11 February 2015

The gap

It was a relief to read a report about Australian politics that actually identifies and even quotes real people with names. However, it slumps back into press gallery sludge by covering important policy issues (matters of life and death, literally) as though they're somehow beside the point. The whole framing of this article is wrong.

Because newspapers don't really have subeditors any more, it falls to me to note the second paragraph in that article should have been the first. The fact that the first, or lede, was as follows is telling:
Bipartisan consensus on Indigenous policy ruptured on Wednesday when several Coalition MPs walked out on a speech by Labor leader Bill Shorten calling on the government to reverse $500 million in budget cuts.
Bipartisan consensus on Indigenous policy created the gaps in health, education and other life outcomes represented in the Close the Gap report. This is not to say that such consensus should be smashed but it is not to overstate the importance of bipartisan agreement.

Many good and worthwhile ideas are held by one of the major political parties, or by neither. Michael Gordon in particular is a serial offender in insisting upon bipartisan consensus where none is warranted or likely. He regularly misrepresents lively, opinionated and well-researched input as the work of a nutty fringe, or of splitters.
Lamenting that there were too many "backward steps" in the report, Mr Abbott said this was not because of any lack of goodwill or effort by successive governments.
That is the story, right there.

Tony Abbott is not, and never was, entitled to be taken at his word. Abbott professes concern but his actions belie them, which diminish our ability to take him at his word. The press gallery has been culpable over the past five years of doing exactly that: taking a politician at his word.

Here it is happening again: Abbott wants to escape any linkage between his government's policies and actual policy outcomes. Superjournos Gordon and Harrison are happy to comply. They are placing their lust for bipartisanship ahead of the closing of disadvantage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

It is possible that cutting $500m out of particular services to Indigenous people made no material difference. It may even be that the government did Indigenous people a favour by cutting bad policies, and either the gaps are diminished or they cannot be attributed to those cuts in any meaningful way. Gordon and Harrison haven't looked into that, and their article is poorer for it.
[Abbott] pointed to the likely achievement of a new target of closing the gap on school attendance within five years as evidence of progress.

Only two of the original seven targets ñ on Indigenous mortality rates for children under five and year 12 attainment ñ were on track to be met.
This is the nearest this article actually gets to policy analysis. Again, the superjournos let Abbott set his own target and accept his own assessment.
While Mr Shorten said this was an area where "every opposition wants the government to succeed", he said he felt compelled to highlight what cuts to services would mean.

"Right now, a host of vital organisations don't know whether their funding will be continued or withdrawn," he said, prompting the walkout by several government MPs.

"When people fleeing family violence need a safe place to stay, cuts mean that shelters close," Mr Shorten said. "When having a lawyer can determine whether a first-time offender gets a second chance or a prison sentence, these cuts will rob Indigenous Australians of legal aid."
Shorten, like superjournos Gordon and Harrison and everyone really, was not obliged to engage in bipartisan arse-covering like Abbott.

The government MPs who walked out know their funding will be continued. Earlier this week they took a vote on the Prime Minister's continuation in office because they were worried about their continuation after 2016.

Shorten was right not to focus on the organisations, because ongoing funding implies that the problems will be ongoing and not closed. Instead, he gave concrete examples - people fleeing family violence, first-time offenders before the dock - that are so rare but so important when discussing policy. Any fool can ladle on the pleasantries and plenty more fools can simply quote them, but getting down to practical examples is the very stuff that both Parliament and press gallery exist to scrutinise.
Victorian Liberal MP Russell Broadbent was first to show his anger by leaving the chamber and later said he believed the partisan comments belittled an occasion that should have been above point-scoring.

"The people of Australia are calling out for leaders who can rise above the fray," he told Fairfax Media.

Others who walked out included Andrew Nikolic, Russell Broadbent, Angus Taylor, John Cobb, Ken O'Dowd and Melissa Price.
Oh, piss off.

