come and gone and that report has still not been released. No one seems interested. The contents of that report might take the place of the usual April debate around the Budget, but nobody will release it, officially or unofficially. It's one thing for the government to decide that it will not respond to or even court public debate, but it's a pity that the press gallery and even the opposition won't either.

The coming Budget will be the first for a government that likes to talk big, but which can't really deliver. The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has often been regarded as both a buffoon and a very smart guy; I saw evidence of both when I knew him in the early '90s, and press gallery journalists have also seen proof of both; this coming Budget will see which of those qualities (and the many others he brings to the job, for good and ill) best inform his legacy. One thing is clear: he doesn't want any debate. Whether you're a public servant or not, you'll take what he gives you and you'll shut up.

In the absence of pre-Budget speculation and debate there were some announcements about trade agreements. It was not necessary to go to Tokyo and Seoul to get announcements that were freely available from government websites. In both locations, media footage of Abbott shaking hands with various dignitaries was freely available from local media. When Abbott did a press conference in Seoul and refused to take questions, press gallery journalists expressed surprised, as though walking away from press conferences was not something you'd expect from Tony Abbott.

No agreement was actually signed in either location. No acknowledgement was made (by the government or its press gallery) of the efforts of previous governments, and of potentially critical public servants, in securing those arrangements. The task of reporting those agreements was left to the press gallery rather than to business journalists, surprising when you consider the idea of those deals is to boost trade and economic activity more broadly.

The press gallery focused on agricultural exports, as though Australia's economy hasn't changed in the past century and agriculture is the be-all-and-end-all of our exports. Japan promised to cut its tariff on beef from about 40% to about 20% over 15 years, and no journalist I can find has really explained what difference that would make (not being in the beef industry myself). As Mr Denmore said, coverage seemed more concerned that we think well of the government rather than focus on what might (not) be in it for the country more broadly.

Andrew Robb could well be the only member of this government with any negotiating skill to speak of. If he had been involved with the post-election negotiations in 2010 it is entirely possible that Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, and Andrew Wilkie would have been more amenable to a Coalition government, and history might have been different.Rather than ramping up their negotiation efforts they went the other way, and seem vindicated by the last general election - until you consider that after six months of Abbott government:
  • Labor's carbon tax and mining tax remain in place;
  • Supposedly bipartisan policies like reforms to education and disability funding are unclear or in tatters; and
  • Coalition commitments like paid parental leave have not yet been introduced to parliament, let alone passed through it.
What is the different between being in that position, and not being in government at all? Believe it or not, there are some members of the press gallery who actually believe Abbott has negotiation skills despite all available evidence. Not being a public servant, or a journalist, it falls to me to point this out.

If I was an experienced press gallery journalist I'd note that Julia Gillard was dead to the press gallery by this point in her term in office, and called a 'liar' to her face. Tony Abbott is still quoted as though his words were achievements in themselves. The way he glides through, achieving little while having journos hang off his every word, reminds me of the way the NSW parliamentary press gallery used to fawn over Bob Carr.

Bob Carr has been a leading politician in NSW and Federal politics for two decades. Everybody knows what he's like: a bit of a wanker, with that Whitlamite combination of self-deprecation and self-aggrandisement where nobody (including Carr) can truly be sure where one ends and the other begins. The idea that press gallery journalists who've seen him go around for a few months can appreciate him on a different level than the rest of us is a ridiculous conceit, insiderism at its worst. It only shows what contempt journalists have for us that they can maintain it in the sheer absence of any proof.
The first sentence in that tweet is flatly untrue; the press gallery reports announcements as facts. And as for the second - if you seriously imagine that Bob Carr is being candid, or capable of being so, I have a bridge (or a rail line from Parramatta to Epping) to sell you.

