28 July 2015

The wrong way around

Mark Kenny reckons Abbott has Bronwyn Bishop in his pocket. As usual with him, the official press gallery bunny of this blog, Kenny has it the wrong way around.

Bishop is a major force in the Liberals' right-wing. Abbott was only ever a minor-to-middling figure. In the late 1980s, when Abbott was a seminary dropout admiring the doomed NSW ALP government of Barrie Unsworth, Bronwyn Bishop was NSW State President of the Liberal Party.

She has been raising money and otherwise supporting rightwing Liberals continuously since that time, building and maintaining an impregnable base among conservatives. He has only been doing general fundraisers for the party as a whole the last decade or so. He's the one on P-plates, not her.

She has been intimately involved in every challenge for the leadership since the late 1980s; since he entered Parliament in 1994 he has voted the way she told him to vote, including the 2009 ballot in which he was a candidate. His victory in that ballot over not one but two moderate leaders owes more to her tactical shrewdness and hard work than his dumb luck.

In recent days, journalists have dug into the paper trail left in Bishop's wake, recording her helicopter trip here or limo trip there, questioning what "official business" she might have transacted on a given day in Hawthorn or Geraldton or wherever. Digging this stuff up can be hard; this hard work should be recognised - but no more so than, say, digging up a road or preparing a tax return from a shoebox full of receipts.

What those journalists have missed, of course, is the context.

Bishop, as with most politicians, knows that you have to put yourself about if you want to build and maintain your base. The reason why the rules on parliamentary entitlements are like that, and why they won't change much, is because politicians from all parties agree that you have to travel a lot to maintain your base.

To most people, there is a clear delineation between work and social events. The social events that political parties stage as fundraising events are designed to be social for those contributing money. For the politically ambitious, they involve all the performance-indicator aspects of work with the addition of social skills like seeming pleasant, knowing who to chat to (and if they're really important, how to chat to them) and not drinking as much as you might at a purely social event - particularly if you're going to many such events in a day.

For most people, a golf course is unambiguously a social place, different from Bishop's workplace in the green room under the hill in Canberra. Bishop regards her job as going where her job requires: Collaroy, Launceston, Ottawa, wherever. She has been in politics so much and for so long that she is genuinely astonished that turning up to a fundraiser might lie outside a reasonable definition of a politician's "work".

Political journalists also travel a lot. If there's an announcement in, say, Adelaide, journalists not based in Adelaide will have their travel costs there met by others. So too will those doing the announcing, and any politicians having to stand in the background nodding during the announcement. Every time there's a kerfuffle about travel entitlements, politicians and journalists alike are unprepared: both groups, regardless of employer/party, are keen to bury any such story as soon as possible.
Forget about an independent chair. And forget about a system of accountability where the executive arm is subject to the scrutiny of the legislative arm. These were rarely delivered anyway, and right now, they are not even worth pretending about.
"Right now"? How about: at no point whatsoever in almost two years since the last election. Has Kenny been asleep? Is he, like his press gallery colleague Katharine Murphy, just waking from some two-year slumber (but, like Murphy, rolling over and going back to sleep after realising it's all to hard)? Seriously: have you been paying any attention at all to Australian politics over recent years?
Leaving aside her past performance in the chair, the PM's "P" plate declaration makes her no different from any minister in his team.
Garbage. His opinion of Rudd, Gillard and their ministers was even lower, and their political standing was independent of "his team". And: "leaving aside her past performance in the chair"? That performance is the issue here. He's not just missing the point, he's attempting to shun it by sheer force of will.
The terms of Bishop's engagement are identical to theirs: if she displeases him, she's gone. No other criteria are relevant.
This is bullshit.

She displeased him when she sought to ban head-coverings in the public galleries of the House of Representatives. It took days for her to back down, days when he copped public opprobrium on her behalf.

Joe Hockey stuffed up the delivery of the 2014 budget and has not yet secured this year's, putting the fate of the government and the economic well-being of the nation in peril. Malcolm Turnbull niggles about the one issue Abbott has left, national security. Both of them have a secure political base, within and beyond the Liberal Party, which Abbott doesn't have. Bronwyn Bishop also has a secure base, and it shows: nobody is voting to replace her with an empty chair.

Bronwyn Bishop has held a few press conferences in her time, so why was the one she held last week such a disaster? Because she couldn't be bothered. She was blithe with what she thought was a non-issue, she was rude with journalists to whom she owes nothing. Look who is copping the full force of public scorn: Abbott, and easy-come-easy-go Coalition MPs in marginal seats. Look who isn't: Bishop. She didn't care, and nobody could make her care.

People with real power don't cop flak. Gina Rinehart benefits from the abolition of the mining tax and our continuing reliance on coal: Abbott cops the flak for making those things happen. Bronwyn Bishop still has her cushy job: Abbott cops it every day she stays. If she goes the new Speaker won't be as protective of his clumsy ministers as she has been, and he will have a relentless enemy on the backbench. This is why Kenny is flatly wrong in his analysis: his "Right now", and "Leaving aside her past performance in the chair", and "No other criteria are relevant" are simply the wrong ways to view the situation before us.
This is hardly the institutional arrangement one would choose if genuine independence were of any import.
For almost two years Abbott has behaved as though they were of no import - even more if you include his disgraceful treatment of the Speakers in the last two terms of Parliament. Has Kenny only just noticed? Is he blind, or stupid?
On the plus side, it might now be said that there are effectively three women on the Abbott frontbench rather than the paltry two we knew of: a Ley (Sussan) and two Bishops (Julie and Bronwyn).
Throwing Bishop in there does not make anything more effective, or less paltry. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Then there is the separate but equally important question of the role of the Speaker as chief guardian of parliamentary standards.

That too has been trashed.
Again, this happened ages ago - where have you been? Did you not notice the shambles of accountability from a government that thinks it is above it? This is not a new thing, and you are not entitled to pretend that it is.
In refusing to make the Speaker repay wrongly claimed travel entitlements for attending a colleague's wedding way back in 2006, Abbott has both endorsed her defiance of proper standards and rendered hollow his own efforts to salve an offended public.
So: he wants her to pay back the money, she won't pay - that tells me she's the one who has prevailed, not him. She's the one with the power, not him. That "P-plate" designation looks like more bullshit from Abbott rather than anything that meaningfully limits her, officially or otherwise. Kenny has it arse-about.

This goes to the question of privilege, which is the core problem for this government:
  • A bad government has all of the privileges of office while shirking the responsibility to govern well.
  • Julia Gillard was accused of acquiring the privileges of a new bathroom from AWU members who hoped their membership dues might be spent on them. This accusation was not proven, but Abbott was happy to create the impression.
  • George Brandis, Bronwyn Bishop, Barnaby Joyce, Joe Hockey, and the late Don Randall all claimed travel entitlements for journeys that were loosely, if at all, tied to their official responsibilities. Bishop has been asked to pay back a small fraction of these.
  • Joe Hockey sued a media outlet unsuccessfully, obscuring his efforts with the 2015 budget and casting doubt over his judgment and economic nous.
  • Christopher Pyne proposed a number of reforms to his portfolio area, Education. He is seen to be the government's master tactician in parliamentary matters, yet his reforms have been rebuffed by the Senate. He is the senior Liberal from South Australia, a state ravaged by decisions made by this government on cars and shipbuilding; he has fixed nothing for his constituents or their neighbours. Rather than redouble his efforts he has instead written a book about himself, and is using interviews that could be used to promote the government's message to instead plug his book.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough go skiing (note that Abbott's family was not present as the Murdoch tabloid claims, and that Frances is Abbott's daughter, not Credlin's).
  • The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption failed to make the case that Bill Shorten had misused the privileges of office in the AWU for his own benefit, strengthening him as the alternative to the hapless, self-indulgent Abbott.
  • The onus is on the government to both a) curb its own self-indulgent behaviour and b) point out even worse instances of it by the alternative government, and c) fend off independents and minor-party challengers protesting said self-indulgence. I bet it can't succeed at all that, but then I'm biased against this government. Those who aren't require vast reserves of faith in the ongoing acumen of Bishop, Abbott, and other members of this government.
Abbott is governing about as well as he can, which isn't very well at all. Seasoned journalists who've known Abbott for years had no right to assume he'd govern well, no right to tell us that he would, and no basis to judge anyway. They see him fail to rein in self-indulgent behaviour and still assume, like Kenny does here, that Abbott is holding the whip hand.

