27 December 2015

Dropping the penny

When Michael Gordon describes his Manus Island nightmare it is in one sense a nightmare for all of us, given that our laws and taxes create the position Gordon is describing. In another, Gordon is forced to confront - however unwittingly - a professional failure on his part, and of pretty much all Australian journalists who report on Australian politics.

Since 1992, Australian government policies on detention of asylum-seekers has been increasingly cruel and wasteful. Since then the Prime Ministership has changed six times and the political party in government has changed three times; the policy has continued, becoming crueller and more expensive. The idea that such policies have a deterrent effect is palpably false, believed by nobody except politicians and journalists.

Journalists cannot tell whether a policy is good or bad. They can tell who has announced it. They can tell whether or not both Labor and the Coalition support it. They cannot evaluate competing claims about its cost or efficacy or other qualities a policy may or may not have, merely describing them as noise toward the end of their articles (they may reinforce this with a pithy quote from a minister, named or unnamed, who describes this as "whinging").
There is a view that the situation on Manus, like that on Nauru, is unsustainable, and that eventually the penny will drop that the end does not justify the means, that punishing one group of people endlessly in order to deter others is immoral and that there is another way to achieve the same policy objective ... the images that trouble me are two sides of the same coin.
That view is not new and more widely held than someone in the Canberra bubble might dare admit. To be fair to Gordon, he's had a hell of a shock and has changed his mind about a big issue where it was easy just to go along. He was wrong to be so dismissive of the view he now holds just because it lacks "savvy".

Michael Gordon has dedicated his career to avoiding the drop of that 'penny'. It is the coin with which he is paid, his very currency as one of this country's leading political journalists. He has helped devalue that coin, and can't let it drop without losing something of himself - something no PNG thug can ever take from him. The press gallery unanimously agrees Michael Gordon is one of their finest and most experienced journos. Impressionable younger hacks look up to him, and in some cases he shapes their careers.

Political journalists have - and if you read back through his work, Gordon in particular has - a bias toward 'bipartisan' policies. Bipartisan policies are reported favourably by the press gallery. Policies which don't have the support of the opposition, where the government can only pass them through the Senate with the help of the Greens or Senators from other parties, are reported less favourably than bipartisan policies - regardless of their other merits.

Journalists are more interested in how a policy will play (i.e., what politicians and journalists will think of it) rather than how it will work (i.e., long after journalists have moved on to something else, we will still be bound by regulations and spending decisions that may not even address the issue).

Almost all bad policy is bipartisan:
  • The fact that the government spends more than it raises in taxes, and that it prefers to tax individuals over corporations;
  • The ongoing war in western Asia, which has neither success criteria nor an exit strategy;
  • Australia is committed to billions of dollars of expenditure on defence equipment that doesn't meet our needs;
  • The fact that we have reduced our civil liberties in the name of safety in the face of terrorism, yet we are no safer and less free while terrorists flourish;
  • The failure of our relations with Papua New Guinea and other states in the southwest Pacific;
  • The ducks-and-drakes over federal-state relations. Press gallery journalists like Gordon are fond of quoting one of Keating's less well-considered lines about Premiers and buckets of money, without realising their responsibilities to fund services from a low tax base; and
  • There are others. So, so many others.
Almost all of those policies have, if you go back through the archives of Gordon and his ilk counterparts, received strong support for the breadth and depth of their bipartisanness. Other considerations are marginalised; bipartisanship is all.

Michael Gordon had a glimpse into the consequences of bipartisanship, and in short, he was afraid. He grizzled a bit about it in his second-last paragraph, but I suspect it will take a better journalist and a stronger person than he to admit his mistakes and change the basic assumptions of his professional life. He could well end up like Katharine Murphy: someone with random flashes of insight into the sheer extent of journalistic failure in Australian politics, but who can't recognise it as such and won't ever do a damn thing about it.

Forty years after the events of 11 November 1975, and after the three main protagonists have died, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston have concluded Kerr wasn't a very good choice for Governor-General. The reports at the time Kerr was appointed, however, led to the opposite conclusion and can be summarised as follows:
  • The son of a Balmain boilermaker, Kerr won pretty much every academic prize at the University of Sydney Law School;
  • Glittering career in the law, culminating in becoming Chief Justice of NSW; and
  • Whoa hey, so impressive
There was, of course, the undertow which journos would have known at the time: the vainglory, the alcohol, the pushy missus, his collegiate approach to the law (and thus his inability in a role requiring sole discretion, where counsel with legal peers like Barwick, Mason, or Ellicott was inappropriate), etc. In keeping with the mores of the time all that stuff was hushed up. There was no way journalists or editors could link what they saw as scuttlebutt with the way Kerr would execute his responsibilities in office. Kerr might have sued, and - worse! - the press gallery might have missed out on garden parties at Yarralumla.

Kelly won't be changing the way Murdoch journalists cover politics. Gordon won't institute much change at Fairfax either. I don't know why either of them bother.

Hunter S. Thompson used the death of Richard Nixon to underline the essential failure of press gallery journalism - not just in the US:
Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
Plenty of Australian politicians have similarly slithered into office, looking good on paper (remember how Tony Abbott was a Rhodes Scholar, of Jesuit education and social justice principles?). Paul Kelly and Michael Gordon and every other press gallery numbskull lauded all those unsuitable people into positions of power, and lauded one another at how savvy they were, without daring to show us what the consequences are of bad leadership (beyond, say, a blistering phone call from Peter Credlin).

Pure gonzo isn't the answer to what afflicts press gallery journalism. Thompson's holy fool routine requires the reader to indulge the journalist even more than the assumptions under which the current press gallery operates. Gordon's mistake with his revelation above is that he can go back to covering politics in the same way he has always covered it.

When the people are badly informed, it is the media's fault - especially when they coalesce around one side of a story. That's when you blame the media. They're not to blame for everything in our political system - but going after the press gallery for failing at their jobs isn't "shooting the messenger". We are right to insist on more and better from these people.