Carr's career seemed to show the futility of traditional politics. He was a loyal member of his party and held high office within it, but could barely get preselected and nearly got rolled by lightweights like Brian Langton. His big achievements as NSW Premier (e.g. the 2000 Sydney Olympics) were mostly initiated under the previous Coalition government, while initiatives that came from the very bowels of the NSW ALP (e.g. electricity privatisation, Eddie Obeid) were more trouble than they were worth. He was every bit as disdainful of the sort of person who joins the ALP as Joe Bullock. He was a warrior for the Labor Right but his better ministers were Left (Andrew Refshauge, John Watkins) rather than his own people (Obeid, Joe Tripodi, Reba Meagher). He remains Labor's anti-immigration champion, the nearest thing the "fuck off we're full" crowd have to intellectual heft and policy substance.

He was Foreign Minister from March 2012 to October 2013 - a term of 19 months. He went to a lot of conferences in that time but didn't appear to have achieved very much as Foreign Minister. 19 months was two months longer than Percy Spender had in the same job (December 1949 - April 1951). Spender set up the entire post war foreign policy architecture for Australia in his tenure. Thank goodness Carr is so witty because there's nothing comparable to the ANZUS Treaty (positioning Australia on the US side of the Cold War) and the Colombo Plan (positioning Australia as a leading education provider and a major soft-power force in the Asia-Pacific region), which were all conceived - and concluded - in this brief period. Spender became Vice President of the UN General Assembly; Carr, for all his lack of humility, was just another rotating member.

Gillard gave Carr carte blanche in foreign policy - he could've done anything. No press gallery journalist really evaluated Carr while he was in office. They had no petard to hoist him by until Carr provided his own. Those who employ press gallery journalists got someone in from ASPI or Lowy to comment on foreign policy rather than those who actually rubbed shoulders with Carr in Canberra - what would they know? All that other stuff in today's papers/radio/TV - the weird diets, the book-club and trivia-quiz approach to history, the disdain for quotidian politics - we in the nation's most populous state knew that already.

People who are reading Carr's book claim all proceeds are going to charity. People who are reading Carr's book haven't paid for it, and are burnishing it only to make it reflect on them all the brighter.

It was nice of the Murdoch press to finally twig to Carr after plugging him for so long: Carr sold his soul to Col Allan long before Rudd did.

Speaking of the Murdoch press: it was commendable that they joined, late and half-heartedly, in the general mirth surrounding Abbott's announcements on knighthoods and dames. It was pathetic that both kinds of Australian traditional journalism, Murdoch and non-Murdoch, all lined up to be Momentous about Lachlan Murdoch rejoining the family company: all that Dynastic Succession crap. You had to go outside Australian traditional media to read how he move made a mockery of any sense of strategic direction and how undistinguished Lachlan and James Murdoch were and are.

One of the abiding myths of the Australian media is that the Murdoch are geniuses, and that they can run a media company while others can only imitate. The farting bobbleheads atop News Australia are credited with being in touch with Everyday Strains in some mystic way, yet they give the impression that any oaf could do what they do. The financial performance of Murdoch and non-Murdoch media is about the same, but when something big and important happens the last place you go is to a Murdoch outlet. Lachlan Murdoch offers little to remedy that, and James Murdoch offers nothing at all. Why all this stuff about them when there's so much more going on? If they're so wrong about their own industry, about what might they possibly be right?

By focusing on trade agreements, Bob Carr, and Lachlan Murdoch, the Australian media seems to have slipped the surly bonds of a phantom of its own collective imagination, the "24 hour news cycle". None of those stories are particularly urgent. None of them affect our nation in any real way, nor the manner by which it is governed. There is no such thing as a Slow News Day, only Lazy Journo Day or Dumb Editor Day. The only leading story in the Australian media that remotely resembles a rolling, anything-could-happen-anytime story is the disappearance of MH370, but after a month non-journalists are right to be tired of "Breaking News: Still Nothing ... Breaking News: Still Nothing ...", etc.

What now? When will the traditional media realise that its power to focus on some inane thing or person, and foist it on the rest of us as The News You Need, is waning? Perhaps it will stop blaming The Internet and start realising that audience-repellent content does more damage to their prospects of survival than whatever comfort might come from journo cliches. After the last few days, any journalist complaining about the "24 hour news cycle" should have all the credibility of a sailor wittering about mermaids, and about the same career prospects.

05 April 2014

I did but see him passing by

It was hardly the surprise that the press gallery made it out to be that Tony Abbott would reinstitute knighthoods and dameships.

