21 October 2014

What sort of nation

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these life less things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

- Percy Bysshe Shelley Ozymandias
For much of human history, nation-states were organised on ethnic terms: here we are a people, and over there the dreaded foreigner does not speak as we speak, pray as we pray, eat or trade or whatever as we do. This often led to conflict.

By the 1930s, arseholes like Hitler or Franco could declare themselves to not only be the embodiments of their respective nations, but the very apogee of history: several millenia had led to those guys insisting on one right way of speaking, praying, eating or being, and on weeding out those who were doing/being wrong. Many people rejected this approach. Those who did so under those dictators ended up dead or in prison, while those with the freedom to do so re-examined what the nation-state was for. Plenty of big thought had gone into government and governance, but what with the rise of manhood suffrage and the fall of the economy during the Depression (two developments, alas, frequently linked at the time) things had changed.

The answers they came up with on what the nation-state was for had a common theme: the nation-state is where citizens get their services from. This was the philosophy behind Roosevelt's New Deal, the social policies of M J Savage in New Zealand, and in postwar Europe: the private sector runs the economy and pays taxes to government, which delivers services.

In Australia, the political system hadn't undergone that level of seismic shock. When the Depression hit the Labor Party fractured, experimenting with newfangled Keynesianism and other ideas but not getting anywhere. When you read the press accounts of this time (including Keith Murdoch's Herald) there are strong similarities with the 'chaos' narrative surrounding Rudd and Gillard. The 1930s was dominated by the risk-averse Lyons government, which wasn't as austere as the NZ government that preceded Savage but was less dithery (due to the lesser pressures upon it and a lack of curiosity about the outside world) than the Conservative British government of the time. Labor regained office in 1941 as the war was underway and adopted a pragmatic, anti-intellectual approach to governing in the face of the war. Its attempt at nationalising the banks in 1947 was half-hearted and badly considered, and helped kill adventurous policy for two decades.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme and the national copper-wire telephone network were about as far as big thinking went in this country: no national health scheme (except in fits and starts as with baby health programs), no national planning on the scale seen in postwar Europe or even in the US, often but not always initiated by left-of-centre parties and continued by right-of-centre parties.

The expansion of the university system and the CSIRO was proper nation-building stuff. It was undermined in effectiveness by patchy primary and secondary education and the strangled attempts at expanding access to education, owing to the prevalence of the myth that education is a gift rather than an essential service for a person to participate in the society of which they are a citizen. Ironically, those gushing thanks at Whitlam for giving them an education are reinforcing the idea of education-as-gift; the same mentality that has seen the Abbott government can the Gonski scheme.

For conservatives, dismantling the notion of Australia as an outpost of Empire and allowing for a multi-ethnic Australia was slow and patient work, like defusing a bomb. Unions had trouble organising non-English speaking workers who had been brought in specifically to do manual work, part of the complacency that would see them struggle to organise at all when the economy changed beyond their powers of recognition. It was parliamentary Labor under Whitlam who recognised that one could be Australian without having Anglo-Celtic heritage - or, under 'assimilation', putting up a front and keeping up appearances (e.g. changing hard-to-pronounce names). This is why Whitlam deserves credit for a multicultural Australia, but also why he stands on the shoulders of those who defused the potential for the sort of institutionalised racism and ethnic violence that has beset Britain.

Conservatives maintained the cultural high ground in Australia through superior education and the higher incomes that came with it, to patronise art forms they liked. Evatt aside, Labor's anti-intellectualism saw them disdain arts funding and policy as elitist. It was Whitlam who outflanked the conservatives in this regard, happily taking high art (like opera) and popular art (like film) from ambivalent conservatives. Whitlam was as well educated as Menzies, and a sharper and more polished intellect than the conservatives who succeeded Menzies. To pine for Menzies was to pine for someone as sharp and presentable as Whitlam, which was self-defeating for them and reinforced Whitlam when Labor would have otherwise been ambivalent towards him.

