23 August 2015

Handy Andy

The selection of Andrew Hastie as the Liberal candidate for Canning is a nice summary of all that was wrong with the Abbott government (and yes, the choice of past tense is deliberate).

Due process

There was a time when no self-respecting political party would touch a candidate who was still under investigation for serious matters on the field of battle. The report of this investigation may well exonerate Hastie, or it may not; in an era with greater respect for the armed forces and its due processes, Hastie would have been forced to wait until all such investigations were concluded.

It was inappropriate for Hastie to refer to these matters as having been concluded; had he done so before his resignation from the Army, such comments would have been insubordinate.

Under the Abbott government, there has been scant regard for due process. Where the government has been apprehensive about its chances of success in legal proceedings, such as in its treatment of asylum-seekers or granting of mining leases, the government has framed its opponents in alarmist terms ("vigilantes", "terrorists") and changed the law to exclude their right to even bring an action against the government. While one arm of the government (the investigative processes within the ADF) regards Hastie and those under his command as a subject of investigation, another (Abbott's office, and potentially the legislature) ignores the very possibility that he might yet have a case to answer.

If I were a standard Canberra pundit, I might wryly opine that Hastie's candidacy is "brave". I think it's typical of this government to ride roughshod over respect for procedure and legal niceties whenever they feel like it.

Government information-gathering above all other considerations

The ADF investigation, as David Wroe points out, centres on whether or not Australian soldiers breached the rules of war by removing the hands of Taliban fighters for the purposes of identification after the battle.

On the battlefield, mutilating bodies would surely decrease the prospect of civilian co-operation at best, at worst fuel anti-Western hatred and spur more and worse attacks upon Australian troops. Again, though, this is a matter for military and/or scholarly inquiries.

I will not get squeamish or moralistic about what soldiers do in battle. It is fair to say, however, that it is typical of this government to prioritise its information-gathering requirements over any and all other considerations.

The finest minds in the government couldn't define metadata, but they still want to monitor it. It spies on its political opponents, whether you want to talk about Senator Faulkner allegedly receiving leaks or Senator Hanson-Young allegedly being spied upon. This government (and successive major-party governments in recent years - only in the supposedly chaotic parliament of 2010-13 did it abate) has decreased privacy considerations in its information-gathering to the point where any remaining privacy provisions stand like burnt-out, gutted buildings, relics of a past that has not quite gone but which might impede 'progress' from time to time.

Hastie may have acted under orders in gathering such information as he and his troops gathered. Information gathered by such grisly means may well have some value. The idea that such information-gathering drowns out all other considerations is not quite an epitaph for this government, but it's definitely part of its legacy.


... I ask myself: why isn’t our party selecting more women members of parliament?

Why isn’t our party, as relatively advanced on this today as we were 70 years ago?

Why haven’t we remained ahead of our time in promoting women; and is that one of the reasons why we no longer attract the majority of women voters?

... there is consistently low female representation across our party.

There are relatively few women in leadership positions in the lay party
[sic]; there are relatively few women in the parliament; and because there are relatively few women in the parliament it’s harder to get more women into the cabinet.

- Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Address to [Liberal Party] Federal Women's Committee Luncheon, Adelaide, 15 August 2015

I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man [Abbott] ... If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.

- Prime Minister Julia Gillard, address to the House of Representatives, Canberra, 9 October 2012

Abbott could have insisted that the vacancy in Canning be filled by a woman. He could have prevailed upon women of substance like Diane Smith-Gander or Deirdre Willmott, or even Tess Randall, to stand - and prevailed on WA Liberal powerbrokers like Julie Bishop and Matthias Cormann to make it happen. This wouldn't have meant there was a quota - perish the thought! - but a successful political operation would have made it happen under the circumstances, some work of noble note may yet be done, etc etc.

