30 April 2015

Expecting the unexpected

When any disaster happens it is reasonable to ask: could we have foreseen this, and could we have done anything to stop it?

The deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have been disastrous for Australia. People who once disdained them have been confronted with the awful unspinnable finality and barbarity of death, and government-mandated death at that. Our search for meaning has kicked off debates over the death penalty, the criminalisation of drugs, prison as a place of rehabilitation - even quaint protocols like blindfolds, or having a spiritual advisor present, when facing execution.

All of those debates goes back at some point to public policy, requiring responses and planning and resources to be spent. The debates arising from these deaths are different from most public policy debates in this country, initiated by a government wishing to announce a solution they have already developed. There is very little engagement from public figures in these debates: policy wonks on drugs and prison reform will get a bit of airtime and bounce their ideas around until they die from lack of traction.

Yesterday there was a palpable sense that the government had let us down in some way, without any clear idea how or why. This morning, media outlets interviewed Barnaby Joyce on the issues arising from the deaths of Chan and Sukumaran. Whenever the Coalition want to introduce a red herring into public debate, they wheel out Joyce.

Hard-hitting, savvy journalists should be awake to the Joyce ruse. If they had any professional pride they would resent being played. But they aren't, and they don't: off they went, following Joyce's lead on reintroducing the death penalty here. Traditional media enjoys debates that are heated and which lead to absolutely no change that might require coverage and analysis. They are happy to spare themselves the hard work of wondering how this situation might have been handled better.

When President Widodo was elected last year, foreign policy analysts wrote vague articles about how he might not be well disposed toward Australia. Places like the Lowy Institute, fatuous commentators like Greg Sheridan, all pretended to know more than they did. Nobody seemed to foresee that he would stop taking calls from this country's government and turn a deaf ear to the very idea of clemency, not only to Chan and Sukumaran but to the mentally-ill Rodrigo Gularte.

Isn't it lazy to assert that this really be just another kerfuffle that blows over soon enough - or as with the passing of a cyclone, will the landscape be changed by the blowing-over? Was there really no way of knowing Indonesian politics would lead Australia to this desolate, unproductive place, or where we might go from here? One thing's for sure: it's a joke to say that "Indonesia's credibility is at stake".

In all the escalating calls that Something Must Be Done, all those the last-minute appeals, there was no consideration given to the public debate in Indonesia: they too have their death-penalty opponents, and their drug-policy absolutists, and there too they talk past one another. We have less clout in Asia than we imagined - we are to that continent what Tasmania is to ours.

With his blithe dismissal of Australia's feeble, ill-considered threats of diplomatic action, HM Prasetyo looks like an absolute prick - but no more so than Scott Morrison, or Eric Abetz. Populist politics can work well for governments, and for journalists who cheer them on, but when the same politics goes against them the populists squeal loudest - and journalists cover the reversals like they were unexpected, and unfair.

Nobody seemed to anticipate the fact that the executions were announced on Anzac Day, and how it was a calculated insult to Australia. I've grown up watching interviews of old diggers, when asked why they volunteered to join a world war, exclaim "I wanted to see the world!" - a sentiment echoed by members of the Bali Nine, and by me at times, and maybe even by your own self dear reader.

Foreign policy is predicated on a strict division between high matters of principle (big themes: global initiatives, multi-lateral agreements) and consular matters (petty themes: Australians breaching foreign laws); in this case, as with Peter Greste in Egypt, these supposedly parallel facets of our foreign policy collided. Could this reshape the way we conduct our foreign policy?

Nobody seemed to measure developments in Indonesia against Abbott's proposal for "Jakarta-centred foreign policy". Whatever that might mean, or have meant, it looks like yet another area of policy in which Abbott is hopelessly out of his depth but can't avoid. Waleed Aly's fourth point exonerates Abbott - but I'm not so sure. Who knows what, if anything, Abbott feels? Does the Prime Minister have no advisors - in the permanent public service or in his partisan office - who could have crafted a better message for a man who has been a spokesperson all his life, at such a time?

We need better coverage of policy because that is the only way for citizens/ voters/ taxpayers/ people to judge whether we are being governed well or badly. The press-gallery method of covering politics is bullshit: stuck fast in meaningless minutiae, too easily ambushed by 'events' which they can't understand except by being spoon-fed by those with an agenda; too easily nobbled.

When the traditional media act all surprised at foreseeable events it isn't thrilling hype - it's boring, and robs us of the ability to seek out better policy, and to hold policy-makers to account. It does traditional media no favours either.

Jonathan Green attempts to draw false equivalence between traditional media - which has a tradition of restraint and in-depth consideration of complex issues - and social media, which doesn't, and which (especially in the case of Twitter) is constrained by space issues. Social media is not obliged to pick up the dropped baton of well-informed, nuanced information about complex issues. It is out of control because it was never under anyone's control, something that can't be said of the top-down empires of traditional media. Perhaps Green's implication is all too accurate (reinforced by Mr Denmore) that we cannot reasonably expect traditional media to lift their game.

