24 November 2014

Leadership as distraction

I don't care how many prima donnas there are so long as I am prima donna assoluta.

- Gough Whitlam (1916-2014)
The press gallery bristles at any idea that it is biased for or against either Labor or the Coalition. The bristling becomes positively furious when you back it up with solid examples. Journalists lash out at social media with the same accusations others level at them: lazy, formulaic, ill-informed, stupid, biased etc.

This coming week, you will see the proof of their sheer utter lack of bias. This week, no matter what the government announces - in defence, health, sport, you name it - press gallery journalists will try and frame it through leadership manoeuvring. There will be talk of 'the Bishop camp' here or 'an unnamed Abbott supporter' there. Talk of Bishop looking fresh and energetic will be contrasted against the current Prime Minister being described as 'beleaguered'.
This is not to suggest that a leadership change is afoot.
Oh, poppycock Peter Hartcher, and what would you know anyway?
  • Hartcher, like the rest of the press gallery, failed to pick the transition from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard in 2010.
  • Every week for the following three years, Hartcher predicted that Rudd would return to lead the ALP. The fact that he was proven right eventually should be balanced against the idea that a stopped clock shows the right time once every twelve hours, or thousands of times in a three-year period.
  • To be fair to Hartcher, he correctly identified the second change to Labor's leadership in 2013. This was because Rudd vacated the leadership by means beyond an EXCLUSIVE interview with Peter Hartcher, and the ALP openly publicised the fact that Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese were running for the leadership over an extended period.
Imagine the shrieking from the press gallery if Malcolm Turnbull had changed the way he dressed and lined up slavering puff-pieces like Bishop has. Contrast Bishop's free pass with the savaging Joe Hockey received over Madonna King's biography.
Bishop emphatically resists any suggestion she wants the leadership, or even the treasurership.
She would say that, wouldn't she. Full support for Abbott too, no doubt.
She's found her meter [sic], and she's loving it, she says.
Word to Fairfax subs: you left a key letter out of 'metier', and if the word is new to you look it up; assume that every word Hartcher writes contains 'I'.

If you look at Bishop's Twitter feed it is the Twitter feed you see from inoffensive but ubiquitous celebrities, put on for show, but without the gnawing insecurity that comes from someone who puts their heart and soul on the line each day: this is someone secure in the fact that they are never going to be seriously questioned. Prime example:

One wonders by what means the tweet was sent if the iPhone had actually been wrested away from her, if the Foreign Minister does not have some secret stash of device(s) to tweet beyond the control of advisors. This and other recent tweets are both playful and nerdy, like Kevin Rudd's were. She's all about the work - but she doesn't worry too much about looking cool, oh good heavens no.

Solid doses of hoke and disingenuousness form the basis for Bishop's affinity with Rudd. It is hard to see what other basis there is in this for such a comparison:
  • Rudd is not some sort of titan in foreign affairs, like Metternich or Kissinger or even Percy Spender;
  • In a policy area that is fairly intangible, Rudd has few achievements in foreign policy and many other areas of government, owing to a dithery and chaotic administrative style that careened across other areas of policy. Bourke saw that at close quarters but chose not to mention it;
  • No mention is made of any foreign-policy basis on which Rudd or Bishop (or Plibersek, or anyone else) might be judged in the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs;
  • Rudd's friendship with Bishop is significant in the context of the last government - Kerry-Anne Walsh calls it out in her book The Stalking of Julia Gillard, but Bourke lets it slide;
  • The Labor government of 2007-13 had three Foreign Ministers: Stephen Smith, Kevin Rudd, and Bob Carr. None of those men are in Parliament now. Nobody in the Labor caucus has a strong foreign policy record. This means Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, whether Plibersek or anyone else, must necessarily be a foreign affairs neophyte. This doesn't occur to Bourke either; so
  • It isn't clear what Bishop and Bourke mean when they say Plibersek is no Kevin Rudd; other than in the simple sense that neither of them are Kevin Rudd, I'm definitely not Kevin Rudd and you almost certainly aren't either, dear reader.
An article that obscures understanding rather than facilitating it has failed as journalism. An article on how we are and might be governed that obscures understanding is undemocratic. Journalism is valuable when it seeks to go beyond set-piece events and manipulative one-on-ones, whereas someone like Bourke (and before her, Annabel Crabb) reckon the tinsel and bluster is not a distraction but the essence of government itself.
But Ms Bishop hit back at Ms Plibersek and said her opponent was only interested in playing politics with foreign policy rather than taking a bipartisan approach where appropriate.

