04 February 2015

I'm the Prime Minister, get me out of here!

I'm standing here on the ground
The sky above won't fall down
I see no evil in all directions
Resolution of happiness
Things have been dark for too long

Don't change for you
Don't change a thing for me

- INXS Don't change
Tony Abbott's speech at the National Press Club is pretty much the same as the one he gave three years ago at the same venue, to many of the same people, to a more rapturous reception. Abbott's speeches are always stale cut-and-paste jobs, delivered badly. Scare tactics. Vague and vacuous slogans. People who have seen Tony Abbott give speeches every other day for years and years should have known already that the guy can't give a speech to save his life. They should have said so honestly long before now.

A leader delivers great and engaging speeches because they want to achieve great things - but they recognise they can't achieve them alone. They need to get others as excited as they are, to join their dreams and hopes to those of the audience, to warn that there'll be hard work and tears but the work is important, and it must begin now. The leader needs to convey a sense of purpose that people want to join. This requires a balance between being deaf to improvements and criticism alike, and a blank cypher who'll promise anything. Like most people, Tony Abbott can't strike that balance.

Tony Abbott isn't a great leader and a great speech-maker because his dreams aren't yours. He doesn't want you to examine his policies too closely, and press gallery journalists are more than happy to oblige him.

Victory in student politics requires few votes, being trite and/or nasty in order to repel questioning and engagement by an intelligent and eager electorate. B A Santamaria became a powerful man by operating in the shadows; where he did operate publicly he put his views in a dull monotone, proceeding from problem to solution with no engagement or encouragement, fostering fear and sneering at alternatives. These are the sources of Abbott's career: he got where he is by discouraging engagement, not encouraging it.

The speech on Monday required Abbott to show that he can bring people with him, that his hopes and dreams are theirs/ours; had he demonstrated that the Coalition would have followed along, the leadership chatter would have stopped and his ratings would have shot up. The speech failed, he failed, because of who he is and what he's about:
  • He dreams of a nation of stay-at-home mums. This means he'll never be serious about childcare or equal pay or greater workforce engagement - no matter what he says, no matter what any of his team say, on the record or off. He'll cut resources for domestic violence programs while appointing Rosie Batty to an advisor committee while making those cuts and mouthing all the pieties. Instead of investigating words against actions journalists will simply quote his words, quote those pointing out the cuts as equally valid, and not investigate too closely.
  • He took paid parental leave to two elections, and replaced it with vague promises about childcare (Scott Morison's spluttering insistences and personal offence at being questioned makes this less clear, not more so), and if Abbott is on the way out why even bother covering it
  • He's cut the carbon tax and dumped crap on the Reef - any policy for the environment to counter that would have to be pretty good, but there is no policy and journalists won't look for one.
  • He's cut education funding at the very time when we need more and better education, proposing only to jack up the costs of degrees when they are less likely to yield lifelong returns.
  • A stagnant economy is not a strong economy, pretending otherwise erodes your credibility not that of your critics.
  • You can't complain about intergenerational debt while being sanguine about intergenerational climate change.
  • Criminalising murder and armed conflict is one thing, but Abbott wants to criminalise free if unpleasant speech in a bit of dog-whistling against Muslims.
  • Nothing on indigenous recognition or disability services, no grounds for optimism at all.
  • The I-am-the-party thing comes straight from Howard. Never complain, never explain, never resign, leave a good-looking corpse.
Keeping Tony Abbott as Prime Minister gives nobody any ground for optimism on any issue. He doesn't care about issues and doesn't want any scrutiny. This is only clear when - if - you look at the issues and how the government handles them. Just because policy is the last refuge of politicians ("let's get on with the job", as Coalition figures are saying now, and as Labor figures said in the last parliament), it doesn't mean it should be the last resort of journalists.

Journalists disengage the public from politics, and from news content products journalism, when they avoid policy - and then blame the public for being disengaged and fickle.