A badly-informed populace is something journalists should take less delight and bemusement in than they do. Brigid Delaney probably consumes more Australian media than anyone, yet she was surprised by the outcome in a way that no well-read person should be. It is proof that journalism, and all the resources devoted to it (including legal protections and feather-bedding in places like the press gallery) has failed, and failures have no excuse sneering at those no better than they.

Chan, Sukumaran and the other members of the 'Bali Nine' were arrested in 2006. We've been through three Prime Ministers since then, and Indonesia has changed President. There are wider issues about what our foreign policy even is, and how it is developed and executed - and the way it is reported, and the role foreign policy plays in the narrative over whether the incumbents govern us well or badly.

That said, what does democratic input in this area look like? No country manages its foreign policy on the basis of populism and democratic will - it is largely an elite preoccupation, one that tends to change little with political complexion. Policy-makers don't have the political tools to engage the public, especially where security agencies get involved. Journalists are easily fobbed off with the "operational matters" thing, especially with recent legislation against disclosure.

While policies themselves will come under less and less scrutiny, the results of half-baked policy will become increasingly clear. Debates over big issues will go on in different media and call for public resources. When previously trusted sources of information on public policy (traditional media and what are now major parties) fail, people will have to pick up the slack - but how, and with what? That's the challenge of our age. Spokespeople and their bemused observers overestimate their ability even to describe the challenge, let alone meet it.

18 April 2015

Sweating the small stuff

Eventually, a section of the political class that has ascended to high office through back-room maneuverings and media stunts comes to the realisation that governing is more about day-to-day grind than maneuverings and stuntwork. This becomes the real test of the government. Some never recover from the shock: this is the point where ministers often come crashing down or quit 'unexpectedly' as some gobbet of Canberra gossip finally makes it into traditional media coverage.

Some rise to the challenge and end up with achievements they never expected earlier in their political careers: they end up having presided over some major reform quite by accident, never having expressed any interest in the issue (or even having scorned it). This is how Martin Ferguson of the ACTU ended up as some sort of expert on mining policy, and how Peter Howson parlayed a few undistinguished months as a paternalist Aboriginal Affairs minister into decades of inane commentary.

The exhaustion of political silly-buggers in the face of day-to-day reality surprised Lenore Taylor, who felt the need to explain the inevitable as though it were novel, even 'commendable':
When leadership speculation was rife in early March and the government was still struggling with the political death throes of savings measures from its previous budget, Abbott spelled out his immediate strategy to his party room with commendable candour. He was changing focus, he said, from policies the government was unable to get through the “feral Senate” to smaller things that didn’t need Senate approval, but would appear “meaningful” and “positive” to the person on the street.

Headlines about policies rejected by voters and defeated in the Senate were duly replaced by scores of announcements about taskforces on the ice epidemic, crackdowns on childhood immunisations, inactive bank accounts, country of origin labelling on food, codes of conduct for supermarkets and sod turnings for new roads.

It was a deliberate plan to ease the sense of crisis engulfing the government, soothe the party room panic and restore some semblance of normal, to use the short attention span of the 24-hour news cycle to the government’s advantage by filling it up with small, positive things while the large unsolved budgetary questions were considered in the background.
Take any government that lost office over the past decade or so: Rudd/Gillard, Bligh and Newman in Queensland, Napthine in Victoria, Giddings in Tasmania, Keneally in NSW. At different stages they stopped poring over polls and focus groups and turned to flurries of new announcements, the way distressed cuttlefish squirt ink: a new road here, something to get you photographed with little children there, a taskforce, something else to get you photographed wearing hi-vis, etc.

If experience counted for anything in political journalism, the press gallery would be awake to that; they are wrong to assume their readers/ viewers/ listeners are not. Large unsolved budgetary questions are very much in the foreground of the commentary I read - though, admittedly, I have to hunt for it rather than just get handed a press release.

Remember how all that activity by the Gillard government was framed:
  • "In another desperate attempt to shore up her leadership, the Prime Minister announced ..."
  • "The Opposition has criticised the government for its attempts to ..."
For some reason, coverage of the Abbott government is not framed in that way. It is no more popular than the Gillard government was three years ago. Even after the disconnect between what Abbott says and what Abbott does is clear to everyone but journalists, the press gallery still flock to his announcements as though that broken connection was strong enough to support the weight of government, journalism and public expectations combined.

The "24-hour news cycle" did that framing to lift individual issues above the business-as-usual context the (beleaguered) government sought to create. The "24-hour news cycle" and the (beleaguered) government accused one another of spin. Whoever was in opposition at the time just stood there and accrued a credibility they did not deserve, because the "24-hour news cycle" lacked the skills and the inclination to assess how they might govern. People rely on the "24-hour news cycle" to show them who will govern best: ongoing disappointment has diminished the "24-hour news cycle" as a credible source of information, or even as an excuse.