Abbott is powerless in the face of self-indulgent behaviour. He is not keeping his powder dry, he has no powder. Once the backbench realise this he is finished.
Remember, he already, repaid his claimed travel allowance for the same event.
Well, he said he did - and the journos believed him!
This bizarre situation reveals that even the pretence of impartiality in adjudicating the people's house has been abandoned and the pantomime of probity has ended with it.
The very idea that Bronwyn Bishop might be an impartial Speaker was always rubbish. Mark Kenny should have been smart enough not to fall for it. The proof against the idea has been very strong for years now, without any countervailing proof for it. Having not been smart enough to see through Abbott rhetoric, Kenny is too proud to admit he's been gulled, and pretends that Bishop's unfitness for office is a recent development.
And for that matter, why not make the Speaker a formal cabinet post? Don't think for a moment Bronny wouldn't accept it - even now, amid all of this.
A stupid end to a stupid article, by someone who has spent so long covering politics he doesn't even understand what Cabinet is.

The Cabinet sets the policy course for the government. The only person who has been brought into the cabinet since 2013, Sussan Ley, is there because she has superior policy and political skills to the only person who departed it, Senator David Johnston. Bishop is 72 years old; she would take a seat for which others half her age have made a stronger case. The fact that Kenny - alone - considers her a serious candidate underlines both his incompetence, and Bishop's enduring power. That power undermines the premise of Kenny's article. It undermines his already thin credentials as an analyst of our political situation.

Kenny is trying to be flippant about a story that he doesn't believe is a big deal, but which clearly is bigger than he can imagine. It's big because it goes to the question of what The Narrative is, and who sets it. Before 2013 the press gallery narrative was that the government was dishonest and incompetent. This government is dishonest and incompetent too, but also has a ferocious sense of self-entitlement - and this narrative is being imposed upon the press gallery by the facts at hand, rather than people like Kenny coming to their own conclusion and agreement. The press gallery has lost control of the narrative. Maybe Kenny should give up and go skiing.

This government has always been self-indulgent and lazy, and so has the press gallery that covered it. The press gallery is not entitled to pretend this self-indulgence, and incompetence, is a new development and one the gallery can be forgiven for not noticing. Their observations are becoming less valuable as each day passes, which is why their circulation, influence, and financial viability are in terminal decline.

22 July 2015

Debates and outcomes

And we'll paint by numbers 'til something sticks
And I don't mind doing it for the kids
(So come on) jump on board
Take a ride (yeah)
(You'll be doin' it all right)
Jump on board feel the high
'Cause the kids are alright

- Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams Kids
Not far from where I live is a bend on the Parramatta River called Kissing Point. You might think it's called that because the outlook shimmers prettily in the moonlight, because it's secluded without being remote, and is therefore a perfect place for young lovers to go for a pash without being interrupted. It is, but that isn't why Kissing Point is so called.

The kissing-point is a nautical term for the furthest point up a river that an ocean-going ship can go. Ships that are big enough to withstand the big waves of the open ocean can go varying distances from the open sea up a particular river. On mighty rivers like the Yangzi or the Amazon, ships can travel hundreds of kilometres before hitting the kissing-point. On the Parramatta River, the kissing-point is less than thirty kilometres from the river's mouth at the Heads of Sydney Harbour.

Debates over Australia's head of state and our flag are a bit like nautical processions up the river. They start off with great pomp and splendour, cheered on by the city's great and good from their glass-fronted balconies; then they start having to weave and dodge around smaller craft as the Harbour narrows into a river, before foundering at - or turning back ahead of - the kissing-point.

What is the kissing-point in our national debates about symbolism? The nation grudgingly accepts the political class and places public resources at their mercy, but baulks at handing over its symbols to them.

This is what Peter FitzSimons and Tim Mayfield miss in their attempts to revive old debates and anticipate old objections.

First step: the way that article is set out, you could be forgiven for thinking Mayfield is just another Guardian Australia journalist. He isn't: he's the Director of the Australian Republican Movement, which isn't disclosed in that article as I write this.

Second: FitzSimons was appointed to his role, not elected from a wide range of candidates in a vigorous campaign among the people. A supposedly democratic movement that calls for popular input but seeks to manage the outcome? Sounds like one of the major political parties, whose social base is small and getting smaller.
Peter FitzSimons is arguably Australia’s king of Twitter ...
So is anyone, really, given that medium's democratic nature.

You'll note, as I have, that FitzSimons uses social media to shout out to political-class mates like Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne. How is he going to break it to them that he is out to rock their world? Easy: he isn't. Neither the head of state nor the flag will undergo any change of which they do not approve. Indeed, any such change would be in their gift, their plaything if you will:
FitzSimons said he favoured keeping the current system where the prime minister chose the governor general, but that the choice should not require the assent of Buckingham Palace.
There are good arguments for and against that position, but they aren't being made here.

Days after the Speaker of the House of Representatives has presented herself as proof, yet again, that the Age of Entitlement is not over, it is the wrong time to assert that a new high office should be created and handed over to the political class. This is not to say that political-class appointees are absent from the Governor-Generalcy - they aren't, but appointees are required to distance themselves from the political class in a way that isn't obvious with a presidency.

In 1999 people saw Malcolm Turnbull, with his blithe exterior barely concealing a control-freak modus operandi learned at the feet of Kerry Packer and Neville Wran, making it easy for his opponents to make a case against a politicians' republic. Turnbull said that very little would change under the model he proposed, while at the same time a great deal would change.

What Turnbull saw as a selling point was in fact the fatal flaw of his proposal, all the trivia and administrative adjustment of a symbolic change without any substantive effect. Government departments merge, demerge, and change their names and logos regularly, but these changes are not put to a public vote: if they were, they might suffer the same fate as the 1999 republic.

Turnbull got the message that if he wanted to go into politics, he couldn't just glide into the top job but had to join a party, win a seat, etc.

FitzSimons appears to be offering something similar to Turnbull: happy to court popular support but not happy to let outcomes elude his grasp. Perhaps this is why Mayfield's piece goes heavy on FitzSimons' yarn-spinning and up-the-guts rugby abilities (journalists hailed Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, and Senator Glenn Lazarus for similar biff-and-barge qualities, which haven't necessarily translated well to public debate).

The idea that we might build a social movement big enough to change the environment in which the political class operates without them noticing or participating is rubbish, and most people realise this. Let's look to other public debates to see how a republic might fare.

Four months ago, the Treasurer promised us a genuine, sensible and mature debate on tax reform. He and the Prime Minister then set about ruling out taxes that weren't up for discussion, jumping all over the very spectre of a carbon tax for good measure. We have now arrived at a point where:
  • the only tax open for discussion is the regressive GST, and
  • against all evidence, ACOSS and the BCA still believe that broader tax reform is possible; and
  • nope, that's it.
Hockey launched his debate at ACOSS in March, but four months later the same organisation has pretty much written him off. The BCA accepted Liberal assurances that they would implement their agenda so long as they kept quiet about it before the election, and had BCA President Tony Shepherd usher it in with his Commission of Audit - but this didn't work either. The BCA lacks even the remnants of a community-based organisation that the Liberal Party has, and can't convincingly run candidates for office like the union movement does through the ALP.

The press gallery dares not report that the BCA has lost confidence in the Liberal Party, a politically seismic event that would lead to more independent politicians and place public debate further beyond the BCA's capacity for influence.

Mayfield claims around 50% of voters support a republic in general terms. At least that amount support same-sex marriage, an issue stymied by the political class to the point where it brings on learned helplessness.

The idea that debates about national symbolism distract from bread-and-butter issues is palpably false where it is so clear that a focus on those issues yields such poor results.

FitzSimons still appears to be a director of Ausflag, which expands the scope of the change he seeks to effect to our national symbols. Conventional media management practice suggests that the scope of an issue for public debate should be narrowed rather than expanded; Turnbull was careful to separate the republic from the flag but FitzSimons has not.

Nothing will kill public affection for the current Blue Ensign flag faster than Tony Abbott's use of multiple flags as backdrops for security announcements, or galoots wearing them as capes.

FitzSimons does not appear to be a director of the other great symbolic issue of our time, recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders within the Constitution and removal of racially discriminatory passages within it. This issue - and the practicalities of what such recognition might mean - is part of Australia's national identity as much as the flag or the head of state. Again, broadening the scope of debate will appal message-control freaks; either the issue must be embraced by republicans and flag-changers, or abandoned as it was in 1999.

The one thing we need to hear from proponents of a republic - and by "we", I mean both supporters of a republic (in whatever form) as well as opponents of any form - is what they have learned from 1999. To reference one of FitzSimon's books: we need the Knight Commander Monash of Le Hamel, not the duffer in the gully at Gallipoli. FitzSimons appears to have learned nothing from 1999 while opening more fronts for debate than he can possibly handle. 1999 made second-rate operators like Sophie Mirabella and Tony Abbott look like tactical geniuses.

