31 May 2015

That Hartcher piece

Wow. Just wow. All the press gallery and Labor staffers were united in their belief that this piece by Peter Hartcher was Very Important Journalism, which must of course be wrong. Well, it mostly is, but mainly because of Hartcher overreach. When he gets it right, though, he gets it right - but not nearly enough to warrant all the hoo-ha, or even a net positive regard for Hartcher.

The most important sentence in Australian political journalism for a decade

One paragraph, buried way down the article, revealed more than Hartcher knew or dared admit. In it lies buried much of what's wrong with our politics, mediated through traditional broadcast media, with an insular political class that monitors those it governs, but keeps its distance; that doesn't understand what a country needs, and fights a losing battle over its bipolar tendencies to populist binge followed by neoliberal purge. In it lies everything that's wrong with the press gallery: those who see it and fail to understand must not report for "work" on Monday. The second sentence in this paragraph:
The Labor opposition has struck a position of bipartisan accord with Abbott on national security. For this reason, the Parliament is no longer a functioning check on the government in this realm.
The press gallery - and Hartcher is one of the worst offenders - reports on politics from the premise that whatever Labor and the Liberal/Nationals/LNPQ/CLP/OMG/WTF Coalition agree upon is Sensible Bipartisan Reform. They believe - yes, even the best will lapse from time to time, or their editors do on their behalf - that whatever Laborandthecoalition don't agree on (or what others disagree with the joint ticket on) must be pointless bickering at best, destructive nonsense at worst.

All manner of dumb, nasty policy has been foisted on the Australian public by Laborandthecoalition: a budget in structural deficit, mandatory detention of boat-borne asylum-seekers, a contradictory and half-baked foreign policy, no policy on renewable energy or climate change to speak of, lip-service to health, education, science, and social programs while actually cutting them (more on that later); I could go on, and I have. All of those bad policies have been praised by the press gallery for being bipartisan. That praise only spurs more bad bipartisan policy, which will escape scrutiny because bipartisanship, and the press gallery become drawn into the protection racket that is the political class.

Any and all criticism of those bipartisan positions has been written off as irrelevant, because bipartisanship is its own reward and trumps all others. Peter Hartcher is one of the worst offenders but they all do it. Bipartisanship is an idea above its station.

When bipartisanship shuts down debate, there is some scope for the broadcast media represented in the press gallery to open up the debate that parliament isn't having. To do that, they'd need some understanding of the issues at hand and the stakeholders in the community who can articulate why the bipartisan position isn't the only and best one, which is how it appears to Capital Hill insiders.

Hartcher is yet to demonstrate any difference in the way things appear to Capital Hill insiders and the way such decisions affect those who are governed. This is why the rest of his article, bar the sentence referred to above, fails and fails utterly.

Wannabe Woodward

Bob Woodward is a US journalist most famous for his work uncovering the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. More recently he wrote a series of books on the decisions by the Bush Administration to go to war against Afghanistan and Iraq, in which he used verbatim quotes from leading figures at crucial moments. Woodward had access to those people but he didn't have access to those meetings; he could not have taken those quotes directly but those who uttered them all come off as wise, learned, experienced, and wanting what's best for the their country and the world.

A review of Hartcher's recent columns show him to be a Woodward wannabe. Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce, and Malcolm Turnbull have all been tongue-bathed in recent Hartcher columns, where he uses direct quotes from meetings he did not attend that flatter those who flatter him in return. Hartcher is aiming for some sort of eminence in his profession, rather than a serious examination of how we are governed by this government.


Peter Dutton's proposals to strip people of their citizenship are the result of too little scrutiny of bad decisions that arise from bipartisanship.

Under the last Coalition government, Australian citizens Vivien Solon and Cornelia Rau were effectively stripped of their entitlements under Australian citizenship. Robert Jovicic, born in Serbia but who emigrated to Australia as a child and who held dual citizenship, was deported to a country he had not lived in for four decades after committing crimes here. Mohammed Haneef, a foreign citizen working in Australia, had his visa cancelled because of a ministerial decision about his terrorism activity. Dutton's proposal should not be seen as some sort of ambush, but an example of the classic conservative principle of perpetuating that which has gone before. Consider Dutton's predecessors as a Liberal immigration minister:
  • Phillip Ruddock is an elder statesman among Liberals, whose demotion by Abbott earlier this year anguished many in the party but who has recently been restored to a supporting role in anti-terrorism measures;
  • Amanda Vanstone is a Fairfax columnist. OK, so maybe she wasn't commissioned directly by Hartcher, but it's hard to imagine he hasn't at least acquiesced to such a position;
  • Kevin Andrews not only sits at the Cabinet table but was quoted favourably by Hartcher in his piece.
Hartcher's framing is all wrong, and he is horribly compromised in trying to misrepresent Dutton's position.

Quote unquote

Turnbull asked Abbott directly if the Daily Telegraph had been briefed on the proposal for the next morning's paper, which would have meant the cabinet meeting had been pre-empted by the Prime Minister's press office. The Telegraph is a favoured Abbott outlet for signalling his moves in advance.

It had not, replied Abbott.

Yet the next morning the Telegraph carried a report saying that the proposal would be "included in the bill" that had been approved by the cabinet the night before. Oops.
OK, so Abbott is a liar. This isn't even news, let alone the big give-him-a-Walkley-already scoop that the journosphere thinks it is.

What this does is prove a point that has been obvious throughout Abbott's career, not least in his infamous interview with Kerry O'Brien where he basically asserted his right to make shit up on the fly and nobody in the broadcast media called him on it. This was a significant moment in Australian political and journalistic history; Abbott should have been politically dead, but he is Prime Minister today because Peter Hartcher, those who report to him, and their counterparts in other organisations, went along with the idea that Abbott had to be taken at his word - whatever that word was.

The kind of insider access Hartcher and the rest of the press gallery aspires to is negated by the assumption that a direct quote has some sort of journalistic value, that there might be a connection (rather than the odd coincidence) between what is said and what is done.

The result of the 2013 election was based upon the assumption - reinforced by the coverage by Hartcher, his underlings, and their peers - that Abbott's word was worth more than that of Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd.

Journalists place a lot of value in a direct quote. Abbott has devalued it considerably. Yet they go on, jamming stories full of direct quotes, often from people who don't have names (admittedly Hartcher's piece is refreshing for having a named person by each quote, which his reporting and those of his underlings have lacked in recent times).

It is in the nature of politicians to give self-serving quotes that reflect well upon them. Journalists need not feel obliged simply to transcribe these without further analysis.

On re-reading the above quote, why not have Abbott snarl: "And I suppose you're going to leak this to Hartcher at the SMH, are you Malcolm?". It would have been out of character for Hartcher to have published it, though. Anyway, Abbott isn't that fast on his feet, and his rejoinders tend to be both nasty and prepared in advance.