Colin Barnett benefitted from this on the upside in 2008. The WA Labor government couldn't take a trick (despite being led by a former journalist, who doggedly insisted on "getting on with the job") and Barnett was set to retire until a bizarre sequence of events saw him thrust into the Premiership. He presided over a mining boom, and thought he was intensifying and prolonging it by cutting out long-term investment proposals: no to the new train line, no to a new stadium (see this and that on the investment return on stadiums), no to additional school funding. He gave the Treasury to wasteful, destructive oaf Troy Buswell, and then to some numpty from the IPA.

When his luck ran out he couldn't believe it, like this had never happened to any WA Premier before.

He fell back on that mainstay of WA politics: blame Canberra. He thundered into COAG this week as though running out of fuel halfway between Nowhere in Particular and Nowhere Else was someone else's fault, and not something that should ever rebound on him. When he disputed the feel-good message of COAG's commitments on domestic violence and other issues by saying "I must have been at a different meeting", he wasn't seizing the initiative. He just looked like a doddery old man who didn't get it.

Barnett and Nahan have always been starve-the-beast small government men: their squabbling for public coin is unedifying to say the least. Abbott gave him that same smirk that he gave Napthine when he embraced him before the Victorian election - Howard knew that the fewer Liberal Premiers there are, the better it was for him. Abbott always had a keen nose for weakness.

In Australia, the state/territory level is mainly responsible for the delivery of social services on which the nation relies most heavily: health, education, transport, law-and-order. In Canberra, the press gallery regard COAG as a game show in which the PM succeeds only when the states/territories get as little as possible to deliver those services - then, after each COAG, they write disquisitions on how dysfunctional federal-state relations are.

No leader who so recently faced a leadership spill ever got such a free run as Tony Abbott is getting now. Lenore Taylor can describe that free run but not explain it, except by referring to the mass-psychosis of press gallery norms as though they were natural phenomena like the weather, or "24 hour news cycle"; affecting all humans but never itself subject to human agency.

Barnett is showing Abbott, and anyone else who can bear to watch, what happens when a government has run out of options and luck. Barnett had a good go, and a longer go, than Abbott. Barnett faces the prospect that his legacy consists only of cuts - cuts to Aboriginal communities, and no doubt cuts to non-Aboriginal communities coming up in Nahan's next budget, followed by cuts to the number of Liberals in the WA parliament at the next state election.

Nahan has his ideology to take comfort in cuts, and not to care about electoral consequences. He can commission a poll from the Lomborg Institute to show everything will be just fine, eventually. Barnett is part of that WA elite who regard themselves as builders first and foremost. He sees his future, and that of his state, stretched out before him like a patient etherised upon a table at Fiona Stanley Hospital - and, in short, he is afraid, and right to be afraid. He's an old man, he doesn't do "eventually".

Whether WA Labor are ready for government is an open question that probably can't be answered, or even adequately explored, by the state's terrible media.

Tony Abbott has cut his way to a similar predicament to Barnett. He is not the small-government ideologue that Nahan is but nor is he a builder. He, too, will run out of options as unemployment rises and tax revenues fall, and the getting-on-with-it thing will convince fewer and fewer people. The press gallery won't be able to predict that, either; and unlike Taylor they will barely be able to describe it. They will still assume - and insist, despite all evidence - that Abbott has some deeper reserves to call upon not available to other failing leaders.

07 April 2015

With all due respect

Occasionally, press gallery journalists will show that they are even more dumb and/or sneaky in avoiding their central responsibility of telling us how we are governed.

Soon after taking office, Tony Abbott hired a TV cameraman so he could shoot his own flattering footage and have it sent directly to newsrooms, bypassing the press gallery. Now he has hired a stills cameraman, and Stephanie Peatling acts all surprised and sad.
It was not uncommon for the weekend television news to have only Mr Abbott's weekly video message, recorded by his staff and distributed on a Sunday, to use in bulletins.
They have plenty of options for the use of images, and of stories, other than those provided to them by the PM's office. They use those images because they're lazy. They don't check what Abbott says against sources of actual truth, which is a pretty good definition of journalistic failure. TV news ratings reflect this failure as, just because dopey news editors want to show the pap pumped at them from Canberra, viewers aren't obliged to watch it. Peatling's attempt to drum up sympathy for poor news editors just emphasises their failures rather than excusing them.

Peatling refers to a staged black-and-white picture of NSW Premier Mike Baird and his wife, which is similar to the staged pictures that former US President John F. Kennedy and his wife half a century ago. There have been many developments that have buffeted the Australian (and US) media and politics in recent years, and people like Peatling and those who employ her can be forgiven to some extent for not reacting quickly and deftly to all of these. For Baird to use a media-management technique from more than fifty years ago, and to have such a technique stump the Australian media, is laughable.

This, however, is the clincher:
Previously, media photographers were relied upon to take the pictures, which would then be selected by editors and placed in newspapers according to what a range of people judged to be the best image to illustrate a story.
Whenever journalists lapse into the passive voice they are up to no good, and this is another example. By "a range of people", Peatling means groupthink victims in an editorial team.

To give one recent example: a few days before the government introduced legislation that would imprison investigative journalists and their sources, "a range of people" decided that the image that best illustrated "the story" was one of the Prime Minister eating an onion. These people still control vast media resources and can direct journalists cover any number of stories - but they all decided the onion-eater image was the one that best prepared us for the coming of that legislation.