Georgina Dent found Abbott's speech "astonishing":
Not, sadly, due to its astute revelations or bold leadership, rather it is its complete and curious absence of substance, critical analysis and deductive reasoning that makes it shocking.
Pretty much all of Tony Abbott's speeches are like that. A dull-witted survey of the landscape, followed by some cliched remarks that might have passed for considered thought in some bygone century, all summed up in a way that must be what it's like to suffer from incontinence: an awareness that you're in an unpleasant position made worse by the shame at having brought it upon yourself, and the inadequacy of all other options (including blame) to get you out of the predicament.

Dent has probably been lucky in not subjecting herself to regular doses of Abbott's speeches. Press gallery journalists also express surprise at how bad his speeches are; unlike Dent they've endured those speeches for decades, so one can only conclude such people are the worst thing any journalist can be - obtuse.

Hastie cannot be blamed for not being a woman, a shortcoming all too common. I hope it is not grossly sexist of me to observe that Hastie will prove more indicative (if not quite representative) of this government than many women who have been active members of it.

Conservatives and the military

Modern politics calls for major-party candidates who do as they're told, don't speak out of turn, and don't hog the limelight. Members of the ADF have those qualities in spades.
I never felt Labor had our backs when I was serving [in the Army].

- Andrew Hastie, yesterday
Members of the ADF vote for the conservative parties more than any other occupational group - more than lawyers, or farmers, or corporate executives. It comes as no surprise that such people would also join those parties, run for preselection and secure public office.

The defence force serves the nation, regardless of who may be governing it at any given moment. Yet, conservative politics in this country has always claimed to be more supportive of the military than Labor:
  • Billy Hughes split the ALP over conscription in World War I;
  • Labor had pacifist and anti-Imperialist elements among its membership since the party's inception, which increased after the slaughter of World War I;
  • Labor criticised what little the Lyons government did to upgrade Australia's military in the 1930s;
  • John Curtin had been a pacifist in World War I, and conservatives used this against him becoming Prime Minister during World War II. The disastrous decision to send Australian troops to Singapore was considered by many historians to be a reaction to conservative criticism, not only from within Australia but from Churchill in the besieged UK;
  • Following rhetoric from the Nixon Administration in the US, conservatives conflated protests against the Vietnam war with pacifism and antipathy to troops, and criticised the Whitlam government for withdrawing Australian troops from South Vietnam;
  • In 2003, then-Labor leader Simon Crean opposed sending Australian troops to Iraq, but declared his support for the troops nonetheless to the derision of the gung-ho Howard government.
All of the above points (and others like them) have been painstakingly rebutted by historians. I do not aim to lend them credibility they don't have, but rather to show Hastie's remark is not some unprecedented departure from the ADF's non-partisan service to the nation. Hastie draws upon a consistent rhetorical tradition in Australia's conservative politics.

Poor pay and conditions for ADF personnel, and inadequate support for wounded veterans, are yet more of those bipartisan traditions that our press gallery and defence/foreign policy intelligentsia insist upon but which fail us over and over again. You can expect that Andrew Hastie, whether as an MP or an advisor, will achieve no more for serving personnel and veterans than anyone else has in the past fifty years.

The kiss of death

He'll wrap you in his arms,
tell you that you've been a good boy
He'll rekindle all the dreams
it took you a lifetime to destroy
He'll reach deep into the hole,
heal your shrinking soul,
but there won't be a single thing that you can do
He's a god, he's a man,
he's a ghost, he's a guru
They're whispering his name
through this disappearing land ...

- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Red right hand
At their press conference in Canning Abbott praised Hastie - but he would, wouldn't he, blunting the news value in witnessing and recording such a statement. Pretty much everyone Abbott has praised effusively has come a-gutser in recent times, and the people of Canning are entitled to take his endorsement with a grain of salt. The Liberal Party can't go on with a leader whose very presence is a kiss of death; we saw in that Abbott-Napthine picture a serpentine Abbott seeming to drain Napthine's very marrow, negating their words or what the prospect of federal and state governments acting within the same party might hope to achieve.

