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.


  1. On what basis do people credit the government as having an ability to deliver infrastructure? Even the most ardent Howard enthusiast would be hard pressed to identify anything beyond the (ambiguous at best) benefits of Darwin/ Adelaide rail. Where did Pyne and Brandis et al pick up these skills in the interim? You also have to wonder whether a government serious about infrastructure would ditch the head of its primary funding agency on the grounds of tribalism. A genuinely insightful journo might also ask the prime minister why building roads is more important than seaboard hardening/ water supply/ energy security. There are different answers to this question but I've never heard Abbott articulate them.

    Your pal, Fearsum Engine

  2. That speech of Hockey's could have been scripted by the Utopia team.

    Rob Sitch and his crew have done a much better job of raising public awareness of the cynical politics behind big infrastructure projects and the showmanship in promoting them, than journalists who just regurgitate the glossy brochures.

    What's more they make you laugh as well. I just grind my teeth at the lame quips and airy observations tossed out by some female journalists. Froth and bubble. No toil and trouble. None at all. Nuffink.

    1. Anon, could you please refrain from blaming poor journalism on peoples' gender. Andrew has provided ample examples in this year's posts of failure by both.

    2. Helen, refrain from what?
      In my opinion a number of female journalists have adopted an irritating jolly-japes-and-jolly-hockey sticks-oh-what-larks style of political journalism.
      To balance the ledger Laura Tingle provides the best and consistently good political coverage in Canberra.

  3. A weekly whats happening in politics by A Elder wouldnt go a miss. I enjoyed that rundown and your view of the actual politics / behind the scenes reasons of announcements and pantomime.

  4. If your narrative is 'Tony is being Tony', the you can only giggle indulgently and sometimes sigh.

    When Abbott patronized Shorten the other day, commending him for his patriotism, he was able to whack Hockey and stir up division in the ALP. Sure enough Albanese bursts out today with concerns about the new security laws.

    Abbott is very cunning.

    1. i do not think for min albo made those comments because tony did we members have sent so many email s from my discussions with locals seem most agree are very upset the member choice was not followed though after the vote
      some in the union movement may not agree for obvious reasons
      many say they have written
      to albo re the 2 isms we are over it and want passion and albo to be blunt. , so may be he is read our emails and tweets well i know he is as replies and follows me on twitter and decided he had enogh also gosh i hope so ?
      i have told him and my mp in no uncertain tone i will NOT be renewing my membership if shoten stays the asio laws was the last straw for me nof one amendment and the greens indicated in tweet the whole alp missing no debate was out raged
      as of now i do not attend alp meetings my volunteering goes back to duncan kerr days thats a lot of how to vote card and letter boxes, i also told them and albo and my mp have stopped my donation lol it was only 10$ month but how else could i protest and 2 ism bill
      so no i dont agree he said this because tony called bill a patriot but i do think tony gave bill another million votes, lol
      think may be albo agrees with heaps of member but one thing i would like to know did all the mp sit down and hear what the laws would do did they have expert advice ? will never know i suppose

    2. Now it is my turn to say that I hope you are right, mkw. But I fear not. I have made too many beseeches to ALP MPs over the years to no avail. And I would have been one of many.

      I do agree that Albanese and others in the party are probably appalled by the security laws and kept mum until A came forth with his concerns yesterday.

      I think Abbott stuck a stick in an ants' nest when he hailed Bill knowing it would cause some ALP people to gag. I also think Albanese and probably others in coming days, have been emboldened by News Ltd's concerns as expressed in a recent editorial in the Oz, Greg Sheridan and Laurie Oakes. I don't 'take' any papers these days so there may have been other commentators from that stable writing of their disquiet.

    3. VoterBentleigh13/10/14 9:16 am

      The opponents of the Abbott Coalition are again attacking one another instead of staying focussed upon who is the main opponent. At least Winston Churchill and Stalin realized that the Nazis were the immediate threat to both of them. If the ALP does not stay focussed upon the budget, which is where they will win votes amongst those who might otherwise vote for Abbott at the next election, then Tony Abbott will get a second term. Mr Shorten is right to concentrate on the long-term and not quibble over the security issues which the Abbott Coalition would use to destroy the ALP. On the two specific issues on which the Greens and some ALP have criticised Mr Shorten:

      1. Given the way the media acted as the propaganda arm of Tony Abbott and actively assisted in the destruction of the Gillard government, why should the ALP do anything for the media? Most of the journalists wanted Abbott; now they can pay for him.

      2. The military involvement in Iraq: there is a tenuous, fledgling democracy in Iraq, which many Iraqis and others have died to create. Is it morally justifiable for Australia to now stand by and let it be destroyed by ISIS, which is murderous, totalitarian and demagogic in nature?