False balance

Rights are hard won and should not be lightly discarded. And, overall, the Abbott government is an active agent in the furthering of rights in Australia in at least three areas.

The rights of the disabled. The Abbott government is working to bring to fruition the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The rights of women and children in the home. Abbott has pledged to work to reduce domestic violence, even if he is criticised for doing too little.

The rights of Indigenous Australians. He has called a meeting with Aboriginal leaders for July to try to set a process and timetable for achieving recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution.
This is Hartcher's attempt to avoid being frozen out by a government that insists, against all evidence, that it must hold office without being criticised for the decisions it makes.

The NDIS has been cut down in budget and scope to suit a government of limited capability. Let's hope that it helps Australians like Solon and Rau, and Greg Anderson, and millions of others similarly afflicted - and their carers. It has a precarious existence under this government, whose announcements are received with nervous surprise rather than the warm gratitude they would hope for.

Hartcher's other two examples are just bullshit. Funding has been cut for women and children facing domestic violence, and for Indigenous people (not to mention those who fall into both categories). The government is not entitled to be taken at its word, which is a key assumption of the very notions of human rights. The insider access counts against the insider who ignores this credibility gap, and who therefore falls into the gap along with those in the community afflicted by more than their pride or 'balance'.

Hartcher sits atop a reporting structure designed to feed him the information necessary to avoid such a strain to his credibility. His lunge for insiderdom undermined the credibility he had sought to put beyond doubt.

Don't take his word for it

Bizarrely, Hartcher rounds off his column by reference to what he considers a higher authority, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. Pretty much everybody who has been a second-year Arts student over any of the past thirty years has an opinion on Pinker, but Hartcher is happy to quote him too verbatim and uncritically.
The only risk now is that it falls prey to petty political vanity ... Rather than a mean game of using rights to divide, whether the rights of citizenship or the rights to equal treatment of gay people before the law, Australia's leadership has a chance to use rights to unite.

An Australia united in advancing fairness and human rights is not only the right thing to do. It's also a profound repudiation of the barbarians who call themselves Islamic State. That truly would be an extraordinary proposition.
Hartcher dumps us back in the moral swamp of bipartisanship. Had Shorten endorsed Dutton's proposal, Hartcher would have no story and would likely have piled on the criticism of Turnbull and other "dissenters".

Whether or not others share Hartcher's political-class delusions is neither here nor there. We have a government that stands athwart history, screaming "stop!", across almost every portfolio. That is the nature of our government and Hartcher, as with the rest of the press gallery, is wrong to represent it in any other way. With regard to same-sex marriage Abbott is foxing, like Howard did with the convention on the republic. Hartcher is a fool to take the current prime minister at his word, to assume he is capable of anything beyond political vanity at its most petty.

This triumph of hope over experience, sacrificing reportage of what is happening to a desire to think well of the government, is where all political reporting fails. Peter Hartcher, a puffed-up man holding a senior position in Australian political reporting, fails where he wanted to succeed and fails all the more for that.

26 May 2015


Should I apply for this? Take our exclusive Politically Homeless poll:

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Name: Andrew Elder

Address: http://andrewelder.blogspot.com.au/

Headline: Better than some press gallery herd animal


Company: Politically Homeless

Industry: Political blogging

Position: Blogger

For over nine years (I know) I have examined the points where politics and media intersect, and I have been critical: http://andrewelder.blogspot.com.au/

To give a sample of content and method, look no further than my three most-read posts: on Scott Morrison, Sophie Mirabella, and Michelle Grattan.

Company: (various)

Industry: Business analysis/project management on large-scale IT projects

Position: Business analyst/project manager

Seeing as you're keen on LinkedIn profiles, mine is here - fat lot of good it will do you in assessing my suitability for this role.

Summary: I have been an avid and critical consumer of political media since I was ten. I'm now 46, and an adherent of US commentators like Jay Rosen and Eric Boehlert. Over the past nine years I have taken apart this country's best-regarded political reporters and put the story back together better and more comprehensively. I read and consult widely and boil things down to the right level with the right wording.

Cover letter: If you're going to cover Australian politics, don't just hire another press gallery herd animal. Hire someone who is awake to political positioning and resistant to the cliches that are rightfully killing this country's political media. Hire someone with the ideas and the ability to develop a wholly different and better way of reporting how we are governed.

I see this role as comparing/contrasting what is said in public policy with what is done. If hired, I will be using lots of data feeds from different sources, not just relying on press releases. I will trace stories from their headwaters in community groups and corporate offices, not start with the press release once the fix is in.

I would offer different levels of focus, from the Indo-Pacific regional to the local community level. I would assess the impact of local, state, and federal governments, as well as international factors bringing to bear on those communities. People would read about those issues and assess the behaviour of their local representatives against those issues.

If hired, I will only engage press gallery journalists to cover the upper houses of Australian parliaments, and sparingly even then.

The fact is that the audience for political journalism has shrunk to the point where the mass, barely engaged consumer has dropped off, and those who remain require more and better information than the cliche-mongers can ever deliver. This is where HuffPost Australia should be - having a go in a space that doesn't exist yet, not poaching representative samples from the tried-and-died.

No stories should appear in your publication on:
  • polls, or other inside-politics artefacts like focus groups
  • pre-announcement stories, or any other story type where a politician is taken at his or her word
  • politics as horse-race, where policy consequences affecting millions are "good news for" X or "bad news for" Y.
Indeed, one live issue in Australian politics at the moment is that labor laws are undergoing change so that it will not only be possible to dismiss journalists for submitting such stories, but to defenestrate them and sue their estates for polluting the public discourse. Be assured that I will take maximum advantage of the regulatory environment to defend and promote the best interests of Huffington Post Australia.

I will resist at all costs dragging down a promising media venture to the doomed squalor that is the general state of this country's media (particularly when it comes to politics).

Do you have full rights to work in Australia? Yes.

Are you currently located in Sydney? Yes. Right now I am in the office between my lounge room and back deck, wearing only my ... look, I can do this.

Is there anything else we should know? While I realise that HuffPost has freely entered into a joint venture with Fairfax, almost every piece of advice you have received or will receive from Fairfax's Political Editor, Peter Hartcher, will be wrong. You will need someone to stand up to Hartcher and point out why he is wrong all the time, and I am well placed to do that. The success of this venture depends on it.

Do you reckon I'm in with a shot?

Me neither. Still, you have to do what you can with what you have when the opportunity arises, and yes I have been doing this for more than nine years now.