The Coalition government of 1949-72 achieved many good things, but they spread about four or five years' work over a 23-year period. When Whitlam came to office in 1972 he wasn't so much fizzing with new ideas as playing catch-up:
  • The Karmel report on education should have been completed when the baby boomers were toddlers, not when they were hitting adulthood.
  • The urban planning ideas should have been done and dusted in the 1950s; today, large-scale urban planning is a joke and big shiny visions like Melbourne 2030 are not so much plans as punchlines, fading weeks after launch and tweaked and relaunched to the point where ... more planning is warranted, and what happens bears no relation to what has been planned for. Albury-Wodonga, the Gold Coast and Monarto should have risen in parallel with Canberra, not as 1970s afterthoughts.
  • Had the Moomba-Sydney gas pipelines be completed earlier today's CSG debate would be very different, and this applies to other infrastructure as well.
  • The much-vaunted 25% cut to all tariffs is the economic equivalent of cutting your legs off to meet a weight-loss target. Winding back protectionism should have been completed by the mid-1960s at the latest, once it became clear that devastated Europe and Japan were not content to stay devastated and allow Australia less competition than it actually had by that time.
The recognition of Aboriginal land ownership and policies to conserve the environment arose from a recognition that there was more to Australia than cultivation of land and flogging the produce. As can be seen by the Fraser government, dominated by rural landholders, that notion had a way to go, but the development of those policies in Whitlam's time and his encouragement of them shows that he was not only playing catch-up, but looking forward too.

One clear error was his shoddy treatment of Vietnam veterans. McMahon withdrew all but a small number of Australian troops from Vietnam by the time Whitlam took office. Whitlam released the draft dodgers, but more powerful was releasing the youth of that time from conscription. There were, as the old song says at 0:32, no V-day heroes in 1973. Disparaging Vietnam vets had begun under the conservatives, blaming them for their policy failures. Whitlam should have been big enough to bring them back into the bosom of the working class and use the aegis of office to allow them their place as heirs to the Anzac legend. Politically, he would have outflanked the Jim Cairns-inspired freaks in his own party who portrayed returning service personnel as dupes and baby-killers.

The idea that the country should replace state and local governments with regions has been mugged by reality. We have jurisdictions about the size of Whitlam's regions - Tasmania, the ACT, the Gold Coast, all overgoverned and struggling endemically both to raise taxes and meet the service and regulatory needs of their populations. This is an idea Whitlam would probably have dropped given enough clear evidence. Support for the idea can only be described as sentimental nonsense.

Another was the economic embarrassment faced by all first-world governments in the 1970s, that easy growth and low unemployment would continue indefinitely. This was the start of the narrative that Labor can't manage the economy and the Coalition does it better. Part of that came from Whitlam's arrogance, but also Labor's negligence in not matching him with better candidates and assuming second-rate lags would grow into the job.

Chris Pyne's comments were both typical and silly, and grossly inappropriate for the very day of a man's passing. I remember when conservatives were stuffy, but had decorum when appropriate. The second-rate lags surrounding Whitlam all had it, even Freddie Daly. We really are being governed by boy-men who giggle through formal speeches and fart in church. Old-school stuffy conservatives accorded some dignity to that which they wished to conserve. This is why Pyne, Abbott and the gang sound so hollow when they claim to stand for things and preserve what's good about our country. Those who like Abbott claim he's clever, even erudite; but unlike Whitlam there is no evidence of it in his policy output. Consider Whitlam's first year as Prime Minister - and Hawke's, and Rudd's, and Gillard's, and compare them to Abbott, who flits from Newspoll to Newspoll, media cycle to media cycle.

The media loved Whitlam when he was Opposition Leader - read some of the biographies written by journalists at the time. They're embarrassingly gushy, full of you-had-to-be-there moments which they regard as punchlines. Once he got into the heavy policy agenda in 1973-74 the journos got bored. After Whitlam failed to achieve a strong majority in 1974 they began to seek out anonymous backbench natterings and talk up the tough-talking opposition. They loved him again once he was gone from politics, much as Julia Gillard is getting kinder press these days. Once the baby-boomer journalists who had boosted him in 1972 rose to the top of the Australian media, they set the narrative on the retired Whitlam, and that narrative has been kind.

Abraham Lincoln said that it took a good man to build a barn, but any old mule could kick it down. Whitlam built progressive institutions and put conservatives in the position where they had to destroy established custom and practice; a conservative who destroys established custom and practice undermines that which they might hope to preserve. Fraser came to realise this and stopped trying to dig his legacy out of its historical hole. Howard held office for three times longer than Whitlam and achieved slightly less. Abbott can't even get a budget through a hostile Senate, which Whitlam did twice (the third, in 1975, was passed by the Fraser government without amendment).

Whitlam was not just someone of his time, but for the ages. To consign him to some bygone age is silly, especially when this government is all about undoing the practical aspects of his legacy while a) pretending that it is the best friend of those things and b) trying to do so in a way that doesn't make them any more unpopular. Even the IPA, in urging Abbott on, could think of no higher praise for a reformer than to emulate Whitlam's boldness while undoing his actual legacy. Putting out a release like that is an act of misjudgment that colours all other judgments.