Tony Abbott is a loser. It is entirely likely that Andrew Hastie will not become the next Member for Canning, and that the Liberals will use this as the excuse they need to dump Tony Abbott - but I've said that already. What about Hastie? He can't go back to the ADF, he's shirtfronted his superiors with his dopey comments pre-empting a long-running investigation, and if there's a Labor government he will end up with all the difficult, boring, no-credit jobs until he retires. The Liberals won't look after him - he has no deep roots in the WA Liberals, and being associated with Abbott isn't the golden ticket it might once have been. Who will look out for him?

Even if Hastie wins the byelection, he won't have enough time to cement himself in place before the next election. At the press conference we saw his umbrage at being questioned by journalists. Some random on the street will lead him a merry dance.

If Abbott goes plenty of staff will go with him too, as the Pharaohs were entombed with their most loyal retainers. There may be a vacancy for Hastie, particularly if the next Prime Minister fails to stem perceptions that this government is on the way out. He would be foolish to count too much on their good graces.

Hastie is flying without a net all right, and unemployment in WA is going up enough as it is without him (potentially) adding to it: think about the skills he has, in a market where demand for them won't be what it was.


But never mind an actual candidate being actually representative of the actual government. Some guy who hogged the obscurity he should have rightfully shared with Tony Abbott, and who has been politically inert for a decade (yet highly regarded by a dying broadcast medium) was rude to literate Melburnians. The incumbents fall to a resurgent opposition. Life goes on.

12 August 2015

Five points from last night's meeting

Five points from last night's meeting worth remembering:
  • Abbott's authority was diminished;
  • Morrison voted with the winning side;
  • However much they grumble about it, Liberals prefer to be told what the policy is and just go out there and sell it. Thinking is hard. Taking personal responsibility is hard. That's what the leadership is for, and they miss the absence of leadership keenly;
  • The press gallery narrative that this government has suddenly become a policy shambles is bullshit. This government was always a policy shambles and they were always wrong to confuse it with a strong and decisive operation; and
  • Nothing. There is no fifth point. I can so write a short blogpost. Go about your business and look normal.

11 August 2015

Friends on the other side

Tony Smith became Speaker with the backing of Scott Morrison, according to Abbott cipher Chris Uhlmann. Smith's main opponent in the party room was Russell Broadbent, the last of the small group of backbenchers who spoke out against the Howard government's mandatory detention policies - policies since reinstituted by Scott Morrison as immigration minister, and endorsed by the ALP. Had Broadbent been elected as Speaker it would have been a massive fuck-you to Morrison, and to the Labor leadership that embraced the policy. It would have encouraged people who don't toe the line, people with ideas and the courage of their convictions - people who have all but been stamped out of public life by party machines and a compliant press gallery, relegated to the fringes and called "ferals".

The press gallery were happy to raise Broadbent's donations issues, but not smart enough to tease out the full story like this local-paper journalist, nor even wonder why they were set up to look like tools.

The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are not the moderates. The idea that moderate centrists stab the Liberal Party in the back is a common right-wing trope, pushed heavily by people like Bronwyn Bishop, but there is no proof of it. The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are the right-wingers who are watching the reality, the possibility, and the very precepts of their low-tax, high-religion, authoritarian program slip away. Support is slipping away from this government without any of the compensating respect that Howard used to attract, and which Abbott promised people like this gullible, whiny reactionary that he too could command respect when they didn't like him.

The Liberals most disaffected with Abbott are conservatives, who have for years looked up to and been organised and sustained by, Bronwyn Bishop. She kept the faith, both for conservatism and for Abbott, and he and they indulged her expensive foibles. When backbenchers started complaining that she was embarrassing them, she expected Abbott to support her. He was embarrassing them too, and he tended to stick by her. Over the last month or so, he equivocated.