24 December 2015

Going in too hard

This exchange on Twitter shows how social media can apply good sense to political journalism where it would otherwise be miserably absent:

David Crowe from The Australian was, in line with his predilections and those of his employer, galumphing down the road of a shock-horror story of differences of opinion within the government until social media pulled him up. Naturally no consideration of the issue at hand, and its effect beyond Canberra, is forthcoming or even possible from such an experienced press gallery denizen. The post from Richard Cooke (not a press gallery journalist) above shows a perspective that Crowe lacks, but also reveals that Crowe is not even sure what politicians like Fierravanti-Wells are up to. What is the point of all those support services in the press gallery when people like Crowe - no blow-in, supposedly a senior operator there - disregards years of slow and patient policy in favour of cliched schlock? It was good of Fierravanti-Wells to put out her statement within Crowe's working hours.

So Fierravanti-Wells and Abbott are both conservative Libs from NSW. Crowe, like many experienced political journalists, can't draw on past events to explain what is going on now. He's probably right in assuming such audience as he has cannot even handle nuance, but a good journalist would make an effort nonetheless. Once you understand the Fierravanti-Wells/ Abbott relationship, Crowe's feebleness in lunging for the low-hanging fruit of division (and missing!) becomes apparent:
  • Fierravanti-Wells ran against Abbott for preselection in 1994.
  • When she later decided to run against Bronwyn Bishop in the adjacent electorate, under the assumption that the older woman had her go and Howard didn't like Bishop anyway, Abbott supported Bishop.
  • When Abbott became leader he made Fierravanti-Wells opposition spokesperson on seniors, while Bishop was opposition spokesperson on ageing; an inexplicable balls-up unless you see it as a means for fomenting clashes between two people whose relationship was already damaged.
  • Fierravanti-Wells is no dummy; but she didn't have the impressive pre-parliamentary career that Julie Bishop had, nor is she a serious policy wonk like Marise Payne, nor is she a factional death-star like Bronwyn Bishop, nor is she representing a marginal seat. Each of those qualities may have seen her advance beyond the uncomfortable position she appears to be in today.
  • When Abbott became Prime Minister, almost all of his opposition frontbench became ministers for the portfolios they had shadowed. Bishop became Speaker. Fierravanti-Wells was demoted.
  • Abbott and Fierravanti-Wells both used to believe that Muslims were a conservative constituency who should be courted by conservative politicians. Abbott chose to depart from that belief, and that departure led him to where he is today. Fierravanti-Wells stuck to her beliefs in light of the evidence before her.
After all that, Crowe could only run the stale and pointless SPLIT SHOCK narrative.

Over nine years of blogging I've dismantled Crowe's finest constructions numerous times, and I think I've established that he is a galoot. He stands at the dead intersection of both press gallery drones and Murdoch yes-people, the most unfortunate crossroads since Robert Johnson's in the 1930s. Unlike Johnson, Crowe is not developing any new licks; he is just assembling and reassembling political cliches from the journalistic tailings provided by his employers. I almost feel sorry for him. Perhaps it's Christmas sentimentality, or perhaps I'm just losing my touch.

On one level, I really want to believe that a) press gallery journalists work hard and b) are clever enough to get around political manipulation; but because the evidence points away from such a belief I just can't support it, and can barely even humour true believers. We need more and better information on how we are governed (and how we might be governed) than the press gallery are capable of providing: such a belief should be more widely shared, given the failure of the contrary assertions and the manifest inadequacy of the political choices proffered to us. People make dreadful decisions when they're misinformed, when at the ballot box, when making investment decisions, or at the Cabinet table.

Nobody in the press gallery, nor in the wider Australian broadcast media responsible for political news, is any closer to getting this than they were in 2006. They cannot bear their own culpability. They would prefer to blame things beyond their control (the internet, ad revenue), or even invent them ("24 hour news cycle"), rather than change their ways.

Nine years from now the thick crust at the top of the press gallery will probably still be there, and coverage of government won't be any better, and the media organisations probably won't have the good grace to shut down and stop wasting everyone's time and resources. In calling for more and better, over and over, perhaps I am repeating myself; but this is true of anyone with a cause unfulfilled that is too important to be abandoned, yet so bereft of measurable impact that it fails to attract the like-minded to put their shoulders to the wheel.

Yeah political coverage is broken, but what can you do? You won't change them. That's why I go in hard here: the failure of Australian political coverage matters, it has far-reaching consequences and the incumbents cannot be persuaded. When journalists are sacked I neither cheer nor weep but am amazed that the press gallery is spared, while proper journalists are dumped unpaid from a profession that needs the good ones more than ever.

It's so stupid that coverage of East Timor and West Papua, or the Rugby World Cup, is better than that of the federal government.

Should I take the time to show political journalists how they should be doing their jobs, per the dotpoints above, or do press gallery journalists work for billion-dollar corporations that can do their own fucking research to save their own worthless employers from further discrediting themselves? Isn't the whole point of them to provide information to those of us paying attention, but too busy to do so fulltime?

You don't have to do your own foraging to eat - so why should you have to do your own journalism to find out what's next, and what your options are? People talk about the future of journalism as though current employers of journalists have one. In an information age information providers should be making out like bandits. The fact that broadcast media aren't, that they are not only incapable of organising a booze-up at a brewery but are dying of thirst in such an environment, shows that they are stubbornly persisting at something other than providing necessary information. Rarely can you stop them lapsing back into their stock of cliches to try and describe situations that simply don't fit them.

Not being a press gallery journalist I knew Abbott would be a fuck-up as Prime Minister, and said so. Every day he held office defied political gravity. I thought he'd be such a fuck-up that he wouldn't get there in the first place, and I underestimated the extent to which Crowe and his silly mates covered for him and made such a clueless man look like he had all the answers.

Not being a press gallery journalist, I can amend a previous post where it is eclipsed by better information.

All the very best to you over Christmas and the New Year, dear reader, even if you are like Crowe and the still too many others who can only write the same stories about the same things in the same way that he does: it's called media diversity. I'm still considering doing formal in-depth study into the sheer depth and breadth of the failure of Australian political coverage 2006-2015. Summertime is good for reflections and suggestions, and as ever any suggestions on how this blog can be improved will be welcomed to the extent they are constructive.

20 December 2015

In defence of the NDIS

I think the NDIS is one of the great nation-building initiatives, and said so here in response to what I thought was an ill-considered attempt to talk it down.

I gave examples where tinkering scuppered policy outcomes, and have worked on public-sector projects where short-sighted, rapidly changing objectives increased costs and depressed outcomes (and depressed good people trying to make the bloody thing work). Yale Stephens at Red/Blue probably doesn't have that experience and was hypnotised by the figure of $24b, which admittedly is a biggie. Anyway, pop over to his blog and see what you reckon in what are apparently Contesting Assertions.