People fear that this government will undo Whitlam's legacy, but one thing is clear - they'll stuff that up, too.

All of history involves people deciding what aspects of our heritage are to be preserved, what set aside. Gough Whitlam knew this, he lived it in his work, and it is why he deserves to be regarded in a wide and long historical context. He deserves better than the born-in/educated-at/son-of stuff you see in the traditional media (and which they prepared years in advance, like supermarket frozen foods), or the rushed jobs from journalists who didn't even know who he was. He will get better treatment, and subsequent governments will advance the causes he promoted - but it will take time.

What sort of nation are we? What might we become? What is government for? If you look only at Abbott and recent history you might be entitled to despair. Whitlam at least enables you to start addressing those questions, whether or not you follow the path he had lighted - and which is still lit, if badly maintained.

12 October 2014

Another week in federal politics

For more than four hundred weeks this blog has read/ heard/ seen press gallery journalists try to sum up 'the week in politics', when what they really mean is the week in media.

Katharine Murphy is on the record as saying both how tired she is of the Canberra blah-blah, and how she loves to follow the herd; and that dichotomy is on show here.

Here's what happened this week in Canberra, in terms of how we are governed:
  • The Social Security Minister decided not to push the idea that unemployed people under 30 could go without benefits. There is no telling when he will revive this idea, or when the Liberal right will lament not having gone far enough down that track.
  • In the face of national security paranoia, budget cuts and a commitment to patchwork telecommunications infrastructure, three ministers announced a cloud policy.
  • The Prime Minister said at a book launch that government was obliged "to make considered, thoughtful and wise judgements about the use of force", when it is not clear that it has done so in this instance.
  • The Minister for Health announced headspace mental health centres for young people. The only one of the 15 centres in the nation's most populous city is to go to Castle Hill, a bastard of a place to get to by public or even private transport; perhaps he thought people who vote for Alex Hawke urgently need it. There are none in fast-growing northern NSW but three in the demographically-stagnant southern expanses of the state.
  • The Ministers for Employment and the Environment have declared Tasmania a gateway city [sic] to Antarctica, but otherwise basically re-announces a whole lot of same-old about Antarctic policy.
  • The Prime Minister visited a firm in western Sydney and trotted out his usual lines about cutting the carbon and mining taxes, even though neither of these was levied on Ace Gutters. How did our Very Fine Journalists In The Press Gallery respond to this? How did they call the PM and the government to account? "Prime Minister, I just wanted to get your view on Canberra being named the best city to live in the world?" - no wonder journos sneer at bloggers, only a pro can talk truth-to-power like that.
That, among other things, is what happened in Canberra this week.

Instead of being able to rely on journalists at the coalface to ask the big questions and get them answered, I had to do my own searches of government websites from here in my back room in Sydney, while supposedly professional and experienced journalists confuse pantomimes staged for their benefit with the main game.

Meanwhile, Katharine Murphy was demonstrating just how tired she is of the Canberra narrative by wallowing in it:
The attorney general, George Brandis, held a short, strange press conference in which he told assembled journalists that the retired judge conducting the government’s royal commission into various alleged nefarious conduct(s) by trade unions and officials had sought an extension of time to pursue criminality. A closer reading of the correspondence supplied by Brandis indicated the commissioner had been rather more ambiguous about this “request”, which was, according to the man making it, “neither an application to widen the terms of reference nor an application to extend the reporting date”.
Julia Gillard was written off as a liar for less than that. Given his record with bigots' rights, bookcases, and taxpayer-funded wedding jaunts, at what point do you simply write off Brandis as a credible source about anything?

At what point do you write off Murphy?
Somebody, meanwhile, forgot to tell Joe Hockey, off in Washington, that expressions of bipartisanship on Iraq must trump his more immediate problem of making the columns in the budget papers add up. Hockey either didn’t get the talking points about how good Bill was being on Iraq, or he didn’t read them. Hockey was busy, after all, embarking on the task he spent much of opposition roundly bagging Wayne Swan for doing – moving the goal posts about budget forecasts that were proving about as wobbly as jelly. Poor old Joe. Rough going at the moment, it must be said.
That's not, actually, what Hockey was doing in Washington.

What Abbott was doing by seeming to favour Shorten over Hockey was to bring his friends close and his enemies closer. It's a pity that the experienced journalists on that story weren't awake to, and couldn't explain, the actual politics of the situation.