Tony Abbott has been leader of the Liberal Party for almost five years. Everyone, friend and foe, knows what he's like. Nikolic, Taylor, O'Dowd and Price have spent their entire parliamentary careers with Abbott as leader. He doesn't do bipartisanship at big occasions or small and was not entitled to be taken at his word here.

All of those people voted for the cuts. All of them should be held to account. None of them have any right to be surprised that the leader of the alternative government might call them on it.

Apart from O'Dowd and Cobb, all those Liberals met on Monday and insisted that the Prime Minister and his staff listen to them more. As soon as someone said something they didn't want to hear, they fled. Gordon and Harrison were too busy practising goldfish journalism to make that link.

Shorten didn't call them liars or impugn them personally. He didn't even blame them for ongoing Indigenous disadvantage. He gave concrete examples of consequences that follow from their own actions.
Labor's Indigenous senator, Nova Peris, who was observing from the floor of the Parliament, described the walkout as a disgrace. "If we are fair dinkum about this we've got to stop playing political football with Aboriginal people's lives."
That description of Peris makes her sound like a token. She's a Senator from the Northern Territory. It makes it sound as though they can only have one at a time, and understates the period when they (and, indeed, the Senate) had none at all.

Peris has directly rebutted the thrust of Gordon and Harrison, namely that the walkout - not Shorten's comments - is the point of political failure. Those MPs could have had a quiet word with Shorten, in the spirit of bipartisanship; but by walking out they show that they can't bear that a) their actions have consequences and b) that the Leader of the Opposition called them out.
Mr Shorten also backed the calls from Indigenous leaders for new target to close the gap between the incarceration rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

"The rate of jailing Indigenous Australians has almost doubled in the last decade. It is time to speak out against this silent emergency," he said.
The reference to "Indigenous leaders" illustrates the importance of something other than bipartisanship in tracking disadvantage in people's lives. Again, Shorten is concrete in his criticism if not in offering a solution ("time to speak out" indeed).
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said it was unfortunate that Mr Shorten had used the occasion for "political point-scoring". He described the $500 million figure as "a furphy" and insisted programs that were effective had no reason to fear their funding would be cut.
He would say that, wouldn't he.

No comment about what constitutes effectiveness. He-said-he-said journalism. Not worth writing.

It's neither here nor there that a journalist might get a quote from a government minister. The insider-savvy thing that you have to be in the game to get a direct and timely (and exclusive!) quote like that is bullshit. Can a service be both 'vital' (Shorten) yet not 'effective' (Scullion)? The quote itself is bullshit, fact-free and does not help Indigenous people one jot.

Simple question, indispensable to this article and the issues arising from it: did the government cut $500 million from programs contributing to Close the Gap outcomes, or not? Ability to answer that question should be what separates press gallery professionals from sensationalist blow-ins.
"The only ones who need to be a bit fearful about their future are those who are not delivering a service that is decent and proper," he told Fairfax Media.
There are many people to whom those services are directed who are in the same position. Can Scullion tell who's providing good service and who isn't? Can Gordon or Harrison?
[Scullion] reaffirmed the government's rejection of a target to reduce Indigenous incarceration, but said he was working on a number of initiatives with state and territory governments he believed would reduce incarceration rates.
Vague. Waffle. Never mind the subeditors, Gordon is at editorial level - has he no pride in his work? Is this what The Age confuses with compelling, high-quality content? Both superjournos missed Scullion sliding around whether or not incarceration rates should be included in Close the Gap metrics.

Readers owe no loyalty to such sloppy journalism. Senior media figures who deny this are sleepwalking their companies to disaster. You lose more than six readers by pumping out drivel like that, day after day, and leaving big important issues to go begging.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission[er] Mick Gooda, who is also co-chair of the Close the Gap campaign, said he was not concerned by the lack on consensus [sic] in the Parliament.
This whole article has been fretting about exactly that. The whole article by Gordon and Harrison would be better for having been informed by such wisdom.
"I think bipartisanship will be pretty safe. I gotta say, within that bipartisanship, we still need tension. We still need oppositions to hold government to account. It doesn't mean we don't have any debate around it, either outside or inside the parliament."
Imagine: debates outside the parliament being as important as those inside. Gordon and Harrison just can't even begin to make that leap.

