17 June 2014

Breaking news

Politics involves working out competing ideas about how public services, and the community more broadly, is run. A stable political system is one which can accommodate competing ideas without breaking down, or causing civic violence that requires a response of state violence in the short term, and dispossession of certain groups from the political system over the longer term.

Australia has a stable political system. Some people think this stability requires the absence of debate. They tend to be people who aren't interested in policy processes and outcomes, neither generally nor in particular, and how they affect people's lives, but who get their jollies from the 'horse race' aspect of politics and being 'in the thick of it'. It is hard to credibly maintain this approach at the level of municipal politics, but the scale and isolation of Canberra's press gallery create the conditions for this condition to become endemic.

There are far too many horse-race people as it is, and their presence in positions of power within our political system is to be deplored. Leading members of our political parties and pretty much every member of the press gallery operates from this toxic set of assumptions. It is a vast exercise in self-indulgence to cultivate and maintain this attitude at the public expense, and (for journalists) at the expense of their large but struggling employers.

Almost all reporting on federal politics occurs at the level of the horse-race, with no capacity or interest in explaining how this political to-and-fro leads to certain outcomes in the community. This does the community, and individual readers, a disservice. This disservice explains why disengagement from politics and from traditional media is rising sharply and in correlation (not coincidence). This cannot end well for traditional media, nor for the two-party political system, which includes the student-politics-as-training-ground political elite.

Let's take this story. It is entirely natural that a party losing government will revisit policies, particularly contentious ones like asylum-seekers and why those who come by sea are treated so differently than those who come by air. Yet, because of the limited perspectives and journalistic skills of the press gallery denizens who wrote that piece, all they can focus on is the SPLIT SHOCK aspect:
The move comes just three weeks after Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles told the National Press Club that he fully supported offshore processing and that the Rudd government should never have dismantled the offshore centres ... The motion was due to be debated about a month ago but it is understood it was delayed so that it wouldn't clash with Mr Marles' appearance at the press club.
What this says is that there was never a good time to debate policy, before National Press Club appearances or afterwards. What the proponents of this policy are trying to do are change the minds of Marles and others in their party's decision-making systems, and hence change what they tell the National Press Club - and even what they might do in government.
"We support offshore processing at Nauru and Manus Island as a step which has saved lives," he said at the time.

But a copy of a motion cites the death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati, the "inhumane, unsafe and completely unsatisfactory conditions" for asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru and a lack of independent oversight of the centres, and the lack of processing of asylum claims in both countries as justification for the move.
There is a debate to be had in the two paragraphs cited above, if only the journalists had the wit to draw it out.

It's one thing for the Australian government to decide who does (not) come into this country. It is quite another for it to decide who lives and and dies among people who are not at war with us, and who are vulnerable people not supported by the governments of the countries they came from. This is the debate being had here, apparently within the ALP's normal decision-making forums and processes.

Let us have no nonsense about priorities or time. These journalists have nothing better to do but get some perspective, and there is plenty of information available within and beyond Canberra to build that perspective. This is a debate that does not improve with repetition. Fairfax and traditional-media outlets generally do themselves and their readers no favours by pretending that differences of opinion is a story in itself.

Differences of opinion are a given, even among people of goodwill who like one another and who work well together. Surely journalists know this. Differences of opinion are not, in themselves, a story, and insistence to the contrary by lazy journalists result in them - and their beleaguered employers - being ignored.
Ms Parke and Ms Burke both declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media and it is understood the motion is unlikely to win majority support in the caucus room, with many Labor MPs simply unwilling to re-start debate over an issue that plagued Labor for six years in government.
Ms Parke and Ms Burke both know that Fairfax Media lies outside their party's decision-making processes. Neither want to create the impression they are grandstanding at their party's expense. If you understand politics, and respect your readers, then that's the understanding you'd convey to your readers.