What Hockey was doing in Washington was making sure policy disagreements between the IMF and the US Congress don't rain on his parade at the G20 in Brisbane next month. He even made a speech kinda like this:
In Sydney, we thought carefully about initiatives that lift infrastructure investment, with an emphasis on fostering more private sector involvement.
That bit where the Cross-City Tunnel meets the Eastern Distributor is a showcase for what happens when infrastructure is designed by merchant bankers rather than engineers. I bet Hockey took the fleet of limos there so delegates could be inspired about what it's like at peak hour, and take in the world-class signage.
Some months later in Cairns, we agreed to a Global Infrastructure Initiative, which is about increasing quality infrastructure not just among the G20 membership but across the world.

The Initiative includes members' individual commitments to improve domestic investment climates, as well as collective actions to facilitate the development of infrastructure as an asset class, improve project planning and preparation, and reduce information asymmetries.

We committed to developing a database of infrastructure projects to help match potential investors with projects.
I wonder whether Melbourne's East-West Link will ever appear on that database. As Gay Alcorn points out, it was not mentioned at the last election and may become one of those Yarraside in-jokes by the one after next, but has been bustled through in the meantime with unseemly haste by the dying Napthine government. It is hard to believe that other G20 jurisdictions are not also dogged by projects where politicians have failed to take the public with them.

As a Sydneysider I want to believe in Westlink, but I just can't. Hockey and Abbott, another coupla Sydneysiders, just don't inspire confidence.

It is hard to believe that Hockey, or any other minister in this government (and many other G20 governments, it must be said) has any sort of commitment to "reduce information asymmetries". Will the Global Infrastructure Initiative database be publicly accessible?
In Brisbane next month, we hope to announce a mechanism that will help us deliver this important, multi year initiative: the Global Infrastructure Centre. This Centre can bring together in a single hub, governments, international organisations and the private sector, to facilitate a knowledge and information platform – for new infrastructure, or upgraded infrastructure, across developed and emerging economies. The Centre already has the strong support of the international business community, including the B20. In fact, the B20 estimates that establishing a global infrastructure hub could help facilitate tens of billions of dollars of annual infrastructure investment.
There are three such hubs for global engineering capabilities: London, Tokyo and Houston, which enable continuous work on big projects. It is unclear what a Global Hub would add to these centres, except as vectors for finance and regulation which are unclear at this stage (but, as the man says, hopefully thrashed out in Brisbane).

The word 'hopefully' has to be used here. A Treasurer who can't get a budget passed five months after delivery is not a bit of a duffer (Murphy's "Poor old Joe"). Bill Hayden's first and only budget was also held up by the Senate and ended up bringing down the government. Certainly, the government would not want to go to its much-vaunted double dissolution with that as its economic centrepiece. The political and policy ineptitude at this most basic task casts a shadow, if not a pall, over anything else Hockey and Abbott might say or do. Again, though, the press gallery give them the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, in chambers of substance, various things occurred. Bret Walker – an eminent lawyer who knows the odd thing about national security law, having studied the Australian regime as independent legislation monitor ...
Walker said at that hearing that the only legislation that he was formally called upon to review was the one abolishing his position. Murphy's set-up for Walker's comments was clumsy ("in chambers of substance, various things occurred" - how would she know?), and the silly final sentence in parentheses makes you wonder what trade she's talking about.
And of course, we went to war. Officially. Australian Super Hornets this week ended their period of flights without engagement, and went after an Islamic State target. Australia undertook the first sortie in what will be a long military campaign with highly uncertain domestic and international consequences.

Politics doesn’t get more substantial than that.
And more's the pity. Some media outlets in Australia and a few blogs provided the public debate that parliament couldn't bear to have. This should have caused a sentient press gallery to turn towards those who had thought about the issues involved and the best ways to address them, and away from the focus-group banalities offered by our current politicians.