16 May 2015

No flies on Scott Morrison

The one sure way to tell that a politician is on the rise is when nothing they do blows back on them. They say clumsy things, they do clumsy things, as we all do - but for those on the ascent, someone else takes the blame. It’s a sweet position to be in, and Scott Morrison is in that position now.

For years, the part of Mr Do-no-wrong was occupied by Tony Abbott. In the Howard government, ministers and backbenchers were castigated for speaking out of turn –Abbott could say what he liked, and did. At the 2007 election, when the Coalition needed all the help it could get, Abbott’s silly pronouncements embarrassed Liberal candidates across the land. When Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull led the Liberal Party they had to put up with Abbott’s often unhelpful interventions; sending him to the backbench either never occurred to them, or did and proved too scary.

Now, the part is played by Scott Morrison.

Morrison had been something of a media tart in opposition, talking big about what he was gunna do. In office as Minister for Immigration, he stopped talking. He refused to comment on “operational matters” of his job that were, actually, central to the very point of his job and notions of democratic accountability.

The Labor opposition missed a big opportunity when they failed to bell him as a secretive creep, giving rise to suspicion that they’d behave the same way if given another crack at government. His behaviour casts doubt on his unverified pledge that he stopped asylum-seekers coming to Australia by boat.

Promising ministerial careers have ended after lesser debacles than the riot on Manus Island last year. Reza Barati, an asylum-seeker inmate, was killed. A Senate committee found the riot “eminently foreseeable” but Morrison, as minister responsible for the detention centre and Barati’s guardian, escaped censure. He escaped censure from Abbott too, of course, but also from the press gallery; it was as though the government could not have been held responsible for conditions in an institution within its purview.

Tony Abbott had whittled down his lavish paid parental leave scheme over time, but he had taken it to two elections and consistently used it as his most tangible shield against charges of misogyny and sexism. Had it been a genuine personal commitment Abbott would have introduced it as soon as possible after being elected. When he finally dumped the policy, Abbott said he was putting more money into childcare.

In 2009 the Productivity Commission recommended that childcare should get the money promised by politicians for PPL. Yet, the credit for averting a policy whose cost far outweighed its benefits went not to the Commission but to Morrison, who stepped up to claim credit for increased childcare resources, promising to work bipartisanly with a startled opposition. The press gallery loves bipartisanship and reported the very promise of better resources for childcare as further proof of Morrison’s effectiveness. Abbott had clung to PPL for too long and Morrison weaned him off it; now we see who’s really running this joint.

When the budget was finally released on Tuesday, the narrative was still alive that the attractive but inappropriate PPL had given way to a simpler, better and fairer childcare system. Hockey and Abbott had the limelight on them. They knew that Shorten would have his go in two days, but nobody counted on Morrison.

It was Morrison who described the situation where women in permanent employment can claim both the basic government paid-parental-leave scheme, and any such scheme their employer might offer, as a “rort”. It's an evocative word, a provocative word, and yet Morrison has largely escaped responsibility for using it.

Abbott used much milder language to describe his shift in policy, but he has worn the full brunt of betrayal and disappointment from those who had been convinced that a man who offered women little might come through for them where they needed it. Mia Freedman does her woman-scorned thing, covering the issues:
  • The strong, confident women surrounding Abbott are there to support him, and he in turn supports them. Freedman, like many women, assumed that he could and would extrapolate beyond them to the women of Australia; she was wrong. The only women who will get a break from Tony Abbott are those who had formed a close personal and supportive relationship with him well before September 2013.
  • The strong, confident women surrounding Abbott aren't what they were. His daughters are spoiled. His wife takes less interest in her husband's career than anyone in her position since Bettina Gorton. His chief of staff has gone to ground.
  • All those points Freedman lists about Abbott acting against women's interests should have shown the inevitable fate of PPL. A government that won't even fund women's refuges but might spend $10.1b on PPL? Dream on.
  • People wanted to believe in PPL, and in Abbott, against all the evidence. When Julia Gillard nailed him on misogyny, PPL enabled him to draw attention to her childlessness and her cuts to welfare payments to poorer mothers.
Freedman is disingenuous on why she allowed herself to be played, what she hoped to get from being played in this way, and what she actually got from it. But this isn't about Freedman; it's about the idea that even after he failed to implement the PPL, even after he dropped it altogether, he still got the benefit of the doubt on childcare.

Recently, however, Morrison is steadily accruing more and more credit.

Morrison was praised for his handling of childcare until days ago. Morrison was a member of the Expenditure Review Committee that signed off the budget. Morrison did a lot of the spruiking in the lead-up to the budget, more than Hockey as many commentators noted. Yet strangely, as the PPL/childcare furore rages, the Minister for Social Services is unscathed. He hasn't gone to ground, keeping his profile up throughout; the vigorous questioning of the press gallery hasn't troubled him.

Joe Hockey had hoped a cautious budget might save his political skin. He did himself no favours when Laurie Oakes drew him out on "double dipping", but Morrison could have smoothed the waters had it suited him.

Matthias Cormann and Josh Frydenberg were both accused of "double dipping". The speedy discovery of this by press gallery journalists who are better at catching drops than conducting investigative journalism is suspicious. It was fascinating to watch both men try to deflect the accusation by denying double dipping was even a thing.

Cormann controls a number of party-room votes among WA Liberals and Frydenberg is a player in the Victorian Libs. Both men stood by Abbott in February, both will be key when the leadership is raised again. Watch Morrison praise both men, and their wives (which Abbott hasn't), offering a quid that might yield a quo from these men the next time Abbott goes wobbly.
Malcolm Turnbull earlier refused to back the language his frontbench colleagues Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison have used to criticise the existing paid parental leave arrangements.

Andrew Probyn quotes from Morrison but puts the blame on Abbott and Hockey. Abbott is the head of government, so ultimate responsibility is his - but he is soft on Morrison:
This is policy development by the lowest common denominator - that if the worker in the bakery doesn't get it, nor should anyone else.
This is a lowest-common-denominator government and Scott Morrison is a lowest-common-denominator guy. This should be clear by now, even to press gallery journalists. Some of us were awake to this before September 2013, but never mind that now.
Morrison's charge is that Labor and the unions struck a secret deal to entrench the so-called "double dipping".
Liberal minister takes a swipe at Labor and the unions to rally a base cowed by the public storm over this issue. Almost as obvious as the deal over "double dipping", when you think about it.
Not only is it awful judgment and bad politics at a time the Prime Minister and his Treasurer can least afford it, it may also prove to be a policy of false economy ... This, from the side of politics that spent five years railing against the inadequacy of the existing PPL scheme, proposing instead to give women up to $75,000 (later trimmed to $50,000) for six months leave under Tony Abbott's "fair dinkum" paid parental leave scheme.
My kids are about the same age as Probyn's, but I'm not a press gallery journalist so I was never taken in by Abbott's carry-on. I mean: Abbott. "fair dinkum". Pfft.