We have a press gallery, and a wider system of news/current affairs reporting in our broadcast media, that can only report on decisions that have been taken (and not even do that well). They are easily fobbed off when questioning politicians. Over the past ten years they have assured us of the suitability of politicians for high office who are manifestly not suited for responsible office at all. They have no ability to involve people in those decisions that are yet to be taken. The broadcast media is limited and exclusive. FitzSimons - an employee of a broadcast-media organisation - is starting from the wrong place to launch a far-reaching and inclusive movement.

Schoolchildren are taught to debate issues without any expectation that those debates will change the issues under debate. Political debates are like those school debates, taking time and resources but resolving nothing, giving the impression that real decisions are made elsewhere. When John Howard said that he was "happy to have the debate" on an issue, it meant his mind was made up and that he could engage in pointless banter until his opponents gave up.

Quite why FitzSimons is, as Mayfield insists, the man to inspire the Youth Of Today toward a republic is unclear. He may well wish to inspire his own children, but apart from that his youth appeal is not as obvious as he might insist (here is the segue to the quote at the top of this post, incase you missed it). After 1999 republicans seemed to agree that their cause should wait, like a watchful vulture on a dead tree, until Queen Elizabeth II has died; that commitment appears to have been abandoned, but again it is not clear why.

A far-reaching public debate - one that might change the way media and the political class operate - is both what the country needs, and the outcome least likely. Far easier for them to burn FitzSimons, to portray him as some unfocused nutter, and reduce him to an irrelevant caricature of his rugby and his yarns ("Did you hear the one about the winger in the lineout? ... I gotta million of 'em!").

The very idea that we might have a sensible and wide-ranging discussion on national symbolism is beyond wrong, it's absurd. Our public debate is so inadequate, and the proponents of change appear to have learned so little from earlier debacles. They arrogantly underestimate the amount of thought necessary to build a wide-ranging, inclusive movement of people with both goodwill and focus. Peter FitzSimons is not the person to lead his organisation, nor the nation, toward a new system of government that might be better than the one we have.

The clearest and best example of how to conduct a wide-ranging, complex, and mature debate that involves everyone - politicians and journalists, policy wonks and frontline workers and even victims - is the debate around domestic/family violence. Leaders of the debate, like Rosie Batty, are prominent without being grandstanding. They can handle themselves in media interviews without over-egging the "importance" of either broadcast or social media in themselves. They bring politicians with them while making it clear they may not take credit or use the issue to score points.

The broadcast media's traditional tools of hype, cliche, and bullshit have been applied sparingly to coverage of this debate. Mercifully, nobody asks whether Rosie Batty has "won the night" or "had a good week", is she "feuding" with other stakeholders, or who she is wearing. This debate, the media, and the nation - from the highest offices of state to the poorest individuals who've just been abused by members of their household - are better for this absence of media business-as-usual. They can so take serious issues seriously. They should do it more often.

19 July 2015

Reclaiming George Christensen

George Christensen has been a Queensland Nationals apparatchik all of his "life". He was a staffer for former Dawson MP DeAnne Kelly, then set up "community newspapers" that were designed to raise funds first and distribute news second. In 2010 he won Dawson, knocking off the Labor MP who had replaced Kelly. Christensen's racist, sexist and antisemitic student jottings had come to media attention in the campaign, but Abbott shrugged them off and therefore so did our fearless media.

It's a mistake to assume, as many commentators have, that Christensen is some out-of-control maverick who is addressing the racist Reclaim Australia rally and that there's not a damn thing Tony Abbott can do about it.

Whenever the media narrative has gone against the government, Christensen runs interference. He comes out with a wacky idea that garners media attention, allows him to bag Labor, and then shrug off government deniability because hey, he's just a backbencher:
  • While the government was micromanaging ABC TV and approving coalmines in prime agricultural land, George wanted to cane ice dealers. He doesn't know or care whether the measure works, but he's keen for some spanking because it draws attention away from whatever ails the government.
  • When the government was being caned over the TPP, Christensen pretended to stand up for sugar farmers. The Australia-US Free Trade Agreement of 2006 explicitly excluded sugar, and so will the TPP, but Christensen looks like he's doing something by kicking against a closed door.
  • The proposed coal loader at Abbot Point is in his electorate. The jobs created in building and operating it will be for his constituents - or at least he hopes so, which is why he's so against FIFO agreements that have done little for the economy in his electorate. As demand for coal declines, Christensen blames environmentalists for killing his dream rather than question whether it was a dog of an idea in the first place.
  • His electorate contains little of the pretty and accessible parts of the Great Barrier Reef - except for the Whitsunday Islands, which are tightly held and cater to a select market that mostly lives far from Dawson. This is why he's not going into bat for tourism jobs over coal; tourism providers are few and small and less generous to Christensen's campaigns than coal people.
  • Christensen is desperately holding the line that same-sex marriage must be a matter of Coalition policy - and that policy must be to oppose it - rather than allow a conscience vote, which would see it get up.
  • He was a vocal supporter of stripping Australian citizenship from those accused of terrorism.

Christensen is a government whip, which means he helps develop parliamentary tactics and enforce Coalition unity on the floor of the House. Mavericks don't get or keep jobs like that. He is not some freewheeling dude from the far north who goes where the northern winds take him: he is a careerist suck who does what he's told.

By standing with violent racists, and being careless about the effect this has on his community, Christensen displays a low regard for the people he represents. This isn't the first time he's done this. During the 2015 Queensland state election his most significant contribution was to bandy about a cartoon of now-Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk naked, on a wrecking ball, similar to Miley Cyrus' video for her song of the same name. Labor won the state seat of Mackay at January's election, and in the other state seats within Dawson there was enough of a swing to rattle poor George. Again, he hopes that the votes he attracts from boofheads will exceed those he turns off.

He is more than happy to win ugly. After the next election he will almost certainly become a Coalition frontbencher, whether the Coalition wins or loses, provided he keeps his seat. No other Coalition MP is as effective in diverting attention away from the beleaguered Speaker right now. Christensen is not a diversion, he is Abbott's main game. When he and I were in the NSW Young Liberals, Irfan Yusuf was regularly wrong, but this piece is a mixed bag.

Yusuf is right here:
Brisbane's Courier Mail reports Christensen declaring he will defy even the PM's orders and attend the rally.

Reading through the 24 pillars of the Reclaim Australia manifesto, I couldn't help but wonder why Abbott would object. There is a call for "[t]he right to exile or deport traitors", which I guess is akin to Abbott's original call for people engaging in terror-like activities to be stripped of their Australian citizenship even if it was their only one ...

The ideology of Reclaim has a distinctly supremacist feel to it. But in case you thought it was fringe, the reclaimers are singing from virtually the same rhetorical and policy songbook as the federal Coalition on cultural and security matters. Despite trumpeting separation of religion and state, Reclaim's manifesto mentions Christian values and rights numerous more times. How often have we heard Abbott and his ministers lecture us on how Australia has a Christian heritage?
You'll note that there has been no order from Abbott to Christensen not to attend. Christensen is not defying any instruction, nor would he ever do so.

Yusuf is wrong here:
... Tony Abbott held the opposite view. He regarded multiculturalism as a fundamentally sound and inherently conservative social policy. Abbott was one of the few frontbenchers who refused to join the chorus of Muslim-phobic and migrant-phobic hysteria around issues of citizenship and national security. In addresses to various audiences, Abbott recalled what it was like for him and fellow Catholics during previous decades when Catholics were demonised.
Abbott has never known what it was like for Catholics to be demonised. He was risking nothing by spouting what conservatives like Bronwyn Bishop regarded then and now as wishy-washy ecumenical kumbaya nonsense. He was reaching out to a broader base in the Liberal Party that enabled him to knock off both Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, and have people declare before the 2013 election that he's actually quite a decent and sensible fellow who will be moderated by the demands of office.

He was, in short, gulling people like Irfan Yusuf: too dumb to realise they've been had, too proud to admit it. The entire press gallery is in the same boat, realising that Abbott is doing a lousy job as PM but not daring to admit he was never up to it - and that their assertions to the contrary were simply wrong.
Abbott is a victim of the far-right.
Oh, please.
A former staffer of his walked out to join Pauline Hanson.
David Oldfield was the last man in Australia to regard Tony Abbott as insufficiently right-wing. Even people who like Oldfield regard him as a special case.
Abbott and his allies worked hard to ensure One Nation was made accountable for financial irregularities.
They went beyond the law, Hanson and Ettridge were pardoned. Yusuf is a lawyer and knows not to confuse a quashed conviction with one that remains in force. That case should have informed those who profess to be shocked, shocked at Abbott's lack of respect for legal processes and common-law rights.
... Abbott's quite brilliant manifesto Battlelines ...
Let it go, Irfan. It was navel lint rendered into words.