Press gallery journalists complain that they can't turn away from what they are meant to cover (even if there is no debate to cover), but they jealously assert their right to apply 'context' to what is said and/or done in Parliament. Whenever people cling to two incompatible positions, it's appropriate to work to deny them both.
So what, then, of Faulkner’s point?
Faulkner is engaging in a w(h)ither Labor? debate, a debate conducted among and for members of that party. It has wider ramifications, sure, but it's an essentially partisan position that outsiders might note, but should only participate in if they share his assumptions about the ALP as the best vehicle for participating in politics.
One of the most perplexing trends in politics right now is its apparent appetite for working against its own long-term self-interest, in small things and in big things.
The same could be said for journalism, really. When it was revealed in 2008 that big banks were run by reckless fools it took many by surprise. Today, those running media operations - whether at the Deputy Political Editor level, the CEO level, and all points in between - remain convinced of their perspicacity and rectitude in the face of all evidence, and award one another bonuses (for executives) or prizes (for journalists) accordingly.
Faulkner didn’t term his diagnosis in this way, but his argument was essentially the cabal culture which now dominates in professional politics has reached such a nadir that major party powerbrokers don’t actually mind if they are on the Titanic as long as they have plush seats.
Faulkner doesn't give a monkey's about factionalism in the Liberal Party, and he doesn't talk up minor parties that seek to displace the majors. He's a Labor man. He thinks the ALP is more than those cabals. He thinks the people he supports are exempt from those sorts of descriptions; this isn't to say Faulkner is a hypocrite but people like Murphy should bring the nuance if their analysis is to have any value at all.
There was another poll this week ...
Great, more bloody Family Feud journalism.

Family Feud was a lame gameshow that has been revived by Channel Ten, further proof that Australia's media sector is run by dulled-witted people with no idea how to engage with people. It does surveys about particular topics and teams get rewarded for how closely their answers match the conventional responses. Katharine Murphy is an absolute sucker for Family Feud journalism, and mocks politicians who stray too far from "Survey says ...". Mark Textor is normally the Grant Denyer of Family Feud journalism, but in this case any survey will get them going. Survey says:
A poll of 1,200 voters now apparently rates the federal government behind state and local governments on trust. The prime minister ... made light of this rather grim milestone on Friday. “I think the surveys are lagging indicators if I may say so,” he said.
Again, the contrast with Gillard is telling: no 'loser' narrative, ..."and it's more bad news for the government, how long can this leadership go on?", etc.
Abbott’s broad diagnosis was firmly in the “ever thus” camp.
No, whether it's the press gallery or the public at large, Abbott's view is that he doesn't care what other people think. It was ever thus, if only journalists had been awake to that before last September.
Australians pride ourselves on our disdain for politics. Of course we tell polling companies we don’t trust politicians. “There are always going to be people who are disappointed with government because, let’s face it, we cannot do everything that everyone would like us to do immediately. We just can’t.”
We're a self-reliant people who don't depend as heavily on politicians as people in other countries seem to do. This is what makes Abbott's quote so cutting: he assumes we're all clamouring for a handout, like the lobbyists he sees every day. He has us all wrong, and yet he governs us while people like Murphy assume the show he puts on is the business of government itself.
Just get serious, full stop.
Just because press gallery journalists have been utterly discredited, it doesn't mean advice like that is complete garbage. They could use that themselves, but don't.
But if you can’t get serious, there is always another formulation to get you through the current press conference. Abbott: “We have repealed the carbon tax and the mining tax. We have more or less stopped the boats. We are working more effectively than the critics would concede to bring the budget back into balance and I think over time, if government is competent and trustworthy, the public will respond appropriately.” As is sometimes said in the classics, only time will tell.
Time has already told.

The evidence was in on the Coalition before it took office, but people like Murphy chose to give them the benefit of the doubt (and continue doing so): the gate is open and the horse has bolted, but with a weak ending like that the assumption is that the horse will bolt back in if the gate is left open. If you're left watching an empty gate with empty gestures then you are not where the action is, you have failed as a journalist and - worst of all - failed your audience. When an experienced journalist is viewing a stitch-up, surely their mind races to the real story that must surely be unfolding somewhere else - but alas, not if you're in the press gallery.

Poor old Katharine. Her journalism is no worse than others' from the press gallery, but most don't try to pretend they would or even could do better: but the proper response to someone who would have their cake and eat it is to expose their cake-management abilities. This week, and the next, will be like every other really. Just because press conferences are all about you it doesn't mean it's all that we need, and that it's all the government is up to.

09 October 2014

Mark Kenny still believes

Once again, we have a journalist who admits to have been played for a fool by the spinners of the Abbott government. Once again, this journalist is implying this is a recent development, when he has been played for years.

Today's bunny is Mark Kenny.

Trade unions were long believed by Liberals to be a declining force in Australian society, and that any attempt to hasten their decline might rouse them from their sickbeds. This is the lesson they learned from the union movement's extraordinarily successful Your Rights At Work campaign in 2007. Liberals who had opposed WorkChoices feared that very outcome, while those who didn't redoubled their determination to actively disempower the unions rather than tiptoe around them.