Here is the killer:
Tuesday's Budget confirmed the Abbott scheme would have cost $10.1 billion over four years. Its ditching in February amounted to the biggest saving in Hockey's Budget.
The fiscal credit for that saving will be enjoyed by the relevant minister (Morrison) long after the Treasurer who brought that budget down (Hockey) has been forgotten.
Earlier this year, Abbott demonstrated a capacity to lance political boils.

If he truly has changed, he'll be lancing this one early. It's rotten policy and stinking rhetoric.
I must have missed that - did this happen when he was fighting off threats to his leadership? Proof positive of the failure of press gallery journalism is the idea that Tony Abbott has changed. Abbott hasn't changed. The disingenuousness and ineptitude of this government is a given.

Now Hockey, Abbott, and the government, depends utterly upon Morrison as the responsible minister to find a detailed solution to the whole PPL/childcare issue, and negotiate it through the Senate. He is both arsonist and fire brigade, hoping - knowing - that only the latter role will be remembered by a press gallery thirsty for a new hero. There are no flies on Scott Morrison. You can't even see where they've been. His run to the Prime Ministership will not be questioned.

13 May 2015

Have a go ya mugs

Coverage of the budget is always dreadful. The entire Australian media relies far too heavily upon the lines the Treasurer's office wants to push, it congeals around a consensus that is almost always wrong, and throws away what little journalism skill it has for the sake of ... for the sake of filling up airtime/adspace that nobody wants to buy.

1. The consensus on this budget

We get it, Joe:
  • No bold moves fiscally or policy-wise.
  • A bit of help for AussieFamilies™ in 2017 or something.
  • Please don't hate us.
  • We're doing the best that we can. Really. We're firing on all cylinders.
  • You should see the other guys.
You don't need more than 200 press gallery journalists to tell the exact same story with the exact same quotes. Three or four, tops, would do that 'job' more than adequately. Bussing numpties down from Sydney is just redundant, unless it freed up the increasingly sparse office for real journalists to get some work done.

2. Insiders outside

... Standing on the outside lookin' in
Room full of money and the born to win
No amount of work's gonna get me through the door ...

- Cold Chisel Standing on the outside
I watched the ABC's budget coverage, and how strange it was.

There is no point to being an "insider" if you are shunted outside on a cold Canberra night. The ABC have perfectly good studios embedded within Parliament House from which they could have done their talky-head bits, and in which technicians have already done the wiring-up and other preparation. If you reject the idea that the outsider thing was Uhlmann at his most absurd, the only other explanation is the sheer spite toward the national broadcaster by the Speaker.

Leigh Sales gave Chris Bowen too much rope and he was boring. She gave Hockey too much stick and made him look good. Her desk stuck in a corner was basically a pimped-up table from Aussie's.

She made less of a fool of herself, though, than Uhlmann. His reference to the voters and taxpayers of Australia as "the mob" was unfortunate, and revealing, which made it all the more unfortunate. His insistence that politicians must be taken at their word was stupid, and probably revelatory of his whole journalistic approach; even more unfortunate.

3. A year's worth of stories

Why even bother recounting the announceables when you never, ever follow up those stories: just because it was announced on budget night doesn't mean it will happen at all, or in the way the government intended. The budget should contain 90% of the following year's stories for a journalist covering politics and government, insulation against the very possibility of a "slow news day".

All of the points made well here should have been tracked by the press gallery before the budget. That would have been more important - for their own self-worth if nothing else - rather than dropseeking.

Journalists who sit around the budget lock-up interviewing one another should not be allowed out - or they should be cast into the cold darkness where they can hone their inanities with Sabra Lane and Annabel Crabb. They are a bit like motorsport drivers huffing petrol fumes: they might think they are taking in the very essence of their profession, but they're wrong about that too.

4. Ferals in the Senate

The idea that it is appropriate for the press gallery to refer to Senators outside Laborandthecoalition as 'ferals' is clear proof of journalistic failure. Why even bother going on about an $X increase here and a $Y cut there when they are mere offerings to the unknowable Senate, like Quinctilius Varus' legions heading off to the Teutoburg forest.

Start covering the Senate. Press gallery journalists have nothing better to do. It is functioning as the Constitution intended, as a House of Review, and the fact that a control-freak government can't negotiate with those it doesn't control should be a bigger issue than press gallery journalists seem to realise.

5. Re:hash

Joe Hockey's speech to the National Press Club was a waste of time. He stuck to his script. The journos were all hung over and less pertinent than usual. They should all have been strafed.

6. The undead

The idea that the government's nasty policies have been excised from the budget was stupid and wrong. When there is a busy news day - one that doesn't involve the press gallery at all, like a real disaster far from Canberra or a royal something - the government will disinter one of its many nasty proposals. That's how this government works. The easily diverted press gallery will miss this until some kind soul from an interest group points it out to them, and explains why it's bad.

This is what happened with Kevin Andrews' Poor Laws; it fell to ACOSS to point them out and explain why they were bad, while only Kevin Andrews could defend them. The fact that a man whose entire career has involved defending the indefensible - and failing - is now Minister for Defence should be more of a concern than it appears to be.

Being a product of this government, this budget is of course full of half-baked ideas and contradictions which journos have overlooked in their rush for a consensus (see 1. above). They will not keep poring through it, nor follow its fate through the Senate; instead, they will wait until the story is pointed out to them in social media, then run it as EXCLUSIVE. Media execs call this a 'business model'.

7. Savings

When the government cuts money to a thing, it does not announce the cuts as a cuts: it calls them "savings". Journalists who refer to these cuts as "savings" do not understand what they are reporting on (policies that affect people's lives) and have come to identify with the incumbent government to a greater extent than is healthy or wise.

Before the election Tony Abbott said "I don't want to be known as Mr Cut, Cut, Cut", and the press gallery immediately complied. They stopped referring to the very idea that he might cut into services that people need - and can't get other than through the kind of group-buying scheme that Australian government has been since its inception.

8. Our Taxes and Aid to Foreign Kiddies

In between budgets, traditional media run well-researched thinky pieces on how foreign aid is a useful tool of foreign policy, projects our influence abroad (especially when we need stuff from international bodies, like UN Security Council seats or big sporting events) and is generally good to do, reinforcing and magnifying the generosity of this country's private donors.

When the budget rolls around they forget all that: see "Savings" above.