15 December 2015

Between two stools

Ian Macfarlane knew better to entrust his political career to the Nationals. As head of the Cattlemen's Union in the 1990s, he had shown a real skill at getting seemingly unreconcilable interests to come together and form some sort of agreement; a case of political skill preceding political ambition. When he began expressing an interest in going into politics, but was reluctant to join the Nationals, John Howard persuaded him to join the Liberal Party and to replace Bill Taylor as MP for Groom.

But I doubt he'd suit the office,

Soon after he was elected in 1998 he went on Lateline with then-Nationals MP DeAnne Kelly. Kelly ragged him for being less than a true Queenslander for not having joined the Nationals (I hope the ABC can dig up that episode; it must look pretty funny right now). Howard made him a minister and, like all ministers in the latter part of that government, he built his reputation on shelling public money at those who already had plenty in the name of incentives.

The press gallery regarded Macfarlane as a "straight shooter" because history shows they are suckers for that rustic schtick.

At every point in Australia's political history, in every jurisdiction, there has been at least one MP from the backblocks who turns up to Parliament with grass-seeds in his eyebrows. He is patronised unrelentingly by the urban press because this visage affirms their half-arsed stereotypes about The Bush. That politician proves a master at diverting money earned in the cities to pet projects in his electorate, and those of his growing number of vassals. As that politician rises in the ranks - rarely to the head of government, but close enough to escape scrutiny while getting his demands met - he continues to be patronised by the same media who puzzle at his success in getting things done and in securing largesse for voters in the back-of-beyond. A six-lane sealed highway from Kickatinalong to Wheelabarrowback. An irrigation channel where the water evaporates before it reaches the neighbouring electorate.

Such politicians deliver nothing whatsoever for local indigenous communities, nor for those who claim the local Bishop is too lax in enforcing rules against ... that which must not be spoken; but such absences, silences, and negatives are achievements in themselves for representatives of this type.

In recent times Macfarlane, Barnaby Joyce, Ron Boswell, and Bill Heffernan have pulled this rustic schtick over the press gallery. Labor does it to a lesser extent as they hold fewer rural seats (e.g. Dick Adams and Warren Snowdon; Joel Fitzgibbon looks stupid when he tries). Old hands who can remember Peter Nixon, Ian Sinclair or even 'Black Jack' McEwen have should be awake to it, and in theory an journalist who is fooled greatly for a long period has let down their profession as well as the public. Press gallery journalism is different to other journalism because experienced journalists show themselves over and over to be willingly gulled by pretty much anyone who tries it on.

Pantomime rustics wear press gallery scorn lightly, and relish the relative freedom from scrutiny that urban pollies don't have and can't get. Bill Heffernan can make rampantly sexist and homophobic remarks and even bring a weapon into Parliament: the press gallery just roll their eyes, that's Bill being Bill! If Mal Brough spoke and carried himself like Bob Katter or Doug Anthony, he'd have succeeded in shrugging off the Slipper-Ashby thing and made Mark Dreyfus look like a whinger. Lawrence Springborg gets another shot at state leader of the LNP over some new face (or someone urban like Langbroek) from the southeast, where the party needs to win seats to regain office.

Cut forward to late 2009

... and Malcolm Turnbull was, as the journos say, beleaguered. For all the media coverage at the time showing the frontbench deserting Turnbull en masse, the Liberal Party was evenly divided over keeping Turnbull as leader - certainly if the alternative was Abbott. By then the Nationals had realised their traditional base was no longer capable of keeping them in the manner to which they had become accustomed. There was no conflict between mining an farming interests so long as miners kept their operations well away from farmlands (e.g. the deserts and semi-deserts, and the Barrier Reef), or maintained the sorts of mine-farm balances seen in communities like the Upper Hunter or Gippsland, where rural workers even out the ups and downs of agriculture with steadier incomes from the mines. At the time they thought climate change was an issue that could simply be voted down. The Nationals were showing their donors that they could deliver, and currying favour with the rise of conservative Liberals who promised a closer Coalition than had been seen for decades.

Abbott went to Brisbane to court LNP powerbrokers. Turnbull phoned individuals, who mostly ended up voting as the powerbrokers told them to. Abbott's defeat of Turnbull in 2009 was more like Gillard's defeat of Rudd the following year than either side dares admit; more than the press gallery, who saw it all up close, could comprehend.

The formation of the LNP in Queensland was a takeover of the Coalition in that state by the Nationals, with the purpose of securing the powers of state government to benefit Nationals constituencies. They resented the fact that the federal Coalition got involved in what they saw as internal Queensland matters; they agreed to Howard's demands to maintain a separate Liberal/National presence (including maintaining individuals like Macfarlane, or Brandis) in Canberra in return for letting the merger go ahead at state level. The powerbrokers who formed the LNP, like Bruce McIver, were the successors to Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Bob Sparkes: they arrogantly pushed aside their political opponents, scorned irrelevances in far-off Canberra (and the nerds who wanted to go there) and did pretty much what they wished. In 2009, the Nats who ran the LNP could happily sacrifice one Sydneysider leading the Liberal Party for another if it meant they'd be left alone.

One of the core motivations behind Abbott's leadership of the Liberal Party was the idea that Labor's victory in 2007 was illegitimate and some sort of mistake. They thought they were entitled to take up where they left off. Ian Macfarlane was no more, and no less, entitled than anyone.