The polls for this government are every bit as dire as they were for the last government, and every bit as stuck, for those who worry about such things. Tony Abbott was never good enough to become Prime Minister in the first place, and never had what it took to turn a difficult position around. All of the savvy journalists, the in-house urgers and party grandees who believed otherwise, have been cruelly exposed. They complain to one another that it's a recent, unexpected development, but it isn't really. It never was. Those people were, and still are, killing themselves.

Scott Morrison has not relied on Bronwyn Bishop to get where he is. She knows he's an opportunist but had been prepared to tolerate him. By standing up to Bishop when Abbott wouldn't, Morrison has displayed leadership credentials that Abbott has clearly lacked. Morrison has knocked off an Abbott loyalist and knocked down someone who made his life difficult in courting the right. Morrison isn't the right's least-worst alternative any more, some sort of speed hump to Turnbull. The prospect that Abbott might stumble is no longer a distant, theoretical prospect, it's the inescapable reality. Morrison is the right's standard-bearer now. He, not Abbott, is the man.

Bishop is furious, but so what? Her fury doesn't count any more. She isn't biding her time, she's out of time. When she refused to applaud Smith she showed that, despite what conservatives claim, she cannot acknowledge anything beyond herself. The contrast with the magnanimous departure of Gillard is striking. Bishop expected to go out on her own terms, not with a thud; the firebrand reduced to just another frail old woman in the departure lounge.

When Abbott and Pyne talked of Bishop in the past tense, they were also talking about themselves in the same way. Abbott will be gone after the Canning byelection. Pyne has passed none of his much-touted reforms and will be gone at the next election. Adelaide will take on the same political complexion as Newcastle or Canberra, while Nick Xenophon will become the moderate liberal champion that Pyne had promised but failed to be.

We're in a political interregnum where the dead lie unburied and where those who now call the shots are under no obligation to stick their heads up. This is a massive change in the power dynamic of the government, and Australian politics generally; to call it "modest" is to have no understanding of politics at all.

Abbott had promised all opposition frontbenchers that they would become ministers after the 2013 election. Tony Smith was one of the few opposition frontbenchers who didn't make it. Peter Costello has said plenty about Abbott being an economic ignoramus, and Abbott has taken this out on Costello's acolytes like Smith and Kelly O'Dwyer. Smith has a similar - eerily similar - physical appearance to Costello, and even copied the former Treasurer's physical and verbal mannerisms. In practical political terms, Victoria is no longer the jewel in the Liberal crown and so the Coalition is not obliged to over-represent that state on its front bench; Robb has the experience, Billson and Ronaldson have put in the hard yards, Fifield got work experience with Costello without drinking too much of his "Prime Ministerial" Kool-Aid, and Hunt has been neutered. With Smith there was nothing to neuter; he and O'Dwyer were out in the cold, with Frydenberg and Tudge on initial probation.

Abbott paid tribute to Smith copping his disappointment in silence without admitting his role in that disappointment. Abbott can claim no credit in helping Smith up after having knocked him down. He was gracious at overlooking Smith's utter absence of policy conviction, as I noted here and there at the time: Smith was responsible for the Coalition going to the 2010 election with no communications policy, and was deputy chair of the committee that came up with no policies for the one after that. He had practiced his non-policy skills on people who keep asking about policy but wouldn't know it if it bit them: the press gallery.

Smith might have been promoted if Robb and Ronaldson pull out before the next election, but in politics you take your chances when they arise. Now he's ascended to a role that's kind of high profile, like a minister but without all that policy stuff. By giving Smith a prize that Abbott had denied him, Morrison creates the sense that the Liberals are moving on from Abbott, freeing themselves from his errors of judgment.

The press gallery wanted to believe Smith's rhetoric about even-handedness and decorum, forgetting that all former Speakers - Bishop, Anna Burke, Slipper, and Jenkins - all said the same thing at this point in their tenures. Slipper and Burke were even-handed in a tightly balanced parliament, but that even-handedness made a boorish, policy-free opposition look more in control of the agenda than a wonkish, rattled government. An even-handed Speaker will expose a government that is not across what little policy brief it has. It's one thing for Abbott to be a dead man walking, but he has enough pride to prefer anything other than the perception that he is a dead man walking - or sitting, waiting for Shorten to rope-a-dope him again and again.