Yesterday the press gallery quoted Julie Bishop as telling the Coalition party room that foreign aid would not be cut. Yet, the budget papers show aid to subsaharan Africa cut by 70%, aid to Indonesia cut by 40%, with no corresponding rises elsewhere to make Bishop's assurances true in any way. Nobody in the press gallery appeared to question this discrepancy, or even notice one existed.

9. Our Taxes and Aid to Australian Kiddies

Unmarried, childless people sometimes grumble that their taxes subsidise other people's children, and resent any increase in resources devoted to their fellow citizens. Their concern is misplaced.

The government has lavished additional funding and legislative powers to security agencies. Apparently those who breach our national security these days are not wily agents of foreign powers but unmarried, childless loners. The Bali Nine were UCLs until they developed a sense of community. So were the Bali bombers of 2002 and '05. You show me someone who's joining Da'esh or an outlaw motorcycle gang and I'll show you someone who doesn't qualify as a "busy mum", or otherwise as AussieFamilies™.

People in sporadic employment need childcare as much as those in more regular employment. Say what you will about the previous government, it would have at least taken seriously a policy response to these people. The people least likely to be securely employed, most likely to be unemployed or sporadically employed, are Indigenous. Their children are not catered for in Smirky Morrison's calculations. They should have been, and if you overlook those in need then you can't really begrudge them.

10. Our Taxes and Aid to Foreign Kiddies Imprisoned by Australia Outside Australia

I still think this is something that should have been discussed at budget time. Remember how Scott Morrison closed down the debate by stonewalling the press gallery? What makes you think he's not going to do that kid of crap in his current or future roles? Wake up press gallery, and stop sucking up to him. He doesn't respect you any more than I do.

11. Hole-heartedly

Joe Hockey has the look of a guy who is giving his current predicament his all, in return for a promise of political survival that Abbott is unable to honour. He reminds me of one of those doomed dancers in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, it hardly matters how much he smiles and poses for selfies.

As Samantha Maiden points out, Hockey gets no credit for this budget but all the blame. To punch through the passive voice for a moment, this happens because people like Samantha Maiden don't and can't give him any credit: it goes against the narrative. Any journalist who notes the "optics" of a situation without being able to push through and question them is no journalist at all.

The press gallery is the hole in the heart of Australian democracy.

12. The opposite of leadership

Re Hockey above (and there are other examples), no greater love hath Tony Abbott than this: that he would lay down his friends for the sake of his life.

The government has no plan to stimulate the economy: they hope Australia's small businesses will light a path they cannot see, let alone build. The government has no generosity toward less fortunate people overseas: they take credit for our private donations, and by being niggardly show themselves as not our true representatives. They cut health funding, but insist we be impressed by a $20b mirage that funds nothing. What's good about this budget can't be trusted; what's bad about this budget (including what's hidden from us) will bite us, hard.

In all its coverage of the budget, the press gallery misses that and gives mendacious bunglers the benefit of a doubt that has almost disappeared.

13. How to tell when a Liberal government has run out of ideas

They spend big but tax less-than-big. If the people take the bribes it confirms the conservative notion of the people as ever more grasping and greedy. If they don't it leaves the incoming government in an economic hole, and the Coalition opposition can attack them for being in a bad situation.

When conservatives do this it shows they're out of ideas, like a cricket team that sends fielders to the boundary to limit a high-scoring batsman they can't get out. This is what Fraser did after 1978, what Howard did after 2000, and what Napthine did as soon as he became Victorian Premier.

When Coalition governments do this they place themselves utterly in the hands of Labor. If Labor haven't got their act together (as in 1980, 2001 and 2004), they are re-elected and hailed as geniuses. If Labor have their act together (as in March 1983, 2007, Victoria and Queensland 2014-15), conservatives not only lose but are bewildered.

Kim Beazley showed that caution is the risky strategy when boldness is required (so did Peter Costello, but anyway). Shorten is certainly very cautious.

14. Early election?

Journalists only run the early election story because they can only report on elections - or think they can. The years that drag on between elections full of complex governing which they can barely describe, let alone analyse. This story has become so discredited it is a joke, particularly when coupled with lavish use of anonymous sources.

15. When the history of this government is written

... this budget will have been its high point.

07 May 2015

The blind spot

When Senator Christine Milne retired yesterday as leader of the Greens and was replaced within hours of the announcement by Senator Richard di Natale, the press gallery was so shocked and so 'unprepared' that it actually reported the news. Those who complained about that lack of preparedness looked so stupid they cast doubt on the very idea of insider political savvy, on which the press gallery depends for its existence.

Next week Christine Milne turns 62. Days before he attained that age, Bob Hawke had been deposed as Prime Minister. When John Howard turned 62 he was still Prime Minister, but press gallery speculation was rife that he might be replaced by a much younger Victorian. Nobody then or since referred to Howard as "a bowser boy from Dulwich Hill" as Milne is just apparently a farm girl from Tasmania.

Senate preselections for the Tasmanian Greens are being held shortly. To win such a contest, and then the election, would commit the winner to a term due to extend from 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2023 - this would have put Milne beyond the constitutional age limit of 70, to say nothing of the personal toll of an already long career in politics.

The press gallery have no excuse for failing to even consider that Milne might choose this time to go. Those who remain in the press gallery from Hawke's and Howard's times look ridiculous in their failure.

When the announcement was made, the fix was already in. This is standard practice when governments make policy announcements. The press gallery never speculate about how an announced policy might be different to the way it is announced, though they may quote somebody who does. If the policy ends up being modified in the parliament, they report it as a personal defeat for the relevant minister or even the government as a whole, regardless of the effect any such change might have on the wider community.

The press gallery concentrates on government. It reports what government does uncritically and only covers opposition to that policy within a wider narrative of political maneuvering, not policy. The formal Opposition often does not quibble with announced policy, which lends it the air of Sensible Bipartisan Reform, to which the press gallery wants all policy to conform (see Jeff Sparrow on this - in his quest for a wider social narrative he lets the press gallery off far too lightly). When it does, the press gallery have to be alert to the possibility that the current Opposition might become the government, and go easy on the narrative that any such opposition exists simply to frustrate government policy.

Because the Greens aren't a party of government, any position they take is only reported by the press gallery through the lens of the major parties. While individual pieces in traditional media sometimes display an understanding of what the Greens are about on a particular issue, and what they hope to achieve, these are almost never written by press gallery journalists. Press gallery journalists don't understand, and don't want to understand, a party they can't imagine ever being in government.

The press gallery don't use favourable coverage to inform readers. They use favourable coverage as currency for the party that is, or might be, in government. A press gallery journalist who gave favourable reporting to the Greens would upset people from the Labor political party as well as the Liberal political party and the Nationals political party, which might make their job just that little bit harder.