If it helps, I thought Phillip Ruddock was a decent and principled person. You just have to admit you were wrong and move on.
If Abbott does give the order to the federal member for Dawson not to attend this rally, it will sound almost hypocritical.
Yes it would. Abbott is the dog that is not barking. It's part of the pattern, established with those entitlement rorts referred to earlier, where this government does what it pleases and is accountable to no-one.
... discussions (or lack thereof) on national security in Australia are rarely conducted in a sensible manner. Phillip Adams recently wrote in the Weekend Australian: "The current liturgy chanted in unison by ministers prime and junior in the Gregorian manner, including Stop the Boats and Death Cult. They are not designed to encourage discussion but to end it. To drown out doubt, debate, calibration, nuance and context."
This takes us back to George Christensen. He started out doing PR for a backbench MP, merely passing on decisions that had already been made without his input. He did not get where he is today through Socratic dialogues or pondering deeply the changing nature of society. He got where he is by managing how the media report on decisions that have already been taken, decisions that are irrevocable, decisions that need not be explained persuasively and with an emphasis on shut up and do as you're bloody well told. He got where he is by pandering to boofheads, and by being one.

Christensen may be right in thinking that sexist, racist crap plays well in his electorate. Abbott, as Prime Minister of the nation, has wider responsibilities. To focus on Christensen is to let Abbott off the hook, once again, which is how he got there and why he gives great hope and succour to worms like Christensen.

Christensen is a generation younger from Abbott but cut from much the same cloth. They were never fearless investigative journalists, but could be relied upon to pad out an already established conclusion, or create a diversion as required. Abbott is playing a double game and Christensen is happy to play along. Calls for Abbott to rein in Christensen are calls to a sense of decency that the current Prime Minister lacks, and did not ever have (no, Irfan, never). You can't persuade such people, but you can vote them out and stop assuming they might have anything useful or constructive to say. Vote for people who engage on important decisions that are yet to be taken rather than look-at-me stunts and diversions.

16 July 2015

The smell of kerosene

The history of political rorting goes way back and involves politicians of all parties and none. Accusations of rorting usually come from outside the political class rather than inside. Proof of such rorting tends to be highly protected; where an example escapes it is usually matched by a counter-example, and tends to die down after a few days of tabloid media outrage with little real change (except to jack up security procedures).

Let's look at the history of rorts under this government, and see it for what it is: set-pieces of political theatre, whose wider significance is missed entirely by supposedly savvy observers.

When this government was first elected George Brandis and Don Randall were accused of rorting their entitlements. They made contrite noises and the debate moved on, as though members of a newly-elected government had made forgivable newbie errors.

When Joe Hockey delivered the 2014 budget, and it became clear that the government's problems were structural rather than anecdotal, News Ltd papers ran a half-hearted campaign to dump Hockey. Samantha Maiden was put up to do this. Neither Maiden, nor any of the almost two hundred other members of the press gallery, bothered to investigate whether the practice was widespread among MPs. Nor did it instigate one of those fabled NewsCorp campaigns to reform entitlement rules so that no politician could enhance their family's asset base at public expense.

Look at the dogs that did not bark here and give me no more of your nonsense about a fourth estate.

Hockey was set up for a fall. NewsCorp papers and talkback radio went after him in the hope that the pressure would get to him, he'd chuck in the high-pressure role of Treasurer, and the government's perceptions of incompetence would go with him. Hockey didn't quit, Abbott stood by him, and NewsCorp backed off when he sued Fairfax. When the result of that case proved inconclusive, NewsCorp declared their former target gloriously triumphant under the enemy-of-my-enemy principle, to the bemusement of Richard Ackland.

Now the rorting spotlight has fallen on Bronwyn Bishop. This, however, is no grassroots campaign from far beyond the manicured lawns of Canberra. It's not even a NewsCorp stitch-up, and it certainly isn't opposition research. It's an inside job from the government.

Bishop had been a ferociously partisan NSW President of the Liberal Party in 1986-87, around the time I joined the Young Liberals as a teenager. Fluffy profiles of Bishop like this do nothing to prepare people for what she was to be like as Speaker, helping the press gallery build the perception that an Abbott government wouldn't be all that bad, ha ha! As a result, experienced press gallery hacks fell about in amazement at her entirely foreseeable partisanship.

Bishop was always a soft target for rort accusations, for two main reasons borne out from her long record in Canberra. As Adam Gartrell points out, she has a taste for the finer things in life. As Gartrell doesn't, her record as a minister shows she's a clown. She demands fawning loyalty from her staff above all other considerations; this precludes those who are efficient or committed to principles other than her whims, to the point that they will stand up to her. A staff like that means that the minister will achieve little other than having become a minister, and such a record is fine by Bishop.

Infamously, Bishop's ministerial career ended when she was the minister responsible for regulating aged care, and it was revealed old people in nursing homes were being bathed in kerosene. The regulation of the sector was a shambles. When she was replaced by Julie Bishop, much younger and with a more substantial career behind her, stakeholders were consulted and the sector was regulated much better. This set the younger Bishop up for the higher offices that eluded Bronwyn.

The fuel used in helicopters is very similar to kerosene. It's funny how things go around, really.

This is why she's vulnerable: nobody in her office has that Credlin-like ability to get the job done and discourage would-be attackers. It is Bishop herself who stares down challenges from Labor strategists like Albanese or Tony Burke; her staff just do what she says. Bishop has hired people she thinks are loyal to her, and they might even think they're loyal, but none will die in a ditch for her.

Howard looked down his nose at Bronwyn Bishop, so did everyone really - but not Abbott. He is the son she never had. When it became clear she could not knock off the enfeebled John Hewson - and that the Liberal Party preferred even Alexander Downer, or Lazarus-with-triple-bypass John Howard, or newbie Peter Costello, or anyone really over her, Tony Abbott was elected to Parliament and her future became clearer than it otherwise might have been.

After she'd had her go in the Howard ministry, Bishop fought off Concetta Fierravanti-Wells for preselection in her seat because she knew she'd get a second, better chance in an Abbott government. When Abbott stumbled during the 2007 election campaign and in the two years after, Bishop had more faith in an Abbott government than Abbott did. She helped minimise the vote against him in February's challenge.

Bishop thought she was helping Abbott's national-security narrative by banning women from covering their heads in parliament's public gallery. When there was a backlash, one Bishop was inclined to ignore, Abbott took days to talk her down.

Abbott elevated Bishop, Bishop protects Abbott. Labor and the press gallery makes much of her one-eyed bias, but with any other Speaker Abbott would be strafed every time in Parliament. Labor's zingers would hit home. Given some people's focus on the "optics" of parliamentary theatre, he'd be "beleagurered" and "embattled", with all sorts of flow-on effects in what is already a failing government.

Why were only Bishop's expenses leaked, and why now? Aren't journalists supposed to be inquisitive? Isn't the whole point of experience to refuse to be led astray by lies, half-truths, fobbing-off, and other Canberra wiles? The press gallery thinks its job is to gratefully receive 'drops' of information like this and not question their provenance. You could say that the better press gallery journalists will ask these questions, and some might get answers: but those people will consider themselves under Chatham House rules not to disclose who's responsible or why, all for the sake of future drops, which puts them in the same league as those who take the drops and don't ask.

Bronwyn Bishop is close to Abbott, and not just because of their ecclesiastical surnames or adjacent electorates. Anyone who takes a shot at Bishop can expect a serve from Abbott, and vice versa. The leak against Bishop is designed to stoke public outrage; political insiders know how potent rort accusations are to non-insiders, like kerosene to a flame. It is designed to hurt Abbott at a time when he can't use the full force of his authority to hunt down anyone who'd embarrass her in this way.

Abbott, not Bishop, is the real target here. Since he was challenged for the leadership he has not fulfilled his promise to lift the government's fortunes. Whether it's national security, building submarines in Adelaide, the coalmine proposal on Liverpool Plains, the sudden discovery that solar panels are part of mainstream Australia - this government has been like a helicopter pilot revving the rotors at full speed, but still descending. The reason why same-sex marriage isn't getting up is not because of rock-ribbed conservatives, but those timid souls who would support it but fear shirtfronting the leader.

Lashing out at Bishop is a release, but also a warning. Those captain's picks haven't gotten any better. Early election talk only wards off the challengers if support for the Coalition goes up, not down. You could take a shot at Abbott directly, but you'd be finished if you failed. Far better to take on the hapless Bishop, and there will be a mob in every electorate to blast her indulgence; Abbott will get the message that he's the next target if things don't get better soon.