Gordon and Harrison honour Gooda and good sense by giving him the last word, however unwittingly. The fact that there was a partisan kerfuffle among non-Indigenous people using Indigenous issues is of no consequence. It makes you wonder why Gordon and Harrison even bother with this stuff.

The debate, and what they're debating about, and what issues they're raising in the debate - that's what is interesting, and what's newsworthy. Penny-ante breaches of protocol and he-said-he-said bullshit is the stuff that excites Gordon and Harrison, and most of the rest of the press gallery - but there's no future in it.

Pieces like these, by Virginia Trioli and Jenna Price, arise from stories like the above debacle but fail for the same reason. They nod to Big Issues and a flick to Both Sides for Failing To Address The Real Issues - but give media coverage of said issues a free pass. They get circulated among journalists as Must Read and make exactly no difference to anyone or anything.

People want to help close the gap, but we don't know where to start; any effort seems to be patronising, or counterproductive, or misplaced, or otherwise inadequate. I can stand being called a bleeding heart if I know my actions make a real difference. Concrete policy and a focus on outcomes helps build understanding. It helps us assess whether governments are doing well or badly. A focus on personalities, a pose of 'balance', and 'he-said-he-said' doesn't even help the journalists who write such crap - let alone anyone else.


  1. Oh it does my heart good to read your blog. it is a sunbeam of sanity in an increasingly mad world. Good on Shorten though.

  2. Keep swatting away at these drones. Am finding them increasingly tedious and superficial; bearing in mind my critical faculties have been sharpened by lurking in the shadows of ruined columns of Politically Homeless.
    The wider 'net is starting to by-pass them, like King Canute's incoming tide.

  3. Andrew,

    Bravo - this is one of the best posts you've written. Should be mandatory reading for every journalism student - and daresay the practitioners as well.

    Thank you.

  4. An commenter picked up on the bullshit almost straight away:

    "What is this bipartisan politics nonsense on indigenous issues? From the time of the 2014 budget Labor was bemoaning the cut in indigenous funding. Media interest nil. There was no bipartisan agreement on that. There was no bipartisan agreement on the incoming government proverbially pissing on tyres removing and renaming existing indigenous programs just so it looks like the adults are in charge.
    "So where does this alleged bipartisanship come from?"

  5. That was a pretty telling point you made there Andrew about MPs wanting to be heard more yet denying that privilege to the Leader of the Opposition.

    That walk-out says a great deal about the state of the government which seems seems incapable of making a compelling argument about anything at all. Everything is always the ALP's fault. The sole purpose of government, it seems, is to remain in power. There is something fundamentally undemocratic about that.

    Grown up, confident MPs would listen to opposing views and present a counter, rational argument.

    The storm-out makes a nonsense of all the internal clamouring for the PM to listen to his backbench.

    I must say I have some sympathy for Abbott here. Hasn't he got enough on his plate without having to endure lectures and advice from MPs in the back blocks? Some of them make Abbott appear eloquent.

    1. The sole purpose of government, it seems, is to remain in power... My thoughts was that it was to ensure that the Australian people understood that everything bad is always, categorically and unambiguously Labor's fault.

      I have no sympathy for Abbott.

  6. Well said.


  7. The Walkers of Shame


    Russell Broadbent – McMillan – 2PP 2013 61.83%
    Andrew Nikolic – Bass – (why is it they like ex-military types so much down there?) – 2PP 2013 54.04%
    Melissa Price – Durack – (one of the Libs’ non-blonde females) – 2PP 2013 53.98%
    Angus Taylor – Hume – (another Rhodes scholar) – 2PP 2013 53.97%


    John Cobb – Calare – 2PP 2013 57.85%
    Ken O'Dowd – Flynn – 2PP 2013 56.53%

    All sort of rural; none of them knife-edge (in any sense).