Yes, blame the media

Traditional media loves leadership turmoil but they can't cover them properly. Asking Liberal MPs for declarations of support and then rubbishing them resolves nothing. Party-room ballots resolve nothing, as we saw in the last term of parliament. It's not news. It's not entertainment. It's nothing, it's boring and turns people off politics and political journalism. They play up nonsense and play down portents of stupid, stupid government. Why traditional parties want to follow traditional media into oblivion is unclear. Journalists follow politics closely but when it comes to crunch points like this, they can't describe what's going on, can't admit they should have seen this coming and were wrong to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear at the last election.

Stephanie Peatling was wrong when she said: "We blame them for giving us too many sugar hits and not enough fibre but we take the treats every time". Mostly, we don't. If that glib line had any validity media companies would not be dying, as they are. It is the audience that gives life to media companies, not journalists. It is the audience that is denying life to media companies that neither inform nor entertain; journalists can switch the lights off as security usher them out of their newsrooms and press galleries, those hothouses of self-delusion.

Some of us get out the magnifying glass and the tweezers and break down the 'sugar hits' to their constituent particles, to howls of protest from those whose skills don't extend beyond burnt offerings and raw deals.
Representative democracy is working just fine. We have regular, peaceful elections where the will of the people is expressed without bloodshed.
The will of the people is misinformed by bad journalism.
But the problems we face are big and they are going to require compromise, that each of us give up something in order to get something back or just to get something done.

Revenue shortfalls, the taxation system, the cost of a universal health and education system, welfare, climate change – no one, no one interest, no one party is going to get exactly what it wants.
Just because you don't understand the options and can't describe them, it is a mistake to assume that they are the only options, and that holding out for better is not an option just because you have an artificial deadline imposed by someone with a duff idea of what news is and what it's for.
Instead of walking away could we not look for a better way to talk about, debate and solve these problems?
The media idea of 'debate' is something like Q and A, or those pre-election 'summits' with major party leaders - people talking past each other, leaving questions hanging and assertions unchallenged. We can't have 'debate' because when people like you control the debate - when you corral it into somewhere like the National Press Club or those parts of Parliament where you can't go without a special pass - debate fails, and you don't miss it because you're trying to wedge a foot of fact into the glass slipper of newsroom cliche before some 'deadline' that has nothing to do with me.
I'm a policy wonk, I like data and there's not enough of it about at the moment.
You're looking in the wrong places. Fancy even writing something like that in an information age. Stop going to press conferences. Stop being played by "senior sources". Honestly - to be unable to organise a piss-up in a brewery is ridiculous, but to complain of thirst in such an environment is pathetic.

Two years ago, at the same venue and again with the same audience, Prime Minister Gillard gave a better speech than either of Abbott's linked above. All the press gallery reported about that speech was that she wore glasses, and named an election date. They couldn't cope with all that stuff about the global economy and education and tax reform. They still can't.

What has Media Watch done since cash-for-comment, since social media? So long as it is run by journalists it will always be a bit cosy, little snipes at tabloid telly/radio but exulting in punny NT News headlines, and making excuses for political coverage.

To claim you're "a policy wonk" in that environment is almost meaningless. Peatling is one of the better press gallery journalists but bears responsibility for overlooking her institutional role. When your output - and those of your esteemed colleagues - reveals you to be emitting drivel on an industrial scale, you are detracting from public debate. The media caused this problem, and though they hide their role in the problem when describing it they can't fix the problem.

The failure of media-friendly leadership

Mark Latham tried to be a media tart but he just didn't have it in him. The press examined closely whether he'd be a suitable Prime Minister and found him wanting.

Ten years ago Kevin Rudd was a media tart and the media gave him maximum exposure. His big issue was the legality and validity of going to war in Iraq, and it was that issue - not being able to speak in complete sentences on camera - which put the wind up the then Howard government. Labor should have known better than to select him as their leader, given his role in the rise and fall of Queensland's Goss government in two terms, but they did it anyway. They rose with his unquestioned popularity. They thought they could manage the chaos in his office, but it managed them (and him). They got rid of him but the chaos continued. The media saw all this but didn't really understand it, they assumed the other guy would be better.