If Bronwyn Bishop had her way Joe Hockey would never have been elected to Parliament. All that money he raises goes to relative moderates rather than the conservatives she tends to favour. After all that's happened to him since, Hockey would be a dingo of the worst kind to turn on Abbott now - but he can turn on Bishop and it's fair comment.

You could say that it's in the nature of this government for a woman like Bishop to cop it for her rorts while men like Brandis and Randall get away with far worse. This is a fair point, until you realise Bishop's unrelenting hostility to lefty notions of feminism. She has always been able to mix it with men as friends or foes, but her most bitter contests have been with other women: Julie Bishop, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and various moderates in Liberal Women's Council and the Young Liberals. Her only real female ally was Sophie Mirabella. Liberals who want to increase female participation in the party overall, including in parliament, are her sworn enemies. Peta Credlin is young enough to be her daughter, for goodness sake, without being nearly so deferential.

For once in her life, Bronwyn Bishop is just a patsy: Abbott is the real target. With the press gallery so busy writing the same story, and willing to drop it once Bishop announces a modest payback, they won't really think about the nature of the attack, who the real target is, and how little time and room for manoeuver he has left.

09 July 2015

The brown word

Before the 1996 election, the Coalition was at a disadvantage on environmental issues. Their environmental credentials (e.g. Fraser Island, ending whaling) were far in the past, while their environmental failures (e.g. the Gordon-below-Franklin dam, the Daintree) were more memorable. The NSW Greiner government's slogan "warm, dry, and green" was little more than that. So, they changed the conversation. Instead of talking about "green" issues (e.g. biodiversity and rainforests), they began to reframe environmental debates in terms of "brown" issues (e.g. soil degradation, water quality).

They made a solid case for the environment as an economic asset, and for elevating big issues like the Murray-Darling basin over threatened species. They made the non-partisan Landcare movement partisan. They also managed to neatly defuse the perceived threat to rural landholdings posed by Indigenous land claims arising from the Mabo and Wik land rights cases using these notions of a combined economic and environmental custodianship that only seemed to include non-Indigenous farmers.

In the 19 years since then, the Coalition has held federal government for 13. The sheer extent of their failure on brown issues is such that rural seats that were once rock-solid for the Coalition - particularly the Nationals - are vulnerable to improvised coalitions of farmer interests, Greens, small-scale community populists, and other groups that could never work together unless presented with a common threat, such as small and scattered outposts of Labor people. Whatever the Nationals gained from not prosecuting clear-fellers on pastoral leases has long since been frittered away.

Cathy McGowan developed her community organising techniques in Landcare and women's farming movements, not in some inner-Melbourne commune, and knocked off a would-be Cabinet minister. She received very little mainstream media coverage and none from the supposedly savvy press gallery, until she actually won Indi in 2013 and Abbott had to do without Sophie Mirabella in his Cabinet.

Every Coalition MP is potentially as vulnerable as Mirabella was then - but you'd never know it. Broadcast media organisations have cut back their regional presence. Big-city news desks look down their noses at the regionals. Regional journalists feel obliged to cultivate relationships with sitting MPs, who look dimly upon coverage of movements that might upset them. Journalists trained to cover politics as a two-horse Labor vs Coalition race find it hard to define or comprehend movements combining conservative landowners, Indigenous organisations and Green activists. They do not keep tabs on or follow up long-simmering issues. If there are any McGowan-style movements afoot in regional federal electorates, the broadcast media wouldn't know until a polling company deigned to turn its gaze beyond the same suburban marginals that have changed governments since 1972, and even then they'd pooh-pooh them like they did in Indi.

One selling proposition for Coalition MPs is that you have more direct influence at the Cabinet table with a Coalition MP than with some independent or other MP kicking against the bricks. The Shenhua mine approval near Gunnedah NSW puts paid to that. Barnaby Joyce is the fourth-highest ranking member of Cabinet, where he sits with Greg Hunt, the minister who approved the mine.

Compare this to the previous parliament: the then MP for New England, Tony Windsor, would have been able to prevail upon Labor Environment ministers not to approve a deal that sacrificed prime farming land to a coal mine. Labor has no love for Liverpool Plains squatters, and nor they for it; both could have avoided dog-whistle concerns about Chinese government interests to kybosh the mine on the basis that threats to groundwater in prime agricultural land were simply too high. Abbott would have made some fatuous statement but the Nationals would have recognised the importance of the issue and been seen to stand up for farmers.

The press gallery was focused on Bill Shorten's appearance before the Trade Union Royal Commission yesterday. There are almost two hundred individuals in the press gallery, yet they are only capable of focusing on one story, despite the ferocious competitive pressures that buffet their industry. They cover it in much the same way - little scope for diversity on whether Shorten did well or badly, and what either outcome might mean for his prospects as Prime Minister.

Whenever the press gallery decide there is only one issue they will cover at any given time, it is easy to surprise them by making an announcement that might otherwise attract more coverage. None of the experienced editors or veteran journalists make contingency for the possibility that an issue other than the agreed one might pop up. And always, those announcements come out, and always they're a surprise. Journalists and editors all do this kabuki routine of shock and then reduce coverage of what they have decided is a secondary issue, and continue to resist the urge to cover them in-depth later - even on slow news days - as though an issue like a giant mine designed to last for decades goes off after a few days like a dairy product.

As Minister for Agriculture and MP for New England, Barnaby Joyce apparently isn't happy with the mine, but so what?
  • Is Joyce going to override Hunt? Hardly - coal mining interests are still powerful and alert to any threat to their survival. If that mine were not approved, is any mine safe?
  • Is Joyce going to resign from Cabinet? Hardly - the motto of the political class is: never explain, never complain, never resign, leave a good-looking corpse, put your staffer in your seat to replace you, and secure some consultancies into retirement. Joyce would not go that far as a rabble-rouser, not even as far as Bob Katter, and this government would freeze him out even if he just started talking about it.
  • Is Joyce going to move against Hunt? Hardly - Hunt has ticked all the boxes and bloodlessly followed instructions to the point where he is regarded as a muppet by everyone outside the Liberal Party. If the Nationals were to demand Hunt's head, and were Abbott to give it, Liberals might start wondering why anyone would tick all the boxes and bloodlessly follow instructions as the PMO would have them do - and that would spell the beginning of the end for Abbott.
Barnaby Joyce will go to the next election facing a furious, motivated, diverse and well-organised opposition in New England, egged-on but not led by Labor, the Greens, and Tony Windsor. It doesn't matter how cheesed-off he is, his name will be mud and his impotence exposed. If the price of coal falls the mine may never go ahead, but this will not be the same as Barnaby saving the day and everyone knows it.

He might have a well-funded campaign, but funding isn't everything - after yesterday, do you reckon Shenhua will fund Barnaby's campaign manager? His ability to campaign for other Nationals will be sharply limited, his public goodwill will evaporate. Whether Tony Windsor runs again, or someone else does, Joyce is on a hiding to nothing.

The CSIRO was founded to examine soil and water quality from a scientific basis: it has been gutted by this government and there is no point lobbying Joyce to restore it. The University of New England, Joyce's alma mater and a major location for agricultural research, is for Joyce a hotbed of political opposition. The Nationals could not run a campaign on brown issues if their lives depended on it.

For years the Nationals, particularly in NSW, overestimated how clever they were in securing support from mining companies while claiming to represent rural communities. That model is pretty much broken now. It leaves them representing the poorest and less well-educated communities - communities whose urban and Indigenous equivalents never vote Coalition - without the fundraising clout that both stops the Liberals from dictating terms, and limits grass-roots insurgents from winning elections.

In addition to New England, look to the Nationals-held seats of Cowper and Lyne on the NSW north coast. Conventional wisdom holds that Lyne MP David Gillespie will cruise to re-election because Everyone Gets Two Terms - Gillespie's sole political asset is that he is Tony Abbott's personal friend, an asset that has been markedly depreciated if not stranded. It's too early to talk about other seats, because we don't have the required information thanks to press gallery limitations.

Not that Greg Hunt can take much comfort from sticking it to Joyce. His electorate of Flinders is conservative heartland, held by former PM Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Cabinet ministers Phillip Lynch and Peter Reith. Hunt entered Parliament at the same election as his contemporary Sophie Mirabella, with the understanding that each was a future Cabinet minister. Regardless of their personal relationship, he would have felt the chill wind from her demise more than most.

Maybe Labor will get some try-hard up for one term in that seat, but if they really wanted to knock Hunt off they would support the kind of grass-roots campaign that Cathy McGowan developed: motivated, diverse locals turning a negative focus (dump the incumbent!) into a positive, community-based one (Mornington Peninsula/Phillip Island locals, you tell me) of the sort described by Jane Gilmore.