The fact that the current Opposition Leader makes much of his record as a union organiser adds to Liberal motivations to discredit trade unionism as it is practiced.

A serious policy response to trade union maladministration would be to beef up union registration requirements under Fair Work Australia, so that trade unions were regulated in a consistent way, with regular reports and audits and prosecutorial powers, similar to the way companies are regulated by ASIC and its attendant legislation.

The Heydon Royal Commission into trade union governance was always a political fit-up, designed to create daily headlines for easily-led and impressionable hacks like Mark Kenny.
Its true motivations were revealed on its inception by the Attorney General, George Brandis. Brandis' abuse of parliamentary lurks to attend social functions and build a bookcase required distraction; Kenny and the press gallery were happy to oblige him in that regard.
A cynic might say the 12 month extension of the royal commission into unions is politically convenient for the Abbott government because it will shift its report and release date to within sight of the 2016 election.
A cynic might; Kenny works in Parliament House, so I'll defer to him on what cynics do.

Ascribing base and snide motives to the Abbott government doesn't make you a cynic. It means you've been paying attention. Kenny is in the difficult position where he wants you to believe he's been paying attention (i.e., trust me I'm a journalist) but wants to avoid being labelled a 'cynic' for calling this government for what it is. Canberra can be a lonely place as it is, and this government is happy to turn off the taps to those they regard as less than fully with their program.

Mark Kenny did not get where he is by being labelled a cynic (or even being a cynic is the classical sense of questioning authority and matching/ contrasting words with deeds). He got where he is by doggedly insisting, day after day, that Julia Gillard did something wrong with Bruce Wilson's AWU money all those years ago, and that he was the scoophound who'd find it. He found nothing, and was disappointed that the Royal Commision didn't either:
Former prime minister Julia Gillard's hours in the witness box discussing her pre-parliamentary work as a union solicitor promised so much but in the end delivered dull TV. There was no smoking gun, no gotcha moment.
Nobody had any right to assume, after years of digging, that any such moment or artefact would arrive. It is the Lasseter's Reef of 21st century politics. Nobody should know this more than Mark Kenny. The man has been had, fooled, gulled, played for a mug. He has attempted to palm this off to the rest of us - but nobody seems to have been taken in but him and his silly colleagues.

It doesn't occur to Kenny (or Brandis) that moving the reporting date closer to the 2016 election only means that it will reinforce the two three big drawbacks of this government - that it is mean, petty, and vacuous - at a time when it will want to play down or negate that impression.
Leaving aside that [Brandis' explanation of his reasons for extending the Royal Commission] is hardly a muscular refutation of a serious charge - to wit, using scarce taxpayer funds to manipulate an issue and wedge one's political opponents - is it even true?
It is only now, more than a year after it has taken office, for Mark Kenny to start holding the Abbott government to account for its words/actions deficit.

Even so, he's pretty gentle: nothing like the all-pervasive savagery arising from Gillard's carbon-pricing statement, nor allowing for the standard political practice where previous positions require adjustment to new developments. As analysis goes it's pretty poor, but typical of Kenny.
Perhaps these objectives [discrediting Gillard and Shorten] will be progressed in the final report - or the interim one even.
Kenny has to be the last journalist outside NewsCorp to give this government the benefit of the doubt. Even the dullest hacks are starting to tire of the idea that it's all Labor's fault, an evasion that hasn't worked since the budget was excreted in May.
In the meantime, the process rolls on with taxpayers footing the likely $61 million bill.
That almost sounds like outrage. Could we be building up to a swingeing denunciation in the final par?

Sadly, no.
That will be money well spent, however, if it comprehensively addresses and resolves a culture of corruption and intimidation within the nation's unions ...
This is the wheedling of the chronic gambler, convinced that the next race, the next card, the next roll of the dice will be the big winner. C'mon, spinner! Time to cut your losses and go.

The biggest story of this royal commission is that Kathy Jackson, once called a "whistleblower" by Fairfax and the Liberals, could well be the biggest looter and villain of them all. Kenny forgot to mention that, despite having been very close to the Thomson saga.

His colleague Kate McClymont won a Walkley in 2012 by quoting Jackson without giving her claims due diligence. With that, and after the cadet-level error of mixing up Chris Browns, it's fair to say that McClymont is in decline and not the epitome of investigative journalism that the profession's boosters like to claim. If the NRL can strip the Melbourne Storm of two premierships retrospectively, then surely the Walkley Foundation can quietly ask McClymont to return their gong if the award is to mean anything going forward.