The press should have examined more closely whether he'd be a suitable Prime Minister, and would have found him wanting. Had the media done this, they would be entitled to the respect they have since lost.

Tony Abbott was always a media tart and the media gave him maximum exposure. The Liberals should have known better than to select him as their leader, given his disdain for policy under Hewson, Downer, Howard, Nelson and Turnbull, but they did it anyway. They rose with his unquestioned popularity. They thought they could manage the chaos in his office, but it managed them (and him). They haven't yet got rid of him and the chaos continues. The media saw all this but didn't really understand it, they projected all their hopes onto him and now they all look stupid. They were wrong to assume he would be better than the others just because he wasn't them.

The press should have examined more closely whether he'd be a suitable Prime Minister, and would have found him wanting. Had the media done this, they would be entitled to more respect than they get.
LEIGH SALES: But isn't the problem, though ... to give your team the best chance of getting on the front foot and being able to sell the message and having a front person that the electorate wants to listen to and that your colleagues have faith in?
Here you have a journalist who thinks political success is the temporary and evanescent capacity to "sell the message", a quality that comes and goes like one of those Stephanie Peatling sugar-hits.

To be fair, her interviewee (Peter Dutton) is of the same mind - but that involves being fairer to Sales and Dutton than to the public to which both of them answer.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Our political correspondent, Sabra Lane, is in our Parliament House studio in Canberra.

Sabra, let's start with Dennis Jensen. How does his contribution this evening change things?

SABRA LANE, REPORTER: Alone, his contribution doesn't change things. But the thing is, Leigh, more people are coming forward and going public now in this - what seems to be now - an orchestrated campaign.
Jensen, a PhD in science who trashes climate change, had just been interviewed on the show. The next exchange in that interview was not (but should have been) "well what a waste of time it was having him on the show! Don't we look like a waste of time and resources!". Jensen's contribution was no more informative than any story spun from anonymous sources, but for the moment it keeps journalists employed in chuntering out content to a vanishing audience.

Tony Abbott is failing as Prime Minister for the same reason he succeeded as Opposition Leader - he is focused on short-term media hits. When policies go bad journalists look stupid for having reported the glossy announcements and not having examined them closely, so they blame the pollies for embarrassing them. Abbott doesn't know how to policy. Neither do journalists (even the "policy wonk" wannabes). If Abbott did pull off a policy success, journalists wouldn't notice, couldn't describe it or articulate what it means: "beer, cigs up" is about as good as it gets.

It's too late to complain that the Prime Ministership shouldn't be like reality TV. The people who hoisted Kevin Rudd atop the Labor Party, and Abbott to front the Liberals, thought they could play the game indefinitely - but you can't go for short-term media hits and produce good policy. Even Malcolm Turnbull, shaping the NBN to the speed of Murdoch, gets no respect.

Abbott's failure and the Liberal Party's life to come

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

- Shakespeare Macbeth Act I Scene VII

Tony Abbott was always on the conservative, or right-wing, of the Liberal Party at a time when its moderate, or left-wing, withered. He was never a factional boss but he was a major player, particularly in NSW. His defeat of Malcolm Turnbull for the Liberal leadership in 2009, and appointing people like Cory Bernardi, Sophie Mirabella, and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells to his shadow ministry vindicated the conservatives.