    Also - and this is truly shameful:


  8. Drug abuse, child abuse, zero employable skills, poor education and health. That is what they are trying to fix. I can't see it ever happening unless two things happen.
    1. Dry communities that have training and opportunities for lasting and transferable employment within the broader community. Tourism is the big industry here I would have thought. I think there is a real desire to understand and preserve aboriginal culture and bush law outside of the aboriginal communities themselves. This should be tapped into.
    2. Take children away from parents who can't look after them. I don't care if you are black, white, red or yellow. If you can't look after your children or yourself, you are dooming them to repeat the same mistakes, poverty and hopelessness generation after generation.

    But of course, it's easier to express regret after the fact and/or throw more money at a problem without actually trying to fix it.
    The other factor is largely, I think it isn't a big vote winner, so nothing serious is ever going to be done about it. More votes can be won being "tough on crime" than giving an aboriginal community some way of supporting themselves and having a future.

  9. Jon Stewart Mill13/2/15 7:55 am

    You probably remember that on the morning of The Spill That Wasn't there was a protest outside Parliament House. The protest was about Aboriginal deaths in custody. (It's 2015. Why is this still a thing?) Meanwhile, 'Sunrise' was previewing the spill vote. Not only were they completely incurious as to what the protest was about, they actually started whingeing that the protesters were too loud! It was typical of the lazy, arrogant attitude the media takes to Aboriginal issues - and to every other issue, come to think of it.

    The point is, the last paragraph of this post contains more wisdom and common sense than anything I've ever found in the mainstream media. We want to know where to start and the media doesn't want to find out. Thanks for reminding us that there are more important issues than the desperate exertions of a drowning man.

  10. Jon Stewart Mill13/2/15 9:02 am

    Here's an article that provides the useful analysis missing in the Gordon/Harrison piece: http://www.crikey.com.au/2014/12/17/trauma-in-the-kimberley-what-life-is-like-in-remote-indigenous-communities/

  11. Political bipartisanship is rare in politics.

    1967 was one of the few times the partisan politics gave way to the community bipartisan demands.

    Australians in 1967 amended their Constitution to eliminate, to extinguish, to outlaw, ALL legislation discriminating between Australians using grounds of race as the measure.

    Go read Harold Holt PM's second reading speech.

    Who voted to support, to widen, racial discrimination ?

    Australian Constitution is legislation of the Australian voters, not Parliament.

    Commonwealth continued to apply racial discrimination upon Australians.

    Commonwealth claimed pre-1967 it was without power to pass laws, or qualify the rights of Australians who were Aboriginals.

    Yet it never stopped them, prior to 1967, nor since 1967.

    Commonwealth authorises and supports the segregation of Australian families.

    Commonwealth denies basic rights, residents in Commonwealth funded communities, speically those lucky to have housing still denied basic tenancy rights, including their right for family, friends and others to visit them.

    Commonwealth created corporate Land Trusts deny their shareholders, "Traditional Owners" as residents leases for their hones, all funded with Commonwealth money.

    Refusing leases -- because leases give them rights.

    Refusing leases, because without them the corporate Land Trusts ignore their corporate responsibility as Land Lords, to service and maintain those houses, leaving it to Commonwealth or state/territory government.

    Term "Aboriginal" is used to encourage most readers to switch off, thinking it neither effects them nor relates to them, and, to support Commonwealth claims is OK to qualify our rights as Australians using racial tags.

    The issues around Deaths in Custody, were addressed as Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, only later accepting need to deal with ALL Deaths in Custody, the wider scale enabled really addressing the issues.

    Majority of prisoners are not just Aboriginal, most are poorly educated, illiterate, mentally ill, struggling to understand what goes on around in the wider community, and how they ended up inside.

    Addressing prison problem as an Aboriginal problem, avoids addressing illiteracy, mental illness, lack of understanding.

    IF want fewer prisoners, start with an automatic test to review each prisoners literacy, numeracy and oral english capablities of prisoners.