Labor will exploit Smith's desire for even-handedness, making him look like a mug and protesting too much when Smith calls them on it. Smith can be stiff and awkward in the face of raucousness and this will work against him, and the government. The government will also use Smith's basic, non-focus-grouped decency against him, not hesitating to make him and his office look foolish rather than bear any more of the responsibility which they never deserved, nor could even bear with any dignity. The anonymous Liberal sources who help the press gallery pad out their thin offerings will call for Bishop to return. The living will envy the dead in the end times.

If Smith's "friends on the other side" get the opportunity to bounce off him and score a direct hit on Abbott, they will take it. Abbott has ridden Labor for six years (!) and he is wounded now. Smith might not be happy about it but he'll understand: that's politics, baby.

Smith will have moments of decency that will shine all the more brightly for being contrasted against this government. This should not be surprising to supposedly experienced political journalists. At the next election he might lose his seat of Casey, a sprawling outer-urban electorate that resembles a slab of western Sydney, where the profile and folderol of his new office will count for exactly nothing. Then again, he might win, and pootle on in the same middling way he's spent the last decade.

Speaking of crap forecasts, I owe an apology to Independent Australia for setting them up with this - fancy predicting a woman! What was I thinking?

10 August 2015

Mutually assured destruction

Once upon a time, when one major-party politician would abuse their entitlements so badly that even the press gallery noticed, a politician from the other major party would be found to have done something similar, and the checkmate would somehow neuter the story as far as the broadcast media were concerned. Today, things are different. First, the broadcast media don't set or control the agenda any more. Second, the major parties aren't the only options.

Policies on politicians' entitlements have been agreed by the major parties over many years. The press gallery avoid criticising them because they applaud bipartisanship as a good in itself, regardless of its impact on policy quality. If a politician has to fly somewhere to make an announcement that could just as easily have been made in Canberra, the broadcast media go along too and all regard it as a normal part of their jobs. They benefit from publicly-funded junkets despite the fact that the quality of reporting rarely improves.

Samantha Maiden is on Joe Hockey's case, as though he were the only MP with entitlements issues. This story adds heat but no light to the issue of politicians' entitlements, with not even the most timid implication that Hockey has breached 'the rules', and it even defends the indefensible Bishop.

Maiden's story includes an ethically questionable decision by her employer to run photographs of Hockey's children. Hockey is a public figure; his wife, Melissa, is an adult who chooses to join him in the public eye; but their children are not public figures. Nor are they adults as Margie-and-the-girls are. A decent news organisation would have pixellated pictures of the children or not run them at all.

With the focus on Bronwyn Bishop's travel entitlements, it was inevitable that there would be a Labor MP exposed doing something similar - and so there was, in Tony Burke, who apparently took his children of his former marriage on holiday with his current partner. Bishop's extravagance was not only a blow against the Coalition, but Burke inadvertently lent the story the sexual tut-tutting for which Murdoch papers exist (and which have helped fund their proprietor through not one but three divorces).

The Chris Pyne I knew from late 1980s student politics in Adelaide would have gone after Burke, calling him a hypocrite and worse, but the latter-day Pyne seems more conciliatory. Ease up on Burke, he says, making an unconvincing technical point about 'the rules'. Later we discover Pyne embroiled in a travel scandal of his own, and his office has the political tin ear to assert that Pyne's children had never seen the Sydney fireworks.

Whatever Pyne gained from the Adelaide frigates announcement, he lost on the Sydney fireworks. It was a let-them-eat-cake moment that you usually get from governments that have been in office way too long. Before you go on about first-term governments getting re-elected, consider that the Coalition has been in government for 13 of the last 19 years, with a frontbench pretty similar to the one behind Howard in 2007; now look at recent elections in Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia, and shut up about first-term governments.