The sorts of people who make decisions like that are the sorts of people who hire Stephanie Peatling - people like Peter Hartcher. Now they're being ambushed by political media strategies that are half a century old. This is beyond risible, like being run over by a glacier.
Now, politicians can readily bypass that filter.
Really, was there ever a filter there? Whose interests did it serve? Was it just a make-work scheme for "a range of people"?
"It's one thing to go down the United States president path," Mr Kelly said. "But you have to ask yourself where it ends."
Every modern election campaign is 'presidential' and borrows to different degrees from techniques used in the US. This is hardly the novel, unexpected development Peatling and her source trying to make it out to be.

Tony Abbott has been a media operative since leaving the priesthood, and has worked out how to play the press gallery better than almost anyone who has occupied the Prime Ministership. He pulls stunts, he stonewalls, and they can't get enough. Now he's replacing them, sending audio, video and script direct into newsrooms.

He's doing it slowly enough - if he got called on it he'd backtrack and get the gallery to forgive him, and then when they were all busy he'd do it again. This is how Abbott works. The very people who should see this coming most clearly are completely surprised. And the beautiful thing - for Abbott - is that they don't even blame him.
Mr Abbott's office was contacted for comment but did not respond.
Bloody staffers!

Traditional media organisations want the government to send its competitors to prison. The government is happy to oblige, in return for not being criticised. And they are engaging in this dirty little arrangement in the name of freedom.

Successive governments have moved to restrict our freedoms over recent years. Occasionally journalists notice, after a while. Often they regard opposition to such measures as the work of hysterics and cranks. The restriction of freedoms under the Abbott government has been noticeable for how long it took the press gallery to notice them, and appreciate their severity. They still believe that internet users are a tiny minority of the population and a greater threat to traditional media than the laws themselves.

Only now, elements of the media from beyond the press gallery - media head offices, the MEAA, universities, and non-press-gallery journalists - have started to become involved. They realise the gravity of these laws was not conveyed by those on the ground, at the scene, the ones with all that Canberra savvy, whose job it is to tell us how we are governed.

What Laurie Oakes is doing here is not standing up for freedom, and rallying his readership. He is admitting to colossal professional failure. Restrictive legislation passed through parliament under his very nose and he just watched it go by. Now, he's doing a deal with the government to protect his EXCLUSIVEs but which does nothing to protect - let alone inform - anyone outside the parliament or the press gallery. This is a sneaky, ridiculous commercial deal at the expense of the rights and freedoms of all Australians.
... the Government has been alarmed by the strength of criticism from media of the Data Retention Bill it wants passed before Parliament rises in a fortnight. Bosses, journalists, even the Press Council, are up in arms, not only over this measure, but also over aspects of two earlier pieces of national security legislation that interfere with the ability of the media to hold government to account.
That legislation has passed, and as Oakes pointed out two other pieces of legislation also passed; journalists in the press gallery, employed for the sole purpose of monitoring what politicians are up to, missed its significance (see the onion-eater example above). There might have been a time when a united, concentrated effort might have stopped legislation like that in its tracks. That time has passed. Oakes is chronicling, and embodying, its decline.

In the decade following World War II, Australian governments tried drastic measures to impose order on issues that were too big for them. The Chifley government tried to nationalise the banks and the Menzies government tried to ban the Communist Party. Both measures were opposed by the media and thrown out by the courts. It remains to be seen whether this mass surveillance legislation is unconstitutional, but the response from the media hasn't been as ferocious as Oakes pretends.
The Press Council is concerned the laws would crush investigative journalism.
Stephen Conroy suggested the Press Council had more power over journalists and their employers than it does. He was portrayed as Stalin for suggesting measures that are trifling by comparison to actual legislation passed by the Abbott government. The media outlet that did that is the one that employed Oakes when Conroy was a minister, and which employs him still.
“These legitimate concerns cannot be addressed effectively short of exempting journalists and media organisations,” says president David Weisbrot.

The media union is adamant journalists’ metadata must be exempted from the law. That’s what media bosses want, too, though they have a fallback position based on new safeguards being implemented in Britain.

That would prevent access to the metadata of journalists or media organisations without a judicial warrant. There would be a code including — according to the explanatory notes of the British Bill — “provision to protect the public interest in the confidentiality of journalistic sources”.
There are two things to be said here.

First: the journalists' union, the MEAA, represents not only investigative journalists but also non-investigative journalists in the press gallery. The failure of the press gallery to raise the alarm, to explain to the public why an attack on their interests is an attack upon us all (as the banks did to their staff and customers in the 1940s) has put their investigative colleagues in the firing line, which is against the interests of media consumers, citizens and taxpayers. They need unity and discipline, but eventually they will need to acknowledge that the whole thing has become necessary only because the press gallery were asleep on the job.

Second: all Australians deserve freedom, not just those employed by the organisations that employ members of the press gallery.