If you don't understand politics, and you condescend to people using journo cliches, you end up dribbling the sort of crap Whyte and Massola have dished up. It is standard political reporting, to be sure, but a low and frankly doomed standard at that.

If you can bear it, here is more of it, this time about the Liberals. There's plenty of information out there about Australia's air defence needs and the strengths and weaknesses of the F-35, and none of the three journalists cited could be arsed going into it - even though the issue has been live for more than a decade. This article covers the cost of the JSF, but misses a number of vital elements:
  • There's more to air defence than mere dollar cost.
  • The cost of these machines does not fit with the austerity model put forward by the government on other issues.
  • Throughout the JSF project, costs have skyrocketed and cost estimates are unreliable.
  • The effectiveness of the JSF can only be judged against a knowledge of Australia's air defence needs and an understanding of other products in that market: neither are present in this coverage.
  • Yes, it is the place of Australians to judge the effectiveness of military hardware purchases.
Political parties should be able to handle discussions about policy. A party that cannot bear to bring up divisive discussions is probably a party that is not ready to return to government. Individuals who are that battle-scarred should be replaced. However, if that party is being denied the information it needs to have a debate and make decisions, and then convince others of the merits of its position, then such a position is understandable. Within political parties, and beyond them, the media cliche of SPLIT SHOCK is a prophylactic to understanding rather than a facilitator of it.

Soon, someone like Katharine Murphy will bemoan the banality of our political debate, with no insight or admission about their own role in that, and certainly no answers: their laziness in coming to grips with complex issues, and underestimating the subtlety of their audience to cover up their inadequate explanation skills.

The Conversation tries to set itself apart from the media by using academic experts rather than journalists. However, they do not engage this expertise with an understanding of political processes, using a ruse whereby journalists are given meaningless academic titles like 'Adjunct Associate Fellow' and allowed to dribble on without having learned anything about politics, or journalism, or much of anything really.

Michelle Grattan thinks politics is all about singing from the same songsheet, and deplores "untidiness and some dissent". She trips over a number of silly images on the way to her story, which fails because she won't/can't engage with issues:
In Canberra the Ides of March has recently come in June
No it hasn't. The examples Grattan cites involve very little actually being resolved as a result of the "special frisson" she describes.
Abbott, after arriving back early on Monday from his around-the-world trip, has found some of the first Senate jabs in the struggle over the budget bills coming from his own ranks, with Liberal senators Ian Macdonald and Cory Bernardi attacking the debt levy (which, however, will have an easy Senate passage courtesy of Labor).
Abbott will almost certainly have been aware of this before and during his trip overseas. Macdonald was cheesed off at Abbott because Abbott promised that all shadow ministers would become ministers, but broke his promise to Macdonald. Bernardi is a knucklehead and is in the departure lounge to leave the Liberal Party. Grattan should be awake to this and convey it to her readers: again, the mere fact of dissent is insufficient to support a story.
Abbott palmed the questions off but more generally the government says the material is out of date and what’s relevant is the future, with the budget numbers pointing to alarming trends.
Does the HILDA study address those concerns? Does some reliable third-party source of information help us decide one way or another? In politics, unlike other fields of activity, The Conversation is pretty much worthless.
Even so, the survey does suggest that, as with other aspects of the budget, the government has been somewhat over-egging the problems.
If criticism of the government is valid, you have to wonder about the journalists, and MPs outside the government (particularly the opposition) who allow Abbott to "palm off" important questions. Grattan doesn't realise that a report like this represents an admission of professional failure on her part.
Bill Shorten - who’s been riding high on the polls and is in a better political position than he would have ever dreamed
Press gallery journalists seek access over all other considerations - you know you've got access to a politician when you can access their dreams.
More immediately concerning for Shorten was a claim on Monday at the royal commission into union corruption that when he was a parliamentary secretary in 2009 he had contributed $5000 to the campaign of a candidate in the Health Services Union.