In 2010 the press gallery was negotiating positive coverage with Kevin Rudd while his own party, unbeknownst to (and metres away from) them, was tipping him out. For the following three years they held out the threat/promise to the ALP that they would deny Gillard positive coverage, but that if Rudd returned as leader he might have a credibility that she lacked. By the time Rudd returned, people had stopped listening to Labor, and the press gallery wasn't listening to Rudd's warnings that Abbott might go back on his centrist-sounding promises.

The major parties regard their relationship with the press gallery as crucial. The Greens regard it as irrelevant. They maintain a significant vote, and a significant presence in the parliament, without the sort of relationship that the major parties cultivate and maintain at great effort. The very presence of the Greens and other minor parties is an affront to the press gallery, which gives them the desultory coverage that would make major-party players fear for their very jobs, but this does not have the effect of making the Greens die politically among the voting public.

The press gallery have a structural blindness toward the Greens. That's why they tend not to leak to journalists, not this. Nobody will leak to you if what you're offering has no currency at all. Annabel Crabb does favourable coverage so unrelentingly that its absence isn't even noticed, let alone missed.
... although it's obvious there was some pretty serious internal division within the party this year when it decided not to back the Government's planned increase to fuel excise, despite increased fuel taxes being a central part of the Greens policy platform, the exact details of the division are unclear.
Something that's hidden from you can't be "obvious" unless it's hidden badly, which this wasn't.

The effect is clear: the Greens voted against the government's proposal. They have a consistent and easy-to-understand position that they won't raise fuel excise to pay for roads. Crabb and her press gallery compadres would seek to blur with their lazy, cliche-ridden CHAOS SPLIT SHOCK pablum.

If you want to write about the Greens' position on an issue you have to address the issue. Labor and the Coalition now both support increased fuel excise to fund roads, therefore it has become Sensible Bipartisan Reform - and who in the press gallery could stand against that?
On the other hand, it's strange not to know where everyone stands. The abandonment of a central campaign platform item occurs, more or less seamlessly, and the lack of any evident fallout gives the whole thing a slightly eerie, unnerving air - like in Watership Down where the rabbits disappear and no-one says anything.
A better and more pertinent comparison might be when Tony Abbott abandons a central campaign platform item, and only social media call him out.
... there's a whiff of Moscow about it.

That effect is achieved in Moscow because, (under Putin, and before him under the Soviet Union, and before that under the Czars) killed people who leaked to journalists, and the journalists themselves. Even when the major parties change leader in Australia, nobody dies.

The only exception to that was with Holt in 1967, and you have to work pretty hard to attribute foul play to his disappearance. Gorton's successful campaign for the leadership was the first to engage the press gallery in the way people like Crabb regard as normal, which was a mixed blessing to say the least.

Today, Peta Credlin runs around telling members of the Coalition to shut up, apparently threatening with every dire fate short of death - but oh my goodness no, nothing Muscovite about that.

Crabb's third-last paragraph is a verbal train-wreck, but out of it you can pull what looks like criticism of press gallery consensus. Her swipe at Labor is silly, pointless, and typical (try telling the MPs for Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Newcastle that they are really representing outer-urban seats, or that they are politically doomed). Her final, major-party-centric paragraph tells you all you need to know about her imaginative failure and that of the press gallery as a whole.

The Greens clearly want something other than 'credibility' or 'openness' with the major parties and the press gallery - or at least this is clear to everyone but Crabb and the press gallery.

It is equally clear they have demonstrated the alternative to such 'credibility' or 'openness' is not impotence and oblivion; but adherence to that belief is crucial to the press gallery, to political-class operatives in the major parties, and everyone who regards themselves as "politically savvy". Either reality, or the press gallery's misperception of it, will have to change.

The major parties have introduced whiff-of-Moscow legislation to stifle journalists and other sources of dissent. A few days beforehand traditional media decided the big story in politics was that the Prime Minister ate a raw onion. After the legislation went through, traditional media and the MEAA half-heartedly tried to engage people on how serious that legislation is - but Crabb used her advocacy to return to the onion thing, and the MEAA represents the press gallery ninnies who've missed the significance of that legislation, so what can you do.

Mark Kenny is always on the lookout for a good-news story for Abbott. He spent February being puzzled how suddenly they dried up. He's found them in what was Julia Gillard's bathroom, he's found it in Christine Milne's old office, and if Malcolm Turnbull steps in dogshit while gladhanding in Rose Bay you can be sure Mark Kenny will declare it good news for Tony Abbott.

Chris Pyne's input to the Greens' leadership transfer is a taunt, not serious political commentary. The press gallery simply can't cover a political issue that didn't involve either Labor or the Coalition, and Pyne has inserted himself into every real and imagined change of leadership for a generation. Pyne was rubbing salt into a wound that seemed to heal quickly, which just left him rubbing salt onto other people - but the press gallery didn't get where they are by making Chris Pyne look/feel awkward.

You could criticise the press gallery, as I have and do, for being gibbering dupes of the major parties. This falls flat when you also accept the gallery's basic premise that political coverage is all about the majors and that minor parties, especially the Greens, have no future, none at all, etc. One constant of the major parties is having commentators predict their demise. There might be as much of a future in death-riding the Greens than being one of its representatives: it's not quite parasitism but not symbiosis either.

The press gallery's best exposition on the Green's change of leadership (despite its lousy headline) came from Lenore Taylor. What follows is unfair to that article and to Taylor's work as a whole, but it shows that even the best press gallery journalism is still limited by press gallery journalism:
Most voters have probably never heard of Richard Di Natale ...
Public ignorance of public matters is a failure of journalism.
He didn't say anything different to existing Greens policy. But more to the point he wasn't saying anything much different to existing Labor policy ...
Green policy can't be understood except by reference to a major party.
And he sounded authentic, like he was speaking in sentences he had made up himself.
This shouldn't be so shocking as it is.
The former GP is also likely to be harder for Abbott to dismiss with the Coalition's usual critique about the Greens being "extreme" and "ideological zealots", and Di Natale maintained he had "small 'l' liberals" in his sights as well. He wanted to convince them that "they can trust us with their vote".
Tony Abbott spent his early political career trumpeting the message that small 'l' liberals had no place in the Liberal Party. Di Natale is reinforcing that. If you look at the recent NSW election you'll see that the second-placed candidate in the seats that make up Abbott's seat, and other safe Liberal seats in Sydney, were almost all Greens. Abbott is likely to be the victim of his own 'success' yet again.
But [di Natale] taking on the leadership just as the government brings down a budget, which to the extent it does anything at all, does things that can't be attacked as unfair. That paves the way for potential deals with the Greens on things such as wealthier pensioners losing payments more quickly.
It remains to be seen whether the budget can't be construed as unfair. The link between what this government says and what it does was never as strong as Taylor seeks to imply (and she will get no quarter when she falls over shocked after the budget is delivered).
Since 2013 the party has been sidelined somewhat by a government agenda it could seldom support and a Coalition happier to do deals with the assorted independents on the crossbench.
On 22 October 1957 The Times of London apparently ran a weather story under the headline "Heavy fog in Channel, Continent cut off". It all depends on your perspective in terms of who is "cut off" or sidelined".