Oakes and all those people on committees with him stand ready to sell everyone down the river so long as he and his get a little more wriggle-room, at the hands of "public interest guardians" who are hired and fired by the Prime Minister just like Peatling's photographer buddy.
In their meetings this week, the government team boasted of concessions in the new Data Retention Bill ... whenever an authorisation is issued for access to information about a journalist’s sources, the Ombudsman (or, where ASIO is involved, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security) will receive a copy.
Memories of the grief Conroy brought down on his head would undoubtedly make Abbott sit up and take notice.
Is that your considered judgment, Laurie, the fruit of a half-century of intimate knowledge of this country's politics and media? Pffft.

It has been said that Malcolm Turnbull began his working life in service to Kerry Packer and ends it in service to Murdoch; the same can be said of Oakes, who has not been a trusted source of political news for at least half a decade.

As a student, Kevin Rudd cleaned Oakes' house, and when Rudd was Prime Minister Oakes used all his gravitas and media pull to insist Rudd's government was fine, when it was tanking. The downfall of Kevin Rudd in 2010 undid the old media model whereby journos gave favourable coverage to preferred politicians; that preferred coverage meant the public were bewildered when Rudd failed so publicly, and when people like Oakes could neither predict it nor explain why it happened.

When [$] Chris Wallace insisted "Oakes goes where the story takes him, however it affects friend or foe", she wrote falsely and must assume that we have been paying as little attention to twenty-first century political journalism as she has.

With all due respect, the government is playing a wider game with regard to the information it releases to those it governs, and the role of the traditional media within that. Those who work in the traditional media, particularly those who observe politicians and legislative procedures up close, have no excuse for not being awake to that, and to do more than they did to head off this predicament.

What media offered politicians was a relationship with the community that machine politicians lacked; now the absence of that relationship, that conduit, has been exposed. Laurie Oakes and Stephanie Peatling both do the more-in-sorrow-than-anger pantomime, but their surprise and lack of preparation is pathetic.

The press gallery can no longer tell us much about how we are governed, or even very much about by whom. The press gallery, by its own admission, is worthless. It seems better to preserve the empty charade than to work toward something better.

06 April 2015

Peter Hartcher and the kindness of strangers

Peter Hartcher thinks he has ascended to a high clear place where he knows our political leaders well and can trumpet their virtues across the land, reinforcing our respect for them and him and also, perhaps, improving our understanding of how we are governed. Only when you read his pieces do you realise how much he is kidding himself.

Take this, where he is trying to get you to accept the fact that Scott Morrison is on the rise and there is nothing you can do about it: you have to accept Hartcher's premises unquestioningly, just as he accepts Morrison's.
A boatload of asylum seekers had crashed into the rocky cliffs of Christmas Island in stormy seas. Forty-eight people died. Forty-two survived. When some of the survivors travelled to Sydney for the funerals of their relatives, the federal government paid some of their travel costs. Morrison complained about it.

It was a formative moment in the public's impression of Morrison, then opposition spokesman for immigration.

"I was wary of dealing with Morrison after that," says Xenophon. "His comments were appalling." Many others had the same reaction. The former Liberal leader, John Hewson, called his remarks "insensitive, lacking appropriate compassion, even inhumane". I described him at the time as "the greatest grub in the federal parliament".
Morrison diminished the humanity of those who died, and their grieving relatives. His comments then gave an insight as to how he would behave as minister, and someone like Peter Hartcher should have been awake to that. Instead, Hartcher was peeved at the then government for dumping his best source ever, Kevin Rudd. Anyone who opposed both Gillard and Rudd, as Morrison did, and who talked the language of polls and talkback radio (which people like Hartcher, and Michael Gordon from The Age, regard as the epitome of political sophistication) did not prompt scrutiny on Hartcher's part but instead a simple awe.
Once in power, Morrison went on to do what Labor had said was impossible. As immigration minister, he stopped the boats. Totally. He was effective.
Rubbish. He stopped announcing boat turnbacks. He held farcical press conferences. He was effective only in fooling gullible clowns like Peter Hartcher and those who report to him.
His treatment of asylum seekers appeared to be exuberantly harsh. He was effective, but he was ugly.
His treatment of asylum seekers has been catalogued by the Human Rights Commission, the Moss Report, and international agencies including the UN. Hatcher is wrong to gloss over that, and to elevate Canberra impressions over realities on the ground.
Second only to Tony Abbott, Morrison became the most divisive figure in the federal cabinet. When his alma mater, Sydney Boys High School, invited him to appear as the guest speaker at a fundraising dinner, nearly three hundred old boys signed a letter demanding the invitation be withdrawn. The dissenters did not want to "endorse the actions of a man who has demonstrated callous disregard for human rights".
He's not a 'divisive figure', he's an arsehole. Do what a real journalist should have done and go to Sydney Boys High School, ask the boys about their migration stories and those of their parents, and realise that Morrison was a poor choice for a role like that.
Morrison suggested ...
Who cares? The interests of hundreds of boys, old or not, is not trumped by some half-baked quip. Hartcher is wrong to frame this issue in this way.
"A lot of people are now asking, who is Scott Morrison?" a Labor frontbencher posed this week.
This is Peter Hartcher's favourite type of journalism: anonymous source. Anonymous sources insisted for years that Costello would challenge Howard, they were there when Labor and Liberal underwent leadership challenges, they chewed up space that should have been devoted to policy - and then Peter Hartcher wrote sonorous pieces about how successive governments could not do policy because leadership. Even after Rudd was trounced in leadership ballots, Hartcher's anonymous sources were the artificial resuscitation for his political career. Rather than examine his own reporting practices he declared the whole country to be adolescent, rather than his reporting method. If you cut anonymous-source articles out of Peter Hartcher's backlog he would be left with a slender offering indeed.