Why 2015 is different to 2009

  1. Macfarlane has, as Turnbull said in September, had a good go at being a minister. At the time Macfarlane seemed to agree - even in the face of the ignominy at being replaced by Christopher Pyne.
  2. The LNP powerbrokers have been knocked on their arses. They fooled some of the people some of the time in southeastern Queensland, but this region proved so hard to govern and chewed up so much state government time that the Nationals' traditional plunder-to-the-regions never took off. That old Bjelke-Sparkes arrogance has been knocked out of them by Labor, and by the realisation that shafting Turnbull again would take them further backwards.
  3. The LNP powerbrokers have knocked both their current leader (Warren Truss) and the likely next one (Barnaby Joyce) on their arses. If those guys can't win the LNP executive, what good are they? Their credibility is shot, and not only with Turnbull.
  4. Consider this, Nationals voters: the Infrastructure Minister and the Agriculture Minister have buggered their own credibility. This is fine if you think Infrastructure and Agriculture policies don't matter.
  5. The Treasurer, who is not out of favour with the PM, is looking to cut subsidies. The government as a whole is under no obligation to make Truss or Joyce look good. While these guys are deciding whether or not they'll retire, Infrastructure and Agriculture bureaucrats will have to start putting budget proposals together, not knowing who the relevant minister will be. Now tell me again what the point of the Nationals is, and why you think their vote will hold up.
  6. Shenhua Coal have an approved mining permit to dig up much of the Liverpool Plains and affect the watercourses on the rest of it. The Liverpool Plains includes some of Australia's best farmland, and it's within Joyce's electorate. If Shenhua pulls out of the Liverpool Plains through sustained political pressure, Joyce will be a big winner in the local electorate - if not, he won't. Joyce's bargaining position is weakened rather than strengthened after his part in The Macfarlane Affair/ Maccagate.
  7. Joyce tried to rope Scott Buchholz (from the electorate adjacent to Groom) into a Lib-Nat switch. Buchholz used to work for Joyce, but Joyce has made him look like a patsy. Like Macfarlane, Buchholz looks more like a Nat than a Lib anyway.
  8. Turnbull's representative on the LNP executive was Peter Dutton. Had Macfarlane joined the Nats and been their candidate to displace a Liberal from Cabinet, Dutton would have been the Liberal displaced. Dutton is the weakest link in Turnbull's Cabinet (with the possible exception of Scott Morrison) and was, in effect, arguing for his own job. Macfarlane would have deserved the administrative clusterfuck and moral swamp that is Immigration.

The value of press gallery experience

Michelle Grattan, Paul Bongiorno and Laurie Oakes have all recounted Macfarlane's tale in traditional horse-race terms, as though it were disconnected from the Nationals-Turnbull relationship in 2009 or the coming Budget. Michael Gordon deserves special mention for a piece that is particularly vapid even by the low standards he sets.

Katharine Murphy has developed a strong reputation for describing game-playing across politics while being coy about the press gallery and its role in political manoeuvrings. Sure, Macfarlane is throwing a tantrum - but consider the role played by Murphy and her colleagues in building Macfarlane up as a "straight shooter", someone with unmatched largesse-shovelling skills, etc. She's been a sucker for the pantomime rustic routine, and now is piling onto the poor hapless bastard ... presumably so she can write another one of her hand-wringing pieces about piling onto poor hapless bastards. Murphy writing about cynicism in politics is like Abbott beating up Islamic extremism: be the problem you denounce, rinse and repeat.

Mark Kenny, the Official Bunny of this blog, proffered two gobbets of analysis on this matter:
Macfarlane's rejection has left his career in the wilderness - with only his credibility for company.
Snappy line, that.
But whatever is done with him, it is pretty clear his party backers are too. Done with him that is ... Now Macfarlane is hinting he might look at something in the resources sector after his stint as Australia's longest-serving minerals energy and resources minister.

The cynicism of such manoeuvring apparently knows no limit. Having failed to secure personal advancement through skulduggery, the risk is he could take the corporate knowledge of national service and deploy it for private corporate gain.
You can't look at something that isn't there. Macfarlane should know that by now.

In challenging times, the mining industry needs all the friends it can get in Canberra - why would they hire someone with no credibility? Former Labor minister Martin Ferguson would probably have better standing with the current minister, Josh Frydenberg, than Macfarlane could ever muster. Do you reckon Clive Palmer would want him involved with Queensland Nickel? You see the problem here, provided you aren't as shortsighted as Mark Kenny.

Nobody in the press gallery is prepared for a post-Joyce environment.

Plenty of journos out there will tell you political journalism doesn't - can't - get any better than those people.

Update 24 December: Tony Windsor's piece on Macfarlane a superior article to the one I had written, so I disavow the above to the extent that it departs from Windsor's analysis. As you can see I placed too much reliance on gallery interpretations (e.g. Macfarlane as turncoat). My post would have been improved with more of the dreary cynicism of which I am so regularly accused.

29 November 2015

Brough enough

As we head into the end times for Mal Brough, let's consider how his career represents several things wider than him: machismo, keeping Aborigines "in their place", opportunity costs, and the price of loyalty. Oh, and of course, piss-poor standards of political journalism.

Act I: Taking the crease

Before first entering parliament for the electorate of Longman (now held by Wyatt Roy) in 1996, Brough had been an army officer. The press gallery singled him out for Big Things. When Tony Abbott was promoted to Cabinet in 2001, Brough replaced him as Minister for Employment Services.

Malcolm Farr made a telling anecdote [link broken] about Brough at a cricket match. Because Farr is an old-school journalist in the mendacious world of political reporting, he did not use that anecdote to look into what Brough did and how he did it, questioning his statements and fitness for office generally; instead, the coverage of him (by Farr and others in the press gallery) is pretty much all direct quotes and giving Brough the benefit of the doubt.

Act II: Hubris

In 2004 Brough became Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer to Peter Costello, where he was responsible for hacking into the tax base at the very time the mining boom was taking off. Part of the reason why Wayne Swan, Joe Hockey, and now Scott Morrison, have been unable to do much about the revenue side of the budget is because of Brough's hard work back then. It's notable that those tax breaks did not lead to the private sector picking up the slack in terms of infrastructure; Australian history suggests that where government fails to take the lead, no infrastructure magically appears. Interesting experiment, though.

In 2006 Brough entered Cabinet as Minister for Families and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. This might sound like he was doing squishy welfare stuff; not a bit of it. Brough came up with the idea of using a report into sexual abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, Little Children are Sacred, as a pretext to send the Army in to occupy those communities and stamp out anti-social behaviour. He ignored the report and there is no evidence it made much of a difference one way or another, but it made a big splash - this may explain why Labor kept it after 2007. Frances Jones shows how Brough encouraged the Tiwi Islands Land Council to adopt schemes that created no jobs and degraded the environment: a lose-lose situation for people who were doing it tough already.