"She doesn't seek briefings from me whereas I actually sought them from the foreign minister, both Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr," she said.

"I have invited her to a couple of briefings to hear from me and I've also suggested other briefings, security and intelligence briefings and the like," she said.

A spokesman for Ms Plibersek said she is "regularly briefed by the heads of our intelligence and security agencies directly".

It is understood Labor requests most briefings through the Prime Minister's office not the Foreign Minister's.
Think about that: why would the opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs subject herself to lectures from her political opponent? What exactly did Bishop get out of cosy chats briefings from Rudd and Carr? Rudd didn't seek much from Alexander Downer, and didn't need to. Plibersek would be derelict in not going to agency heads, observing all the protocols etc., rather than accepting morsels doled out by Bishop.

Usually, Latika Bourke is the leading example of a journalist who is fully replaceable with an algorithm:

Tony Abbott said today "[insert]*Coalition_press_release*[/insert]".
She really thinks her job begins and ends at press conferences, never doubting the utility of merely quoting a government that says one thing one day and something contradictory the next. Failure to replace her with an algorithm looks increasingly like negligence on the part of those who employ her. She is not an honest trier having a go, but the world's most expensive microphone stand.

This is typical of Bourke, and it's utter shit:
[Bishop] chats the entire jog and doesn't puff once while updating me about her week's three priorities – foreign fighters, UN peacekeeping and Ebola.
She's not chatting with you for the sake of chatting, she's a public figure communicating through a journalist to the public. The minister's priorities on policy, the three dot points, would be the story for a more capable journalist. Instead, Bourke goes the handbag story, the female equivalent of blokes talking sport as a way of bonding, and a desperate attempt to equate star power with foreign policy gravitas: some random barflies, and a Hollywood reporter who makes Bourke look like Bob Woodward.

Then again, it's a neat trick to brief a journalist under circumstances when she can't function as a microphone stand. That article shows Bishop playing Bourke like a trout. Quite why Fairfax needs to smooth the Liberals' leadership transition in this way, and diminish an expensive employee in the process, is unclear. When you buy the mastheads in which Bourke is printed, you encourage her and her employers in this drivel.

The structural weakness of conservatism is that they can't distinguish between an emerging trend and a passing fad. A party that thinks it is boxing clever on climate change will totally underestimate the growing impact of asbestos, and will overestimate its ability to spin Bishop's defence of Wittenoom against its victims.

Bishop demonstrated the sort of coldness that Liberals tried to foist onto Gillard with her empty fruitbowl and "deliberately barren"; they overestimate their ability to spin Bishop away from that stuff, too. Bishop will drop a clanger that reveals her lack of understanding about raising children and it will come to define her.

As a senior lawyer in Perth, Bishop learned how to schmooze: whom to suck up to, whom to elbow aside, dealing with larger-than-life characters such as Noel Crichton-Browne. She became Minister for Ageing in 2003, injecting a professional approach to the aged care sector missing under her two provider-focused predecessors, Bronwyn Bishop and Kevin Andrews. When Brendan Nelson left the Education portfolio for Defence in 2006 she replaced him, achieving little until losing office the following year.

She became Deputy Leader because she wasn't threatening. The Liberals had an unfortunate habit of putting the leader's most potent threat as deputy, who would use the office to undermine the leader. Costello wasn't strong enough to knock Howard off and win the victory Howard couldn't, but could not play loyal deputy indefinitely. Bishop had no ideas above her station and no clue how to protect the leaders under which she served.

Soon after she became Deputy Leader, Perth-based variety-show host Peter van Onselen asked Bishop to write a book chapter on Liberal philosophy. She got a staffer to write it. Why van Onselen sought her to do a task that was manifestly outside her capabilities is unclear. Van Onselen still keens for Bishop to become Prime Minister, which shows you her ability to put one over people like him and Latika Bourke.

The nearest thing the Coalition got to a coherent policy position when in opposition was the "new Colombo Plan", a hazy but promising scheme where students from Australia would work and study in Asian countries, and vice versa. It is hard to find any particular passion for such a policy in her output before 2007. It isn't as though she's imposing her will on government now to make it happen, like Keating did under the Hawke government.