Media organisations in the US and Britain apparently have rules surrounding the use of anonymous sources. These rules are frequently broken - Woodward and Bernstein's reporting of Watergate relied entirely on an anonymous source - but in Australia there are no such rules. An Australian journalist who has a story rejected due to over-reliance on anonymous sources should count themselves unlucky. Hartcher's underlings at the SMH lined up to bag this anonymous-source article online, not daring to take on Hartcher nor do anything to put their own house in order (see The proper use of anonymous sources here).
Consider three Morrison actions.
Yes, let's.
First, Morrison persuaded Tony Abbott to euthanise his long cherished but half-dead pet, his forlorn paid parental leave policy ... Abbott had protected his PPL from Liberal party assassins, sustained it through six years and two elections, and spent enormous amounts of precious political capital to keep it alive. But the Senate would not endorse it.
Why is Morrison not an 'assassin'? When does a Liberal Party policy become a policy? Why don't Senators get the credit that Hartcher would sheet home to Morrison?
But Abbott's new minister for social services convinced the prime minister that it was time to let the PPL die. This would free some funds for a more important purpose – improving childcare.
No it won't. The 1.5% levy on big business that was to accompany the PPL has been abandoned. No funding that would have gone to PPL will go to childcare or anything else.
Second, Morrison conducted emergency surgery on an even more urgent policy disaster that he inherited.

Three days before Christmas last year, his predecessor, Kevin Andrews, had quietly started to cut off a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of federal funding that had been expected to support community services over four years ... Morrison announced that all the community groups would keep their existing funding till June 30 while the government reconsidered the policy. He is working now on a longer-term fix.
This is not policy, or even surgery; it's a cat-and-mouse game. Morrison is not a builder of policy but a stunt man attuned to the media cycle.
Third, Morrison amazed many by doing something rare among Abbott government ministers. Instead of trying to ram poorly conceived policies down the throats of a reluctant country, the new minister for social services sat down and listened.
Having failed to scrutinise the Abbott government in any meaningful way, Hartcher is trying to make a virtue of a necessity, to render basic competence extraordinary and deserving of gratitude.
Nick Xenophon again: "There is a public perception that Morrison is a mean, uncompromising bastard, but I've found him to be terrific to deal with."
Xenophon voted before Christmas to have children released from immigration detention, as Morrison promised they would. They haven't been released. Xenophon has been made to look foolish once, and now twice with that quote; the fact that children are still in detention and that Morrison used them as bargaining chips is still the issue here.

Again, where the 'public perception' differs from reality is a failure of journalism.
The cost of the age pension today is the equivalent of 2.9 per cent of GDP. The Intergenerational Report found that this will rise to 3.6 per cent over 40 years. That equates in today's terms to $14.5 billion a year in extra spending. As Morrison points out to welfare advocates, that's equal to the cost of the full-fledged National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Or, equal to the cost of 15 F-35s, or [insert your idea of $14.8b of public sector bloat here]. While Morrison isn't the Minister for Defence, but the political editor should bring a wider perspective.
... Morrison has adopted an ACOSS idea to tighten eligibility for the pension. At the moment, a couple can own their home, have $1.1 million in investments and still receive a part pension. ACOSS proposes reducing the extra assets threshold to about $800,000 instead. This measure alone would save the budget $1.5 billion a year without hurting the poorest pensioners.
Morrison has accepted nothing of the sort: no announcement, no commitment whatsoever, another 'consideration' designed to disarm ACOSS and fool Hartcher.
Morrison is also working to improve childcare.
Childcare is an issue of direct interest to my family, and I'm not convinced Morrison won't make things worse. Note Hartcher does not know or care enough to investigate what the problems are and who the knowledgeable stakeholders might be. Even if you give Morrison the benefit of the doubt, sincere and well-meant measures can be counterproductive; Hatcher can't tell, relying entirely on Canberra shenanigans rather than policy outcomes.
Labor has been surprised and a little taken aback at Morrison's new collegiality. When he first sat down with Labor's childcare spokesman, Kate Ellis, to seek common ground, she, like Xenophon, was wary. Was Morrison wanting to meet just so he could say he was meeting? Look at me, I'm the new, warm and friendly, bipartisan Scott Morrison! But eventually Ellis decided he was serious. He really does want to put together a practical and responsible childcare policy, she decided. And he's not being nice for the sake of it – he wants to get it through the parliament. Bipartisanship is practical politics.
Bipartisan outcomes can be impractical, as Manus Island shows. Policy does not end once a bill passes through the parliament; this is so obvious that it ought to go without saying, but only if you could negate it could you support Hartcher's belief that "[b]ipartisanship is practical politics".
Childcare is expected to be the centrepiece of a families package that the government plans to announce in the next month or so, before the budget.
Covering off with people who know about childcare will enable you to evaluate this package, otherwise you rely entirely on he-said-she-said from Morrison and Ellis. On this government's form it's likely that the budget will undercut the package, and that Hartcher will not notice until someone in the sector points it out (and then the coverage will be about "controversy" rather than the issue itself).
But the government will also demand offsetting concessions from the Senate on some cost-cutting measures already before it.
Morrison won't sit down and listen to them, it would seem, just demand. This goes against Hartcher's leopard-changing-spots narrative, doesn't it.
Morrison sees childcare as a social issue, but also an economic one. A key aim – to give more single parents the childcare support they need to get into the workforce. It's about participation. Single income families with young kids need extra help with childcare to hold down a job. Morrison wants to give it to them.