This government's whole messaging has been about protecting Aussie soil; you don't despoil the best of it with a coal mine. This government says coal is good for humanity; food is good for humanity, and this lunge for coal above all other considerations reveals an unedifying desperation. This government sticks it to conservative farmers, making voters less rusted-on wonder when the government will sell them out too. Whoever thought this decision was clever stuffed up badly - but to go against due process would also have been bad. It only shows that voting for the majors is no guarantee of effective, consistent, mature government.

07 July 2015

One Tony Abbott

There is only one Tony Abbott, but the press gallery report him through the lens of an imaginary, wise and capable leader. The fact that so many journalists limit themselves to the same story at any one time is what's wrong with both politics and with journalism, not some sort of vindication of either.

Take this piece by Michael Gordon. Despite Gordon's experience and seniority it is no better/worse than other pieces of its type (which doesn't say much for notions of experience and seniority in political journalism):
Tony Abbott has reverted to the tactics that proved so devastatingly effective in opposition in a bid to achieve ascendancy over Bill Shorten, wedge Labor on national security, consolidate his own recovery and increase his flexibility on election timing.

By reducing the complex issue of citizenship to a slogan, shattering any prospect of bipartisanship on security and brazenly misrepresenting the position of the country's foremost expert in terrorism law, the Prime Minister is out to maximise short and medium-term political advantage.

Having declared that "Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: submit or die", Abbott's emphatic message now is that Australians are safer from terrorism under the Coalition. This is an extraordinary and irresponsible claim.
Abbott never moved on from the behaviour that so enthralled journalists. This is why he's such an abysmal Prime Minister.

The press gallery were willing to take him at his word, while the rest of the country wasn't. Australians have always been Tony Abbott sceptics. Whenever people were asked who they would prefer to lead the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott or a brown snake, Abbott couldn't win a trick. Since he became leader of the Liberal Party major media broadcasters have insisted, like people trapped in a bad relationship, that they knew the real Tony and we didn't. He Can Change. He's Looking Prime Ministerial. He'll Grow Into The Job. This Time. This Time. Good Government Starts Today, Or Maybe Next Thursday, Definitely After The Budget. No Really This Time It Will Be Different, Please Believe Me.

They made excuses for him that they didn't make for Latham, or Downer, or any other party leader manifestly unfit to become Prime Minister.

To return to Gordon, Abbott is not being "extraordinary" when he executes the responsibilities of office in his typically irresponsible way. Every week, if not every day, Tony Abbott does things that fall short of the press gallery ideal that they call "Tony 2.0", "Prime Ministerial", or whatever. Rather than abandon this pretence and report on Abbott as he is and has always been, they hold him to a fantasy ideal and act all surprised when he falls short.

Now somebody has taken Peter Hartcher to lunch and convinced him that the environment is a real thing in politics, something that goes beyond the weak tea and small beer that is the major parties' positions. It's so risible I won't even link to it, because the SMH campaign on the environment works from the same assumptions as all bad political reporting:
  • the incompetent boofhead we see trashing government services, and with that our very confidence in government itself, is somehow not the real Tony Abbott and something of a surprise to seasoned observers;
  • the real Tony Abbott is a sensitive and well-rounded fellow who feels people's pain, and is very receptive to issues like same-sex marriage and renewable energy; so
  • with the right form of words, offered respectfully, we just might get him to tone down his opposition to something against which he fundamentally defines himself.
This bullshit has to stop. I am singling out Fairfax but every organisation with any mouth-breathing muppets in the Canberra press gallery is guilty of the same malicious negligence. Stop believing in "Tony 2.0". The whole reason Abbott is Prime Minister at all is not because conservatives pushed for a conservative government - conservatives are entitled to make their case - but because of smirking dipsticks like Hartcher and Gordon who insisted they knew Abbott better than the rest of us. They falsely asserted against all the evidence - against everything that journalism is supposed to stand for - that he wouldn't be so bad.

Start seeing Abbott for what he is and report accordingly. Misinformation kills democracy, and it kills media organisations that peddle it.

05 July 2015

Doubting Thomas

Occasionally some self-indulgent fool from the Canberra press gallery will complain that they all work so hard and are so put-upon, and all it does is keep in mind why press gallery journalism has failed on every level - including failing its very practitioners. The latest is this joker.

As I write this, I'm overseas and have only seen the first episode of The Killing Season. I thought it would be hard to convey the bureaucratic log-jam of Rudd's office on television, and the show barely even tried to do that. Without the incompetence of Rudd's office you can only explain Rudd's downfall the way Rudd and his supporters seem to do: that Gillard was a backstabbing bitch. The first episode seemed to be a condensed and warmed-over version of the he-said-she-said crap that passed for journalism at the time, but with mood music. I will give those episodes I haven't seen the benefit of the doubt, but let's hope they are corkers.

This blog isn't about a TV show. This blog is about the way politics is covered by the sorts of organisations that employ members of the press gallery. It dealt with the events covered in the show in more detail than any TV show ever could.
The story, told by veteran journalist Sarah Ferguson, will scoop the pool at the Walkleys – the journalism industry’s own award night.
Last year Ferguson hosted the Walkleys. She had to yell to be heard even with a PA system, because members of the industry in which she's a veteran kept talking over her. It might be unfair to assume she's used to this, being married to Tony "Talkover" Jones, but it's undeniable that every pissed hack there owes her an apology - and maybe some consideration about what professional courtesy and recognition might mean.
But it omitted a major angle. The role of the media in the downfall of two Prime Ministers.
I would have reviewed those two episodes very keenly for such an angle, and regard this as a spoiler that no such angle exists. No wonder she's up for a Walkley. You only win a Walkley in two ways: a) gushing about the Australian media, or b) morosely comparing every wanker who rehashes PR emissions to Peter Greste.

Thomas raises an important point, but starts making excuses in the very next paragraph:
Trying to fit months of excitement into an hour of TV means things must be skimmed over.
In three hours (not one) you can get across the salient points. That sentence offers yet more proof that whenever a journalist lapses into the passive voice, they are up to no good.
The political journalist’s job is absurdly stressful and difficult. I doubt many people could imagine how precious time is for a working journalist. Deadlines don’t just loom. They crash down. There is scarcely time for typing, let alone time for reflection.
Oh, fuck off. Fuck right off, you absurdly ignorant twat. And when you've fucked off from there, fuck off from more until ... no, just fuck off.

It's 2015. Everyone's stressed. Everyone's busy. Everyone who does the sort of job for which you need a university degree does the sorts of things journalists do: they gather information (some written, some verbal) and then analyse it, and then present those findings in written/other formats to deadlines that often shift in both time and importance.

Those people - we - need people to tell us how we're being governed, and options for how we might be governed (which involves more than the banalities of the major party not in government this year). If political journalism has a business model, that's it. To do that job, you have to get over yourself and do the best you can with what you have; not plead for special consideration to which journalists are simply not entitled.

The first step toward journalists getting over themselves is to respect that others are busy, and to do the hard work necessary to explaining complex issues "as simply as possible - but no simpler", as Einstein* put it. When you resort to cliche it's like the news doesn't matter, like it's some sort of make-work scheme for you and your silly mates which taxpayers/voters can safely ignore. When you refer to your eructations as 'yarns' it implies you don't even care whether or not they are true.

The failure to take that first step is why the broadcast media is dying. Internet or bonus hogs in the executive suite are secondary to this primary failure. But don't let that stop you whining, Thomas:
Pondering the role of the media in shaping political events is a job for retirement. Their job is to get stories out the door. Now.
And their performance in doing that is a legitimate field of inquiry by those who practice journalism, those who manage journalists, and those who are subject to it. Again, everyone is busy, and everyone could do their jobs differently and better with a bit of reflection on what you're doing and for whom you're doing it (other than yourself). Never mind retirement - even journalists who stagger under the weight of awards and cracker stories find practitioners sneering at them when they proffer advice.
Even if journos wanted a critical reflection on the media, where would it be found?
Never mind what journalists want, this blog and the others linked to at right of this screen give them what they need, good and hard and often. Pearls before swine, but pearls nonetheless.
The mainstream media is not in the business of introspection.
The mainstream media is barely in business at all. If this is to change, it must change its ways. Change is most likely to occur from frontline journalists waking up to themselves; the people currently running media organisations will never be able to reform them to the extent necessary to ensure their survival.
So the press gallery favours a paradigm where they merely observe and report. If speculative reports come true, the paradigm is only strengthened.
Where speculative reports fail, they are ignored - the Young tweet Thomas quotes is of a boy who cried wolf so many times he became a joke. It is worse for a journalist to be ignored than merely sacked, or even imprisoned. The broadcast media has clogged the arteries of its public trust with rubbish speculation to the point where life-giving corpuscles of policy discussion and execution barely get through. Journalists who are risible are not "strengthened", not even in some inside-journalism have-a-Walkley sense.
But of course media practice changes politics. Without the media acting as it does, we’d not have half the policies we do. Boat arrival reporting drives asylum-seeker policy, for example.
Yes. When Scott Morrison stonewalled about "on-water matters", journalists became relieved at not having to do any reporting work and started rewarding Morrison for his guile. When Morrison said the boats had stopped, they believed him. Now it turns out the boats haven't stopped at all, and the journalists can't get past their own narrative to report what's going on.