Perhaps instead of flying his kids from Adelaide to Sydney at public expense during a time when airlines gouge passengers, it might have been cheaper for Pyne to write them a letter.

The tin ear for politics isn't confined to Pyne's office. Tess Randall is as entitled to run for Liberal preselection for her late father's seat as any member of the WA Liberals. Michaelia Cash and Christian Porter are two other second-generation Liberal politicians who have done exactly that. Leaving aside unkind remarks about the difficulty of being worse than Don Randall, Tess Randall may well be the Liberals' best candidate on preselection day; she may even become quite good as an MP. Her candidacy just feeds into the whole family entitlement thing that is killing this government.

I hold no brief for the alternative candidates. WA Liberal factional politics is incomprehensible even to other Liberals. Journalists covering WA politics avoid getting into it, and I don't blame them. It would be like taking a bucket of spiders and up-ending it over your head - you're in the dark, getting bitten from all sides, and if you open your mouth it will only get worse. I'm trying to think of a wimpy, equivocating WA Liberal politician, and frankly none come to mind.

It seems that apart from MPs' staffers and MPs' children, the only people winning Liberal preselections these days are members of the Australian Defence Force - particularly the Army. If turning back asylum-seekers was such a good and popular policy, one would expect a) Navy recruitment to have increased significantly, and b) the Liberal Party to be beset by preselection applications from naval officers with proud tales of boats turned back, bearing witness to the efficacy and rightness of the policy. One would expect RAAF officers to turn to politics for something to do; the last one to do so was Jackie Kelly. ADF personnel vote Coalition more than any other occupational group, but the long-running and badly-managed controversy over pay is yet another captain's call that has cost this government. The last non-commissioned ADF member to enter politics was Jacqui Lambie - expect more to follow.

ADF personnel don't get members of their family flown to meet them at public expense. They have to pay for any such trips themselves, on lower salaries than politicians get. MP's families should visit Canberra or wherever, but such trips should be paid for by the MPs themselves. The contrary case, the case for the status quo, cannot be made even by Canberra insiders. It should not have survived successive rounds of cuts by various governments.

Some countries, such as Indonesia, have quotas for serving armed forces personnel in parliament. In others, such as the US Congress, there has been a strong correlation between military and political service. Given the resonance of the Anzac legend and the relative decline of other institutions in our society, is Australian politics headed down this road?

Regardless who wins Liberal preselection, the Canning byelection will pretty much seal Tony Abbott's fate. It is interesting that Bishop did not issue the writs before she quit, and the party organisation has taken so long to get into campaign mode. There will not be a Liberal leadership spill before then, despite worthless commentary declaring the government's vacuity to be somehow recent and sudden. There will not be one afterwards in the highly unlikely event that there is a swing toward the Liberals; a swing against, especially if the Liberal candidate loses the seat, will make the empty chair that ran against Abbott in February look pretty good.

The inquiry into entitlements is made up of the same sort of ex-politicians who are petitioning the High Court for more lurks - those from the major parties. In a two-party-preferred political environment, an agreement by major parties can contain the political fallout. We don't have such an environment - entitlements scandals depress the vote of both the Coalition and the ALP, to the profit of independents and minor parties. Those who've never been part of the you-scratch-my-back bipartisan arrangements will get the benefit of the doubt, not incumbents who swear to do better or protest some non-existent right to bill the taxpayer for a family jaunt.

There used to be two types of MP who stood against politicians' entitlements - only one is still in public life.

The first were those abstemious, self-educated ALP types who'd take homemade lunches to work in a paper bag, who were so grateful for an indoors job with no heavy lifting that they would spend their own money on raffle tickets, community events and other incidentals. Labor don't make this type of politician any more, replaced with fixers who cut the sorts of deals that led to this plethora of 'entitlements'. Noely Neate is very good on the issue of public entitlements and party fundraisers.