      What amazes me is that everyone else - Shorten, the ALP, Brandis, Abetz, Dutton, Turnbull and Hockey all get criticized by the media, but Tony Abbott is rarely the focus of criticism - and now the left criticize Shorten rather than Abbott. Mr Abbott appears untouchable, yet he is the present and clear danger to the economy, social cohesion and the environment.

    4. And in the same breath - Mark Kenny's piece in The Age that Shorten's the man for the job (of opposition leader).

    5. Voter Bentleigh - I think the ALP did not need to be so supportive of the war and the new security laws with more to come.

      I think Shorten should have made it clear that the nihilists causing mayhem in Iraq and Syria came from the vacuum created when Bush and Blair and wait-for-me Howard waged war on Iraq. The ALP did not support that war so he had a context in which to frame the Oppositions's support for war. He should have made it clear that the ALP had been forced to that position. Regret rather than Rah-Rah.

      Also I think the support for the security laws is completely ill-judged and dispiriting for many of us. At the very least, the very least, the ALP should have insisted on a sunset clause.

      I am sick to death of politics being discussed as tactics. What about the country?. Arguments are there to be made if one has the wit, fortitude and stamina.

  5. I first lamented this woeful press gallery way back in 2002 over a pizza dinner with Margo Kingston, a weekend in Adelaide that led to the very fine book Not Happy John.

  6. Andrew
    It is not just Murphy at the Guardian the Insiders are just as sick with the attendance of Gerard Henderson on every week do the ABC pay the clowns that appear for if they do then Insiders should be scrapped because all we get is repetition of the same opinions from a press gallery that will send their employers out of business and that maybe a good thing.

  7. Did you see Hockey on insiders? How does his head not explode from holding some many conflicting opinions! No sooner had he announced something then he was saying the opposite. I counted no less then four such jumps in that one interview ( if you can called paid for view that). According to Hockey because Labour never touched all the tax loopholes for the ritch ( negative gearing, super concessions) then The libs have an exsuse not to do it either.

    You know the insides better then us the mug public, why has Barry so whole heartedly capitulated and let the libs ride through so smoothly? It seems to me since they axed Rudd he's made it his personal goal to make sure Labour never gets up again.

    Speaking of bias, has anyone else noticed how The coalition dominated political coverage before they where elected and now poor Bill is lucky to get a one minute sound bite? Yup, that's our ABC...

  8. Hillbilly Skeleton13/10/14 1:55 pm

    Andrew, I wish you would provide your political perspicacity to an episode of Insiders. Such as the ones where Gerard Henderson is on, again, as the Coalition government's enforcer and mouthpiece and Barrie Cassidy and the rest of the couch sitting, fence-sitting CPG 'journalists' let him run the show and portray to us the viewers the epitome of obsequious sycophants worried about losing their jobs if they upset him. Cheers!

  9. I haven't seen last weeks insiders, but the week before was a disgusting war propaganda hour on how there is full support from both sides (like we only have 2 options), and full steam war ahead for - months, not weeks... wait decades, not years..
    Henderson also laughably attacked Mike Seccombe with some vague allegations of being a... well I'm not even sure what. Something derogatory involving greens, the left or actually giving a shit.

  10. Keep poor old Gerard on Insiders it provides for a laugh. The reportage has certainly changed. The ABC would lead a report about a government announcement with "the coalition/Mr Abbott today criticised...". Not seeing much of this style today

  11. My two favourite media moments this week:

    Mark Kenny stating that Gillard hadn't been part of the Cabinet before becoming PM.

    Latika Bourke having a spat with someone on Twitter and telling them to 'go away unless you have something serious to say'. This from the cut and past queen herself.

  12. Anon...

    Latika has a instagram account that qualifies her to be a narcissistic media queen for gen y

    She's abrasive and rude with many people

    A princess journalist too precious for her own ego

  13. I thought David Leyonhelm was well worth reading on the anti-terrorism laws.

    What a somnambulant lot we are.


  14. So, Andrew, which journalist DOES uphold the standard?

    Let me guess, is it you?

    1. No, I'm not a journalist.

      Laura Tingle is pretty reliable. Bernard Keane and Lenore Taylor often get it right. If I can think of any others I'll let you know.

  15. "Andrew, I wish you would provide your political perspicacity to an episode of Insiders."

    Why? Precisely, why? To point out what?

    1. Oh don't go saying that on here. He's NOT the HORSE RACE GUY, remember? He writes REALLY LONG articles that SAY THE EXACT SAME THING HE SAID THE LAST TIME.

      About how people don't say the things they should ... and with one vague reference to the last Federal Election, he doesn't either.

      And he's right. He was right three years ago. His problem is with not doing anything more and realising it.

      Joe Fitzpatrick

  16. I have a better spat

    New Matilda with Sharri Markson from The Australian