This economic theme of participation is to be a recurring theme in Morrison's approach to reforming social services.
Morrison isn't entitled to be taken at his word, as Hartcher unwittingly demonstrates later in his piece by reference to Morrison's promise-everything-deliver-nothing approach on asylum seekers. He can't imagine why children would need education, or even to be free of abuse and neglect; that such a man now wants to look after children, or would even know where to start, strains the credibility of everyone but Thirsty Pete.

Tony Abbott's whole political outlook assumes that Australia's mothers are, and want to be, stay-at-home-mums like his own wife. Any "package" put up would not have the comprehensive policy reinforcement it would need to succeed. Hartcher can't pick that because he has no respect for policy in that area.

Peter Hartcher has been lost since his career high-point as Rudd's apologist. He couldn't get any inside running from Abbott. who didn't need Hartcher. Hartcher tried Joe Hockey but Hockey faltered, ceasing to be a leadership contender after the 2014 budget and then suing Fairfax.

Hartcher tried a Woodward-style imagined dialogue with Julie Bishop and Abbott before the latter's leadership was challenged - but Julie Bishop doesn't need him either. The Sydney Morning Herald barely reaches into Sydney's western suburbs, petering out long before Bishop's powerbase in Perth. Hartcher can't go back to Labor; they're awake to him. He can't go beyond the major parties because he regards them as freaks, notwithstanding a longterm decline in support for the majors that Abbott and Shorten look to accelerate.

Now he's lit upon the idea that Morrison is the coming man, and is giving him the green-light absence of scrutiny. We'll see whether a deft media operator like Morrison needs a clapped-out groupie like Hartcher, to what extent, and to what ends.

04 April 2015

Press gallery narrative and the 2015 NSW election

In the lead-up to the NSW state election last month, I knew that the Coalition stood to lose almost all of the seats they won on the Central Coast and Newcastle in 2011, thanks to the largely uncontested allegations of improper fundraising exposed in ICAC (or as Guardian Australia would refer to it, Eyeseeaysee). I knew that Labor's new leader, Luke Foley, was a more formidable competitor for the government than the burnt-out drone John Robertson, but that the ALP (Ayelpee) in NSW (enough now) had credibility issues in governing the state that a single term in opposition could not fix.

Beyond that, I was guided by the traditional media. My focus is on federal politics (and the way it is reported) and this is true of most bloggers on Australian politics. I used to enjoy Mr Tiedt's blog on NSW politics but he gave it up before it got interesting - before the downfall of Barry O'Farrell and Robertson, and the Coalition's vulnerabilities in social services, TAFE and ICAC. In making this I had left myself open to the enthusiasms of the press gallery, rather than any real idea of what was going on. I thought I was better than that.

The traditional media are suckers for bipartisanship. Under a set of assumptions that have long since died without them noticing, they assume measures supported by both Labor and the Liberal-Nationals Coalition must have some sort of broad support and legitimacy among the community represented in the parliament. With the rise of a relatively homogenous political class, bipartisanship leads to dumb and damaging policy in areas like asylum-seekers, data retention, and corporate tax. Journalists sneer at oppositions that oppose government measures, calling them populist, while they also sneer at oppositions that accommodate government policy, calling them weak*.

During election campaigns the press gallery can only think in horse-race analogies, presenting an often weak and/or populist opposition as though it were on par with the incumbent government, and ooh it's going to be close and marginal seats and you just never know. Journalists assume that voters are as impressed by stunts and announcements as they are. This method of reporting usually reinforces the status quo: the incumbent government usually gets re-elected with a bit of a swing to the opposition.

This is what happened in NSW in 2015. I was sucked in to the idea that the race was going to be close when it clearly wasn't. At the 2013 federal election I had believed that the then government and the press gallery would see through Abbott, and I was wrong; I interpreted the surge of interest in Foley as a self-interested press gallery adjusting to a real alternative government, rather than playing a bipartisan horse-race narrative at odds with the policy and political reality.