Like all press gallery journalists, Mark Kenny has been played for a mug by the Abbott team for half a decade. This is what's diminishing political journalism in this country. Given that Kenny lacks both the sense to realise his predicament and the backbone to get out of it, it's time to widen the scope and realise that his editors have no idea what sells, and that Kenny will go on being wrong until his employer dies under him.

04 October 2014

Covering up

Weeks ago, Tony Abbott did significant damage to his political base by going back on a promise to alter section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He did this because he needed the co-operation of the Muslim community in identifying Australian Muslims who may plot to commit atrocities in Australia, or who might join organisations like Daesh, because this is a job that requires human co-operation. Non-human intel (e.g. monitoring phone calls and internet) cannot and will not do the job.

In other words, Abbott let down his base for the sake of wider, national obligations. Any fool can develop a base and pander to it, which is why we have a Parliament that includes (but is not full of) gimlet-eyed freaks like Cory Bernardi and Lee Rhiannon; the major parties' problems with sub-factional warlords like Laurie Ferguson and Bill Heffernan are widely canvassed elsewhere festering sores symptomatic of a wider disease, curable only by strong medicine and/or amputation. To address the big issues in the big jobs, using the power that comes with those jobs, you need a wider perspective. This is the toughest thing for any political leader to do, and only the masters really succeed at it.

Last week, the media reported Abbott declaring himself to be a born-again believer in multiculturalism. They didn't say what he meant by that, they simply did no more than they have done for the past five years: they took Abbott at his word.

On Wednesday this week, Abbott's chief of staff Peta Credlin was reported (by the press gallery's most Very Fine Journalists) as supporting the idea of banning Muslim women from Parliament if they cover their faces. Abbott said that he felt 'confronted' by such garments, despite (or because of?) their similarity to nuns' garb. Credlin and Abbott should be regarded as speaking with one voice on this matter.

When the Parliamentary Presiding Officers (Bronwyn Bishop and Stephen Parry) proposed shunting well-clad women to a glass enclosure, they were acting under Abbott's leadership. This is what it means to be a leader: to set the parameters, and have your followers fill in the details. It is rubbish to assert, as the Murdoch press does, that Bishop, Credlin and Parry were on some jag of their own with their monstrously silly proposal.

Those who reported these words did not relate his more recent words to his earlier ones. They should have, and in days gone by they would have, in an effort to show us how we are governed and what it means to be governed by these people now.

Targeting Muslim women is neither much of a problem nor a solution for government.

They are not well represented within the Nationals or the Liberal Party, in state or federal parliamentary ranks, nor atop its organisation, nor anywhere really. There are few Muslim women within political parties opposed (however nominally) to this government. There are no Muslim women in positions of power elsewhere in Australia, atop corporations or unions or other organisations with real clout. I can't think of any Muslim women with significant 'soft' or cultural power, but maybe that says more about me. They rarely feature in crime statistics, whether in violent or non-violent crimes.

Of the 60 (or is it 200?) Australians who have joined Daesh, I would be fascinated to know how many are well-clad women.

There are, as Waleed Aly points out, established procedures for screening well-clad people for weapons and facial recognition.

Muslim women wearing clothes that break up the lines of their bodies are, at worst, generally inoffensive; at best they may well be nice people and fine citizens of our nation. They would only be targeted by people insecure within themselves and unable to deal with their real problems.

This, of course, is the heart of the issue. The government spends a lot of time focused on a non-problem (no well-clad Muslim woman has apparently ever attended Parliament, let alone gotten rowdy there), while failing to deal effectively with real problems (health, education, the budget and all that it contains and means).

Anti-Muslim sentiment is a dog of a political tactic. Never mind that it's nasty, it just doesn't work.

Fred Nile has only turned to it because every plank in his political platform has crumbled beneath him: community support for abortion and homosexuality is strong not despite Nile, but because of him. Danny Nalliah disgraced himself by holding a World Congress of Families that omitted Muslims.

Whenever some local council considers a planning application for a mosque or Islamic school, the whole community is sullied by the ignorance and ugliness that results. Councils who vote them down embarrass themselves by citing traffic flow or whatever. They have to disguise the fact that they are voting against the worst elements of their own community as much as the application before them.

No community boasts, nor would any benefit from boasting, mosque-free status. This is true of places where the Muslim community is not big enough to want a mosque, or any service other than those provided by government to all residents. No politician in this country holds office because of anti-Muslim sentiment; even dills like George Christensen and Jacqui Lambie were elected for reasons other than that, and when they lose the Muslim vote will be the least of their problems.