The candidate, Marco Bolano, was an ally of the union whistleblower Kathy Jackson.
Two things should be said about this, and neither should need to be said to anyone with such experience in covering politics.

First, the whole idea of the Heydon Royal Commission into certain trade unions is to get at Shorten, in the same way that the Fraser government set up the Costigan Royal Commission to go after then-ACTU President Bob Hawke. If Grattan's experience has any value, it is in drawing and testing these kinds of comparisons rather than presenting these developments breathlessly as unforeseeable instances of 'untidiness'.

Second, Jackson isn't a "whistleblower", she and her mate Bolano are part of the problem with the HSU. The idea that she was a "whistleblower" was all very well when she first went to Fairfax, hoping to throw them off her scent and play the once-great Kate McClymont for a mug, but there have been developments since then - or before then - and Grattan has no excuse not to be across them. She is being lazy here.
On yet another front, Labor figures on Monday night were grappling with a controversial motion due to be debated at caucus on Tuesday calling for the opposition to reverse its support for sending asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru, and to declare that these centres should be immediately closed.
Yeah, well, we examined that earlier. Grattan's snippy final paragraph contains nothing about the effects of that policy on actual asylum seekers, no qualms about morality, nor better ways of doing things. It is wholly inadequate for describing a vexed issue and how it plays out in the normal course of politics.
Even some in the left argue the motion was ill-advised, which shows how far the ALP’s thinking has changed over the years.
Not really. Detention of sea-borne asylum-seekers was initiated by the Keating government in the early 1990s. The then immigration minister, Gerry Hand, was from the left, which shows you there hasn't been as much change as Grattan would have you believe.

After four decades on the job Michelle Grattan practices a kind of goldfish journalism where every new development is a surprise and there are only ever two choices: the status quo or chaos.

Indulging one old journalist might be a mistake, but indulging two looks like carelessness. Shaun Carney, so acute on the downfall of Howard, floundered with Rudd and Gillard and was rightly let go by The Age. Former editor Andrew Jaspan, now at The Conversation, has let Carney have another go:
And yet, for all the energy attended upon them, experience suggests that budgets can generally not be expected to remain in the national conversation for long. Most years, a budget will have lost its news value by the Friday after its release ... But not this year: the 2014-15 budget is the exception that proves the rule. In political, financial and social terms, this budget has so far shown itself to be a game-changer. It has reset the political debate, sparking a community reaction full of heat.
The reason for this is because the budget was the point where all the hot air from Abbott, Hockey et al coalesced and took tangible form. It was where all that uncritical media coverage was shown to be hollow, where the entire press gallery revealed that it hadn't asked the right questions at the right time.

It's quaint that Carney regards "the national conversation" as the same as "what editors of newspapers, TV and radio stations choose to cover".