The NSW parliamentary press gallery were so busy with their own narrative that they couldn't tell us why we are governed as we are, and how we will be governed from hereon in. There is some sort of systemic problem with the way journalism is practiced in such an environment. Both democracy and effective government depend upon better coverage of state and federal policy issues.

My apologies to regular readers for offering nothing better than, say, Mark Kenny, one of Tony Abbott's most abject apologists. The poor bugger thinks he's being balanced when he said in February that his idol was living on borrowed time. He now claims Abbott has refashioned himself when all he's done is rededicate himself to his only real constituency, the press gallery. Resurrection and redemption are awesome, divine powers that neither Kenny nor Abbott can comprehend, let alone abrogate or even describe effectively.

Labor governments usually have at least one top-class lawyer in their ranks who is on a promise of becoming Attorney-General, which they don't now. They were clever in turning the dumping of Jodi McKay into a kind of martyrdom to show how much they'd changed. Mostly, however, they put up hacks to match the Liberal hacks, so that voters stayed with The Hack You Know and, again, the incumbents were returned. They were never ready this time and a better press gallery should have been honest about that, rather than wasting time on polls or the campaign bus.

Labor might have done a bit of work on their internal structures but they have done no work at all on policy. They put stale hacks onto policy in education and transport, and the capable ministers in those portfolios wiped the floor with them. They don't have donors telling them what they want in planning or asset privatisations, and so they're at a loss. They have apparently no opinions on law-and-order, the first campaign I can remember where it wasn't all-important. Labor has spent so long telling its members to shut up that they have either left, can't speak up if they wanted to, or have nothing to say anyway. Chances are Foley will drive policy from his office, but he is starting from a low base and will have to seek out voices that are not obvious to Labor insiders.

The Coalition have, for the first time since 1988, put their best team into their ministry:
  • Gladys Berejiklian has shown that she can master detail and work across a statewide canvas, and (for what it's worth) deal with he media. This is why Mike Baird has put her into the Treasury to deal with the big issues of privatisations and dealing with Canberra at a time of economic downturn and a federal government increasingly prone to gaffes and games. Neither the state nor federal press gallery will wake up to back-channel relationships between Berejiklian and Joe Hockey that will see NSW better placed than other jurisdictions.
  • For the first time in who knows how long, the state government's Big Three Portfolios (Health, Education, Transport) are occupied by ministers based far from Sydney, and nowhere near its western suburbs.
  • Transport is safe with Andrew Constance now that Berejiklian has done the heavy lifting. If your local railway station needs a new lick of paint, he is your man.
  • The relationship between Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton, and Justice and Police(!) Minister Troy Grant, will be fascinating.
  • Departure Lounge Lizard: Anthony Roberts. Not strong on policy but has the most political heft of anyone in the Liberal Right, and has gone as far as he's going to go. If electricity privatisation gets up his services as a consultant will be in demand, and if not you can be sure Gladys Berejiklian won't cop the blame for it. The other part of his portfolio is good relationships with business(!); and TAFE, which he has shunted off to John Barilaro.
  • David Elliott will be the Scott Morrison of this government, the strutting tough-guy journos can't say no to even when he freezes them out. He is the sop to the Liberal Right after the dumping of Jai Rowell (I mean, I ask you) and Matthew Mason-Cox.
  • The dumping of Katrina Hodgkinson and Melinda Pavey in favour of western-plains newbies like Grant and Paul Toole is an interesting story: one that divides the press gallery into those who don't know and can't run the story, and those who do but won't run the story.
  • Nats are overrepresented on the front bench anyway. Leslie Williams' portfolios should have gone to a Liberal.
  • Ageing and Disability is designed to focus on the former, making elderly voters think well of this government; but increasingly the disability sector will demand greater focus with the coming of NDIS, and the hasty and so far little-examined deal to shunt disability services off to the outfit that runs asylum-seeker detention centres.
  • Health accounts for more than 30% of the state budget. Jillian Skinner decided to concentrate on health policy when she was first elected in 1995 and, 20 years later, is still at it because nobody else has the same policy focus. Skinner was due to retire but couldn't because the factions put up candidates who overestimated their own cleverness and have been shunted back into advisory roles. People dissatisfied with Skinner's policies have nowhere to go but the opposition, and even they are unclear about how to even start engaging with the sector. Her portfolio will go to one of those ministers in minor-league roles who really step up (I mean, Multiculturalism? Sport? Better Regulation? Honestly); or to Pru Goward, who is of similar vintage to Skinner but much less policy prowess. Watch the dynamic between her and Brad Hazzard over community services policy.

* This did not apply when Tony Abbott was leading the Federal Opposition. Everything he did was fine by the press gallery. He was statesmanlike, apparently, in his meanly personal attacks on Rudd and Gillard. He was equally statesmanlike in brushing off the few derisory questions journalists asked him about policy. Those who regarded him thus are unable to explain why he's such a dud Prime Minister. They point feebly to the last budget, as though it as a cause rather than an effect of policy and political ineptitude. These people are not to be trusted on important matters such as how we are governed.