Despite the demonstrated lack of any link between the Northern Territory Emergency Response and any sort of success metric, the press gallery remained convinced that Brough was an action man and a Liberal star on the rise. He was Hotspur to Tony Abbott's Prince Hal. Consider this table of Sheer Damn Manliness:

Relationship to the Queen
Talked a lot of talk about the Queen
Held the Queen’s commission
Occupation before entering politics
Student (well into 30s), journalist
Army officer, sales
Economic credentials under Howard govt
Peter Costello disdained his understanding of economics
Minister for Revenue, helped diminish tax base
Military deployment proposals
To Ukraine, protect plane debris
To Northern Territory, protect Aboriginal children
Military deployment proposals supported by Labor
Re-elected in 2007
Complained publicly about decline in income after having been Cabinet minister
Disdained major political development
Climate change
Merger of Liberal and National Parties in Qld
Supported Brough for LNP preselection in Fisher for 2013
Supported Brough for Abbott ministry 2013
Supported Abbott as Liberal leader February 2015
Supported Abbott as Liberal leader September 2015

Act III: Nemesis

If Mal Brough had held Longman in 2007 then he, not Tony Abbott, would have been the favoured candidate for leader when Turnbull stumbled in 2009. Brough would have negated Rudd's Queensland appeal and been a bit more presentable than the often uncouth and puerile Abbott. The press gallery would have loved that action-man crap and Labor would hardly have been in a position to criticise his failures in Indigenous policy, having perpetuated them.

But, he didn't. If ever a minister was going to come out of the Howard government and fall into a series of cushy boards and advisory roles, according to the political-class fantasy, he was it. Brough faffed around and ended up as the last Queensland State President of the Liberal Party. He was against the merger with the Queensland Nationals that formed the LNP: he lacked the clout to stop it altogether and the wit to turn it to his advantage. He looked truculent, like a lamb trying to back out of a sheep-dip at the last minute, rather than a political operator contributing to something bigger than himself. It meant he couldn't secure a seat for 2010, which may have seen him back in Cabinet in 2013; more faffing around, this time outside the LNP power structure.

George Brandis also showed his true colours at this time, putting up a token resistance before succumbing. As Attorney-General his role has been to talk about John Stuart Mill, but then assert that civil liberties must be sacrificed to Daesh and that you can exercise a right to bigotry. If your idea of political activism and progress is to offer a token resistance before succumbing, Brandis is your model for involvement in major-party politics.

By 2012 Brough had come around to the idea that politics was his only real career option, and that he had no choice to suck up to people who were once his peers and juniors. Brough was a minister when Peter Dutton was first elected; when Brough went into Cabinet Dutton had taken over his junior portfolio. Dutton had been re-elected in 2007 and was cruising to a Cabinet role without doing anything. As Peter Slipper committed political suicide by all but switching to Labor, Brough could have played the statesman and let the LNP bring Fisher to him - but instead, he got his hands dirty. That sexist menu for his fundraiser in 2012 (no I won't link to it) is a perfect example of officers' mess wit.

As with Kathy Jackson, Independent Australia were onto Brough from the outset. The press gallery resisted the allure of sleaze and illegality because Brough was part of the Restoration narrative. This is why there's no point dipping into broadcast-media summaries, and why ABC reporters look silly when they write off questioning of Brough as 'Labor mischief': the Ashby thing ain't their mischief. IA put out numerous articles and a book on the matter while the broadcast media can offer only potted half-embarrassed recaps.

Act IV: You can't step in the same river twice

When the Abbott government took office in 2013 there were a few changes to the Shadow Ministry becoming Ministers, but basically the Abbott government was all about restoring the Howard government as though nothing had happened between then and 2007. Two Howard-era Cabinet ministers elected in 2013 did not get a portfolio - Philip Ruddock and Mal Brough - and Ruddock had declared he didn't want a portfolio. Brough sucked it up and got on with backbenching, and the press gallery stopped gushing over how great it was to have the old gang back together. Brough didn't have the twinkly-eyed gravitas of veterans like Philip Ruddock or Warren Entsch, and wasn't a fresh face either.

The LNP merger Brough had so opposed was designed to make it easier for the Coalition to win State government in Queensland. Brough had foreseen that it would be a disaster, and the performance of the Newman government 2012-15 proved him right. In politics you can be a drunk, a thief, a sex maniac and/or a terror to work for, and people will cover for you; but get proven right when everyone else is wrong, and that warm inner glow won't save you. The January 2015 Queensland state election proved everything turned out to be just as bad as Mal Brough said it would be.

The first chance he got, in February 2015, he voted against his brother-from-another-mother Abbott. In September he voted against him again. The lack of press gallery coverage about Ashby (mainly protecting favoured source Christopher Pyne) must have lulled Prime Minister Turnbull into thinking Brough was cleared of the matter concerning Slipper's diary and other questionable behaviour. It was always a sad joke to put him in charge of electoral probity, and now it seems like the Prime Minister will have to find someone else.

The longer Brough stays as Special Minister of State, the less likely it is there will be an early election. A quick replacement would have been a clear sign the government was up to something. He is also Minister for Defence Materiel at a time when big procurement projects are up for grabs.

If Turnbull hadn't appointed Brough to the ministry, Brough would have joined the Abbott-Abetz sooks' club, and/or gone bonkers like Senator Macdonald.

Abbott allowed himself a chuckle as Labor finally started questioning him over Ashby-Slipper, at a time when even the press gallery would give them coverage for doing so. Abbott allowed himself a chuckle, as he does when others come under the scrutiny he has always escaped: a could-have-been Liberal leader mocked by a has-been.

The Australian Federal Police had all but dropped their investigation into the events surrounding the Speaker's diary until recently. I note, without making any allegation, that the minister responsible for the AFP is George Brandis. If this investigation damages the political careers of two of Brandis' ministerial colleagues (Brough and Pyne) while leaving his untouched, it could be a masterstroke worthy of House of Cards. If not, it could be the greatest own-goal in Australian politics since the Costigan Royal Commission.

Governments can lose a minister or two without affecting their ability to be re-elected. Turnbull knows this, as does any student of Australian politics. Predicting the demise of Brough or even Pyne will finish Turnbull is to over-egg the situation. Mind you, Mal Brough's whole political career has been empty hype on the part of the press gallery. Now that it is over, it is clear how insubstantial it was.

19 November 2015

Who do we burn?

After Paris, after Beirut and the Aeroflot Russian airline flight and ... and all the other outrages, apparently we have to burn someone.

Who, and how, are the questions to be answered. At this difficult time it would be preferable to join hands in unity; but burning nobody, no way, is no longer an option. Pretending that it is an option means that you can overlook a choice "we" seem to have made but not acknowledged.