If you can't get over the SPLIT SHOCK narrative, it will have escaped your notice that Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald put more cogent questions to Finance Minister than all of the other Senators put together and cubed. The manifestation of all that anti-budget energy as heat rather than light should be recognised for what it is: a failure of journalism.
But with its first budget, the government – or more particularly, its treasurer – has presented a set of policies that attempt to redraw and redefine the role of the state. These policies challenge not just what took place under the previous Labor government but also under John Howard.
If you're going to attempt a massive reorganisation of the way the government relates to the citizenry, and vice versa, then be prepared to take the time and put the work in. This government hasn't done that, despite an easy ride from the press gallery and a more than accommodating ALP.
So the government is clearly experiencing trouble because it said one thing and now wants to do another. And yes, of course, this seems odd because of the way in which Tony Abbott successfully pursued Julia Gillard over her carbon tax reversal.
All governments say one thing in opposition and do another in government - hardly "odd". What's happened in this case is that not only have the Coalition under Abbott been deceitful (and that only blogs were alert to this, unlike the credulous traditional media). They developed a set of ideas that were ill-considered and not debated at any level within the community. They appear to be disjointed bits of policy that the US has since moved away from, like privatising the public health system, not relating to Australia and its social and economic conditions in any practical way.
Others, often more sympathetic to the government, including some Liberal MPs, offer the assessment that a good deal of the problem goes to messaging.
I was a member of the Liberal Party in NSW from 1986 to 2000. The party spent much of that time in opposition on both the federal and state levels, and tended to blame the messaging: we need to get our messaging out, if only we could get our messaging through, blah blah messaging blah. Preselection candidates boasted of their 'media experience'. It's as though all problems were technocratic rather than deeper-seated.
On climate change, the government has specifically rejected the application of a price signal.
Abbott said in Washington last week that raising fuel excise was a de facto price signal.
Distilled, the government’s message on the co-payment is that because there is a budget emergency, the impost must be introduced but not a dollar of the proceeds will go to ameliorating the emergency.
That's a stuffed-up piece of messaging right there. Keep in mind that messaging is Abbott's strength, the reason why the Coalition is in government at all. If Abbott has botched that messaging, what hope can anyone have that things will get better for this government?
Do today’s Australians, many of whom – rightly or wrongly – view their taxes as a form of downpayment on an age pension and medical care in their retirement, think that contributing 8% of their wage to the nation’s welfare bill is so bad?
Hockey complained that opposition to his budget was a throwback to the 1970s.

From 1978 to 1983, the Treasurer was John Howard. Howard's budgets were always in deficit. They trimmed welfare spending, in response to public sentiments that welfare recipients were 'bludgers' after decades of low unemployment (shamefully, this extended to less-than-generous benefits and assistance to Vietnam veterans). There was a lot of talk about 'nation building' but little to show for them. In that sense, Hockey's budget is a very 1970s document.

In a situation where half of Australian households receive welfare payments, and where nobody is living the 'welfare queen' lifestyle made popular by John Laws or Mike Carlton in their pomp - Hockey has played the "dole bludger" card but it sits on the table like a two of clubs, rather than the trump he and Abbott had intended. Messaging be damned: this is a failure of judgment pure and simple, and Carney dares not risk his few remaining contacts by calling this out.
The last time there was such sustained public antagonism to a budget was in 1993 ... That broken promise was the deal-breaker between the electorate and that government ... They were different times, of course
Of course. At least Carney is trying here to understand what has happened with this government, and stopped trying to pretend that everything is "unprecedented", "extraordinary" or otherwise using hype where it clearly does not, as the old saying had it, "sell newspapers".

Our politico-media system seems to break before it can bend.

Julia Gillard's conventional political compromise in pursuit of a price on carbon led the media to stop taking her seriously, and to take her opponents more seriously than they warranted. Hockey will need to compromise to get this budget through, and it will make or break him. The traditional media are following rather than leading new media when it comes to politics; and we will have a new politics created though a new media before the likes of Massola, Kenny, Grattan and Carney can even understand it, let alone report on it.

What they think of as strength is really a kind of brittleness, but they continue to portray flexibility and debate as a deviation from normal business rather than the business itself. For all their experience, they are constantly surprised by foreseeable, regular events. People who are surprised by foreseeable, regular events cannot provide steady and responsive leadership nor news of consistent quality. These people should neither be surprised nor snippy when people stop listening to them.

03 June 2014

The guns of Singapore

The Liberal right is a victim of its own success. We have a rightwing Prime Minister, with rightwingers like Eric Abetz and Matthias Cormann and Kevin Andrews in leading roles within this government. People who have spent their working lives fighting for conservatism, like Bronwyn Bishop, hold high office and wield real power. The moderates are vanquished. But, so what? Their grip on power is slipping not because they've caved in, but because everything's gone their way and they didn't expect it.

In the late 1990s, the Coalition faced a challenge on its right flank from Pauline Hanson. Hanson threatened to build a permanent presence in Australian politics on the backs of Aborigines and newly-arrived non-white migrants, and maybe she would have if she'd been a more effective politician with some solid financial backing.