In 2012 the press gallery missed Bob Brown's retirement until it happened. Crabb said then there was a "whiff of Pyongyang" about it (I've never been there, what is that whiff? Stale boiled cabbage?), and the opportunities for press gallery improvement identified by Tad Tietze back then go begging still. Now they missed Christine Milne's, and they will miss di Natale's too. Can't wait for the olfactory journalism on that one.

When leaders of the Australian Democrats stood down the press gallery reacted in much the same way they did with Milne yesterday: one small-party freak replaced with another former teacher from Adelaide. This changed with the rise and fall of Natasha Stott Despoja, who used the press gallery to gain the leadership but was not a more effective or popular leader as a result, and was unable to maintain that well-cultivated relationship when she failed at non-press-gallery-related aspects of her leadership.

Subsequent Democrat leaders were unable to stem the groundswells of dissent that would surge up from the membership and sweep them away. They were like Roman emperors who were happy to dispatch their rivals to far-flung provinces but unprepared when those rivals returned, cashed up and battle-hardened, to knock them off.

If anyone leading the Democrats did have any clues about popular support, they didn't have time to implement them. Unlike the Roman Empire, the Australian Democrats' culture of everyone-gets-a-turn which worked against the strong, decisive (yet bipartisan!) leadership for which the press gallery yearns. That's why the press gallery measures all minor parties against the Democrats and finds them wanting.

After months of treating him like a hoon, a poltroon, and a buffoon, the press gallery couldn't understand why Senator Muir won't confide in them on his legislative votes. They gang up on him when he ventures out of Parliament House, the way court reporters jostle witnesses in high-profile cases to provoke a reaction on the footpaths outside hearings. Perhaps Muir has the whiff of Mt Panorama about him, whatever that might mean.

Taking their lead from the media, major-party negotiators treat Muir the same way. This only reinforces the political gap to which he was elected (however circuitously) to fill.

The press gallery exists to mediate the relationship between those who (would) govern and those who are governed. The idea that there's "nothing wrong" with cosy journo-pollie relationships fails when the public is regularly uninformed and/or misinformed. Whether it's this one on Julia Gillard and "mummy bloggers" or that one on Abbott's in-house photographer, the press gallery's buddies in the major parties are busy trying to get around them.

Music critics don't need to explain Sia in terms of Wagner. But even the best in the press gallery - let alone the other 200 busy making the case for media diversity by pumping out the same story with the same angle - are stuck in the frame of Sensible Bipartisan Reform. The press gallery don't do minor parties because they just can't, while the major parties smooth their dying pillow - the press gallery's, not the minor parties. The more minor parties there are in federal politics, the less the press gallery will be able to meet their brief of reporting to you and I about how we are governed.

01 May 2015

Barrie Cassidy queers the pitch

Barrie Cassidy is one of the longest-serving members of the press gallery and the host of the ABC TV show Insiders. His analysis doesn't quite work because, like Michelle Grattan, he takes political developments as they happen without any real long-term perspective.

Take this. The first questions are: what is "Plibersek's gay marriage pitch"? At what will it fail?
No matter how fatigued and cynical seasoned political journalists become, they line up enthusiastically to hear debates in the Parliament set aside for a conscience vote.

Such debates are refreshingly honest and passionate, allowing members of Parliament on all sides to shed stringent party allegiances and follow their heartfelt convictions.

That the issue is not just restricted to religious beliefs make the debates even more compelling.
There are MPs who vote like this all the time. They're called independents. Cassidy regards them as freaks and ferals and wishes that the electoral system could be re-jigged to stop such people getting elected.

The reason why Cassidy starts the article like this is because he wants to make it clear that parliamentary debates should be conducted for the entertainment of journalists. He then goes on to explain why, and how much, Tanya Plibersek has let him down.
Now Labor's Deputy Leader, Tanya Plibersek, wants to bind MPs to a party position on gay marriage, rather than allow a free vote based on personal beliefs.

Plibersek has been accused of raising the issue only because her electorate has a high proportion of gay people, and the Greens, as a party committed, driven and united behind marriage equality, present as the only danger to her re-election.
Plibersek has represented the electorate of Sydney since 1998. I haven't been back through her record but it's fair to say she would not have won that seat, and kept doing so, had she not been deeply involved in issues affecting the LGBTIQ community.

If you understand politics enough to comment on her seat, you'd understand that and seek to convey it as part of your analysis. The idea that Plibersek woke up one morning to be confronted by marauding gay gangs wanting to get married is silly.

Note the passive voice "has been accused" - by whom, with what motives? Why did it not occur to an experienced political journalist to ask those questions? Whenever journalists lapse into the passive voice they are up to no good.

Cassidy wrote a book called The Party Thieves in which he claimed that ambitious politicians had somehow 'stolen' each of the major parties from their membership bases. Let's apply his thesis to Plibersek: a long-serving member of a political party (and a major one, none of your minor-party riff-raff), Plibersek worked within party forums to get same-sex marriage adopted to her party's platform. It's notable that the issue did not cause powerful opponents to flounce out of the party, as the ALP split in the 1950s.

The Deputy Leader of the Labor Party is seeking to get the Labor caucus to vote according to the already settled Labor platform: this is not quite the bolt-from-the-blue Cassidy is trying to make it appear.
More than that, her motives have been linked with the leadership, especially because Bill Shorten went on the record last year in a speech to the Australian Christian Lobby, locking himself into a conscience vote.
Again with the passive voice. If Plibersek is the tactical doofus Cassidy makes her out to be, Shorten is safe.

Sounds like the start of a LABOR LEADERSHIP SHOCK beat-up. It's on the record that Cassidy doesn't take kindly to ambitious Labor deputies. He didn't take kindly to Gillard, Crean, or Keating, deputies who turned on their leaders. He revered Lionel Bowen and Brian Howe, who each no more wanted to become Prime Minister than fly to the moon. He was quite fond of Kim Beazley, who waited until the leadership was dropped in his lap. As for upstarts like Hawke, Latham or Rudd - hey, that's just politics.
However, beyond that, her frustration is understandable. Despite a succession of opinion polls showing majority support for the move, the issue has been allowed to drift for years. Plibersek obviously believes that locking in Labor's numbers will guarantee change.
Not necessarily. Labor is in opposition. If there was a vote in parliament on same-sex marriage it would not pass because Labor doesn't have the numbers.