John Howard deferred to nobody as a monarchist but was paranoid about looking complacent and entitled. Reinstituting those titles looked like more trouble than it was worth politically, and it would have added to the ferocious pressure that all governments face from status-seekers grasping for a gong. Consider certain people from that era who might have been thus ennobled under Howard:
  • Jeff Kennett
  • John Elliott
  • Dick Warburton
  • David Murray
  • Colin Barnett (in retirement mode)
  • Ziggy Switkowski
  • Alan Jones
  • Jocelyn Newman
  • (add your own)
In forming that list I have used the Liberal/NewsLtd convention of naming one woman, almost as an afterthought, so that I can shake a pasty fist at those of you who'd accuse me of being sexist.

The former director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy would have been less convincing at eschewing those titles. Abbott has not learnt the hard lessons about politics that Howard had before entering the Lodge.

Samantha Maiden should have been awake to this rather than just taking dictation and letting Flint and Downer run interference. This, along with the fiasco where News hid Maiden's story for a few days, made Maiden look like a dupe and showed that neither she nor those she quoted can be relied upon for any useful opinion on anything. Insofar as it matters, both Lenore Taylor and poor Mark Kenny cemented their reputations for being able to predict things after they happen rather than beforehand; a quality valued highly within the press gallery and almost entirely worthless beyond it.

The market for Holden cars, dire and declining though might be, is far greater than that for conventional press gallery journalism.

When you add this to the fact that Abbott made his announcement on a day when Arthur Sinodinos made a monkey of everyone who thought he was a copper-bottomed Canberra insider, and George Pell was dumping on everybody who'd protected him (except Abbott) before his departure for Rome, the entire press gallery and those who employ them should not have been diverted to the extent that they were. PR dollies might have marvelled at Abbott's ability to change the narrative, but all it did was further reinforce the idea that those who make news decisions within the Australian media are idiots - and idiots who come to the samey-same idiotic conclusions.

Coverage of recent events involving the British royal family are notable for their utter reliance on what was announced by Abbott's media wranglers, with no analysis independent of that as to what they might mean.

Abbott has form on treacly fawning over the royals, as though they were his own parents (without the adult acknowledgement of their foibles and the context of whether they mean well), yet something more and better in an ill-defined way. Two recent encounters with the royals were notable for their absence of this, however.

The first was his encounter with Prince Charles. Note this piece, the photo, and the story beneath it which doesn't relate to it at all. A typical Abbott-royals piece would go on about Our Next King, How Awfully Gracious It Is To Meet You Your Royal Highness, etc. There was none of that.

Prince Charles is a leading campaigner for limiting climate change as far as possible, and he has been increasingly vocal against climate change scepticism/denialism. In his meeting with Abbott in Colombo it is impossible to believe that the prince wouldn't have given Abbott a stern talking-to about his antics in opposition and his proposals in government, particularly with regard to the environment. Abbott's beliefs for the monarchy and against meaningful climate action would have collided at that meeting. Environmentalists should have been awake to that. Because Abbott's media wranglers put out no statement to that effect, journalists simply assumed that the photo op was the story and went off on other, easier story lines.

Let us have no nonsense that Abbott was trying to protect the Prince from publicity, or that what's said behind closed doors stays there. Charles is far more media savvy than Abbott is; if he thought he could get his way by drops and backdoor briefings and what have you, he would run rings around Abbott and all of his media people.

"Difficult things happen" is a slightly more couth version of "shit happens", and Abbott is siding with the government and its desire for control rather than Sri Lanka's people and their need to be free of repression. Be it on his head, and let him have no room to claim, as he will, that "I had no idea it was like that, and if I had known ...". Whether they are in a prison in Sri Lanka, Manus Island or anywhere else would appear to mean that there is no way these people can hope for any station, as it were, above the one they seem to occupy. Libertarians who welcome this government's policies on, say, a fruit cannery or bigotry protection should pay more attention to basic human freedoms than they do.