Since then, the threat to the Coalition from its right has been all but eliminated. Consider the parties that can get elected to the Senate on 2% or less of the vote, and wonder why the rabid anti-immigration parties can't manage the feat despite decades of experience. Even Labor has learnt to stop worrying and love indefinite, inhumane and inaccessible detention of non-white asylum-seekers, buying into the whole idea that such people take our jobs and clog our social infrastructure.

The Coalition had faced no significant threat from its left for more than two decades. This is why it is so comprehensively ambushed today.

Moderates drifted away, or learnt to accommodate issues that once disgusted them; those who remained had come so far in their careers that dropping out of politics altogether was harder than sucking it up and getting on with it.

The Labor Party has become less leftist, even though the Spectre Of Communism has shrunk to a historical artifact. There was the apology to the Stolen Generation and the chimera of action on climate change, but basically a party that supports mandatory detention and cuts benefits for single parents has pretty much accepted conservative assumptions - which includes a disinclination toward root-and-branch re-examination of one's position on things.

Australia's major corporations have a greater scope of influence over this government than any since the Lyons of the 1930s. Nobody (with the exception of leftist ratbags; but the generalisation stands) minds if the big companies make big money, so long as there is some left over to fend off grinding poverty and help smart kids from average backgrounds earn rewards for playing by the rules of meritocracy.

We need a government that brings the budget into balance in such a way that shows big corporations dependent on this country are doing their bit, and which provides positive incentives (e.g. smart kids from average backgrounds earning tangible rewards for playing by the rules of meritocracy).

I thought the previous government was doing that in its own unique way, but most people didn't. Never mind them - where will we get such a government, the government we need?

Will the incumbents change their minds? No. This is a brittle government, which will shatter rather than bend too far. See how it rewards time-servers. Those who jeer at the duds on the frontbench cannot deny that every one of those people has paid their dues, served their time and taken one for the team many, many times over several years.

Many have pet causes (e.g. Turnbull on the republic and climate, Andrews on abortion and divorce) which they have parked for the wider cause of power. The reason why they so hated Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and why they despise Palmer now, is because they were less abstemious - pushing their causes and getting them through. The Abbott government is a victory for those who held the line and ignored the mockers and doubters.

The discipline (and attendant brittleness) necessary to turn what is essentially a rabble into a government is personified in Peta Credlin. When Palmer attacked Credlin, he was striking at the cold, calculating heart of this government, saying what Coalition MPs mutter under their breath but dare not voice. Palmer was stupid to use sexism, particularly going into Credlin's reproductive issues; he should've known better and should apologise for that.

That said, self-righteous press gallery dickheads like this should reconsider their own roles in simply quoting countless similar attacks on Gillard without the same sanction (but then, that wasn't 2014, was it) and overlooking Peter Dutton's own-goal of "nagger nagger" this very day on Jenny Macklin. But hey, it adds to Credlin's tough image, which in turn can be used to keep members of this government in line, no harm done and no lessons learnt.

The fight against sexism in our public discourse is vitally important - but the press gallery is no good at that either.

Will there be a Third Party led by Turnbull? No. Look how he peddles silly policy on telecommunications with aplomb, dismissing sound critiques and alternatives; this is not the way of a hand-wringing man of principle. As Gray Connolly correctly observes, Turnbull is a conservative. Even his (largely dormant) positions on climate change may be compared (unfavourably) with Churchill's stand against 1930s conservative appeasement of Nazi Germany.

The only hand-wringing going on is on the part of Liberals who want Turnbull's popularity, but who can't/won't countenance the far-reaching change necessary to remake the Liberal Party in his image: by the time you did away with climate denialism and bigotry-rightism, jacked up taxes and allowed same-sex marriage, there would hardly be a party to lead. Political parties can only do that sort of far-reaching change from opposition, and even then only once they've grown tired of being there.