"Us" and "them"

In all of the commentary and space-filler surrounding the news from Paris, the commentary from Professor Andrew MacLeod from King's College London stood out. He said that in any war you have to define "us" (who we are fighting with, and for) and "them" (who we're against). In the current environment, we can define these terms in one of two ways:
  • "us" is all non-Muslims, and "them" is all Muslims; or
  • "us" is moderate people of goodwill and tolerance, and "them" is extremists, whether ISIS-style Muslim fundamentalists, white supremacists, etc.
My sympathies tend to the latter interpretation, and so do pieces like this and that and millions of others that have popped up over the past few days, and which echoed good and noble sentiments from long before this weekend. Those pieces imply that by reaching out to Muslims, in Australia and elsewhere, "we" force "them" into ever-decreasing circles to the point where - well, actually the endgame isn't clear at all. It's a kind of "Tomorrow Belongs To Us" triumphalism.

I want to believe in it so much but I'm suspicious of it, and am tired of being played and let down by those without the skill and wit to manifest good ideas.

Had Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar fallen in with a bad crowd that was differently bad, and overdosed on heroin in an alley, it would have been a tragedy - but not an ignition-point for mass-hysteria. Same as if he had shot Mr Cheng while stealing his car. This is not to argue for some sort of quietism here, to pretend any attempt to tackle broad and difficult issues must be futile. It is to say that there are costs for turning "our" backs on some people but not others; the idea that we turn our backs on nobody, that we're all brothers and sisters, is not merely false. It is a lie that ultimately hurts people. It creates blind spots that make managing this situation more difficult rather than less.

I can forgive people being taken aback by a 'bolt from the blue'. Even the experts get wrongfooted from time to time. It's just boring to act all shocked at having one's face slapped by something that had been staring one in the face for ages.

In reaching out to moderate Muslims, people of goodwill and good sense, "we" leave people behind. They're the same people we've been leaving behind for years now, well before September 11 And All That. They are people with low education and fewer prospects for building and maintaining economic security for themselves. They are the people from whom Malcolm Turnbull, for all his honeyed words from Berlin and Antalya, is removing welfare payments and healthcare and school resources and penalty rates. In the absence of working-class solidarity or the British Empire or the righteous comforts of sectarianism, some define themselves against new arrivals to Australia such as Muslims. When "we" reach out to new arrivals "we" turn our backs on "them".

By turning "our" backs, "they" do not run out of options. Australians who define themselves in terms of race, of an Anglo-Saxon/ Caucasian/ Aryan identity, can tap into powerful forces within our society.

National myths like Eureka Stockade and Anzac have explicitly racialist elements. Not only is it possible to celebrate those national myths without wallowing in the racialist elements, but in fact most Australians do. These myths give those excluded in the modern reaching-out world far more purchase in Australian society than those being reached out to. Muslim Australians are free to join the armed forces and serve their country and many do so, tapping into the nationalistic legend embodied in those institutions. Increasingly it seems they will burnish their names in battle at the expense of their co-religionists, maybe even their relatives. Australians of German ancestry served in the two World Wars; John Monash was the grandson of a Prussian bookbinder. A contemporary Australian with a swastika tattooed onto a white face is trying to claim that symbol has lost the alarm and disgust that comes with it, and that other traditions and symbols seen increasingly often in Australia are more foreign, more alarming and disgusting.

It would be great if they gave up their silly white-supremacist, all-Muslims-are-terrorists ways and joined us in the reaching-out. It would also be great if the attacks in Paris were the last of their kind. It would be foolish to bet on either outcome.

Another potent legacy in Australian society that advocates for unity-against-Muslims can tap into is commercial radio and television.

Articles of faith

If you believing in defining "them" as Muslims, then you have to define what Islam is. If you believe that Muslims are generally people of goodwill, with the few exceptions you'd make for any other group, then you'd leave it to Muslims to define what Islam is.

Pauline Hanson declared that Muslims who didn't support Daesh were obliged to abandon their faith. Tony Abbott denied that Daesh drew on the precepts of Islam at all. These are deeply silly opinions, not only wrong in fact but potentially offensive for non-believers to wade into any religion's theological disputes.

Abbott uses his Catholicism as part of his public identity, and bristles when others use it to frame him in ways he doesn't like. Once again, he can't see that what's offensive when done to him may not also be offensive when done by him toward others. It's as though he, and other Christians who share his opinions on Islam, dare not trust Jesus' injunction to love your enemies (which would lead you to the second of the us/them options listed above, rather than the first).

It's also interesting that he voices his opinion while Turnbull and Bishop are abroad, exercising duties Abbott proved himself unfit and incapable to perform. There was a widely held assumption that Abbott, supposedly a thoughtful man and a Rhodes Scholar, would give up his boofhead ways when he became Prime Minister. When he left office, having disproven any benefit from all the doubt he'd been granted, people still thought he'd become thoughtful and considered despite all the evidence. There is just no helping some people.

George Brandis has revealed himself with his insistence that, whatever may happen, however effective our security services may or may not be, the answer is diminution of what civil liberties may remain wherever possible. This man holds a public position and acts against the public interest. He must be removed as soon as a better alternative becomes available.

Muslims debate matters of theology, and whether particular people are/aren't acting in accordance with it, all the time. It's understandable that commercial TV/radio might wish to ignore those debates. Having done so, however, it's more than a bit rich to insist that all Muslims must denounce the daily atrocity from those who claim to act in their name. Very few red-haired women were called upon to apologise for Hanson, or for Julia Gillard for that matter.

People still believe that commercial TV/radio is the national debate, and that you have to run the gauntlet of its quirks and abuses to get your message out there. If you can wear other aspects of your faith lightly, then this too may bear examination. It doesn't broadcast to the 'greyzone' where many of us live.

Paris again, Washington, or somewhere on your way home from work? Muzzies or bogans? How we define "us" and "them" is one of the major debates for early 21st century politics.

18 November 2015

Commercial media, Pauline Hanson, and radical Islam

In the 1990s Laurie Oakes claimed that the "national broadcaster" was not the ABC but the commercial media outlet he worked for, Channel 9. Since then, commercial television and radio have declined in Australia. Oakes wouldn't make that claim now, or he'd be ridiculed if he did. People have other options for spending their time than watching TV or listening to the radio:
  • Well-educated people spend less time on commercial TV/radio than less well-educated people.
  • Younger people spend less time on commercial TV/radio than older people, who had grown up in an era where there were fewer alternatives.
  • People from non-English-speaking backgrounds spend less time on commercial TV/radio than people from English-speaking backgrounds.
The people now running commercial TV/radio find it more rewarding to hang onto the audiences they have rather than take the risk on a broader, more representative audience that may never embrace those media so ardently as its ageing, Anglo-Celtic, politically inflexible existing audience.