The second incident involving the royals involved putting Prince Harry at the centre of last year's International Fleet Review in Sydney Harbour. Again, no treacle; it would have been demeaning for Abbott to be seen to be bowing to such a young man (even though he would have done so off-camera). Abbott's media people foisted Margie-and-the-girls onto the Prince, reminding me of that part of the Cinderella fable where the prince has to go around wedging unsuitable feet into his glass slipper and trying to be polite about it.

Good journalists are sceptical of set-piece displays. Australian journalists who cover politics are selected for their propensity to be easily and thoroughly gulled, and their conviction that they represent us in the process.

Prince Harry as the focus of that exercise can be understood in light of this. The UK government, notwithstanding its declining military and economic capabilities, wants to project itself as a global power. Prince Harry is a commissioned officer (and a junior one) in the British army; the commander-in-chief of the Australian armed forces is the Governor-General (whom Abbott, in his ACM days, said was the true head of state rather than the Queen).

The Australian commander-in-chief/head of state was obviated in a symbolic show of power and political strength by someone who was then third in line to the British throne, someone with no more connection to this country than any other Pommy blow-in. The government which Abbott leads made that decision, which in turn will influence perceptions and outcomes about how we are governed. We squibbed an opportunity to position ourselves in our region in order to prop up another government in a country that is also unclear about what its real role and capacity is. At least the weather was nice. #GloriousSydney

Note how Peter Hartcher dances around the question of whether or not Abbott is a stone-cold liar, in a way that he never did with Julia Gillard. By this point in Gillard's Prime Ministership most people accepted her in the job, while the press gallery as one was committed to sneering her out of office. It took them years and they lost a lot of their employers' audience on the way, but they did it! What triumphs lie ahead of the press gallery now? Back to the daily grind of spoon-fed stories and regurgitated pap for the audience, it seems.

Reading between the lines of Hartcher's article, it appears Abbott has pre-empted the Palace in the hope they won't embarrass him. He would not want to do that too often.

There have been many articles claiming that bringing back knighthoods is the moment where people laugh at Abbott and stop taking him seriously. Regular readers of this blog know I'm a sucker for Abbott-is-finished narratives. It's certainly true that mocking Abbott (and Bronwyn Bishop) did them more damage than years of angry rants would or could. What will do for Abbott is that after he abolishes the carbon price and mining tax, nobody's bills will go down and nobody's job will be safer, and when the stunts of Textor and Credlin fail they will blame the stunt-man and not the stunts. Then it will be over for The Situation - but not now.

Conservatives are people who cannot distinguish between an emerging trend and a passing fad, and so they stand against them all assuming they are the latter. Australians elect conservative governments from time to time to test which new ideas have a future, which progressives see as flinching and shirking responsibility. Australians shouldn't have to choose between, say, the Great Barrier Reef and Queen's Counsels, but if that's the choice then no amount of culture-war will turn a ground-shifting long-term trend into a fragile fad.

Australia's most avowedly royalist Prime Minister likes the idea of the royal family (unearned privilege) more than the practice (being advised, counselled, and warned). The royals aren't nearly as loyal to him as he has been to them. Royals play a long game; politicians, royalist or not, talk a long game but play it short. Abbott might think of the royals as a rock to base his political and personal identity upon, but they aren't.

Knighthoods and dameships confer no dignity but turn real, imperfect people into Gilbert and Sullivan characters. This much is clear: Australians like royalty so long as they stay remote and don't try to ennoble that which can't really be ennobled. Abbott's invocation of royalty looks dodgy. It is dodgy, and if the royals can outwit those who would do them down they can outwit those who would puff them up, and hitch a ride.

Abbott tried to position himself as the long-term, ground-shifting answer to whatever the problems were over Labor's term. It worked for many, but the tentative reception he got before, on, and since last September has shown him to be a passing fad. When they do the culture-war stuff it looks like the Coalition are out for a good time, not a long time; particularly when Prince Charles won't play 'the royal game' to the extent that, say, David Flint does. There's nothing ennobling about being out for a good time, not a long time. Abbott has built his house upon the sand, not the rock. Given the short timeframes involved it is doubtful that the Liberals will forgive this conflicted man, nor themselves for betting their party, and their future, upon him and his hollow baubles.