It's one thing for the government to treat journalists like the ignorant, up-themselves, stress-bunnies that Thomas and I agree them to be. It's quite another for the government to treat us all in that manner, by extension, which is what you get when you embrace the fantasy that journos just observe and report and hold decision-makers to account.
The media’s lens made John Howard trim those eyebrows and Joe Hockey get lap-band surgery.
Not sure those count as policies, Thomas.
But this is not a major subject of the thinkpieces that damn modern politicians’ inadequacy.
We're already across the idea that the broadcast media aren't that introspective.
As in any mob, no individual can be blamed.
This is where Thomas' laughable self-indulgence veers into the outright stupid.

The members of a mob are unknown and unknowable before they appear without warning and wreak their unpredictable havoc. Members of the press gallery are known quantities who mostly operate by turning complex developments into reruns of events that have happened before. Look at any journalist's twitter feed and you'll see genuine longing that some new development was not more like something that happened under Howard, or Hawke/Keating, so they could just cut/paste the old story and call it a day.
Picking on Grattan or Oakes or Lenore Taylor is silly.
Picking on them is. Going back over their record and doing a thorough and professional quis custodiet ipsos custodes job manifestly is not. They are responsible individuals and should be held to account just as individual members of braying mobs in the Parliament are. If you're going to recognise individuals enough to give them Walkleys and other gongs, you can't then absolve them of any blame attributable to any "mob" which they join.
There are around 180 journos in the official press gallery, from dozens of outlets. Then thousands more weighing in from beyond Canberra.

It’s rational behaviour for any one journo to see everyone else reporting leadership speculation, and so to report leadership speculation.
Actually, it isn't. The opposite is true.

Journos hate the idea that their industry is not unique and that other industries are irrelevant to theirs, but fuck that and fuck them. Here's an example: in the suburb where I live there would be a couple of hundred restaurants. They too face regular deadlines, but because they're not drama-queen journalists they just get on with it. Some serve hamburgers, but not all do. Some serve bibimbap and others serve laksa. You can get Coca-Cola at many but not all. The idea that there is only one meal available is nonsense.

If I order a lamb curry, I don't give a fuck of any type whether or not it might be easier to make a peanut-butter sandwich. If it is served cold, I don't want to hear about all of your [food industry equivalent of Walkleys]. It is not the time to harangue me about veganism either. If you're going to package journo yarns as content for consumption, then you set a higher standard than that under which in-house criteria might have been developed.

Consider that restaurant staff often earn less than average wages, while press gallery journalists get salaries and other perks of fulltime employment (not to mention taxpayer-funded parliamentary resources) enjoyed by almost nobody in the restaurant industry. You'd think that the press gallery would get some perspective on their lot in life and shut the hell up - and if they have genuine problems, chances are journalists will have stronger support mechanisms than restaurant staff.

The number of stories produced by press gallery journalists should be at least 180 to the power of 180 (180180), one of those mind-boggling numbers used only by astrophysicists. When the Budget comes out each year, you might be forgiven for thinking it's nothing more than a speech from the Treasurer - it is a document that runs to thousands of pages over numerous volumes, and in it are more than enough stories to keep at least 180 journalists broadcasting for a year. And then they do another one the following year.

If there is really ever only One Story, then 180 journalists is too many to cover it. 18 is an extravagance. Even 1.8 is more than is required. Why not just run algorithms over press releases?

The idea that there's only ever one story at a time is rubbish. It's the opposite of what's true, like the crashing deadlines thing. Thomas' argument is pretty much dead now, but let's shoot the stragglers:
Indeed, the media organisations can throw up their hands too, and say they merely serve an audience. If those stories did not draw frenzied millions of clicks, they would not publish them.
That's crap too.

When this blog was starting, broadcast media carried a lot of content about an individual called Paris Hilton. Serious news consumers like me complained, but broadcast media asserted there was a wide and deep audience for Hilton's comings and goings, and that they were mere servants - if not slaves - to the indomitable public will.

In truth, nobody gave a damn about Paris Hilton. Even people who had sex with her felt that way. All that content - and there was so, so much of it - was supply-driven rather than demand-driven. At some point Hilton's publicists simply turned off the supply of content, and the media stopped reporting about her - much like Scott Morrison did with the boats.

If there really was an audience among broadcast media consumers with a genuine interest in Paris Hilton, that audience was simply abandoned by the very same broadcast media that insisted it was not only real but insatiable.

Over the period between Hilton's bouts of obscurity, the media's reach, circulation, and credibility declined rapidly. It was in no way "strengthened" by this charade of concocting a Paris Hilton audience and then pandering to it.
But having no individual at whom the finger can be pointed doesn’t matter for a meta-analysis.
It's begging the question about journalistic culpability, and that of the organisations which employ them.
The reporters and outlets can be basically innocent ...
No, they can't (see below).
... and the industry very much implicated.
No it can't (see below).
(Much like the problems within Labor don’t end with Shorten or Gillard, or even the people who responded to those polls ‘Dasher’ Dastyari was so smitten with.)
The problems with Labor under Whitlam continued under Hawke and Keating, but the party was not only able to win elections but govern in between. I'm not as bothered by "the problems with Labor" as either the press gallery is, or as some ALP members seem to be. There are other issues to which Labor, and other responsible entities, should address themselves. I hope the press gallery might examine those issues - but they probably won't, given that veteran industry veteran Sarah Ferguson can't be arsed and nobody else in the mob can either.
Having been in the media and seen how much power there is, how lightly governed it is, and how much you can get away with, it’s amazing.
No it isn't. Just because you came down in the last shower it doesn't mean we all did.
What’s the Finkelstein inquiry, you ask?
Not me asking, fella. Some of us followed it, and the coverage of it, and were not nearly as shocked as you were. Another begged question.

The Finkelstein inquiry was a bit like current inquiries into trade unions, or the institutional sexual abuse of children: an institution so powerful, so arrogant, so heedless of the rights of individuals, can appear so vulnerable under examination. Only when you consider that institution in a wider context that went beyond either perpetrators or victims did it make any real sense, and only then can it be governed effectively (whether internally or externally).
But the media is not above reproach.
Just because you regard that as a big admission, it doesn't mean we all do.
The Killing Season included at least two examples of politicians backgrounding journalists with information that may well be fake. Arbib saying he’d reconciled with Rudd in 2013, and the SMH reporting Rudd was checking his numbers in 2010.
So much for "having no individual at whom the finger can be pointed" or "reporters and outlets can be basically innocent".
Reporting off-the-record comment means that the public can’t check its veracity. It requires utmost trust in the reporter. That trust was eroded during the period in question.
Really? Peter Hartcher was Political Editor of the SMH in 2010, and he holds that position today. There is an old saying about how nappies and political offices should be changed regularly, but strangely this does not apply to the press gallery: where is the press gallery journalist who has suffered a fraction of the opprobrium that fell upon Peter Slipper, or Godwin Grech, or Craig Thomson? Even people who thought they deserved it felt sorry for them. No, really, give me more of that journo self-pity please.
But off-the-record comment is just a small moving part in a big machine. The influence of the media on politics is like the water fish swim in – so pervasive they don’t notice it or question it.
They do very little else but notice and question it - another Thomas assertion that's palpably false. It's a fantasy that you can only understand the media by working in it, that you can't reverse-engineer a lot of it and compare it to non-journo activity.

Then, there's Thomas doing what he accuses others of: brushing aside a genuine fact as though it doesn't matter, as though baby and bathwater must both go out if the Narrative says so.
Politicians would be starved of oxygen without the media.
Garbage. There are 226 members of federal parliament, and the press gallery cover a couple of dozen at most. Politicians need a connection with the voting public, even in dictatorships; their relationship with the media is a subset of this, not the whole story. Social media, direct mail, parliamentary printing allowances, even old-fashioned shoe-leather in some cases - all mitigate the political risks that come from over-reliance on the broadcast media.