The second are conservatives with a bit of money behind them. Clive Palmer and Malcolm Turnbull have made disparaging comments about entitlements - and the related issue of political donations. All are well-travelled and don't need to have all their receipts picked over in public; those they don't wish to appear in public are paid from their own pockets. They will not be so vulgar about hotel sites or helicopters as Bishop was - I mean, fancy having to rent a helicopter. Neither have much trouble in raising funds, and both benefit from the implicit perception that their wealth insulates them from being unduly influenced.

They have done little to spoil the fun of their less fortunate colleagues, who are using public resources to do the mind-broadening travel many of us did in private capacities. I'll tell you what I want to tell you about my travels. Have a look at the reports that politicians do from "study tours", and question how much could have been done from within Canberra using the internet.

The idea behind giving politicians a salary and entitlements, and moving the capital to Canberra, was to get them to focus on our interests over their own. Private interests upped the ante with lobbyists and fundraising, so - as in the 19th century - political-class members deal with our interests when they're not too distracted with their own perks and lurks. A kick-the-bums-out parliament might not be the sort of timocracy that we saw in colonial parliaments before Federation, and that we see in developing countries today. Raising your perspective beyond today's major parties opens options they cannot face, they dare not face, and will not present as options to a Parliament that will still largely vote the way party bosses bloody well tell them to vote, never you mind why and don't even ask.

The press gallery will not be able to deal with an entitlements system that isn't bipartisan, but the emergence of a political system that goes beyond today's major parties assumes the press gallery has even less influence than it does today - and as regular readers can imagine, I'm OK with that.

04 August 2015

Losing it 1: The spearhead

Traditionally, an issue has popped up in the media, squadrons of journalists rush out with pre-prepared cliches to smother any public interest, and the issue dies and is replaced by another one. They may be weighty issues, they may not; but you can be sure that the media will churn through them.

In recent years, editors and news directors have lost control of this media churn. The decline in consumption of traditional broadcast media means there's a strong correlation between social media users and the remaining readers/ listeners/ viewers of the broadcasters. The smarter people in the broadcast media realise this, while the less smart ones - disproportionately found in the press gallery, and "media management" roles in the political class - persist with the view that social media are somewhere between annoyances and competitors. They can't dismiss us out of hand (the old saws about cats or breakfast pics have had their day) but they dare not admit we keep them up at night.

Adam Goodes' Indigenous dance celebration at scoring a goal didn't seem so strange to those of us from northeastern Australia, as Preston Towers observes in his masterful account of the controversy. Rugby league player Greg Inglis does a goanna move after he scores tries, which is just Inglis being Inglis; it is not worthy of booing even by fans of teams Inglis pays against, or by those who (for whatever reason) don't like him.

It's true that New Zealand's rugby union team, the All Blacks, do a Maori war dance (haka) before every match, facing their opponents at close range, sometimes including a genuinely menacing throat-slitting move. It's also true that the Australian team, the Wallabies, did a half-hearted Aboriginal-derived response, but that they haven't done it for decades. Because this guy doesn't realise that he isn't quite as Proud Of Our Aussie Heritage as he might imagine.

It also makes this whole debate beside the point. Rugby fans are no more/less Australian than AFL fans, no more/less uncouth or passionate, and no more/less across issues of structural racism.

Goodes is not, as one cranky fan pointed out, the first Aboriginal AFL player; he's not the first prominent Aborigine who uses his public profile to help young people. What makes him different to those who came before, like Nicky Winmar or Graham "Polly" Farmer, is that prominent Aborigines these days can mix it in public debates. Prominent Aborigines like Goodes, Rachael Perkins, Larissa Behrendt, Noel Pearson, or Marcia Langton are central to public debates involving indigenous people unlike previous generations of leaders like Harold Blair, or Bennelong.