Her mismanagement of this country's relationship with Indonesia is appalling. An irrelevance like Francois Hollande received better treatment than the newly elected Joko Widodo. Yet again, the distorted prism of refugee policy defines what should be a broad-ranging and increasingly deep relationship. There is no sign Labor are doing much better but it is doubtful they could be worse.

Her mismanagement of this country's relationship with the United States is weird. Truckling to Murdoch is one thing, but Bishop and others in the national and Queensland governments are pathetic. No Australian politician is regarded so highly as Obama is here, and one who declares - as though expecting to be taken seriously - that the Great Barrier Reef is fine only opens up the kind of dissonance that cracks open promising careers in politics.

This piece fails to account for the Coalition's close relationship with the US Democrat administrations of Kennedy and Johnson (and Nixon's dastardly treatment of Gorton and McMahon), but otherwise its point is well made - and it's on Bishop's head. She wouldn't improve much as leader, either.

There are 226 members of federal parliament: name one who could write a more thoughtful and well written critique of trade and foreign policy - including Julie Bishop (and her staff) - than this.

The qualities Bishop offers the Liberal leadership are essentially those Abbott had: physical stamina and a capacity to talk obvious, provable nonsense with a straight face. She brings little to fill the void Tim Dunlop describes; again, like Rudd in that regard. Bishop would be less overbearing and abrasive than Abbott - but really, so what?

The whole idea of leadership is to show us the way forward, to engage with the issues of the day and to have us engage too, to show what our future might look like if only we would trust in something bigger than ourselves.

Journalists describe the major issues of our time but they can't engage with them, because the people they cover don't engage with them. They have no ability to engage with big issues either, which is why their coverage is miniaturised and personalised (e.g. the ill person who can't get hospital treatment, the ADF personnel who are abused but not the culture of abuse, the farmer facing drought yet again) but not rendered powerful enough to compel resolution.

The press gallery brought Senator Lambie under what they thought was intense scrutiny. You'd think such scrutiny would have picked up her role in reversing financial planning regulation - but sadly, no. We're all supposed to gnash our teeth and wail when journalists get sacked, but hey.

People like Latika Bourke and Peter van Onselen regard leadership not as engagement with, but distractions from, the issues of the day - gaffes, handbags, Labor-blaming, pic-facs. Julie Bishop can do that stuff standing on her head. That's why a silly press gallery brings out silly politics, and vice versa, and the cycle can only be broken one way. We will always need politicians but we will not always need a press gallery.

Politicians will go around the press gallery to establish a relationship with the public when they are elected with a connection that does not depend on the press gallery. The utter absence of value in and from the press gallery will then be exposed. We can get distraction from anywhere these days; neither oligopoly politics nor oligopoly media are that appealing. Engagement with the challenges of our time is the thing, and again oligopoly politics and oligopoly media aren't cutting it there, either.


  1. "The structural weakness of conservatism is that they can't distinguish between an emerging trend. "

    Seems to be missing a comparison here?

  2. I suspected you had gone a little too early in predicting pro-Bishop language in coming weeks, but Latika Bourke's journalism certainly has an agenda about it. Her latest effort, published on Monday, is close to grovelling in its lack of scrutiny or analysis.


    " "It's just like Sleepless" she exclaimed excitedly taking a quick photo snap of the illuminated Empire State Building with her iPhone 6. "

    That sort of crap might pass muster in a Sunday magazine profile of a young, attractively quirky folk singer with an unexpected hit song; it's not really the stuff of a senior political correspondent. Especially after Bishop deliberately issued a diplomatic rebuke to Washington. Like the Immigration portfolio, Foreign Affairs strikes me as the easiest area in which to appear "strong" whilst not actually doing much at all except being contrarian.

    Nevertheless, Andrew, something seems to be up with the electorate right now and I'd be interested to see if you agree. A significant number of Victorians are likely to change their vote and throw out a first-term government. That's unusual, so why? Because they didn't keep their promises. The seats along the Frankston train line, and the residents of the Doncaster region probably made up their minds about this a long time ago. It doesn't matter that the Herald Sun publishes a front page of Daniel Andrews with the headline, "Don't trust him". The more the Murdoch press campaigns, the more they entrench the perception that they cannot be trusted in any criticism, no matter how valid.

    The big challenge for government is implicit in many of your posts - there's not only a disconnection between politicians and voters, but also a growing disconnection between the media and voters. That can be a good thing; I suspect the electorate is more volatile and judgmental than ever before, but we only get to glimpse that on election day.