In 2013, the moderates who hadn't left the party held their own, winning seats like Lindsay and Reid (NSW) that could never have been won by rock-ribbed conservatives. When the Abbott ministry was announced, conservatives like Fierravanti-Wells were dumped while relative moderates like Hockey and Pyne got the big jobs. Since then:
  • Hockey brought down a horror budget that he failed to sell, which is seen as a failure on his part rather than that of the unfair policy that came out of it.
  • In Victoria, Ted Baillieu and Denis Napthine were largely old-school Hamerian moderates. Fat lot of good it did them - they were out after one term.
  • In Queensland, Campbell Newman was a relatively moderate Lord Mayor of Brisbane but became an arrogant, right-wing Premier. Newman lost his seat and so did other relatively moderate LNPers, leaving behind the same unelectable conservative rump that had seen Labor govern that state for two decades and which may see the same again.
  • In NSW, any loss of ground will work against moderates like Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian, and in favour of Christianists and other voter-repellent goons.
  • Scott Morrison, with his concentration camps and traditional media stonewalling, looks like the only member of this government who has achieved anything.
The Liberal Party is sliding to the right. Its base feels that it hasn't been tough enough, that people like Hockey and Napthine were just too damn namby-pamby and frittered away public goodwill. Never mind "it's on" and all that crap about ballots. The idea that Tony Abbott deserves one last chance is just the Liberal Right buying time for Morrison. When right-wing activists have won over those Liberal MPs who now doubt the country needs to go further right - as they will, through ongoing failures of the alternatives - Morrison will step up and Abbott will step down.

The right need time to embrace Morrison, and he them - but they will get that time while Tony Abbott twists in the wind and Turnbull cools his heels. Morrison's foray into social media shows he isn't scared of it, like Abbott is, but also that he doesn't understand or respect it. He is messaging the Liberal base, showing them he can mix it with the best of them.

Dumping Abbott quickly would only benefit Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop. As if the Liberals are going to elect an unmarried, childless, female lawyer - especially one without the guile or the guts Gillard had.

And as for Turnbull, well ... when he was leader the first time, conservatives were terrified he was going to remake the party in his image. They made him hire party hacks like Chris Kenny and Peta Credlin, rather than the brilliant analysts he surrounded himself with at Goldman Sachs. And if you're worried that Tony Abbott is high-handed and not consultative, wait until you give Malcolm Turnbull a second wind.

Why Malcolm Turnbull is like Jane Eyre

This whole post was going to be about Malcolm Turnbull, but [$] Jane Gilmore wrote about him better and more pithily so I had to start again.

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre, the heroine meets a guy name Rochester and they hit it off. In a modern novel Jane and Rochester would be all Fifty Shades of Rochester in the first few pages, but in order to consummate their relationship Jane has to wait until Rochester's house burns down and his mentally-ill wife dies. So too, this government will have to be confronted with the exhaustion and rejection of its mendacious austerity program before it turns to Turnbull.

It will have to work out what government is for, and why you'd want to be in it. I thought the Liberals wouldn't beat Rudd or Gillard until they'd done that, ha ha! You can bet Turnbull has given that much thought, and won't be sharing it widely until he's ready. He'll give some good speeches.

What happens now?

They'll claim that this speech will settle things once and for all - until it doesn't, then there'll be more chatter and then this party-room meeting will be the big showdown - until it isn't, in which case ... but we've seen this movie before. After Abbott's speech on Monday some journalists questioned Abbott and, even in his enfeebled state, he batted them away. With the exception of Laura Tingle, their questions were lame, lazy, hopeless; no better than standard press gallery journalism.

The questions put to Gillard's ministers at community cabinet meetings by ordinary people were far more relevant, incisive yet polite than the Fourth Estate do or can at their best.

If an F-35 had crashed into the National Press Club during that speech our democracy would not have been diminished, much better off than allowing that sorry drizzle of piss to play itself out.

The traditional media have nothing to lose but their credibility and audience, and even their anonymous sources will abandon them.

We will still need to know how we are governed, and will have to work out ways of doing that beyond the traditional media, and beyond governments determined to meta our data in ways they don't understand themselves.

He is a decade younger than Howard was in 2007, with no job-ready skills to speak of, nor the warm family environment that John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Denis Napthine, and Campbell Newman clearly have.

All this is way too hard for Tony Abbott. It always was. Everyone who thought otherwise is, and always has been a mug. And those who observed him up close, in the Liberal Party and the press gallery, should have seen that and told us. Instead, they play us for mugs, calling us fickle and ungovernable!


  1. Good stuff, sharing.

    This did give me a laugh: "If an F-35 had crashed into the National Press Club during that speech our democracy would not have been diminished, much better off than allowing that sorry drizzle of piss to play itself out.". Spot on!