So, what does Cassidy mean by 'change'? Labor's platform won't change. Plibersek might be seeking to make a statement about Labor's intent when in government. She might be seeking to progress an issue she's been working on for years.

In politics, it's possible to lose a vote in the short term but win eventually. Look at Tony Abbott's repeated no-confidence motions in the Gillard government (Cassidy has): Abbott lost every one of those votes. Did this make him a loser? Eventually, Abbott convinced the public to share his lack of confidence in the last Labor government.

It is possible that Plibersek is playing a long game with same-sex marriage - indeed, it's likely - but in his lunge for PLIBERSEK FAIL Cassidy cannot even examine the possibility.

What's the point of doing all that work to change the Labor platform if you can't enforce it? Should this issue be on Labor's platform at all? Cassidy should engage those issues, but can't.
But the party's national conference will resist the call for a host of sound reasons.

Undeniably the community wants change, but a conscience vote on both sides would be the best expression - and endorsement - of that attitude; an opinion freely expressed rather than one driven by party discipline.
Tanya Plibersek isn't deputy leader of 'both sides'. Like any practical politician she is doing what she can with what she has, and what she has is some influence within the ALP.
The tactics are wrong as well; and that was best underlined by openly gay Liberal Senator, Dean Smith, who supports gay marriage.
So a Liberal backbencher has greater tactical sense than the Deputy Leader of the ALP? Smith has more directly at stake with this issue than Plibersek, a straight married woman, but Plibersek has the record on this issue that he lacks. Cassidy is only quoting him because he needs some support in opposing Plibersek.
He recently said that "if the ALP was to adopt a binding vote ... then the issue of a conscience vote in the Liberal Party is dead".

He is right. Such a move by Labor would release the pressure on Tony Abbott to grant his side a conscience vote.
No it wouldn't, and no he's not.

First of all, same-sex marriage is dead within the Liberal Party so long as Tony Abbott is leading it. Smith, Cassidy, and everyone else with any political experience at all knows this.

Abbott and same-sex marriage is like John Howard and the republic - he's just not going to support it, and everyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. He'll go around stomping out debate, saying that Liberals who support it aren't really Liberals at all - until community pressure builds and a vote must be held, whereupon he will frame the vote in such a way that it can't succeed. If same-sex marriage came to a vote while Abbott is Prime Minister he would put up a travesty: Smith and other prominent same-sex-marriage advocates would vote it down, proponents would be split, and Abbott would declare the issue as dead as the republic. People like Barrie Cassidy would praise his deft political skills.

Abbott's opposition to same-sex marriage isn't tactics, it's strategy. Cassidy should be able to tell the difference.

What pressure is there on Tony Abbott to hold a vote on same-sex marriage? Tony Abbott is under pressure over a number of issues, but same-sex marriage isn't one of them. How can you ease pressure that is barely felt?

Smith did not win a Senate seat for the WA Liberals by being a passionate advocate for gay marriage. They voted for him despite, not because of, his position on this issue. What he is trying to do here is not introduce same-sex marriage, but keep alive the idea of the Liberal Party as the natural party of government - the Liberal Party disposes in its own good time and not a minute sooner.

Progressives often criticise conservatives for being against any and all social change. Not only is this not fair, it's inaccurate: just as there are plenty of eminently conservative positions brought in by Labor governments, so too there are progressive positions that were brought in by Coalition governments. Conservatives almost never dismiss social reform out of hand: "now's not the right time" or "there are other priorities" deflect and bog down progressive momentum, whereas outright opposition can rile it up.

Smith would rather there were no same-sex marriage for the next fifty years rather than have the ALP or any member of it get some credit. That's how conservatives work. Barrie Cassidy has no excuse for not knowing that, and failing to convey it to his readers.
Neither would it be a good look for the Opposition to impose a binding vote, and then suffer the humiliation of MPs voting against it anyway, as some surely would.
Labor has established mechanisms for dealing with its members who vote against their party's platform, and Cassidy knows that - but more on that later.
And already merely raising the issue has shown how divisive it can be. The ALP's national conference is a singular opportunity for its leader, Bill Shorten, to take centre stage with a developed plan for the future built around economic management. The issue of Palestine threatens to distract from that. Loading up the agenda with an unnecessary brawl around gay marriage is a further impediment.
Labor has an established lead over the government in the polls, just as Kim Beazley did a decade-and-a-half ago. Shorten led it into that position by being risk-averse, by only opposing the government where it was proposing something unpopular. Say what you will about Plibersek and same-sex marriage, or recognition of Palestine - it isn't risk-averse. Cassidy should acknowledge that, but he can't because it goes against his narrative.

Why does Labor have to focus on economic management? The Coalition promised to be econocrats first and last but most of their energy has been dissipated in cultural stances like abolishing Medicare bulk-billing, or enforcing Anzac Correctness. Why can't Labor's future include same-sex marriage and a Palestinian state?
For most of its first 60 or 70 years, Labor insisted on tight discipline. New members had to take "the pledge", allowing for internal debate initially, but absolute adherence to the party platform in the end.

They wanted to resist factions going off on a frolic of their own, splitting the party into disparate groups.

But times have changed, and dramatically so.

Across the country, there is nothing like the support for the main parties that existed even 20 years ago. As voting patterns change, parties need to be more diverse. The broad church imperative grows, not diminishes.

That means, at times, foregoing discipline for flexibility; being more open to conscience votes, not less so.
But wouldn't that be embarrassing? Cassidy said it would be embarrassing if some Labor people voted one way and others another. Now he's saying there should be more of it. Why were Labor splitters of old "on a frolic of their own", while those who want to vote against today's platform are just being broad-church? When Plibersek opposes her leader on this issue, a matter of party platform, is she being broad-church or frolicsome?

Cassidy has not made the case that flexibility of the type he advocates is the answer, or even an answer, to declining support and participation in traditional politics. Maybe no such case can be made. Does political debate really end with the bemusement of journalists?

Barrie Cassidy is entitled to engage in political analysis, too; his employer pays him to do so. His analysis just isn't very good. He trashes his own experience, even the thesis of his Party Thieves, to make what looks like a self-defeating point. He flails a successful politician in pursuit of a long-term social reform goal whose popularity bears no relationship to the numbers of people directly affected. This year's Labor Conference is less significant than you might expect; it is certainly not that significant to a journalist who's seen plenty such conferences come and go.

Cassidy's political experience should be worth a lot more than he makes of it, and not just to himself. The Drum should do a better job of editing what is submitted to it. Cassidy can't even have a meaningful debate with a blank piece of paper - no wonder he can't handle political debates among other people.