The idea that Goodes ought not express pride in his heritage, or that he's being aggressive in doing so, is rubbish. Ron Barassi has spoken of his Italian heritage, including the harassment his father suffered during World War II when Australia was at war with Italy. Dermott Brereton's hardscrabble upbringing is not unlike the disadvantage suffered by many Indigenous people. He has spoken of his Irish heritage and the threats he received as a result.

Did Brereton really never offer any support to the terrorist organisation IRA? Has Goodes ever supported terrorism, openly or otherwise? Brereton's criticism of Goodes is curious. He looks like an old stager who doesn't get it. Mind you, that puts him firmly in line with the gutless all-about-the-money AFL Commission.

When he was called an "ape" showed a deft touch in raising the issue, then defusing the anger that arose from it. He insisted the child be protected from the ravages of tabloid (broadcast, "professional") media, and kept the focus on structural, endemic racism. Accepting his Australian of the Year accolade last year he did much the same thing: raised harsh truths squarely, and then called on everyone to face them together.

I wish we had a Prime Minister who could do that.

The man who has not handled Goodes' comments at all well was racial discrimination offender Andrew Bolt:

People who loathe Bolt will show that image for the rest of his life, and probably beyond it. Bolt has to keep up his persona of the disappointed conservative. Even after his conviction he was "disappointed" and, like Goodes yesterday, took time away from his job. Bolt finds accusations of racism directed at him to be "chilling", as the young people say.

Appearing calm and measured is essential to keeping onside well-meaning conservatives who don't pay close attention to media controversies, but who want a respectable champion of their values in the media when they do dip into it.

If Bolt blows his cool he loses those people. The idea that he's a hate-filled, seething bigot will turn advertisers away, and NewsCorp will drop him. James Packer, a major shareholder of the TV network that broadcasts Bolt, has already shirtfronted him. If there is a "war" over "race hate" between Goodes and Bolt, then Bolt has already lost it.

Spittle-flecked partisans aside, pragmatic and experienced media professionals like Jo Hall expected this to blow over:

I agree with Carol Duncan and Paul Daley: we do need a discussion, one that doesn't end with recriminations and moving-on-to-the-next-story but to somewhere productive, the "brave and fine" conversation we've always been promised but could never quite manage by ourselves.

The AFL had only planned to have one Indigenous Round but has effectively been forced to have a second this past weekend - without Goodes present, and with the possibility that he might retire rather than continue as a lightning-rod for the country's worst instincts. The AFL Commission has not done the leading when it comes to this issue, it has been led. But this goes beyond one sport, which bears more responsibility for the nation than it can reasonably bear.

Again, I wish we had a Prime Minister capable of leading such a discussion. The press gallery promised us that Abbott was both sincere and capable when it came to Indigenous policy issues, and they acted all surprised when neither turned out to be true.

Abbott has gone to ground, which he usually does when the going gets tough. He could have leavened his clearly difficult experience with Bronwyn Bishop by stepping up with even some noble words on this issue - that would have been enough for the mugs in the press gallery. He's not going to talk about on-piste matters. He might not understand AFL or race relations, but he's in that job because he knows how to fool the broadcast media. If he absents himself from the media, the thinking goes, the broadcast media will run out of new angles and the story will die. All that's happened for him and his office is he's been left behind. The broadcast media promised us he was "Prime Ministerial", when he was never anything of the sort.

The broadcast media have now been abandoned at the very point where social media is running rings around them, and they need to borrow Authority from external sources. They're just there to be used and abused by this government, a realisation everyone has come to except them.

They still believe that an endemic issue will just churn through and Good Old Tony will come through for them once more. He'll play them, and they think they play him too, bless them. When they do start focusing on another issue, they might find less public engagement than traditional broadcasters are enjoying now. They become less adept at picking the right issue for their One Daily Story, and their Access Privileges count for less and less with a smaller, more engaged audience.

The worst thing journalists can be is not biased, or even shallow, but obtuse. On Indigenous issues generally, and on Goodes in particular, the media sure have been obtuse. This can't end well for traditional access-oriented broadcast journalism.