If Muslim Australians were big consumers of Australian commercial TV/radio there would be more Muslim Australians appearing on commercial TV/radio, and running it. Populist presenters making ignorant and hurtful comments about them would be disciplined, and talkback callers offering such content would rarely be put to air.

New migrants tend to work hard and try to fit in, and don't need to be harangued about working hard and fitting in. Rhetoric about 'fitting in' rings hollow from people who regard being both Muslim and Australian as a contradiction in terms, or an exercise in malicious deception. The small numbers of new migrants who don't fit in, who lash out at people and property of a society they don't feel part of, confirm commercial media in their biases.

Those now running commercial TV/radio remember when larger numbers of Australians paid attention to them, back in the 1990s, and one of the personalities who got people to tune in was Pauline Hanson. The assumptions of politics at the time suggested that being disendorsed by the Liberals when they held a strong majority in the House of Representatives should have rendered her irrelevant. Instead, she got millions of dollars worth of free publicity from commercial TV/radio. Political parties have small armies of people raising money in order to buy the sort of exposure Hanson got - and gets - gratis.

In 1998 Hanson's party won a million votes. She lost election after election, she went to prison, and in some cases she paid dearly for free publicity. No longer holding public office, she shunned publicity. Eventually she accepted interview requests from those who promised her an easy time. Pauline Pantsdown's satire of her was as gentle as Billy Birmingham's affectionate, unthreatening impersonations of Richie Benaud. As Jason Wilson points out, her exclusionary immigration attitudes had become mainstream, bipartisan policy (and the broadcast media loves bipartisan policy).

Compare the trajectory of her career to other politicians from the late 1990s: Cheryl Kernot, or Peter Reith, or even David Ettridge. Note how Hanson has survived while Clive Palmer, a smarter operator with more money and votes than Hanson could ever muster, has faded. Many voters in the next federal election will have no clear memory of her as an elected official. Those who have negative memories of her may be outweighed by those who look on her more kindly.

The only interviews on Australian commercial TV/radio with Hanson in recent years have been puff-pieces. Many of her opinions echo lines run by talkback radio, and they have her on to run those lines and reinforce them to a receptive audience. She stayed in the limelight through Dancing With The Stars, an odd definition of stardom. Age had softened some of her rhetoric. A tough interview would arouse sympathy and "controversy" that would go on and on, and work to her benefit. The idea that she is a menace to the unity of Australian society, a belief expressed often in the late '90s, has become harder to maintain.

When there are racist outbursts on content that commercial TV/radio really cares about, such as sport or entertainment, they are slow to act. They are quick to play up a "controversy" that is never resolved, but it isn't in their interest to shut down what they consider a genuine expression from their audience.

Samantha Armytage spent her career in Australian commercial TV, and occupies one of its plum roles as co-host of Sunrise. When she made a "racist gaffe", the resulting conflict arose from a powerful institution being held to standards that it does not set. See also, the treatment of Adam Goodes being Aboriginal in a public place. Commercial broadcast media is run to certain formulas that make racist assumptions and don't challenge them; this helps embed them among those who are watching/listening, and repels those who aren't.

If you can accept that Daesh and al Qaeda aren't representative of Islam, then you can accept that Pauline Hanson's resurgence on Australian commercial television is not a genuine expression of Australia today. She represents a recurrence of some national infection, nasty and untreatable, public but embarrassing.

Scott Atran points out a clear disadvantage for those who would harness the power of commercial TV/radio to promote trust and goodwill:
We have “counter-narratives”, unappealing and unsuccessful. Mostly negative, they rely on mass messaging at youth rather than intimate dialogue. As one former Isis imam told us: “The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided.” Again, there is discernible method in the Isis approach.

Eager to recruit, the group may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist a single individual, to learn how their personal problems and grievances fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims.

Current counter-radicalisation approaches lack the mainly positive, empowering appeal and sweep of Isis’s story of the world; and the personalised and intimate approach to individuals across the world.
So much for harnessing the power of mass-media to counter the Daesh narrative, as we might discourage people from smoking.

It was always a laudable goal to have commercial television reach out to a broader audience, beyond Anglo-Celtic Australia, to include Muslims and other relatively recent migrants. Indeed, there were sound business reasons for them doing so. Now our society needs cohesion and dialogue to maintain safety and security, and it would be nice if the commercial broadcasters could get on board as a community service. It’s too late for that now.

If Hanson and those who run commercial TV/radio could choose to define us/them for who’s with “us” and who’s against, they'd choose the one that resonated with their audience: demonising Muslims and other new arrivals, who were never part of their audience anyway.

There will be politicians who align their interests with those of commercial media. If you thought the Murdoch papers were a bit supportive of the Coalition in 2013, then this country’s commercial media are going to treat Tony Abbott like the king in exile in 2016 (similar to the way they treated Rudd under the Gillard government). He has spent his life aligning with the interests of commercial media. Not only Hanson, but other minor parties who want to crack down on immigration and civil liberties will get much more earned media free airtime than, say, the Greens or other established non-government political entities. Nick Xenophon will have to flirt with anti-Muslims, or walk on his hands down Rundle Mall, to get the free coverage that got him this far.

In their mutually weakened state they'll help one another before they'll help those who ignore them. And what could be more Aussie (pause) than friends helping friends when they're struggling (cut to shot of Australian flag rippling in the breeze, then to shot of a southern-cross tattoo on a comely white female buttock, then to an ad).

12 November 2015

A royal commission into the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers

The system of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers began in 1992, when Paul Keating was PM and Labor Left inner-city Melbourne MP Gerry Hand was Immigration Minister. Since then, Labor has been in power for 10 years and the Coalition for 13. Both parties have been implicated in human rights abuses involved with mandatory detention, and with the rorts that have seen foreign governments and multinational companies paid billions of Australian taxpayer dollars to treat people badly and mess with their heads.