The press gallery works in Parliament House, so what the Presiding Officers decide affects them directly (are there any Muslim women in the press gallery?) in a way that it doesn't affect those of us who don't. Because it works as a herd, and a lazy one, it decided The Story was whatever was closest to hand and easiest to understand.

The latter half of this week has apparently been all about a people who are not especially powerful but who, as Aly points out, suffer insults and shunning in ways that shame us all. Various deals to get the budget through, to go to war and to restrict our freedoms, have received less coverage than the non-issue of what Muslim women wear and where they wear it our Parliament comprising people who can't identify security risks to themselves; their ability to ascertain risks and benefits to the nation as a whole, and regulate accordingly, is in doubt. The press gallery cannot begin to admit this, let alone describe it, because its judgment is equally bad.

Even proposals to send journalists to prison, similar to those incarcerating Peter Greste and his colleagues, have passed with little commentary from the press gallery. Only investigative journalists run that risk. They can't believe that good ol' Tony and George would ever do that to them, despite all the evidence and the fact that the government has led the press gallery away from the stories they should have been covering.

Because the government-supplied content was readily available, the press gallery has an excuse for not covering the real and important issues. When you don't have a clue, an excuse will do.

Even though few Muslim women visit Canberra the sting of exclusion will still be felt. Years from now they will flinch at entering a building that is as much yours or mine - as though they were second-class citizens in some way. This is a failure of leadership on Tony Abbott's part, and on the part of everyone who put and keeps him there.

Bronwyn Bishop is a nasty person. She was partisan when she chaired NSW Liberal State Council in the 1980s. As Defence Personnel Minister she covered up sexual abuse allegations. As Aged Care Minister she covered up pensioners getting kerosene baths. None of the press gallery could foresee what an awful Speaker she'd be, apparently, and none dare admit that Chris Pyne leads her by the nose. Her proposal to relegate people to different sections of the public gallery is both appalling and typical.

Lacking any real record of achievement, or a reputation for loving kindness, Bishop stands on her dignity. Her dignity has been sorely bruised lately, what with all those pictures of Pyne in her ear like a boy scout guiding some rickety pensioner across the street. Abbott now has to placate Bishop; a task at once huge and petty. She is not just another one of his ministers, who can simply be told to suck it up. She has statutory powers independent of Abbott, unlike ministers who can be overridden at will.

Howard was careful to balance the seeming independence of the Speaker while filling the role with those who would basically toe the line. Fraser appointed the man he rolled as leader, Billy Snedden, who also stood on his dignity and did not hesitate to put the Prime Minister in his place. If Abbott mishandles Bishop, as he probably will, watch her become more rebarbative and even-handed; watch the government lose some battles on the floor of the House.

Bronwyn Bishop has known Tony Abbott for decades, longer than any journalist; she probably thought that good ol' Tony would never drop her in it like this.

One day a Muslim woman will be elected to Parliament by thousands of voters. The Presiding Officers of the day will have to accommodate her rather than play silly-buggers as they are now. MPs cannot cover their faces as they vote in Parliament. This dates from an 18th century practice, where British MPs sent their butlers or coachmen cloaked-up into the voting lobbies while they enjoyed London. The fact that those butlers or coachmen would have made better MPs than many of their masters led to expansion of the voting franchise, and gave political staffers ideas above their station.

What this whole episode shows is that Muslim women don't appear to have the rights that other Australians have. There's a basic social compact which says that if you obey the laws, the government will leave you alone no matter what race or religion or gender you are. With the Prime Minister 'confronted' by Muslim women one day and placating them the next, nobody can be sure that they won't have some or all of their rights stripped away whenever the Prime Minister feels like it. These people are playthings of Liberal strategists (the kinds of 'strategists' whose busywork is utterly disconnected from the movement of actual votes in real elections), a situation that cannot endure.

The intervention of Senator Fierravanti-Wells into this debate is designed to make the government look reasonable. All it shows is that the "punishers and straighteners" aspect of conservatism is not its only basis, and that you can't tell whether to expect control-freakery or live-and-let-live from this government. It emphasises the mean and tricky nature of the current Prime Minister rather than deflecting from it.

Credit is due to the Labor Opposition and their principled stand against both the Presiding Officers and the Abbott government. The press gallery failed to give them that credit, and in so doing have failed us all.

Muslim women deserve the benefit of the doubt. The Abbott government, the Presiding Officers, and the press gallery, do not.