For example: I'd argue that Chris Pyne would be a more effective politician if he spent less time with the press gallery.
Like a current in the water, we can normally only identify it by the ripples.
Depends who you mean by 'we', really. Experienced specialists should have more diagnostic tools available than having a squiz at some ripples. Focusing on some ripples in one place does not mean that there's nothing important going on elsewhere.

It is not only journalists doing the framing; they too are framed by those who feed them information. Sometimes journalists are aware of this and quite enjoy being duchessed, feeling no need to trouble readers with any narrative but the one they're fed. Mostly, however, they are just gulled - too dumb to see through it but too proud to admit it. These are the people for whom Thomas dies in a ditch, with that looming crashing etc.
Note: I can see the response this piece is going to provoke
No you can't. You'd have to get over yourself to succeed at that. Rudd supporters were few and far between in 2010 but the press gallery told us otherwise. Whatever the "problems with Labor" were/are, the press gallery told us Tony Abbott was the answer. They were wrong about that, too.

Abbott runs a control-freak, policy-hopeless PMO just like Rudd did, but the press gallery still can't report on policy and process. As soon as Abbott attracted a fraction of the scrutiny Rudd and Gillard did, he went to water, promised to reform, but palpably didn't. The press gallery can't report on that either because their "Tony 2.0" fantasy keeps getting in the way (more on that later).

We just don't have the information we need on how we are governed, and how we might be governed. Fuck the press gallery, fuck everyone who makes excuses for the press gallery, and those who keep them in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Never mind that you're a little cog in a big machine - fuck you too, Thomas.

Update 8 July: Thomas, or should I say Jason, has published a follow-up post. Here's why he's still wrong:
  1. I'm not anonymous. I use my real name on this blog, and elsewhere. Jason/Thomas makes the starfucker mistake of assuming that because he's never met me, I must be anonymous. This is pretty rich from someone who can't even agree on what his own name is.
  2. The circumstances/context of the Australian media show that they can't get over themselves, and that their impact recedes by the day. When it comes to the way politics is covered, leading broadcasters have institutional advantages that the rest of us lack, and yet they squander those advantages by interviewing one another, jockeying for drops and other examples of journalistic malpractices that Jason/Thomas excuses.
  3. I understood his blogpost very well indeed, which is why he sought to shift the debate to other matters (body image, structural weaknesses in representative democracy, his CV) where he fely less uncomfortable.
  4. It isn't me who's the hater. I only judge journalists by their output, and his output on that matter was crap and I was right to say so. Journalists seek to "get under the skin" of their subjects, engage in cod-psychology about their personalities and motivations, which leaves little room for fact-based reporting on what those people actually do. The reason why the press gallery are so surprised by Tony Abbott all the time is because he has gulled them with a false persona of reasonableness that belies his red-in-tooth-and-claw policies. When you judge Abbott by his actions, press gallery coverage of him doesn't make sense. Jason/Thomas can't engage with the systematic failure of political journalism, which is why he attempted to play the man (me) and not the ball (the systematic failure of Australian political journalism over the last decade at least).
  5. After admitting to drafting but not sending strongly-worded responses, he makes himself look better than he is by offering an olive branch. He can't admit he's wrong, and gives every indication that he's dull company: unreflective, resistant to differing opinions not deadened by cliche, insistent upon tinkering with failure and respecting those responsible for it.
He can continue to bellow like a steer with its head stuck in a fence for all I care, for he is stuck in a paradigm that all evidence shows cannot be reasoned with and is only bound for destruction. The false appearance of reasonableness might get you places in a newsroom but excusing the inexcusable simply gets in the way of those of us with a genuine interest in being well-informed about our society, our community, our affairs of state.

I met more than my share of dull drinking companions in the Liberal Party, thanks anyway Jason/Thomas. You can regale them with your cliches, and they with theirs, with a good time had by all no doubt. Even his choice of drinks and venue would be cheap and dreary. No thanks.

* Do not ask which newspaper Einstein wrote for. Don't.

03 July 2015

The shadow of BIll Shorten

Australia's political media assumed that Tony Abbott would be a good Prime Minister because he led the opposition to the previous government. This assumption was false and has been proven false pretty much every day this government has been in office. In no respect is it a better government than the one it replaced. It chops and changes and makes big decisions on the fly, and has even undergone a leadership challenge that resolved nothing.

The press gallery owes us all an apology, but in the absence of that it is doing what bad governments do: committing to a course of action that ensures an unrepeatable set of circumstances never recurs. They are going to hold this opposition leader to account, oh yes, because the last one got the green light and look what happened. The Abbott horse has bolted so they are trying feebly to lock the gate on Shorten.

Go back through the archives and read the profiles on Shorten, particularly those preceding the Beaconsfield mine disaster. They are all the same:
  • Bill is a very smart fellow. Everyone says so.
  • Bill is very personable. Everyone says so.
  • Here is a picture of Bill with Richard Pratt. Bill used to eat fancy dinners at Richard's place all the time (you can see why he had so much trouble at that pie shop), even though he was a union official.
  • Richard says Bill is very smart and personable.
  • Either/Both Bob Hawke/Paul Keating say Bill is very smart and personable. Those guys used to be Prime Minister! Maybe Bill will become Prime Minister too one day ...
  • Bill bats away predictable question about leaving AWU to go into parliament, and does so in a smart and personable way.
  • Gee you have to be smart and personable to bat away a predictable question from a journalist! Maybe Bill Shorten will become Prime Minister! You never know!
If the Royal Commission into Trade Unions uncovers any serious allegations against Shorten, it will be a sign of failure by every industrial and political journalist in the country (same with Gillard's renovations from twenty years ago). The dire hints from the press gallery about what might come from that are not based on any real knowledge, but on behind-the-scenes briefings from the government.

Shorten inherited a divided caucus and has united it. Unity has been a characteristic of almost all state Labor caucuses over recent years; Labor victories in Victoria and Queensland would have been impossible without it. For those who rate polls, Shorten has outpolled Abbott (and where he hasn't, Rudd outpolled Abbott in those areas before the last election and so what).

By this point in the last parliament, the press gallery had written off the incumbent government and were convinced Abbott would win, without feeling any necessity to scrutinise what an Abbott government might be like. Their consensus now is that Shorten is unknown and unknowable, that he's no certainty to win and could do anything in office. Again, this is a failure of journalism, not an example of it.

The personal offices of Rudd and Abbott were/are chaotic sinkholes of good ideas and effective policy. The press gallery narrative never twigged to this despite odd and unconnected stories giving examples. What's Shorten's office like, and how would a journalist know anyway? Easier to let the government frame Shorten, and then do an article about how clever the government's framing of Shorten is.

This piece by Rod Tiffen on how Labor can afford to ignore Murdoch is excellent. The Murdoch press needs Shorten more than he needs it, which will be interesting for its business model going forward. Once politics works out how to get around the broadcast media, and so long as broadcasters continue giving them incentives to do so, access journalism is finished. Gillard was half-hearted in embracing social media and the Labor Herald is an opportunity wasted. One redeeming feature of former UK Labour Leader Ed Miliband was that he realised no good would come of truckling to the old man.

Then there is the nature of the office Shorten now occupies. Oppose the government and you're a wrecker (unless you're Tony Abbott, in which case you're "devastatingly effective"), agree with the government and you're a wimp. To what standard are the press gallery holding Shorten, and (never mind fair) is it coherent or even sensible? Senior press gallery journalists have seen plenty of opposition leaders come and go. They should understand what they cover and report accordingly. They should have some perspective and be able to deal with complexity.

The idea that Shorten is a wrecker one day, wimp the next might be worthy of government spin, but it does not help the country understand how such a man might govern us.

The press gallery has no excuse for doing a lousy job in covering Bill Shorten. He should be a known quantity by now, enough to start enabling comparisons between the incumbent government and the alternative.

But, but ... it's hugely significant that he lied to Neil Mitchell. I mean, Neil Mitchell!


Soon after he assumed the position Shorten now holds, Tony Abbott went on the ABC to tell Kerry O'Brien that he made stuff up on the spot, that he'd say anything really, and that only written statements counted. He should have been gone within 24 hours; that, not the 2014 budget, was Abbott's point of failure as a potential Prime Minister. The fact that journalists continued to hang off his every word and report him credulously is their point of failure, day after day, year after year.

If experience counts for anything in political journalism, they'd realise this, and recognise the Mitchell thing for the non-event it is. At the risk of rubbing the noses of Victorians in their inability to determine the fate of national governments, I have to say: Neil who? Is he some sort of Sandy Stone with headphones?

A successful leader rises above media gotcha, and Shorten has done that. A successful leader unites his party, and Shorten has done that. There's more to being PM than those things, however - but the press gallery wouldn't even know what that is after all these years, and neither would Neil Mitchell.