    - Joe Fitzpatrick

    1. I agree, Joe. Even dictatorships need some sort of connection with the people, and the link between media and democracy isn't as strong as some journalists might claim.

  3. Thanks Andrew, having given up on the MSM I hadn't heard their grooming Bishop. Who would vote for someone that dragged out the court cases of asbestos victims deliberately, waiting for the claimant to die? You could brush that off as a lawyer doing their job for the their client, but that defence didn't hold for SS officers after WW2.

    As a slide note, have a read the latest Quarterly essay? Do you take a similar view that under all the showmanship and horse trading he has a coherent agenda other then revenge? The idea that he is the opposition to the current government more so then the Greens or Labor is something that got me to pause then quietly nod. Poor Bill strikes me as a man promoted out of his depths and the Greens seem too busy flailing around.

    1. I'm still reading the QE on Aboriginal recognition. Abbott has never had a coherent agenda and only press gallery mugs believed otherwise.

  4. Thanks Andrew for your amusing/disheartening take on the next bout of the Great Leadership Game.

    Here we go again it seems.

    The role of Jooliar will be filled by Twister Abbott and joy oh rapture the role of Ambitious Foregn Minister will again be played by Kevin Rudd. Andrew you are correct. JB-High-In-The-Sky appears to be channelling her great mate Kevin 07. That tweet says it all. Deliberate geekiness will win hearts.

    I do not think I have the stomach for another round of this silly game of endless leadership speculation. The real story, that Australian politics is in crisis hisses away in the background but is ignored for the most part by the MSM.

    Maybe acknowledging that crisis would mean a bit of self-examination. Too confronting?

  5. I asked the puffy Latika when Abbott won if he had found a policy yet and while we are still looking around for one she comes up with more puffy stuff.

  6. What is it about the journosphere, and the press gallery in particular, that avoids calling a spade a spade, Andrew? Preston writes well about trade and foreign policy, you are right. But it can't be especially difficult to make those observations, can it? His writing about the Oz and its editorial is really about the Government and its agenda (same same). But he doesn't fall into the trap of reporting "US government sources reacted to the allegations of Obama insulting the Australian Government, saying the President had a right to express is personal views, and anyway, countries like Australia don't really figure in US foreign policy.'

    The idea of Obama 'insulting' Australia with that speech is absurd; Latika Bourke needs to realise a few of the absurdities she reports, instead of trying to give credence to the bat-crazy ideas from the likes of the Oz.

    1. But she can't, she never could. It's why she's the world's most expensive microphone stand. Journalists hate palaver and go hunting for the substance behind it; Bourke and most of the press gallery go for the palaver because they think that is the substance.

  7. It was funny to see K Murphy try to dismiss you as a proforma takedown polemicist a few days back, but not nearly as funny as your razor sharp description of Latika Bourke in this piece.
    Every post on your blog offers something uniquely useful - thanks so much for your efforts Andrew.

  8. Latika Bourke " is not an honest trier having a go, but the world's most expensive microphone stand."

    As it happens, I'm a sound engineer. I wouldn't trust even my cheapest mic to something so unsuited to the job.

  9. Thanks for the Michael Cooney link, Andrew.

    I had quite forgotten that Abbott had used an earlier out-of-the-ordinaire occasion to behave like an aspiring Mayor of Kalamazoo to complain about potholes.

    The Cooney piece reminded me that as Opposition Leader Abbott used an Obama visit to lash out at the Gillard government's handling of certain matters and that he had been roundly criticised for his parochialism.

    As we know, in Brisbane he was dragged down once again my his small town mayoral chains when he whined to world leaders about his legislative difficulties.

    He will not change. What we have seen to date is what we will get in trailer loads in the foreseeable future. Unlike most of us he does not care if he is disliked. He needs to be in a permanent state of conflict.

    1. I bet world leaders are being briefed on the demise of the co-payment as we speak.

  10. I find it useful to have a bucket handy when reading Fairfax these days. So Julie doesn't think Tanya's up to the job?

    POW!! Take that Plibersek you got served by Latika.

  11. Another great article, thanks Andrew. While on the subject of Fairfax could you provide your hyperlinks as canberra times urls rather than as smh ones. At this stage the canberra times still provides unmetered access unlike the smh.