Andrew Bolt wanted to harness Turnbull's popularity to Abbott's cause without conceding anything to him, so he gave him the sort of blast (no I won't link to it) that would wither any other member of this government. Turnbull, having weathered Beaufort-scale assaults from Kerry Packer and Margaret Thatcher, treated Bolt like the pissant that he is.

Bolt assumes that the government is strong enough to withstand any campaign that he might wage, and that it wouldn't play into the hands of Palmer, Labor, and others who would replace this government. His judgment and his standing isn't what it was. Bolt has already overreached with his foray into Melbourne radio and his push for vindication through amending the Racial Discrimination Act is losing ground. If Bolt pushes too hard and causes lasting damage to this government, his lack of power will be exposed and his fans in high office will start looking/feeling silly, as has happened with Alan Jones. Bolt's duff judgment and public weakness reflects that of the Liberal right more generally.

As for Scott Morrison, pfft. Remember that talk about how Peter Reith was positioning himself as an alternative successor to Howard? Rightwingers in his own seat will devour Morrison and he will, like Bob McNamara, recant on his life's work.

What about Clive Palmer? He is referred to on social media as Cliev, pre-empting the kind of disappointment that saw UK Labour refer to their most electorally successful leader as Bliar. He appears to have no political ballast that would keep him hewing to policies such as humane treatment of asylum-seekers or greater education funding. All his more appealing positions could evaporate overnight if Campbell Newman reached out to him. Still, so long as he keeps to the positions he has outlined so far, he is more the anti-Abbott than Shorten is.

This government came to office with a degree of distrust, like Malcolm Fraser's did in the 1970s. Don Chipp, an experienced Liberal, was a founding member of the Democrats that won the balance of power in the Senate. Chipp was initially less successful than Palmer is today because back then there was more:
  • residual loyalty to major parties;
  • distrust of populism; and
  • substantial moderate elements in the Liberal Party than there is now.
Fraser campaigned in opposition as hard as Abbott did in the same predicament. In government, however, Fraser steered his government toward the centre, maintaining generous education and welfare policies for the sake of social cohesion and the national interest as a whole.

Abbott has not steered his government toward the centre, slashing education and welfare policies under the assumption that they go against the national interest.

Palmer has attracted the working-class conservatives whom Liberal conservatives have steadily courted for a generation, at the expense of moderates. He has shown these voters to be every bit as unreliable for the Liberals as moderates were accused of being. Another one in the neck for conservatives building the rightist redoubt for the Liberal Party (and the Nationals, given that many of their seats are more vulnerable to Palmer/Windsor-type populists than to the ALP). People shrieking about Palmer's sexism were much less critical of Abbott's not-dissimilar remarks, and even defended "that man" after Gillard's misogyny speech, making you wonder what their real problem with Palmer is.

When Singapore was a British colony the British assumed it would be most likely to be attacked from the sea, and so they installed some of the world's biggest artillery pointing toward the sea. Singapore was invaded in 1942 - but from the north, which had also been a British colony, meaning that the sea-directed guns were useless when most needed. I named this post after those guns. See, it's an allegory. Allegory. Oh, never mind.

The case cannot yet be made that Abbott is wavering in his resolve to conservative causes, so the wreckers from the far right who tend to bring down Coalition governments (the pool-fence knuckleheads in mid-90s NSW, or Geoff Shaw in Victoria today) are silent and the moderates have lost their ability to fight and win. Shoring up the political ground to the right of the Coalition, a lifetime's work for those now running this government, is beside the point in the current political environment. For what doth it profit a man if he gaineth the whole world and retains his soul, but everything goes to pot anyway?

The fundamental failure of conservative political judgment is partly, but not entirely, Abbott's fault. Internally, he is safe. Externally, now that the threat to this government has manifested itself in ways the smarties failed to predict, nobody in this government knows quite what to do other than unite and keep making the same mistakes.