    1. F-35 would have to be able to fly for that to happen. Rais, Perth.

  2. This cartoon captures the point of your final paragraph magnificently: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/photogallery/federal-politics/cartoons/david-pope-20120214-1t3j0.html

  3. Bushfire Bill4/2/15 9:38 am

    Jack Waterford wrote recently in the Canberra Times that Bill Shorten was "a blank page" on policy. This was quoted back to Shorten by Barrie Cassidy in the Insiders interview last Sunday.

    I can remember thinking at the time that Waterford and Cassidy had it arse-about. Until the Press Gallery shows that it can report and analyse policy in a serious manner, why would you bother with it?

    Until the pizazz around Abbott - will he or won't he? - dies down, any policy venture would be like chaff in a strong breeze. Up in the air and then blown away.

    Until Abbott actually has policies - as opposed to brainfarts - how can you respond to them?

    Until the damage done by the Abbott Experiment is fully assessed, how is it possible to know how far your restorative policies need to go? It's not just a matter of layering new policies on top of whatever's there, meshing the two somehow. First a full root canal has to be done, and that will take a lot more thought and time than the Press Gallery is prepared to give it.

    A Press Gallery dedicated to maintaining a technologically outdated medium based on scarce page space, using physical ink on once live trees, with strained delivery logistics (driven behind a paper truck lately?) and, as Andrew puts it well, deadlines that are none of OUR concern is doomed. The same goes for television presentation, where makeup, scheduling, scripting and travel to and from the studio take up 20 times as much time as the actual news.

    The traditional media claim to be more considered than a tweet dashed off, but in reality they aren't. The panic is still there, but it lasts longer.

    Oh, and not being able to admit they are wrong doesn't help either.

    1. Lachlan Ridge5/2/15 4:16 am

      As someone who drives a taxi at night on the Great Western Highway in the Blue Mountains I can tell you that you don't drive behind a paper truck, the paper truck drives behind YOU.

  4. If #LibSpill does occur, perhaps you can start the next post with the second verse of Don't Change:

    'I found a love I had lost
    It was gone for too long
    Hear no evil in all directions
    Execution of bitterness
    Message received loud and clear'

    Not sure about the love lost bit (might depend on who the newreplacement is) but the last two lines would be pretty appropriate

  5. I think this is your most terrifying account of Australian politics I have ever read.

    What you have written does not describe a healthy democracy.

    And I fear you are on the money, Andrew.

    Jane Gilmore's Hoopla piece made me gulp too. We will see what the silencing of moderate voices in the Liberal Party really means if we end up with Scott Morrison as PM.

  6. Andrew are you seriously suggesting the Liberals would put Scott Morrison up as PM?
    The bloke is ridiculed on social media as "head of the SS" all he needs is a black suit with the skull and runes on his lapel to complete the picture.
    Herr Morrison has all the appeal of a demented cockroach.
    The field of candidates with any sort of public appeal is wafer thin but seriously, Scott Morrison PM. Please explain.

    1. A demented cockroach has more appeal.

      Besides, even one or two of the lunatics on the front bench must realise that Morrison could never travel anywhere for fear of being arrested and deported to The Hague.

    2. The problem is that the Libs have had a love affair with the Fuehrerprinzip for many years, so Gauleiter Morrison would appeal to them.

    3. Their base is frightened, and not representative of most people.

  7. Andrew,
    Another scathingly brilliant article. Do any of the "journalists" in the Press Gallery read your column and if so give intelligent feedback? I'm thinking no as you just seem to get sneered at via Twitter.

    Thank you, you are a voice of sanity and reason versus MSM journalists whose only qualifications to report come from "Political Reporting For Dummies".....published by the Liberal Party.

  8. Another good one, your on fire ATM :).

    Gilmore gets published on the Hoopla now? I stoped reading there when they turned into a glorified women's weekly... And THEN put up a paywall. They may be worth another look now if they still have Corinne Grant in their stable.