These people are kidding themselves. Labor has committed itself to continuing mandatory detention until the next election, and afterwards if it wins. It cannot back down, or even change that policy significantly:
  • The Shadow Minister for Immigration, Richard Marles, is a factional ally of the current Opposition Leader. While he might go through the motions of challenging headline-grabbing events like deaths, riots, or cost blowouts, he is not going to challenge the fundamentals of the policy.
  • The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, has said repeatedly that we should work more closely with countries in our region to build a system where asylum-seekers don't have to take their chances on the Arafura Sea, and are treated humanely within Southeast Asian countries and their asylum applications are processed and, um, whatever happens to refugees at a time where they number in the tens of millions worldwide happens. I had expected Plibersek to travel a lot throughout the region, talking with political leaders at or below the ministerial level, but apart from a content-free trip to Kiribati she hasn't done nearly enough.
  • The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, is adopting a strategy of differing substantially with the government on a few key issues - and this is not one of them. At Labor's federal conference earlier this year, he twisted arms and worked the system enough that the entire party reaffirmed its historic commitment to mandatory detention. If Labor were to change policy direction before the election it might need a new leader.
  • Chris Bowen and Tony Burke are both former Ministers for Immigration. Both are likely to be senior members of the next Labor government. Any measures Labor may direct at Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, or Philip Ruddock would rebound on them, too.
  • State politicians Eddie Obeid and Bernard Finnigan had very little to do with mandatory detention, but they show Labor can't get out of its own way let alone reform vast national policy.
You used to be able to vote for moderate liberals to curb the excesses of a Coalition government. Philip Ruddock helped kill that. Mandatory detention is bipartisan.

Tony Abbott tried to wedge Shorten by making mandatory detention worse than the conditions from which asylum-seekers fled. Abbott is gone from the Prime Ministership but Dutton remains the relevant minister. Shorten and Marles and Plibersek kept their jobs, too. Mandatory detention isn't a wedge when it's a platform.

Labor and the Coalition are locked in to mandatory detention. They're not just "committed", or "sending a signal" that has gone to every corner of the world for more than two decades, a signal received and played back to us by the United Nations. The outsource providers of those centres can and do charge what they like, knowing the Australian government has no choice but to pay. This also applies to the governments hosting them: they breach formally-defined human rights and basic human decencies minute by minute, knowing that the Australian government dares not define standards without tacitly accepting that it breaches them, and that breaching those standards is bad.

Consider those costs in light of current debates about taxes, deficits, and cutting benefits.

Press gallery journalists can't tell whether a policy is good or bad, right or wrong - they can only tell what's controversial. At different times when Labor was in government, under both Rudd and Gillard, they flinched before full support for mandatory detention. The press gallery belted them hard and unanimously for deviating from bipartisanship.

Nobody in the media, nobody in the major political parties, examined asylum-seeker policy from basic principles. The media shut down rather than facilitated public debate, because it values bipartisanship over debates it cannot control. All major-party MPs got a free pass from the press gallery when they wept in Parliament over the boat that hit the rocks on Christmas Island, and they all kept their free pass when they voted to tighten the screws still further.

There's been a bit of discussion on this blog about what is or isn't an informative interview, or a hard-hitting one. It seems that every interview involving Peter Dutton is hard-hitting, regardless of who interviews him or how. He could have the softest interview ever and he would still come off looking like a goose. There is no point "popcorn-scrabblingly" hoping for a tough interview on Dutton, because:
  • there have been plenty and they make no difference, in terms of policy outcomes and conditions in the camps; and
  • they make Dutton look resolute and tough, with a touch of martyrdom, which feeds his rightwing support base; and
  • a Labor government would be no better. At all.
So much for partisanship being the only basis for criticising political coverage (and for brushing off any/ all criticism as though it were).

Intrepid journalists who actually get over to Nauru and Manus Island put the entire press-release-chewing gallery to shame. Their descriptions of what we do to those people is more important than all the journo-fetishising of bipartisanship. The broadcast media are culpable for reinforcing mandatory detention and deserve no credit when the policy changes, as it must. The public debate to develop better policy will have to exclude the major organs of the broadcast media. They can trail along behind the debate in bewilderment, as they do on most issues, or they can step up once they have stood down the long-serving "Canberra insiders" who have clogged their pages/airwaves with bad judgment calls for too long.

A royal commission (or whatever replaces this mechanism under a republic) into Australia's mandatory detention system will be necessary. It will not be pretty, and all the worse for justice denied and injustice compounded. It would only take place when a future Labor/Coalition government is over a barrel and has no choice but to agree to a measure that could damage them and their major opponents. It might be forced on them by Greens or independents; it will have far-reaching effects on this country's established politics.

Sexual abuse against children within those detention centres should be referred to the existing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Decisions about how those camps operate are made in Australia, with the Australian government as their client. The idea that they are under the effective jurisdiction of foreign states fails under actual examination of how the camps work.

No religious entities have stepped up. The scriptures of the major monotheistic religions in Australia are full of instructions to be generous to unfortunate strangers who turn up at your door. The performance of religious organisations against the scriptural standards they set themselves is patchy at best.

The belief that the current system can't continue cannot usefully flow through to faith and prayer: religious organisations and their leaders are more strongly committed to covering up and avoiding than resolution through exposure.

It can't be resolved through high-quality journalism because Australian political journalism is mostly useless fetishises bipartisanship over all other considerations. The odd telling story will be uncoupled from policy change through set-piece interviews that fool both journalists and politicians into thinking they have done their jobs.

The Navy resisted government instructions to be as harsh as possible, so the government militarised the Australian Federal Police and Customs.

This can't be resolved politically because both major alternatives are stuck in the same policy. Neither has sufficient standing with the community to start a conversation about how things might be different/better. There are alternatives to the major parties but nationally they are piecemeal, community-based and fragmented.

It can't be resolved legally for much the same reason; an injunction here or a judgment there won't invalidate the whole mandatory detention system, and even small wins will almost certainly be reversed by rushed legislation.

Royal commissions aren't as impeccable as they might have been, but they are all we have as tools both to expose systematic malfeasance over decades, and to avoid both the silly press gallery and you-scratch-my-back bipartisanship that will ensure injustices and inefficiencies continue. They only arise under specific political circumstances though, so you have to hope and be alert to things political journalists can't understand, let alone explain.

You can only do what you can with what you have. Some will tell you that what you have is all you'll get, but they're wrong about that too.