    I couldn't care less who gets the libs leadership at this point. Not a single one of them has ( or wants) a clue about what's happening to us. They've whored us out to all comers and are now awaiting their golden parachutes.

    If they are the fruits of our fledeling "political caste" I think we where better off when we elected tradesmen.

    1. I'm surprised to learn that Andrew has an ATM... probably as much as he is to learn it's burning.

    2. Your kidding right? The man lives large, rolls deep, and burns whatever he wants whenever he wants.

      Your obviously not a frequent visitor, but you'll learn. You'll learn :)

    3. I don't have an obviously, whatever that is, any more than Andrew has an ATM.


  9. would it be smart thinking for Turnbull, to think about being opposition leader,giving this poison challis a miss, over time leading the liberal from the wilderness, then in years to come he would be seen as a liberal hero.

  10. is it just me,, or do other commentator s feel we are not being governed
    and are the Cps staff even getting direction.
    i just feel nothing is being done, i do worry about what i am reading about over seas and the economy do the liberals keep and eye on the overseas trends,

    o for the day of wayne swan

  11. VoterBentleigh4/2/15 8:44 pm

    Despite recent State results, it remains generally true that reasonable first term governments are rarely thrown out. So, given the toxicity of the Abbott Government, if thrown out in 2016, then the next likely Coalition rule will be in 2022. Neither the backbenchers nor Turnbull will consign themselves to that. Even if the back-benchers are hard right, they are not going to lose their seats for Mr Abbott: Brough and Jenkins are examples and so is Andrew Robb, who is not a sentimentalist. The Government will not need Mr Abbott's vote in the House, so he can be shunned and ignored. This all looks a better proposition than 2022. They will turf Abbott out and whether one likes Turnbull's views or not, he would be good for the nation as Coalition leader because he would improve the quality of the political debate.

  12. I assumed, correctly, that the precious Nat. Press Club (yawn) Abbott outing would get your typing fingers itching, so dropped in. Not disappointed.
    What I find most disturbing is that most of those journos/mainstream commentators would, in, Sept '13, have known what was ahead, just as a healthy chunk of the thinking Aussie public did. But they felt, it seems, constrained to not say so.
    Why? Following an employer charter, perhaps? (I exclude specifically the Murdoch press, somewhat of a special case as he was actively/brazenly spruiked by them). That being, without question, a PM thrown up by the LNP must, merely by that elevation itself, qualify that person as worthy of 'a go'. (Carlton fell for it, much to my dismay, and no doubt his, in retrospect).
    No, no, no... he was a dud. Was then, was, obviously, in his rise through the Liberal Party parliamentary ranks, and is now.
    With notable exceptions, these buggers need to be skewered, as you have done here. But, as you note, the boundaries of their 'Estate' are shrinking in. The high-rise of diverse social media promises a noisy Cockcroft Estate on the fences, with the hoi-polloi shouting 'Bullshit!'

  13. Thank you, Andrew. Please keep on writing these articles. The MSM should be ashamed of themselves.

  14. Loved Waleed Alys simple but succint analysis on Tony Abbott on The Project tonight...

    He said exactly what you said about our p.m's regurgitated speech.

    I fear that this smart man will get hate mail now.

    Yep that's the brown guy in a banal and boring media landscape.

    1. Like the rest of the journalists, he's had at least five years to notice this. I'm not all that impressed that he's just started writing about it.

    2. I take your point but he's a careerist as well and lectures at Monash University. ..so his credibility is at stake there...his interviews on rn drive have been pretty good seeing the numerous weaknesses in this government.

      As a moderate Muslim...he's very well respected by younger academics

      He's played the game quite well in my opinion.
      His interview with Tim Wilson is GOLD...


  15. In Nikki Sava's piece in the Australian yesterday, saying Abbott is done as PM, she quoted a NSW Liberal MP as saying 'You have to remember we have been living with this not for 18 months but for five years'

    You'd think that a story like that, about dysfunction and capricious decisions made even before he was PM might have been of interest to our intrepid press gallery. Strange that they all lined up on the 'chaos' vs 'stability' meme.